Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘employment discrimination’

Trump’s Labor pick hasn’t even had a hearing yet and his confirmation is in serious jeopardy

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

The fight against President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, fast food CEO Andy Puzder, is shaping up to be as intense as opposition to Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary. Puzder’s long delayed confirmation hearing is set for Thursday, and a few Republican senators are already signaling they may vote against him.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), Sen. Lisa Murskowski (R-AK), Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) are withholding their support of his nomination. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) made it clear through a 28-page letter with 83 questions for Puzder that she will ensure his confirmation process will be a knock-down, drag-out fight. Other prominent Democrats have spoken out against his record as an employer, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called on President Trump to withdraw Puzder’s nomination.

DeVos ultimately squeaked through a Senate floor debate, but only after an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence. For weeks before that vote, thousands of people flooded Senate offices with calls against her nomination, and teachers and their allies protested.

Two Republican senators, Sen. Collins and Sen. Murkowski, who now represent half of the Republican senators withholding support for Puzder, voted against her confirmation. Now that twice as many Republicans have already voiced apprehension regarding Puzder, his chances of being confirmed appear even lower.

In her letter, Warren mentioned his “record of prolific labor law abuses and discrimination suits” and “a sneering contempt for the workers in your stores, and a vehement opposition to the laws you will be charged with enforcing.”

Puzder’s CKE Restaurants, which owns fast food restaurants such as Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., has been the subject of class action lawsuits over the denial of overtime pay as well as lawsuits accusing the company of discrimination. Workers also allege that they were fired for protesting as part of the Fight for 15 campaign.

ROC United, a restaurant employee advocacy group, released a report last month showing that many of the over 500 workers surveyed experienced sexual harassment and unsafe conditions working at CKE restaurants. Sixty-six percent of female CKE employees said they had experienced sexual harassment at work, compared to 40 percent of women who reported such incidents across the entire industry. Puzder has also opposed a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Puzder’s nomination has also been plagued with reports of domestic abuse against his first wife, Lisa Fierstein. On Tuesday, a Missouri judge will rule on whether to unseal records from Puzder’s 1987 divorce, just two days before the nominee’s confirmation hearing. Republican and Democratic senators have also received a tape from the Oprah Winfrey Network that shows a 1990 episode titled, “High-Class Battered Women,” in which Fierstein appeared to discuss the alleged domestic abuse. Fierstein has since retracted the domestic abuse allegations.

Collins has seen the tape, according to Bloomberg, and said, “I am reviewing the other information that has come to light and I’m sure all of this has been explored thoroughly.”

Like the teachers unions that opposed DeVos, which often work with the Fight for $15 campaign, labor groups also have the power to galvanize opposition to Puzder. Last Thursday, thousands of workers protested against his nomination across the U.S., a spokesman for the Fight for 15 campaign told The New York Times. Some of the protesters demonstrated at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s locations.

The passionate response to DeVos’ nomination, and eventually confirmation, may also be owed to the broad appeal of protecting public school funding, since plenty of middle class Americans of all political stripes send their kids to public schools or know someone who is a teacher. There is a possibility that a broad swath of Americans would similarly oppose a nominee for labor secretary whose record suggests that he will trample on labor protections.

This blog originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on February 14, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Casey Quinlan is an education reporter for ThinkProgress. Previously, she was an editor for U.S. News and World Report. She has covered investing, education crime, LGBT issues, and politics for publications such as the NY Daily News, The Crime Report, The Legislative Gazette, Autostraddle, City Limits, The Atlantic and The Toast.

Workers Say Trump’s Labor Secretary Nominee Is a Habitual Violator of Labor Law

Tuesday, January 17th, 2017

Andrew Puzder, Donald Trump’s nominee for labor secretary, is uniquely unqualified for that job. As secretary, he’d be charged with enforcing health and safety, overtime and other labor laws. But as CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parent company of Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., he’s made his considerable fortune from violating these very same laws, according to a report by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United released this week.

