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Don't Forget That the Supreme Court Just Allowed Workplaces to Become More Hostile

Photo courtesy the Supreme Court of the United States collection

While the focus in the past week has been on Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, voting rights and affirmative action, two other rulings released this week have made it easier for employees to be harassed in the workplace and reduced the legal recourse those workers have to end harassment. In two separate 5–4 rulings, in which the conservative justices sided against workers, the court made it harder to take recourse against a supervisor who is harassing a worker, and made it easier for bosses to punish workers who complain about discrimination.

In the first case, Vance v. Ball State University, the court ruled workers only are protected against a supervisor who has the power to make “significant change in [your] employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits” or if the company ignores the fact a supervisor without this power is engaging in harassment. This very narrow definition of "supervisor" makes remedying harassment more difficult and ignores the reality that many supervisors without hiring and firing power have the ability to make an employee's life much more difficult.

The second case, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, eliminated so called "mixed motive" retaliation claims under existing anti-discrimination law. Employees who pursue discrimination claims now will have to prove that discrimination was the sole thing on their boss's mind when they were fired or demoted. Previously, discrimination only had to be one factor involved in punishing an employee and bosses were required to reveal what they were thinking at the time of the punishment. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent, that standard is almost impossible to meet, since few people in the real world are motivated by a single cause.

Ginsburg called on Congress to adopt legislation to fix both of these rulings and restore protections for workers.

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