Reena Arora is the Workers’ Rights Attorney for the Empire Justice Center and is based in Westchester County. She coordinates the Wage Justice Project, which seeks to empower low‐wage immigrant workers to fight wage theft and workplace exploitation by using grassroots organizing and education, individual representation, and bottom‐up policy reform. Arora was an associate and the New York University (NYU) Public Interest Fellow at the plaintiff-side employment law firm Outten & Golden LLP. She worked as a legal services attorney in the Washington, D.C., area where she represented Asian immigrant women who were survivors of domestic violence. After law school, she spent several years working in northern Thailand with the MAP Foundation on the protection of the rights of migrant workers from Burma. Arora received her B.A. Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her J.D. from NYU School of Law, where she received the Eric Dean Bender Prize, the Vanderbilt Medal, and the national Equal Justice Works Exemplary Public Service Award.
Describe a typical day (if there is such a thing) in your job.
A typical day is hard to describe! I often spend half my day at one of the workers’ centers I partner with throughout Westchester County performing intake, meeting with current clients, or collaborating with organizers on community education and campaigns. Otherwise I’m working at my office on litigation assignments, at coalition meetings in the city for policy advocacy and low-wage worker continuing legal education programs, or out for a court appearance. Every day is vastly different and requires a lot of advanced planning.
We’ve published several articles this year on employment law and low-wage workers—your area of expertise. What’s the biggest issue you are seeing with your clients?
It really drove home to me how important it is for clients to take the lead and to involve organizers when, as attorneys, we can be too risk-averse.
My work primarily is on recuperating unpaid wages, enforcing violations of minimum wage and overtime, as well as other wage and retaliation protections under New York labor law. My clients are from the Latino community, are largely undocumented, and work as day laborers, restaurant workers, and domestic workers. The biggest problem I deal with on a day-to-day basis is the unwillingness of employers to engage in the legal process, whether it’s by returning my demand letters to sender or refusing to respond to filed cases and defaulting. After taking the time and courage to stand up for their rights, the workers are unable to collect on issued judgments—which means winning for my clients through the legal process but them never seeing the money they are actually owed.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
I would high-five my beloved former and deceased law professor Derrick Bell, and we indeed would often high-five each other around the law school when I was a student. I choose Derrick Bell because of his transformation of legal thought through critical race studies and his amazing support in my development as a lawyer, where he always celebrated my fierce advocacy and activism (and, as he said, the rebel within me).
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
I had a client who was subject to a hostile working environment because of his HIV-positive status, and he also had wage-and-hour claims against a very small employer. It was an extraordinarily challenging case to ensure we would receive payment through a negotiated settlement, but the persistence of the organizer and the client advocating himself helped me think creatively for solutions and win him an excellent result. It really drove home to me how important it is for clients to take the lead and to involve organizers when, as attorneys, we can be too risk-averse.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
There are too many to possibly share! I love watching telenovelas; initially I watched them to help improve my Spanish, but then I became addicted to the plots and characters of the shows. That and Swiss Miss hot chocolate in the wintertime. I actually prefer it to high-end hot chocolates!