how can I advocate for workers’ rights when I’m the customer?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

My sister and I are members of a community pool/gym that is run under the umbrella of a larger nonprofit. The greater organization serves people with disabilities, but membership to the gym is open to the entire community. Both my sister and I have varying degrees of invisible disabilities and we use the pool almost daily, but we are not members or involved with the organization’s primary programs/services.

Given how often we visit the pool, we’ve gotten to know some of the staff fairly well—in particular, the life guards and cleaning staff. Recently (and unsolicited), a couple of the staff members shared with us some Seriously Not Cool™ information:

  • Pool staff is kept two hours under full-time; rather than provide lifeguards with benefits, job postings are up seeking a third. (Cleaning staff was only just made full-time a couple months ago, after a situation that included a wrongful termination case, and even they are still kept at minimum wage.)
  • When closing the pool up for the night, if tasks take an extra 20 or 30 minutes, someone has been going into the computer system and removing the tracked overtime minutes. (Before and after screenshot photos have been taken documenting this.)
  • Staff have been told they’re not allowed to discuss salary with each other.

Being alarmed that the staff was not aware of (and in some cases, being purposefully misled about) their rights as workers, and at the request of two staff members, I did some research and created a wallet-sized information card listing their state and federal rights on one side and contact sources for resources and pro-bono lawyers.

The people in this community are incredibly dear to my sister and me. I’d like to help more, but I’d never want to endanger anyone’s job or trust. As such, I checked with the staff members who confided in me before even writing this email.

Given my own health issues, I’m limited in what I can do physically and financially. On the other hand, while my ethnicity is in the “other” category, I’m white-presenting and have seen firsthand preferential bias given by management to me (and other white/white-passing individuals). While that infuriates me, I also figure that if I am being afforded that privilege, I need to use what energy and capabilities I do have to advocate for change.


For those who have worked in similar situations: What help would you/did you appreciate from clients/customers attempting to advocate on your behalf? What was out-of-line and hurt you instead of helping?

For those who have managed, served on boards, etc.: What sorts of outside advocating/pressure have successfully helped to bring about real change/improve a working environment? Does it make a difference if those advocating are participating in specific programs or just paying to utilize the facilities?

For those who work advocating/protecting/ensuring employee rights: What am I missing here? Are there additional resources that might be useful? Should I just step back now and mind my own business?

Readers, please share advice in the comment section — but with ground rules on this one:

  • Let’s hear mainly from the three groups the writer is specifically asking to hear from.
  • Please indicate which group you’re in, to keep this as useful as possible to her.

{ 166 comments… read them below }

  1. RCB*

    I’ve served on a board, and also worked closely with my board at an organization that I worked for, and from my experience the board will have management’s back until they are forced not to. You have to get enough negative publicity for the organization before the board notices and fixes the issue. File labor law violations with your state, that’s first, and then once that is done reach out to some local reporters, they will love a story like this, especially because it impacts an already marginalized community, and then talk to other advocacy groups that handle rights for those with disabilities and get them on board to protest (either in person, but more likely via email and social media). Even though it’s not specifically disabled people who are being hurt here, the ones being hurt are the ones that help the disabled community, which can and will trickle down to hurting those receiving the services.

    Get this kind of attention on the work practices of the organization (and filing the accompanying labor law violations) and things should start getting fixed.

    1. KP*

      Former nonprofit Board member here. All of this, with a couple of additions. If they are a registered non-profit, they depend on donations for survival. Negative press, negative social media, etc. targeted to their donors will put significant pressure on the board to advocate for change. You said this is run under the umbrella of a larger non-profit? You didn’t mention if the pool/gym has its own Board or if it’s run under the Board of the larger entity. Regardless, go for the big guns. Be sure that you tag/mention the larger non-profit in every communication to get greater reach and impact. You could also start a petition for change under something like which is easily shared/promoted by social media to people in the area surrounding the pool/gym and who are most likely to use it and/or see positive change for their neighbors. Good luck!

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Nonprofit board members have a fiduciary responsibility and they should take the labor law violations pretty seriously. At the very least they should start an internal investigation into the allegations.

      Note, one possible outcome to keep in mind is that staff may get their hours cut even more to have a bigger buffer to legally avoid paying benefits and overtime.

    3. t-vex*

      I run/have run nonprofits and part of my job is to help other nonprofits organizations make systemic changes. I agree with you, to a point. If OP has a relationship with anyone on the board or in upper management it’s best to start there. You have to treat people as equals before you raise hell. If you start by publicly humiliating the org or calling them out somehow you are only going to strengthen them against you. Start soft by talking to management one-on-one. If conversations with members of leadership then you can break out the big guns but don’t start there. If they think it’s their idea you’re much more likely to get results.

      1. Gingerbread Gnome*

        I am on a board and I agree with this. If you can reach out to board members and let them know how management is mistreating the workers it should be taken seriously. The violations you mention should prompt a turnover in management and improved policy. This will be the most effective and swiftest way to make employees’ lives better.
        If you don’t get anywhere, go ahead and start yelling and making a stink. If you start with public attacks their first response will be to circle the wagons until they figure out if this is a legitimate complaint or not.

        1. Board Member*

          I’m on the board of a non profit and wanted to highlight this point as well! If you come at the board as an adversary (threats to go to the media/social media campaign/whatever) it’s super likely we would go into damage control to protect donations and be less willing to hear out specific complaints. In my opinion/experience you are better off approaching whoever is the boss of the managers (district/area/state manager, oversight director, etc). It’s slow going but real change typically happens from within as you escalate up the chain of command rather then external pressure

      2. Malarkey01*

        I agree with this. I serve on a few nonprofit boards and our goal is to support those running the org day to day, BUT we’re also li tied by what we don’t know. I’ve had a specific situation where a part time staff member brought an issue to me that was very wrong. Our board did an investigation and then implemented changes and but some safeguards in place. Most boards are there because they believe very strongly in the mission (we are doing this for free and have a fundraising obligation, but like everything there are bad boards too) and want things done correctly, however we’re usually overly reliant on the EDto run things and filter information up.
        If a customer approached me and said they’d overheard some concerning information and then relayed these facts I know every board I’m on would be very concerned and start making calls.
        If that doesn’t work, then yes start making noise.

        1. Elyse*

          Agree with the points made here! (I work specifically with managing the board at the organization I work for) Most likely the board has no idea how the non-profit runs day-to-day and manages its employees because that’s not one of the duties of a Board. But if you approached members of the Board with this information, they would probably be *very* interested to hear it, as they are going to be concerned about risk-management more than anything–be it mitigating bad press that could affect donations or preventing more lawsuits. (I’m sure they still bring up that wrongful termination suit at length).

          Give the Board the information it needs to launch their own investigations and/or demand changes.

      3. Former trustee*

        Late to the party but just adding to the chorus that you can start nice and get aggressive later but can’t really go the other way around

    4. FundraiserAnonymous*

      Nonprofit fundraiser here, who does board management and also hears from constituents (donors, ticket buyers to our programs) directly. It doesn’t change things overnight, but having even regular customers or donors reach out to staff and say “Hey, what are you doing about X?” is GREAT. In our case, we are an org that espouses lots of progressive values, but our core mission doesn’t have a whole lot to do with that, so it’s easy to skip out on hard changes by saying “We’re just focusing on our mission of making the world a better place through beautiful teapots” and just…ignoring the other issues, like the fact that even experienced teapot painters don’t make enough money to live in our very expensive city.

      So, when an issue like pay equity, or the embarrassing Whiteness and maleness of our board and leadership (relative to our extremely diverse region), having a donor reach out and say “hey, I love your teapots, and I noticed that you say you’re an a progressive organization because of your XYZ policy, but also I know that nonprofits often pay entry level workers below a living wage, a common priority for progressive orgs these days. How are you navigating this problem? Do you have plans to raise worker wages?” it allows me to go to my boss and our executive director and say “hey, this is an issue people are noticing. From donors and customers.” Have it happen a few times, then you can say “our organization needs a coherent response to this issue, as customers are asking about it.” It doesn’t change things overnight, but it gives evidence that we can’t just get away with “focusing on teapots” to the exclusion of everything else. We have 100k+ constituents a year, between tickets and donors, but even a few donor inquiries, a collection of responses on an audience survey, or a few grant applications that ask it, will flag as something staff need to follow up on. When a workers advocacy group started specifically calling us & peer orgs out for the issue, hearing that our donors were also interested in seeing us institute a more equitable policy also gave us cover, to take the “risk” of changing for the better.

      On a related note, threatening to withhold your donation/purchase in the future doesn’t get you very far (unless you are, of course, a underwriting-level donor). We occasionally get messages from someone who is stopping their $50 donation over some press release, and….we’re an $18 million budget org. I can live without the $50 if you don’t think we’re right to ask people to wear masks when they visit our facility. But something about the vagueness of going in the other direction – I like you, I want to be excited about you, but can you help me understand how you are addressing X issue? does get traction.

      1. tessa*

        As a curious lurker on this topic, I find the comment above extremely useful. Thank you, FundraiserAnonymous!

      2. RedinSC*

        I totally agree with this. Also, professional fundraiser here, working with board and with our donors.

        I agree that the letters and inquiries coming in will be helpful to get the conversations going at the top level. Send an email to the Chief Development Officer (VP of philanthropy, Development Director, whatever they’re called at the parent organization) and say all that.

        Ask why the staff are kept at below benefit level hours, ask them to explain their thinking an policy to you. Ask your friends to do the same.

        If I started to get messages like this you can be assured I would be talking with our Executive Director about this. And if you’re not getting a timely, satisfying response, you could talk with a local newspaper.

    5. Anonymouse*

      Board member here with experience in adjacent situations. I second the notion that the board will act only when forced to, unless you have a seriously proactive board. So, I do recommend taking it to the local board first, but be prepared to take it to the larger/parent board as well. Do your research to see if you can find someone in charge of codes of conduct, equity & inclusion, legal or community relations – depending on the org they will be called different things.
      For our local board we were sympathetic to the complainant but getting us to take action to truly resolve the issue was a step too far. It wasn’t until the complainant took the issue to our parent org that they came down on us with a vengeance for not properly addressing the issue (even then there were a fair amount of board members wanting to push back). We also have a parent org that is very committed to all things equity, so your org in question and their policies will come into play here. Also, the person to raise the issue with our parent org was staff, which I think helped escalate things as they had contacts the outsiders didn’t.
      I would start the search for staff members, board members and contacts that support your cause as they can do much more, and work more efficiently to get your cause addressed. Of course the labor complaints, media and legal routes all elevate your cause too. Best of luck!!

      1. Alexis Rosay*

        I’m a former nonprofit manager and I worked closely with our board. I agree that a lot of boards act only when forced. Board members also very GREATLY in their commitment to social justice, to the mission of the nonprofit, and even just in their interest in doing any work at all. The board should absolutely be interested in understanding and preventing anything illegal, but they may not see fair pay for employees as part of their mission. In fact, since they have a fiduciary duty to keep the organization solvent, they may actually see their duty as the opposite. On the nonprofit board I formerly worked with, I definitely heard board members refer to staff as “lucky to have these jobs”.

        So I think as others have pointed out, separating out the illegal (overtime) from the unethical (38 hrs/week schedule) here will be helpful here when approaching the board, unless you get the sense that some board members will be sympathetic the latter as well.

    6. MunchingPopcorn*

      Former board member here too.

      Agree with comments that reaching out to the board first in a collaborative sense can get results faster.

      I will go one step further and say to do your homework and start with board members who might have an appreciation for the subject matter – meaning attorneys, members of a marginalized group, or HR professionals. It is possible that you could contact several board members who did not have an appreciation for the potential fall-out and they would ignore you…but say the right words (again, in a collaborative “hey you might not know about this, but I know you would want to address it if you knew, we all want to do the right thing…..”) and to the right person and they will run with it. That person was me and there were many times I had to focus the board with “no really, you don’t understand how big of an issue this is and can turn in to…”

      But yeah, if the board is disengaged and just supports management and there is no progress to be had, public pressure will break that view very quickly.

    7. Jay*

      Former non-profit board member and past president married to someone who worked for a non-profit for 15 years. In general, I agree with the suggestions below about going to the board first with the assumption that of COURSE they would want to address this.

      Unfortunately, if someone had done that around issues in my husband’s org, the board w0uld indeed have taken action – they would have done their best to figure out where the info came from and would have retaliated against whoever they thought was responsible. I know that’s illegal. They probably knew it was illegal. They also knew that folks who are dependent on minimum-wage jobs can’t really afford to wait for the legal process to play out. They need to eat.

