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The US Supreme Court reconvened last month with this term’s docket including several employment law cases, some that might even make for major changes from business as usual. Considering that about 10,000 cases seek review by the Supreme Court, which has great discretion over which ones it will hear, and only about 80 actually make it to oral arguments in the October-through-June term, it’s significant when employment law cases account for about 10% of the roster.

Most prominently among the employment law cases is Young v. United Parcel Service, which will look at whether pregnant employees are entitled to accommodations with work restrictions if similar accommodations are being offered to non-pregnant employees. It’s a test of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and whether a pregnant employee seeking accommodations should be given the same consideration as a UPS employee injured on the job or one who’s protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Regular pregnancies aren’t considered disabilities.)

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As a kid, everyone seems to have that one friend whose parents are infinitely more permissive than their own. They get to stay up late, eat junk food, and come and go at their leisure. For the envious rest of us, childhood was just a matter of biding time until we were all grown up and could do what we pleased without anyone telling us what to do. All those years of waiting for the freedom we’d only dreamed about seemed poised to bathe us in unrestricted joy…

Then came our jobs. Actual responsibilities and obligations became our new burdens, at least as long as we wanted the income to support our fabulous visions of freedom. Bosses and clients and our direct reports and customers and partners:  everyone’s demands whittle away at the dream of complete autonomy. Before you realize it, you’d love it if someone would make you go to bed by 10 on a weeknight, but then who’d get to all those backlogged reports?

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Recall, if you will, the plight of Seinfeld’s George Costanza. Embarrassed by a co-worker’s snide comment at a big meeting, he spiraled into near-psychosis while fixating on the “perfect” comeback he only thought of long after the fact. Determined to use his confusing “jerk store” retort, he stalked the co-worker even after he moved on to a new job two states away just to induce his nemesis into repeating the original comment in another meeting. When everything fell into place, Costanza unleashed his well-rehearsed insult, only to have it turned back on him by some quick thinking he didn’t expect.

To be hoisted by one’s own petard in a business meeting is one thing, but to have it happen in front of a virtually unlimited international audience is quite another, as one bitter former employee discovered recently. Having been fired by the social network Reddit, the former employee decided it would be a good idea to use the company’s own popular “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum to discuss his old job and speculate on what lead to his dismissal, despite having signed a non-disparagement agreement. While things started off civilly enough, the former employee’s musings on why he was fired devolved into several attacks on the company’s policies and culture. That’s when the CEO of Reddit stepped in to clear some things up.

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With perks like arcades, ball pits, laundry services, round-the-clock meals, and pretty much anything else it takes to coddle energetic young employees not quite ready to assume full adulthood, Silicon Valley firms are legendary for offering workers anything it takes to keep them at their desks instead of tending to an outside life. The latest entry in the “They get what?” panoply of benefits for high-tech workers is egg freezing, currently at Apple and Facebook and, presumably, to be adopted by more companies if it proves popular. While it’s being touted as a generous perk worth around $20,000, there’s no shortage of fierce criticism that it’s simply a manipulative way to extract longer, more focused efforts from younger employees the companies don’t want to see distracted by families and greater work-life balance. (It’s worth noting that, in some cases, the offer is extended to spouses of employees, so it’s not just the female workers who are affected by the new benefit).

While the debate about whether such a program assists or coerces delayed family planning is new enough that it should provide plenty of back and forth for quite some time, a much more established consideration for women of childbearing age is how a pregnancy would affect their jobs. Despite some longstanding laws designed to protect pregnant workers’ livelihoods, there is often a good deal of confusion for both them and their employers regarding rights and obligations.

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With all the misplaced fears and manufactured hysteria about the first Ebola case diagnosed in the US, it is not hard to assume most people are happy they are not health care workers in that Dallas hospital. Unfortunately, it looks like at least one of the nurses caring for the initial victim is testing positive for the disease, and dozens more workers who had direct and indirect contact with the infected individual are being quarantined and monitored for the next couple of weeks. The chance of contracting a virus that is killing more than half of its victims in Western Africa is a high price for anyone to pay for choosing a career in medicine, but that is the risk they assumed when they took the job, right? Not exactly.

While health care workers are used to dealing with all kinds of sicknesses and gore, some things simply fall outside the norm. Expecting emergency room nurses or doctors to be well-versed in caring for highly unusual maladies, such as heavy radiation exposure, exotic poisons and toxins, or pandemic-level diseases previously confined to other continents is unreasonable, if not impossible. Thus, it was not surprising to see the head of the nation’s largest nurses’ union blast the Centers for Disease Control for appearing to blame the now-infected nurse’s own breach of safety protocol for her exposure to the Ebola virus.

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In Johnny Cash’s One Piece at a Time, the singer tells the story of an assembly line worker who longs for one of the cars he spends his days building. Instead of pinching pennies, he devises a plan to acquire that car little by little. With an over-sized lunchbox and some help from friends, the worker smuggles home pieces every day over the course of a couple of decades. By retirement, he ends up with a Frankenstein of an automobile whose many components required the entire courthouse staff to register and results in a title weighing sixty pounds.

The dream of a “psycho-billy Cadillac” may be a little far-fetched, but internal theft by employees remains a real concern for companies, particularly retail stores and other business that sell or warehouse popular, pricey, or scarce consumer products. To combat the threat, many businesses subject employees and their belongings to screenings for stolen items at the end of their shifts. In environments like large department stores, where shifts are staggered and the searches might take only a minute or two, the delay may be inconvenient at times, but it would be tough to argue that it’s overly burdensome.

