Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

Arizona Legislature Votes to Legalize Discrimination. Urge Governor to Veto

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Image: Mike HallLast week in Arizona, the tea party-dominated legislature passed a bill that will allow businesses to slam their doors shut on anyone they say doing business with would violate their religious beliefs. While the bill was aimed primarily at the LGBTQ community, in effect, it could allow business owners to discriminate against anyone.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) has until Friday to sign or veto the bill. Call 888-968-2464 and urge Brewer to veto the bill.

When the bill passed, Anna Tovar, the state Senate Democratic minority leader, said:

With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation. This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.

Sate Rep. Chad Campbell (D) told CNN Friday:

Let there be no doubt about what this bill does. It’s going to allow people to discriminate against the gay community in Arizona. It goes after unprotected classes of people and we all know that the biggest unprotected class of people in the state is the LBGT community. If we were having this conversation in regard to African Americans or women, there would be outrage across the country right now.

Aside from the outrageousness of virtually legalizing discrimination, if signed into law, the bill is likely to have a serious negative economic impact on the state. Arizona AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rebekah Friend says it “could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what occurred when the state passed the controversial immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, in 2010.”

It’s estimated those boycotts cost the state tens of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue and hundreds of millions in spending that would have gone to local businesses.

U.S. Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona have urged Brewer to veto the bill, and a large part of the business community has lined up against the bill. In a letter to Brewer urging her to veto the legislation, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council said:

The legislation will likely have profound, negative effects on our business community for years to come….The legislation places businesses currently in Arizona, as well as those looking to locate here, in potentially damaging risk of litigation, and costly, needless legal disputes.

It also warned Brewer that four unidentified companies have vowed to locate elsewhere if the legislation is signed.

Other businesses have spoken out against the measure. In Tucson, Anthony Rocco DiGrazia, owner ofRocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria, posted a sign (see above) that reads, “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Arizona Legislators.” He told The Huffington Post:

I just want to serve dinner and own and work in a place I’m proud of. Opening the door to government-sanctioned discrimination, regardless of why, is a huge step in the wrong direction.

Shannon Austin Zouzoulas, co-owner of a brewery and winery call Arizona Hops & Vines, called the bill “pro-hate” and posted the picture below of a rainbow liquid swirling in a wine glass on their Facebook pageFriday with the caption:

Arizona Hops and Vines Loves ALL our customers!

Apparently some other Arizona businesses hate certain types of their customers and will be able to discriminate against them if Brewer signs the bill into law.  Call 888-968-2464 and urge her to veto the bill.

This article was originally printed on AFL-CIO on February 24, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journaland managing editor of the Seafarers Log.  He came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety.

Nelson Mandela and the Importance of Civil Justice

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

 

kleiman_smThe memory of Nelson Mandela is being honored for his courageous and deeply dignified stance while imprisoned, and for his astute and successful efforts at reconciliation and nation building when he was finally released in his 70s.

 

Very few people remember that the man who helped lead a revolution was not always ready to die for his cause.  Sixty years ago, Nelson Mandela was a civil rights lawyer in the only African-run law firm in South Africa.  He represented victims of police brutality and the overbearing racial authority in his country.  The white-run government could not tolerate these challenges and used the apartheid laws to force the firm to move out of downtown Johannesburg and into a remote area.  Mandela could not get to the courts, and his clients could not get to him.   Unable to practice under these conditions, Mandela and his partner had to close their practice.

 

Blocked in his efforts at peaceful reform and appalled by the government’s wanton demolition of an all-Black Johannesburg suburb, Mandela took up the path of armed resistance.  This was the beginning of an armed struggle that went on for over thirty years, taking tens of thousands of lives.  Mandela spent twenty-seven of those years in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

 

It is no accident that a smart and determined leader would seek justice under the law.  And it is no surprise that after being thwarted at every turn, he sought that justice through other means.

 

After years as an organizer I went to law school to help get justice in this country.  I was confident that unlike South Africa, I lived in a country with a rich history of democratic feistiness and a strong commitment to fair enforcement of the laws.  I now wonder if I was wrong.

 

In the United States we are witnessing an unprecedented attack on legal rights.  One courthouse door after another is slammed – on workers, on women, on people of color, and even on everyday consumers.    Instead of club-swinging southern sheriffs or snarling lynch mobs, the new weapon of choice is a judicially enforced, secret system of private judging called arbitration.  Arbitration strips away Americans’ constitutional right to a jury trial and drops them into the murky world of closed-door judging.  It’s a rigged game where one side hires, fires, and pays for the referees.  Arbitrators at one top private judging firm ruled for employers and against employees, for big business and against consumers 93.8% of the time.  And these decisions are made in secret, instead of an open courtroom.

 

Time after time the U.S. Supreme Court has twisted federal law to strip away these constitutional rights.  It Walmart v Dukes it ruled that over a million women working at Walmart could not band together to sue for sex discrimination that stole wages from them. Rights to equal pay, a safe workplace, and equal treatment have been stripped away by secret tribunals.  Now that same Supreme Court, in ATT Mobility v Concepcion,  has also ruled that fine print language buried in 30-page user agreements can be used to keep millions consumers from banding together in class action suits or workers from demanding that they be repaid for meal and break time stolen from them.

 

As we honor Mandela, it bears remembering that his broad vision for his country, and his skills as an orator bring to mind an American leader with those same traits, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  President Kennedy may have had Mandela in mind when he prophetically warned that “those who make peaceful change impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”

 

The engineers of current attacks on access to justice in America would do well to reflect on JFK’s cautionary words, and on the fiery trajectory of Nelson Mandela.  If the life of the man being honored this week proves anything, it proves that without justice, restoring security for America’s working people will require a lot more than lawsuits.

