Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for August, 2003

Hygiene Policy: Good Policy Solution or a Big Can of (Smelly) Worms?

Tuesday, August 26th, 2003

Smelly Employee Fuels Hygiene Policy reads the headline of the Associated Press story that is sure to receive widespread attention and become the target of late-night talk show humor. Enacting a new “you must smell nice at work” commandment was one Tennessee town’s solution to a problem that has plagued nearly every single one of us at some point in our lives: what to do about a person whose body odor makes it difficult to maintain the required level of proximity? But is passing a new law going to resolve the problem, or simply affect how harshly the offender is treated?

According to reports, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee city worker has had a problem with body odor for years. (The employee, department for whom he works, and the suspected cause of the odor have not been identified, out of an attempt to spare the employee further embarrassment, but at the point of having one’s personal hygiene articles the subject of a national wire service article, it’s probably too late to worry about minimizing someone’s embarrassment. As Kobe Bryant’s accuser can surely attest, it’s only a matter of time before everyone with an Internet connection can find out exactly who this person is.) Despite repeated efforts at discussing the issue with the employee and attempting short-term solutions, the problem (that is, the odor) simply refused to go away, and it was to the point of making other employees nauseated. (See The Tennessean article.)

Out of solutions, the city determined that passing a new city policy was the only thing that could be done at this point, according to city attorney Susan Emery McGannon. The policy, enacted by the Murfreesboro City Council last Thursday, supplements a grooming policy that merely required employees to dress professionally according to their job description. The new policy reads as follows:

No employee shall have an odor generally offensive to others when reporting to work. An offensive body odor may result from a lack of good hygiene, from an excessive application of a fragrant aftershave or cologne or from other cause

Those who violate the policy risk disciplinary actions ranging from reprimands to one-day suspensions.

One obvious question is how someone will determine the rule has been violated. According to City Councilman Toby Gilley, the standard would be the same one a U.S. Supreme Court justice used to identify pornography. “We’ll know it when we see it” was Justice Potter Stewart’s standard and Murfreesboro’s will be “We’ll know it when we smell it.” So much for a policy capable of objective enforcement! And the policy won’t be applicable to everyone: odors stemming from medical conditions. will require department heads to handle the situation according to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which would prevent discrimination and require reasonable qualification to those who legally qualify as disabled. (See our site’s disability discrimination page for additional information on this topic.)

As city attorney McGannon pointed out, “It’s sad that this had to get legalistic. Things like this gives [sic] lawyers a bad rap when we have to make a rule for everything.” Obviously, the city considered itself at wits end before taking this step, and perhaps there is nothing else that could be done in Murfreesboro to deal with this particular employee. It’s very hard to analyze the decision without knowing more about the employee’s individual situation. If the odor was due to smelly cologne, then perhaps a “fragrance-free” policy, without reference to hygiene, would be sufficient. Many cities and private entities, in an effort to accommodate those with environmental allergies, breathing disorders, or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCD), have enacted “fragrance-free” policies. For more information about fragrance-free policies, see the Fragranced Products Information Network’s web site.) And if the situation is caused by a medical problem, then the policy will not apply (and even if it did, disciplining the employee is not a reasonable solution to a problem over which the employee may have little or no control.)

At this point, what’s left is how to deal with an employee who, after repeated conversations specifically discussing the problem, refuses to make necessary personal hygiene changes. (This will mostly likely rarely occur: most people are so embarrassed after one conversation that they take the appropriate steps to remedy the problem (of which they may have been unaware). Hopefully, they do not remedy the problem by going overboard in the other direction with excessive fragrance.) In this situation, however, it appears that most employers would already have tools to deal with the employee, whether it’s transferring the employee where he or she has less contact with the public and/or offended coworkers; invoking discipline under the existing grooming policy; or taking action against insubordination for refusal to comply with previous dictates concerning hygiene.

Creating an additional policy is a action that will hopefully not become a trend in other public and private workplaces. For one, the discretion involved in such policies gives coworkers and supervisors a weapon to humiliate and embarrass unpopular employees, and invites intolerance, for example, of workers whose national origin and/or cultural backgrounds accept a different level of body odor than 21st century America finds permissible. Moreover, many more violations are likely to be inadvertent or involuntary than deliberate, which means the policy is likely to be invoked more often than is necessary and/or just. This problem is one that is always difficult and delicate to address, whether it’s in the workplace or among friends and family, but trying to legislate against it and punish violators is no real solution.

