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Taking an Active Approach to Giving Back

It’s all about community—working together to educate, help, share. Lending an ear when someone needs you to listen, lending a voice when another person’s troubles have gone unheard. Sometimes it’s just being there.

Over the years, the staff of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein has not only talked the talk but has also walked the walk. Sometimes literally as we have pounded the pavement to raise money for AIDS research or driven in mock funerals to pay tribute to workers who have been killed or injured on job.

This community activism has also taken an educational tack wherein the firm’s attorneys teach a wide variety of Southern California’s workers—from electricians and steelworkers to grocery store clerks and deli managers—about their rights and what to do if they are injured on and off the job.    

We are dedicated to giving back by sharing knowledge, resources and time.

Experiencing the Spirit of the Season

GEKLAW paralegal Lydia Wood knows first-hand the impact of a helping hand, particularly during the holiday season. "I am the middle child in a family of seven children, and many Christmases the only toys we received were donated by the church and/or organizations such as Toys for Tots," she explains.

The impact of that generosity has a long-lasting effect, so it is no wonder that Lydia jumped at the opportunity to help her cousin, Daniel Cardenas, with the Alameda Marines' 2020 Toys for Tots Drive. "This year I felt the need more than ever to give back, not only with the generous donation of toys from GEKLAW, my friends and family, but most importantly to volunteer my time and effort."

And, effort is the operative word as a lot of work and logistics are involved to make the Toys for Tots drives work seamlessly, bringing joy and toys to so many families, foster children, those living in shelters and those living on the streets.

Lydia and Toys for Tots donations

GEKLAW paralegal Lydia Wood spent a weekend sorting, gathering and distributing gifts for the Alameda Marines' Toys for Tots drive, including gifts donated by GEKLAW.

For Lydia and her "helpers"—she enlisted the aid of her brother, Ralph Verdugo, and her sister, Carmen Medina—the hard work entailed bringing the toys she collected to one of the warehouses where the marines were diligently sorting the toys by age group. This was followed by a day of picking up other toys from various locations around Alameda. "We collected from a Starbucks, a tire store, a pizza parlor, a donut shop; the list goes on and on," she explains.  

Each week during the Toys for Tots drive, the donated toys are loaded onto the Marine's seven-ton truck and taken back to the warehouse where the sorting and distributing processes begin again. "It was amazing to see the ongoing generosity of the community, and then the sight of the Marines in their Dress Blues at the toy drop-off site was very emotional and inspiring.

"For most of the kids involved, these will be the only gifts they will receive. It is a great relief for the parents to know that their children will be taken care of during the holiday season."
The number of those children is staggering—more than 36,000 youngsters will be receiving gifts because of Toys for Tots.

"This is truly the season of giving, and I feel so fortunate to work for a law firm with partners who are so generous. GEK is known for helping injured workers, and the fact that they reached out to help needy children makes me so proud and grateful to be part of this team. The partners at GEK have big, loving and generous hearts and they truly care about the community."

Running in the Mud for a Good Cause

"Play in the dirt because life is too short to always have clean fingernails." GEKLAW legal assistant Monica Avalos and about 7,500 other runners recently took that advice to heart when they participated in the 2019 Mud Run on Camp Pendleton.

It's no easy feat. Participants can participate in a 5K or 10K course (there's even a 2K for children ages six to 12), complete with mud pools and obstacles. The latter include crawling under a camouflage net through the mud, climbing over walls and doing lunges and push-ups with Marines.

Running in the Mud for a Good Cause

GEKLAW legal assistant Monica Avalos and her son, Joshua, pose for a photo before and after the Mud Run.

"It's an amazing feeling to participate alongside Marines—young men and women who are in top physical shape who are out there cheering on us 'Average Joes,'" says Avalos. "You can see in their faces how grateful they are to have us there."

Grateful indeed, as the Mud Run helps support quality-of-life programs for Marines at Camp Pendleton.

