Protect Employees

Five policies to protect employees you can introduce today

In this economic downturn, now in its fifth year, job applicants and employees are extremely vulnerable to unfair tactics by employers. If an employer demands that workers turn over their Facebook passwords, for example, what’s a frightened employee to do? It is our job as progressives to stand up for workers and job seekers by enacting legislation that protects them.

For a PDF copy of Progressive Agenda—Five Policies to Protect Employees, click here.

We’ve previously written about some well-known employee protections, including raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing the right to paid sick leave. Here are five lesser-known worker protection measures that you should consider supporting in your state:

#1 Social Network Privacy

More than half of Americans use Facebook or another social network website. In recent years, employers have begun to demand that job applicants and/or employees give them their usernames and passwords—or sometimes to “friend” the employer. Corporations defend this tactic by arguing they need to ensure that employees aren’t giving away trade secrets online. This is a really flimsy excuse to violate workers’ privacy.

Beginning in 2012, state legislators started to introduce bills to prevent employers from requesting access to employees’ personal social network accounts. The National Conference of State Legislatures tracks this legislation, here. (Somewhat similar legislation bans colleges from demanding such access.)

So far, different versions of this legislation have been enacted in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

What you can do:

  • Sponsor or support social network privacy legislation, like this model, in your state legislature.
  • Most localities are not empowered to legislate the behavior of private employers, but cities and counties should pass legislation to prohibit this practice by the government and its contractors.

#2 Ban the Box

After the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, an increasing number of federal, state and local governments required employees and contractors to submit to criminal background checks. In recent years, private employers have also demanded criminal history checks of both job applicants and existing employees. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) has estimated that 65 million Americans—or one in four adults—have a criminal record that may show up on a routine background check.

Because people of color are disproportionately affected, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued an Enforcement Guidance on the use of arrest and conviction records in employment which recommends as a “best practice . . . that employers not ask about convictions on job applications and that, if and when they make such inquiries, the inquiries be limited to convictions for which exclusion would be job related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity.”

A number of jurisdictions have passed legislation to remove conviction history questions from job applications—a measure commonly known as “ban the box.” Generally, “ban the box” laws allow employers to inquire about an applicant’s criminal history some time after the initial job application. Laws in Hawaii, Massachusetts and Minnesota apply to private employers. Laws in other places like California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington only apply to applicants for government jobs.

What you can do:

#3 Credit Checks

Nearly half of employers now require job applicants to consent to a credit check. And yet, credit checks are not designed as an employment screening tool and there is no research that suggests people with poor credit reports become poor employees.

There are many reasons why Americans might have bad credit scores. Often it’s because of an injury or illness that caused a lot of bills. In recent years, many small businesses owners compiled bad credit scores because of the effects of the financial downturn. And sometimes bad credit was caused by identity theft or simple reporting mistakes that remain in the records of one of the credit bureaus.

In addition, the practice discriminates against individuals who don’t have affluent families who can bail them out of debt. That’s why states have enacted laws to forbid employers from conducting background checks on job applicants: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. The city of Chicago has a similar law.

What you can do:

  • Sponsor or support legislation to ban employee credit checks in your state, like this model, or forbid your local jurisdiction from requiring credit checks.
  • Use this comprehensive report from Demos to argue for such legislation.

#4 Child Educational Activities

In nearly two-thirds of families with children, all the parents in the household are employed. Working parents struggle to do what’s right for their children, and our communities have a strong interest in making sure that parents are able to be there for kids.

Depending on their children’s grade level, parents may be expected to participate in conferences with teachers, counselors or administrators, attend PTA meetings, class parties, assemblies and extracurricular activities. In many cases, there is no practical way to attend without at least being able to leave work a bit early. No federal law requires an employer to allow leave for a child’s educational activities.

Parental involvement in a child’s education is one of the most important factors in determining academic success. Yet, many parents, particularly low-income parents, risk losing their jobs or suffering professionally if they take time off to attend a parent-teacher conference or other school function.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia now require employers to allow some leave to participate in school events. They are: California, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Vermont.

What you can do:

#5 Wage Theft

Wage theft is an epidemic among low-wage workers. One study found that more than two-thirds experienced at least one pay-related violation in their previous work week, including a quarter of workers who were paid less than the minimum wage, and three-quarters who were not paid overtime wages owed to them.

Obviously, the consequences of wage theft on low-wage workers are tremendous. It leads to poverty and homelessness for both workers and their families. And also obviously, it’s probably already illegal. But low-wage workers are least able to enforce their legal rights. They don’t have the knowledge or resources to obtain legal help, and they fear retaliation if they try.

The victims need lawmakers to enact new legislation with tougher penalties against wage theft. Even more important, new laws must create realistic enforcement mechanisms so workers will have both the incentive to report wage theft and confidence that the system will protect them. California, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Washington have fairly comprehensive state wage theft laws. Miami, San Francisco and Seattle are some of the cities with their own strong wage theft ordinances.

What you can do:

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For much more discussion of how to talk to voters about a wide variety of issues, see our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, which is available at www.progressivemajorityaction.org.

For regular tracking of progressive and conservative legislation at the state and local levels, see www.publicleadershipinstitute.org.

For a one-stop web-based public library of progressive state and local laws and model legislation, see www.alicelaw.org.


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