Sunday, April 5, 2009

Protecting Justice in the American Workplace

I already knew that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had become a joke but this story takes the cake!

It sounds like a grim sweatshop joke, but the federal agency that’s supposed to enforce justice in the American workplace has been found in willful violation of its own workers’ rights. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has been blithely violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to an arbitrator who found that the agency has been forcing its employees to work overtime and not paying them for it. Instead, according to the arbitrator, the agency concocted a “fiction” that its workers “requested” only compensatory time instead.

The E.E.O.C. — once a credible investigator of workplace grievances —lost about a quarter of its staff across the Bush years. The commission shed investigators, lawyers and labor specialists — even as it was increasingly swamped with complaints from workers in the private sector. In 2008, there were 95,400 allegations of job bias, a rise of 26 percent in just two years. Given the current economic agonies, the toll continues to rise.

Much of what drove this attrition at the EEOC was an anti-regulatory, anti-government mentality during the Bush years. Although the Bush administration couldn’t eliminate the agency, they could at least weaken it so that a large part of its political base, big business wouldn’t have to be bothered by pesky employees and job applicants who were just looking for fair treatment.

But even the most limited government advocates can agree that a necessary role for any government is the arbitration of disputes. If a company (especially a large one) chooses to practice discrimination against certain groups of people, without the government to arbitrate and provide a remedy for the injustices, the individual simply doesn’t have a chance.

And make no mistake; discrimination in the workplace is rampant as the steep increase in number of filed complaints shows! There were probably countless other instances that were not reported because the workers felt that nobody was there who cared enough to help.

As I argued in
a previous blog article, older more experienced workers have especially difficult problems in the job market. Because they are paid more than younger workers, when companies are shedding jobs like they are now to save money, you can bet that companies are putting more effort into dumping their larger salaries. Making things worse is that these older workers who lose their health insurance as a result of being laid off are more likely to run into serious health problems that can cause financial ruin and/or endanger these peoples' lives. This is not trivial stuff!

President Obama touched on the E.E.O.C.’s problems in the campaign. Now that he is in the White House, he needs to repair, replenish and demand a major attitude change forthwith. And Congress needs to provide full support to restore the E.E.O.C. to something more than a laughingstock.

That's all we need. Something else to add to the already ridiculously long list of things to do for President Obama.

But even if he and Congress are able to undo this damage from the previous administration, there is still another obstacle that will be more difficult to overcome. And that is the Supreme Court which as a result of the conservative Bush appointments is deciding many cases by contentious 5-4 majorities divided mainly on ideology as I argue in
this previous posting.

A recent
Supreme Court decision continues this trend as opined in this NYT editorial A Blow to Workers' Rights.

When Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, it gave older Americans a broad right to sue for discrimination. But the Supreme Court has narrowed that right with a 5-to-4 ruling that union members cannot file lawsuits when their contracts call for arbitration of age-discrimination claims. The decision, which reversed the court’s precedents, sets back antidiscrimination law significantly.
In these especially difficult times, Congress and the EEOC need to protect American workers more than ever. For their sake, we need to do better!

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