Worker Rights, Wrongs

Posted Feb. 07, 2010, at 7:18 p.m.

Championing worker rights is not a popular mission in the midst of a deep recession. But those rights, particularly as they relate to discharging employees, are due for more consideration.

Maine is one of eight states with no exception to “at will” employment law, which allows employers to fire employees without citing a reason. Employees can file complaints with the Maine Human Rights Commission if they believe they have been discharged for reasons of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or age. But if the employer is not found to have fired the employee for any of those reasons, the action is legal.

In his book “Can They Do That?” Lewis Maltby describes the sorts of things for which employees have been fired. One of the cases he cites is that of Lynne Gobbell. During the 2004 election season, she put a “Kerry for President” bumper sticker on her car. Her boss saw it and said she could “either work for John Kerry or work for me,” Mr. Maltby writes. She refused to remove the sticker and was fired immediately.

“Lynne Gobbell’s freedom, and yours, disappears every morning when you go to work,” Mr. Maltby writes. “The United States Constitution applies to the government, not to corporations. A private business, large or small, can legally ignore your freedom of speech. Where your employer is concerned, you have no such right.”

Other instances Mr. Maltby cites include the Louisiana truck driver who liked to dress up in women’s clothes on the weekend. He was fired when the boss recognized him out in public. In Indiana, a boss who believed alcohol use was a sin fired a man who liked to drink beer on the weekends. Both were deemed legal by state law.

“Anybody can do anything they want to unless there’s a law that says they can’t do it,” Mr. Maltby said in a telephone interview from the Princeton, N.J., offices of the National Workrights Institute, an organization he founded. The only exceptions to “at will” employment is when there is an implied contract between employer and employee, and if an employee is fired for refusing to do something that is illegal and detrimental to the public, such as dumping toxic chemicals into the stream behind the factory.

Sweeping change may not be needed, so that firing a bad employee becomes difficult and costly. But some modest measures might be taken, Mr. Maltby said. One is to make it illegal for employers to fire employees for anything they did in their private life (with some exceptions). Another reasonable step is to require that a warning be given before terminating an employee.

The logical group to champion these changes is unions; just as they won child labor and workplace safety protections for all workers, not just their members, they should take on this effort.

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