      If you know someone on the board and think they will be appropriately responsive, go for it. Otherwise….I’m concerned about the risk to the people you got info from and I might take it to the Labor Board first to see if they can put some protections in place.

  2. Pikachu*

    If nothing else, they should file a complaint with the state labor board regarding the missed wages. It’s a place to start.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      Yeah, although OP can’t do this for them, she could mention it to them as an option – but as with most things where you’re legally correct but it’s a pain, she shouldn’t be super surprised if they don’t want to go that route.

    2. Meep*

      There have been many times in the past five years where I thought “anyone else would’ve filled a complaint with EEOC or OSHA”. The only thing stopping me was my loyalty to a company that had none for me. At the end of the day, not reporting it was dishonest and disloyal. They should report it to anyone they can for the good of themselves and the company.

    3. delta*

      20-30 minutes a day for 5 days certainly makes up the 2 hours between full time and not. By eliminating these from the computer, the workers are being denied significantly more than just wages.

  3. bopper*

    To me there are two different types of issues:
    1) “unfair” – they are not given full time jobs. Yes this may be unfair but it is not illegal.
    2) Illegal – Not paying for hours worked and saying you can’t discuss salaries is (in some states) illegal

    Not being paid for hours worked should be reported to the State board of labor or whatever it is.
    Coach them to talk about salary outside of work.

    1. Been there…done that*

      And the time card adjustments may fix #1. If they are removing a half hour a day by the end of the week that’s 2.5 more hours that may bring them up to the FT threshold. Specifically ACA if they work the avg of 30 they are entitled no matter if the employer considers them PT. This would assume they are following the law in that area based on actual hours vs just the hours they are scheduled to work. Based on the other issues I wouldn’t be surprised if they were not 100% in this area.

    2. Granger Chase*

      If the “overtime” they are erasing from the system would put them at full time status according to the company policies (ie 40 hours a week worked) that would qualify them for benefits, that’s something the employees will want to address when they make their complaints as well. IANAL but I believe it can be seen as additional lost compensation?

  4. YL*

    Re: revising time cards. The staff should definitely file a complaint with the labor dept. If you call the labor dept to ask questions before filing the complaint and they discourage you in any way, just file the complaint anyway. You might have a limited time to make your complaint. Just file the complaint and let the dept figure it out.

    Re: purposely limiting hours to part time. Sadly, that’s a common practice. The revising time cards to avoid paying overtime might tie into the keeping hours down to classify them as PT.

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I still think that clients of a service could find a way to mention it with the people in charge (board, senior management) if there’s a way to keep the employees out of it. “I was surprised to hear that our equity organization isn’t paying its staff a livable wage or offering benefits. I think it’s important to walk to the walk on these issues. As a client, I don’t feel as positively about the organization and I’m going to direct my donations / customer dollars to organizations that provide living wage” could do something. Maybe.

      1. Bex*

        You’d have to choose carefully, though – an organization that tells its employees they can’t discuss salary with each other probably has more than a few managers, possibly even board members, whose reaction to that would be, where did you hear that, what exactly did they say, etc.

        1. Ace in the Hole*

          And the answer is, “Given the circumstances, that question makes me uncomfortable… I’m worried this might open the employees up to retaliation. Since discussing wages is legally protected, any sign of retaliation would be very bad for the organization as well as the employees!”

    2. Here we go again*

      +1 staff can take photos of the times they punch on the time clock. Then take the photos to the labor board as evidence.

    3. SometimesALurker*

      It is a sadly common practice, but the commonness doesn’t necessarily mean that pushback can’t be successful. It’s legal but exploitative, and it can still draw negative attention to the organization.

  5. Generic Name*

    I work on projects where the approval process with the governing body with jurisdiction is open to the public. One project I worked on had an element that was very much opposed by the community, which successfully stopped the part of the project they did not want. Here’s what they did: posted a “call to action” about it on an advocacy website telling people to attend meetings and submit public comments. Folks showed up to meetings and commented. Folks submitted written comments. It made the city take a second look at the part the public opposed and put much greater scrutiny on it than typically happens. In the end, the project proponent decided to revise their plans rather than fight for this one element.

    Since it’s run by a non-profit, find out if board meetings are open to the public. If they are, ask the workers if they’d like you go attend with the goal of speaking up on their behalf. I suggest attending a couple meetings just to observe at first. There’s lots of information out there on best practices of how to give public comments. Try to spread the word so you can find other people to help you. One or two comments might not get much notice, but if a dozen people speak up on the same issue, people will start to listen. Good luck!

  6. Luisa*

    I have worked in similar situations before. What worked was online resources shared via private, non-company email means (local department of labor website, National Women’s Law Center for my particular situation, the overseeing organization’s EthicsPoint portal). It also helped to have external customers state their preferences clearly, non-emotionally, and without reference to me. E.g. “It is important to me that organizations I work with support employees with pumping accommodations, maternity leave, and support for working mothers. How is [employer] working to implement this?” It sounded so bland that I don’t think employer cottoned on that the person was asking because they thought employees were mistreated, as opposed to just asking because it was important to them.

    Tagging me in public social media posts and/or calling out the company on social media before checking with the affected employees would not have helped. Thankfully the person considering this checked with a coworker first!

  7. Observer*

    I’m talking as in individual here, but I just want to say that while I don’t know that you have an OBLIGATION here, I do think that the idea that this is “none of your business” is simply not right. This is a community organization that is doing unethical and distinctly illegal stuff, hurting the most vulnerable folks and putting the organization – and the people it serves – at risk. It’s as much your business as you choose to make it, in my opinion.

    I hope you get some really good actionable advice. Your initial actions tell me that you will make good use of it.

  8. Eric*

    (Served on boards)
    My initial reaction a lot of the time is “this person doesn’t understand how things work here. They don’t know what they are talking about”. So having the message come from someone who I can’t as easily think that about is helpful: Someone who volunteers on committees or is well involved in the group; coming from staff themself. Generally someone who doesn’t make me want to think “shut up and mind your own business.” It isn’t so much showing that you know about the law, as it is that you know about how our group works, why we do things the way we do, etc.

    1. Observer*

      As someone who works in the non-profit world, I do have some sympathy with the idea that you want to know that the person who is talking has some clue as to what is going on. But there are limits to that. And those limits HAVE to include flatly and blatantly illegal stuff.

      When someone comes to you and says “I know for a fact that someone is changing people’s work time records” you simply CANNOT brush it off with “well, we have REASONS for this.” Because no matter what the REASONS are (and I can make some guesses, having seen this play out in more that once case), it is still illegal. And at this point, you no longer have plausible deniability and you just need to find a better strategy.

    2. stillanon*

      If your groups ‘works’ by breaking the law it definitely needs to be called out loudly & publicly.

    3. Meep*

      Look I get it. I work with someone who is as incompetent as the universe is vast. She often will “challenge” me on things she knows absolutely nothing about. As usual, she did it this morning until I corrected her and told her I wasn’t pulling arbitrary decisions out of my butt. I had talked to X about it. Still had the nerve to act like she knew better – which is laughable. Been here five years and she STILL could not tell you what we do. But I digress.

      However, if I was doing something illegal and she pointed it out, I would still listen. Because not paying people for their work isn’t something that is “just the way it is”.*

      *Ironically, she is more likely to try to get out of paying people and has in the past.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      Non-profit employee here: Our board has very little idea what at least part of my organization does on a daily basis, so if the board’s reaction to someone was that they should butt out, I would not necessarily rush to side with the board. It’s entirely possible the interloper might have a better idea of what’s going on than the BOD.

    5. LinuxSystemsGuy*

      I hate to pile on, but yeah. It’s one thing if a random donor or customer complains about a mask mandate or rules about who gets service priority or whatever other internal stuff you deal with in your org. Sure, they may not know what they’re talking about. It’s another if that same person comes in and says they know for a fact that your organization is violating labor laws.

      Even if they’re somehow wrong (an employee lied to them for instance) you still have a responsibility to at least investigate.

  9. LongTimeReader*

    As a former mid-level manager from the nonprofit world, I can tell you that folks in those roles are typically fairly powerless when it comes to changing the culture or policies set by the folks above them. They are often implementing what those above them are demanding. Or they may be dealing with tight budgets and seeking to squeeze out as much as they can by cheating people of wages and benefits.

    Getting outside supports to help the staff with their legal rights is wonderful. If you have connections with folks on the board or executive levels, you may have more power and leverage. Shoot, if you can get yourself on the board then you could really leverage some change but I’m not sure if that’s something you’re interested in. You may also want to use the old game of playing dumb and contact leadership. As in, “I’m sure you would want to know about this, but it seems that there is some type of problem with your computer system. Not sure how, but it seems that staff are losing their worked hours. Must be a virus in the system. Could your IT department look into this and make sure your team are getting paid correctly? I’m sure you wouldn’t want them to be cheated.” It’s a bit passive-aggressive but it also avoids the blame game.

    As others have pointed out, it may take outside intervention or public embarrassment in order for them to reprioritize and consider treating their staff with greater respect. If this group receives state funding or grants, you may consider reaching out to your state level elected officials to ask them to look into how the funding is being prioritized. On the flip side, if the funders look into this situation, they may want to cut funding, causing further challenges for the organization.

    Sorry I don’t have a magic wand for you as this is a complex issue. But being a supportive customer who listens to the staff and takes them seriously is huge. Thank you!

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      I dunno, refusing to put people on FT is this, sure, but – wage theft? No. I have worked in many tiny underfunded nonprofits that have cut all kinds of corners, but changing people’s timesheets is criminal and they should absolutely be dealt with aggressively. There are so few worker protections, I think we can lean on literal wage theft. The solution is to schedule staff so they don’t go over regular hours, which is totally within an organization’s ability (they could reduce pool hours, for example, or have crossover support during clean up or whatever). It’s not a budget issue.

    2. Drago Cucina*

      When I used to argue with my former Board about bringing up to full time. They would say No, because of the additional costs. Hearing from members of the public expressing concerns to the board would be helpful.

      The wage theft is inexcusable, but where is this coming from? It may be management, it may be someone from the board. I had to toe-to-toe with a board chair when he wanted to bar employee from bringing labor grievances to the board. He then wanted them to do it off the clock. I had to show him DOL statutes showing that this was illegal.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Yes, but this is the kind of thing where every person in the chain of authority is equally responsible. The manager would still be morally responsible for shoplifting, even if their boss told them to do it. The manager would still be morally responsible for driving without a license, even if their boss told them to do it. And the manager is still morally responsible for stealing employee’s wages, even if their boss told them to do it.

        No matter where the idea came from, it should have ended with the manager saying “I’m not going to do that because it’s illegal and unethical.” Refusing to steal from employees is the lowest you can possibly set the bar for acceptable management.

  10. Today Is Not The Day*

    I work for a not-for-profit with my major job function being responsible for the board and committees that run the organization.
    Write to the board. In the letter/email ask for a response. Tell them that if you do not receive a response FROM THE BOARD, you are prepared to escalate the matter to an attorney, the local media, etc. I would not mention specific employees but just tell them that you are aware of these matters and they are not just rumored, they are happening. Boards hate bad press. Also, the board may not be aware of these things. Often, those that manage organizations that report to boards are trying to make things look as good as possible.
    And know that there is a strong possibility that you will have escalate the matter further.

    1. NonprofitAF*

      (Board member and nonprofit employee)
      Also, send this to as many board members as possible, not just the Chair, who may be complicit or just ineffective. Board members are listed by name on the 990, which is a public document available on Guidestar or Charity Navigator. Using these, you can usually find a means of contact on LinkedIn, FB, etc.

  11. wobbly*

    I manage a nonprofit and also have been on the other side, in a successful effort to make a nonprofit abide by the law (in that case, the ADA rather than employee rights).

    For sure, you should bring this to the board. They have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the organization follows the law, and it is likely that there is at least one board member who is unaware of what sounds like quite conscious violation of labor laws by management.

    On the other hand, board members can sometimes be cowardly or disengaged, if not actively in on the transgression.

    So, the other thing to do is to find their major funders and make them aware of the situation, ideally with evidence such as the screenshots of timesheet changes. Do they receive city, county, or state funding to provide services? If so, that’s the place to start. If not, then look for foundations that support the organization.

    If they are largely supported by individual donations, then they are going to care about their image in the community. If the board doesn’t act after you make them aware, then you may need to light a fire under them by making it clear that you attend to bring this up in a public forum.

