Faculty Post: Collaborating with Students on Employment Law Issues

By Emily A. Spieler, Edwin W. Hadley Professor of Law

As an expert in labor and employment issues, I seek out NUSL students who share my interests. I am interested working collaboratively with students on projects that matter in the outside world.

Here are two examples from this past spring:

I asked one student to act as my research assistant for the quarter. She was going to graduate, and she was particularly interested in the intersections between law and policy in the labor area. As Chair of the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee – a federal advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Labor – I was asked to testify before a Senate committee regarding the effectiveness of the law that forbids retaliation against workers who raise safety complaints. She and I together conducted a full literature review of the subject, read the legal cases, looked at data that was compiled by the Department of Labor, and worked together to finalize my testimony. She said it proved to her that one can combine interests in policy and in law in ways that matter. The testimony from that hearing is posted on the Senate HELP Committee website.

Another student approached me, proposing that I supervise her in an independent study. She was working with a Boston attorney who is the founder of Justice at Work. Justice at Work provides legal backup assistance to workers’ centers in Massachusetts. These centers help immigrants of various nationalities, many of whom are working in difficult and low paid jobs. She wanted to study the current health and safety issues in the fish processing plants in New Bedford, where many Portuguese speaking immigrants are employed. Their employment status is complicated. Not only are many of them in the U.S. without legal papers, but they are hired by “temporary” agencies to work full-time at the plants. Their pay comes from the agencies, but they work in dangerous conditions in the plants.

The questions that my student wanted to answer included: What is the day-to-day experience of these workers in these plants? Who is their employer? Do they get compensation when they are injured? What is the liability of the fish processing plant when they get injured? Are the plants really very dangerous? Has the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated complaints about hazards in these plants? During the spring, she interviewed employees, giving them a chance to tell their stories in a safe environment. She worked with an OSHA expert, learning how to find and use the data that is kept by the federal agency. And she did legal research on the questions of legal responsibility for dangerous conditions. In the end, she wrote a paper that will be used by Justice at Work and the workers’ centers to consider future legal and organizing strategies.

Both of these law students have now graduated. The first has gone off to Los Angeles, where she will be an Honors Program lawyer with the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board. The second has left for San Francisco, where she will join a law firm specializing in immigration law. Both of them will be fabulous lawyers. And it was my extraordinary luck – and pleasure – to have had the opportunity to collaborate with them.

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