This article was originally printed on CELA Voice on December 14, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Kleiman is A long-time human rights and consumer activist.  He has filed cases that have led to over $500 million being recovered for U.S. taxpayers.  He has won multimillion dollar verdicts in consumer fraud and medical malpractice trials.

The Virtual Repeal of Kennedy-Johnson Administrations' 'Signature Achievement'

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

nancy gertnerJust when we are rightly celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — what historians call the “signature achievement” of the Kennedy-Johnson administrations — that law has been gutted. Federal judges from trial courts to the Supreme Court have interpreted the Civil Rights Act virtually, although not entirely, out of existence. This is so across judicial philosophies, across the political spectrum and even across presidential appointments.

Consider the case of the Todds, African Americans who sued the Whortons, the white owners of the club where they worked for creating a racially hostile environment. The defendants moved for summary judgment — a dismissal without a jury trial. Obliged by law to consider the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the judge found the following: Mr. Whorton directed the N-word at the plaintiffs on multiple occasions. He called a staff meeting about his use of the N-word, explaining he was too old to change the way he spoke and inviting anyone who did not like it to quit. He made other comments such as:

What do your people want? When this was a white club, my customers used ashtrays. Ever since the n—–s have been in the club, the cigarettes have been put out on the floor. The difference between blacks and n—–s is that n—–s put their cigarettes out on the floor.

He complained to Mr. Todd that he could not trust African Americans, saying, “Look at me! I know you don’t like this–n—–s don’t appreciate s–t.”

But to a federal court in Georgia, this wasn’t enough. No reasonable jury, the court held, could find a hostile work environment. Case dismissed. And in language that the marchers on the Mall fifty years ago would have found shocking, the court added, “The facts simply show that the Whortons are racist, bigoted, and/or offensive people,” but not that they created a workplace hostile to their African American employees. “In fact, none of these incidents went beyond the ‘ordinary tribulations of the workplace.’”

Racist comments in the workplace had been “ordinary” and “commonplace” when the Civil Rights Act was enacted. That’s why the law was passed. Perhaps social norms have changed in the decades since 1964; perhaps language once wholly unacceptable has become regular currency. But that is why the Act requires a representative jury to hear these claims, not a judge whose last employment in the private sector may have been decades ago and who — in looking at the federal bench’s composition — was likely to be white, male and either a former partner in a big firm or a former prosecutor.

It is not just racist speech that is acceptable; so is sexist speech. Courts trivialize sexist comments as “stray remarks” and dismiss the cases. Comments from one defendant, who said, “F—–g women. I hate having f—–g women in this office,” were held not to be direct evidence of discriminatory intent. Another defendant supervisor repeatedly referred to a plaintiff as, among other things, a “dumb shit,” “whore,” “stupid bitch” and “hooker,” yet the court dismissed the case as “general vulgarity that [the law] does not regulate.”

Aberrant decisions, you might say? Not so. Amanda Farahany from the Atlanta law firm Barrett & Farahany commissioned a study of 2011 and 2012 summary judgment orders in employment discrimination cases in the Northern District of Georgia, containing Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace. Of the 181 cases where the plaintiff had counsel, the Court dismissed 94 percent of them at least in part, and 81 percent in full. Racial hostile work environment claims were dismissed 100 percent of the time.

The Georgia results mirror the results nationwide. 60 percent of motions for summary judgment are granted in general, but in employment discrimination cases, the court dismisses from 70 to 95 percent of the cases.

Women, minorities, people over forty and the disabled bring discrimination cases only to lose in overwhelming numbers. So little do the judges think of discrimination claims that they rarely allow them to get to a jury at all. Federal courts have legitimized practices that would have horrified the early supporters of the Act.

Perhaps the answer is that discrimination is over and we are in the dawn of the post-racial, post-sexist society. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is unnecessary. Or perhaps it’s that, as one former colleague reported, these cases are “often trivial.” The gap between men’s and women’s wages persists, as do the income disparities between men and women, blacks and whites. And the facts of the reported cases — if proved — hardly suggest the claims are trivial.

The federal courts have largely interpreted this important legislation out of existence. Racist speech or sexist comments were not supposed to be part of the “ordinary tribulations” of the workplace. Not now. Not ever.

This article was originally printed on The Huffington Post Blog on November 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Judge Nancy Gertner (Ret.) is a former U.S. federal judge who built her career around standing up for women’s rights, civil liberties and justice for all. Named one of “The Most Influential Lawyers of the Past 25 Years” by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, Gertner was appointed to the federal bench of the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts by President Bill Clinton in 1994. She retired from the bench in 2011 and now is a professor of practice at Harvard Law School.

EEOC loses battle (but not war) on discriminatory background checks

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Christian SchreiberWhen it dismissed a federal lawsuit last week, the U.S. District Court for Maryland made it even harder for workers with poor credit histories and past criminal convictions to find a job.  Civil rights advocates hope the decision is not a bellwether for similar cases pending around the country.

The lawsuit, brought by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged Freeman, a privately-held event-management company, with violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act through its use of credit and criminal background checks.  According to the EEOC’s complaint, the employer’s decision to use background checks to screen out job applicants amounted to discrimination because it disproportionately impacted African-American and male job applicants.

Freeman’s hiring process involved detailed inquiries into both the applicant’s credit histories and criminal backgrounds.  Freeman “regularly ran credit checks for 44 job titles,” and excluded all applicants from certain positions who met any of 12 different categories of purported credit-unworthiness.  Even common credit blemishes, such as credit card charge-offs, medical liens, unpaid student loans, or foreclosures would result in the applicant being rejected.

The Freeman court joined the chorus of employers extolling what some consider the “common sense” of performing credit and criminal background checks.    These proponents also ignore the studies demonstrating that credit problems do not predict employee performance, as well as those that document atrocious error rates on credit checks.   A report released by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year found that a quarter of consumers identified errors on their credit report that might affect their credit scores.

In 2011, California limited the use of credit checks in employment.  After three prior attempts were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the bill was itself an object lesson in persistence.  However, the law also established broad exceptions to the “prohibition” on employment-related credit checks, effectively blessing their use across jobs and industries where the need or utility has never been demonstrated.

In addition to the credit-check hurdle, Freeman’s standard employment application form asked, “Have you ever pleaded guilty to, or been convicted of, a criminal offense?”  Applicants were told certain convictions would not be considered in the hiring process (yeah, right), but the company acknowledged a “bright-line rule” that disqualified any applicant who “failed to disclose a conviction, seriously misrepresented the circumstances of a criminal offense, or made any other materially dishonest statement on the application.”

In June, the EEOC filed two similar complaints against Dollar General Corp and BMW, alleging that the companies’ use of criminal background checks resulted in a disparate impact against African-American job applicants.  Referred to as “disparate impact” cases, these types of challenges stand or fall on the persuasiveness of the parties’ statistical evidence.  In the EEOC v. Freeman case, the court let loose on the EEOC’s expert, excoriating his methodology and ultimately calling his findings “an egregious example of scientific dishonesty.” (Ouch.)  Though it may be possible to blunt the impact of Freeman simply by putting on better statistical evidence, the decision nonetheless entrenches practical misconceptions and legal standards that are hostile to workers.

These cases are being watched closely by consumer and civil rights advocates, who still hold out hope that the EEOC’s oversight of these employment policies will curtail the increasing use of background checks to screen out applicants.   Advocates hope Freeman doesn’t signal that more bad news lies ahead.

This article originally appeared on CELA Voice on August 19, 2013.  Re-posted with permission. 

About the Author: Christian Schreiber is an active member of the California Employment Lawyers Association, where he serves on CELA’s Legislative Committee and Wage and Hour Committee.  He is also a member of the American Constitution Society, the Public Justice Foundation, and the Consumer Attorneys of California. Mr. Schreiber received his B.A. from UCLA in 1996.

13 Things Every Teen Needs To Know About Workplace Rights

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

donna ballmanSchool’s out for summer! Or it will be soon, and many teens will start summer jobs or even their very first real job. Yet schools do little, if anything, to prepare teens for the realities of the workplace. I’m always shocked when I encounter teens whose parents drag them to me after they suffer workplace abuse with no idea they have any rights at all.

So, if you’re a teen entering the workplace or thinking of applying for a job, read this. If you’re a parent, friend or relative of a teen who is entering the workforce, please print this and show it to them.Here are 13 things teens need to know about workplace rights that their school probably didn’t teach them:

1. Minimum Wage: Federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. However, there is something called the youth minimum wage, which means that for the first 90 calendar days of any new job you can be paid as little as $4.25 per hour if you are under 20State minimum wages may be higher. Here in Florida, the minimum wage is $7.79. Tipped employees may be paid a minimum wage of $2.13/hour as long as their wages including tips equal at least the higher of the state and federal minimum wage. State minimum wages for tipped employees vary. In Florida, it’s $4.77/hour. More details about wages can be found here.

2. Hours: If you are under 16, under Federal law your work hours are limited. You can’t work during school hours at all, and you can’t work more than 3 hours on a school day, including Friday; more than 18 hours a week when school is in session; more than 8 hours a day when school is not in session; more than 40 hours a week when school is not in session; and before 7 a.m. or after 7 p.m. on any day, except from June 1st through Labor Day, when you can work until 9 p.m. Federal law doesn’t limit work hours for teens 16 or older, but yourstate laws may. For instance, Florida law says if you’re under 18 you can’t work during school hours (with exceptions), and that if you’re 16 or 17 you may only work up to 30 hours per week, not before 6:30 a.m. or later than 11 p.m. and for no more than 8 hours a day when school is scheduled the following day, and for no more than 6 consecutive days.

3. BreaksFederal law doesn’t require any work breaks. However, many states require work breaks, especially for workers under 18. In Florida, workers under 18 are not allowed to work more than 4 consecutive hours without a 30 minute uninterrupted work break. For breaks of more than 20 minutes, employers don’t have to pay. Breaks 20 minutes and under are hours worked that need to be paid.

4. Sexual Harassment: If your boss, coworker, customer, vendor or potential boss is harassing you because of your gender or gender identity, that’s sexual harassment, and it’s illegal. This includes unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, offensive comments about men or women in general, off-color jokes, touching, and other harassment that is either so severe or so frequent that it alters the terms and conditions of your employment. A single offhand comment may not be sexual harassment, but a single incident that is severe could be. As a minor, you have added protection. Any adult sexually harassing you is probably committing a crime, and could be a sexual predator. It is really important that you read the company’s sexual harassment policy when you start working and write down where you are supposed to report it if it occurs. You don’t have to be afraid, and you should not let yourself become a victim. People you can and probably should report sexual harassment to are your Human Resources department at work and your parents. If you’ve been touched, then you may want to contact the police. If you see someone else being sexually harassed, you should report it. Harassers will keep doing it, and their behavior will get worse, unless an adult stops them.

