Archive for the ‘Employee Rights’ Category

The Continuing Battle Over Workplace Rights

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

The claim that everyone is entitled to his or her day in court is supposed to be one of the bedrock principles of the U.S. legal system. This notion, as it applies to workplace abuses, took a big hit in the Supreme Court last year, and now the National Labor Relations Board is making matters worse.

In its controversial Epic Systems ruling in May 2018, the high court held that employers can compel their workers to sign agreements waiving their right to sue over issues such as wage theft and discrimination and limiting their redress to arbitration actions. Because these actions are individual rather than collective and are not part of the public record, arbitration makes it much easier for corporations to avoid paying out substantial damages for their misconduct.

The pro-business majority on the NLRB just pushed through a decision that gives employers an additional opportunity to implement a mandatory arbitration system. The board ruled that companies may impose such a system after a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action lawsuit has already been filed, in order to prevent additional employees from signing on to the suit.

The board also affirmed the right of an employer to discharge a worker who refuses to sign a mandatory arbitration agreement.

This patently unfair decision is another indication of the lengths that the corporations and their advocates will go to circumscribe the rights of workers. We should expect to see more of these moves, because the Epic Systems ruling has not yet put a major dent in class action lawsuits.

There has not been a significant decline in the number of cases filed, and there continues to be a steady stream of settlement announcements, especially for cases filed in California, which gives workers additional legal tools to deal with wage theft in particular.

Here are some recent examples of these settlements:

Wells Fargo agreed to pay $35 million to a group of 38,000 bank employees who alleged they were improperly denied overtime pay.

Kraft Heinz agreed to pay $3 million to settle a suit brought on behalf of 4,000 workers alleging that the company violated California labor law by failing to pay overtime.

The operator of hundreds of Panera Bread restaurants agreed to pay $4.6 million to settle allegations that it improperly classified assistant managers as executives to deny them overtime pay.

A group of drivers and their assistants who delivered Best Buy merchandise signed a $3.25 million deal to settle a lawsuit alleging they were misclassified as independent contractors and consequently shortchanged on pay.

A Massachusetts court gave preliminary approval to a $3.9 million settlement of a class action brought by former commission-only salespeople at the mattress retailer Sleepy’s who argued they should receive overtime pay.

If corporate interests get their way, these settlements will disappear, and workers who are cheated on the job will have to settle for the crumbs they may get through individual arbitration filings.

Targeting Migrants in the Workplace

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

Perhaps to avoid giving the impression that the Trump Administration was getting soft on immigrants by having the president go to El Paso to console the victims of a mass shooting aimed at Latinos, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement chose the same day to carry out the largest workplace raid in more than a decade.

The more than 600 people taken into custody at several sites in Mississippi were not apprehended while engaged in criminal activity, but rather in the course of supporting their families by performing some of the most unpleasant and dangerous work in the U.S. economy: poultry processing.

There were no arrests of managers at the companies involved – which included Koch Foods and Peco Foods, whose spokespeople insisted they carefully screened new hires using the E-Verify system. This came as no surprise, as employers are rarely prosecuted for immigration offenses, whether or not they use E-Verify, or if they are lax in applying the system.

Among the more than 300,000 entries in Violation Tracker there are fewer than 50 cases of immigration-related employer penalties, and only 18 with fines of $1 million or more. Countless other companies have gotten away with employing undocumented workers, among them the Trump Organization.

They also often get away with other workplace violations, though sometimes they are caught in the job safety or wage & hour enforcement net. Koch Foods (not part of Koch Industries), for instance, has been penalized more than $4 million for its Mississippi operation, including three OSHA violations, one wage & hour violation, two environmental violations and a $3.75 million settlement with the EEOC concerning sexual harassment and national origin and race discrimination.

Peco Foods has had five violations at its Mississippi plants, including two from OSHA and three from the EPA.

Mike Elk, writing in Payday Report, notes that some advocates have speculated that workers are targeted for raids after their facilities get cited for workplace violations. He cites several examples in which that happened.

Since companies face little risk of being prosecuted for immigration offenses, it is possible that they may be the ones tipping off ICE, seeing the raids as a way of discouraging whistleblowing by workers about abusive conditions. While the raids cause temporary disruption to their production, these employers hope to discourage replacement workers from being outspoken on the job.

Trump and other immigration hardliners often claim that their aim is to help native-born workers by eliminating the supposed job competition created by migrants. If that were the case, then they would crack down on employers who hire the undocumented.

