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.

Banker claims wrongful termination for Ponzi revelations

A Miami whistleblower said he was fired from his prestigious banking position after reporting suspicious activity related to a Ponzi scheme. The man has filed a wrongful termination case against the financier in connection with the allegations, which revolve around money scams initiated by now-famous Scott Rothstein.

The employee, a high-level regulations expert, claims that he was fired after reporting the investor’s misdeeds. His employer, Gibraltar Private Bank, reportedly told him that their workers did not have to abide by federal banking regulations because of their high-level clients. He had reported suspicions related to Rothstein’s accounts as early as 2008, according to the suit, but bank leaders told him to relax regulatory requirements for the investor, saying he was one of the business’s best clients.

When the man refused to ignore the problems and insisted that Rothstein’s accounts be closed, bank managers fired him.

Approximately one year after the man lost his job, Rothstein was apprehended after fleeing to Morocco. Authorities said he had masterminded a giant fraud scheme that ultimately fleeced investors of more than $1 billion. He has since been sentenced to 50 years’ time in a federal prison, according to reports.

Not only did the bank leaders fire the man bringing the suit, but he alleged that they also prevented him from getting other work because they defamed his character. The man’s former supervisors claimed that he was physically violent to other employees, saying that other workers refused to stay alone with the man after hours. The bank also falsely alleged that they were required to hire armed guards after the man was fired because they were afraid he would return with a gun.

The man is seeking compensation for a variety of wrongs, including retaliation, defamation, whistleblower violations and breach of employment agreements. It is not clear how much money the man is seeking in connection with the suit. He is not looking to be reinstated to his former position because the bank has since become defunct.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Exec claims bank fired him for reporting Rothstein’s Ponzi scam,” Iulia Filip, Nov. 8, 2012

Whistleblower fired for complaining about workplace rodents

A federal judge in a southern Florida court ruled last week that a Florida company illegally retaliated against one if its employees by firing him after he complained about an infestation of rodents at a company facility in Stuart, Florida. The lawsuit to vindicate employee rights was filed by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The man worked for a canvas products manufacturing company called Aquatech Technologies, which is owned by LOTO Services, LLC. The court found that the firing violated the employee’s rights against retaliation for complaining about workplace safety or health under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The judge awarded the employee $34,186, including $27,072 in lost back wages, $6,700 in expenses, and $414 in interest.

When the employee first complained about rodent droppings in a company office, traps were deployed, but the infestation remained. When the employee repeated his complaint, the employer denied that the problem existed. As a result, the employee notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the threat to workplace health and safety. When OSHA notified the company about the complaint, the employee was fired.

OSHA enforces federal laws protecting employees who report workplace health and safety rules and other federal regulations. Employers have a mandatory legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace consistent with OSHA standards. When these standards are violated or an employee is fired or disciplined for reporting violations, OSHA investigates and takes necessary enforcement actions.

In this case, OSHA’s investigation determined that the employee’s firing was retaliatory and would not have happened absent the employee’s reporting of the workplace rodent problem. It then filed the lawsuit on behalf of the ex-employee.

Source: OSHA Regional News Release, “US Department of Labor wins lawsuit against Aquatech Technologies owners for firing whistleblower who complained about rodents at Stuart, Fla., plant Judge finds canvas manufacturer violated OSH Act by retaliating against employee,” Oct. 10, 2012.

Tension erupts over pension changes in Florida

Politicians in Florida looking to cover a $3.6 billion budget shortfall targeted the pensions of public employees to do so. While a trial court said that the move, which would save $1 million in pension benefits, was unconstitutional, the lawmakers behind the proposal are relying on the state’s Supreme Court to label it a fair cost-cutting move amid a financial crisis. This battle has proven to be a high-profile employment law issue as the changes essentially equate to an illegal salary reduction for workers, according to the opposition.

Lawmakers, predominately Republicans, altered the way that the state funds pensions for its employees. Public employees are now required to put 3 percent of their income into their pension to help pay for it. The new law also eliminated the cost-of-living adjustment, which would ensure that employees can stay on pace with inflation during their retirement years.

