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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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Much as single days celebrating mothers and fathers seem to fall short of fully acknowledging everything they do for their families, a lone Monday off in honor of America’s hard workers is far from all the reward they deserve. Of course, that shortfall is unfortunately what keeps employment law attorneys busy the other 364 days of the year. Instead of focusing on all that needs fixing to help ensure workers’ rights, however, today is a good day to reflect on some of the biggest labor wins of the past century.

By any objective standard, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 should be near the top of victories for the working class. After decades of failed efforts to right wrongs that included excessive child labor, six-day work weeks of 10 or more hours a day, and unlivable wages, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress engaged in years of back-and-forth negotiations to finally arrive at a bill that banned oppressive child labor, capped the work week at 44 hours, and set a minimum wage of 25 cents an hour–about $3.32 in 2014 dollars. (A detailed and compelling history of the FLSA can be found on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.) While the FLSA couldn’t begin to solve all the ills faced by the labor force, and it didn’t achieve the 40-hour week or 40-cents-an-hour minimum wage that many had pushed, it cemented a huge win for workers’ rights.

Almost 80 years later, conditions for workers have generally improved. Still, access to fair, livable wages continues to dominate much of the conversation about what the labor force needs, with President Obama and labor unions using today to further their efforts to increase the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $10.10. So far, opponents have stalled any national movement on the issue, but several states and municipalities have already enacted higher minimum wages, with Seattle going so far as to raise it to $15 per hour.

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stockvault-hamburgers141793“McJobs” may soon come with a side of leverage for workers who find themselves the victims of labor law violations. In a surprising move, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month permitted regional directors to name McDonald’s Corp. as a joint employer along with its franchisees in several pending actions. This marks a major shift to the traditional liability issues in the franchise world, where franchisees are essentially independent contractors who pay royalties to use the systems and products of the parent company, but are solely liable for any labor law violations against their W-2 employees. While this move doesn’t carry the binding power of a ruling, the potential changes it brings caught plenty of attention from the franchise world.

Under this new model, the parent company could share in the responsibility for unlawful labor practices by their franchisees. Lawyers on the corporate sides argue that such responsibility for oversight of what could be tens of thousands of franchisees would be impractical if not impossible. Workers’ and labor groups, on the other hand, point out that the parent companies already exercise a great deal of influence and control in micromanaging almost every other aspect of the businesses, from stock to procedures to store design to intellectual property and advertising. Such strict control of day-to-day operations, they say, voids any industry arguments that ensuring franchisees adhere to labor standards would require extraordinary efforts.

The move by the NLRB goes beyond McDonald’s, fast food, or even restaurants in general and could affect all kinds of retail stores and service providers who operate on the the franchise system. Adding a layer of responsibility to the franchisor-franchisee relationship would come at some financial cost to the corporate home offices, even as the franchise establishment market continues to grow. Naturally, there’s been a collective freak-out by industries and companies around the country. The recurring speculative concern is that a corporate parent ensuring basic labor laws are followed at their franchises will somehow have a negative effect on job creation.

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After disappearing from his website earlier this month, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s executive orders are back online. Among the routine list of dozens of appointees to various boards and commissions, many had hoped to see the long-rumored “ban-the-box” order that would help remove employment barriers for convicted criminals who have served their time. Unfortunately for those hoping for the change, it looks like the wait will be a little longer. The good news for them, however, is that a growing movement of both public and private employers across the country is pushing to eliminate a major hurdle for many people trying to re-enter the workforce.

Anyone who’s filled out an employment application has encountered the question “Have you ever been convicted of a felony (or crime)?” Check the ‘NO’ box and the application gets judged on other merits. But check the ‘YES’ box and, in most situations, the further explanation had better be compelling to hold the hiring manager’s attention, that is if they haven’t already decided to pass on the applicant. The ban-the-box movement sees this question as unnecessarily prejudicial, effectively making convicted felons unemployable long after they’ve paid their debts to society.

Back in the spring, Governor Deal said the details were being worked out for an executive order to ban the box from applications for state jobs. This would make the State of Georgia the latest in a substantial list of employers who have broken down the barrier, like Target, Walmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond–as well as more than 60 cities and counties across the nation, including Atlanta and Memphis. Of course, masked in this movement is that, at its core, ban-the-box is as much about fair hiring practices as it is about helping to reduce crime, since Bureau of Justice statistics show two-thirds of released prisoners will be arrested for another crime within three years, and three-quarters will be re-arrested within five years. The ban-the-box notion is straightforward. If former convicts can’t find work, they’ll have little choice but to revert to criminal activity, so let’s give them a chance to go straight.

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school-bus-red-light-655548-mRecently, a federal court in Georgia ruled in favor of the employer in a case of racial and gender discrimination involving a white male employee.

In Tyler v. Muscogee County School District, Edward Tyler was a white male bus driver for the Muscogee County School District who ended up being passed over twice for promotions that were instead given to a black female and a white female, respectively.  Tyler believed that he was not given a promotion due to his race and gender, and he eventually filed a lawsuit pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The School District filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that Tyler had not produced enough evidence to show that its decision was based on discrimination.

