This admonition was spurred by a misleading article and headline that I was e-mailed by Watchdog.org recently. The article was meant to spur outrage that a teacher who was alleged to have been drunk on the job but was allowed to get unemployment benefits in Iowa.
To Watchdog.org’s credit, they did include a copy of the actual decision. Just like in Nebraska, Iowa puts the burden of proof on an employer to prove wrongful termination. The district in exurban Des Moines never sent a representative to the hearing. The school district did not follow Iowa law in testing the teacher for drugs and alcohol. Neb. Rev. Stat. 1901-1910 lays out similar requirements under Nebraska law. Few people point out that if this teacher was such a bad employee, then maybe the school district could have spent a few hours proving their case or that they should have followed clear rules about drug and alcohol testing.
But of course, most people never get beyond the headline or the sound bite. The goal is to gin up outrage among “just regular folks” about people “milking the system” in order to get them to elect officials who will promote “personal responsibility” and “accountability.” Responsibility and accountability never seem to apply to management the same way they apply to employees.
Ginning up outrage about drunken teachers distracts from the war against workers and their allies in Nebraska and in Iowa and across the country. Fortunately, places like Iowa and Nebraska still have decent laws for employees and also have advocates who are willing and able to stand up for those laws. Regular folks in Iowa need to look at who is really trying to harm their interests on the job, and act accordingly in November. The same goes for those of us on the western bank of the Missouri River. This fall, Iowans and Nebraskans need to look beneath the carefully constructed, “regular guy” images of Terry Branstad and Pete Ricketts, and find out where they really stand, and vote accordingly.
When a prospective client calls in with a potential employment discrimination question, one of the questions I always ask is, “What city or town do you work in?” The reason I ask this question is because many larger cities in the states where we practice, such as Omaha, Lincoln and Des Moines, have separate municipal fair-employment acts that cover more employees than are covered under state or federal law.
State and federal fair-employment statutes generally need at least 15 or 20 employees for an employer to be covered by those laws. However, in Des Moines and Lincoln, an employer only needs to have four employees to be covered under those cities’ human-rights ordinances. In Omaha, an employer only needs six employees to be covered by their fair-employment ordinance.
Also, the City of Omaha explicitly covers sexual orientation under the fair-employment ordinance. Sexual-orientation discrimination is not explicitly prohibited by Nebraska or federal law. It is my belief that sexual-orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination that is already covered under Title VII and the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act. However, my opinions as to what I think the law is and what the law is are two different matters. If you are an Omaha resident who feels you were discriminated against because of your sexual orientation, you would be much more certain to have your claim of discrimination heard on the merits by pursuing a claim under the Omaha Human Rights Ordinance. While I would be willing to filing a sexual-orientation discrimination case under Nebraska law, any potential clients need to know that such a case would be a test case, and as such, this case would be under tremendous scrutiny from judges.
The drawback to filing discrimination cases under the Lincoln and Omaha municipal ordinances is that there is less opportunity for monetary award if you are successful in winning your case than you would have under state or federal law. However, some remedy for your discrimination is better than no remedy for your discrimination.
Low and middle income people are the last people to benefit from any economic recovery. For many economic recovery means a return to work the opportunity to put their household finances in order with steady income provided by a job. Unfortunately unpaid debts often mean that employees get garnished or even having to file bankruptcy.
Title VII and most state anti-discrimination laws state that a failure to hire based on certain protected categories is unlawful activity.
Finally in any discrimination claim, the employer needs to be aware of your protected status. In a bankruptcy discrimination case this means that your employer had to have known about your bankruptcy status prior to firing you. Some employees get fired because employer doesn’t want to deal with a garnishment. Most people, me included, think that such an action is wrong or unfair. But unless your employer knows that garnishment is linked to your bankruptcy status, then firing you based on that garnishment is legal – unless the garnishment is a cover or pre-text for another unlawful reason.
I would encourage anyone reading this post to contact their U.S. Senator or Congressperson and ask them to change the bankruptcy discrimination statute to mirror other federal anti-discrimination laws such as Title VII.
Assuming you do not have an employment contract, you can only claim wrongful termination if the firing was motivated by certain unlawful reasons. Unlawful reasons include discrimination based on sex or gender – this includes sexual harassment and pregnancy – as well as race, religion, nationality and disability. In certain places and in certain situations, sexual orientation discrimination can also be unlawful. Disability in this context will often mean any serious or chronic health condition you have. Disability discrimination can also mean that you are taking care of someone with a disability.