    And/or: If there’s a local newspaper, sic an investigative reporter on them.

    1. stillanon*

      My local university has some excellent student reporters who love to sniff out inequity and make it known to the public.

    2. Nikki*

      For cowardly and disengaged board members, having proof that the problem is hurting the nonprofit’s image is very helpful. When I was an executive director, I brought up several ethical issues to the board, but the board refused to take action until I could provide proof (in the form of expert and funder statements) that those ethical issues were hurting our public image.

    3. Anon for this*

      The major funders also might not necessarily be who you think they are! For example I used to work for the YMCA, and one of its major funders was the state and federal government, because its childcare department (daycare/preschool/afterschool/camp) accepts federal childcare vouchers, which are disbursed through the state.

      If you are someone whose primary interaction with the YMCA is for yoga class, you might not realize that, especially since a lot of Y’s run their childcare operations out of satellite locations like public schools where the gym members just don’t go.

      If LW’s nonprofit serves persons with disabilities, it’s very possible that Medicaid/Medicare is a major source of income, for example.

      1. The Prettiest Curse*

        Former non-profit employee here. If you want to know an organization’s funding sources, dig into their annual report and financial disclosures, which should be on their website. If those documents are not on their website or available on request, that’s usually not a good sign.

        If the staff who are being treated illegally over salary know that their wages are being funded via grant, that’s useful, but you may not get far without a fully signed copy of the relevant grant agreement. (Any reputable funder should have a provision regarding not violating state and federal wage laws, but if you don’t have a signed contract, you can’t legally prove that the grantee agreed to that provision.)

        I can’t recall if it’s legally required, but I have seen salary information for executives in annual reports. It might not be a bad idea to check whether the organization’s top executives are being wildly overpaid, just in case you have to go to the media. If the salary information isn’t there, this also isn’t a good sign.

        Finally, since this is an organization that serves disabled people, it might not be a bad idea to discreetly check in with other local support or advocacy organizations serving the disability community to see what they know. When I worked at a non-profit, we heard a lot about other local organizations and how good or bad they were at serving the community, because our clients would tell us about it all the time.

      2. Splendid Colors*

        A nonprofit serving persons with disabilities may also get funding through the state’s Developmental Disability agency. (Different states have different names for that agency; in California, they’re called the “Regional Center” system.)

        If they employ people with disabilities, the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation department may also be involved. (Department names vary by state for this too; in California, it’s the Department of Rehabilitation.)

        Any agency, whether it’s Medicare/Medicaid, the DD agency, or the Voc Rehab agency, will probably be paying them as a contractor for specific services/memberships to specific members, so they may not show up in the same financial category as grant funders would. But they probably have contractual requirements not to commit wage fraud against employees.

  12. Data Nerd*

    Nonprofit board member (various organizations) since 2012

    Cynical, I know, but no real change is made until the status quo starts to affect the money and to a lesser extent, the organization’s image. The larger organization that serves people with disabilities–do they receive state or federal funding? If so, and if it’s competitive, then they can possibly lose funding for things like wage theft. Any of those employees who are willing to bring a case to the Department of Labor-which is a huge ask, to be clear-can cause an enormous yearslong headache for the parent organization. Private foundational grant funding is harder to impact, but if there’s enough of a stink about it, like if there’s a media outcry, that’ll dry up too.

    If you can make an appointment with one of those attorneys for one of the lifeguards-or even go yourself-they should be able to explain exactly what legal rights and repercussions exist in your state. I would start there.

  13. AnonEsq*

    Lawyer here: Your state’s attorney general may have an office or personnel dedicated to wage fraud and other labor issues, and can investigate regardless of whether individual workers are the ones starting the complaint. The federal Department of Labor also looks at wage issues but are less likely to be responsive than at the state level.

    You can also reach out to an employment lawyer (employee side) in your area. Almost certainly you can meet with or talk to them for free, since in the US they get paid essentially on commission rather than out of pocket. It is entirely possible that this is not the first time someone has complained about this organizations. And if there are multiple people being ripped off, that is worth a lawyer’s time.

    1. Melly Belly*

      Yes, this. Employment law and wage theft attorney here and if this organization is regularly stealing its employees’ wages, they likely have an FLSA collective action claim for unpaid overtime and/or minimum wage in addition to potential other state law wage claims. I’d recommend a current or former employee contacting the local state attorney bar association for a referral. (Retaliation against employees bringing the claim is also prohibited under the FLSA.) Unlike Department of Labor investigations, lawsuits are public, which may help with the angle of using negative publicity to force change on the other legal, but crappy, issues.

      1. Melly Belly*

        Also, if they bring an FLSA wage theft claim, it’s a fee-shifting statute – meaning the employer is responsible for the plaintiff’s legal fees and costs, so the employees will not have to pay a reputable lawyer to fight the case.

  14. JES*

    Former Board member here. I agree a lot with what RCB said; depending on the Board members, it can be very difficult to actually force their hand. At one point, a friend of mine at another organization got several employees to anonymously send a letter to their Board about similarly serious issues in the workplace – and absolutely nothing changed. From my perspective on a Board, I think that’s because it can be difficult to see what’s happening firsthand when we’re not there most of the time. We did get letters and emails alleging a range of problems, and a surprising amount of those allegations ended up being undoubtedly false, so it can truly be hard to distinguish a valid concern from a disgruntled person trying to get a manager in trouble. To bring about real change, I do think that getting a lawyer involved or filing a labor violation is the most efficient and effective way to grab a Board’s attention. If you want to really ensure you get through to the members (or if you don’t want to get a lawyer involved), another good strategy is to encourage the employees to band together. They can all file complaints, speak to their managers in groups, contact the Board if possible, etc. I hope this helps! I also hope the organization has a good Board. I’m proud of how much I advocated for employees in my time as a Board member, but I do know how difficult it can be to get the entire Board on the same page.

  15. WonderWoman*

    I advocate for people with disabilities within my org and at past jobs. Even though there are clear legal requirements around accessibility (and a lot of high profile lawsuits), the thing that really impacts decision makers is when clients express an interest in it. If there’s a way to show management that their poor treatment of employees could hurt their bottom line, it’s much more likely that they’ll pay attention.

  16. Emily*

    I did work in a situation many years ago where there were rampant labor violations (and then later, a successful class-action lawsuit where they paid out a lot of money.) I was aware at the time that they were probably breaking the law, but it’s my perception that there wasn’t really anything that could have been done to fix it besides that lawsuit, which obviously I wouldn’t have expected a community member to initiate.

    There are two issues here – there’s “improving the lives of the actual workers in front of you” and “improving the labor practices.” The least fraught way to improve the live of the actual workers is going to be if they get better jobs, and that may be something you can help connect them with, look over a resume, etc. If that happens, they may want to go after back pay, or they may not. (And the organization may improve their labor practices in response to losing their workers and having trouble hiring/keeping people — or they may not.) While they still work there, I think this is going to be difficult for you and for them, because they may be afraid (and reasonably so) that their jobs are in danger if they try to get their rights enforced. When it comes to offering resources for them to use to advocate for themselves, I think you’re doing a great job of that already. If they want you to, you can try making this more high-profile, but I’d really leave that up to them.

    1. Splendid Colors*

      Yes, they can definitely go after back pay if they decide to just find an employer who pays them for all hours worked. Hopefully there are other places that can use their skills and follow labor law. With the “Great Resignation” in progress, this seems like an unusual time to cling to a job with a crooked employer and hope the Board straightens them out.

  17. Clefairy*

    [Group 2] I used to manage a third party retail operation within a theme park, and while we didn’t practice in anything illegal that I know of, our corporate team was stingy AF- we paid our employees exactly minimum wage, not a penny more; we kept employees directly under the cut-off for Full Time/Benefits; etc. I tried advocating for my team quite a lot, but Corporate didn’t care at ALL about being fair/employee happiness and satisfaction/etc. I never did make any headway with raising wages or offering benefits, and our turnover was exceptionally high because of it. That being said, one year, there was a hurricane that came through our area and caused our theme park to close for several days. Initially, I asked our corporate team to honor employees’ scheduled hours and pay them for what they would have worked, but they refused even when I cited that our employees were poverty level due to their low pay, could not afford to take unexpected unpaid time, and a hurricane was hardly their fault. However, I was close with a manager who worked for the theme park proper (again, I worked for a third party company that operated WITHIN the theme park) and she shared with me that the theme park employees WERE being paid for the hours they were losing due to the hurricane. She agreed to “anonymously” send me the internal communication outlining this to their employees. I forwarded this to our corporate team, and pointed out that the industry standard in this case WAS to pay (I included public announcements from a few of the other theme parks in the area who were also paying their employees in addition to the internal communication I had from our theme park), and really emphasized what a PR nightmare it would be if it got out that we were one of the few that didn’t meet that standard. That ended up working, and our employees got paid.

    All of that to say, this gym isn’t going to care about the happiness or satisfaction of their employees- if they did, they wouldn’t be operating the way they do. They probably WOULD care about a negative public image though. I don’t have advice for you on how to apply that in this particularly situation, but maybe this will help you brainstorm in that general direction.

  18. gubba bump shrimp*

    I really don’t want to identify myself, to the point I’ve changed my normal user handle for this, but I work for my state’s DOL.

    While employers are within their rights to have a strategically part time staff (slimy and unethical, but legal, depending on size of business), retroactively docking worked hours and banning wage discussions are overtly illegal actions. This is something you could report to your own state’s DOL and they would be obliged to investigate it.

    Of course, realistically, the outcome depends on if an audit is done, and if that audit is done depends on a variety of factors like funding and the labor-friendliness of the state. I know my state recently put out some press releases about going after various employers specifically for wage violations with some big numbers of awards to affected workers, but, well, we are a blue state. Nevertheless, it would cost you nothing to report it. You can even do it anonymously. Google “report labor violations [state]” where [state] is the state where this business is located to find the proper channels. There is also a more general page for the USDOL ( but I honestly don’t know how thoroughly they investigate these individual claims.

    If your County or Parish has a Workforce (Development) Council, Institute, or Board, they may also be able to point you in the direction of community resources to protect labor rights, as well.

    Proving racial discrimination is unfortunately a more complicated beast and one outside of my realm of expertise.

    1. This is a name, I guess*

      Only tangentially related, but the FT/PT debate is complicated when you take into considerations disability inclusion. Many people with disabilities (psychiatric, cognitive, intellectual/development, multiple) don’t want part-time work. Not only are FT jobs often too tiring and don’t leave room for necessary appointments/therapies, but employer provided benefits (like health insurance) usually aren’t as good as Medical Assistance/Medicare for covering disability-related care. Additionally, many people with disabilities receive benefits from the government which are (unethically and cruelly) income-limited. So, people with disabilities worry about making too much money and making themselves ineligible for benefits. Many people with disabilities struggle to find higher-skill and higher-paid jobs because fields offering those jobs are actually really rigid about offering customized employment situations for people with disabilities. This is why they are often shunted into food service, retail, and center-based manufacturing. Those industries are more willing to offer more flexible work.

      1. Liane*

        A good point but it may or may not apply to the staff at OP’s gym/pool. It will depend on whether many staffers, like the clients, have disabilities.

        1. This is a name, I guess*

          I know. It was just an FYI. Lots of people really passionate about workers’ rights erroneously believe that FT with benefits is the best option for everyone. However, it’s not always the best option for people with certain disabilities.

          1. Splendid Colors*

            If someone is working less than full time to maintain eligibility for benefits, they’re not going to be drawing the line at 38 vs. 40 hours/week. It’s been a few years since I went to a workshop on this, and it gets SUPER complicated, but it’s highly unlikely anyone asked to work 38 hours for benefits reasons.

            1. Splendid Colors*

              Sorry to pile on! I hadn’t seen the other comments coming in saying the same thing.

              I agree it’s valuable to have positions designed to be part-time, but that would be 15-20 hr/wk, not 38.

      2. MCMonkeyBean*

        That’s a discussion worth having in a lot of situations, but it seems unlikely to apply in a situation where they are only working 1-2 hours less than what would qualify them for full-time benefits. That’s not a situation where the work is less tiring or more flexible…

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Just my observation from working in and around folks with disabilities. If they do have a PT job the hours per week is far, far less than being 2 hours short of FT. The case manager typically monitors this closely so people do not lose their benefits.

