Learning Valuable Life Lessons While Achieving a Major Goal
“A Boy Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Erick Mercado recites the Boy Scout oath with conviction and pride, and is quick to add: “these words mean different things for each person, but we all live by this law.”
Erick, who has been a Boy Scout for seven years, recently achieved the rank of Eagle Scout, the highest achievement attainable in scouting.
“My mom helped me out a lot and pushed me to finish. I wanted to do this for her.” His mom is Maria Mercado, a paralegal at the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP.
Achieving the rank of Eagle Scout requires earning at least 21 merit badges including ones in Camping, Lifesaving or Emergency Preparedness, Environmental Science or Sustainability, Family Life, Citizenship in the Nation and Citizenship in the World.
“Earning these badges teaches you skills that will help you throughout life. I like knowing that in many different situations I have the knowledge and ability to help others.”
Completing a service project that requires planning, organizing and leadership skills is also a pre-requisite to reach Eagle Scout status. Erick set his sights high—refurbishing the driveway apron of the First United Methodist Church in San Fernando where his Scout meetings are held. The apron was in such poor repair that improvement estimates totaled $5,000 for tools, waste management, permits and labor—a hefty bill that Erick is still fund-raising to achieve. In the meantime, he completed a landscaping project around the church grounds, clearing overgrown shrubs, pulling weeds and eliminating harmful plants. “I was in charge of everything, I had to direct everybody on what they needed to do…it made me feel responsible and proud of what I was doing.”
That pride is echoed by his mother. “I often talk to my kids about the sense of accomplishment when you do something for someone else. They know that’s why I enjoy my job so much; I am actually helping people who are injured to have a voice in what happens to them in the Workers’ Compensation system. It is wonderful to see and feel that same sense of pride and accomplishment in my son. He has raised more than $2,000 for the apron project, and I’m confident it will be accomplished very soon.”
“A lot of people think that being a Boy Scout isn’t a cool thing, but I think otherwise,” says Erick. “It took me a long time to achieve this honor, and I’m really proud of it.”
Is There Justice for Women in the Workplace?
Women in the Economy—a very broad theme that was tackled with intelligence, wisdom, faith, candor and wit at the 2016 Ingathering presented by CLUE-LA (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice). The topic was a perfect fit for the organization whose mission is to bring together clergy and lay leaders of all faiths to join low-wage workers in their struggles for justice.
On this particular morning in March, women of all ages (from a middle school student to a retired minister) voiced their perspectives and concerns about the workplace challenges women face.
The pay gap issue was covered by social justice attorney Sandra Fluke as she laid out staggering statistics, including that a woman makes 77 cents to a man’s $1; that figure is reduced to 62 cents for African-American women, and 54 cents for Hispanic women, she said. The point really hits home when you consider that each year women lose $10,784; over a lifetime that is $434,000 in this pay gap equation. Is change brewing? Not really. The last time there was major federal legislation regarding the pay gap was the Equal Pay Act of 1963. And, Equal Pay Day is observed in April each year (it’s April 12 in 2016), symbolizing how far into the year women must work to earn what men earned in the previous year.
“Change requires time, commitment and partnership,” explained Rev. Carolyn Wilkins as she discussed racial and sexual discrimination in the workplace, giving testimony about the “Isms” of Equality and Justice. “Fight. Get in the game. Stay in the game. That’s how you effect change to stop racism and sexism. Equality and justice don’t come without work on your behalf.”
This conviction was echoed in the words of others during the event, either through sharing their experiences or sharing scripture. Angela Guanzon spoke of her human trafficking nightmare in which she was told by her trafficker that she would have to work for 10 years to pay for her passage from the Philippines to California. She worked 18 hours a day, caring for elderly residents, slept on hallway floors and ate table scraps, until, after working with the FBI, she was able to free herself and a co-worker.
Speaking out and speaking up is also the way hotel workers in Long Beach move toward a safer and more just workplace environment.
It’s all about framing the story, as Rev. Sharon Rhodes–Wickett explained. “Devaluing of women didn’t come from scripture, it’s what I was told the scripture meant. Women in the early church were leaders; they were not silent. We have to know the whole story of the people who voice the faith. We have to stop this amnesia.”
