January 18, 2022
For two decades, attorney Sally Dworak-Fisher has been a passionate and persistent advocate for justice at the Public Justice Center. From the courts to the state legislature, Sally’s work advanced the rights of workers, tenants, prisoners, and homeless students. Her expertise is well-respected in Maryland and across the country, so it is fitting (although sad for us), that Sally has embarked on a new role at the National Employment Law Project. As we say thank you and farewell, we wanted to share a few ways that Sally has made an impact.
Since joining the PJC, Sally worked in nearly every PJC project. In the early years, she represented tenants in Baltimore’s eviction court and Walmart workers in a national gender discrimination lawsuit. She advocated for humane conditions in the Baltimore City Detention Center alongside the ACLU National Prison Project, representing detainees in a class action lawsuit that years later forced an overhaul of the jail’s health care system and major improvements to the facilities, including closure of the oldest facilities and new accommodations for people with disabilities. Sally also represented homeless students in a suit against the Baltimore County Public Schools, leading to a comprehensive settlement that compelled the school district to identify homeless children, immediately enroll them in school, provide transportation, meals, and other school services, and inform them of their rights. Within a few years of the lawsuit, homeless students in Baltimore County Schools showed significantly improved academic achievement.
In recent years, Sally led the PJC Workplace Justice Project’s (WJP) advocacy to combat wage theft and improve working conditions. Collaborating with co-counsel from private law firms and other legal services providers, the team has recovered millions of dollars in workers’ unpaid wages and damages and compelled employers in targeted industries to reform their pay practices. Sally’s advocacy also helped set legal precedent. In partnership with co-counsel at James & Hoffman, Sally helped obtain a landmark decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, under which employers can no longer readily skirt their responsibilities to employees through layers of subcontracting. In another case, Peters v. Early Healthcare Giver, Inc., Sally worked with PJC Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellows to secure a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that allows workers to recover treble damages for overtime violations under Maryland’s wage payment law, correcting a long line of cases from the local federal court that had misinterpreted and limited the law.
Beyond wage theft advocacy, Sally’s work lifted up Marylanders weathering challenges like illness and unemployment. In the Maryland General Assembly, Sally was a key advocate in the Working Matters coalition’s campaign to pass the Maryland Healthy Working Families Act, which established access to earned sick and safe leave for hundreds of thousands of workers. And this past summer, Sally and WJP collaborated on a lawsuit with unemployed workers, Gallagher Evelius & Jones, and UNITE HERE! Local 7 to halt Governor Larry Hogan’s attempt to cut off federal pandemic unemployment benefits early. The victory kept an estimated $1.5 billion in federal benefits flowing for approximately 200,000 unemployed Marylanders while they looked for work. Whether Sally was pushing for systemic change by representing clients or fighting in the legislature, her deep respect for low-wage workers and their right to work with dignity shone through.
In reflecting on her time at the PJC, Sally shared:
I am truly grateful to have worked with such incredible colleagues at the PJC. It is a rare gift to work with individuals whose passion, dedication, and intellect are complemented by their sense of humor, generosity, and compassion. The PJC is a unique organization where I am routinely humbled by the commitment of each person – no matter their position or background – to play their part in advancing the organizational mission of creating a just society and to do so in a way that finds hope even on the most difficult days. I have grown not only as an attorney and an advocate, but as a friend and a human being because of the relationships I’ve been fortunate to have at this wonderful organization. But it isn’t solely my relationships with PJC staff for which I am eternally grateful. I’m grateful to all our allies in this work – from other advocates to co-counsel and to our client communities. Words cannot capture my abiding respect and admiration for the many courageous clients I have had the honor of working with throughout my tenure; their strength and tenacity in times of crisis and their willingness to fight to ensure that others don’t have to is an inspiration and a constant reminder of the need to continue the struggle, together with those we represent. Bittersweet is a truly appropriate word for my feelings as I embark on the next chapter of my personal commitment to worker justice.
Sally leaves an incredible legacy at the PJC, and we are grateful to have counted her as our colleague. As Legal Director Debra Gardner writes, “It is evident on first meeting her that Sally has made using the law in pursuit of social justice and economic and racial equity her life’s work. The result of a combination of her brains and her soul, her passion comes through when she describes how workers have been cheated of their wages, testifies in Annapolis, edits an attorney’s motion, takes her son to a rally for paid sick leave, or drafts an appellate brief. Sally inspires us and so many others; her humility, even in those rarified moments of great victory, is a model for us all. The credit always belongs to someone else in her eyes. She could afford to take a little more of it for herself.” We wish Sally all the best in her next steps and look forward to her continued advocacy for workers’ rights.