"Supporting this run and cause is very important to me because I have many family members and friends who served or are serving in various branches of the Armed Forces," explains Avalos, who ran as part of a five-person team (including her son and two cousins) called The Mudsketeers.


The Mudsketeers in action at the 2019 Mud Run on Camp Pendleton.

The event affords the public a unique opportunity to be on one of the nation's largest Marine Corps bases. The route centers around Lake O'Neill, a relatively small part of the 125,000-acre base.

As Avalos describes the day, "Before the race it is so amazing to see the base, the Marines, the military vehicles and all the American flags. During the race, everyone is laughing and encouraging each other. The obstacles are challenging and some are downright scary."
This was the fifth time Avalos has participated in the run, and as always she says, "We finished muddy, exhausted and proud."   

Taking Steps in the Right Direction at Autism Speaks Walk

By turning your good intentions into action you can make quite a difference in this world. Which is precisely what thousands of people in Los Angeles did during the 2019 Autism Speaks Walk at the Rose Bowl. Powered by love, participants—including children and adults with autism—and their families, friends and supporters carried blue pom-poms as they walked the route. With each step, they moved closer to the goal of meeting the needs of the autism community by raising money to support innovative research that will enhance lives today and provide solutions for tomorrow.

Autism Speaks
GEKLAW attorney Alvaro Lizarraga was among the participants, walking with the contingency from Teamsters Local 630—an energetic group of adults and children, donning bright blue shirts emblazoned with stylized artwork proclaiming the need to Support Autism Awareness.  

"It was an awesome event," says Lizarraga. "Seeing people of all ages out there, supporting such a worthwhile cause was inspiring. There were moms pushing their children in strollers, dads walking with kids on their shoulders, people holding hands…. Everyone was so joyful and really into it. And, getting to share that time with my brothers and sisters from Local 630 made it that much more special for me."

Since its inception in 2005, Autism Speaks has increased global understanding and acceptance of the disorder, advanced research breakthroughs, expanded early childhood screening and intervention and improved the transition to adulthood.

"I have great respect and appreciation for families that have loved ones with autism," says Lizarraga. "You definitely need a lot of patience, and from what I saw during the walk, there is also a whole lot of love mixed in there, too."

Workers' Memorial Day—a Time of Remembrance
and a Call for Safety and Justice

Mourn for the dead, fight for the living—a sentiment (and mantra) that was front and center in the minds and hearts of those attending the 2019 Workers' Memorial Day event at LA City Hall, reckoning back to a famous quote from the late union organizer Mary Harris Jones.  

Workers, advocates, organizers, students, councilmembers, educators, clergy…  all paid respect and memorialized those who lost their lives at work. They also addressed measures that must be taken to ensure that more workers don't become another fatality statistic.   

Among those in attendance were GEKLAW Senior Attorneys Joanna Sacavitch and Erika Vargas. They, like others in the audience, listened to speakers standing behind a podium that included a symbolic casket emblazoned with 5,147 for the number workers who lost their lives in 2017 due to work.

Let that number sink in. Consider it, imagine it. What a horrible statistic, and an unnecessary one. Workers deserve the right to put in an honest day's work—a safe day at work—and then go home to enjoy their families. That, however, is not the case throughout California where countless workers lose their jobs, their dignity, their rights and possibly their lives on a daily basis.

Workers' Memorial Day 2019
One garment worker described in great detail the filthy, unsanitary, dangerous working conditions those in the industry must endure. When combined with the piecework nature of the job, they result in, among other things, a wide variety of repetitive stress issues.  

Nancy Zuniga from IDEPSCA chronicled the plight of day laborers and domestic workers during Southern California's recent wildfires, who continued to work the fields and tend to their elderly and infirm charges—without even so much as a mask—and the long-term effects of that.

