OSHA Targets Safety Incentive and Disincentive Policies

This post was contributed by Jennifer E. Will, Esq., a Member in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Law Group.

While you are busy with the required Hazard Classification Training that we told you about last week, you might want to make time to review any safety incentive programs that you have in place.

Last March, OSHA issued a controversial internal Memo on Employer Safety Incentive and Disincentive Policies. In a nutshell, OSHA's Deputy Assistant Secretary gave Regional Administrators and Whistleblower Program Managers another target – employers who reward employees for safety!

OSHA's Section 11(c) prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who report an injury or illness. Reporting an injury is protected activity under the statute and employers are required, by regulation, to establish a way for employees to report injuries.

Much of the Memo is devoted to employers who discipline employees for reporting injuries (which we are sure you do not do), but a portion of the Memo addresses employer programs that, intentionally or unintentionally, provide employees with an incentive not to report injuries. Some examples:

  • All employees who are injury-free will be entered into a prize drawing;
  • Team members will be awarded a bonus if the team stays injury-free.

Although the employer's intentions may be pure, such programs and policies may encourage employees to not report their injuries.

Instead of rewarding employees for staying injury-free, the OSHA-recommended approach is to reward employees for their safe practices, such as:

  • identifying safety hazards;
  • joining a safety committee;
  • suggesting ways to strengthen existing safety policies; or
  • completing company-wide safety and health training.

Bottom line, if an incentive is big enough that the risk of not earning it would dissuade an employee from reporting an injury or illness, you may have a Section 11(c) violation according to OSHA. To the extent that injuries are not reported, you could also wind up with a record keeping violation.

This Memo is getting traction. The DOL recently entered into a formal settlement agreement with an employer over its safety program, which correlated employee incentive payments to OSHA recordables.

In short, OSHA would like employers to incentivize employees to: report injuries; participate in safety initiatives; and make improvements to safety and health in the workplace, without seeming to create an incentive to not report.

Please contact any of the McNees Labor & Employment attorneys for assistance with reviewing your safety incentive programs for compliance.
 

OSHA'S NEW HAZARD COMMUNICATION STANDARD: EMPLOYERS ARE REQUIRED TO PROVIDE TRAINING TO EMPLOYEES BY DECEMBER 1, 2013

This post was contributed by Joseph S. Sileo, Esq. an attorney in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Practice Group in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a new Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) that is designed to enhance employee health and safety by aligning the classification and labeling of chemicals in the United States with international standards (as established by the United Nations' Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS)). As explained in more detail below, the first phase of compliance requires employers to provide training to employees, by December 1, 2013, with respect to the new HCS label elements and Safety Data Sheet formats. The new HCS and related training requirement apply to all private sector employers, regardless of size or industry, with any hazardous chemicals in their workplaces.

The new HCS requirements address the following issues:

  • Hazard Classification- Under the new standard, chemical manufacturers and importers must follow a unified standard procedure, and use specific established criteria, for classifying health and physical hazards of chemicals.
  • Chemical Labels- The new standard requires more detailed labels, and specifically sets forth what information must be included for each identified hazard class and category. In addition, labels must convey the required information in an employee-friendly manner, by use of pictograms, signal words, hazard statements, and precautionary statements.
  • Safety Data Sheets- Under the new standard, the current Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) will be replaced by the new Safety Data Sheet (SDS), which must be issued and maintained in a specific 16-section format.
  • Information and Training- To ensure that employee understand the new label elements and SDS format, employers must train workers with respect to those issues.

The new HCS requirements will be phased in over a period of time, as follows:

  1. December 1, 2013- Employers must, by this date, train employees on the new label elements and SDS format.
  2. June 1, 2015- full compliance with the new HCS (including use of the new labels and SDS format) is required, except that chemical distributors have until December 1, 2015 before they must stop shipping containers with non-GHS labels.
  3. June 1, 2016- Employers must update workplace labeling and hazard communication programs as necessary, and provide employee training with respect to any new physical or health hazards identified by a hazard classification.

Between now and the June 1, 2015 full compliance deadline (the "transition period"), employers have the option to comply with either the new or old HCS, or both. As a practical matter, this means that an employer can continue to use the outgoing MSDS form, elect to use the new SDS form, or do both, during the transition period.

As an aside, some have questioned the wisdom of requiring employers to provide employee training as referenced above by December 1 of this year when actual use of the new labels and SDS format is not required until 2015. OSHA has explained its rationale by noting that providing such training now will benefit employees, and is necessary, because GHS-compliant labels and SDSs are already present to a certain extent in the U.S. workplace (due to voluntary use by some manufacturers), and such trend is expected to continue and increase during the transition period.

Our Labor & Employment Practice Group can assist you with preparing for and conducting the training required by the new HCS. Please feel free to contact any member of our Group for assistance and any questions you may have.

What Employers Should Know About Weather Related Absences

This post was contributed by Rick L. Etter, Esq., an Associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Group.

Given the increase in major weather events that have impacted Pennsylvania recently, including high winds and substantial flooding, employers should consider the following issues that may arise when closings, delays, and absences are caused by inclement weather.

Must employees be paid when the business is closed because of inclement weather?

Nonexempt employees need not be paid for time when they do not work because the business is closed. Exempt employees must be paid their salary for the week regardless of the business closing. An employer may require exempt employees to use accrued paid time off.

Must employees be paid if they don’t report to work due to inclement weather when the business is open?

Nonexempt employees need not be paid for the time they are absent from work. Exempt employees need not be paid for a whole day absence taken due to inclement weather. An exempt employee absent for part of a day may be required to use accrued paid time off. However, if the exempt employee has no accrued paid time off, his or her salary may not be docked for a partial day absence.

May an employee be disciplined or discharged for failing to report to work due to weather conditions when the business is open?

An employer may generally apply its normal attendance policy to weather related absences. However, there is one major exception. Under Pennsylvania law, an employer may not discipline or discharge an employee who fails to report to work due to the closure of the roads in the county of the employer's place of business or the county of the employee's residency, if the road closure is the result of a state of emergency. The law does not apply to the following jobs: drivers of emergency vehicles, essential corrections personnel, police, emergency service personnel, hospital and nursing home staffs, pharmacists, essential health care professionals, public utility personnel, employees of radio or television stations engaged in the gathering and dissemination of news, road crews and oil and milk delivery personnel.

Equity Incentive Plans: Compensating Key Employees

Recently, Michael L. Hund, Esq. and Salvatore J. Bauccio, Esq. from McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Business Counseling Group developed a White Paper entitled: Equity Incentive Plans: Compensating Key Employees with Equity, Options and Equity Appreciation Awards (PDF). The White Paper provides an excellent summary of different methods that organizations can use to compensate and reward key employees. To view the White Paper click here.

Ledbetter now Law: Employers must Focus on Compliance

President Obama signed into law the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act nullifying the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. Previous posts on the content and effect of the law are as follows:

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed by Senate and awaiting Obama Signature

Bad News: Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Paycheck Fairness Act Pass the House.

Record Retention Nightmare Created by Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

An employer's first concern should be the revival of claims otherwise thought extinguished under the Ledbetter decision. The law is retroactive to overrule the Supreme Court standard for assessing the timeliness of wage discrimination claims. A wage-based discrimination claim in Pennsylvania can now be filed within 300 days of the last paycheck affected by the discriminatory pay action.

An employer's next focus should be on creating a pay and evaluation system that preserves evidence supporting the nondiscriminatory basis of the decisions. The system must capture both witnesses' recollections and records associated with the decisions for all similarly situated employees.

The difficulty in defending these "old" claims lies in documenting both the decision made relative to the employee bringing the claim and the treatment of comparable employees. The legal analysis of a discrimination claim involves a comparison of the compensation paid to a member of a protected class as compared with those outside the protected class. If a compensation disparity is shown, the employer must demonstrate a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for the difference in compensation. Once demonstrated by the employer, the employee may show that the employers reason is a pretext for discrimination. Much of this analysis will change if the Paycheck Fairness Act also becomes law.

The EEOC has a road make for its analysis of compensation discrimination claims under its Compliance Manual. The types of evidence the EEOC collects and evaluates in assessing a claim includes the following:

  • Initially the EEOC determines if a wage differential exists by evaluating documents including the following:
    • Organization charts and other documents which reflect the relative position of the charging party in comparison to other employees, including written detailed job descriptions;
    • Written descriptions of the respondent's system for compensating employees -- including collective bargaining agreements; entry level wage rates or salaries; any policies or practices with regard to periodic increases, merit and other bonus compensation plans; and the respondent's reasons for its pay practices; and
    • Job evaluation studies, reports, or other analyses made by or for the employer with respect to its method of compensation and pay rates.
  • If a compensation differential(s) exists, the employer should be asked to produce a non-discriminatory reason for the differential. If a an employer leaves the pay disparity unexplained, or provides an explanation that is "too vague, is internally inconsistent, or is facially not credible," the investigator should find "cause." If the employer does provide a nondiscriminatory reason, an inquiry should be made into whether it satisfactorily explains the pay differential.
  • The EEOC requests information explaining the pay decisions of comparable or similarly situated employees. The EEOC may also request pay information for similarly situated employees to evaluate a disparate impact case based on a statistical analysis of compensation decisions and treatment.

