December 17, 2013

Fast Food Workers Go On Strike in Indiana and Across the Nation

Workers across the country, including in Kentucky and Indiana, organized to go on strike, this time to protest the low wages paid at fast food restaurants. The strikes come during a time when studies have shown that more than half of fast food workers make so little money that they use public assistance.

burger-1097100-m.jpgAlthough in Indiana the percentage of fast food workers on public assistance is less than 50% -- 45% to be exact -- the result still costs the state an estimated $131 million each year. Many workers hope to change that, such as Nicholas Williams, a cook at a McDonalds in Indianapolis. He notes that while McDonalds makes $6.5 billion each year, he makes only $7.35 an hour and cannot afford many basic things. He and others hope to see the minimum wage raised to $15 per hour.

Supporters state that when fast food workers make so little, it hurts their entire family, because the parents then need to work two or three jobs to support their families and are never home. Furthermore, these jobs typically lack health care that would benefit the family if someone got sick. In fact, forcing fast food workers to work all the time to make ends meet prevents them from participating in the community at large.

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December 11, 2013

United States Supreme Court to Consider Whether Private Corporations Have Religious Beliefs

The United States Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the case concerning whether corporate employers are required to provide free birth control, as mandated by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), even if their "consciences" do not support it. While religious institutions and non-profits are exempt from this provision, this case will test whether private corporations are "people" enough to have religious convictions that trump the needs of their employees. Oral arguments are expected to take place in March 2014.

cross-with-shadow-1-1356536-m.jpgThe Supreme Court agreed to hear the argument after the Circuit Courts of Appeal offered split decisions on the issue -- including the Seventh Circuit in early November. In Korte v. Sebelius, a two-judge majority found that small, closely held corporations were "people" within the meaning of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and were entitled to assert that the mandate substantially interfered with their rights.

The case involved two Catholic families with closely held corporations, one a construction company in Illinois and the other a manufacturing company in Indiana that produces automobile safety systems. Although the companies are both secular and devoted to earning profit, the Seventh Circuit still noted that they operated according to their owners' Catholic beliefs. Therefore, the owners should not have to condone "abortion, sterilization, and the use of abortifacient drugs and artificial means of conception."

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December 4, 2013

National Labor Relations Board Rules That Wal-Mart's Efforts to Intimidate Workers Are Illegal

Right before the series of Black Friday protests conducted by Wal-Mart employees across the country, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that the retailer had broken the law when it fired and harassed employees who spoke up against company exploitation and went on strike. As a result, the NLRB will prosecute Wal-Mart's actions, involving 117 workers, which include the workers who went out on strike this past June. It is expected that the NLRB's ruling will increase the likelihood of strikes in the future, given that Wal-Mart employees by and large still must contend with low pay, few benefits, and unpredictable work schedules.

immigration-rally-1-520992-m.jpgThe NLRB ruling may require Wal-Mart to reinstate the dismissed workers and provide them with back pay, as well as to inform employees of their full legal rights. However, the NLRB cannot impose fines on companies that violate these rights. Among those who have already been reinstated are Aaron Lawson of Kentucky, who was initially fired for distributing flyers and protesting Wal-Mart's efforts to silence employees who sought better wages and hours. Wal-Mart finally reached a settlement with Lawson, where the retailer agreed to rehire him with full back wages representing the time he was out of work. The NLRB had also previously decided to prosecute Wal-Mart for violating federal labor laws 11 times in California, when managers made threats to employees around Black Friday.

The above intimidation is just part of a long pattern of Wal-Mart indifference toward worker protections and hostility toward worker activism, which includes breaking the law by retaliating against protest activities, paying female employees less for doing the same work as male employees, violating environmental laws, and exploiting immigrant labor.

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November 25, 2013

Sixth Circuit Finds That Employee Who Continued to Work for Macy's Waived Her Right to File a Lawsuit in Tillman v. Macy's, Inc.

