Election aftermath: The road ahead

Election aftermath: The road ahead

photo-1445365813209-5ab6d8f397cbWhen I was in law school, a white male student ran for a position in our student body government. In his campaign statement, he said that if elected, he would eliminate funding for the school’s minority organizations and use the money to “blow lines” off the taut stomachs of Southeast Asian boys. At a town hall meeting, this man still did not seem apologetic and told us to lighten up, that it had just been a joke. Many minority students, including yours truly, were outraged. When people ask why I became a civil rights lawyer and involved in progressive causes, I cite that incident as one of several defining moments. Because it was heartbreaking that someone in San Francisco these days would still think that racist jokes were acceptable, and that some people didn’t think it was a big deal.

The election results brought new heartbreak. Whatever theories emerge about the outcome, one thing remains clear – there is still so much to be done to protect our civil rights. If you think we are safe from racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia in this country, think again. If you think that the laws we have in place offer enough protection to prevent unfair treatment, think again. If you think that there are too many complaints about discrimination and harassment, think again.

Our state’s public policy is clear:

“It is hereby declared as the public policy of this state that it is necessary to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination or abridgment on account of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, or military and veteran status.

It is recognized that the practice of denying employment opportunity and discriminating in the terms of employment for these reasons foments domestic strife and unrest, deprives the state of the fullest utilization of its capacities for development and advancement, and substantially and adversely affects the interests of employees, employers, and the public in general.”

Discrimination in any form adversely affects us all. It’s not a joke, and it’s definitely a big deal. People who come to my office are not litigious by nature – they have suffered real harm and mistreatment in the workplace simply because of who they are. Because their skin is not white. Because they are women. Because they were not born in this country and speak imperfect English. Because of who they pray to. Because they are perceived as too old or too disabled to work. Because they love their same-sex partner. Because of these and other immutable qualities that are supposed to be embraced and protected under our laws and under human decency.

If you think we’ve progressed to be more inclusive, look harder at what this nation has revealed about itself. And look harder at the work that needs to be done. Now more than ever, we need to continue seeking justice, fair treatment, and equal opportunities for all.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

Tis the season: Giving thanks for new employment protections

Tis the season: Giving thanks for new employment protections

By Lisa Mak

In the spirit of the holidays, here’s a round-up of five legal developments that California workers and their advocates can be thankful for this year.

Fair Pay Act

In October 2015, Governor Brown signed the California Fair Pay Act to give our state the strongest equal pay protections in the nation.  In 2014, a woman working full-time in California still earned an average of only 84 cents to every dollar a man earned – a wage gap that has remained unchanged for nearly a decade. The new law mandates equal pay for “substantially similar work,” instead of the old outdated language requiring equal pay only for “equal work on jobs” at the “same establishment.” Thus, male and female employees are now entitled to equal pay if they perform comparable work, even if they have different job titles or work in different offices at a company. The new law also requires that any legitimate, non-gender based factors that employers rely on to explain gender wage differences must be “applied reasonably” and “account for the entire wage differential.” The Fair Pay Act also prohibits retaliation against workers who seek to enforce the Act or who inquire about the wages of other employees. This new law empowers women to challenge unfair pay practices and gives advocates new tools to combat the gender wage gap that has persisted in this state for far too long.

Protecting Reasonable Accommodation Requests

AB 987 was passed in July 2015 to explicitly affirm that workers who request reasonable accommodation based on religion or disability are protected from retaliation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The legislation was passed in response to a misguided California appellate court’s decision in Rope v. Auto-Chlor System of Washington, Inc. In that case, the employee was fired after requesting a work accommodation so that he could donate his kidney to his ailing sister. The court held that accommodation requests did not constitute a protected activity sufficient to support a FEHA retaliation claim. This decision threatened to overturn years of legal interpretation that protected workers’ rights to request accommodations. With the passage of AB 987, we can now be sure that workers have legal protection if they request an accommodation from their employer due to disability or religion.

Increased Wage Theft Protections

To help combat pervasive wage theft in this state, SB 588 was passed to authorize the California Labor Commissioner to file a lien or levy on an employer’s property to assist employees in collecting judgments for unpaid wages. According to a 2013 report by the National Employment Law Project and the UCLA Labor Center, only 17% of workers who prevailed in their wage claim at the Labor Commissioner’s office were able to receive any payment between 2008 and 2011. Workers who did receive payment were able to collect only 15% of what was owed. The new law also provides that any employer or any person acting on behalf of an employer who “violates, or causes to be violated,” regulations regarding minimum wages or hours and days of work, may be on the hook for wage theft. Workers and their advocates now have significantly stronger tools to go after employers who try to evade liability by shifting responsibility to other companies or by refusing to pay their judgments.

