A new team of lawyers wants to help New Yorkers get to work once they're out of court. The Legal Aid Society's Worker Justice Project was launched last week with the goal of protecting people who have been accused or convicted of crimes from employment discrimination.
The project's pair of attorneys will offer advice on how criminal cases could affect a defendant's job prospects and bring lawsuits when employers mistreat people with criminal records — a problem that's "incredibly widespread," said staff attorney Melissa S. Ader.
"Part of the problem is that New Yorkers with criminal records don't know their rights, and part of the problem is that employers think that they have full discretion to discriminate against people with criminal records," Ader said. "But that is not true."
The Worker Justice Project is supported by city funding and currently has just two staff attorneys, but the legal services nonprofit hopes to expand it in the future with additional money, said Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid's Criminal Defense Practice.
Through the project, Legal Aid's criminal defense clients in every borough will be able to get help from a lawyer about the employment consequences of their cases, Luongo said.
"Even if you get through the prosecution, even if you've been convicted and whatever your sentence was, when you try to reconnect to society, the arrest or the fact that you were prosecuted or convicted stays with you," Luongo said. "And sometimes it's lifelong."
The two attorneys — Ader and Joshua Carrin — have already started consulting with the Criminal Defense Practice's trial lawyers on how particular outcomes in criminal cases could affect someone's work situation, Ader said.
They have also been evaluating the cases of people who say they have experienced discrimination and determining whether they could move forward with a lawsuit, Ader said. In addition to bringing litigation, she said, the lawyers will engage in "administrative advocacy" such as helping New Yorkers get back on the job if they're suspended because of an arrest.
"We are going to be very comprehensive and focused at the same time in looking at this issue and making sure that people, New Yorkers at all stages of their criminal cases are fully protected from employment discrimination," Ader said.
New York already has robust protections for job-seekers who have been through the criminal system, Ader said. For instance, New York City has barred employers from asking job candidates about their criminal histories during the application and interview processes since 2015.
But the Worker Justice Project still plans to advocate for policies that would further strengthen those protections, Ader said. She said piece of state legislation Legal Aid favors would ban employers from discriminating against people who have cases that have been scheduled for dismissal, but not actually dismissed.
"Right now discrimination is rampant, and I think that the primary way to stop discrimination is to enforce the discrimination laws, for New Yorkers to come forward and protect their rights," Ader said.