Thursday, July 2, 2015

WIRTW #373 (the “happy birthday” edition)

Happy birthday Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC turns 50 today. While the agency and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on how it enforces our nation’s civil rights laws, we do agree on why it was founded—because all people are created equal and should enjoy the right to an equal workplace. These past few weeks—with the mass shooting in an African-American church and hateful protests over LGBT rights—serve as a stark reminder that while we have traveled a long way in the past 50 years, we still have a long way to go to achieve true equality.

And now, a birthday song.

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


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage, Hour, & Safety

Labor Relations

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

EEOC updates pregnancy discrimination guidance to embrace accommodations

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Young v. UPS, the EEOC has updated its administrative guidance on pregnancy discrimination. The updated guidance includes Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination And Related Issues, a Q&A, and a Fact Sheet for Small Businesses.

The most notable inclusion is updated guidance on an employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation to a pregnant worker.
From the Q&A:
May an employer impose greater restrictions on pregnancy-related medical leave than on other medical leave? 
No. Under the PDA, an employer must allow women with physical limitations resulting from pregnancy to take leave on the same terms and conditions as others who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Thus, an employer:
  • may not fire a pregnant employee for being absent if her absence is covered by the employer's sick leave policy;
  • may not require employees limited by pregnancy or related medical conditions to first exhaust their sick leave before using other types of accrued leave if it does not impose the same requirements on employees who seek leave for other medical conditions;
  • may not impose a shorter maximum period for pregnancy-related leave than for other types of medical or short-term disability leave; and
  • must allow an employee who is temporarily disabled due to pregnancy to take leave without pay to the same extent that other employees who are similar in their ability or inability to work are allowed to do so.
Must an employer provide a reasonable accommodation to a worker with a pregnancy- related impairment who requests one? 

Yes, if the accommodation is necessary because of a pregnancy-related impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. An employer may only deny a needed reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability who has asked for one if it would result in an undue hardship. An undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant difficulty or expense. 

Examples of reasonable accommodations that may be necessary for someone whose pregnancy-related impairment is a disability include:
  • Redistributing marginal or nonessential functions (for example, occasional lifting) that a pregnant worker cannot perform, or altering how an essential or marginal function is performed;
  • Modifying workplace policies, such as allowing a pregnant worker more frequent breaks or allowing her to keep a water bottle at a workstation even though keeping drinks at workstations is generally prohibited;
  • Modifying a work schedule so that someone who experiences severe morning sickness can arrive later than her usual start time and leave later to make up the time;
  • Allowing a pregnant worker placed on bed rest to telework where feasible;
  • Granting leave in addition to what an employer would normally provide under a sick leave policy;
  • Purchasing or modifying equipment, such as a stool for a pregnant employee who needs to sit while performing job tasks typically performed while standing; and
  • Temporarily reassigning an employee to a light duty position.

As the new guidance makes abundantly clear, while an employer cannot compel a pregnant employee to take an accommodation (such as a leave) if she is able to perform her job, it must allow women with physical limitations resulting from pregnancy to take leave (or other accommodations) on the same terms and conditions as others who are similar in their ability or inability to work. Thus, the EEOC has confirmed, as I’ve consistently said (here and here, for example), that if employers grant employees accommodations under the ADA, Title VII will almost certainly compel them to do the same for pregnant employees.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Obama to announce new overtime regulations, but will they really matter?

Last night, on the Huffington Post, President Obama blogged his intentions to announce long-awaited new overtime regulations later today.

