April 3, 2009

Guest Lecturer Gives ILR Students New Perspective

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About 60 ILR students saw their course work come to life yesterday when Patricia Kakalec, deputy bureau chief from the New York Attorney General’s Labor Bureau, lectured to two ILR classes taught by Prof. Kati Griffith, labor and employment law. Kakalec regaled students with real-life anecdotes of subpoenas, labor lawsuits and depositions.
While the focus of Griffith’s courses are the study of law, she explained that, “We study … what the law actually is, but students often don’t have exposure to real practice, real cases, what’s going on out there. So I brought [Kakalec] as somebody who actually enforces the law from the government’s point of view … I think students should get a sense of how things work in the real world.”
Previously working with Kakalec at the Worker’s Rights Law Center, Griffith knew Kakalec had changed jobs to work at the Office of the Attorney General and decided that Kakalec would be a good fit. [img_assist|nid=36536|title=Honest answers|desc=Patricia Kakalec, a staff member under Andrew Cuomo in the New York state government, is interviewed in Ives Hall yesterday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“We’ve been planning since the fall,” explained Griffith.
“The Attorney General is the lawyer for the people of New York so there are a bunch of different parts of what he does … there’s a bureau that deals with civil rights, a bureau that deals with fraud, the environment, investor protection … the office does a lot of different things” Kakalec explained.
As deputy chief of the labor bureau, Kakalec deals with cases around enforcing N.Y. labor law. Kakalec explained that she made the trek upstate from New York City in part to “speak to classes in the ILR School” as well as “[to] meet with labor leaders and other workers rights advocates in the area.”
Kakalec spoke to Griffith’s students in ILRCB 6079: Low Wage Workers and the Law and ILRCB 2010: Labor and Employment Law. Kakalec spoke about “New York labor law, the rights of employees, what [her] office has done, some of the problems that [she’s] seen out there that workers are facing and what [her office has] done to try to have workers rights vindicated.”
Kakalec also spoke to some of the criminal prosecutions that the Office of the Attorney General has seen in the last couple of years, including employers who fail to pay appropriate wages to employees. Kakalec said that failure to comply with labor law is “a pretty serious violation, and its important for people understand that there are real consequences for taking these kind of actions.”
Kakalec revealed in her lecture that some common labor infractions include “failure to pay minimum wage, failure to pay overtime … taking illegal deductions, unhealthy working conditions …” To compound these common labor issues, “… some of these employers don’t pay into an unemployment insurance fund and don’t have workers compensation coverage as they’re supposed to,” Kakalec explained.
Kakalec elaborated on this point, stating that all of us in the state “depend on employers paying into these funds and when employers don’t pay into these funds not only does it make it hard for those individual workers to recovery because of they have additional administrative hurdles they have to go through, but all of us really are cheated out of having the money in the funds that we need. And right now … monies are especially tight, because of the economy. So it’s a really, really important time for wage enforcement.”
Not only did Kakalec speak to her audience as students, but she also hoped her lecture would be pertinent to students as employees.
“Students are workers,” she explained, “and we see a lot of cases in restaurants and retail and … I think students should know whether their rights are being violated, or else be alert to what else might be going on in their community. And its also really interesting talking to students about this area of law … because I think its great work and it might be where students want to go later in their life. For me it’s definitely been a great career.”
Amelia Murphy ’11 found that Kakalec’s lecture furthered her appreciation for ILR and the practical application of the school’s curriculum.
“Her lecture was really important because it was the first time that it made sense to have an Industrial and Labor Relations School,” Murphy said. “I think the statistics show 3 percent of the graduates go into union work and labor work so maybe that percentage could increase from speakers like [Kakalec] … I thought she was really moving and the examples of what she did was really interesting and inspiring to listen to.”
Kakalec also discussed the state of the economy and its effect in the field of labor law.
“I think people are worried about complaining because they’re worried about losing their job and they know it’s a harder time to find a job. I think that employers are using the economy as an excuse to violate the labor law …” Kakalec said. Employers are using the poor state of the economy as a scapegoat, “but the fact is it’s not an excuse … it’s the law and you are required to follow it.”
Kakalec wanted students to take away some sense of what her office does and see her office as a resource and many students thought that the lecture did just that.
Froilan Malit ’10 enjoyed Kakalec’s lecture because it was “nice to see that she’s very successful in reaching out to students saying that there’s a life beyond just working [for money].”
John Carlos Metidieri ’10 said there were two key points that impressed him: “One was to see that somebody who [went] to a top law school, [Kakalec went to Harvard Law], will come out and work for people who generally can’t afford their representation privately. There’s this stereotype if you go to Harvard, or Cornell, or one of the top law schools that you’re going to go into corporate law where you can find the money and it was nice to see someone so successful at something that was out for the public interest.”
Besides illuminating different career options, Kakalec also the highlighted the importance of representing illegal immigrants to Metidieri.
“I was really impressed with how the New York State Attorney General’s office paid no attention to undocumented status,” Medi­tieri said. “Some people will say ‘Oh my god get those illegal workers out of here, we’re spending our taxes on them!’ But … there’s a reason that you want to represent them because even though they may be illegal, undocumented workers, you have to represent everybody. Otherwise there’s a lot of incentive for employers to go out there and hire undocumented workers that they know that they can’t get sued for.”
The lecture, in general, gave students a real-life perspective of the issues studied in the classroom.
“[It’s] nice to study the cases, but now we got a chance to hear from an actual player that is part of the process of producing those court cases that we end up reading about in the classrooms,” Meditieri said.
Caitlin Brophy ’11 added “Her lecture showed us the actual enforcement of the decisions while we study the reasons behind them in class, she was very informative … it was really great to hear someone who had a lot of passion for what she did. She seemed to have a real sense of justice behind it.”