Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for June, 2005

Blogging Employees, Beware

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

Like any new trend in the workplace, laws and policies may take a while to catch up to the technological reality, and blogging is no exception. Blogs (short for “weblogs”) are a form of online communication that can be spontaneous and instantaneous, which can be a real disadvantage sometimes. Employees who choose to talk about what’s happening at work, whether it’s positive, negative, or neutral, run the risk that their employers will discipline or even fire them, based on what they say in a blog that was written “on their own time.” When that happens, they may find themselves without much legal protection for their blogging activities.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with blogs, as Palmolive’s Madge would say, “you’re soaking in it.” “Today’s Workplace” is my blog, written for my employer, Workplace Fairness (rather than about my employer: a crucial distinction in many cases). One definition of a blog is “a personal journal published on the Web. Blogs frequently include philosophical reflections, opinions on the Internet and social issues, and provide a “log” of the author’s favorite web links. Blogs are usually presented in journal style with a new entry each day.” (I’m still working on the every day part.) One poll says that 7 percent of Americans write their own blog. So if a company has 15 employees, there’s a good chance that one worker has a personal blog.

Bloggers have been at the forefront of technological and communication trends. Blogging employees find themselves at the intersection of several workplace trends:

Employment at will: Most employees still don’t realize that their employers can fire them for any reason or no reason, as long as it’s not an illegal reason: it’s called “employment at will,” and applies to most private employees (unless you’re a member of a union or have an employment contract). Just a handful of states might offer some protection for blogging activities: California, New York, and Washington, DC have laws that protect against retaliation for your political activities (which may include your blog if it contains political commentary), while Colorado and North Dakota prohibit retaliation for your lawful activity outside of work (which may include most blogging). Also, if you’re blowing the whistle on your employer’s illegal activities, you might have some legal protections, but your blog may not be the best place to do that (consult with a lawyer if you aren’t sure). Employees ask “what about the First Amendment, my free speech rights?” Those don’t apply to those who work for private employers, just governmental employees. In most cases, employees don’t have laws protecting them from being fired for what’s in their blog.

Erosion of Privacy: Most employees have very few privacy protections related to their work. Employers are cracking down on personal usage of the web, e-mail, and any other work-related uses, and increasingly monitoring their employees. According to a recent survey by the American Management Association, three out of four employers monitor workers’ Website connections, while over half retain and review employees’ e-mail messages. (See AMA/E-Policy Survey.) The laws that prevent employers from listening in on phone conversations generally don’t apply to the Internet. (See NWI Electronic Monitoring Review.)

Blurring of the Line Between Work and Personal Life: Employers are moving closer to 24/7 access to their employees than everyone ever dreamed. Between cell phones, pagers, PDAs, and home computers, and your boss calling you on your vacation, it’s hard to know what is “your own time” any more. Employees are spending more hours at work, and working harder and more productively while they’re there. There’s never been so much need to blow off steam, and so little time to do it. Employers who expect employees to do any work from home or be available during hours not at the workplace, in turn need to allow employees time to use the Internet for personal use, which includes blogging.

Employers are developing a love/hate relationships with blogs. Companies are using their employees’ blogs to expand their reach, generate buzz and encourage consumer loyalty – and bypass traditional media. (See Desert Sun article.) But employers have some legitimate concerns about blogging as well:

  • Trade secrets: Employers don’t want employees giving away proprietary information that will aid their competitors.
  • Productivity: Employers don’t want employees typing away on their blogs when they should be working, or talking in their blogs about how little work they do on company time.
  • Company image: Employers don’t want employees making the company look bad in cyberspace by tarnishing its image, whether it’s the employee doing something the employer doesn’t want associated with the company in any way, or a disgruntled employee who is publicly disloyal to the employer.

How can employees who blog protect their jobs? How can employers balance their legitimate interests with allowing employees some latitude to blog. Like everything else, employers need to create policies that address blogging, whether it involves new policies or adapting existing policies on external communications. Employees who know what their employers’ expectations are are much less likely to run afoul of them through blogging.

Employees should follow the guideline: “don’t do anything stupid.” Don’t say anything you don’t want your boss to hear, and if you do, make sure that your boss doesn’t hear it. If you’re saying something you don’t want your employer to hear, experts recommend:

  • saying it anonymously;
  • using a service to scramble your IP address;
  • limiting identifying personal details;
  • password protecting it if you just want to share with friends;
  • if you’re expressing your personal views about something implicating the employer, adding a disclaimer making it clear you’re not speaking on the company’s behalf

(See EFF’s Legal Guide for Bloggers.) A blog may feel like a personal diary, but your diary isn’t listed in search engines and accessible to anyone in the world 24/7. Some of the posts about work may sound like watercooler rants, but if you do that, you know you have to be discreet. Blogs are not discreet, unless you make them so. Given the lack of legal protections, employees need to be careful, unless they want to be blogging full-time while they’re unemployed.

