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Walmart Sues Florida Unions for Protests

The right to unionize has long been recognized as one of the most fundamental legal actions available to American employees. Big-box chain Walmart is now seeking to terminate those employee rights by suing grocery workers unions and other groups that have staged protests at some Florida stores. The corporation is seeking to stop the protests because they have illuminated unsavory working conditions and pay discrepancies.

Walmart does not allow its employees to unionize. Still, grocery store unions and other industry organizations have long voiced their opposition to the company’s actions. Those groups include the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and former employees belonging to a subsidiary known as OUR Walmart.

Representatives from the industry giant say the suit primarily revolves around property rights, but employee advocates argue that Walmart is attempting to silence its critics. The so-called “disruptive” demonstrations have been compromising customer safety, according to Walmart leaders. Also, the union protestors are technically trespassing, according to the suit.

The activities on Walmart property during the past eight months range from organized demonstrations to impromptu “flash mobs.” One group even showcased a video by projecting it on the side of the building. Managers say they have often had to call the police to force the protestors to disperse. In one incident, more than 30 trespass warrants were issued, though no arrests were made.

Employees and organizers say the demonstrations are only designed to bring attention to the poor working conditions inside Walmart’s corporate stores. The embattled industry giant has been under scrutiny for overtime pay violations, gender discrimination and a variety of other claims during recent decades.

Walmart’s decision to prohibit its employees from unionizing is questionable, at best. The mega store will continue to face protests until it improves working conditions. Employees who think their rights have been violated by such massive corporations should seek assistance from a qualified employment attorney.

Source: Reuters, “Wal-Mart sues grocery union, others over Florida protests,” Jessica Wohl, March 25, 2013

Paid Sick Leave Emerges as Business Standard

Forty-four million Americans lack the ability to take paid sick leave at their jobs, many of them from Florida. A large percentage of these people are also unable to enjoy the protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act, also, because small employers are not required to participate. Part-time workers have long been unable to take sick days because they cannot afford to lose their wages. Some even fear that they might lose their jobs if they stay home with a cold. Now, a number of states are improving employee rights by mandating paid sick leave, especially for workers in the food service and hospitality industries.

Mandatory paid sick leave is an increasingly popular issue on many states’ legislative dockets. Regions of Connecticut, Washington and California already require employers to provide a certain number of paid sick days for all workers, with only the smallest workplaces currently exempt. In Florida, however, lawmakers have passed a bill prohibiting municipalities from passing their own city-based sick leave policies, a move that has enraged employee rights’ groups.

Low-wage workers are among the most vulnerable populations. These employees generally work in industries with high interpersonal interaction, including food service, daycare and hospitality. When those workers are sick, they put all of their customers and coworkers at risk; in essence, sick leave is now becoming a public health issue. Paid leave could not only prevent the general public from experiencing the rapid spread of contagious diseases; it could also help employers retain their workers for longer periods of time.

The debate about paid sick leave is likely to be a drawn-out argument, especially considering the needs of small-business owners. Still, surveys have indicated that fewer than 20 percent of businesses report losing profits after instituting paid sick leave policies. American employees deserve paid sick leave so they can care for their children and prevent the spread of infectious disease.

Source: The Telegram, “Coughing cooks stay home as states require paid sick leave,” Esme E. Deprez, March 22, 2013

Lee County Officials Propose Settlement for Jail Workers

Commissioners in Lee County, Florida, have proposed a settlement for the seven plaintiffs that had sued the government body for wrongful termination. The workers, who were employed at the county jail, said they were fired because they assisted with an internal investigation at the facility. Their department had been targeted because of alleged misconduct. The group may receive a total settlement of about $500,000.

The county has not yet admitted liability in the case; administrators contend that the employees were not fired because of their participation in the investigation. Rather, the workers were terminated from their jobs because of reported racist and sexist comments that they made while at work. The workers’ jobs were later reinstated, according to local media reports.

County administrators recommended the settlement during a hearing in early March. Most of the settlement money would reportedly go to attorneys’ fees, which add up to about $300,000. If the commissioners choose not to settle with the plaintiffs, the case will go to trial. If that happens, the plaintiffs will accrue a significant amount in legal fees to argue their case, which could force the county to pay up to $1 million if even one person wins the case.