Forty Years Later, the Dream Still Lives

Monday, August 25th, 2003

This past weekend, thousands flocked to Washington, DC to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While turnout for the commemorative ceremony was lower than organizers had hoped for, the principles espoused by 1963 March organizers and Dr. King’s speech still strongly resonate in those battling today for workplace equality. While it remains open to debate how much the March played a part in the following year’s enactment of Title VII, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, what is indisputable is the ongoing need for warriors in the fight for workplace justice.

Here are links to some of the many news articles covering this weekend’s March:

March on Washington Needed More Drums (George E. Curry, Wilmington Journal)

We’re All In This Together (Jabari Asim, Washington Post)

Old Dream and New Issues 40 Years After Rights March (Lynette Clemetson and Steven A. Holmes, New York Times)

King’s Dream Not Yet Reality (Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle)

A Nation Inspired, a Dream Unfulfilled (Tim Evans, Indianapolis Star)

Newer Voices Carry Civil Rights Message (Stan Simpson, Hartford Courant)

Inspired by the Speech, They, Too, Had a Dream (Lynette Clemetson, New York Times)

March Organizers Seek to Energize the ‘Dream’ and the Movement (Hazel Trice Edney, Wilmington Journal)

Reflections on an American Ideal (Deborah Kong (AP), Modesto Bee)

A Dream Fulfilled? (Cindy George, News Observer (NC))

While it is impossible to sum up and adequately do justice to all of the extremely eloquent articles analyzing Dr. King’s speech and the March and their roles in history, several key themes emerge from coverage on this year’s march:

Where was everyone? The turnout, estimated at only a few thousand, was much less than organizers had hoped for, especially in this day of modern technology, which makes it possible to spread the world much more quickly and less expensively. While low turnout doesn’t necessarily mean a low level of support for the idea of a commemoration and/or the ideals for which it stands, it nonetheless can be disappointing to organizers, as it doesn’t convey a strong civil rights movement in the same way as an event which commands hundreds of thousands of participants. Unlike several similar marches put on by other organizations of which I have been aware and/or personally participated, I was unaware this commemoration was taking place until a day or two beforehand, when news coverage started to cover the event (and as someone whose job it is to be aware of key civil rights developments, I suspect that I am more aware than most of these types of events). Not to be critical, but I do hope that future organizers figure out better ways to spread the word and generate “virtual” participation and more actual participation from those who can travel to Washington, D.C., so that the message of the event is not diminished by low attendance.

The Movement is Broader Than Ever. For the first time, groups representing the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) and Arab communities were officially represented among the major conveners of the march. Some of the issues represented by today’s participants were not even on the radar screen in 1963, or certainly did not command the attention then that they do now. Yet, as one story noted,

It is a movement that is more diverse, yet less integrated. It is desirous of new blood, yet often out of touch with younger people. It is embracing new political causes, yet fighting to maintain its political influence. And many of the issues on the current agenda are far more subtle and complex, less easy to package, than the right to register to vote without fear of injury or death.

(See New York Times article.) The breadth of the movement indicates an increased collective understanding of what issues and communities properly belong to the civil rights community, yet will require more tending to realize its full potential. As Washington, DC’s delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, remarks, “It’s a whole bevy of people who join what you could still call a movement, but it’s something far broader — less spontaneous maybe, but potentially more powerful.”

Dr. King’s Dream Is Not Yet Realized. Despite extremely significant strides made during the last 40 years, none of the chief organizers were ready to claim true vindication of Dr. King’s dream. In fact, some would even argue that things are worse now than then. While that is an extremely pessimistic view of recent historical developments, there are some statistics that would seem to bear this out. Here’s an example:

The marchers were seeking a $2-an-hour minimum wage. That translates to nearly $12 in today’s dollars — nothing close to the current minimum of $5.15. Today, blacks have the highest unemployment rate among racial groups — 12 percent in July. In 1963, the government didn’t even break out figures for blacks. At that time, nonwhites had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent.