Instead, they enable those employers to maintain a business model based on worker intimidation.

Corporate Accountability from Within

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

It appears that no one working for the public relations giant Edelman balked in 2006 when the firm went all-out to help then-besieged Wal-Mart by setting up a war room to plan attacks against the retailer’s critics and creating bogus front groups to create the illusion that the company had widespread public support. Nor apparently did Edelman staffers have any problem over the years when the firm took on clients such as tobacco companies, military contractors, the petroleum industry and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Times are changing in the corporate p.r. business. The New York Times just reported that a staff revolt forced Edelman to abandon a plan to work for the private prison company GEO Group and improve its image in the face of criticism of its role in operating immigrant detention centers for the Trump Administration.

The Edelman situation is not unique. The Times noted that the marketing and p.r. firm Ogilvy has been facing staff unrest over its work for Customs and Border Protection, and employees at Deloitte and McKinsey tried to get their firms to end contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Pressure on management over work for these agencies has also been reported at tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon as well as the online furniture retailer Wayfair.

Employees at large corporations are making their feelings known about other issues as well. Staffers at Amazon have pressed the company to do more to address the climate crisis. Perhaps the most dramatic move came last November when thousands of Google employees around the world walked off the job to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

These actions have come at a time when the conventional wisdom is that collective action by workers is a largely thing of the past. It is true that unions continue to struggle, as shown, for example, by the recent defeat of another organizing drive at Volkswagen’s operations in Tennessee in the face of intense opposition from management as well as public officials.

Yet what the actions at Edelman and the tech companies show is that workers – including some who may be very well paid – are finding different ways to express their dissatisfaction.

What’s particularly powerful is when employees launch campaigns that combine self-interest with altruistic goals. That’s what happened at Google, where the aim was both to change practices within the company and to support the wider MeToo Movement.

It’s also what gave such potency to the wave of teachers’ strikes that began in early 2018. Those walkouts were prompted both by the urgent need to raise salaries and the need to improve school funding to address overcrowding and other problems affecting students.

The willingness of employees to take on issues such as migrant abuse can also serve to expose the shallowness of much of what goes under the banner of corporate social responsibility. Edelman, for instance, claims that it is committed to being a “force for good.”

That somehow got forgotten when its managers initially agreed to work for GEO Group. It took a bold stance by the staff to overcome the hypocrisy.

De-Enforcement

Thursday, June 27th, 2019
Credit: AFGE

For the past two years, the Trump Administration has sought to give the impression it is dismantling large parts of the federal regulatory system. The effort is not only wrong-headed – it has largely been unsuccessful. Many of the moves to eliminate rules have been thwarted by court challenges.

Yet the administration has found another way to advance its goal of allowing rogue corporations to operate with much lower levels of oversight: it is reducing the ranks of federal employees whose job it is to enforce the regulations that remain on the books.

A recent overview by the Wall Street Journal found that staffing at the Environmental Protection Agency is down by about half since its height during President Obama’s second term. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was said to have the fewest workplace inspectors in decades.

Fewer inspectors means fewer inspections and lower levels of penalties imposed for infractions. Last year, Public Citizen and the Corporate Research Project, using data from Violation Tracker, published a report showing how penalty levels were sinking at virtually all the key agencies. The evidence suggests that the trend is continuing.

Some of the staffing decline is due to attrition. Many regulatory agency employees have retired or resigned because they can no longer bear to work to see their mission undermined by the political appointees Trump has installed. More than 700 left the EPA in first 12 months after the administration took office.

Trumpworld is no longer depending entirely on attrition to hollow out the EPA. Now the administration is engaged in a direct attack on the remaining employees at the agency. EPA management has just informed the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union at the EPA, that it will unilaterally impose changes in working conditions on 9,000 staffers.  

The changes, which AFGE is challenging with an unfair labor practice filing, would, among other things, bar employees from telecommuting and would severely limit the amount of time rank-and-file union representatives can spend on grievances and other workplace matters. AFGE reps would also be evicted from the office space at the agency currently being used for union activity. Grievance and arbitration rights themselves would also be put in jeopardy.

The moves by EPA management appear to be an indirect way of implementing harsh policies that Trump tried to implement through executive order last year, but which were blocked by a federal judge. “In the Trump world, there is no bargaining, only ultimatums,” stated Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former EPA enforcement attorney.  “Under these rules, important safeguards against political purges within the civil service would be removed.”

