Monday, August 19, 2019

Is it legal to dock the pay of employees who skip a political rally being held in the workplace?

Has an employer violated the law if it docks the pay of an employee who skips a speech being given by Donald Trump in their place of employment?

Over the weekend news broke of a Pennsylvania employer who had an interesting way to influence its employees attendance at a rally Donald Trump was holding at their place of employment during the work day. Only pay those employees who show up.

“NO SCAN, NO PAY,” a supervisor wrote to his employees.

While attendance at the rally wasn’t mandatory, the employer told its employees that they would only be paid for the work day if they attended. Otherwise, they had the option to take a PTO day or take the day off excused and without pay.

While it sounds terrible to withhold pay for employees who choose not to attend a political event during the work day, just because it’s terrible doesn’t make it illegal. 

Indeed, in all likelihood, there is nothing illegal about this practice. That said, I can envision a few arguments that could give this employer trouble.

1. You might jeopardize an exempt employee’s overtime exemption. One of the cornerstones of the FLSA’s exemptions is that the employee must be salaried. By definition, a salaried employee receives the same predetermined amount of money for each week worked. Employers can jeopardize exemptions by docking employees’ pay for hours or days missed from work. If an employer reduces an employee’s pay for hours or days missed in a week, the employee is not receiving a standard predetermined amount for all work performed during the week, and therefore no longer salaried. If an employee is not salaried, he or she cannot be exempt. Exemptions are bad things to lose, because it would make an employee eligible for overtime. Thus, paying an employee four-fifth’s of his or her salary for a four-day work week might jeopardize that employee’s exemption.

2. You operate in one of the few jurisdictions in which political affiliation discrimination is illegal. “Political affiliation” is not a protected category protected by any federal law. Still there are a few states that protect it under their own anti-discrimination laws. In California, for example, an employee docked because he or she chose not to attend a rally of a politician they did not support would have a cognizable claim for political affiliation discrimination.

3. You’ve violated an employee’s right under section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to engage in protected concerted activity. Private employers cannot prohibit discussions by and among employees about wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. Therefore, if employees skip the Trump rally as part of a mass protest over how his policies impact the workplace, then it might be unlawful for their employer to dock their pay as a result.

Legal or illegal, however, you need to ask yourself whether coercing employees’ attendance at a political event is a legitimate business practice. How you answer the question of whether you think it’s okay to try to shape or influence your employees’ votes helps to define the kind of employer you are. Voting is an intensely personal choice. I don’t think it’s my business how my family members cast their votes. I certainly don’t think it’s an employer’s business how its employees cast their votes. Voting booths have privacy curtains for a reason. Exercise some discretion by not invading that privacy of your workers.