Lactating men, toilet stalls and the arc of justice

By Christian Schreiber3 month baby

For the vast majority of workers, the laws that protect their rights operate silently in the background. This is especially true in California, where labor laws are frequently hailed – or assailed – as the country’s most protective for workers.

It’s easy to forget that the standards we take for granted today were once uncharted frontiers, but sometimes a reminder is in order: the provision of new rights always meets resistance, but seldom do we regret the expansion.

A recent example makes the point. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a breastfeeding mother’s last chance at an appeal last month. The plaintiff in the case, Angela Ames, alleged that she was wrongfully terminated from her job at an Iowa insurance company after returning to work from pregnancy leave. Ames requested a room where she could express breast milk, and was instead told by her boss to “go home and be with your babies.” The district court tossed the case on summary judgment, noting that her sex discrimination claims could not stand because “lactation is not a physiological condition experienced exclusively by women.” The 8th Circuit upheld the decision.

If you’re thinking this sounds like an article in the Onion, you’re not alone. Legal opinions relying on “Strange But True” articles make me think that my trivia-minded children have a too-near-term future on the bench. And I can’t be alone in being reminded of this:

Unfortunately, Ames and other women trying to breastfeed remain unprotected in many settings, and experience resistance in even unlikely places. Last fall, my sister-in-law was prepared to sit for her board exams in for Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. When she asked the American Board of Internal Medicine for accommodation to express milk during the 10-hour testing day, she was told to spend her break time pumping. Because as every lactating man knows, pumping is the same thing as studying, resting, eating, smoking, or taking a break.

In California, breastfeeding rights are well established. But because she lives in Indiana (where she is currently completing her fellowship), she enlisted help from me and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. We wrote a letter explaining the shortsightedness of ABIM’s position. The good news is ABIM accommodated her request, and subsequently changed its policy. Ms. Ames was not so lucky.

California working mothers can now rely on Labor Code section 1030, which since 2003 has required employers to provide unpaid time and non-bathroom space for employees to express breast milk. When the bill mandating these changes was debated, however, the Chamber of Commerce predictably opposed the bill.

The Chamber’s position evolved over the next decade. Last year it did not oppose AB 1787, which would have required large commercial airports to provide places for nursing mothers. But the Chamber is nothing if not consistent. Instead of recognizing that today’s vanguard is tomorrow’s baseline, the Chamber still reflexively opposes any “new rights” in the workplace, typically tagging such efforts as “job killers.”

It is time our elected officials stop crediting the tired perspective of holdouts quivering at the edge of a civil rights moment. Time has a way of showing that the Chamber’s unbroken chorus of “impending doom” and “runaway rights” holds neither moral nor economic sway. And it never stands the test of time. A dozen years later, what California employer is clamoring to end the tyranny of nursing mothers being released from the confines of a toilet stall?

The Chamber’s economic perspective is just as faulty.. Consider the following two slides:

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If the Chamber’s perspective were valid, the laws enacted to protect workers in San Francisco should have crushed the City’s economic vitality. Plainly,they didn’t..

The Legislature is poised to consider any number of bills this session that will expand the rights of workers, including a renewed effort to guarantee equal pay for working women.  When the Chamber begins its craven “job killer” refrain, as it will both publicly and privately in the days ahead, it should be met with  skepticism. California legislators need not shy away from the reality that civil rights legislation has demonstrated a distinct, eastward migratory pattern.

If the arc of the moral universe is long and bends towards justice, short-term plans that offer only the promise of continued inequity should be met with a new chorus. “See me in 10 years if you’re still interested in reversing these rights. Otherwise, I hear they’re hiring in Iowa.”

Christian Schreiber

About Christian Schreiber

Christian Schreiber is a partner at Chavez & Gertler, where he works primarily on class actions involving employment and consumer rights, civil rights, and financial services matters.

Will the “real” employer please stand up? The consequences of the global shift to subcontracting, franchising, and outsourcing

By Anne Richardson

A fundamental change has taken place in the American workplace, and we are only now beginning to realize just how monumental it is.

