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This app helps workers in the US claim back lost wages

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This app helps workers in the US claim back lost wages

This app helps workers in the US claim back lost wages

Rodrigo Camarena sees it this way: If you can use your smartphone to order transport services and food, why shouldn’t it also help you to exercise your rights? His non-profit innovation incubator Justicia Lab has developed the new web app Reclamo to help legal and undocumented migrant workers when they are victims of wage theft. By clicking through questions in English or Spanish with the help of a lawyer, users can gather details about their case, review their rights and finally formulate ready-made legal claims that can be filed immediately. A process that would otherwise require multiple meetings with a lawyer can now be completed in under an hour.


The tool launched as a beta test in New York last October, focusing on construction, a sector particularly vulnerable to abuse. It has already contributed to $1 million in lost wages claims. In mid-May, the app was expanded to give workers in businesses from manufacturing to home cleaning more leverage over their employers.

“By creating an independent, not-for-profit digital legal tool that can be shared by all advocates, we ensure a truly level playing field for people who are typically used to having technology used against them,” says Camarena.

Wage theft means employers cut overtime, regular wages, or sometimes simply not pay at all. According to the Economic Policy Institute, this costs workers in the United States around $50 billion a year. Many overburdened prosecutors often fail to prosecute these cases. A significant portion of this theft hits both legal and undocumented immigrants, in part due to communication barriers and their perceived lack of power or legal remedies.

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Reclamo does not collect information about immigration as it is irrelevant for this purpose. Both the federal Fair Labor Act and many state laws provide that undocumented immigrants, who make up a significant portion of the affected population, are entitled to the same protections as any other worker.

The precarious situation these workers find themselves in is no coincidence, says Michelle Franco. The Ohio State University professor of Mexican descent addresses issues of heritage and class in landscape architecture, an industry that relies heavily on immigrant labor. “The actual profits and functioning of these industries depend entirely on this precariousness,” she says.


Reclamo grew out of frustration with the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants. After encountering articles about wage theft in 2017, Justicia’s staff realized there were other ways to help. User testing, interviews with community organizers and workers, and other research helped develop the app’s form and function.

Workers access the web app at a resource center or community organizer so someone is there to help with follow-up and provide additional legal advice. The end result of the process includes both a legal claim and a letter to the employer, which has proven to be the quickest way to get money back.

Rodman Serrano, a community organizer for Make the Road New York, a Long Island immigrant group, has been using Reclamo since earlier this year and has already received confirmation that cases are being reviewed. Previously, he says, it was difficult for disadvantaged workers to find time outside of work to meet with lawyers, call hotlines or find the right officials. Immigrant construction workers face so many economic problems — including low wages, high rent and medical bills, and limited job opportunities for the undocumented — that any loss of income can be devastating.

Those filing claims through Reclamo now have a chance to get some legal protection in the immigration system and help recover their wages. In January, US President Biden’s administration declared that non-citizens involved in labor disputes are eligible for a deferral, which temporarily protects them from deportation.

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By giving workers the ability to file grievances and seek legal assistance without an attorney, the app fills a significant societal gap: 92 percent of low-income Americans do not receive adequate legal assistance on civil matters.

But the app is also part of a push for alternative legal services that has some lawyers worried about their role and ultimately their jobs. The so-called “Access to Justice” movement aims to help ordinary people get legal help without having to find, book and pay for a lawyer. Courts in Alaska and New York have already ruled that paralegals, students, advocacy groups and the unlawful can provide certain services that previously required attorneys — which are expensive and scarce. Some see artificial intelligence (AI) and chatbots, with their ever-evolving ability to hold complex conversations, as another way to expand legal services. Lawyers and activists want to use these techniques to conduct intake interviews and gather information.

Camarena hopes that Reclamo will eventually make legal aid more mundane and free up overworked attorneys to focus on complicated lawsuits and class action lawsuits. He also believes the data Reclamo will collect can help identify repeat offenders, influence policymakers and eventually become a training kit for more advanced technologies to expand the app’s reach.

“We will fill that gap [beim Zugang zu Rechtshilfe] cannot conclude unless we think beyond traditional service delivery models,” says Camarena. “There’s no reason why we can’t train an AI with the logic we’ve developed.”


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