Trump has received a great deal of deserved criticism for his attacks on federal prosecutors and Congressional oversight, given the corrosive effect on the rule of law. The administration’s actions against staffers at agencies such as the EPA are just as dangerous for our system of regulatory enforcement.

Suing Employers for Retirement Plan Abuses

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2019

In late March the Swiss company ABB agreed to pay $55 million to resolve a lawsuit brought by its U.S. employees alleging that the company charged excessive fees to administer their 401(k) plan. This was just the latest in a long series of class actions brought under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, or ERISA, which protects the rights of retirement plan participants.

As part of the latest expansion of Violation Tracker, the Corporate Research Project has identified 201 such cases in which the defendant was a corporation included in the Fortune 1000, the Fortune Global 500 or the Forbes list of America’s Largest Private Companies.

Our compilation finds that in these cases, which date back to the beginning of 2000, corporations had paid out a total of $6.2 billion in settlements and verdicts. The largest settlement, $480 million, was reached in 2014 in a retiree health benefits suit brought against Daimler AG on behalf of workers at the German company’s U.S. truck manufacturing plants.

The 201 lawsuits (details here) alleged various types of misconduct by employers, including:

  • Charging excessive fees or offering overly risky investment options in 401(k) plans;
  • Improper investment of pension plan assets in company stock, especially during times of instability;
  • Inadequate or misleading disclosure of financial information to plan participants; and
  • Mishandling conversions of pensions to cash-balance plans.

Some suits were brought against investment managers or plan trustees rather than the employer. For example, in 2015 Bank of New York Mellon agreed to a $335 million settlement to resolve allegations by multiple pension funds that it deceptively overcharged them on currency exchange rates relating to the purchase of foreign securities.

Apart from Daimler and Bank of New York Mellon, 13 other large corporations have had total ERISA payouts of $100 million or more.  Among them are IBM, Foot Locker, Xerox, Bank of America, AK Steel, AT&T and JPMorgan Chase. The industry with the most ERISA payouts is banking, with a total of more than $1.3 billion.

In addition to large for-profit corporations, some major nonprofits, especially healthcare systems, have had to pay out large sums. Most involve lawsuits alleging that religious institutions improperly claimed that their plans were exempt from ERISA. The biggest settlements have involved Providence St. Joseph Health ($351 million) and Bon Secours Mercy Health ($161 million from two suits).

In many cases the settlement costs are covered in part or wholly by an insurance policy, but Violation Tracker attributes the amount to the corporation or non-profit named in the lawsuit.

With the addition of the ERISA cases and the updating of other categories, Violation Tracker now contains more than 368,000 civil and criminal entries with total penalties of $464 billion. The new ERISA entries—like our earlier compilations of wage theft and employment discrimination lawsuits—include details on each case and links to key court documents.

The fastest way to get a list of the ERISA cases from Violation Tracker is to choose the Option 2 offense type “pension ERISA violation.” You’ll get the 201 large-company cases discussed above plus 51 more brought against non-profits and companies not on the Fortune and Forbes lists.

Corporate Harassment

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

People who are subjected to sexual harassment on the job are too often left to confront their abusers on their own. Those with means can hire high-powered legal help, as Gretchen Carlson did in her lawsuit against 21st Century Fox that resulted in a $20 million settlement. Other survivors of abuse may not get justice.

A new initiative by Fight for $15 is making the fight against workplace harassment a collective rather than an individual struggle. In a bold new initiative for the labor movement, the campaign recently organized work stoppages at McDonald’s fast-food outlets in ten cities to protest harassment and to highlight complaints filed earlier this year with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This will not be the first time the EEOC has heard reports about such practices at McDonald’s. In 2010, for example, the company had to pay $50,000 to settle allegations of harassment by an assistant store manager in New Jersey who was reported to have touched and spanked a teenage worker.

For years, the company failed to take adequate action to deal with repeated instances in which female workers were falsely accused of stealing customer property and strip-searched by managers in response to phone calls from individuals pretending to be law enforcement officers. In 2007 McDonald’s had to pay $6.1 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a young worker in Kentucky who was also molested.

The decision of a state appeals court upholding the damage award noted that similar incidents had occurred more than 30 times at McDonald’s outlets. The ruling went on to say: “McDonald’s corporate legal department was fully aware of these hoaxes and had documented them. The evidence supports the reasonable conclusion that McDonald’s corporate management made a conscious decision not to train or warn store managers or employees about the calls.”

