Over the past week, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sent a series of signals to US employers that it is focusing its energies on rooting out sexual and other forms of harassment in the American workplace. On Thursday, the agency announced that it had filed seven separate lawsuits against employers throughout the country over allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, as well as racial harassment and other forms of abuse.
“As the nation has seen over the past nine months, harassment at work can affect individuals for years in their careers and livelihoods,” EEOC Acting Chair Victoria A. Lipnic said in a press release announcing the lawsuits. “There are many consequences that flow from harassment not being addressed in our nation’s workplaces. These suits filed by the EEOC around the country are a reminder that a federal enforcement action by the EEOC is potentially one of those consequences.” About a quarter of the lawsuits filed by the EEOC in recent years has involved an allegation of harassment, Lipnic added, as do one third of the 80,000 to 90,000 discrimination charges the EEOC receives each year.
The EEOC also recognizes that most instances of harassment never come to its attention. Studies show that more than 80 percent of harassment victims never file a formal complaint, the agency noted in its statement, while nearly three quarters never even raise the issue internally within their organizations. To that end, and in light of the heightened public consciousness of sexual harassment brought about by the #MeToo movement, the agency is also looking to promote changes in American workplace culture to make harassment less common and more likely to be addressed when it does occur.
On June 11, the EEOC reconvened its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, a panel of experts including academic scholars, legal practitioners, and representatives of advocacy groups and organized labor, which was established in 2015 to study the problem of harassment (including, but not limited to, sexual harassment) and what employers and the agency itself could do to prevent and respond to it. In her opening remarks at last Monday’s meeting, Lipnic, who co-chairs the task force along with Commissioner Chai R. Feldblum, stressed that harassment had been on the EEOC’s radar for some time, but that the government could not solve the problem alone:
UK plumber Gary Smith has won his case against his former employer Pimlico Plumbers in the Supreme Court, which rejected the company’s contention that Smith had been self-employed and upheld his claim to basic workers’ rights like paid leave, Jo Faragher reports at Personnel Today:
Smith’s case against Pimlico Plumbers, which has been running since 2011, is the latest in a long line of legal challenges on employment status, and “is in line with a number of recent decisions relating to gig economy workers”, according to Jeremy Coy, an associate in the employment team at law firm Russell-Cooke.
He said: “The judgment of the UK’s highest court underlines the point that simply labelling workers ‘self-employed’ does not guarantee the corresponding legal status. The nature of the relationship and the degree of bargaining power and obligation between the parties is crucial in determining workers’ rights.”
Smith had prevailed in the Court of Appeal last year, but Pimlico challenged that ruling in the high court, which took up the case in February. The company considered Smith a self-employed independent contractor, and he was described as such in his agreement with Pimlico and in his tax filings. Smith did not claim to be an “employee” of the company, but rather a “worker”—a designation specific to UK law that falls between “employee” and “contractor” and entitles an individual to certain rights like a minimum wage and paid annual leave. The Court of Appeal had ruled in Smith’s favor largely on the basis that his contract with Pimlico required him to provide his services personally, such that he could not re-subcontract the work out to someone else.
In ruling for Smith, however, the Supreme Court stressed that its decision rested on the unique facts of the case and did not establish any new legal guidelines for employers to follow in determining whether they could safely classify workers as self-employed, much to the dismay of UK employers and their attorneys:
Amazon has become the latest company to draw fire from labor advocates in the UK over alleged mistreatment of independent contractors: The GMB, a general trade union representing a wide swath of the British workforce, announced on Monday that it was suing three delivery companies that contract with Amazon to fulfill orders in the UK: Prospect Commercials Limited, Box Group Limited and Lloyd Link Logistics Limited. The union alleges that delivery drivers working for these companies were incorrectly classified as self-employed, denied statutory rights as employees, compelled to work unsafely long hours, docked pay for failing to meet impossible quotas, and in some cases retaliated against after raising concerns about their conditions.
The claimants all worked for the companies as couriers, delivering parcels for Amazon. GMB say the drivers were employees, and the companies used the bogus self- employment model to wrongly deny them employment rights such as the national minimum wage and holiday pay. The drivers were required to attend scheduled shifts that were controlled by Amazon, meaning they did not have the flexibility that is integral to being self-employed. In this situation, the couriers were treated like employees in terms of their working hours, GMB Union contends they should be treated as employees in terms of their rights too.
Two of the members are also claiming that they were dismissed because of whistleblowing, saying that their roles were terminated because they raised concerns about working practices[.] … These whistleblowing claims are also being brought directly against Amazon on the basis that it was Amazon who determined the way that the drivers should work.
Tim Roache, general secretary of the GMB, tells TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas that the union considers it “absolutely galling” that Amazon subjects these workers to “unrealistic targets, slogging their guts out only to have deductions made from their pay when those targets aren’t met and being told they’re self-employed without the freedom that affords.” Amazon, for its part, said in a statement to TechCrunch that the practices alleged in this lawsuit are not representative of the dozens of contractors the e-commerce giant uses to provide delivery services in the country:
Last December, an investigative report by ProPublica and the New York Times, along with a lawsuit filed the same day by the Communications Workers of America, alleged that dozens of companies were discriminating against older job candidates by targeting their job ads on Facebook to users within specific age demographics, in what the plaintiffs in the suit say is a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967. The companies mentioned in the report included Verizon, UPS, and State Farm, while the lawsuit initially named Amazon, T-Mobile, and Cox Media Group specifically, along with “hundreds of other large employers and employment agencies,” identified in the lawsuit as a defendant class.