(See News Observer article.) Pretty sobering stuff, and a potent reminder of how much work all of us involved in the struggle for workplace justice and equality (all reading this, I hope) still have to do to ensure continuing progress toward realizing Dr. King’s dream.

Confusing Job Market for Older Workers

Thursday, August 21st, 2003

With the economy as it is, we’ve been hearing lots of talk about how tough it is right now for older workers, and how the number of age discrimination complaints and lawsuits have skyrocketed. That’s why a new article, appearing today, was initially perplexing.

The Christian Science Monitor article, called Relaxing Can Wait, as Retirees Flood Job Market, with its accompanying statistic that a record number of Americans – 21 million – age 55 or older are currently in the workforce, initially had me wondering whether things were getting better for older workers. But after reading the article more closely, it’s clear that older workers aren’t having such an easy time of it after all. Employers are essentially saying, you can work here, as long as you’re willing to work in a menial job for peanuts–not exactly the solution for many older workers with decimated retirement funds who need to continue working longer than they had initially planned.

For the last several months, headlines such as this one, Age-Bias Complaints Rising Sharply, have become commonplace. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports, age discrimination complaints have jumped from 14,141 in 1999 to 19,921 in 2002, a 41 percent increase. During the same period, all other types of discrimination complaints to the commission rose by 2 percent.

Experts blame the economy, at least in part. As AARP senior attorney Laurie McCann notes, “Age discrimination doesn’t go away when the economy is going well, but it gets far worse when the economy suffers.” (See Akron Beacon Journal article.) An attorney who represents management in these cases attributes a more benign motive to employers: the upswing in age-discrimination complaints is more a reflection of a bad economy rather than an increase in age discrimination. As another management attorney notes: although companies cannot fire someone on the basis of age, they can fire on the basis of income, “and usually there’s a correlation between the older worker and a higher salary,” said Jack Lord, a labor and employment attorney with Foley & Lardner, who represents companies.

Older workers who are trying to remain competitive for open jobs are even going so far as to cultivate a more youthful appearance. As one reporter noted, “A dicey job market, a growing number of age-discrimination complaints and what many perceive as employers’ preference for younger workers are making some people rethink how they should look while they’re looking for work. Some job seekers fight age discrimination by bringing gym bags to interviews. Others fight discrimination with a knife.” (See Seattle Times article.) One 59-year-old job seeker from New York (who could afford to do so, that is) has had doctors remove the bags under his eyes, give him a fuller head of hair and erase his age spots. article.) Those not so fortunate as to be able to afford plastic surgery are increasingly reliant on less expensive routes to a youthful appearance, such as hair-coloring formula Just for Men, tanning, and gym visits. While these routes to looking younger are always popular for personal reasons as people age, it appears that they may be becoming necessary for continued professional advancement as well.

So with all these age discrimination complaints and people who are trying to look younger to obtain work, we have a story that notes that more older workers than ever remain employed, and also that over the past year, individuals 55 and over are the only age group that has been able to find work. (See Christian Science Monitor article.) Major employers, including Wal-Mart, trumpet the virtues of older workers: as company spokesperson Tom Williams remarks, “The older Americans are very good workers. They turn out to do what you expect. They are very reliable with a work ethic from a different era.” The article discusses the personal situations of several older workers who have left retirement to work again, either because they need additional income, due to downward fluctuations in their retirement investments, or because they miss working on a regular basis. The article paints a very different picture of the older worker than the majority of other articles appearing right now.

However, there’s a very reasonable explanation. The older workers in this article are working for very menial salaries, in jobs that in no way approach the level of responsibility for which their skills and experience would otherwise qualify them. In other words, if you want to be a greeter at Wal-Mart or pass out ID badges at conventions (a job retired airline executive Peter Cosovich characterized as “not terribly challenging,”) then as an older worker you should be able to find a position. As one analyst, Mark Zandi of Economy.com, remarked, “They have in essence taken the jobs that usually go to immigrants and young people.” (Which would also explain why teens have had such a difficult time finding employment this summer. (See WTEV.com article.))

