Friday, March 23, 2012

"At-will" and "right-to-work-for-less," illustrated

There are states in America where employees -- public and private -- have rights, thanks to the centuries-old concept of collective bargaining. South Carolina and Florida are not among them.

In these two states, and 20-plus more, employees have no rights under the law; we can be hired or fired "at will," which is where the happy label "at-will" comes from.

If you work for me, and you're sitting in a job that you've held for 15 years but I want to put my unqualified nephew in that job -- the sorry sap who still lives in his mother's basement and doesn't contribute to the household budget, which is why she asks me for a loan several times a year -- then I can fire you "at will" and hire the boy wonder without any experience "at will."

See how "at will" employment works?

And if you ask why I'm firing you -- for what reason? -- I don't have to tell you, because I don't have to have a reason. You're fired; good-bye; end of conversation.

"At will" employment has a malignant twin sibling called "right-to-work-for-less." Decades ago, when employees in many northern, midwestern and western states fought for and won collective bargaining rights, the corporate owners of most Southern states erected an ideological barrier -- generally around the states of the old Confederacy but with some outliers -- that they called "right to work." South Carolina's legislature adopted our "right to work" statute in 1954.

Like a lot of lies told by our corporate owners, "right to work" is, in fact, a "right to work for less." Like "at will," it means that you and I have a right to accept an employer's offer of a job, and a right to quit that job whenever we want. In turn, employers have a right to pay us any little pittance that we'll accept, and a right to fire us when we stop pleasing them.

And yes, that last little bit can be interpreted broadly. Women working in textile mills in the 1920's, 30's and 40's could tell stories of pleasing their mill supervisors in order to keep their jobs; watch "The Uprising of '34."

Last week, in Florida, an employer exercised its rights to fire some employees "at will," and they offered a stupid reason for doing it.

From reporter Doreen Hemlock of the Sun Sentinel:

Were they wearing orange shirts on Friday to protest management? Or to get psyched for happy hour?

Either way, orange-shirted workers no longer have jobs at the Deerfield Beach law firm of Elizabeth R. Wellborn P.A.

A spokeswoman said the law firm had "no comment at this time."

Four workers tell the story this way: For the past few months, some employees have worn orange shirts on pay-day Fridays so they'd look like a group when they went out for happy hour.

This Friday, 14 workers wearing orange shirts were called into a conference room, where an executive said he understood there was a protest involving orange, the employees were wearing orange, and they all were fired.

The executive said anyone wearing orange for an innocent reason should speak up. One employee immediately denied involvement with a protest and explained the happy-hour color.

The executives conferred outside the room, returned and upheld the decision: all fired, said Lou Erik Ambert, 31, of Coconut Creek, a litigation para-legal who said he was terminated.

"There is no office policy against wearing orange shirts. We had no warning. We got no severance, no package, no nothing," said Ambert. "I feel so violated."

Meloney McLeod, 39, of North Lauderdale, said her choice of shirt puts her in a tough spot: "I'm a single mom with four kids, and I'm out of a job just because I wore orange today."

Janice Doble, 50, of Sunrise,said she wore orange Friday because she was looking forward to happy hour with colleagues after a busy work week.

"Orange happens to be my favorite color. My patio is orange," said Doble. "My lipstick was orange today." She said she supervised 12 people who scanned, copied and mailed documents for the firm.

Now she's worried for relatives employed at the law firm. "I have four kids who work there," said Doble. "I don't want them to retaliate and fire my kids."

Yadel Fong, 21, of Miami, wonders where he'll find work after losing his job in the mail room. He was not aware of anyone in the group involved in a protest.

"To my mind, protesting is where you put your foot down, and you're not working. There was none of that today," said Fong, who said he was working and looking forward to happy hour.

Florida is an "at-will" state for employment. That means unless there's a contract, an employer can fire a worker "for a good reason, for a bad reason or even for the wrong reason, as long as it's not an unlawful reason," said Eric K. Gabrielle, a labor and employment lawyer at Stearns Weaver in Fort Lauderdale.

"No violation of the law jumps out" in this case, Gabrielle said.

No violation, because what this unethical employer did is completely legal in Florida, as it is in South Carolina.

Better get back to work, now. Our corporate owners may be having a bad day.

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