It is becoming a more common practice for employers to insert arbitration clauses into contracts for employment. Arbitration clauses specify that if an employment dispute arises, rather than go to court, the employer and employee agree to arbitration in a designated forum. Arbitration proceedings tend to be less formal than court proceedings, but also have fewer safeguards - the arbitrator may not necessarily be a judge or a lawyer, and may not necessarily abide by the prevailing law in coming to a decision. Once a ruling is made, it can be difficult to appeal to the trial court, and the employee may be stuck with the decision. That is a problem because more often than not, employers get to choose the arbitration firm, and the firm may show a bias toward employers in order to get repeat business.

clothing-1336617-m.jpgUnfortunately for employees looking to sue in court, the United States Supreme Court has held that the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 supercedes state laws that mandate certain grievances be litigated in court. The only exceptions that state courts have been able to carve out have had to do with the "unconscionability" of the arbitration clause -- that the clause was both an unfair surprise and incredibly oppressive to one of the contracting parties. Yet too often arbitration clauses are upheld, cutting off employees' options for redress.

Recently, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that another employee was bound by the arbitration clause in Tillman v. Macy's, Inc. Cecilia Tillman was an employee of May's Department Store in 2005, when May's merged with Macy's and she became a Macy's employee. After the merger, Macy's premiered its Solutions inSTORE program, which outlined a four-step dispute resolution process that ended with binding arbitration for both Macy's and the employee. Any employee who participated in the program waived his or her right to file a lawsuit in court. Macy's claimed that it explained the policy in a mailing and during a video training, and employees had the right to opt out if they filled out a certain form. Tillman attended the training, but argued that Macy's "breezed over" the information about mandatory arbitration. She further argued that merely continuing to work as an employee of Macy's should not constitute a waiver of her right to file a lawsuit in court.

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November 18, 2013

Two Dozen Muslim Kentucky Employees to File Discrimination Claims After Employer Fails to Let Them Pray

Recently, 11 former employees of DHL Global Mail in Kentucky, and soon as many as 24 total, filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that they were fired for praying on the job. All 24 employees are or were Muslim immigrants from Somalia. The employees filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, requesting damages, reinstatement where appropriate, and policy changes.

salat-ied-115358-m.jpgThe problems began this past October, when there was a change in office policy that removed the flexible break policy that had been in place. The DHL Muslim employees had used that time to step out of the office and pray. Once the policy was reversed, however, the employees had no options, and ended up voluntarily taking time off of the clock. The 24 Muslims who worked in the mail room stepped outside at 7:24 p.m. and gathered to pray, separated by gender. The supervisor then called three of the employees in for an explanation, later calling the police to ensure that the employees left without causing a scene.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a number of classifications are protected from discrimination, including race, national origin, color, gender, and religion. Employers are required to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices unless doing so would pose "more than a minimum burden" on the business. Among the examples of reasonable accommodations that the EEOC lists are flexible schedules, voluntary shift substitutions, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies.

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November 11, 2013

Seventh Circuit to Consider Whether EEOC Conciliation Process Should Receive Outside Scrutiny in EEOC v. Mach Mining, LLC

When an employee experiences workplace discrimination, he or she must usually first go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if the workplace is covered by federal law. The EEOC investigates the claim, and may pursue litigation on the employee's behalf depending upon the type of case. Other remedies include mediation, settlement, and conciliation.

handshake-671413-m.jpgThe EEOC's conciliation methods have recently come under scrutiny of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In EEOC v. Mach Mining, LLC, the Seventh Circuit recently heard oral arguments as to whether courts should be permitted to review the EEOC's conciliation efforts. If so, should the reviewing courts use heightened scrutiny or a deferential scrutiny?

Conciliation involves the EEOC informing the employer that there is reasonable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred. The EEOC then invites both parties to sit down and the EEOC investigator works with them to come up with a fair resolution. This may involve negotiations with offers and counter-offers. The idea is to resolve the issue without spending money on litigation.