 

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed by Senate and awaiting Obama Signature

The Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 by a vote of 61 to 36 with both Pennsylvania Senators supporting the legislation.   President Obama has previously stated he will sign the law.

The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act redefines the "accrual" of a compensation discrimination claim as follows:

For purposes of this section, an unlawful employment practice occurs, with respect to discrimination in compensation in violation of this title, when a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice is adopted, when an individual becomes subject to a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice, or when an individual is affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision or other practice, including each time wages, benefits, or other compensation is paid, resulting in whole or in part from such a decision or other practice.

Violations of the law entitle employees to recover compensatory and punitive damages including recovery of back pay for up to two years preceding the filing of the charge, where the unlawful employment practices that have occurred during the charge filing period are similar or related to unlawful employment practices with regard to discrimination in compensation that occurred outside the time for filing a charge.

The law is retroactive to the May 28, 2007 (the date of the Supreme Court's Ledbetter decision) effectively reviving all claims that are pending or after that date.

Forces employers to modify their pay practices and evaluation procedures including the following:

  • Better justify and document their compensation decisions.
  • Review promotion procedures which may fall under the law because of the attendant compensation adjustment.
  • Create an institutional memory that captures the basis for compensation and promotion decisions.
  • Design a record retention system that allows for the defense of claims.

Next on the Senate Agenda will likely be the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 182).

Thanks to the Connecticut Employment Law Blog for insights.

January 21st Carnival of HR

The theme of "change" resonates through today's carnival posts. Here are the contributions with some great advice and observations about what is confronting Human Resource Professionals for 2009 and beyond:

Ann Bares at Compensation Force posts on Best to Get Base Pay in Order Before Implementing Employee Incentives. She recognizes that employee incentives are a powerful tool and a very attractive option, particularly during difficult economic times.  She makes the case here, though, that it is important for employers to “get their base pay house in order before embarking on employee incentives.”

Dan McCarthy of Great Leadership is advertising for leaders in his post on Help Wanted: Great Leader. No Technical Experience Needed? He asks Who would you rather have for a manager: A: Someone who has great leadership skills, but knows little about your specific work or B: Someone with tons of experience and skill in your work, but with only so-so leadership skills?

Rowan Manahan of Fortify your Oasis submits a piece on Phil Schiller's keynote – how not to confound expectations. He advocates rehearsing and bringing all the elements of a presentation together so that it will be above average - using Phil Schiller's recent keynote on behalf of Apple as a case study.

Wally Bock of Three Star Leadership is doing The CEO Shuffle. He says that there's lots of news about CEOs this week. But it could be that in the best companies, star CEOs aren't unnecessary.

Steve Roessler of All Things Workplace submits his post on "A" Players, Layoffs, and Missing Data. Steve believes that when organizations try to downsize in tough times--but haven't done their performance documentation diligently--they can find themselves staffed for the future with high-seniority, poor performers.

Alice Snell of Taleo Blog - Talent Management Solutions weighs in with a digest of predictions entitled 2009: What Will Happen? She predicts that 2009 will be a time to retain and motivate existing talent.

Mark Vickers of i4cp also submits some “Forecasts for the 2009 Workplace” based on some survey data where there is "not a lot of optimism."

Chris Young of Maximizing Possibility states that in 2009, as always, and now more than ever will be about employee job performance - tangible contribution - value-creation in his post Your Job is Value Creation.

Susan Heathfield's Human Resource Blog at About.com submits a post on No Surprises in which Susan discusses how much autonomy should a team have in implementing its own ideas.

Chris Ferdinandi of Manager's Sandbox asks What Kind of HR Pro are You?  Chris believes that working in human resources, there are two main things you should be focused on: Recruiting great people, and inspiring them to do amazing work.

Shauna Moerke of HR Minion identifies a common problem for HR Pros in her post I do not think you said what I think you mean.   She likens HR to a foreign language because there so many words you needed to learn first before you could even start solving problems.

Gautam Ghosh of White Spaces advocates Guard your Job during Recession. During these times of economic slowdown here are 9 things employees can do to guard their job – from taking on more responsibility to keep practicing the 5 skills for career success.

John Agno of Coaching Tip: The Leadership Blog recognizes that "AD-Triple A" Problem for U.S. Employers. He points out some strategies for complying with the law from a coaching perspective.

Michael Haberman of HR Observations posts about Lessons for HR in the Geithner Confirmation Hearings.  Mike points out that the "honest mistakes" made around worker classification can arise in the business setting.

Frank Mulligan of Talent in China says Hold Those Salary Increases! He thinks that the challenge that many companies in China have right now is that they must maintain their skills base for when orders start to come in again, and at the same time cut costs heavily. Selling this to staff is difficult.

Nina Simosko of Nina Nets it Out submits an entry called Leadership’s All About Academics…No It’s Experience…No It’s Ability where she discusses the notion that some leadership qualities can be obtained via academics [i.e. learned], some are achieved through experience and some are purely innate abilities.

Thanks for all of your submissions. The February 4 Carnival will be hosted by Wally Bock at Three Star Leadership.

Bad News: Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Paycheck Fairness Act Pass the House.

Congress has passed The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 (H.R. 11) and The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 12). Anaylsis of the new legislation to come.

The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is discussed in a prior post on Record Retention Nightmare Created by Ledbetter Fair Pay Act .  The Paycheck Fairness Act changes the burden of proof in gender based pay claims requiring the employer to affirmatively demonstrate that any pay differential is not based on sex. Employers who cannot meet this burden face unlimited compensatory and punitive damages. The EEOC would be required to collect employer payroll information based on sex, race, and national origin thereby targeting its enforcement activities. The Bill also changed rules on class actions automatically including employees in such claims unless they specifically opt out.  PFA subjects employers to wage related class actions with unlimited damages and makes it easier for employees to prove such claims.

Ann Bares analyzes the impact of the new law from a compensation perspective in her post: Dear Legislators: A Missing Link to Paycheck Fairness?

 

ADA Amendments Act Compliance Tips

The ADAAA was effective January 1, 2009 requiring employers to focus their approach to disability accommodation. The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) of the Office of Disability Employment Policy recently published a compliance resource identifying four Practical Tips which can be expanded upon as follows:

Review Job Descriptions, Qualification Standards and Accommodation Procedures

Developing job descriptions is a daunting task for employer and many don't know where to start. JAN has a good resource explaining the role and function of job descriptions. The resource also gives some basic parameters on what should be included.

Job descriptions provide a written record of the qualification standards and essential functions of a position for the purpose of assessing whether and employee or applicant is "qualified" and for evaluating reasonable accommodations or establishing undue hardship. From a legal perspective, a well-written job description is essential to defending an ADA claim.

Written accommodation procedures promote communication and uniformity. The federal government has developed a lengthy process that may be a reference for employers developing a procedure. The government's procedures are extremely detailed and employers should be careful to develop a process which they can follow or they risk claims based on procedural missteps.

 

Focus Job Actions of Performance and Conduct

The ADAAA refocuses compliance from determining whether a disability exists to evaluating reasonable accommodations. Employers need to assess what an employee (i) can and cannot do in light of the job's essential functions or (ii) has or hasn't done under its work rules. The EEOC has issued Guidance on Applying Performance and Conduct Standards to Employees with Disabilities.

 

Train Frontline Supervisors and Managers

Many disability compliance problems start with a frontline supervisor's reaction to a performance problem. Dealing with the employee's disability, managing coworker reactions, and keeping medical information confidential are only some of the issues which confront managers. Comments made by supervisors can create claims based on retaliation or being "regarded as" disabled.

 

Document Actions and Decisions

A written record of an employers actions and decisions has many benefits in terms of both clear communication with employees and defense of ADA claims. The transitory nature of many workplaces make tangible records more important than ever to establish an institutional memory of important events.

 

Thanks to the Delaware Employment Law Blog for the pointing out the JAN resources.

Record Retention Nightmare Created by Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2831/ S. 1843) is on the fast track with full support of the Obama Administration. LFPA overturns the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. effectively eliminating the 180 or 300-day statute of limitations for filing a wage-related discrimination claim. The Bill allows family members and others affected by discrimination to file claims and reinstitutes the Paycheck Accrual Rule for determining when a claim arises. It also allows claims based on paychecks and annuity payments which would permit retirees to bring claims.

Ms. Leddbetter's discriminatory pay claims originated from pay raises allegedly denied her based on supervisor's discriminatory evaluations of her performance conducted over a period between 1979 and 1998. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the pay setting was a discrete act triggering the180 day limitations period for filing a discrimination claim, therefore a timely discrimination claim must be based on acts of discrimination occurring within the 180 day period. Leddbetter argued that“[E]ach paycheck that offers a woman less pay than a similarly situated man because of her sex is a separate violation of Title VII with its own limitations period, regardless of whether the paycheck simply implements a prior discriminatory decision made outside the limitations period”.

