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Change Has Come to the Workplace

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(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)


At Workplace Fairness, Labor Day isn’t just another day off from work or the last day of summer. And while this former Kansas City resident has nothing against barbecues, the day is much more than one of the last chances of the season to grill outdoors with family and friends. We think that Labor Day is a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. In commemoration of Labor Day, we’re excited to launch two new website features, our “Taking Back Labor Day” blog carnival, and our 2009 Labor Day Report, Change Has Come to the Workplace.

Throughout September, Today’s Workplace will be hosting our second annual “Taking Back Labor Day” blog carnival. Our guest bloggers, who will include many of the leading thinkers on labor and employment issues, will focus on why the labor movement is still important and address some of the most critical issues affecting workers today. We are also inviting YOU to participate: either by preparing a blog post for submission, or by making comments and using “Taking Back Labor Day” as an opportunity to have a real conversation about the future of the American workplace. Tune in every weekday in September at www.todaysworkplace.org to see the latest “Taking Back Labor Day” post, and join right in!

It’s also time for a look back at the previous year in the workplace, and we do so in our 2009 Labor Day Report, “Change Has Come to the Workplace.” In the past year, there was no more important development affecting the workplace than the election of President Barack Obama. After eight years of an Administration that could generally be characterized as hostile to workers’ rights and more interested in promoting business interests than ensuring employees were protected, the election of a more worker-friendly president has the potential to bring about significant change. In Change Has Come to the Workplace, by legal intern Hannah Goitein (The George Washington University Law School Class of 2011), we highlight the changes we have already seen in the last several months, as well as talk about what is on the horizon.

We hope these two new website features provide much interesting food for thought for you on this Labor Day weekend, while you’re enjoying that barbecue or last dip in the pool, or getting your children ready to start school on Tuesday. Have a great Labor Day weekend, but don’t forget who makes it possible – the American worker.

About the Author: Paula Brantner is Executive Director of Workplace Fairness, after serving as its Program Director from 2003 to 2007, writing legal content for the Webby-nominated site www.workplacefairness.org. Most recently, Paula was the Program Director for Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO, and the Working America Education Fund. From 1997-2001, she was the senior staff attorney at the National Employment Lawyers Association (NELA), heading NELA’s amicus, legislative/policy, and judicial nominations programs. An employment lawyer for over 16 years, Brantner has degrees from UC-Hastings College of the Law and Michigan State University’s James Madison College.

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Judge Sonia Sotomayor Confirmation: What You Can Do

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On May 27 Workplace Fairness interns Hannah Goitein, Jessica Haden, Shannon Lichtenberg, and I participated in a conference call with The Coalition for Constitutional Values. This national coalition of organizations represents millions of Americans from across the country who believe it is important that the American people be informed about the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice David Souter. The coalition is co-chaired by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Alliance for Justice, and People For the American Way.

Featured speakers on the call included Tina Tchen, White House office of public engagement director; Janet Murguia, National Council of La Raza president & CEO; Bill Yeomans, Alliance for Justice legal director; Marge Baker, People For the American Way director of public policy; Wade Henderson, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights president & CEO; and Ellen Buchman, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights vice president for field operations.

On the call, we discussed how Judge Sotomayor’s distinct and impressive qualifications make her an exemplary Supreme Court nominee to the nation’s high court. We reviewed the process from nomination to confirmation, and shared information about what you and your organization can do to get involved in the process.

Here are four things you can do right now to ensure an expedient and fair confirmation process and engage others in support of Sotomayor:

1)  Call Your Senators. Urge them to support an orderly and fair confirmation process of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court:


2)  Watch the “Justice” Ad and Go Viral. The Coalition for Constitutional Values has a new 30-second television ad to introduce Judge Sonia Sotomayor. The ad highlights her fair-minded approach to the law, which is grounded both in her eminent legal qualifications and her life experiences. Watch the ad, email it to five friends, post it on Facebook, or add it to your website:


3) Sign the Pledge. Support constitutional values through the nomination and confirmation of this superb candidate. Pledge to support the Coalition for Constitutional Values and learn more about Judge Sonia Sotomayor and how you can get involved by joining the coalition:


4) Read Up on Sotomayor. Check out the Alliance for Justice Preliminary Report on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court:


Together we can make sure Justice Sotomayor is swiftly approved to become our next Supreme Court Justice.

About the Author: Paula Brantner is Executive Director of Workplace Fairness, which hosts the Today’s Workplace blog, and has worked as an attorney in the area of employment discrimination and civil rights law for over 16 years. Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit organization that provides information, education and assistance to individual workers and their advocates nationwide and promotes public policies that advance employee rights.

