Unemployment Discrimination Rears Head Again

76806723 -- unemployedHaven’t seen one of these for awhile.

With the economy slowly, but surely making its way back (at least for now), cases involving unemployment discrimination have taken a back seat to recruiting and talent management, as stories go.

But as this New York Post piece from earlier this month suggests, the issue appears alive and well in a Manhattan-based staffing agency. In her recent lawsuit filed with the Supreme Court State of New York, County of New York, Valerie White claims she was turned down for an HR-coordinator position with Solomon Page Group in late July of this year because she’d been out of work for more than a year.

Here is the actual lawsuit filed, alleging that the company’s director of accounting operations, who joined White and Solomon’s recruiting director for the interview, told White, ” ‘I don’t think you can do this because you have been out of work for a year.’ ”

White claims in the lawsuit she was “extremely humiliated, degraded, victimized, embarrassed and emotionally distressed” by what happened — sentiments echoed in other stories about this issue that we’ve written and come across.

I wrote a news analysis earlier this year about the push from the White House against long-term-unemployment discrimination, including President Obama’s vow during his Jan. 2014 State of the Union address to give more long-term-unemployed Americans a “fair shot” at a job.

At the time of that story, New York was one of 10 states mulling a state law banning such discrimination. New York City, meanwhile, had already enacted, in June of 2013, one of the nation’s most aggressive bans, creating “the first law in the United States that defines a job applicant’s unemployed status as a protected class along with age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, disability, marital status, partnership status, sexual orientation and alienage/citizenship status,” according to this report from the Society for Human Resource Management.

The SHRM piece says the NYC law is broader in scope than other laws (and bills being considered in some states) by providing plaintiffs with the right to pursue private civil claims and by treating unemployed applicants in the same way members of other protected classes are treated under nondiscrimination laws.

I was hoping to get something from Solomon about all this — about its view of the case and about doing business in New York with this law on the books — but Paul Coller, vice president of human resources at Solomon and the company’s chief human resource officer, could only say he and his colleagues “are confident the facts will show that these allegations lack any merit and, due to pending litigation, we have no further comment at this time.”

I guess it remains to be seen just how aggressive this anti-unemployment-discrimination push will be in the months and years to come. I guess it will be economy-driven. For now, my story and this subsequent column from our legal columnist, Paul Salvatore, spell out some things HR should be thinking about and doing around the push .

Salvatore’s reminder:

“HR leaders should consider the best practices released by the White House [during that State of the Union] and signed on to by many large employers. They include:

* Making sure advertising does not discourage or discriminate against the unemployed,

* Reviewing screens or procedures used in recruiting and hiring processes so individuals are not disadvantaged based solely on their unemployment status,

* Reviewing current recruiting practices to ensure a broad net is cast and to encourage all qualified candidates to consider applying, and

* Sharing best practices.”

Granted, the rate of unemployment is lower now than earlier this year, and much lower now than in the five previous years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it’s also well above the years just preceding the Great Recession and there’s really no telling how many people out there have been out of work for so long they’ve essentially given up hope.

Best to remain vigilant, not to mention compassionate and fair, whichever way the legislative and administrative winds are blowing.

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Americans: Overworked Yet Positive

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll from Allstate and the National Journal is out and it contains some very good news for the nation’s employers. The poll of 1,000 employed Americans finds that the overwhelming majority think very highly of their employers, with 82 percent saying they believe their employer has a positive impact on their community and 87 percent saying they’d recommend their place of employment to others. Americans are also highly satisfied with their jobs: 93 percent said they’re satisfied and 54 percent said they’re very satisfied.

So here’s the less-positive news: Only 31 percent say they’re very satisfied with their pay. Just 43 percent are very satisfied with their job benefits, 45 percent with the amount of paid vacation and sick time offered and 38 percent with opportunities for advancement.

Finally, many Americans will be putting in time on the job that they’d rather be spending with their families this holiday season: Just under half (45 percent) say there’s “at least some chance” they will be working on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. More than half (55 percent) say it won’t be by their own choice. At least 25 percent of American workers will be required to work during at least one of these major holidays.

Working Americans’ personal time is increasingly impacting their personal time: 81 percent say they are required to be in contact outside of working hours, with 41 percent saying they’re required to be in contact frequently. More than half (56 percent) say they checked email or otherwise checked in with work during their last vacation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Americans are looking for more flexibility and more personal time. If given the choice between jobs based on the balance between work and personal time, two in three (67 percent would choose “more flexibility and shorter hours … but less pay” while only one in four (26 percent) would choose “more pay … but less flexibility and longer hours.”