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November 4, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court to Determine Whether Time Spent Putting On and Removing Equipment for Work Should Be Compensated

The United States Supreme Court will soon determine whether time spent putting on and removing -- or "donning" and "doffing" -- protective clothing for work should count as paid time. Workers at an Indiana steel mill, U.S. Steel's Gary Works, claim that it should. They spend considerable time donning jackets, pants, work gloves, steel-toed boots, eye protection, hard hats, and ear plugs before they start their work. The clothing protects them from the fire and molten steel from the mill's blast furnaces and coke ovens. However, 800 former and current workers claim that they have not been compensated for their time, and have filed a class action suit against their employer as a result. Meanwhile, U.S. Steel claims that the time the workers spend changing does not count as part of a day's work, as defined by the workers' union contract dating back to 1947.

worker-and-the-excavator-1170139-m.jpgWhether time for donning and doffing equipment should be compensated is a question that has frequently appeared in the lower courts. Many collective bargaining agreements even include provisions as to whether donning and doffing time is covered. Before a case on the issue can go through the courts, the workers involved must typically exhaust the remedies of the collective bargaining agreement, if there is one. If they fail to do so, the court will usually dismiss their case, stating that the workers may come back only after they have followed collective bargaining procedures.

The situation also highlights the changing nature of work, the difficulty with determining when a work week begins, and ways in which the federal Fair Labor Standards Act -- intended to address these issues -- is behind the times.

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October 25, 2013

United States Supreme Court Considers Whether to Resolve Age Discrimination Issue in Madigan v. Levin

At the beginning of its new term this month, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case Madigan v. Levin, which came from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The case involves the issue of whether an employee can sue an employer for age discrimination under the U.S. Constitution when the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was intended by Congress to be a remedy.

u-s--supreme-court-1-1038827-m.jpgHarvy Levin, age 61, worked as an attorney general for the state of Illinois. He and two older attorneys were terminated from their jobs and replaced by younger attorneys. In Levin's case, the younger attorney was in her 30s. Levin sued his employer under the ADEA, and also under another federal law, claiming that his civil rights were violated.

Levin's case was tossed out of court because Levin was not actually an employee in the usual sense, but a political appointee. Levin then argued that the Illinois attorney general's office had violated his civil rights, only to be informed that he could not make that argument because only the ADEA was meant to address age-related discrimination claims. Levin appealed to the Seventh Circuit, which ultimately sided with him. The Seventh Circuit stated that even with the ADEA, an employer had to act according to the Constitution, and that wronged employees should be able to sue for a Constitutional rights violation when the ADEA does not apply. The Seventh Circuit's finding was at odds with the findings in other federal appeals court, which made it highly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court would agree to hear the case and settle the split.

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October 16, 2013

Department of Labor Extends Federal Wage and Hour Laws to Home Health Care Workers

In a move that will affect home health care workers in Kentucky and the other states, the Department of Labor recently announced the enactment of a new rule that will give them minimum wage and overtime protections.

wheelchair-945156-m.jpgWhile most hourly workers are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), there are some exceptions, thanks to a "companionship exemption" enacted in 1975. The companionship exemption applies to workers who provided companionship services for individuals who were unable to care for themselves. Since that time, the home health care industry has grown at a fast pace and is expected to grow 70% bigger by 2020, but in the process, home health care workers have woefully low yearly incomes -- the median annual income was just over $20,000 per year in 2010. This is despite the fact that home health care workers may work up to 60 hours per week, including overnight stays.

Now thanks to the rule, which takes effect in January 2015, all home health care workers will need to be paid 1.5 times their hourly rate for every hour they work beyond 40 in a week, or eight in a day. It will be a life changer, given that even with their long hours, many home health care workers must still work one or two other jobs to make ends meet. The move was applauded by President Obama, who claimed that it would rectify an injustice for those who did "heroic, hard work."

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October 9, 2013

National Teamsters Leadership at Odds With Local Branches Over Contract With UPS

National and international unions are composed of countless local branches containing collective bargaining units. Collective bargaining unit formation and procedure are governed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA). First, employees in a workplace must file a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) showing that at least 30% are interested in union representation. This is usually done through the use of authorization cards. Next, if employees meet the threshold and the petition is otherwise deemed valid, an election for union representation is held. While an employer can challenge the initial petition, he or she cannot legally interfere with an election. Third, if the employees vote to unionize, and the election is upheld, the unit of employees represented will be certified as a collective bargaining unit. The employees would then have the right to bargain collectively with the employer over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. All union employees are bound by these collective bargaining agreements.

fragile-parcel-1279274-m.jpgNeedless to say, collective bargaining agreements will differ from workplace to workplace, and in some cases, local units may clash with the national union. Such is the case with United Parcel Service (UPS) (login required), whose members are represented by Teamsters. While the Teamsters leadership approved a national contract, local units -- including Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, representing 10,000 members -- are still dissatisfied with areas like restricting overtime, wages for part-time workers, and healthcare. Since UPS must negotiate with the local bargaining units, issues that were supposed to be resolved in June have resulted in delayed agreements.