But if you’re an older worker attempting to obtain or retain a challenging position, and can’t afford plastic surgery, or the luxury of retiring early, some companies would rather you just go away and go to work at Wal-Mart. There’s something wrong with that picture, as those who are now in the midst of filing age discrimination complaints understand all too well. It’s one thing if an older employee deliberately chooses a non-stressful position after years of too-demanding employment, but quite another if employers leave older workers with no other choice.

Unions on the Move: The Latest "News and Issues" Feature

Tuesday, August 19th, 2003

If you’re interested in the latest developments and news coverage involving labor unions and their members, then our new site feature, Unions on the Move if for you. This feature, part of our site’s News and Issues section, includes such hot topics as the latest on contract negotiations, strikes, lawsuits, and workplace organizing. Whether you’re interested in what reporters are saying about your union, wondering how contract negotiations or strike talks are proceeding, or just curious about the continuing strength and vitality of the labor movement, this feature will give you your fill of these articles and more.

This feature represents our latest effort to make it quick and easy for site visitors to learn more about the specific topics they care about most, and joins other features on workplace trends and statistics, corporate pay information, federal and state legislative developments and developments in the courts. We welcome your feedback and suggestions for future additions to our News and Issues section, and hope that you enjoy this new feature.

The President Says Everything Will Be Fine, But Where Are the Jobs?

Thursday, August 14th, 2003

“We’re upbeat about the chances for our fellow citizens who are looking for work to be able to find a job. I firmly believe that what we have done was the absolute right course of action in order to help people find a job.” Thus says President Bush about the tax cuts he promoted earlier this year. The question he didn’t answer: whether the nation will have as many jobs when he faces reelection as it did when he took office. (See Washington Post article.) At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, the economy has lost 2.6 million payroll jobs since Bush took office in January 2001, the worst employment record under any president since Herbert Hoover. (See Seattle Times article.)

The president’s announcement came after a meeting with his closest economic advisors at his Crawford, Texas ranch. As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert opines,

Talk about preaching to the choir. President Bush and his clueless team of economic advisers held a summit at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Tex., yesterday. This is the ferociously irresponsible crowd that has turned its back on simple arithmetic and thinks the answer to every economic question is a gigantic tax cut for the rich. Their voodoo fantasies were safe in Crawford. There was no one at the ranch to chastise them for bequeathing backbreaking budget deficits to generations yet unborn. And no one was there to confront them with evidence of the intense suffering that so many poor, working-class and middle-class families are experiencing right now because of job losses on Mr. Bush’s watch.

(See New York Times op-ed.)

Sure enough, Bush’s economic advisors had only good news to share. Gregory Mankiw, the chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, said he expects economic growth to accelerate to a 3.7 percent annual rate by the end of the year, leading to job growth early next year. (See Seattle Times article.) Mankiw was joined at the ranch with other summit participants including Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Treasury Secretary John Snow and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Not all economists share Mankiw’s optimism, however. Herbert’s article quotes George Akerlof, a U.C. Berkeley professor and the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, who declared last week that “the Bush fiscal policy is the worst policy in the last 200 years. Within 10 years, we’re going to pay a serious price for such irresponsibility.” Another key economist echoed Akerlof’s pessimism. Robert Solow, an economist and professor emeritus at M.I.T., also a Nobel laureate, attached the Bush tax cuts as “redistributive in intent and redistributive in effect. There has been a dissipation of the huge budget surplus,” he said, “and all we have to show for that is the city of Baghdad.” (See New York Times op-ed.)

Many workers’ holiday seasons will be much happier if there is an economic turnaround well before Mankiw’s prediction of early next year. And if things don’t turn around soon, President Bush is going to have to start worrying about getting votes from the vast number of unemployed workers. As the Post article points out, “Republican strategists acknowledge [the President’s] reelection could be imperiled if a recovery fizzles and voters believe he could have done more to put people back to work.” (See Washington Post article.) Bush and his closest advisors are unlikely to forget the hard lesson learned by President Bush’s father back in 1992, when “voters dissatisfied with the economy denied a second term to Bush’s father.” (See Seattle Times article.)