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Eliminating Silos in Health and Safety

Few of us need to be sold on the merits of greater collaboration. But if there were any doubts about what it’s able to bring to the areas of health and safety, Dr. Casey Chosewood put them to rest yesterday morning during his opening keynote speech at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® in Las Vegas.

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Dr. Casey Chosewood, speaking at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference on Wednesday.

“Too many organizations today still have silos [that] are unconnected,” said Chosewood, chief medical officer and director of the Office for Total Worker Health Coordination and Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Centers for Disease Control). “But that has to change. We have to put everything under one umbrella and take a more integrated approach.”

Remarkable things can happen when each of the components talk to one another, align their goals, understand the financial challenges of others and work on finding solutions, Chosewood told the packed room of attendees.

Of course, in the world of business, the elimination of silos, as a concept, comes up a lot. But it seems to be an especially powerful idea when it’s applied to safety and health.

Early in his talk, Chosewood took a few minutes to touch on the Ebola outbreak, which is also the subject of Carol Harnett’s Benefits Column posted earlier this week.

“I’m frequently asked if the CDC has a handle on the problem,” Chosewood said, “and that’s a fair question.”

As of today, he explained, there have been eight cases of Ebola in the United States, compared to 14,000 known cases in West Africa (a figure he believes is probably closer to between 20,000 and 28,000).

Chosewood said the CDC believes the risk of Ebola here in the United States remains very low, though he added that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the disease and the need to put “more resources on the ground in West Africa” to address it.

Returning to the focus of his talk, Chosewood said people would be mistaken were they to think they could separate work and home as far as health and well-being are concerned. “You can’t leave what happens at home on the kitchen table [just as] you can’t leave what happens at work on your desk. You shuttle them back and forth.”

Chosewood cited the example of a person who works in a factory who is exposed to lead and then brings it home to an unsuspecting child on the surface of his or her clothing. “Risks don’t just stay in one place,” he said.

During his talk, Chosewood also touched on the importance of changing the culture of the organization. Quoting Sir Michael Marmot (a professor at the University College London), he said it’s “unreasonable to expect people to change their behavior when the social, cultural and physical environments around them fully conspire against them.”

Chosewood shared a close-to-home illustration of the kinds of steps that can be taken.

When the CDC ran out of places to park and needed to build a new parking garage, Chosewood (then in charge of safety and health there) said he intentionally proposed picking a site that required workers to walk 15 minutes. While the move initially made him quite unpopular and existing employees complained about the distance, he said, new hires haven’t complained at all.

In addressing health and safety issues, he said, employers need to be willing to take “short-term heat” for “long-term gain.”

Chosewood said next on the Center’s to-do list will be to slow down the elevators so impatient workers will take the stairs. (I wasn’t sure if he was serious or kidding.)

According to Chosewood, there are three kinds of companies: bad, good and the best. Bad companies, he said, don’t do anything to keep their workers healthy and safe; good companies keep them protected from injury and illness; and the best do what’s needed to ensure their workers go home more healthy at the end of the day.

Employers that fall in this “best” category, he said, will enjoy more engagement, greater productivity and lower injury risk.

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TMBC Welcomes Averbook, Secures Funding

Jason AverbookJason Averbook has designs on reinventing workplace performance and employee engagement.

Earlier today, Averbook—recognized HR technology expert and former CEO of Knowledge Infusion—was announced as the new chief executive officer of The Marcus Buckingham Co. In the new role, Averbook plans to help the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based provider of leadership development training and tools “create an organization uniquely positioned to turn the world of talent and leadership inside out,” according to a statement announcing Averbook’s arrival at the company.

Averbook, who officially took over as CEO at TMBC on Oct. 31, won’t be alone in this task, of course. The same press release highlighted TMBC’s completion of a $5 million Series A fundraising round led by SurveyMonkey, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based online survey development company.

With Averbook at the helm and this funding secured, TMBC has lofty goals, according to founder Marcus Buckingham, a best-selling author, researcher, motivational speaker and business consultant.

The firm aims to “fix what is broken in the process of talent performance assessment and management,” says Buckingham. “TMBC’s vision is to deliver companywide and individual team leader visibility into employee strengths, engagement and performance; and its content aims to help the team leader build on the strengths of each employee.”

