Friday, April 30, 2010

Of course racism is wrong, but at least it gives me job security


It amazes me that people could still think mocking a black co-worker with a life-sized robotic chimpanzee is funny. Yet, as I come across stories like this, I am thankful that such ignorance provides me some degree of job security in my chosen practice area.

Fox 29 in Philadelphia has the details (sorry about the ad before the video plays – I can’t do anything about it):

 


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

WIRTW #125


This week brought three big stories that I just have not had time to cover. Thankfully, my fellow L&E bloggers are here to pick up the slack.

On Monday, the 9th Circuit permitted a monstrous sex discrimination class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart to proceed. And by monstrous, we’re talking potentially billions of dollars of exposure. For thoughts on this case, I recommend the following: The Word on Employment Law with John Phillips, California Labor and Employment Defense Blog, Class Action Defense Blog, Manpower Employment Blawg, What’s New in Employment Law?, Daily Developments in EEO Law, PointOfLaw Forum, Michael Fox’s Jottings By An Employer’s Lawyer, LawMemo Employment Law Blog, and Workplace Prof Blog.

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court held oral argument in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, which will decide the issue of whether an arbitrator or a court should decide the threshold issue of the validity of an arbitration agreement. This decision will impact all employers that require employees to sign arbitration agreements. For thoughts on this case, I recommend the following: SCOTUSblog,Philip Miles’s Lawffice Space, How Appealing, and Fitzpatrick on Employment Law.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v.AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp., another non-employment arbitration case that has significant implications for employers. In this case, the Supreme Court held that non-parties to an arbitration agreement cannot be compelled to arbitrate their disputes in a class action. For thoughts on this case, I recommend the following: SCOTUSblog, Fitzpatrick on Employment Law, Washington D.C. Employment Law Update, The Word on Employment Law with John Phillips, Alaska Employment Law, What’s New in Employment Law?, Texas Employment Law Update, LawMemo Employment Law Blog, Workplace Prof Blog, and Michael Fox’s Jottings By An Employer’s Lawyer.

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

Family Responsibility Discrimination & Family Leave

Labor Law

Pleading

Wage & Hour

Miscellaneous


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Do your employees really know what they are signing? Enforcing waivers of judicial rights


In 2004, in Thurman v. DaimlerChrysler, the 6th Circuit upheld an employers right to contractually limit an employee’s timeframe to file a discrimination claim in court. On Monday, in Alonso v. Huron Valley Ambulance, the same court held that such waivers and limitations must be knowing and voluntary to be valid.

Huron Valley Ambulance used two tools to attempt to limit exposure to discrimination and other employment-related claims: a four-step internal grievance process and a six-month statute of limitations. Both are set forth in the employment application:

PLEASE READ THE FOLLOWING BEFORE SIGNING

Any dispute arising out of or in connection with any aspect of my employment by the Company, or termination thereof, including by way of example but not limitation, disputes concerning alleged civil rights violations, breach of contract or tort, shall be exclusively subject to review by the Grievance Review Board. Any decision of the Review Board shall be binding to both parties, and enforceable in circuit court….

I further recognize that if employed by the Company, I agree, in partial consideration for my employment, that I shall not commence any action or other legal proceeding relating to my employment or termination thereof more than six months after the termination of my employment and agree to waive any statute of limitations to the contrary.

Upon starting employment, HVA provided all employees a copy of its Operations Policies and Procedures Manual, which described the Grievance Review Board and its process in detail.

Alan Alonso and Kimberly Alonso both worked for HVA. They read and signed the employment application, and received copies of the Operations Policies and Procedures Manual, for which they signed a receipt. Nevertheless, the 6th Circuit held that HVA could not bind the Alonsos to either the grievance process or the shortened statute of limitations because the waivers of their rights were not “knowing and voluntary.”

The 6th Circuit took no issue with the language used in the waivers or the Alonso’s ability to understand what they signed. Instead, the 6th Circuit was troubled by the lack of information and detail about the Grievance Review Board given to the Alonsos at the time they signed the employment application:

At the time the Alonsos signed waivers of their rights to a judicial forum, they had no idea what the Grievance Review Board process entailed. They were never informed of their right to revoke their waiver. They were not given any documentation regarding the process until almost a month after they began their employment with HVA. Even then, the document they were given described the process in general terms, and pointed them to a website where they could find additional, more detailed information. They cannot be said to have knowingly and voluntarily waived their right to a judicial forum when they were not informed of the alternative procedures until a month after they began working for HVA.

The court glossed over the question of the enforceability of the shortened statute of limitations, simply finding:

Because we have already found that the Alonsos did not knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily sign the waivers included in their employment applications due to the fact that they were not given any information regarding the Grievance Review Board procedures, we hold that their statute of limitations waivers were, likewise, invalid.

