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A Pregnant Target

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Those bundles of joy cost bundles of money, so Victoria Whipple, a quality control worker at Kumho Tire in Macon, Georgia, had been working overtime to get ready for her new arrival.

She also got involved in union organizing at the plant, and management decided to teach her a lesson. It didn’t matter that Victoria had seven kids ranging in age from 10 to 1. Or that she was eight months pregnant. Those things just made her a more appealing target.

On Sept. 6, the day Kumho Tire workers wrapped up an election in which they voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW), managers pulled Victoria off the plant floor and suspended her indefinitely without pay, solely because she was supporting the union. In a heartbeat, her income was gone.

“It kind of stressed me out because of the bills,” she explained.

What happened to Victoria happens all the time. Employers face no real financial penalties for breaking federal labor law by retaliating against workers during a union organizing campaign. So they feel free to suspend, fire or threaten anyone they want. Workers are fired in one of every three organizing efforts nationwide, and the recent election at Kumho Tire was held only because the company harassed workers before the initial vote two years ago.

Legislation now before Congress—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—would curtail this rampant abuse.

The PRO Act would fine employers up to $50,000 for retaliating against workers during organizing campaigns. It would require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to go to court to seek reinstatement of workers who are fired or face serious financial harm because of retaliation, and it would give workers the right to file lawsuits and seek damages on their own.

It’s important that members of Congress understand exactly what’s at stake: Families like Victoria’s that might be only a couple of missed paychecks away from financial ruin.

They can’t afford to be pawns in a company’s sordid union-busting campaign.

Victoria began working at Kumho Tire a year and a half ago, after being laid off from her dispatching job at a distribution center. Her husband, Tavaris Taylor, recently started an over-the-road trucking job. They didn’t have much of a financial cushion for emergencies, and the suspension put their backs against the wall.

Instead of focusing on her family in the final weeks of her pregnancy, Victoria had to worry about money. It wasn’t healthy for her or her unborn child. And it wasn’t right.

When Victoria’s eldest child asked why she wasn’t going to work anymore, she just said she needed some time off. It would be wrong to burden a 10-year-old with the truth.

Victoria began borrowing gas money from her mom. She cut back her spending. She prioritized the bills and paid only those—rent, electricity and so on—that she considered absolutely essential.

She kept going to her doctor appointments, hoping the company’s insurance still covered her or that Medicaid would kick in if it didn’t. Victoria qualifies for Medicaid even though she works full time. The need for better pay is just one reason Kumho Tire workers voted to join the USW.

But Victoria’s main concern was giving workers a bigger voice in the workplace. She went to a union meeting and thought: “Maybe representation would help.”

That’s how she became a union supporter—and got crossways with a company that couldn’t care less about its workers, their families or federal labor law.

Victoria didn’t know how long her suspension would last or if management’s next step would be to fire her. That would be Kumho Tire’s kind of baby gift.

Then, out of the blue last week, a manager called Victoria and told her to return to work.  On Friday, her first day back after two weeks without pay, managers had the brass to ask her if she understood why she had been suspended.

Yeah, she understood all right.

Companies will do almost anything these days—even suspend a pregnant woman and escort her from the premises—to keep out unions and hold down workers. That’s especially true of Kumho Tire. Its egregious union-busting activities derailed workers’ attempt to join the USW two years ago.

Back then, Kumho Tire threatened union supporters’ jobs, interrogated employees about their union allegiance, threatened to shut down the plant if the union was voted in and made workers think they were being spied on. The conduct was so extraordinarily bad that an NLRB administrative law judge ordered Kumho Tire to assemble the workers and read a statement outlining the many ways in which it had violated their rights and federal labor law.

The NLRB also ordered this month’s election, in which workers voted 141 to 137 to join the USW. Thirteen challenged ballots will be addressed at an upcoming hearing.

The mistreatment of Victoria shows that Kumho Tire hasn’t changed its ways over the past two years. Unfortunately, employers have no incentive right now to follow the law.

