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Vocational Students Deserve Better

Vocational Students Deserve Better

I have been litigating several cases against cosmetology schools which unfairly take advantage of their students to perform unpaid, extensive, revenue-generating work for the schools, peddling branded products, performing services on paying clients, and also, being assigned extensive menial labor in the school salons. These school salons sell cheap haircuts and other cosmetology services to the public, in unfair competition with other low-cost salons – which have to pay their workers’ wages. We have sought recovery of the cosmetology students’ minimum wages under federal and California law.

After a series of losses in similar cases across the country – and not just in my cases – I went to the Ninth Circuit this morning for what could be our last shot at some justice. The experience reminded me of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – except without Clarissa Smith screaming from the audience to try to redeem me – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAjDmw6IrFg.

Here’s how I wish I would have concluded my oral argument – I didn’t have the time or opportunity to say it:

As I walked to the courthouse early this morning, south of Market Street in San Francisco, I was struck as I have been before by how many people here in the cradle of our tech civilization are left behind, living in poverty on the streets. I don’t know each person’s story – but how many worked hard, only to be left without wages, without real training, and deep in debt, like the Plaintiffs here? There is so much despair in this tech economy, leaving people behind, that it is shaping elections, moving world events in a dangerous, hopelessness-and-anger-driven direction. Because if you cannot go to school, work hard, and get paid a basic living wage to cover your bills, then the American dream is lost, and our hope is gone.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act was not designed with a hole in the minimum wage big enough to drive an entire business model through. It was designed, as this Court has said before, to protect “employees” in the broadest sense ever included in any one Act – to provide protection to anyone suffered or permitted to work. If cleaning floors and mirrors, taking out trash, answering phones, selling shampoo and haircuts – are not compensable work – then what is?

The Ninth Circuit has been a bulwark against oppression and injustice before, even in recent days. Let it be so again today.

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