Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘Iowa’

Iowa Supreme Court re-affirms statutory right of jittery, insecure spouses to interfere in the workplace

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Curt SurlsImagine the pilot episode of a revival of the 1970’s situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”  It is July 2013.  After a painful break-up with her fiancé, 30-year-old Mary Richards relocates to Des Moines, Iowa, to start a new life.

Mary interviews for a secretarial position at a local television station with Executive Producer Lou Grant.  Lou is an overweight, balding, married father of three grown daughters.  Lou offers Mary an associate producer position, reporting directly to him.  Lou’s wife Edie is threatened by the presence of an attractive, young woman in the workplace.  Edie demands that Mary be fired immediately.  Lou admits that he is attracted to Mary, even though their workplace relationship has been strictly professional.  Lou fires Mary.  He replaces her with Rhoda.  In Iowa in 2013, Mary has no legal recourse.

This month, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed its controversial December 2012 decision holding that a fifty-something Fort Dodge, Iowa dentist acted legally when he fired his 32-year-old dental assistant for being too attractive.  Although the dental assistant had shown no interest in her married boss, both the dentist and his wife feared that he would be powerless to resist her charms.  In a decision insulting to both major genders, the Court reasoned that the firing did not constitute gender discrimination because it was not “because of sex.”  Instead, the Court reasoned, it was motivated by the dentist’s feelings of attraction for a specific person (I suppose you could call it “because of sexy”).

The latest version of the case, Melissa Nelson v. James H. Knight, DDS, P.C. can be read in full here.

Here is the official photo of the Justices of the Iowa Supreme Court.  See if you can spot what they all have in common.

scotus

Melissa Nelson was only 20 when she was hired by Dr. James H. Knight as a dental assistant.  For ten years, she was an exemplary employee.  She regarded her boss as a “father figure.”  Dr. Knight, on the other hand, found himself growing increasingly attracted to his young assistant.   In 2009, Dr. Knight’s wife insisted that her husband’s unilateral attraction to Ms. Nelson was a threat to their marriage.  Dr. Knight and his wife consulted with the senior pastor of their church, who blessed the decision to terminate Ms. Nelson.   Ms. Nelson sued for gender discrimination.  The trial court and the Supreme Court of the State of Iowa agreed with the Knights — and their pastor–and held that firing Ms. Nelson for being a potential threat to Dr. Knight’s marriage did not constitute illegal gender discrimination.

The Court’s original decision in late 2012 was greeted with outrage and ridicule.  In June 2013, the court withdrew its opinion and agreed to reconsider the matter, giving rise to the hope that they had seen the light and would permit the case to go to trial.  Those hopes were dashed when the Court reaffirmed its position that there is a difference between an employment decision based on personal feelings towards an individual and a decision based on gender itself.  “In the former case, the decision is driven entirely by individual feelings and emotions regarding a specific person,” stated the opinion’s author, Justice Edward M. Mansfield (he’s the one in the back row, far left).  “Such a decision is not gender-based, nor is it based on factors that might be a proxy for gender.”

Wait a minute, argued Ms. Nelson’s attorneys and reasonable people everywhere.  Of course it was “because of sex.”  If she were not female, she wouldn’t be in danger of involuntarily attracting the unwanted attention of her heterosexual male boss.  If it is illegal to sexually harass an employee, why should an employer escape liability for firing an employee out of fear that he was just about to harass her.  Under this logic, even an employee who spurns the sexual advances of her supervisor is vulnerable to dismissal under a fabricated “my wife made me fire you to save our marriage” defense.

But back to Mary Richards.  In the eponymous spin-off series “Lou Grant,” Lou found a job as a newspaper editor for the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune.   What if he re-hired Mary?  Could Edie get her fired again in California?  Not likely.

The Iowa Supreme Court was interpreting Iowa law and federal law from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.   The Court relied heavily on 8th Circuit precedent holding that sexual favoritism is, in essence, a private matter between the parties that doesn’t warrant regulation as gender discrimination.  California state law takes a broader view of the impact of sexual favoritism on the workplace environment.  Our Supreme Court has recognized that sexual favoritism is not merely a private matter.  Instead, favoritism can create an atmosphere demeaning to women, giving rise to claims of a hostile work environment by both men and women.  California courts are, therefore, likely to view conduct such as Dr. Knight’s in the broader context, and find a termination under similar circumstances in California to be discriminatory.

And besides.  Why would Lou even listen to Edie?  They got divorced after the third season of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and Edie promptly remarried.  You can watch the wedding here.

