Quick Hits: Good News for Workers Across the Country

There’s no doubt that employment law can be a challenging field, whether it’s the insidious expansion of employers’ powers to impose coercive arbitration provisions upon employees or the ever-increasing obstacles to certification of classes of victimized employees. But there’s good news for employees too in the form of court decisions and laws that stand up for the rights of hard-working everyday people.

In May 2014, the Illinois legislature easily passed the Pregnancy Fairness Bill, which requires employers to make the same “reasonable accommodations” for pregnancy (and other related conditions) that employers are required to make for temporarily disabled workers, unless the accommodations pose “undue hardship” for the employer. Many of these accommodations are simple, such as allowing employees to sit and permitting more bathroom breaks. Women across the country are all too often forced to choose between their jobs and their health, not to mention the health of their babies, even though many issues would be ameliorated by easy, painless actions by employers. In January 2014, New Jersey passed a similar law that expressly expanded anti-discrimination protections to pregnancy and childbirth and required reasonable accommodations.

In June 2014, the Seattle City Council approved the nation’s highest minimum wage. Starting April 1, 2015, all employers will be required to pay $10.00 or $11.00 per hour, depending on their size, and Seattle will increase the minimum wage to $15.00 over 3-7 years. Currently almost a quarter of Seattle workers earn less than $15.00 per hour, and well over 10% of the city’s population lives below the federal poverty level. This pay increase will make an enormous difference in the lives of many Washington workers.

At the June, 2014 annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, mayors from around the country came together to talk about issues including income inequality. While many states and some cities have instituted a minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, income inequality continues to divide cities large and small. The New York Times reports that mayors are increasingly recognizing that pursuing higher minimum wages can help alleviate poverty even when federal and state legislatures are unable to act.

In June, 2014 the U.S. Department of Labor has announced a proposed rule to revise the definition of “spouse” under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles workers to take leave for family or medical reasons and guarantees that their job will be protected, to include same-sex marriages that were entered into in a country or state where same-sex marriages were recognized. Now workers who were legally married but currently live in states that do not recognize their marriages will be able to take time off to care for their loved ones, knowing that their job will be available when they return.

In June, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a public sector employee who testified pursuant to a subpoena and “outside the course of his ordinary job responsibilities” about information he had learned during his employment was protected by the First Amendment from retaliation by his employer. This is significant because previous decisions had suggested that public employees could legally be terminated for discussing in any forum information gleaned during the course of their duties. As Justice Sotomayor noted in the opinion, this decision is important for re-affirming that “citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment.” Public employees should not be forced to choose between keeping their jobs and being held in contempt of court.

Finally, in June, 2014 the New York City Council voted to approve the creation of municipal ID cards, aimed at giving the estimated half million undocumented immigrations living in the city the opportunity to participate in some of the many aspects of daily life that require a government-issued ID, such as opening a bank account, getting a library card and signing a lease. New York City is not the first American city to approve municipal ID cards, but so far only a few cities offer them.

And in the area of consumer rights, in April 2014, General Mills announced a staggering change in its legal terms that would have required all disputes regarding General Mills products to be brought to arbitration, effectively locking consumers out of court. The clause was extremely broad and extended to consumers who downloaded coupons online or subscribed to an e-mail list. After a loud public outcry, General Mills reversed course and re-instated the old terms, which do not mention arbitration. Congratulations to consumers around the country for standing up for their right to a day in court!