There are some signs that this economic-related backlash may be starting to happen. In Republican stronghold South Carolina, where Bush outpolled his opponent Al Gore by a 2-to-1 ratio back in 2000, registered Republican voters are beginning to grumble. Lynn Mayson, an unemployed machine operator and mother of three from Greenville, South Carolina, was frustrated upon leaving a state-run jobs center. “Something’s got to give. I’m not going to vote for Bush unless things change. The economy has got to get better, and it’s only going to do that if someone makes something happen.” (See New York Times article.)

As Roy Baxley, chairman of the South Carolina Cotton Board, pointed out, “This is an excellent opportunity for any elected official to base their campaign on jobs. This is the time to step up to the plate.” Who will do so? Will it be President Bush, or will a Democratic contender emerge from the pack to provide real solutions for unemployed workers? The outcome of the next presidential election could depend on it.

Note to Employers: Stressed Employees Cost You Money

Wednesday, August 13th, 2003

A new study demonstrates what every employer should already know, but many can forget all too easily: stressed-out workers negatively affect the bottom line. Good workplace morale isn’t just a goal to aspire to and a tool in retention efforts, but significantly affects workplace productivity.

“Stress is increasing dramatically,” says the American Institute of Stress (AIS). While that might be exactly what you would expect an entity like AIS to say, what should really get your attention is the statistic that an estimated 1 million workers are absent each work day due to stress. Workplace stress costs U.S. employers $300 billion a year in absenteeism, health costs and programs to help workers manage stress as unemployment rises and companies cut staff. In a 2000 Gallup Poll, “Attitudes in the American Workplace,” 80 percent of surveyed workers reported feeling stress on the job and nearly half say they need help coping with it. Twenty-five percent have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress, 14 percent felt like striking a co-worker and 10 percent are concerned about a colleague becoming violent. (See Chicago Tribune article.)

What can a stressed-out worker do? Here are some coping tips suggested in a recent Indianapolis Star article:

Make Changes: One doctor recommends making adjustments in your work environments and attitudes. Says Dr. Barry Linden: “You change your job, you change your boss, you change your work hours, you change your commute. The second is, you change something about your personality or your way of reacting that makes the stress higher.”

Get a life: Don’t expect your job to fulfill too many parts of your life, as you are bound to be disappointed. Linden says, “If work is just one of several elements that gives meaning to your life, you have a better chance of weathering bad times at work.” Some suggestions: “Make new friends, take a class, plan a vacation, join a softball league or a reading discussion group, study martial arts or volunteer for a charity or a religious group.”

Unwind before you go home: To leave work at work, decompress before you get home, by visiting a bookstore or the gym, or going for a run or a bike ride.

Watch your diet: Caffeine and sugar can wreak havoc on your energy levels, sending you on a roller coaster of adrenaline bursts and crashes, so limit your intake, or drink water, juice and herbal teas instead.

Relax and have fun: Exercise is a great stress reliever, but you also need relaxation to let your body recover from work stress. “Sitting and talking to friends oftentimes can be both relaxing and recreational. And so can simply sitting and listening to music without doing six other things at the same time,” says Dr. Linden.

Even employees who do their part to reduce stress, however, may be helpless in the face of a workplace bully, who is often their supervisor. Bullying is defined as repeated, health-endangering mistreatment of a person (the target) by a perpetrator (the bully). The effects of bullying are more serious than people just having their feelings hurt, as 41 percent of bullied workers become clinically depressed, and 30 percent suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to workplace bullying expert Gary Namie, Ph.D. (See Bellevue Leader article.) Namie recommends three steps for a bullied employee to take: If a bullied employee follows certain guidelines, he or she may be able to get the bully fired or removed from the workplace. Namie said there are three steps a bully target should take.

The first step is to recognize the problem and call it what it is. By calling it what it is, the person will know it’s real and realize it’s not their fault.

The next step is to recover. This may mean going to a counselor, a lawyer or even taking time off.

Step three is exposing the bully. The bullied employee shouldn’t go to human relations, but rather talk to the highest-ranking person at his or her company they can get a hold of…They shouldn’t tell the story from an emotional perspective, but instead explain how the bully is costing the company money. They should be prepared to offer evidence of the bully making employees uncomfortable, or have statistics about how bullies cause employee turnover.