The effect of the argument is to call into question decisions of supervisors made almost 20 years before the employer received notice of the alleged discrimination. Leddbetter counters that she had no way of knowing about her discriminatory treatment because of the confidentiality of the performance reviews and salary adjustments

In its Ledbetter decision, the Supreme Court enunciated a classic application of the statute of limitations governing the time period for bringing legal claims:

Statutes of limitations, which "are found and approved in all systems of enlightened jurisprudence, represent a pervasive legislative judgment that it is unjust to fail to put the adversary on notice to defend within a specified period of time, and that "the right to be free of stale claims in time comes to prevail over the right to prosecute them. These enactments are statutes of repose; and although affording plaintiffs what the legislature deems a reasonable time to present their claims, they protect defendants and the courts from having to deal with cases in which the search for truth may be seriously impaired by the loss of evidence, whether by death or disappearance of witnesses, fading memories, disappearance of documents, or otherwise. (emphasis added). 

The implication's are huge for employers in terms of faulty memories, missing witnesses, and mountains of documents. Defense of decades old discrimination claims will necessitate the retention of more documents for longer time periods. The expense associated with storage and production of documents (whether paper or electronic) may be staggering. Imagine a Request for Production of Documents or subpoena that demands access to 20 or 30 years of employer records associated with the evaluations and salary adjustments for an employee (or retiree) claiming pay discrimination. Add in all of the employee's peer comparators who were similarly situated over the same time period for a truly nightmarish perspective. Now the rationale for the statute of limitations becomes clearer.

Employee Engagement Surveys may be Critical to Combating Union Organizing Efforts

The Employee Free Choice Act stands to shortcut the process for certifying a union depriving an employer of its chance to conduct a campaign to educate its workforce on the downside of unionization, squelch union promises, and redress employee perceptions. The employer’s campaign occurs between the filing of a union petition and the schedule NLRB-supervised secret ballot election - a period of 30 to 45 days.

Elimination of the secret ballot and allowing union certification upon a card showing of greater that 50% will force employers to conduct employee education and assess vulnerabilities in advance of union organizing actions. Some businesses mistakenly believe that employee interest in unions revolves around promises of higher pay and better benefits. Quite to the contrary, most studies on employee motivation for union membership conclude that non-economic concerns are the chief motivators for union membership. Most workers think that unions can get them "a greater say in the workplace." The attitude translates to issues like job security, effectiveness of supervisors, and involvement in workplace decisions. Unionization is not all about the money; it is about workers being "engaged." Disengagement can mean unionization.

Employee Surveys are one of the better ways to conduct systematic and regular assessment of employee attitudes about a whole host of important workplace matters.   Business may be skeptical about the benefits of Employee Surveys and what they can find out about a workplace. Today's Employee Survey are customized to the employer. They can assess an employee's attitudes on various subjects and correlate data by department. business location, etc. Often the survey can identify an issue or supervisory relationship that needs management attention. Survey results can also be benchmarked with comparable businesses.

Designing an effective survey requires collaboration with an expert to tailor the survey to the business and assistance in interpreting the survey data. Success Performance Solutions designs, conducts and evaluates employee surveys for companies in a wide variety of industries. I asked Dr. Ira S. Wolfe, for his thoughts on the EFCA and employee surveys. His comments are as follows:

 

At this point it is important to differentiate between employee satisfaction surveys and engagement surveys. The terms “employee engagement” and “employee satisfaction” means different things to different people. In its simplest form, satisfaction means employers are not doing anything to anger employees. That’s good information to know but not nearly enough to retain employees, no less head off any attempt to unionize employees.

Employee engagement, on the other hand, is a complex equation that reflects each individual’s unique, personal relationship with work. BlessingWhite, in its 2008 State of Employee Engagement study, describes the engaged employee as not just committed, not just passionate or proud, but having a line-of-sight on their own future AND on the organization’s mission and goals. “They are ‘enthused’ and ‘in gear’ using their talents and discretionary effort to make a difference in their employer’s quest for sustainable business success (The State of Employee Engagement 2008, p.1).

Unfortunately for North American employees, fewer than 1 in 3 employees (29%) are fully engaged. Nineteen percent are actually disengaged. Many managers think “yea, yea, yea. What’s the big deal?”

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HR GENERALIST RESOURCES: Inclement weather policies in Pennsylvania

With the first measurable snowfall hitting many parts of Pennsylvania this week, it's time to start thinking about inclement weather policies. Closing a business for any reason can have a dramatic impact on customers and employees.  Many employers struggle with business closings and delays necessitated by inclement weather. Good communication and planning can help eleviate some of the issues created weather-related closures.  However, there are a few legal issues thrown in this wintery mix.  I recommend adopting a policy that addresses at least the following three areas:

Will employees be paid for the time when the business is closed?

Nonexempt employees need not be paid for time when they do not work because the business is closed. Exempt employees must be paid their salary for the week regardless of the business closing. PTO or vacation may be charged, but exempt employee salaries may not be docked for time when the business is closed. A Department of Labor Compliance Assistance Letter details some of the Wage and Hour considerations applicable to the payment of wages for exempt employees.

 

Will employees be paid if they don’t report to work due to inclement weather when the business is open?

Nonexempt employees need not be paid for times they are absent from work. Exempt employees need not be paid for a whole day absence taken due to inclement weather. An exempt employee absent for part of a day may be forced to use vacation or PTO time. If the exempt employee has no vacation or PTO time, his or her salary may not be docked for a partial day absence.  The same Department of Labor Compliance Assistance Letter addresses this situation.

 

Can an employer discipline or discharge and employee for failing to report to work due to weather conditions when the business is open?

An employer may generally apply its normal attendance policy to weather related absences; however, most will make an exception for absences due to weather if the employee makes a reasonable effort to get to work. Collateral issues abound such as childcare, public transportation, and the “snow phobic” employee (chionophobia). With the ADA Amendments Act, this may be an area of accommodations. Keep in mind that “exceptions” should be uniformly made to avoid discrimination claims.

 

There is one major legal exception. Under Pennsylvania law (43 P.S. §§ 1481-1485), an employer may not discipline or discharge an employee who fails to report to work due to the closure of the roads in the county of the employer's place of business or the county of the employee's residency, if the road closure is the result of a state of emergency declared by the Governor.  The most obvious and likely scenario is a snow storm or other inclement weather.

 

Employers are not required to pay an employee who is a no show based on road closures, unless a union contract dictates otherwise.  An employee who can prove the employer's "knowing and intentional" violation of the law may recover lost pay, be reinstated or have discipline revoked, and may collect attorneys fees and costs.The law does not apply to the following jobs: drivers of emergency vehicles, essential corrections personnel, police, emergency service personnel, hospital and nursing home staffs, pharmacists, essential health care professionals, public utility personnel, employees of radio or television stations engaged in the gathering and dissemination of news, road crews and oil and milk delivery personnel.

Final FMLA Regulations issued with an Effective Date of January 16, 2009

The Department of Labor issued 762 pages of regulations covering the FMLA. . As expected, 2009 will be a busy year for Human Resources Professionals because of compliance and legislative changes.  The following is a brief summary of the regulatory changes:

Military Caregiver Leave: Implements the expanded FMLA protections for family members caring for a covered service member with a serious injury or illness incurred in the line of duty on active duty. These family members are able to take up to 26 workweeks of leave in a 12-month period.
Leave for Qualifying Exigencies for Families of National Guard and Reserves: The expanded FMLA protections allow families of National Guard and Reserve personnel on active duty to take FMLA job-protected leave to manage their affairs — "qualifying exigencies." The rule defines "qualifying exigencies" as: (1) short-notice deployment (2) military events and related activities (3) childcare and school activities (4) financial and legal arrangements (5) counseling (6) rest and recuperation (7) post-deployment activities and (8) additional activities where the employer and employee agree to the leave.
The Ragsdale Decision/Penalties: The updated rule contains technical changes to be consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide Inc. The court ruled that the regulation's so-called "categorical" penalty (requiring an employer to provide 12 additional weeks of FMLA-protected leave after the employee had already taken 30 weeks of leave) was inconsistent with the statutory limit of only 12 weeks of FMLA leave and contrary to the law's remedial requirement that an employee demonstrate individual harm. The new rule removes these penalties and clarifies that if an employee suffers individual harm because the employer did not follow the notification rules, the employer may be liable for the leave and penalties.
Waiver of Rights: Employees may voluntarily settle their FMLA claims without court or DOL approval. However, prospective waivers of FMLA rights are prohibited.
Serious Health Condition: The six individual definitions of "serious health condition," are continued with guidance on their implementation. First, the rules clarify that if an employee is taking leave involving more than three consecutive calendar days of incapacity plus two visits to a health care provider, the two visits must occur within 30 days of the period of incapacity. Second, they define "periodic visits to a health care provider" for chronic serious health conditions as at least two visits to a health care provider per year.
Light Duty: Time spent in "light duty" work does not count against an employee's FMLA leave entitlement, and the employee's right to job restoration is held in abeyance during the light duty period. If an employee is voluntarily doing light duty work, he or she is not on FMLA leave.
Perfect Attendance Awards: Companies need not grant a "perfect attendance" award to an employee who does not have perfect attendance because he or she took FMLA leave — but only if the employer treats employees taking non-FMLA leave in an identical way.
Employer Notice Obligations: All employer notice requirements into a "one-stop" section of the regulations to clear up some conflicting provisions and time periods. Further, the final rule clarifies and strengthens the employer notice requirements to employees in order that employers will better inform employees about their FMLA rights and obligations, and allow for a smoother exchange of information between employers and employees.
Employee Notice: Employee must follow the employer's normal and customary call-in procedures, unless there are unusual circumstances. The final rule modifies the current provision that had been interpreted to allow some employees to notify their employers of their need for FMLA leave up to two full business days after an absence, even if they could provide notice sooner.
Medical Certification Process (Content and Clarification): The rule limits who may contact the health care provider and bans an employee's direct supervisor from making the contact. The rule address the requirements of HIPAA's medical privacy rule to communications between employers and employees' health care providers.
 