Could You Live on Minimum Wage? Watch FX Tonight and See

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

In one of the latest efforts to demonstrate just how nuts it is to expect anyone to live on what low-wage jobs are paying these days, the cable network FX will present tonight (Wednesday, June 15, at 10 p.m., EDT/PDT) “30 Days.” Morgan Spurlock, of “Super Size Me” fame, will, along with his significant other, Alexandra Jamieson, try to survive for 30 days as a low-wage worker. With all of the so-called “reality TV” out there, it’s nice to see someone who cares about what really is the unfortunate reality for millions of Americans.

Spurlock, who received widespread critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for best documentary) for his previous work, “Super Size Me,” now turns his lens on what it’s like to immerse oneself in the lifestyle of another: a first-hand experience in how the other half lives, with much more substance than say, for example, “The Simple Life,” or “Wife Swap.”

Spurlock hosts the series, and is its first target as well. He says that “When I first got the idea for this series, it was my idea to be the subject every week, to go out and do something different every week,” Spurlock says. “Then Alex said, ‘well you’re not going to have a girlfriend very long.’ ” (See Scripps Howard article.) So other subjects will be featured in later episodes, including a Christian man living for 30 days with a Muslim family in Dearborn, Mich.; a straight man spending 30 days with a gay couple in San Francisco; a woman who takes on the binge-drinking experiment to make a point to her college-age daughter; an over-the-hill athlete who tries steroids to regain his former glory; and, Spurlock says, “a family of mass consumers who go to an experimental eco-village where they live, essentially, off the grid for 30 days.” (See New York Times article.)

I saw this first episide when it was previewed at the Take Back America conference, and have to say that I really enjoyed it. You felt Morgan and Alex’s pain as they lived in a poorly heated, ant-infested $325-a-month apartment in a Columbus neighborhood called “the Bottoms,” and struggle to survive on his wages as a laborer in multiple jobs and hers as a dishwasher in a coffeeshop. In some cases, the pain was literal, when Alex had to go to the emergency room with a bladder infection, and Morgan injured his wrist doing construction work. But it was almost harder to experience their wait for several hours in the cold for a bus that never arrived, just so they might try to celebrate Alex’s birthday and feel slightly better for a little while. And their struggle to entertain Morgan’s niece and nephew for a few days really hammered home how impossible it is to provide a decent life for kids on a minimum-wage job.

Critics seem to like the show as well, acknowledging that its social contribution never fails to outweigh its entertainment value.

Spurlock makes the case that the minimum wage is too minimal and that health care for the poor in our country is in a deep crisis. His approach is good at drawing attention to the pain of social problems, without necessarily pointing to solutions. But he’s an engaging on-screen personality, and it’s easy to muster sympathy for him and (by extension) anyone caught in the poverty plight. He and Jamieson’s cozy relationship soon deteriorates into petulance and angst.

(Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune)

[T]he whole effort might have proved gimmicky and maudlin, beginning with the first show. C’mon: A rich filmmaker living on minimum wage for 30 days? It’s precisely the kind of faux Hollywood sympathy that Preston Sturges skewered in “Sullivan’s Travels.” But it works.

(Kay McFadden, Seattle Times)

Is it revolutionary? No. Will you “learn” something about the experiments unfolding in front of you? Maybe. As a social experiment, is it flawed? Sure. But none of that matters. “30 Days” is entertaining and interesting, a summer diversion you can talk about without the embarrassment of everyone hearing that you’ve been watching some artless reality show.

(Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle)

Spurlock’s work reminds us that “If you’re working 40 hours a week, you should be able to have food on the table, a place over your head, a comfortable life. I’m not saying you should be able to go out and buy a Ferrari, but you should be able to provide the necessities of living to yourself and your family. And that’s not the world we live in right now.” (See New York Times article.)

For the readers of this blog, the show may in many ways be preaching to the choir, but I still suspect that many — if not most — readers are not recently familiar with this kind of personal hardship. At the very least, it’s a reminder and an inspiration to keep up every effort to make sure that no person working 40 hours a week or more should have to worry about having a place to live, food to eat, or a doctor to go to. It goes without saying that you don’t see enough of that on TV these days, even on the networks that should be considering it “news.”


