Kim Kardashian is being sued for employment practices that are sadly common

Kim Kardashian is being sued for employment practices that are sadly common


In the latest celebrity labor scandal, reality TV star Kim Kardashian West was sued in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday by seven workers accusing her of wage theft, retaliation and more. The complaint alleges that cleaning and maintenance workers at her Santa Monica Mountains home weren’t paid for all the hours they worked, didn’t get overtime pay, weren’t given required meal and rest breaks and didn’t get any pay stubs or documents related to employment. Even more dramatically, the complaint alleges violations of child labor laws, and that an individual was fired for complaining about the unlawful working conditions.

They literally worked on the grounds of her home. Yet, she denies responsibility and instead points fingers at someone else.

Kardashian West’s response to these allegations? “These workers were hired and paid through a third-party vendor,” her spokesperson said. “Kim is not party to the agreement made between the vendor and their workers, therefore she is not responsible for how the vendor manages their business.”

They literally worked on the grounds of her home. Yet, she denies responsibility and instead points fingers at someone else.

This deeply unsatisfying reaction isn’t the sign of a celebrity bad apple. Although often described as famous simply for being famous, Kardashian West has used her status to press for criminal justice reform. She’s also an apprentice to a lawyer, with plans to be an attorney herself. The “it wasn’t me” reaction to workplace abuse doesn’t reflect a moral failing that’s uniquely hers.

Rather, it’s part of a pervasive trend in many industries and workplaces: Companies use business models they believe allow them to avoid the responsibilities of being an employer. They subcontract, use temp agencies, outsource, sell franchises, misclassify workers as independent contractors – basically arrange their business structures in a way that seeks to eliminate any obligations to the people who actually do the work.

There’s a term for this kind of business model: the fissured workplace, coined by professor David Weil. He starts his 2014 book on the topic describing a familiar figure: a housekeeper at a San Francisco Marriott hotel … except the property is not owned by Marriott, and the housekeeper works for a contractor.

Once you open your eyes to this kind of business structure, you see it everywhere. The installers who set up your cable, the movers who deliver your sofa, the janitor cleaning the big box store where you shop or the restaurant where you eat. The call center worker who takes your complaints about the cable, the sofa, the store or the restaurant. These workers may even wear the uniform of a big national company while working for a subcontractor.

Often, the higher-level company manages to have its cake and eat it, too. The big guys call the shots, but when workers’ rights are violated, they sidestep the responsibilities we expect of employers.

When I was labor bureau chief in the New York Attorney General’s Office, we sued Domino’s along with three franchisees for violations of workplace laws. In our investigation, we learned that Domino’s dictates the key details about a pizza maker’s job — the company records how long each step in the process takes each worker each day, and limits so much as the kind of earrings or belts they can wear — but if the pizza maker works at a franchise location, Domino’s continually disclaimed responsibility for basic conditions like whether workers were getting the minimum wage. (The court found Domino’s wasn’t liable, and the Attorney General’s Office is now appealing.)

It’s not illegal to use a fissured workplace business model, but such arrangements often lead to violations of workers’ rights. That’s because the most powerful entity at the top of the chain – the one with the greatest ability to ensure lawful conditions — points the finger downward when it comes to who’s responsible for compliance with workplace laws.

Too often the lower-tier companies are cash-strapped businesses, without human resources departments or well-structured operations, that operate on very thin margins. This can lead to corner-cutting and cheating on basic workplace obligations.

We need better laws to stop the violations resulting from the fissured workplace. One step would be creating easier ways to prove “joint employment,” which is a legal concept that means a worker can have more than one employer. (For example, a temp worker could be employed both by a temp agency and the company where they are placed.) When violations occur, joint employer laws hold the higher-level player liable, too. They also incentivize up-chain companies to proactively ensure compliance down the chain, preventing violations from happening in the first place.

California sets an example for having a strong state-level joint employment law. Its client employer law allowed the state to hold the Cheesecake Factory partly liable for over $4 million of wage theft by a janitorial subcontractor. At the federal level, the Biden administration is rescinding a Trump-era rule that gave companies a pass by making it harder for workers to hold multiple actors accountable as joint employers.

Members of the public should also pay more attention to these issues, and support leaders and policies that protect workers’ rights. Wage theft happens every day, with terrible consequences for workers, but we’re usually not very interested unless the boss is someone like Kardashian West.

Ideally, the A-List celebrity and her team will see that this lawsuit offers a powerful opportunity for her to expand her activism and again use her fame for positive ends. This is not new territory, after all. In the late 1990s, Kathie Lee Gifford, a daytime talk show host, was pilloried because her clothing line used Honduran sweatshop labor. Her first response was defensive. (She even cried on TV.) But then she learned about the issue, met with the secretary of labor and became active in the corporate social responsibility movement.

Ideally, the A-List celebrity and her team will see that this lawsuit offers a powerful opportunity for her to expand her activism and again use her fame for positive ends.

Kardashian West can do something similar. She could start by listening to the workers’ stories and explain how sorry she is that this happened at her home. She could also compensate them for any missing wages; even if she’s already paid a third-party vendor, the sum would hardly make a dent in her net worth. And she can learn about wage theft and how hard it can be for workers to speak out or form a union.

Maybe it’s time for everyone — from Kardashian West to America’s corporations — to try a better approach than pointing fingers at others. And it’s certainly time for laws that would actually protect workers from players who hold the power but pass the buck.



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