Two NWJP clients recently resolved their case against a food processing facility in the Willamette Valley. Juana and Lena* both worked for over a decade preparing food and checking its quality at this processor. By accident, they became aware of a secret and improper relationship between a government safety inspector and a lead quality assurance worker at their plant. When they reported the relationship to their employer, due to their concern that the quality of the food produced could be impacted by the relationship, one worker was fired and the other felt forced to quit. These women fought their terminations in state court, resolving the litigation and bringing about positive workplace changes through their efforts.
NWJP believes strongly in the rights of workers to act as whistleblowers and to be free from retaliation for doing what they believe is right!
NWJP is part of a powerful coalition working to pass a major piece of legislation in Salem this session. Alongside the Working Families Party, the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, the Oregon Trial Lawyers’ Association, Service Employees International Union Locals 49 and 503, and the AFL-CIO, and other members of the Coalition to Stop Wage Theft, NWJP is working hard to pass the Oregon Corporate Accountability Act (OCAA).
Working families have won important victories on a range of workplace rights in the past five years: a dramatic increase to the minimum wage, paid sick leave, fair scheduling and equal pay guarantees. However, these victories need to be meaningfully enforced if workers are to benefit from them, and that is where OCAA comes in.
How Does it Work? The Oregon Corporate Accountability Act will deputize whistleblowers who identify violations to bring cases on behalf of the state. Briefly, the process goes like this:
- A worker files a complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries. Whistleblowers who fear retaliation can also authorize a nonprofit community organization to file the complaint.
- BOLI decides whether to bring an action or let the whistleblower manage the suit on the state’s behalf. If the whistleblower proceeds, the state continues to oversee the litigation.
- If a judge finds that the company broke the law, the company is ordered to pay penalties based on the number of impacted workers – so, small businesses will pay small fines and multinational corporations will pay large ones.
- Most of the penalty revenue goes to the state, with a portion rewarding the whistleblowers. The state can use the revenue to hire more investigators, invest in technology to streamline enforcement, or partner with community organizations to educate consumers and workers about their rights and identify violations.
We are happy to report that OCAA was voted out of the Senate Workforce committee this week, clearing its first major hurdle.
OCAA is a bill about enforcing our worker protection laws, and on advocacy day this year, we will share stories of under-enforcement and encourage our elected leaders to pass this important bill. We will have a training and orientation before any meetings take place, so don't worry if you haven't done this sort of thing before. Now is the time to get involved! Please RSVP by filling out this form.
We will be advocating together from 10 AM to 3 PM at the State Capitol on April 23rd. Lunch is provided. Please reach out to Kate Suisman at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 503-525-8454 with questions. We look forward to seeing you there.
Two cable installers who had worked for Cable Communications, Inc. (CCI) brought claims for overtime wages for hours in excess of forty hours in a week. One of the workers had refused to work on Saturdays if he wasn’t paid overtime for this work and was fired as a result. CCI had a complicated bonus plan that reduced the installers’ bonus when they worked more than forty hours in a week so that installers received little or no extra pay for overtime hours. The workers claimed that the bonus plan violated federal overtime law, and that CCI’s firing of the worker in response to his objections to the plan violated Oregon’s whistle-blower statute.
The federal district court dismissed these claims, holding that the bonus scheme was not covered by federal overtime law, and that, to be protected as a whistle-blower, a worker would have had to complain to someone outside the company, not just to supervisors, as happened here.
NWJP worked with the workers’ private attorneys to bring an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court recently published its opinion in favor of the workers on both points. It held that CCI’s bonus plan violated the federal overtime law, since it frustrated to purposes of the law to make long work weeks more expensive and to reward workers for extra-long work weeks. Further, analyzing the legislative history of Oregon’s whistle-blower statute (which NWJP had advocated with the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association), the court concluded that the legislature had intended also to protect workers whose only complaint was internal to their employer’s company.
Interestingly, some of the testimony upon which the court relied was given by our own paralegal, Patricia Laguna, when she had been an NWJP client, talking about her own work situation. Thanks, Pati.
by Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, NWJP Deputy Director
Photo by Julia Freeman-Wolpert via Freeimages.com
NWJP recently joined an important appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to protect two important rights: that of cable installers to earn overtime and that of private employees to protection under the state's whistleblower law.
Matteo Brunozzi worked for Cable Communications, Inc. (CCI) installing cable television and internet services for Comcast. CCI had a complicated piece rate and bonus scheme. Attempting to avoid overtime liability, CCI gave its employees a bonus that was reduced if they did not finish their assigned installations within the 40-hour work week. But because not finishing installations wasn't an option, the more Brunozzi worked, the more his bonus was reduced. This left him with essentially the same weekly pay whether he worked 40, 45 or 47 hours a week. When Brunozzi complained internally about the pay structure and what he believed was a violation of overtime law, he was fired.
Appealing a federal district court decision, NWJP is arguing -- with co-counsels David Schuck, Leslie Baze, and Phil Goldsmith -- that CCI cannot deprive workers of overtime wages through complex bonus calculations.
In addition, and perhaps with broader applicability, counsel is arguing that an internal complaint to a private employer should fall under the protection of Oregon’s whistleblower retaliation law.
The federal district court originally found that, while Mr. Brunozzi did report the overtime violation to his supervisors, it was not enough to invoke protections from retaliation. This interpretation could clearly take the teeth out of the statute and end up intimidating employees from making wage complaints.
We'll report the outcome of this case in future eNews so stay tuned!