More Information:

Workplace Fairness: minimum wage
Short-Changed: the income gap; health care

Earth to Alan Greenspan

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

We expect the chairman of the Federal Reserve to be on top of what’s happening with the economy, but his latest public pronouncement is a long time coming. Last week, in remarks during a Joint Economic Committee hearing, Alan Greenspan noted that the income gap between the rich and the rest of the US population has become so wide, and is growing so fast, that it might eventually threaten the stability of democratic capitalism itself. It’s good that Greenspan is finally picking up on this development, but now the question is: what’s the Fed (or anyone else in the government) going to do about it (if anything)? And will conservatives start paying more attention, now that someone who’s hardly a flaming liberal is pointing out the gravity of the problem?

The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. It may sound trite before we start to see a reversal, but it’s all too true. According to a recent study by Isaac Shapiro of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Congressional Budget Office data show that the top 1 percent of the population received 11.4 percent of national after-tax income in 2002, up from a 7.5 percent share in 1979. By contrast, the middle fifth of the population saw its share of national after-tax income fall over that same period of time, from 16.5 to 15.8. “Income is now more concentrated at the very top of the income spectrum than in all but six years since the mid-1930s,” asserts Mr. Shapiro in his report. (See Christian Science Monitor article.)

The New York Times has recently been featuring a special series, entitled “Class Matters.” It acknowledges the basic American premise that “There are poor and rich in the United States, of course, the argument goes; but as long as one can become the other, as long as there is something close to equality of opportunity, the differences between them do not add up to class barriers. (See Shadowy Lines article.) However, when we lose mobility between classes, and create vast gaps between the rich and the poor, there are societal consequences. Amherst president Anthony W. Marx explains it this way: “If economic mobility continues to shut down, not only will we be losing the talent and leadership we need, but we will face a risk of a society of alienation and unhappiness. Even the most privileged among us will suffer the consequences of people not believing in the American dream.”

The Times demonstrates graphically just how limited economic mobility has become, concluding “Some families do move up and down the income spectrum, but it does not seem to be happening quite as often as it used to.” (See How Class Works graphic.) The only group showing considerable upward mobility: the hyper-rich: the 145,000 individuals who comprise the top one-thousandth of earners. The average income for the top 0.1 percent was $3 million in 2002, the latest year for which averages are available. That number is two and a half times the $1.2 million, adjusted for inflation, that group reported in 1980. No other income group rose nearly as fast. (See Richest article.)

This gap will only be exascerbated by so-called tax reform: While President Bush said during the presidential campaign that most tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans, in fact, most – 53 percent – will go to people with incomes in the top 10 percent over the first 15 years of the cuts. And more than 15 percent will go just to the top 0.1 percent, those 145,000 taxpayers. The 400 taxpayers with the highest incomes – a minimum of $87 million in 2000, the last year for which the government will release such data – now pay income, Medicare and Social Security taxes amounting to virtually the same percentage of their incomes as people making $50,000 to $75,000. (See Richest article.)

According to Greenspan, the solution to this problem is education: the growing pay gap reflects the “skill premium” commanded by relatively higher-educated, better trained workers, and represents “a major problem of matching skills of workers to the technological base of the economy, which I believe is an education issue and requires that we address that as quickly and broadly as we can.” (See Statement to Senate Banking Committee, July 2004.) However, it is unlikely that we can make significant changes to the educational system quickly enough to affect the wage gap anytime soon. As Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute argues, “Greenspan takes a very long term view of the situation.”

Despite what passes for alarm coming from the ever-so-placid Greenspan, he doesn’t appear inclined to take specific action to resolve this problem any time soon. He concluded his remarks by noting, “Every decade or so, we look forward and it looks awful, but we somehow, by some means, seem to re-create ourselves.” The chairman, acting as if he were a mere spectator in economic policy, said he had “trust” that the country would deal with the problems this time, too. “My inclination is just to say, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but we’ll do it.’ ” (See Washington Post article.)

What will we do, and what will it take for it to happen? Must we face a serious “threat to the stability of democratic capitalism” first?

Ho Hum, Another Whistleblower...Will Anything Change?

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

Another whistleblower makes the news today, as it was revealed that a White House official who once led the oil industry’s fight against limits on greenhouse gases repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming. A senior associate in the Climate Change Science Program, Rick Plitz, resigned earlier this year and has now released the damning documents. Has anything changed much since 2002, The Year of the Whistleblower, when Cynthia Cooper (WorldCom), Coleen Rowley (the FBI), and Sherron Watkins (Enron) told their stories to the world? While Plitz may not reach the pinnacle of fame the others did, perhaps its because the stories of the truth being suppressed are all too common these days.

