Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Orange-Americans Unite: Stand Up For Yourselves!

           Did you hear the one about the 14 employees who were fired for wearing orange shirts? If you didn’t, you don’t live in the UK or Ghana or anywhere in the U.S., because the story made the international news. I think the story hit a chord with people everywhere because it was just so outrageous. You come into work one day, the boss is in a bad mood and fires you because she didn’t like your shirt that day.

            Management said they believed the shirts were a protest over working conditions, so they fired the employees involved. Some of the employees were quoted saying they didn’t intend to protest.

            What I thought was really interesting were the lawyers quoted who said, because Florida is an at-will state,  the employees could be fired for any reason. That's true some of the time. As I say in my upcoming book, employers can fire you because they didn't like your shoes that day. However I don’t agree with the assessment that these employees have no legal protection. Employees do have rights, even when they wear orange.

            I should confess at this point that I represent a group of the Orange-American employees who were fired. I won't go into all the underlying facts at this point. Let’s just say there’s more to the story.

            What I will do is discuss generally some circumstances where even Florida employees can’t be fired because their boss didn’t like their shirts:

            Religion: If the clothing has religious significance, the employer can’t fire employees for wearing it unless it can show serious concerns such as safety or security. Orange is a key color for the Protestant religion, so if the color was worn for religious reasons, firing because of wearing the shirts would be religious discrimination.

            Disability: If the clothing or color was worn due to a disability, such as a spine-adjusting device, then the employer would have to accommodate the disability unless it could show an undue hardship.

            Discrimination: If not all employees were fired for wearing orange, and the employees not fired were of a different race, age, sex, religion, national origin, etc. than the people fired, it could be discrimination.

            Concerted activity: The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which applies to most workplaces, not just unionized ones, says in Section 7: “Employees shall have the right to self-organization, . . . to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection . . . .” NLRA also makes it unlawful for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.” Even if an employee didn’t engage in concerted activity, they are protected under the NLRA. An employer who fires them for suspicion of engaging in concerted activity is in violation of the law. The NLRB said in one case: “The discharge of 4 employees . . .because of [the employer’s] belief, albeit mistaken, that the[y] had engaged in protected concerted activities is an unfair labor practice which goes to the very heart of the Act”

            There have been lots of cases where firing employees because management didn’t like their shirt were found to be unlawful: where AT&T workers wore shirts that said “Inmate #” on the front and on the back said “Prisoner of AT$T”; where employees wore shirts protesting the use of retirees to bust unions and some employees wore shirts saying, “Union ‘til I retire, then scab in!” and “When I retire I will not scab. I will go fishing”; where employees wore shirts with the employer’s logo, cracked, saying, “I survived the Midstate Strike of 1971-1975-1979”; and many more. In each case, the employees’ shirts were concerted activity protected under the NLRA.

            I won’t comment on which of these circumstances apply to my Orange-American clients’ cases – at least, not yet. But I will say this: it could happen to you. We’re all Orange-Americans. Every American who works for a living and can be fired, from the janitor to the CEO. Every American who thinks our jobs shouldn’t be yanked away without good reason. Every American who wants to complain about working conditions but is afraid. Every American who can lose not only their jobs, but their health insurance, for any reason or no reason at all. Every American who can be fired for wearing a color their boss doesn’t like, and can then be told they aren’t allowed to work in their chosen profession for a year or two.

            American workers do have rights, even in Florida; you just don’t have many. But you do have some rights, if only you know how to exercise them. You also have the right to vote, and to petition your representatives to change the law. In this economy, shouldn’t an employer have more reason than an intense dislike of the color orange to fire you?

            Orange-Americans unite: stand up for yourselves!

6 comments:

  1. Since you can't comment yet, neither will I :)

    But now that I know you are on the case I will be following it with great interest.

    Good luck, Donna.

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  3. GA has the same sort of employment law as FL. It could happen here, I'm sorry to say. My former employer was fond of saying that we worked "at the pleasure of ....." which always just rankled like fire with me. It just sounded like I was an indentured servant or something. I hated it. Of course, I just repeated (silently to myself) that I worked for them AT MY PLEASURE, and I could walk out the door if it suited me. Probably not the best move in the world, but it kept me sane.

    Just found your blog-I'm enjoying exploring it!

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  4. Thanks Equus! I'm glad you're enjoying it. It sounds like you found a good way to keep sane through a bad situation.

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