Wage-Theft and Discrimination at CBS? As a child I would wake up early Saturday morning, sit on the red, white and blue Persian rug with my blanket and a cup of milk, and watch the only cartoon on television.

Our TV didn’t have a remote and Pink Panther had no dialog. But it didn’t matter. It was the only one hour of television my parents would allow me to watch without supervision. 

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution the anti-American Islamic Republic controlled all media programming. The Iran/Iraq war that followed intensified the state-sponsored content. It broadcast fundamental religious leaders making speeches, images of desperate families saying goodbye to their young boys heading to war, wounded soldiers fighting in the frontlines, and thousands of protesters in every corner of the country chanting “death to America.”

As a little girl, I remember sitting with my parents as they watched the news and wondering why men mutilated and sawed off the heads of female mannequins. Sometimes, there were graphic images shown of disfigured women who had acid thrown on their bodies. 

My mother told me that was done to show what would happen to women who didn’t follow the rules. It scared me. I never wanted to be like one of those “disobedient” women. 

As I got older I understood the rise of the fundamental regime in Iran led to propaganda programming and censorship of the news — a silencing method meant to solidify the power of the patriarchy. 

Journalists were kidnapped, jailed or beheaded. Everyone was terrified to challenge the system and nobody asked questions. The patriarchal powers went unchecked and to this day control the country and its people. 

It was all part of a bigger plan to suffocate freedom of thought, expression and speech, liberties that threatened a patriarchal society. The new systemic culture perpetuated discrimination, inequality and violence against women and minorities — Armenian Christians like my family. Even today, in Iran, according to civic and religious laws, a woman is only “worth” half of a man. 

In the late 1980s, we escaped the country. We left with what we could carry. I was 12 years old. 

Far from the chanting words of protesters, America gave me life. Welcomed by Lady Liberty, I had a second chance in a country built on the principles of freedom and equality. 

I’ve tried to explain what an opportunity like that means for a little girl – a refugee who never thought she would ever escape humiliation, dehumanization and “second-class” status. 

My experience awakened a deep sense of responsibility for me to use my life to be of service and lend my voice to make an impact — to fight for justice and equality. 

I went from being a scared little girl watching state run TV to being on TV — becoming an award winning journalist. For 22 years I have had the privilege of covering some of the most historic events of our generation. 

It’s been my duty to speak truth to power, question everything and keep the public informed and safe. Even when it was uncomfortable and inconvenient. As a young reporter I was once banned from City Hall because the mayor didn’t like answering tough questions. Since then, I’ve dug deeper into stories, exposed truths and challenged the status quo. 

As a woman, as an adult and as a journalist I wear my “disobedience” boldly. It’s not only my right as an American citizen, it is my responsibility.

But I never thought that exercising my first amendment rights — that which I had used as a journalist to help thousands of people in the course of my career  — was conditional. I never imagined that speaking up for myself would bring my career to an abrupt end. 

It is a personal price I’ve had to pay for challenging CBS Television Stations by filing a class-action lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It’s been a David vs. Goliath kind of fight pitting the multi-billion dollar media conglomerate against freelance workers at CBS and its 28 owned-and-operated Television Stations. At issue are unpaid wages and discrimination under the Equal Pay Act.

CBS Television Station, a watchdog institution, is accused of stealing wages from the very people it pays to hold others accountable for systemic economic, racial and gender inequality, but refuses to hold itself to the same standards.

Dozens of current and former employees of CBS Television Stations – many in news departments across the country – claim they were bullied into falsifying timesheets, had fewer opportunities, and were being disproportionately paid less than their white counterparts.

Cheating workers out of pay is corporate wage-theft, even if the perpetrator tries to minimize its impact. Exploiting workers, including women, people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, is misconduct the corporate patriarchy will protect at any cost. 

This is evident by my case which is headed to a jury trial scheduled to begin on April 28, 2022, in Wilkie D. Ferguson Jr. US Federal Court in Miami.

Skimming a little from a lot of workers frees up millions of dollars and pads the bottom line. And as long as stock prices are high and dividends are paid, few ask questions.

At the height of my career working as a freelance journalist and producer at WFOR in Miami, in my 40’s, I was making $210, a flat rate per day, without overtime, healthcare, sick days or other benefits. I was working 65+ hours a week with a “can do attitude.” I was barely scraping by. I couldn’t even afford my car note. I rode a scooter to work. My 22 years of experience meant very little to my employer. 

