When Quitters Win: The Great Recession gives rise to labor claims

By Jaymee Cuti of Portland, Oregon. Jaymee is a former staff writer news editor for Just Out newspaper.

Sticky mats are lined head-to-toe at a 10 a.m. yoga class in Northeast Portland. Students look annoyed as they negotiate for space in the already swampy room. The studio is called Bikram Yoga of India, I reason, yet the overcrowded class seems to resemble that sweltering nation a bit too much for the comfort of these participants.
Since I left my job in mid-March, I’ve taken advantage of the newfound freedom from a schedule anchored by 9 and 5. And I’ve had plenty of company.

Leaving class, electrolyte depletion leads me to a Fred Meyer parking lot, full at 11:30 am. As I jockey for a space, craving watermelon, I think: Who are all you people, and why aren’t you at work?

I did say I left my job. Deliberately. In the worst economic recession since the ‘30s, in a state with—say it with me—the second highest unemployment rate in the nation, I removed my prints of John Kennedy, Mother Teresa, Frank Sinatra and Audrey Hepburn from my avocado-colored office and walked out. In the commotion, I left my Rolodex behind.

Staging a walkout at Just Out newspaper, where I worked for four years as the news editor, may have been a brash move in a crashing economy. Yet my situation mirrors that of thousands of Oregonian workers, whose treatment in increasingly cash-strapped workplaces has contributed to a mighty rise in labor disputes. “The hardest part of the recession, from a worker’s standpoint, started last November, when we had more inquiries about workers’ rights issues,” said Craig Spivey, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Employment.

I remember researching my walkout in February by calling the Oregon Department of Employment and Bureau of Labor and Industries for advice. “Is it really quitting if you stop getting paid?” I asked. Back then, the idea of quitting a journalism job in publishing- and employment-starved Portland sounded only slightly more ludicrous than working for free.

The answer was yes, if there was more work to do, and I chose not to do it, I was quitting, and I was burdened to prove that I left with cause. My fight for unemployment benefits, which my former employer contested, was dogged. I filed a three-inch thick wage complaint with the Bureau of Labor and Industries, showing how my employer repeatedly reneged on promises to pay staff, but still found cash to pay other bills—“inflexible creditors,” as she called them, such as the printer or Internet provider.

On the day that I left, I was owed $3,800 in back pay, which was calculated in the same meeting that my employer announced, “Paydays have been discontinued,” since we hadn’t been paid in full on a payday in six months.

Neither of those circumstances, I learned, were legal, and the unemployment office has been mailing me steady paychecks ever since.

My comrades in the walkout weren’t as lucky. Their unemployment claims were initially denied and it wasn’t until they argued their cases in administrative hearings that a judge ruled, “Claimant’s reason for quitting was such that a reasonable and prudent person of normal sensitivity exercising ordinary common sense would leave work.”
Some workers stay in equally “grave” working conditions, as the judge described our situation, filing complaints with the Bureau of Labor and Industries for issues ranging from lack of pay to discrimination.

Insiders at Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries corroborate the trend Spivey spotted at the state employment office: Workers’ rights inquiries have increased tremendously in the last year.

“In a down economy, the civil rights division typically sees an increase in discrimination complaints and in particular, age discrimination complaints,” said to Kate Newhall, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries. The civil rights division has seen between 400 and 500 more inquiries per month than in the same period last year. Newhall says the division processes approximately 2,500 inquiries per month, up from 2,000 per month last year.

The wage and hour division at the Bureau of Labor and Industries has seen 16 percent more claims in the past year; 2,452 were received through April 2009, compared to 2,114 in 2008. Some agencies have an onslaught of complaints against employers that workers had been too hesitant to report back when they had secure jobs.

“Someone who is suddenly laid off learns that they should have gotten paid time-and-a-half for all hours over 40. They were afraid to come forward because they didn’t want to lose their jobs over it. [Now], nothing is stopping them from enforcing the rights they had all along,” said Meg Heaton, an attorney with Northwest Workers Justice Project, which provides legal representation for low-wage immigrant and other nonstandard workers. “This is typical of the restaurant industry, where we’ve been seeing a lot of people laid off lately.”

Northwest Workers Justice Project’s workload now exceeds its capacity. Six months ago, it cut intake clinics, where potential new cases are evaluated, from weekly to bi-weekly. “We ended up accepting a lot of new cases, which led to a workload so high that we had to cut back on intake clinics.”

Despite the rise in labor complaints, some workers’ fear of being seen as troublemakers makes them think twice about taking legal action against deadbeat bosses.

“There was an agriculture business in bankruptcy and it looked like the company owed workers a lot of unpaid wages. We talked to some workers about doing a class-action lawsuit, but there was a lot of reluctance about making waves—even though they didn’t work for the business anymore. They didn’t want to tarnish their reputation as good workers,” said Heaton.

