The New York Times published an exposé on Kroger, the U.S.’s largest supermarket chain and the fourth-largest employer in the Fortune 500, whose tremendous financial success during the pandemic has not translated into improved wages and working conditions for many of its employees. While Kroger, whose stock has risen about 36% over the past year, recently announced it was expecting sales growth of at least 13.7% over the next two years, its workforce of around 500,000 includes a substantial number of workers who have reported being homeless and having to rely on government food stamps and food banks to get by. As the Times noted, a survey conducted by a non-profit research group and commissioned by four UFCW locals found that among 10,000 Kroger workers in Washington, Colorado and California, 75% said they were food insecure in that they lacked consistent access to enough food for a healthy life, 63% said they did not earn enough money to pay for basic monthly expenses, and 14% said they were homeless or had been at some point in the previous year. Although Kroger raised its national average hourly wage to $16.68 in 2017 and maintains a relatively generous benefits package compared as a result of union negotiations, the report noted that wages for top-paid clerks are 22% lower than they were in 1990 (in today’s dollars) and that, importantly, workers are now far more likely to have only part-time roles—a common strategy used by employers to encourage turnover and reduce costs.
Earlier this week, three graduate student workers filed a lawsuit in Boston federal district court against Harvard University, alleging that the university ignored allegations that John Comaroff, an anthropologist, had sexually harassed graduate students for years and had allowed him to intimidate students by threatening to derail their academic careers if they reported him. The lawsuit builds on an internal Title IX investigation conducted by Harvard that found that Dr. Comaroff had engaged in verbal conduct that violated policies on sexual and gender-based harassment and professional conduct, but which did not find that he was responsible for unwanted sexual contact. As a result of the investigation, Comaroff was placed on administrative leave for at least the spring semester and barred from teaching courses through at least the next year. In addition, in the days leading up to the lawsuit, the controversy surrounding the Title IV investigation stirred more than 90 Harvard faculty to sign an “open letter” defending Comaroff’s character and criticizing certain aspects of the investigation. In response, another letter circulated by a rival group of Harvard academics criticized Comaroff’s defenders for being too quick to accept the facts as told by his lawyers and openly aligning themselves against the student-complainants. Moreover, after the lawsuit was filed and further details came to light through the plaintiffs’ complaint, a number of faculty renounced their support for Comaroff and attempted to retract their support of the original open-letter.
Meanwhile, a federal district court has upheld the validity of a 2021 New York City law barring fast-food chains from firing employees without just cause against a challenge brought by the Restaurant Law Center and the NYS Restaurant Association. As Bloomberg reported, the law provides that covered employees may not be terminated, indefinitely suspended, or see their hours reduced without just cause. In addition, the law provides such workers the right to pursue arbitration if they believe they’ve been wrongfully discharged. In upholding the law against the restaurant groups’ federal and constitutional claims, SDNY Judge Denise Cote found that the law was not preempted by the National Labor Relations Act because the law is intended to promote job stability for hourly workers in a specific industry and does not distinguish between union and non-union workers, including in its arbitration provision. Judge Cote noted that the law addresses the process by which fast-food workers can be terminated, not collective bargaining, and only creates individual rights for employees. In addition, the court upheld the law’s arbitration provision against a claim that it was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act, finding that the NYC law does not prohibit or impair the enforcement of private arbitration agreements or otherwise conflict with the FAA’s statutory scheme. Lastly, the judge disposed of a claim that the law violated the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution on the ground that it discriminated against interstate commerce, noting that the law’s burden on interstate restaurant operations was indirect and that the law did not benefit in-state restaurant chains at the expense of out-of-state competitors.