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Don’t Cut Legal Corners When Starting Your Business

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Despite the difficult economy, a record number of new businesses are being created this year. When you’re starting a new business from scratch, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help you create the foundation for a good workplace – and protect your organization from the costly litigation that could result from failure to comply with employment laws.

1. If you have employees, you need a payroll service. If you’re only paying yourself, then maybe you can get by with QuickBooks or another basic accounting system. But once you begin to hire employees, you will save time and money (as well as the grief of worrying about whether your employees are being paid properly) by using a payroll service. Many banks and other service providers offer this service to their small business account holders, and the fees are a reasonable, giving this path an immediate payoff.

No one wants the IRS or Department of Labor at their doorstep, and not paying payroll taxes properly is a sure way to attract an agency’s attention. Most payroll services will also help with related administrative tasks, like tracking sick and vacation leave, allowing you to focus your energy and attention on growing the business.

2. Adopt personnel policies. Then follow them. While many start entrepreneurial ventures seeking an informal and collegial environment, and desiring to move away from the bureaucratic practices of large corporations, one of the best ways to assure that your business resembles the workplace that you seek is to establish fundamental policies to guide how you operate. It’s not hard to find a model set of personnel policies and adapt them to your business. They provide a basic shared understanding between the organization and the employees about they can expect from one another, and they underline your commitment to treat employees legally and fairly. They will also force you to think about the kind of workplace culture you wish to cultivate, and what expectations you have for your team.

The time you spend now, whether with a lawyer or HR professional, or even purchasing model policies for sale over the Internet, will directly correlate to the time saved later in preventing problems and dealing with employment issues fairly and efficiently.

3. The number of employees you have should not affect your policies. Although a number of workplace laws only apply to businesses with a certain number of employees, their intent is fair treatment of employees. For example, under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, certain discrimination laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees. If you’re smaller than that magic number, then you might be tempted not to worry, because the laws don’t apply to you. Resist that temptation. If you’re successful, you’re going to keep hiring more employees, right?

If you start out not complying with employment laws, who’s going to be paying attention – much less transforming your policies and procedures – when you hit that magic number? And you just might be wrong about the number. For example, the antidiscrimination laws in California apply to employers with five or more employees, except the law prohibiting sexual harassment, which kicks in with only one employee. Fair practices are good policy, regardless of the size of your organization – and they help you avoid problems later.

4. Pay people what you’ve agreed to pay them, what the law requires and on time. The first commitment that an employer makes to an employee is to pay the employee at an agreed upon rate on a regular and predictable schedule. This is the first step in developing a trusting relationship with employees, and failure to do so damages your credibility as an employer.

While a full discussion of wage and hour issues is complex (more information is available here), you don’t have to be an employment law expert to know that you need to pay your workers what you’ve agreed to pay them. Regulations around pay are a good example of laws tied to the number of employees, and it is wiser to comply with Fair Labor Standards Act rules now rather than waiting until the organization has grown to meet its requirements.

No one can guarantee that you won’t face a lawsuit at some point. The law is complicated, and people make mistakes. Often no one can predict how the law will be applied in a particular situation until it presents itself. But unhappy employees are more likely to file lawsuits, and that’s not something you want to deal with regardless of the merits.

Entrepreneurs who follow these basic principles from the beginning can help ensure fewer problems as their ventures grow and thrive, and are more likely to end up with satisfied and loyal employees who can make real contributions to the incremental and successful expansion of their business.

About the Author: Paula Brantner is Executive Director of Workplace Fairness, which hosts the Today’s Workplace blog, and has worked as an attorney in the area of employment discrimination and civil rights law for over 16 years. Workplace Fairness is a nonprofit organization that provides information, education and assistance to individual workers and their advocates nationwide and promotes public policies that advance employee rights.

