Monday, December 2, 2019
Zach Harned (Stanford student) and Hanna Wallach (Microsoft Research) have just posted on SSRN an interesting article entitled Stretching Human Laws to Apply to Machines: The Dangers of a 'Colorblind' Computer (forthcoming Florida L. Rev.). Here's the abstract:
Automated decision making has become widespread in recent years, largely due to advances in machine learning. As a result of this trend, machine learning systems are increasingly used to make decisions in high-stakes domains, such as employment or university admissions. The weightiness of these decisions has prompted the realization that, like humans, machines must also comply with the law. But human decision-making processes are quite different from automated decision-making processes, which creates a mismatch between laws and the decision makers to which they are intended to apply. In turn, this mismatch can lead to counterproductive outcomes.
We take antidiscrimination laws in employment as a case study, with a particular focus on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A common strategy for mitigating bias in employment decisions is to “blind” human decision makers to the sensitive attributes of the applicants, such as race. The same strategy can also be used in an automated decision-making context by blinding the machine learning system to the race of the applicants (strategy 1). This strategy seems to comply with Title VII, but it does not necessarily mitigate bias because machine learning systems are adroit at using proxies for race if available. An alternative strategy is to not blind the system to race (strategy 2), thereby allowing it to use this information to mitigate bias. However, although preferable from a machine learning perspective, this strategy appears to violate Title VII.
We contend that this conflict between strategies 1 and 2 highlights a broader legal and policy challenge, namely, that laws designed to regulate human behavior may not be appropriate when stretched to apply to machines. Indeed, they may even be detrimental to the very people that they were designed to protect. Although scholars have explored legal arguments in an attempt to press strategy 2 into compliance with Title VII, we believe there lies a middle ground between strategies 1 and 2 that involves partial blinding—that is, blinding the system to race only during deployment and not during training (strategy 3). We present strategy 3 as a “Goldilocks” solution for discrimination in employment decisions (as well as other domains), because it allows for the mitigation of bias while still complying with Title VII. Ultimately, any solution to the general problem of stretching human laws to apply to machines must be sociotechnical in nature, drawing on work in both machine learning and the law. This is borne out in strategy 3, which involves innovative work in machine learning (viz. the development of disparate learning processes) and creative legal analysis (viz. analogizing strategy 3 to legally accepted auditing procedures).
Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Guest Post by Jack Harrison: Oral Argument in Title VII LGBT Cases Offers Few Clues on How SCOTUS Might Rule
Thanks to Jack Harrison (NKU-Chase) this terrific guest post:
Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who worked as a funeral director, began her employment at Harris Funeral Home presenting as male, the sex she to which she was assigned at birth. However, in 2013, Stephens informed her supervisor, Thomas Rost, that she had been diagnosed with a gender identity disorder and that she intended to transition. In response to this disclosure, Rost promptly terminated her. Rost later testified that he terminated Stephens because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man,” and because Rost believed that gender transition “violat[es] God’s commands” because “a person’s sex is an immutable God-given fit.” The EEOC sued on Stephens’ behalf, alleging that the acts of the funeral home constituted unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII.
In EEOC, et. al v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, the district court held that Stephens had been subjected to sex discrimination in violation of Title VII because, consistent with Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, she was subjected to impermissible sex stereotypes. However, the district court then concluded that even though Stephens had been the victim of sex discrimination, the funeral home had a right to terminate her under Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), holding that RFRA protected personal religious beliefs, even when those beliefs resulted in otherwise unlawful sex discrimination.
In 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed this decision. In its decision, the Court of Appeals moved beyond the sex stereotyping rationale of Hopkins, holding that Title VII specifically outlaws employment discrimination against transgender persons.
On Tuesday, October 8, 2019, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Harris Funeral Home, addressing the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination because of sex encompasses a prohibition against discrimination based on gender identity. On the same day, the Court also heard arguments in two other cases, one from the Second Circuit, Altitude Express v. Zarda, and one from the Eleventh Circuit, Bostock v. Clayton County, addressing the issue of whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination because of sex includes a prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Before the Supreme Court, David Cole of the ACLU presented the argument on behalf of Aimee Stephens. In the opening of his argument to the Court, Cole broke the case down into its simplest terms, stating:
Aimee Stephens is a transgender woman. She was a valued employee of Harris Funeral Homes for six years, until she told her boss that she was going to live and identify as a woman.