Taking on my employer in a recession was an onerous but gratifying choice. Though the celebration was fleeting—I’m nearly halfway through my six-month unemployment allowance and the Magic Eight Ball predicts my future in local journalism as “hazy”—I’m proud to have stood up for myself.

What to Do If You’re Getting Shafted at Work

Various recourses exist for shafted workers and ethical employers.
The Bureau of Labor and Industries has developed a technical assistance seminar called “Doing Business in a Down Economy,” which details topics such as appropriate downsizing procedures, handling layoffs, reducing employee benefits and furlough days.
Heaton suggests that workers discuss employment complaints with a lawyer, the Bureau of Labor and Industries or an industry-governing licensing board. “If workers really want to ensure long-terms rights on the job, starting a union in their workplace that protects your rights and your coworkers’ rights is the way to go,” she said.
Until the bloodletting slows, I’ll be skulking around the city, writing for sport from WiFi-equipped coffee shop “offices,” in solidarity with the jobless and trapped workers, fellow veterans of The Great Recession.

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR’s employment law hotline is 866-487-9243. THE OREGON BUREAU OF LABOR AND INDUSTRIES is at 971-673-0761 or www.oregon.gov/BOLI. THE OREGON DEPARTMENT OF EMPLOYMENT is at 800-237-3710 or www.employment.oregon.gov. The NORTHWEST WORKERS’ JUSTICE PROJECT is at 503-525-8454 or www.nwjp.org

  • backbeat (unverified)

    I'm floored that you didn't know they are required to pay you.

  • Union Rebel Girl (unverified)

    What to Do If You’re Getting Shafted at Work...

    Get a UNION!

  • Hal (unverified)

    I thought someone working for JO would enjoy getting "Shafted" at work.

  • (Show?)

    Jaymee, thanks for fighting you good fight, & congrats on your perseverance which sounds as if it may have helped some of your ex-coworkers to hang in there with their more delayed claims.

    But I'm a tad concerned that you label yourself a quitter for the sake of your article title. Pretty clearly you're anything but. You stuck by your employer through a lot of thin & not much thick, perhaps because of the value the paper has in its purposes and work, left essentially because forced out by unreasonable policies, and then stuck with the struggle to make your case that in fact you were so forced out.

    Not a quitter in my book.

    Damned shame Just Out acted as it did.

  • Kurt Chapman (unverified)

    Jaymee, you are most definitely not a quitter. Your employer enacted a set of workplace conditions that in effect led to a constructive discharge on their part. By working without pay, you were left no alternative but to leave the employer.

    I'm sorry that this occurred and applaud you for fighting the unemployment decision. Union Rebel Girl is misinformed on the issues here as in this case, voting in a union as exclusive bargaining agent would have done nothing to improve the cash flow of the business, nor would anything have transpired soon enough to effect positive change.

    Keep your chin up!

  • Hummer (unverified)

    Recession has hit us since December 2007 and has resulted loss of jobs to millions of people. Lots of businesses have become affected. Bankruptcies today have been rampant. The giant automaker General Motors is now facing bankruptcy. Hummer, the controversial brand that General Motors refused to try and discharge after the price of gasoline began to shoot through the ceiling, has been subject of a lot of headlines. Hummer was among the first brands that GM slated for culling after the recession began, with Saturn and Pontiac close behind, but unlike other companies that were simply shuttered, Hummer was able to secure a buyer. It's been announced that Sichuan Tenzhong, or Sichuan Tenzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co will purchase the brand with some quick cash to the rescue. The company manufactures heavy machinery in China, and this means debt consolidation for Hummer and a good deal for Sichuan Tenzhong.

  • Marty Davis (unverified)

    I am the publisher of Just Out and the person who indeed fell behind in payroll during the last few months of 2008 and 2009.

    I did not show up at work one morning and decide that I was not going to pay my employees any longer. Running a newspaper during the best of times is now a well-documented challenge; doing do during the worst recessin in 50 years became a task of that nearly did me in.

    Yes, I got behind. It was neither malicious in nature; not a deliberate attempt to circumvent labor laws. I was trying with all my might to keep my business afloat and my staff jobs intact.

    Looking back I see now that staff reductions and layoffs would have been a far better option for me than what I tried to do---which was scrape and crawl through the first quarter until sales traditionally pick up in the spring. I tried to be transparent and open with my staff then; I'm trying to do so now.

    It's been rough in the business world the last many months.; for employees and employeers. It's a bit of a cliche, but you might consider that there are always two sides to every story.

  • MarciaFS (unverified)
    <h2>Then tell us, Ms. Davis, why did you contest your former employees' unemployment claims?</h2>
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