Scrutiny Of Misclassification In Shared Economy Companies

In June 2015, the California Labor Commissioner ruled that a driver for Uber was an employee, not an independent contractor, and ordered the company to pay her back for work-related expenses. In August, the California Employment Development Department determined that a former Uber driver was an employee and was entitled to receive unemployment benefits. Then in September, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that Uber drivers could proceed as a class action in a lawsuit over whether the drivers should be classified as employees or independent contractors. The class action alleges that Uber failed to pass on tips left for drivers. Although the classification issue for Uber drivers and other similar workers is not yet settled in California, it reflects the willingness of the state’s legal authorities to scrutinize misclassification issues and enforce labor rights in the evolving world of shared economy businesses.

Cost-Shifting To Employees Only If FEHA Lawsuit Frivolous

Previously, employees who lost on their Fair Employment and Housing Act claims could be required to pay the employer’s legal costs. Since these costs could be substantial, workers could be discouraged from trying to vindicate their workplace civil rights out of fear of having to pay if they lost their lawsuit. However, now after the California Supreme Court’s decision in May 2015 in Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District, an employee who loses his or her FEHA claims in a lawsuit will not have to pay the employer’s legal costs on those claims unless the employer shows the claims were frivolous. This new standard can help reduce some of the financial risk for employees seeking to enforce their rights.

These developments reflect our state’s continuing trend of protecting working people, low-wage workers in particular, from exploitation and unfair treatment. Although there’s always more advocacy to be done, we have these positive steps to celebrate for this year.

Lisa Mak

About Lisa Mak

Lisa Mak is an associate attorney in the Consumer & Employee Rights Group at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco. She is passionate about representing employees and consumers on an individual and class basis to protect their rights. Her practice includes cases involving employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, labor violations, and severance negotiations. Ms. Mak is the Co-Chair of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, and an active volunteer at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic. Ms. Mak is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego. She is fluent in Cantonese and conversant in French.

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

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.

Corporate “wellness” programs are unhealthy for employee rights 1

Corporate “wellness” programs are unhealthy for employee rights

By Nicole Heeder

The Affordable Care Act has everyone up in arms.  From its chaotic rollout to the Supreme Court’s fast approaching opinion in the Hobby Lobby birth control coverage case, “Obamacare” has been writhing with controversy.

So why isn’t anyone talking about the dangers  posed to employee privacy by Obamacare’s “health contingent wellness plans”?  Although on the surface these plans have an admirable purpose, we need to look deeper. Here’s how these wellness plans work:   An employer may offer its employees financial incentives to quit smoking, lose weight or make other healthy changes to their lifestyle, encouraging healthy behavior. So far so good?

While this sounds good in theory, the devil is in the data, specifically the data that employers are collecting to measure their employees’ health status. Health contingent wellness plans require employees to undergo invasive biometric health screenings on an annual basis.  Employees are weighed, poked and prodded to find out their weight, height, body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Biometric results are then used to identify individuals who are at risk for disease, most commonly heart disease and diabetes. Once the data is collected, the employer then offers employees incentives to change their lifestyle all in the name of lowering employer healthcare costs.

These incentives may come in the form of decreased premiums, cash or other gifts.  But the incentive programs are not all they’ve cracked up to be — employees who do not meet expectations may be subjected to surcharges if they fail to stop smoking, take a fitness course or work with a health coach, not to mention the follow-up testing.

There is also the real risk that employers will view employees who do not meet company set standards as a burden on their workforce.  An employer who believes that perceived medical conditions or disabilities interfere with the employee’s ability to perform may be tempted to discriminate against or terminate employees who fail to meet health goals.

With this in mind, some protection against employer discrimination is built in to the ACA — access to the biometric results is limited to the third party vendors who conduct the testing. However, practically speaking, this structure is far from fool-proof. Should an employer suspect that an employee has a disability or medical condition, something as simple as reviewing the insurance premium changes may provide confirmation. Worse yet, these screenings often take place at the worksite further threatening employee privacy and easing employer access.

