Worker Advocacy Practicum addresses “access to justice crisis” affecting low-wage workers

The 64-year-old man on the other end of the phone line sounded desperate. He had taken an unpaid medical leave from his job in rural East Tennessee to recover from surgery and was terminated when he was unable to return to work after 12 weeks. Hoping to learn if he had any legal rights protecting his job and medical insurance, he called a statewide legal helpline operated by the nonprofit Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, which serves low-income clients.

Assistant Dean for Public Interest Spring Miller and six Vanderbilt Law students in her Workers Advocacy Practicum are collaborating with TALS to provide assistance to workers contacting the helpline regarding job and unemployment-related problems. Launched this fall, the practicum expands the resources TALS can offer clients throughout Tennessee who need to understand their legal rights related to their employment.

Miller began working feverishly to launch the practicum last spring, as businesses began to shut down and furlough or fire employees due to the pandemic. Having spent the first seven years of her legal career representing low-wage workers as a Skadden Fellow and staff attorney with Southern Migrant Legal Services, she knew instantly that the jobs of hourly workers were particularly vulnerable and that some workers in jobs considered essential—in meatpacking plants and grocery stores, for example—would face unsafe working conditions.

“Low-wage workers in Tennessee have suffered from an access-to-justice crisis for years,” Miller said. “It’s a complex, multidimensional crisis that the pandemic laid bare and exacerbated. You have low-wage workers working in unsafe conditions where they’re exposed to COVID and other job-related risks, and you also have workers who lost their jobs because their employer shut down, who are now struggling to access unemployment benefits they’re entitled to.”

Miller first launched a project to respond to the immediate needs of low-wage workers due to the pandemic, working in conjunction with TALS, which operates a statewide civil justice helpline. With support from the Vanderbilt Legal Clinic and a Skadden Flom Incubator grant, she hired two students, Amanda Casaneuva ’21 and Madeleine Coate ’21, to spend the summer working with her and the legal staff at TALS creating resources for low-wage workers. Coates and Casaneuva developed fact sheets and referral resources that TALS provides to workers seeking to understand and assert their employment rights. They also worked with TALS’ legal staff to provide information about employment issues to workers who call helpline with job and unemployment-related problems. Since August, the six students in the Workers Advocacy Practicum have worked with Miller to extend the workers’ advocacy services and information resources available through TALS.

“I was surprised to learn how many issues low-wage workers deal with on a daily basis,” Coate said. “We get calls about so many different things, from unemployment to discrimination to wage and hour issues and more. Learning how to help people with all of these issues has been very rewarding.”

Students in the practicum receive intensive instruction on workplace rights from Miller, but she believes they learn most by helping her field hotline calls, where they hear workers describe issues they encounter in the workplace. “The practicum is limited in scope—we can’t take on cases for extended representation,” Miller said. “But we can identify clients with needs that nonprofit legal organizations might be able to meet, and we can help them understand their rights”

One valuable lesson students learn, Miller said, is how few protections are actually available to low-wage workers and how difficult it is for them to enforce protections that are on the books. “We’re in a real gray zone when we talk to employees who feel scared about COVID exposure at work,” she explained. “Employers have a general duty to provide a reasonably safe work environment for their employees, but there are no specific, enforceable standards that employers in Tennessee must follow to prevent COVID transmission in the workplace. So workers who don’t feel safe have little recourse, and those who quit a job for that reason are probably not going to be eligible to receive unemployment benefits. It’s a Catch-22; they’re forced to choose between an unsafe working environment or no income.”

While the pandemic has affected many callers Miller and her students assist, they discovered that concerns about COVID are often far down the list of the problems confronting low-wage workers in Tennessee. “One women’s abusive ex-boyfriend works for the same employer. She got a protective order against him, and the employer won’t accommodate her request that he be kept away from her by alternating break times,” she said. “Another person suffered an injury at work and was forced to keep working and not provided access to health care, which should have been provided through workers compensation.”

Challenges associated with health and employment are often intertwined. “Many of the callers we speak to are struggling with an employer who resists accommodating their disability, are concerned about losing employer-provided health insurance or face barriers in accessing care for a work-related injury,” Miller says.

Miller received the 2020 B. Riney Green Access to Justice Award in recognition of her work on behalf of low-wage workers in partnership with TALS and other legal nonprofits. She hopes she and her Workers Advocacy Practicum students will find ways to document the legal needs of low-wage workers across the state—and to work with partners in the nonprofit and government sectors to address those needs. “Safe, dignified employment is fundamental to the well-being of individuals across Tennessee, and workers need support and resources to help them understand and enforce their rights at work,” Miller said. “It is gratifying to have the opportunity to engage students in important work with partners across the state to address access-to-justice barriers for low-wage workers.”

Students in the fall 2020 Workers Advocacy Practice include Bobby Daniels, Eileen FeyDale Jameson, Taeler Lanser, Michelle Thiry and Vishnu Tirumala, all Class of 2021.