On February 17th, Washington Post reporter Chico Harlan wrote a piece that analyzed the human impact of the 25-cent minimum wage increase in Arkansas. The article prominently featured the experiences of Shanna Tippen, a grandmother who worked in a variety of roles at Days Inn and Suites such as attending the front desk and troubleshooting issues for guests.
While Tippen’s life would improve modestly after receiving the small wage increase, it was clear that the raise would not lift her and her family out of poverty. Even so, she did not make any negative comments about her employer. The story also featured a quote from her manager, Herry Patel, who opposed the small increase because “everybody wants free money in Pine Bluff.” In contrast, other businesses noted that the increase would not force them to lay off employees.
Only one month later, Harlan reported that Tippen had lost her job. She claims that Patel fired her in retaliation for speaking about her experiences to The Washington Post. This event illustrates a real tension in poverty reporting, especially when stories involve vulnerable low-wage workers.
I worry about this happening every time I write about low-wage workers (or other vulnerable groups). http://t.co/I9dLjza8WB— Ben Casselman (@bencasselman) March 30, 2015
Ben Casselman, who is the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight (an outlet that uses statistical analysis to cover stories), is absolutely right to be concerned. Journalists should consider the impact that their reporting could have on their sources. This is an ethical and strategic consideration – if workers feel that they will experience negative effects, they may be less likely to come forward. In this particular instance, Tippen might have benefited from the protection of anonymity. However, Harlan’s account clearly states that Patel invited him to speak to Tippen, and therefore it would have been difficult to anticipate that she would experience retaliation for her comments. The blame here lies with the employer, not the reporter. Days Inn and Suites should reinstate Tippen immediately.
If anything, this story demonstrates that we need more coverage, not less. Harlan’s reporting makes an important point in its own right – a small minimum wage increase is not enough to lift families out of poverty. It also avoids elevating incorrect arguments which insist that increases in the minimum wage lead to layoffs.
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But its Harlan’s follow-up reporting that makes an even more important point – abusive employers should be held accountable. When Tippen told Harlan that she believed she was fired for talking to him, Harlan gave her a platform to speak out. He also repeatedly followed up with Days Inn and reported on their sustained attempts to dodge his calls. Finally, Harlan made it clear that this action by Patel will have a real impact on Shanna Tippen’s life—with the loss of her job, her money “won’t last past March.”
It seems obvious that Patel is an abusive employer – he threatened to sue the paper when the story came out and blatantly tried to use Tippen’s criminal record to smear her and cast doubt on her credibility. Harlan’s reporting on Tippen’s firing amounts to a public shaming of Patel on a national stage. Thanks to Tippen’s courage to speak out and Harlan’s work, hopefully some employers will think twice about retaliating against employees who talk to the press about low wages and bad working conditions. In fact, increased press scrutiny could decrease abuses across the board.
This is especially key in states like Arkansas, where the media is one of the few institutions with the strength to hold employers accountable. Arkansas is a right-to-work state, meaning that non-union members are allowed to free ride and gain the advantages of union contracts without paying dues. This state of affairs is correlated with weaker unions, and Arkansas’ unionization rates are dismal: only 4.7% of employed workers are members of a union; and only 5.4% of workers in the state are represented by a union (meaning they report no union affiliation but are covered under a union contract).
The law allows employers to terminate employment for practically any reason unless there is an agreement stating otherwise—for example, a union contract—or if an employee is terminated on the basis of age, sex, race, religion, national origin or disability. This creates a Catch-22: the unions that are best-situated to secure agreements protecting employees’ speech have been marginalized by state policies. If Tippen had been unionized, Patel would have thought twice about firing her for speaking out. Instead, he seemingly believed he could retaliate against her without fear of backlash. Without The Post’s efforts, he would have succeeded.
It’s also important to consider how Arkansas’ policies impacted Tippen’s economic situation in the first place. Arkansas’ status as a right-to-work state and the correlated lack of union strength have likely reduced wages. According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, low-wage workers in right-to-work states earn “approximately $1,500 less per year than a similar worker in a state without such a law.” In addition, in states with policies that inhibit collective bargaining, workers are forced to rely on state and national legislators to lift the wage floor. Given the refusal of legislators to even raise wages enough to account for inflation, earning a non-poverty wage through a legislative path seems highly unlikely.
The worst result of this story, by far, would be for journalists to shy away from giving low-wage workers a chance to speak out. A strong and aggressive media presence that includes protections for sources will reduce the chance of retaliation and encourage workers to talk about their experiences. We also need strong unions to counter abusive employers while securing better wages and working conditions for all workers.