Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

Woman Fired For Being Transgender Scores A Victory

Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Bryce CovertJessi Dye was excited about her new job at the Summerford Nursing Home in Alabama. Her experience watching her grandmother be put in a nursing home when she was younger made her want to help others who end up in the same situation. “She felt alone a lot of the time,” the 28-year-old said. “I wanted to be there for people, make it a little brighter place for these people who might not have somebody to visit them.”

She had also been working in fast food, but this job would come with better pay, better hours, and the possibility of fast advancement.

Yet she would only spend four hours actually doing her new job. After going through half a day of training, she says she was told to report to the manager’s office after lunch. “And the first thing the manager said to me when I stepped into his office is, ‘What are you?’” she said. “That’s not a question you ask me as a person, it’s a question you ask some little knickknack… It’s honestly not even a question for a pet.”

As a transgender woman, she had changed the photo on her driver’s license to match her gender expression, but her gender marker was wrong. That was what the manager was looking at as he asked her blunt questions about her gender. Getting a driver’s license updated can be difficult; more than 40 percent of transgender people across the country go without an ID that matches their gender identity, and 11 percent say they were denied in an attempt to update it. But having an ID that doesn’t reflect someone’s gender identity is correlated with much higher rates of discrimination and harassment.

“I can’t describe easily how that felt,” she said of that first question the manager asked her. “The closest thing I can say is that it felt like somebody punched me in the stomach.” She says that the manager not only told her he was letting her go just hours after she started, but that he confirmed it was because she is transgender.

“I walked out the door of the nursing home, said my goodbyes to the ladies I’d been working with, and made the hardest phone call of my life to my wife to say I couldn’t support us the way I’d planned on,” she said. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”

She has since received some good news: On Thursday, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented her in her lawsuit against Summerford, announced that the nursing home has agreed to pay her a financial settlement, as well as to implement a workplace nondiscrimination policy for sexual orientation and gender and to provide LGBT training for human resource employees, including the manager who fired Dye. A representative of the nursing home declined to comment on the settlement.

The policy change is the most important part for Dye. “That was more of a victory for me than any money could have ever been. Making sure the world’s a little bit safer for the next person who comes along,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to ever have to make that phone call I made that day.”

The loss of a job can be catastrophic, and losing her job at the nursing home was a blow for Dye and her wife. “Our financial stability was completely taken out from under us,” she said. She was able to rescind her two weeks notice at the fast food job, but her entire shift was laid off just a couple of months later. After that, she spent six months looking for work until she found the retail job she has now. “It’s hard to find a job in Alabama anyway, but one that’s openly accepting and easy to work with, not so much,” she noted.

The hope is also that such a case, which is likely the first of its kind won against a private Alabama employer, resonates beyond Dye. “There still seems to be a misperception among many employers that they can fire employees at will for any reason or no reason at all,” said Sam Wolfe, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But there are federal protections against individuals because they are transgender, and we’re hopeful this lawsuit will raise awareness.”

Federal law doesn’t explicitly enumerate gender identity as a protected class against workplace discrimination. But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that employer discrimination on that basis violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on sex. Just in April, it ruled that the Army illegally discriminated against a transgender civilian employee by forcing her to use a single bathroom. Yet just 19 states and Washington, D.C.have laws prohibiting employment discrimination that include gender identity. The Equality Act, introduced in Congress in July, would explicitly ban employment discrimination against all LGBT people, but has not yet been passed and doesn’t have any Republican sponsors.

This is part of what motivated Dye to take action in the first place. “It was never about money,” she said. “It was about doing what’s right, standing up and and letting it be known you can’t do this to people, you can’t treat people like objects.”

This blog originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on September 11th, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Bryce Covert is the Economic Policy Editor for ThinkProgress. She was previously editor of the Roosevelt Institute’s Next New Deal blog and a senior communications officer. She is also a contributor for The Nation and was previously a contributor for ForbesWoman. Her writing has appeared on The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Nation, The Atlantic, The American Prospect, and others. She is also a board member of WAM!NYC, the New York Chapter of Women, Action & the Media.