        1. This is a name, I guess*

          I know! I clarified above that my comment was intended more an FYI, tangential the situation. I find that lots of people really passionate about workers’ rights erroneously believe that FT with benefits is the best option for everyone. However, it’s not always the best option for people with certain disabilities. When I’m participating in these conversations (where people with intellectual disabilities are not always represented), I just try to temper this opinion because I know we’re all on the same team. :)

  19. Zennish*

    In my own experience serving on and working with boards, they vary as much as the individuals involved. I’ve worked with ones whose major goal seemed to be finishing their meetings as quickly as possible without actually being bothered, and ones that were truly concerned about their organization’s impact and reputation in the community.

    Most boards are sensitive to optics and the public image of their organization, so presenting a case to the board as a community member both that you have concerns about the situation of the workers and that it may reflect poorly on the organization if they fail to address it might get some traction. Also, unless and until you know otherwise, don’t assume the board knows about and is condoning it. Their major source of information is usually the management, who has an interest in convincing them everything is going fine. Approaching them as a concerned citizen without bringing up specifics of who told you what might get the board to start asking some questions.

  20. The Lexus Lawyer*

    Your city, state, and federal government all have offices that investigate labor violations. Use them, your taxes pay for them and they know the law.

    On the private side, as another lawyer said earlier, you probably could get a free consult somewhere but you’d need the damages to be high enough for an attorney to take the case on contingency. There are pro-bonos out there but their resources tend to be stretched thin.

    1. Splendid Colors*

      Good points. I know my state/county/city take wage theft VERY seriously and I have a 2/2 record on winning claims for unpaid wages.

      If OP isn’t sure if their jurisdiction has the same attitude, search for news stories about wage theft in the local area. I know our agencies like to put out press releases about big claims and investigations to help deter other employers from crooked behavior.

  21. Observer*

    Talking with my non-profit management hat here:

    It’s worth finding out who funds the parent organization and the Gym itself. Give a look at the policies these funders have around things like staffing and budgets. If the funders are government entities, this information should be public.

    This information will give you a handle on which battles you have the best chance of winning. It also may give you some understanding of why the organization is doing what they are doing. That’s useful information, if for no other reason than to keep them from saying “but you don’t understand!” Yes, you DO understand, but the organization needs to find a different solution in many cases – and in EVERY case where what they are doing is illegal.

    1. Drago Cucina*

      This is an excellent point. Recently one of our county offices got hit with DOL fines for not paying overtime and making employees “volunteer”. It wasn’t pretty.

  22. Chairman of the Bored*

    Here’s my experience managing orgs that regularly encounter cases where legal compliance will be expensive or otherwise inconvenient:
    -The sad reality is that arguments along the lines of “do XYZ because it is the right thing” or even “do XYZ because it is explicitly required by law” do not by themselves compel much action – especially when coming from an outsider.
    -Practical arguments structured as “do XYZ because this will protect the org from [specific negative outcome]” are much more effective – regardless of who raises them.

    For example, “give all workers safety training and appropriate PPE so they don’t get hurt” unfortunately doesn’t carry nearly as much weight as “give all workers safety training and appropriate PPE so we don’t get sued or fined if they get hurt”.

    I’d recommend a shot across the bow from a local labor attorney to the effect of “It’s come to my attention that your org is doing [specific bad things]. If these are not resolved by [date] I intend to proceed with [specific actionable negative consequences].” It shouldn’t cost much to get this letter written.

  23. Nethwen*

    Management/Board here:
    Like RCB said, the board will back up management until they have very good reason not to. Perceived unfairness is unlikely to be a good reason. Illegal activity may be, depending on the specific board members.

    Those who use the organization’s services will be given greater attention, in my experience. Nothing is more frustrating than someone agitating for change when they don’t even use your service. In OP’s case, you frequently use the facility, so you have standing to request changes.

    Not commenting on OP specifically, but their type of situation in general:

    When a community member complains about something, they get farther when they’ve done their research and are trying to truly help the organization. Too many “advocates” get noisy about things they don’t understand.

    “Well, yes, community advocate, that would be a great benefit to some children. It also violates XYZ laws and places in financial risk ABC demographic that we also serve.”

    What the “advocate” hears and reports on social media is “This organization doesn’t want to help children, doesn’t listen to the community it serves, and will never change. Management needs to be replaced!”

    People who do their research and truly want to help make things better are more likely to hear the problems with their proposal and then suggest solutions that they, as a client, are willing to support. As an example from OP’s case, maybe supporting reduced open hours so that staff can be full-time with benefits could make sense. Also, if one is trying to help staff, don’t make suggestions for change without verifying that those chances would actually be welcome (sounds like OP is on the right track with this).

    First, seek to understand as much of the context as possible. Then use your power to request changes.

    Of course, the above doesn’t apply to clearly illegal things like falsifying hours worked to avoid paying overtime.

  24. CatCat*

    Not currently, but have worked in the past on ensuring employee rights. Not sure what is on your info card so apologies if this is redundant, but I would include and emphasize: National Labor Relations Board (NRLB) has an online portal that would allow them to make a complaint that the employer has unlawfully prohibited them from discussing pay. State Labor Commission/Board/Department should have a process for reporting the overtime violations that the state can pursue on behalf of workers so if there is a portal or hotline, include that.

    As to not making employees full-time, not illegal. Action on that could be to unionize. Union organizing activity is protected (NRLB’s portal also lets you complain if employer prohibits organizing or retaliates for organizing).

    The State Bar may have a lawyer referral service so that would be worth including. Consults are usually relatively low-cost or free. (Not sure how big the bigger non-profit is here or if this is a loan rogue sub-unit of the organization, but there could be some significant wage and hour issues worth private counsel’s time.)

    1. Person of Interest*

      Having worked as an advocate on these types of issues, I recommend also having these info cards translated into the most common languages in your area.

      1. LW*

        Thank you for that suggestion, Person of Interest! Besides being smart and something I can do on a more immediate timeline, I always love a good chance to use my laminator… ;-)

  25. awesome3*

    As a private individual you do have the ability to call your Department of Labor office if you believe there to be a violation, it doesn’t have to be a current employee. In fact a lot of those calls are made by former employees. Do know that management will assume that it was one of the employees and may retaliate, but what you can do if you want to tell them it was you who made the report, is the concerned costumer approach, that *of course* the board and the management would want to make sure they were following the law and paying employees.

    1. Gingerbread Gnome*

      Excuse me? I see board members encouraging OP to reach out to them and report the problems. Many are also adding other options are appropriate if the board doesn’t act.
      Many non-profit boards are volunteer – with expectations that board members donate both money and significant amounts of time to the cause. These people often have deep and abiding notions of service and improving their community.
      Signed: my life would be so much simpler if I didn’t bother attempting to make the world a better place

      1. LinuxSystemsGuy*

        “ Excuse me? I see board members encouraging OP to reach out to them and report the problems.”

        Yes, but many if not most of them are also saying that the board is unlikely to care unless you you have leverage to sue them or provide significant negative publicity. It’s nice that many board members are making helpful comments, it’s depressing that they’re most commenting to say “The board won’t care, talk to an attorney/the DOL/the media”.

  26. Yvette*

    I am not a member of one of the 3 groups, but I just want to say that this is probably the best use of the Thursday “ask the readers” question I have seen since it began, with so much helpful and specific advice.

    1. zinzarin*

      That’s partly because the question is so well written, including the specific advice requested and from whom.

      1. LW*

        Y’all are making me blush! Thank you for the warm fuzzies… I’ll admit, I was incredibly trepidatious writing in, and then even more nervous when I saw it was actually going to be posted.

  27. m*

    nonprofit leader with friends & relatives in labor organizing: check to see if there’s any local or state organization(s) doing work particularly around wage theft; for example your local Jobs with Justice may have it as part of their platform. they can help you organize employees and/or lean on employers. i would also reach out to local unions (there’s a nonprofit union: to see if they can help. even if the staff isn’t unionized, other union staff can give them and you tools for how to get to management.

  28. Red*

    Former member of three different boards here. Hate to say it but the main thing that brought change was one of three things: Money, Negative Publicity, Board Member with an Agenda. Either a major donor came in and wanted to see things a specific way so the board would move mountains to make them and their money happy; or something happened that cause really negative publicity within the community and in order to appease the public we made visible changes to show we heard everyone and have fixed the perceived problem; or, in the case of one board I was on, you have a really passionate board member who’s willing to be the (very loud and annoying) squeaky wheel until whatever change they want to see happens.

    I’m not sure the best route here. My guess based on what’s going on is your best reporting them to the state DOL for wage theft and then also taking the story to the local news and letting them have at the NP too. Or if you want to be more subtle find out who’s on the board, request to see the board minutes (a lot of NP’s have these as NP member’s right to see), and identify who the squeaky wheel is.

    Best of luck.

  29. LW*

    LW, here! Thank you all so much for your insights; I’m planning to check in regularly today and will do my best to add any additional context that might help.

    A couple of thoughts and additional items that have come up/come to light since I originally sent my letter in:
    1. When I couldn’t find the latest issue online, I wrote in and requested a copy of the latest annual report—only to find out they haven’t published one since 2018. Having worked at a nonprofit in the past (albeit, that was over a decade and a half ago), my understanding was that not publishing annual reports could jeopardize their nonprofit status? Is this correct?

    2. Re donations/lack of funding: It’s the understanding of the staff that, despite Covid, donations and government assistance has actually gone UP.
    a. As YL mentioned above, it’s our understanding that the time sheets are being changed to keep the lifeguards from qualifying for full-time.)
    b. Some of the larger operational costs appear to be subsidized by local government (i.e. they do not pay for water, electricity, etc.), which leads me to point three:

    3. Health and safety:
    a. For the past two years, pool staff have not been allowed to completely empty and refill the pool and hot tub. (Well, it’s more like a mini hot pool, because has room enough for multiple individuals in wheel chairs to use at a time.) The build up of chlorine has gotten so bad, I—and others with even semi-sensitive skin—have gotten chemical burns. (For context, with the rate of usage the gym has, pools should be fully cleaned out once a year and hot tubs weekly/bi-weekly. Given the concentrated space, the potential for chemical burns is much higher in the hot tub.)
    b. While yes, keeping people part time is unfair but not illegal, in essence, life guards are first line responders. As are cleaning staff in these days of Covid. Both are putting the lives of others before their own, and are daily at risk of disease, injury, and even the potential of death. For those with a legal perspective, does this have any additional implications, re liability or safety accordances with the National Federal Labor Relations Act?

    4. To answer questions about the relationship between the gym and the nonprofit, they are one and the same (not different entities).

    1. LW*

      5. Racial bias/discrimination issues: I hesitated to include this in my letter because it is so difficult to prove racial discrimination, but it has not been lost on me that:
      a. The organization is both in a predominately black neighborhood and staff (both on the disability program and gym side) are also mostly black.
      b. Even amidst the staff, the lifeguards and cleaning staff (ie, part time staff) tend to be darker than front desk workers, full time staff, management.
      c. The board, minus one, consists of all white members.

      1. Observer*

        Uch. I think that that’s going to be extremely hard to prove. And the typical routes that would normally be open to you are going to be very hard to access because of that.

    2. Jamie Starr*

      I have worked in NFPs (501c3) for 20+ years and annual reports are not required, and not having one would not jeopardize a 501c3 status. Depending on the annual revenue, NFPs are normally required to have an independent audit. You could ask the NFP for its most recently completed audited Financial Statements and 990 (fed tax return), or check guidestar [dot] org to see what the most recent year is available. But I’m not sure that anything in the Financial Statements or 990 would help you. Salaries are lumped together in the Financial Statements, and on the 990s only highly compensated, officer, or key employees’ salaries are listed separately; and neither document is probably going to discuss FT v PT working philosophies.

    3. Lifelong student*

      You can find the organization’s federal income tax return– Form 990- on It is free.

        1. Jamie Starr*

          Yes, I listed Guidestar in my comment… But sometimes Guidestar doesn’t have the most recently completed year (unless the org uploads it).

          Depending on the state, they could also look at their states AG website. For example, in NY the Charities Bureau oversees NFPs so you can oftentimes find the 990s on its website (as they’re required for the state tax return filing).

    4. Red*

      Woah to number 3! (I mean it’s all horrendous, but from a CYOA point this is the one that would likely bite the NP the worst.)
      “According to a study by the CDC, about one in 10 facilities have health violations that warrant immediate closure. Facility operators should have trained and certified operators caring for their pools during the week and on weekends. Club owners who choose otherwise assume a substantial and often catastrophic risk. The best-case scenario is to have verifiable, unbiased training from a non-profit organization that is compliant with the CDC Model Aquatic Health Code.”