5. Contracts: In most states, if you’re under 18 you can’t be bound by a contract, including an employment contract. You (or your parents) can void a contract you’ve signed while underage. However, once you turn 18, you probably can’t void it anymore. Employment contracts might have provisions saying you can’t work for a competitor for a year or two, waiving your right to a jury trial, confidentiality obligations, and other important clauses. If you are asked to sign a contract, always read it and keep a copy once you’ve signed. If you don’t understand it, talk to your parents or an employment lawyer in your state about it.

6. Internships: While many teens take unpaid internships for the summer, most employers get internships wrong. If your internship is not a real learning experience for you, then you probably have to be paid for the work you do. An internship is supposed to be training similar to that you would receive in a vocational school. Filing, stuffing envelopes, and answering phones should normally be paid. Internship assignments should build on each other so you develop more skills, similar to the way each chapter of a textbook builds on the other. You should be getting training that benefits you, and you should be getting more benefit than the company. If they can make money off what you’re doing, or if you’re saving them from having to pay another employee, you probably have to be paid.

7. At-will: If you live anywhere but Montana, your employment is probably at-will, meaning your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all (with some exceptions). They can fire you because they’re in a bad mood, because they didn’t like your shirt, or because you lipped off to them like you lip off to your parents. Exceptions that would make a firing illegal include firing due to discrimination, making a worker’s comp claim, and blowing the whistle on illegal activity of the company. If your boss tells you to do something that isn’t illegal (or sexual harassment), then do it. No eye-rolling, back-talk or attitude.

8. Social Media and Cell Phones: You are expected to work during work hours. That means no texting, emailing, calling, tweeting, instagraming, facebooking, downloading, or surfing at work, unless it’s work-related. If you check your texts, emails, or social media on a company computer, cell phone or other device, the company probably has the right to look at it. If you view or send inappropriate pictures, jokes, or videos, you can be fired for doing so. There is very little privacy in the workplace, and you have few rights. Assume you’re being watched at all times at work and you won’t go wrong. Oh, and remember all those party pics and embarrassing photos you posted before you started applying for work? Employers and potential employers can see them. You probably want to check your social media pages and pull down anything you can that might be inappropriate for an employer to see.

9. Human Resources: If your employer is big enough, you probably have someone who is designated as the Human Resources person or a whole department called “Human Resources.” It may be referred to as HR. This is the place to go for information about work rules, to report sexual harassment or discrimination, and you’ll probably have to go there on your first day to fill out a stack of forms. While they can be very helpful if you have questions or concerns, they aren’t your buddies. Human Resources represents your employer, not you. They aren’t your mom or your best friend, so don’t go to them with every petty complaint, confess you did something wrong, or tell them about the wild party you went to over the weekend. Keep it professional.

10. Discrimination: Discrimination against you for being you isn’t illegal. However, discrimination and harassment due to race, sex, sexual identity, national origin, disability, religion, color, pregnancy and genetic information are. In some states, there are more categories of illegal discrimination. For instance, in Florida it’s illegal to discriminate against you because you’re too young or because of marital status. Whether sexual orientation is a protected category depends on your state and local law. No federal law bars sexual orientation discrimination.

11. Bullying: While your school might have zero tolerance for bullying, your workplace may be a bullying free-for-all. No federal or state law exists that prohibits workplace bullying. However, workplace bullies are very much like school bullies: they focus on the weak and the different. If you need to complain about a bully, make sure you do it in a way that’s protected. If the bully is picking on the weak, are they weak because of a disability, pregnancy, or age? If they’re picking on the different, is the difference based on race, national origin, age, or religion? If you report illegal discrimination, the law protects you from retaliation. If you report bullying, no law protects you.

12. Dangerous Work: It is every employer’s duty to maintain a safe workplace. If you think your workplace is unsafe, you can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report dangerous conditions and get more information. Certain jobs are deemed too hazardous for teens under 18 to do. A plain English description of the 17 jobs considered too dangerous for minors is here. There’s a different list for agricultural workthat applies to workers under 16.

13. What Kind Of Work You Can Do: Depending on your age, there may be limits on the type of work you can do. If you are under 14, you can work, but your options are limited. You can deliver newspapers, babysit, act or perform, work as a homeworker gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths, or work for a business owned by your parents as long as it’s not mining, manufacturing or one of the occupations designated as hazardous. If you are 14 or 15, you can do things like retail, lifeguarding, running errands, creative work, computer work, clean-up and yard work that doesn’t use dangerous equipment, some food service and other restaurant work, some grocery work, loading and unloading, and even do some work in sawmills and wood shops. We’re talking non-manufacturing and non-hazardous jobs only. If you are 16 or 17, you can do any job that isn’t labeled as hazardous.

The Department of Labor has a website where you can get more information about employment laws that apply to teens. An interactive advisor about federal law may be foundhere.

Of course, my book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired can help anyone new to the workplace since it covers how to handle workplace crises and issues from the interview and application, to your first day and that giant stack of papers, to workplace disputes, to promotions, to termination, and even post-termination.

This article was originally printed on Screw You Guys, I’m Going Home on May 24, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Donna Ballman is the award-winning author of Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Resolve Workplace Crises Before You Quit, Get Axed or Sue the Bastards.  The book won the Law category of the 2012 USA Best Book Awards.  She’s been practicing employment law, including negotiating severance agreements and litigating discrimination, sexual harassment, noncompete agreements, and employment law issues in Florida since 1986.  She also leads her legal team at Donna M. Ballman, P.A.

Losing My Religion

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Considering how many talking points in the 2012 election have had to do with religion (Romney’s Mormonism, the morality of the Ryan budget, and Christian views on abortion and gay marriage) it’s easy to forget that in some countries, religion and party-politics are considered a private matter, not to be discussed in polite society.

