Monday, March 13, 2023

What can you do about employee mass protests? (Hint: not much.)

The 25 employees of Mela Kitchen at Jack’s Hard Cider recently walked off the job in protest after owner Donald Hoffman created a new drink menu of cocktails with racially inspired named such as "The Caucasian" and "The Negro."

MSN quotes one employee, Emily Kate Hessler, on why she and her co-workers decided to engage in the mass protest.

Despite days of efforts from upper management trying to halt this cocktail and it's name, Friday comes and it's time to reveal this weekends special. I made a formal complaint to upper management and notified them that if the name isn't changed most of the scheduled staff will be walking. An email was sent to Donald informing him of our plan and his reaction was explosive.

According to Hessler, Hoffman responded by firing some of the employees and deeming other to have quit. 

Here's my question — can Mela Kitchen fire these protesting employees in these circumstance?

The answer? No, it almost certainly cannot.

Generally speaking, whether union or non-union, employees have the right under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act to engage in protected concerted activity, which includes mass walkouts in protest against terms and conditions of employment, including workplace discrimination. Section 7 almost certainly covers protests over being required to serve drinks with offensive and racially insensitive names.

Despite employees' rights to engage in protected concerted activity, if an employer has a bona fide and consistently applied policy against no-call/no-shows (or other attendance or time-off policy), it can lawfully enforce that policy against employees who walkout or don't show up in protest. The key, however, is consistency. If you have even one instance of giving an employee a pass, you are taking a huge risk that the NLRB will find that enforcing the policy against the walkouts equates to unlawful retaliation.

The better response than firing or otherwise retaliating against protesting employees? Take the protest as an opportunity to engage with your employees, learn why they are protesting, and see if you can address their concern(s). You might just surprise youself. And you won't have to call me to defend an unfair labor practice charge.