Article originally appeared on CELA Voice on July 25, 2013.  Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Curt Surls has been practicing in Los Angeles, specializing in employment law, for almost 25 years. Mr. Surls is a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation and has worked for the State of California as counsel to the Director of the Department of Industrial Relations.  CELA VOICE is a project of the California Employment Lawyers Association.  Our goal is nothing short of changing the discussion about issues of importance to California employees.  Our method is simple.  We will amplify the voice of worker advocates on issues that are vital to our economy, our way of life, even our health. The contributors to the CELA VOICE bring a unique perspective to understanding what is working and, too often, what isn’t working in California workplaces.

A Closer Look at Results-Focused Education

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

We sat down and had a conversation with our good friend Jeff Herzberg at Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency (PLAEA) about ROWE and education. We trained PLAEA’s pilot team through a Beyond Telework Workshop and recently brought selected PLAEA employees through our Training Certification program.  Those certified internal trainers will now lead the entire agency into a ROWE!  PLAEA is an organization that assists over 33,000 students and supports 3,500 educators and 200 administrators in central Iowa. Some of Jeff’s stories are going to be featured in the new book, Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It, so we wanted to share some of that conversation with all of you today. 

I’ve been really pleased and surprised with how ROWE has resonated with educators and the effort to not just reform education, but reimagine it, as Jeff says in the interview.

Below is part of our conversation with Jeff and a clip of the interview, which you can watch in full here if you’re interested in learning more. And of course you can pre-order your copy of Why Managing Sucks to read more about ROWE in education. We’re really excited about Jeff’s chapter!

Cali: What made you crazy enough to be the Results-Only Work Enviornment pioneer in education?

Jeff: Besides the fact that you two were so convincing, after we read the book and had some conversation, it just made sense. School is not working for everyone, everyone knows it but no one was willing to do anything about it. I knew it was the right thing to do and just went right ahead.

Jody: Teachers can’t be ROWE! What do you say when people push back?

Jeff: Is what we’re doing working today with all kids? If we’re all honest and willing to risk saying it, then the answer is: Absolutely not, it’s not working for today’s kids. Everyone is working so hard–parents, teachers, kids, administration. The system’s broken. It doesn’t need reforming, but reinventing.

Cali:  Companies are freaked out about being first in their industry, when it comes to big changes like ROWE. What has changed for you?

Jeff: In Iowa, we got rid of seat time. We don’t want to focus on time as the constant. We want to make extended, high-quality learning the constant. Our current system worked 100 years ago when we were preparing kids for assembly lines. We’re moving toward competency-based education.

Jody: What were some of the challenges to adopting ROWE?

Jeff: We’re still experiencing them as we expand from our 50-person pilot to implementing throughout the agency of 240 employees. The big question is, how do we define results that we’ll be held accountable for? I want to shoot for something bigger than standardized test scores. Look at the big picture, not just all the activities that we’re doing. Like your new book says, we want to manage the work, not the people.

Our showstopper when people challenge what we’re doing is to say: “You don’t want to focus on results?”

Cali: Do people look at you like you’re crazy?

Jeff: People are polite and say “That’s nice” and they stand back and see if it’s going to work for us.

For the first time in my career we’re getting to have multiple conversations about employees really talking about the work. There’s a lot of excitement internally, but some fear like “what if it doesn’t work?”

Cali: It’s about waking people up to be accountable and really own the job.

Jeff: Most people want to be accountable and responsible. Recent Gallup study: only 11% of workers report being “engaged” in their work. If education workers are following that trend, well no wonder we’re not getting good outcomes! We’re talking about unleashing the potential of our employees. Stop doing things that are a waste of time, and start doing things that will really have an impact.

This article was originally posted on ROWE on November 11, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Authors: Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson are the Founders of CultureRx and creators of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Their first book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, was named “The Year’s Best Book on Work-Life Balance” by Business Week. They have been featured on the covers of BusinessWeek, Workforce Management Magazine, HR Magazine, Hybrid Mom Magazine, as well as in the New York Times, TIME Magazine, USA Today, and on Good Morning America, CNBC and CNN.

Pearls Along the Mississippi: An Unsung Labor Hero Gets Her Due

Thursday, May 17th, 2012

kari-lydersen

MUSCATINE, IOWA—Today the town of Muscatine, Iowa, which overlooks the Mississippi River, looks relatively inconspicuous—one of many working-class river towns with grassy parks abutting the flood-prone wide river, brick factories-turned-bars along the main street and ornate but peeling Victorian homes up on the hill.