Why the Fed Isn't Close to Achieving Full Employment and Shouldn’t Be Discussing Raising Interest Rates—the Case of Black Workers

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

William SpriggsThe recently released minutes of the last meeting of the Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee revealed there was serious discussion of the fact the labor market still showed signs of weakness. A primary issue was the lack of evidence of strong wage growth, which would be a clear signal the labor market was tightening. This has unleashed the Wall Street bettors, who want a jump on the Fed’s changing monetary policy, giving them more active play on the bond market, where interest rate movements can fuel their gambling addiction. The voices being raised to have the Fed raise interest rates march out lots of theory to predict uncontrolled inflation, despite a global slowdown, falling oil and natural resource prices, and flat real wages. We must hope that the Fed makes policy based on what is good for the economy, not what is good for the reckless gamblers on Wall Street.

The current directive to the Fed comes from the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, which in 1978 established that the nation’s primary economic policy is to achieve full employment, within reason—not by creating unsustainable budget deficits or igniting uncontrollable inflation. Unfortunately, many have twisted the legislation’s purpose to their own ends, changing the act’s intent to balance budgets and maintain low inflation in hopes those policies don’t increase unemployment. The act does not place full employment on equal footing with fighting inflation; it merely constrains full-employment policy to a measure of prudence.

With that in mind, the Fed should understand it is not at full employment. In addition to wages rising with productivity, a main tenant of evidence of full employment, the Fed needs to embrace some additional senses of full employment. One is that discrimination would disappear, since it would become prohibitively costly in a full-employment economy.

A problem for the Fed is that there is little diversity in its staffing, which reflects the low level of diversity among economists. Economists have convinced themselves there is little to explain about the persistence of the disparity in black and white unemployment rates, the ratio of which remains stubbornly at 2-to-1. It is enough to assume there are lower skill levels among African Americans and societal structural issues that permanently disadvantage African Americans, and that these circumstances will persist no matter what the level of unemployment.

Of course, many economists do appreciate that this pat answer is hard to reconcile with the great sensitivity that the black unemployment rate has to the economy—a tightening labor market brings down the black unemployment rate at twice the rate for whites. That makes the structural argument difficult to maintain.

There is another key element. The unemployment rate gaps between blacks and whites are stubborn at every education level, and the gaps are glaring. In fact, what the unemployment rate gaps for blacks suggest is the old adage that blacks must be twice as good to compete in the labor market with whites. The unemployment rate for blacks with more education is similar to that of whites with less education. This is true for blacks at all education levels, from college graduates to associate degree holders to high school graduates. And it is very difficult to argue that those huge gaps do not reflect discrimination.

When the labor market tanks, and the number of unemployed workers per job opening goes up, the gaps faced by better educated blacks to less educated whites get wider. Black college graduates find themselves with unemployment rates closer to white high school graduates, and blacks with associate degrees find themselves with unemployment rates worse than white high school dropouts.

When the labor market tightens, unemployment rates for blacks with more education improve such that they are better than those of less educated whites, though still off the mark compared with equally educated whites. When employers are faced with two unemployed working people for each job opening, many stop seeing color and start seeing qualifications. Employers faced with a growing economy and smaller applicant pools find it would now cost to discriminate by passing over the qualified African American applicant. We don’t know what would happen if the nation maintained its commitment to full employment, because just as the black unemployment rates near parity with whites, our economic policy switches all reverse to slow the economy, increase unemployment and push blacks off the path to equality.

The Fed needs to see that its policies are part of that problem. Slowing the economy before we reach full employment means employers never have to raise wages nor understand the costs of their discriminatory practices.

This blog originally appeared in AFL-CIO on August 21 ,2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: William E. Spriggs is the Chief Economist for AFL-CIO. His is also a Professor at Howard University. Follow Spriggs on Twitter: @WSpriggs.

Former Sports Broadcaster Thinks He Shouldn’t Have Been Fired Over Anti-Gay Statements

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Ian Millhiser Craig James is a former professional football player and longtime sports broadcaster who, in 2012, took time off from his broadcasting career to mount an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate. During that campaign, according to a lawsuit James filed Monday, he opposed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples, and called upon “Christians” to “stand up” against the advance of marriage equality. Though he briefly worked as a broadcaster for Fox Sports following his campaign, James says he was fired shortly after Fox uncovered his past anti-gay statements.

James now works for the Family Research Council, an anti-gay organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a “hate group.”

