Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Secret civil justice undermines employee rights

Pintera Studios
A story investigated by ProPublica and featured on Planet Money highlights the problem of secret justice in perpetuating the willful abuse of at-home gig workers.

I expected that "Call Center Call Out," reported by Planet Money's Amanda Aronczyk and ProPublica's Ariana Tobin, Ken Armstrong, and Justin Elliott, based on the ProPublica story, would be a sad and frustrating tale of work-from-home gig economy labor being exploited, principally by the misclassification of employees as independent contractors to reap savings in compensation, work conditions, and employee benefits.

Turns out, there is even worse dissimulation afoot.  And there are worrisome implications for the health of the civil justice system.

To work these call-center jobs, for intermediary contractors such as Arise Virtual Solutions, the not-quite-employees are compelled to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), arbitration agreements, and class action waivers.  These all are enforceable, even when the workers do not fully understand their implications.

When a worker has the temerity to commence arbitration proceedings, challenging misclassification as an independent contractor, the worker wins.  In one example in the story, a worker easily qualified as an employee under the labor test applied by the arbiter.  A worker can win thousands of dollars in reimbursement of expenses—they have to pay out-of-pocket for the privilege of their training and then buy their own computers and telecomm equipment—and back wages to bring their compensation history up to minimum wage.  

But here's the rub: the workers already are bound by their NDAs, and the arbitration is secret, too.  So there is no public record of the misdeeds of the employer.  The arbitration-winning complainant cannot even tell other mistreated workers that their labor rights are being violated.

According to the reporters, the secret justice system of arbitration is actually part of the business model for enterprises such as Arise.  They can pay liability to a small percentage of workers while willfully exploiting most others.  Because of the NDAs, arbitration clauses, and, most importantly, class action waivers, a lawyer said in the program, she can fight this abuse only behind a veil of secrecy, one case at a time, amounting to thousands of cases, even though every case is winnable on precisely the same analysis.

There's a classic scene from Fight Club (1999) when the Narrator (Ed Norton) is telling an airliner seatmate about his car company's "formula" for issuing a recall only when it's cost effective, regardless of the cost of human life.  (Think GM ignition switch recall.)

"Which car company do you work for?" the seatmate asks.

The Narrator pauses, staring her in the eyes.  Then, nodding knowingly, he answers,

"A major one."

So what companies use these call centers to take advantage of the cheap and ill-begotten labor forces organized by companies such as Arise?

Major ones.  Ones you've talked to.

Have a magical day.

 

The stories are Amanda Aronczyk & Ariana Tobin, Call Center Call Out, Planet Money, Oct. 2, 2020; and Ken Armstrong, Justin Elliott, & Ariana Tobin, Meet the Customer Service Reps for Disney and Airbnb Who Have to Pay to Talk to You, ProPublica, Oct. 2, 2020.


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