At the moment, “no such tools—designed explicitly for team leaders—exist,” according to Buckingham, who says the funds provided by SurveyMonkey will go toward “serving this pivotal but unserved market segment of true talent engagement, performance and real-time progress tracking.

On the eve of the announcement of his arrival at TMBC, Averbook echoed those sentiments in a chat with Human Resource Executive, during which he discussed the role of the company’s StandOut integrated performance and engagement platform in rethinking how workplace performance is measured and improved. The first round of funding from SurveyMonkey, he says, is tied to enhancements to StandOut, a strengths-based performance management system that includes a strengths profile for employees, pulse surveys designed to gauge employee-engagement levels and trends in real time, and talent reviews geared toward workforce planning using local talent data.

“The challenge has always been getting [the right] technology into the hands of team leaders,” says Averbook. “We want to [enable] real-time team building and measure engagement at a team level. We want to look at employee performance and engagement in a new way.”

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Protecting Black Friday Workers

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote to the nation’s largest retailers this week reminding them about the potential hazards presented by the upcoming Black Friday sales events and offering recommendations on how to keep their employees safe during the shopping blitz, according to The Hill.

The agency is recommending the nation’s largest retailers take precautions via a crowd-management plan on Black Friday (and other busy shopping days) to protect workers from being trampled by customers:

“During the hectic shopping season, retail workers should not be put at risk of injury of death,” says David Michaels, assistant labor secretary. “OSHA urges retailers to take the time to adopt a crowd-management plan and follow a few simple guidelines to prevent unnecessary harm to retail employees.”

The Black Friday safety measures, the Hill reports, come in response to dangerous workplace hazards at retail stores that have increased in recent years as customers push and shove through packed crowds to shop for Christmas gifts.

According to OSHA, one retailer worker was even trampled to death by customers who were rushing through the store in 2008.

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EEOC Adds Pregnancy Cases to Controversy

Just an update for those who are following the recent pregnancy-discrimination guidelines issued by the Equal Employment 490128943 -- pregnanct employeeOpportunity Commission — despite the controversy some think the agency created amidst the pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of Young v. United Parcel Inc.:  The EEOC isn’t waiting on the high court before filing or settling pregnancy-discrimination lawsuits either.

According to the EEOC’s website, press releases were issued on nine lawsuits filed and two settlements since the agency issued its updated Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues on July 14.

Here, for your information — should you choose to venture into this much reading — are all the cases the EEOC has filed and listed on its website against employers accused of pregnancy discrimination since the guidance was issued, from most recent to oldest:

All the suits in question accuse the businesses of violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

“I am surprised that this issue continues to be a recurring theme in the workplace in this day and age,” says Robert Canino, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Dallas District Office, which filed the Pharmacy Solutions lawsuit. “We hope that by continuing to increase public awareness through our law-enforcement efforts, we will see more of an awakening by some companies about the right of a woman to hold on to her job and to earn a living when she is expecting and during her maternity leave.”

But critics of the EEOC’s assertiveness and timing in issuing its guidance — which was the focus of this HREOnline news analysis I wrote back in July — say adding cases to the pregnancy-discrimination docket only clutters an already-cluttered legal landscape.

“With its new pregnancy enforcement guidance still in its first trimester, the EEOC has set about vigorously pursuing companies that do not comply,” thereby filling the courts with more to work on as the Supreme Court hearing has yet to be scheduled,  says Philip Voluck, managing partner in the Blue Bell, Pa., office of Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck.

“Since the EEOC first gave birth [pun intended, no doubt] to the guidance in July, it has inserted itself as plaintiff in at least nine federal-court lawsuits against employers [allegedly] discriminating against pregnant employees,” he says. “Each decision is accompanied by rather strong remarks from the [agency], which state quite clearly its intent to induce an ‘awakening’ by employers and erase ‘archaic prejudices’ still held by companies toward pregnant women.”

The issue up for consideration in Young v. UPS is whether an employer — in this case, UPS —  is required under the PDA to offer light-duty work to pregnant employees with restrictions, even if light-duty work is available for certain categories of nonpregnant employees.

“This is precisely the issue the Supreme Court has yet to take up,” Voluck told me back in July, “and that decision won’t come out until next year some time. “I honestly have no idea why this was issued at this time,” he said then. “A power move? I have no idea.

“It’s like the Perfect Storm, these two entities colliding,” he said, referring to the 2000 movie, “though my crystal ball tells me there’s no doubt the Supreme Court will expand the rights of pregnant women.”