The crux of James’s lawsuit are claims that Fox “discriminated against James because of his religionin violation of the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act.” Yet his complaint (which, admittedly, is only available to the public in a redacted form) cites no actual evidence that Fox’s decision to fire James was motivated by the fact that James identifies as a Christian. Nor does it claim that Fox Sports treated other employees who held similar anti-gay views differently because those employees are not Christian. Rather, James says that “Fox Sports informed James that his short off-the-cuff statement about his beliefs regarding marriage . . . was the sole reason Fox Sports terminated him,” and he does not appear to disagree with Fox’s alleged claim that they were motivated solely by their own opposition to James’s anti-gay statements.

Instead, James attempts a two-bumper bank shot to convert this anti-anti-gay firing into a kind of religious discrimination. James, his lawsuit emphasizes, holds anti-gay beliefs that are motivated byhis religious beliefs, and this, he claims, is enough to protect his job even if Fox would be allowed to fire an employee who made similar statements that were driven by a secular belief.

In other contexts, the Supreme Court has rejected attempts to use cries of religious discrimination to excuse acts of bigotry. Four years after Congress banned whites-only restaurants, for example, the owner of a South Carolina barbecue chain put up a sign protesting that “[t]he law makes us serve n***ers, but any money we get from them goes to the Ku Klux Klan.” He also claimed that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “contravenes the will of God,” and that he should be exempted from having to follow it because of his religious beliefs. The Supreme Court disagreed, in Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, labeling the restaurant owner’s claim “patently frivolous.”

James’s case, however, was filed in Texas court, where the conservative Texas Supreme Court may see things differently than the justices of another era. It also arises under a different area of the law than Piggie Park. James sued under the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act, which, among other things, prohibits discrimination “because of or on the basis of any aspect of religious observance, practice, or belief, unless an employer demonstrates that the employer is unable reasonably to accommodate the religious observance or practice of an employee or applicantwithout undue hardship to the conduct of the employer’s business.”

There is surprisingly little Texas case law interpreting this particular provision. Nevertheless, Texas civil rights law explicitly tracks “the policies of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its subsequent amendments,” so federal court decisions examining similar cases should inform the Texas judges confronted by James’s case. At least one federal appeals court case, however, suggests that employers are not required to accommodate the anti-gay views of their employees, even if those views are motivated by religion.

In Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Co., the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered an employee who posted Bible verses that, among other things, said that men who have sex with men should be “put to death.” Admittedly, this is a more egregious case than theJames case, as James was not fired for saying that gay or bisexual men should be executed (when he was later asked about executing gay people, he responded tepidly). Nevertheless, the court inPeterson offered a sweeping dismissal of the idea that an employer is required to accommodate statements that could cause lesbian, gay or bisexual employees to feel unwelcome. It is an undue hardship, the court explained, to inhibit an employer’s “efforts to attract and retain a qualified, diverse workforce, which the company reasonably views as vital to its commercial success.”

James was an unusually visible employee who made his anti-gay statements in an unusually public forum. And James admits that Fox Sports was motivated by similar fears to the ones that concerned the employer in Peterson. He quotes a Fox spokesperson, who reportedly said that James was fired because “[w]e just asked ourselves how Craig’s statements would play in our human resources department” and concluded that “[h]e couldn’t say those things here.”

Nevertheless, the Texas judicial system is unusually conservative, so there is no guarantee that it will not give people like James a special right to make offensive statements about LGBT people with impunity.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on August 4, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Ian Millhiser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center’s Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal. Ian’s first book is Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

Catholic Teacher Fired For Being Lesbian Fights Back

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Jack JenkinsIn June, Margie Winters was fired from her job as director of religious education at Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania for being public about her same-sex marriage.

“What it was like inside, was like a death,” Winters told a local CBS affiliate in Philadelphia.

But Winters and a band of supporters are refusing to let that be the end of her story, or her teaching career. On Monday afternoon, the former schoolteacher and 50 of her supporters marched to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Center City offices to deliver a petition demanding her reinstatement. She attempted to deliver the hefty box of papers, signed by more than 22,000 people, inside the building, but was denied entry by a security guard.

“Because I’m so threatening,” Winters joked.

Winters has been embraced by outraged local Catholics — and even the mayor of her city — who oppose her firing. Among other expressions of support for the veteran teacher, a group of parentshas formed the organization “Stand With Margie,” complete with a website, a Facebook pagesporting more than 11,000 “likes,” and a GoFundMe campaign that has raised $17,000 for Winters and her wife. In addition, the petition drive was organized by Faithful America, an online progressive Christian advocacy organization that claims over 300,000 active participants.