In a post entitled, “A Hard Day’s Work Deserves a Fair Day’s Pay,” the President wrote:
Right now, too many Americans are working long days for less pay than they deserve. That’s partly because we’ve failed to update overtime regulations for years—and an exemption meant for highly paid, white collar employees now leaves out workers making as little as $23,660 a year—no matter how many hours they work. 
This week, I’ll head to Wisconsin to discuss my plan to extend overtime protections to nearly 5 million workers in 2016, covering all salaried workers making up to about $50,400 next year.
So, what do we know about these new regulations?
  • The salary-level at which employees will qualify for either the administrative, executive, professional, and computer employee exemptions will increase from $23,660 a year (or $455 per week) to $50,400 (or $969.23 per week) (could they not make it an even thousand?)
  • The earliest these new regulations will take effect is sometime next year.
These rules are not final. They still must first undergo a public-comment period. Nevertheless, this announcement is the first concrete details about these long-rumored rules, and could become a key part of President Obama’s legacy, which, unlike the Affordable Care Act, will be done without Congressional approval.

These new rules will change the pay structure for millions of American workers. Yet, they may not result in the sweeping pay increases envisioned by the White House. American businesses, many of which already run leanly, need not absorb increased payroll from the switch of workers from exempt to non-exempt status. Instead, a company could simply calculate how much to pay an employee, on an hourly basis (anticipated overtime included), to reach the employee’s current salary level. Or, a company could ban overtime altogether. Thus, gross compensation probably will not change. What will change, however, is the flexibility salaried workers enjoy. Will Johnny Manager appreciate having to punch a time clock, especially if his 2016 W-2 reads the same as his 2015 W-2? And will that change undermine the authority certain employees need to have to effectively perform their jobs?

While the White House has laudable aspirations to “strengthen the middle class” and “commit to an economy that rewards hard work, generates rising incomes, and allows everyone to share in the prosperity of a growing America” in reality, it will likely be “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

(Update) The DOL has made available various resources (hat tip: Lawffice Space):

Monday, June 29, 2015

Equal in love, but not yet equal at work—the next frontier of LGBT rights

Friday was certainly exciting. SCOTUS surprised everyone by releasing Obergefell v. Hodges [pdf] a day earlier than expected.

In case you missed it, in a 5-4 opinion authored by swing-vote Justice Kennedy, SCOTUS held that gay marriage as a nation-wide fundamental right:

The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry…. State laws challenged by Petitioners in these cases are now held invalid to the extent they exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms and conditions as opposite-sex couples.

It follows that the Court also must hold—and it now does hold—that there is no lawful basis for a State to refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State on the ground of its same-sex character.

What is getting all the press, however, is the beautifully poetic closing paragraph of Justice Kennedy:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

What is next for LGBT rights? The right to be free from employment discrimination.

Shortly after Obergefell’s publication, Wonkblog published a stirring post calling for the end of all workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals. In that post, Wonkblog was kind enough to share this map (created by the Human Rights Campaign) of the current state of LGBT workplace-discrimination laws:


Where are we on this issue?

  • 21 states and the District of Columbia ban workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
  • 18 of those states also ban workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
  • Per Executive Orders, the federal government, along with its contractors and subcontractors, are also prohibited from discriminating against their employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
  • 89 percent of the Fortune 500 include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies.

We have come a long way in just the past few years. Indeed, I believe that a majority of Americans now support the extension of all civil rights to the LGBT community. Yet, Congress has consistently failed to act on the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which would extend Title VII’s coverage to sexual orientation and gender identity. SCOTUS’s ruling in Obergefell is a huge step in the right direction. Let’s hope it is a step that will lead Congress to passing the ENDA sooner rather than later.

Friday, June 26, 2015

My appearance on Stossel, now live on the Internet.

Special bonus on this fine summer Friday. If you missed my appearance on Stossel two weeks ago, Fox Business has posted the episode on its website.

You can watch it here. My segment starts at 18:39.

WIRTW #372 (the “bad work day” edition)

Next time you think you had a bad day at work, remember, at least you weren’t hit with an axe.

