History


The Worker Justice Center of New York was created in 2011 through the merger of Farmworker Legal Service of NY (est. 1981) and the Workers’ Rights Law Center (est. 2003). 

The New York State Bar Association originally established Farmworker Legal Services of New York (FLSNY) in the late 1970’s to address the unmet need of legal representation for migrant and seasonal farm workers. The organization was incorporated in 1981 as a free standing state-wide program and, for over thirty years, represented migrant and seasonal workers in civil matters throughout New York State under the leadership of our first Executive Director, Jim Schmidt. It was through Jim's commitment, perseverance, and skill that the organization thrived. FLSNY recovered millions of dollars for victims of wage theft and other forms of employment abuse through the efforts of a dedicated staff. During that period, FLSNY created nationally recognized projects aimed at reducing domestic violence and human trafficking in the agricultural community. Today WJCNY continues our work in these fields by providing essential legal services and case management support services to survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, as well as through preventive efforts, training, and advocacy at the state, national, and international levels. Beginning in 1988, FLSNY became a grantee of the New York State Department of Labor's Hazard Abatement Board, funded to provide pesticide safety information to workers and monitor workplace compliance. In 2010, FLSNY also secured funding from the United States Department of Labor through the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program to provide workplace safety training to agricultural workers and employees in other targeted industries under the protection of OSHA. Our focus on workplace health and safety continues today as central component of WJCNY's outreach and education programming. 

The Workers' Rights Law Center (WRLC) was founded in 2003 by former FLSNY attorneys, Dan Werner and Tricia Kakalec. As more and more non-farmworkers were calling their FLSNY office in the Hudson Valley seeking help with issues of wages theft and workplace abuse, Dan and Tricia realized there was a need for legal services and legal education for non-agricultural low-wage workers. The WRLC was created to address this need, with the support of an Echoing Green Fellowship and the Dyson Foundation. From 2004 though 2008, WRLC successfully litigated a large volume of cases on behalf of workers throughout the Hudson Valley, primarily immigrants working in food service, food processing, and light manufacturing. In 2008, Dan Werner left the WRLC to become Deputy Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Immigrant Rights Project and Tricia Kakalec left the WRLC to work for the New York State Attorney General’s office. Milan Bhatt took over as WRLC's Executive Director in 2009 and helped lead efforts to create the Worker Justice Center of New York though the merger with FLSNY, along with then FLSNY's Executive Director, Lewis Papenfuse. From 2011-2014, Milan and Lew served as Co-Executive Director of the newly-established Worker Justice Center of New York. Lew has continued on as WJCNY's Executive Director and will be retiring at the end of 2018, after three decades of service to FLSNY and WJCNY.

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