But there are hints of Muscatine’s illustrious past: a riverside sculpture of a man in a flatboat with clams surrounding his feet, raising two shellfish rakes above his head; the word “buttons” emblazoned in chipped paint on some of the old brick structures. In its heyday, this area produced an astounding one third of the buttons sold worldwide—shiny, delicate “pearl” buttons produced from shells of the wealth of clams and mussels that once filled this stretch of the Mississippi, where a bend taking it east-west (rather than north-south) calmed the current enough to allow the shellfish to proliferate.

The local button industry was started in 1891 by an enterprising German immigrant, John Fredrick Boepple, skilled in making buttons from sea shells, who brought his manual-operated button press machine to Muscatine and launched a quickly mushrooming industry. Soon thousands of men were collecting shellfish from the river and its tributaries, and thousands of women and teenagers turned them into glistening buttons sewed onto decorative small cards with names like Mermaid and Blue Bird.

Pearl was the name for the shell interiors used to make the buttons, and it was also the name of a fiery young labor activist renowned in her time but relatively unknown in more recent decades. But she appears to be enjoying a resurgence of fame now.

Industry spy turned crusading organizer

Pearl McGill started working in the button factories as a teenager as a sort of spy for the industry, recruited by her uncle’s friend to see if workers were as “shiftless and lazy” as bosses suspected. More likely, many say, was that the company wanted her to report on union organizing activities. McGill was also trying to earn money to study to be a teacher.

Though her job was to report to the button industry power brokers, young Pearl soon found herself sympathizing more with the workers. Soon she was an activist and prominent member of the Women’s Trade Union League and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) helping to organize the button workers and also traveling around the heartland and the east coast to make speeches and play a key role in the famous textile workers strikes of 1912.

The Muscatine button workers battled with politicians and bosses, with strikes, violence and intrigue common. All the drama ended several decades later when much-cheaper, similar-looking plastic buttons became available. The pearl button industry basically died, except for small demand for vintage buttons for designer clothing.

(The industry’s sharp decline was good news for native mussels and clams, which have been wiped out in many parts of the Mississippi River system, though efforts are underway to help restore them.)

A free museum in Muscatine pays homage to McGill—who did end up getting a scholarship to study teaching, from fellow union activist Helen Keller—and to the role of socialism and unions in the button industry and the workplaces of that time. On my visit to the museum last week, the author of a new book about McGill—along with one of McGill’s now-elderly relatives—happened to be there.

Jeffrey Copeland’s new book—”Shell Games: The Life and Times of Pearl McGill, Industrial Spy and Pioneer Labor Activist”—is a fictionalized take on McGill’s dramatic life, including her murder on the banks of the Mississippi River and the question of whether her union activities played a role in her killing, in 1924 when she was just 29. A jealous and unstable ex-husband was blamed.

Meanwhile in recent years, others have published nonfiction accounts of McGill’s life, based in part on the young worker’s letters, including to her parents, who lived a simple, conservative country life on an Iowa farm.

One of those letters, provided to the Iowa Women’s Archives by Kate Rousmaniere, said:

The militia got out in the streets at Muscatine the other day to break the crowd away from one of the factories and some of the girls caught a solider boy up on fourth street and took his gun and cap and coat away from him and beat it. Ha! Ha!

A play was also staged in the area in March, during Women’s History Month:  “Bread, Roses and Buttons: Pearl McGill and the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, written by Janet Schlapkohl at the University of Iowa Theater Arts Department.

100 years later, a Muscatine lockout

Meanwhile a dramatic and bitter labor conflict has played out in Muscatine in recent years, though without the prominence or massive community support of a century ago. For the past three years, about 300 union members with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union have been locked out of a corn products plant called Grain Processing Corp (GPC) on Muscatine’s river bank, which makes corn syrup, corn oil, corn-based alcohol and other products for the global market.

Tattered signs supporting the locked-out workers still adorn the windows and porches of some local houses, but for the most part, after a burst of solidarity, the town has moved on.

The UFCW workers were locked out after refusing to agree to a new contract that gave the family-owned company the right to replace them with nonunion contractors. Now the plant is indeed up and running with nonunion workers. The union continues to demand members’ right to go back to work, and they say safety and productivity have suffered since the new workers were brought in.

Meanwhile the plant poses a health and environmental risk to nearby residents and a swath of the Mississippi River valley, since it emits high amount s of particulate matter that is linked to respiratory and cardiac disease. The emissions also contribute to the area being out of compliance with federal standards, meaning it is much harder for new job-creating industries to open if they would release any particulate.

A community group has for the past several years been working to draw the connections between the labor issues and the environmental issues around GPC and other area industries, including filing a lawsuit against GPC and framing the struggle as an environmental justice fight. The group is called Clean Air Muscatine, so the acronym—fittingly evoking the town’s storied shellfish past—is CLAM.

This blog originally appeared in In These Times on May 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

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