It’s time to clean up the Los Angeles garment industry’s dirty secret 3

It’s time to clean up the Los Angeles garment industry’s dirty secret

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On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan. Today, we know our clothes are still often sewn in lethal conditions in foreign factories.  Last year’s disastrous Rana Plaza collapse and a series of deadly factory fires resulted in much hand-wringing over how to improve safety in Bangladesh’s garment industry. But 103 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, we still have our own dirty garment secret, much closer to home.

There are some 5,000 garment manufacturers registered in Los Angeles County where an estimated 50,000 workers make clothes. The true numbers are almost certainly higher since many businesses do not report their employees, pay taxes, or carry insurance. Some L.A. garment factories are safe and decent workplaces where skilled employees make high-end denim, swimwear, and other products for elite brands. But in many others, where clothes are sewn for the “fast fashion” industry, the conditions are similar to those in New York sweatshops over a century ago or to those in Bangladesh today.

Bet Tzedek, the public-interest law firm where I practice, has represented hundreds of L.A. garment workers over the past decade, and their stories are sobering. Workers earn as little as two cents per completed garment. The pay, predictably, falls far below minimum wage, sometimes less than $200 for workweeks of 65 hours or more. Even in factories where breaks are permitted, piece-rate pay encourages workers to stay at their sewing machines for unbroken stretches. Musculoskeletal pain and related health problems are common. Over 100 years after workers were unable to escape the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory because the doors were locked, some of our clients have worked in factories without access to fresh water or functioning bathrooms, where bales of fabric block fire exits, and where owners lock workers in the building during overnight shifts.

Statistics bear out our clients’ testimony. According to research conducted by UCLA, over 90% of garment workers in L.A. experience overtime violations, and more than 60% are not paid minimum wage. The federal Department of Labor (DOL) found violations in 93% of the 1,500 inspections of garment factories it has conducted since 2008.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In January 2000, a landmark law went into effect in California with the intention of eradicating garment sweatshop labor. Before passage of the law, known as AB633, factories that often had no assets other than a few sewing machines would close, move, or reorganize under a different name in response to legal claims, leaving workers empty handed. AB633 established an administrative process in which companies that contract with sweatshops can also be liable for a share of workers’ unpaid wages.

In response, the industry reorganized. Over the past decade, thousands of middleman companies sprang into existence to funnel orders from retailers to factories. These subcontractors create a buffer between workers and the fashion houses that profit from sweatshop conditions. Not coincidentally, this is the same subcontracting structure that now prevails in the garment industry around the world, surprising brands like Walmart and Sears when their production documents are recovered from places like the rubble of Rana Plaza or the ashes of the Tazreen factory.

While we assume that U.S. garment factories are well-regulated, my clients know better: their bosses simply lock the doors to workrooms when potential inspectors are seen approaching. And paying citations is a relatively minor cost of doing business in an industry where the vast majority of workers, many of whom are Asian or Latina immigrant women, are too afraid to file a complaint.

In response to the tragedies in Bangladesh, some companies have entered agreements to inspect and monitor the factories there. Here at home, there is no such movement. When the DOL found garments allegedly destined for Forever 21 stores being sewn by workers in L.A. making less than minimum wage, Forever 21 fought the agency’s subpoena in federal court, arguing that it shouldn’t be forced to disclose sensitive information such as where it makes clothes or what systems it has in place to monitor compliance with the law.

There is little incentive for the law-abiding sector of the industry to get involved. Fashion houses paying fair wages for domestic labor are not competing for the same customers as the companies using sweatshop labor. And organizing a low-wage, immigrant workforce on an industry-wide scale requires investments of time and money that have not been forthcoming.

What else can be done? Paying workers less than minimum wage is theft, and criminal prosecutions of factory owners could cause many to rethink their business models. Aggressive investigations by government agencies could begin to unpeel the layers of subcontracting that protect the reputations of retailers and keep the sweatshop system humming.

The simplest solution would be a law clarifying that retailers are liable to workers who prove they sewed garments sold in stores, regardless of who signed the contract with the factory or how many subcontractors were involved. Such a law would swiftly clean up supply chains. But it would also likely mean fewer inexpensive clothes for shoppers and could send more garment jobs overseas if we aren’t willing to pay more.

The question is whether we want sweatshops in our backyard. It took more than 1200 dead bodies for the Bangladesh agreements to be proposed. What will it take here?

