tony-the-tiger-frosties.jpgI was reading Twitter tweets this morning and I came across one that directed me to a story about the “Ten Characteristics of Great Companies” by a venture capital investor in Hoboken, N.J., named Fred Wilson. It was a solid list of virtues that make for solid companies, everything from “constantly innovating” to “having a global mindset.”

But there was one key point missing — treat your workers well.

I don’t think that’s a lot to ask, and it is surely a big part of what makes a company great.

I’m thinking about this today because I just got a disturbing study by labor market experts in academia called “Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers” on how poorly some firms treat their workers, so my radar antenna was up this morning.

What they uncovered is alarming:

· Minimum wage: 1 in 4 workers (26%) was paid below the minimum wage in a given work week;
· Overtime pay: 76% of those who worked overtime were not paid the required time and a half;
· Meal breaks: More than two-thirds (69%) did not get meal breaks they were entitled to;
· Off-the-clock work: 70% did not get any pay at all for work performed outside their regular shift;
· Tipped pay: Nearly 1/3 (30%) of tipped workers were not paid the tipped worker minimum wage;
· Pay documentation: 57% of workers did not receive mandatory pay stubs;
· Employer retaliation: 43% experienced illegal retaliation following complaints;
· Workers’ compensation: Only 6% of injured workers received coverage for medical expenses;
· Exempt workers: 89% of “in-home” child care workers earned less than the minimum wage

“This report exposes a world of work in which the core protections that many Americans take for granted are failing significant numbers of workers,” said Nik Theodore, Director of the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a co-author of the report. “The sheer breadth of the problem suggests the country’s work laws are simply not adequate for the 21st century, and that the laws we do have are not being adequately enforced.”

This isn’t just about low-wage earners folks. During this economic downturn, employers have been squeezing employees at all levels hard and that has led to, among other things, illegal furloughs, and many of you working off the clock. And who takes lunch anymore?

The findings in this study — that included interviews with nearly 4,500 workers in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles — just expose in ugly detail how bad things have gotten. It’s a condemnation of the labor laws and enforcement in this country, and a hopefully a wake-up call for a governmental system that has let so many workers down in the last two decades.

But it’s also a condemnation of what we all have come to expect from so-called great companies.

Every conversation should include a discussion of how employees in offices or factories or hotels should and should not be treated. Employees are not just superfluous “resources”. (My husband always talks about he hates the phrase “human resources” and I’m starting to get his point.)

“These problems are not limited to underground employers or a single group of vulnerable workers – rather, these violations are occurring at large and small businesses alike, in industries that are at the very core of urban U.S. economies. In fact, we found that it’s where you work, not who you are, that is the main determinant of these violations of employment laws,” said Annette Bernhardt, policy co-director at the National Employment Law Project, also a co-author.

Clearly, not all employers screw workers in this way, and the authors of the study point that out. But, added co-author Ruth Milkman, a professor of Sociology at UCLA, “systematic business strategies are in play when you see violations on this magnitude, which involve explicit decisions made by employers.”

Illegal and stupid decisions, no? It’s amazing to me that with all this talk about “great” — “Great Companies”, “Good to Great“, “What Really Makes A Great Entrepreneur?” — we haven’t really figured out what that means yet.

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