The debate in this case continues to rage. Commissioners could choose not to pay the settlement amount, which would result in a trial. Alternatively, the plaintiffs could reject the settlement, which would also prompt a trial. The decision to accept the money could hinge heavily on the fact that the settlement only provides compensatory damages, not punitive damages for emotional effects of the wrongful termination.

In this case, the county might be best-served to offer the settlement to the plaintiffs, simply to avoid the risks associated with jury trial. It is conceivable that the plaintiffs will have to spend a significant amount of money to argue their case, and the county could be required to pay even more money as a result. Settlements allow defendants to avoid the lengthy, complicated trial process while satisfying plaintiffs’ complaints.

Source: Naples News, “Commissioners agree to nearly $500,000 settlement in whistleblower lawsuit,” Maryanne Batlle, March 5, 2013

Employers should protect Workers with panic attacks

As Americans become increasingly educated about the negative effects of mental health problems, business owners will become more responsible for their conduct toward mentally ill employees. This is particularly true of those Florida workers with panic attacks, according to recent reports, largely because of a recent decision regarding employee rights. A West Coast worker has been awarded $21.7 million in compensatory and punitive damages after her company reportedly dismissed her panic attacks and allegedly fired her for her disability.

Media reports show that the woman’s employers at a California waste-hauling business initially dismissed the woman’s claims about her panic attacks. The employer was accused of failing to provide adequate medical leave for the woman to receive treatment. Additionally, the woman’s supervisors failed to make accommodations to help her do her job, and she claims she was harassed because of her mental health condition.

Courtroom documents show that the woman was repeatedly ignored when she attempted to contact the company to resume her position after her disability leave. The woman’s panic attacks were so severe that she was hospitalized on numerous occasions. Furthermore, her supervisors exacerbated the problem by continuing to move the woman’s cubicle, causing her even more stress.

Attorneys for the waste-management firm said the woman was not fired because of the panic attacks; rather, they claim that she failed to return to work after the designated disability period was complete. Defense attorneys say the woman ignored calls from human resources about her potential return to work.

Researchers say that as many as 19 million Americans are affected by anxiety disorders. Workers are encouraged to be candid with their employers about their conditions, and companies should handle the employees’ condition in a similar fashion as heart disease or diabetes. People who have been mistreated by their employers because of their disabilities have been victimized, and they deserve civil compensation for their wrongful termination or harassment.

Source: Human Resource Executive, “Dealing with workers’ panic attacks,” Kathy Boccella, March 12, 2013

CFO sues Sterne Agee for contract breaches

The former CFO of the investment group Sterne Agee Group, Inc., is suing his employer for breach of contract. The company is based in Alabama, one of Florida’s neighboring states. The man alleges that the company and its chief executive committed violations of employment law, including fraud, breach of contract, defamation and conversion. Press releases from the firm show that the man is looking to recover financial compensation for severance pay and other claims.

The firm’s chief executive is accused of using the company’s money to fund personal expenses, including jewelry and accessories, along with gifts for employees and his friends. The man also allegedly acquired a Florida condominium and several boats using company funds. The employee bringing the complaint reportedly confronted the CEO about his expenses, and he was subsequently fired.

The complaint also states that the CFO suffered defamation because the company’s chief executive made up stories about the man in an effort to explain his dismissal. The cover-up was necessary, according to the suit, because the firm had hired four CFOs during a six-year period. The man was ultimately fired in August 2012.

Court documents show that the company’s CEO promised the man a year’s severance pay if the position at Sterne Agee did not work out. It is not clear whether the man ever signed a formal employment contract with Sterne Agee, but the CEO made a verbal promise with regards to the severance pay. Now, the man is seeking to recover the full amount of that severance, along with $358,000 in bonds, stocks and other personal funds he sank into the company during his tenure. The company has refused to release the man’s personal investments.

