A group of people who are wearing sweaters and putting their hands together. Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

I wrote a thread on Twitter that started with a quote-tweet of an article from Teen Vogue. The article was titled: “What Does Workplace Retaliation Look Like?” and it was written by Rainesford Stauffer. It reminded me of the workplace retaliation I was subjected to in a previous job.

My intent was to leave the thread up for a couple of hours, and then turn it into a blog post. I started by quote-tweeting the Teen Vogue article, and tweeting: “This article provides important information that I wish I had known about years ago.” (I’ve added it additional information in this blog post that I felt was too much to stick in a Twitter thread).

Years ago, I was working as a teacher’s aide in… I’m going to say a “difficult classroom”. There were three teacher’s aides, and one teacher. My degree in Education didn’t count because I moved to a new state. So, I was a teacher’s aide.

In the state I was working in, teachers get paid more than teacher’s aides. So, I started with a lot of teaching experience, but less pay than my degree called for. As such, there was no way I could afford to re-do my degree in Education.

We were given two unpaid 15 minute breaks and one 30 minute lunch break. In “regular” classrooms, someone would come in to relieve the teacher and/or teacher’s aide. Teacher got their breaks. Teacher’s aides got their breaks.

But that didn’t happen in my “difficult classroom”. Some of the children in that classroom had been through terrifying experiences and were emotionally scarred from it. Violence occurred often. All teachers and aides were taught ways to safely stop the violence.

Learning how to do that was traumatizing for me. It required more than one day learning how to do “holds”, which we practiced on each other. We took turns doing the holds and being the one who had the holds done on them.

The training was intense. We started in a classroom and paired up with someone else. The purpose was to mimic some of the things we had seen the children in our classroom do. It involved yelling at the person we were paired with (including swearing), and play-acting the violence escalating. (For example, I mimicked a student who started by kicking things by pretending to kick my own bag that was on the floor).

I was paired up with a person who was a counselor – who immediately picked out which student I was mimicking. She mimicked talking me down. The purpose was so I could learn what to do and say when violence was escalating in my classroom, and what NOT to do or say.

We took a break after that, which I needed because I was absolutely not ok. I have PTSD, in part because I grew up in a violent household. All that yelling – and having to mimic it – was not helpful. I remember pacing back and forth across the back of the classroom during the break, trying not to freak out.

The second day, we moved to a larger room and were taught how to do “holds”. We were paired up with a small group of other teachers and teacher’s aides. I had briefly met one of the people in my group because I was sent to their classroom to observe one day. The rest were strangers.

I had not yet recovered from being traumatized the day before. The second day was worse because we had to take turns physically trying to put other people in holds – or being the recipient of the hold. Over and over again. Towards the end of the second day, each group was to demonstrate how to do holds. I am very small, so I was selected as the person to have the hold done on them.

My arms were pulled back behind me and I was tipped forward. I knew this would happen, as we all had been practicing this. From memory, I think I had this done twice, to swap out the first people so the others in the group could show they had learned how to do this.

Somewhere in there, one of them (unintentionally) pulled my hand too hard and caused an old injury to return. None of them knew about that injury, and it wasn’t anyone’s fault that I got hurt. I spent the next day with an arm brace on, hoping that this would prevent the old injury from getting worse.

Oddly enough, the original injury happened at an entirely different workplace and in another state. Long story short, I was working in a daycare at a hospital. I had to spend my lunch break waiting to be seen in the Emergency Room. My director insisted I sign a form before going to the ER, but I refused because I was in pain and could see that the form would not benefit me.

That particular workplace didn’t have any information about unions posted anywhere.

The type of training I went through – learning holds – is obviously not what most teachers or teacher’s aides are typically required to do. Most classrooms have students who do not present a need for an adult to learn those skills. That said, it was well known that the children in our classroom could become violent. We were the only classroom that had to carry walkie-talkies to communicate with each other. The only classroom where some of our students would run away to some other part of the school when stressed.

As such, we could not get anyone to come to our “difficult classroom” so we could take our breaks. I spoke about this with the Principal, multiple times. The Principal didn’t really listen to me and didn’t make any changes.

The rest of the teachers and aides took their lunch break while their class was having lunch. We couldn’t do that, as the Principal required all of us to sit with the kids during lunch – which should have been our 30 minute paid break.

There was another problem with this school. Teacher’s aides in this school were treated sort of like contractors. You had to get through three (positive) reviews in order to keep your job. I had passed through the first two reviews. Principal dragged their feet on the third.

Eventually, I got tired of working through what should have been my breaks. The state I lived in had set rules in place regarding breaks. I remember managers at a job I held previous to this one making a huge effort to ensure workers took their breaks on time. Failure to do so would result in serious consequences.

I started asking who the union representative was. A teacher connected me with that person, who contacted the union on my behalf. Got the ball rolling, despite the fact that I had not yet joined the union.

Not long after that, the Principal came to the door of our classroom while the students were eating lunch inside it. The Principal yelled at me for talking to the union. They did this within earshot of the students in the classroom – some of whom had a tendency to become terrified when they heard adults yelling.

The Principal yelled at me about getting involved with a union (without actually saying the word union). The Principal complained, “Why didn’t you come to me first?” At the time, I didn’t understand that this was gaslighting.

What I did know (and quickly made clear) were the number of times I specifically asked them to give me my (now overdue) third review. I reminded them that I had come to talk to them about not being able to take my breaks – several times – and that they chose to do nothing to make changes.