Corporate decisions not to take steps to protect workers were also behind many of the more than 275 cases documented in Violation Tracker in which corporations paid to settle sexual harassment allegations brought with the involvement of the EEOC. These cases together have yielded $132 million in penalties.

The tally goes back to 2000, but cases continue to the present. Among the most recent ones are the $3.75 million harassment settlement signed by Koch Foods involving poultry workers in Mississippi who also alleged racial and national origin discrimination as well as the $3.5 million settlement by outsourcing company Alorica in connection with allegations that a group of customer service representatives in California were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

To supplement the EEOC actions I’m in the process of collecting data for Violation Tracker on class action and individual lawsuits brought by workers separate from the agency. These will cover harassment claims as well as cases involving discrimination by employers based on gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability and age discrimination. I’ve already tallied more than $1 billion in settlements and verdicts involving the largest corporations.

It’s great that the MeToo and the Fight for $15 movements are highlighting the continuing problems of harassment on the job. I look forward to the day when there will not be so many such cases to document.

 

Note: The latest update to Violation Tracker has just been posted.

Employers and Sexual Harassment

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

The Harvey Weinstein scandal is bringing necessary attention to the problem of sexual harassment. But that problem is not limited to abusive behavior on the part of big-time movie producers and a few other powerful men. Women are confronted with sexual predators in a wide variety of workplaces.

Evidence of this can be found in the cases resolved by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In addition to enforcing anti-discrimination rules regarding hiring, pay levels, etc., the EEOC brings lawsuits (or joins existing ones) dealing with harassment.

In Violation Tracker I have collected data on a total of 1,393 resolved EEOC cases since the beginning of 2000 that together have resulted in about $1 billion in penalty payments by employers. Of these, about 300 involved sexual harassment (often in conjunction with other allegations). They have resulted in about $135 million in employer penalties. Here are some of the more significant cases:

In August, Ford Motor agreed to pay $10.1 million to resolve allegations that mangers at two plants retaliated against workers who complained that they were being subjected to sexual (and racial) harassment on the job.

In 2011, a telemarketing company called International Profit Associates agreed to pay $8 million to resolve allegations that some 82 female employees had been subjected to sexual harassment. It took nine years from the time the EEOC first filed the case to get to that resolution, with the agency attributing the delay to the filing of frivolous legal motions by the firm, whose top officials were alleged to have personally participated in the abusive behavior.

In 2010 ABM Industries, a major provider of janitorial services, agreed to pay $5.8 million to resolve allegations that more than 20 female workers were subjected to repeated sexual harassment by co-workers and supervisors. An EEOC press release stated: “Some of the harassers allegedly often exposed themselves, groped female employees’ private parts from behind, and even raped at least one of the victims.”

Predatory behavior can also occur at non-profit workplaces. In 2003 Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York agreed to pay $5.4 million to resolve allegations that female workers were subjected to inappropriate touching during employment-related medical examinations conducted by a hospital physician who also asked intrusive questions about their sexual practices.

In 2005 Carrols Corporation, a major Burger King franchisee, agreed to pay $2.5 million to resolve EEOC allegations that 89 female workers, many of them teenagers, were subjected to egregious sexual harassment at many of the company’s locations. The EEOC alleged that the abuse “ranged from obscene comments, jokes, and propositions to unwanted touching, exposure of genitalia, strip searches, stalking, and even rape” and that it was “perpetrated by managers in the majority of cases.”

In a case involving retailer Fry’s Electronics, a supervisor was said to have been fired for supporting a subordinate who complained about sexual harassment The supervisor had told the company’s legal department that the worker reported receiving repeated sexually charged text messages from an assistant store manager. Fry’s paid $2.3 million to resolve the EEOC’s allegations.

Whether in the Weinstein case or these other situations, what starts out as the depraved behavior of individuals is compounded by the efforts of employers to conceal the abuse and punish those victims who dare to report it. Whether the targets are famous actresses or janitors and fast food workers, corporate America needs to do more to stop the sexual predators on its payrolls.

Big Coal’s War on Its Workers

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

helmets_wide-b8e68ac63c226846ea9705fcf6fc13535c1b2b2e-s800-c85Fossil-fuel apologists have accused the Obama Administration of waging a war on coal in its effort to cut power plant greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the main source of the industry’s distress is the energy market, and the real war is the one coal companies have for years carried out against the health and safety of its workforce.

