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, October 20, 2017

#MeToo: Most Women Have Been Sexually Harassed. Let's Start Believing Them.

You're probably familiar with the "Me Too" campaign on Twitter and Facebook where women are posting #metoo if they have been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. I'm one of those who posted. Yes, even an employment lawyer who handles sexual harassment cases has been sexually harassed. I'll tell one of my stories in a minute.

People keep asking me why all these women have been so silent for so long. They blame the victims for keeping their mouths shut. While different women have different reasons, I can opine as to some of them. I think the major reason most women don't come forward is that we, as a society, tend not to believe them. Women who complain about sexual harassment at work are frequently demonized, mocked, called liars, and retaliated against. Women who take these cases to court have a tough time getting past a judge to a trial, and then have an even tougher time convincing a jury. In a he said-she said, we tend to believe the "he" over the "she."

Look what happens to the first woman (or even first few women) who reports sexual harassment against any famous person. She is almost universally ridiculed and vilified. To this day, Monica Lewinsky is a punch line and Anita Hill is still a villain to the right wing. Look at the women who first came forward more recently about Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein. Read the comments as they are trashed and humiliated.

We have to do better. We, as a society, know this is happening and do nothing. Women, in particular, need to support those who come forward. Victims are told to be quiet or they will be destroyed.

The laws need to be stronger and less of a maze in order to protect sexual harassment victims. The trouble started with the Faragher and Burlington cases where the Supreme Court said victims had to report sexual harassment to HR or management under the company's sexual harassment policy and give the company a chance to fix the situation. If they didn't, they lost their right to sue.

Then there's the whole "severe or pervasive" standard that frequently makes a mockery of Title VII. For it to legally be sexual harassment, it has to be so severe or so pervasive that it alters the terms and conditions of your employment. Most women I know that a single boob grab is severe and alters tthe terms and conditions of your employment, but the courts disagree. And then some say "severe and pervasive" and impose even more difficult standards.

Don't believe me about how tough the courts are on sexual harassment victims? Here's one of my least favorite cases saying sexual harassers get four free gropes a year in the workplace before the company can be held liable. In Myers v. Central Florida Investments, Inc., 2006 U.S. Dist. Lexis 51504 (M.D. Fla.), here’s what the federal judge said about the case:
Additionally, from an objective standpoint, consideration of the factors noted above does not support severity or pervasiveness in this case. First, the harassing conduct, considered as a whole, cannot be said to have occurred with great frequency. Ms. Myers alleges ten to twenty touchings – mostly of her legs, but sometimes of her butt – over a period of approximately five years – two to four per year; thus, the touchings were infrequent. . . . In sum, considering the totality of the circumstances, from an objective standpoint the harassment did not rise to the requisite level of severity or pervasiveness.
The case was reversed later, not because of the four gropes rule.

Sure, things have gotten better for sexual harassment victims with President Obama's judicial appointees, but that's about to change again with the slew of Trump appointments. We'll have to rely on Congress and state legislatures to change the law if we want to protect sexual harassment victims better, and that won't happen anytime soon.

Because of #metoo, I thought I'd share just one of my own sexual harassment stories. When in college, I took a job that was posted in the college career office. I was an art model. Yes, nude. But it was for an older man (oh, hell, he was probably the age I am now or younger) and I was in his house. His wife was in the house at all times I was there. I thought I would be safe because the college referred me and because of the wife being there. Yet, midway through our sessions, he decided to do a double boob grab from behind as I was getting dressed. I was probably 19 or 20. I didn't know squat about the law, but I knew it was wrong. I also knew he was my ride back to the college so I pushed his hands away and stayed quiet. I was terrified of what might happen if I screamed.

After he dropped me at the college, I reported the incident to the college career office. I asked them to remove his listing. They refused. They saw that it was an art modeling job and then discounted everything I said after that. They clearly didn't believe me or care. They gave me the impression they assumed I asked for it. This was a women's college that was supposed to be all about empowering women. Yet they ignored my plea. They kept his posting at the college, and I assume he continued to be a sexual predator. He actually begged me to come back and let him finish the painting. I refused, of course.

While this wasn't my only sexual harassment story, it was probably my worst because I felt utterly betrayed by my college. I believe they would have a different reaction now if a student reported something similar. At least, I hope they would.

Since Anita Hill, I think some folks woke up and realized that sexual harassment was a real thing. Now, every time there's a big story, some more people wake up.

Who knows? Maybe one day I won't have to handle sexual harassment cases anymore because employers will know the law and take prompt action to protect the victims. Nah.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Is It Time To Quit Your Job? There's No Shame In Ending A Bad Situation

Let's say you hate your job. Maybe you've told colleagues that your employer-provided house is a dump. You've opined that your job was like being in prison. The job is causing you so much stress that you're losing your temper a lot. Colleagues and friends are starting to recommend that you seek help from a mental professional. You're just not good at what you do.

Maybe it's time to call it quits. Not that I'm hinting to anyone in particular.