 

Employer's Strategic Planning for an Obama Administration

President-Elect Obama told his hometown crowd that "Change has come to America." Through his election speeches, website and co-sponsorship of Senate Bills there is a road map of what changes will likely be coming to the American workplace.

Employers would be well served by examining the impact of likely legislation on their business and planning accordingly. The most significant changes will likely come from the Employee Free Choice Act  and RESPECT ACT which will reshape union organizing. The building trades, healthcare, and manufacturing will be the first to feel the effects, but so will business that were not traditionally union targets like financial services.  The balance of Senator Obama's legislative agenda involves expanding existing areas of employment protection through the Paycheck Fairness Act, Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Prior posts have summarized the content of these bills and their impact on the workplace. In the coming weeks, we will provide more extensive guidance on planning to meet the changes posed by these and other legislative initiatives.

Related Posts:
Employer's Guide to the Election
Obama Victory may give rise to Unprecedented Unionization of the American Workplace

Bosses do not Deserve RESPECT
 

Employer's Guide to the Election

The election rhetoric has been relatively quiet on employment-related topics, except for the brief mention in the last debate. Candidate Obama has a clear agenda employment legislation based on his co-sponsorship of various bills and other media comments. Candidate McCain’s position is less clear. Detailed below is a summary of the key legislative initiatives considered by Congress in 2008, all of which have passed the House of Representatives except the RESPECT Act.

Employee Free Choice Act (H.R. 800 and S. 1041)

Summary:  The EFCA amends the NLRA to change the procedures for union certification and first contract negotiation. The primary components of the act are as follows:

  • Allows NLRB certification of a relevant bargaining unit upon authorization card showing from 50% plus one of employees bypassing secret ballot election.
  • Mandates initial collective bargaining contract be negotiated within 120 days or first contract is produced by an arbitrator covering employees for 2 years.
  • Provides new fines for employer unfair labor practices.

Impact:   EFCA is a monumental change to the NLRA. Much has been made of the abrogation of the secret ballot election, but equally dramatic are the limitations placed on collective bargaining and contract determination by an arbitrator if no agreement is reached in 120 days of negotiations.   If enacted, EFCA will result in unprecedented organizing activity with employers losing their ability to demand an election and engage in hard bargaining over a first contract.

Candidate Positions:  H.R. 800 passed the House but did not receive enough votes for consideration by the Senate. Candidate Obama is a co-sponsor of the Senate Bill and supports its passage. Candidate McCain opposes the Senate Bill.

Prior Posts:  NOW is the Time for Employers to Gear up for the Employee Free Choice Act (Unions Are)

 

Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 3685/ no Senate Bill)

Summary:  ENDA adds sexual orientation to the protected classes under Title VII for all employers except religious organizations. It allows reasonable access to adequate facilities that are not inconsistent with the employee’s identified gender, but does not require domestic partner benefits or protect “gender identity”.

Impact:  ENDA adds a protected class to employment discrimination protections allowing compensatory and punitive damage claims against employers.     

Candidate Positions:  H.R. 3685 passed the House but did not receive enough votes for consideration by the Senate.  No legislative position by either candidate.   Candidate Obama’s website expresses support for the legislation.

 

Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R. 2831/ S. 1843)

Summary:  FPA overturns the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. effectively eliminating the 180 or 300-day statute of limitations for filing a wage-related discrimination claim. The bill allows family members and others affected by discrimination to file claims and reinstitutes the Paycheck Rule for determining when a claim accrues. It also allows claims based on paychecks and annuity payments which would allow retirees to bring claims.

Impact:  FPA virtually eliminates the statute of limitations for wage-related claims.

Candidate Positions:  H.R. 2831 passed the House but did not receive enough votes for consideration by the Senate.  Candidate Obama is a cosponsor of the Bill. Candidate McCain has expressed no opinion on the Bill.

 

Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 1338/ S. 766)

Summary:  PFA changes the burden of proof in gender based pay claims requiring the employer to affirmatively demonstrate that any pay differential is not based on sex. Employers who cannot meet this burden face unlimited compensatory and punitive damages. The EEOC would be required to collect employer payroll information based on sex, race, and national origin thereby targeting its enforcement activities. The Bill also changed rules on class actions automatically including employees in such claims unless they specifically opt out.

Impact:  PFA subjects employers to wage related class actions with unlimited damages and makes it easier for employees to prove such claims.

Candidate Positions:  H.R. 1338 passed the House but did not receive enough votes for consideration by the Senate.  Candidate Obama is a cosponsor of the Bill. Candidate McCain has not taken any position on the Bill.

 

RESPECT ACT (H.R. 1644/ S. 969)

Summary:  The so-called Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Tradesworkers (RESPECT) Act would change the NLRA definition of “supervisor” to exclude “working supervisors” who do not spend a majority of their worktime in strictly managerial duties excluding the tradition duties of assigning work and directing the activities of others.

Impact:  Respect would allow many working or front line supervisors to join a union dividing their loyalties to the company, as they would be permitted to assist in the unionization of the company.

Candidate Positions:  Candidate Obama is a cosponsor of the bill and Candidate McCain has taken no position on the Bill.

Prior Posts: Bosses do not Deserve RESPECT

 

If there is a Democratically-controlled House, Senate, and President, it is likely that some or all of the above legislation will be enacted in 2009. Others have commented on the HR landscape following the election:

What The Future of HR Looks Like in 2009

Small business owner’s guide to the election

Paul Newman: A Lesson in Leadership from Butch Cassidy

Let’s take a moment to honor this cinematic legend while examining the dynamics of leadership that exist in all organizations whether it's corporate America or in this case the Hole in the Wall Gang.

In this classic flick, Butch is an absentee leader with no succession plan. He is challenged by one of his subordinates for leadership of the gang.  Butch leads the gang through his dominant intellect and control over the gang’s star member -  the Sundance Kid a.k.a. Robert Redford. Here are some of Butch’s leadership shortcomings:

 

Assuming his Leadership won’t be Challenged

Butch is surprised when his leadership is challenged, but reminded by a gang member that “you always said that any one of us could challenge you Butch.”  Butch responds, “That’s cause I figured no one would do it."  The challenger responds, ”You figured wrong Butch.”

 

Losing Touch with his Team and then making Excuses 

There is support for the challenge when one gang member says “ Well at least [the leadership challenger] is with us… you have been spending a lot of time gone.” Butch makes his excuse in that “everything is different now… it’s harder now…you have to plan more....”

 

No Succession Plan

Butch has no succession plan creating a leadership vacuum where the rules are unclear. The ensuing battle is won only by Butch’s quick thinking and fancy footwork.  Ultimately, he must profess to the gang that there are no rules.

 

Retailating against those who Oppose him

Butch tells Sundance Kid that he doen't mean to be a sore loser, but it the fight is done, and he's dead, kill his successor.

 

Here is the full scene. Your comments on leadership are welcome.

 

Transcript below:

Continue Reading...

Employer Dress Code Standards: "Neat, Clean and Professional" may not be Enough

The New York Times article Tattoos Gain Even More Visibility discusses the rising popularity of body art and challenges facing employers in regulating employee dress. The article focuses on tattoos but raises the larger issue of employer dress code standards and their challenges in terms of both employee retention and legal compliance.

Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employers Law Blog notes that Employment decisions based on tattoos are not discriminatory and I would add “per se”. In fact, most courts defer to an employer’s evaluation of dress standards focusing on whether the policy is discriminatory or fails to reasonably accommodate religious practices. For example, in Coulter v. Costco Wholesale Corp., a court determined that “Costco has made a determination that facial piercings, aside from earrings, detract from the "neat, clean and professional image" that it aims to cultivate. Such a business determination is within its discretion. As another court has explained, ‘Even assuming that the defendants' justification for the grooming standards amounted to nothing more than an appeal to customer preference, . . . it is not the law that customer preference is an insufficient justification as a matter of law.’"

Courts may not question the business reason for the dress code standard, but the application of the standard across the pool of applicants and employees is clearly, where discrimination can occur. Discrimination is more likely to occur where managers are called upon to subjectively evaluate compliance. As noted in the NYTimes article, “Defining what the courts in the Cloutier case called a “neat, clean and professional” workplace image becomes more challenging when you consider that in 2006, a Pew Research Center survey found that 36 percent of people age 18 to 25, and 40 percent of those age 26 to 40, have at least one tattoo.” The difficulty arises from both the prevalence of tattoos and the excessive subjectivity of the standard.

