As tireless advocates for employees and those affected by deceptive business practices, the lawyers at Stephan Zouras, LLP have achieved countless victories in court and recovered over $150 million for victims of illegal wage practices and other corporate abuse. Now they’ve taken their fight to the steps of the Illinois Capitol building – they are taking big steps to prevent corporations from forcing employees to surrender important Constitutional rights – including the right to hold your employer accountable in court and have your case decided by a judge and jury.
Jim Zouras and Teresa Becvar of Stephan Zouras, LLP were instrumental in recently drafting a bill that would make it unlawful for Illinois employers to force employees to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of employment. This is known as forced arbitration or mandatory arbitration.
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that more than 60 million American workers are now subject to mandatory arbitration agreements. In 1992, only 2% of American workers were subject to forced arbitration. This exponential increase directly impacts workers in Illinois, with millions of Illinoisans – 60% of those employed by large private sector employers — now subject to forced arbitration.
How does this hurt workers?
Arbitration agreements are imposed, often against those with the least bargaining power (minorities, women, hourly-paid, low wage earning blue collar workers) as a mandatory condition of employment. In other words, the employee is forced, in exchange for employment or continued to employment, to surrender their Constitutional right to access the court system. The employer, on the other hand, always retains its right to go to court against the employee.
Arbitration agreements are never individually negotiated; they are form agreements often hidden in “the fine print.” Usually, the employee does not even realize they have given up their Constitutional rights until the employer engages in illegal conduct against the employee and they consult with a lawyer. This includes claims for sexual harassment, discrimination based on race, sex or religion, claims for unpaid minimum or overtime wages, and more.
Employers have every reason to force employees into arbitration. At arbitration, employees do not have the same rights and protections as in court. There is no judge, no jury, no appeal, and only limited discovery and procedural rights. The entire proceeding takes place behind closed doors with no public scrutiny or accountability. That helps ensure that the employer’s illegal practices and serious misconduct remain a secret, removing any incentive for it to change.
Even worse, arbitration proceedings are overseen by an arbitrator who is not elected, is not appointed by an elected official, is not required to follow legal precedent, may have limited or no experience, and may be biased, prejudiced or have interests which are in conflict with the employee.
Studies have shown that employees are far less likely to win at arbitration and even when they do win, the damages they are awarded are significantly less than in court. One study found that at arbitration workers win just 21.4% of the time, and the award amount was three times smaller than cases decided at trial.
Following the testimony of Jim Zouras before the Illinois House of Representatives Labor Committee, the House passed the bill last month. On Tuesday May 7th, the bill will be heard before the Illinois Senate Committee, where Jim will again testify on behalf of employee rights. Stephan Zouras – along with Illinois workers and employee advocacy groups across Illinois – urges the General Assembly to vote and pass the bill in the next few weeks. Doing so would be a huge victory for all workers in Illinois, preserve their Constitutional rights and access to the courts, and prevent corporations from avoiding accountability for engaging in misconduct against employees.