A new book, The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can be Done About It, by David Weil, makes the case that in every corner of the employment world, companies are increasingly shedding their employees, while maintaining control over the ultimate product or services to be provided under the “lead” company’s logo and brand. Beginning with peripheral services such as janitorial and security, and gradually including ever more central services, such as receptionists, truckers, and even lawyers, large employers are deliberately subcontracting out their work.

warehouse

Here’s how it works: A member of a loading dock crew is paid by one company, which is in turn compensated by another company, for the number of trucks loaded. That company, Schneider Logistics, manages distribution centers for Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart sets the price, time requirements, and performance standards that are followed by Schneider, which in turn uses those standards to structure its contracts with its subcontractors.

Why do they do it? Employers can reduce costs by pushing many of the responsibilities connected to being the employer of record down the chain to someone else. Yet by controlling the quality and price of their goods and services, they do not lose their reputations and the goodwill of their brands.

But should lead companies be allowed to have it both ways? Should they be permitted to control the production, delivery, and cost of goods and services, without sustaining any liability for the manner in which their contractors provide them? To take a real world example, if a company like Wal-Mart sets a price that is so low that the only way for suppliers to meet it is by underpaying their employees, isn’t that really Wal-Mart’s responsibility?

This new “fissuring” model has drastic consequences for employees who have been forced to trade in traditional jobs at a lead company, with benefits and a pension plan, for part-time temporary positions with no benefits. Pushing responsibilities down the chain often means that the direct employer is less well capitalized and less capable of maintaining wage and hour standards, or enforcing health and safety rules. Since the company on top sets the price, often as low as the market will possibly bear, the company on the bottom is forced to cut to the bone. Many of the subcontractors are small businesses that go under, and then reemerge as a different company, which results in there being no responsible party  to foot the bill when legitimate claims are made.

Fissuring also negatively affects the health and safety of   the broader public. Weil argues that a significant contributing factor of the devastating environmental oil spill caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon accident in 2009 was the extent of BP’s use of contractors. In order to shield itself from liability by maintaining less control over its subcontractors, BP did not sufficiently oversee the safety component of the operation. Other authors have similarly noted the increase of injuries and fatalities that have accompanied the rise of contracting in, for example, coal mining, construction, and trucking, among others.

To be sure, there are some who benefit from the practice. The third consequence of “fissuring” is to shift the surplus generated by businesses away from the workforce and to investors. This helps to explain why the operative trend in the American workforce is the widening income gap between the rich and the working poor. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is at a hundred year high.  For example, in 1965, the average CEO made about 20 times what the average worker made at any given company. By 2013, the ratio had grown to approximately 331 to 1. What’s fascinating is that a recent study found that not only did people worldwide grossly underestimate the ratio of CEO to worker pay, but that people across all backgrounds preferred a smaller pay gap.

Weil, who was appointed the Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division of the United States Department of Labor in May 2014, argues that since “[t]he modern employment relationship bears little resemblance to that assumed in our core workplace regulations,” laws and judicial decisions need to adapt current rules about workplaces to the realities of the modern world.

In every corner of the American workforce, the pressures to cut costs and improve the investor’s return have resulted in a worsened standard for the middle-class worker, as well as a worsened standard of health and safety. What can be done about it? Stay tuned for my next post.

Anne Richardson

About Anne Richardson

Anne Richardson is the Associate Director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a project aimed at eliminating economic injustice on behalf of underrepresented workers, students, and families throughout California and nationwide. Previously she was a partner at Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick representing plaintiffs in all varieties of employment discrimination and civil rights matters for over twenty years. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she has been named to the Top 100 Lawyers in Southern California and has received numerous honors for her work.

It’s time to proclaim your own “Ed Roberts Day”

EdRoberts

Most of us did not observe “Ed Roberts Day” on January 23rd, but we should have.  Roberts, one of the founders of the independent living movement, lived a bold life “out-loud,”as one of a cadre of activists who catalyzed the movement for disability rights. That movement empowered people with disabilities to take control of their own lives and demand a world free of barriers to access and opportunity.  In public spaces and workplaces, all of us have benefitted from the philosophy and practice of universal access and inclusion advanced by Roberts and the disability rights movement.

The short film “Free Wheeling” tells the story of Ed Roberts’ evolution as a trailblazing disability rights activist.  After contracting polio when he was fourteen, he became paralyzed and lived from then on with technical assistance from an iron lung and, eventually, a power wheelchair.  When, after graduating from UC Berkeley in the 1960’s, Roberts sought help finding employment from the California Department of Rehabilitation, the counselor told him that he was “too disabled to work.”