 

Kevin Kish

About Kevin Kish

Kevin Kish is the Director of the Employment Rights Project at Bet Tzedek Legal Services in Los Angeles. He leads Bet Tzedek’s employment litigation, policy and outreach initiatives, focusing on combating illegal retaliation against low-wage workers and litigating cases involving human trafficking for forced labor.

Three point lines and coal mines 1

Three point lines and coal mines

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By Christian Schreiber

New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is one of the NBA’s biggest stars, playing in the country’s biggest market.  This summer, he will likely be a free agent – available to sign with another team for a contract that will almost certainly be worth in excess of $100 million.  At last month’s NBA All-Star game in New Orleans, Anthony made news for agreeing to consider re-signing with the woeful Knicks for a contract that will pay him less than the maximum available under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement signed between the NBA Players Association and the NBA.

It has become a familiar PR move for superstars in every major sport when free agency approaches.  If they don’t publicly embrace a willingness to be paid less as part of some single-minded pursuit of winning a championship, they are assailed as me-first losers and forced to justify their “selfish” desire to be paid what the market will bear for their skills.

You do not need to be a sports fan to recognize this trope.  It is familiar to anyone who cares about employees, working conditions, and fair pay because it is made of the same stuff shoveled onto “ordinary workers” whose labor doesn’t make a Top 10 list.  Whether it’s low-wage workers on the front lines of the minimum wage debate, or well-paid tech workers fighting wage collusion in the Silicon Valley, workers are often asked to embrace one short-changing or another.  (Sometimes, it is even offered in the metaphor of sport.  But just when exactly did “being a team player” and “taking one for the team” come to mean “work off the clock” or “don’t mind those sexual advances”?)

This is what drives me crazy when I hear athletes decried as overpaid.  We should all recognize athletes for what they really are: workers. In fact, most of them are workers who are regularly exploited for profits passed upward into the pockets of the absurdly rich; workers with little to no job security; and workers who risk their bodies for little pay.  Sure, Anthony has made millions playing a game.  But his billionaire bosses – the Dolan family, who own Madison Square Garden and rank 151st on Forbes’ list of the richest Americans – make tens of millions more from the brand fostered by Anthony and his co-workers.

More importantly, we cannot forget that Anthony and other “superstars” are the rare exception.  Athletes remain among the least prepared to deal with their earnings (NB: not “wealth”), and many high profile athletes wind up broke after short careers.  The vast majority of athletes, in fact, toil for low wages, risk their long-term health, and even death in order for their employers to enjoy a fatter bottom line.  Sound familiar?  While the NFL’s Commissioner, Roger Goddell, made $44.2 million in 2012 (which we know because…the NFL is…you guessed it…a non-profit organization), players in the NBA’s developmental “minor league” (called the D-League) are placed into one of three classifications, and paid $25,500, $19,000 and $13,000.  Even ESPN acknowledges rather Cavalierly that this “means D-League players are virtually playing for free.”

Why is this acceptable? And why doesn’t this cause more concern among worker advocates? Is it because it’s too difficult to see similarities between your skills, and say, LeBron James’? Is it because we believe that athletes have waived their rights and assumed the risk?  Or is it because scrutinizing our escapist institutions is kind of a buzzkill?  It’s a lot easier thinking about Messi’s unparalleled ball skills than about the children who made the ball.  (For years it has been easier to think about anything other than the Raiders. But recent allegations of wage theft against the Raiderettes affirmed what most fans already knew about their quality of the organization.)  Every now and then we get a peek into the caste system that props up our sports industrial complex, and it’s usually unsavory.

Back on the pedestal, athletes are starting to fight back.  Minor league baseball players have filed a wage and hour lawsuit against major league baseball for paying them less than minimum wage.  The Northwestern men’s football team appeared last week at the NLRB in support of their effort to unionize as University employees.  The team’s former quarterback, Kain Colter, testified, “We are first and foremost an athlete.  Everything we do is scheduled around football….It’s truly a job.”  Another group of former college athletes filed an antitrust action against the NCAA for depressing the value of their scholarships. And 25 other former NCAA athletes, led by 1990’s UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, are heading to trial on June 9 against the NCAA in a case in which they claim the NCAA licensed their likenesses without payment.