When Harris Homes responded by firing her, it discriminated against her because of her sex for three reasons. First, in firing her for failing to conform to its owner's explicitly stated stereotypes about how men and women should behave, it discriminated against her in the same way that Price Waterhouse discriminated against Ann Hopkins for failing to walk and talk more femininely. It can't be that Ann Hopkins would lose her case on the same facts were she transgender.
As Cole pointed out in his argument, Stephens was fired for “identifying as a woman only because she was assigned a male sex at birth.” In firing her for this reason, Harris “fired her for contravening a sex-specific expectation that applies only to people assigned male sex at birth; namely, that they live and identify as a man for their entire lives.”
While the Justices focused many questions on the issues of restrooms and athletes, neither of which were before the Court in this case, Justice Gorsuch acknowledged that, on this question, the text of Title VII was “close.” However, Justice Gorsuch raised the following concern:
At the end of the day, should he or she [the judge] take into consideration the massive social upheaval that would be entailed in such a decision, and the possibility that --that Congress didn't think about it.
Yet, as David Cole pointed out in response to Justice Gorsuch, “federal courts of appeals have been recognizing that discrimination against transgender people is sex discrimination for 20 years” and “[t]here's been no upheaval.”
In Zarda and Bostock, argued the same day as Harris Funeral Home, the Court addressed the claims of two men who asserted that they were fired from their jobs because they were gay in violation of Title VII. Donald Zarda (who died in 2014 in a base-jumping accident in Switzerland) had been working as an instructor for a skydiving company now known as Altitude Express, while Gerald Bostock had worked as a child-welfare-services coordinator in Clayton County, Georgia.
In arguing on behalf of the two men, Stanford professor Pamela Karlan also faced a number of questions by the justices regarding restrooms and dress codes, issues that were not before the Court in these cases either. In responding to these questions, Karlan pointed out that Title VII specifically addresses the situation regarding restrooms, with the central question being whether providing same-sex bathrooms denies someone an employment opportunity. As to the issue of dress codes, Karlan indicated that the justices would be forced to address the issue in future cases, no matter how they rule in these cases.
However, the primary issue raised during the oral argument in Zarda and Bostock was whether, in passing Title VII in 1964, Congress intended to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and whether, from a textual interpretive perspective, that mattered at all. As Karlan pointed out, the Supreme Court has recognized many other claims under Title VII that Congress could not have contemplated in 1964, including both opposite-gender and same-gender sexual harassment and claims based on sex stereotyping.
Justice Gorsuch was very active in the Zarda and Bostock oral arguments, challenging arguments by counsel for the employers, Jeffrey Harris, attempting to draw a clear line between definitions of “sex” and “sexual orientation” as the basis for the termination of the employees. For example, Justice Gorsuch pushed Harris on this point:
Your response to Justice Kagan was, I need to focus on sexual orientation because that's the sole or primary causal factor here for the firing.
And I think the response from the other side is: But the statute has a more generous causal formulation, a but-for causal formulation, so perhaps you're right that, at some level, sexual orientation is surely in -- in play here. But isn't sex also in play here because of the change of the first variable? And isn't that enough? It -- you know, the statute talks about a material causal factor or some formulation like that, not the sole cause, not the proximate cause, but a cause. And one –o ne would -- in what -- in what linguistic formulation would one -- would one say that sex, biological gender, has nothing to do with what happened in this case?
Justice Gorsuch returned to this theme during the argument of U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who appeared on behalf of the federal government as a “friend of the court” supporting the employers in this case. When the Solicitor General attempted to draw a line between the meanings of sex and sexual orientation, Gorsuch again responded that at least one contributing cause of the plaintiffs’ firings here does appear to be sex.
In concluding his argument in all three cases, the Solicitor General argued that a ruling for the employees in these cases would ignore the issue of religious objections employers might have to hiring LGBT employees, while, at the same time, greatly expanding the rights of LGBTQ employees. For this reason, among others, the Solicitor General argued that this decision should be left to Congress to resolve.
Following the oral arguments in these cases, it is difficult to predict whether five votes exist for holding that Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination because of sex encompasses sexual orientation and gender identity. Based on the oral argument, it would seem that Justice Gorsuch vote might well be at play, given his acknowledgement that the text of Title VII made this a close call. This confirms the strategic decision by those who submitted briefs and amici on behalf of the employees to focus on the text of Title VII itself.
