Legal Aid Society

A Day In The Life

Upholding Workers’ Rights Through the Employment Law Unit

Almost 30 years ago, Richard Blum started his career with The Legal Aid Society. Looking back, Richard remembers it as a bad time for vulnerable New Yorkers. “The 1990’s were damaging to our clients in every way you can think of,” he says, referencing the continued attacks at the city, state, and federal level against public benefits, including major attacks on immigrants’ access to benefits. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating many of the existing issues vulnerable New Yorkers have faced for years, Richard thinks things are that much worse for our clients.

As a staff attorney in our Employment Law Unit, Richard is dealing with the unprecedented economic fallout of the pandemic. Record job losses, overwhelmed unemployment systems, dangerous work conditions: Richard and his colleagues are working to help New Yorkers with any issues they may face.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, the excuses are just more elaborate.

Right now, at the policy level alone, he’s working on creating enforceable health and safety standards to curb the spread of airborne infections in the workplace. He’s also working on unemployment assistance for people without enough work history, like those recently released from prison. But an especially difficult challenge is protecting those who have been misclassified as independent contractors instead of employees.

These workers are amongst those struggling the most because of this pandemic. Richard and his team were already fighting against the misclassification of these workers. By misclassifying these workers as independent contractors or freelancers, companies evade responsibility for providing basic benefits, like unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, or family leave. However, in reality, misclassified workers don’t fit the criteria of freelancers: they don’t get to negotiate rates, they don’t cultivate a customer base, and their work lives are controlled by their bosses. And when the shutdown started, these individuals found themselves to be out of work without a safety net or facing unsafe working conditions. Although Richard characterizes app-based jobs as the “ugly face” of the problem, only 17.5% of low-paid misclassified workers in New York State are app-based. “It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, the excuses are just more elaborate and the impact that much more severe,” he says.

As millions of New Yorkers are out of work or facing dangerous conditions in their place of employment, essential protections for workers are more important than ever before. For years, Richard and his colleagues have pushed to protect vulnerable workers, like when they won settlements for immigrant workers who had their wages stolen by employers. These victories, and the courage of workers to stand together and fight for their rights are what give Richard hope to work towards a better city for all workers.

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