I give a high five to all these efforts.  Athletes have a unique power to drive public debate on workplace issues.  Whether it’s new frontiers like workplace bullying and political speech or transformational moments that snarkily signal a culture of non-discrimination in the workplace, we ought to be latching onto these moments to relate them to “ordinary workers” and “ordinary workplaces.”  The sports workplace can offer entrenched backwardness just like any other. But it can also be a laboratory for progress.  The next time an athlete is challenged as a spoiled crybaby, it would behoove us to remember he or she is a worker, and to recognize “the power of the uniform” – whether it is worn by a San Francisco janitor or a San Francisco Giant.

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.

Robert Reich: The Real Job Killers 1

Robert Reich: The Real Job Killers

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By Robert Reich

House Speaker John Boehner says raising the minimum wage is “bad policy” because it will cause job losses.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says a minimum wage increase would be a job killer. Republicans and the Chamber also say unions are job killers, workplace safety regulations are job killers, environmental regulations are job killers, and the Affordable Care Act is a job killer. The California Chamber of Commerce even publishes an annual list of “job killers,” including almost any measures that lift wages or protect workers and the environment.

Most of this is bunk.

When in 1996 I recommended the minimum wage be raised, Republicans and the Chamber screamed it would “kill jobs.” In fact, in the four years after it was raised, the U.S. economy created more jobs than were ever created in any four-year period.

For one thing, a higher minimum wage doesn’t necessarily increase business costs. It draws more job applicants into the labor market, giving employers more choice of whom to hire. As a result, employers often get more reliable workers who remain longer – thereby saving employers at least as much money as they spend on higher wages.

A higher wage can also help build employee morale, resulting in better performance. Gap, America’s largest clothing retailer, recently announced it would boost its hourly wage to $10. Wall Street approved. “You treat people well, they’ll treat your customers well,” said Dorothy Lakner, a Wall Street analyst. “Gap had a strong year last year compared to a lot of their peers. That sends a pretty strong message to employees that, ‘we had a good year, but you’re going to be rewarded too.’”

Even when raising the minimum wage — or bargaining for higher wages and better working conditions, or requiring businesses to provide safer workplaces or a cleaner environment — increases  the cost of business, this doesn’t necessarily kill jobs.

Most companies today can easily absorb such costs without reducing payrolls. Corporate profits now account for the largest percentage of the economy on record.  Large companies are sitting on more than $1.5 trillion in cash they don’t even know what to do with. Many are using their cash to buy back their own shares of stock – artificially increasing share value by reducing the number of shares traded on the market.

Walmart spent $7.6 billion last year buying back shares of its own stock — a move that papered over its falling profits. Had it used that money on wages instead, it could have given its workers a raise from around $9 an hour to almost $15. Arguably, that would have been a better use of the money over the long-term – not only improving worker loyalty and morale but also giving workers enough to buy more goods from Walmart (reminiscent of Henry Ford’s pay strategy a century ago).

There’s also a deeper issue here.  Even assuming some of these measures might cause some job losses, does that mean we shouldn’t proceed with them?

Americans need jobs, but we also need minimally decent jobs. The nation could create millions of jobs tomorrow if we eliminated the minimum wage altogether and allowed employers to pay workers $1 an hour or less. But do we really want to do that?

Likewise, America could create lots of jobs if all health and safety regulations were repealed, but that would subject millions of workers to severe illness and injury.

Lots of jobs could be added if all environmental rules were eliminated, but that would result in the kind of air and water pollution that many people in poor nations have to contend with daily.

If the Affordable Care Act were repealed, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have to go back to working at jobs they don’t want but feel compelled to do in order to get health insurance.

We’d create jobs, but not progress. Progress requires creating more jobs that pay well, are safe, sustain the environment, and provide a modicum of security. If seeking to achieve a minimum level of decency ends up “killing” some jobs, then maybe those aren’t the kind of jobs we ought to try to preserve in the first place.

Finally, it’s important to remember the real source of job creation. Businesses hire more workers only when they have more customers. When they have fewer customers, they lay off workers. So the real job creators are consumers with enough money to buy.

Even Walmart may be starting to understand this. The company is “looking at” whether to support a minimum wage increase. David Tovar, a Walmart spokesman, noted that such a move would increase the company’s payroll costs but would also put more money in the pockets of some of Walmart’s customers.

In other words, forget what you’re hearing from the Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce. The real job killers in America are lousy jobs at lousy wages.

