Monday, July 28, 2014

“Unionism” as a protected class?

Way back in 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed titled, A Civil Right to Unionize, which argued that Title VII needs to be amended to include “the right to unionize” as a protected civil right. At the time, I argued that including “unionism” as a protected class was the worst idea ever. Apparently, at least one Congressman disagrees with me.

MSNBC is reporting that later this week Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn) “plans to unveil legislation that would make unionization into a legally protected civil right,” on par with “race, color, sex, religion and national origin.” His goal is to make it “easier for workers to take legal action against companies that violate their right to organize.”

I agree with Representative Ellison that employees should never be fired for “expressing an intent to support union activity.” The problem with his idea, however, is that this is a right that the law already protects. Sec. 8(a)(3) of the National Labor Relations Act makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer … by discrimination in regard to hire or tenure of employment or any term or condition of employment to encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization.”

So there is no mistake on how I feel about this proposal, here’s what I said in March 2012, in response to the Times’s op-ed on this issue:

With apologies to union supporters, there is no reality in which “unionism” exists on the same level as race, sex, disability, or the other protected classes. The “greatest impediment” to unions isn’t “weak and anachronistic labor laws.” It’s intelligent and strong-willed employees who understand that whatever benefit they might receive from a labor union is not worth the dues that come out of their paychecks.

And, the reality is that despite all of this pro-union rhetoric, labor unions are doing just fine without any additional help. Unions wins more than two-thirds of representation elections. All this proposal does is increase the burden for employers, without providing any appreciable benefit to employees — which is why I feel comfortable asking if this proposal is the worst idea ever.

There is no chance this bill will go anywhere but the legislative trash heap if it’s introduced as promised. Nevertheless, it serves as a good reminder that there exists legislators who want to make you job as an employer harder than it already is.

Friday, July 25, 2014

WIRTW #329 (the “amicus” edition)

The ABA Journal has opened nominations for its annual list of the best legal blogs, known as the Blawg 100. I’ve been fortunate enough to be selected the past four years. The ABA Journal is soliciting opinions for whom to include this year. I’ve already submitted my list. Please take a few moments of your time and do the same. The nomination form is available here, and the deadline for nominations is August 8.

Here’s the rest of what I read this week (and last week):


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage & Hour

Labor Relations

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Customer preference and race discrimination—when the customer isn’t right

The EEOC has sued a Chicago auto parts retailer for race discrimination after it fired an African-American store manager. The store was located in a heavily Hispanic Chicago neighborhood. THe company decided to eliminate or limit the number of non-Hispanic employees working at the store, believing that its Hispanic customers preferred to interact with Hispanic employees. When the manager refused to report to another store, the EEOC claims he was fired.

John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, explains in a news release why the agency filed suit.
Fifty years after the adoption of the Civil Rights Act, a major employer transferring an employee simply because of his race and then firing him for not going along is unacceptable. When the employer is a major national brand and a leader in its industry, it’s even worse. Everyone must understand that supposed customer preference is no excuse for discrimination—it’s still illegal, and the EEOC will step in to challenge it.
Mr. Hendrickson is correct. As one federal court explains, “It is now widely accepted that a company’s desire to cater to the perceived racial preferences of its customers is not a defense under Title VII for treating employees differently based on race.” Avoid the trap of acting on a mistaken belief that customers will only deal with like-skinned employees. Simply, the customer can never choose the race of the person working for you. The customer might be right about a lot things, but discrimination is not one of them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Orange is the new sexual harassment lawsuit

Orton-Bell v. State of Ind. (7th Cir. 7/21/14) [pdf] concerns allegations of sexual harassment levied by a substance-abuse counsel at an Indiana maximum security prison against her co-workers and superiors. The allegations break down into two categories:
  • Other employees and correctional officers at PCF were having sex on Orton-Bell’s desk. When she complained, a supervisor told her he didn’t care as long as offenders were not involved. Another co-worker suggested she clean her desk every morning.
  • Orton-Bell was called “Cinderella” and “Princess” by male employees.
  • She received excessive pat-downs from female correctional officers. 
  • On one occasion, Orton-Bell was required to remove her sweater in the shakedown area so that the sweater could be sent through a scanner. This caused Orton-Bell’s spaghetti-strap camisole tank top to be exposed to male employees and offenders.
  • Male employees made comments about how the pat-downs were “almost like sex for them.”
  • Orton-Bell was not permitted to wear jeans, but male employees were.
  • Male employees engaged in a barrage of sexual banter with Orton-Bell in person and via email, including a comment from the male superintendent that “her ass looked so good that it would cause a riot.” 
The court concluded that the sex-on-desk allegations could not support a claim for sexual harassment because she could not prove the conduct, while egregious and offensive, was because of her sex.
The notion that night-shift staff had sex on her desk because she was a woman is pure speculation.… If there were evidence that the night-shift staff were using her office because she was a woman, and her supervisors were indifferent, that would be enough. If there was evidence that night-shift staff similarly used a man’s office, and her supervisors intervened in that circumstance but not in her circumstance, that would be enough. There is neither. Her supervisors’ insensitive and inattentive responses were callous mismanagement; but absent evidence that this inaction was based on her sex, it did not violate Title VII.… 
The conduct was certainly sexual intercourse on her desk, but that does not mean that night-shift staff had sexual intercourse on Orton-Bell’s desk because she was of the female sex. There is no evidence to indicate that, had her conveniently private and secure, but accessible, office belonged to a man, it would not have been used in the same manner. Accordingly, this incident, while egregious, does not support a hostile work environment claim. 
The remaining allegations, however, painted a different story.
The constant barrage of sexually charged comments, however, was clearly pervasive, offensive, and based on Orton-Bell’s sex.… 
The record does reveal an instance where, in an email conversation with a co-worker named Bruce Helming, she participated in vulgar banter. However, while that may lead a jury to conclude that she was not subjectively offended by the environment, one private conversation via email is not enough for us to conclude, as a matter of law, that she was not subjectively offended by the many other public, unwelcome sexually charged comments in the environment.
What does this case teach us?
  1. Apparently, after-hours sex on workplace desks between co-workers is a real thing.
  2. “Because of sex” has real teeth to it. No doubt, the desk-sex is gross and offensive. Yet, Orton-Bell could not offer any evidence that the use of her desk was for any reason other than the fact that it was located in a private office. Absent evidence that the use of her desk was sex-based, that allegation could not support a harassment claim.
  3. An employee’s participation in some sex-based joking can, under the right circumstances, show that the work environment was not subjectively hostile. One email containing vulgar banter with a co-worker, however, likely is not enough. 
Let me leave you with this thought. If your workplace is sexually charged, it will catch up with you eventually. I cannot fathom the difficulties managing employee behavior in a maximum security prison. Nevertheless, Title VII does not stop at the door just because the workplace is inherently hostile. 

