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

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

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

African-American principal unfairly targeted in Title 1 inquiry

A district principal has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against school leaders with the Manatee County district. The man, who had been employed at Palmetto Elementary School, had claimed that his employee rights were violated because he was not paid for activities in which he participated after the school day. The man asserts that Caucasian principals were fairly compensated, while African American principals were left without adequate pay for their work.

The man also alleges that he was placed under investigation for stealing Title 1 money, which is designed to provide assistance to low-income schools. He says he legitimately used the money to pay himself for activities performed outside of normal school hours, a practice that was common among the other workers in the region. Title 1 program representatives confirm that their funding is designated only for teachers. Administrators are characterized as salary workers, so overtime generally is not compensated.

The district had abandoned its investigation of all administrators after discovering that it had not made its compensation policies clear. The man in this case was the only person punished in connection with the activities, and he was also one of the few African-Americans involved in the case.

Still, the man argues that he was only following precedent, and he was not reprimanded for taking the money for his extra work. He says that he did not violate any rules because program auditors were aware of his activities and failed to address them during their periodic reports.

The man contends that money was unfairly taken from his paycheck to compensate the Title 1 program because of his race. Caucasian principals were not subjected to the same punishment. Other administrators reportedly took about $10,000, while the man who filed the complaint is accused of taking $30,000.

In this case, the man could recover damages that would allow him to keep the money he rightfully earned. He could also receive money for pain and suffering and emotional distress caused by the stress of the incident.

Source: Bradenton Herald, “Principal Ed Hurley files racial discrimination complaint against Manatee County school district,” Katy Bergen, Dec. 21, 2012.

USF workers fight for minimal wage increase

Low-wage workers such as janitors, secretaries and maintenance personnel are often overlooked by employers. According to experts, these vulnerable workers are more likely to have their benefits and pay revoked and their employee rights violated. News out of the University of South Florida supports that assertion, with low-wage workers hitting a block in their negotiations for more pay.

Officials at the university have reportedly refused to increase the low-wage earners’ pay to accommodate the increased cost of living due to inflation. The employees’ union was working to negotiate a new payment schedule that would have provided additional wages for the lower-tier workers.

State officials say the decision to refuse cost-of-living increases comes as higher-education funds are drying up, though those cutbacks do not seem to affect the highest-paid workers at the school. The university president, for example, has received a 20 percent pay increase during the past five years, and the school’s football coach was slated to earn $2 million in 2012 before he accepted an even larger severance.

The wage problems have dominated the negotiations between union leaders and school officials for about six months, according to officials. University leaders say they are unable to afford additional expenditures at this time, considering the extreme cuts that continue to buffet institutions of higher learning at every step.

Media reports show that the union, which represents more than 1,500 USF employees, sought two increases of 3.5 percent, one for each year of a remaining contract. Although the union was willing to negotiate for a lower increase, university officials unilaterally opposed any pay increase for the school’s most vulnerable workers. Workers at the school have not received pay increases since October 2009.

Custodians and secretaries who work at the school only make between $16,000 and $25,000 each year, while skilled tradesmen such as electricians only receive about $30,000 annually. Representatives from both the union and the school continue to negotiate the remaining contract payments, though the next meeting date has not yet been set.

Source: Tampa Bay Online, “USF, workers’ union at odds over pay raise,” Mike Salinero, Dec. 17, 2012.

EMS workers robbed of their personal lives because of policy

A recent meeting of the Manatee County Commission allowed a score of paramedics and emergency workers to air their grievances about the lack of employee rights in the current EMS system. The discussion occurred as a vote for union representation for the workers is pending within the county government.

Long-time emergency medical technicians in the area say the workers’ morale has decreased significantly during the past decade. Thirteen individual EMS workers addressed the board to make the case for union representation, arguing that the staff is unable to effectively negotiate with county management without legal backup.

Employees cite as an example a current policy that requires paramedics to come in on their off days to fill in for absent coworkers. This practice essentially disregards the personal lives and activities the paramedics may want to nurture, according to workers. The current drafting policy requires the person who is at the top of a “call-in” list to come to work if someone else is sick or unable to work during their shift.

These emergency services workers say they have had to sacrifice vacations that they have planned months in advance simply because of the current drafting policy. Some workers have also been forced to come in during the midst of family emergencies, according to staff members, which has increased personal turmoil during an already difficult situation

In this case, the workers are being effectively robbed of their personal time because of an irresponsible policy designed to keep ambulances staffed at minimal cost to local government. This practice is causing extremely high job dissatisfaction and employee turnover, which is likely to cost the county even more than the price of simply changing the policy.

The EMS workers met with the commissioners as a courtesy to inform them about the issues within the department. A formal vote will determine whether the workers choose to unionize. Those votes will be counted on Dec. 19.