There’s no doubt that Big Coal is in trouble. One of the industry’s largest players, Alpha Natural Resources, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, following the path taken by competitors such as James River Coal, Walter Energy and Patriot Coal. Financial weakness prompted the delisting of Alpha and Walter Energy from the New York Stock Exchange. Industry leader Peabody Energy has seen its share price tumble even before the current market tumult. It is now trading at around $2 a share, compared to $70 in 2011.

Given the outsize role played by coal in the climate crisis, it is difficult to work up much sympathy for the industry in its time of trouble. While it is tempting to simply let the dirty industry shrink towards disappearance, there needs to be a just transition for those who have risked their lives extracting the fossilized carbon from the ground.

The magnitude of that risk has been made clear to me recently in the preparatory work I’ve been doing for the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First will release this fall. The initial version will cover penalties imposed by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and, most relevant to the current discussion, the Mine Safety & Health Administration.

Based on preliminary results, it now appears that coal mining companies will turn out to be among the corporations with the largest aggregate federal environmental, health and safety penalties during the past five years. The largest mining offender is Alpha Natural Resources, whose penalty tally will top $100 million.

That reflects the fact that Alpha is now home to two of the most controversial firms in U.S. mining history: Pittston Coal and Massey Energy. Pittston had a long record of environmental and safety violations before its operations were used in the creation of Alpha in 2002, but even more notorious was Massey, which was responsible, among other things, for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia that took the lives of 29 workers, the most fatalities in a U.S. coal accident in 40 years. In the wake of that disaster, which an independent report attributed to management failures, Alpha agreed to purchase Massey. We thus attribute Massey’s violations to it.

At least 20 other coal mining companies will show up in Violation Tracker with $1 million or more in total penalties. The largest amounts, in excess of $30 million each, will be linked to Murray Energy, whose head Robert Murray has vowed his firm will be the “last man standing” in the coal industry, and Patriot Coal.

Patriot, a spinoff from Peabody Energy, is a prime example of the vindictiveness of the coal industry toward miners. Its Chapter 11 filing earlier this year was its second in three years. In both cases the company has tried to use the bankruptcy court as a way to undermine its contractual commitments to United Mine Workers members and retirees, especially with regard to pension and health plan contributions. Its current move against worker benefits comes as the company, which is trying to sell off its assets, is awarding more than $6 million in executive bonuses.

A repeated health and safety violator and a raider of worker benefits. It’s hard to imagine anyone will be sad to see Patriot disappear.

Redistributing Work Hours

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

punching inThe Obama Administration’s new overtime proposal is an important and long overdue reform, but those who see it primarily as a way to address stagnant wages are missing the point. If the rule works properly, the main benefit will come in the form of time rather than money.

Noam Scheiber, the new labor reporter for the New York Times, exhibited the misconception in a news analysis arguing that the proposal “falls well short of helping substantially increase middle-class wages.” The piece compounded the problem by quoting Sen. Chuck Schumer calling the step “the middle-class equivalent of raising the minimum wage.”

Enacted in 1938, the overtime provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is designed to discourage employers from compelling workers to work excessive hours. The time-and-a-half provision is meant not as a wage bonus but rather as a penalty for firms that overwork their staffs rather than increasing the headcount.

Under pressure from business interests, Congress wrote language into the FLSA providing an exemption from the overtime provisions for executive, administrative and professional employees. The rationale was that such persons would be paid a salary rather than a hourly wage, and their compensation would be high enough to make some extra hours tolerable.

It was left to the Labor Department to define exactly which employees would be covered by the exemption. It chose to set criteria that referred mainly to job content but also set a compensation level below which overtime had to be paid regardless of the nature of the job.

That latter provision turned out to be essential. It would be all too easy for an employer to give a position superficial managerial or administrative responsibilities with the aim of making it exempt from overtime. The problem was that the wage cutoff was set too low, and revisions tended to be slow in coming. After the cutoff was raised to $155 a week in 1975, it took another 29 years before it was increased again.

In the meantime, employers did everything possible to shrink the portion of the workforce eligible for overtime pay. This was perhaps most common in the retail sector, where workers were given bogus titles such as assistant store manager while most of their responsibilities were not managerial or administrative in nature. Once they were off the overtime clock, it was profitable for the real bosses to work them long hours.

Obama’s proposal, which would raise the cutoff to $970 a week, did not come out of the blue. Groups such as the Economic Policy Institute and the National Employment Law Project have been campaigning on the issue for years.

There’s also been a battle going on in the courts. A slew of lawsuits have been brought against major retail companies for misclassifying people as overtime exempt. Earlier this year, for example, a federal judge approved a $30 million settlement of overtime claims brought by so-called managers at Publix Super Markets. Payless Shoesource has agreed to a $2.9 million settlement of similar allegations.

