SC Legal Services hires attorney to help victims of wage theft recover money

December 24, 2015. The Post and Courier.

Low-income workers in Charleston County who’ve been illegally shorted pay or benefits can now take advantage of the state’s only Wage Recovery Program, an outgrowth of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry’s yearlong effort to address the rampant problem.

Push on Again to Limit Payday Loans in KY

February 9, 2015. Public Service News.
FRANKFORT, Ky. – There is no limit in Kentucky on how much interest payday lenders can charge, but an effort is underway to change that.
PHOTO: Lawmakers in Kentucky are being urged to cap interest rates at 36 percent on payday loans offered at businesses like this one. Photo by Greg Stotelmyer.

PHOTO: Lawmakers in Kentucky are being urged to cap interest rates at 36 percent on payday loans offered at businesses like this one. Photo by Greg Stotelmyer.

Congregations and religious groups across the state are among those pushing lawmakers to cap payday loans at 36 percent. Jason Hall, executive director with the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, says the loans are a “debt trap.”

“It is a trap where people are forced to roll over one loan after another and it drains them of what resources they have.”

A bill filed in the Kentucky Senate (SB 32) proposes to cap interest and fees at the same level Congress has capped loans to military families.

The 36 percent cap is also where Kentucky law sets the ceiling for other types of small loans.

In Louisville, a group of congregations has banded together to push for the cap. The coalition calls itself CLOUT, short for Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together. Jimmy Mills, vice president of CLOUT, attends Mosaic Methodist Church and says the lending rates boggle the mind.

“It’s just outrageous, it’s usury, it is overcharging,” Mills says. “It’s just taking too much money out of people who have the least amount of money.”

But the Kentucky Deferred Deposit Association, an advocate for the industry, says it’s a myth payday lenders prey on the disadvantaged. On it’s website, the association claims “most payday advance customers are working adults from the middle class.”

The trade group says regulating payday lenders would hurt consumers. Mills doesn’t buy that.

“They won’t do anything unless they are forced to,” he says. “Because they are making too much money the way it is.”

Mills says he’s for the cap on interest rates, in part, because he’s had a personal experience. He says he “bailed out” a family member who turned to payday loans because she was “too embarrassed to ask anybody for help.”

Palm Beach County considers more help for workers to recover pay

January 12, 2015. The Sun Sentinel.

Low-income workers struggling to collect overdue pay could get more help this year from Palm Beach County.

A coalition of religious congregations several years ago persuaded Palm Beach County officials to start paying more attention to “wage theft,” which leaves workers who can least afford it without the pay they rely on for rent, food and other basic needs.

In response, the county has partnered with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County on a wage-recovery program aimed at helping people collect disputed pay.

County commissioners Tuesday will be asked to renew its deal with the Legal Aid Society and pay $125,000 for another year of the wage-recovery program.

That’s about $21,000 more than last year, which the Legal Aid Society says will be used to bring in more legal help to try to speed up reimbursements.

“Most of the cases get settled through negotiation, [but] this will allow a little more of litigation,” said Robert Bertisch, Legal Aide Society executive director.

Landscaping workers, janitors, waiters, telemarketers and others working in service industries are among those served by the wage-recovery program, which helps people who can’t afford to hire an attorney to fight for overdue or disputed pay.

During 2014, the Legal Aid Society recovered $102,935 for 85 people through the program, Bertisch said. That translated to recovering money for about 61 percent of the cases closed cases in 2014, according to the Legal Aid Society.

The Legal Aid Society has one attorney working full-time on wage-recovery efforts, with help from volunteer attorneys. The $21,000 increase would pay for additional part-time legal work, Bertisch said.

The Legal Aid Society estimates that bringing in more legal help could reduce processing time from 80 days to 60 days, in the hopes of getting workers reimbursed faster.

The county’s arrangement with the Legal Aid Society was a compromise step taken after the County Commission rejected a nearly three-year push by religious advocates to enact a local wage-theft law and collection program.

The group of 28 local religious congregations — called People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, or PEACE — advocated creating an alternative to the slow-moving court system that would have used county employees to help recover overdue pay.

Business groups opposed creating a local wage-theft law, arguing that it would create too much regulation for local employers.

By teaming with the Legal Aid Society, the county offers free legal help that uses existing state and federal law to help recover overdue pay.