This article originally appeared in winningworkplaces.org. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Employee Free Choice Act: Good for Everyone

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With the election of a new president, there naturally is a lot of talk about what legislation we might expect from the Obama administration and substantial Democratic majority in Congress.  High on everyone’s list is the Employee Free Choice Act — a bill that would make it easier for workers to form and join unions.  But perhaps you are not convinced that unions are the solution to making things better for workers, either in your workplace or any workplace.  Guess what:  you should support the Employee Free Choice Act anyway, and here’s why:

The specter of EFCA passage has a lot of employers — and their advisors — running scared.  Right now, employers who strongly oppose having unions in their workplace can hire specialists — let’s call them “unionbusters,” since that’s what they are — to use all legal and often illegal means to discourage workers from union organizing activity.  Guest blogger Art Levine, in an article published last year called Unionbusting Confidential, talked about the strategies he learned about while attending one of the many seminars that law firms sponsor for employers who want to remain union-free:

What if we felt like saying a lot of anti-union stuff to our workers? [The presenter Michael] Lotito introduced a segment called “You Can Say It.” Could we tell our workers, for instance, that a union had held strike at a nearby facility only to find that all the strikers had been replaced—and that the same could happen to the employees here? Sure, said Lotito. “It’s lawful.” He added, “What happens if this statement is a lie? They didn’t have another strike, there were no replacements? It’s still lawful: The labor board doesn’t really care if people are lying.”

(See Unionbusting Confidential.) (Note: Obama’s appointments to the labor board (NLRB) might care a little more about employers’ lies than those appointed by George W. Bush, but I digress.)

However, some of the tactics unionbusters use to discourage union organizing simply aren’t going to fly under EFCA.  Refusing to bargain is one of the tactics described by Levine, where employers say “I’m not inclined to agree to that proposal at this time” when they do not intend to agree to any proposal at any time.  This strategy will be countered by a provision that allows either side to request mediation after 90 days with the sides at an impasse.  (See Why Mediation and Arbitration Rules are Needed.)

One of the most egregious strategies, firing workers for union organizing, will also be penalized more heavily.  Levine writes that employers are being advised,

[Firing workers] was possible to do, said [Michael Stief of Jackson Lewis], as long as you were careful to do so for other reasons. “Union sympathizers aren’t entitled to any more protection than other workers,” he explained. But the firing could not be linked to their union activity.

One survey estimates that employees are fired in up to 25% of organizing efforts.  (See Why Stronger Penalties are Needed.)  EFCA increases the damages due to fired workers to three times their back pay, and allows employees to go to court to enjoin their employers from taking punitive actions.

But what really makes EFCA a win-win for everyone?  It’s that with the real threat of unionization, employers are going to be forced to make their workplaces better — to convince their employees that they don’t need unions. As one management lawyer recently pointed out, apparently with no sense of irony,

Making nonunion workplaces better for employees could be the real unintended consequence of the Employee Free Choice Act.

(See How Employers Can Mitigate ‘Card Check.’) (Hat tip to Matt Stoller of Open Left.)

This lawyer is encouraging employers to develop programs now “that will be better than
anything a union could provide, including steps to increase employee involvement and to allow peer resolution of disputes.”  Steps to increase employee involvement?  Allowing peer resolution of disputes?  All at a level better than unions? Those things all sound pretty good to me, and just maybe, they weren’t merely an “unintended consequence.”

According to Levine, unionbusters are already advising their employers to “institute an open-door policy with employees, encouraging them to air any grievances or concerns fully.”  Because it’s the right thing to do?  Not really — it’s so they can “sniff out whether there was unionization afoot.”  But what if they had to do it for real?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if employers and unions were finally engaged in a race to the top, instead of to the bottom?  If the realities of competition made both the employer and the union be at the top of their games when making working conditions more hospitable? If workers finally had the upper hand when it comes to a more democratic and fair workplace?

Let’s put the unionbusters to work actually trying to make the workplace better.  If they really believe that unions are bad for business, then they’re going to have to convince their employees that they’re genuinely willing to go the extra mile to make things better for their workers — farther than a union is likely to go.  If they can’t make that case, then employees will finally have a real shot at forming a union and empowering themselves that way.

Either way, with EFCA’s passage, we have an unprecedented opportunity to get rid of some of the imbalances that currently exist.  Because in this economic climate, with employers already laying off employees left and right, workers are otherwise going to be even more powerless, and the unionbusters even more empowered to ensure that employers don’t feel the sting like their workers do.

One Million Signatures for the Employee Free Choice Act:  add your signature today!

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Take Back Labor Day: Week 2 Roundup

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For this week’s installment of our Take Back Labor Day project, we had ten new posts representing the incredible quality and diversity that exists among those who think and write about workplace issues. With a wide variety of topics, including domestic workers, CEO pay, and workplace flexibility, and the representation of powerhouse organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the new Health Care for America Now coalition, and Women Employed, Week 2 was another stellar week.

Kicking off the week, on Monday, September 8, were Dr. David Madland and Karla Walter of the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Mark Harbeke of Winning Workplaces.