“Margie Winters’ firing was unjust and contrary to Catholic values, and she should be reinstated immediately,” the petition, addressed to Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, read. “Please inform the school’s leadership that you will not interfere with their staffing or threaten their status as a Catholic school.”

According to Philly.com, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has denied it had anything to do with her firing. But Winters disputes this claim, noting she told school administrators when they hired her eight years ago that she was in a same-sex relationship. The only reason she was fired, she says, was because the archdiocese received an anonymous complaint about her sexuality in June — mere weeks before the Supreme Court declare same-sex marriage legal across the country, which Chaput publicly opposed.

“It wasn’t until the archdiocese was notified that something changed,” she told Philly.com. “You can draw your own conclusions.”

Regardless of archdiocese’s involvement with Winters’ termination, the archbishop has said he supports the school’s decision.

“I’m very grateful to the Religious Sisters of Mercy and to the principal and board members of Waldron Mercy for taking the steps to ensure that the Catholic faith is presented in a way fully in accord with the teaching of the church,” Chaput, speaking of Winters, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They’ve shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon.”

Winters’ struggle is frustrating for her family and her supporters, but it is by no means unique. Several Catholic schoolteachers and employees have been let go for being “publicly” gay over the past year in Iowa, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Illinois. The firings have sparked sustained protests led by students, teachers, and parishioners, and Catholic communities in California, Ohio, and Florida are pushing back against local Catholic leaders in their states who have threatened to terminate LGBT employees who have public relationships.

Catholic leaders, however, maintain that they have the legal right to discriminate against LGBT people in hiring, citing a 2011 Supreme Court case that expanded the so-called “ministerial exception.” The legal precedent traditionally only allowed religious groups free reign over who they hire for ordained positions, but now gives them to ability to bypass nondiscrimination policies for any position they deem to be a “minister” — including schoolteachers. In addition, Pennsylvania currently has no robust statewide LGBT workplace protection laws, although lawmakers areintroducing bills to change that.

Although the impetus for such terminations is ostensibly Catholic theology, the decision to fire people for being open about their sexuality ultimately rests with administrators and Catholic officials. Last month in New York City, for example, a newly-hired organist at a Catholic churchstoked controversy by openly posting about his marriage to another man on Facebook. But while an organist was fired for doing the exact same thing in Illinois, the archdiocese of New York has yet to issue a statement on the matter.

The decision to fire Winters is also oddly timed, coming just two months before a planned visit by Pope Francis to Philadelphia. Pope Francis has not changed traditional Catholic teaching opposing homosexual acts, but famously declared “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests in 2013, and has asked the church to become less “obsessed” with same-sex marriage and abortion.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress.org on August 4, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Jack Jenkins is the Senior Religion Reporter for ThinkProgress. He was previously the Senior Writer and Researcher for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and worked as a reporter and blogger for the Religion News Service. His stories and analysis have appeared in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Real Clear Politics, National Catholic Reporter, and Christian Century, among other publications. Jack got his bachelor’s in history and religion/philosophy from Presbyterian College and holds a Master’s of Divinity from Harvard University. He also plays harmonica and ukulele.

Abercrombie Lost A Supreme Court Case. Could They Win A Retail War?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Jessica_GoldsteinLast fall, Samantha Elauf, a young Muslim who was denied employment at Abercrombie and Fitch because her headscarf violated the company’s dress code, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court. On Monday, SCOTUS ruled against Abercrombie, 8-1, declaring that A&F’s refusal to accommodate a hijab-wearing applicant was a violation of civil rights law.

Elauf didn’t know about Abercrombie’s policy against headscarves; the Supreme Court needed to determine if it was Elauf’s responsibility to inquire for an accommodation or if the burden was on Abercrombie to provide an accommodation without waiting for Elauf to ask. The final call: it was on Abercrombie to provide for Elauf, not the other way around, and failing to do so constituted religious discrimination.

In a statement, Abercrombie said the case will go on and pointed out that the justices did not specifically say discrimination had occured: “We will determine our next steps in the litigation.”

So Abercrombie lost a battle. But could this loss help the chain win a retail war? If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Abercrombie rebounded from irrelevance.

As we noted on this site last year, the “cool” look once exemplified by Abercrombie’s preppy offerings and its blonde, white and athletic aesthetic is no longer cool among young shoppers. At its modern peak (which is to say, the second era of Abercrombie, after then-CEO Mike Jeffries revived the long-dormant brand in 1992), Abercrombie was raking in almost $2 billion in annual sales, with 22,000 conventionally hot employees populating 700 stores. Abercrombie thrived on a narrow definition of beauty.