The United Kingdom is one of these countries; in the land of tea and crumpets, discussing politics or religion at dinner parties is considered cheeky. And so it is surprising that religious liberties in the workplace have been brought center stage by four of Her Majesty’s subjects.

CNN’s Belief Blog brought my attention to Nadia Eweida, Shirley Chaplin, Lilian Ladele and Gary McFarlane, who allege that they were each reprimanded at work for upholding their religious beliefs. After losing on appeal in British courts, their cases were heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on September 4. A decision could take months.

Both Ms. Eweida, a nurse, and Ms. Chaplin, a flight attendant for British Airways, wore necklaces with hanging crosses to work, were told to take them off, and refused. Ms. Eweida was suspended; Ms. Chaplin was forced into early retirement.

Ms. Ladele and Mr. McFarlane both had government jobs. Ms. Ladele was a registrar who was disciplined for refusing to process civil unions involving same-sex couples. Mr. McFarlane, who has been spearheading the legal process for all four of these cases with the support of the Christian Legal Centre, was a couples counselor paid by the National Health Service. He was fired after telling his superior that because of his Christian faith he was not willing to work with same-sex couples on sex related issues.

How would their cases fare in the U.S.? How will their cases actually fare in Europe? LASIS investigates.

A word about why the European Court heard an English case involving English people, in the first place. Britain, along with 27 continental neighbors, forms part of the European Union by giving up select parts of its sovereignty to the European government, much like our 50 states vis-à-vis our federal government. An ECHR decision will have the effect of a binding court order within Britain.

Stateside, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees of both public and private institutions against religious discrimination in the workplace. The Act set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which evaluates discrimination claims and allows people a means to litigate them. So far, this sounds pretty similar to Britain’s employment tribunal — where our litigants lost their case.

Our Civil Rights Act states that employers must give their employees “reasonable accommodation” for their religious needs. A 2001 U.S. Court of Appeals case echoed a 1975 U.S. Court of Appeals case, and defined the reasonable accommodation standard. In the 2001 case, a police officer sued the department after being fired for not complying with uniform rules prohibiting him from wearing a gold cross pin on his shirt. He lost.

In these important cases, our courts have said that to prevail in a workplace religious discrimination case, an employee must show three things: First, that a religious belief conflicted with a work requirement; second, that the employee informed her employer of this conflict; and third, that the employee was not given reasonable accommodation and was then dismissed or sanctioned in some way.

The employer has two possible defenses. She can show that she actually offered the employee a reasonable accommodation or that after trying, no reasonable accommodation was available that wouldn’t cause the employer “undue hardship.” This “undue hardship” would constitute outlaying more than a minimal amount of money, or risking the health and safety of the workplace.

In 2004, a Christian employee was asked to sign a new diversity policy that included a provision mandating respect for homosexual co-workers. The employee considered such a requirement to be contrary to his beliefs and refused to sign – he was fired, and sued in Colorado district court on the grounds of religious discrimination. He won, with the court deciding that so long as his actions and statements were nondiscriminatory, his personal beliefs, even illogical or meanspirited ones, are protected under the law.

But for the most part, U.S. courts have dodged how we should balance individual rights to freedom of religion and the exercise of those rights sometimes being discriminatory.

In a 2012 U.S. Court of Appeals case a counselor working for a government agency was dismissed after refusing to work with same-sex couples and making her religious views clear to a woman she was paid to help. The court didn’t rule whether or not the employee’s actions were discriminatory; it simply stated that her actions did not conform to her professional standards as a licensed counselor

In the opinion of Michael J. Broyde, a law professor and senior fellow of Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, creating a discrimination exception for religious beliefs would be a “bad idea.” He believes that it would serve as a get-out-of-jail-free card for people to discriminate in the name of religion.

Organizations like the ACLU agree, and have been trying to draw the courts’ attention to this issue for years now. Many of the cases they are supporting (on the opposite side of McFarlane and the Christian Legal Centre) are still in litigation and will continue to be for some time. We can only guess as to when or how the courts will decide.

Cross-wearers Ms. Eweida and Ms. Chaplin might not like what our courts have to say on religious symbols added to uniforms of any kind. Like the British tribunal, our courts would probably not uphold the women’s right to wear crosses while at work especially if, as the defendants in these cases maintain, it was a safety issue: no hanging necklaces are allowed for either nurses or flight attendants.

As for Ms. Ladele and Mr. McFarlane, the government workers who refuse to work with same sex couples, we can probably call this one a toss-up both in the ECHR and in our own courts.

Last year, LASIS did a story about this very issue. A government worker refused to marry same sex couples. Lots of protests. But she maintained that she was just following her religious beliefs. She was reelected.

This particular area of law is still developing and the next few years on both sides of the pond should make for interesting dinner-party conversations.

EDITOR’S NOTE: An astute reader points out that the European Union’s court is the European Court of Justice. The European Court of Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe.

This blog originally appeared in New York Law School’s Program in Law and Journalism blog, Legal As She Is Spoke, on September 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: José Ortiz (JD Class 2014) is a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico where he majored in Political Science. He is a classically trained pianist, organist and singer having performed with the San Juan Philharmonic Chorale and the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. Other than music and law, he also enjoys heated political debate and the Yankees.

Court in Costco Discrimination Case to Employers: Don’t Fight Discrimination

Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Piper HoffmanPlaintiffs suing Costco for sex discrimination face another round of litigation thanks to the Supreme Court’s recent dismissal of the Wal-Mart sex discrimination case. Because of the Supreme Court’s decision, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that the Costco trial court must reconsider whether the plaintiffs can prove that the company should be liable for sex discrimination in store-level promotions. On this question the Court of Appeals, like the Supreme Court before it, ruled the wrong way, discouraging companies from implementing measures that would prevent discrimination.

