Mar 27, 2023 - Podcasts

The ruling that frees laid-off workers to speak out

The National Relations Labor Board recently ruled that broad non-disparagement clauses — which some companies make workers sign to receive severance benefits — are unlawful.

  • Plus, Mississippi and Alabama face the aftermath of a deadly tornado.
  • And, how more U.S. schools are supporting students during Ramadan.

Guests: Axios' Emily Peck and Shawna Chen.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, March 27th.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Today on the show: Mississippi and Alabama face the aftermath of a deadly tornado. Plus, how more U.S. schools are supporting students during Ramadan. But first, the ruling that frees laid-off workers to open up about former employers. That’s…our one big thing.

The ruling that frees laid-off workers to speak out

NIALA: The National Labor Relations Board last month ruled overly broad non-disparagement clauses, which some companies make workers sign in order to get severance benefits, are unlawful. The clause typically stops people from speaking out about their former employers. Here with what this change means for laid off workers is Axios’ Emily Peck. Hi, Emily.

EMILY PECK: Hey, Niala.

NIALA: So is a non-disparagement clause, does it mean exactly what it says? You can't say anything bad about your former employer.

EMILY: Yes, Niala. Exactly, you can't disparage, you can't say anything bad about your employer, both publicly and in private actually. A lot of the clauses are paired with confidentiality clauses, which say, you can't tell anyone about this agreement except close family, a spouse or an advisor, like a lawyer.

NIALA: So what does this new ruling mean for people who have been laid off recently? I'm thinking about all the layoffs we've seen in technology in journalism lately.

EMILY: Yes. Interesting. The labor board's ruling came out towards the end of February, and there was, there were questions at the time. Is this ruling retroactive? What if I was laid off in January or December? And as you just said, plenty of tech workers were laid off at that time. And then last week the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, Jennifer Abruzzo, came out with a memo and, and clarified, yes, this is retroactive.

So what that could mean for laid off workers is they can talk publicly about, you know, their working conditions and talk to each other about their experiences and share information with each other in ways that they might not have technically been able to before.

NIALA: So if this is retroactive, how far back does this apply?

EMILY: As far as you wanna go, Niala. I was looking back at a contract I'd signed in 2021 that included clauses like this. And, you know, under this ruling I'd likely be able to break those clauses and speak publicly about working conditions at my former employer. But, this is very new, it's one ruling from the labor board. Not all workers are covered. For example, supervisors are not covered by this. If you were a supervisor and got laid off, you wouldn't be covered by this decision. The best practice is, you know, talk to a lawyer before you do anything.

NIALA: So what this doesn't mean, workers can feel free to say whatever they want publicly about their former employers?

EMILY: No, it doesn't mean that. And it's still unlawful to defame your former employer. You can't go on Twitter and just like talk malicious trash about your former employer,that wouldn't be covered by this ruling. A lot of severance agreements we'll ask you to sign away your right to file a lawsuit or a charge at the EEOC, clauses like that in a severance agreement would still probably be okay even with this ruling.

NIALA: How do you think this could change how layoffs happen or how severance agreements are made?

EMILY: It's really unclear right now. These rulings from the Labor Board, they're only as good as they're paid attention to. And part of the reason, the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board issued her guidance last week was to sort of get the word out about this, so people know their rights. So what it could mean going forward is perhaps people won't sign agreements that contain non-disparagement or confidentiality clauses. Perhaps some employers will read about this or hear about this and drop them. It's TBD.

NIALA: We saw during the Me Too era how much, sometimes these severance agreements or these confidentiality agreements actually helped create bad work environments where illegal behavior could happen. Is there any sort of thinking that this is kind of in that vein as well?

EMILY: Oh, 100% Niala. Those are the reasons why Abruzzo, the general counsel, wants to get this word out. The whole idea behind letting workers speak up is so we can have safe, non-discriminatory working conditions. So if you've experienced something unlawful or discriminatory at your prior employer, you should have the right to advocate to make that situation better for the people who are still there and people who might wanna come there also. It's the reason why there are these laws in the first place to make sure that workers can speak up to improve working conditions.