It would be difficult to sit in that Ingathering audience and forget the stories and experiences that were shared. These women and thousands just like them will remain on the front lines in the fight to end trafficking, close the gender pay gap and put an end to workplace harassment and assault.
Working Together to Stop the Stealing
Wage theft is a crime—literally and morally. And yet, it happens daily throughout Los Angeles County and across the nation.
"Wage theft is bosses stealing from employees, leaving them [with nothing] while they run home with money in the bank," said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Executive Director of CLUE-LA, as he addressed the audience at a recent Wage Theft Ingathering presented by the organization.
The mission of CLUE-LA (Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice) is to educate, organize and mobilize the faith community to walk with workers and their families as they face their struggle for respect and dignity in the workplace and beyond. This is precisely what they did during the ingathering, which included testimony from workers and area leaders from such groups as the CLEAN Car Wash Campaign, the L.A. Coalition Against Wage Theft, the Garment Workers Center, the Filipino Migrant Center and the Port Truck Drivers Campaign.
"We were proud to have been a sponsor of the ingathering because we see on a daily basis the impact that unjust working conditions have not only on workers, but also their families," says Mark Edelstein, Managing Partner of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK). "Many of our clients work for less-than-living wages and in conditions that are unsafe. And, often times, these are the workers who are most reluctant to speak up or report a workplace injury."
Los Angeles is considered the "wage theft capital of the country," according to Victor Narro, UCLA Labor Center's Project Director. He characterized wage theft as a "major humanitarian crisis."
That crisis includes "an economic wall of low wages," said Rusty Hicks, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "For those young people who live in areas with low wages, college is unlikely, but jail isn't. This is a moral imperative and an economic imperative. People in this city want to be self-reliant. They believe in the American dream of hard work. What they're saying is, 'We're happy to pull ourselves up by our boot straps, but first we need the boots.'"
So, just exactly what is wage theft? A textbook definition would be the withholding of wages or the denial of benefits that are rightfully owed to a worker. Examples include the following:
- Violation of the minimum wage.
- Not paying all overtime.
- Employees being forced to work off the clock.
- Workers not receiving their final paycheck.
- Workers having their tips stolen by management.
- Payroll fraud or "misclassification."
Every week, 80 percent of low-wage workers in the city lose $26.2 million in wage theft violations, according to Narro. And, even when workers stand up to "the man," 83 percent of them never see a dime.
The solution? Many who are working diligently to remedy this situation, including the Los Angeles Coalition Against Wage Theft, feel it all begins with enabling workers to do the following:
- Collect—Create simple yet efficient tools for workers to collect the wages they've earned.
- Protect—Stop employers from retaliating against workers who speak up about wage theft.
- Enforce—Provide the City of Los Angeles with the ability to enforce anti-wage-theft measures.
"It is clear that organizing and advocacy are vital if the tide is going to turn in terms of the mistreatment of workers," says Edelstein. "We at GEK feel it is our duty to stand alongside those who are fighting against wage theft and unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Together we will fight the good fight…and we will win."
Carlos Benavides—Proof That There Is Life After Injury
A woman is beautifully portrayed, wrapped in the American flag with two eyes behind her, floating in tumultuous clouds. The artist is Carlos Benavides, a former client of Workers' Compensation attorney (and Gordon-Edelstein partner) Adam Dombchik. The eyes, says Benavides, are "Adam looking over me."
The painting is titled Wrapped in Hope. As Benavides explains it, "Hope is epitomized by the American flag, but there is a lot of turmoil behind it." Much like how Benavides felt during the beginning stages of his Workers' Compensation claim.
Working as a graphic designer, Benavides fell while performing his work duties. That life-changing accident led to a spinal cord injury that left him an incomplete tetraplegia.
"The turmoil is what my life was like when I first met Adam. I was at a loss, and didn't know which way I was going to go. I had already dealt with one attorney who was going to toss me to the wolves.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for Adam. He opened a lot of doors for me that helped me get through the process. I am sure there were many doors slammed in his face that I didn't see as he was fighting for me."
