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When Congress passed the new welfare reform laws in 1996, requiring welfare recipients to work for certain benefits, Susan Garten knew it was only a matter of time before such changes would directly affect clients at Greater Hartford Legal Assistance. “It was a new world for our clients,” Garten, the managing attorney at GHLA, said. “Suddenly these families, most of them who are single parents, had to figure out a way to get into the work force.” Garten said following the passage of the laws, GHLA took an active approach to the need for employment law attorneys as a core of new clients — many of whom spoke limited English, had little or no work or educational experience, no private transportation, and no daycare resources — emerged. Other legal service organizations around the state, including Connecticut Legal Services and the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, have also steered toward providing services and staffing in the area of employment law. “We realized that, post-1996, keeping a job became that much more important to our clients,” said Sharon Langer, a staff attorney at CLS for 20 years. “Even though our resources are stretched thin, we knew employment law was an area we needed to get back to.” Shelley White, an attorney with NHLA, said in the past year she, too, has noticed an increase in the need for employment law attorneys for low-income clients. “We are gearing up to address these issues,” White said. “We do a tremendous amount of outreach to let people know that we can-and are willing-to address [employment law] issues.” In 2000, while trying to be responsive to the members of the communities GHLA services, Garten and her peers developed a plan to increase staffing and services in the area of employment law. Although at the time GHLA had slightly more than 20 full-time attorneys working in the areas of family, housing, government and elder law, they had no employment law attorneys on staff. Garten’s efforts resulted in the award of a three-year declining grant from the Hartford Foundation, enabling GHLA to hire Lisa Levy and Angela Shenk last year as employment law attorneys. Together the lawyers turned their focus toward developing a model to inform clients of basic laws, as well as the rights and responsibilities of both employees and employers. Garten said the attorneys targeted such areas as the family medical leave act, various wage and hour laws and at-will employment-dispelling the myth for clients that a person cannot be fired if they just show up for work on time and do a good job. Recently, for example, Garten filed a brief before the Employment Security Appeals Division of the Department of Labor’s Board of Review, challenging a state unemployment compensation regulation that limits the payment of benefits to full-time employees. Garten said the regulation was “violative of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” adding that if the GHLA proved successful, the case, Claudia Fullerton and Carmen Cocchiola v. Administrator, would “open up employment compensation benefits to people who could only work part-time because of their disabilities.” In performing outreach work and trying to assess what their clients needed most in terms of legal help, the GHLA attorneys said they also found an extraordinary amount of sexual harassment cases. Garten said marginal workers-often young females new to the workforce-reported scenarios that sounded like the women were “being preyed upon by their supervisors” in many of the smaller companies. “The women we are talking to don’t know that [sexual harassment] is illegal,” Garten said. “So they don’t try to fight it and they end up quitting their jobs. We are trying to tell them not to give up and to call us for [legal help].” Shenk, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center who began working for the GHLA in 1999 as a family law attorney, said she was surprised at the number of sexual harassment and racial discrimination claims she encountered after switching over to employment law. “I was surprised to see that it still went on [so prevalently],” Shenk said. “I thought I would be dealing mostly with wrongful discharge cases.” Shenk said that she has helped the workers to learn how to protect themselves legally while on the job and at the same time how to become good employees. “Nope . . . there is no shortage of work,” Shenk said quickly with a laugh when asked about her caseload. “Folks are working hard out there and often they are working more than one job . . . and it is hard for them.” “But we are serving a great need,” Shenk continued. “We want to make sure people know what is going on and what they can expect.” Garten said the GHLA employment law attorneys have also been working on educating women who have been arrested in domestic violence scenarios about the state’s erasure law. Under the law, criminal charges in such cases can be erased from a person’s record if, for example, a prosecutor chooses not to prosecute the case, the charge is nolled, or if the person undergoes accelerated rehabilitation. “We’re finding that for a lot of our clients the existence of a criminal record poses a real barrier to getting a job,” Garten said.

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