After 25 years with San Francisco's Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center, Patricia Shiu is heading to Washington, D.C., to take a post with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Shiu, who said she got a call from the White House the day after Easter, will start as director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in September. The office is responsible for enforcing laws that prohibit discrimination and that require affirmative action by companies contracting with the federal government.
"It's an opportunity to work with an administration that I believe is committed to workers' rights," as well as to work with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who Shiu says is committed to rebuilding the department. "It's a chance to try and be a part of a team to have an impact on a national level," Shiu said.
Shiu, who is vice president for programs at the Legal Aid Society, has been involved in a broad range of cases, including gender, disability, race and sexual orientation discrimination.
Before joining the Legal Aid Society, Shiu was an associate at Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro.
San Francisco Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese Stewart described Shiu as one of the most brilliant -- and dogged -- labor and employment lawyers she knows. "She's tireless at getting to the bottom of what's going on in a case, and really pushing it to get a resolution that improves the situation for employees," Stewart said.
Cases she has worked on include 1987's Vinson v. Superior Court , 43 Cal.3d 833, in which the California Supreme Court allowed a mental exam of Shiu's client, a sexual harassment plaintiff, for discovery purposes, but placed limitations on what subjects could be probed.
There was also 1999's Aguilar v. Avis Rent A Car System Inc., 21 Cal.4th 121, in which Shiu’s organization (also represented by then-Morrison & Foerster attorney William Alsup, now a federal judge) was amicus curiae siding with Latino employees at Avis. The state Supreme Court found that a remedial injunction prohibiting racial epithets in the workplace didn't violate free speech, so long as there had been a court determination that the slurs would continue a hostile or abusive work environment.
Elizabeth Kristen, a senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society who's worked with Shiu since 2002, said she looked up to her colleague as a mentor whose passion for the cause has not waned after more than two decades. "She really worked to instill and nurture that in her colleagues," Kristen said. "Pat has a real compassion for the issues facing low-income workers, regardless of who they are or where they come from."
Joan Graff, president of the organization, said Shiu had contributed to it on multiple levels, as a friend and colleague as well as a leader with vision.
"It's emotional for me," Graff said. "Pat and I worked together for 25 years."
As director of the gender equity program, for instance, Shiu participated in the fight to get laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act passed on a state and federal level. She also initiated the first project in the country to represent survivors of domestic violence in the employment arena, Graff said.
At the moment, partly as a reaction to the uncertain economy, and partly to allow others to take on more responsibility, there is no plan to replace Shiu.
"I will dearly miss her," Graff said, "but I can't think of a better place for Pat to be than Washington."