Thirteen years later, Governor Brown (then in his first term) appointed Roberts to head the very agency that had sent him packing.   Governor Brown’s appointment of a person with severe disabilities to head the Rehab Department was considered by many a radical act.

In fact, Roberts was an avowed and proud radical.  He was on a mission to force a paradigm change in both how people with disabilities viewed themselves and how we as a society view people with disabilities.

Most people never thought of independence as a possibility when they thought of us. But we knew what we wanted, and we set up CIL to provide the vision and resources to get people out into the community. The Berkeley CIL was also revolutionary as a model for advocacy based organizations: no longer would we tolerate being spoken for.

The Berkeley Center for Independent Living, founded by Roberts and other activists in the 1960’s, is now housed within the ultra-accessible, and aptly named, Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley.   This magnificent building is the epicenter of disability activism, housing, under one roof, many of the most important disability rights organizations in the country, if not the world, including the World Institute on Disability (co-founded by Roberts) and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

Last week I served as a volunteer attorney at the Ed Roberts Campus, staffing the workers’ rights disability law clinic offered by the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco-Employment Law Center.  People with disabilities often seek help from the legal clinic because, like Ed Roberts, someone in power thinks that they are too disabled to work.  And when they walk or wheel through front doors, they enter a place that embodies the vision of the independent living and disability rights movements of which Roberts was so much a part.

ramp-up-3.ed robertsThe Ed Roberts Campus exemplifies the concept of “universal design,” the idea that what designers refer to as the “built environment” should be “more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost.” Barriers have fallen away as curving ramps offering smooth travel from the first to the second floor and elevators can be called with the press of a wheelchair footrest.  The Ed Roberts Campus is a beautiful symbol of how far we have come in the struggle for a barrier-free world. The work that happens in that beautiful space is a reminder of how far we have yet to go to achieve Robert’s goal of a barrier-free world.

The Ed Roberts campus is a place where people with and without disabilities are inspired to action.  It is a fitting tribute to the man who inspired a movement to get us there.   And really there’s no reason to wait until Governor Brown issues next year’s “Ed Roberts Day” proclamation to move from inspiration to action.

 

Jean Hyams

About Jean Hyams

Jean K. Hyams is a founding partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, a Bay Area boutique law firm focused on representing employees in employment disputes. She left a career as a manager in high-tech companies to pursue her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Northern California for the past five years and her firm has been rated one of the Best Law Firms (Tier 1 – Employment Law) by U.S. News and World Report. After almost a quarter-century in practice, she now also serves as a court-appointed and private mediator of employment disputes. Jean is Co-Chair of the CELA VOICE.

Six Years After the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Still More Work to Do

lillyledbetterjpg-822dc3fdc9542b67 By Sharon Vinick

Six years ago today, President Obama signed his first piece of legislation — the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – to extend the time period in which an employee could file a claim for pay discrimination.  The Act overruled the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which Ledbetter said allowed her employer to pay her unfairly “long enough to make it legal.”

At the time of its passage, President Obama said that the passage of the Act would “send a clear message that making our economy work means making sure it works for everyone.”

Sadly, in the six years since the passage of the Act, the gender pay gap has – at best – barely budged.   Indeed, by some estimates, the wage gap has actually widened in the last few years.

If the new Congress is truly committed to the goal of pay equity, concrete steps must be taken.  First, Congress should pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which will strengthen the Equal Pay Act and help secure equal pay for equal work.  Second, Congress must act to increase the minimum wage, as women make up two-thirds of the country’s minimum wage earners.   Third, Congress should enact a universal, government-paid preschool program, as 10% of the wage gap is attributable to time that women spend outside of the workforce.

While the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was a step in the right direction, Congress still has a lot of work to do to close the persisting wage gap.  Let’s hope by the Seventh Anniversary of the Act, we are closer to pay equity and an economy that truly works for everyone.

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

The myth about sleeping on the job

24-Hour Shift Workers Entitled to Pay for All Hours Under the Employer’s Control

cctv security system

By Hina B. Shah

When a receptionist has some down time at work, she surfs the internet or flips through a magazine.  Her employer still pays her for this time because she’s required to respond to calls or visitors.  It is a benefit to the employer.  However, when it comes to employees who work on-call hours or 24 hour shifts at the jobsite, employers and many lower courts have been reluctant to pay workers for this time.  No longer.  Earlier this month a unanimous California Supreme Court clarified that on-call employees required to spend time at their worksites and under the employer’s control are entitled to compensation for all hours, including sleep time.

