Fining Teachers for Switching Schools

Originally published in The American Prospect on November 3, 2016.
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Last month, the Massachusetts Teachers Association reported on the story of Matthew Kowalski, a high school history and economics teacher who received a $6,087 bill over the summer from his former employer—a suburban charter school in Malden, Massachusetts. Kowalski had worked at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School for seven years, but with three young children and another one on the way, he said he wanted to find a teaching job that would offer something more stable than at-will employment.

Mystic Valley now seeks to collect thousands of dollars in “liquidated damages” for Kowalski’s departure. Every spring, the charter school requires its employees to sign one-year contracts for the following school year, but since many new teaching positions don’t open up until May, June, and July, this puts teachers in a tough position if they want to consider looking for alternative jobs. Kowalski signed Mystic Valley’s 2016-2017 contract in April, got a job offer from a traditional public school in May, and gave the charter written and verbal notice by May 20. Mystic Valley then hired Kowalski’s replacement, whom Kowalski trained. Two months later, his $6,000 bill arrived. It didn’t take long for Kowalski to learn there were others who had faced a similar fate. MTA Today reported on another teacher who had worked at Mystic Valley for four years, who was billed $4,900 in “damages” for giving notice over the summer.

As MTA’s legal division worked to help the former Mystic Valley teacher fight these charges, Kowalski’s attorney stumbled upon something surprising: Mystic Valley employment contracts included non-compete provisions, prohibiting teachers from working in any public or private school in any of the six “sending districts” near the charter school. Though charters are often framed as a way to induce competition into American schools, non-compete agreements—which have grown increasingly common in the private sector—make clear that some charter employers don’t believe that schools should compete for teaching talent. Nor is it clear that the agreements are even legal, or enforceable.

Just how common contracts like these actually are remains a mystery, but they’re not just limited to Mystic Valley.In 2015, the Akron Beacon Journal found that Summit Academy Schools, the largest charter network in Ohio, sued nearly 50 former teachers in a three-year period for leaving for other jobs. Summit Academy schools have non-compete provisions in their employment contracts.

“Summit Academy’s legal team filed [lawsuits] against as many as eight [former teachers] at a time,” the Akron Beacon Journal reported. One such teacher was Joel Kovitch, who quit in 2013 to take a higher-paying position. He gave his notice one month into summer vacation, and thought there’d be plenty of time to replace him. He ended up paying Summit Academy $1,200 after growing tired of fighting the legal battle.

The American Prospect also reviewed an employment contract for a charter school within the Constellation Schools network, another Ohio charter chain with 17 campuses throughout the state. The contract requires teachers to work for one year, to have no expectation for employment beyond that, and to pay their school $2,000 in liquidated damages if they terminate their employment at any time before their contract expires. The Constellation contract says this is not a “penalty” for leaving, but an acknowledgment that the employer “has expended considerable time and effort recruiting and/or retaining and training you to ensure you are prepared for your position, and … that such a disruption to the educational process is difficult if not impossible to calculate.”

In other words, teachers can’t expect to stay more than one year, but if they leave before one year is over, then they will need to pay their school two grand. Constellation Schools did not return request for comment.

Teachers who work at Ozark Montessori Academy, a charter school in Arkansas, also have to sign non-competes, agreeing to not “directly or indirectly … solicit, induce, recruit, or cause another person in their employ of Employer to terminate his/her employment for the purpose of joining, associating, or becoming employed with any business or activity which is in competition with Ozark Education, Inc.” The agreement lasts for two years after the teacher leaves the school, and it applies “in any area in which Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” Charter teachers at Ozark are also required to sign confidentiality agreements that they will not directly or indirectly disclose “trade secrets” which are “used by Employer and give it an opportunity to obtain an advantage over competitors who do not know those trade secrets.”

The American Prospect contacted Ozark to inquire about their employment contract, and in regards to their non-compete requirement, a school representative said, “We pay for our teachers’ Montessori training, and since that’s such a big expense for us, we wanted in [the contract] that we’re not going to pay for a teacher’s training and then they go quit and work for someone else.”

