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Op-Ed: Texas Supreme Court wrong to allow employers to lie to workers

By Calvin Wolf     Aug 23, 2014 in Politics
Austin - In an erroneous decision that should provoke outrage, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that employers may lie to their workers. It turns out that an employer is not obligated to be truthful about whether workers' jobs are in jeopardy.
In 2002 DuPont decided to spin off some of its operations into a subsidiary. Its unionized workers, who had the option of an internal transfer within DuPont rather than working for the new subsidiary, were worried that DuPont might sell the subsidiary and place those jobs in jeopardy. Obviously, many union workers would resist moving to this new subsidiary, fearing layoffs when and if the subsidiary was sold. DuPont assured its workers that it had no intentions of selling the subsidiary, so the unionized workers stayed on at those jobs. Then, only weeks later, the subsidiary was sold to Koch Industries, which cut salaries and benefits for the former DuPont workers.
According to MainStreet, DuPont had been quietly negotiating with Koch Industries while lying to its employees that no sale was in the plans. And, amazingly, the Texas Supreme Court has found that DuPont was within its rights: Because there is no fraud exception to at-will employment in the state of Texas, DuPont broke no laws.
Essentially, because an employer in an at-will employment state can fire a worker at any time for almost any reason, the Court determined that workers cannot rely on any promise that their job is safe in the future.
The Texas legislature needs to implement a fraud exception to at-will employment. Fraud should also be considered gross negligence, against which there is no legal absolution. For example, businesses cannot absolve themselves of liability for customers' injuries simply by hanging a sign stating "we are not liable; enter at your own risk." Even having customers or clients sign waivers does not insulate from liability for negligence.
For the purpose of safety, our nation has decreed that businesses, regardless of the level of risk of their operation, ranging from selling groceries to selling skydiving, have an obligation to maintain reasonable safety protocols and equipment maintenance. Another decree should be honesty and fair dealing with employees. Just because you are an at-will employer should not give license to lie, for multiple reasons:
First, employers suffer unacceptable financial loss when misled by their at-will employers. How many DuPont workers had accrued debt, ranging from college loans to mortgages to car leases, while DuPont was lying about the future of their employment? People make financial decisions based on their belief in the future stability of their respective jobs. If an employer openly states "your job is safe," then the employer should be liable for helping handle reasonable debt accruals made by employees in good faith on the basis of that assurance. Essentially, if you buy a house the month after your employer says the company is just fine and there will be zero layoffs over the next year, and the next month you get laid off, the company has some financial obligation.
Secondly, establishing the precedent of allowing at-will employers to mislead workers will create animosity between workers and employers that threatens the livelihoods of both. Some modicum of trust is essential for the effective operation of a business. Employees in Texas, now no longer feeling safe in their jobs, are less likely to offer their employers weeks of notice before leaving their current positions: "If they're just gonna screw me, I might as well screw them." It does not take long before the system starts to break down, with employers and employees behaving with increasing callousness toward each other. The Texas Supreme Court decision, instead of helping businesses, will only hurt them in the long run as employees feel less obligation to engage in fair play when leaving their jobs.
Third, asserting that a lie is acceptable because the truth could have accomplished the exact same thing is a dangerous precedent for both businesses and workers. Workers could sue and argue that their termination for drinking or drug use was unlawful because any number of medical conditions could have caused the exact same symptoms. The argument would be that employers have no guarantee that employees will not display certain symptoms while on the job, rendering any promises to not engage in behaviors that create those symptoms irrelevant. "You have no guarantee that I won't catch a cold and become woozy and lethargic, so any promise to avoid ingesting substances that make me woozy and lethargic is void."
If businesses can lie if the truth could accomplish the same thing, namely the firing of the worker, then mustn't workers also have the same legal protections for their lies? Is this a good idea?
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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