ROC, which advocates for restaurant workers nationwide, surveyed 564 CKE workers, 76 percent of them women. In discussing the results of the survey, it’s important to note that while ROC surveyed a large number of workers, the respondents are people who chose to fill out a survey distributed by a workers’ rights organization, which they learned about through their social media networks. Still, ROC reported “unprecedented” interest in the survey among workers at CKE and their eagerness to be part of the study, and the experiences they reported, are striking reminders that by tapping Puzder, Trump has made clear that his administration will be a dystopian nightmare for U.S. workers.

A recent national survey among non-managerial women working in fast food found that 40 percent of such women have experienced sexual harassment on the job. Under Puzder, the problem could worsen: A whopping 66 percent of female CKE workers ROC surveyed had faced sexual harassment. Harassment came from supervisors, co-workers or—most often—customers, and took the form of sexual comments, groping, unwanted sexual texts and pressure for dates.

CKE is known for its sexist advertising, which depicts women in skimpy bikinis devouring cheeseburgers. And, certainly, imagery contributes to the culture, but when harassment is as pervasive as it appears to be at CKE, there are usually more structural problems at play. Companies in which women are harassed are generally places in which women—indeed, workers in general—are not valued or respected, and in which workers lack any institutional means to stand up for their rights.

In such companies, women are often not paid and promoted fairly. And, as one might expect, nearly one in five of the CKE workers ROC surveyed said he or she had faced discrimination at work, most commonly on the basis of gender, age or race.

Of the CKE employees who participated in the ROC survey, nearly one-third said they did not get meal breaks that are mandated by law; around one-fourth had been illegally forced to work off the clock or had timecards altered; almost one-third had been illegally deprived of overtime pay.

The ROC survey also found widespread health and safety violations. Nearly one-third of those surveyed said they had become sick or injured on the job. Workers described an environment of slippery floors, frequent grease burns and many said they had to do dangerous tasks—like cleaning a hood over a hot char broiler, for instance—without proper protective equipment.

Appointing Puzder as labor secretary is like inviting Tony Soprano to serve as attorney general. Let’s hope this enemy of working people will face humiliation and defeat when his confirmation goes before the Senate. His hearing, originally set for next Tuesday, may now be postponed until February. That delay would give labor—meaning anyone who works for a living—more time to mobilize against him. Let’s get started.

This post originally appeared on inthesetimes.com on January 13, 2017.  Reprinted with permission.

Liza Featherstone is a journalist and author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart and False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

Black Livelihoods Matter: The Civil Justice System Needs Reform Too

Friday, October 14th, 2016

downloadThe Black Lives Matter movement has brought much-needed attention to the disparity in the way our criminal justice system treats African Americans.

But there’s another side of American justice that matters too: our civil courts.

In the United States today, the civil justice system is the last line of defense for workers who have faced discrimination on the job. And not just for individuals, either. Lawsuits and the threat of lawsuits have been the most effective way to force recalcitrant employers to take action against discrimination.

Still, our courthouses are not open to all. As a black lawyer who focuses on employment discrimination, I’ve seen first-hand how access to the courts, the racial makeup of law firms and the way cases are handled can throw up barriers to justice.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to how black workers’ cases get derailed.

Step 1: Black workers are more likely to represent themselves.

Few people can afford to pay an employment attorney up front. Instead, most lawyers in the field work on contingency—meaning they will only get paid if the worker receives a cash award. That makes these cases financially risky for lawyers, who might get nothing for hours of work if the case is dismissed. As a result, it can be hard for many workers to find an employment lawyer.

But for black workers, the problem is even worse. A study commissioned by the American Bar Association found that black plaintiffs are 2.5 times more likely than white plaintiffs to file employment discrimination claims pro se, or without a lawyer. Other racial minorities, including Hispanics and Asians, are 1.9 times more likely to file pro se than their white counterparts.

Winning an employment case is already difficult, even under the best circumstances. Pro se litigants, assuming that they can even get their cases inside a courtroom, are almost guaranteed to lose—no matter how strong the details of their case may be.

For example, litigants may be required to file their case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a certain number of days, and that time limit varies by state. Workers representing themselves may miss that deadline, and lose their cases before they even start.

Step 2: Attorneys are less likely to take cases involving black workers.

