Ana de Alba, who grew up working on farms west of Fresno alongside her parents, starkly recalls the time her mother was stiffed out of pay for a whole summer's work. "She was crying in the bathroom, and she thought we didn't know," says attorney de Alba, a two-time UC Berkeley grad. "I remember her being so upset and me thinking, 'How unfair.' "
Her mother didn't learn she'd been overheard until two years ago, when de Alba was practicing her speech to accept the Opening Doors to Justice award from OneJustice. Her mother apologized profusely, but de Alba doesn't see any need: "She cleared the path for my career choice."
During law school de Alba volunteered at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center's Workers' Rights Clinics, and with guidance from director Michael T. Gaitley - and translation and publicity help from the Mexican consulate - she helped start a workers' rights clinic in Fresno in late 2011. The monthly clinic, a collaboration of Central California Legal Services, the Legal Aid Society, and Lang, Richert & Patch, served more than 200 people in its first 18 months. Volunteers advise claimants about their rights and how to fill out paperwork, and Gaitley refers them for formal representation if needed.
Many workers fear they'll lose their jobs if they assert their rights, and even legal immigrants often believe they'll be deported. One woman was so thrilled at winning $1,200 in overdue unemployment insurance after visiting the clinic that she donated $300 of her payout to cover one evening's clinic.
De Alba says the Lang firm - where she has practiced employment and commercial law since graduating from Berkeley Law in 2007 - was the first one in the Central Valley to sign on when California's then-Chief Justice Ronald M. George called in 2010 for pro bono help addressing the region's disproportionately unmet civil legal needs.
And she's not stopping with the single clinic. Transportation is a major challenge for low-income people throughout the valley, so de Alba hopes to start a mobile clinic that would visit Visalia, Bakersfield, and beyond. And maybe a virtual clinic after that.