There was a recent thread on Reddit titled, “Hey Reddit, what’s your best ‘I got fired on the spot’ story?” Included are plenty of the types of stories you would expect, like employees playing pranks on one another and employees who got so fed up with their jobs they stopped doing them and were fired in response.
But a disturbing trend emerged: many were fired illegally. Consider these examples, which I’ve edited down for space:
The next day I [a waitress] went into work and my boss FIRED me for stealing money from those [rude customers]. They told her that I’d left with money and didn’t come back with the change (like 15$). She wouldn’t give me my last paycheck until I gave her the ‘stolen’ money.
Worked for a video game store in 2004. I made a whopping $6 an hour. Someone stole a $50 game during my shift. The next day the manager tried to make me and another coworker reimburse him for the full $50, even though the manager paid way less to stock it. I told my boss, “Just because someone stole from you doesn’t give you the right to steal from me.” A few minutes later my job was stolen from me.
We were closing down the bar after a big Saturday night and my boss asked me and someone else to stay (unpaid) for another hour to mop the floor because the cleaners wouldn’t be in the next day. After my boss had exited the room I turn to my colleague and say “I’m gonna throw a bucket of soap water over it, make a sandwich and then have a nap on the sofa. The stupid smackhead wouldn’t know a clean floor if he was snorting H off it.” I turn around laughing, and see my boss stood behind me, about to hand me the keys to lock up for the night. Oops!
I was a cook at a local momnpop burger joint. When I came in for my shift the supervisor told me that the reach-in died in the night and all the patties were warm. I asked how long they had been warm and he said he didn’t know so I said “I’ll cook the frozen ones from the walk-in and it will only take 1 minute longer with the presses.” He said “Cook the warm patties.” I argued why this was a bad idea and he said “Do it or your fired.” I said “No.”
Every one of those — from withholding payroll by alleging employee theft, to not paying overtime, to firing an employee for refusing to serve spoiled food — involves a violation of the employee protection laws of every state I know. Many employees believe they have more rights than they really do (for example, most employers don’t need to accommodate employees for temporary injuries that didn’t occur on-the-job), but most states have good Wage & Hour laws that ensure employees get paid for every hour they work.
Take Pennsylvania: deductions from paychecks can be made only for the employee’s benefit (here’s the Wage Payment and Collection Law itself, as well as the longer list of permissible wage deductions; there’s no secret exception for theft from a store or an alleged theft from a customer) and overtime work can be required by must pay 1-1/2 times regular pay. New Jersey’s employment laws are roughly the same. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act similarly mandates overtime pay.
Firing for refusing to cook spoiled hamburger patties is an interesting one, and a blatant violation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act passed just this year, which includes:
(a) In General.–No entity engaged in the manufacture, processing, packing, transporting, distribution, reception, holding, or importation of food may discharge an employee or otherwise discriminate against an employee with respect to compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment because the employee, whether at the employee’s initiative or in the ordinary course of the employee’s duties (or any person acting pursuant to a request of the employee)–
(1) provided, caused to be provided, or is about to provide or cause to be provided to the employer, the Federal Government, or the attorney general of a State information relating to any violation of, or any act or omission the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of any provision of this Act or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this Act, or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this Act;
(2) testified or is about to testify in a proceeding concerning such violation;
(3) assisted or participated or is about to assist or participate in such a proceeding; or
(4) objected to, or refused to participate in, any activity, policy, practice, or assigned task that the employee (or other such person) reasonably believed to be in violation of any provision of this Act, or any order, rule, regulation, standard, or ban under this Act.
Indeed, even before the FMSA firing someone for refusing to serve spoiled food was likely a violation of the whistleblower laws of most states. Pennsylvania’s whistleblower law says:
(a) Persons not to be discharged — No employer may discharge, threaten or otherwise discriminate or retaliate against an employee regarding the employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, location or privileges of employment because the employee or a person acting on behalf of the employee makes a good faith report or is about to report, verbally or in writing, to the employer or appropriate authority an instance of wrongdoing or waste.
43 P.S. § 1423(a). 43 P.S. § 1422 define”wrongdoing” as “A violation which is not of a merely technical or minimal nature of a Federal or State statute or regulation, of a political subdivision ordinance or regulation or of a code of conduct or ethics designed to protect the interest of the public or the employer.”
The absurd part in all of this is that Wage & Hour laws in most states are quite good, in that they provide full compensation for employees for all lost wages, plus a penalty, plus attorney’s fees and litigation costs. I don’t do many of these cases (except as a class action of many employees), but I know many lawyers who do. Many employers, however, feel so emboldened by the dire economic straits of their employees (due to the low wages they pay) that they believe they can get away with blatantly illegal conduct like stealing their employee’s wages and serving rotten beef to customers. It’s a sad comment on the state of American labor and industry these days.