[Hat tip: Indiana Law Blog, via Andrew Cohen]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

President signs Executive Order banning LGBT discrimination by the federal contractors and government

Yesterday, President Obama amended two prior Executive Orders, adding new protections against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Executive Order 11246, which extends anti-discrimination obligations to federal contractors, now also includes prohibitions against sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. Executive Order 11478, which already banned sexual orientation discrimination by the federal government, now also includes a prohibition against gender identity discrimination. The provisions affecting federal employees takes effect immediately. Those impacting federal contractors will take effect within 90 days, after the Secretary of Labor implements regulations.

Currently, only 18 states prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Ohio is not one of them. These amendments will extend these protections to 28 million federal employees and employees of federal contractors. Thus, if you are an Ohio company with federal contracts, this prohibition will apply to you.

It is time for employers to stop invidious discrimination against LGBT employees. According to the White House, 91% of Fortune 500 already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 61% already prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Yet, according to President Obama, “In too many states and in too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fireable offense.… I firmly believe that it’s time to address this injustice for every American.” 

I agree. It’s incomprehensible and unjustifiable for an employer to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s antithetical to what this country stands for — government of the people, by the people, for the people, and justice for all (no matter with whom they happen to go to bed at night). Eventually, Congress will act, pass ENDA, and make LGBT discrimination a thing of the past. Until then, do right by your employees. Enact policies prohibiting this type of discrimination in your workplace. Send a message that you are an employer of inclusion, and not exclusion. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

When your plaintiff is a prostitute

Let’s say an employee sues your company for sexual harassment. And let’s say the allegations are bad—that the supervisor told the plaintiff he could save her job if she “f***ed” him, after which the supervisor raped her. Like I said, BAD. As an employer, you don’t have a lot of options, other than to hope you have insurance and to know that someone likely is going to write a big check.

Then, you receive a gift—knowledge that the employee might hold a side job as a prostitute. That information doesn’t excuse or defend the supervisor’s actions (which are beyond deplorable), but they do provide an opportunity to lessen the sting of the plaintiff’s damage claim.

Armed with this knowledge, you serve discovery seeking the nature and extent of the plaintiff’s activity as a prostitute/escort. Does the court allow you to take this discovery?

Here’s how one Ohio federal court recently ruled, in Hulec v. JH Bennett & Co.
Plaintiff Hulec requests lost wages and damages for emotional distress. Evidence about the wages Plaintiff may have earned as an escort would be relevant to calculate the damages Plaintiff is entitled to should she win this case. … 
The Court allows limited discovery, through a reopened deposition or interrogatories, into these matters: (1) the general nature of the escort services Plaintiff has offered or performed in the past five years; (2) the frequency with which she has performed those services; (3) her income from those services; and (4) any medical or psychological treatment she received related either to her sexual assault or to other sexual encounters.
In cases like Hulec, victory is differently measured. In this case, a settlement that will not throw the employer into bankruptcy is a win. It is important to do everything you can to lessen the potential pool of damages available to the plaintiff. In this case, that mitigation came in the form of the plaintiff’s other “work.” Don’t give up hope, even in the fact of difficult cases. You pay us a lot of money to defend you. Let us earn that money with our creativity. As long as you are willing to keep an open mind to what it means to “win” a case, we might surprise you.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Should you limit bathroom breaks for employees?

Teamsters local 743 has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming that an Illinois faucet manufacture unfairly disciplined 19 workers for “excessive use” of washrooms. What’s excessive, according to the company? Sixty minutes over the last 10 days, or a mere six minutes per day. 

The company reports that it had to limit bathroom use because employees were spending too much potty time outside their scheduled breaks. According to CNN, the company claims employees lost 120 hours of lost production per month as a result. The Daily Mail reports that the company supposes that employees are spending the time texting instead of taking care of bathroom business. According to the employees’ union rep:
The company has spreadsheets on every union employee on how long they were in the bathroom. There have been meetings with workers and human resources where the workers had to explain what they were doing in the bathroom.
Take note that this issue was brought to a head by a labor union. Do you know how to keep your workplace union-free? 


Employees don’t organize over issues like wage or benefits. They organize because they don’t feel like they have a voice with management. Maintain channels of communication. Have an open door through which employees can pass to discuss concerns and air grievances. And, for Pete’s sake, don’t implement Orwellian work rules. What are you supposed to do if an employee is spending too much time in the bathroom texting? Discipline that employee for slacking off. Trust me, your other employees will get the message without you having to limit all of their toilet time to six minutes per day. 

For more on workplace bathroom breaks, including how to implement reasonable bathroom rules in your workplace, read When you gotta go, you gotta go: The right to workplace bathroom breaks.

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