Given the scant analysis of the statute of limitations issue, Thurman v. DaimlerChrysler is likely still good law. Employers should still be able to limit the time in which employees can bring a lawsuit, provided that the waivers meet the requirements of being knowing and voluntary.

What other lessons can employers learn about waivers of judicial rights in employment agreements?

  1. Waivers should be obvious and conspicuous. Both the Thurman court and the Alonso court pointed out that the waivers were set off by headings in all caps and bold type, letting the employees know what they were about to read was important and should be read with care before signing.

  2. Employees should be given time to consider the waiver before signing it, should not be pressured or required to sign the waiver on the spot, and should not be denied the right to seek legal counsel before signing, if they choose.

  3. Waivers should be understandable to those signing them. They should be written plainly and without legalese. Also, employees should be provided waivers in their primary language, or with the services of someone who can translate.

  4. If you are requiring employees to submit disputes to an internal dispute resolution process, you must provide detail about the process at the time the waiver is signed for the waiver to be valid and enforceable.

Waivers remain an effective tool to limit your risk from lawsuits by employees. The Alonso case just creates more work for you and your lawyers in making sure that they will withstand judicial scrutiny.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tweeting away your job


Before yesterday, former major league pitcher was likely most famous for giving up Barry Bonds 756th homer. This morning, he is perhaps more well known for the racially insensitive tweet that has cost him his sports radio hosting gig in Dallas.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Bacsik said he drunkenly tweeted, “Congrats to all the dirty mexicans in San Antonio” after watching the Spurs beat the Mavs on Sunday night. To his benefit, Bacsik at least realizes his mistake. He has removed the offensive tweet, and replaced it with the following apology on this Twitter account. download

ESPN.com quotes Bacsik’s words of wisdom for all employees:

When you tweet like I did, you can’t see the sarcasm. It’s not a good joke. You can’t tell if it was pure hate or sarcasm. I never got to say anything. My tweets were talking for me. When you tweet like that, it’s not a playful, harmless thing. It’s not what it was meant to be.

A disciplined or terminated employee may not be as understanding or remorseful as Bacsik. So that employees understand your expectations about responsible social networking, it is best to have a policy. That policy should spell out to employees that what they post online is public, that anything in cyberspace can be used as grounds for discipline or termination, and that there are consequences for posting anything that negatively reflects on your business.

For more on drafting a social networking policy, see Drafting a social networking policy: 7 considerations.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do you know? Paying overtime to salaried, non-exempt employees


In my never-ending quest to show you how many different ways you can screw up paying your employees under the federal wage and hour laws, today I am going to talk about how to properly calculate overtime payments for salaried, non-exempt employees.

An employer has two choices in how to pay overtime to a salaried non-exempt employee: by a fixed work week or based on a fluctuating work week. For reasons that will be illustrated below, the latter is a much more cost-effective option for most employers.

By a Fixed Work Week
  1. If the employee is paid solely a weekly salary, his regular hourly rate of pay—on which time and a half must be paid—is computed by dividing the salary by the number of hours that the salary compensates. For example, If an employee is hired at a weekly salary of $525, which is intended to be compensation for a regular 35 hour work week, the employee’s regular rate of pay will be $15 per hour ($525 / 35). If that employee works overtime (more than 40 hours in a given work week), he or she will have to paid $22.50 for each overtime hour worked. Thus, in a 45-hour week, the employee would be paid $637.50.
  2. Where the salary covers a period longer than a work week, such as a month, it must be reduced to its work week equivalent. Thus, for example, a monthly salary can be converted to a weekly salary by multiplying it by 12 and dividing by 52. Once the regular weekly salary is calculated, the analysis is the same as #1 above.
On a Fluctuating Work Week
  1. Often times, the number of hours a salaried employee works will vary from week to week, depending on the given needs of the job. One might work 40 hours one week, 45 the next, and 38 the week after that. An employer and employee can agree that a salary will cover all straight time pay for all hours worked in a given week, no matter how few or how many. Payment for overtime hours at one-half such rate satisfies the overtime pay requirement because such hours have already been compensated at the straight time regular rate as part of the salary. And, that overtime premium will vary from week to week depending on the number of hours worked.
  2. To use this method of overtime calculation, there has to be a clear mutual understanding of between the employer and employee that the fixed salary is compensation (apart from overtime premiums) for the hours worked each work week, whatever the number.
  3. This “fluctuating workweek” method of overtime payment may not be used unless the salary is sufficiently large to ensure that there will be no work weeks in which the employee’s average hourly earnings from the salary fall below the minimum wage.
  4. For example, taking our $525 salary from above, in a 45-hour work week, the hourly rate would be $11.66 ($525 / 45). But, for the extra 5 hours the employee would only be owed an additional $29.15 ($5.83 * 5), for a total weekly compensation of $554.15. The fluctuating work week saves this employer $83.35 in wages for the week. Thus, it is easy to see why the fluctuation work week is the preferred method for calculating overtime premiums for salaried non-exempt employees.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Wage and Hour audits are not without their risks (but are still necessary)