Human Resource Professionals and managers loathe their role as fashion policy, but the subjectivity of some dress code standards invites claims of discrimination. For example, an employer requires all applicants to have a “neat, clean and professional appearance”. If hiring managers are called upon to describe this qualification standard, it is likely that all will have different measures.  If the subjective dress standard disproportionately disqualifies applicants in a protected class, it may be challenged as discriminatory.

Kris Dunn at the HR Capitalist gives a great perspective on customer preference in his post  Your Employee's Tattoo Is Causing a Consumer Confidence Issue....John Phillips at The Word on Employment Law also comments on the subject in his post  Coming to Your Workplace: Visible Tattoos.

Managing Layoffs and Reductions in Force

As the economic meltdown cascades through the financial, banking and related sectors, many employers are planning staff cuts.  Selecting employees for lay off must be collaboration between managers and human resources. HR must be able to influence the process to reduce legal risks and assuage the anxiety of remaining employees:

Establishing Business Justification and Layoff Selection Criteria:

The business justification for the reduction in force or layoff must be established. The justification for layoff typically gives rise to the selection criteria. For example, if a large contract was lost, the production and support functions related to the lost contract will be the focus or the layoff.

Layoff decisions may be challenged under discrimination laws, so it is advisable to develop selection criteria that support the business reasons for selecting one employee over another. Unless dictated by union contract, employers have discretion in developing the selection criteria which can include factors like, seniority, relative skills, performance, and/or disciplinary record.  More than one factor may be used.

Forced Ranking Systems are sometimes utilized to rank employees against one another from the top down based on performance criteria. The subjectivity in forced ranking can be challenged as discriminatory unless uniformly and rationally applied.

Evaluating Impact of Selection Criteria including Bumping, Transfer and Recall Rights:

Once employees are identified for layoff, the results of the section criteria must be assessed in terms of disparate impact and other special circumstances. A disparate impact analysis should be conducted to assess whether the selection criteria have resulted in the disproportionate layoff of members of a protected class. Likewise, special circumstances should be evaluated such as employees with recent employment complaints, union activity, FMLA leaves, etc.  Consider documenting the final layoff decisions, but not the deliberations leading up to them.

Thought must be given to collateral job rights employees may have under employment policies and practices. Typical areas involve shift or department transfers, supervisor demotion in lieu of layoff, and voluntary layoffs. Likewise, the parameters of recall, if any, should be described.

WARNA Obligations:

Federal and state plant closing/mass layoff laws must be considered. Although Pennsylvania has no state law equivalent to WARNA, employers with multi-state operations must assess the application of such laws. Coverage under WARNA can be complex as it has look back rules which aggregate layoffs for determining triggering events. WARNA coverage will trigger the sixty-day notice period which has a tremendous impact on layoff planning raising issues of pay in lieu of notice, retention, and publicity.

Severance Benefits and Releases:

Careful consideration must be given to describing the benefit package, if any, offered to employees. If an employer is offering benefits that exceed those already provided by policy or mandated by law, it should consider obtaining a release. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) contains special rules for waivers of rights of claims of age discrimination including a 45-day consideration and seven-day revocation period for such releases. Furthermore, the ADEA contains informational requirements that mandate publication of summary of employee demographic information in connection with the release.

Communications Plan:

Effective communication is paramount in reducing employee legal claims and assuaging the anxiety of remaining employees. Everything that is said about the reasons for the layoff will be scrutinized in litigation. Consider scripting communications for group meetings and avoid individual discussions of the reason for selection. Large layoffs may generate news media interest for which a press release is a helpful way to influence the message.

 

UPDATE:

Jerry Kalish at the Retirement Plan Blog made a great observation about layoffs in his post Does a reduction in force or layoff beget a partial termination of a retirement plan?.  He refers to the IRS rules on partial termination of a retirement plan based on the significant reduction in plan participation resulting from the layoff.  IRS Guidance entitled 401(k) Resource Guide - Plan Participants - Plan Termination includes the following summary:

Although a 401(k) plan must be established with the intention of being continued indefinitely, an employer may (fully) terminate its 401(k) plan at its discretion. In certain cases, a partial plan termination is deemed to occur. Whether a partial termination occurs depends on the individual facts and circumstances of a given case. In general, a partial termination is deemed to occur when an employer-initiated action results in a significant decrease in plan participation. As an example, a partial termination may be deemed to occur when an employer reduces its workforce (and plan participation) by 20%.

ADA Amendments expand Disability Coverage

President Bush will sign legislation amending the Americans with Disabilities Act, which overwhelmingly passed through Congress. The ADA Amendments Act is designed to convey Congressional intent that “the primary object of attention in cases brought under the ADA should be whether entities covered under the ADA have complied with their obligations, and to convey that the question of whether an individual’s impairment is a disability under the ADA should not demand extensive analysis.”

The goal of expanding the coverage of the ADA is achieved by changing the definition of “disability” to:

  • Prohibit the consideration of measures that reduce or mitigate the impact of impairment—such as medication, prosthetics and assistive technology—in determining whether an individual has a disability under the law.
  • Cover workers whose employers discriminate against them based on a perception that the worker is impaired, regardless of whether the worker has a disability.
  • Clarify that the law provides broad coverage to protect anyone who faces discrimination on the basis of a disability.

Congress expressly reversed several Supreme Court decisions that restricted the scope of the ADA. Congress rejected the standard that ameliorative effects of mitigating measures must be considered in determining whether a person is disabled found in Sutton v. United Air Lines, Inc. Congress also rebuked the Court in its restrictive interpretation of “disability” by rejecting the terms “substantially limits ” and “significantly restricted” because the terms as outlined in Toyota Motor Mfg, Kentucky, Inc. v. Williams are too narrow.

 

The ADA amendments will  refocus disability discrimination lawsuits downplaying the examination of whether an employee meets the definition of disability.  Daniel Schwartz of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog discusses the practical impacts.

Managing a Business and its Employees in Financial Crisis Requires Communication from HR

The specter of business failure and personal financial setbacks wreak havoc on employee morale challenging Human Resources with dual management problems. First, HR needs to formulate a communication strategy to address the concerns of employees surrounding job security and compensation. Employee jitters surround the viability of their employer and the security of their jobs. Retirement savings evaporate as the stock market plummets leading some to forego matching 401k contributions. Compensation packages and incentives tied to stock continue their downward spiral. Wordsmith the message that the CFO might send out: “They are lucky to have a job.”

Second, HR must manage the collateral effects of an employee’s personal financial problems, which can lead to bankruptcy, foreclosure and even divorce, any of which may influence his or her job and job performance. Businesses must be prepared to respond to employee performance issues created by financial problems. Employers should be aware of legal limitations placed on their actions with regard to an employee’s financial problems. In addition, human resource professionals should appreciate the relationship between their performance management program and other resources to address employee issues created by financial distress.

 

Pennsylvania and federal laws limit actions employers may take against employees that file for bankruptcy or are subject to wage attachments. Many employers, particularly those in the financial sector, face customer relation problems when one of their employees does not pay his or her bills or files for bankruptcy. Legal limitations on employer responses are as follows:

  • Garnishment/Attachment of Wages. Pennsylvania prohibits garnishment/attachment of wages for the repayment of personal debts, except in limited circumstances for child support, alimony or student loans.   Employees may not be disciplined, discriminated against or discharged because of wage garnishments.
  • Employee BankruptcySection 575 of the Bankruptcy Act protects employees and applicants from discrimination if an individual:(1) is or has been a debtor under this title or a debtor or bankrupt under the Act; (2) has been insolvent before the commencement of a case under the Act or during the case but before the grant or denial of a discharge; or (3) has not paid a debt that is dischargeable in a case under this title or that was discharged under the Act. Courts have limited the reach of this provision by requiring that the discrimination be "solely because" of the individual's bankruptcy participation.
  • Worries about Temptation for Theft. Businesses may become concerned that an employee in financial distress may be more likely to embezzle and react by trying to find out the scope of an employee’s credit problems. The Fair Credit Reporting Act limits an employer’s use of employee credit information. A business’ usual financial controls should be uniformly applied, but, if inadequate, should be revised for all employees.

Employees experience financial distress are subject to performance problems including declining productivity, absenteeism and depression.  The usual performance management tools can be used: however, special attention should be paid to other resources like the EAP and Debt/Credit counseling.

 

EEOC Guidance Addresses Employee Performance and Conduct Issues Under the ADA

On September 3, 2008, the EEOC issued "a comprehensive question-and-answer guide addressing how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to a wide variety of performance and conduct issues."  The guidance contains a brief introductory section that includes some general legal requirements and definitions and then sets forth 30 questions and answers on various ADA-related subjects, including performance, conduct, and attendance issues, dress codes, drug and alcohol use, and confidentiality. Included within the EEOC's answers are numerous points of generally applicable "practical guidance."

