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Eviction companies go to court for exploiting homeless employees

Wed, Jun 8, 2011

Mehreen Rasheed
Street Sense, Washington, D.C.

A lawsuit waits in court against two American eviction companies that routinely paid homeless employees .less than minimum wage. The firms were exposed in an undercover investigation by Washington street paper Street Sense.

Five years ago, the American street paper Street Sense went undercover to expose two D.C. eviction companies that recruited homeless people as day-laborers. These homeless laborers, who spent their days removing other peoples’ belongings from their homes, worked for pay that turned out to be far below the minimum wage. The story led to a lawsuit against those companies as well as others engaged in similar practices. Although the court has ruled in favor of the workers who are all homeless or formerly homeless, the case still remains open.
A final decision has not yet been reached on what the companies owe. And the delay in justice is haunting the homeless workers and their advocates.

After reading the Street Sense article in April 2006, attorney Lee Berger was outraged at the exploitation of the homeless. His firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, took up the case pro-bono and decided to dig deeper to see if there was enough evidence to sue the eviction companies.

“It’s the blatant nature of the violation, so clearly breaking the law and taking advantage of homeless [people] who are desperate,” Berger said. “Minimum wage law is designed to protect these kinds of people.”

Berger contacted the National Coalition for the Homeless’ Michael Stoops, then-acting executive director and current director of community organizing. The firm teamed up with the Coalition to investigate the eviction companies and collect testimonies and affidavits from homeless people who had worked for less than $7 an hour, the minimum wage in 2006. The original Street Sense article estimated the companies’ average hourly pay between $1.25 and $7.50.

“To wait so long for a ruling, it’s past the point of disrespect … even the courts have disregard for the homeless,” formerly homeless plaintiff Donald Brooks said. “I want some resolution. This case has been going on [about five] years. It’s frustrating — it’s past frustrating.”

“With the homeless community, you’re dealing with a group of people frequently taken advantage of, who frequently find themselves disempowered and disenfranchised,” Berger said. “There aren’t a lot of lawsuits seeking to advance and protect the rights of homeless people…but the firm, and the clients would agree, believes that it should only be a method of last resort when non-litigious means fail.”

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