While employers here in the United States have limited legal remedies, if the bullying is not a result of the employee’s age, sex, race, or other protected category, they can look to recent developments in Great Britain for inspiration. There, a stockbroker subjected to months of “obscenities and verbal abuse,” from his supervisor recovered one million pounds from his employer, Cantor Fitzgerald. (See The Guardian article.)

While such a result is at this time unlikely to happen here, Dr. Namie and the Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute are behind a bill currently before the California Legislature, AB 1582, the Healthy Workplace bill. If this law were to pass in California, employers would be forced to rein in the supervisors and employees who are bullying their employees and causing them extreme amounts of stress, or face legal liability for failing to do so. While bullying supervisors and other workplace stress now already hurts the corporate bottom line, perhaps it will ultimately take legislation such as the Healthy Workplace bill for employers to get serious about reducing workplace stress.

Vacation: What Little We Have, We Can't Take

Tuesday, August 12th, 2003

It’s the time of year when people around the world (and President Bush) are taking vacation…those who have it and are allowed to take it, that is. The United States lags most industrialized around the world in that vacation is not a legally mandated requirement, and now a number of reports suggest that even those Americans who do get vacation time are reluctant to use it this summer, with increased workloads making it difficult to get away, and the specter of layoffs and cutbacks making workers think twice about being away for extended periods of time. And even those who do get away may not be fully relaxing, as increased technology makes it possible for almost everyone to work from anywhere via phone, fax, or e-mail.

It surprises some workers to learn that in the United States, employers are not legally required to give their employees any vacation time off, at all. (See Dept. of Labor Advisory: Vacation Leave). This stands in sharp contrast to countries throughout Europe, where vacation time is required by law to be offered, and long summer vacations are legendary. The countries of Sweden, Austria and Denmark lead the way, with 25 days required by law, and the average amount of vacation taken even higher: up to 35 days in Sweden. Even in Japan, known its strong work ethic, employees have a legal right to 10 days off and take an average of almost 18 vacation days a year. (See ABC News article.) Only one other country in the industrialized world, Mexico, with fewer vacation days than America? (See The Nation article.)

Great Britain, whose citizens only get a mere 20 days off by law, is currently being pressured by other European Union countries to increase the number of vacation days it legally requires, because it is believed that longer hours give British companies an unfair competitive advantage. (See Bloomberg News article.) Germany, however, may be moving in the opposite direction. Due to the country’s economic stagnation, some economists and politicians have suggested reducing the amount of vacation time and official holidays, in order to spur economic growth. Germans currently receive 25 days of vacation by law, but many collective bargaining agreements require 30 or 32 days per year, coupled with 10 official holidays and some regional religious holidays. However, change will have to come slowly, due to union contracts and national tradition. (See AP article.)

Even though the expansive vacation guarantees that European citizens are used to are not part of U.S. law, many if not most workers are allowed some vacation time, whether pursuant to employer policy or union contract. The average vacation time given to workers in the United States who have worked three years for their employer is 10.2 days, or a little over 2 weeks of full-time vacation pay. Keep in mind, however, that it’s becoming less and less likely that someone will be with the same employer for three years, which often means starting all over again to accumulate any vacation time when starting a new position. But even those who have vacation time may feel some hesitancy about taking it this summer.

A recent survey of executives, who are more likely than most to have longer amounts of vacation time (and often the disposable income to make it possible to take long international vacations), showed that many are foregoing their vacations this year. Nearly half of 730 executives said they would not use all of the vacation time they were entitled to this year, according to Cleveland-based search and recruitment firm Management Recruiters International (MRI). Of those executives, 58 percent said their workloads were responsible for the decision. (See ABC News article.) Even those workers not at the executive level are cutting back on vacations this year. In a June poll conducted by Harris Interactive, 51 percent of Americans did not think they would take a summer vacation, while an additional 7 percent had delayed plans. (See Baltimore Sun article.)

Part of the reason is economic: those who have jobs are hesitant to leave the office for long periods of time lest they be perceived as slacking off — and expendable. As Lonnie Golden, associate professor of economics at Penn State University in Abington, Pa., remarks: “That’s part of the American workplace culture, devotion as demonstrated through longer days and longer years. When times are good they think it lends itself to promotion, when times are bad they think it gives them security.” (See ABC News article.) However, as Northeastern University labor economist Barry Bluestone points out, “We always had the Protestant work ethic. Are we more Protestant than last year? I don’t think so.” (See Ellen Goodman column.)