The Labor Department is an oversight institution that investigates and upholds labor laws including the FLSA. But numbers across the country show employers skirt the law or find loopholes.  

According to the Economic Policy Institute, $50 billion dollars is stolen from American workers every year. To put that in context, we can end hunger in the United States with $25 billion.

That’s money stolen from countless people who struggle to meet their basic needs. It’s responsible for homelessness, families going without food, and children without winter coats. I was one of those people. Working long hours covering breaking news and hurricanes in Florida – working days and hours without pay. 

Tiani Jones was a freelance reporter at WFOR in Miami. “I would work 7 days and only get paid for 5…I didn’t think 18 years in I would still be working for free,” Jones says.

She was demoted after filing a complaint with HR. She left the business because she is “too traumatized to work in the industry.” 

Hundreds of other CBS freelancers have told me they complained about the long hours, disputed discrepancies in their paychecks, were harassed, retaliated against, pushed out or fired without repercussions.

Another WFOR freelancer whose name I’m withholding says that up until 2021 she had been making $70 a day for 9 years. She says the pay structure “is akin to slave labor…it seems a lot of people who work per-diem were minorities…some people are kept at the same wage forever and it’s not a livable wage…”

The mother of two with a college degree grapples with the guilt of not being able to provide for her children the same opportunities her white male co-workers have. She says for much of the summer in sweltering South Florida she doesn’t turn on her air conditioner because she can’t afford the electric bill.

CBS executives said in a deposition that for decades CBS television stations have used independent contractors (freelancers) and have paid them a flat day rate in place of full-time workers. It’s been a “long-standing and common practice” and one that was “administratively more convenient,” they said. 

In 2021, a year after I filed my lawsuit, a Los Angeles Times investigation revealed allegations of racism and misogynistic work culture and complaints about treatment of minorities and women in newsrooms across the country including Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and New York.

A former CBS News executive told the Times they had personal knowledge the company “engaged in a pattern of discriminatory behavior through the instruction of others regarding hiring, firing, promotion, and pay setting of employees basked on race, gender and sexual orientation.”

The long term economic impact and income inequality can never be made right. The compound monetary loss from wage-theft and loss of opportunity affects lifestyle, generational wealth and legacy. 

Wage-theft can take many forms: paying below minimum wage, withholding earned benefits, overtime, breaks or tips, misclassifying employees as independent contractors, and outright non-payment. 

A study by Upwork says 95 million Americans are working as independent contractors. That’s more than one-third of the American workforce.

Many are intimidated and silenced – and so are those of us whose job it is to expose wage-theft and other unfair labor practices.

Wage-theft is especially prevalent in the media. Those of us who work in the newsroom have been conditioned to believe that this type of labor practice is what we must agree to in order to move up the ladder. 

We’re told it’s how we “pay our dues.”

  • Jobs are “opportunities.” 
  • Unpaid extra work days are part of being a “team player.” 
  • Living in a desirable city with an unlivable wage is “getting paid in sunshine.” 
  • Working 65+ hours a week is “doing what we love.” 
  • Making less than male counterparts is “just how things have been done.”

I worked at WFOR CBS Miami as a freelance journalist and producer off and on for 7 years. My colleagues and I called our employment status “permelance” – or permanent schedule, freelance pay. 

Wage thieves usually operate with impunity. Even when institutions are reported or caught, our legal system protects business owners at the expense of workers.

In America, we’re told that with education and hard work, all of us have the opportunity to build a better life. But that’s a lie. Under the current system, institutions and the people who control them exploit workers to expand their wealth and power. Economic oppression is profitable.

This can’t be America? The land of the free? My lived experience reads more like a story out of an oppressed society where patriarchal culture has been thriving because their powers have gone unchecked.

What I’ve come to realize is that to some people in America — I, like so many others who look like me, don’t matter. 

My commitment to my sense of purpose, my womanhood, my otherness and my immigrant background made me an easy target for a sophisticated version of modern day slavery. 

Shame, fear and lack of resources are often used to keep victims silent. 

I am tired of being shamed into silence. 

I am writing this for one reason: EMPOWERING OUR VOICES.

#CBS #Wage-Theft #Discrimination #Freelancing #Equal Pay Act #Class-action lawsuit #Labor Law #Family Act #Journalism #NABJ #NAHJ #AAJA #SAG #AFTRA #SAGAFTRA