The EEOC's new guide does not have the legal effect of federal regulations or change the ADA's existing accommodation and discrimination requirements. It does, however, contain a useful resource on an often difficult and complicated issue, namely what to do when an employee's performance or conduct problems may be, or are, caused by a disability. Among the guidance provided by the EEOC are the following:

 

Job Performance

 

  • An employee with a disability may be required to meet the same production standards, whether quantitative or qualitative, as a non-disabled employee in the same job. Lowering or changing a production standard because an employee cannot meet it due to a disability is not considered a reasonable accommodation.  However, a reasonable accommodation may be required to assist an employee in meeting a specific production standard.
  • An employer should evaluate the job performance of an employee with a disability the same way it evaluates any other employee’s performance.
  • If an employer gives a lower performance rating to an employee, and the employee responds by revealing she has a disability that is causing the performance problem, the employer still may give the lower rating. If the employee states that her disability is the cause of the performance problem, the employer should follow up by making clear what level of performance is required and asking why the employee believes the disability is affecting performance. If the employee does not ask for an accommodation, the employer may ask whether there is an accommodation that may help raise the employee’s performance level.
  • Ideally, employees will request reasonable accommodation before performance problems arise, or at least before they become too serious. Although the ADA does not require employees to ask for an accommodation at a specific time, the timing of a request for reasonable accommodation is important, because an employer does not have to rescind discipline (including a termination) or an evaluation warranted by poor performance.

Conduct Problems

 

  • If an employee’s disability does not cause the misconduct, an employer may hold the individual to the same conduct standards that it applies to all other employees. In most instances, an employee’s disability will not be relevant to any conduct violations.
  • If an employee’s disability causes a violation of a conduct rule, the employer may discipline the individual, if the conduct rule is job-related and consistent with business necessity and other employees are held to the same standard. The ADA does not protect employees from the consequences of violating conduct requirements, even where the conduct is caused by the disability.

Attendance

  • An employer may have to modify its attendance policies for employees with a disability as a reasonable accommodation, absent undue hardship.
  • Although employers may have to grant extended medical leave as a reasonaable accommodiation, they have no obligation to provide leave of indefinite duration.  Granting indefinite leave, like frequent and unpredictable request for leave, can impose an undue hardship on an employer's operations.

Benchmarking against the Federal Government's EEO Performance

The EEOC released its Annual Report on the Federal Workforce for Fiscal Year 2007 (period October 2006 to September 2007).  For those employers who may be benchmarking against the federal government, it seems to me that the government performs at a level that the EEOC would never accept from other employers. Here is a sampling of report’s findings:

·         The federal government employs almost 2.6 million workers of which 56.8% are men and 43.2% are women.

·         The federal workforce’s demographic composition is 7.8% Hispanic or Latino; 65.8% White; 18.4% Black or African American; 6% Asian; 0.2% Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander, 1.7% American Indian/Alaskan Native; and 0.2% reported 2 or more races.

·         Hispanic or Latinos, Whites, women and persons of Two or More Races remained below their overall availability in the national civilian labor force, as reported in the 2000 census (CLF).  Black or African Americans, Asians, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders, American Indian/Alaska Natives and men remained above their overall availability in the CLF.

·         Federal employees and applicants filed 16,363 complaints alleging discrimination.

·         Unlawful discrimination was found in 2.8% of the 7,673 cases that were closed on the merits.

·         85% of federal agencies provided their EEO staff with required training.

·         58% of federal agencies have an Anti-Harassment Policy.

The good news is that the government is evaluating its EEO performance and publishing the results.

Revisiting Baseline Qualifications For Certain Positions: How Objective Qualifications, When Used Properly, Can Save The Day In Defending A Discrimination Claim

In Makky v. Chertoff, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently addressed the importance of objective job qualifications in evaluating the merits of a discrimination claim. Employers that establish clear baseline standards for position through their job descriptions, advertisements and other records are better able to defend discrimination claims by showing that the applicant or employee does not meet minimum qualifications for the position.

The Makky case involved the termination of employment of Dr. Wagih Makky who was employed by the United States government in the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Safety Administration for fifteen years. In his various positions, Dr. Makky was required to obtain security clearance. A descendant of Egypt, Makky was the only Muslim and only person of Arab descent in his division. Makky's security clearance was suspended due to safety concerns, including his dual citizenship with Egypt, foreign relatives and associates, foreign countries visited, and alleged misuse of his government computer. Makky was placed on paid administrative and subsequently terminated when the TSA issued its final denial of security clearance. Although Makky appealed the determination through the government's processes, the determination was upheld.

Makky filed a lawsuit including a claim for employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Makky's Title VII claim was premised on a mixed motive theory of discrimination which recognizes that an employment decision can at times be based on both (1) a legitimate non-discriminatory reason and (2) discriminatory animus. Here, Makky argued that while he was suspended without pay and terminated because he did not pass the security clearance, the TSA's actions were also motivated by discriminatory animus based on his national origin because the agency did not offer him other positions or keep him on paid leave. Although the Court recognized that the analysis is factually sensitive , it held that when a plaintiff does not possess the objective baseline qualifications to do his or her job, the discrimination claim will fail on its face because he or she cannot establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Applying the holding to the facts at hand, the Court found that Makky's inability to retain a security clearance rendered him expressly unqualified for the TSA position. Analogizing Makky's situation to a more mainstream occupation, the Court explained, "if the hospital employing a person who has been performing surgery learns that the employee falsified his or her qualifications and never went to medical school, that employee could not establish a prima facie mixed-motive case irrespective of allegations of racial or ethnic discrimination."

So what can an H.R. specialist take away from Makky? When a position requires a baseline objective qualification, like a license or degree, make sure it is expressly stated in all hiring materials including: (1) job advertisements; (2) position descriptions; and (3) application materials. Notably, if the degree or license it is merely the company's "preference" for someone in the position, it is important to consider whether making the "preference" appear as a "qualification" may lead to problems in the future. For example, suppose that Company X states that a sales position requires a Bachelor's Degree. When Company X interviews its two top choices, however, the female candidate who possess a Bachelor's Degree has the personality of dry toast, while the male candidate who has waitered all his life and does not have a Bachelor's Degree has a dynamic sales personality and will surely do well with Company X. If Company X believes that the male applicant is better suited for the position than the female applicant, should the Bachelor's Degree have been a required qualification in the first place? Probably not. Accordingly, it is important to have a process in place to review your company's job advertisements and position descriptions before posting for openings. While certain baseline objective qualifications can often be beneficial in refuting a prima facie discrimination claim, turning a mere "preference" into a "qualification" can have the opposite result because it may be used as evidence of a discriminatory motive.

Legal System to Blame for Humorless Work Environment?

Hard economic times, perpetual threat of layoffs, workers stretched too thin could all be contributing to the “increasingly humorous American workplace” according to MSNBC author Eve Tahmincioglu in her post No joke! The workplace needs a good laugh. However, others are pointing to our legal system’s clamp down on “hostile work environments” as the cause of a joyless workplace:

What’s exacerbating the joylessness this recession has spawned, some believe, is decades of joke slap-downs in offices and factories. “The whole issue of political correctness has gone too far when it comes to the criteria for determining an offensive comment,” says Thierry Guedj, workplace psychology expert and professor at Boston University. “If anybody is offended, then it’s offensive. The criteria has become much too personalized. It only takes one person being slightly upset at something for it to become offensive.” It started in the 1980s, he continues, got worse in the 1990s and “has now reached its maximum.”

It is true that more claims of workplace harassment are being filed. The EEOC received 27,112 charges of harassment in 2007, up almost 18% from the prior year. Employer’s settlement payments of $65.6 million for these charges are no laughing matter. From a legal perspective, should employees be worried about injecting humor into the workplace and is an employer’s “joke slap-down” necessary? If your humor doesn’t demean people based on their membership in a protected class, then joke away.

It is the “off-color jokes” and other “humor” related to gender, race, national origin, religion or other protected classifications that can be considered harassment. These types of comments always find their way into allegations of discrimination or harassment when a complaint is filed. However, there is an important distinction between remarks uttered by a supervisor (quid pro quo harassment) verses those spoken by a co-worker (hostile environment harassment).

Potentially discriminatory remarks or jokes spoken by a decision maker are evidence of discriminatory motive in adverse employment decisions as noted by the Supreme Court in Ash v. Tyson Foods. A couple of off-color jokes followed up by a disciplinary suspension may give a discrimination charge some merit. On the other hand, mere utterance of a joke or other inappropriate remarks by a co-worker may not sufficiently affect conditions to create a hostile environment as noted in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.   But that’s your risk.

According to EEOC Policy Guidance, a "hostile environment' harassment takes a variety of forms, many factors may affect this determination, including: (1) whether the conduct was verbal or physical, or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) whether the conduct was hostile and patently offensive; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a co-worker or a supervisor; (5) whether the others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual. 

Severity and the pervasiveness of alleged hostile activities are the focus of the legal analysis. This is a very fact sensitive inquiry which depends in part on what a reasonable person would find offensive. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court has held that some racial slurs and jokes are so historically offensive that their use in the workplace, even once, can lead to liability for an employer who doesn’t respond appropriately. A single utterance of an epithet can create a hostile work environment if it is viewed as “severe” and it is aimed at the individual rather than a generalized comment.  