The ruling surprised some observers despite the fact that California law plainly requires that employees must be paid “for all hours worked.”  In reporting on the 18-year conflict between security guards and CPS Security Solutions, Inc., some legal press described the workers as “idle” and “getting paid to sleep.” This is far from the truth.  CPS Security required the guards to spend their on-call time at the jobsite. The guards were required to investigate in uniform all alarm sounds, or any noise, motion or other activity they heard during their on-call time. They had to stay vigilant and not consume alcohol.  They were not allowed to have pets, children or adult visitors.  Most importantly, the guards had to ask their employer for permission to leave.

Despite these numerous restrictions, CPS Security Solutions, Inc. paid the guards only when they were responding to an alarm or had asked for permission to leave but were either waiting or had been denied relief.  Guards who were required to remain on the construction site during their on-call hours were not paid.

The most galling part of CPS’ practice, however, was the way in which the company profited from these rules. While the workers were required to remain on the premises and not paid for this time, CPS charged its clients for the round-the-clock presence of these guards.  In fact, the company admitted that these guards were an integral part of their business model.

CPS Security is not the only firm using this business model.  Employers of domestic workers, private correctional officers, environmental contractors and others refuse to pay for on-call time unless the worker is actively engaged in responding to calls or emergencies. It would be hard to imagine asking a firefighter to remain on alert at all times, but pay only for the time she responds to a fire, yet this is just what these companies have been doing.

The court’s ruling should be far-reaching. California has long recognized that long hours are harmful to employees’ health.  There is a growing body of evidence that links excessive work hours with substantial risks for occupational injury and illness.  And despite claims that “paying for sleep” will have a negative impact on business, in fact the decision may boost the economy. One obvious way to cut down on costs is to hire more employees, rather than one employee for a 24-hour shift.  Employers benefit when they have on-call workers at their job sites, and so do their clients. Now, more workers may benefit as well.

Hina Shah argued before the California Supreme Court for a number of organizations as amici curiae on behalf of the plaintiff. 

Hina Shah

About Hina Shah

Hina B. Shah is an Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director at the Women’s Employment Rights Clinic (WERC) of Golden Gate University School of Law, addressing employment and labor issues faced by low wage and immigrant workers.

The March for Jobs and Freedom continues: A daughter walks in her mother’s footsteps

By Tiren Angela Steinbach

march

My mother grew up in a middle class African American family in Hyde Park, Chicago.  She graduated from high school in 1963 and was enrolled in Skidmore College for the fall. As a girl, she was a dancer, so she convinced her parents to send her to dance school in Paris the summer before she started college.  Paris in the early 60s was the mecca of cool, the epicenter for Black intellectuals and artists who had left the United States to find greater acceptance in the City of Lights.  So, in the summer of ‘63, eighteen years old, my mom flew off alone to Paris, which was horribly romantic in theory but rather lonely in reality. This was particularly true if your French was less that exemplary, which was, unfortunately true for my mother.

My mother was alone and desperate for her mother tongue, so she read the International Herald Tribune every day cover to cover. One day, there was a notice on the back pages: “Interested in Civil Rights?  Want to talk with other folks about the March on Washington? Come to Café Blah de blah blah at 4 p.m.” It was signed J.B.  My mother circled the notice and went to Café Blah de blah at 4 o’clock.  The café was overflowing with dozens of American ex pats, many African American, all sitting around drinking café lattes and discussing the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was planned for the following week.  The small café was filled with a cacophony of American-accented voices speaking at once, asking, “What was it all about?”  “What should we do?” “What does this all mean for Negros – is this really going to make a difference?”  Finally the host of the meeting, J.B. – James Baldwin - stood up and said simply, “It’s time to go home.  Our people need us.”

My mom went home.  She changed her ticket and flew back to Chicago the day before the march.  But when she got there, her parents’ house was empty. She went to her aunt’s place next door – empty. It was like the whole of Hyde Park was empty, all gone to Washington DC to take part in history. No one had been expecting her so there was no message, no instructions, nothing.  Finally she found a scrap of paper written in her twin sister’s handwriting that had a name and number. She called it and a man on the other end said that the last chartered train to DC was leaving in two hours and she better get to the station if she wanted to get on board. So she did.

podiumShe arrived in DC with hundreds of thousands of people there to march to support civil rights. My mother was swept out of the train station into the crowd flowing like a human river towards the Lincoln Memorial.  There, a queue of speakers took the stage to address the crowd, among them Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered a thoughtful speech about the emancipation proclamation and the national legacy of racism.  Some say that it was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was standing nearby on the stage, who called out, “tell them about your dream, Martin!” And my mom stood in a crowd of over 200,000 listening to the speech that would later be recognized as a transforming moment of the Civil Rights Movement.  That day, my mom never found her mother or father or her twin sister or aunts, uncles, cousins, grandfather, and neighbors, but she knew that they were there with her somewhere in the crowd.  And she knew that her world had changed forever.