A lawyer representing a group of public employees who are challenging the new law said that it is unfair to make such a drastic change so suddenly. The lawyer, who is representing 11 people who were affected by the new pension law, said that the change was a direct violation of the agreements already struck between the state and its workers. The lawyer’s clients are asking that their contributions to their pensions be given back to them with an extra amount in interest.

A circuit court judge originally sided with the workers in the case, saying that they have the right to collectively bargain over conditions of employment, and in this case, were not able to. However, the state’s high court has agreed to hear the case to determine whether that decision would be reversed or upheld.

If the circuit court’s decision is upheld, Florida will have to continue funding workers’ pensions as it did, plummeting further into a financial hole. On the other side of the coin, if the Supreme Court decides that lawmakers were within their rights in changing pension laws, state workers face an uncertain financial future.

Source: Money News, “Florida $1 billion pension reform faces high court scrutiny,” Sept. 7, 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

Study suggests sexual harassment motivated by power not sex

With most forms of sex-related offenses, the motives are usually something other than pure physical attraction. Sexual harassment in Florida and across the country, a new study confirms, is no different. According to research conducted by scholars at the University of Maine and the University of Minnesota, sexual discrimination in the workplace is motivated not by sexual desire but by a desire for power.

Researchers concluded this based on the study which analyzed the experiences of 1,010 individuals. The subjects discussed their experiences as high school freshmen and their experiences as adults, around the age of 30. The interesting find was that it was not the feminine, vulnerable, youthful employee who was harassed the most. Rather, it was most often the less feminine woman in a supervisory role.

According to the study, female supervisors experienced workplace discrimination 73 percent more often than non-supervisors. The study also found that women in male-dominated occupations, such as the police, experienced higher rates of sexual misconduct. The reason that such behavior is more common in male-dominated professions, the scholars suggest, is that women are less likely to report it.

The authors of the study believe that these results indicate that sexual harassment in the workplace is a way for men to keep women “in their place.” Not long ago, women seldom achieved powerful positions in the workforce. Now that female executives are more common, some men are finding ways to make their stay at the top uncomfortable.

Stories shared by some of the study’s participants include a woman who was doused with water by her male colleagues whenever she would wear a white shirt, and a woman who was groped under the table by a powerful client at a business dinner.

These tactics, according to the study, are employed by men as a way to assert their dominance in the workplace. Sex often has little to do with it.

Source: Human Resources Journal, “Study Says The Lust That Drives Sexual Harassment At The Workplace Is Power Not Sex,” Aug. 30, 2012

Hollywood city attorney sues over police officers’ pensions

Employee rights can be a contentious subject for some people, particularly when it comes to employee benefits. Illegal or unfair treatment by an employer sometimes requires legal intervention. In these cases, it helps to have an attorney who is familiar with employment law and who can devise creative solutions to disputes between companies and their employees. This is true even if voters elect the employer and the employees are public servants, such as law enforcement officers.

The city commission in Hollywood, Florida, is currently in a legal dispute with the city’s police force over the now-defunct Deferred Retirement Option Program, otherwise known as DROP. In September 2011, city residents voted to eliminate the program as part of an overall effort to drastically change public employee pensions and save the city $8.5 million.

However, Hollywood’s police officers contend that the elimination of DROP was illegal. From their viewpoint, once a person has contributed to a retirement system, he or she is entitled to the benefits of that system upon meeting the eligibility requirements. The officers assert that benefits cannot be taken away from the person without his or her consent.

In addition to suing the city, the board of Hollywood Police Officers’ Retirement System voted to admit a police sergeant into DROP. The officer is the first to become eligible for the program after it was dissolved last year. In retaliation, the city commissioners gave approval to a city attorney to file a lawsuit against the board. According to the attorney, the issue comes down to whether the pension is considered a retirement benefit or a change in employee status.

The city of Hollywood is in a tight spot. While the commissioners are sympathetic to the plight of city employees who were cut out of the program just as they became eligible for it, Hollywood is trying to bridge a budget gap of $38 million. It is clear that city employees will need a tough attorney on their side who is able to fight for their employee rights and negotiate the best deal for them.

Source: Orlando Sentinel, “Hollywood OKs lawsuit over cop’s entry into defunct retirement program,” Tonya Alanez, July 18, 2012