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Good News: I Quit

According to a new Reuters analysis of the latest monthly U.S. Labor Department labor data, Americans quit their jobs in September at the fastest rate in over six years, to the tune of 2 percent of U.S. job-holders, or about 2.8 million workers.

And while it may seem counterintuitive to think that a rise in the quits rate — or the number of people quitting their job in a given month — would actually be a good sign for the overall health of the economy, such is the case in the murky world of economic indicators.

But why is it a good thing when more people quit their jobs? Two reasons, according to Reuters:

One, the quits rate fell during the  recession and has been slower to recover than other labor market indicators because workers were hesitant to make any job changes in uncertain times.

Some analysts, the Reuters piece notes, believe this has helped keep wage gains stagnant even as the jobless rate has fallen because employers don’t have to raise wages as much to retain talent when there is less employee turnover.

Second, the report notes Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has signaled the quits rate as an indicator she is following on her “dashboard” for assessing progress in the labor market’s recovery.

“It’s definitely good for wages,” said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank. “Also, the chair of the Federal Reserve is looking at it, and if she’s looking at it, we have to as well.”

So if you happen to notice a rise in the quit rate of your own organization, you can either take solace in knowing it’s contributing to the overall health of the economy, or else reevaluate your compensation and retention programs to ensure your best talent doesn’t float out the door on the rising tide of the economy.

Just like with economic indicators, it’s all in how you look at it.

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Who’s Leading the Way?

leadingIdentifying what makes for a great leader isn’t an exact science. But, each year since 2001, Aon Hewitt has done its best to pinpoint the traits shared by the best business leaders—and the companies that excel in cultivating them.

The Lincolnshire, Ill.-based consultancy recently unveiled its 2014 Global Aon Hewitt Top Companies for Leaders list, a group of 25 organizations selected and ranked by a panel of independent judges, including experts from Wharton School of Business, the Indian School of Business, PUC Minas and Ivey School of Business.

The panel relied on a number of criteria, including strength of leadership practices and culture, examples of leader development on a global scale, alignment of business and leadership strategy, business performance and company reputation to compile the list, headed by GE, IBM, Hindustan Unilever Limited, General Mills Inc. and ICICI Bank.

What got them there?

According to Aon Hewitt’s analysis, the top companies for leaders shared five key characteristics in their approach to leadership:

  • Assessment. Top companies assess the whole leader early in their careers, evaluating leaders’ experiences, competencies, values and organizational fit, which helps organizations “understand the unique needs of their talent pipeline to fuel the right development solutions that move people forward faster,” according to Aon Hewitt.
  • Awareness. These organizations have leaders who demonstrate tremendous self-awareness by understanding their personal strengths and weaknesses, and using this information to become more effective leaders.
  • Resilience. Those atop the 2014 list build resilience in their leaders by creating inclusive cultures “where multiple perspectives and ideas are expected and fostered to help the organization meet continued business challenges.”
  • Engaging leadership. Leading firms focus on identifying and building engaging leaders who “are stabilizers, demonstrate versatility and stay connected to people and events inside and outside their organization.
  • Sustainability. Top companies for leaders also concentrate on building talent programs “nimble enough to respond quickly to the market demands, yet sustainable [enough] to deliver superior business outcomes.”

This year’s top companies have shown a knack for nurturing talent in an ever-more competitive marketplace, says Michael Useem, professor of management and director of the Leadership Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, in a statement.

The Top 25 firms are “especially notable for the detailed tracking and comprehensive building of their talent pipelines, with special emphasis on strategic thinking, broad engagement and personal resilience—all increasingly critical given the companies’ changing and complex markets,” says Useem, who also describes “the direct personal involvement of senior managers and even company directors in their leadership programs” at top companies as “striking.”

What it takes to be “striking” in terms of leadership has changed greatly in the 14 years Aon Hewitt has compiled its leader list, and “what was exceptional [just] two or three years ago … has now become table stakes for top organizations,” adds Lorraine Stomski, a partner and head of Aon Hewitt’s leadership consulting practice.

“Those companies that rest on their laurels and rely on practices that have previously brought them success will no longer thrive like top companies do,” says Stomski. “Change and innovation are a must.”

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The Pitfalls of Consumerism

Do you put as much thought into selecting your cellphone plan as you do for selecting which doctors and specialists to see for your medical plans?

