Tsedeye Gebreselassie ’07 works to raise the minimum wage and protect workers’ rights

In late March, fast food giant McDonald’s announced that it would no longer lobby against minimum-wage increases at any level: federal, state, or local. The decision came with seven states already set to raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025 or earlier. 

“It shows that a $15 minimal wage has been normalized,” Tsedeye Gebreselassie ’07, director of work quality at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), said of McDonald’s decision in an interview with the New York Times

Tsedeye Gebreselassie
Tsedeye Gebreselassie '07

The shift in business and governmental priorities that made a higher minimum wage unextraordinary is in part due to Gebreselassie’s advocacy over the last decade. At NELP, Gebreselassie researches, develops, and promotes policies—such as an increased minimum wage—to raise job standards and workplace protections, and she works with community organizations, unions, and other grassroots groups who are advocating for those policies. 

“We provide a lot of technical assistance, legal and other support to campaigns to raise the minimum wage across the country and defend good worker laws that are under attack,” Gebreselassie says. “That’s kind of my ongoing bread-and-butter work.” Gebreselassie has worked with dozens of state and local minimum wage campaigns over the past decade, including many of the campaigns spearheaded by the Fight for $15 fast food worker movement, a campaign to increase the minimum wages in the fast food industry. 

Gebreselassie got her start in the field of labor rights as an organizer with the Working Families Party, which was working on a campaign to raise New York’s minimum wage: In 2004, it was $5.15 per hour. “That [work] has kind of never stopped, I guess,” Gebreselassie says. Working on that campaign, she adds, “was exhausting and I think made me realize that I could go to law school and use legal skills to engage in some of the same battles I was engaging in as an organizer.”

Attracted by NYU Law’s public interest program, Gebreselassie attended the Law School as a Root-Tilden-Kern scholar. One of her most meaningful experiences, Gebreselassie says, was her participation during her 2L and 3L years in the Immigrant Rights Clinic, co-directed by Professor of Clinical Law Nancy Morawetz ’81. “The concrete lawyering skills that you develop in that clinic are just invaluable,” Gebreselassie says.  

Morawetz recalls that Gebreselassie worked with her on a case involving a lawful permanent resident who was fighting deportation in a hearing before an immigration judge. “Tsedeye and another student…put together a really first-rate package of materials and terrific testimony from our client, and [they] made a very compelling case to the judge, who ruled in our client’s favor,” Morawetz says.

Gebreselassie’s work in the case was representative of what Morawetz describes as “her sheer smarts.” Praising Gebreselassie’s energy, enthusiasm, and her ability to work with and lead other people, Morawetz says, “Tsedeye is fearless. There’s no challenge that she doesn’t see as something that can be overcome in some way.” 

After clerking for Judge Ellen Bree Burns of the US District Court of Connecticut, Gebreselassie joined NELP as a staff attorney. She became director of work quality in December 2017. 

Having advocated for workers’ rights for over a decade, Gebreselassie says, she has experienced changes in federal and state administrations. “Some have been more hostile or friendly to workers and workers’ rights,” she says. “One of the challenges has been seeing a lot of workers’ rights policy get gutted [at the federal level].” Most recently, the US Department of Labor released a proposal that would roll back Obama-era regulations that expanded overtime coverage for low-wage workers. 

However, particularly on the issue of increasing the minimum wage, Gebreselassie notes, she has been heartened to see that “states and cities have stepped up to fill that void.” This trend, she says, “[has] been the result of sustained organizing by fast food and other low wage workers over the last few years,” says Gebreselassie, who is also on the board of Fast Food Justice, an organization of fast food workers in New York City that helped to lead the Fight for $15 movement. 

A key part of her role at NELP is speaking to the media—in print and on television—about the policies her organization is promoting. Gebreselassie says that her legal education helped prepare her to make arguments heard far outside the courtroom. “One thing that legal training gets you to do is lay out your argument in crisp, clear points,” she says. “So that’s something you have to think about any time you’re talking to a broad audience. It’s all about persuasive advocacy.” 

Posted April 24, 2019