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How the trial-lawyer tax is hurting hiring

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Charles Hugh-Smith and Jim Geraghty note that if an employee cannot generate revenue to cover his or her wages plus overhead costs, he or she won't be hired. This is absolutely true, but both understate the problem, and the degree to which the Obama administration has made it worse, and is planning on exacerbating it.

One of the biggest overhead expenses is the expected litigation expense of an employee. Employees have a wide variety of rights under federal and state law to sue their employer—not just for the hiring and firing decision, but for promotions or work conditions. A dishonest employee can impose a great deal of cost on an employer by bringing a meritless suit; whether the employer takes a hard line or pays the Danegeld, these are very real expenses. (For example, defending against the notorious meritless Jamie Leigh Jones suit cost KBR $2 million.) It's little surprise that California, where employees can sue for a variety of technicalities in a lawyer-friendly litigation environment, has a much higher unemployment rate than the rest of the nation, despite a dynamic technology industry and being so attractive to millionaires that the state thinks it can raise revenue rather than drive away taxpayers with a 13.3% tax rate.

That overhead cost isn't just awards to plaintiffs with meritorious, or even plaintiffs with unmeritorious, grievances. It's the lawyers, on both plaintiffs' and defense sides, who collectively receive more than employees take home from litigation victories and settlements. But it's also the (as-far-as-I-know yet-unmeasured) compliance costs: the vast human resources bureaucracy that keeps track of these laws and maintains the paperwork to protect the company in the event of future litigation. The compliance costs can have non-monetary effects as well. But take, for example, something as simple as employee appearance. Even something as simple as "It's not good for the corporate image to have someone with a Maori face tattoo interacting with customers" has an litigation minefield overlay, including EEOC litigation. That costs money, and that money comes at the expense of hiring.

So it's worth noting that these laws, on balance, hurt the average employee. Plaintiffs' attorneys' fees often outstrip the returns to the clients; add to that the defense attorneys' cost, and the cost of a human resources apparatus to ensure compliance, and the vast majority of the benefits of employment litigation is going to white-collar professionals, and most of that going to attorneys in the top decile, or even the top 1%. That overhead cost may add up to more than 10 percent of wages: a $30/hour employee is, instead of being paid $33/hour, getting a $3+/hour "benefits" package, most of which ends up in the pockets of people wealthier than him or her. Now, perhaps we as a society are willing to accept these costs to vindicate the relatively rare cases where a bigot or predator unfairly treats an employee and management acts against the company's interest in letting qualified employees be chased away. (One of the silliest things about the Wal-Mart employment litigation was the premise that the most aggressive cost-cutting company in the world would systematically choose to throw money out the window just to discriminate against qualified women in promotion decisions.) But these costs are rarely ever acknowledged in the policy debates in the first place.

And, even as structural unemployment rises to scary levels, this administration has sought to increase these overhead expenses to make hiring more expensive. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act makes it easier to bring meritless suits by obliterating the statute of limitations. (Statutes of limitations are important for justice. Without a statute of limitations, someone can sue for very old alleged injuries, and a defendant would not have a fair chance to defend herself. (Ledbetter sued over her pay after she was retired!) Memories fade, evidentiary documents are discarded, people change employers. If an employee can wait until a middle manager of years ago died before accusing the company of discrimination, justice is impossible.) The EEOC has become increasingly intrusive. Though courts have largely rejected the move as arbitrary and capricious, Obama's NLRB appointments have sought to abolish arbitration agreements as an unfair labor practice. All in the supposed name of increasing workers' rights, but with the effect of exacerbating inequality and unemployment.

The State of the Union bodes more of the same. Not just the proposed minimum wage increase from $7.25 to $9, which will fall disproportionately upon unskilled workers who already have a double-digit unemployment rate. But the administration is reiterating its proposal for a "Paycheck Fairness Act that will surely increase unemployment as well. (More from Hans Bader.)

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Isaac Gorodetski
Project Manager,
Center for Legal Policy at the
Manhattan Institute
igorodetski@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Press Officer,
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.