      I’d get some PH strips and test the water and then take that to the local public health department for investigation. They can usually look into cleaning and health violations like a dirty pool.

      1. Princess*

        One of the reasons I left aquatics was I was never allowed to close the pool. I’d go to my boss “Hey we need to close the pool because it is so cloudy I can’t see the bottom of the shallow end and the chlorine is three times the legal limit and it burned the hair off my swim instructors’ arms this morning” and my boss would be like “IF YOU CLOSE THE POOL YOU ARE FIRED” and I’d be like “Well you see if someone drowns we won’t see them on the bottom and also people tend to get mad when the pool burns their skin raw,” and I’d get back “IF YOU CLOSE THE POOL YOU ARE FIRED YOU ARE INSUBORDINATE YOU SUCK AT YOUR JOB YOU MORON.”

    5. Lady_Lessa*

      A chemist here. I can’t speak about the social/political issues involved.
      But as far as the safety of the water, can you get home chlorine test kits, as well as pH kits. I just checked and you can get both as rolls of treated paper. You simply dip a small piece into the water, the color will change and the scale on the container will tell you the concentration.

    6. MsMaryMary*

      I hadn’t connected the wage theft directly to ensuring the part time employees are not eligible for benefits. This means there could be potential penalties in play under the Affordable Care Act, which requires large employers to offer medical coverage to all employees working an average of 30 of more hours a week. The penalty for not doing so takes into account all full time employees at an organization, so we’re talking about a huge amount of money even if just one employee should have been offered coverage and was not. I don’t know how correcting the stolen hours would work out in terms of the ACA, but it’s something else to mention to the Board.

      This angle also makes me agree with Lady Ann’s comment below. Instead of an organization-wide illegal practice, it may be a local manager trying to find a way to “manage” employees down to part time. I have clients who have made it very clear to local managers that their part time staff cannot work more than 25-28 hours. Instead of another approach, some local bonehead might have turned to wage theft. It may male it easier to take to the Board in an “of course you would want to know this” way.

    7. Princess*

      #3 is easy. You can report them to the Board of Health for it.

      But as a former pool director, I can tell you, a build up of chlorine- combined chlorine- does not require them to drain the pool. They need to shock it. Shocking it overnight and letting it naturally fall back down to normal by morning (you’d usually do this on a weekend or holiday, when there’s the most hours possible between close and open) will kill off the combined chlorine that’s bothering you.

      It’s also possible that the pool has: too much chlorine (they are keeping it over 3.0 for a cold pool or 5.0 for a hot pool or hot tub, somewhere between 6 and 7 is where it starts to burn people’s skin generally) or that the ancillary chemicals are out of whack (the pH, alkalinity, and calcium.)

      You only have to drain the pool when the total dissolved solids get too high, or if you have to do maintenance on the physical pool itself. If they are doing regular weekly backwashes of the filter system like they are supposed to, that will result in the dump-and-replacement of a good volume of water over time. You just won’t see it, because it happens via the filtration system in the pump room behind the scenes.

      The hot tub should be drained more often because it is hot, it makes people sweat, and people often break the rules and sneak in lotions and oils, so it naturally will have high TDS. Also, hot tubs just have a visceral “ick” factor for a lot of people and it makes the members feel more comfortable using it if it they see is drained and scrubbed weekly.

      1. LW*

        I really appreciate these maintenance insights. From what I’ve seen and been told (and felt while in the water), it doesn’t seem like shocking it is happening at all. I’ve also gotten the sense that management is under the impression that, because the pool serves people with compromised immune systems, they need to keep the chlorine levels as high as possible.

        1. Lady_Lessa*

          LW, if you want to argue that point, and I think that you should consider it. An analogy that I have used successfully is that some salt is needed to make food taste good, but if you keep adding it, the food becomes inedible.

          I’m not a water chemist, but perhaps one can advise about using hydrogen peroxide to help keep the bacteria down. It breaks down into harmless materials, water and oxygen. (I’m not even sure it exists for pools)

        2. Princess*

          Ohhhh noooo, that’s not accurate at all! Chemicals become less effective if they are out of range. So if the chlorine is too high, it is just as bad as if it is too low. But it’s a common misconception that a lot of people have.

          So the two cases where you would allow the chemicals out of range are first thing in the morning, and high volume swimmer activities. A lot of chlorine systems have a computer that pumps on demand, and so the chlorine will drop overnight when the pool is empty of swimmers, and then pick back up once the swimmers start swimming. So if you test the water before anyone starts swimming, it’ll read as low but that doesn’t mean it’s unsafely low. It just means the computer hasn’t kicked on yet.

          For a high volume activity, like summer camp when you have a lot of large groups in a row, you might keep the chlorine high because a large group all at once can use up all the chlorine in the pool faster than the pump can pump it. So if you set it a little high, that’ll give you a buffer to ensure the water stays safe the whole time.

    8. Observer*

      1. my understanding was that not publishing annual reports could jeopardize their nonprofit status

      Almost certainly not. There are reports that have to be submitted to various government agencies, though. So, you should be able to find financial information that way. GuideStar can be a good first place to look. Also try googling OrgName IRS 990 or check the IRS site.

      2. It’s the understanding of the staff that, despite Covid, donations and government assistance has actually gone UP.

      That makes things worse, but fundamentally it doesn’t matter on the legal front. What they are doing regarding the time cards is flatly illegal. No excuses there.

      3a. or the past two years, pool staff have not been allowed to completely empty and refill the pool and hot tub. ~~~ snip ~~~ (For context, with the rate of usage the gym has, pools should be fully cleaned out once a year and hot tubs weekly/bi-weekly.

      That’s utterly gross and inexcusable. And it would be even if the water cost were not being subsidized. But you DO have a really good argument to present to the Board here. All you need is ONE person who gets sick in a way that connects to the gym and the fact that basic cleaning has not been done is going to be a DISASTER for them. Even oversight agencies that are lax are going to go after them in a big way. And the publicity would be an absolute disaster. In fact, it really could be bad enough to close the place down.

      3b. While yes, keeping people part time is unfair but not illegal, in essence, life guards are first line responders. As are cleaning staff in these days of Covid. ~~~snip~~~ For those with a legal perspective, does this have any additional implications, re liability or safety accordances with the National Federal Labor Relations Act?

      Nope. There might be local ordinances, so you could look into that. Again, the best argument here is going to be reputation of the organization. If something goes wrong and anyone can tie it in any way to these policies, someone WILL make the connection and the fallout for the org could be severe.

    9. The Prettiest Curse*

      Ugh, this sounds like a total mess of an organization. I hope that the advice in this thread will be useful.
      The level of pool and hot tub cleaning may be some kind of health code violation, as others have mentioned. I once picked up a hellishly awful staph infection from using a gym hot tub that wasn’t cleaned frequently enough. You do NOT want to mess around with that kind of potential infection, and since they are serving clients with disabilities, it’s even more important to report this if you can.

  30. Lady Ann*

    As a manager in a nonprofit…
    It came out a few years ago that one small department in one program where I work was violating wage laws by requiring people to come to work without punching in. When our CFO found out I thought he was going to have a stroke and the practice stopped *immediately*. I would definitely follow the advice here for bringing it to the attention of the board and the larger organization, it’s possible that this is not actually the policy of the organization as a whole and just an idea some brilliant manager had to save money.

    1. This is a name, I guess*

      This is also real: in underfunded nonprofits, you sometimes have a rogue supervisor.

  31. This is a name, I guess*

    I work in disability service, specifically in funding. A few larger issues to consider:

    First of all, THERE ARE CLEARLY ILLEGAL THINGS HAPPENING. These are bad. They are unethical. I am not apologizing for any of this.

    Second, (and related to yesterday’s post) we should all be aware that, in the US, the disability service industry suffers similar issues as medical practices, except probably worse. Disability service agencies are suffering from even lower reimbursement rates from federal, state, and municipal programs. CNAs, people working in longterm care, and direct support professional (who work with people with disabilities) hold similar jobs and require similar skill sets.

    Medical Assistance and Medicare and other programs set the reimbursement rates for services and often puts a wage ceiling on how much direct support professionals make, which is usually very little. On top of that, both private and public funders squeeze human services nonprofits to have artificially low admin/overhead. We’re pressured on multiple fronts to keep our overhead under 11%, which is nearly impossible because any agency that provides services delivered by human employees must invest in administrative functions to actually support those employees. More employees means you need HR and payroll! Working with vulnerable adults means you need to follow strict regulatory protocols, which means you need Quality Assurance staff. It’s a terrible situation to be in. Untenable. (Note that public universities can claim 50% overhead on public grant monies secured by professors for their personal research, but nonprofits helping people get side-eye for claiming more than 15% and are often capped at 9%- this is real!).

    I find that the Anti-Work movement doesn’t quite understand that many nonprofit agencies who rely on government reimbursements desperately want to pay their employees more, but are handcuffed by the government and by private funders who get to dictate that people working in these fields should live in poverty (often because they think overhead = waste). This isn’t just employers being exploitative for (a)moral reasons (though that’s happening). The government plays a huge role in dictating what work is considered “valuable”…and caregiving work performed by women, immigrants, and people of color isn’t valuable.

    So, many agencies serving people with disabilities are suffering right now. They are also in desperate straits financially and staffing-wise. Desperation means that some will act unethically.

    I don’t condone what this nonprofit is doing, but it’s helpful to know how desperate they probably are. While you should definitely advocate for the workers of this facility, you should also see what’s going on the disability service industry in your state. You should see what discussions are being held in your state governments about rate increases and service delivery changes. Disability policy is very state-by-state.

    Talk to your elected officials about increasing payouts for human services agencies, for both reimbursement rates and for overhead. Make it known that disability service and non-healthcare related services matter to you!

    It’s been a really really tough 2 years for people with disabilities for a lot of reasons, but one particular administrative issue has been that most legislation and guidance at the federal level has been slow to explicitly include disability service. We exist adjacent to but not fully included under a lot of the policies surrounding healthcare workers. Except it takes 6-12 months for government officials to clarify exactly how disability service fits into this conversation. We’re stuck in limbo…a lot. It’s really hard.

    1. LW*

      100% on this! Part of the reason why I reached out was from a real fear of inadvertently causing irreparable damage to the organization.

      1. This is a name, I guess*

        I think reaching out to the board is a good first strategy. My org’s senior leadership and board would respond with force to supervisors changing timecards. I know lots of board members are saying their board wouldn’t do anything, but disability service nonprofits are subject to lots of government regulation, licensure processes, and also accreditation.

        There’s multiple potential reasons this could be a one-off situation or an overzealous supervisor making big errors. For example, there’s been lots of consolidation in the industry (consolidation leads to administrative efficiency, which helps with the overhead limitations). If your facility is new to the organization (through a merger or acquisition), then the old culture might be hard to shake. We merged with an org 4-5 years ago, and we’re still dealing with systemic dysfunction at our new sites relating to the historic toxic work culture of the company we acquired – even though we let go the toxic leaders!

        Also, I’d suggest talking to someone at your state’s Dept of Labor. You might also look for an ombudsperson for people with disabilities in your state.

        The Ombudsperson’s Office exists to resolve issues between vulnerable adults, their caregivers, and the agencies that support their caregivers. They can also refer you to other state offices that help navigate issues like this. Also look to see if your state passed an Olmstead Plan and has an office dedicated to the Olmstead Plan.

        If people with disabilities are receiving services on site, the agency likely receives state funding and state oversight. The State likely has a process for resolving issues like this, which isn’t always the most effective, but it limits disruption of service delivery for people with disabilities – who are really suffering because of covid’s disruption of their needed services – while also providing both legal authority and a carrot for the agency to fix these issues.

  32. Hippo-nony-potomus*

    I’m group #2 – have served on several Boards.

    Assuming you’re in the U.S., the first thing you’ll want to do is look up the org’s Form 990. This will give you information about their donations and where they are spending them. It also lists salaries of the highest-paid employees. This will give you an idea of how tight their budget is. There is no excuse for not paying workers the full amount they are legally owed; however, if their budget is tight, then “nice-to-have” things (like full-time lifeguards) come at the expense of other mission-driven work.

    Employees are being purposefully mislead about their rights. The org is required to have posters informing employees of their rights under various federal and state laws; look at for more information. Are those posters there?

    Encourage the employees to file complaints with the DOL or their state. This matters more than a “white presenting” person complaining to management.

    1. Jamie Starr*

      I would actually recommend looking at the 990 in combination with the audited Financial Statements – specifically the Statement of Functional Expenses, which will show how much of their expenses are spent on programming. The F/S will also give more detailed information about how much of their contributed income has donor restrictions and for how long.

