Law

Automobile Workers vs. Johnson Controls

Facts of the Case

The primary ingredient in the manufacture of batteries at Johnson Controls (“JC”) is lead. It was discovered that lead exposure entails health risks to employees, especially to the fetus carried by female employees. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) was able to inform industrial companies about their standards when it comes to the presence of lead in the blood of their employees. When JC found out that eight of its employees became pregnant while maintaining blood lead levels that exceeded OSHA standards, the company created a policy that effectively barred all women – except those whose infertility can be proven by medical professionals – from jobs that will cause them to have lead exposures exceeding what was stipulated by OSHA (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009).

This policy created by official of JC can be easily interpreted as a fetal-protection policy. But petitioners, a group that includes employees of JC, filed a class action in the District Court; they believed that the company violated existing rules (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009). They are claiming that the fetal-protection policy was a thinly veiled action that constitutes discrimination based on gender. The petitioners added that this is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009).

At the end the court granted summary judgment for respondent while the Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, practically shutting down the petitioners (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009). The Court of Appeals explained that the proper standard for evaluating the case was made under the idea of business necessity and the court further added that other Circuits would do the same because petitioners had failed to satisfy their burden of persuasion (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009). The business necessity defense used in Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 was part of the basis for this decision (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009). The Court of Appeals also pointed out that use of the bona fide occupational qualification (“BFOQ”) analysis in the creation of the fetal-protection policy strengthens the argument of the respondent that they are addressing an industrial safety concern and that it is an essential part of the respondent’s business (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009). This means that JC is not only after profit but also trying its best to do the right thing.

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The petitioners on the other hand tried to argue that BFOQ could not be used as part of the defense because pregnant women or those who have the ability to produce children cannot weaken the capability of JC to manufacture batteries. They also added that it is not only women who are exposed to lead and therefore have an elevated lead content in their blood. Men like women are also exposed to the substance. In fact experts are saying that both male and female have the same chances of developing reproductive health problems due to exposure. Thus, they are complaining why women are singled out.

As a result women are not only barred from being hired in positions that they may get higher compensation and better benefits because of this fetal-protection policy. In one instance a female employee was forced to be sterilized just so she can continue working in her current position. This means that the company had created a new category or a new requirement in order to acquire this job position. All persons of legal age can work in the said battery manufacturing facility provided that they are not capable of bearing children. Petitioners argued that this is a clear example of discrimination.

The bone of contention is of course the lost employment opportunities for women. This is a major issue especially after the Civil Rights movement has created awareness as well as numerous laws preventing organizations and associations to discriminate on the basis of gender, religion, and places of origin. Another underlying issue is equal employment opportunities and the struggle of women to be considered as having equal status with the men of the workplace. These ideas and laws are tempered by the BFOQ, the company is not forced to hire someone if they can prove that their business will be placed in a compromising position or that they will be prevented from doing their best if the applicant in question if not qualified for that particular job (Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, 2009).

Assumptions Made

There can be two sets of assumptions. The first one comes from the point of view of those who are in favor of the decision of the Court of Appeals. The second one comes from those who are against the decision of the Court of Appeals and those who firmly believed that the company created a policy to intentionally discriminate against women of child-bearing capacity. It would be best to begin discussing the point of view of the petitioners for they are the ones who started the legal process.

The petitioners assumed that JC made deliberate steps to prevent women from working in the battery manufacturing plant. They stated that if the purpose of the policy was to enforce the OSHA standards then why is it that nothing was done, to deal with the fact that men are also exposed to lead. The second reason why they firmly believed that the company wanted to discriminate against women is that JC did not create clear guidelines so that it appeared that the company deliberately targeted pregnant employees. They also complained that the company did not even bother to find out if there are women who do not plan to conceive because if they did then there are a significant number of women who does not need to transfer to another position because they have made a decision not to bear children.

The petitioners will have to assume that these actions on the part of JC was done deliberately if they will not think this way then they could not provide an explanation why the company would prevent women from working in the factory when their pregnancy is not preventing them from doing their job. There argument is strengthened by another level of assumption that if JC wanted to adhere to OSHA standards, they can do so without the fetal-protection policy. They reason out that the company can inform their employees about the risk and so if an employee suffered a miscarriage they cannot turn around and sue the company for negligence. So they are convinced that the main goal is really to discriminate against women.

Moving to the other side of the fence, those who are in favor of establishment of the fetal-protection policy, assumes that JC was simply trying to abide with government policies as well as doing their duty to protect their employees, even their unborn children. This assumption is brought about by the realization that JC gains nothing from barring women with child-bearing capacity from working in their factory.

Preventing women from working in the battery manufacturing facility, can be likened to a man shooting himself with his own gun. This is economic suicide for JC. This fetal-protection policy can backfire in the event that they will experience the negative impact of a tight labor market for instance. This means that since they cannot hire women of child-bearing age then they have limited options when it comes to hiring workers. They are in a better position if they follow the suggestion of the petitioners that there is a way around the OSHA standards. It can therefore be assumed that the reason for doing so is not for economic gain but an ethical one (Beauchamp, 2009).

Overriding Issue

There are numerous overriding issues in this case. The first one is about equal employment opportunities and discrimination in the workplace especially discrimination on the basis of gender (U.S. Supreme Court Center, 2009). The second one concerns the difficulty when it comes to resolving ethical dilemmas. The third issue is with regards to how the Courts tried to resolve the case there are those who contend that the Courts erred in granting summary judgment for the respondent.

