I’m not a lawyer—I run a beer company in Denver. But as a small business owner who takes pride in treating our workers right, I’m concerned about an upcoming Supreme Court case that could give an unfair advantage to big corporations that cut corners and break the law.
When my business partner and I started the Denver Beer Company in 2011, we set out to do two things: to brew great beers and to build community in a town we love.
We knew that if we wanted to offer the kind of product that would make us proud, we couldn’t take short cuts. We’d use quality, locally sourced ingredients to brew our beers, we’d brew in small batches, and we’d thoughtfully choose our beer selections each month.
We also made a commitment to ensuring that everyone who works for Denver Beer Company grows and succeeds along with our business. That means offering a blanket vacation policy for full-time employees as well as a health plan—and certainly fair pay.
Along with being the right thing to do, I believe that treating my employees fairly saves me money in the long run, given the costs of high employee turnover. But it’s no secret that small businesses like mine face increasing pressure from huge corporations that prioritize profits at the expense of pretty much everything else, including their employees. When big businesses skirt environmental regulations, underpay their workers, and short them on overtime pay, it hurts not only workers but also business owners like us who play by the rules—and care about their workforce. Meanwhile, consumers may not realize that the lower prices big corporations offer often come at the expense of workers.
Unfortunately, these corporations not only play fast and loose with basic workplace rules, too many also do everything in their power to avoid taking responsibility when their rule-breaking catches up to them.
Today, growing numbers of corporations are trying to avoid accountability to their workers through forced arbitration clauses. Buried in the fine print of the contracts workers sign when they accept a job, these clauses often include “class action bans” that prevent workers from joining together to challenge workplace grievances in court. Instead, when their employer wrongs them in some way, workers who (probably unknowingly) signed such agreements must enter into individual, private arbitration proceedings, where their employer writes the rules and their chances of prevailing are much lower. All because they signed a piece of paper filled with legal jargon most of us wouldn’t understand.
These forced arbitration clauses and class action bans effectively allow employers to violate their employees’ basic rights, whether by withholding their tips or overtime, or other legal violations, knowing there will be little or no cost to them for doing so.
First and foremost, these kinds of practices leave (often already struggling) workers powerless. But they also hurt businesses that value fairness—especially small businesses—and our communities as a whole.
It’s not just that people like me have a harder time competing when the big guys cut corners on labor laws and other regulations. The reality is that people who are paid fairly can put money back into their communities—and can afford to buy my beers. Thriving working people create thriving communities, and small businesses do so much better when our communities are thriving. These kinds of policies tip the scales even farther in favor of the rich executives of big business.
The upcoming Supreme Court case, Epic Systems Corp. v Lewis, will decide whether big corporations can use arbitration clauses to take away workers’ rights to band together to challenge employer wrongdoing in court. The Trump administration is siding with the corporations. Colorado’s own Justice Neil Gorsuch, of course, will get to make his own decision about whether corporations should be allowed to rig the system in this way.
There’s something to be said for not taking the easy road. My business model wouldn’t work for everyone, but I know that doing my best to do right—by my employees, by the environment, and by my community—saves me money and eliminates legal and other risks. And frankly, hiring people and then watching them buy houses, send their kids to school, and achieve their goals at work is just fun. Or a lot more fun, I would think, than cheating them out of their rights in the fine print.