The Principal then yelled, “I thought you knew better than that!” More gaslighting, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I responded by making it clear that I had come from a state with the strongest teacher’s union in the nation, and that I knew exactly what I was doing. The Principal didn’t have a response to that, and walked away.

Another thing I didn’t realize at the time was that the Principal coming to yell at me in front of my fellow teacher’s aides, the teacher I worked under, and the students we helped, was likely a form of workplace retaliation. The Principal was making a scene with me in the hopes of scaring my co-workers away from trying to talk to the union so they could get their breaks.

This inappropriate incident made it clear that the union had heard me and had likely contacted the Principal about it. Shortly after the Principal’s outburst, I was allowed to start taking my (unpaid) 15 minute breaks and my (paid) 30 minute break.

The teachers in the teacher’s lounge expressed surprise to see me there, since none of the other people who worked in my “difficult classroom” had ever taken their breaks. They welcomed me in and it was nice to have a half-hour to eat and relax.

Unfortunately, my fellow teacher’s aides, and the teacher we worked under, were still not allowed to take their breaks. The union told me that they could only secure my breaks. The others had to contact the union themselves, and then the union could fight for them.

Earlier in this blog post, I mentioned that the teachers and teacher’s aides in other classrooms had a person swap in to give the teacher and their aides their breaks. My understanding from the emails the union sent me (on my personal email account – not the school’s email) was that the Principal would start sending in a person to swap me out. I shared that news with my coworkers.

Unfortunately, the Principal blew that off. This left my coworkers short-handed, which could be really bad if violence broke out while I was not there. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I recognize this as another form of workplace retaliation.

My perception was that the Principal was trying to make things difficult for my coworkers, in the hopes that they would turn on me. I was the only one (so far) that talked to the union. I was getting my breaks. They were not getting their breaks. To make things worse, the Principal refused to send in a person to swap me out, leaving my coworkers shorthanded, and at risk if violence broke out while I was on break.

Working in that type of environment made us all form very strong bonds with each other. It was vital that we had each other’s back. There is something about experiencing trauma that pulls people together. It bothered me that the Principal was making my coworkers jobs harder – instead of giving them the breaks they were legally entitled to.

In California, there are laws regarding meal periods. In short, the law requires employees to be provided with no less than a thirty-minute meal period when the work period is more than five hours. The meal period shall be considered “on duty”, counted as hours worked, and paid for at the employee’s regular rate of pay.

In general, for employers to satisfy their obligation to provide a meal period, an employer must actually relieve employees of all duty, relinquish control over their activities, permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break (in which they are free to come and go as they please), and must not impede or discourage employees from taking their meal period.

The California Supreme Court has noted, “The wage orders and governing statute do not countenance an employer’s exerting coercion against taking of, creating incentives to forego, or otherwise encouraging the skipping of legally protected breaks.”

If your employer is not allowing you to take a meal period, there are repercussions. If your employer fails to provide the required meal period, you are able to be paid one hour of pay at your regular rate of compensation (this is referred to as meal period premium pay) for each workday that the meal period is not provided. If your employer fails to pay the additional one-hour’s pay, you may file a wage claim with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

I wish I knew about this when I was working as a teacher’s aide! The information from the California Department of Industrial Relations states that this law was revised in 2012. Which means it might have been in effect while I was working at the school.

Not long after I had been allowed to take my (rightfully owed) breaks, I got a letter in the mail. It informed me that I had failed my third review. That was a surprise, because I was not given a third review. The letter also said that I was fired.

I decided to show up for work the next day and confront the Principal. I arrived early, went directly to their office and knocked on the door. When the Principal opened the door, I held up the letter.

“Oh. You weren’t suppose to get that yet,” they said.

I asked how it was possible to fail a third review when the review never happened. The Principle responded, “You lack specific skills”. When I asked what skills they were referring to, the answer was “specific skills”.

Looking back, this was both gaslighting, and workplace retaliation, wrapped together in a toxic bundle. The Principal refused to provide any more clarity on the specific skills, which left me to guess what those might be. The Principal fired me in retaliation for talking to the union – which required the Principal to give me my breaks.

I remember leaving in tears, which happens when I’m so irate that my system overloads. One of the janitors was coming into the school as I was leaving.

He asked if I got fired, and I nodded. The janitor said something indicating that the Principal does this all the time. “Don’t worry, you’ll be back soon.” That indicates there was a history of the Principal breaking laws by actively preventing some workers to take their breaks.

To their credit, the union continued fighting for me, even though I had not joined it. This didn’t result in getting my job back, but by then I didn’t want the job anymore.

My purpose in writing this blog post was to provide clear examples of what a toxic workplace looks like. Employers (in California, at least) are not allowed to prevent employees from taking their breaks. The Principal engaged in gaslighting me, and in workplace retaliation against myself and my coworkers.

It’s not easy to recognize when those things are happening in the heat of the moment. That’s the point. Bad bosses want to make workers feel confused (gaslighting) or threatened (workplace retaliation) in order to prevent workers from talking to a union or attempting unionization.

This is why unions are so important. A union can help workers to require their employers to comply with labor laws, to improve problems in the workplace, and to raise wages. And this is why I retweet when workers start unionizing for better workplace conditions.

Why Unions are Necessary is a post written by Jen Thorpe on Book of Jen and is not allowed to be copied to other sites.

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