The court looked at the facts to see if Tyler had established a dispute of fact as to whether his employer discriminated against him.  Tyler had been employed as a bus driver for the School District since 1976 and had a flawless driving record, with no reported accidents throughout his 38-year career.  Tyler had a bachelors degree in business management from an online institution and had trained other School District drivers prior to the requirement that trainers be certified.  In January and October 2012, Tyler applied for two positions that would have promoted him.  The School District claimed that it chose other candidates for those positions based purely on their qualifications.  To evaluate candidates for promotion, the School District would appoint a panel to interview the candidates, which then completed a written evaluation form that included assigning points in different categories relating to the position’s job duties.  Although points were figured into the final decision, they were not the only important factor.  The panel claimed to look at the totality of circumstances.  Based on that, the panel made a recommendation to the Transportation Director, who might then affirm the panel’s decision and forward it to the School District’s Chief Operations Officer, the Superintendent, and the Human Resources Department.  Finally, the recommendation would be sent to the School Board for final approval.

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kids-at-play-1152328-mRecently, a federal court in Georgia granted a motion to dismiss a case involving wrongful termination and violations of the Equal Protection Clause, among other claims.

In Fareed v. Cobb County School District, Inc., Gary Fahreed worked as a school patrol officer for the Cobb County Public Safety Department from October 2012 until May 2013.  When the students left for summer break, Fahreed assumed that he would resume his position after the next school year began.  Instead, Fahreed was informed that his position had been moved from the Public Safety Department to the Cobb County School District.  Fahreed was given instructions to complete an application and told by human resources for Cobb County School District to report on August 13, 2012 to complete the paperwork.  Then, on August 9, the human resources department told Fahreed to not report to work until Fahreed had contacted them.  On August 12, the human resources department instructed Fahreed to check with his supervisors before reporting to work.  Later that day, human resources told Fahreed that he was disqualified from the position due to possessing a criminal background.  Fahreed claimed that he had revealed his criminal conviction not only in the application, but also to his former employers.

Fahreed filed an action in court alleging intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, wrongful termination, and violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The defendant, Cobb County School District, filed a motion to dismiss under 12(b)(6), failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

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work-on-train-924824-mA district court in Tennessee has permitted some claims in a sexual harassment suit to move forward after one male employee accused a male coworker of inappropriate behavior.

In Smith v. Rock-TENN Services, Inc., Jeffrey Smith worked for Rock-Tenn Services, Inc., a box and packaging materials manufacturer from August 2010 until the end of September 2011.  Around the beginning of 2011, Smith claimed that a male coworker, James Leonard, slapped him on the rear during a shift.  In accordance with the company’s sexual harassment policy, Smith first informed Leonard that he did not want Leonard touching him.  A few days later, Leonard allegedly grabbed Smith “in the crack of his butt,” hard enough that his rear was irritated for two days.  This time, Smith grabbed Leonard by the arm and threatened him, but he did not report either incident to a higher authority.  However, Leonard was eventually placed on a performance improvement plan for “horseplay sexual harassment” after another employee reported him.  Leonard was informed that any further sexual harassment allegations would be grounds for termination.

Nonetheless, in June 2011, Smith claimed that Leonard grabbed him by the hips while he was bent over a machine and thrust his genitals against him.  Smith then grabbed Leonard by the throat and held him for roughly 30 seconds before releasing him.  Smith then reported the incident to his supervisor, as well as to two other supervisors.  One supervisor he informed of all three incidents.  After an investigation was done, the supervisors concluded that Leonard should be terminated.  However, the general manager, who was unaware of all three of Leonard’s actions toward Smith, disagreed and thought that the evidence was only enough to merit a three-day suspension as a final warning.

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watch-1151921-mA federal court in Georgia has granted a motion for summary judgment in a sexual harassment case and entered judgment in favor of the employers.

In Denmark v. RPM, Inc., Tina Denmark, an African American woman, worked for TCI Powder Coatings as a quality control technician through an agency, The Staffing People, Inc., from 2008 until 2009.  During that time, Denmark claimed to have suffered from gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  After she filed her lawsuit against both TCI and The Staffing People, TCI filed a motion for summary judgment. It argued that Denmark failed to satisfy the administrative prerequisite to filing a suit under Title VII, that her claims did not establish a prima facie case for gender discrimination, sexual harassment, or retaliation, and that Denmark failed to meet the burden of raising a dispute as to whether TCI’s reasons for terminating her were just a pretext.

The court examined whether TCI’s claims had merit.  Denmark worked through The Staffing People at TCI’s small batch plant in Ellaville, Georgia, before being promoted to work in the main plant.  Although Denmark’s job duties were assigned by TCI, she was required to execute a checklist before starting her position that acknowledged The Staffing People’s policies and procedures.  Among other things, The Staffing People required Denmark to contact both TCI and The Staffing People if she was ever going to be late for work.  The Staffing People permitted one instance of tardiness and one absence in the first 90-day period and each 90-day period thereafter.  Should Denmark be terminated from TCI, she would also be terminated from The Staffing People.

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