When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Maine in early 2020, the question of which workers were “essential” was on a lot of people’s minds. In some cases, it was very clear. But in other cases, it was less clear cut, and some companies took advantage of that to try to make as much money as they could, even if it meant putting workers in danger.

“In 2018, more than half of the nonunion private-sector workers who sought justice in court were barred from doing so by forced arbitration clauses,” Carrie Walsh notes. zendograph/Shutterstock.com

That’s what my employer did. I used to be an area manager at a company that sets up and maintains displays of “impulse items,” like straws, kitchen gadgets or pet toys, at more than 14,000 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

The people I managed were on the front lines, in and out of crammed, chaotic supermarkets all over New England and New York. Many of these people were older. Others had conditions that put them at high risk for severe complications, or death, with COVID-19. And by traveling from store to store, workers were also likely to expose many more people to the coronavirus should they become infected.

But instead of protecting their workforce and the general public, the company opted to carry on business as usual. They didn’t even provide gloves or masks, and social distancing was impossible.

I didn’t think the work we were doing was “essential,” so I went to management. They told me people didn’t have to work, but they wouldn’t get paid. I also heard from former co-workers that the company was disputing unemployment claims.

I decided to try another tactic: I sent an all-staff email to everyone, including the CEO, to discuss my concerns. Within minutes, I was completely locked out of the system. People ignored my messages, and I couldn’t even file for my last paycheck. But I did hear from dozens of employees who were scared to speak out for fear of retaliation.

The recruitment site describes this business as having “solid company values.” Apparently, those include secrecy, because when you sign on to work there, they make you sign away your right to sue. If the company creates an unsafe work environment, steals your wages or commits crimes, you can’t take them to court. Let me say that again: If the company violates the law, you can’t get justice for that through the legal system.

I found out when I tried to pursue a legal case that I’d signed a forced arbitration agreement when I was first hired, which the company had sneaked in as part of a large virtual document. I had to sign every document to work. I didn’t really have a choice. But because I’d signed the agreement, I couldn’t sue.

I’m far from alone in having unknowingly signed a forced arbitration agreement. In fact, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that in 2018, more than half of the nonunion private-sector workers who sought justice in court were barred from doing so by forced arbitration clauses.

In Maine, at least 225 employers force employees to sign arbitration agreements. In 2019, forced arbitration helped employers who stole their workers’ wages pocket $40 million in Maine, according to the National Employment Law Project. And with pandemic-related furloughs ending, more companies are even forcing employees to sign these agreements if they want to come back to work.

This is so obviously wrong. L.D. 1711 will give employees their day in court. Here’s how it works: The state is not bound to private arbitration agreements between a company and a worker, and L.D. 1711 would give the attorney general the authority to essentially deputize private attorneys, and use the power of the state to hold companies accountable when they break the law – even if an employee has signed a forced arbitration agreement.

We need to protect workers from unsafe workplaces, wage theft and harassment. The system we have now is wrong, and L.D. 1711 would help make it right.

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