May 21, 2024

GUEST ROOM | It’s Time for Just Cause Employment Protection

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Sarah was a teacher at a local Montessori school for 11 months. One cold November day, she was outside with a student during the before-school program. The child said they were cold and asked to go inside, so Sarah — like most people would have done — immediately agreed. The next day, she was fired for “not being a good fit for the school.” Apparently, the other teachers and director believed that kid had been manipulating her and that she should have pushed them to stay outside for longer. She was given no warning, no severance pay, no time to find another job and no opportunity to say goodbye to her students. After being terminated from the school, Sarah struggled for many months to find another job. She was already living paycheck to paycheck, so this experience was extremely unsettling and stressful. “It is heartbreaking to be fired unjustly and to not have a chance to fix it” Sarah said, “It completely changes your entire world and the way that you view yourself, and there’s a lot of shame and anger and hurt and… just trying to process it all…and it not only affects you; it affects your coworkers; it affects the children, and it just has that…  butterfly effect.” 

This is just one of many stories of unjust termination in the City of Ithaca. This is why the Working Families Party, Workers Center and countless small businesses, unions, and local organizations are advocating for a new piece of legislation: Just Cause Employment Protection. 

JCEP would address many of the struggles that workers in Ithaca face. Under just cause protections, employers need a good reason to fire or lay off an employee, and must follow a fair and transparent process in doing so. Just Cause means employers, not just workers, are held accountable, and establishes a local commission to review possible violations. It gives workers the security they deserve in the workplace and encourages employers to focus on developing, rather than replacing, workers. 

Just cause has already been enacted in industries and cities all over the country. In 2020, New York City implemented just cause for fast-food workers. Two years earlier, in 2019, Philadelphia enacted just cause protections for parking attendants. NYC’s City Council is also considering legislation that would cover all of the city’s workers — the Secure Jobs Act — introduced in December 2022 and cosponsored by ten council members. According to a 2023 survey conducted by Data for Progress, NYC workers overwhelmingly support just cause firing practices  US territories like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have had broad just cause requirements since 1976 and 1986, respectively. Globally, the US is one of the only democracies that still has at-will employment. In 1982, the International Labor Organization met and passed a convention stating that “[t]he employment of a worker shall not be terminated unless there is a valid reason for such termination.” Thirty five countries have since ratified this Convention, including Brazil, France, Morocco and Sweden. Yet somehow, more than four decades later, the US still has no federal or even state policy regarding just cause employment, despite the fact that worker support for just cause is bipartisan. Most union contracts even have a just cause clause — the concept is neither new nor radical. Just cause in Ithaca would protect all workers using standards that have been agreed upon by countless countries, cities, and collective bargaining agreements. 

The history of at-will employment, the current alternative to just cause, is quite disturbing. At-will employment is rooted in employer opposition to the passing of the 13th amendment, which legally abolished slavery. Proponents like Horace Wood, a railroad attorney, argued that since workers now had the “right to quit,” (ie. enslaved labor was made illegal) employers should have the “right to fire” without reason

More than a century later, at-will employment continues to be intrinsically linked to union-busting and racist firing practices. Workers involved in organizing their workplace, as well as Black employees, may be disproportionately targeted by management and unjustly fired. Just cause would protect workers from these forms of discrimination.  In Ithaca, just cause employment is especially important due to skyrocketing rents and an increasing living wage (now $18.45). These make workers extremely vulnerable to eviction when they’re discharged without ample notice. We’ve also had some concerning union-busting practices in our town, with Starbucks closing down stores in Collegetown and downtown amidst attempts to organize.  

For workers, just cause would have an incredible impact on their everyday lives. Workers would be able to go to work knowing that their basic rights — including organizing, sick leave and reporting unsafe conditions — are legally protected. Just cause would benefit employers as well by prioritizing the growth of  employees, allowing workers to fix their mistakes, improve and become long-term employees. High turnover rates place a big financial burden on businesses, who must constantly invest their time and money into hiring and training new workers. Just cause would be a way to invest in employees, rather than treating them as short-term and disposable. There’s a common fear that labor legislation like this will hurt businesses — particularly small businesses — but there’s no reason to believe this will be the case. Just cause legislation has been introduced all over the country, and has existed in other countries for years, with no noticeable negative effects on business. Kate Andrias, a law professor at Columbia University, wrote in defense of just cause, citing laws in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as evidence that ending at-will employment works without being a heavy burden on businesses.

The legislation proposed in Ithaca would create a workers rights commission — made up of members appointed by the Common Council — that would review worker complaints. Employers would need to adhere to a set of guidelines for termination, such as using progressive discipline, providing  a written notice of potential discharge at least 30 days prior to the discharge and steps that can be taken to avoid discharge, and giving employees all written and electronic materials used to make the discharge decision if they request it. Employees must be fully aware of the employer’s policies, and cannot be fired for reasons other than violating a policy or serious economic hardship.  After being discharged, they shall pay severance pay based on the length of employment. If an employer violates any of these policies and a worker takes their case to the commission, the employer may be required to pay back pay and/or reinstate the employee. 

For this to happen, we need to show the Common Council that this is a policy Ithacans support. Ithaca workers deserve to stand on equal footing with their employers. This legislation will be introduced to the Common Council in the coming months,  so what can you do to help? First, you can sign and share the petition, as well as talk about the campaign with your friends, family, and coworkers.  If you’ve been unjustly fired, you can share your own story. You can also call or send a letter to your council person, telling them that you support JCEP and urging them to vote yes on it. Let’s make this happen, so that Ithaca can be a better place to live and work! 

Hannah Shvets is a first year in the New York State School of Industrial & Labor relations. She is a member of the Cornell Young Democratic Socialists of America, Jewish Voices for Peace, as well as the Ithaca CPUSA club. 

This article is written on behalf of the Just Cause Coalition, a coalition of Ithaca and Cornell organizations working to draft and push through this legislation. She can be reached at [email protected].