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Stamford Attorney Honored For Helping Day Laborers

A Stamford attorney was awarded Monday June 8, 2009 by the Connecticut Bar Association for his work helping day laborers settle wage disputes.

Mark Sank, who has offices at 666 Glenbrook Road, was among five attorneys awarded at the association’s annual meeting for their pro bono work. Another, Piper Paul, has offices in Norwalk and volunteers for the same program but was awarded for different work.

Nadine Nevins, director of the Bridgeport office of Connecticut Legal Services, a non-profit organization that helps lower-income people with civil court cases, said Sank has been involved in its day laborer program since its inception two years ago. She nominated him for the award.

“He’s just been helpful in so many ways.” Nevins said.

Nevins said her employees at Connecticut Legal Services, which has an office at 20 Summer St. in Stamford, noticed about two years ago that many new clients were Spanish-speaking day laborers who had not been paid promised wages, or had not been paid at all, primarily for work they did in landscaping and construction. Many of the problems the organization encountered at first could not be resolved because workers were unfamiliar with the law and often did not have complete information on people who employed them.

CLS decided to set up a free clinic just to deal with the day laborers’ wage issues, but the group knew it would need to rely on volunteer attorneys because of associated costs.

In addition to other volunteers whose work Nevins praised, Sank and his employees were instrumental in setting the clinic up, Nevins said. The staff members had a lot of experience in small claims court and in collections, so they could help with logistics of the cases. If cases go to court, Sank volunteers his time in the courtroom. Additionally, Sank paid his employees – office director Odded Mizrachi and two staff members who speak Spanish – for their time at the clinic, she said.

“I think that really goes way beyond,” Nevins said.

Sank said he wanted to encourage employees to go without their having to give up personal time for the clinic, which meets from 6 to 8 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of every month.

“It’s a shame, what’s happened to so many of these laborers,” Sank said. “They were here illegally, they stand out on the street, they work really hard on these jobs, and at the end of the week the employer says ‘I’m not going to pay you,’ and they’re all scared.”

In addition to winning settlements in small claims court, which handles claims of less than $5,000.00 – Sank said they haven’t lost a case yet – the clinic has also helped educate both laborers about their rights as well as employers, some of whom were as unfamiliar with the wage and employment laws as their victims.

“There were so many employers who are small businessmen, and they just didn’t know,” she said.

Which is not to say that the need has been abated. Sank said one of the biggest problems is that employers refuse to participate in the process, and do not show up to court. That means he and his staff members spend time after a judgment is issued trying to find employers’ information so that their clients can get paid.

Nevins said the clinic sees between 15 and 25 day laborers during each of their sessions, and that those numbers have not gone down.