As Jeffries put it in a now-infamous interview with Salon in 2006, “We hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that… In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends… Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”

Repulsive as this modus operandi may be, there was a time, not too long ago, when it was smart marketing: when everyone was watching The O.C., when Mean Girls in their nearly-identical pink-on-Wednesdays attire reigned supreme, when sameness was the order of the day.

But 2006, in fashion years, is ancient history. Today’s teenagers are drawn to the cheap, trendy stuff on the shelves of H&M, Forever 21, and Zara (though the human cost of such inexpensive, wear-it-then-toss-it clothes is devastatingly high). Looking like everyone else is so five years ago. And Abercrombie’s idea of utopia as, basically, an Aryan, Logan’s Run-like game of touch football that never ends doesn’t jive with the taste of the most racially diverse generation in history.


Sales at A&F have been on the decline for years; stores have been shuttering across the nation. So before Elauf’s case was decided, Abercrombie was in the midst of some soul-searching. (Assuming corporations are people, why can’t brands have souls?) They killed the logo. They brought light into the stores and black clothing to the shelves. The nausea-inducing amounts of perfume amid the racks was taken down by a quarter. A&F even tried to go in a hipster direction; this did not sit well with the preppy populace, Abercrombie’s core demographic. Besides, these are not the kind of seismic changes that rescue a dying brand.

Maybe, just maybe, this SCOTUS case will be a watershed moment for Abercrombie. Not only is their old mode of cool no longer cool; it is so uncool that it’s literally unconstitutional. Imagine a brave new Abercrombie where the employees — ahem, “brand representatives” — actually represent a huge swath of America’s teenage population. Imagine it being totally ordinary to stroll into an A&F at the mall and be greeted by a girl in a hijab and a guy in a yarmulke.

Or maybe Abercrombie will continue its speedy, steady fall from power. But if you happen to be personally invested in the resurgence of Abercrombie as a cultural force, consider this SCOTUS ruling cause for cautious optimism.

This blog was originally posted on Think Progress on June 2, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Jessica Goldstein. Jessica Goldstein is the Culture Editor for ThinkProgress. She also writes recaps for Vulture, New York Magazine’s culture blog. Before coming to ThinkProgress, Jessica was a feature writer and theater columnist at the Washington Post. Jessica holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Pennsylvania. While at Penn, she wrote for Seventeen and Her Campus. Jessica is originally from New Jersey.

Keep Current on Trending Issues with WF's Newly Updated Discrimination and Paid Sick Time Pages

Monday, March 30th, 2015

photoDiscrimination is in the news every day in one form or another, and its effect in the workplace can be devastating to employees and their livelihood. We’ve updated our pages in areas of discrimination law that have been front and center in the news and in the workplace.  Updates have been made to our pages on Pregnancy Discrimination, Family Responsibilities Discrimination, and Gender Identity Discrimination.  We’ve also added a new page with information about the rapidly growing body of State and Local Paid Sick Leave laws.

The case of brought pregnancy discrimination into the lime light last year.  The case, argued before the Supreme Court in December 2014, asks to what extent the   requires that employers give accommodations to pregnant employees.  In Ms. Young’s case, UPS refused to limit the amount of weight she was required to carry during her pregnancy.  As a result she was forced to take unpaid leave and ultimately lost her health insurance.  This type of predicament is all too common for pregnant women in the workforce.  Our updated Pregnancy Discrimination page explains the scope and level of protection that various federal laws might offer to pregnant women.  It also explains what employers can and cannot do with respect to the many pregnancy related issues that women in the workplace face.  It covers pregnancy-related medical leave, work accommodations, parental leave after pregnancy, recovery from terminated pregnancies, paid or unpaid time off, and health insurance.

Transgender and Gender Identity rights are another issue on the forefront of the news these days.  While acceptance and understanding of the rights of transgender people seem to be increasing in the public, employers and companies don’t always keep up with the times.  Gender identity issues can be most difficult to deal with in the workplace, especially if your employer doesn’t acknowledge or properly deal with problems.  We’ve made extensive updates to our page on Gender Identity Discrimination to provide as much information as possible for transgender workers, as well as for companies looking to develop policies and procedures to effectively address gender identity issues.  This area of law is quickly changing and developing on the state and local level, and somewhat more slowly at the federal level.  The Gender Identity Discrimination page will help fill you in on the current state of the law, and also direct you to more information on this important issue.