Today, the issue is global warming. Scientists claim that there is a link between the emission of greenhouse gases and a rise in the Earth’s temperature, which causes climate changes, leading to “changes in rainfall patterns, a rise in sea level, and a wide range of impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans.” The Administration is not so sure about that, although ironically enough, on the “Global Warming Kids Site,” courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), kids are being told that “many of the world’s leading climate scientists think that things people do are helping to make the Earth warmer.”

But those leading climate scientists were no match for Philip Cooney’s red pen. Cooney, who left his job as a lobbyist at the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group representing the interests of the oil industry, to become the chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the office that helps devise and promote administration policies on environmental issues. Cooney, a lawyer with no scientific training, took the submitted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors had approved, and made changes that played down links between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. (See New York Times article.)

In March, Rick Piltz had had enough of such alterations that fly in the face of established science, and resigned his position. He is now being represented by the Government Accountability Project (GAP). On June 1, he sent a memo to his former colleagues discussing exactly why he had chosen to resign. As Piltz sees it,

The administration will not accept and use appropriately the findings and conclusions of the national and international climate assessments, and it hinders and even prevents the climate science program from doing so….Each administration has a policy position on climate change. But I have not seen a situation like the one that has developed under this administration during the past four years, in which politicization by the White House has fed back directly into the science program in such a way as to undermine the credibility and integrity of the program.

(See Piltz June 1 memo.) According to Piltz, changing the text of scientific documents isn’t just a matter of pushing one policy over another, as it threatens to taint the government’s $1.8 billion-a-year effort to clarify the causes and consequences of climate change. (See New York Times article.)

The Administration is now scrambling to paint Piltz’s revelations as “business as usual” at government agencies, which unfortunately, it may very well be in many cases. The President’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, claims the changes were just part of the “interagency review process,” with more than a dozen agencies involved in preparing the documents, and not a deliberate suppression of the truth. (See Press Briefing of June 8.) Piltz challenges that assertion, contending that Cooney “played a central role, including having final review and signoff authority,” and that many of Cooney’s changes were aimed “at creating an enhanced sense of scientific uncertainty” about climate change and its impact, contrary to the views of professionals. (See Washington Post article.) And other scientists reacted angrily as well: It’s “par for the course from the administration, in terms of interfering with science for political ends,” said Luke Warren of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has criticized the Bush administration’s science policies. (See USA Today article.)

It’s too soon to see how this will all play out: will Piltz be acclaimed as an environmental hero, or political hack? Will he be hauled before Congress to testify, or become a pawn in partisan warfare? Do enough people care about global warming that they find his statements alarming? Or is the real story the suppression of any information that doesn’t fully correlate with the Administration’s agenda? And will he regret the day he spoke up, instead of quietly accepting another job with a university or corporation (or lobbying firm)? Perhaps all this will be true eventually — that seems to be the experience of most whistleblowers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Coleen Rowley last week, who continues to speak out and may even run for Congress in her suburban Minneapolis district. (See Rowley’s memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller to refresh your recollection of her efforts.) She doesn’t appear to have any regrets; neither do Sherron Watkins of Enron and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom. Yet most whistleblowers end up being harassed, fired (often on trumped-up charges), and blackballed from their professions. The financial and emotional strain can snowball further, breaking up marriages, draining bank accounts, and taking a toll on physical and mental health. (See The Whistle-Blower’s Dilemma.) Just earlier this week, it was reported that a whistleblower, Tommy Hook, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory was severely beaten, just before he was slated to testify about accounting irregularities at the lab. (See New York Times story, and MSNBC article (includes Hook’s horrific picture.)

Anyone who is thinking about blowing the whistle on their employer, whether a private corporation, or the U.S. government, needs to know their legal rights. We have recently added to our website a section on whistleblowing and retaliation. While not yet fully complete, it already has general information, and specific pages for environmental whistleblowers, corporate whistleblowers, and government fraud. Whistleblowers also need attorneys, and it helps to have the support of fine organizations such as the Government Accountability Project, the National Whistleblower Center, Taxpayers Against Fraud, and the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Watching vicious excoriations over and over (not to mention grotesque physical abuse) is hardly conducive to encouraging others to speak out, especially when the highest levels of government are involved. Whether or not whistleblowers live to regret their actions (and Tommy Hook must really be wondering about that as he recovers), it’s absolutely essential that they continue to speak out, and that every available legal protection is at their disposal when they do.

