Industries such as retail, health care and logistics are reverting to an old tactic and trapping people in miserable jobs by threatening to saddle them with debt if they quit. Workers across the United States in fields ranging from nursing to trucking have been discouraged from leaving jobs because employers charge them for training costs if they quit before an arbitrary deadline.
It is the Training Repayment Agreement Provisions (TRAPs) clauses in employment contracts. A practice likened by critics to indentured servitude, peonage and modern slavery, a form of debt bondage. Bosses are primarily using TRAPs to obstruct workers from leaving jobs.
TRAPs have been commonly used by employers since the 1990s, but they were almost exclusively reserved then for highly specialized workers such as engineers or airline pilots. As markets became increasingly concentrated and union power was diminished by policymakers into the 21st century, bosses used their growing dominance to impose TRAPs on rank-and-file workers, such as truckers, nurses, mechanics, electricians, salespeople, paramedics, flight attendants, bank workers, repairmen, and social workers.
Registered nurse Cassie Pennings testified about being stuck with $7,500, “more than six months’ rent,” after leaving one hospital job because she was appalled by staffing ratios during the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t want to be complicit in neglecting patients.
“Despite being one of the most profitable health care systems in the nation, my former employer responded to cries for help from the front line with breakfast burritos and free water bottles,” Pennings said.
Pennings also told lawmakers that she doubted the $7,500 price tag placed on the cost of her training. “I didn’t get any kind of license or accreditation or anything, and my actual training was only a few weeks.”
Lawyer, David Seligman, told the Senate Banking Committee that TRAPs are used by managers to leave workers “stuck with low pay, dangerous conditions, abusive treatment, or work that does not allow them to advance professionally.” He continued, “The law does not permit employers or others to provide a work opportunity in exchange for a worker’s promise to indenture themselves to their employer through debt,” Seligman said. “These sorts of work arrangements harken back to nineteenth century peonage used to subjugate former slaves, and they are precisely the kind of exploitation that our anti-trafficking and peonage laws were designed to prohibit.”
The chair of the committee, Sherrod Brown, commented, “Last I checked, indentured servitude was illegal in the United States. But it looks like some enterprising companies are rebranding it, with these new employment contracts.”
“For every TRAP that is the subject of a court opinion, tens of thousands remain unchallenged.”