The Washtenaw County District Attorney’s Office announced a new Economic Justice Unit which will focus on wage theft, employee misclassification, labor trafficking, and consumer scams and fraud.
The public rights grant will fund the unit for two years, which means it is not permanent at this time, according to Washtenaw County District Attorney Eli Savit.
“I hope and expect that over the initial two-year period this new unit will demonstrate its value and that we will be at a point where we can have conversations about how to make the unit permanently or maintain her job in some way after the first two one-year periods,” Savit said.
Todd Pierce-Ryan is the sole member and leader of the unit. He is the Public Rights Fellow placed in Washtenaw County. The Public Rights Fellowship places lawyers in government law firms for two years “to work on a range of civil rights, economic justice and environmental justice issues that directly impact vulnerable populations locally and in all the countries”.
Savit said the unit is “integrated into the day-to-day running” of the office. He said Pierce-Ryan is working with other attorneys and units on some cases and plans to assign cross-lawyers to cases relating to the economic justice unit.
“Having an employer, for example, steal money from you or a fraudster stealing money from a consumer is something that absolutely needs to be addressed,” Savit said. “And quite often a lot of these crimes and wrongdoings end up targeting some of the most vulnerable people in our community. So when we focus on economic harm, it’s really only part of our desire to focus on all types of harm in the community and to hold those who commit it accountable.
Bridgette Carr is the founding director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic, one of many collaborating groups. She said local and state governments often view labor trafficking cases as work for the federal level.
“I hope this unit can be a model for other units nationwide to say this is how you at the local level can really serve survivors of labor trafficking,” Carr said. .
Carr said there is no good data available on the prevalence of sex or labor trafficking at the local, state and national level. But she said one of the biggest barriers facing victims of labor trafficking is that many don’t believe it’s happening in their own community.
“For us to truly recognize labor trafficking, it means people like you and I need to recognize that many of the goods and services we buy and live on (and depend on) are created through to an exploited workforce,” Carr said. “It’s not a comfortable feeling. I think that’s why most people are more comfortable talking about sex trafficking, because people think “I’m not buying sex so I’m not involved”. But the reality is that (we) create demand. We demand goods and services created by an exploited workforce.
Carr and Savit were unaware of similar units in prosecutor’s offices across the state.
“This unit is really saying, let’s put the spotlight on economic exploitation,” Carr said. “And we’re going to use every tool in our toolbox to try to help people who are experiencing this harm.”