These Americans are trapped in their jobs: they need to pay $10,000 to quit | Terri Gerstein

Why would dozens of news anchors recite a Sinclair Broadcast group script? Because their contracts entrap them

Dozens of news anchors robotically intoned” This is extremely dangerous to our democracy ,” after reciting what turned out to be a script by Sinclair Broadcast Group, proprietor and operator of 193 local TV stations. Dan Rather called it Orwellian, and many have asked in astonishment: why would local journalists across the nation allow themselves be utilized in such a demeaning way?

The answer is clear to me, as a lawyer with decades handling cases involving low-wage employees: people need tasks. But the anchors may have an even more specific concern: an employment contract that doesn’t merely bind but entraps them.

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March 31, 2018

Among other things, Sinclair contracts contain a requirement that employees must pay their employers if they leave their jobs before their contract terms end. For instance, an employee building $50,000 annually might have to pay in the ballpark of $10,000 if she wanted to leave after one year of a two-year term.

While it’s patently illegal to impose a penalty on employees for leaving a undertaking, the contract describes this requirement as” liquidated injuries “. But such injuries are permitted only in very limited situations, such as when an employee leaves a task soon after receiving, at the employer’s expense, costly, specific, and transportable develop. This is hardly the situation for Sinclair employees.

The Sinclair contracts also contain a non-compete clause, barring employees from working for challengers for a decide time period after separation. Non-competes have come under considerable public scrutiny of late, covering around 20% of employees, according to a recent report.

Some nations already limit non-competes: they’re unenforceable in California; banned for low-wage workers in Illinois, and prohibited for broadcast employees in New York and, as of last week, in Utah. Many other states have active legislative proposals.

And even where there is no statute, country case law typically permits non-competes only to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests( like trade secret ), and requires them to be reasonable considering time period and geographic scope. Avoiding a journalist from working for BuzzFeed or Facebook anywhere in the world seems, well , not very geographically limited.

Sinclair is not alone in using contracts to reduce workers’ rights. More than half of private sector non-union employees can’t bring lawsuits in court because they are subject to forced arbitration, sometimes even as a requirement of applying for a undertaking. The furniture chain Raymour and Flanigan contractually slashes the time for bringing discrimination claims in half, with mixedresults in court. One New York tutoring company had contract provisions requiring employees to waive their right to apply to unemployment benefits, and to indemnify the company if they applied and lost.

Given the importance of an independent press, the Sinclair example are highly sinister. But the use of employment contracts to trap and exploit workers is a growing trend, including for low-wage employees, who may “sign” the contracts rapid-fire among a piling of newspapers in the HR office or among a string of touch-screens, and who often don’t receive copies of their own contracts. Worst of all, they have no real ability to consult with lawyers or understand what they’re giving up; and they have no choice but to sign if they want the job.

Companies that try to limit their liability by hoodwinking their employees into signing abusive employment contracts can benefit of the extreme power imbalance between an employer and a working man. People need to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Abusing that fact to keep people tethered, and to steal away basic rights, is reprehensible. And as the disturbing Sinclair videos demonstrate, disempowerment of workers has an effect that imbues things we value in society- among them the free flow of information and journalistic integrity.

What would help this sad situation? Ideally, federal legislation would proscribe some of these practices, including use of forced arbitration for workers. More realistically, countries can take the lead, for example, by banning or restriction non-competes; prohibiting abbreviated statutes of limitations for key workplace laws; and requiring pre-hire disclosure of key job words in simple, accessible speech, with adequate opportunity for employees to understand what they’re signing.

State enforcement agencies can pursue violations of the laws that already exist, like the prohibition on penalties for leaving a task, and private lawyers can file suits to challenge abusive contracts. High road employers- who realize that workers are their team and a key component of their success- can treat their workers fairly in their contracts, as well.

Above all, workers and their allies can take the lead in joining together to unearth and combat these abusive practises. Teachers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are rising up, attempting better conditions for themselves and their students. Employees at media companies have been electrified, too, organizing new unions in recent years.

The Sinclair anchors spoke in unison delivering the company’s message. Maybe one day soon, they can take back the power and again speak in unison, this time delivering their own.

Terri Gerstein is an Open Society Foundations Leadership in Government fellow and a fellow at the Labor and Worklife program at Harvard Law School. Previously, she was labor bureau chief for the New York state attorney general, Eric Schneiderman.

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