Councilmember Paul Koretz called Los Angeles the "wage theft capitol of the world," and explained how, based on the reasoning behind that moniker, there is now an official wage theft office dealing with such  abuse. He and other speakers discussed the Fair Workweek Campaign designed to bring justice to those with unpredictable work schedules (such uncertainty leads to physical and emotional stress) who have to work two and three jobs in order to make enough to support their families.

"At GEKLAW we see the impact dangerous and unhealthy working conditions have on our clients who look to us for help when they're injured on the job," explains Sacavitch. "These injuries are devastating  not only to the workers, but also to their entire families. And the fact that many such injuries—and deaths—c ould be prevented if only employers would implement adequate protocol  focusing on the physical and mental well-being of their employees is not right."

Such injustice is bountiful across industries, as evidenced by memorial participants who represented garment, construction, carwash, domestic , waste, ride-share workers and many others. 

"It was a very somber event, but there was also a strong element of hope incorporated in the observance," explains Vargas. "The speakers were very impassioned about the plight of workers today, not from a victim mentality, but rather from a united one. Whether they were discussing dangerous working conditions, the 'patchwork of part time jobs,' the fight for economic, social and personal security, or the misclassification of workers in the gig economy, there was a determination behind the messages—a feeling that together we can make positive change."

And everyone left with these final words, spoken by Pastor Andrew Schwiebert:  "Amen, go in peace."

Mentoring Others Through the Stressors of Law School

Giving back, lending a helping hand, paying it forward. Those terms—and the actual follow-through of each--pack quite a punch. First-year students at Pepperdine School of Law quickly learn how powerful such selfless acts can be as they participate in the school's Preceptor Program. This invaluable learning model proves equally as impactful for the preceptors, also referred to as mentors—those who provide advice, guidance and support to the students. Just ask GEKLAW attorney Monica Fairwell

Monica Fairwell mentoring at Pepperdine University

GEKLAW attorney Monica Fairwell, center, and two Pepperdine Law School students she mentors as part of the school's Preceptor Program.

Since 2016, she has mentored six first-year law students at her alma mater, advising them on how to best succeed in law school, including drilling down into each course, providing tips for tackling exams and suggesting supplemental books that can be helpful.  She also provides insight about dealing with the stresses of law school and managing personal time.  

"I didn't have a mentor in law school, and looking back after I graduated, there were things I wish I had known when I started," she explains. "I think it is important that every new law student is prepared and confident about their law school path."

The Preceptor Program takes the purely academic context of law school and melds it with a real-life experience because the mentors share what it's like to be in the legal trenches—the world after graduation and passing the bar exam. The confidence students gain through the mentor/preceptor relationship is invaluable.

"I enjoy helping the new students find their way; I know they will join our legal communities eventually, and their path through law school can contribute to their overall success as attorneys.

"It's a great feeling knowing that you can make a difference—even a small one—in a person's life by being a mentor. It's a win-win situation in that we both come away from the experience equally fulfilled."

GEK Participates in Events Supporting Public Safety Officers

Running toward danger not away from it is what public safety officers do. Whether the peril is flames and smoke from a burning building or a shootout with an armed suspect, firefighters and police officers put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety. So it's only fitting that we support these men and women and honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. This is precisely why we at GEKLAW are proud to sponsor such events as the Run to Remember Los Angeles, the Police Unity Tour, and the Tommy Scott Memorial LAX Run, three worthy events that raise funds for fallen officers and related charities.

"We Ride for Those Who Died" is the motto of the Police Unity Tour (PUT), which has nine chapters throughout the nation; Chapter VII is the Southern California contingent.  Every May they set off on a 250-mile bike ride from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. where they join riders from across the country in a candlelight vigil at the National Law Enforcement Memorial.

Supporting Police Unity Tour Chapter VII
"We have sponsored the Chapter VII group since 2011, and are so proud to do so," says GEK co-managing partner David Goldstein. "Not only does the PUT raise awareness of law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty, but it also raises funds for the National Law Enforcement Officer's Memorial and Museum Fund so that the memories of these fallen officers will never be forgotten."

