Pomona College Magazine
Volume 45, No. 3
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Pomona College Magazine is published three times a year by Pomona College
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Online Editor: Laura Tiffany

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Editor: Mark Wood
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Inspirational Alumnus / Melvin Yee ’00
Making the Law Work

After working 60 hours a week for less than minimum wage, an exploited garment worker named Laura filed a claim and received a $28,000 judgment for unpaid wages and penalties. But when the owners dissolved their corporation, she couldn’t collect. Eventually, she found her way to the Wage Justice Center, a unique nonprofit started by Melvin Yee ’00 and his partner Matthew Sirolly. The Center found the factory’s owners had brazenly opened a new shop on the same site. They filed a civil suit, and the defendants finally paid up.

Yee’s approach is a unique one that assists an underserved group—low-income workers unable to collect their owed wages after a judgment has been made. It’s his devotion to this cause that cemented Yee’s place as winner of the 2009 Inspirational Young Alumni Award, a recognition of his dedication in following the inscription on the College Gates: “They only are loyal to this college who departing bear their added riches in trust for mankind.”

“I also work in public interest, and I am inspired by Melvin and the extraordinary level of his commitment to advocating for the rights of low-income communities and some of the most vulnerable members of society,” says Deborah Lee ’00, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. “I know the workers he represents appreciate his work since they otherwise would have no recourse to enforce their legal rights.”

During his time at USC Law School, Yee and his classmate, Sirolly, volunteered at a legal clinic that helps underpaid workers understand their rights. “Oftentimes, we would have workers come back with a judgment, which is basically a piece of paper saying you’re owed X amount of dollars. But there was no one out there to turn the pieces of paper into money,” says Yee.

After graduation, Yee and Sirolly began studying this legal area. “It’s not just getting money for the workers. We’re trying to take areas of law which have never been used in public interest or for low-income communities—laws like corporations, remedies, wills and trusts, creditor/debtor laws—and flip them around and start making them actually mean something to enhance workers rights, to make things better.”

They received a grant from Echoing Green, a seed funding organization for social entrepreneurship projects, and began The Wage Justice Center in 2007. In their first year of operation, they established a 25-person volunteer clinic and they were able to return $250,000 in wages to the workers they represent.

As pioneers in this field, Yee’s goal is to create a model for attorneys and legal clinics across the nation. “A lot of what we’ve learned translates across the board,” says Yee. “So for us, part of what we’re doing in addition to our overall direct [client] services and assisting campaigns in the community, is creating a model for enforcement.”
—Laura Tiffany

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