Another form of protection is the “reasonable alternative standard” for employees whose medical condition prevents them from attaining the health results required to qualify for incentives. But since an effective alternative needs to be tailored to the individual’s specific medical condition, the employee is forced to self-identify the disability in order to qualify for lower premiums.  Compelled disclosure of a medical condition or disability to an employer violates the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The Fair Employment and Housing Act and other California laws prohibit disability discrimination and prevent an employer from discriminating against an employee for lawful off-duty conduct.  Employee choices about what to eat, whether to exercise, or whether to smoke cannot be policed by employers.  Health contingent wellness plans undermine these protections.

While encouragement of a healthy workforce is commendable, “health contingent wellness plans” present risks that must be addressed  to ensure that they do not become a smokescreen for discrimination based on health status.

Nicole Heeder

About Nicole Heeder

Nicole Heeder owns and operates Law & [M]ocean, a plaintiffs’ employment law boutique in San Diego. She is focused on eradicating discrimination and harassment issues in the workplace.

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.

100% healed policies = 100% discrimination 3

By V. James DeSimone

For an employee who depends on her job, having to take a disability leave for medical treatment is a frightening prospect.  Picture Cynthia, a 29 year old employee of a major restaurant chain, who suffers from severe and intermittent pain in her hips while walking as the result of a condition stemming from childbirth.  Despite her pain, she performs her job as a server and event coordinator in an exemplary and enthusiastic manner.

After eight years on the job, however, the pain becomes so great that she schedules  surgery on both hips.   Unfortunately, she experiences complications, but Cynthia perseveres through subsequent surgeries and a painful rehabilitation, determined to get well enough to return to work and her normal life.

At each step of the way, she keeps her employer updated on her status, confident that she will be able to do her job with minimal restrictions.  Finally, after an extended medical leave of absence from work, she is ready to go back to the job she loves and on which she depends.

But there is a stumbling block.  She is ready to come back to work and suggests a less physically demanding retail position. However, the Human Resources Director informs her, “don’t come back until you are 100% better,” and Cynthia is never going to be “100% healed.”  She will always have limitations that will require some accommodation from her employer in order to perform her job.

However, she is not deterred.  In anticipation of returning to work, Cynthia schedules a meeting with her supervisors to discuss the modifications she will need, but they cancel it. Then, out of the blue, she receives a letter from the company terminating her employment.  The reason:  job abandonment — failure to return from leave.

Cynthia’s experience is not unique. Employee advocates report that termination after a disability leave or a request for accommodation are two of the most frequent reasons why an employee will contact a lawyer.   According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), one of the “hottest areas of EEOC litigation right now involves the agency’s efforts to root out inflexible leave policies – particularly those that supposedly eliminate an employer’s legal obligation to explore and make reasonable accommodations for employees returning from medical leaves of absence.”

The California Commission on Health and Safety and Worker Compensation has published a “Helping Injured Employees Return to Work,” a handbook of practical guidance for businesses.    It provides as examples of inappropriate policies:

  • Requiring that injured employees be released to full duty without restrictions or be healed 100 percent before returning.
  • Always terminating an employee if he or she is unable to return to full duty after a specific, fixed period.
  • Delaying discussion of job accommodations until the employee’s condition is permanent and stationary.

Almost all courts that have examined these so-called “100% healed” policies have concluded that they are an outright violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.   When an employee is out on disability leave, companies must communicate with the employee, preferably in person, in what is called the good faith interactive process.  All attempts to reasonably accommodate the employee to allow him or her to perform the essential functions of the job should be made.

The rules for reasonable accommodations protect all of us.  After all, we never know when one of us or a loved one may become sick or injured and require some form of leave or accommodation.  It’s a shame that it sometimes takes a lawsuit to hold companies accountable when they break the rules.  But what’s clear is this — when it comes to “100% healed” policies, employers should take heed that the justice system is going to hold them 100% liable.

V. James DeSimone

About V. James DeSimone

In October of 2015, after 25 years as a partner in Schonbrun DeSimone, Jim opened up his own law firm, V. James DeSimone Law, located in Marina Del Rey. In 2014, Jim was honored with a CLAY award for California Civil Rights Lawyer of the Year. He has been named a Top Employment Lawyer in California by the Daily Journal for 6 of the past 8 years. He is a trial lawyer focusing on civil rights and employment law and has tried numerous cases to verdict achieving seven figure recoveries for his clients. As a civil rights and employment lawyer, his cases range from wage and hour class actions to individual employment discrimination cases, and to representation of families whose family members with a disability have been killed by police officers. You can find out more about his work at www.vjamesdesimonelaw.com.

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