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The Secret War Against American Workers

Bosses are using minor transgressions of work-place rules as the trigger for firings -- putting the fear of god into those who remain.
 
 
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Juanita Borden, 39 and jobless, patiently waits as her résumé methodically works its way, line by line, through a fax machine at a state-run job center in downtown Philadelphia. Lying open before her on a round conference table is a neatly organized folder. "This is my résumé and everywhere I've been faxing to. This is how I keep track of what day I've sent them on, so I can call and check back," she says, leafing through pages of fax cover sheets. "I usually give five business days before I inquire whether or not they've received it and whether or not they're interested."

Juanita was fired last October, when her employer found out that her driver's license -- a job requirement -- had expired. "It was only a matter of twenty-six dollars. I was under the impression that it expired in November of '08, but it was actually November of '07, and because I hadn't been driving I wasn't aware of it." The one occasion on which she was required to drive, though, she couldn't, and that was all her employer needed to fire her for failing to fulfill her employment responsibilities. She has since renewed her license and says with an air of futility, "I'd like to have my job back if they would give it to me."

She hasn't been asked back and, despite her persistent efforts, she hasn't received a single call from a prospective employer either. "The good thing," she says, remaining remarkably buoyant despite her misfortune, "is that usually when I interview I get the job. So... I'm hoping for an interview soon." Until then, her carefully managed folder serves as a small measure of control over an otherwise steady drift into poverty and homelessness.

Juanita isn't the only one at this job center on the precipice of acute need. And she isn't alone in relating a story about being fired for what would seem to many a frivolous reason. Chris Topher, 25 and making his first visit here, was axed in March of last year. The telecommunications company he had been working for sent him packing when, as he tells it, he installed cable equipment a customer hadn't ordered. It didn't matter that the mistake was on the work order Chris was given. "It was the best job I had since I graduated high school and I've had a few: Turnpike Commission, working in a Senator's office. I've had some nice jobs, but that one, I enjoyed it the most."

And there was good reason to enjoy it. Chris pulled down $1,200-1,300 every two weeks in addition to receiving a full benefits package. He thought of contesting his termination, but at the time it looked like a long, uphill battle that he wasn't eager to take on. It's a fight that, in hindsight, he thinks he could have won and that his employer probably knew he would win as well. "And that's why I believe I was approved by my employer for unemployment," he says.

Under unemployment eligibility requirements, an employer must certify whether an employee committed a "fault" on the job and was therefore terminated. If an employer indicates that no fault was committed and the employee meets several other requirements, including being physically able to work, states grant an unemployment claim. In other words, Chris's former employer granted him a small concession, while otherwise turning his life upside down amid the worst job market since 1983.

"Unemployment is the pits pretty much," says Chris, whose unemployment compensation is significantly less than half what he made as a cable installer. Still, he's better off than Juanita, who has applied for unemployment twice and been denied both times. She is now appealing, but her employer is conceding nothing. In a recent arbitration hearing, Juanita says, her former supervisor claimed that, if she had only told them about her expired license, they would have allowed her renewal time. If only.

 
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