EmpowerWest. Short for “Empower West Louisville”. Shorter still for “Black and white churches joined together for the empowerment of racially-segregated Louisville’s predominantly-black West End.”
Income inequality (the gap between rich and poor) and wealth inequality (the widening gap between people who have and people who have darn near nothing) is bad enough no matter the color of your skin. It’s just worse if you’re black. Worse than Hispanic, worse than Asian, way worse than white. I’ll post some numbers on this blog sometime soon.
EmpowerWest in Louisville shines a light on how tough it is to try to make it in the West End. Only the grace of God keeps some people alive. From time to time, I’ll post here about the latest EmpowerWest activities.
As the saying goes, “We’re living in interesting times.” That’s putting it way too mildly. The new saying is, “We’re living in divided times.” America is red and blue, liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, in or out, up or down.
All this division can be exhausting. People of goodwill and balanced temperament, who don’t like fighting, drop out instead of jumping in. Whether you engage or not is your choice: it’s a calling, or it’s not. That’s up to you.
But there is good news for the politically exhausted. Once in a while, political advocacy, especially among people of faith, crosses the drawn lines. I’ve experienced it in the struggle for justice in lending for poor people.
Payday lending, title loans, car loans, and more are debt traps. People of faith all across the country, liberal and conservative, are standing together to bring change and bring relief to the “least of these” God’s children.
There’s much, much more to say about lending-reform advocacy. That’s for another day and another post. But my point in this moment is only that we aren’t always divided. Americans can come together across the lines we’ve drawn to stand up and speak out together.
Let’s keep looking for common ground and united advocacy.
I recently wrote about whether or not people who work are truly management for purposes of determining overtime qualification or exemption. It boils down to this: If you’re really a manager and on salary, you’re exempt from overtime. If you’re not really a manager, no matter what they call you, and you’re hourly, you’re entitled to overtime. If you’re not really a manager, no matter what they call you, and your salary is less than $455 a week, around $23,000 a year, you’re entitled to overtime.
Chasing a rabbit off on a tangent, what does $455 a week have to do with it? That’s the threshold set by the US Department of Labor, and as of this writing in mid-2017, it went up. A lot. More than double. The Obama administration raised the threshold to $47,476 a year, meaning that many white-collar workers making less than a $47,476-year-salary would be entitled to overtime for hours worked over 40 per week. How many were affected? Several million people.
Now the bad news. A federal judge blocked the new standard. Then we elected a new president who’s against the new standard. The new standard may not hold. And we’ll be back to the $23,000 threshold.
But, back on track, what do I mean, “no matter what they call you”? I mean being called “boss” isn’t the end of the discussion. It isn’t your title that determines eligibility, it’s your job function. They may call you manager, or assistant manager, or lead person, or on-duty supervisor, or whatever. If you spend your time doing the same work as everyone else, you may be entitled to overtime for hours worked over 40 per week, just like everyone else.
Wouldn’t it be great to get paid more for all that hard work and responsibility?
People sometimes call me while they are still employed. They’re being harassed, and they don’t know what to do about it. Or, they think termination is looming: it’s just a matter of time. They don’t know if they might get fired, but they’re upset. Or, they’re sure they have unpaid wages coming to them, but they’re concerned about retaliation if they raise an issue.
The good news is that some rights on the job extend past separation from employment. Wage claims are a good example. Former employees who were misclassified, or worked off the clock, or otherwise didn’t get paid all the overtime they earned can still pursue their rights. Just don’t wait too long: check with a lawyer about the statute of limitations.
But what to do if you’re a current employee? How do you protect your legal rights while you’re still working? There’s no perfect solution. But take heart that standing up for your legal rights is legally protected from retaliation and discrimination. Employers know this, or should know it, and should respect your rights or face the consequences.
There’s also strength in numbers. Join with other employees. Being individually brave is good, but you don’t have to go it alone. Groups of employees support each other, and have power that individuals don’t.
And, of course, you should expect your lawyer to stand beside you, for moral and legal support and guidance. You’re not alone!
People say it to me all the time. They say, “I know it, but I can’t prove it.” Or, “How are you going to prove it?” How do you prove an employer’s illegal intent to discriminate? How do you prove harassment? How do you find enough evidence of wage-hour violations to win?
