Real money: news from the Sheller Center/Ceiba tax clinic

Some numbers came in recently from the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) clinic held at the Sheller Center earlier this year.  Over the period from February to April, law student volunteers helped neighborhood residents prepare 231 tax returns, resulting in federal and state refunds totaling $264,259, plus $69,300 in saved tax preparation fees. Thus, the clinic provided $333,559 in benefits to low- to moderate-income people in our community.

The VITA clinic, which we expect to operate again in 2017, is organized by Ceiba, a North Philadelphia community organization, and staffed in part by students trained by tax professor Alice Abreu. We’re pleased to be able to provide space and help to this terrific project.

From words to practice: implementing Philadelphia’s new wage theft ordinance

Each week, hundreds of thousands of workers across Pennsylvania are paid less than they are owed, or are not paid at all. This troubling fact comes from a 2015 report from the Sheller Center, which also found that federal and state agencies lack sufficient resources to enforce these workers’ rights.

Could legislation at the local level help fill the gap? Advocates for low-income workers thought so. Last year, citing the Sheller Center report and other data, they urged Philadelphia’s City Council to take action. Council responded by unanimously enacting an ordinance establishing penalties for wage theft and creating a new office of Wage Theft Coordinator.

Passage of the ordinance was a big step forward — but then came a host of questions about how to implement it in practice. Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Daniella Lees and Crystal Felix, working with Community Legal Services, tackled those questions last spring. Their product: an extensive set of guidelines for the City and its new Coordinator.

As Ms. Lees and Ms. Felix recognized, enacting a law is one thing; making it work effectively for real people is another. “The most difficult task,” Ms. Lees observes, “was figuring out how to make the new ordinance accessible to and useful for victims of wage theft. This involved considering the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency, recommending a community outreach program, and proposing approaches such as conciliation conferences.” The guidelines also address such issues as how the city should determine which complaints to accept, and what standards should be used in the adjudication process.


Cracking down on wage theft

When a large company contracts out jobs to smaller ones, who then hire workers as “independent contractors,” is the large company liable when the workers aren’t paid what they’re owed? It’s a tricky question that depends partly on how much control the large company exerts over what the workers do. It’s also an issue that’s leading to major litigation, including a recent lawsuit by New York State against Domino’s Pizza (which allegedly encouraged its franchisees to use payroll software that undercounted workers’ hours), and a $240 million settlement by Fed Ex in a nationwide class action on behalf of 12,000 underpaid drivers.

This spring, three Sheller Center students – Crystal Felix, Paige Joki and Daniella Lees — confronted a local version of the problem. Working with attorney Marielle Macher of the Community Justice Project, the students filed suit in federal court against a company that initially argued that it had no responsibility for wage theft by its subcontractors.

Ms. Felix notes that “seeing how prevalent wage theft is in Philadelphia is just mind-blowing.” And so, besides handling the case, she worked with Community Legal Services on the implementation of Philly’s recently-enacted wage theft ordinance.  More on that soon!