The American Prospect reviewed a contract for another charter school in Washington, D.C., that, in addition to having a one-year non-compete provision and requiring teachers to keep “trade secrets” confidential during and after employment—including information related to the school’s “academic policies and strategies”—also requires teachers to not “create, or appear to create, a conflict of interest with Employee’s loyalty to or duties for” the school, “including, but not limited to, providing any tutoring for hire.”

This charter school also requires teachers to agree to mandatory arbitration—a process that involves waiving away your right to sue for grievances, or to contest the terms of the contract itself. The provision requires teachers to waive their rights accorded them by worker protection, civil-rights, and anti-discrimination acts, as follows:

The parties agree that … any dispute (“Dispute”) between the parties arising out of or relating to the Employee’s employment, or to the negotiation, execution, performance or termination of this Agreement or the Employee’s employment, including, but not limited to, any claim arising out of this Agreement, claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1966, as amended, the Family Medical Leave Act, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, and any similar federal, state or local law, statute, regulation, or any common law doctrine, whether that dispute arises during or after employment shall be resolved by final, binding, and non-appealable arbitration by one arbitrator in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, in accordance with the National Employment Arbitration Rules of the American Arbitration Association, as modified by the provisions of this Article.

The Covenant Keepers Charter School in Little Rock, Arkansas, requires its teachers to not disclose “trade secrets” and to agree to not work for any “business or activity in competition with the charter school” for two years after leaving, in “any area in which the Employer currently solicits or conducts business, and/or any area in which an Employer plans to solicit or conduct business.” The teacher also has to agree to pay liquidated damages in the amount of “$100,000 plus court costs, litigation expenses, and actual and reasonable attorneys’ fees” if the non-compete or confidentiality agreement is breached.

No one has sought to tally how many charter schools include non-compete agreements in their contracts. Schools certainly don’t publicize them; it often requires individual teachers coming forward to alert the public to their existence. A Gainesville, Florida, elementary school teacher wrote on a legal advice forum asking whether the non-compete agreement she signed at her charter school was enforceable. A teacher at the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School confirmed to The American Prospect that they too must sign non-compete agreements.

The Prospect reached out to the National Association of Public Charter Schools to inquire if the group promoted any kind of model charter employment contract, or if there are any provisions they specifically discourage charter schools from adopting. Vanessa Descalzi, a senior communications manager, says her group had never heard of other charter schools with practices like suing departed teachers for liquidated damages, or including non-compete, or forced-arbitration clauses.

The revelation of such provisions in charter school contracts comes at a time when the Obama administration and the National Labor Relations Board have begun to crack down on overly broad confidentiality agreements, mandatory arbitrations, and non-compete clauses. The White House says 20 percent of American workers are bound by non-compete agreements, and just last week urged state legislatures and policymakers to ban them for certain categories of workers, particularly those unlikely to possess real trade secrets.

The Economic Policy Institute says survey evidence reveals that many workers have no idea they are bound by non-compete agreements, with fewer than one in five employees consulting an attorney before signing, and only about one in ten attempting to negotiate the terms of their agreement. And as Economic Policy Institute vice president Ross Eisenbrey notes, even when workers know about the clauses, it’s a choice “between taking a job and not taking it in a tough labor market that favors employers.”

Even if such provisions are one day banned by legislatures or nullified by the courts, their current inclusion within charter employment contracts may be enough to deter teachers from taking the legal risk of moving on to a different school. This may be what the employers are counting on.

