Legal Aid at Work has provided crucial free legal services to low-income people for more than a century. The first organization of its kind in the West, Legal Aid at Work launched in 1916 as the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco with funding from local attorneys and support from Archbishop Edward J. Hanna, Phoebe A. Hearst, and the state’s Commission of Immigration and Housing.
“Free medical clinics are an accepted fact and a necessity,” the organization’s early directors wrote. “From the standpoint of society, the free legal clinic is just as necessary.”
Here’s an overview of our history.
The early years
New residents were flowing into the Bay Area from across the country and around the world. By early 1917, we had served 242 people, representing about 10 percent in court proceedings and providing legal information and advice to the rest. By 1926, we were serving 900 clients per year, and the caseload soared during the Great Depression.
During World War II, many returning American troops arrived in San Francisco. Our caseload grew especially fast after Mayor Angelo Rossi asked the organization to help veterans integrate back into work and life at home. By 1943, we had helped 64,403 clients and their families, who faced everything from eviction and criminal charges to child support disputes and consumer fraud.
We continued to offer general legal services through the 1960s, and in 1967, we won one of the first federal grants to provide free legal services to indigent criminal defendants.
As the field of public interest law began expanding, Legal Aid at Work shifted its focus to the workplace. We began fighting discrimination and breaking down barriers to women and minorities under then-new Title VII, the section of the Civil Rights Act barring employment discrimination. One early case contended that major San Francisco hotels discriminated on the basis of race in hiring, promoting, and transferring waiters; another concerned hiring at a regional department store.
We and other leading Bay Area legal nonprofits settled a major class action on behalf of women and people of color who had been denied jobs and promotions by the San Francisco Fire Department. The resulting consent decree, in effect until 1997, transformed the department.
As AIDS cut a devastating gash across San Francisco, rulings in several of our cases established AIDS and HIV status as a disability protected by state employment laws and the federal Rehabilitation Act.
With former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin, we started the Workers’ Rights Clinic at UC Hastings to help low-income workers fight employment-related injustice. The clinic has since expanded statewide — to the Sacramento area, Berkeley, East Palo Alto, Watsonville, Fresno, Santa Ana, and San Diego. It serves more than 2,500 people per year. We also now run separate wage and disability rights clinics.
With colleagues, we successfully challenged discriminatory “fetal protection” policies that required women applying for jobs to prove they could not bear children and English-language proficiency requirements for workplaces and insurance coverage.
With co-counsel, we won a classwide judgment (upheld in 2016) against San Francisco’s major taxi companies that their thousands of drivers were entitled to workers compensation and unemployment insurance.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, we won a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that a leave is a type of “reasonable accommodation” that employers must make.
Legal Aid at Work and its co-counsel negotiated a settlement expanding services and accommodations for UC Berkeley and UC Davis students who are deaf or hearing-impaired. And we reached a landmark stipulated judgment requiring that San Francisco public schools, programs, and related facilities be physically accessible for students and adults with mobility and visual impairments.
We also started taking on more wage protection cases. We secured back wages for a 71-year-old housekeeper and nanny who had worked 80 hours a week without breaks or overtime pay.
We won multiple federal rulings that set national precedents in protecting undocumented workers from retaliation and other forms of employer intimidation.
The 2010s and into the Future
We won a California Supreme Court ruling affirming both that undocumented victims of discrimination may vindicate their rights in court and that they are entitled to remedies for discrimination.
Representing female athletes in a low-income, largely Latino community, Legal Aid at Work and our co-counsel won a unanimous Ninth Circuit ruling, affirming our trial court victory, that the school district violated Title IX in sports programs and facilities, leading districts statewide to start improving equity. We will continue to monitor the district’s compliance until 2024, and we have continued to bring such cases across California.
We won a U.S. District Court ruling that the state of California illegally discriminated against a Latino U.S. citizen job applicant when it refused to hire him for the sole reason that while he was undocumented, he had used an invalid Social Security number to work.
We cosponsored several important enhancements to city and state laws regarding paid leave. San Francisco’s adoption in 2016 of the nation’s first law requiring fully paid parental leave — an ordinance that we helped draft — put us at the forefront of one of the pressing issues of our time.