The arrangement with the Legal Aid Society is the “most appropriate way” for the county to handle wage recovery, according to Associated Builders and Contractors Florida Vice President Carol Bowen.

“We were never opposed to people who are victims of wage theft being able to secure the services they need in order to be paid that which they are owed,” Bowen wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the county.

Justice Ministry’s focus on better pay for kitchen staff

December 26, 2014. ABC News.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) — A group of Charleston’s religious leaders are fighting for better pay for local kitchen workers. They’re called the Justice Ministry and each year they pick a problem to tackle in the Charleston area.

Twenty-seven different churches create the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. All members are seated by congregation, waiting to cast their vote after months of discussions on profiling, healthcare, and wages.

“I’m a glorified dishwasher but cleaning your kitchen is just as important as serving the food,” said Angela Washington, who works in the back of the house in a Charleston restaurant.

It was Washington’s testimony that left voters in serious thought about which cause should become their justice mission for 2015. Washington, who is working to finish her GED after years of staying home with her family, told the crowd her world changed when her husband suddenly became disabled forcing her to enter the workforce for the first time.

“I walk 45 minutes to this job on Sundays and will continue to because I need the money,” said Washington.

The majority of the ministry voted in favor to work to close the wage gap.

“You should make a wage that’s livable, that helps you live decently in a community as rich as Charleston,” said co-president of the Justice Ministry, Rev. Nelson Rivers III.

Rivers describes the organization as a grassroots campaign. Rabbi Stephanie Alexander is also co-president who says they follow encouragement from the Torah and the Bible.

“Micah teaches that we are supposed to do justice, love mercy and walk humble with our God,” said Alexander.

Each year a mission is chosen. The next phase is months of research to find ways to solve the issue.

“We’re really looking forward to this because it affects people across race, across strata, across backgrounds,” said Rivers.

Fixing wages will be the third group effort by the ministry. One year they worked to improve educational needs in the Charleston County School District.

Dr. Lisa Herring is the district’s Chief Academic Officer. She says the partnership started with at sit down meeting on expectations.

“The initial expectations coming from the ministry is a little bit more complex for us to fix immediately, considering we are a public school district,” said Herring.

The ministry mission that year was to change the number of seats available for pre-K, the end goal being more students prepared to read on the first day of Kindergarten. Herring said it’s a priority for the district but there is always the issue of revenue, resources and budget.

“The conversation had to be around the work we’ve already done partnered with the urgency,” said Herring.

Herring says the district and the ministry had to come together multiple times to discuss what could be done.

“At the end of the day we all want what’s best for every child and wanted that to happen as quickly as it could,” said Herring.

On June 24, 2013 the Justice ministry announced the Board of Trustees approved then-Superintendent Dr. Nancy McGinley’s proposal to fund 300 additional slots for early childhood education.

“There’s been some misunderstanding. I think we strive for dialogue whenever possible, there will be misunderstanding. Maybe we can do a better job of explaining what we do,” said Alexander.

Alexander says they believe in their research process and she expects the ministry will impact wages in Charleston for years to come.

“I think we all want the city to be as good of a place to live as we hear it is to visit and a big part of that is making sure that those who are contributing to this community who are working hard are able to earn enough so that they can support their families. I think everyone will get behind that,” said Alexander.

The ministry is in the middle of its research phase and will announce a plan this Spring.

Louisville becomes a “Ban the Box” city

Louisville, KY — At CLOUT’s 2013 Nehemiah Action Assembly, several members of the Louisville Metro Council committed to sponsor an ordinance to implement new hiring practices within Louisville Metro government and for businesses who do business with local government in order to remove barriers to employment for persons with a criminal record. Specifically, they committed to make Louisville a “Ban the Box” city, and to extend that policy to vendors and contractors who do business with the city.

After several months of work, including many appearances by CLOUT leaders before Metro Council’s full sessions and committee meetings, in March 2014 the Council voted unanimously (26-0) to pass the “Ban the Box” ordinance. With this vote, Louisville Metro became only the 16th city in the U.S. to pass this policy and to extend it to vendors and contractors.

This policy is not only a compassionate way to help families get back on their feet, but is also a smart move by the city to address crime and the costs of incarceration and the courts. It will help thousands of individuals and families be able to support themselves by getting a job, and it will help the business community by providing a deeper pool of motivated and skilled employees.