In an effort to increase transparency in the art world, more than 2,500 museum workers across the globe have anonymously shared their salaries on a spreadsheet.
Could you get fired for adding your salary to the list?
The short answer is: Yes, you could, but it would be illegal.
We called two Philadelphia labor lawyers, one who represents unions and workers — Jonathan Walters of Markowitz and Richmond — and another who represents employers — Rick Grimaldi of Fisher Phillips — to get their take.
Under a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), private-sector employees are allowed to talk about their salaries and other aspects of their experience at work. The law classifies that as a “protected concerted activity,” meaning employers can’t retaliate against their workers for trying to improve their working conditions. (How to define “concerted?” “You and I talk, it’s concerted,” Grimaldi said.)
Contributing to a spreadsheet such as the one created for museum workers is absolutely protected activity, Walters said. You do not have to be part of a union or trying to form a union in order to be covered under the NLRA.
What if you’re just an individual posting on Twitter or Facebook about your salary? That’s protected, too, the attorneys said, because it’s considered communication with others.
Grimaldi said he reminds his clients, who are employers, that they cannot prohibit employees from discussing their salaries — “a big no-no,” he said.
Companies can, however, require their employees to keep “proprietary information” private, such as customer pricing or anything else that could be considered a trade secret.
There are other activities that are not protected: Employees can’t, for example, defame their employers or threaten them.
One catch: The NLRA applies to employees, not independent contractors. So, if you’re an Uber driver or a videographer working on a contract, sharing your salary publicly is a riskier move, Walters said. (Though, as the on-demand gig economy has grown, the definition of “independent contractor” is being debated in courts and governments across the country.) The NLRA also doesn’t cover public-sector employees, though many are protected through a union collective bargaining agreement.
So, are you safe?
If you’re not part of a union and protected by a collective bargaining agreement, you can still get fired for pretty much anything. It’s called “at-will” employment.
So, even if your employer can’t fire you because you shared your salary with others, the company could say it was because you’ve been coming to work late or missing deadlines. (It’s hard to prove these things, and it can involve a drawn-out legal process to try and fight a firing.)
Last summer, for example, a group of parking-lot attendants said they got fired after trying to form a union — which is protected concerted activity. They got their jobs back a few months later. After that, the union they’re working with lobbied City Council to pass a first-of-its-kind “just-cause” law for parking lot workers that makes it illegal to fire someone without a valid reason.
Editor’s note: Employers in Washington state cannot stop workers from disclosing their wages to others or require workers to sign nondisclosure agreements about their wages, according to a state law passed in 2018. The law also protects workers from retaliation and firing for talking about wages with co-workers — and for asking the employer to provide a reason for the employee’s wage or lack of opportunity for advancement.
The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) is responsible for enforcing the law. Workers can report violations via L&I’s Equal Pay Opportunity Act Complaint form.