Police Unity Tour Chapter 7

GEKLAW is proud to sponsor the Police Unity Tour (Southern California Chapter) every year. Some of our attorneys attended the April 12 PUT training meeting. From left, GEK attorney Joanna Sacavitch, PUT Chapter VII president, Gil Curtis, training coach Craig White, and GEK attorneys Richard Felton and Alvaro Lizarraga.

GEK's efforts on behalf of the PUT are greatly appreciated. During the chapter's final logistics meeting before the May 2018 ride, Gil Curtis, Chapter VII president, thanked the firm. He spoke to a room full of officers and said, in part, "For our chapter, one of the greatest sponsors we have ever had is GEKLAW. They have been with us for quite some time, and every year they come through. And when I say they're with us, I mean it."

"It was wonderful to hear such words of appreciation in a room full of police officers because we understand what they put themselves through every day to protect us," says GEK partner Richard Felton. "Because we represent many officers when they get injured on the job, we know the toll such injuries take on them and their families and we see clearly their dedication to the communities they serve."

Run to Remember Los Angeles Sponsorship
Such dedication was on display at the 2018 Run to Remember Los Angeles Expo and Run. The expo crowd was a mix of runners picking up their race packets, SWAT officers, firefighters, sheriff's deputies, K-9 Bomb Squad members, and police officers. Some officers spoke with pride as they explained how they were going to run the race the next day in full duty uniform (an additional 25 pounds), carrying commemorative flags to honor those who have fallen in the line of duty.

Joanna Sacavitch and paralegal Ron Christensen at the LA Run to Remember Expo.

GEKLAW attorney Joanna Sacavitch and paralegal Ron Christensen at the LA Run to Remember Expo.

GEK co-managing partner Adam Dombchik, who participated in the 10K race, ran alongside some uniformed runners. "It was such an inspiring display of honor in remembering these heroes—the men and women who gave their lives to protect us."

For the five thousand runners, including 2,000 first responders, the mission of the event was front and center, from the abundance of Thin Blue Line flags to the memorial wall with the names of more than 200 fallen officers, everyone shared the same mindset.
For Dombchik, an avid runner who has participated in myriad races, the Run to Remember Los Angeles had special meaning. "I represent a lot of public safety officers who have been injured on the job and have gained even further respect for them because I see the dangers they face."

Run to Remember

GEKLAW co-managing partner Adam Dombchik poses for a pre-race photo at the memorial wall at the Los Angeles Run to Remember.

Running in Memory of Fallen Officer Tommy Scott

The same mindset was true for Dombchik when he participated in the annual Tommy Scott Memorial LAX Run. GEKLAW was a sponsor of the event, which honors Los Angeles Airport Police Officer Tommy Scott who died in 2005 at the age of 35, while protecting the aviation community from a man intent on crashing a vehicle into an airplane on a runway at LAX. Scott was known not only for his heroics, but also for his positive demeanor. Proceeds from the run benefit the Tommy Scott Memorial Scholarship Fund.

"The airport police community is a tightly knit one, so it makes perfect sense that they would gather each year to remember Tommy Scott, known as the 'kindest officer on the force,'" says Dombchik. "As I ran the course, I couldn't help but think of this young man whose life was cut down way too soon as he protected people on a plane. His legacy will continue not only with this annual event, but also because of the opportunities provided to others through the scholarship fund.

Tommy Scott

GEKLAW co-managing partner Adam Dombchik at the finish line of the Tommy Scott Memoria LAX Run.

"For me, these two races were much more than fun runs, with t-shirts and race medals. They were inspirational, and I was truly honored to participate."

Working Californians—A Group that Gets It Done on Labor Day and Throughout the Year

Labor Day is much more than the unofficial end of summer or an excuse to get the grill going; it's a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers.