Madland and Walter, of the Center for American Progress‘s American Worker Project, point out the abysmal record of the current administration when it comes to having the Department of Labor simply do its job of protecting workers.  What’s the solution (besides voting, of course)?  Passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which the next administration should have the opportunity to do.

Winning Workplaces helps small and midsize organizations create great workplaces, and often it’s Mark Harbeke bringing some of the very best workplace practices and hottest workplace trends to our attention.  This post was no exception, as Mark found three different studies that all make it crystal clear that employers have to engage their employees, if they want them to be productive and satisfied with their work.  If you’re too busy to read the handwriting on the wall, just read Mark on a regular basis at the Winning Workplace blog.

Continuing on Tuesday, September 8, were workplace columnist Bob Rosner and Anne Ladky of Women Employed, respectively tackling the hot topics of CEO pay and paid sick leave.

In a bit of workplace Freakonomics, who figured out that CEO performance has an inverse relationship with their house size? No, it wasn’t Bob Rosner, but he tells us about the study that figured out that the larger the CEO’s house, the more likely that shareholders will pay for the CEO’s poor performance. Pay close attention to Bob — you’ll be seeing a lot more of him soon around these parts!

Anne Ladky of Women Employed provides us a great way to track our progress between this Labor Day and next:  have we passed a federal paid sick leave bill?  If not, we’re not done ensuring fairness in the workplace, while a benefit considered standard by most professionals—paid sick time—is unavailable to millions of lower-paid workers, including 22 million women.

Wednesday, September 10 featured two titans among lawyers who represent workers:  Paul Tobias and Ellen Simon.

Paul Tobias, who can count founding Workplace Fairness and the National Employment Lawyers Association among his myriad of career accomplishments, uses Labor Day to identify a number of necessary changes we need to our employment laws for workers to get a fair shake.  As he remarks, we all hope that the presidential candidates will take note of these needed changes and actually fix them during the next administration.

Ellen Simon, one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States, tells us about a recent surprisingly positive Supreme Court decision (Sprint v. Mendelsohn), which gives us a slight bit of hope that the Court — not especially known for its friendliness to workers — will actually enforce the long-standing rules of evidence, even when to do so might benefit workers.

Thursday, September 11, was a somber day of remembrance for many of us.  Blogger Jason Gooljar looked back to the very origins of the Labor Day holiday, while Chai Feldblum and Katie Corrigan looked to the not-too-distant future of the flexible workplace.

Jason Gooljar, blogger Working Families Party Man, points out what even the most worker-friendly among us might not know about Labor Day: that it was proposed as a September holiday to prevent the celebration of what was considered a much more radical observance:  May Day.  While we may now observe a watered-down holiday, we don’t have to have a watered-down global labor movement, and Jason tells us why that’s important.

Chai Feldblum and Katie Corrigan, who co-direct the Workplace Flexibility 2010 campaign at Georgetown Law, talk about how many workers have extreme difficulty juggling the competing demands of work, family, and community involvement.  Workplace flexibility (including telecommuting, phased retirement, and flexible work arrangements) is a solution which can ultimately bring about more effective business, a stronger workforce, and healthier families — if enough businesses choose to embrace flexibility principles and practices.

Week 2 wrapped up on Friday, September 12, but we didn’t slack off at the end of the week, with Melvina Ford and Jason Rosenbaum tackling two urgent workplace problems:  the lack of sufficient legal protections for domestic workers, and the lack of adequate health care for many, if not most, American workers.

Melvina Ford, Executive Director of the DC Employment Justice Center, identifies a problem hardly confined to the DC metro area:  the exploitation of domestic workers who cook, clean, and take care of children and seniors at home.  She correctly notes that many current laws weren’t written with domestic workers in mind, and either exempt them entirely or do not adequately protect them.  Some recently enacted laws show promise in educating oft-exploited workers about their rights, but we need to do even more to ensure that domestic workers are fairly compensated for their often back-breaking work.

Jason Rosenbaum, writing for the recently formed Health Care for America Now! coalition, makes a relatively obvious but incredibly overlooked connection:  a healthy worker is a better, more productive worker, and sick workers who lack adequate insurance sap productivity.  Yet both businesses and employees face skyrocketing health care costs as a result of insurance company intervention.  Yes, health care is an economic issue — and a vitally important one that we are forced to address in the days ahead.

Whew:  health care, CEO pay, domestic pay, the Supreme Court, the Department of Labor:  you name it, we covered it in week 2, if it’s important in today’s workplace.  And next week continues the fine tradition we’ve established this month:  with at least five guest bloggers continuing the quality posts you’ve seen all month.  Stay tuned!

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