The PRO Act would help to level the playing field. Besides fining companies for retaliation and giving workers the right to sue, the legislation would prohibit employers from holding mandatory anti-union presentations like the “town hall” meetings Kumho Tire forced Victoria and her co-workers to attend. Employers conduct the meetings to bully employees into voting against a union.

The legislation also would provide new protections once workers voted for representation. For example, if a company dragged its feet during bargaining for a first contract, a regular ploy to lower worker morale, mediation and arbitration could be used to speed the process along. And the PRO Act would prohibit employers from hiring permanent replacements for striking workers.

Members of Congress need to understand something. Workers aren’t looking to pick fights with their employers. They just want to do their jobs well, work in safe environments and earn enough money to care for their families. And some companies work productively with unions, including the USW, to improve working conditions and product quality.

But employers like Kumho Tire too often exploit their employees and resist any effort that workers make to improve their lot. When that happens, workers like Victoria will stand their ground. Now more than ever, they need the protections of the PRO Act backing them up.

This blog was originally published by AFL-CIO on September 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Tom Conway is international president of the United Steelworkers (USW).

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Congratulations to Peggy Young, But Pregnant Women Need Stronger Protections

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Rebecca-PontikesunnamedThe Supreme Court decision in Young v. UPS is an important victory for Peggy Young.   Young brought suit because, she needed a restriction on lifting packages over 21 pounds during her pregnancy, but UPS refused her. One of UPS’ Division Mangers told her she had to leave work because she was “too much of a liability” while pregnant, and could “not come back” until she “was no longer pregnant.”  Despite the Division Managers statement, UPS claimed that its policy was “neutral” because it did not specifically, and literally, exclude pregnant women.  Although Young presented evidence that non-pregnant employees injured off the job were accommodated, that an employee who lost his license for driving drunk was accommodated, and a shop steward gave testimony that the only time that accommodation of disabilities became an issue under UPS’ policy was with pregnant women, UPS told the courts that it was impossible for Young to prove it had discriminatory intent.

The Supreme Court found otherwise. Significantly, the Court questioned why, if UPS’ accommodation policy covered a driver who lost his license for drunk driving, it did not cover a pregnant worker like Young, particularly since UPS has a duty to treat pregnant workers the same as others similar in their ability to work.  The Court decided a plaintiff may get to trial if she shows the employer’s policy imposes a significant burden on pregnant workers and that the employer’s reasons for the policy do not justify that burden. Under this test, a jury will now decide if UPS discriminated against pregnant women.  Given this decision, employers are well advised to revise their policies and ensure immediate accommodation of pregnant workers or potentially face years of litigation over whether their policies place too much of a burden on pregnant women.

But, the decision from the Supreme Court falls short in its protections of pregnant workers because it does not guarantee accommodations.  The Supreme Court did not find that employers are always required to accommodate a pregnant worker, even if the employer accommodates other workers.  The majority agreed with UPS that there are situations where employers can make distinctions.  An employer still has discretion to decide what types of physical conditions to accommodate.  The landscape leaves a huge hole for pregnant workers to fall into.

Once a worker is fired, the burden is on her to fight to get her job back, or instead, to get lost wages. Young’s child, Triniti, whom she was carrying in 2007 is now seven years old. It has been seven long years in which Young has been caught up in litigation to secure back wages and lost opportunities. How many women have the financial and emotional resources to devote to this many years to litigation?  How many want to?

What an employer insists is a reasonable accommodation policy or a hardship to accommodate might not ultimately measure up under Young.  But, employer discretion, once exercised, is expensive to reverse.  While women like Young might ultimately prevail, an employer can usually come up with a reason to support a policy that distinguishes among accommodations and that excludes a pregnant woman.  The best option to keep pregnant women on the job is for her not to have to fight her employer in the first place.  Clear rules that ensure pregnant workers the rights to reasonable accommodation are required.