I’ve long preached the benefits of proactive wage and hour audits. In fact, in the nearly three years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written at least 10 different posts on this issue. (For a summary and list of links, jump here). A story posted last week at Wage & Hour—Developments & Highlights caught my eye. It illustrates that wage and hour audits have a downside of which employers must be aware, but should not deter employers from implementing this important proactive measure.

In Wlotkowski et al. v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co., a federal judge conditionally certified a class of workers who claim they are owed overtime as a result of being misclassified as “exempt”. The class is comprised of employees who are currently classified as “non-exempt.” They are suing to recover unpaid overtime for the time during which their employer had previously allegedly misclassified them as exempt. Because their job duties didn’t change when their pay classification changed, they questioned why they had been working for years without being paid overtime.

Employers may read this case and decide that they are better off burying their heads in the sand and ignoring wage and hour violations. This is a bad idea. Here’s what happens. A terminated employee goes to see a lawyer about a wrongful discharge lawsuit. The lawyer then asks this question: “Tell me about how you were paid.” The next thing you know, you are defending a class action and spending hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in legal fees, back wages, and potential liquidated damages and the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees. A wage and hour audit conducted by an experienced attorney can help stop this scenario from ever happening.

This Wlotkowski case teaches a very important lesson. When you audit your wage and hour practices, you should be prepared to pay for any mistakes that you find. It is much less costly to pay off a discovered mistake to than to defend a lawsuit in which you have, in essence, admitted liability.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Friday, April 23, 2010

WIRTW #124


This week brought us two huge employment law stories, one of which I covered this week and one which I’ve covered in the past.

On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to review the issue of the applicability of the “cat’s paw” to discrimination cases. For my thoughts on this issue, jump over to The Return of the Cat’s Paw. For others’ thoughts, I recommend: Fitzpatrick on Employment Law, Maryland Employment Law Developments, World of Work, SCOTUSblog, Washington D.C. Employment Law Update, Daily Developments in EEO Law, Workplace Prof Blog, Michael Fox’s Jottings By An Employer’s Lawyer, and LawMemo Employment Law Blog.

Also on Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Quon v. Arch Wireless, which may decide the issue of an employee’s right of privacy in non-work related emails and text messages on employer-owned and issued equipment. I covered this case last June, with the 9th Circuit’s original decision, and will cover it again when the Supreme Court issues its decision. In the meantime, the following blogs covered the oral argument: Rob Radcliff’s Smooth Transitions, Abovethelaw.com, How Appealing, SCOTUSblog, Philip Miles’s Lawffice Space, Dan Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog, LawMemo Employment Law Blog, Workplace Prof Blog, and Workplace Privacy Counsel.

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

Discrimination

Wage & Hour

Social Networking

Labor Relations

Background Checks

Miscellaneous


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Today is “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work” Day


I’ve brought my daughter to work before, but at not yet 4 years old, an entire day in the office might be a little much for her (and me). So, instead of taking her to work today, I’m posting the video of her all-time favorite song, Seven Days of the Week (I Never Go to Work), by They Might Be Giants. Bonus points for me because it actually has something to do with employment.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The DOL confirms that it has its eye on unpaid internships


Two weeks ago I reported that the Department of Labor was going to start cracking down on for-profit employers that use the services of unpaid interns. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, or in this case, on the DOL’s own website. Just moments ago the DOL released Fact Sheet #71, entitled, Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act. In this fact sheet, the DOL affirms that internships in the “for-profit” private sector will most often be viewed as employment, which must be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime compensation for any hours in excess of 40 in a work week.

The six factors that comprise a lawful unpaid internship remain as they have been for years, and as I discussed a couple of weeks ago. Yet, the DOL went further, and explained how most internships are, in reality, paid employment in disguise as opposed to extensions of education or training:

[I]f the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work…. If an intern is placed with the employer for a trial period with the expectation that he or she will then be hired on a permanent basis, that individual generally would be considered an employee under the FLSA.

If I was an employer, I would be very careful in the use of unpaid interns. As the publication of Fact Sheet #71 points out, the DOL is watching.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

The Return of the Cat’s Paw


cats-pawNo, this is not a review of a 70’s B movie. The Supreme Court has agreed to review a case concerning the “cat’s paw” theory of discrimination liability. The case, Staub v. Proctor Hosp. (7th Cir. 3/25/09) [pdf], involves the termination of an army reservist who claims discrimination based on his association with the military under USERRA.