It is unclear how far apart the parties are over the new labor agreements. A Teamsters official spokesperson declared that the master contract was the "best private-sector labor contract in the country," raising wages by $4 an hour, creating 2,500 jobs, and adding several employee protections. At the very least, the national leadership and the local units are far enough apart that Local 89 in Louisville has urged its members to vote no on the latest proposal. Now everyone awaits to see whether the separation will result in a strike.

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October 2, 2013

Sixth Circuit Finds That Employer Who Terminated Employee Due to Her Romantic Relationship Is Not Liable in Stevens v. Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, Inc.

In the recent case Stevens v. Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, Inc., the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that terminating an employee after discovering a consensual, but inappropriate, workplace relationship that has soured is not grounds for wrongful termination or hostile work environment.

gavel-4-1409594-m.jpgThe case involved a nurse, Caroline Stevens, who worked for Physician Associates, LLC and Patient First Physicians Group, the latter of which was later acquired by Saint Elizabeth Medical Center. Stevens served as a nurse and personal assistant for the Doctor. During many of the years they worked together, Stevens and the Doctor had a romantic relationship, until Stevens broke it off in 2009 when she learned that the Doctor had not divorced his wife.

Stevens later filed a complaint that her site supervisor, Gary Brown, was pressuring her to take a new position after the Doctor expressed a desire to reduce his patient load. She noted that no patients had been transferred to other doctors. Brown was aware that Stevens and the Doctor used to be in a relationship. Investigation into the complaint revealed that Stevens and the Doctor not only had an affair, but that they also had several sexual episodes on office grounds. As a result, their employer gave them both the option of resigning or being terminated. The Doctor resigned, while Stevens was terminated. Stevens then filed a lawsuit against the Doctor, Patient First Physicians Group, and Saint Elizabeth Medical Center, alleging sexual harassment under Title VII, the Kentucky Civil Rights Act, wrongful termination (retaliation) and fraud. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and the district court ruled in their favor. Stevens then appealed to a three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit to review the case.

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September 23, 2013

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Rules That Employee Terminated For Mediation Misconduct Did Not Face Retaliation in Benes v. AB Data, LTD

Under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination against employees on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion, age, or disability is prohibited. That includes not just discrimination in hiring, firing, or every day workplace activities, but also retaliatory acts against employees who report workplace discrimination. Retaliation can include demoting the individual or terminating his or her employment. The question is what constitutes retaliation. Not long ago, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that one case of firing did not meet that threshold.

handshake-671413-m.jpgIn Benes v. AB Data, LTD, the employee, Michael Benes, had filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stating that the AB Data firm committed gender discrimination. The claim reached the mediation phase, where Benes first had a session with his employer before the two parties separated and used a go-between to relay each other's offer. After learning of the employer's offer, Benes went into the room where the employer's representatives were gathered and exclaimed that they could "shove" their proposal and fire him, and he would take them to court. The employer responded by terminating Benes's employment. Benes then filed a lawsuit under Title VII, claiming retaliation rather than gender discrimination.

A magistrate judge ruled in favor of AB Data on a motion for summary judgment, stating that Benes had been fired due to misconduct during the mediation rather than for retaliation. Retaliation is only prohibited in cases where "[a person] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter."