From Mediate:
During last Sunday’s broadcast of Fox & Friends, co-host Pete Hegseth tossed an axe to tease an upcoming segment on timbersports, missed the target, and hit a marching band percussionist standing in the distance.
Let’s go the replay:

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

Social Media & Workplace Technology
HR & Employee Relations
Wage & Hour
Labor Relations

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A lesson in how NOT to respond to a harassment complaint

Diana Retuerto worked in the office of Berea Moving & Storage. She claimed that the company’s owner, Willard Melton, made “verbal advances” towards her, including comments about dreams he was having about her, her physical appearance, and questions about her makeup and hair. Over time, these advances escalated to professions of love, statements about his constant need for sex, and whispers in her ear that he could not stop thinking about her. He also allegedly would rub up against her and crawl under her desk. After Retuerto reached her limit, she quit and sued for sexual harassment.

In Retuerto v. Berea Moving & Storage, the Ohio appellate court had little trouble concluding that the trial court overstepped by dismissing Retuerto’s sexual harassment claim. Of particular note is the court’s comments about the company’s lack of prompt corrective action after it learned of the harassment.
At the time Retuerto reported Melton’s behavior to her supervisor [Hawthorn] in 2010, Retuerto had not yet received an employee handbook or attended sexual harassment training. After her initial complaint to Hawthorn, Hawthorn spoke to Melton and Melton apologized to Retuerto. There is no evidence that any disciplinary action was taken against Melton. After Retuerto made additional claims in 2012, there is no evidence that Berea Moving conducted an investigation into the matter or took any disciplinary action against Melton.… 
Retuerto also averred that Hawthorn had knowledge of Melton’s ongoing behavior. Hawthorn observed and heard some of Melton’s behavior and told Retuerto that Melton was going through a “mid-life crisis.”
Obviously, condoning acts of sexual harassment as a “mid-life crisis” is a horrible idea. So, that’s what you shouldn’t do in response to a harassment complaint. What should you 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. 
And, please, please, please, make sure that your employee handbooks have an anti-harassment policy, and that you are training your employees on it. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Yes, GINA covers cheek swabs, even ones to uncover employee misconduct

I’ve always said that employment law is a dirty job, and this case more than proves my point.

Atlas Logistics Group, a Georgia food-storage company, had a big problem. One of its employees began habitually defecating in its warehouse. (In case you’re curious, the scientific name for this disorder is voluntary encopresis, one who has control over when and where bowel movements occur and chooses to have them in inappropriate places.)

To solve its mystery, Atlas required its employees to submit to a cheek swab, after which a lab compared DNA samples from the employees’ swabs to DNA from the offending fecal matter. Two employees, Jack Lowe and Dennis Reynolds, whose DNA did not match, filed suit under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

Last month, a federal court granted summary judgment in favor of the employees, concluding that 1) GINA unequivocally covers the DNA tests conducted on their cheek-swab samples, and 2) the employer violated the statute by requesting and collecting the employees’ genetic information.

With liability already established, earlier this month, the parties tried the employees’ damages claims. And, the jury came back with a big number — $2,225,000 — including $225,000 and $250,000 in compensatory damages for the two plaintiffs, and $1,750,000 in punitive damages.

To me, this employer’s actions are not all that outrageous or inappropriate. It asked employees who were in the area of the found feces to submit to swabs of their cheeks. It neither asked for stool samples or for them to bend over and cough. Could the employer have taken a less intrusive measure, like installing hidden cameras? Sure. But, it did what it thought was reasonable under the circumstances to catch its predator. Unfortunately, however, a DNA test is still a DNA test, which runs afoul of GINA.

While I’m not offended by these tests, the jury clearly was. Over $200,000 per employee in compensatory damages? For a q-tip in the mouth? And $1.75 million in punitive damages? Why was this jury so outraged? Because their sense of privacy was offended. While social media seems to be eroding the innate nature of what “privacy” means, this verdict tells us that medical and genetic information are different.

So, employers, tread lightly when dealing with your employees’ genetic information. One case does not make a trend, but $2,225,000 (albeit one that should be reduced to $600,000 per the civil-rights law’s damage caps) in enough to make any employer stand up and take notice that genetic information discrimination is here to stay.

Latest Posts