Hello! My name is Katie Lam and I am Pro Bono Net’s Legal Empowerment and Technology Fellow. With support from the Open Society Foundation, Pro Bono Net is partnering with civil justice communities across the nation to advance the strategy and practice of technology-enabled legal empowerment efforts in the US. Over the next year, I’ll be sharing our about our work here on Pro Bono Net’s blog.
In March 2019, members of the Immigration Advocates Network (IAN), a program of Pro Bono Net, and organizers from Make the Road New York’s (MRNY) Workplace Justice program held a co-design sprint to explore what role technology could play in improving the wage recovery process. This sprint resulted in ¡Reclamo!, a digital legal tool designed to make it easier to identify if someone has been a victim of wage theft.
Wage theft runs rampant in New York, with nearly 2 million workers experiencing wage theft in NYC alone. Researchers estimate that low-income and hourly employees working in places like restaurants, construction, and nail salons are cheated out of a cumulative $3.2 billion in wages and benefits. Of these workers, undocumented immigrants are especially at-risk of exploitation, retaliation by employers, and severely lack access to justice.
Wage theft victims who try to recover their wages often struggle to, especially without a lawyer. In addition, lawyers who do help them often find themselves caught up in necessary paperwork that doesn’t require legal expertise.
“Carlos approached an attorney at Make the Road NY to help. Only after Carlos was represented by an attorney, and they resubmitted the claim, did the DOL start investigating his case…” -from an interview with Carlos, a MRNY community member.
A growing movement of legal empowerment advocates and researchers have found that for community members like Carlos, relying entirely on public interest lawyers is an inefficient way of resolving workplace injustices. ¡Reclamo! strives to increase efficiency and recover stolen wages by empowering workers and non-lawyers to independently file wage theft claims. For lawyers, such a tool could reduce severe bottlenecks in the wage recovery process and allow attorneys to focus their legal expertise on critical tasks instead.
I spoke to Rodrigo Camarena, Director of the Immigration Advocates Network, about his experience leveraging co-design to enable access to justice.
¡Reclamo! was recently selected as a 2019 Worker’s Lab Innovation Fund Finalist.
What inspired IAN to collaborate with MRNY on this project?
Last fall, I read an article in El Diario where one of MRNY’s Workplace Justice advocates was quoted saying that worker intimidation and retaliation had risen in the Trump era. Anecdotally and in terms of clients coming in, there was a sense that employers felt emboldened by this president to intimidate and threaten workers who asked for their wages or who asked to be paid a fair wage. That angered me, so I reached out to Cristobal Gutierrez, who was quoted in that article and said, “Hey, we’re IAN, we use technology to help immigrants and their advocates advance immigrant justice. Can we chat?”
Were you familiar with wage theft before reading this article?
I was familiar with wage theft as a recurring problem among immigrant communities, but I found it worrying that employers are using this opportunity in this era to further exploit people. I also thought that wage theft is an issue we can tackle locally without requiring changes in federal laws, so I felt like this was an opportunity to take action.
When you first started this conversation with Cristobal, did the topic of human-centered design come up pretty quickly?
Initially, we wanted to learn as much as we could, so we did a lot of observational engagements. We went over to Make the Road and tried to learn about their process. We wanted to put ourselves in their shoes and see what they dealt with on a day to day basis. Through that period of watching and observing them, and getting to know Cristobal and their ideas around how to work in a smarter way, co-design emerged as a sensible strategy.
Why use co-design?
Even though we are immigration subject matter experts, we are not labor and wage-hour experts. So I think in this case, and like in other cases, we really needed to leverage the expertise of people who are doing the work on the ground. It felt natural to include Make the Road’s attorneys, paralegals, and worker organizers in the design process so they could educate us on the issue and we could help them identify opportunities for technology to play a role.
Was there a key lesson that you took away from the process?
One lesson we learned was even though we were working to think of a new intervention or a new way of approaching a problem, we kept getting fixed in how the process currently works and what rules we need to follow to file wage theft claims. It took us a while to think outside the box. For us, that meant not really addressing the wage theft form itself and instead, being more strategic about what ultimately needs to happen for workers to have access to justice. In this case, that means the ability to file wage theft claims in a secure and efficient manner. So while we were thinking about recovering wages, it took us a minute to really think about other strategies and how technology may play a role.
What advice do you have for fellow civic technologists around building trust?
We spent a lot of time listening and building the relationship. We went out to MRNY’s offices a couple of times and sat with their members and listened to their challenges. We didn’t come in there saying, “Hey, we have all of the technology to solve every problem.” We just wanted to learn more about the issue. We approached the challenge together. We didn’t come in there with a set of ideas that we wanted to impose. It was a much more generative process.
¡Reclamo! tackles a problem associated with access to workplace justice, immigrant justice, and economic justice. Why did IAN and MRNY prioritize legal empowerment as a remedy during the sprint?
Filing the wage claim form is just one part of the puzzle. Ultimately, the work is about educating workers on their rights. It’s about informing workers so that they know that they have power and agency and that collectively, we can change laws and the status quo. Scaling or accelerating the filing of wage theft claims is a component of workplace justice, but the ultimate goal is achieving structural change. In this case, that process starts with legal empowerment.
What do next steps look like for ¡Reclamo!?
We are actively fundraising so that we can build and test a beta version of ¡Reclamo!. We’re focused on supporting workers in the construction industry. We’ll start with construction, release a beta version of the project, test it a lot, try to break it, and see what happens from there.
What excites you most about ¡Reclamo!?
I’m excited for ¡Reclamo! to become a household name. I want workers to share it. I want worker advocates to feel like it’s their own. I want to hear stories about ¡Reclamo! saving people time, that the process of reclaiming wages wasn’t as scary since you can approach it from your cell phone or from a computer lab at a library. I want to help demystify the wage theft claim process and really give people a sense of power and being able to come forward. As an immigrant or undocumented worker, it’s extremely difficult to come forward and communicate that you are a victim of wage theft, especially in this climate, and so once people have that confidence and trust, I want workers to be able to use it and reclaim what is theirs.