While many Americans currently believe that federal law prohibits discrimination because of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace, these cases make clear how far from reality that actually is. Currently LGBT employees are largely unprotected from employment discrimination. The protections that do exist are under an unpredictable patchwork of laws and policies, consisting of presidential executive orders, private employer initiatives, city and county ordinances, gubernatorial executive orders, and state legislation. Thus, discrimination in the workforce remains a constant in the lived experience of LGBT persons.
Monday, October 21, 2019
Multinational corporations based in Europe have accelerated their foreign direct investment in the Southern states of the United States in the past quarter-century. Some companies honor workers’ freedom of association, respect workers’ organizing rights and engage in good-faith collective bargaining when workers choose trade union representation. Other firms have interfered with freedom of association, launched aggressive campaigns against employees’ organizing attempts and failed to bargain in good faith when workers choose union representation.
Today, the AFL-CIO is releasing a report by international labor law expert Lance Compa. The report examines European companies’ choices on workers’ rights with documented case studies in several American Southern states. In their home countries, European companies investing in the American South generally respect workers’ organizing and bargaining rights. They commit themselves to International Labor Organization core labor standards, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Guidelines, UN Guiding Principles, the UN Global Compact, and other international norms on freedom of association and collective bargaining. But they do not always live up to these global standards in their Southern U.S. operations.
Case studies on well-known companies like VW, Airbus, IKEA and large but lesser known ones like Fresenius and Skanska provide examples of companies that have followed a lower standard in their operations in the southern states where the region’s legacy of racial injustice and social inequality open the door to a low-road way of doing business. The report also makes clear that companies always have a choice and could choose to respect workers human rights.
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Ifeoma Ajunwa (Cornell I.L.R.) published an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times about the discriminatory use of algorithms in the hiring process. Ifeoma has done a ton of great work on algorithmic discrimination -- it's great that she's taking it to an even wider audience. Here's a brief excerpt:
Algorithms make many important decisions for us, like our creditworthiness, best romantic prospects and whether we are qualified for a job. Employers are increasingly using them during the hiring process out of the belief they’re both more convenient and less biased than humans. However, as I describe in a new paper, this is misguided.
In the past, a job applicant could walk into a clothing store, fill out an application and even hand it straight to the hiring manager. Nowadays, her application must make it through an obstacle course of online hiring algorithms before it might be considered. This is especially true for low-wage and hourly workers.
The situation applies to white-collar jobs too. People applying to be summer interns and first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs have their résumés digitally scanned for keywords that can predict success at the company. And the company has now embraced automated interviewing.
The problem is that automated hiring can create a closed-loop system. Advertisements created by algorithms encourage certain people to send in their résumés. After the résumés have undergone automated culling, a lucky few are hired and then subjected to automated evaluation, the results of which are looped back to establish criteria for future job advertisements and selections. This system operates with no transparency or accountability built in to check that the criteria are fair to all job applicants.
The op-ed is Beware of Automated Hiring.
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Bill Herbert (CUNY - Hunter College) and Jacob Apkarian (CUNY - York College) have just posted on SSRN their empirical article You’ve Been with the Professors: An Examination of Higher Education Work Stoppage Data, Past and Present (forthcoming 23 EREPJ ___ (2019)). Here's the abstract:
This article analyzes work stoppage data in calendar years 2012-2018 involving academic and non-academic employees at higher education institutions. It contextualizes the recent data through a review of the history of unionization and strikes in the field of education along with faculty strike data for the period 1966-1994. The study contributes to the literature concerning unionization and collective bargaining in higher education and will be of value to those who study or are engaged in labor relations at colleges and universities.
We find that there was a total of 42 strikes and one lock-out involving faculty, graduate assistants, and non-academic employees in higher education during the seven-year period from 2012 to 2018. The largest number of strikes per annum was in 2018, which was more than double the number in 2017. Exactly one-half of all strikes during the seven-year period were by non-academic employees, one-third of the strikes by faculty, and one-sixth by graduate assistants. The states with the greatest number of strikes were Illinois, California, and Washington.
Faculty units affiliated solely with AFT participated in 29% of all faculty strikes during the period. An additional 13% of the faculty strikes involved units co-affiliated with AAUP and AFT. AFSCME and UAW played leading roles in strikes involving staff and graduate assistants during the period with AFSCME averaging one strike per year over the period.
