In 2016, management at the Conrad Miami hotel in Miami, Florida fired Marie Jean Pierre, an African-American woman, for not coming into work on Sundays. Pierre worked as a dishwasher at the hotel for several years. She requested to have Sundays off in 2009 due to her religious beliefs, saying that on those days, she honored God.
The hotel scheduled her for Sundays, then tried to accommodate her situation. But then in 2016, they fired her for unexplained absences, misconduct, and negligence. Pierre took them to court, and the jury found in her favor. They awarded her 21 million dollars as a penalty against the hotel. It also transpired that Pierre was owed 35,000 in back wages; the Conrad Miami hotel just hadn’t seen fit to pay her what was she was owed.
The story was linked recently on Peter Schiff’s Facebook page. For those who may be unaware, Schiff is a right-wing libertarian gold bug who generally predicts doom and gloom for the economy. Schiff had this to say:
She was not forced to work on Sunday’s she was paid. If she didn’t like the job she was free to quit. If a dishwasher can get 21 million for being “forced” to work on Sunday’s imagine how much an NFL player could get! These special privileges bestowed on Americans who voluntarily choose to accept at-will employment are unconstitutional, immoral, an affront to individual liberty, and have no place in what is supposed to be a free country
Among the 111 shares that were gathered from Schiff’s Facebook page (at the time of this writing), most people who did include a comment said that it was horrible, or that the “libtards” were taking over. There was even a comment about how robots ought to work the economy.
In the comments section of his page, one user had this to say:
If your religion prevents you from working on Sundays, GET ANOTHER JOB! Dangerous precedent!
So, let’s unpack all of this to see what’s really being said here. Of course, this is just a Facebook page. It isn’t emblematic of all right-wing opinion, and shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of how everyone thinks or speaks. However, there are nevertheless lessons to be learned here.
The first, and most important lesson, is that juries, no matter how well or poorly educated, are generally not in the business of awarding cash settlement for back wages unless sufficient documented evidence can be presented suggesting that labor laws had been violated. If juries, no matter how constituted, always gave out cash settlements at the initial hearing, then there would be an epidemic of disgruntled employees looking to make a quick buck at the expense of the boss they don’t like. What’s more, with insufficient evidence presented, such cases would be reversed upon appeal.
At this time, there is not much to suggest there’s an overwhelming number of civil cases being brought before juries to determine whether a worker is owed money as a result of managerial malfeasance. There are likely a number of reasons for this: workers who don’t get paid what they’re owed likely can’t afford a lawyer; and the lawyers who do want to work pro bono for such cases are few and far between. In situations where the lawyer is confident of success and the worker is willing to endure a long trial period, it’s likely that the employer can afford better lawyers and will be able to deal with financial setbacks for a longer period of time. Lawsuits based on frivolity stand no chance in such a situation.
In order for Pierre to have been awarded money at all, not only was gross misconduct had to have been happening, but such misconduct had to have been provable with more than the world of a single middle-aged woman with deeply held religious beliefs. After all, the first thing a defense attorney will say is that the plaintiff is out for money rather than justice.
Regardless of whether they like the company or not, juries are generally not in favor of awarding cash settlements to people who just show up with their hands out.
Some examples of cases in which employers, as defendants, won discrimination lawsuits may be found in the following incomplete government document.
One of the pieces of evidence happen to be a letter from Pierre’s pastor to the company. Conrad Hotels claimed in court that they did not know the reason why Pierre should be accommodated. In the face of documented evidence, that claim doesn’t really stand up. The sticking point was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which states that employment discrimination may not occur on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website has the following to say about religious discrimination and accommodation:
The law requires an employer or other covered entity to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs or practices, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on the operations of the employer’s business. This means an employer may be required to make reasonable adjustments to the work environment that will allow an employee to practice his or her religion.
Examples of some common religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices.
In the case of Marie Jean Pierre, giving her Sundays off while the other six days of the week would remain available fits the definition that the website provides. Forty working hours- a full-time schedule- are still available Monday through Saturday. The only possible explanation is the Conrad Hotel management simply did not want to accommodate Pierre by giving her Sundays off. What’s more, instead of hiring part-time help to work the weekends only, instead of hiring someone to work Wednesday through Sunday, instead of doing any number of other creative things that could resolve the situation peacefully, they decided to fire Pierre and instead look for someone else who could work the schedule that they wanted.
In other words, the lawsuit is not really about whether someone was treated badly or not- though this certainly appears to be the case- it’s about one employer who doesn’t see the need to change for anyone. The prevailing undercurrent of belief here appears to be: “my workplace, my rules.”
Peter Schiff’s argument- and those like him who share similar beliefs about how the economy should work- agree that the person who owns the business ought to make the rules. However, making an off-the-cuff reaction (as it appeared to be from a simple Facebook post) without really trying to understand the underlying framework that went into the lawsuit makes Schiff appear disingenuous.
In between Schiff’s usual repeated comments about how gold is going to become more valuable and the economy is not in a boom period (but rather a bubble), one can find an undercurrent of free market libertarian ideology behind most of what he has to say. However, he makes one crucial mistake- he fails to understand just what a free market economy would look like.
A free market economy, one in which workers could work on their own terms, would be one without large corporations, without high-powered executives, and without managers who can hire and fire people at will for whatever reason. And while there are those who believe that a business organization deprived of its managers will lead to disorganization and dysfunction, there are also examples of worker communes in which decisions are handled on the basis of consensus rather than of simply ordering someone what to do.
A free market economy, the one that Schiff believes he espouses, means freedom for all individuals- not just those who have accumulated sufficient capital to own a business. Giving an entry-level worker an equal amount of empowerment and freedom as that which a business owner enjoys would necessarily lead to an abolition of work altogether. In its place would arise self-sufficient labor made for the purpose of supporting oneself, rather than supporting a stranger who signs paychecks.
The strangers who signed Marie Jean Pierre’s paychecks, after all, had no regard for her personal liberty or individual autonomy when they asked that she violate her own religious principles to work on days where they might have been otherwise short-handed. They chose not to pay her what she was owed, rather than doing the simple thing of letting her work on terms she found most favorable to herself.
Rather than a mutually beneficial arrangement, it appears that Pierre’s term of employment was rather a contest of interests played out a zero-sum game in which there would be a winner and there would be a loser. The only way for the employee to win in such a situation would be to make the employer lose. That is what Pierre did.
One would hope that, if the day never comes in which work is abolished, employers would at least gain enough intelligence to realize that it’s much cheaper to be nice to be people instead of increasing the budget for their legal departments. After all, being nice doesn’t cost anyone anything.