Even when black workers have found an attorney who might be interested in their case, they are less likely to get help. The ABA study found that the way employment attorneys screen their cases can contribute to the racial disparity.

In some cases, employment attorneys charge expensive consultation fees before considering a potential client. Black workers who can’t afford those fees never get in the front door. In other cases, the ABA study found that attorneys favored clients based on criteria that weren’t related to the merits of their case, such as perceived demeanor, mannerisms or a personal referral.

The disparity in pay between black and white workers adds to the problem. Because lost wages are a major part of the case, workers who make less money will receive smaller payouts. For employment attorneys who have to work for free upfront, that means less money at the back end.

Step 3: Juries aren’t always sympathetic to black workers.

Even when employment cases make it to trial, the worker still has only a 15 percent chance of winning, compared to a 50 percent win rate for other types of plaintiffs.

That means employment cases are particularly sensitive to jurors’ beliefs and prejudices. If a jury does not find the plaintiff’s story credible, or doesn’t believe that discrimination occurred, or doubts whether discrimination is all that common anyway—the worker loses.

In addition, damages for emotional distress are allowed in many employment discrimination cases. But jurors may not be as willing to provide them to black workers even when they have found in favor of them overall due to prejudices about their mythical inner strength or whether discrimination is serious.

The end result is that the same discrimination that black workers face in the workplace can also negatively affect them in the eyes of a jury.

Step 4: Even if they win, they are often awarded less money.

Workers who win their cases can receive money for emotional distress, punitive damages intended to send a message to the employer and lost wages. Under federal law, those first two amounts are limited between $50,000 and $300,000, levels set in 1991 that have not been adjusted since. (If they had been pegged to the Consumer Price Index, the cap would be closer to $525,000.)

Generally, the largest award in employment cases is for lost wages. Employees who win their cases can only get the difference between what they made since being illegally fired and what they would have made had they not been fired.

Black employees, on average, make less than white employees. As a result, black employees bringing discrimination cases are disproportionately affected by caps for damages for lost wages. This means that these employees have less leverage to negotiate an out-of-court settlement with employers prior to trial because of the low risk to the employer of having to pay a significant judgment—if the employee prevails at trial. As a result, employers may have less incentive to adequately address discrimination against black employees.

The deep-seated flaws in our civil justice system cannot be ignored. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed by employers, legal professionals, and lawmakers. There needs to be a serious examination as to why black employees who have often been unlawfully excluded from the workplace are then again denied recourse through the legal system.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post on October 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Phillis h. Rambsy is a partner with the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Nashville, Tennessee. Her legal practice focuses on workplace law where she represents employees in matters of wrongful termination and employment discrimination including racial discrimination, pregnancy discrimination, and other family-care issues such as caring for a sick child or an elderly parent. To learn more, visit www.spigglelaw.com.

A governor just sued his own attorney general over LGBT employment protections

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

pphlnood_400x400The attorney general said he wasn’t going to stop blocking contracts unless he was sued, so the governor sued.

Louisiana’s governor just sued its attorney general over whether lawyers the state hires should be allowed to discriminate against LGBT people.

If that sounds odd, that’s because it is. And though there’s an easy moral answer to the conundrum, the legal answer might be far more complicated.

Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) was elected last year to succeed Bobby Jindal (R). One of the first things he did when taking office was reverse Jindal’s anti-LGBT policies, including Jindal’s executive order allowing businesses to discriminate against same-sex couples without any consequence from the state. Edwards then issued his own executive order protecting state workers and contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It was nearly identical to President Obama’s 2014 executive order protecting LGBT federal employees and contractors, as well as Louisiana gubernatorial executive orders protecting LGB state employees that were in place before Jindal rescinded them in 2008.

But despite both the state and federal precedent for such executive action, Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) wasn’t having it. Prompted by anti-LGBT lawmakers opposed to both Edwards’ executive order and the Obama administration’s guidance protecting transgender students, he issued an eight-page opinion in May declaring that neither was legally enforceable in the state.

“The brief answer is an Executive Order cannot expand or create state law,” Landry wrote. “‘Gender identity’ is not and has never been a legally protected class under state or federal anti-discrimination laws.” He insisted that the order protecting LGBT employees “should be interpreted as merely aspirational and without any binding legal effect.”