The definition of Family Responsibilities has certainly changed over the decades.  Employers in the U.S. have continued to place more importance on work/life balance, but workers continue to face significant obstacles in this area.  Our new updated page on Family Responsibilities Discrimination provides information about how existing laws may protect you against discrimination based on your status as a parent, spouse, or caregiver.  It is important for employees and employers to understand what personal information can and cannot be the basis for employment decisions.

This year, President Obama has of paid sick leave laws. As the President and others urge Congress to pass federal laws providing for paid sick leave to employees, states and localities have also begun to heed the call and pass their own laws. See our NEW page on State and Local Paid Sick Leave Laws for information on which jurisdictions are leading the charge, and see what different approaches each jurisdiction is taking.


About the Author: Shannon Rusz is a general practice litigation attorney in Annapolis, Maryland. She currently serves as the content manager for WorkplaceFairness.org.  Shannon received her law degree from George Washington University Law School in 2012

Unfortunately, our “post-racial” society isn’t post-bias

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Amy SemmelAccording to a recent study by MTV, the majority of millennials believe that they live in a “post-racial” society.  They cite Barack Obama’s presidency as a great achievement for race relations.  Having a black President even influenced a majority of the study participants to believe that people of color have the same opportunities as white people.  Unfortunately, employment statistics say otherwise. Since 1972 –when the Federal Reserve began collecting separate unemployment data for African-Americans — the black unemployment rate has stubbornly remained at least 60% higher than the white unemployment rate. The gender pay gap has barely budged in a decade, with full-time women employees being paid 78% of what men were paid.  And the gap is worse for women of color, with Hispanic women laboring at the bottom, with only 54% of white men’s earnings. 70% of Google employees are male, with only 2% Black, 3% Latino, and 30% Asian. This from the company whose motto is “Do no Evil.” How can this be? While overt racism or sexism is rarer today in corporate America, implicit biases linger.

Imagine that you are supervisor, with two virtually identical resumes on your desk.  Both candidates are equally qualified.  Do you gravitate toward the one with a white Anglo-Saxon name (think “Emily” or “Brendan”), or a name more likely to belong to an African-American (think “Lakisha” or “Jamal”)? Aware of their bias or not, hiring managers are 50% more likely to call the applicant with the white-sounding name in for an interview.  There is a growing body of research like this that proves that implicit bias is real and is having real-life consequences for people who are considered “other” in terms of race, disability, sexual orientation and other characteristics. (There are even on-line tests you can take to find out about your own implicit biases.)  But even as our understanding of how implicit bias leads to discrimination grows, judges often fail to recognize that discrimination can result from unconscious stereotypes or subtle preferences for people similar to oneself—perhaps today even more than overt bigotry.  To truly provide equal opportunity for all, social science research into how people actually behave in the workplace must inform the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

This article originally appeared in celavoice.org on December 4, 2014. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Amy Semmel devotes her practice to eradicating discrimination and retaliation in the workplace. She advocates for employees seeking remedies for retaliation for whistleblowing, discrimination and wage theft. Ms. Semmel is frequently invited to speak at conferences and seminars throughout the state. Subjects on which she has spoken include discovery issues in employment litigation; liability of successor, electronic discovery, alter ego and joint employers; the Private Attorney General Act, and developments in wage and hour law.

New Pages to wrap up 2014!

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

Paula Professional CroppedTo wrap up 2014 Workplace Fairness has added 105 new pages to keep you informed about the latest developments in employment law.

We now offer detailed information, by state, on the processes for filing a workers compensation claim, and for filing an unemployment claim. Find out how to file a claim in your state, what deadlines you might face, and what benefits you may be eligible for.

In our Discrimination section we’ve added a new page on genetic information discrimination, including the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”).  As technology progresses by leaps and bounds, new issues of privacy and discrimination can come up in the workplace.  This page answers questions that many workers may have about how accessible their genetic information is to employers.

In our Harassment section our new page on the effects of domestic violence in the workplace helps victims of domestic violence to understand how their situation at home may affect their work and what rights they have when they are treated negatively because of it.

Finally, in our Unions and Collective Action section we’ve added information about the 24 states that currently have right-to-work laws, and what that means for workers.  This page provides an explanation of what right-to-work laws are, and what they mean for workers in states that have instituted them.

