May grad earns fellowship to combat wage theft

(May 16, 2011)  A May graduate who has dedicated her life to working with poor, immigrant and underserved communities earned a prestigious two-year fellowship to combat the growing problem of wage theft - the  systematic underpayment of workers' wages.

Reyna Ramolete HayashiReyna Ramolete Hayashi received the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship at Empire Justice Center in Rochester, N.Y. The fellowship is awarded to a talented, committed law school graduate at the beginning of her or his career in the area of poverty law. Her project is aimed at empowering low-wage workers to eradicate wage theft through community education, impact litigation, legislative reform and cooperative development.

"Wage theft reproduces an underclass of workers whose labor is exploited and what little wealth these workers have earned is stolen," Ramolete Hayashi said. "This project will help workers re-assert the most fundamental workplace right - the right to be paid."

The project is especially timely because New York enacted the Wage Theft Prevention Act in April 2011. Some workers are routinely being paid less than the minimum wage, denied overtime pay, forced to work off the clock, misclassified as independent contractors, or not paid at all. 

Wage theft is a national epidemic that has only intensified in the current recession, she said, and foreign-born workers, women, and people of color fall victim to wage theft at disproportionate rates. The problem has ripple effects, from workers who can't support their families, to law-abiding employers who can't compete with those who don't follow the rules, to the public, which loses out on tax revenue.

"I feel so blessed to be able to work in solidarity with low-wage and immigrant workers to fight this economic and racial justice issue," Ramolete Hayashi said. "This project is especially meaningful because it incorporates so many of my practice values - law and organizing, community lawyering  and systems change - to advocate for wage justice for working people."

Ramolete Hayashi, who is one of the law school's Scholars for Justice and one of this year's Faculty Scholars, has been dedicated to working with underserved communities since before law school and has been one of its most passionate social justice advocates.

She said her refusal to accept the status quo is rooted in the economic struggles and perseverance of her mother, who emigrated from the Philippines. "The strength of character and perspective that my mother nurtured in me provided an unwavering foundation for me to pursue my purpose, helping other  immigrant workers bear those economic burdens with their dignity intact, their labor valued, and their rights respected."

Ramolete Hayashi has extensive experience, ranging from working as a social worker with the homeless in Vancouver B.C., before law school, to helping Casa Latina research, draft and pass the city of Seattle's Wage Theft Ordinance. It provides increased penalties for employers who cheat workers, including business license revocation, and increased protections for immigrant workers, including a provision that protects workers from being retaliated against based on immigration status.

She is an advocate with CASA Latina's Comite De Defensa De los Trabajadores (Worker Defense Committee) where she educates immigrant workers about their rights and empowers workers to recoup unpaid wages through direct action, organizing, and lay-lawyering.

She has interned for the National Employment Law Project, the Unemployment Law Project, the Northwest Justice Project, Medical Legal Partnership for Children and was in the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic's Domestic Violence Clinic. Among her law school activities, she was president of the Public Interest Law Foundation and student content development editor and author for the Seattle Journal for Social Justice.

She is the second graduate of the law school to win this fellowship. Persis Yu '09 was named the Hanna S. Cohn Fellow in 2009.