It is for these reasons that many states have passed laws requiring accommodation of pregnant workers.  Alaska, California, Illinois, Hawaii, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Texas have passed laws with various degrees of protection for their pregnant workers.  In Massachusetts, Representative Ellen Story of Amherst, has introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) which would provide clear rules for employers to follow when a pregnant employee (or an employee affected by pregnancy—including needing to lactate) requests an accommodation.  The PWFA would allow women to ask for reasonable accommodations when pregnant, protect pregnant workers from having to accept an accommodation that she does not want, and prevent employers from forcing an employee to take leave if another reasonable accommodation can be provided without undue hardship to the employer.

Most importantly, the bill lists many types of accommodations that are presumed to be reasonable, including:

  • More frequent or longer breaks,
  • Time off to recover from childbirth,
  • Acquisition or modification of equipment,
  • Seating,
  • Temporary transfer to a less strenuous or hazardous position,
  • Job restructuring,
  • Light duty,
  • Break time and private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk,
  • Assistance with manual labor, or
  • Modified work schedules.

All of these accommodations will keep most pregnant women—as well as women returning from birth who need to lactate–on the job and earning money to support their families.

There are clear benefits to laws like the one proposed in Massachusetts. A study done in California after the enactment of their accommodations protection legislation by the non-profit group Equal Rights Advocates, showed that low-wage hourly workers in fungible jobs with rigid schedules stand to benefit the most from pregnancy accommodation laws.  This is because they lack the flexibility and control professional, managerial, and white-collar employees have over their work environments and thus have the least ability to negotiate and advocate for their physical needs during pregnancy.  Significantly, after the law’s passage, the number of lawsuits filed in California (after passage of the pregnancy accommodation law) went down 7% while the number of federal pregnancy discrimination claims shot up 54%.

It is our hope that Massachusetts will follow in the footsteps of the many states that have decided to eliminate the ambiguity left open in Young and instead ensure that pregnant workers have the protections then need.  The passage of the Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will provide an unmistakable rule, and ensure that no woman is ever forced to choose between her job and the health of her pregnancy.

About the Author: Rebecca Pontikes has been practicing law since 1997.  She has a passion for employment law and civil rights that drives her practice. In addition to employment, she also has brought suit under Title IX on behalf of a sexually assaulted student.  She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and of Tufts University and is admitted to the Massachusetts bar, the Federal District of Massachusetts, and the First Circuit.  Her peers selected her as a “SuperLawyer” in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.  Massachusetts Lawyer’s Weekly named her aTop Woman in Law in 2012.  She lives in Cambridge with her husband.

Liz Friedman, MFA. Liz first became a mother in 2002 and founded the Postpartum Support Initiative of MotherWoman in 2007. As Program Director of MotherWoman, Liz is a leading voice in advocating for fair policies for mothers and with Annette Cycon, developed the MotherWoman Support Group Model which provides a safe forum for mothers to speak their truths. Liz serves on the MA Postpartum Depression Commission, is a co-investigator on research pertaining to postpartum depression and in 2013 published a chapbook entitled, “You are exactly the right mother.”  Liz says, ““I want for my daughter what I want for ALL of us. That she will be heard when she speaks her own truths as a woman and, if she chooses, as a mother.” You can find Liz at liz@motherwoman.org and at www.motherwoman.org

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Tinder on Fire: How Women in Tech are Still Losing

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  A “whore,” “gold-digger,” “desperate loser,” and “just a bad girl.”  These are only a handful of the sexist comments that Whitney Wolfe, co-founder of the mobile dating app Tinder, alleges she was subjected to by chief marketing officer Justin Mateen.  Last month, Wolfe brought suit against Tinder for sex discrimination and harassment.  Wolfe’s legal complaint details how Mateen sent outrageously inappropriate text messages to her and threatened her job, and how Tinder CEO Sean Rad ignored her when she complained about Mateen’s abuse.  Wolfe claims that Mateen and Rad took away her co-founder designation because having a 24-year-old “girl” as a co-founder “makes the company look like a joke” and being a female co-founder was “sluty.”