Even giving Landry the benefit of the doubt that he was just trying to check the power of the executive, his own anti-LGBT biases are not in doubt. He also said that the federal transgender guidance “creates an environment in which children may be more easily exposed to sexual predators.” Rules simply affirming transgender students’ identities “place the mental well-being and privacy rights of ninety-nine percent of Louisiana’s children at risk without any demonstrable evidence of benefit to the less than one percent of the population this policy purports to benefit.”

For the past four months, Landry and Edwards have engaged in this standoff, warring over state legal contracts. Edwards keeps including LGBT nondiscrimination language in proposed contracts with private lawyers, and Landry keeps blocking them specifically because of this language. He hasblocked at least 37 contracts, including 11 from the Department of Insurance. Defending his actions, Landry’s office has asserted, “The Attorney General requires antidiscrimination clauses in legal contracts to be written in conformity with State and Federal law, therefore, these provisions should not contain language exceeding what the law requires.”

Matthew Block, general counsel for the Edwards administration, explained last week that these blocked contracts are starting to have a big impact on the management of the state. “We have a lot of things that need to get attended to and we need to have people doing their work,” he told NOLA.com. “I have law firms not getting paid for the work that they are doing. I have law firms that are waiting around to start work.”

1-ttjhkebbo9sxiijhid_lyaSo on Friday, Edwards sued Landry in state court. At a press conference Friday, he was pretty blunt about the standoff. “He basically told me that if I wanted him to approve those contracts that I would have to sue him,” Edwards said. “So I’m obliging him on that.”

The lawsuit states that Landry “has refused to perform the ministerial task of approving private contracts and appointing private counsel for numerous executive agencies of the State.” He has “explicitly rejected most of the contracts on the grounds that the contracting attorneys should not have agreed not to discriminate in employment and the rendering of services” in accordance with the executive order. In other words, the lawyers who would be impacted by the LGBT protections have already agreed to them, but Landry has still denied the contracts because that language is in them.

The conflict is spurring some interesting political divisions. For example, Louisiana Senate President John Alario (R), voted against LGBT nondiscrimination protections in the legislature, but he told NOLA.com that he believes the governor isn’t overstepping his authority. It’s Landry, he said, who he thinks “is stepping out of bounds.”

Landry has stood by his actions, saying in an interview that he looks forward to “defending the legislature and their priorities and their wishes.” He added that he believes the protections create “additional liabilities and expenses for the state,” but refused to answer questions about his own position on protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

It will now be up to the state courts to resolve the conflict, or at least to interpret whether Landry is within his authority as attorney general to rebuff the executive order. It could, however, be the first time that a court weighs the validity of an executive order that protects workers from discrimination.

But Louisiana is hardly an outlier for the actions Edwards took. There are 12 other states that, through executive order or similar administrative regulation, extend employment protections to state employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity that exceed protections under state law. And of course, past Louisiana governors protected sexual orientation without having to sue their attorneys general to enforce them.

This article was originally posted at Thinkprogress.org on October 5, 2016.
Reprinted with permission
.

Zack Ford is the LGBT Editor at ThinkProgress.org. Gay, Atheist, Pianist, Unapologetic “Social Justice Warrior.” Contact him at zford@thinkprogress.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ZackFord.

 

House Republicans stand strong for anti-LGBT discrimination in the wake of Orlando shootings

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

LauraClawsonLGBT people may be able to marry, but in many states they can also be fired or not hired because they’re LGBT. And House Republicans are fighting to keep that from changing.

President Obama’s executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity went into effect in 2015. Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has been trying to get the House to pass an amendment backing up that executive order, but House Republicans are not having it. They’ve beenfighting to keep allowing employers to discriminate against LGBT workers even if they get federal money, and they’re not stopping now.

The House Rules Committee blocked Maloney’s amendment from getting a full House vote. Again, we’re talking about something saying that if you want federal money, you can’t discriminate. And context matters here:

Maloney argued that allowing a vote to prohibit discrimination in the workplace after the targeted attack on the gay nightclub would send a message of solidarity with the LGBT community.

