The Top Five Wins for Workers’ Rights in 2014

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

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.

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