Six of the workers fired from a law firm in Deerfield Beach, Fla. on March 16 for wearing orange have retained a lawyer and may pursue legal action against their former employer, who allegedly would not allow workers to speak to each other over their cubicle walls.
Attorney Donna Ballman now represents six of the 14 support staff who say they were accused of staging a protest against workplace conditions and then fired abruptly, as first reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
Ballman said she has been trying to get in contact with the Elizabeth R. Wellborn law firm, where the 14 workers had been employed, but there has not been a response.
"If they won't discuss this, we are going to pursue our legal remedies," Ballman said. She declined to say if the fired workers will seek damages or try to get their jobs back.
The Elizabeth R. Wellborn law firm, which may have as many as 275 employees, did not return a request for comment.
Ballman said Elizabeth Wellborn's husband gathered most, though not all, of the employees who were wearing orange that day and they were "told that management thought they were wearing orange shirts to protest working conditions, and they should pack their things and leave," Ballman said.
Ballman said some workers may have been wearing orange to mimic the uniform color often used by the Florida Department of Corrections. Those workers may have been protesting new work rules imposed by a new manager earlier this month. She said, for example, that they could not speak to coworkers over the walls of their cubicles, even to discuss work-related matters.
"They couldn't go to the break room and get coffee while on the clock," she said. "There were suddenly lots of new restrictions on them. Some of them were upset about those new rules."
Ballman said, "Different people were wearing orange for different reasons that day, but the fact is it doesn't matter." She said there have been cases where firing employees because management didn't like their shirts were found to be unlawful, including when AT&T workers wore shirts that said "Inmate #" on the front and on the back said "Prisoner of AT$T", which was activity protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
"Firing because people engaged in activities or are suspected of engaging in activities for objecting to working conditions are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act," she said. The National Labor Relations Act protects certain activities with or without a union, and gives employees the right to discuss, comment and complain about working conditions.
In Florida, employment is presumed to be at will, which means that unless stated otherwise by something like an employment contract or a piece of legislation, an employee can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, said Kerri Stone, a law professor at Florida International University.
Janice Doble, 50, is one of Ballman's new clients. She worked in the copy room at the Wellman firm. She said she was wearing orange because she was going to a happy hour with coworkers and was not protesting working conditions.
"Orange happens to be my favorite color. My patio is orange," Doble told the Sun-Sentinel. "My lipstick was orange today."
Since the 14 workers were fired, three have reportedly been re-hired by the firm, possibly after explaining they were not a part of a protest, Ballman said. She said the six workers she represents have each worked for the company for about six months to a year.
Ballman is releasing a book this fall called, "Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired: Handle Your Workplace Crisis Before You Quit, Get Canned, Or Sue the Bastards" with Career Press.
"Everybody who can be fired for no reason is an 'orange American,'" she said. "Everybody that can be fired for wearing an orange shirt to work should be outraged by this."