Here’s how the 7th Circuit eloquently described the origins of the “cat’s paw”:

One would guess that the chances are pretty slim that the work of a 17th century French poet would find its way into a Chicago courtroom in 2009. But that’s the situation in this case as we try to make sense out of what has been dubbed the “cat’s paw” theory. The term derives from the fable “The Monkey and the Cat” penned by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695). In the tale, a clever—and rather unscrupulous—monkey persuades an unsuspecting feline to snatch chestnuts from a fire. The cat burns her paw in the process while the monkey profits, gulping down the chestnuts one by one. As understood today, a cat’s paw is a “tool” or “one used by another to accomplish his purposes.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1976).

In discrimination cases, the “cat’s paw” refers to a decision maker who lacks an unlawful bias, but who bases the adverse employment decision on the influence of another with such a bias. The Staub court described its interpretation of the “cat’s paw”:

[W]here an employee without formal authority to materially alter the terms and conditions of a plaintiff’s employment nonetheless uses her “singular influence” over an employee who does have such power to harm the plaintiff for racial reasons, the actions of the employee without formal authority are imputed to the employer….

[W]here a decision maker is not wholly dependent on a single source of information, but instead conducts its own investigation into the facts relevant to the decision, the employer is not liable for an employee’s submission of misinformation to the decision maker.

It is likely that the cat’s paw will survive the Supreme Court’s review in one form or another. It is unclear, though, whether the Court will sanction Staub’s employer-friendly “singular influence” standard as the standard-bearing definition of the cat’s paw.  

Nevertheless, as long as cat’s paw liability is a valid theory of discrimination, it is imperative that decision makers verify the information upon which they rely. Unless the decision maker has first-hand knowledge of the reasons justifying the action, he or she should undertake some investigation and independently verify that the decision is the result of a legitimate non-discriminatory reason and not an unlawful animus.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Announcing KJK’s next Breakfast Briefing: The Top 5 Issues Confronting Your Business’s HR Practices Today


Top 10 lists are so 2009. KJK’s employment lawyers will bring you the top 5 issues currently facing your business and its HR practices as we move through 2010.

  1. Classifications of Employees: The Department of Labor is ramping up its resources and enforcement measures. Learn why you need to get a handle on who is exempt versus who is not exempt, and the difference between an employee and an independent contractor.

  2. Health Care Reform: Be honest, you haven’t read all 2000+ pages of the landmark health care legislation. We have. Learn about the most important issues that face your business.

  3. Technology: Learn when you can and cannot read employees’ emails, text messages, and other electronic communications, and why even the best drafted policy likely will not grant you access to personal, sensitive information.

  4. Disability Discrimination: The ADA amendments have been in place for a little over a year and the EEOC is about to issue sea-changing regulations. This is not your father’s ADA. Learn what has changed, and what you can do to protect your organization from this new breed of discrimination.

  5. Hiring: If 2008 and 2009 were all about layoffs and downsizing, we are hopeful that 2010 and beyond will be about hiring. Learn how to plan for the economic upswing and proactively protect yourself by implementing key policies and procedures for hiring new employees and rehiring old ones.

Date:

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Time:

8:00-8:30 Continental Breakfast

 

8:30-9:30 Presentation

 

9:30-10:00 Q&As

Place:

The Club at Key Center, 127 Public Square, Cleveland (on-site parking is free)

Cost: Free

If you are interested in attending this free seminar, or for more information, please contact Andrea Hill, (216) 736-7234 or ach@kjk.com, by May 7, 2010.

Do you know? Overtime for non-exempt commissioned employees


Only a small subset of commissioned employees are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime provisions. For the majority of employees who are paid wholly or in part by commissions, the FLSA presents a complicated calculus of rules and regulations that employers must follow to properly account and pay overtime premiums for hours worked in excess of 40 in any workweek.

The key question for for commissioned employees is how one computes the “regular rate of pay” for purposes of calculating the proper overtime premium to apply to commissions paid.

If a commission is paid on a weekly basis, the calculation is fairly basic. The commission is added to any other earnings for that workweek. The total is then divided by the number of hours worked during that week to obtain the employee’s regular rate for that particular workweek. The employee must then be paid overtime compensation of one-half of that rate for each hour worked in excess of 40 for that week.

It gets more complicated, however, If the calculation and payment of the commission cannot be completed until sometime after the regular pay day for the workweek. In the case, the employer may disregard until later the commission in computing the regular hourly rate and pay overtime exclusive of the commission. However, when the commission is ultimately paid, the employer has to go back and recalculate the overtime premium for each workweek covered by the deferred or delayed commission payment. The employer must apportion the commission back over the workweeks of the period during which it was earned. The employee must then receive additional overtime compensation for each week during the period in which he worked in excess of 40 hours.