You also cannot be discriminated against by your employer for certain activities on the job. This is commonly referred to as retaliation. One of these activities is taking extended leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for your own or for a loved one’s medical condition. Other common protected activities include opposing unlawful discrimination; filing a safety complaint; filing a workers’ compensation complaint; complaining of pay practices; or complaining about other illegal activities. If you are a government employee, you might also have some claims based on constitutional law.
Sometimes insurance companies do the right thing in workers’ compensation claims but medical offices don’t. A prime example of this is overly aggressive billing for medical services.
Under Nebraska law, an employer may only charge a certain amount for medical care covered by workers’ compensation care. Most importantly, the injured worker should pay nothing for medical care if it is covered by workers’ compensation. In Nebraska, workers’ compensation generally pays doctors a higher rate than private insurance.
The problem is that sometimes clinics will try to collect the balance from injured workers under the assumption that workers’ compensation works like private health insurance. Injured workers who get their care paid for by workers’ comp aren’t subject to deductibles or co-pays.
Sometimes clinics just make stupid mistakes. I recently had a client who was billed by a surgical office for the expense of the employer’s lawyer meeting with the surgeon. Today, I had a client who was being flat out doubled billed.
Oftentimes, financial problems related to workers’ compensation injuries stem from an employee not getting loss-of-income benefits while they are healing. I defended a collection action for a client who was forced to use his wife’s health insurance to pay medical bills for his workers’ compensation-related medical bills. Having the ability to successfully prosecute a workers’ compensation case can relieve those financial pressures in some circumstances.
OSHA’s recent decision to allow employees to file whistleblower cases online has led to a large increase in filings and has added more delay to claims that were already backlogged before online filing. According to OSHA investigators, this increase in filings hasn’t been met with a proportionate increase in staff. One investigator estimated it takes over 400 days for OSHA to conclude investigating claims.
The delay created by the backlog hurts investigations for many reasons. Witnesses become unavailable, and recollections of events change. Unscrupulous employers also can use the delay to hide or destroy documents and intimidate witnesses.
Of course, employees who feel they have been retaliated against oftentimes have the option of filing a state or local fair employment agency claim on the basis of retaliation. Employees might also have the option of filing for retaliatory discharge without filing a fair-employment claim, as is oftentimes the case if they are fired for filing workers’ compensation. However, this summer the U.S. Supreme Court likely made many types of retaliation cases more difficult to win with their decision in the Nasser case. The court ruled in Nasser that employees claiming retaliation cases under federal Title VII must prove that exercising their rights under Title VII was a “but for” cause of their termination.
But under whistleblower lawsunder OSHA – such as the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), which protects interstate truckers, and Dodd-Frank, which protects workers in the financial services industry – an employee must only show that their report of illegal conduct was a contributing factor to their termination.
In the case of Jacobitz v. Aurora Cooperative, the employer disputed that Jacobitz was even hurt at work. The workers’ compensation court agreed to a hearing solely on the issue of whether Jacobitz was hurt at work. If the court agreed that Jacobitz was hurt at work, then the court was to schedule a trial on his entitlement to benefits. The workers’ compensation court agreed that Jacobitz was hurt at work, but the employer appealed the decision that Jacobitz was injured at work.
The Nebraska Supreme Court dismissed the appeal without getting to the substance of the employer’s appeal. The court’s reason for doing so was that allowing the employer to appeal solely on the issue of liability unfairly delayed payment of benefits to injured workers. In essence, the employer could appeal the issue of liability, and they could appeal the issue of benefits as well. Meanwhile, the employee isn’t receiving any workers’ compensation benefits during the appeals process.
Jacobitz was a good decision for Nebraska employees.
At-will employees are usually at the mercy of their employer. This is often painfully apparent during the holidays when employees are forced to work on Christmas. But since Christmas is a religious holiday, employees can invoke federal and state anti-discrimination laws under certain circumstances in order to celebrate Christmas. Here are the two steps to avoid being fired for celebrating Christmas:
Your employer must know about your religious belief.
However, you can still get fired for not working on Christmas if your employer can show that they had an undue burden in accommodating your request for time off to celebrate Christmas. Notice and accommodation go hand-in-hand. An employee will have a difficult time trying to show religious discrimination if they tell their boss on Dec. 23 that they can’t work their scheduled shift on Christmas Eve.
Letting a boss know well ahead of time about the need for leave on Christmas or any other religious holiday is the best thing an employee can do in order to practice their religious beliefs while maintaining their employment.