My mother started college several weeks later.  She joined SNCC – the Student Non-violence Coordinating Committee She joined SDS – Students for a Democratic Society.  She joined the MOVEMENT…and never looked back.  A couple years later, in 1965, while organizing for another march on Washington to oppose the Vietnam War, my mom got a call from a graduate student at Rochester, saying that he had three busloads of people for the march but needed to connect to an organization to get them to DC. My mother told the grad student to come to a planning meeting in New York City, and he did. That man was my father. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I share this story as a call to us all, J.B.’s call that my mother answered, “to go home, our people need us.”  And home is not only our home, but the streets and jails and prisons and homeless shelters and veterans homes and community centers and clinics and legal aids and public defender offices and all places we are needed to advocate for justice. And our people are all people whose voices are silenced and stories vilified and humanity stolen – all people for whom the law has been wielded as a weapon against them rather than a tool for their equality.  And on this journey for justice, we will sometimes feel alone and scared and far from comfort, but our spirits will be buoyed by the many others who have also answered the call, and comforted by knowledge that we are part of global movement – people raising hands up and voices loud and putting lives at risk for justice.  And we will need to be lifted by words and wisdom of those who preach proudly to the choir because they know the power of their sermons is what inspires the choir to sing our loud and proud and powerfully for justice – justice that looks like love in public. And we must answer this call and never look back because today, more than ever, our people need us.

Tirien Angela Steinbach is the executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, the community-based clinic for Berkeley Law School, where she graduated from law school in 1999. This post was written from her life experiences in hopes of inspiring a call to justice.  It originally appeared on the EBCLC blog under the title “J.B.’s Call and the March for Jobs and Freedom.”

 

A New Year’s resolution for CEOs: Admit the mistake and take action to end bias

By Sharon Vinick

Business Team

On February 4, 2014, Microsoft announced that Satya Nadella would become the new Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft.  Nadella had worked in Silicon Valley since 1992, and had been with Microsoft for 22 years when he was elevated to the position of CEO.  His first year compensation amounts to about $84 million.  Until October, Nadella’s tenure as Microsoft’s CEO was unremarkable.  But then came his remarks at the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the World’s largest gathering of women technologists.  The head of Microsoft chose this gathering of more than 8000 attendees, mostly women, to suggest that women were better off trusting “karma” than pushing for raises.  The incident raised the hackles of women inside and outside the technology world and immediately raised Nadella’s profile as well … but not in a good way.

The CEO had been invited to speak at a plenary session, which was open to all conference attendees.  In response to a question the best ways for women to advance in corporate America, Nadella said that “[i]t’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”  Nadella went on to say that not asking for a raise was “good karma.”

Not too surprisingly, Nadella’s remarks immediately drew the ire of women, particularly as studies routinely show that women are paid less than men.  Indeed, some research shows that Nadella’s advice is exactly the opposite of what women need.  According to Linda Babcock, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and leading researcher on women and pay negotiations, one of the reasons that women make less money is because they are less likely than their male counterparts to negotiate their compensation.

There is at least one silver lining in the story of this CEO blunder — it appears that Mr. Nadella may have learned something from the experience.  The first sign of the lesson learned came in the form of a tweet.  Unlike many CEOs, he did not try to explain away the ignorant remarks.  Instead, within hours of leaving the stage, Mr. Nadella tweeted:  “Was inarticulate re how women should ask for raise.  Our industry must close gender pay gap so a raise is not needed because of bias.”

Next came Nadella’s brief email to all Microsoft employees, in which he stated that his response to the question was “completely wrong.”  Yes, you read that right.  Within hours of making a foolish and clearly erroneous suggestion about how women should try to get ahead in the world of technology, Nadella sent an email saying he “answered the question completely wrong.”  He also went on to say “I believe that men and women should get equal pay for equal work.  And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it’s deserved . . . you should just ask.”