With already lean staffs, workers may also be feeling pressure from their employers to stay on the job, or to delay their vacations past the popular summer months. As one hospital administrator noted, “The patients don’t go on vacation in August,” which means that some employees at her hospital have had to postpone taking time off to provide patients with necessary care. (See USA Today article.)

For those lucky enough to get away on vacation, they may still be as close as a phone call or internet connection to life at the office. The term “working vacation” has become ubiquitous in our culture, embodied by our president, who mixes life at his ranch in Crawford, Texas with political fundraisers and short trips to nearby states. (See

Christian Science Monitor article.) According to a recent survey by the American Management Association, forty-four percent of managers are now required to provide their offices with their vacation itineraries or contact phone numbers, up slightly from 40% in 2002. An estimated 83 percent of vacationers now check in at the office while away, if only to prevent the inevitable crush of work upon returning. (See Ellen Goodman column.) Workers who don’t check in have to fear the inevitable “postponement,” as Lonnie Golden calls it. “You’re working like a dog before it, then when you come home [work] is all stocked up.”

What is the solution? According to Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life,” we need a law providing three weeks of vacation for any U.S. worker who has worked at a job for one year, and four weeks after three years. As Robinson remarks,

When millions of hard-working Americans are afraid to take their vacations for fear they will be replaced or bypassed for promotions if they do so, we have to have the protective recourse of a law. When the volatile economy forces workers in their forties and fifties to start their paid-leave banks over again at one or two weeks when they join a new company, as if they were at their very first job, it’s not too much to insist from the political leaders that we empower that they make every effort to right this ridiculous state of affairs. Having to constantly prove ourselves worthy of vacation time till the day we retire is an insult to the efforts beyond the call of duty that working Americans put in every day to keep this country’s economy growing.

Robinson has started a grassroots campaign to push for this change in the law, and has gathered 50,000 signatures for the campaign so far. We think he’s on the right track. Because as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation queries, “If President Bush can head to the ranch for a month, why shouldn’t the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks’ vacation time annually, at minimum?” (See The Nation article.)

Amen, sister. And you can hold the e-mail too.

Overweight Employees: Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement

Monday, August 11th, 2003

Two New York Times articles which appeared in the past week covered two employers’ radically different solutions to the problem of workplace obesity. One employer refused to hire an obese candidate when his special uniform failed to arrive, while another gives its employees bonuses and extra vacation days for successfully losing weight. Guess which is the best (and non-discriminatory) solution for employers seeking to reduce health care costs?

Last Monday, the Times told the story of Joseph Connor, an experienced cook who had been offered a job at McDonald’s, only to later have the job offer rescinded. (See Obese People Are Taking Their Bias Claims to Court). Connor, who is 6’1″ and weighs 420 pounds, interviewed with a Hamden, Connecticut McDonald’s, and was told that he could start work when his special-order uniform arrived. That day never happened, curiously enough. Connor kept calling, over a period of several months, only to be told that the uniform had not yet arrived. He finally concluded that he had been denied the job due to his weight. McDonald’s claims that while waiting for Connor’s uniform to arrive, the franchise changed hands, with the new owner unaware of the promise to hire Connor.

The claim will have to be resolved in court, as Connor has filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, claiming that the restaurant violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to hire him. As Gary Phelan, Connor’s attorney, remarked: “McDonald’s tends to hire a lot of people without much training, but it refused to hire Joseph, who’s cooked for six years. There’s only one common-sense way to explain it. There are some very talented people who happen to be extremely overweight, and that shouldn’t be held against them.” Or put another way: “The only thing that should matter to McDonald’s was how he cooks, not how he looks.” (Connor’s case, and other resources for those discriminated against on the basis of obesity, were also discussed in the 4/17/03 blog entry.)

