By Diane Ramirez, J.D. ’17
My client, a student at a local university in her senior year of school, was thrilled when she received a summer job offer from a financial firm in New York City. Like many of her classmates, she had struggled to find paid summer employment that she could use to gain experience, enhance her resume, and catapult herself into a career. This opportunity was a dream come true for her, a Chinese national, who came to the United States with a student visa to pursue her goal of obtaining an American degree in economics.
In an offer letter, the CEO and founder of the financial firm promised to pay my client $2,500 per month, vacation time, and “10,000 shares of the company.” The letter also confirmed my client was able to work from home in Massachusetts for up to 35 hours per week the entire summer. Her work included research, financial modeling and analysis, and technical programming.
The first month on the job passed and she awaited her first paycheck. It never arrived. She checked in with the nine other college-age summer employees, at least four of whom were also working for the New York City employer from their homes in Massachusetts. None of them had been paid.
At the end of the summer, my client expected to be paid the total amount she was owed for her work: $6,875.00. She and most of the other interns received $0. She contacted the CEO of the company, who promised to send payment “soon.” (The CEO is also the Founder and CEO of a second, larger entrepreneurship consulting firm and is an adjunct professor at a college in New York).
Three months later, my client contacted the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau to help her fight for the wages she was owed. I, along with my colleage Martin Njoroge ’17, took her case and wrote to the employer, demanding our client’s payment and informing her that she and the company were in violation of Massachusetts wage and overtime laws. We informed her that she could be on the hook for treble damages under Massachusetts law, which amount to at total of $20,625.00, if a court so ordered.
The employer responded to the letter, yet did not pay my client or most of the other summer employees for another two months. On February 10, Martin and I filed a complaint on behalf of our client in the Waltham District Court.
Finally, after a total of seven months since the day our client should have been paid, we successfully helped our client recover $6,562.50 that she was rightfully owed for her full-time work during the entire summer. The employer sent the check after we filed the complaint in order to avoid protracted litigation that would have had an adverse affect on the finances of her company.
I have been practicing wage and hour law for about a year and a half at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and have seen first hand the power a student attorney can have in helping victims of wage theft recover wages under Massachusetts’ influential labor laws. The desire to help victims of wage theft was one of the factors that initially motivated me to go to law school. My father, uncles, and cousins who are all in the construction business in the state of Georgia have been victims of wage theft on multiple occasions and have been unable to recover what was owed to them due to Georgia’s state labor laws that are simply much more employer friendly. In Georgia, finding civil legal representation is also very difficult if you are low-income, and the state Attorney General does not have a robust worker’s rights division to assist victims. Here, in Massachusetts, the Attorney General hosts wage and hour clinics once a month at Suffolk Law School.
As a member of HLAB, I have volunteered at the clinics to provide legal advice and assist victims in drafting demand letters. I feel proud and grateful to have had the opportunity as a law student to practice wage and hour law, to inform workers of their rights, and to fight for victims using negotiation and litigation.