The Civil Rights Act – looking back, looking ahead

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

CELAVoiceThe Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed equal treatment in the workplace, in public facilities, and in public accommodations, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sex.  Equality was not the norm in 1964.  Remembering where we started may provide hope and inspiration for the next fifty years.

This is the first of a two part posting: first, a history we have lived, second, imagining and planning for the future.


Looking Back – Part 1

By beginning with a look at the United States of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, we can better appreciate the magnitude of the changes we have experienced.  There and then were the conditions which the Civil Rights Act was meant to address.  The United States Supreme Court struck down segregated schools and the doctrine of “separate but equal” public facilities, only in 1954.  A year later, the Court called for dismantling segregated public schools with “all deliberate speed.”   In practice, communities and states intent on resisting the required changes made much of “deliberate” at the expense of “speed.”

In 1960, as part of the Wilmington, Delaware school district’s long delayed preparation for desegregation, I, with a few classmates, had a chance to visit the black school about six blocks from our own.  The only apparent equal part was the architectural plan.  The two schools had the same floor plans.  Even as an eleven year old, I could see that the black school had almost no books, that the sandstone bricks were crumbling, the toilets broken and foul.  By contrast, my own school had well maintained granite, a fully stocked library, plenty of classroom supplies and materials, clean and functioning lavatories.

The lack of adequate facilities and the open lie of “separate but equal” were but the tip of the iceberg of de jure segregation.  Our country had opportunities only for a select few.  We did not tolerate differences.  We murdered those who challenged the assigned order.   State sponsored and state enforced racial separation — combined with political disenfranchisement, and an economic and social caste system — was violent, brutal, and unremitting.   In the Summer of 1964, the world witnessed the terrorism supporting American segregation in the murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.

Lynchings, counted in the thousands, were carried out over generations, not only in the South, but throughout the country.  “Race riots”, actually pogroms and massacres of entire communities, terrorized people of color.  The ferocity of racial as well as ethnic violence characterized and defined American society in the first half of the twentieth century.

Pervasive discrimination was not limited to African Americans.  Universities had quotas for Jews, Catholics, and other minorities.  Large corporations, law firms, hospitals would not consider ethnic minorities for hire.  Women had limited rights to own property.   Gays were invisible. In quantitative terms, almost two-thirds of our country’s people suffered discrimination.  Freedom and opportunity were reserved for members of a small and privileged class consisting almost exclusively of economically fortunate, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant men.    The norm, the life experienced by most people, included closed doors, hatred, persecution, and violence.

When we hear the stories of individuals we can begin to understand the extent and severity of discrimination in the mid-twentieth century United States.  From my own family stories: a young woman limited to secretarial work for men who were far less talented than she, a high school girl learning from her admired father that his field of work was closed to all women, a man who died unable to tell his family of his love for another human being, a woman hospitalized for “hysteria” as she came to terms with her love of another woman, an entire family whose parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins were slaughtered after the United States refused them safe haven from Nazi genocide.

There are few in my generation, coming of age in the 1960’s, who do not know such stories.  The details may vary. The story tellers may be Asian, Hispanic, African American, Irish, Native American. Regardless of one’s origins, America of the early and middle twentieth century held up the torch of liberty and opportunity while unapologetically shutting doors and crushing hopes.

Discrimination and violence strike deeply.  At its core, discrimination is a disregard and disrespect of another person’s humanity.  It is an expression of contempt and hatred.  When we suffer discrimination, the pain stays with us for years.  It is felt for generations.  When we engage in discrimination, when we tolerate contempt and hatred, and when we acquiesce in violence, we rend the fabric of our communities.  We corrupt our souls.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, at the time of its passage, represented our country’s highest aspirations in the face of social and political realities far different than our Constitution’s promises.  The ongoing success of that legislation is all around us. Women and minorities have entered the workplace.  Many have risen to positions of prominence.  People with physical and emotional challenges are emerging from the shadows of dependence and isolation.  We are beginning to understand the waste of human potential and the pain we inflict in denying and demonizing love and sexuality.  We have made room for a true diversity of spiritual beliefs and practices.

But we can’t take our progress for granted.  As we try to imagine the challenges and opportunities of the next fifty years, an appreciation of how far we have come may help us choose compassion over misplaced caution and progress over the next iteration of “all deliberate speed.”