For that reason, the man is seeking compensation for the relatively rare charge of conversion, a legal term used to describe the company’s refusal to cede control of their employee’s personal property. This man, like many employees, had no choice except to sue the company in an attempt to clear his professional reputation. If you have been wrongfully terminated without your severance pay, you should seek legal assistance in filing a civil suit to defend your employee rights.

Source: AL.com, “Fired Sterne Agee CFO sues former employer, CEO Holbrook for defamation, fraud, breach of contract, conversion (updated),” Kyle Whitmire, March 5, 2013

Big business attempts to strike down wage reform measures

Everyone knows that big business is influential on the national stage. Many corporations are able to bully politicians into adopting measures that benefit large businesses. A recent case out of Florida shows that big business’s influence remains strong in the wage and hour laws debate in Orange County.

The 50,000 people who signed a petition to bring a sick-time initiative to vote may be left in the cold this season. Those people had hoped to mandate sick-time standards in the region for local workers. The changes are opposed by powerful corporate groups such as entertainment behemoth Walt Disney World and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Two bills submitted by Republican lawmakers are taking aim at proposed workers’ rights in the area. One proposed measure would grant workers up to five sick days, but employers would not be required to pay employees for that time off. The other reform measure seems to favor big business entirely, leaving out sick leave provisions altogether and attempting to kill living wage provisions that would protect vulnerable workers in the area.

Supporters of the new measures say the wage reform issue should be a statewide effort rather than simply a response to local problems. Employers such as Walt Disney World say their business could suffer from a patchwork of requirements that could produce inconsistencies between counties. Still, many workers throughout Florida do not face the same concerns as Orange County residents, according to opponents, who would have local politicians mandate wage laws independent of larger policies.

The legal brawl within the county is likely to continue into the upcoming months as politicians decide whether to adopt worker protection measures. Mandatory paid sick leave could provide massive financial benefits and security for thousands of workers in the area, but big business could sadly block this initiative entirely. The most vulnerable workers in the county could suffer from this legal maneuver.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “Lawmakers might block local wage, sick-time rules,” David Damron, Feb. 19, 2013

Employee wins settlement after time card woes

A Florida worker at a sports facility won a large settlement from a wrongful termination suit this month. The man, who served as a card dealer in the facility’s poker room, had been fired after he incorrectly recorded his hours worked, even though his employer did not permit him access to the official time clock. The man has recovered $33,700 in damages in connection with the wrongful termination case, which could increase over time.

The federal lawsuit was filed in the summer of 2011 after the man said he was wrongfully fired. The man said that his swipe badge, used to clock in and out of work, broke several months before that time. His employer and supervisors refused to issue him a new badge, so he began to record his hours manually on a sheet next to the time clock. His supervisors and the company’s payroll clerk continued to harass him about putting his hours in the computerized system, even though he was unable to do so without the appropriate equipment.

In February 2011, company administrators told the man they would stop paying him if he did not log his time electronically. The man told his employers that it was illegal to refuse to pay a worker, and he would take legal action if the company did not provide him with the earned money. Shortly thereafter, the man was fired.

Courtroom documents allege that the man’s termination was directly caused by his complaints to management about not getting paid. Representatives for the company maintain that they never violated the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act, yet the employer was also accused under Florida’s whistleblower protection law, legislation that protects people who report wrongdoing on the job.

In this case, the man recovered damages for lost wages. He may also have obtained financial compensation for emotional distress, which almost certainly occurred after the man lost his job. When dealing with a sluggish economy, losing employment is difficult — especially if a person is unfairly terminated. This is why it’s important for employees to understand their rights under state and federal law.

Source: Ocala Star-Banner, “Card room worker wins $33,700 verdict against Second Chance Jai-Alai,” Vishal Persaud, Feb. 14, 2013

Florida marine firm sued for violating employee rights

Whistleblowers are protected by state and federal statutes. Whistleblowers are generally thought of as individuals who report unethical behavior, but people who report safety violations are also owed certain employee rights. A firm in Florida has come under fire for terminating one of its workers because that person complained about unsafe working conditions, along with other employer violations. The employee is seeking compensation for back wages with interest, along with compensatory and punitive damages in connection with the case.