As opposed to McDonald’s alleged handling of Mr. Connor’s situation, employees at VSM Abrasives, a maker of industrial sandpaper in O’Fallon, MO, are less fat and happy these days, as a result of a company-wide “Get Healthy for Life” contest. Rather than just decrying rising health care costs and/or attempting to shift those costs onto employees, the company decided to take action. About 100 of VSM’s 135 employees joined five-member teams competing to see which could lose the most weight, and the team that shed the most pounds collectively in three months won $100 and a day off with pay for each team member. (See Shed Some Pounds (and Get a Bonus)). In fact, the program was so successful that it has been instituted as a permanent employee benefit: Employees weigh in each quarter, and as long as their weight is not above their previous reading, they receive $25. Employees who keep the weight off for a year receive an extra $25 and a day off with pay. So far this year, the program has saved the company 10 percent to 15 percent on insurance claims, said a company spokesman. Other companies cited in the article are trying exercise programs and corporate Weight Watcher meetings to accomplish similar goals.

Weight contests aren’t a perfect solution, of course: some people have extreme difficulty losing weight for metabolic and/or medical reasons, and their efforts should be rewarded, even if they cannot lose weight at the pace that other employees do. Also, just because an employee is not overweight does not mean that he or she is a healthy eater, or necessarily less susceptible to illness or injury, which is why exercise is an important component of any program. These programs also run the risk of becoming coercive, and ultimately just as discriminatory against those who refuse to participate, or who are not as successful, so companies must strive to keep the programs voluntary and fun for participants, rather than just another form of pressure for employees to manage. However, voluntary corporate efforts to encourage weight loss are far preferable to the kind of discrimination Joseph Connor and many other overweight employees have historically faced, and deserve much more exploration and attention.

California Becomes Fourth State to Ban Gender Identity Discrimination

Tuesday, August 5th, 2003

California became the fourth U.S. state to ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity this past weekend when Governor Gray Davis signed AB 196, which expands the state’s prohibition on sexual discrimination and harassment by including gender in the definition of sex. While the move was not unexpected, given the strong lobbying efforts to move the bill forward in the last several years, it will nonetheless be controversial, especially given Gov. Davis’ current political predicament, as he faces a recall election in October.

Discrimination against trangendered individuals has been identified as a pervasive problem, even in areas perceived as tolerant and inclusive, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles. In a 2002 survey conducted in San Francisco, nearly 1 in every 2 survey respondents had experienced gender identity based employment discrimination, while more than 1 in every 3 respondents had suffered from gender identity discrimination in a place of public accommodation. (See Trans Realities study) Other data from the survey highlights the consequences of conscious or institutional employment discrimination. For instance, 64% of respondents make less than $25,000 a year and a full 79% of respondents make less than $50,000. Over 40% lack health insurance and almost 20% do not have stable housing. As the survey concludes, “[t]he bottom line is that employment discrimination disenfranchises transgender people from U.S. society.”

Activists in California have been trying for several years to add gender identity protections to the state Fair Employment and Housing Act (see AP article), but up until this year, had been unsuccessful at moving the measure through the state Legislature. This year, the bill passed both the Assembly and the Senate without a single Republican vote to reach the governor’s desk. (See San Francisco Chronicle article.)

While Gov. Davis had been expected to sign the bill, given the political upheaval he is now facing, some questioned whether the recall effort against him would affect his willingness to sign the bill. The bill was signed as part of a large package of bills signed in conjunction with the state budget, with the news of its signing released on a Saturday. While some critics suggested that Davis hoped to avoid negative publicity by signing the bill and releasing the news this way, the governor’s office responded by saying that Davis was extremely busy and didn’t have time to do a larger media push touting the signing. (See San Francisco Chronicle article.) Critics also suggested that Gov. Davis was trying to build a voting bloc among gay voters by signing the bill, since conservative voters most likely to oppose the bill weren’t likely to support Davis anyway in the recall election. However, as another bill of perhaps even greater significance is pending–AB 205, which would give gay partners many of the same rights as married couples, some are taking a wait-and-see approach, withholding their full support until AB 205 is either signed or vetoed by the Governor.

Regardless of Davis’ political motives for signing the bill, the fact remains that this law is now on the books and available to protect transgender citizens from employment, housing and public accommodation discrimination. Given California’s influence as a bellwether state, the new law should significantly influences other states contemplating similar legislation.

More information:

WF’s gender identity discrimination page

WF’s filing a discrimination complaint: California

National Center for Lesbian Rights: Transgender Law Project

Equality California Press Release

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