        1. Jamie Starr*

          They should be able to ask the organization for them. Also, that’s where Guidestar comes in. A lot of orgs will voluntarily upload them; it helps them get a higher Guidestar rating. Some states require that the audited F/S be filed with the tax returns. If this is a smaller org under a larger NFP I would expect that it would be fairly easy to get copies. Although depending on the legal relationship between the two orgs, maybe the smaller one’s finances get rolled up into the larger org’s F/S and 990.

      1. Hippo-nony-potomus*

        This is a good idea, but is adrift from what I was driving at. The top five salaries are going to be very important; if some people are earning, say, a quarter of a million dollars a year, and they are illegally docking the pay of their cleaning crew, there’s a straightforward remedy: decrease those salaries by a marginal amount and pay everyone legally. However, if the five highest-salaried employees are making $50k a year, finding that extra money is going to be very challenging and will likely come at the expense of programming.

  33. Fundraiserin*

    Nonprofit fundraiser here, who does board management and also hears from constituents (donors, ticket buyers to our programs) directly. It doesn’t change things overnight, but having even regular customers or donors reach out to staff and say “Hey, what are you doing about X?” is GREAT. In our case, we are an org that espouses lots of progressive values, but our core mission doesn’t have a whole lot to do with that, so it’s easy to skip out on hard changes by saying “We’re just focusing on our mission of making the world a better place through beautiful teapots” and just…ignoring the other issues, like the fact that even experienced teapot painters don’t make enough money to live in our very expensive city.

    So, when an issue like pay equity, or the embarrassing Whiteness and maleness of our board and leadership (relative to our extremely diverse region), having a donor reach out and say “hey, I love your teapots, and I noticed that you say you’re an a progressive organization because of your XYZ policy, but also I know that nonprofits often pay entry level workers below a living wage, a common priority for progressive orgs these days. How are you navigating this problem? Do you have plans to raise worker wages?” it allows me to go to my boss and our executive director and say “hey, this is an issue people are noticing. From donors and customers.” Have it happen a few times, then you can say “our organization needs a coherent response to this issue, as customers are asking about it.” It doesn’t change things overnight, but it gives evidence that we can’t just get away with “focusing on teapots” to the exclusion of everything else. We have 100k+ constituents a year, between tickets and donors, but even a few donor inquiries, a collection of responses on an audience survey, or a few grant applications that ask it, will flag as something staff need to follow up on. When a workers advocacy group started specifically calling us & peer orgs out for the issue, hearing that our donors were also interested in seeing us institute a more equitable policy also gave us cover, to take the “risk” of changing for the better.

    On a related note, threatening to withhold your donation/purchase in the future doesn’t get you very far (unless you are, of course, a underwriting-level donor). We occasionally get messages from someone who is stopping their $50 donation over some press release, and….we’re an $18 million budget org. I can live without the $50 if you don’t think we’re right to ask people to wear masks when they visit our facility. But something about the vagueness of going in the other direction – I like you, I want to be excited about you, but can you help me understand how you are addressing X issue? does get traction.

    1. This is a name, I guess*

      Also a nonprofit fundraiser here. I’m in disability service, and I’d say that a lot of agencies don’t rely on events and donors in the same way that other nonprofits do. Most do a small annual fund drive. Many write grants, but prioritize public funding applications. So, donor pull matters less than it does in other nonprofits, which is generally a good thing (gives the wealthy elite less control over organizations…if they are on the board it’s one thing; giving an org your extra money shouldn’t give you outsized control over its decisions, given that lower income people dont’ have the same access to power over the org). But, perhaps not here.

  34. M2*

    I agree with all of the above. Violating labor laws is illegal.
    Side note and maybe it will be deleted but a disabled family member of mine used a couple pools for PT and on their own but every one closed due to maintenance and insurance rising costs. One place was only open part time in the summer because they employed college students but when they left they shut it down. This is not an excuse, but something separate to think about for all of us in all aspects of our lives.
    Separate from the illegality of wage left if the hourly wage increased and the organization started offering benefits your membership fee would likely go up quite a bit, would you pay for that increase? I know different gyms that now mandate an additional fee to join the pool because of the cost for guards, maintenance and insurance.

    As someone who has worked at and sat on non-profit boards I would bring it to the Board with either a written letter or email of some sort.

  35. Lizzy Lou*

    I’ve worked for nonprofits, and unless the whole tree is rotten, the board will not pleased to hear employees are being abused like this. I’d write them a letter and present the facts you’ve collected.

  36. Wintermute*

    I’ve been an employee at a place with less than great labor law compliance, including some of these policies, as well as ADA violations and other things.

    I would go the public pressure route IF and ONLY IF you are sure you’re not going to make anyone radioactive. A reputation as a labor agitator can make you virtually unemployable. It’s crappy but it does happen. It’s the big fear that stops many people from exerting their labor rights. You can’t know how safe they might or might not be. You can’t know how effective your state is at actually enforcing anti-retaliation laws in this context. You also can’t know their tolerance for risk.

    Public pressure could be a double-edged sword, you could trigger a ruthless witch hunt to find the people who blabbed and make an example of them, but you might get real change. Your first concern needs to be “do no harm” and avoid ruining anyone’s life, costing them their job and employability or causing a bad reputation.

    This is where an old police tactic called “parallel construction” they use when they know something illegal is going on but they cannot admit to how they know this. What they (and YOU) *can* do is find another way to “officially” find out what you unofficially know. Find a way to figure this out on your own, or work with someone else who will safely go on record, or find a way to get proof that doesn’t involve the employees telling you. I’m sure that won’t be easy but there might be a way.

    One way I’d look at is EX employees, people without so much to lose but who would have standing to make a wage claim that would trigger investigations that uncover what’s hiding in the woodpile, especially if they’re willing to be public about it. A big part of the downside of public pressure is that, well, it’s not quiet, someone is going to have to stand up in front of a camera and name names and tell their story. Without that you have nothing but rumors. Responsible reporters won’t take a rumor and run with it, they’re going to need people willing to go on the record, a first-party source not someone who heard from someone. If anyone is willing to go on record with reporters and/or the government that might work.

    An alternate route, which is sneaky but sometimes that’s all you’ve got, is just start a whisper campaign to make sure everyone that patronizes the place knows they’re abusing workers.

    the fact they aren’t a corporation is the only reason I advocate doing anything at all. In my situation there was no one up top who would care unless legally obligated to care and they knew that not enough customers would care to make a dent. Nonprofits don’t have that self-assurance of immunity to bad behavior– A nonprofit board is not like a CEO who just wants to keep labor costs down and is often giving coded “well I can’t tell you to break the law but I can tell you your labor budget must be under X dollars” where X is only achievable via wage theft, or a franchise which is giving “service targets” and “maximum labor margins” which are incompatible with one another unless they break the law. And nonprofits are typically not in a position to say “our product is popular we know people won’t stop buying just because they know we short time cards”

    If you make members and patrons aware sometimes they can collectively exert pressure to “hey, we expect better of you, do better,” since nonprofits are vulnerable to donor discontent they’re more reactive to that IN THEORY (there many exceptions, of course) to discontent from their member base.

    Also as a nonprofit hopefully there are some people above in the organization who are decent people who believe in the mission and/or are on the board to genuinely help people. People who would be horrified, not proud, that this is occurring. They might be able to intercede while suppressing retaliation and ensuring the culture around labor abuse changes. And this is important because even with their wrists duly slapped, most organizations will get sneakier, not better, in my limited experience.

    In short– make sure the people you’re advocating for actually want an advocate and would view it as welcome help, nothing can be more damaging or frustrating than a would-be savior who doesn’t realize they’re causing more problems than they are helping. Find a way to “know” on paper what you already know so you can point to how you found out without implicating anyone if you can. Consider finding allies, inside the organization or recently from it, who are willing to be on the record with complaints. Consider finding someone you trust higher up in the organization who has authority and the morals to shut it down AND stomp down hard on any thoughts of retalliation. If you can’t do any of that… maybe the best you can do is just letting everyone know that this place is abusive and shady and doesn’t deserve their custom or their donations.

    But, all that said, this may well just not be a fight you can fight, it’s really crappy, this kind of petty abuse is remarkably common and the laws against it are far too toothless to do many people much good. The best thing you can do might be to decide not to patronize a place that abuses their workers and vote with your feet and wallet. It’s commendable you want to help, but to really help you need access to some levers of power or the ability to lean on the people who have access to those levers.

    1. LW*

      Agree with you completely on the potential damage to future employment. That’s actually one of the reasons why I wouldn’t have a problem being the one take any “blame.” With my health problems, I can’t work.

      1. Wintermute*

        that’s a noble instict because the fact is if no one ever stands up nothing ever changes. I would definitely see if you can find a way to get the information “clean” without implicating any employees even indirectly, or work with someone willing to be your partner in this.

  37. NewYork*

    I have not read all comments, and agree that labor law violations are serious. I wanted to add that where I live, the county monitors chemical safety of all public pools, and all pools other than at private homes are considered public. I would call them anonymously and complain.

  38. Just Another Librarian*

    Having ended up in a similar position (wage time accounting issues) at a previous non-profit employer, what actually solved the situation is someone put a bug in the ear of a couple big donors who were also volunteers. The way the board bent over to look into issues once Mr. & Mrs. MultiMillions were fussed about it was very different!

    If the organization has any publicly known donors who are also politically/socially active, that may also be people to see if you can get a message too.

    1. OyHiOh*

      This is what I would recommend also, with documentation of the wage theft issues, if at all possible. Nothing makes a board do the right thing faster than discovering that their major (underwriting level) donors are unhappy and considering withholding. Negative public pressure can be easily shrugged off as “they just don’t understand how things work around here.” The money trail drying up = no organization and with it the perceived prestige of being on the board

    2. This is a name, I guess*

      While contacting big donors might work in this specific circumstance, I think it’s worth discussing how this tactic generally helps the wealthy consolidate power and influence. Just because someone had a lot of money doesn’t mean they should have an outsized say on how a nonprofit runs. I’d argue that using wealthy donors as leverage (especially private donors) exploits the donor-centric fundraising model that so many equity-focused nonprofit professionals are working so hard to upend.

      Think of it this way: the OP mentions that the facility is located in a majority-Black neighborhood and that people with disabilities receive services there. People with disabilities and Black Americans have considerably less wealth than most white Americans, and therefore don’t have the same capacity to donate money at an “underwriting level.” Do they deserve less say in how programs located in and serving THEIR COMMUNITIES are run? Because if you give large donors that level of power over an organization, then the other side of the same coin is that you are minimizing the voices of people who can’t give large donations.

      Yes, large donors can advocate for people with lower social status, but so many of our societal problems derive from the false, capitalistic belief that rich people will “do the right thing.” Even the most philanthropically motivated rich people are not capable of acting in the best interests of low-income people.

      The board is a different story, since they are actually have governance responsibilities.

      1. Observer*

        Do you want to be right or do you want to be effective.

        If the choice is to leave the existing problems in place on the one hand, or resolve some of the problems using white male donors, I know which I am going to choose. Because Black people deserve to have decent facilities even if there is no one on their community who has the money to MAKE the Board listen.

        The thing is that I don’t think that it needs to be so binary most of the time. I would hope that the OP would have multiple levers too pull. And I would also hope that any donor that chose to speak up would be conscious of elevating the voices of the community – especially given the apparent racial bias that seems to be showing up staffing pattern.

        1. This is a name, I guess*

          Lots of people – nonprofit professionals, too – are suggesting contacting donors and grantors. This worries me a lot for the reasons I stated above.

          Additionally, people with disabilities have experienced devastating losses in their health and wellbeing due to the pandemic. One of the reasons is the disruption of critical services. This organization might be THE ONLY ONE providing any day services for people with disabilities in the neighborhood. If a well-meaning but shortsighted major donor pulls their gift/grant because someone chooses the (let’s be honest: White Person White Collar “Karen”) donor lever because its a more efficient workaround than the traditional lever to worker protections (e.g. these employees advocating for themselves or going through an established channel), then not only are these employees potentially out of the job, but worse, people with disabilities in this community will have even fewer options for services. (And, as much as I am pro-worker, the employees in this situation have more choices about where they work, especially now, while people with disabilities have increasingly fewer choices.)