It gets even more complicated if it is not possible or practicable to allocate the
commission among the workweeks per the amount of commission actually earned or reasonably presumed. In this case, the Department of Labor permits employers to choose from one of two different methods fairly and equitably account for overtime premiums.

1. Allocation of equal amounts each week. Under this method, the employer will assume that the employee earned an equal amount of commission for each week of the period covered, and compute any additional overtime compensation based on that pro rata amount. For example:

  • For a commission paid monthly, multiple the commission by 12 and divide by 52 to obtain the amount attributable for each week of that month.
  • For a commission paid semi-monthly, multiply by 24 and divide by 52.
  • For a commission that covers a specific number of workweeks, divide the total commission paid by the number of weeks it covers.

Once the pro rata weekly commissions is determined, simply divide that amount by the total number of hours worked to obtain the increase in the hourly rate. The employee is then owed one-half of that increase for each hour worked in excess of 40 for a given week.

2. Allocation of equal amounts to each hour worked. Sometimes,
there are facts which make it inappropriate to assume equal commission
earnings for each workweek (such as when the number of hours worked each
week varies widely). In such cases, the employer can assume that the employee earned the same amount of commission for each hour worked during the computation period. The total commission payment should be divided by the total number of hours to determine the amount of the increase in the regular rate. To determine the amount of additional overtime compensation owed for the period, multiply one-half of the figure by the total number of overtime hours worked by the employee for all workweeks during the covered period.

Clear enough for you? Is it any wonder that companies get themselves in trouble with wage and hour issues?


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Monday, April 19, 2010

When should you get an attorney involved with a problem employee? As soon as possible.


A few weeks ago I wrote about what employers need to know about EEOC investigations. I suggested that employers get attorneys involved “as early as the first receipt of the charge of discrimination.” West v. Tyson Foods (6th Cir. 4/15/10) (unpublished) [pdf] provides a great example of the importance of the early involvement of counsel.

Amanda West quit her job at a Tyson chicken processing plant after being subjected to more than a month of fairly pervasive sexual harassment. During her exit interview with Tyson’s HR manager, West talked about all of the harassment to which she had been subjected and that her supervisors failed to respond to her complaints. She also identified the perpetrators by name. The HR manager, however, did not conduct any investigation into the allegations until after Tyson received West’s EEOC charge. At trial, the court admitted into evidence the HR manager’s notes from the exit interview, along with its EEOC statement of position. That position statement falsely claimed that Tyson launched an investigation following the exit interview. From this evidence—along with the evidence of the harassment and the supervisors lack of response—the jury awarded West $1,281,636.58—$131,636.58 in lost wages, $750,000 for mental distress, and $400,000 in punitive damages—which the 6th Circuit affirmed.

What is the lesson here? Having an attorney draft the position may not have saved the day, but it would have certainly lessened the impact of Tyson’s involvement in the harassment. The misstatements in the position statement make it look like Tyson was trying to cover up what happened. That perception of a cover-up likely led to the high compensatory and punitive awards.

Friday, April 16, 2010

WIRTW #123


It’s impossible to cover every labor & employment story that hits every week. The most interesting news of the week that I did not yet have a chance to cover is the revelation that Department of Labor enforcement data is now available online. Right now, your search capabilities are limited to division and state. Thanks to Dan Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog and the Workplace Prof Blog for reporting on this issue.

On to the rest of the week’s stories:

Wage & Hour

Discrimination & Harassment

Labor Relations

Competition & Trade Secrets


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pets in the workplace: assessing the risks and drafting a policy


Sarah’s Needleman’s Small-Business Boss column in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses pet-friendly workplaces. I spoke with Sarah earlier this week. Here’s what I had to say:

“You want to set expectations,” says Jon Hyman, a partner in the labor and employment group at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz PLL, a law firm in Cleveland. For example, he suggests that owners determine if employees can leave a pet at work while they go off-campus to a meeting and where the animal should stay during their absence.

Business owners should also consider how they would help employees who are allergic to animals avoid flare-ups if they allow pets in their workplaces. Mr. Hyman says that while rare, workers have successfully sued business owners for violating the American Disabilities Act by not taking such steps.

“If you have an employee that just cannot be in the same facility, you would have to accommodate that person,” he says. “You have to run your business first, and the core of your business is still your people.”

Are you thinking about opening up your business to employees’ pets? You will find very few resources on the Internet to help. And, you will need a written policy before you allow pets in. Here’s some considerations.

  1. People come first. Despite your desire to allow pets—whether as a perk, a recruitment tool, or both—your employees still make up the core of your enterprise. If you have to choose between an employee or a pet, you should always choose the employee.