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September 17, 2013

Indiana Superior Court Judge Rules That Indiana's "Right-to-Work" Law is Unconstitutional

Until recently, Indiana was known as a "right-to-work" state. "Right-to-work" does not mean that all willing and able-bodied people have the right to a job. Rather, it means that employees who are not part of unions should be able to enjoy the benefits that union employees won through collective bargaining -- without having to pay union dues or be bound by the collective bargaining agreement like union employees. "Right-to-work" is designed to weaken unions' power, on the basis that fewer employees will want to join a union if they can get the same benefits without any sacrifices. Twenty-four states have enacted "right-to-work" legislation, including Indiana in February 2012.

immigration-rally-1-520992-m.jpgHowever, recently a Lake County Superior Court judge ruled that Indiana's "right-to-work" law was unconstitutional. Judge John Sedia stated that the reason was because Indiana's constitution calls for just compensation for services. Permitting non-union members to enjoy the benefits of union victories was not just compensation.

The case against Indiana's "right-to-work" law was originally filed in February 2013 on behalf of members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 AFL-CIO. It was not the first time that unions challenged the law after Indiana became the twenty-third "right-to-work" state. The ones who brought the most recent case had previously brought the case in federal court, claiming that the "right-to-work" law violated the United States Constitution and the state constitution. However, the federal court dismissed it without prejudice, claiming that the case should be brought in state court.

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September 12, 2013

Walmart Workers Across the Nation Go On Strike to Protest Wages, Unfair Labor Practices

Recently, in an effort similar to the fast food workers' one-day strike, Walmart employees in 15 different cities protested the company's disciplinary actions toward 80 employees who were part of a previous protest. While Walmart officials claim that the disciplinary actions had nothing to do with the protest, Walmart employees claim otherwise, and were illegal, given that the protest was over unfair labor practices. Employer acts that punish employees for striking over unfair labor practices violate the federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Until recently, strikes protesting Walmart's treatment of employees were rare. Those who makin-change-680711-m.jpgdid protest faced stiff consequences, such as 60 Walmart employees in California who were fired after protesting outside of a shareholders meeting. Employees who dared to strike often received little support. This time, however, Walmart employees received support from an advocacy group intended to organize them, called OUR Walmart. The goals of OUR Walmart include instituting minimum pay of $13 per hour, full-time jobs available to those who want them, predictable work schedules and health care that is affordable. Some common complaints about Walmart are that it provides jobs that are less than full time in order to circumvent federal health care law, yet has unpredictable shifts that prevent employees from taking on second jobs to make ends meet.

While Walmart officials argue that hourly workers earn close to $13 an hour anyway, other groups place the average at less than $9 per hour, barely enough to cover gas, food, and rent. Meanwhile, Walmart continues to profit even in an uncertain economy, churning out $444 billion in sales in 2012, and with higher profits in the first two quarters of 2013.

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September 5, 2013

Sixth Circuit Finds That Employment Contracts That Shorten the Statute of Limitations on FLSA Claims Are Invalid in Boaz v. FedEx

When employees discover that their wages have been illegally withheld, or that their employers have committed other acts that would be illegal under state or federal law, it is often months or years after the injury first occurred. Whether an employee can get relief, and how much, depends upon whether the statute of limitations has run. The statute of limitations acts as a time limit for which an injured party can file a lawsuit from the date of the injury. This time limit may vary by state, type of injury, or statute. In Kentucky, the statute of limitations for labor law claims is five years, while it is two years for Indiana. The statute of limitation may also specify that the clock starts running only after the injured party "should have known" about the injury, rather than when the injury actually occurred.

copy-cat-295013-m.jpgMany employers have sought to circumvent the statute of limitations by placing language in employment contracts that shortens the amount of time employees have to file a claim. They argue that these clauses are valid, as the employee agrees to them when he or she signs the contract. However, this past month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

In Boaz v. FedEx, the Sixth Circuit held that a contract clause mandating that a suit must be filed within six months of the injury was invalid. The case began in 2009, when FedEx employee Margaret Boaz sued her employer for wage and hour and Equal Pay Act violations between 2004 and 2008. Boaz had taken over a higher position with many more responsibilities, but her pay reflected her original low-level status. Boaz argued that she should have been paid what the previous male employee in that position was paid. FedEx, in turn, argued that Boaz's lawsuit should be dismissed because under her contract, she had only six months to file from the time the pay disparity last occurred.

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