There was a total of 14 faculty strikes with an average of 2.0 per year in the period 2012-2018, compared to a total of 172 faculty strikes with an average of 5.9 per year during the period 1966-1994. The average duration of faculty strikes during the 2012-2018 period was 2.9 days with a median of 3 days, as compared to the average strike duration of 13.9 days and median duration of 8.5 days for the period 1966-1994. Non-tenure-track faculty were involved in 93% of all faculty strikes in 2012-2018, seven strikes with tenure-track faculty and six without.
Friday, April 5, 2019
Liz Tippett (Oregon) and Ann Hodges (Richmond, emerita) have each posted on SSRN terrific articles on unrelated labor/employment topics; both have been or will be published in the Employee Rights & Employment Policy Journal. Liz's article is Opportunity Discrimination: A Hidden Liability Employers Can Fix; here's an excerpt from the abstract:
This article applies a model of workplace advancement where big employment decisions — like promotions and pay raises — are influenced in part by the disparate distribution of smaller opportunities over time. These smaller opportunities generally do not qualify as “adverse employment actions” for the purpose of a discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. However, their legal significance has been underestimated. The disparate denial of smaller opportunities has been successfully used as evidence of disparate treatment when plaintiffs are later denied a big opportunity.
This article argues that employers should identify and address disparities at the opportunity level to advance workplace equality. Drawing from social science research on discrimination in school discipline, employers could identify the particular decision points and contextual factors that drive disparities and use that information to address the problem. Such undertakings would also be compatible with existing internal employment structures.
Ann's article is Employee Voice in Arbitration; here's the abstract:
The Supreme Court’s 2018 decision in Epic Systems v. Lewis allows employers to force employees to agree to individual arbitration of any claims against the employer, removing their ability to bring class and collective actions. These unilaterally imposed arbitration agreements deprive employees of any voice in this important term of employment.
If arbitration is to serve its intended function of a mutually agreeable forum to resolve disputes, Congress should require employers who desire to use arbitration to negotiate the terms of the agreement with a representative of their affected employees. Such a requirement would reduce some of the adverse effects of employment arbitration, making it more like labor arbitration, which has functioned as an effective dispute resolution mechanism under collective bargaining agreements for many years.
A negotiation requirement would insure that employees have notice of the arbitration provision and input into its terms. The National Labor Relations Board could use its existing election machinery to facilitate employee choice of representative which could be an individual, a group of employees, an attorney, a labor union, or another workers’ rights organization. In addition to providing employee voice, requiring negotiation would discourage arbitration where the employer’s only goal is to reduce employee rights and might also spur employee participation in the workplace and the community.
Tuesday, April 2, 2019
Online reputation systems enable the providers and consumers of a product or service to rate one another and also allow others to rely upon those reputation scores in deciding whether to engage with a particular provider or consumer. Reputation systems are an intrinsic feature of the platform workplace, in which a platform operator, such as Uber or TaskRabbit, intermediates between the provider of a service and the consumer of that service. Operators typically rely upon consumer ratings of providers in rewarding and penalizing providers. Thus, these reputation systems allow an operator to achieve enormous scale while maintaining quality control and user trust without employing supervisors to manage the vast number of providers who engage consumers on the operator’s platform. At the same time, an increasing number of commentators have expressed concerns that the invidious biases of raters impact these reputation systems.
This Article considers how best to mitigate reputation systems bias in the platform workplace. After reviewing and rejecting both a hands-off approach and the anti-exceptionalism approach to regulation of the platform economy, this Article argues in favor of applying what the author labels a “structural-purposive” analysis to regulation of reputation systems discrimination in the platform workplace. A structural-purposive analysis seeks to ensure that regulation is informed by the goals and structure of the existing workplace regulation scheme but also is consistent with the inherent characteristics of the platform economy. Thus, this approach facilitates the screening out of proposed regulation that would be inimical to the inherent characteristics of the platform economy and aids in the framing of regulatory proposals that would leverage those characteristics. This Article then demonstrates the merits of a structural-purposive approach in the context of a regulatory framework addressing reputation systems discrimination in the platform workplace. Applying this approach, the Article derives several principles that should guide regulatory efforts to ameliorate the prevalence and effects of reputation systems bias in the platform workplace and outlines a proposed regulatory framework grounded in those principles.
