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Milwaukee job training center pays $22,000, reinstates workers fired for complaining about bounced paychecks

A Milwaukee job training center has agreed to reinstate two employees who were fired after jointly seeking help for problems with their pay, which is protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. 

Esperanza Unida, a non-profit center that caters to low-income residents, agreed to the settlement on the opening day of a hearing before an NLRB administrative law judge, April 27. The center will also provide backpay to the two employees amounting to more than $22,000, and will change its overly-broad confidentiality policy. There is no union involved in the workplace.

According to a complaint issued by the NLRB’s Milwaukee regional office, the incident began when a group of Esperanza employees sought help from an immigrant and worker rights’ group called Voces de la Frontera. The employees said they were sometimes paid late and sometimes their paychecks bounced.

That day, one of the employees who sought help, an auto mechanic instructor, was fired. The following day, several employees called to say they would not work that day because of problems with their pay. A week later, one of those employees, a daycare instructor and the wife of the fired auto mechanic instructor, also was fired.

In justifying the firings, the center cited its confidentiality policy which states that employees must “use their utmost discretion in discussing confidential matters related to this Agency, other agencies, organizations, groups, and/or individuals. Indiscretions in discussing these matters are grounds for appropriate disciplinary action.”

The complaint alleged that the policy and the firings were unlawful because, under the National Labor Relations Act, employees have the right to discuss wages and working conditions with each other and to engage in concerted activity to address work-related problems.

“This case illustrates the little-known fact that the Act’s protections also apply in non-union settings,” said Irv Gottschalk, Director of NLRB Region 30 in Milwaukee. “Employees have the right to discuss wages, hours and working conditions among themselves and to bring those concerns to their employer, whether in a group or alone when they do so in behalf of themselves and others. An employer cannot maintain or enforce rules prohibiting such discussions, or retaliate against employees for raising such concerns, as happened here.”

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