As Rodrigo Camarena sees it, you can hail a car and order food on your smartphone; why shouldn’t it also help you exercise your rights?
Reclamo, a new web app created by Justicia Lab, the nonprofit innovation incubator that Camarena directs, helps documented and undocumented immigrant workers who have experienced wage theft. By clicking through questions in English or Spanish with the help of a worker advocate, users can assemble case details, review their rights, and ultimately produce finished legal claims that can be filed instantly. A process that would otherwise take multiple meetings with an attorney can now be done within an hour.
The tool launched last October with beta testing in New York that focused on the construction industry, a sector identified as particularly rife with abuse, and helped recover $1 million in lost wages—more than double what it cost to build. In mid-May, it was expanded in a bid to give workers in businesses from manufacturing to housecleaning more leverage with their employers.
“By building an independent, nonprofit, digital legal tool for advocates to share and use together, we’re really leveling the playing field for folks that are typically used to technology being used against them,” Camarena says.
Wage theft—in which employers skimp on overtime or regular pay, and sometimes simply fail to pay at all—costs US workers approximately $50 billion annually, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Overburdened government attorneys often fail to prosecute it. A significant amount of this theft targets immigrants, both legal and undocumented, in part because of communication barriers and their perceived lack of power or legal recourse. Reclamo doesn’t collect immigration information, because it’s irrelevant for its purposes: both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and laws in many states say that undocumented immigrants, who make up a substantial portion of the affected population, can claim the same protections as any other worker.
The precarious situation these workers face is not just coincidental, says Michelle Franco, an Ohio State professor with Mexican roots who studies issues of race and class in landscape architecture, a business that relies heavily on immigrant labor. “The actual profits and the functionality of these industries is completely dependent on that precarity,” she says.
Reclamo evolved out of frustrations over the treatment of immigrants during the Trump administration. Justicia staff couldn’t create tech to change federal laws, but after coming across articles on wage theft in 2017, they realized there were other ways to help. Rounds of user testing, interviews with community justice organizers and workers, and other research helped shape the app’s form and function. Workers access the web app at a resource center or with a community organizer, so there’s someone to help with follow-up and offer additional legal guidance. The final results of the process include both a legal claim and a letter to send employers, which has been found to be the fastest way to recover money.
Rodman Serrano, a community organizer for Make the Road New York, an immigrant services group on Long Island, started using Reclamo earlier this year and has already received confirmation that cases are being reviewed. Before, he says, it was difficult for mistreated workers to find time away from work to meet with lawyers, call hotlines, or identify the right government officials to contact. Immigrant construction workers face so many economic challenges—including low wages, high rent and medical bills, and limited job options for those without documentation—that any missed income can be devastating.
Now those filing claims via Reclamo stand to gain some legal protection in the immigration system as well as help with recovering their pay. In January, the Biden administration declared that noncitizens involved in labor disputes will be eligible for deferred action, temporarily protecting them from deportation.
By empowering everyday workers to file complaints and access legal help without a lawyer, the app addresses a significant societal gap: 92% of low-income Americans don’t receive adequate legal help for civil matters. It’s also part of a push for alternative legal services that has some in the legal world feeling anxious about their roles and, ultimately, their jobs.
The so-called access to justice movement aims to help average citizens get legal aid without the need to find, book, and pay a lawyer. Courts in Alaska and New York have ruled that paralegals, students, advocacy groups, and people without law degrees can provide certain services that used to require attorneys, which are expensive and in short supply. Some view AI and chatbots, with their ever-evolving ability to handle complex conversations, as another route to expanding legal services; advocates and activists want to harness this technology to handle intake interviews and collect information.
Camarena hopes Reclamo ultimately makes legal aid more commonplace and frees up overburdened lawyers to focus on complicated suits and class actions. He also believes that the data Reclamo will gather can help target repeat offenders, influence policymakers, and eventually become a training set for more advanced technology, expanding the app’s reach.
“We’re not going to meet that gap [in legal access] unless we think outside of the traditional service models,” he says. “There’s no reason why we can’t train an AI on the logic we’ve created.”