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Richard Moberly (Nebraska) has somehow found time from his decanal duties to write and post to SSRN his new article (North Carolina L. Rev.) Confidentiality and Whistleblowing. Here's an excerpt from the abstract:
... [T]the federal government has aggressively courted employees to become whistleblowers. In response, corporations have tried to mitigate potential damage by relying on broad confidentiality provisions to discourage employees from revealing insider information. As a result, uncertainty abounds when the corporate desire for confidentiality clashes with the government’s desire for employees to blow the whistle.
This Article is about the increasing tension between these countervailing trends. Ultimately, the Article concludes that the government’s ability to rely on insiders to monitor organizational behavior by blowing the whistle will depend on its willingness to regulate the ability of an organization to protect its secrets through contract.
Friday, March 22, 2019
Liz Morris (U.C.-Hastings Center for WorkLife Law), Jessica Lee (U.C.-Hastings Center for WorkLife Law), and Joan Williams (U.C.-Hastings) have posted on SSRN their report Exposed: Discrimination Against Breastfeeding Workers. Here's the abstract:
Due to the medical consensus that breastfeeding reduces major health risks to both babies and mothers, the United States is waging an ongoing struggle to improve breastfeeding duration rates. Yet legal protections for breastfeeding parents in the workplace have not kept pace with the U.S.’s public health goals. Based on a review of workplace breastfeeding legal cases from the last decade, an analysis of all federal and state workplace laws protecting breastfeeding workers including coverage statistics, and interviews with women who faced workplace discrimination, this report documents the anemic legal landscape of breastfeeding rights at work. Discrimination against breastfeeding workers often forces them to stop breastfeeding or lose their jobs, at a devastating cost to their families. Almost three-fourths of breastfeeding discrimination cases studied involved economic loss, and nearly two-thirds ended in job loss. The legal tools to prevent and respond to such discrimination are lacking in both efficacy and scope. The report offers policy solutions to fix the gaps in our patchwork of laws to protect breastfeeding workers.
Monday, February 25, 2019
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) administers the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). OSHA specific workplace and health standards do expressly preempt the entire field of workplace safety and health law, but where such standards do not exist or states developed their own OSHA plans, nor does it merely set a floor either. A type of “hybrid federalism” has been established. Here, by “modified” or “hybrid” federalism, this article refers to a strong federal-based field preemption approach to labor and employment law issues, but tied to a conflict preemption approach. Applying this hybrid preemption approach to the employee right to disconnect problem provides the best opportunity to address the growing epidemic of overwork through electronic communications in the United States.
This hybrid approach has two essential characteristics under OSHA. First, as a default standard, a federal general duty clause that requires all covered employers to maintain a workplace free of hazards that may cause serious injury or death and cannot be feasibly abated. Second, OSHA also has promulgated specific workplace safety and health standard over the last five decades that set more detailed and specific requirements for numerous health or safety dangers in the workplace. The specific standards occupy the field and all contrary state or local safety and health regulations are preempted. Yet, employers can still seek a permanent variance from any OSHA standard if they can establish that they have another method to achieve the same goal as the permanent standard. Second, the OSHAct also permits states to develop their own plans and submit them for approval to OSHA. Twenty-seven states have taken advantage of this option to one degree or another and have plans approved by OSHA. While these state-approved plans must be “at least as effective” as the federal OSHAct, some states, like California and Virginia, have been more aggressive in regulation and have regulated areas that the federal OSHAct has not. This Article maintains that a combination of general duty clause federal enforcement and individual state enforcement is the most effective way of providing a broad-based right to disconnect standard until a federal permanent standard can be promulgated.
In a forthcoming book chapter, Charlotte Garden argues similarly that NLRA preemption should be reformed to let state and local governments enact more worker-friendly labor laws.
Friday, February 15, 2019
I normally try to avoid too much self-promotion on the blog, but I wanted to post a new draft article of mine. Hopefully the topic is of interest, but I post it mainly because I'd love comments and thoughts, which you can send me directly (I'm going through the journal submission process now, but still need to work on some things, especially citations). The article is called Future Work and is available on SSRN. The abstract:
The Industrial Revolution. The Digital Age. These revolutions radically altered the workplace and society. We may be on the cusp of a new era—one that will rival or even surpass these historic disruptions. Technology such as artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and cutting-edge monitoring devices are developing at a rapid pace. These technologies have already begun to infiltrate the workplace and will continue to do so at ever increasing speed and breadth.