Dollar stores, which are obsessive in their cost-cutting efforts, have been the target of numerous overtime suits brought by purported managers. Dollar General paid $8.3 million to settle one such case.

The employer class is, of course, up in arms over the proposed new standard, making the usual foolish claims about job cuts and loss of freedom. The Washington Post quoted one chief executive as saying: “Everything in this proposed rule is anti-American work ethic and culture.”

That in a sense is true, if one acknowledges that our work culture is now one in which some people are forced to work excessive hours and others, especially in the sprawling retail and restaurant sectors, are kept in involuntary part-time status with unpredictable schedules and not enough hours to piece together a decent living.

A measure of the success of the new overtime rule will be the extent to which it rectifies this lopsided distribution of working hours.

Religion Inc.

Thursday, July 3rd, 2014

samuel-alito-jr-2009-9-29-10-13-28Is Justice Samuel Alito really that clueless? During the 2010 State of the Union address, he nervously mouthed the words “not true” when President Obama warned that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling would allow corporate special interests to dominate U.S. elections. A few days ago, Alito wrote an outrageous opinion in the Hobby Lobby case affirming the religious rights of corporations but insisting this would not do much other than prevent a few companies from having to include several kinds of birth control in their health insurance plans.

Alito’s claim about the narrow scope is already beginning to unravel. Although the written opinion suggested that only four types of contraception such as IUDs that religious zealots view as tantamount to abortion would be affected, the Court subsequently ordered lower courts to rehear cases in which employers sought to deny coverage for any form of birth control.

Business owners with other religious views contrary to federal policy will undoubtedly soon speak up. This is exactly what Justice Ginsburg warned about in her powerful dissent, calling Alito’s opinion “a decision of startling breadth” that enables “commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, [to] opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Alito was apparently so shaken by Ginsburg’s accusation that he felt a need to deny it at length. The denial is not only unconvincing, it is clumsy and takes Alito into some strange territory for a supposed business-friendly conservative.

In their religious zeal, Alito and the other conservatives on the Court apparently forgot that corporations have been trying for the past century to depict themselves as totally apart from religious and moral concerns. Business enterprises are amoral institutions, laissez-faire proponents such as Milton Friedman repeatedly told us—they exist only to maximize their profit. It has often been corporate critics who have brought religious and moral issues into disputes over business practices.

Alito seems to embrace the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) when he writes (p.23):

Modern corporate law does not require for-profit corporations to pursue profit at the expense of everything else, and many do not do so. For-profit corporations, with ownership approval, support a wide variety of charitable causes, and it is not at all uncommon for such corporations to further humanitarian and other altruistic objectives.

Alito even makes reference to growing acceptance of the benefit corporation, which he describes as “a dual-purpose entity that seeks to achieve both a benefit for the public and a profit for its owners” (p.24).

It’s unclear whether Alito sincerely believes in the validity of CSR initiatives or is simply using this comparison to try to make his assertion of corporate religious rights more palatable. Oddly, he describes as “unlikely” the possibility that a large publicly traded company would ever make a religious claim, even though such firms are among the biggest promoters of CSR.

Whatever Alito really thinks, his reference to CSR does not make the ruling any more convincing. CSR is already problematic to the extent that its practitioners try to use their supposedly high-minded voluntary initiatives to discourage more stringent and more enforceable government regulation. But at least these corporations are simply trying to influence government policymaking rather than asserting an absolute right to be exempt because of supposed religious convictions.

As much as Alito tries to deny it, his ruling has the potential to cause a great deal of mischief. A religious component can already be seen in the climate crisis denial camp; what will prevent companies from asserting that their beliefs prevent them from complying with environmental regulations? Is it that hard to imagine that business owners holding a scripture-based belief that women should be subservient to men may claim they should not be subject to anti-discrimination and equal pay laws?

Alito seems to be opening the door to such aggressive stances when he insists that “federal courts have no business addressing” the question of whether a religious claim by a corporation is reasonable (p.36). It’s true that, in general, government should not be passing judgment on matters of faith, but that principle falls apart when special interests try to use religion to undermine democratically adopted public policies. It’s even worse when those interests are employers asserting their beliefs at the expense of their workers.

The Supreme Court has done considerable damage by elevating the free speech rights of corporations; now it is compounding the sin by giving those corporations special religious rights as well.