A special thank you to Robert Reich for letting us repost this compelling piece, which originally appeared on his blog, www.robertreich.org

ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock” and “The Work of Nations.” His latest, “Beyond Outrage,” is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His new film, “Inequality for All,” is now available on Netflix, iTunes, DVD, and On Demand.

International Women’s Day now means progress without equity

International Women’s Day now means progress without equity

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By Elizabeth Kristen

International Women’s Day, celebrated worldwide this past weekend, started out as  “International Working Women’s Day” in 1911. One week later, the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 broke out, killing over 140 workers – mostly women – who were trapped inside the factory. The horror of that fire and the working conditions imposed on the women locked inside the factory galvanized the labor movement and the women’s rights movement. Even though the name may have changed, this annual day honoring women is the perfect time to take account of the barriers working women still face today.

Working women in the United States confront challenges ranging from workplace discrimination and harassment to unequal pay and inadequate leaves of absences.  The 2014 Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink collects essays that detail how these barriers impact not only working women, but their families, the economy and society as a whole.

Discrimination and harassment – Women continue to face unlawful discrimination and harassment on the job based on sex, pregnancy, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin, disability, and many other characteristics.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency that enforces our federal civil rights laws published its statistics for charges filed in Fiscal Year 2013.  Charges of sex discrimination constituted approximately 30% of the charges filed with the EEOC.  The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the state agency that enforces our state civil rights laws published its statistics for 2012. This data showed that sexual harassment charges were approximately 60% of the charges filed regarding sex discrimination and harassment.  These statistics demonstrate that employment discrimination and harassment continue as serious problems for working women.

On the legislative front of women’s rights issues at the federal level, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would strengthen the protections for working pregnant women.  We also need the protections of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity across the country.  But these laws must also be enforced, which means vigilant leadership and restoration of the funding cuts that have undermined the California and federal agencies charged with civil rights enforcement.

Gender-Based Wage Gap – Despite the fact that gender-based pay discrimination has been against the law for over 50 years, women in the United States still face a significant wage gap.  Recently, there has been little progress in closing the gap in wages between women and men.  As of 2012, women’s median earnings were 81% of men’s.  And the wage gap is worse for women of color.  Because women are breadwinners for their families, the impact of wage discrimination is felt across the board.  The Paycheck Fairness Act, pending in Congress, would help fight gender-based pay discrimination

Leaves of Absence – Women are still the primary caregivers in the U.S. and they also often must take time off work for pregnancy and childbirth.  Yet the U.S. lags behind nearly every other country in the industrialized world in terms of how much leave it provides for caregiving, pregnancy and childbirth.  The federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for job-protected leaves of absence for caregiving as well as for pregnancy and bonding leave.  However, the FMLA is unpaid leave and many workers cannot afford to take unpaid leave.  The FMLA also provides no protection for those workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees at or near their worksite, those who have worked for the employer for less than a year, and many who work part-time. Additionally FMLA takes a narrow view of what it means to be a family member, drawing a tight boundary around the nuclear family– parent, child, and spouse.   Grandparents, siblings and other extended family are not included.

The California Paid Family Leave Law, the first of its kind in the country, provides partial wage replacement to workers who take time off to care for family members or bond with a new child.  As of July 2014, California workers will be able to take  paid family leave for a broader group of family members that will include grandparents and grandchildren, siblings, and parents-in-law.

Some federal legislators are already taking the cue from California with a pending bill in Congress to provide paid leave nationally.  They should keep up the momentum and improve the FMLA to extend coverage to more workers and to widen the circle of who is considered “family.”

The United Nations’ theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Equality for Women is Progress for All.”  The global gender gap index shows a strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its economic competitiveness. Given the fact that women are at least half of the potential workforce, a nation’s economic competitiveness depends on how it treats women. Improving the lives of working women will enhance progress for all working families and our national economy.  When that happens, we will all be able to proclaim “Happy International Women’s Day”!

Elizabeth Kristen

About Elizabeth Kristen

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a senior staff attorney at Legal Aid at Work.  Ms. Kristen began her public interest career as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Aid.  Ms. Kristen graduated from University of California at Berkeley School of Law in 2001 and served as a law clerk to the Honorable James R. Browning on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  In 2012-13, she served as a Harvard law School Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow.  She has been a lecturer at Berkeley Law School since 2008. Legal Aid at Work together with the California Women’s Law Center and Equal Rights Advocates make up the California Fair Pay Collaborative dedicated to engaging and informing Californians about fair pay issues.

