Volunteer Spotlight: Rico Headley-Soto

Richard “Rico” Headley-Soto is a regular at the Committee’s Workers’ Rights Clinic, where he has been volunteering for just about two years. He comes to Clinic almost every week and is highly valued for his legal acumen, Spanish language skills, computer savviness, and welcoming laugh. Rico was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Cambridge MA, moved to Washington DC for college, and has been here ever since. He has worked for Georgetown University for the last 11 years, including the time he spent studying for a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree. Rico shared with us why he volunteers at Clinic and what challenges he sees when advising immigrant workers. 

rico soto editedWhy do you volunteer at the Workers’ Rights Clinic?

In general, I think it’s important to give back to one’s community. In particular, there were a number of reasons I chose to volunteer at the Worker’s Rights Clinic. I’ve seen personally (working in the restaurant industry for nearly 10 years) how workers can be mistreated or taken advantage of, in particular due to their immigration status or language barrier. I also knew from my studies how the employment-at-will doctrine exacerbates the imbalance of power between workers and their supervisors and employers. Finally, I appreciated how well-run the Workers’ Rights Clinic operation was, and the fact that it gave me the opportunity to volunteer on a weekly basis. My favorite thing about clinic is meeting new clients, and seeing how appreciative they are that someone took the time to listen to their issues and sympathize with them, even when at times we are unable to help with their issue.

What are some of the unique challenges of helping immigrant workers with their employment problems?

From my perspective, it’s tough to often find that social safety nets (like unemployment benefits) or other protections for workers (like the ability to recover their employment or back-pay in retaliation suits) are unavailable to undocumented workers. Add that to the fact that many undocumented workers don’t feel comfortable pursuing the rights that they do have (like the right to the minimum wage and worker’s compensation), for fear of retaliation, and it makes for a lot of disappointing outcomes. From the clients’ perspective, though, most of our undocumented clients are so used to being marginalized that they’re unsurprised when there’s little help we can offer. On the other hand, clients from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean who are working legally often come from cultures that place a higher value on workers’ dignity. So they are disappointed to find that they can be mistreated or fired for nearly any reason, because the employment-at-will doctrine, and the difficulty of proving workplace discrimination, harassment, or intentional infliction of emotional distress.

At Clinic, Committee staff and volunteers educate workers on their rights, provide them with advice and legal options, and empower them to get involved in advocacy efforts to improve the laws. Clinic also serves as an opportunity for experiential learning for law students and attorneys who want direct client interaction and to learn about local employment laws. For more information about Clinic and how to join our wonderful team of volunteers like Rico, visit http://www.washlaw.org/get-involved

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