          Donors and private grantmakers are well-meaning (same as OP and commenters), but they often don’t truly understand how the convoluted disability service system works. On the other hand, state agencies – while inefficient and imperfect – have a responsibility to BOTH employees and people served at this facilities. Donors do not understand their responsibility to or their (lack of) money’s true impact on people with disabilities. The state – on the other hand – is required to advocate for people with disabilities, as well as their caregivers, and can help remedy the situation without jeopardizing access to services for people with disabilities, if possible.

          Before you tell me that government is useless, please realize that disability service nonprofits are subject to lots of government regulation, licensure processes, and also accreditation. This is related to the ADA and the Olmstead Decision. It varies by state, but states are also held to federal standards in this area.

          In another comment, I suggested the OP might also look for an ombudsperson for people with disabilities in their state. The Ombudsperson’s Office exists to resolve issues between vulnerable adults, their caregivers, and the agencies that support their caregivers. They can also refer OP to other state offices that help navigate issues like this. Also look to see if their state passed an Olmstead Plan and has an office dedicated to the Olmstead Plan.

          If people with disabilities are receiving services on site, the agency likely receives state funding and state oversight. The State likely has a process for resolving issues like this, which isn’t always the most effective, but it limits disruption of service delivery for people with disabilities – who are really suffering because of covid’s disruption of their needed services – while also providing both legal authority and a carrot for the agency to fix these issues.

          It’s useful to think of human services nonprofits in the same way that you would consider a doctor’s office. If this were the only doctor’s office that accepts Medical Assistance in the entire community and closing the facility would cut off the medical treatment for hundreds of marginalized residents who have no other options, would you still do it, given what you know about the problems? If it were me, I’d say, “Yes it’s worth closing, if the practice was causing irreparable harm to the community.” However, if the harms are fixable, we should look to the most constructive solution. Donors and their foundations have no expertise in any of this harm reduction.

          1. Observer*

            None of this actually answers anything I said. And you are making some broad and unfounded statements as well.

            Yes, many people have suggested letting some big donors know. That does not mean that they think that the OP should ONLY reach out to donors. In fact, I explicitly said otherwise. And I was one of the people who pointed to possibility of using governmental funding as a lever to fix stuff. But if you think that going to government funding doesn’t have it’s risks you have no real understanding of the sector. A lot depends on the specifics. It really depends on a whole host of factors we don’t have any information about.

            Also, I don’t know what world you live in, but in my world, big donors are not necessarily “karen” types, even when they are white. The idea that the only type of donor who is going to call a board to account for serious issues is an obnoxious, self-important and selfish jerk is inaccurate and highly problematic.

            Most of the people who are suggesting going to donors are NOT suggesting that the OP get the donors to stop donating. They ARE saying – and it’s often true – that when a big donor asks “what are you doing about problem X” Boards tend to listen. And act.

            You say that “Donors and their foundations have no expertise in any of this harm reduction.

            That’s a provably false statement. Yes, there ARE donors (we’ve seen some of them on AAM in fact) and foundations that have no idea of what they are doing and who will not act reasonably or helpfully. But there is a HUGE range here. Painting the entire sector with that kind of brush is not just unhelpful, it’s actively dangerous.

            I’m also going to push back on the idea that if it comes down to it, and taking action could risk the gym shutting down the OP should do nothing because it’s more important for the community to receive services than for people to actually get paid for their work and for services to be delivered SAFELY. This kind of attitude is what enables this kind of abuse to continue, and it hurts people who often really do NOT have choices. You cannot ethically advocate for the provision of services to on community in need on the backs of other communities in need.

            And I’m not sure that people are better off with services that are provided in a way that is unsafe – Subjecting them to the risk of chemical burn and heightened risk of spread of infection is not exactly a benefit.

            1. This is a name, I guess*

              But, I didn’t say the options were “tell a donor” and “do nothing.” I made suggestions to rectify the situation.

              My “Karen” comment was about choosing the pull the donor lever first instead of going through established channels, not that all donors are Karens. As inelegant and imperfect the Karen reference is, it makes sense here. Typical Karen is a White Woman who uses her proximity to Whiteness to ameliorate problems by going straight to the manager. To go straight to donors – and not by trying to remedy it through the board, not through the established channels , etc – is to rely on one’s proximity to wealth and power to effect change in an organization in a way that could be harmful. If the OP chose the “donor lever” first, they are using their privilege – whether its their direct connections to the “underwriting donor” class, their credibility as a white presenting person in being able to appeal to the donor class, or their access to knowledge of how this rarefied and sequestered donor community works – to circumvent actual systems in place to remedy these situations.

              Also, the OP has absolutely no idea if the “underwriting donors” they reach out to are the good ones. They have no idea if they are the jerk ones. This was why the asked the question. By dint of asking the question, we have to assume that OP doesn’t have the insider knowledge to distinguish between donors who are constructive and those who are not. If the OP chooses an extra-systemic solution as their first intervention and they go straight to the donors, they likelihood that they could cause harm is high enough that they should exercise other options first. If nothing changes, then the calculus changes.

              Plenty of people are giving other solutions, but there are lots of people here saying that nonprofit’s board will do nothing to stem the illegal activity. They are many people saying the government won’t do anything. This proliferation of advice could give the impression to someone – especially in this political climate where everyone feels exasperated and helpless – that they shouldn’t even bother with existing channels and should just take the nuclear option. I think it’s important to outline why going to donors without a really good understanding of how the organization works – which none of us have – could backfire and harm both the employees and the people served at the site.

          2. Curious*

            What precisely do you mean by the “White Person White Collar ‘Karen’ donor level”? Karen is a pejorative (i. e., contemptuous) term for overly entitled White women. Who has acted overly entitled here? All White women donors to this organization? All White donors? As best as I can tell from LW’s report, the only White people involved in this situation are the Board — who may not yet know about the situation (commenters are suggesting letting them know) and, in any event, are at most guilty of Inaction.
            I must say, this casual use of a racialized insult — in a case where there isn’t even a misbehaving White women in sight — is offensive.

      2. Just Another Librarian*

        You are making a lot of assumptions about donors.
        Money talks. The people providing funding are always going to get listened to more than other people. They already have this power over the organization. That’s true of all donor-dependent non-profits.

        Now, in my circumstances, the donor approached was one who also volunteered a lot, so people knew her and had an idea of how she would react. And in the end though she did address the issue with wage hour issues with the board, she also straight up wrote a check and said ‘you only get this if X is full time’.

  39. Pickles*

    Management & advocate here. I’ve found it tricky to advocate for others. Make sure your efforts don’t lead to anyone getting fired for “telling you info they should have kept confidential,” especially if you can develop or imply alternative ways of obtaining this information. Ideally, leading pool staff to resources and options, versus reporting violations themselves. Or report only on the things you know about directly, like the chemical burns. If you do report everything, be clear on what you absolutely know because you observed it yourself versus what you have been told.

  40. ---*

    I don’t belong to either category the OP mentioned, BUT I did want to point out that there’s no contradiction between advocating for workers’ rights and being the customer — to the contrary. You can use that position to go to management and outline what you’ve learned (not naming names) and indicate concern about what you’ve heard, and voice your misgivings about continuing to patronize a business with these types of labor practices.

    Others may have more suggestions to refine this type of approach — I just wanted to address the “but I’m a customer” piece.

    Good luck!

  41. Princess*

    I’ve worked in this field, nonprofit fitness, as a lifeguard, swim instructor, and aquatics director, for 10 years and across 3 states. First off, I am glad you appreciate and care about your lifeguards so much! But unfortunately, the labor practices you’re describing are sadly industry standard. Keeping people just below full time so they don’t get benefits (been there, done that myself), making people do shift transitions (open, close, shift change) off the clock. This is why I do not work in that industry any more and I have sworn I will never again.

    As an aquatics director, I tried my hardest to advocate for my staff. To advocate for full time slots. To advocate that people be paid for time worked. (In one location I was fighting HARD for people to be allowed to use the bathroom ffs) But the reality was, the pay policies and budget were set by people well above my pay grade and I had almost no leeway to do anything about it. There were plenty of times I was putting my own job on the line ADDING pay to employees’ timecards because I thought they should be paid for something that my boss told me needed to be “off the clock” or for giving them time and a half on a holiday when we were told we were not allowed to offer that, or just giving them a +1 hour because they went above and beyond that week and I thought I could get away with it. Fighting like this meant I was considered by my bosses to be a bad aquatics director and was bad at my job: it meant I was de facto out of the running for any promotions into higher management that might come along. (The ass holes who nitpicked low wage workers over 30 seconds pay, of course, got promoted up into the C-suite chain like wunderkinds. The guy who banned me from sending home a sick lifeguard and forced her to attend a training clutching a barf bucket 10 years ago, is now an SVP.)

    We did try to compensate people by making it a good work environment as much as possible. For example, my bosses- and I- tried to keep people’s shifts consistent from schedule to schedule, we respected people’s availability, we worked around school and full time job schedules, we let people call in sick or with emergencies, which a lot of service sector jobs won’t do. We always made sure to personally appreciate staff for all that they do and to be caring towards them and their lives, so they always felt valued and supported by us directly even if the greater organization considered them interchangeable chair warmers. And because they got a free membership, the job was really popular with people who liked to work out, who had housing insecurity and liked having somewhere they could pass the time during the day and shower and keep some basic groceries in the fridge, who were lonely and didn’t have much of a family or social community elsewhere and wanted to find one.

    For how you can support these staff, honestly, I am not optimistic. I think if you go to the director or the board and cite issues with work conditions, they will simply go on a witch hunt and try to fire the lifeguards who are telling the members bad things about the organization. They will not change them, because they’ve baked that into their operating budget and into their job descriptions and they’ll just fire anyone who doesn’t like it.

    Probably the two best things you could do is submit glowing written comment cards or emails to their boss and their boss’s boss saying what great staff they are, naming them, and naming how helpful they are and how much they mean to you. All compliments, no criticisms of the operations or the organization at all. That is the sort of stuff that gets staff recognized, it gets them raises and promotions, it gets the Aquatics Department more funding in the long run: high customer satisfaction. The second best thing would be to be supportive and cooperative when the staff’s limitations mean that the customer experience is not best: the pool is unexpectedly closed due to no staff, or the lifeguard isn’t able to help you because they are no longer on the clock or because they’re working alone when they shouldn’t be, etc. And if the topic of short staffing or staff turnover comes up, absolutely suggest they be paid more! “I think we would have less trouble staffing if the lifeguard job paid better!” will not get anyone in trouble for “bad customer service” the way “The lifeguards tell me they’re working off the clock,” would.

    I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you.

  42. Board member*

    I’m a board member for a non-profit. If you reported these issues to our board, I like to think my board would take it very seriously. I also agree that the most compelling argument to boards is their liability – legal or financial liability or bad press. The more they can see that these illegal practices by their managers have opened them up to very unpleasant consequences, the more likely they are to rectify them quickly.

    But, I agree with comments about being worried about it coming back on the specific employees despite everyone’s concern. I think as board members, we can remind each other about retaliation laws, but any manager willing to take wage theft to this level has shown their lack of ethics and they are the ones having direct contact with the employees. Be ready to document any treatment of employees in the interim as no doubt these managers will get worse as things come to light and they are facing consequences. A good board will have the employees’ backs. But do we know what kind of board you are working with?

  43. MicroManagered*

    At one job I had, some assistant managers would shave a few minutes off people’s timecards to get under budget for the week. When I got suspicious it was happening, I started saving my daily print outs (we clocked in an out at a POS machine that printed a paper receipt) of my time punches.

    When I finally found a discrepancy (my time for the week was less than my individual print outs), I calmly raised the issue at the next all-staff meeting with the general manager present. I asked for an explanation of why the daily print outs that I’d save did not add up to my current timecard. I also (calmly! hypothetically!) reminder them it would be illegal to inaccurately edit my time without my knowledge. The managers blubbered some excuse and acted appalled that I thought something untoward was happening, but put the time back in for me. Every employee was then aware and we all saved our print outs and compared to our weekly totals from then on and there was never another discrepancy!

    My advice to OP would be, when you hear stories like this, share with them that it’s illegal! Encourage them to report it either to upper management, the “parent” company, and/or the state labor board.

  44. CTT*

    From the board perspective (2+ years now in the role for a local org.; the only people I hear from are “customers” of the organization due to its purpose)

    Until recently, I was in the public-facing role on the board, and I got a lot of correspondence, and while I blew off no one, I was way more engaged to help people who were polite in their communications (based on your letter to Alison, I don’t think you’re the type to just send “[organization] is a DISGRACE and you should be ASHAMED” emails, but that made up a good chunk of what I received!) and also went into more detail about why they were writing me; it doesn’t have to be one thousand words with citations, but saying “this is a problem because X and Y” is helpful so I can better understand the concern and also loop in the right people if it’s truly outside my area.

