|Theresa Zhen, Clean Slate Advocate||Vinuta Naik, Clean Slate Advocate|
Fighting to Care: One Woman's Battle to Practice Emergency Medicine
On her last visit to EBCLC to drop off a box of celebratory donuts, AC*, a former client of EBCLC’s Clean Slate/Reentry Legal Services Practice, checked her watch a few times while chatting with her attorney. She couldn’t risk running late for her job interview that afternoon- not after all she had been through to secure it. “It’s just surreal,” AC said, shaking her head and thinking back on the years of struggle and advocacy that had brought her to this point in her personal and professional journey. “It doesn’t feel real. I think it won’t for a little bit.” In 2016, AC started working as a wheelchair attendant for her current employer, a private ambulance company. Her supervisors quickly singled her out to take on greater responsibilities and even tapped her to train new hires and design new safety procedures. She seemed an obvious candidate to promote to an EMT position, but there was one thing holding her back: a years-old conviction that blocked her from registering for an occupational license. As an undergrad, AC had studied nursing. But after narrowly avoiding a medical emergency of her own, she was inspired by care providers who work on the frontlines. “I was thinking about who would have actually shown up, and I thought, it’s not the doctors. I wanted to be that first line of defense, to be able to show someone that compassion,”she recalled. “To stabilize someone emotionally or physically before they get to the hospital means so much more to me than treating their illness.” While living in New York, she obtained a license and practiced as an EMT. But she faced a huge obstacle when she moved to California, where occupational licensing laws thoroughly restrict employment opportunities for people with criminal records. She was initially awarded an ambulance driver’s certificate from the California DMV, but lost it a few months later when her bag was stolen. When she went to get it replaced, the agency balked, citing her conviction record to argue that she should never have been issued it in the first place. The DMV issue prompted an agent at the Alameda County Public Defender’s office to call EBCLC, which in 2016 had just hired attorney Theresa Zhen to open a new Traffic Clinic for people dealing with tickets, fees, and driver’s license issues. The complexity of the case may have given some other legal aid providers pause: AC faced a three-pronged struggle to change the position of the court about her conviction, take on the Alameda County EMT agency’s five-year mandatory bar on her licensure, and fight the California DMV to get her ambulance driver’s certificate back.
“AC’s case exemplifies how difficult it is for people with conviction records to meaningfully seek employment,” said Theresa. “A single conviction can result in an uphill battle through a labyrinth of rules and regulations, all of which operates to close the doors on qualified job candidates like herself."
The almost-three-year process that ensued involved many bumps in the road, and mobilized the advocacy efforts of no fewer than seven law students: Maribeth Charvet, Karina Puttieva, Emily Storms, Zoe Beiser, Lauren Azeka, Samantha Weinstein, and Genesis Tejeda. Under the mentorship of Theresa and other Clean Slate attorneys and staff, these students explored innovative legal strategies, filed motions, and exhausted every possible avenue to address AC’s legal obstacles to licensure. While they worked, AC spent hours collecting letters of support from friends and family all over the globe and preparing her own written court statements, all while advancing her education by enrolling in a fire academy. “Our students researched every possible mode of relief and collectively engaged in hours of strategizing over AC’s case,” said Theresa. “They were analytical, methodical, and demonstrated the highest standard of excellence in direct legal representation.” After hitting more than a few dead ends in her attempts to address AC’s original conviction, EBCLC’s Clean Slate attorney Vinuta Naik proposed an innovative legal strategy in criminal court. Law students wrote and filed the motion, which was granted due to AC’s powerful showing of support and redemption, paving the way for her to obtain an EMT license. “AC’s background and experience will be a great asset to California now more than ever, as we rely on emergency workers to battle a growing number of wildfires and natural emergencies,” said Theresa. “We are thrilled that she finally gets to do her life’s work: serving her community as an emergency care provider.” On the day of her EMT interview, AC smiled with confidence, graciously pushing donuts on to the Clean Slate advocates who worked on her case while she thought back on the long journey now almost behind her. Two weeks later, AC wrote to tell Theresa that the interview had been a success: she was now a fully certified and employed EMT. “I’d come to a point over the last two and a half years where I just came to an acceptance of whatever was going to happen,” AC said, “but to get to this place, to be able to give my family a little good news, it’s a blessing.” *AC's name has been changed to protect her identity.
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