“It’s hard to imagine that any act that is so horrific could lead to anything positive. But if we were going to do anything, it would be a very positive step to say that discrimination has no place in our law and to reaffirm the president’s actions in this area,” Maloney told The Hill. “Seems to me a pretty basic thing to do.”

Sorry, make that—context should matter here. But House Republicans have made it clear that there’s no context that would stop them from enabling discrimination.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos.com on June 15, 2016. Reprinted with permission. 

Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006. Labor editor since 2011.

New Research Meta-Analysis Makes Compelling Case For Nondiscrimination Protections

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Our guest blogger is Crosby Burns, Research Associate for LGBT Progress.

Today the Center for American Progress, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law released a comprehensive database of research documenting the immediate need for federal policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. This database includes nearly 40 documents totaling 680 pages of research from the ACLU, the Center for American Progress, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Gay and Lesbian Task ForceFreedom To Work, and the Williams Institute.

The findings of the research contained in this database are consistent and conclusive: LGBT workplace discrimination is a pervasive and persistent problem that requires an immediate solution. Additionally, this research establishes a strong business case for workplace nondiscrimination laws and policies, examines the potential impact of an LGBT nondiscrimination executive order for federal contractors, and highlights strong public and voter support for workplace fairness.

Given these realities, Congress should pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and President Obama should sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to have LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies. These actions would bring quick relief to the hundreds of thousands of LGBT workers who face employment discrimination in our country today.

Nondiscrimination-Laws-Map

This blog originally appeared in Think Progress on May 7, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

Starbucks Served Venti-Sized Discrimination Lawsuit

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Leah BraukmanTwenty-five year old Eli Pierre has only one full arm, but he says he’s never been told there was something he couldn’t do.

That is, until last month, when a San Diego, California Starbucks interviewed and then refused to hire him. Mr. Pierre is now suing the Seattle-based company in California state court alleging discrimination and wrongful failure to hire “despite his capable work history,” in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). He’s also claiming failure to prevent discrimination, to make reasonable accommodations, to engage in the interactive process in violation of FEHA, wrongful failure to hire in violation of public policy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

According to ABC News, Mr. Pierre, a former bartender, claims he wasn’t hired because he is missing half of his left arm, and that throughout his interview, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to work there – besides being teased about a previous job he’s held at Victoria’s Secret. (“Maybe he can help you find the right bra size”, the interviewer allegedly said to another Starbucks employee.)

A spokesperson for the coffeehouse chain contends that Mr. Pierre’s version of the interview is “vastly different” from what actually took place, and that he wasn’t hired because of his qualifications and answers to interview questions.

While ABC and the rest of the media provided plenty of information about Mr. Pierre’s lawsuit, it didn’t size up the strength of his claims. LASIS will.

ABC had what little law it did report, wrong. It stated that Mr. Pierre sued for discrimination in violation of the Federal Employment and Housing Act. Such a law doesn’t exist.

California has a state law, the Fair Employment and Housing Act, that is more expansive than federal employment discrimination laws, and that is what Mr. Pierre is relying on.

FEHA prohibits an employer from either refusing to hire or for firing someone based on a physical disability, defined in part as any anatomical loss that affects a body system and limits a major life activity. Not having an arm certainly qualifies as a physical disability, but it hasn’t stopped Mr. Pierre from working, a major life activity under the Act. A former boss even told ABC that Mr. Pierre “can carry more than somebody…with two arms.”

Even so, Mr. Pierre is clearly disabled and his discrimination argument seems pretty solid. Especially if what he said of the interview is true. In a 2002 California Court of Appeals case, a man with a prosthetic leg sued the Los Angeles Police Department when he wasn’t hired as a police officer. The court found no discrimination because the man didn’t meet the physical requirements of the job. And this makes sense. It would be ineffective for a police officer with a prosthetic leg to chase after a fleeing suspect by scaling fences and jumping over obstacles.

It’s harder for Starbucks to argue that it requires both arms to pour coffee. On the other hand, doing some field research I watched the baristas make my drink at a local Starbucks recently, and using two hands surely helped them work as quickly as they did.

