Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan (FLS) is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm that provides free civil legal services to indigent migrant and seasonal farmworkers throughout the state of Michigan. From its offices in Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor, FLS provides access to legal services to the approximately 90,000 eligible farmworkers and dependents throughout Michigan.
Farm work is the second most dangerous occupation in the United States; the average farmworker has a life expectancy of less than 50 years. The average farmworker earns less than $15,000 per year, and the average family income is less than $20,000. In addition to poverty, other unique barriers prevent this population from accessing needed resources:
- Communication difficulties. Michigan farmworkers are predominantly Spanish-speakers in an overwhelmingly English-speaking environment.
- Geographic isolation. The homes and work sites of this population are usually scattered throughout remote, rural locations.
- Transience. Farmworkers must continually move from place to place to follow the crops.
- Lack of education. Continuous migration patterns interfere with long-term education. The average level of completed education is eighth grade.
- Cultural insensitivity. The vast majority of Michigan's farmworkers are of Latino descent, with other minorities represented. They must often confront cultural and racial stereotyping and other trust-inhibiting treatment.
The legal problems that farmworkers confront include:
- Failure to be paid minimum wage for their work, or not being paid at all
- Recruitment abuses and unexpected changes in the employment contract
- Substandard health and safety conditions in the migrant labor camps
- Inadequate workplace sanitation (toilets, drinking water, and hand-washing facilities in the fields)
- Confusion about immigration status, immigration laws, and governmental procedures
- Denial of equal access to public benefits, services, and accommodations
Who We Are
Farmworker Legal Services is the largest migrant legal services program in the Midwest. FLS is a four-attorney law office, with a legal assistant, a community advocate, and 4 to 6 summer staff each year. All staff is bilingual.
FLS is a division of the Michigan Advocacy Program (MAP), formerly Legal Services of South Central Michigan, which also serves low-income clients from five field offices in southern and central Michigan.
Each summer FLS participates in a three-day Farmworker Law Training, which will be held in Ohio in 2018. Since 2001, the training has been a regional training attended by staff of migrant legal services programs from Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The training is typically held during the last week of May, and FLS hosts the training every 2-3 years. The training agenda is designed mainly for summer staff, and it includes an overview of the substantive legal issues most commonly encountered by migrant legal services staff, as well as issue-spotting exercises and mock client interviews. Summer staff is also instructed in conducting outreach at migrant labor camps and in how to collaborate with other migrant service agencies in the state and in the region. In addition, FLS will hold its own in-house training, designed to familiarize the summer staff with the FLS intake process, office personnel, equipment, and office procedures.
Summer Staff Expectations
Each summer, FLS hires law students (Summer Law Clerks) and interns. Summer Staff can expect a highly educational, challenging, and rewarding summer experience as they work with Michigan's migrant population to help resolve their legal issues. FLS summer staff have a great deal of responsibility and are held to a high standard of professional conduct and ability. Summer staff are considered members of the legal staff and perform work that FLS attorneys and other full-time staff would normally handle. Their general responsibilities consist of client intake, case support, and community outreach. Most summer staff are based in the Kalamazoo office; the Ann Arbor office can accommodate one intern.
Summer staff are given assignments that are supervised by the attorneys and other full-time staff, with Summer Law Clerks focusing more on legal work than other interns. Case work generally involves interviewing clients, completing intake forms, analyzing each client's legal problem, and providing legal advice. These responsibilities will include supporting the attorney through fact investigation, document preparation, legal research and writing, negotiations with adverse parties, and litigation preparation and support. Summer staff will be expected to communicate with clients orally and through letters in English and Spanish in order to explain the client’s legal situation. Additionally, they will learn about other agencies in Michigan that serve the migrant population, and will refer our clients to these agencies when they require assistance outside of our services.
Summer staff are also key components of our outreach efforts to reach migrant farmworkers at their labor camps throughout the state of Michigan. Outreach involves driving to camps, informing workers about their rights, passing out FLS' informational calendar, talking with farmworkers about their living and working situation, and completing intakes regarding any legal problems workers may be experiencing. Outreach is one of the main ways that FLS gets in contact with farmworkers, so having this face-to-face interaction is a vital part of the summer staff's role. Summer staff can expect to do camp outreach an average of two evenings per week, in addition to occasional weekend outreach events.
Summer staff will also give Community Legal Education (CLE) presentations in English and Spanish to client groups about their legal rights, which may include drafting educational materials for clients. In the past, these sorts of events have included giving presentations at parent meetings at local schools and migrant Head Start centers, attending Migrant Resource Council meetings, tabling at the annual Farmworker Appreciation Day events, and presenting at Parent Advisory Council events. Summer staff will learn to speak in an educated and effective way about farmworker rights, and they will learn to provide the relevant and necessary information at these meetings.
FLS' attorneys have an open-door policy, permitting any member of the legal staff, including the summer staff, access at almost any time to discuss cases or other issues. In addition to this daily hands-on supervision, summer staff will attend weekly case review meetings during which all members of the legal staff report on current projects, exchange information, and brainstorm about their cases. The office also maintains a collegial atmosphere in which all members of the staff are free to seek input on their cases and projects from any other member of the staff.
For more information about FLS or legal services in Michigan, visit www.FarmworkerLaw.org, www.facebook.com/farmworkerLaw, or www.mplp.org. FLS' website contains information about cases and issues that we have been working on recently. FLS can also be contacted by email at email@example.com.