  2. One of the biggest legal risk is the Americans with Disabilities Act. If an employee is allergic to animals, pet owners must understand that they may have to leave their animals at home as a reasonable accommodation. Other possible accommodations include creating sufficient separation between the allergic employee and the pet, segregating the pet to a specific part of the facility, or improving ventilation. Ignoring the pleas of an allergic employee, though, will open you up to potential ADA liability.

  3. Animals must of “office broken.” Animals with any bite history should not be permitted. Moreover, any aggressive behavior, such as growling, barking, chasing, or biting, should result in the animal’s expulsion on the first complaint. Animals should also be house broken, friendly towards people and other animals, and not protective of their owners or their owners’ spaces. Finally, you should define when animals must be leashed or caged, and what is expected of employees when they have to leave the workplace during the work day.

  4. Respect for property. Designate a specific area outside for animals to go to the bathroom (preferably away from the entrances), and make sure pet owners understand that it is their responsibility to clean up messes outside and accidents inside.

  5. Licenses and vaccinations. Before being permitted to bring animals to work, owners should verify that vaccinations are up to date, and that the animal licensed and free of parasites and insects. 

  6. Liability. Employees should verify, in writing, that they have sufficient home owners’ or renters’ insurance to cover any damage to person or property caused by the animal. You should also consider indemnification in case your business gets sued, and a paycheck deduction authorization for any damage caused.

If you are considering having a pet-friendly workplace, I recommend contacting qualified employment counsel to walk you through the risks and assist in drafting an appropriate policy.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reasonable accommodations for an employee’s inability to commute to work


Consider the following story. An employee with a history of eye problems (glaucoma and partial blindness) presents a doctor’s note recommending that she not drive at night. That note presents a scheduling problem, since she works third shift, public transportation is not available, and she has no other way to consistently get to work. Do you have a responsibility to accommodate this employee by transferring her to a day shift so that she can commute? Here’s the answer, at least according to the 3rd Circuit in Colwell v. Rite Aid Corp. (4/8/10) [pdf]:

Rite Aid argues that it had no duty to even consider changing Colwell’s shift because Colwell’s difficulties amounted to a commuting problem unrelated to the workplace, and the ADA does not obligate employers to address such difficulties…. Instead, we hold as a matter of law that changing Colwell’s working schedule to day shifts in order to alleviate her disability-related difficulties in getting to work is a type of accommodation that the ADA contemplates … [and] that under certain circumstances the ADA can obligate an employer to accommodate an employee’s disability-related difficulties in getting to work, if reasonable…. In sum, we hold that the ADA contemplates that employers may need to make reasonable shift changes in order to accommodate a disabled employee’s disability-related difficulties in getting to work.

This decision potentially opens a can of worms for employers. How far do you have to go to accommodate an employee’s disability-related commuting difficulties? Under this case, a shift-change is one possible accommodation. What about arranging for rides by co-workers? Paying for taxis or other transportation? Exceptions to attendance policies and rules? What is reasonable will change from employee to employee and workplace to workplace. What never changes, however, is your responsibility to explore these options through the interactive process required by the ADA.

Employees with medical conditions that impede their ability to do their jobs raise a huge red flag. Before summarily denying a reasonable accommodation, you should be consulting with counsel to make sure that you are not stepping into a lawsuit.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Do you know? Using criminal histories and conviction records in hiring


A rejected applicant has filed a class action lawsuit against management consulting firm Accenture, claiming that it discriminates against minorities through a policy of rejecting qualified individuals with criminal histories. Judy Greenwald at Business Insurance provides the details:

According to Roberto J. Arroyo vs. Accenture L.L.P., filed … in federal district court in New York, Mr. Arroyo spent two and one-half years in prison in a 10-year-old conviction for vehicular homicide in a car accident in which he had been driving while intoxicated.

Mr. Arroyo worked for Chicago-based Accenture as a contract employee in its Murray Hill, N.J., office from November 2005 to April 2007. In April 2007, the firm offered Mr. Arroyo permanent employment subject only to the results of a background check, but withdrew the job offer and terminated his employment as a contract worker based on his conviction, according to the lawsuit.

This lawsuit illustrates an important issue—that the EEOC targets blanket policies that bar the employment of any applicant because of an arrest or conviction. According to a December 14, 2004, informal EEOC opinion letter:

Although Title VII does not, on its face, prohibit discrimination on the basis of conviction records, the EEOC and courts have concluded that a policy or practice of excluding individuals from employment on the basis of their conviction records may have an adverse impact on certain minority groups in light of statistics showing that they are convicted at a rate disproportionate to their representation in the population.

Just because a company cannot per se disqualify individuals because of criminal histories does not mean that they can never be used a factor. What are the rules for the proper use of arrest and conviction records as employment criteria?