The conduct, which Wolfe’s complaint characterizes as “the worst of the misogynist, alpha-male stereotype too often associated with technology startups,” unfortunately remains the norm, and Wolfe is not alone in her experience.  Last year, tech consultant Adria Richards was fired after she tweeted and blogged about offensive sexual jokes made by two men at a tech conference.  After one of the men was fired from his job, Richards experienced horrendous Internet backlash, including rape and death threats.  She was then fired by Sendgrid after an anonymous group hacked into the company’s system in some twisted attempt at vigilante “justice.”

In 2012, junior partner Ellen Pao filed a sexual harassment suits against a venture capital firm, alleging retaliation after refusing another partner’s sexual advances.  And back in 2010, Anita Sarkeesian was the target of online harassment after she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a video series to explore female stereotypes in the gaming industry.  An online video game was even released in which users could “beat up” Sarkeesian.  These are just some of the many examples of demeaning attacks against women in the testosterone-driven tech world.

There are many state and federal laws that prohibit the kinds of workplace harassment that these women experience, including the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, the Bane and Ralph Act, and the California Constitution.  These laws provide strong protections against gender harassment in employment and other contexts.  So why do these attacks on women continue to happen in an industry that is supposedly progressive and populated with fairly educated adults?

It doesn’t help that tech companies are also notorious for their lack of diversity.  This year, Google released its first diversity report which revealed that 70 percent of its workforce was male, and 61 percent was white.  The workforce was also predominantly male and white at Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Another report this year shows that the percentage of women occupying CIO positions at companies has remained stagnant at 14 percent for the last decade.  These numbers confirm what the stories reflect — that this industry truly is “a man’s world.”  And this needs to change.

Some may dismiss Wolfe’s lawsuit and similar complaints as coming from women who are hypersensitive.  Indeed, Wolfe claims that when she complained about Mateen’s harassment, she was dismissed as being “annoying” and “dramatic.”  While some degree of social adaptation may be expected when joining any company, particularly freewheeling start-ups, there are limits that must be respected.  Those limits are crossed when the pressure to conform to a white, male norm is so great that women who challenge this norm are further harassed or their voices suppressed.

Unfortunately, this marginalization of women who challenge the macho culture even comes from other women, who blame the “feminists” for making it harder for women to advance in tech.  This also needs to change.  Women who speak out about sexism and misogyny in the tech industry deserve the support of their colleagues, and men who turn to vitriol and juvenile behavior to intimidate deserve censure.

But change will not be achieved without help from sources outside the industry.  Attorneys and employee advocates must continue to bring attention to the rampant sexism that is “business as usual” in the tech industry.  We need to encourage tech companies of all stages and sizes to comply with employment laws, adopt proper HR practices, promote diversity and inclusion, and use objective standards to measure performance.  If the tech industry is serious about encouraging young girls to become coders and developers, it also needs to place women in conspicuous leadership roles and pay real attention to change the “guy culture.”

The tech world doesn’t have to be a man’s world, and it shouldn’t be.

 This blog originally appeared in CELA Voice on July 25, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://celavoice.org/author/lisa-mak/.
About the Author: The authors name is Lisa Mak. Lisa Mak is an associate attorney at Lawless & Lawless in San Francisco, exclusively representing plaintiffs in employment matters. Her litigation work focuses on cases involving discrimination, harassment, whistleblower retaliation, medical leave, and labor violations. She is an active member of the CELA Diversity Committee, Co-Chair of the Asian American Bar Association’s Community Services Committee, a volunteer and supervising attorney at the Asian Law Caucus Workers’ Rights Clinic, and a Young Professionals Board member of Jumpstart Northern California working to promote early childhood education. She is a graduate of UC Hastings School of Law and UC San Diego.

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