On the other hand, there are facilities doing these kinds of checks with dozens, if not hundreds, of workers whose shifts begin and end together. As anyone who’s been though a TSA line at an airport can understand, funneling that many people through checkpoints is not a quick endeavor. Instead of a two-minute delay, people at the back of the line might be waiting 20 minutes or more after their shift ends just to leave the building. Should they be compensated for that time?

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By looking at the uniforms and the trucks and scanners and just about everything else associated with any FedEx delivery driver, it’s more than reasonable that one would naturally assume they’re part of a massive payroll consisting of tens of thousands of employees for the Tennessee-based corporation. FedEx, however, would tell you that assumption is wrong. Instead, the company has a lengthy history of using independent contractors with dedicated routes to deliver its packages around the country.

Outfitted with FedEx logos, uniforms, and operating systems, it’s easy to see why a layperson might confuse the independent contractors for employees, and now courts around the country are beginning to agree. Fueled primarily by a string of class action labor lawsuits brought by FedEx drivers, state and federal courts have been thrust into deciding whether those drivers can proceed on claims reserved for employee-employer relationships. Last month, a pair of decisions from the Ninth Circuit appeals court found that, at least in California and Oregon, those drivers are actually employees of FedEx.

Spurred by claims for unpaid overtime and employment expenses as well as Family and Medical Leave Act violations, among other things, the first hurdle for the hundreds of drivers represented by the class action was to prove themselves eligible to recover on those bases. Doing so meant demonstrating that their arrangement with FedEx fell under the purview of employment. In a previous blog post, we discussed some of the basics of what distinguishes independent contractor status, but the Ninth Circuit went into great depth as it picked apart the many factors that demonstrated how little “independence” these drivers actually have.

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As the first American set to orbit Earth sat in a tiny capsule atop a giant rocket in February 1962, fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter wished him good luck with a succinct, “Godspeed, John Glenn.” Moments before, however, Carpenter was cutting the tension with a line that immediately became part of the Apollo Program’s lore and lexicon: “Remember, John, this was built by the low bidder.”

While very few endeavors will have the gravity of cobbling together millions of parts to build a missile capable of putting a human into space, there are plenty of reasons to wonder if we are getting what we paid for when we go as cheap as possible. There is, of course, the suspicion that lower prices may lead to cutting corners that will be reflected in the quality of materials and even the level of care in craftsmanship. But what if that low bid came at the expense of labor laws and undermined the economic health of a community?

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If you’ve been thinking that you’re probably not getting paid what you’re worth, a new report from the Economic Policy Institute might make you feel validated…or even more frustrated. According to the report, 70% of the US workforce’s inflation-adjusted wages are lower than they were in 2007, with declines in wages at every pay level except the bottom 10% from mid-2013 to mid-2014.

Perhaps the number that will stick out most to middle-class earners (those between the 20th and 80th percentiles) is $18,000. This is the amount of additional annual income the middle-class would have seen in 2007 if wage inequality hadn’t risen between 1979 and 2007. That means the average middle-class household in 2007 should have brought in more than $94,000 instead of the $76,451 it did.

Missing out on almost $20,000 they deserve is enough to make most people seethe, but it actually gets worse once the disparity in the increase of income at various levels is factored in. The average increase between 1979 and 2007 of 53.4% seems like a promising sign until a closer look shows how disproportionate the numbers are. Incomes in the bottom fifth increased by less than 30%, and those in the middle fifth fared even worse with an increase of less than 20%. Even those in the 80-90% range only saw an increase of 39%.

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A fairly common trick many law school professors like to play on new students is to hand them a pretty lengthy agreement of some sort and ask that they sign and date it. Most everyone complies and hands them back in within a matter of seconds. A handful of stragglers takes their time and hands theirs in after a minute or so. It’s at that point the professor will congratulate the slower group and admonish the early birds for skimming or even ignoring the contents of the agreement. Sometimes the text explicitly says something like “don’t sign this” or “hand it in face down” just to see whether anyone’s paying attention.

The point of the exercise is to make it clear to people on their path to being lawyers that they should never again sign anything without reading and understanding the agreement. Being constantly bombarded with contracts, whether it’s leases or mobile phone agreements or even the terms of service for iTunes, it’s hardly uncommon to skip the slew of boilerplate language and just sign or click to save time and get on with life. But the law professors want the students to realize it’s now their duty to peruse all those clunky words, and there’s no reason the same rule shouldn’t apply to everyone, since making sure you know what you’re getting into ultimately is for your own protection. As a recent case from the Georgia Court of Appeals shows, it’s sometimes to your benefit, too.

In July, the Court of Appeals reminded us that it always pays to cross one’s Ts and dot their Is. The case of MAPEI Corporation vs. Prosser was a battle over which employment contract was binding when the employee was given two separate agreements on different dates with different terms. At first, anyone who’s dealt with employment contracts might guess that they know where this story is going, since the employee usually has little input or influence on the company’s standard terms, making the contract less of an evenly-negotiated agreement than it is an edict of “here’s how it’s going to be if you want to work for us.” This time, however, the contract-happy company didn’t come out the victor.

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