1. If an employer collects arrest or conviction information, it must do so consistently. It is unlawful under Title VII to obtain criminal records in an inconsistent manner—based on the race, color, religion, national origin, or sex of the applicant. For example, it would be facially unlawful for an employer only to require background investigations of applicants who were born in the Middle East or are Muslims.

2. An Employers should assure applicants and employees that honestly providing criminal histories will not result in an automatic disqualification from consideration.

3. If a policy concerning arrest or conviction records disproportionately affects minorities, an employer may nevertheless maintain the policy if it can prove a business need. According to the EEOC, an employer must consider whether a particular applicant should be excluded from a particular job based on:

  • The nature and gravity of the offense;
  • The time since the conviction and/or completion of the sentence; and
  • The nature of the job held or sought.

In other words, employers must undertake a job-by-job, employee-by-employee, check-by-check analysis of the relationship between the conviction and the ability to perform the job.

If you have a question about the use of criminal backgrounds in hiring and other employment decisions, you should contact employment counsel to guide you through this thorny issue.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Monday, April 12, 2010

This is not a late April Fools’ joke: Employees strike over right to drink beer at work


Homer_DrunkSHOP Oh to have the labor problems in this country that they have elsewhere around the world. For example, take Denmark beer company Carlsberg. More than a thousand brewery workers walked off the job after the company restricted their ability to drink beer during the work day. The New York Times has the details. Until recently warehouse workers were able to drink as much beer as they wanted to during the day – provided they did not get drunk. Under the new policy, however, beer consumption is limited to lunch breaks only. Here’s the best part. Although truck drivers are not covered by the new policy, they joined the strike in sympathy. The truck drivers already have their own limits – 3 beers per work day outside of lunch.

So as you bemoan a liberalized NLRB and Department of Labor, an amended ADA that makes almost anyone with a medical condition “disabled,” mandatory lactation breaks, and a Congress that may look to expand employment protections before the November elections, at least be thankful that you don’t have employees walking off the job over the right to drink beer.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Friday, April 9, 2010

WIRTW #122


May 4 is primary election day in Ohio. In Cuyahoga County, there are 5 contested Democratic judicial primaries – 2 in common pleas court, and 1 each in the court of appeals, domestic relations court, and juvenile court. Judge4Yourself.com is an online repository of 4 local bar associations’ independent and impartial ratings of the candidates. Do you need a reason why it is important to educate yourself? Of the 21 candidates running in contested elections, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association rates only 6 as “Excellent,” while another third are “Not Recommended.” If you plan to vote in the primary, please click over to Judge4Yourself.com’s ratings. You will appreciate the time spent reading if you or someone you know if ever a litigant in Cuyahoga County.

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

Wage & Hour

Discrimination

Social Media

Litigation

Labor Law


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Department of Labor targets enforcement of rules against unpaid internships


More than a year ago, I cautioned employers about the legal risks of unpaid internships. At the time, I wrote that the Department of Labor uses a six-factor test to determine whether an intern is an employee in disguise, who must be paid. All six of the following factors must be met before an employer can legally refuse pay to an intern:
  1. Is the training similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction?
  2. Is the training for the benefit of the trainees or students?
  3. Do the trainees or students work under their close observation of regular employees without displacing them?
  4. Does the employer derive no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students, and on occasion are the employer’s operations actually impeded?
  5. Are the trainees or students not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period?
  6. Do the employer and the trainees or students understand that the trainees or students are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training?
Last week, Steven Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times that state and federal agencies are beginning to use these factors to crack down on for-profit businesses that use the services of unpaid interns:
The Labor Department says it is cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships. 
“If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.
Employers that use unpaid interns should pay careful attention to this issue. Better to scrutinize your interns under these six factors before the Department of Labor swoops in and does it for you. Even better to formalize the relationship in a written Internship Agreement that formally spells out how each of these six questions are answered in your favor.

I also recommend you have a look at what others have said on this important wage and hour compliance issue: Overlawyered, ABA Journal Daily News, Lawffice Space, The Word on Employment Law with John Phillips, Manpower Employment Blawg, The HR Capitalist, Abovethelaw.com, Warren & Hays Employment Law Blog, Workplace Prof Blog, Minding the Workplace, and The Business of Management.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Illustrating the duty of loyalty


About a month ago I wrote about the an employee’s duty of loyalty to his or her employer. Here’s some of what I said:

Just because an employee is not subject to a noncompetition agreement does not mean that he or she cannot be liable for mistakes made on the way out the door. In fact, each and every employee owes his or employer a duty of loyalty up to the moment he or she ceases employment.

