Layoffs by community legal center spark controversy

LOS ANGELES — The sudden decision by one of the nation’s leading Asian American civil rights and legal services organizations to lay off 19 of its employees on Oct. 7, because of what it stated was a financial crisis, has led to protests by the staff and former employees amid accusations that the organization had targeted certain employees for termination because of their union activities.

As Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles faced a significant financial deficit, estimated for 2019 at $2 million, the nonprofit organization was motivated “to review all programs to most effectively serve” the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, the organization’s spokesperson Janelle Hu said via e-mail. 

The ultimate decision to layoff staff “was made after extensive input and analysis with staff,” she added. “While difficult, the decision was critical to helping restore the organization to financial health, position it stronger and more financially sustainable for the future, and allow it to continue the important work of advancing justice in AANHPI communities.”

Over the past several years, Advancing Justice-LA did not have the systems and processes in place “to assure long-term sustainability for its programs,” Stewart Kwoh, the organization’s co-founder, said in an e-mail. 

Accusations that union activists have been targeted for dismissal are “untrue,” Hu declared. “Efforts now and in the future to reset the organization for success will continue with respect for the Advancing Justice-LA union and our continuing commitment to the bargaining process. The board and management fully support the right of staff to organize and will continue to work in good faith with the collective bargaining unit as we have from the beginning. Any characterizations of our intentions otherwise are not true.”

Advancing Justice-LA “has a clear and comprehensive strategy in place to move our organization forward in the weeks and months ahead,” Hu stated. “Our financial health has been stabilized and we are now focusing on a fundraising campaign to rebuild our organization with the necessary systems, structures and human capital to be most effective in carrying out our mission … We have already received leadership gifts from major foundations toward this effort.”

Union Condemns Layoffs
Advancing Justice-LA members of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees stated in its Advancing Injustice blog that it “condemns in the strongest terms” the sudden layoffs of 19 staff, including all six workers in its Youth and Parent Leadership Development unit, three workers in its Asian Language Legal Intake Project, both of its workers in immigrants’ rights, both of its English as a Second Language and civics instructors, and one worker each in elder law, its Health Access Project, communications, litigation, Immigration Project, and in general administration. Advancing Justice–LA’s board and management have focused their layoff decisions “on those who spoke out most openly in defense of their colleagues and the critical work we do on behalf of low-income Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities,” the union charged, pointing to the organization’s refusal to “meaningfully consider alternatives, such as pay cuts for our highest-paid staff, furloughs, and other less-drastic measures … The board and management have willfully ignored the Union’s pleas.”

Meanwhile, contract negotiations with the union’s Collective Bargaining Unit stalled, as Advancing Justice-LA’s management cited the lack of financial clarity as reasons to delay negotiation. However, in reviewing financial documents submitted by management, AFSCME analyzed the organization’s finances and concluded that the organization is in stable financial health, with three months’ reserve in unrestricted funding. 

Staff members laid off Oct. 7 received only a single day’s notice to wrap up all their work, and the board allegedly denied requests to give people an extra few days to finish up informing clients and community members that they were let go, transferring files and work, and clearing their offices, AsAm News reported. A former staffer said people were locked out of their e-mails promptly at 5 p.m, and private security guards ensured that the employees left the building. 

“We are deeply saddened to see this conduct take place, at an organization with a robust history of supporting workers’ rights and progressive causes,” Advancing Injustice stated on their blog. The union asked for the public’s support as it fights “for the hardworking Advancing Justice-LA employees that, day in and day out, provide vital legal services to Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, immigrant, and indigent communities.”

Management’s lack of action in addressing staff health and safety concerns due to faulty air conditioning resulted in unionization, according to the union’s blog. The union was formally recognized in 2018, but more than a year later, no contract has been signed that would protect union members.

The union has several clear goals they hope to achieve: a signed contract after bargaining with management, reinstatement for the most vulnerable individuals of the mass layoff, and fair severance packages. 

At its 36th anniversary dinner held Oct. 17, Advancing Justice-LA was scheduled to honor activist students with an award for supporting race-conscious admissions in the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit. However, in support of the union, the students rejected the award and condemned the board and management.

Freed Thai Workers
Founded in 1983 as the Asian Pacific American Legal Center by Kwoh and others, Advancing Justice-LA now serves more than 15,000 individuals and organizations annually. Through direct services, impact legislation, policy advocacy, leadership development, and capacity building, Advancing Justice-LA focuses on the most vulnerable members of Asian American and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities while also building a strong voice for civil rights and social justice.  

Advancing Justice-LA, an important resource for limited-English speakers in need of legal assistance, serves its clients in numerous languages: Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, Khmer, Indonesian, Tagalog and Vietnamese, along with English and Spanish.

The organization also advocates through the courts and legislature on many issues, including: voting rights, workers’ rights, immigration, domestic violence, race discrimination, and language rights. Advancing Justice-LA is also noted for its work in hate crimes prevention, race relations, and alliance with the LGBTQ community.

Advancing Justice-LA has approximately 70-plus employees, in addition to other long-serving volunteers, including its board of directors, Hu said. “While a few of the employee positions are tied to a contract that ends in Dec. 2019, Advancing Justice-LA is also looking to hire in areas requiring specialty skills.”

“In terms of morale, with the support of capacity-building investments from a major funder, we have begun the process of moving forward with staff by engaging a high-caliber team-building, conflict resolution and culture-change consultant,” Hu added. 

In 1995, Advancing Justice-LA served as the lead counsel in a groundbreaking federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of 80 Thai garment workers who had been trafficked into the United States, held illegally, and forced to work behind barbed wire and under armed guard in an apartment complex in El Monte, Calif. The organization worked with advocacy groups in Los Angeles to gain the release of all the workers and eventually led to the successful workers’ rights lawsuit against the manufacturers and retailers responsible for the sweatshop conditions. 

During Kwoh’s three-decades-plus tenure at Advancing Justice-LA, the organization also helped Vincent Chin’s mother with her campaign for a federal hate crime prosecution against the killers of her son, created a program helping to heal the communities during and after the L.A. riots, helped Joseph Ileto’s family navigate the legal case after he was killed by a white supremacist gunman in 1999, fought to expand health coverage for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders through Obamacare from 2010 until today, plus many other accomplishments.

Advancing Justice-LA has been “a force in the community for the last 36 years, and plans to be in the decades ahead. The cases and programs that Advancing Justice-LA staff is working on are moving forward,” Kwoh added. “Please know that I remain deeply committed to the organization, and will continue to be engaged with fundraising and high-level support in the months and years ahead,” Kwoh announced. “The organization has always been like a family to me since the day I co-founded it … While I will continue to be involved and deeply supportive of its mission in the community, my focus now needs to be on my health and my wife’s health. For this reason, I’ve handed off spokesperson responsibilities to others at Advancing Justice-LA.”

As Kwoh fully transitions from his day-to-day leadership duties, the Advancing Justice-LA board of directors has launched a search for a new CEO “to lead and shape the next chapter of Advancing Justice-LA in the years ahead,” the organization revealed.

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