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

By Daniel Velton

If you live in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to miss news about deals like the recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a young instant messaging company with a mere 55 employees. Or the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, a photo-sharing startup employing only about a dozen folks. Or the blockbuster deal for Waze, a small smartphone navigation company.

The lore of startup culture is by now well known. These often casual workplaces boast features like ping pong tables, 3D printer vending machines, skeeball, rock climbing walls, motorcycles, video games, draught beer taps, yoga mats and arcades. (Now television viewers can tune in to the startup world through a new HBO series.)

As hard as startuppers play, they work even harder. In their blur of 60-80 hour workweeks and caffeinated coding, dreams of being part of The Next Big Deal feed their dedication. They give up a lot of themselves and their personal lives in exchange for the elusive prospect of an early retirement. Many, though, often lose sight of the fact that there’s at least one thing they don’t give up — their rights.

California’s labor laws protect all of us, whether we work in shorts and flip-flops (or bunny slippers) in a fast and loose startup culture, or in slacks and dress shirts in a more traditional corporate environment.   More than one startup has learned this lesson the hard way.  The free-wheeling culture at Square Inc. has been cited by some as leading to a sexual harassment claim against the company’s chief operating officer.  Then there were claims of intimidation, violence and gunplay at the heart of a retaliation lawsuit against Color Labs’ co-founder.  And then there is the seminal Silicon Valley age discrimination case – Reid v. Google, Inc. – involving a 52-year-old manager allegedly referred to by managers as a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.”   Eventually, his termination lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that comments like those could establish age discrimination.   Finally, though well past its start-up phase, even tech giant Oracle Corporation was recently hit with a claim for retaliation by a sales manager who objected to what he says was national origin discrimination against Indian employees.

Silicon Valley interests may have successfully pushed through an 11th hour budget trailer in 2008 to end overtime pay for many computer professionals, but even in the wild world of startups, there are still laws protecting workers.  The bottom line is that laws that prohibit discrimination, retaliation and harassment, statutes that require employers to accommodate disabled employees, rules that mandate overtime pay for most hourly workers — these and many other protections cover all of us, regardless of where we work.

Startup employees may sell their souls, but they should be mindful that their legal rights don’t go away as part of the bargain.

 

Daniel Velton

About Daniel Velton

Daniel Velton began his career with the largest labor and employment law firm in the world. Using that experience, he brings valuable knowledge and perspective to his current practice, in which he exclusively represents employees in individual and class action discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment, wage and hour, and other employment cases.

PayPal, Dog Food and California’s Anti-Forced Patronage Law: Did PayPal Chief David Marcus cross a line by threatening the jobs of employees who don’t use PayPal products?

PayPal, Dog Food and California’s Anti-Forced Patronage Law:  Did PayPal Chief David Marcus cross a line by threatening the jobs of employees who don’t use PayPal products?

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In what passes for celebrity gossip in Silicon Valley, the technology press is abuzz and atwitter over a leaked e-mail from PayPal President David Marcus to the company’s San Jose employees.  In the memo, Marcus bemoans the San Jose staff’s allegedly tepid personal enthusiasm for PayPal products.  At other offices, Marcus noted, the staff is willing to “hack into Coke machines to make them accept PayPal because they feel passionately about using PayPal everywhere.”  Marcus also expressed irritation with employees who can’t “even remember their PayPal password.”

As if password amnesia and a preference for using coins in Coke machines weren’t bad enough, Marcus was especially incensed by those San Jose employees who did not personally use PayPal products.  “Some of you,” Marcus lamented, “refused to install the PayPal app,” a point he underscored in the memo with flamboyant punctuation (“!!?!?!!”).

After urging the “San Jose PayPals” to use the company’s products, he closed with a vague threat, recommending that employees who refuse to install the PayPal app can go find another job.

In the tech word, the internal use of a company’s own software to demonstrate the quality and capabilities of the product is known informally as “eating your own dog food” or “dog-fooding.”  For example, Hewlett-Packard staff once referred to a project using only HP’s own products as “Project Alpo.”  But did Marcus take the “dog food” concept too far by threatening the jobs of employees who refuse to patronize PayPal?

The answer lies in California’s Depression-era Forced Patronage Law.  What is forced patronage, you may ask?  Let me illustrate the concept with a tale from my youth.

