Monday, January 5, 2009

A few predictions for 2009


Since I ended 2008 with a look back at the top stories of the past year, I thought I’d start 2009 with a look forward at what to expect in the new year.

1. Sexual Orientation will Become a Protected Class.

Under current federal and Ohio law, it is not illegal to discriminate in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. President Obama will seek to change this omission. One need only look to Change.gov, President Obama’s administration’s website, to glean that he will target the elimination of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity:

The Obama-Biden Transition Project does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or any other basis of discrimination prohibited by law.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the litany of classes protected from discrimination in employment by Title VII. Note that in the 6th Circuit, discrimination on the basis of real or perceived gender identity is already illegal as sex discrimination. Eliminating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation should pass with ease. The facet of the ENDA that focus of gender identity is much more controversial, but at least in Ohio, is largely unnecessary in light of Smith v. Salem. Nevertheless, the ENDA should become law this year.

2. Family Responsibility Issues Will Receive Special Attention from President Obama.

In September, Governor Strickland and Senator Sherrod Brown persuaded union leaders to remove the Ohio Healthy Families Act from November’s ballot. If passed, it would have required all businesses with 25 or more employees to grant all employees seven paid sick days per year, with a prorated amount for part-time employees. The same measure will be introduced on a national level in this Congress, it will pass, and President Obama will sign it into law.

President Obama also favors making certain key changes to the FMLA. He will seek to loosen the definition of “employer” from 50 or more employees to 25 or more employees. He will also seek to expand the categories of covered leave to include elder care, children’s school activities, domestic violence, and sexual assault. It is a safe bet that some of these FMLA amendments will become law at some point in the next four years, if not this year.

3. Employment Litigation Will be Hot in 2009.

2009 will test my theory that the strength of the economy is inversely proportional to the number of lawsuits filed against employers. By all accounts, the economy will continue to slump well into 2009. As more employees lose their jobs, whether by layoff, plant closures, or good old fashioned terminations, they will look to the OCRC/EEOC and the courts for help. I expect age discrimination, WARN Act, and wage and hour claims to fuel this litigation boom.

4. The Employee Free Choice Act will Face an Uphill Battle.

A Senate filibuster blocked the EFCA on its last consideration. As the Democrats will not reach the magic super-majority of 60 Senators necessary to block a Republican filibuster, this controversial law will face stiff opposition. Despite all of the doom and gloom prognostications, I do not believe that the EFCA will become law in its current form. The only way it would ever defeat a Republican filibuster is if it was presented in a compromised, watered-down form.

Nevertheless, it is not too early for businesses to start planning for the possibility of card-check union recognition. The best defense against a labor union is a combination of positive employee relations, an open door for employees to air grievances, and a fair, even-handed management. If the EFCA becomes law, it will too late to fight a union once the cards are signed. The only way to combat an organizing drive, especially one that you do not know about, is to proactively make your work environment one that employees will not want to unionize.

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