But the crux of Mr. Pierre’s argument isn’t that Starbucks should have hired him on the spot, it’s that it didn’t engage in the “interactive process” of identifying reasonable accommodations that would allow him to work there.

In 2008, the California Court of Appeals said an employer is liable if the workplace could be modified to allow an employee to perform the essential functions of the job. For Starbucks, it wouldn’t take much. The interviewer had told Mr. Pierre it would never work out for him at Starbucks because he wouldn’t be able to reach certain syrups while making the drinks. Well, one place for Starbucks to start in trying to accommodate Mr. Pierre would be to move the syrups within reach.

Mr. Pierre also claims that when Starbucks didn’t give him the job or explore any potential accommodations, it violated public policy. The California Court of Appeals recognizes this as a separate claim, but as violations of FEHA are automatically violations of public policy, Mr. Pierre will likely succeed on this public policy argument, as his discrimination claims are rather robust.

Aside from the alleged FEHA violations, Mr. Pierre is suing for intentional infliction of emotional distress. To win on an emotional distress claim, Mr. Pierre would have to prove that Starbucks’ conduct was “outrageous” and exceeded “all bounds…tolerated by a decent society.” In 2006, the California Court of Appeals ruled that unlawful discrimination doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful emotional distress claim. That’s not to say a Starbucks interviewer should have treated Mr. Pierre as he did, but what happened during the interview doesn’t amount to the extreme behavior the court is probably looking for.

As a frequent Starbucks customer, I was disappointed when I heard of these accusations, especially as this isn’t the first time the company has been accused of discrimination. Last year, a Starbucks employee with dwarfism was fired after asking for a stool or stepladder because, the company said, “she could be a danger to customers and workers.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the company for discrimination and Starbucks shelled out $75,000 to settle. I’ll keep going to Starbucks for now because I’m hooked. But if I hear of more offensive behavior like this, I might just try Dunkin’ Donuts instead.

This blog originally appeared in Legal as She is Spoke, a project of the  Law and Journalism track at New York Law School, on March 5, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Leah Braukman (2L) is first and foremost a proud graduate of the University of Florida — Go Gators!  While a “Gator” at heart, she is thrilled to be in New York City and studying law at New York Law School, and is equally excited about contributing to this blog. Leah is a member of Law Review, the Institute for Information Law and Policy, the Media Entertainment Fashion Law Association, and the Program in Law and Journalism.

Wisconsin Legislature Votes To Repeal Employment Discrimination Law

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Ian Millhiser Wisconsin prohibits employers from discriminating “on the basis of age, race, creed, color, disability, marital status, sex, national origin, ancestry, arrest record, conviction record, military service, use or nonuse of lawful products off the employer’s premises during nonworking hours, or declining to attend a meeting or to participate in any communication about religious matters or political matters,” and it ensures that this law has teeth by allowing victims of discrimination to hold their employers accountable in state court. That’s about to change, however, as the Wisconsin legislature recently voted to strip the state’s workers of their ability to actually enforce this law — leaving anti-worker Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) as the only obstacle to the law’s total repeal:

The Equal Pay Enforcement Act was meant to deter employers from discriminating by giving workers more avenues to press charges. Among other provisions, it allows individuals to plead their cases in the less costly, more accessible state circuit court system, rather than just in federal court.

In November, the state Senate approved (SB 202) rolling back this provision. On Wednesday, the Assembly did the same. Both were party-line votes. The legislation is now in the hands of Gov. Scott Walker (R). His office did not return a request for comment on whether the governor would sign it. . . .

Women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men make. In Wisconsin, it’s 75 cents, according to [the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health], which also estimates that families in the state “lose more than $4,000 per year due to unequal pay.”

Walker, of course, has no power to repeal federal law, so he cannot strip Wisconsin workers of their right to be free from race, gender and other forms of discrimination that are banned by national civil rights laws. Nevertheless, Wisconsin law provides additional protections, such as safeguards for people with criminal convictions, that are not available under federal law.

