Julia Simon-Mishel: Representing Low Wage Workers

Interview by Xinyi Zhou '10

Julia Simon-Mishel '05 is a 2014 Skadden Fellow at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, working as an attorney representing low-wage workers facing wage theft and the unjust denial of unemployment compensation benefits. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2013, and from Brandeis University in 2009 with a double major in Politics & Women and Gender Studies, and a double minor in Legal Studies and Peace, Conflict & Coexistence studies.

My main draw to the Magnet program was always math and logic and those were my greatest interests. But I was a two sport varsity athlete in high school for softball and soccer and was really active in our mock trial team. The only STEM type thing I did was volunteer with FIST (Females in Science and Technology conference) every year, helping Mr. Street, helping students shoot rockets in the practice field behind the high school. In terms of electives, my strongest memories are probably Marine Biology with Dr. Miller, Statistics with Mr. Stein, Origins of Science with Mr. Donaldson, and Multivariable Calculus with Mr. Walstein.

What clubs and electives did you take?

What do you remember from the Magnet?

Well I was in the Magnet program for 7 years. I started at Takoma in 6th grade. It was a going through the trenches mentality with other students and really having the opportunity to be challenged by both our teachers, but more importantly, by my peers. I constantly tell people that I will never be surrounded by the same level of pure intellectual ability as I was in the Magnet program. So really it's my peers that I remember the most. I'm still really close with many people from high school. The experience of working your butt off in high school and being challenged and being forced to work together, really created lasting relationships.

How did you get interested in law?

I think that law is at its basis, a very logical field, and I think that logical reasoning was something I always was attracted to in what I did in the Magnet program. But I think more importantly I grew up in a family that had as a priority working to effect social change. Both my parents were heavily involved in careers that had a social justice aspect to them and I saw law as a way to effect positive change in people's lives. I loved mock trial and getting to stand in the middle of a courtroom and talk; I was really attracted to the public speaking advocacy side of it. I would say all my teachers would say I liked to talk, sometimes to the detriment of the classroom.

I think one of the best things about having the Magnet at Blair was that it was an incredibly diverse school and a very large school, and it allows everyone to build relationships and interact with people they might otherwise not get to know. We had 3600 students in the school, it was humongous, it was bigger than my college.

What was the Student Peace Alliance that you started at Brandeis with Aaron Voldman?

It was started in our sophomore year in March 2006. We wanted to create an organization that would support students that wanted to be active peace promoters. We felt that our generation wasn't so much anti-war, because we wanted to be pro something -- we wanted to be pro peace. The program was built around a chapter system, in high schools, colleges and universities and eventually communities as well. The idea was to engage in peace building work on a ground level and also to advocate for policy changes on a federal level that would have impact both domestically and abroad. And we were very successful for a long period of time in engaging with students and tapping into what young people were looking for, with over 100 chapters at one point. We turned the organization into a full time job after we graduated and both Aaron and I moved to DC to open up an office for the Student Peace Alliance. We had already been working 20 hours a week, if not more, while we were in college on the organization.

What are you doing now with Philadelphia Legal Assistance?

I'm currently what you would call a legal services attorney. Philadelphia Legal Assistance is a legal services organization in Philadelphia, which provides civil legal aid to low income individuals and family. A lot of times people think about legal aid and they think, public defender, but we don't do any criminals; it's all civil law. So when you think about things like housing, or consumer issues, or family law issues, all of those are civil legal issues, as opposed to when you're charged with a crime and you need a criminal defense lawyer.

I'm actually on a fellowship that I was personally able to design and get funded, on low wage workers, unemployment compensation and wage theft. Unemployment compensation is a safety net set by the states and regulated by the federal government, that ensures that individuals who lose jobs through no fault of their own have a source of income replacement as they search for a new job. There are a lot of barriers to getting that benefit, so I represent the employees to get them the benefits they are eligible for, which for many are the difference between paying rent, putting food on the table, or buying school supplies. For many people this is their only aid in an extremely difficult financial situation when they lose their only source of income.

The second part of my project is representing clients who come in, generally for employment compensation, who have related employment law issues. A lot the times people experience discrimination, or they experience what we call wage theft, which is the systemic nonpayment of wages to individuals who have earned those wages. You hear about people who worked and were never paid or were not paid overtime, or were misclassified as contractors when they should have been classified as employees, or they work 8 hours a day but they are only paid 4 hours. Wage theft is predominant among the low income community. More than 60% of low income employees have experienced wage theft.

But a lot of people are not willing to do anything about it or don't have the power while they're still employed, because they're worried that if they bring it up to their employer, or if they file a legal action, they will get fired. Even though the law protects you -- that is, if you take action to ensure your rights to wages under law, your job is protected and your employer cannot fire you in retaliation -- but that doesn't actually stop employers from doing that. So for a lot of people, in an economy where it's very difficult to find a job, they are scared to do anything about it. They are not in a union, they don't have any bargaining power in their employer employee relationship, so they are pretty much left in this job experiencing wage theft but no recourse. For my project, when they come into my office, it's because they're unemployed. So now, they are concerned about how do they get that money that they were never paid. They come and say, can you help me with unemployment compensation, and also the overtime I was never paid. So now I am able to provide more holistic representation for their law needs through this project.

Especially during the recession, there was this national narrative that individuals collecting employment compensation were people didn't want to work. And if there's anything that I've learned over the years is that it's absolutely untrue. Almost every single client that walks through the door, one of the first questions they asked was, can you get me my job back? Most of the people that work their entire lives, they consider themselves hard workers, and when they lose their job they lose their sense of self-worth and they're reluctant to collect their benefits until they realize they need that safety net set up for them.

As I understand the Skadden Fellowship program is a two-year program -- what are you planning on next for your career?

I can confidently say that for the first time in my life that I don't know what happens next. Since being in the Magnet I've been pretty goal oriented, and for the first time I'm more open to what comes next. Whether or not I can stay in this current organization is a matter of funding. But I know I wake up every morning feeling grateful that I have the chance to work on this. Continuing to work on these issues, to have an impact on the lives of my clients, and to have a systemic impact on the way our labor laws are enforced and the way are employment compensation system works -- this is the type of work I'm committed to, and wherever we have that type of work, I'll go.