Working Californians, a non-profit research and advocacy organization that fosters innovation, entrepreneurship, dignity and respect in the workplace, commemorates Labor Day in grand fashion with its annual Night Shift Music Festival. Over the years, these celebrations have included performances by such artists as Snoop Dogg, Pancho Sanchez, Lucinda Williams, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, Sheila E, Aaron Neville and many more. Although each year provides a unique experience for those in attendance, the thread that connects them all is the sense of community and solidarity that is at the core of the labor movement.
This is precisely why Working Californians is much more than a concert organizing group. Although the organization "proudly harnesses the power of the entertainment capital of the world," its members feel that "cultural moments and inspiring events can be just as important for the community as smart policies and programs."

Those smart policies and programs involve the following:

  • Social innovation and entrepreneurship—working with industry leaders, professionals and community organizations to develop public and private programs for working families, small businesses and those in under-served communities.
  • Economic recovery—creating opportunities for fair wages and avenues for career enhancement and longevity, in addition to safe work environments and affordable healthcare.
  • Low-income housing—working in partnership with industry and community leaders to provide homes close to public transportation, healthcare and childcare facilities as well as social services, job placement and training.

California Workers

"We are proud to be an on-going sponsor of Working Californians," says Richard Felton, a partner in the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK). "Of course, we always enjoy the Night Shift Festival, but our commitment to the group is much deeper than a wonderful music experience. Working Californians is an organization that works diligently to improve the lives of working men and women and their families through a broad range of initiatives. Such a commitment is directly in line with what we at GEK are all about—enhancing the lives of those in the communities we serve. We do it through fighting for legal justice on behalf of our clients; Working Californians do it by identifying needs, creating strategies for improvement and partnering with others to ensure those goals are met. We are fighting the good fight and will continue to do so."    

Speaking—and Walking--Powerfully About Autism

It's amazing what the power of love can accomplish. Just ask those who participate in the Autism Speaks Walk, the world's largest fundraising event that helps fuel research and increase access to care and support for those with this broad-spectrum disorder. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and relatives of people with autism were on hand once again for the 2017 walk at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Two of those participants were attorney Kelly Peterson and paralegal Fernando Lujan from the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton and Goldstein, LLP (GEK).

They walked as part of Jeremiah's Posse, supporting not only the son of one of Peterson's friends who has autism, but also in support of his whole family as his diagnosis impacts all of them.

Kelly walks for autism
"It was inspiring to see how many services and support agencies are out there to assist families with autism," she says. "There is a whole legal community that specializes in assisting children with autism in terms of getting access to education that is going to help them grow and thrive. It was clear that it's not about highlighting the unique challenges that those with autism face, but rather helping foster their strengths so they can live a life that is not defined by their diagnosis."

Autism Speaks was founded in 2005 by Bob and Suzanne Wright, grandparents of a child with autism. Since then, according to the group, "…every step and dollar raised helps our organization deliver on our commitment: to enhance lives today and accelerate a spectrum of solutions for tomorrow."

To help reach the organization's financial goals, every adult participating in the walk must meet a fundraising minimum of $40. Peterson and Lujan surpassed that minimum, and then asked the partners of GEK if the firm would match their commitment. "GEK is generous in so many ways, particularly when it comes to community involvement," says Lujan. "We weren't surprised when the partners agreed to participate in this way, and are very grateful for their generosity."

The generosity of thousands of participants resulted in more than $600,000 being raised from the walk. And even though there were so many people, there was also the mutual understanding and respect for the sensory sensibilities of those with autism. Instead of vocally cheering each other on, they were provided with pom-poms so they could express their excitement in a "sensitive" way.

You can count on Peterson and Lujan being out there again next year with sneakers on their feet and pom-poms in their hands.