But seriously, how do you know when it's time to quit? What should you do when you figure out that it's time to go? Here are some things to think about before you hand in that resignation:

  • Will it be more stressful to be unemployed?: This is the first thing I ask clients who desperately want to quit their jobs. Sure, some jobs can be miserable. But is it more miserable than being unemployed for months or even years? Can you afford to live on Florida's measly maximum of $275/week in unemployment benefits? How stressed will you be when you file for bankruptcy, get evicted, lose your car? If the answer is that you'd rather go through all that than stay at the job, it's probably time to quit.
  • Can you afford to be unemployed?: If you have enough savings to last you for months, if you don't need the job, if your spouse or partner can support you, or if you already have another job lined up, maybe it's time to quit.
  • Have you started looking for another job?: If you haven't done your due diligence to find out how long it will take to find something else and how tough the market is, maybe you should start before you quit. Make a fully informed choice.
  • Is the job making you sick?: Some people work in miserable conditions to the point that they become physically or mentally ill. If it has come to the point that your doctor or mental health professional is telling you to get out for your health's sake, it's time to go. No job is worth dying or having a mental breakdown over. However, you might think about taking a FMLA or other leave if available to you so you can take a step back and make the decision in your own time.
  • Are you unsafe at work?: If you are being sexually harassed or harassed due to race, age, religion, etc., report it in writing to HR and give your employer a chance to investigate and fix the situation. However, if you are being physically attacked or threatened with bodily harm and the company won't remove the attacker, then you probably should not go back to an unsafe workplace. I do suggest you report any such incidents to the police and to HR before you let the attacker drive you out of a job.
  • You hate your job: If you hate your job, hate the people, hate the work, it will show. Rather than let your work performance slide and get fired, it's time to start looking elsewhere. Sometimes, the decision to leave will keep you going through a truly crappy job until you are ready to leave on your own terms.
  • You are terrible at your job: Sometimes, the job just isn't a fit. No matter how hard you try, you can't keep up, can't live up to expectations, or just don't have the skills or training necessary. If you've asked for training, done everything you could to get up to speed, then it's time to look elsewhere before you're given the boot. Try not to wait until you're given that PIP, final warning or severance agreement. If you know in your heart you aren't cutting it, then cut your losses.

There are lots of reasons to quit, but the timing is key. Quitting with little or no notice, with no job lined up, that's a pretty serious move. Be sure you have thought it through. If you're unsafe or it's unhealthy, then that's one thing. But otherwise, make your plan, do your job search and go when you're ready.

On the other hand, if you're a billionaire who doesn't need to think about mudane things like how to pay the mortgage, maybe quitting by tweet at 3 AM is the best thing. Hint, hint.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Job Or Self-Employment Lost Because Of Hurricane? You May Qualify For Disaster Unemployment Assistance

Folks who normally don't qualify for unemployment assistance, such as business owners, may qualify for Disaster Unemployment Assistance if they are unable to work due to one of the hurricanes that hit the U.S. Even if you only lost your job for a short time, you should look into this. It's your money, after all. This is part of what your payroll taxes have been paying for.

Here's what the Benefits.gov website says about who qualifies:
In order to qualify for this benefit your employment or self-employment must have been lost or interrupted as a direct result of a major disaster declared by the President of the United States. You must have been determined not otherwise eligible for regular unemployment insurance benefits (under any state or Federal law). 
Payment will be made to an unemployed worker, who as a direct result of a Presidentially declared major disaster: 
  • No longer has a job.
  • Is unable to reach their place of work.
  • Cannot work due to damage to the place of work.
  • Becomes the head of the household and is seeking work because former head of household died as a result of the disaster.
  • Cannot work because of a disaster-incurred injury.
You have to apply in the state/territory where you live. Each state/territory has its own site for applying.

To apply for Disaster Unemployment Assistance in Florida, start here. Here's the announcement about it. You only have until October 16 to apply. Florida's announcement says you qualify if you:
  • Worked or were self-employed or were scheduled to begin work or self-employment;
  • Are not able to work or perform services because of physical damage of destruction to the place of employment as a direct result of the disaster;
  • Can establish that the work or self-employment they can no longer perform was their principal source of income;
  • Do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits from any state;
  • Cannot perform work or self-employment because of an injury as a direct result of the disaster; or
  • Became the breadwinner or major supporter of a household because of the death of the head of household.
 Texas's announcement is here. You have until October 30 to apply. You can apply here.

Georgia's site for applying is here. You have until October 19 to apply. The announcement is here.

The list of disaster assistance available for Puerto Rico is here, and it includes disaster unemployment assistance. I haven't found any announcement yet. Deadline is 30 days from the announcement. Puerto Rico's unemployment compensation websites appear to be down, but a list of them is here.

The list of disaster assistance available for the U.S. Virgin Islands is here and it also includes disaster unemployment assistance. I haven't found the announcement yet. Deadline is 30 days from the announcement. USVI's unemployment compensation website is here.