Equal employment opportunities and discrimination in the workplace are sensitive topics in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. It would be very difficult for a company to emerge victorious in cases dealing with discrimination. It would be especially difficult to get an approval from the “court of public opinion” the average person will easily empathize with the displaced worker especially if that employee is a woman supporting a family. On the other hand the Courts must be impartial considering also the fact that firms like JC is not only obligated to their employees they are also obligated to the their shareholders while at the same time have to ensure that they reputation remains intact for many years to come.

Stakeholders

The stakeholders are the employees, shareholders, and the executive of JC. The employees can be divided into two: the male and female workers. For the male employees they are not bothered by the fetal-protection policy. It has been made clear that they can continue working even in areas where there are high lead exposure levels. The women employees are threatened by the policy because it has been pointed out that those who are working in the area where there is a higher concentration of lead in the atmosphere, it is also the area where employees can get better wages. In addition those who are already comfortable working in high-risk areas are in danger of losing their jobs or get demoted to another position within the company.

Shareholders can view the fetal-protection policy as a threat because by doing so the company will be forced into a corner when it comes to hiring people. If they stand firm on their decision then they cannot hire women except those who can be proven infertile. Now, that is a very small percentage of the labor market and this can give them future problems. They may face a crisis when there is a shortage in the number of available workers. It is also problematic for them because they know that there are certain groups who will encourage the workers to sue the company based on anti-discriminatory practices.

The executives of the company can also be threatened by this radical policy. By barring women to work in the section where they manufacture batteries, they are practically eliminating half of their workforce. This is a big blow for them considering that they invested so much in the training of these women and now they are forced to transfer them to another position and this too would require another set of investment. On the other hand this fetal-protection policy is an opportunity to show the world that JC adheres to the principles of corporate social responsibility.

Responsibility of the Company

The company has three primary responsibilities, first to its shareholders, then to its customers and then finally to their employees. If this issue is viewed from an economic point of view there should be no pressure on the part of JC to create such a disruptive and controversial policy. They could easily take the easy way out. The OSHA made recommendations about safety levels and there are numerous ways to address that problem such as creating steps to protect the company from a legal backlash in case employees get sick from lead poisoning.

They have a responsibility to make a profit ad they are answerable to their shareholders in this regard. They are also responsible to their employees. They must do everything they can, so that their employees are happy and contented while working at JC. Barring women employees from getting into more lucrative positions should be avoided. On the other hand the company is also responsible to the community. The child in the womb, the still unborn human being is part of the long-term view of the company. They believe that it is an ethical dilemma that can be resolved by making sacrifices. It can be argued that the executive at JC cannot bear the burden of being held responsible for miscarriages, complications in pregnancy and possibly babies born with physical defects due to lead poisoning.

Recommendations

It seems that the company was slow and weak when building a defense against anticipated legal challenges. It can be argued that they are well aware of the possibility that their employees will file a case against them. They could have made it their top priority to establish that they are doing this for ethical reasons. In this regard they could have worked closely with the OSHA and assist them in strengthening government policies when it comes to exposure to harmful chemicals in the workplace. They could have gone one step further by making it known that employees are warned of the acceptable blood levels and it is their prerogative to continue working in the factory knowing fully well that they are at risk when it comes to developing reproductive health problems. But the child that the pregnant employee is carrying does not have that option or could not exercise his or her option and therefore it is the company who decided to save the life of the still unborn baby.

It is indeed an ethical dilemma because employees can make a counter-argument that the company does not have the right to make that decision for them. One way of resolving this issue is to use an ethical framework. One of the best ways is to use Utilitarianism. Those who use a utilitarian point of view will argue that policies must be created for the benefit of all (Driver, 2009). It can be said that in this case the female employees are at a disadvantage because they can no longer work in the more lucrative areas of the factory. But in the same way the policy was able to protect the life of the fetus inside the womb of the employee.

The decision to create the policy was done to protect the child. It seems that the parents were even willing endanger the life of their unborn children for the sake of economic gain but they have no right to destroy the fetus that they carry. Even if the baby is inside the body of another person that person has no right to terminate the life of the human being inside her. Since some of the employees are more than willing to risk the future of their child in exchange for promotions and material gain, the company must therefore be commended for making the difficult decision of creating a fetal-protection policy.

Conclusion

The company could easily avoid going to court and they can also satisfy OSHA standards and guidelines by making a few compromises. They can easily bend the rules in order to make everyone happy. They could convince their employees to sign a waiver that they are well aware that working in the factory can expose them to lead and this can harm their health and their baby. If the employee will sign the document then they are no longer responsible for their health and well being, and the fetus that they carry. By doing so, they can make many people happy but in the process endanger the life of the infant. They are well aware of the risk involved in significant blood lead levels and they decided to act in an ethical manner.

Works Cited

  1. Beauchamp, Tom. “The Principle of Beneficence in Applied Ethics.” 2009. Web.
    Driver, Julia. “Utilitarianism.” Web.
    Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ).” Web.
    U.S. Supreme Court Center. “Automobile Workers v. Johnson Controls, 499 U.S. 187 (1991) Web.
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