NIALA: Axios’ Emily Peck. Thanks, Emily.

EMILY: Thank you.

Mississippi and Alabama face the aftermath of a deadly tornado

NIALA: At least 26 people were killed from a storm system that ripped through Mississippi and Alabama over the weekend.

On Friday night, a deadly tornado slammed into the rural southwest Mississippi towns of Silver City and Rolling Fork… The National Weather Service gave it a preliminary rating EF-4, the second highest on the scale. The tornado traveled 59 miles and lasted more than an hour. Tornadoes typically last closer to ten minutes.

President Biden issued an emergency declaration over the weekend to allow federal funding to reach the hardest hit areas. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas spoke at a news conference in Mississippi yesterday.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: We see extreme weather events increasing, only increasing in gravity, in severity and in frequency.

To our listeners in the region - we hope you are safe. We'll include a link in our show notes with how to help those affected.

In a moment - how more public schools are helping students observe Ramadan this year.


How more U.S. schools are supporting students during Ramadan

NIALA:Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

More school districts around the U.S. are recognizing Ramadan by providing support for Muslim students during the holy month dedicated to fasting, prayer and community. Axios’ Shawna Chen has been reporting on this.

Shawna, I'm a product of the Miami-Dade County Public School system where we had major Christian and Jewish holidays off from school. What does it look like for schools to support Muslim students during Ramadan now?

SHAWNA CHEN: Yeah, so different school districts are taking different approaches. In Miami-Dade County, the school board has designated Eid al-Fitr, which is the last day of Ramadan, and is, you know, really a huge day for celebration and community. They've decided to designate a teacher planning day with no student attendance in the 2023-2024 school year. We've seen, you know, similar kind of pushes, in Ohio, San Francisco, New Jersey, Connecticut and more.

NIALA: Is that it's just about having days off for school, because obviously Ramadan is the entire month. So what else are schools doing?

SHAWNA: Ramadan, is the holiest months of the year for, Muslims. And during the Muslims are typically, you know, fasting from dusk to dawn. Studying the Quran, spending time with, uh, family, focusing on self-reflection. What that oftentimes means during the school day is needing a quiet room for prayer or approval to, not participate in strenuous physical activity and permission to take tests earlier in the day when they're more alert. A lot of school districts that, even if they haven taken steps to give students a day off entirely for Eid al-Fitr are making accommodations so that they can better serve their students, given that they are one of the fastest growing populations in the U.S. Pew Research Center projected in 2018 that Islam could be the US' second largest religion by 2040.

NIALA: Shawna, is this happening primarily because Muslim students and families are advocating for this change?

SHAWNA: Yeah, definitely. It's, it's really driven by, you know, students, who have kind of always questioned, you know, like why we have major holidays for Christianity, Judaism, but not Islam. And so, in all of these, um, school districts that I mentioned, across both blue and red states, school districts are really responding to students' years oftentimes of advocacy.

NIALA: Unfortunately, during Ramadan, we often see a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes. How are schools preparing for that?

SHAWNA: That's a tougher question. I think,we've seen in recent years, reports of, uh, you know, Muslim teen accusing her teacher of calling her a terrorist, another one where a Muslim student had her hijab ripped off in the school day. And so it's definitely not something that's going away, anytime soon. Even in the areas where schools have taken steps to recognize Ramadan, there has been pushback in backlash, primarily driven by Islamophobia. In Florida in particular with, with a lot of people, accusing school boards of being traders, to the country and things like that. It's something that I think schools are really gonna have to reckon with, in the coming years that it's not just about recognizing this major holiday, this major month of celebration but also protecting their students and anticipating what they will need to be able to, you know, be themselves fully in school.

NIALA: Axios’ Reporter Shawna Chen. Thanks Shawna.

SHAWNA: Thanks Niala.

NIALA: That’s it for us today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. You can also text me at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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