Long ago, in a downscale mall in a mid-sized Midwestern city, I got my first and only retail job at a now-defunct rural-themed clothing chain called the “County Seat.”

It is difficult for young people today to appreciate the sartorial horror that was the County Seat.  The clothing seemed targeted at rodeo clowns or the more fashion-forward Amish.  Nevertheless, County Seat staff were forced to buy County Seat clothing at a small discount and wear it on the job – in public!! – as a condition of employment.  The delusional thinking was that turning the sales clerks into human mannequins would stimulate sales. This was classic “forced patronage.”

But that was the Midwest.  Here in California, Labor Code section 450 prohibits an employer from compelling or coercing an employee to purchase goods or services from his or her employer or any other person.  The law was originally aimed at the proverbial “company store” of the coal mine of the remote farm labor camp.  But in modern times, it has been used in class action litigation against employers such as Abercrombie & Fitch (the County Seat of our time) and other clothing chains which require employees to purchase and wear the company’s fashions on the job.

So back to David Marcus and the PayPal e-mail.  Was there a violation of Labor Code section 450?  No one at PayPal, as far as I know, has been fired for refusing to use PayPal products.  And, because the statute prohibits the “purchase of anything of value,” Pay Pal could argue that requiring the download of a free PayPal app is not a violation of section 450.  On the other hand, if PayPal employees are terminated for refusing to purchase PayPal products, that would be a different bowl of dog food.

The evolution of the application of Labor Code section 450 from the coal mine to Silicon Valley shows how old statues are reinterpreted and updated for the cyber age. There is, alas, no specific statute that protects an employee from termination for forgetting a password.  Therefore, we are all very, very vulnerable.

Curt Surls

About Curt Surls

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, a non-profit professional association honoring lawyers whose careers have demonstrated dedication to the welfare of the community and the traditions of the profession. Prior to opening the Law Office of Curt Surls in July 2012, he was a partner with Bornn & Surls for over 15 years. Mr. Surls was also an attorney with the Oakland civil rights firm then known as Saperstein, Seligman & Mayeda, specializing in employment and civil rights class actions. Mr. Surls also worked for the Department of Industrial Relations and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.

Let’s drink to the hard working people 3

Let's drink to the hard working people

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I fell under the influence of the Rolling Stones as an early teenager and never left.  The other day I was listening to Keith Richards grinding out his raspy lyrics to the song “Salt of the Earth,” which begins with the guiding line, “Let’s drink to the hard working people.”  The Stones understood back in 1968 (and probably earlier) that workers should be appreciated and recognized, and it’s time the rest of us follow suit.

Workers, especially low wage workers, are much worse off today than they were 46 years ago when “Salt of the Earth” was released.  According to a recent study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, 40% of Americans now make less than the 1968 minimum wage.  Had the federal minimum wage kept pace with gains in the country’s productivity since 1968, it would be $16.54 per hour as opposed to its current abysmal rate of $7.25 per hour.  Put another way, the current federal minimum wage is 32% less in 2013 dollars than it was in 1968.

Corporate America’s concerted attack on unions coupled with anti-union legislation has also hurt workers.  On average, unionized employees earn roughly $200 more per week than non-union employees.  Today, unions represent a meager 7% of employees in corporate America, which is one-quarter the level in the 1960s.  In 2013, the union membership rate was 11.3% compared to 20.1% in 1983.  A 2011 study argues that the decline of organized labor accounts for about one-third of the rise in income inequality for men and one-fifth for women — even for people who never belonged to unions.

Our country’s historically high poverty rate, which currently exceeds 15% of the U.S. population, is due at least in part to the failure to recognize and support labor.  Four out of every five Americans will experience near-poverty, unemployment or reliance on welfare programs at some point in their lives.  In 2013, the poverty wage level for a single full-time worker with one child was $8.11, which is almost a dollar more than the current federal minimum wage.

I call on all of us to raise our glass to hard working people and take action to reverse these devastating trends.  An increase of the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would raise the incomes for 17 million Americans.  Federal law should follow California’s lead by imposing significant penalties against employers who fail to pay the requisite minimum wage or who fail to pay wages at all.  Finally, unions should be lauded instead of vilified, especially in the burgeoning high tech industry which has always been hostile to unions.

Workers ARE the salt of the earth, and it’s time for the country to show them the respect and appreciation they deserve.