In an amended complaint filed last week, the union named other individual companies it said were engaging in this allegedly discriminatory practice, including Capital One, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Ikea, and Facebook itself, along with several others. These companies are not named defendants in the suit, but are given as examples of large employers that have advertised jobs on Facebook and specified that these ads only be shown to users within a certain age range. The CWA also filed a complaint against Facebook with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January, and says it has filed similar complaints against dozens of employers, Bloomberg’s Josh Eidelson reported on Tuesday.
Facebook and other companies have defended the practice of age-targeting social media ads, comparing it to running an ad in a magazine targeted toward younger or older people. Critics, however, reject this comparison, arguing that a person over the age of 45 can buy a copy of Teen Vogue if they wish, but cannot see a Facebook ad targeted specifically to users younger than them.
The US Supreme Court ruling on Monday upholding employers’ right to include arbitration agreements and class action waivers in employees’ work contracts is being celebrated by business associations and employer-side attorneys as a major victory, mitigating the risk of expensive litigation over labor disputes that may arise from honest mistakes rather than deliberate malfeasance. Advocates of arbitration say it is faster and cheaper than a courtroom trial and that the confidentiality of arbitration is a benefit to both employees and employers (though critics, of course, disagree on all of these points).
What individual arbitration does not protect organizations from, however, is reputational risk. We’ve seen this in the public blowback against companies whose arbitration policies are interpreted as them trying to hide ongoing discriminatory behavior. Within the past six months, companies like Microsoft, Uber, and Lyft have abandoned forced arbitration of harassment cases to guard against this risk. The public relations downside to handling these matters quietly may be growing to outweigh the upside in terms of cost and legal risk.
In a 5–4 ruling handed down on Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled that organizations can legally require their employees to sign arbitration agreements in their work contracts and waive their right to resolve labor disputes through class-action lawsuits. The court split on ideological lines, with the five conservative justices voting to allow class action wavers and the liberal minority dissenting, the New York Times reported:
Writing for the majority, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said the court’s conclusion was dictated by a federal law favoring arbitration and the court’s precedents. If workers were allowed to band together to press their claims, he wrote, “the virtues Congress originally saw in arbitration, its speed and simplicity and inexpensiveness, would be shorn away and arbitration would wind up looking like the litigation it was meant to displace.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read her dissent from the bench, a sign of profound disagreement. In her written dissent, she called the majority opinion “egregiously wrong.” In her oral statement, she said the upshot of the decision “will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well being of vulnerable workers.” Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to address the matter.
The ruling, which the Times adds could affect some 25 million employment contracts, comes nearly a year and a half after the high court agreed to hear a group of cases on the legality of arbitration clauses and class action waivers. It was not unexpected, given the court’s conservative majority and the inclinations Gorsuch and his right-leaning colleagues have shown in other labor-related cases.
Business groups and employer-side attorneys cheered the ruling, which they say will free companies from burdensome litigation and allow disputes to be resolved through the cheaper and speedier process of arbitration. Labor rights advocates expressed dismay, however, warning that it would result in a rollback of employees’ fundamental rights and would prove particularly disastrous in discrimination and harassment cases. In a Times op-ed, Terri Gerstein and Sharon Block, of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, criticize the ruling for taking away a key safety net for employees:
In 2016, a US appeals court ruled against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in a suit the agency had brought on behalf of Chastity Jones, a black woman who had been denied employment at the Mobile, Alabama insurance claims processing company Catastrophe Management Solutions after she refused to cut her dreadlocks in compliance with the company’s grooming policy. Absent an explicit racial dimension to the policy, the court ruled, CMS was within its rights to ban dreadlocks in general as part of its dress code.
The EEOC chose not to pursue the case further, but the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund sought to appeal the ruling in the Supreme Court. Last week, however, the high court said it would not take the case. The court’s refusal to hear this case is a blow to advocates who see workplace hairstyle policies like these as discriminatory in effect if not intent, as they place greater constraints on the choices black people, and particularly black women, than other employees and often penalize black employees for wearing natural hairstyles. Implicit bias against black women’s naturally textured hair is a well-documented phenomenon in American society, which causes many black women to experience pressure to artificially straighten their hair or wear hairpieces.
CMS’s dress code did not explicitly mention dreadlocks, but rather mandated grooming that reflected a “professional image” and barred “excessive hairstyles.” This suggests to Rewire’s senior legal analyst Imani Gandy that such policies as applied are not as race-neutral as they appear on paper:
First, CMS’s purported race-neutral grooming policy is anything but—since it excludes Black women’s natural hairstyles based on stereotypes that natural hairstyles are unprofessional, messy, not neat, political, radical, too eye-catching, or excessive.