This question was posed at the National Business Coalition on Health’s annual conference in Washington by Shawn Leavitt, senior vice president of global benefits at Comcast Corp., during his keynote address.

“More than half of all consumers say they’re dissatisfied with the cellphone plan they chose,” he said. “So, if people are having a hard time selecting a cellphone plan that’s right for them, then how do we expect them to make the right decisions with respect to their health plan and health providers?”

The subject of Leavitt’s presentation was that healthcare consumerism — high-deductible plans that put more of the onus for financing and managing healthcare on employees — will not work unless employees receive more expert direction and guidance to help them.

At Comcast, said Leavitt, HR has enlisted so-called “expert shoppers” to help employees with these crucial decisions. It’s coupled that with outreach to certain locations within its vast empire to focus on subsectors — such as call centers — where employees were making heavy use of emergency rooms (and driving up costs) to educate employees on alternatives such as urgent care centers.

“We understand that it’s hard to expect employees who are juggling multiple responsibilities to make the sort of far-sighted decisions we’d like them to make when they’re faced with something as immediate as a sick child,” said Leavitt.

Comcast is using its own marketing wizardry to help educate employees on making wiser healthcare choices, he said. “We have become very good at getting consumers to pay to watch bad movies and reality television shows,” said Leavitt. “We’re focused on bringing that same level of expertise to help our employees make good decisions on healthcare.”

The risks of consumerism were also highlighted by Dr. Mark Fendrick during a panel discussion on pharmacy drug benefits. One of the main questions the panel grappled with was whether it was right for plan sponsors to exclude certain medications from plan coverage.

“If you’re doing that just to save money, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Fendrick, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Value-Based Insurance Design. “I think it’s OK if the drug has been proved to be ineffective or counterproductive or if cheaper generics of equivalent effectiveness are available. But do it for the right reasons.”

The trend of pushing more costs onto employees can end up doing more harm than good if it isn’t managed carefully, he said. “Raising deductibles and pushing more of the cost onto employees without giving them support necessary for needed treatment and medications will simply cause more of them to forgo what they need,” he said. “I’ve had patients tell me that until they exhaust their deductible, they’re not going to do many of the things I’ve told them they need to do to maintain their health. And that goes against what this whole idea of consumerism is supposed to be about.”

 

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Breathless at Work

It’s sometimes called “the hidden disease,” and the initials it goes by don’t help: COPD does not, in fact, stand for “Colorado Police Department,” joked COPD Foundation president and Co-Founder John Walsh during the opening day of the 19th Annual Conference of the National Business Group on Health yesterday in Washington. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease isn’t remotely funny — more than 24 million Americans are afflicted with it, and its symptoms can make the daily business of living rather hellish.

“Imagine trying to breathe through a cocktail straw, all day, every day,” said Walsh, who has a genetic form of the disease himself. “It can make tasks like climbing a flight of stairs feel impossible.”

COPD is actually an umbrella term for a number of illnesses that can wreak havoc on the lungs, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and some forms of asthma. Of the 24 million Americans who have it, nearly half aren’t aware that they actually have it — they tend to pass off the symptoms (chronic breathlessness, tightness in the chest, frequent colds) as mere signs of aging, said Walsh. About 70 percent of them are under the age of 65 and many are still working, he said.

Employers have a vested interest in both raising awareness of the disease and encouraging their employees to get screened for it and seek treatment if they have it, said Walsh. Untreated COPD results in frequent absences, presenteeism and diminished productivity — COPD typically results in co-morbidities such as anxiety and depression, he said. It’s also the second-leading cause of disability in the United States and extracts more than $32 billion from the country annually in healthcare costs alone, he added.

Although chronic smoking is a leading cause of COPD, factors such as industrial dust, in-door and outdoor air pollution and genetics also play a role, said Walsh. Even smokers who’ve long since kicked the habit are still at elevated risk, he said. “Smoking cessation programs are great, but even five to 10 years after quitting, these folks are still susceptible to COPD,” he said.

The COPD Foundation has created an employer’s toolkit to help organizations build COPD awareness into their wellness programs. It’s also helped fund two pilot programs, one in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and the other in Montana, in which local healthcare-purchasing coalitions are working with their member companies to raise awareness.

Increased awareness of the disease is especially important because it dispels the stereotype of who tends to have COPD: elderly men who’ve smoked all their lives, said Walsh. “Actually, a greater percentage of women have the disease than men,” he said. “It cuts across all ages and ethnic groups. When you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

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