Moreover, as Amanda Terkel points out, Wisconsin state courts can enable victims of discrimination to receive swifter justice instead of waiting for an increasingly overburdened federal judiciary to act. And this problem is only likely to get worse as Walker’s political allies in the U.S. Senate wage an unprecedented campaign of obstruction against President Obama’s nominees to the federal bench.

It’s tough to imagine something more fundamental to a just society that a guarantee that employers will not discriminate, which is why it is so baffling why Wisconsin lawmakers do not believe that their state should protect against such discrimination.

*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author’s and not views expressed by Today’s Workplace/Workplace Fairness.

This blog originally appeared in ThinkProgress on February 27, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ian Millhiser is a Policy Analyst 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 Guardian, the American Prospect and the Duke Law Journal; and he has been a guest on CNN, MSNBC, Al Jazeera English, Fox Business and many radio shows.

Companies Can’t Discriminate, But Their Managers Can: The Supreme Court Gives Wal-Mart the Win in Dukes Gender Discrimination Class Action Case

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Piper HoffmanToday the Supreme Court sounded the death knell for Dukes v. Wal-Mart, the class action lawsuit accusing Wal-Mart of paying and promoting women less than similarly- or less-qualified men. To protect corporations from having to do more to prevent gender discrimination than pop a few politically correct paragraphs into the employee handbook, the Supreme Court resorted to a belabored procedural argument that incentivizes corporations to do as little as possible to prevent discrimination. The five-Justice majority did not rule on whether or not Wal-Mart actually discriminates against women – they didn’t let the case get that far. Instead they shut it down by changing the rules of engagement.

One of the plaintiffs’ central arguments was that Wal-Mart has a policy of leaving promotion and pay decisions to the discretion of individual managers, and that these managers have made discriminatory decisions. If the women suing Wal-Mart had prevailed, every American employer would have been on notice that it is not enough to sit on their corporate hands and allow gender discrimination to take its natural course in this way. Instead they would have had to make it their business to ensure that their managers treated women fairly. But the Court didn’t want that, as the majority feels that “allowing discretion by local supervisors” is “a very common and presumptively reasonable way of doing business.” (In his opinion for the majority Justice Scalia also announces, without citing any evidence, that most managers work carefully to avoid discrimination in their pay and promotion decisions when left to their own devices. That makes it all the more puzzling why the higher one gets in the corporate hierarchy in the U.S., the fewer women there are.)

So the Supreme Court looked to procedure. To bring a case as a class action in federal court, the plaintiffs have to get permission from the judge to proceed as a class. This makes sense: you wouldn’t want someone to be able to file a lawsuit on your behalf without an objective outsider considering whether the lawsuit was in your interest and whether the person filing it would represent you well. To protect you from becoming part of a class action that doesn’t benefit you, plaintiffs have to persuade a judge that they satisfy the requirements of what is known as Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 before their lawsuit can proceed as a class action.

One of Rule 23’s prerequisites is that “[o]ne or more members of a class may sue…as representative parties on behalf of all members only if there are questions of law or fact common to the class.” The Wal-Mart plaintiffs clearly alleged common questions of law or fact, including statistical evidence that Wal-Mart pays and promotes men more than women; Wal-Mart’s policy of leaving decisions regarding promotion and (within certain ranges) pay up to individual managers; evidence that Wal-Mart has a uniform corporate culture across its stores; and evidence that Wal-Mart’s culture fosters discrimination against women. These are precisely the kind of “common questions of law or fact” that courts routinely accept as satisfying the Rule 23 “commonality” prerequisite.

The Court used this previously clear “common questions of law or fact” requirement to thwart the Wal-Mart women by redefining the requirement beyond recognition. According to Justice Scalia, “common questions of law or fact” now means that plaintiffs must “demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury.” In no universe that I have visited do these two phrases require the same thing.

