Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Pay it forward

For a few weeks one summer in high school, I worked for a flower farm picking weeds. Rumors were rife that the owner would fail to pay you at the end of the week or at the end of the summer. This didn’t happen to me at that flower farm, perhaps because I was hit by a car before it could become an issue.

For one summer in college, I worked as a department secretary. My instructions were simple: photocopy anything that a professor asked me to photocopy. Journal articles gradually gave way to stacks of library books, which in turn gave way to a professor who left me a key to her office and instructions to photocopy the contents of her entire filing cabinet so she could have a duplicate for her semester in California. The regular department secretary, it turns out, would have said no if she had been around. I was good at photocopying, however, and did not complain or say no. At the end of the summer, the department said they did not want to pay me for most of my work because the professors should not have asked me to do all that work.

When I was in graduate school, I was offered a fellowship from the US Department of Education. The university saw an opportunity to obtain free labor, and told me that the fellowship included a part-time work requirement. When I later responded to a Department of Education survey that I thought those fellowships would be more useful if students didn’t have to work for them, a chain of threats and hilarity ensued.

I stopped working for other people after that. I do employ people, and I take my responsibilities as an employer seriously. I’ve never even considered not paying someone for their work. That’s not because of my past experiences as a worker; in fact, I tended to run into problems as a worker because I considered each of my past experiences to be exceptional, and never believed that any other employer would treat workers that way.

Last week, I discovered that the Employee Benefits Security Administration of the US Department of Labor feels that it’s fine for employers to retroactively reduce compensation for 50 weeks already worked, as long as the money has not yet been paid. All work is done on spec, even when your contract says otherwise. A judge would say differently, but a social contract that tells workers their only recourse is legal action is fundamentally broken. The right way to reduce employment-related lawsuits, as with any lawsuits, is to provide some other recourse. Otherwise employers like me wind up as the exceptions that follow the rule.

No comments: