Thursday, July 30, 2015

Even lone-wolf activity is concerted, according to NLRB

Bonus post today.

We know that the National Labor Relations Act protects employees who engage in protected concerted activity from retaliation. How broadly defined is concerted? According to 200 East 81st Restaurant Corp. [pdf], decided yesterday by the NLRB, concerted is defined pretty broadly.

The issue in 200 East 81st Restaurant Corp. was whether a single employee who files a lawsuit, ostensibly on behalf of himself and other employees, engages in protected concerted activity. The Board answered the question in the affirmative, holding that a lone plaintiff can engage in protected concerted activity via the filing of a lawsuit in which the employees seeks to vindicate the rights of his co-workers:

“By definition, such an action is predicated on a statute that grants rights to the employee’s coworkers, and it seeks to make the employee the representative of his colleagues for the purpose of asserting their claims, in addition to his own. Plainly, the filing of the action contemplates—and may well lead to—active or effective group participation by employees in the suit, whether by opting in, by not opting out, or by otherwise permitting the individual employee to serve as a representative of his coworkers….” (Quoting Murphy Oil USA, Inc. [pdf]).

Specifically, we hold that the filing of an employment-related class or collective action by an individual employee is an attempt to initiate, to induce, or to prepare for group action and is therefore conduct protected by Section 7.

Thus, as long as the intent of the lone-wolf employee is to “initiate, induce, or prepare for group action,” the lone-wolf action is concerted under Section 7.

This case has implications beyond a wage-and-hour collective action. Consider, for example, a lone employee who seeks injunctive relief in court for some work-related issue. Or, perhaps more practically, consider an employee who takes to his or her social network of choice to grip about work, yet receives no comments or replies from co-workers. Under the (il)logic of 200 East 81st Restaurant Corp., if the employee’s social-media posts are for the purpose of initiating, inducing, or preparing for group action, they are protected.

Since social media is, well, social, one could argue that any post written on social media has a group component. After all, Facebook, Twitter, etc., aren’t diaries or self-conversations. They are intended dialogues within one’s network, or with the public at-large. Thus, has 200 East 81st Restaurant Corp. killed any argument against a finding of concerted activity on social media? A fair reading of this case would lead one to that unfortunate conclusion.

You need to pay employees if you know, or should know, they are working overtime

Consider Garcia v. SAR Food of Ohio (N.D. Ohio 7/6/15) a cautionary tale.

SAR owns and operates food-court Japanese restaurants. The court previously certified a state-wide collective action for employees who were not paid for post-shift overtime. The named plaintiffs alleged that they were often required to stay past the scheduled end of their shifts, without compensation, to clean or serve expected waves of potential customers. SAR argued that the claims could not proceed because it maintains a policy that requires employees to check their weekly time records, manually enter any changes, and sign off on the records as correct. If the employees had followed that procedure, SAR argued, they would have been paid for all overtime. Indeed, as the court noted, many employees admitted that when they followed this procedure, SAR paid them for the time worked beyond their scheduled shift.

Nevertheless, the district court refused to dismiss the claims, concluding, “Although Plaintiffs did not follow established procedures that allowed Plaintiffs to claim added overtime pay, genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether Defendant SAR Food nonetheless knew or should have known that Plaintiffs were not being properly paid for all hours worked.” In explaining its rationale, the court quoted from the FLSA’s regulations:

[I]t is the duty of management to exercise its control and see that the work is not performed if it does not want it to be performed. It cannot sit back and accept the benefits without compensating for them. The mere promulgation of a rule against such work is not enough. Management has the power to enforce the rule and must make every effort to do so.

Employers, you cannot turn a blind eye to your working employees. If you know, or should know, that employees are working “off-the-clock,” or otherwise working without compensation, you must pay them. Your remedy is disciplining the employees for performing unauthorized work, or otherwise not following your procedures for reporting working time or scheduling overtime. As this case illustrates, if you fail to pay under these circumstances, you are taking a huge wage-and-hour risk.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Retaliation alphabet-soup

Employers typically think of retaliation in terms of the big employment statutes: Title VII, the ADEA, the ADA, the FMLA, and the FLSA. Yet, there exist dozens of federal statutes that protect employees from retaliation in a variety of federally regulated industries.

Indeed, just yesterday, reported that Abdul-Malik Ali, the former head of airfield maintenance at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, filed a complaint with the Department of Labor against Hopkins and the City of Cleveland, alleging they unfairly demoted him for blowing the whistle on Hopkins for having fewer than the required number of workers on runways last winter.

Ali says that on Feb. 19, the day after he told FAA inspector Michael Stephens about  understaffing, he was removed from his 15-year post as manager of field maintenance by Airport Director Ricky Smith.

Ali said he was transferred to the job of “assistant to the deputy commissioner,” instructed to clear out his office, moved to what he called a “mop closet” behind the cab booking stand on the terminal baggage level at Hopkins and given “make-work” assignments such as counting trashcans.

If true, I’d say the airport has issues. It also makes me feel less that good about flights we took last winter.

Employers that operate in a federally regulated industry need to be aware of the alphabet-soup of statutes that could give rise to a potential retaliation or whistleblowing claim. Thankfully, the Department of Labor provides a list, handily collated at (where else?)

  • Affordable Care Act: Protects employees who report violations of any provision of title I of the ACA, including but not limited to discrimination based on an individual's receipt of health insurance subsidies, the denial of coverage based on a preexisting condition, or an insurer's failure to rebate a portion of an excess premium

  • Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act: Protects employees who report violations of the law relating to asbestos in public or private non-profit elementary and secondary school systems

  • Clean Air Act: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports violations regarding air emissions from area, stationary, and mobile sources

  • Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports alleged violations relating to cleanup of hazardous waste sites, as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants

  • Consumer Financial Protection Act: Employees are protected for blowing the whistle on reasonably perceived violations of any provision of the Title X of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act or any other provision of law that is subject to the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Consumer Financial, Protection, or any rule, order, standard, or prohibition prescribed by the Bureau

  • Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act: Protects employees of of consumer product manufacturers, importers, distributors, retailers, and private labelers who report to their employer, the federal government, or a state attorney general reasonably perceived violations of any statute or regulation within the jurisdiction of the Consumer Safety Product Safety Commission

  • Energy Reorganization Act of 1974: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports violations or refuses to engage in violations of the ERA or the Atomic Energy Act. Protected employees include employees of operators, contractors and subcontractors of nuclear power plants licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and employees of contractors working with the Department of Energy under a contract pursuant to the Atomic Energy Act

  • FDA Food Safety Modernization Act: Protects employees of food manufacturers, distributors, packers, and transporters from reporting a violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, or a regulation promulgated under the Act, and employees who refuse to participate in a practice that violates the Act

  • Federal Railroad Safety Act: Protects employees of railroad carriers and their contractors and subcontractors who report a hazardous safety or security condition, a violation of any federal law or regulation relating to railroad safety or security, or the abuse of public funds appropriated for railroad safety, in addition to employees who refuse to work when confronted by a hazardous safety or security condition

  • Federal Water Pollution Control Act: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports alleged violations relating to discharge of pollutants into water

  • International Safe Container Act: Protects employees involved in international shipping who report to the Coast Guard the existence of an unsafe intermodal cargo container or another violation of the Act

  • Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act: Prohibits retaliation by motor vehicle manufacturers, part suppliers, and dealerships against employees for providing information to the employer or the U.S. Department of Transportation about motor vehicle defects, noncompliance, or violations of the notification or reporting requirements enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or for engaging in related protected activities

  • National Transit Systems Security Act: Protects transit employees who report a hazardous safety or security condition, a violation of any federal law relating to public transportation agency safety, or the abuse of federal grants or other public funds appropriated for public transportation, and also protects public transit employees who refuse to work when confronted by a hazardous safety or security condition or refuse to violate a federal law related to public transportation safety

  • Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970: Protects employees who exercise a variety of rights guaranteed under the Act, such as filing a safety and health complaint with OSHA, participating in an inspection, etc.

  • Pipeline Safety Improvement Act: Protects employees who report violations of federal laws related to pipeline safety and security or who refuse to violate such laws

  • Safe Drinking Water Act: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports alleged violations relating to any waters actually or potentially designated for drinking

  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002: Protects employees of certain companies who report alleged mail, wire, bank or securities fraud; violations of the SEC rules and regulations; or violation of federal laws related to fraud against shareholders. The Act covers employees of publicly traded companies and their subsidiaries, as well as employees of nationally-recognized statistical rating organizations

  • Seaman’s Protection Act: Protects employees who report to the Coast Guard or another federal agency a violation of a maritime safety law or regulation, and also seamen who refuse to work when they reasonably believe an assigned task would result in serious injury or impairment of health to themselves, other seamen, or the public

  • Solid Waste Disposal Act: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports alleged violations relating to the disposal of solid and hazardous waste (including medical waste) at active and future facilities

  • Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act: Protects truck drivers and other employees who refuse to violate regulations related to the safety of commercial motor vehicles or who report violations of those regulations

  • Toxic Substances Control Act: Prohibits retaliation against any employee who reports alleged violations relating to industrial chemicals produced or imported into the United States

  • Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act of the 21st Century: Protects employees of air carriers and contractors and subcontractors of air carriers who, among other things, report violations of laws related to aviation safety

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The unintended and unfortunate consequence of wage-and-hour reforms

Wage-and-hour reforms are all the rage. Yet, with reform comes a potential unforeseen price—businesses that simply cannot afford to stay in business.

From Re/Code:

Cleaning services company Homejoy is shutting down on July 31 after struggling to raise a big enough round of funding. The company had already been facing growth and revenue challenges, but CEO Adora Cheung said the “deciding factor” was the four lawsuits it was fighting over whether its workers should be classified as employees or contractors. None of them were class actions yet, but they made fundraising that much harder.

Re-classifying workers as employees instead of independent contractors, raising the salary threshold so that fewer employees qualify as exempt from overtime, and increasing the minimum wage are all popular causes for employee groups to rally behind. Yet, if these reforms leave employees without jobs, was the cause worth fighting? I bet if you ask Homejoy’s soon-to-be-ex-cleaners, each would tell you they’d prefer to be paid as a independent contractor than not paid at all.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Happy birthday ADA

Yesterday, the Americans with Disabilities Act turned 25 years old. We've come a long way in the past 25 years, from a statute intended to open employment access to those with disabilities, to decades of judicial decisions that effectively closed that access, to a revised statute that has swung the pendulum so far the other way that it is now hard to envision a medical condition not covered.

The ADA's workplace focus now squarely rests on the issue of accommodation. For this reason, the law's next 25 years will be greatly impacted by technology. As technology makes our lives easier, it makes employers' jobs in accommodating disabilities more complex. And, as technologies change over time, these issues will only become more complex. Biotechnology, for example, iillustration of this tension.

So, happy birthday, ADA.

Friday, July 24, 2015

WIRTW #376 (the “…I’ll only disappoint you…” edition)

I thought I’d try something different today by bringing you a musician I’ve recently discovered—Courtney Barnett.

She’s a guitar playing, Australian, singer-songwriter, whose songs mix crunchy, grungy guitar riffs with catchy lyrical turns of phrases about otherwise mundane topics of everyday life such as house hunting (DePreston) and organic foods (Dead Fox). Oh, and she absolutely rocks. Need proof? Here she is performing “Dead Fox” in Minneapolis / St. Paul last month.

And, here’s her full set from this year’s Bonnaroo, which I am told by those who saw it live that it stole the entire festival.

The death of rock music is great exaggerated; you just need to look a little harder for it these days.

Here’s the rest of what I read this week:


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage & Hour

Labor Relations

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Does smoke always equal fire in harassment cases?

Consider the following, taken from Briggs v. University of Detroit-Mercy (E.D. Mich. 5/27/14), and then let’s talk.
Plaintiff Carlos Briggs, former assistant coach of the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) men’s basketball team, complains that his former boss’s boss, UDM’s athletic director (Defendant Keri Gaither), accompanied the team on road trips to engage in a sexual relationship with one of Plaintiff’s fellow assistant coaches, and that consequently, Gaither granted preferential treatment to her paramour to Plaintiff’s detriment. She later admitted the relationship with the other assistant coach, and both were fired. Plaintiff alleges that the relationship created an openly sexually-charged atmosphere … thus creating a distasteful work environment. 
Plaintiff[’s] complaint suggests that his repeated exposure to such salacious and offensive conduct just must give rise to some type of Title VII discrimination charge—Plaintiff argues what amounts to “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” That argument turns out to be a fallacious one, however: affirming the consequent. Fire can indeed cause smoke, but sometimes there is nothing more than smoke, or it is from a different source. Here, the relationship between Gaither and Plaintiff’s co-assistant coach, Derek Thomas, may well have given rise to an unprofessional and unpleasant environment, but it does not give rise to a recognized cause of action.
I’ve been trying to think of the right way to approach the Bill Cosby case from a workplace perspective. To date, 47 women have accused Cosby of drugging and raping them. Cosby has largely remained silent on the issue, even in the wake of the recent publication of a decade-old deposition in which he admitted that he obtained drugs with the intent of giving them to women with whom he wanted to have sex.

The allegations against Cosby are too old for Cosby to face any civil or criminal liability. But, in the court of public opinion, he is guilty. There is simply too much smoke surrounding this fire for any rational person to reach any other conclusion.

What should you do in your workplace upon the receipt of a harassment complaint? Should you:
  1. Take solace in the Briggs decision and fall back on a smoke-and-fire defense? 
  2. Presume that smoke alwasys equals fire and act according? Or, 
  3. Adopt a middle ground investigate-then-act approach? 
If you chose number 3, you chose wisely. Here is what you should do.
  1. Be prompt. Upon receipt of a complaint of harassment, a business must act as quickly as reasonably possible under the circumstances to investigate, and if necessary, correct the conduct and stop from happening again.
  2. Be thorough. Investigations must be as comprehensive as possible given the severity of the allegations. Not every complaint of offensive workplace conduct will require a grand inquisition. The more egregious allegations, however, the more comprehensive of an investigation is called for.
  3. Consider preliminary remedial steps. While an investigation is pending, it is best to segregate the accused(s) and the complainant(s) to guard against further harassment or worse, retaliation. Unpaid suspensions can always retroactively be paid, for example, and companies are in much worse positions if they are too lax instead of too cautious.
  4. Communicate. The complaining employee(s) and the accused employee(s) should be made aware of the investigation process—who will be interviewed, what documents will be reviewed, how long it will take, the importance of confidentiality and discretion, and how the results will be communicated.
  5. Follow through. There is nothing illegal about trying remedial measures less severe than termination in all but the most egregious cases. A valued employee may be no less valued after asking a co-worker about her underwear, for example. If the conduct continues, however, the discipline must get progressively more harsh. If you tell an employee that termination is the next step, you must be prepared to follow-through.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

It shouldn’t be newsworthy when a court applies “common sense” to resolve a dispute

I’d like to think that after 8-plus years of blogging, I’ve banked some capital as one who offers a common-sense approach to the often crazy world of labor and employment law. It’s refreshing to read a judicial opinion that toes the same line.

Southern New England Telephone Co. v. NLRB (D.C. Cir. 7/10/15) is an appeal of an NLRB decision that held that an employer unlawfully disciplined employees for wearing union-created t-shirts that read“Inmate #” and “Prisoner of AT$T”. The court concluded that the employer’s interest in protecting its public image and managing customer relations trumped any arguable section 7 rights enjoyed by the employees in the shirts.
Common sense sometimes matters in resolving legal disputes. This case is a good example. AT&T Connecticut banned employees who interact with customers or work in public — including employees who enter customers’ homes — from wearing union shirts that said “Inmate” on the front and “Prisoner of AT$T” on the back. Seems reasonable. No company, at least one that is interested in keeping its customers, presumably wants its employees walking into people’s homes wearing shirts that say “Inmate” and “Prisoner.” But the NLRB ruled in a 2-1 decision that AT&T committed an unfair labor practice by barring its employees from wearing those shirts. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act protects the right of employees to wear union apparel at work. But under this Court’s precedent and Board decisions, there is a “special circumstances” exception to that general rule: A company may lawfully prohibit its employees from displaying messages on the job that the company reasonably believes may harm its relationship with its customers or its public image. Put simply, it was reasonable for AT&T to believe that the “Inmate/Prisoner” shirts may harm AT&T’s relationship with its customers or its public image. Therefore, AT&T lawfully prohibited its employees here from wearing the shirt.
Bravo D.C. Circuit. Here’s to more “common sense” approaches to labor and employment disputes.

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