When companies leave employment decisions like promotions to individual decision-makers without giving them clear, relevant criteria to guide their decisions, those decisions are often discriminatory, albeit sometimes unintentionally. Many corporations, including Costco, provide no uniform criteria – or any guidance at all – for making promotion decisions. This leaves each individual manager (the vast majority of whom are male at Costco) to make promotion decisions as he sees fit. When making decisions with unfettered discretion, people tend to rely on stereotypes and to promote those they are most comfortable with and who are most like them – in short, in the absence of clear criteria, men usually promote men. Witness Costco’s demographics: female lower-level managers at Costco are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts. It appears that only two of Costco’s top 34 executives are women. The problem is not a shortage of interested or qualified women: Costco’s competitors have a much higher proportion of women in management than Costco does.

Companies can prevent this kind of discrimination. Sociological research shows that holding top management responsible for establishing and enforcing uniform, unbiased promotion criteria goes a long way. When companies provide managers with performance-related criteria for promotion decisions, managers can evaluate whether a candidate satisfies those criteria instead of making a gut-level decision based on personal relationship or other irrelevant factors.

Companies can also prevent sex discrimination in promotions by increasing the pool of candidates. When employees don’t know promotions are available, managers may not even consider qualified women for the positions – they may not know them well, or may rely on stereotypes to conclude that they don’t want promotions. The Costco case illustrates these consequences: the three women who sued desperately wanted promotions, but none of them ever applied for one – they couldn’t, because Costco did not accept applications, and they never knew when promotions were available anyway. An easy fix is to inform employees of promotion opportunities and invite applications. Interested women will throw their hats in the ring and managers will evaluate them based on the relevant criteria, resulting in more promotions of women.

The courts in Costco and Wal-Mart ruled the wrong way because they discouraged companies from adopting these measures. They held that corporations are not liable in class actions for the discretionary decisions of individual managers, creating an incentive for companies to wash their hands of preventing discrimination in their ranks. The more anarchic the system for decisions about promotions and other perks – raises, bonuses, etc. – the more insulation the company has from discrimination class actions. The Costco decision quoted the Supreme Court’s Wal-Mart ruling on this point: “demonstrating the invalidity of one manager’s use of discretion will do nothing to demonstrate the invalidity of another’s. A party seeking to [bring] a nationwide class [action] will be unable to show that all the employees’ Title VII claims will in fact depend on the answers to common questions.” In other words, if the only thing promotion decisions have in common is that managers make those decisions however they want, the company as a whole is not liable for resulting discrimination. In contrast, if the company disseminates guidelines for making promotion decisions that result in discrimination, the company can be held liable.

Smart companies will adopt best practices like enforcing uniform criteria for promotion decisions, both to retain and get the benefit of employing talented people and to avoid discrimination suits by individuals, which are not affected by the Wal-Mart and Costco decisions.

The Court of Appeals sent the Costco class action case back to the trial court for reconsideration, giving the plaintiffs another chance. But the trial court will labor under the higher court’s instruction (again, quoting the Wal-Mart decision) that it “must determine whether there was ‘significant proof that [Costco] operated under a general policy of discrimination.’” Proving that Costco operated under a general policy of laissez faire will not suffice to save this sex discrimination case.

This post originally appeared on Piper Hoffman-Rock the Boat: Law, Society, and Social Justice on September 22, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Piper Hoffman is a writer and employee-side employment lawyer. She holds degrees with honors from Harvard Law School and Brown University. Hoffman blogs regularly on law and social justice issues at piperhoffman.com.

Momentum to End Discrimination Against Unemployed Jobseekers Builds, but Discriminatory Ads Continue

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

avatar_2563Mitchell Hirsch catches a whole bunch of discriminatory job listings showing up at CareerBuilder.com:

The latest examples appear two months after the National Employment Law Project (NELP) released a report detailing similarly exclusionary job postings this spring.  Since then, federal legislation has been introduced that would ban hiring practices, including job ads, that discriminate against unemployed workers by excluding them from consideration for employment opportunities.  As these harmful practices have attracted growing attention, one leading job site — Indeed.com — recently announced it would no longer post such exclusionary ads.

CareerBuilder_cropped

That’s even as the movement to ban such discrimination gains steam. Wednesday, Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Hank Johnson and Senator Richard Blumenthal, sponsors of House and Senate bills prohibiting discrimination against unemployed jobseekers, held a press conference on the issue, at which:

Congress today received a petition with 250,000 names in support of ending discrimination against the unemployed, said David Elliot, a spokesman with the Washington-based USAction, a federation of 22 state affiliates that advocates for human- service programs and support for public education.

Shockingly,

Already, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) took to the House floor to speak out against the idea as just creating another “protected class.”

Johnson said much of Republican objection is politically motivated.

“[Some Republicans] don’t want to see the president be successful.” He added the American people “are looking past the cynicism and they’re looking at their pocket books. … They want some action.”

There’s no question about the political motivations of Republicans—the question is if they’ll be willing to go to the mat against a bill simply saying that employers can’t flatly rule out hiring unemployed people, a type of discrimination a poll has shown people want banned by a two-to-one margin.

This post originally appeared at Daily Kos Labor on September 21, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

Disclaimer: The views of this post reflect those of the author and not of Workplace Fairness.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Wal-Mart and Women: Skeptics Question New Initiatives

Monday, September 19th, 2011

kari-lydersenLast week, Wal-Mart announced the latest component of its relatively successful campaign to shift its image from corporate villain to socially responsible role model.