Officials report that the employee had complained to a work supervisor at Duane Thomas Marine Construction because the man was making inappropriate sexual comments, physically threatening employees and creating a hostile work environment. The employee’s paycheck was withheld because the supervisor wanted to seek vengeance for the complaints, according to information in courtroom documents.

The employee was subjected to the alleged abuse for nearly two years, with the incidents occurring between 2009 and 2011. The employee reported the abuse in February 2011, and the supervisor was notified of the complaint in mid-March. The employee was terminated less than a week later, when he found that his remote-access computer passwords had been changed without his knowledge or consent.

Workplace violence is considered a safety concern under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, according to government officials. As a result, OSHA became involved in the whistleblower protection in this case. OSHA administrators say that all employees have the right to raise concerns about dangerous workplace violence without fear of losing their jobs.

Employees who have been discriminated against for reporting unacceptable conduct should consider hiring legal advisers. They should also report the incidents to government agencies, including OSHA. You may be entitled to financial compensation and reinstatement into your previous position at work. Your employer may face significant fines and penalties from the government, along with additional oversight to prevent similar problems for other workers in the future.

Source: OSHA, “US Department of Labor sues Duane Thomas Marine Construction in Florida for firing employee who reported workplace violence,” Michael D’Aquino, Feb. 6, 2013

Restaurant owner implicated in sexual harassment case

He said she said. Investigators say that sexual harassment cases can sometimes be reduced to those four simple words, largely because sexual assault can take place in a private area without witnesses. A former hostess at a restaurant in Coral Gables, Florida, is alleging that her supervisor sexually accosted her after a shift.

The woman, who was 18 at the time of the assault, claims that the man groped her breast and attempted to force himself on her as he accompanied her to a parking garage. Authorities report that a criminal case is unlikely to gain traction because there were no witnesses to the crime, so the woman’s only recourse is to file a lawsuit. Attorneys report that the woman is seeking $1.5 million in damages.

The woman had only worked at the restaurant for two weeks in early 2012 when the alleged incident occurred. Her lawsuit states that her boss sexually abused, assaulted and harassed her.

Police have not filed any charges in the case because the case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the woman’s attorney. Authorities admit that the woman submitted allegations against the man shortly after the incident occurred, but they could not indict the man on such tenuous charges.

Although it is unfortunate that the criminal system has failed this woman, the civil courts can provide her with financial redress for the wrongs she has suffered. The woman is suing for sexual harassment, but she could also be seeking additional compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress and loss of income, because she was forced out of her job.

Source: 6 South Florida, “La Dorada restaurant owner accused of sexual assault in former hostess’ lawsuit,” Diana Gonzalez, Feb. 5, 2013

Low-wage earners left out of economic growth

It’s the old story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Except this time, it appears to be played out right here in Florida, with a massive wage gap taking root during the past three decades. Experts estimate that the incomes of the best-paid workers have continually risen, while the lower-wage earners are still scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel. Not only are some of the successful people violating wage and labor laws, but the situation simply shows the need for continued legislation to protect people who are the most vulnerable.

The numbers do not lie in this, according to financial experts. The top 10 percent of earners have seen their wages increase by a whopping 34 percent since the late 1970s, while those in the lower tiers have only seen an 11 percent gain. Lowest paid workers have not seen any wage change at all, demonstrating just how dire the situation can be for these employees.

Lower-paid workers should theoretically be able to reach bigger percentage gains faster, largely because even a small increase can make up a big chunk of their income. That is, a $2-per-hour gain for a person who earns $8 per hour is far more significant than it would be for someone who earns $20 per hour.

This situation illustrates the significance of wage and labor laws in our modern economy. We need to improve the protections afforded to the lowest-earning workers because those people cannot make ends meet using the current system. Experts say the only workers in Florida that have seen significant gains since 2000 were those holding MBAs, PhDs, law licenses or medical practices. Everyone else, even those with master’s degrees, lost out on their piece of the financial pie.

If you think your employer is treating you unfairly by violating wage and labor laws, you should pursue legal action. Considering the state of the down economy, it is increasingly critical to keep every dollar you earn – and get every dollar you deserve.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “With wages, only a handful getting richer,” Jim Stratton, Jan. 27, 2013.