Scott Ames

About Scott Ames

Scott Ames has been litigating wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, family and medical leave, breach of contract, wage and hour violations, unfair competition and trade secret matters, and other employee rights cases for over two decades. Mr. Ames’ demonstrated record of success has resulted in him being named among the Top 100 Attorneys in Southern California in 2012 and 2013, a “Southern California Super Lawyer” by Los Angeles Magazine from 2007 through 2014, and a “Best Lawyer in America” from 2006 through 2014. Mr. Ames is also active in his community, and has served on a number of committees and boards of non-profit organizations which seek to improve the lives of the disenfranchised or working poor.

Tackling political speech in the workplace: What we can learn from Chris Kluwe 1

Tackling political speech in the workplace: What we can learn from Chris Kluwe

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By Nicolas Orihuela

Chris Kluwe was back in the headlines this week for his public support of Michael Sam, a top NFL draft prospect, who announced on Sunday that he is gay.  Chris Kluwe, a former punter with the Minnesota Vikings, claimed earlier this year that he was released from the team for his public support of gay marriage.

As high profile athletes, Kluwe and Sam command the attention of the media and the electorate when they speak up on important societal issues. Michael Sam has indicated that he will not engage in activism in support of gay rights and will choose instead to focus on his fledgling NFL career.

While I do not know him nor pretend to know his motives, I can’t help but think: is the fear of losing out on a high draft pick or not being signed by an NFL team driving his decision not to engage in political activity outside the locker room?  Losing a job should not be a concern that employees have when considering whether to engage in political activities outside the workplace.   Which brings us back to Kluwe’s situation and the question of whether the Vikings had the right to terminate him, assuming his allegations are true, for voicing his political views on gay rights?

With politics a part of daily life, it is only natural that the world of work and politics will collide.   Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for employees to be terminated when the political opinions within these worlds also collide.  Recently, Dick Metcalf, a well known gun journalist, was fired from his job writing for Guns & Ammo magazine after he wrote a column calling into question the absolute right to bear arms.

And take the recent case of Maria Conchita Alonso, a Latin-American actress, who was to participate in a Spanish language version production of “The Vagina Monologues.”  After voicing her support for a Republican California gubernatorial candidate, Tim Donnelly, she was met with fierce protest and basically forced to resign from the production.

The difficulty lies in how to draw the boundaries around protected speech so that the political beliefs and activities of both the employee and the employer are respected.  Employers will argue their own right to political expression and that they should be able to regulate disruptive political activity in the workplace.  However, employers should not have the power to make employment decisions solely based on the political activities outside the workplace.  An employee should simply be able to take a personal stand on political issues (rightly or wrongly) without fear of retribution.

Like Chris Kluwe, most workers who engage in political activity do so on their own time and outside of the workplace.  But without any statutory protection, employers are able to misuse their economic power to influence the political activities of their employees no matter where those activities take place.

Now, if Chris Kluwe played for the Raiders, 49ers or Chargers — all based in California — his right to political speech would be protected.  Two statutes (sections 1101 and 1102 of the California Labor Code) make it unlawful for private employers to retaliate against employees because of their political affiliations or political activities.  California seems to be one of the very few states that protects employees from retaliation for engaging in political discourse outside of work or while at work.

So where does our punter, Mr. Kluwe, stand?  As a result of his allegations, the Vikings are now investigating his claims and have interviewed Mr. Kluwe about his allegations.  However, there is no guarantee that the team will corroborate what he alleges.  And because he does not live in California, there is also no guarantee that the Vikings will remedy any wrongdoing.  While I hope that the Vikings will do the right thing, the natural tendency is for large employers and institutions to close ranks and do nothing to change.  We’ll see soon enough whether the Vikings decide to punt the issue or tackle the issue head on.

Nicolas Orihuela

About Nicolas Orihuela

Nicolas Orihuela is a founding partner of the employment law firm of Hurwitz, Orihuela & Hayes, LLP and has been practicing since 2002. He represents employees in race discrimination, sex harassment, wrongful termination and disability discrimination related cases. He also handles wage and hour cases.

A Nation at Waste: The long-term unemployed and job discrimination

A Nation at Waste: The long-term unemployed and job discrimination

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By Hina Shah

President Obama in his State of the Union speech was upbeat as he pronounced that we had the lowest unemployment rate in over five years.  But this optimistic forecast glosses over the epidemic of the long-term unemployed.  There are 3.9 million Americans who have been unemployed 27 weeks or longer and 2.6 million who have been unemployed for 52 weeks or longer, according to the National Employment Law Project’s report.