Minimum Wage: Taking it to the States

Tuesday, June 7th, 2005

Since 1997, workers have waited in vain for Congress to pass an increase to the federal minimum wage. But some workers, tired of waiting for federal advances that do not seem likely any time soon, have taken matters into their own hands on the state level. In several states, activists have successfully nudged state legislatures into significantly increasing state minimum wage rates, which trump the federal minimum wage when they are higher. Perhaps their efforts will ultimately shame Congress into doing something positive for the American worker, but until then, state campaigns may be the only ray of hope in our otherwise bleak wage picture.

For nearly eight years, the federal government has failed to increase the minimum wage by even a penny. While prices continue to rise, the minimum wage has remained stagnant, at $5.15 an hour. The federal minimum wage totals just $10,700 a year for a full-time, full-year minimum wage worker—$5,000 below the poverty line for a family of three. Today’s minimum wage has significantly eroded in value as well: in the 1970s, the minimum wage amounted to about half of what the typical American worker was earning. Today, it has fallen to only 38 percent. (See Senate HELP Committee Staff Report.)

However, states are free to pass higher minimum wage laws, and an increasing number of them are starting to do so. As one New Jersey state senator points out, “The federal government is not living up to its responsibility, so the states are acting.” Eleven states have raised their rates since January 2004, and Wisconsin will this week become the 12th. In all, 17 states and the District of Columbia — covering 45% of the U.S. population — have set minimums above the federal rate of $5.15. That has helped reduce the number of workers earning the minimum or less (for those earning tips) from 4.8 million in 1997 to 2 million last year, or 2.7% of hourly earners, the Bureau of Labor Statistics says. (See USA Today article.) The Department of Labor’s map of the United States is increasingly becoming more green (signifying a state with an increased minimum wage), but is not yet green enough for those 2 million workers to receive a survival wage.

Those opposing minimum wage increases say that an increase will lead to fewer jobs, and will hurt the very people its designed to help. They trot out studies funded by retail and restaurant organizations, those most likely to pay minimum wages, to “prove” that jobs will be lost. Just yesterday, a study released in Massachusetts, where a minimum wage hike from the state’s current higher minimum, $6.75, to $8.25 is now under consideration, claims that 27,000 jobs will be lost. (See Boston Globe article.)

However, this directly counters the experience in Los Angeles, which passed a living wage ordinance significantly higher than the minimum increases under consideration. In Los Angeles, city contractors and firms doing business on city property must either pay their workers $10 per hour, or $8.75 if health benefits are offered. Unlike the dire claims made during debate on the bill, when opponents predicted a loss of 3,000 jobs and said employers would leave the city, the study found an overall loss of only 112 jobs, or about 1%, attributable to the law. Employers made up the wage hikes by cutting overtime and fringe benefits, hiring more skilled, productive workers or passing on costs to the city. What’s even more significant: lower employee turnover and absenteeism also helped offset the higher wage costs, making up 16% of the pay difference, the study said. (See Los Angeles Times article.)

Opponents also claim that only teenagers and part-time workers receive the minimum wage, and reject the notion that families are trying to survive on the minimum wage. However, research shows that 72% of workers whose wages would be raised by a minimum wage increase to $7.25 by June 2007 are adults (age 20 or older). Close to half (43.9%) of workers who would benefit from a minimum wage increase work full time and another third (34.5%) work between 20 and 34 hours per week. (See EPI Minimum Wage Issue Guide.) Even if it were true that few working families were earning the minimum wage, this argument completely neglects the “spillover effect,” — the effect that a low minimum wage has on depressing other wages. Raising the minimum wage will help raise wages for many other low-wage workers, including those making more than the minimum wage but still under the poverty line.

While many of the state campaigns are designed to take advantage of progressive campaigns and infrastructure built around last November’s election, and to put Republicans on the defensive, the campaigns have been successful even in some “red” states, including most recently, Florida. As one strategist predicts, “This is going to take off like wildfire. It will pull progressive voters to the polls. The way the gay marriage amendment lured conservative voters to the polls (in November) was a wake-up call for us.” (See USA Today article.)

Regardless of the reason why state minimum wage campaigns are now becoming a priority, it is clear that workers need higher wages to be a priority. Until and unless Congress takes action, activists expending their energy on state campaigns are likely to see their efforts pay off, as the American worker is starting to comprehend just how impossible it is to survive on anything that’s even close to the minimum wage.

More Information:

Workplace Fairness:
Profits Before People: The Income Gap
Your Rights: minimum wage

Economic Policy Institute:
EPI Issue Guide: Minimum Wage

ACORN:
Living Wage Resource Center

AFL-CIO:
Working Families Deserve a Real Minimum Wage

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