Up to the challenge: Law/public policy student battles economic injustice

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Volunteering as a labor organizer in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Emma Waitzman helped workers fight for better conditions—and the experience intensified her concern about wealth inequality.

“Hotel workers were forced to fold towels in overheated laundry rooms, sometimes to the point of passing out, others skipped lunch breaks and stayed overtime without compensation to meet unreasonable room-cleaning quotas,” says Waitzman, who was then an undergraduate at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and co-president of the Student Labor Action Project.

“I was inspired by those who risked their jobs to speak up, despite the fact that many had children, some were on public assistance, and most people knew someone who had lost their home and was struggling to find work on the temporary labor market.”

Waitzman, a sociology major who spent a year as a legal intake intern for the ACLU, also conducted undergraduate research in Reading, Pa.—dubbed the poorest city in the nation at the time—where she encountered acute impacts of the financial crisis.

“I worked on the line at a chicken factory and interviewed other line-workers. Some of the workers who were undocumented had the courage to fight in court for unpaid overtime wages, which were substantial given a 12-hour workday was not uncommon. The factory shut down without notice while I was there, leaving over 300 people suddenly unemployed.” she says. “I also spoke with officials at local aid centers. Many explained that the city lacked long-term opportunities, which fueled a continuous cycle of short-term residents and economic instability.

“I was struck by the disproportionate impact of the crisis on those at the bottom, while those at the top—including many who had engaged in predatory behavior—emerged virtually unharmed. It became my objective to hold corporations accountable and to ensure a level playing field where marginalized groups could fight for basic rights.”

Waitzman carried that passion for justice to the University of Michigan Law School, where she is now in her 3L year doing a dual law degree and a master’s degree at the Ford School of Public Policy—and plans to pursue a career as an advocate for economic justice.

She co-founded the Consumer Advocacy and Financial Regulation Organization (CAFRO) with a couple of classmates. The group, which has grown considerably since its inception, writes memos on proposed rules in the federal register, hosts events on financial issues, and presents research in academic conferences. Waitzman is also a researcher for the Center on Finance Law and Policy (CFLP) at the Ford School.

Recipient of a Dean’s Public Interest Law scholarship, this summer Waitzman will work in the criminal appeals section of the Attorney General’s Office in San Francisco, writing appeals briefs, arguing in court, and learning more about state and local politics.

She spent her 1L summer interning at the division of enforcement at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission in New York City; and last summer interned in the enforcement office of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in the nation’s capital.

Waitzman, who is a member of the U-M President’s Advisory Committee on Labor Standards and Human Rights (PACLSHR), is impressed by her experiences at MLaw, where she also participated in the Campbell Moot Court Competition and in her 1L year volunteered for the Environmental Crimes Project.

“The students, professors, and staff show unwavering dedication to diverse paths, while at the same time providing profound support to one another and making time to celebrate life beyond the law,” she says. “I’m very fortunate to be part of this community.” 

A political cartoonist for the college newspaper in undergrad, and a research intern for Ralph Nader’s “Time for a Raise” campaign, she remains active in local and national politics, making sure to vote and attend rallies––including the protest at DTW airport against the “Muslim Ban,” and Women’s Day in Ann Arbor, among others.

Originally from Berkeley, Calif., Waitzman grew up in Salt Lake City, where her father is a professor of health economics at the University of Utah and her mother, who has since moved back to California, was a clinical social worker. After graduation, she plans to return to the Golden State, where her mother and stepfather live, and where her sister taught elementary school.

During her 2L year, when Waitzman ran the Detroit marathon with a law school friend, she was cheered along the way by classmates waving signs.

“I was grateful for the support because it was my first marathon,” she says. “Later I ran the Fort Wayne half marathon with a couple of classmates, including one who is a Fort Wayne native.”

“I enjoy baking and am currently attempting the art of bread-making. I also love to draw—sometimes I doodle cartoons in the margins of my class notes of some of the quirkier court cases.”

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