GEK Helps Sponsor an Event for the Children of Farmworkers

Migrant farmworkers have been referred to by many as the "invisible workers." As fresh produce lines the shelves of our grocery stores and tables at weekly farmers' markets, most consumers take the abundance of those fruits and vegetables for granted. But such abundance is the result of the back-breaking work of those who toil in the fields…under horrible conditions for very little pay.

Such minimal financial compensation puts added stress on these workers' families, many of whom are in need of clothing, nutritious food and proper shelter. And, of course, there is always the holiday season that brings such financial hardship into greater focus when the children of farmworkers often go without what many others consider "celebratory traditions" complete with presents, sweets and games.

This is where Angels of the Fields, a Sacramento community volunteer group, really shines. Throughout the year this group sponsors camping experiences, blanket and clothing drives, etc., but for the past 15 years they have also put on the Farmworker Families Christmas Event.

GEK Sponsors Angels in the Field

More than 240 children participated in the 2016 Christmas Carnival, complete with face painting, a reindeer toss, ornament making, a pixie fairy balloon sculptor, food and drinks, and, of course, presents.

"Sometimes the kids take their present home instead of opening it there," Yolanda Chavez, one of the core group of "angels" told a reporter. "It might be the only present they get that season and they want to save it to open it on Christmas."   

The law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK) was one of the many sponsors of the 2016 festivities.  

Gek Sponsors Angels in the Field Event

"We are honored to sponsor such a worthwhile event," says GEK attorney Alvaro Lizarraga. "This group does such important work year-round. But, the holiday party is particularly special because for these kids it will probably be the only celebration they experience throughout the season. It will create wonderful memories to last a lifetime."

If you would like to learn more about Angels of the Fields, check out their Facebook page.

Focusing on Teamwork

Enhancing the lives of those we represent has been a cornerstone in the mission of the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK). Our success in doing so can be attributed in part to the concept of teamwork—partnering with our clients as we fight for justice on their behalf.

Teamwork is also key to our commitment to community outreach, and when it comes to helping out a neighborhood high school football team, such as the Dorsey High School Dons, we are able to see first-hand how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Dorsey Dons

Dorsey High School Head Football Coach Charles Mincy and GEK Attorney Kelly Peterson.

The acronym often used in team sports—T.E.A.M (together, everyone achieves more) was evident recently as Kelly Peterson, a GEK attorney, visited with the team and their head coach, Charles Mincy, to present them with a sponsorship  contribution and share a pre-game meal.

This year has been particularly difficult for the team as their headsets were stolen out of Mincy's car prior to the season. These headsets enable the coaches to communicate with the players on the field.

Without them, the team is at a strategic disadvantage. As Mincy explains, "Communication is major; making adjustments is vital. If you can't communicate with the players, you're behind the eight ball."

"Sponsorship of the Dorsey Dons, be it by helping with the headset situation or hosting a pre-game meal, has become a tradition for GEK," explains Peterson.  "We are proud to support them in their efforts on and off the field."

Academics is "a big hurdle," says Mincy. "Finding time to study and keep their grades up is not always easy. There are a lot of college coaches calling, but they're not approaching kids if they don't have the academics. It's a struggle but you just find a way. Being head coach is a major privilege that I don't take lightly. I take a minimum-nonsense approach, which seems to be working fine."

From GEK's vantage point, Mincy's guidance and collaborative spirit will positively impact these young men on and off the field.   

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.

Disability in California

Erick Mercado is proud to have earned the rank of Eagle Scout.

“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.

Disability in California

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.  

Rabbi Klein

Rabbi Jonathan Klein, Executive Director of CLUE-LA, addresses 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."

Rabbi Klein

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."

Wrapped in Hope Painting
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.

Howard Krepack

Howard Krepack enjoys some pre-spinning banter at the ALS Charity Ride at SOULCycle that his family created in his 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.

Howard Krepack

Friends and family gather outside of SOULCycle for a post-spinning photo at the Howard Krepack ALS Charity Ride.

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.) 

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