Professor Guedj is correct that workplace humor has changed; but, perhaps the change was needed.  The impact of hypersensitivity is theoretically mitigated by the reasonable person standard.  However, the gray of the law may have led some workplace humorist to abstinence. Alternatively, practicing “safe humor” could include the following prophylactic measures:

  • Evaluate the content of the humor; some words and subjects are never appropriate for the workplace.
  • Know your audience.
  • Save your stand up routine for the comedy club where patrons are willing participants.
  • Don’t make jokes personal by singling out one individual as the butt of your humor.
  • Stop joking with people who seem uncomfortable with it.
  • Don’t ridicule co-workers who don’t like your humor
  • Try ask whether someone is offended by the humor.
  • If a co-worker’s joke offends you, then say something to the jokester.
  • Don’t e-mail jokes to everyone in the office.
  • Take seriously complaints about inappropriate humor, but remember the conduct must offend a reasonable person.

 

Investigating Employee Misconduct based on Electronic Evidence may be limited by the Weakness of an Employer's Policies

The prevalence of e-mail and texting communications can aid an employer in its investigation of workplace misconduct; provided, the employer’s policy adequately preserves its right to access the data. However, overstepping rights to access e-mail and other electronic communication media can result in criminal prosecution under state and federal law.

Recent high profile firings of Philadelphia TV anchors highlight the role of electronic evidence in an employer’s investigations and the pitfalls of illegal access to private computer data, in this case by an employee. Fired TV newscaster Larry Mendte was charged July 21, 2008 with hacking into the e-mail of his younger co-anchor. Mendte was previously fired based on an independent investigation by CBS as he allegedly hacked into Lane’s e-mail account from work and home and then revealed information to news outlets about Lane’s legal troubles. Lane was fired in January by CBS after she was accused of assaulting a New York City Police Officer and other public gaffes which gained media attention. Lane since sued KYW-TV, claiming that the station exploited her, tore her down and defamed her on her way out the door. She also claims that KYW management failed to investigate leaks of personal information about her and also engaged in a pattern of "deep-seated gender-discriminatory animus" toward her and other female employees.  Undoubtedly, CBS's investigation into the circumstances of both firings will be the critical issues in subsequent lawsuits.

Federal and State laws protect employers and employees from unauthorized access to computers, servers and electronic data. There may be additional limitations on an employer’s access to employee e-mails and text messages sent from employer accounts when the messages are stored on third party provider’s servers and are not stored on employer’s internal network. In Quon v. Arch Wireless Operating Co. Inc., a federal appeals court in California held that a public employer cannot access the content of text messages and e-mails sent at work because the data was stored on a third party service provider’s server and the employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in these accounts. An employer’s e-mail policy may eliminate the expectation of privacy as to e-mails stored on its servers.  However, the text messages held by “remote computing service” are protected under the Stored Communications Act and cannot be obtained by an employer without the employee’s consent.

Employers must carefully draft policies related to employee use and access to all electronic media so as to preserve its property interest in the data, ensure rights to unfettered access and prevent misuse of the media and information.

Switching to a Paid Time Off Program (PTO) has Practical and Legal Implications

Traditional leave programs segregate time off into categories like vacation, sick time and personal time requiring HR professionals to track both the time off and the reason it is being taken. Sick time abuses are addressed by tightly monitoring the reasons for sickness-related absences and disciplining employees for excessive absenteeism. Many employers have decided to get away from policing the circumstances of an employee's absence by just creating a bank of paid time off that can be used for any reason. Once PTO is exhausted, time off is unpaid and subject to the attendance discipline policy. This certainly sounds like a great idea, but here are some practical and legal considerations in converting from a traditional sick pay program to a PTO plan:

Timing the Change Over to PTO:

Changes in leave policies should be coordinated with either the end of the leave year period or some other workplace change like moving to a four-day workweek. The obvious choice is converting to PTO bank at the end of the year, since most employers administer their time off programs on a calendar/fiscal year. For employers using anniversary date leave years, it is too difficult administratively to run dual programs, so they should pick a date and change over for everyone.

Effect on Four-Day Workweeks

Employers need to remember that a change in workweek from five eight days to four day ten hour days also affects time off policies. A handbook or CBA may describe time off (PTO, vacation, holidays, personal and sick time) in terms of “days”. However,

a workday, which used to be an 8-hour day, is now a 10-hour day. The 8-hour day was 20% or the workweek, but the 10-hour-workday is 25% of the workweek. If a day expands to 10 hours, employees are getting more time off and, as a result, the company is losing 5% productivity. If a day stays at 8 hours then employees can’t cover the whole day off. Converting the whole PTO bank to hours can address this situation. (see Energy Expenses And Gas Prices Motivate Employers To Move To Four Day Workweek: What Are The Legal Issues?)

Addressing the Perception of a "Take Away":

Converting to PTO means combining vacation, sick days, personal days, and other time off into one bank. Employers almost never credit the entire amount of sick time to PTO banks. Therefore, employers need to address the perception that employees are losing sick time. I have found that referring to the statistic mentioned in the prior posting (average 8 sick days, use 5) makes some sense. Based on this ratio, I convert 60% of sick days to PTO and couple it with an explanation about trade offs.

Dealing with Accumulated Sick Time:

Some employers allow the accumulation of unused sick time as an incentive not to use it. (This practice drives accountants crazy). The accumulated time may be used in some of the following ways: to satisfy a waiting period for STD/LTD; as a pay out upon separation, typically at a reduced percentage (50%); or it is simply forfeited. Employers may seize the opportunity to clean up their balance sheet and pay out a portion of the accumulated time or convert it to PTO. This approach softens the blow of the perceived take away mentioned above. However, an employer's flexibility in dealing with accumulated sick time depends on its written policy and practice with regard to payouts. Be careful not to create a claim for unpaid fringe benefits under the Pennsylvania Wage Payment and Collection Law.

Exhausting PTO:

Employees who use all of their PTO are unpaid for additional absences and are subject to discipline under the attendance policy. Some traps for the unwary include: the prohibition on salary docking for exempt employees; additional unpaid leave as an accommodation under the ADA, and discrimination claims under the ADA.

Administering FMLA:

FMLA administration becomes more challenging in a PTO program since the employer is not necessarily aware of the reason for an absence. A serious health condition under the FMLA triggers an obligation to notify an employee of his or her FMLA rights and starts the counting of the time against the 12 weeks of leave. Employers must also address the concurrent use of PTO and FMLA leave in their policies.

Integrating STD and other Leave Programs:

Some sick leave policies were designed to integrate with the waiting period for STD benefits. A move to PTO creates a disconnect. The disconnect can be mitigated by allowing an employee with accumulated sick time to use it to satisfy the waiting period if he or she becomes eligible for STD benefits. Otherwise, PTO or unpaid time is used during the waiting period. Employers might address hardships by creating a PTO donation program where employees may donate unused PTO to a fellow worker who needs additional time.

Contesting Unemployment Claims:

 An employer's proof of willful misconduct to deny unemployment benefits will generally look at the incident that gave rise to the discharge. If the reason is a violation of employer's attendance policy, the employee can show that the violation was not his or her fault. An employee who is fired for excessive absences after "squandering" PTO, may still be eligible for unemployment if the absence that gave rise to termination was for a legitimate illness.

Drafting a Policy:

A written policy on PTO is strongly suggested and it should address at least the following areas:

  • Accrual Basis or Award Basis
  • Notice of Absence
  • Unused PTO carryover or forfeiture
  • Concurrent use of FMLA and PTO
  • Consequences of Exhausting PTO
  • Discipline/Discharge

Violence in the Workplace: A Legal Perspective

HR professionals are reminded of their workplaces’ vulnerabilities every time an episode of workplace violence is reported in the media like this morning’s headline “6 dead in plastics factory shooting rampage.”  The scope of the problem set out in statistics. There were 5734 workplace fatalities reported to OSHA (2005 is the last year statistics are available). Assaults and Violent Acts accounted for 792 workplace fatalities.

Media accounts typically report about the “warning signs” that were missed and speculate on how the incident may have been prevented. There are, of course, psychological tests and assessment tools that are predictive of violent behavior, but there are significant legal restrictions on their use. Assessments that are not "medical tests" may be used on a pre-employment basis, but should not be used as the principal reason for a hiring or promotion decision.

There is no profile of a potential workplace violence perpetrator; however, there are traits when coupled with at risk situations that increase the likelihood of violent behavior. Sheryl and Mark Grimm of the Workplace Violence Headquarters have developed a Formula for Workplace Violence that includes a list of traits as follows:

  • Previous history of violence, toward the vulnerable, e.g., women, children, animals
  • Loner, withdrawn; feels nobody listens to him; views change with fear
  • Emotional problems, e.g., substance abuse, depression, low self-esteem
  • Career Frustration, either significant tenure on the same job of migratory job history
  • Antagonistic relationships with others
  • Some type of obsession, e.g., weapons, other acts of violence, romantic/sexual, zealot (political, religious, racial), the job itself, neatness and order.