Stigmatization and discrimination against the long-term unemployed creates a major barrier to ending this epidemic.  Rand Ghayad, a doctoral student of economics, conducted an experiment where 4800 computer-generated resumes of fictitious workers were sent out with identical credentials with varying unemployment lengths and industry experience.  Workers who reported being unemployed for six months or more were almost never contacted.  “It isn’t that firms aren’t finding the right workers,” Ghayad said, “but that employers are screening out the long-term unemployed.”  This discrimination disproportionately impacts workers who are non-white, unmarried, disabled, impoverished and less educated – the groups who are over-represented among the long-term unemployed.

The President is on the right track when he asked business CEOs to take the pledge to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed and issued a directive to federal agencies not to screen out long-term unemployed workers from consideration for openings.  But even with these measures, we face a real crisis of creating a permanent class of jobless Americans, as Congress gridlocks over extending benefits to the long-term unemployed.  In a recent survey, 25 percent of the long-term unemployed reported that they did not have money for food and 10 percent have lost their home or apartment because they could not pay their rent or mortgage.  Economists all agree that long-term unemployment slows overall economic growth and hurts the nation as a whole.  Harder to quantify, but still real, is the toll that chronic unemployment takes on a person’s confidence and sense of dignity as well as their skill level.

We must do more to insure that the long-term unemployed are not abandoned on the road to economic recovery.  The National Employment Law Project recently issued nine recommendations to address long-term unemployment.  These are bold recommendations that call on the President, Congress and the business community to act to create new jobs and end the practice of discriminating against long-term unemployed individuals.

It is time to look again at the Roosevelt New Deal programs, like the Works Progress Administration that put 8.5 million Americans back to work building bridges, roads, public parks and strengthening America’s infrastructure. If we want to avoid a permanent subclass of citizens living in the shadow of our economy, the President must embrace a bolder path.

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.

Let’s make 2014 the year in which all American workers are guaranteed access to paid sick leave

Let’s make 2014 the year in which all American workers are guaranteed access to paid sick leave

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By Sharon Vinick

Unlike other industrialized nations, the United States does not have a national paid sick leave policy.  According to a 2011 study by the Economic Policy Institute, 40% million Americans working in the private sector are employed in jobs that do not provide paid sick time.  And, the real cost of having employees go to work when they are sick is enormous.  The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that the annual flu season, alone, costs companies $10.5 billion in lost productivity and direct medical costs.  But, momentum seems to be building in favor of passing legislation that will provide paid sick leave to all employees.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the country to require that all private companies – big and small – offer paid sick days to their employees.  At the time, business groups warned that providing paid sick leave would negatively impact local business.  As it turns out, these dire predictions were entirely wrong.  According to a 2011 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, paid sick leave has benefitted employees without reducing employer profitability.

While it took a few years for other municipalities to follow San Francisco’s leave, by November 2013, six cities and one state had paid sick leave laws:  Connecticut, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York City, Jersey City (New Jersey) and Portland (Oregon).  Then, last summer, Senator Tom Harkin and Representation Rosa DeLauro introduced the “Healthy Families Act,” which would allow workers to accrue up to seven days of paid sick leave over the course of the year.  While the Act has not yet passed, each month, more states and municipalities seem to be jumping on the band wagon.  Earlier this month, the Newark City Council passed a paid sick leave ordinance, and similar legislation is under consideration in California and Washington.

The national discussion regarding paid sick leave is not limited to legislative bodies.  Earlier this month, Michael Miller of the Atlantic City Press, published an article regarding the move within New Jersey to provide paid sick leave.  And, on Monday, the New York Times published a story by Rachel Swarns which explained that cities that have adopted paid sick leave ordinances have not experienced an exodus of businesses.

But the biggest push towards providing paid sick leave to all Americans came just this week.  On Monday, during his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that “[a] mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship – and you know what, a father does, too.”  This remark was widely considered to be support for national legislation requiring that private employers provide paid sick leave.  Then, two days later, actress Cynthia Nixon joined House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and a coalition of progressive groups in a “telephone town hall” in which they pushed for the passage of new legislation of paid sick leave.

Given that 74% of Americans believe that employers should be required to offer paid sick leave, it is high time that we pass legislation that guarantees all Americans access to paid sick leave.

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.

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