We now have a chance to be on the right side of history.  In my next post, I will discuss how we might get there.

This blog originally appeared in CELAvoice.org on October 7,2014. Reprinted with permission. http://celavoice.org/author/marvin-krakow/

About the author: Marvin Krakow (B.A., Yale, 1970, J.D. Yale, 1974), a founding partner of Alexander Krakow + Glick LLP, focuses on discrimination based on race, age, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and ethnicity, wrongful termination of employment, civil rights, and class actions. He has won seven, and eight figure results. He helps victims of sexual harassment and rape, and represents whistle blowers. He argued landmark cases before the California Supreme Court, Loder v. City of Glendale and Superior Court v. Department of Health Services (McGinnis).

No free pass to discriminate against immigrant workers: Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co.

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Low-wage workers—regardless of immigration status—shoulder more than their fair share of workplace violations, including unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination and harassment.  Immigrant low-wage workers are particularly vulnerable—working under constant fear that if they exercise basic workplace rights, they will suffer retaliation that could result in the separation of their families; loss of homes and property; or return to violence or extreme poverty in their home countries.

This fear of retaliation is based in fact.  We as advocates have seen it happen time and time again—and it overwhelmingly leads to workers staying silent, leaving employers without even a slap on the wrist when they break the law.

Scofflaw employers do not and will not stop violating the law if they are not held accountable for their violations to all workers.  Any other type of piecemeal enforcement, or lack of enforcement, encourages employers to hire vulnerable undocumented workers, disregard labor laws as basic as the minimum wage, and then fire them when they complain – all to the economic disadvantage of employers who do follow the law.

Earlier this summer, the California Supreme Court in the Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company case agreed, deciding that companies that hire undocumented workers (knowingly or not) do not get a free pass to discriminate against them.

In that case, Mr. Salas sued his former employer, Sierra Chemical Company, for failing to bring him back to work after he injured himself and claimed workers’ compensation benefits. Mr. Salas alleged the company retaliated against him for filing his claim and discriminated against him because of his injury. But a jury never got the chance to decide whether he was right. The company claimed that because Mr. Salas was not authorized to work in the U.S. in the first place, the company shouldn’t be liable for failing to hire him back. A lower court agreed and dismissed the case (giving the company a free pass to discriminate in the bargain).

The California Supreme Court said not so fast. On the one hand, the law says that people without work authorization shouldn’t be working. But on the other hand, the law says that all workers should be protected from discrimination.

In a careful decision, the California Supreme court balanced these two concerns.  It allowed Mr. Salas to take his case to a jury, finding that a company can be liable for discrimination even against undocumented employees.  At the same time, the court held that undocumented employees cannot seek a court to be hired back by the company that has discriminated against them.

This decision demonstrates an understanding of the reality of the California workplace, which is  increasingly made up of workers of all immigration statuses, including green card holders and naturalized U.S. citizens.  It also includes 1.85 million undocumented workers, who constitute nearly 10% of the total workforce.

Against this backdrop, the Supreme Court confirmed that employers cannot violate the law—by discriminating or otherwise—and then later be immunized from liability for those violations. The court recognized that leaving undocumented workers without the protection of the law would actually give employers a strong incentive to “look the other way” when hiring and then turn around and use their immigration status to ultimately exploit them.  That would be bad news for employers who actually honor their obligations to treat workers fairly and legally when it comes to hiring, pay, and non-discrimination in the workforce.

Mr. Salas will now have the chance to take his case to a jury, who will decide whether he wins or loses.  But the Salas decision is a solid win for all law-abiding Californians – employees and employers alike.

This article originally appeared in CELA Voice on October 2, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://celavoice.org/

Beaman[1]About the Author: Megan Beaman is a community-based attorney who roots her work in the notion that all people deserve access to justice, and who understands the larger struggles for immigrant and worker justice in California and nationwide. Beaman’s practice is founded on her years of advocacy and activism in working class and immigrant communities, and tends to reflect the predominate needs of those communities, including many cases of discrimination, harassment, unpaid wages, immigration, substandard housing, and other civil rights violations. The client communities Beaman most often represents are overwhelmingly Latino and Spanish-speaking. Beaman also works and volunteers in a number of other community capacities, including as a coordinator for the Eastern Coachella Valley Neighborhoods Action Team.



About the Author: Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives, focusing on combating illegal retaliation against low-wage workers and litigating cases involving human trafficking for forced labor.

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