Jimmy John’s workers fight for a union

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on October 28, 2014.
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On Sunday, Oct. 19, as Ravens fans meandered around the chilly Inner Harbor in advance of the game set to begin later that afternoon, about two dozen workers and community supporters formed a picket line outside the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop on Pratt Street to demand the right to form a union. “Ravens have a union!” the protesters chanted. “Why can’t we?” The Jimmy John’s employees claim that ever since their efforts to publicly unionize kicked off in early August, management has responded with clear efforts to intimidate them, including the firing of their co-worker James Hegler. Workers have responded by filing seven counts of illegal retaliation complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

On Aug. 9, with support from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union founded in 1905 that gained a reputation for organizing across class, race, gender, and occupational lines, Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers presented their list of demands to management, which included one paid sick day per month, a transparent disciplinary system for both workers and managers, and wage parity with their landlord, the Hilton, that has unionized employees making between $10.75-$13 per hour. Wages at Jimmy John’s hover around $7.25.

The Baltimore fight comes at an interesting time as Jimmy John’s workers across the country have gained national attention for launching a class action lawsuit over the non-compete agreements all Jimmy John’s employees are forced to sign in order to work there. These contractual clauses require employees to promise not to work in any nearby sandwich shop for at least two years after they leave, so as not to give away “trade secrets.” In response, over 35 House Democrats recently signed a letter requesting the Department of Labor and the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into this suspect labor practice. Though the Baltimore Jimmy John’s workers say they stand in solidarity with the class-action suit, they themselves are not presently involved.

The fight for a union also stands out as thousands of fast-food employees across the country have gotten involved with the Fight for 15 campaign, an effort to demand fast-food chains provide a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union. Founded in Chicago in 2012, and largely backed by the Service Employees International Union, Fight for 15 includes employees at McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Wendy’s who have taken to high-profile one-day strikes in order to send a message to their employers that they deserve better conditions in the workplace. Even President Obama has publicly cheered on the fast-food strikers’ organizing.

But despite the fast-food industry’s substantial presence in the Baltimore labor market, the Fight for 15 campaign just has not taken off here like it has in other cities. Some activists involved in the Baltimore and Maryland Workers Assembly marched in a “Walk 4 Justice” downtown in May and September, to support strikers in other cities, but by and large the local fast-food organizing efforts have been minimal.

“We’re the only union organizing fast-food workers in the city,” said Brennan Lester, a Jimmy John’s worker and IWW organizer. “But this is an idea whose time has come. We’re long overdue for unions. We’re precariously employed with no rights and no protections and we’re one of the only growth industries. It’s not just for kids anymore.”

Colleen Davidson, an activist with the Baltimore chapter of Fight Imperialism Stand Together (FIST), who came out to the Jimmy John’s demonstration, said organizing can be particularly difficult in Baltimore because “so many people are just in survival mode, juggling two to three jobs, raising kids, and grappling with gentrification and homelessness.”

Yet back in the early ’90s, there was a time when Baltimore was the national leader for low-wage organizing efforts—proudly standing as the first city to launch a “living wage” campaign, and ultimately being the first city to pass a “living wage” law. Activists called for a minimum wage of $7.70 per hour, a significant spike from the federal minimum wage of $4.25. Led by the church-based civic group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) in conjunction with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), residents began organizing for higher wage standards after it became clear that even full-time workers couldn’t pay their bills. Activists campaigned with the theory that public subsidies and city contracts should not support private firms that paid poverty wages.

Going forward, Jimmy John’s workers have pledged to continue launching “a series of escalating direct actions” in order to pressure the company to recognize their union. Toward the end of the Oct. 19 protest, picketers marched inside the store, holding up signs, and calling for management to reinstate Hegler. “What do we want? Rehire James! When do we want it? Now!” In the end, four Baltimore City police came to break up the event.

Stephen Thompson, a 28-year-old adjunct math professor at UMBC, showed up to picket alongside the Jimmy John’s workers. “Compared with other labor-related protests I’ve been to in Baltimore, this one had a different feel. That’s what I really liked about it,” said Thompson, who noted that the IWW people are a “young ragtag kind of group” in contrast to the more professional organizers of other unions. In Baltimore, the IWW is also affiliated with the unions at Red Emma’s and Baltimore Bicycle Works. “They are very passionate,” Thompson added. “It made the picket more fun and exciting.”