This Article addresses the impact of these emerging technologies on the workplace of the present and the future. Drawing upon interviews with leading technologists, the Article explains the basics of these technologies, describes their current applications in the workplace, and predicts how they are likely to develop in the future. It then examines the legal and policy issues implicated by the adoption of technology in the workplace—most notably job losses, employee classification, privacy intrusions, discrimination, safety and health, and impacts on disabled workers. These changes will surely strain a workplace regulatory system that is ill-equipped to handle them. What is unclear is whether the strain will be so great that the system breaks, resulting in a new paradigm of work.
Whether or not we are on the brink of a workplace revolution or a more modest evolution, emerging technology will exacerbate the inadequacies of our current workplace laws. This Article discusses possible legislative and judicial reforms designed to ameliorate these problems and stave off the possibility of a collapse that would leave a critical mass of workers without any meaningful protection, power, or voice. The most far-reaching of these options is a proposed “Law of Work” that would address the wide-ranging and interrelated issues posed by these new technologies via a centralized regulatory scheme. This proposal, as well as other more narrowly focused reforms, highlight the major impacts of technology on our workplace laws, underscore both the current and future shortcomings of those laws, and serve as a foundation for further research and discussion on the future of work.
February 15, 2019 in Employment Discrimination, Labor and Employment News, Pension and Benefits, Public Employment Law, Scholarship, Wage & Hour, Worklife Issues, Workplace Safety, Workplace Trends | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, January 18, 2019
The Wall Street Journal reports today that data from the Department of Labor show union density continuing to fall. Total density in 2018 was 10.5%, down from 10.7% in 2017. Density in the public sector fell from 34.4% to 33.9%). Here's a link to the DOL BLS press release with links to the relevant tables; below is an excerpt from the WSJ article:
The overall rate of union membership in the U.S. fell last year, largely reflecting a decline in the rate of state employees’ unionization, according to the latest Labor Department data.
The union membership rate, or the percent of wage and salary workers who were members of unions, dropped to 10.5% in 2018 from 10.7% a year earlier, the Labor Department said Friday.
The decline stems mainly from a decrease in union membership among state employees, whose membership rates fell to 28.6% in 2018 from 30.3% a year earlier.
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
Yes, says Erin McHenry-Sorber (Assistant Professor of Higher Education, West Virginia University -- and thanks to Paul Harpur for sending me the link). Here's an excerpt from her recent article in The Conversation:
The Los Angeles teachers strike suggests that the wave of teacher protests is not over.
Teacher strikes and work stoppages have been preceded by a nationwide teacher shortage that continues to grow across many states, which do not have enough certified math, special education, science, and in increasing cases, elementary teachers – to meet the needs of their students. In California 80 percent of districts reported a teacher shortage in the 2017 to 2018 school year.
Teacher shortages are most often blamed on low teacher pay, one of the commonalities across teacher strikes. These shortages are arguably exacerbated by an increase in the “teacher pay penalty,” the term used to describe disparities in teacher salary compared to professions requiring comparable levels of education.
At the same time teachers find themselves increasingly undervalued, most states are still funding their public education systems at levels below that of the 2008 recession. This includes California, which is ranked 41st nationwide in per pupil spending when adjusted for cost of living. As long as public schools remain underfunded, the nation can expect to see more teacher strikes in other school districts and states in the near future.
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Amazon has long been known as a high-tech Moneyball employer, striving to make data-driven decision when possible. But this week shows that there are limits to that approach. After working since 2014 to develop AI-driven hiring algorithms, Amazon recently abandoned that approach. The reason? The algorithms were biased against women. This is an issue that several folks, including Rick Bales, have been talking about (and is a small part of a larger tech project I'm working on), and isn't a surprise given the dearth of women in the tech industry. This is the classic garbage-in-garbage-out issue. Amazon was training its algorithms based on resumes it has received, and because men disproportionally applied to the company, the algorithms were spitting out decisions that undervalued women; indeed, they were specifically penalizing resumes that included references to women. If Amazon or other companies want to use AI (really Machine Learning) for hiring, they should first use the technology to analyze its current hiring practices to try to root out pre-existing bias. Only once that's addressed does AI have even the hope of being effective.