It’s not clear just how far the Court will take this bizarre new rule. Does “same injury” mean that the plaintiffs must show that every single class member was denied the exact same promotion? Or that each one was underpaid by the same amount? Scalia writes that it does mean that suffering “a violation of the same provision of law” won’t suffice as suffering the “same injury.” This is a remarkable and counterintuitive holding: after this ruling, a group cannot sue their joint employer for violating the same legal right for each one of them. Instead they have to prove that the legal violation harmed them in the same way. This is completely backwards: courts exist to redress violations of the law, regardless of whether those violations cause their victims to suffer in the same or different ways. It is thanks to this procedural backflip that Wal-Mart and other employers can now delegate their way out of being responsible for discrimination in their workplaces.

Arguably before Monday’s Dukes v. Wal-Mart decision, American employers were subject to legal liability if they delegated so much discretion to individual managers that those managers created a pattern of discriminating against women – at least, the four Justices in the minority believe that this was the law. Now employers have every incentive to take their hands off the reins and let managers make pay and promotion decisions based on whatever criteria they choose. This is a major loss for women, minorities, senior citizens, the disabled, and any other group that tends to get the short end of the stick in the workplace. The procedural manipulations required to reach this point have caused a major loss for any group of people that seeks to redress a legal violation through a class action: now each individual will have to pay for legal representation alone and probably forego evidence of violations against similarly situated people. Goliath has won, and it is every David for himself.

This blog originally appeared on PiperHoffman.com on June 21, 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.

Women, Black Workers Hard Hit by Attacks on Public Employees

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Credit: Joe Kekeris

The improved jobs figures out last Friday obscured the ongoing decline in public-sector jobs. As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics noted when releasing the March unemployment data:

Employment in local government continued to trend down over the month. Local government has lost 416,000 jobs since an employment peak in September 2008.

The loss of such jobs is important because the nation’s well-being depends not only on job numbers increasing, but on the creation of quality jobs—those that pay decent wages and enable people to attain or maintain a middle-class life. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), the new jobs being created aren’t as good as the ones that have been lost. NELP found that jobs in lower wage industries, such as retail and food preparation, made up 23 percent of the jobs that were lost in the recent recession. Yet they made up 49 percent of the jobs the economy has gained in the past year. As the BBC Business puts it:

In other words, it appears that while people may finally be returning to work, they have to work for less pay.

In contrast, jobs in the public sector have provided such economic stability. They have also made it possible for some of the nation’s most economically marginalized—women and minorities—to achieve financial security often denied them in the private sector.

So attacks on public employees hit women and black workers especially hard.

Susan Feiner, professor of economics and of women’s and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine, writes that:

employees at the federal (43 percent female), state (53 percent female) and local (61 percent female) levels have been able to better resist the wage reductions, benefit cuts and mass lay-offs that giant multinational corporations have visited upon employees over the last decade.

Yet Feiner finds that “while women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force at the end of the recession,”

women lost the vast majority—79 percent—of the 327,000 jobs cut in this sector between July 2009 and February 2011, according to a January report by the Washington, D.C.-based National Women’s Law Center.

Steven Pitts, labor policy specialist at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center, writes today about the striking results of his new research brief, Blacks and the Public Sector. In sum:

  • The public sector is the single most important source of employment for African Americans.
  • During 2008-2010, 21.2 percent of all black workers were public employees, compared with 16.3 percent of non-black workers.  Both before and after the onset of the Great Recession, African Americans were 30 percent more likely than other workers to be employed in the public sector.
  • The public sector is also a critical source of decent-paying jobs for black worker.  For both men and women, the median wage earned by black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.
  • Prior to the recession, the wage differential between black and white workers was less in the public sector than in the overall economy.

As California Progress Report writes:

For blacks and others, “the best anti-poverty program is union organizing,” the UC Berkeley Labor Center notes on its website.”

And so moves by Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio to shred the ability of public employees to bargain for a decent middle-class life are also specifically targeting the ability of women and black workers to remain in the economic mainstream.

About the Author: Tula Connell got her first union card while she worked her way through college as a banquet bartender for the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee (she was represented by a hotel and restaurant local union—the names of the national unions were different then than they are now). With a background in journalism—covering bull roping in Texas and school boards in Virginia—she started working in the labor movement in 1991. Beginning as a writer for SEIU (and OPEIU member), she now blogs under the title of AFL-CIO managing editor.

This blog originally was post on AFL-CIO on April 5, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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