Marissa Holcomb, a pregnant mother of three, endured one of the most traumatic experiences one can encounter in life. She was robbed at gunpoint as she worked her shift at Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in the Houston area. Several days later, Holcomb’s trauma was compounded when the owner of the Popeye’s franchise abruptly fired Holcomb when she refused her boss’s demand to pay back the $400 that was taken from the register in the robbery.
It was one of those outrageous little stories that quickly went viral. The public scorn – and potential lost business – caused Popeye’s to offer Holcomb her job back at a different franchise. But the questions remain: How did this happen in the first place, and could it happen in California?
Texas is notorious for its lack of regulations protecting workers. Whether it’s health and safety, wages, workers’ compensation or a host of other issues, Texas law strongly favors the business bottom line over the rights of workers like Holcomb.
Had it not been for the media attention, there’s no doubt Holcomb would have been left traumatized and out of work.
California, unlike Texas, has strong protections for workers. Had Holcomb worked in California, her firing wouldn’t have been unpalatable; it would have been illegal. State regulation makes it unlawful for employers to ask for reimbursement from an employee for any loss as a result of a robbery.
Basic, common-sense protections like these are often assailed by business interests as job-killing overregulation. There’s practically a cottage industry of corporate groups whose job is to attack California laws that support workers’ rights and oppose any new worker protections. Despite these attacks, California has passed some of the strongest workers’ rights laws in the nation.
Some examples of other protections for workers like Holcomb that exist in California, but not in Texas:
▪ In California, Holcomb could have filed a workers’ compensation claim for the psychological trauma she suffered as a result of the robbery. She would have been eligible for medical treatment, including mental treatment, to aid in her recovery. Texas is one of just a handful of states that allow employers to opt out of workers’ compensation insurance, meaning Holcomb may have been prevented from receiving any benefits.
▪ At a minimum, Holcomb would have received a few paid sick days under California’s new law to recover from such an incident. Texas has no paid sick leave law.
▪ California has also passed laws to protect workers from retaliation on the job when they speak up for their rights. We’ve raised the minimum wage so workers earn a little more to help support their families. We have paid family leave, allowing workers to spend time with their families after a major life event such as the birth of a child.
Yet still, unscrupulous California employers continue to find ways to cheat workers. Low-wage workers like Holcomb are especially vulnerable. That’s why we’re fighting wage theft, a massive problem in California that rips hard-earned dollars straight from the pockets of workers. And we’re advocating for legislation that would stop employers from requiring workers to sign away their rights with forced arbitration agreements that prevent recourse in egregious cases of worker abuse.
Labor unions are a driving force behind these and many other protections. The fact is, for every one case of worker exploitation like Holcomb’s that blows up in the media, thousands more go unnoticed, even here in California.
We’re committed to doing everything possible to ensure workers receive basic protections on the job. In Texas, they might call that overregulation. In California, we believe it’s our responsibility.
Art Pulaski is the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.