To be clear: Amazon says that it never actually used the algorithms for actual hiring decisions. It wasn't for a lack of trying though. Amazon realized what was going on in 2015, but didn't disband the program until the start of last year. In other words, despite working for quite a while to eliminate the bias, they couldn't do it to their satisfaction. That a company like Amazon couldn't pull this off should serve as a strong warning to everyone about the limits of AI. I'm actually more optimistic on AI's eventual potential to reduce employment discrimination than many, but I am still extremely cautious about the technology. There's definitely a right way and wrong way to use it and, as Amazon shows, the right way can be really hard. As a result, I think the greatest risk of AI in personnel decisions is its misuse by companies that are too lazy, cheap, or blinded by the shiny object that is AI to realize that is is only a tool and, like other tools, can be used the wrong way.
Thursday, August 9, 2018
NYC's City Council just passed legislation to stop issuing new ride-hailing licenses for one year. The legislation also requires Uber and similar companies to ensure that drivers earn at least $17.22 per hour (calculated over a week)--like the FLSA tip rule, if drivers don't make that much, the companies must pay the drivers the difference. This can be significant especially in a city like NYC, where almost 85% of drivers make below $17.22/hour and two-thirds of drivers work full-time for ride-hailing companies.
I find the minimum pay provision to be interesting because it puts in motion something I've been thinking about for a while. One of the difficulties in the current "employee"/"not-employee" dichotomy is how much rides on that distinction (pun intended). It's always struck me that this definitional question misses the point. We're stuck with this outmoded definitional hang-up because of current law, but the real question we should be asking is what type of protections do we want for which type of workers. There will always be difficult line drawing, but I think there are areas of agreement. For instance, we've got a long-standing policy of ensuring a minimum pay for the vast majority of "employees." Are there many workers--even those currently classified as independent contractors--who shouldn't also receive at least $7.25/hour? I don't think so. Same for workplace safety and other protections. The devil's in the details, to be sure, but NYC's new legislation represents one step in the direction of ensuring worker rights, rather than just employee rights. And it's a move I'm glad to see.
Finally, a brief plug for a recent article I co-authored with Joe Seiner exploring non-traditional collective action in ride sharing and other modern industries. There's a lot of interesting things going on, but also a lot of legal questions prompted by new activity fitting into old laws.
Monday, May 21, 2018
Congratulations to David Yamada (Suffolk) on a couple of fronts. First, check out his new book, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States (Maureen Duffy & David C. Yamada eds., Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2018), a two-volume, multidisciplinary book set for scholars and practitioners, featuring 25 chapters and 27 contributors. Here's a brief description:
With over two dozen contributors (including a Foreword by Dr. Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute) and some 600 pages packed into two volumes, we believe this will be an important, comprehensive contribution to the growing literature on workplace bullying and mobbing, useful for scholars and practitioners alike. The project deliberately takes a U.S. focus in order to take into account the unique aspects of American employment relations.May 9 issue of
Second, David was quoted in Bloomberg Business Week in the article Companies Have an Aha! Moment: Bullies Don’t Make the Best Managers. Here's an excerpt:
The surprise announcement in March that 55-year-old Nike brand president Trevor Edwards—who had a reputation for humiliating subordinates in meetings—would leave following an internal investigation about workplace behavior issues suggests the coddling of tough guys may have come to an end. “Some companies are realizing that a bullying boss isn’t the best way to manage a company,” says David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who’s authored antibullying legislation. “Maybe we’re starting to see a tipping point.”
Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Thanks to Aaron Halegua for passing along this feature story from last week's Bloomberg BusinessWeek about a Chinese casino in Saipan. It gives a very compelling account of the labor and safety issues concerning the Chinese construction workers there. And, these issues became the subject of many questions during a Senate hearing earlier this month about a bill concerning the future of a CNMI-specific guest worker program. For those who want further information about the labor situation in Saipan and the response by the federal authorities, see Aaron's short piece in ChinaFile.
Sunday, January 28, 2018
This guest post is courtesy of Jack Harrison (NKU-Chase):
On Thursday, January 25, 2018, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a 2016 jury verdict of more than $700,000, plus $184,000 in legal fees, in a Title VII case involving Lori Franchina, a lesbian firefighter for the City of Providence, Rhode Island. This case is important because it represents yet another decision by one of the Courts of Appeals calling into question precedents in the circuit holding that sexual orientation discrimination is not prohibited by Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination “because of sex.” While Franchina was decided on a sex-plus theory, rather than a sexual orientation theory, the “plus” in the case was Franchina’s sexual orientation.