Two recent stories illustrate how this duty of loyalty works in the real world:

Even without non-competition agreement, an employee cannot serve two masters at the same time. While in your employ, an employee has an absolute duty to act in your best interest, and not to act in the interest of anyone else that is contrary to yours. For example, an employee cannot solicit customers or employees for a competing venture while still working for you. If you find out that a current employee might be competing, your best course of action:

  1. Call your attorney.
  2. At a minimum, suspend the employee pending an investigation, which should also include suspension of all computer and network access.
  3. Upon confirmation of the competition, convert the suspension to a termination.
  4. Consider legal action depending upon the scope of the competition and the harm caused.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Do you know? What employers need to know about EEOC investigations


You’ve just received notice from the EEOC (or its state equivalent, the OCRC, for example) that an employee has filed a charge of discrimination against you. What happens next is often confusing to businesses, and mistakes can have serious consequences in later lawsuits.

Let’s start with the basics – what happens when a charge has been filed against you?

  1. The EEOC will notify you that a charge of discrimination has been filed against you. The charge packet will include the name and contact information of the investigator assigned to your case.

  2. The charge will likely include a offer to submit the case to voluntary mediation. Mediation can be useful for two purposes – to see if you can resolve the charge early and cost-effectively, or to obtain early informal discovery from the charging party.

  3. Absent mediation, the case will proceed to an investigation. During the investigation, you will be required to submit a written statement of position. This document is your chance to tell your side of the story. It is the most critical piece of the agency investigation. More on this in a bit.

  4. The investigation will may also include a request for information (documents), a request for an on-site visit, or contact information for witness interviews of management and non-management personnel. Do not assume, however, that you have to turn documents over, open up your business, or make people available simply because the agency is asking. The requests still must comply with basic notions of relevancy and discoverability.

  5. Once the investigator has completed the investigation, the EEOC will make a determination on the merits. If EEOC determines that there is no reasonable cause to believe that discrimination occurred, the charging party will be issued a letter called a Dismissal and Notice of Rights that tells the charging party of the right to file a lawsuit in federal court within 90 days from the date of receipt of the letter, with a copy to the employer.

  6. If EEOC determines there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination has occurred, both parties will be issued a Letter of Determination stating that there is reason to believe that discrimination occurred and inviting the parties to resolve the charge through an informal conciliation process. If conciliation fails, the EEOC has the authority to file a lawsuit in federal court or issue the same Notice of Right to Sue, releasing the employee to file his or her own lawsuit within 90 days. The process is differently with the OCRC, which ends with a formal administrative hearing and a right to appeal to common pleas court. Also, under Ohio’s civil rights laws the employee always has the right to bypass the agency and proceed directly into court.

There is an inclination within companies to go it alone in EEOC and other agency proceedings, believing that the expense of hiring an attorney is not justified at this early junction. I cannot more strongly caution against this urge.

As I said above, the statement of position is the critical piece of the agency investigation. It not only tells your story, but it locks in your story because it is discoverable by the employee in a later lawsuit. One of the easiest ways to create a jury question on the issue of pretext and lose a summary judgment motion is to give a reason for termination different than that set out in your EEOC position statement.

You should assume that every charge – no matter the merit – will turn into a lawsuit. Employment litigators can interview witnesses, review policies and personnel files, and make decisions as to your best defense. Not involving an attorney as early as your first receipt of the charge of discrimination can cost valuable insight into your best effort to win the case.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Update your Technology Policy to account for personal, web-based email


Last week I discussed Stengart v. Loving Care Agency, which held that employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the personal, password-protected, web-based email account accessed on the company-owned computer. Stengart may not be an Ohio case, but it teaches some important lessons that all employers should take to heart when putting in place a technology or e-communications policy. In light of this case, the following is an update to my prior post, 10 tips for drafting a workplace technology policy, with five more things to consider for your policy:

  1. Warn all employees that the use of all electronic resources is monitored, and that employees have no expectation of privacy in communications transmitted using company-owned resources or over the company network.

  2. Explain to employees that copies of messages sent and received through a personal, web-based email account on a company-owned computer could be stored on that computer.

  3. Inform employees that the has the discretion to review all communications sent or received via company-owned equipment, regardless whether a personal account is used, but subject to laws regarding attorney-client and other privileged communications.

  4. Restrict employees from using of any company technology to communicate with a personal attorney.

  5. Disclose that violations of the policy – including the prohibition on communications with a personal attorney – will be punished by discipline up to and including termination.


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

Friday, April 2, 2010

WIRTW #121


This week’s summary follows-up on two important stories I wrote about this week – mandatory lactation breaks, and Craig Becker’s recess appointment to the NLRB, plus some other stuff.

Lactation Breaks

Labor Law

Social Networking & Technology

FMLA

Wages & Benefits

Trade Secrets & Competition


Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus. For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or jth@kjk.com.

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