In short, I look for the tip of the iceberg. Just like the ice in your glass, most of the ice in an iceberg is below the surface, out of easy view. Evidence of illegal behavior is the same. You don’t have to see much to know there’s a lot more. Discrimination is there in a bad meeting or a stray comment from the boss. Wage-hour violations are there on the face of a paystub or two. Whistleblowers see a few things, knowing there’s much more to find. One story of harassment is often just one instance of repeat behavior. One client can lead to more clients and a class action.
Yes, you can prove violations of the law in the workplace. You just have to know where and how to look. Like scanning the horizon for icebergs.
Discharge from employment, “getting fired”, can be really traumatic. And bewildering. The initial shock leaves you reeling. The sense of betrayal by people you thought were loyal friends hurts. The worry about what will happen to you and yours keeps you up at night.
Clear your head. Take it one step at a time. Step one- file for unemployment compensation. It’s not the same as your regular weekly paycheck for wages, but it’s there to tide you over until you get another job. You may have heard something that leads you to believe you won’t draw unemployment benefits. Your friends may say you won’t get it. Don’t let that stop you. Don’t talk yourself out of trying. Leave eligibility up to the unemployment office. Go ahead and file. The worst that can happen is that you’re ineligible. You may be pleasantly surprised.
I’ll discuss Step Two in an upcoming post soon.
Hourly. Salary. Independent contractor. Gig worker in the sharing economy. In the decentralized, subcontracted work world, who’s responsible for paying you what the law requires? Is it the customer? Is the contractor you report to? Is it the big business above them? All or none of the above?
Our federal and state labor laws about wages and hours are easily applied to traditional employer-employee relationships. In those cases, the requirements and limits of minimum wage, required overtime, and benefits like health insurance and retirement have been spelled out for decades.
But the wage and hour laws also apply to nontraditional workers in emerging workplaces. To people who are labeled “independent contractors”, but who aren’t independent enough to be small business people on their own. The technical term is “misclassification.” Professionals in health care, such as nurses and techs, should pay close attention and review whether they are properly classified as contractors or employees.
Maybe they call you a boss, a supervisor, or a manager, etc. and classify you as exempt from overtime. It’s more than just the title. “Supervisors” without substantial authority over others may be misclassified, too.
Insubordination. Work now, grieve later. Wrongful termination. What do these mean?
I confess, I’ve long struggled with “insubordination”. Though giving and taking orders is foundational for harmony on the job, it’s that has marked progress through the years. Where would we be if the heroes of the past had only done what they were told?
But challenging authority comes with risk and consequence. Taking a stand for rights and principle against orders usually gets you fired. I just got a call about a man who stood up for himself. He refused to do work that wasn’t his and belonged to another. What’s more, he was union, so he believed he was following the contract.
He was fired. But he lost his case, on the time-worn principle of “work now, grieve later.” That is, he would still be employed if he’d done as he was told, then challenged it, in hope of winning in front of a neutral decisionmaker.
If you get fired, file for unemployment. Don’t believe anyone who says that you “can’t”. You can file. Filing is your right. What they’re really saying is, “you may not be allowed to draw unemployment.” But you won’t know if you don’t try. As they say here in Kentucky, a basketball state, “you’ll miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” File.
You’ll talk to a caseworker. Tell your story. The employer must persuade the unemployment officer that you engaged in misconduct attributable to the employment. If you draw, good. If you don’t, appeal to ask for a referee hearing. Watch your time limits for appeal on the papers you receive. You may not succeed, but then again, you could.
Don’t pass up the opportunity for the income you need while you look for another job because “they said”, or “somebody said” that you “can’t” file. File.
We usually say that an employer may fire an employee for “good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all.” This is a downer. It’s confusing: people are generally ignorant of their rights on the job. They often only think about such rights when they’re in trouble and call a lawyer.
If the lawyer scares them off with those words, when they’re already feeling vulnerable, they become downcast, fatalistic and passive. They wonder, “But what about all those cases where workers have sought their rights in court and won? How did that happen?”
I like this better. “Workers can’t be fired for an illegal reason”. Or better, “Workers can only be fired for a legal reason.” It’s equally true, and it encourages workers to explore their rights. What do you think?