That fight was a true team effort. "With Adam's help, I met [orthopedic surgeon] Dr. Sam Bakshian. Together they fought to get me into Rancho Los Amigos." This is where the turmoil in Benavides' life started to turn around, and the person who was once a patient is now an ardent and cherished volunteer at the facility. So much so that he is being honored by the Rancho Los Amigos Foundation with the Amistad Award, which is the highest honor the foundation can give. It recognizes an individual who has demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to serving Rancho Los Amigos and its patients.
Having such an honor bestowed upon Benavides is no surprise to Dombchik. "Carlos is a remarkable man with incredible strength of character. Sure, we helped him, but everything he has accomplished after facing such adversity came from deep down within him. And, the fact that he is making other people's lives better and more fulfilling because of how he has handled his misfortune is a testament to what kind of person he is."
Benavides puts it this way: "I volunteer at Rancho because I want to empower people; let them know that there are no limitations, only the ones they set for themselves. You can't be a quitter. You can do the things you used to do, you just have to adapt new ways of doing them."
Spreading that sentiment to others who have suffered spinal cord injuries is one reason Benavides joined Pushrim.org, an online community that, among other things, provides a platform through social media to share resources and information. He is now a board member.
Pushrim further instilled in Benavides what Dombchik, his doctor and his family taught him—you can't give up; there is life after injury.
"Before I was hurt, I was always on the go, I didn't pay attention to things. My family was always there for support, but I always had my head down. I took a lot of things for granted, things as simple as buttoning my shirt. At Rancho I learned to take baby steps and learned that there are things I can't do, but there are plenty of things I can do. I went outside, paid attention to the fact that I can see trees, see people. I appreciated things much more.
"Adam is not just an attorney; he's a caring person, a true friend. I learned a lot from him, and I thought, 'if he can fight for me, I can do the same for other people.'
"This is my second life, and I get enjoyment every day. The way I look at life now is that if I'm going to cross a finish line for anything, I'm going to give it 100 percent. That's what Adam did. He didn't care how we got across the finish line, he just knew we were going to finish number one."
Spinning To Find a Cure for ALS
In speaking about his disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis—ALS), Lou Gehrig said, "I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for."
Howard Krepack, retired partner at the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK), has that same fighting spirit as he battles this dreadful disease.
It was that tenacity that motivated Howard's family (his wife Vivian and children Michael, Geoffrey, Adam and Rachel) to create an ALS Charity Ride in Howard's honor.
This is how Michael put it in his e-mail invitation:
"As most of you know, my father was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease) nearly three years ago. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons controlling voluntary muscle movement, leaving a patient during the later stages of the disease completely paralyzed. With no known cure or drug to slow the progression, most patients live two to five years. My father lost the ability to communicate, move on his own and eat all within the first year of the disease. For the past year he has lived with the support of a ventilator breathing for him. Yet, his will to live and spirit remain firmly intact along with his incredibly sharp mind!
"As we approach the third- year mark, we decided as a family to create a charity event in his honor to benefit the largest and best non-profit for ALS research—ALS TDI. My father was an avid cyclist so we thought what better way to celebrate than to do a SoulCycle ride in his honor."
And, that is exactly what they did. On a beautiful Southern California Sunday, Howard greeted family and friends at SoulCycle, a bicycle spinning studio, as people stopped by for just a visit or to spin along with Howard's children, friends, colleagues and family members. Not only was a great time had by all, but they have already raised nearly $25,000—and counting—for ALS research.
Michael's reaction? "My family and I are blown away by everyone's support and generosity."
Members of Howard's "GEK family" were also on hand to spin and visit.
"It was a truly inspirational event," says GEK partner Adam Dombchik who, along with GEK colleagues Amy Leung, Joanna Sacavitch and Lisa Waring, enjoyed a 45-minute spinning adventure filled with booming music, glow bracelets and plenty of encouraging shout-outs.
"Everyone had a great time," says Adam. "They raised a lot of money for a very worthwhile cause, which is fantastic. But, the best part of the whole day was knowing how proud Howard must feel about the unwavering support from his family and friends."
(If you would like to donate to support Howard and other ALS patients, please go to Howard's ALS TDI webpage link (http://community.als.net/soulcycle) and click the "Donate Now" tab on the page. This page will remain active indefinitely. Every little bit counts and all donations are 100% tax-deductible.)