Then, a week after the incident, Nadella issued a companywide memo committing to expanding diversity within the company.  Significantly, the memo points repeatedly to the danger of “conscious and unconscious” bias in the workplace.  The concept of “unconscious” bias, also known as implicit or cognitive bias, refers to the way that people make decisions based on stereotypes and assumptions without intending to discriminate. In Nadella’s own words –

“My advice [to not ask for a raise] underestimated exclusion and bias — conscious and unconscious — that can hold people back. Any advice that advocates passivity in the face of bias is wrong. Leaders need to act and shape the culture to root out biases and create an environment where everyone can effectively advocate for themselves.”

Psychologists, academics and employment rights lawyers have been talking about this phenomenon for years.  The Nadella memo is a clear sign that their message is finally reaching the top echelons of corporations.  And that is good news.

Cynics will assume, probably correctly, that the quick apology was a public relations tactic.  And there is no question that the seemingly radical act of Nadella admitting that he had made a mistake virtually ended the criticism.  But there is reason to hope that the CEO for one of the world’s largest companies may have learned a deeper lesson than how to engage in damage control.  As we begin a new year, CEO’s across the country should take a page from Nadella’s playbook, accept that they may not yet fully understand the forces that have caused the gender pay gap, and resolve to “act and shape the culture to root out biases.”  Admitting error, saying that you were “completely wrong,” and taking action to change corporate culture is not only the right thing to do, it is also good business.

 

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

The Top Five Wins for Workers’ Rights in 2014

By Sharon Vinick

2014

As the year comes to a close, it’s time for a “Top Five” list.  Interest in “Top Ten” or “Top Five” lists is so immense that psychologists have even coined the term the “Top Ten Effect,” to describe the “bump” that items on such a list receive in terms of sales.  A list of the top developments in employment law may not cause a run on any stores, but policy makers and working people should take note (drum roll please) as we now count down the list of five developments that will change the landscape of employee rights as we enter the new year.

  • No. 5:  New California Law Says Proof of Sexual Desire is Not Required to Win Sexual Harassment Claim

 The California Legislature deserves recognition for a new law that strengthens protection against sexual harassment on the job. For years, employers have tried to defend against sexual harassment claims by arguing that the harassment, although boorish, was not illegal because it was not based upon sexual desire.  This “defense” goes something like this — The boss who “joked” with his female subordinate about hopping over to a motel for the night wasn’t actually attracted to her, so that couldn’t be sexual harassment.  Or as the employer claimed in one infamous case, the ironworkers who hazed a new guy on the crew with threats of sexual violence couldn’t have perpetrated sexual harassment since they were all straight.  Earlier this year, the California legislature took away this excuse when it amended the Fair Employment and Housing Act to specifically provide that “sexually harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire.”  These few short words will provide powerful protection for victims of workplace sexual harassment.  As important, the change reminds employers and the courts that sexual harassment is about abuse of power, not sex.

The California Supreme Court took aim at the hypocrisy of employers who hire and exploit undocumented workers. It has often been noted that low wage workers, regardless of their immigration status, are frequent victims of workplace violations. Undocumented workers, fearful that any complaint regarding a violation of these rights might result in their deportation, are a particularly vulnerable group.  This year, in Salas v. Sierra Chemical Company, the California Supreme Court ruled that an employer who discriminates or retaliates against an undocumented worker can be held liable. While the case limits the damages available to these employees, it does provide that employers who violate the workplace rights of undocumented employees will be held accountable for their actions.

While the phrase “wage theft” has been around for years to describe employers who fail to pay overtime or other wages earned by their employees, a number of cases in 2014 have raised public awareness and built public outrage regarding the all-too-common practice of employers forcing employees to work without pay.  Studies suggest that employers are ripping their workers off to the tune of more than $50 billion annually.

The year began with a high profile wage-theft story from an unlikely quarter with the filing of a class action lawsuit against the Oakland Raiders by one of their cheerleaders, Oakland Raiderette Lacy T. The lawsuit sparked similar lawsuits at four other NFL franchises and, as important, a national conversation about wage theft.   In March, seven class action lawsuits were filed across the country against MacDonald’s on behalf of workers in the fast food franchise restaurants alleging its franchises did not pay employees for all hours worked and forced them to work through breaks. Challenges to wage theft kept rolling throughout the year.  In November, employees of Yank Sing, a high end San Francisco dim sum restaurant recovered a landmark settlement — $4 million in back pay and benefits for “blatant” wage theft in settlement of complaints before the California Labor Commissioner. These high profile lawsuits have increased public awareness of wage theft and their examples serve as a deterrent to future wage theft.

