NLRB Finds that not all Whining and Complaining Protected by NLRA

Stop me if you have heard this one, an employee was upset about his pay rate…

Seriously, an employee upset about his pay was at the heart of a recent decision issued by the National Labor Relations Board that explored the protections afforded by the National Labor Relations Act ("Act"). The employee in question was hired to perform waterproofing duties on a project at a university in Ohio. The project was a public project, and therefore, it was covered by the applicable prevailing wage laws. The employee, however, was not happy about the prevailing wage rate that he received on the project, and essentially complained about his wage rate throughout the entire time he spent working on the project. In fact, as the foreman testified, the employee complained about basically everything during his brief tenure with the employer.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
According to the foreman, the employee "whined" and "complained" throughout the project about nearly everything. The employee apparently constantly voiced his opinion that the company was doing "everything wrong." (You may have heard that one before too!) As it turns out, the employee did receive some pay increases during the term of the project. However, he often told other employees about the wage increases, which led to some discontent and caused at least one long term employee to quit (apparently feeling that he should have also received wage increases even without having to complain). Eventually, the payroll clerk wrote the employee a note on his pay stub that stated, "Please keep your pay to yourself."

Under the Act, employees are permitted to engage in concerted protected activity. This includes discussions regarding terms and conditions of employment, such as wages. Accordingly, the Board quickly concluded that the handwritten statement on the pay stub was a direct restriction on protected activity, and therefore, a violation of the Act.

Some Bad Deeds need not be Forgiven
The employee was laid off at the end of the project, and proceeded to file multiple complaints against the company, including a complaint to the university that the work performed on the project was "shoddy." Before the Board, the employee argued that his termination was retaliation for engaging in protected activity, i.e. complaining about his wages. The company, however, argued that the employee was terminated because the project came to an end and it had no more work for the employee. The Board agreed with the company. The Board concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the employee's complaints about his pay were the reason for his lay off. The Board noted that the employee had received pay increases after he complained, and that several other employees were laid off at the conclusion of the project.

The employee also argued that the fact that the company failed to rehire him for other projects was in retaliation for his protected activity. The company argued that it would not rehire the employee because of the allegations that he made to the university regarding the quality of the company's work. The Board actually sided with the company on this one, finding that its explanation was credible, and that the statements about the quality of work in this instance were not protected activity.

It seems that employers are regularly finding themselves in hot water with the Board as a result of overly restrictive policies and procedures. Even in situations like the present case, where there were obvious negative consequences following the employee's discussion of his wage rate (another employee quit), the Board will find a violation of the Act. In fact, the Board noted that the motivation for the restriction on the employee's conduct was "irrelevant."

Nonetheless, for some of us it is refreshing to be reminded that there are some limits to the protections of the Act. Indeed, not all "complaining and whining" is protected.
 

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