The Court of Appeals described the horrendous treatment that Franchina had endured in the workplace as follows:
‘Cunt,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘lesbo’: all are but a smattering of the vile verbal assaults the plaintiff in this gender discrimination case, Lori Franchina, a former lieutenant firefighter, was regularly subjected to by members of the Providence Fire Department (‘the Department’). She was also spit on, shoved, and — in one particularly horrifying incident — had the blood and brain matter of a suicide-attempt victim flung at her by a member of her own team.
The First Circuit flatly rejected the city’s argument “that under a sex-plus theory, plaintiffs are required to identify a corresponding sub-class of the opposite gender and show that the corresponding class was not subject to similar harassment or discrimination.” In rejecting this argument, the First Circuit seemed to embrace the broader comparator analysis adopted by the Seventh Circuit in its decision in Hively, finding that sexual orientation discrimination was, indeed, discrimination “because of sex” prohibited by Title VII. The First Circuit also indicated that nothing in its prior decision addressing sexual orientation discrimination, Higgins v. New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., “forecloses a plaintiff in our Circuit from bringing sex-plus claims under Title VII where, in addition to the sex-based charge, the ‘plus’ factor is the plaintiff's status as a gay or lesbian individual.” The discussion by the court of this precedent appears to call into question the court’s commitment to the position held in Higgins. Such questioning is certainly consistent with language used by other Courts of Appeals in decisions over the last year, including decisions by the Seventh, Eleventh, and Second Circuits, addressing the reach of Title VII in the sexual orientation discrimination context.
Currently, the en banc United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is considering Zarda v. Altitude Express, a case that, like Hively, squarely asks the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination “because of sex” includes discrimination based on sexual orientation. Oral argument was held in Zarda on September 26, 2017. While scheduled for only one hour, the arguments actually lasted for almost two hours. The questions asked and the tone of the oral argument would suggest that the Second Circuit is likely to follow the lead of the Seventh Circuit in Hively, concluding that the prohibition against discrimination “because of sex” found in Title VII includes a prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Supreme Court recently rejected a petition for certiorari in a case from the Eleventh Circuit that raised this question, but with a decision in Zarda expected any day, the Supreme Court may ultimately have to address this issue.
Monday, January 15, 2018
Shu-Yi Oei & Diane M. Ring (both of Boston College Law) have just posted on SSRN their essay Is New Code Section 199A Really Going to Turn Us All into Independent Contractors? Here's the abstract:
There has been a lot of interest lately in new IRC Section 199A, the new qualified business income (QBI) deduction that grants passthroughs, including qualifying workers who are independent contractors (and not employees), a deduction equal to 20% of a specially calculated base amount of income. One of the important themes that has arisen is its effect on work and labor markets, and the notion that the new deduction creates an incentive for businesses to shift to independent contractor classification. A question that has been percolating in the press, blogs, and on social media is whether new Section 199A is going to create a big shift in the workplace and cause many workers to be reclassified as independent contractors.
Is this really going to happen? How large an effect will tax have on labor markets and arrangements? We think that predicting and assessing the impact of this new provision is a rather nuanced and complicated question. There is an intersection of incentives, disincentives and risks in play among various actors and across different legal fields, not just tax. Here, we provide an initial roadmap for approaching this analysis. We do so drawing on academic work we have done over the past few years on worker classification in tax and other legal fields.
Monday, December 11, 2017
The Supreme Court denied cert today in Evans v. Georgia Reg'l Hosp. (ScotusBlog page); Lambda Legal had filed a cert petition from the Eleventh Circuit's decision. The Eleventh Circuit had held that it was bound by prior circuit authority that Title VII did not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, and the full court had denied rehearing en banc. There is something of a circuit split on the issue. The Seventh Circuit, en banc in Hively v. Ivy Tech, held that Title VII did prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, and the Second Circuit is considering the issue en banc right now (here's the audio of the argument).
It's hard to read too much into the denial--it's entirely possible that the Court didn't take the case because the respondent took no position on either the grant of cert or the Eleventh Circuit's opinion, arguing that it had never been served with process. It had not participated in the case below. The case file is a good preview of the stakes, though. The lineup of amici had 76 major companies and several states urging the Court to take cert. To read more, see this Daily Report posting by Marcia Coyle and the ScotusBlog posting by Amy Howe.