  • No. 2:  National Labor Relations Board Opens the Door for Retail Workers to Organize by Department

The federal administrative agency that oversees labor-management relations also took steps to level the playing field for workers in 2014.  In July, the NLRB issued a decision that makes it far easier for unions to get a foothold in large retailers, including Walmart.  In a case involving Macy’s department store, the NLRB ruled that the United Food and Commercial Workers could organize a subgroup of 41 cosmetic workers at a 150-employee store.  Before this change, unions faced huge challenges because they were required to win storewide votes.  As of 2013, only 4.6% of workers in the retail industry were members of unions, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.   That’s down from more than 6% in 2003.  The UFCW is campaigning to organize retail workers at stores like Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Target and, of course, Walmart.

  • No. 1:  Increases in Minimum Wage for Workers 

Without question, the movement that gained the most momentum this year for workers was the campaign to increase the minimum wage.    President Obama called upon Congress to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour, and signed an Executive Order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for new federal contract workers.  Unfortunately, the gridlocked Congress did not act to increase the minimum wage that applies to all workers around the nation. However,  eleven states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia did raise their minimum wage.

As of January 1, 2015, twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia will have minimum wages that exceed the paltry $7.25 per hour that workers earn under the federal minimum wage.  The highest minimum wage in the nation is in the District of Columbia, where the minimum wage is $9.50 an hour.  And, by January 1st, six other states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) will have legally mandated minimum wages of at least $9.00 an hour. While significantly more work remains to be done in this area, increases in the minimum wages are a meaningful development for millions of low-wage workers in this country.

So, as the year 2014 comes to a close, let’s toast these advancements for workers and rededicate ourselves to improving the working lives of all employees in the new year.

Sharon Vinick

About Sharon Vinick

Sharon Vinick is the Managing Partner of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyam LLP, the largest women-owned law firm in the state that specializes in representing plaintiffs in employment cases. In more than two decades of representing employees, Sharon has enjoyed great success, securing numerous six and seven figure settlements and judgments for her clients. Sharon has been named by Northern California Super Lawyers for the past five years. Sharon is a graduate of Harvard Law School and UC Berkeley. In addition to being a talented attorney, Sharon is an darn good cook.

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

By Amy Semmel


According 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.

Source: Google Official Blog - googleblog.blogspot.com

Source: Google Official Blog – googleblog.blogspot.com

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.

Amy Semmel

About Amy Semmel

Ms. 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.

Wage theft still on the menu in the restaurant industry

Plate of Money

By Lisa Mak

Making the headlines this week was a landmark $4 million backpay and compliance settlement for 280 current and former workers at the popular Yank Sing restaurant in San Francisco.  Last summer, a group of Yank Sing employees, with the help of the Chinese Progressive Association and the Asian Law Caucus, complained that the owners of Yank Sing engaged in a slew of labor violations, including theft of wages and tips, failure to pay minimum wages and overtime, and denying workers their meal and rest breaks.  The violations, according to California Labor Commissioner Julie Su, were “pretty blatant.”

Unfortunately, employee wage theft and labor violations are very common in the restaurant industry.  For example, workers brought claims last year against a Los Angeles restaurant, Izakaya Fu-ga, for wage theft, failure to provide breaks, and retaliation against workers who asserted their rights.  An announcement is also expected soon regarding a settlement with restaurants in the El Mercadito complex in the Los Angeles Boyle Heights neighborhood that will pay $220,000 in back wages to workers and provide improved sick and vacation leave.

The Yank Sing crackdown is a good reminder that people serving us our food often make too little to put food on their own table.  Aljazeera recently covered the issue in its “Fault Lines” series, highlighting the prevalence of wage theft in the restaurant industry.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney at Lawless & Lawless in San Francisco, exclusively representing plaintiffs in employment matters. Her litigation work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, whistleblower retaliation, medical leave, and labor violations. She is an active member of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, a volunteer and supervising attorney at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic, and a Young Professionals Board member of Jumpstart Northern California working to promote early childhood education. She is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego.

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