The company promised that it would double its business with women-owned contractors and suppliers in the U.S. and internationally, and educate and train hundreds of thousands of women through its nonprofit Wal-Mart Foundation. That means the company will buy products from more women-owned factories and farms and hire more women to construct its stores.

The move comes after Wal-Mart was up against the largest sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit in history, until the Supreme Court threw it out this summer.

Most labor and social justice advocates are glad to see any corporation change its practices in the face of social and economic pressure, so Wal-Mart’s recent announcement and its other recent efforts, such as contracting with minority suppliers, adopting sustainable environmental practices and increasing diversity and fairness in its stores, can be seen as small victories for campaigns that expose Wal-Mart’s practices.

But many labor and watchdog groups are still skeptical of the mega-corporation’s sincerity and the larger significance of its corporate responsibility initiatives, and they are calling on the company to continue examining and reforming its practices in a big way.

Jennifer Stapleton is spokesperson for Making Change at Wal-Mart, a campaign of the United Food and Commercial Workers international union. She said in a statement last week:

Wal-Mart’s latest PR gambit is trying to cover up decades of unjust treatment of women, but women know better. Wal-Mart causes systematic economic harm to women in the U.S. and around the world, and that is precisely why Wal-Mart is trying to sell us on a new image. Wal-Mart keeps millions of women in the U.S. and around the world in poverty, fails to protect women from unacceptable sexual and other forms of workplace harassment and works many women to the bone in sweatshop conditions around the globe. And, according to the women in the Dukes v. Wal-Mart gender discrimination law suit, Wal-Mart pays women less than men.

In May and June, a group called Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Wal-Mart) surveyed 501 Wal-Mart associates. On a number of questions about pay, fairness and opportunity, women were consistently less satisfied and felt treated less fairly than male workers, by margins of about 10 to 25 percent, depending on the question.

More than half the workers answered that conditions were “poor” or “fair” in terms of having dependable schedules, opportunities for advancement and training, just procedures for discipline and termination and other measures.

These answers imply a mediocre to substandard employment situation–not overwhelming dissatisfaction, but not as positive a result as one might expect from a company that has gone into overdrive to improve its image. Three-quarters of workers also said they thought under-staffing is a serious problem that has resulted in customer dissatisfaction and/or messy stores.

And given the lawsuit and the company’s recent announcement, the group stressed that the disparity between men’s and women’s answers is significant. A release quoted Lancaster, Calif.-Wal-Mart worker Maggie Van Ness saying:

If what’s going on at Wal-Mart happened at a small company, it would be bad enough. But because Wal-Mart’s the nation’s largest employer and sets standards for our communities and other companies, this is a full-scale epidemic. The data show widespread problems that are especially bad for women, who need these jobs.

Wal-Mart is the largest private employer of women in the U.S., with 808,000 women making up 65 percent of its domestic workforce as of 2001, according to a paper by Making Change at Wal-Mart. Between 1996 and 2001, women working at Wal-Mart earned on average $5,200 less per year than men, and were also much less likely to have salaried, upper-level management positions, according to a 2003 report. It also noted women in salaried positions earned $14,000 less per year than their male counterparts.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission negotiated an $11.7 million settlement with the company over complaints that at a Kentucky distribution facility, women were systematically discriminated against for certain positions that usually went to young males.

In light of Wal-Mart’s recent promise to increase business with women, Wal-Mart critics also point to the story of Margaret Garner, an African-American construction-business owner whom Wal-Mart had celebrated for her lead role in building its controversial first Chicago store, on the city’s impoverished West Side. Four years after it opened, Wal-Mart has billed that store as a success and planned dozens more stores for Chicago. But Garner’s firm declared bankruptcy last year, driven by $11.9 million in debt from cost over-runs on the Wal-Mart, as reported by Crain’s Chicago Business. The Crain’s investigation explains that Garner’s firm, which received incentives under city programs for minority contractors, sent most of the actual work to firms owned by white males. Garner’s firm sunk into debt when it couldn’t pay those companies as promised.

Also, a University of Illinois at Chicago and Loyola University study alleges that the West Side Wal-Mart drove other local companies out of business, a long-standing complaint which Wal-Mart says is not borne out by facts.

But according to Making Change at Wal-Mart,

For decades, Wal-Mart has shown that when it “invests” in a community, that community can expect lost jobs, depressed wages, bankrupt local business, and lowering of labor standards to follow quickly. Women in the U.S. and around the world would be far better served if Wal-Mart would improve its labor practices, raise its wages, and use its power to stand up for human rights instead of undermining them through its day-to-day business practices.

This post originally appeared in Working in These Times on September 19, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at kari.lydersen@gmail.com.

Bloomberg Did Not Discriminate Against Women by Treating New Mothers the Same as Other Leave-Takers

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Piper HoffmanArticle first published as Judge: Bloomberg Did Not Discriminate Against Women on Blogcritics.

The judge who ruled that Bloomberg LP did not illegally discriminate against women for taking pregnancy leave raised an important policy question in her written opinion. Judge Preska did not drop “an anvil…on the work-life balance scale,” despite commentators’ efforts to portray her decision as a calculated blow against work-life balance; in deciding in Bloomberg’s favor, all she did was follow the existing law. In her commentary, however, she questioned the wisdom of the law itself, and noted that one alternative might be for employers to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.” Judge Preska did not say whether she thinks that would be a good idea. It is a dreadful idea.

