Melvin Yee '00 Awarded the 2009 Inspirational Young Alumnus Award
After working seven days and 60 hours a week for less than minimum wage, an exploited garment worker named Laura found help: She filed a wage claim with the help of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and UCLA law students, and received a $28,000 judgment for unpaid wages and penalties. But when the factory owners dissolved their corporation, essentially skipping out on the bill, the state couldn’t collect for Laura.
She eventually 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 garment factory’s owners had brazenly opened a new shop on the same site, and filed a civil suit that included causes of action for fraud, fraudulent transfer and alter ego. The defendants finally paid up.
The approach that Yee and his organization takes in recovering wage settlements is a unique one that fulfills an underserved niche—low-income workers who are unable to collect their owed wages after a judgment has been made because their former employers refuse to pay.
It’s his dedication to this cause that cemented Yee's place as this year’s winner of the Inspirational Young Alumni Award, a recognition of his dedication, perseverance and consistency 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 many organizations, most notably Neighborhood Legal Services Employment Rights Clinic in El Monte, which helps underpaid workers understand their rights and learn how to make wage claims. “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. “There was no one out there to make the rights mean anything.”
Company owners use a variety of means to hide their money and escape justice: Transferring their assets to someone else, dissolving their corporation only to begin another or establishing shell corporations.
Between graduation and receiving their bar results, Yee and Sirolly began studying this legal area. “We were basically teaching ourselves to do it, and asking everyone we knew if there was anyone doing the kind of work we were doing, just to see if there was anyone out there who could reduce the learning curve,” says Yee. “But the more we got into it, we realized we were the only ones out there.
“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.
“Melvin’s organization is an example of social entrepreneurship at work,” says Lara Galinsky, senior VP at Echoing Green. “They are fighting for justice for exploited low-wage workers, but are employing new strategies and legal tactics to get there.”
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.”
Soon, however, the Echoing Green grant will run out and the Center is looking for new funding. Yee explains that because the Center represents undocumented workers, they cannot apply for federal funds and, in today’s economy, state funds are in short supply. Because of this, it’s not only difficult for a nonprofit like The Wage Justice Center to find funding, but it also means such services are in even higher demand. “There are seven to eight attorneys in L.A. County who assist however many hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers who are here with employment issues. They do what they can, but look at the lawyer-client ratio.”
And since Yee’s Center offers a particularly unique service, they’re even busier. “In all honesty, since we’re the only ones doing what we do, our case load is kind of ridiculous, and people keep coming through the door."
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