There is a major legal distinction made between an employer's treatment of an applicant with a potentially violent personality and addressing employee conduct that expresses violent behavior. The EEOC has stated that its position on the distinction between perception and conduction in its  Enforcement Guidance for Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities :

34. When can an employer refuse to hire someone based on his/her history of violence or threats of violence?

An employer may refuse to hire someone based on his/her history of violence or threats of violence if it can show that the individual poses a direct threat. A determination of "direct threat" must be based on an individualized assessment of the individual's present ability to safely perform the functions of the job, considering the most current medical knowledge and/or the best available objective evidence. To find that an individual with a psychiatric disability poses a direct threat, the employer must identify the specific behavior on the part of the individual that would pose the direct threat. This includes an assessment of the likelihood and imminence of future violence.

30. May an employer discipline an individual with a disability for violating a workplace conduct standard if the misconduct resulted from a disability?

Yes, provided that the workplace conduct standard is job-related for the position in question and is consistent with business necessity. For example, nothing in the ADA prevents an employer from maintaining a workplace free of violence or threats of violence, or from disciplining an employee who steals or destroys property. Thus, an employer may discipline an employee with a disability for engaging in such misconduct if it would impose the same discipline on an employee without a disability. Other conduct standards, however, may not be job-related for the position in question and consistent with business necessity. If they are not, imposing discipline under them could violate the ADA.

OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” OSHA provides some resources to help employers meet this requirement.

Given the legal limitations confronting employers in their efforts to provide a safe workplace, the following are some suggestions in development of a Violence Program:

  • Establish and communicate a written violence policy
  • Consider pre-employment assessments and background checks
  • Establish an Employee Assistance Program
  • Train supervisors to recognize warning signs of employee violence
  • Recognize "at risk" situations like employee discipline or discharge and plan accordingly
  • Consider professional evaluations of at-risk employees based on objective signs of workplace problems
  • Assess workplace security measures
  • Develop and Communicate a Disaster Management Plan

Carnival of HR # 34

The Carnival of HR has its usual compliment of excellent postings on interesting topics.

Leading off is a discussion of the two sides of generational differences in the workforce. Dr. Ira Wolfe from the Perfect Labor Storm 2.0 posts on Gray ceiling disrupts succession plans for Gen Xers which discusses the recruiting challenges created by older workers remaining in the workforce and impeding the career advancement of younger employees. On the other side, Jon Agno of So Baby Boomer: Life Tips posts on Boomer Executive Challenges in which he fears that decades of institutional memory may be wiped out leaving organizations without many of the skills and insider knowledge businesses had taken for granted. 

Blogging is the subject of several of the Carnival submissions. Lisa Rosendahl at HR Thoughts asks the question “Why do you blog?” and answers it by stating that  “In doing so, you may very well be creating your legacy”. Her post is called "Moving Forward While Capturing the Past." Perhaps there is another answer to that question found in a post by Totally Consumed in which he comments On Personal Branding and Anonymous Blogging. The queen of anonymous blogging, The Evil HR Lady, chimes in recognizing that “I Haven’t Complained About Recruiters Lately.”

Legal risks sometimes cross the minds of HR pros.  Jon Ingham’s Strategic Capital Management (HCM) Blog assesses risk in his contribution Human Capital Risk and Reporting which argues that risk is an important area for all HR professionals. Dan Schwartz of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog kicks off our summer with some legal thoughts in his post called Start of the Summer Season: HR Topics to Ponder Now Before They AriseJon Hyman of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog comes up with another compelling title for his post called Cat fight on aisle 6: court leaves open the possibility that a handbook can create a contract.  Most importantly, we should all keep in mind of Marcy McCullough’s post evaluating whether we can be dooced for On-Line Postings And Your Corporate Image: Can You Terminate Employees For Personal Postings?!?

Speaking of minds, Alvaro Fernandez at SharperBrains offers a superb introduction to what working memory is and why it is critical for our productivity, complemented with daily tips on Try Thinking and Learning Without Working Memory. Nina Simosko’s post describes "Comfortable Misery", a state of mind wherein you are miserable, but you have gotten used to it.  She states that far too many people live in "comfortable misery". A subsequent post offers a survey on the topic. If you are looking for a coping mechanism, the Career Encouragement Blog notes that it's okay to acknowledge that sometimes you are irrelevant on a particular project or even in a whole job. That’s Job Search Rule # 30 for those who are counting. I wonder if comfortable misery is one of the “10 Things I Learned About Working in HR” as recounted by Dan McCarthy at Great Leadership when he makes observations about his 18 month develop assignment as an HR generalist.

Employee benefits and compensation are the subjects of several posts. Michael D. Haberman at HR Observations advocates helping employees at the gas pump as an employee benefit in his post Pumping Up Your Employees: No Rah-Rah, Just Help With Gas.   Ann Bares at Compensation Force posits that merit pay systems create a dilemma that occurs when the short-term interests of individuals are at odds with the long-term interests of the grouping her post  “The Tragedy of the Commons and Merit Pay”.  Wayne Turmel who is the host of The Cranky Middle Manager Show submits a post called Lousy Quality and Small Portions in which he confronts the paradoxes of middle managers. Greg Pernula at i4cp writes about a recent survey that found a majority of companies lack various support, training or education when it comes to workplace diversity matters.

There are lots of insights on Talent Management and Employee Empowerment. Wally Block’s Three Star Leadership Blog observes that The best and the brightest are not always the best fit because setting out to hire "the best and the brightest" without attention to ethics, work habits, or organizational fit is just asking for trouble and minimizing your chances for success. Steve Roesler at All Things Workplace writes in his post titled “Making Change? Pay Attention to High Achievers” that, when it comes to making change, the talented people you think will be most helpful just might be the least. Chris Young of Maximizing Possibilities thinks that Talent Management is an increasingly important strategic issue for most organizations.  Given the value placed on effective talent management practices the question must be asked: “Is talent management too important to be left to HR?”   Alice Snell’s at Taleo’s Talent Drives Performance Blog  has a post called “Strategic Is As Strategic Does” that explains how embedding talent management into the business process—facilitated by HR and owned by line managers and employees—puts strategy into action. Susan Heathfield at About.com Guide to Human Resources discusses Employee Empowerment as the goal of forward thinking HR processes and practices in her post Want Empowerment? You Get What You Request and Reward.

To add to our international flair, Frank Mulligan at Talent in China tries to explain the skills shortage for both professionals and workers in a land of 1.3 billion people, with the added contradiction of a shortage of jobs for Chinese graduates in his post "The Ups & Downs of China's Labor Shortage".  Somewhere in Ireland, Rowan Manahan of Fortify Your Oasis conducted a radio interview on job equality somewhat irreverently titled and unlikely to pass prudish US internet filters.

All good stuff for us to consider as we address today’s challenges. Thanks for all those who contributed to this Carnival. Jon Ingham’s Strategic Capital Management (HCM) Blog will host the June 11th Carnival of HR.

Sex may Sell, but Gender-based Employment Decisions are Unlawful Discrimination

The EEOC announced a $1 million settlement for sex discrimination against men arising from a restaurant’s preference for hiring and promoting only women into bartending positions. The lawsuit highlights the tension between a business’s marketing efforts and legal compliance. What marketers may pander to in the name of “customer preference,” employment laws prohibit as discrimination.

Businesses spend millions of dollars to find out what motivates customers to buy by evaluating their preferences. Demographics play an important role in tying the right product to the right market. Also critical is having the “right” salesperson to make the pitch.

A business’s natural, but unlawful reaction may be to make staffing decisions based upon appealing to a target demographic group.  The “customer preferences” for the right salesperson cannot create employer hiring or promotion criteria for someone of a particular gender, religion, age, etc. Courts have universally rejected this form of customer preference, except in the narrow case where it is a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ). A BFOQ may exist where it is necessary for the purpose of authenticity or genuineness, such as, a model for gender specific clothing. 

In its lawsuit, the EEOC said that Razzoo's, a Cajun food restaurant chain, refused to hire or promote men to the position of bartender. The EEOC had evidence that the restaurant's management set up and communicated to managers by e-mail, a plan for an 80-20 ratio of women to men behind the bar. Male applicants and servers were told that management wanted mostly “girls” behind the bar. Men who worked as servers at the restaurant were generally denied promotion to bartender because of their gender. The few men who were promoted to bartender were not allowed to work lucrative “girls-only” bar­tend­ing events.

The EEOC’s settlement with Razzoo shows a developing trend in the agency of making an employer improve its approach to human resources. In addition to paying $775,000 to be divided among a class of male applicants, male servers, and male bartenders who were discriminated against, Razzoo's was also required to retain the services of a human resources consultant or to develop an in-house human resources department spending no less than $225,000 for these human resources services.   Razzoo's agreed to injunctive relief requiring training on equal employment opportunity for all its employees, the posting of an anti-discrimination notice, and EEOC monitoring of employee complaints of discrimination.

Suzanne M. Anderson, EEOC supervisory trial attorney and lead counsel on the lawsuit, summed up the EEOC’s position by saying that, "Some may think that sex sells drinks, but gender ratios are illegal… Razzoo's decision to hire and promote by gender is a clear violation of federal law. A hiring ratio is illegal whether it is 80-20 whites to blacks or 80-20 women to men."   It will be interesting to see how far the law will go in policing an employer’s efforts to appease a customer preference. For example, would an OBGYN practice be subject to an EEOC lawsuit if it specifically hired a female doctor based on the preference of its patients?