Source: The Bradenton Herald, “Manatee EMS workers air their grievances to commissioners,” Carl Mario Nudi, Dec. 5, 2012.

Local government workers must first report problems to bosses

A ruling handed down by the 1st District Court of Appeal in late November has informed local government whistleblowers that they cannot be protected by anti-retaliation laws unless they tell their supervisors about their workplace complaints. The decision is likely to have a significant impact on employee rights, perhaps discouraging workers from revealing allegations against smaller government agencies that are acting unethically.

In contrast, state and federal government workers are protected by a 1992 law that allows them to directly report concerns to other state or federal agencies without fear of retribution.

The decision stems from a lawsuit brought by a worker at the Panama City Housing Authority who was fired in 2008. The worker reportedly sent a document to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alleging that he was not receiving pay that was commensurate with his station. The maintenance worker was laid off in November 2008, about seven months after filing the complaint with the federal agency.

Courtroom documents show that the man thought he was fired because of the report to the HUD. He asked for protection under a whistleblower’s act. Justices at the Court of Appeal decided that the man should not receive the protection because he failed to address the problem with a local supervisor. Local government workers should seek help from their employer’s chief executive officer or other high-ranking official.

Essentially, this decision requires employees to reveal potentially unethical actions to their bosses before consulting state or federal officials for help. This could stop many workers from reporting workplace violations, largely because they might fear retribution or inaction from their supervisors.

The decision appears to argue that the worker should first present the information to their supervisor and then give the information to state or federal workers if the problem persists. Employees should remember to keep reliable documentation throughout this process to ensure credibility and prove their case if their allegations are contested in court.

Source: Sunshine State News, “Local whistleblowers must tell local bosses,” Michael Peltier, Nov. 29, 2012.

Worker fired for complaining about workplace rodents vindicated

A Florida worker whose employer fired him for complaining about workplace rodents and rodent droppings has been vindicated in a lawsuit filed on his behalf by the U.S. Department of Labor. A judge upheld employee rights to complain about unsafe or unhealthy workplace conditions, and not to be fired in retaliation for being a whistleblower.

The lawsuit targeted the owners of Aquatech Technologies Inc., which the employee worked for. It resulted in the judge issuing an injunction against the defendants engaging in any further violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which outlaws such retaliation. The former employee was also awarded $27,072 in lost back wages, $6,700 in expenses, and $414 in interest, for a total award of $34,186.

After the employee told the company about seeing rodents infesting the office and finding rodent droppings lying around, the employer took some steps, such as placing a few traps. This, however, did not really remedy the situation. When the employee continued to complain, the employer then took the position that no such problem existed.

Frustrated with this inaction, the employee then filed a complaint with OSHA. As soon as OSHA told the employer that it was in receipt of the complaint, the employee was shown the door without warning.

That prompted the fired worker to pursue a claim as a whistleblower through OSHA, resulting in an investigation which found merit to the claim, and the subsequent lawsuit. The result shows that employees who stand up for the right of themselves and their co-workers to have a safe and healthy workplace have some protection against employers who want them to continue to work in filthy or dangerous conditions in violation of the law.

Source: WorkersCompensation.com, “OSHA wins lawsuit against employer for firing whistleblower who complained of rodents,” Oct. 11, 2012.

Florida restaurant workers sue employer for underpayment

A Florida-based restaurant company faces a federal lawsuit over claims that it routinely underpaid workers at its locations in Florida and across the United States. The employee rights claim accuses the company of implementing “a companywide pattern and practice of paying its employees below minimum wage and less than what the law requires” and seeks damages for back payment, legal fees and other forms of compensation, which could potentially amount to tens of millions of dollars.

Workers have filled similar claims in other states, but the Florida lawsuit marks the first hoping to represent all of the company’s workers. The lawsuit argues that workers were typically not paid until customers arrived at the restaurants, despite showing up for scheduled shifts that began earlier. It also claims that many employees were forced to work overtime, but were underpaid or were forced to work off the clock for no compensation whatsoever.

The company has denied the lawsuit’s allegations, with a spokesperson arguing that the claims “fly in the face of our values and how we operate our business.” He added that the company and all of its subsidiary brands follow all pursuant state and federal labor laws. The company, which does not franchise any of its locations, claims to employ 180,000 workers at over 1,000 restaurants. Another company represented said that the business was unaware of the allegations until receiving notification of the lawsuits, contending that the plaintiffs did not raise their concern using the company’s internal complaint system.

The company has faced similar accusations, being forced to pay over $24,000 in penalties and $27,000 in back wages over labor violations in 2011. The United States Department of Labor also ordered the company to pay $30,800 in fines and $25,000 in back wages for similar offenses during a separate incident in the same year.

Source: WRIC.com, “Olive Garden, LongHorn workers sue company,” Curt Anderson, Sep. 6, 2012