    Also, if (hopefully when!) you hear back from the person you contact, do respond. When I would respond to feedback and got radio silence in return, even when I had asked questions, it made it harder for me to champion their issue because all I could tell my fellow board members was “I heard from someone who is concerned about X” without anything to add or any point of view to share. And creating a dialogue with that person allows you to check back in and keep them moving on it. I do say that with some hesitation because one issue a lot of people contacted me about was one that involved legit confidential discussions with a third party – I could not say anything beyond “it’s under review.” So if you aren’t getting an exact answer, consider the issue as a whole and if it’s something that a party outside of the organization may have to be involved in that impacts how much someone can say.

  45. Siege*

    Union communicator here. Your state or county may have a labor council which could be a helpful resource for ensuring that the members know their rights. Also, if you have a Labor Education Resource Center in your area, they may run a Know Your Rights training and have resources that count. If you are in the state of Washington, they definitely have this, and I believe Oregon also has a robust LERC, but I don’t know beyond that.

    One of the things to explore, depending on how much you can put into this, is whether your local labor council or a local union is familiar with not unionizing a group of employees. In my area, which is Seattle, the Teamsters have taken on not organizing rideshare drivers, where they’re working with drivers to get improved working conditions but not forming a union per se, it’s an association. This is in part in response to the drivers’ own desire to not unionize and in part in response to the fact that so many of them work for multiple companies, and traditionally unions are organized against an employer rather than for a category of worker.

    1. MentalEngineer*

      Seconding this. Depending on where you’re located, Teamsters, SEIU, Workers United, UNITE HERE, or other unions will probably have experience mobilizing for collective action short of a full-on union certification drive. You can Google “[city] labor council” and that *should* get you a website for some kind of cross-union association that could direct you further. They should also be tapped in to other groups that could help out, like a DSA chapter, mutual aid networks, or whatever general blob of lefties shows up at city council meetings. If you can’t find a local labor council, you can contact the state or national level of the unions listed above. It might take a couple tries depending on who is doing what other things, but you will hit someone who knows what’s going on in your area and can point you further.

    2. Parakeet*

      Workers’ Centers might be a good resource too, if there are any in your area, LW. They focus on supporting low-wage workers who aren’t unionized and/or are excluded by law from various US labor laws.

  46. Judge Judy and Executioner*

    I serve on a non-profit board. I would pay attention to a well-written letter/email, but believe it could be hard for an outsider to know who the right person is to contact. A social media blast against my org definetly got my attention, but others on the board dismissed it. I would contact the board directly, if possible. Perhaps even sending the same letter to each member? That would get our attetion for sure.

  47. EggyParm*

    Current nonprofit board member trying to think through about what would be effective. As others have said, we often don’t know or have insight into the day-to-day operations as we tend to be focused on bigger picture items so we need our attention drawn to a problem like this one directly.
    Here’s how I would go about it:
    1.) Direct connection to a board member. If you know someone on the board, reach out to them directly. Often times they can take the lead on getting the overall board’s attention.
    2.) Letter to the board via email – you’re really just doing your due diligence on communication and hoping it gets brought up.
    3.) See if they have member communication time at their board meetings. Our does and it’s a great way to shine a spotlight on problems you’re noticing.
    3.) If you do these things and they aren’t getting addressed, reach out to local media with the facts you’ve got. Local news stations are always looking for stories they can tap into. In doing so, you’ll end up putting pressure on not just the organization but the board itself who now has to answer for why they didn’t address your concerns upon receiving them.

  48. waffles*

    Worked in a similar situation (non-profit specifically not reporting OT hours and other types of wage theft)
    Reporting the violation to the state board of labor resulted in an investigation, fine, and widespread salary overhaul for the large non-profit I worked for. It benefitted far more people than those who had been missing out on OT, and the fine from the state board of labor made the organization take a lot of things more seriously (like training managers on what time card fraud is, and why it’s illegal to have anyone do it). I don’t know who made the original report, but in that case, it worked really well to remedy the illegal actions of my employer at the time. Though there had been a logical path to get to where the employer ended up, where they ended up was fully illegal, and it had to stop. (It was a type of work that has to be on call 24/7, but it’s on a reimburseable basis only, and it’s reimbursed at 50% of total cost, which drove a lot of poor dcisions)

  49. WorkerAdvocate*

    Disability rights lawyer and employee advocate here, with many years working in nonprofit spaces. Do the employees have disabilities themselves? Do you suspect they are being underpaid because of a disability? If yes to either, suggest connecting them with their state’s protection & advocacy organization for legal help. You can find links here: Heck, even if the workers are not themselves disabled, the P&A may be interested in hearing about this situation and may even be aware of other violations. Or may have connections to Board members. Or local media.
    The National Employment Lawyers’ Association ( is another good resource for finding local worker-side employment lawyers.
    Reducing hours because workers complained about being underpaid may be illegal retaliation for complaining about discrimination, but may require making a formal complaint.

  50. raincoaster*

    Honestly, as a reporter I have to say this is pretty mediagenic. You can expect pretty much instant results because no nonprofit can be caught breaking labour laws, as they are, without losing donors, public support, and possibly even nonprofit status. If they were skirting the law that would be one thing, but there are CLEAR violations here.

    Also, the IWW runs free online courses in how to unionize a workplace, and you might point the workers towards those.

  51. BA*

    I’ve been around non-profits a long time, both as an employee and as a board member. The board needs to know if (when, in this case) the organization is breaking the law. If there is proof of time clock manipulation and that changes compensation for employees, that’s against the law.

    Board members of an org I worked for reminded us often that the board has a fiduciary responsibility to the org. That puts them in a “need to know” position if laws are being broken.

    I’ll agree with others above who said you probably don’t want to make a huge public push against the organization first. It would be best to connect with the board and let them know what you know. It also may not be at all of interest to them that part time staff are being scheduled to keep them part time and not bump them up to full time. That’s crummy for the staff and probably counterproductive in the long run. But it isn’t illegal.

    Find a way to connect with the board chair or someone on the board who is very well respected. Let them know what you know. Tell them it is definitely against the law to manipulate time cards. Show them the proof. And then absolutely remind them of their fiduciary responsibility. They could be held just as accountable as the staff making the changes to the time cards if things go sideways for the org and the board stood by and did nothing.

    The org also owes those employees back pay.

  52. Galahad*

    From my experience as a retail cashier, where the department except for 2 people were shifted to always be 2 hours below FT benefits:

    Fill out those comment cards with glowing feedback naming specific employees and the fact that they are a lot better than at XYZ place (competitors). Maybe mention understaffing at your location causes challenges for you.

    If you hear about the time card changing tell them to report it to their upper management or state trade (government) agency because all clocked in, valid worked time needs to be paid. Lots of junior employees don’t know this and just go with the flow at smaller businesses.

    1. LW*

      About the glowing feedback:
      In November, the gym put out a survey for members to fill out. Apparently a lot of members (not just my sister and me) raved about the pool staff and said they should be paid more for all the work they do.
      The results of those comments? At least one lifeguard was berated.

  53. Bibliothecarial*

    I have worked for nonprofits and been on the board. This won’t help in the short term but long term makes all the difference – help the org find good people to serve on the board. Hands down a committed, kind, knowledgable board is the biggest difference between a healthy org and a hemorrhaging one.

  54. Mavis Mae*

    Ex lawyer, but not purporting to give legal advice. Also a former nonprofit Board member.
    Depending on the jurisdiction there could be some serious legal issues here. In some countries, an employer will not have the leeway to take some or all of the described actions. I’m outside the USA myself and one of the guaranteed side effects of reading AAM is astonishment about how USA employment apparently operates.

    The affected employees could benefit from seeking legal advice (eg community legal service), talking to a union, talking to the regulatory body (eg Fair Work Ombudsman etc).
    Concerns might include falsification of work/pay records altering the overtime sheets); fraud or obtaining a financial benefit by deception (ditto); noncompliance with an industrial award or employment agreement; breach of legislation deeming employment status; breach of occupational health & safety legislation (are two “part time” lifeguards adequate and sufficient to ensure safety of patrons and staff?). Whether employees can do anything about any of those depends on the facts and the applicable law.
    As a Board member I would have been very concerned about the conduct you describe. Bear in mind though that some Boards will act defensively for the organisation rather than seek to remediate the employees’ situation.

  55. Takki*

    From my experience, I’ve found customers that are aware of mistreatment of employees and raise hell on behalf of those employees are wonderful human beings. Complaining about actual problems is a good thing, even if no change comes about. The employees feel like someone cares and that they’ve made a difference with someone enough for them to go to bat for them.
    The thing is, it’s hard to complain as a 3rd party about inner workings of a company/organization without throwing the ‘tattletale’ under the bus. How would you know their overtime’s being removed unless you were told? Who told you? Don’t name names if complaining directly to the org, this will get some folks fired. If you know people that are members of this organization, tell them what you know as well if you think they’d care. More people that either benefit from or contribute to the org complaining about employee mistreatment will go farther than just you. Do not spread rumors, stick to things you KNOW to be true. You’re not trying to slander the org, you’re trying to to improve conditions for the employees so that they can continue their exemplary service to the members of the org and the community at large.
    In regard to things like OT removal or preventing employees from talking about salary… well as far as I know, that’s illegal. Report it to the Dept of Labor, it will be documented, if not investigated. There are weird exceptions to a lot of labor law for nonprofits, but I’m pretty sure the Dept of Labor reaching out to the org might put some of this right. Ask those employees to report these issues themselves (it wold likely carry more weight from the employee directly than from you) but if they won’t, ask if you can use their name when you contact them so they can talk to the employee(s) directly and they won’t be blindsided by a phone call out of the blue.
    Above all else, thank employees for their help when they give it, and if they’re doing a good job, tell them and the people above them so. Everyone needs to hear they matter.

  56. Anya the Demon*

    I am a volunteer at a non-profit where the staff are mostly young, underpaid women with high school educations. They were being severely mistreated by the ED, as well as underpaid and overworked etc. The ED would yell at them in meetings, saying things like, “If you hate it here, quit. But I know everyone in this town and I’ll make sure you never get another job.” True Disney villain stuff. I went to a board member that I had gotten to know, went out for coffee with him. Told him everything. He was very sympathetic. I think the board talked to the ED, who of course got mad that her staff had talked to anyone. That was about 4 years ago. All the board members have turned over, the ED is still there, and nothing really changed. They raised their hourly pay during the pandemic bc they were so short-staffed and needed to get ppl to take jobs there, but the turn over rate is still insane. The ED brings in big $$$ in donors, so the board mostly stays hands off despite all the problems. So, I agree that it’s worth talking to the board first. But if nothing comes of it, then I think you’d have to take fairly dramatic measures. In my situation, nothing overtly illegal was happening that I knew about (although I am sure that if the board had investigated they would have found things), but in your situation there are very clear-cut illegal things happening that puts the whole organization at risk. So, hopefully focusing on those things will get the board’s attention. But, as another commenter said – they probably won’t interfere with the organization hiring another person to spread out hours and keep people part time. Capitalism is shitty.

  57. Working Hypothesis*

    I have worked in a similar situation; I’m a massage therapist and regularly work in similar settings to the one you’ve described. The most valuable thing you could have given my work community in that situation would have been to validate our own concerns and feelings about the situation when we choose to share them (without pressuring us to share them), to offer hard data about legal facts we might not know (for instance, “it’s not legal to prohibit your employees from discussing salary with each other in your type of job,” or “There are places you can go to report the wage theft when your overtime hours are removed, in case you might not know. If you’d like, I can give you their names and contact info.” Advocacy on behalf of the employees directly can get them in trouble, but giving them the information with which to help themselves if they choose to do so is pretty safe.

  58. WonkyStitch*

    I’m probably too late for anyone to see my comment, but wanted to add it anyway (I had COVID last week and missed this post until now!)

    I am on the board for a state nonprofit protection and advocacy agency. Every state should have one. My agency has lawyers on staff to help people with disabilities with a variety of issues, including employment.

    From my agency’s website:

    In 1975, Congress responded to abuse in institutions by creating a system of protection and advocacy (P&A) agencies to serve individuals with disabilities across the U.S. Since then, the country’s P&As have continued to help people with disabilities by investigating abuse and neglect, monitoring facilities, and providing legally based advocacy. There are P&As in each state and territory. See the National Disability Rights Network ( for information about other P&As.

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