The judge’s legal reasoning in the Bloomberg ruling is by the book. The federal law bans pregnancy discrimination as a form of gender discrimination, as it should – only women get pregnant. The law does not require employers to treat pregnant women better than other employees, just not to treat them worse. Based on the evidence Judge Preska summarized in her decision, Bloomberg LP did not treat women who took pregnancy leave worse than other leave-takers; to the contrary, if that evidence is to be believed (in an earlier ruling Judge Preska threw out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s expert witnesses, leaving the evidence lopsided in Bloomberg’s favor), women returning from maternity leave may have fared slightly better in terms of compensation than employees returning from other kinds of leave.

The evidence also showed that taking leave for any reason is not a wise career move at Bloomberg. The company policy is, in essence, that employees must put Bloomberg LP ahead of God, country, family, and whatever else figures in their particular pursuits of happiness. Bloomberg scoffs at work-life balance, and while that might be poor business judgment or even reprehensible, Judge Preska was correct that it is not against the law.

Judge Preska makes it clear that the law, whether she likes it or not, grants employers the right to ignore and even discourage workers’ lives outside of work. She quotes former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s grim assessment that there is “no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

The judge writes that “it is not the Court’s role to engage in policy debates or choose the outcome it thinks is best. It is to apply the law.” Judge Preska goes on to discuss all the things that courts do not have the power to police. She includes in that list what she calls “work-family tradeoffs” – she does not believe one can have it all. But maybe one can have more than Bloomberg gives: the judge observes that it “may be desirable” and “may make business sense” for companies to “treat pregnant women and mothers better or more leniently than others.”

I disagree. Treating pregnant women and mothers more leniently than other employees is not desirable. The view that pregnant women and mothers deserve special treatment may appear feminist, but it actually serves the interests of those who want women pregnant and at home while daddy wins the bread. The law already bars employers from discriminating against women because of pregnancy and related medical conditions, so this policy question is not about whether women’s biology holds them back in the workplace. It is about whether some mothers’ choices to spend more time away from work than fathers and non-parents do should be underwritten by the government and employers.

“Treat[ing] pregnant women and mothers better…than others” would be an insult and a disservice to several groups of “others.” First, fathers: why should employers treat mothers better than fathers? To ensure that women take more time off work and that men don’t? To reinforce sexist stereotypes that, compared to men, women are better at/prefer/should be raising children? Those stereotypes don’t need much reinforcement: studies have shown that men who take paternity leave are later penalized in terms of compensation and promotion compared to men who leave all the child-rearing to women. The attitudes behind those penalties are the same attitudes that support treating mothers better than other employees.

The second group of slighted “others” is the ill and disabled: why should pregnant women and new mothers be treated better than employees who take leave that is necessary for different medical reasons? Pregnant women at least chose to suffer their medical condition, unlike people who have to take leave for, say, a kidney transplant, or to care for a dying parent. Pregnant women and new mothers should not be treated worse than others with medical conditions, and they should not be treated better.

Third, non-mothers: treating female employees who choose to bear children better than those who do not (and in some cases cannot) devalues the lives of women without kids. Requiring employers to treat mothers better in the workplace than women who are not mothers would divert both public and private resources to subsidize the individual lifestyles of people who choose to have children. People do not have children for the greater good or out of a sense of civic duty – they have children because they want to. It makes no sense to force employers to grant preferential treatment to women who choose to spend their time and resources having children over women who choose to spend their time and resources doing something else. It is not up to employers to value any of these private, non-employment-related choices over the others.

Judge Preska put a point on this policy debate by referring to “work-family tradeoffs” rather than “work-life tradeoffs.” But these are not the same thing. Family is not a substitute for life; family is a part of life, but there is more. For most people blessed with the resources to choose how to spend their time, life includes friends, the arts, physical activity, spirituality, or any of many other interests. The judge’s phrase, “work-family tradeoffs,” frames the issue as a question of trading family time for work time, implying that family is the only thing that could possibly merit time off of work. In the context of a gender discrimination case like this one, this framing is not only reductionist, it is frightening in its confinement of female employees to only two spheres: family and making a living.

Judge Preska merely outlines the policy choice of favoring mothers over other employees. She does not claim it as her own. But it is not a straw man: it is at the heart of many “work-life balance” criticisms of the judge’s ruling. Critics are not satisfied with the law’s requirement that employers treat women who take medical leave related to pregnancy the same as other employees who take leave for other reasons. They want pregnancy and motherhood to be privileged.

I am not on Bloomberg’s side. Expecting employees to put work above all else is a recipe for misery for all but workaholics, and an ugly manifestation of corporate greed. But putting children above all else is not the answer for everyone either.
Judges lack the power to force employers to facilitate humane work schedules, and in a free market with more workers than jobs, employees lack the leverage to reach company- or industry-wide bargains for a better balance. At least for now, people who choose to have children will have to make trade-offs to pursue their dreams the same way that people without children do. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and Judge Preska’s ruling, pregnancy and related medical conditions are not a part of that trade-off – they should have no different effect than any other medical condition.

If other “work-family” trade-offs continue to fall more heavily on mothers than fathers, they will have a discriminatory effect. The most immediate and attainable palliative is for fathers to step up and mothers to step back. As more fathers take more parental leave the stereotype of women as children’s natural caretakers will begin to erode, and if women take less leave, the stereotype that women are not as committed to their work as men are may begin to erode too. Parents who can afford for mom to take non-medical time off with the kids should not wait for the courts or the legislature to solve their childcare challenges. They should tap underutilized in-house talent instead: dads.

This blog originally appeared  at Piper Hoffman on August 26, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Piper Hoffman is a writer and employee-side employment lawyer. She holds degrees with honors from Harvard Law School and Brown University. Hoffman blogs regularly on law and social justice issues at piperhoffman.com.

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