Workers' Compensation: Advantages of Self-Insurance

This post was contributed by Paul D. Clouser. While Paul has over 25 years of experience representing clients in workers' compensation matters and employment litigation, Paul is new to McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor & Employment Practice Group in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Employers in Pennsylvania can often benefit from self-insuring their workers' compensation plan, rather than simply opting for carrier based coverage year after year. The advantages of self-insurance include the following:

  • Reduced Cost: Self-insured employers bear the costs, but also keep any profits that are normally "built into" traditional insurance premiums. Per claim costs are usually reduced in self-insurance arrangements, as the employer has a direct and vested interest in reducing costs through a "hands-on" approach to managing claims. 
  • Cash flow: Self-insured employers also appreciate cash flow advantages, as medical bills and wage loss benefits are paid when these items are required to be paid, rather than when the insurance carrier decides that premiums or special assessments are due.
  • Ability to select counsel and claims management vendors: Self-insured employers have the freedom to select their own legal representatives, nurse case manager, IME physicians, and investigators, and to reduce the risk of "spin off" ADA, PHRC, FMLA, wrongful discharge or other costly lawsuits that are often not on the radar of carrier-appointed defense counsel.
  • Cost control: Self-insured employers are able to control risk and financial exposure through the purchase of specific and aggregate reinsurance. In addition, self-insureds enjoy the benefit of investment income on funds that are set aside to pay claims.

The path to becoming self-insured typically involves a multi-step process including preliminary review, a more detailed feasibility study, a plan implementation phase, and fine tuning or monitoring the program, once it is in place.

Since self-insurance is not a suitable option for all companies, the first step, or preliminary review, should address some very basic questions. What does the company currently spend, on an annual basis, for its workers' compensation coverage? As a general rule of thumb, self-insurance can become cost effective once annual workers' compensation expenditures exceed $500,000. In which states does the company do business? Most states permit self-insurance in the workers' compensation realm, but the requirements and timeline for achieving self-insured status will vary from state to state. What has the loss experience been for the specific business and for the industry in general? Does your business consistently pay out more premiums than it had paid in claims?

Once these initial questions have been addressed, the company can move on to a more detailed feasibility analysis, with respect to possible self-insurance. A capable risk management consultant will typically gather the necessary data, perform the financial and actuarial analysis, and review the specific state requirements to guide the company in its final decision making process. Key to this study will be the decision as to whether day-to-day claims should be handled internally or assigned to a third party administrator. A third party administrator (TPA) arrangement is generally preferable, at least in Pennsylvania, as the workers' compensation statute and regulations are quite complex, with many traps for the unwary. Some newly self-insured employers opt for initial TPA coverage, with the goal of attaining "self-administration" status after several years.

The implementation phase includes obtaining approval from the state to self-insure and meeting any state statutory regulatory requirements. Section 305 of the Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act, for instance, provides that an employer desiring to be self-insured must submit an application to the Department of Labor and Industry demonstrating its ability to pay compensation. The application process is now done on the Bureau's new computer platform, WCAIS (Workers' Compensation Automation and Integration System). A business applying for self-insurance must meet 3 basic requirements under the Pennsylvania statute:

1. The company must have been in business for at least three consecutive years;
2. It must provide proof of incorporation or organization under the laws of a state within the United States; and
3. It must have an adequate accident and illness prevention plan.

A $500 application fee is required and the primary focus of the department's review will be on the company's ability to pay claims and its ability to provide security for the ability to pay in the future. The employer seeking self-insurance status must also demonstrate that it has ample facilities and competent personnel to adjust and pay its claims. As noted, the employer may contract with a registered claims service or third party administrator, to provide these services.

An employer wishing to self-insure or a group of employees wishing to pool their liabilities, must "post a bond or other security, including letters of credit drawn on commercial banks with a Thompson Bank Watch rating of B/C or better or a Thompson Bank Watch score of 2.5 or better for the bank or its holding company or with a CD rating of BBB or better under "Standard and Poor's." Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Act, Section 305(a)(3).

Finally, once implemented, the employer will need to "fine-tune" or monitor its self-insurance program, to make sure that the expected cost savings are realized and that the program is running smoothly. Regular quarterly meetings between the employer, TPA, legal counsel, broker, and nurse case manager are an important step toward transparency and keeping the program "on track." The company and its TPA must have an accurate system for tracking claims and monitoring losses, in addition to allocating costs to the appropriate company subsidiaries or departments. Regular auditing and actuarial reserve analysis will be necessary to ensure that there are no unknown financial liabilities lurking beneath the surface and to give the excess carrier the requisite assurance that the program is running smoothly.

Despite the effort needed to establish and monitor a self-insurance workers' compensation program, our clients routinely report that the process is well worth it. Controlling ones' own destiny is frequently mentioned as the key reason why others may wish to chart a similar course.

If you have any questions regarding this article or workers compensation liabilities in general, please contact Paul Clouser or Denise Elliott in our Lancaster Office.

UPDATE: Still No Love for No Gossip Policy

We previously reported that a National Labor Relations Board Administrative Law Judge found that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act by implementing a "no gossip" policy and firing an employee who violated the policy.

Not surprisingly, the Board has affirmed that decision (pdf).  We say it's not surprising because the Board's assault on employer policies has been ongoing and highly publicized over the past few years.

Suffice to say, employers must be sure to carefully craft policies to ensure compliance with the Act. In addition, employee disciplinary decisions should be closely scrutinized to ensure claims under the Act are not triggered.
 

Employers Can Still Discipline Employees for Legal Drug Use

Jennifer E. Will, a Member in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor & Employment Practice Group in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was recently featured on WGAL News Channel 8 in a feature regarding employers' rights to discipline employees testing positive for marijuana. Ms. Will commented on, among other things, an employer's right to take action against an employee, even if marijuana use was legal, such as recreational use in states like Colorado.

 

BYOD Lessons From Jersey's Bridge Scandal

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

So, have you implemented a Bring Your Own Device policy yet? If not (and your employees are using their personal devices for business purposes), your organization may be at risk.

The governor's aide at the heart of the New Jersey bridge debacle used her personal Yahoo! email account to send the infamous emails which led to the closure of three lanes of the George Washington Bridge in September. Those emails were not initially provided in response to an open records request from a New Jersey newspaper. Should they have been disclosed?

Whether you are in the public or private sector, there are lessons to be learned from New Jersey.
 

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No Love for No Gossip Policy

A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) recently concluded that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (Act) by implementing a "no gossip policy" and by firing an employee who violated the policy. The case, Laurus Technical Institute, involved a non-union employer. As we have reported before, the NLRB's jurisdiction covers union and non-union employers alike. We have also talked with you about the NLRB's aggressive approach to policing employer workplace policies. You have been warned!

It appears that in this case, after an employee filed a charge challenging her termination for unsatisfactory work performance and various policy violations, the NLRB's General Counsel's office included an additional charge challenging the employer's "no gossip policy."

The "no gossip policy" was implemented to address a number of workplace problems, problems that you are probably familiar with! The policy provided that gossip would not be tolerated. The policy also prohibited employees from engaging in gossip about the company, other employees or customers and stated that employees who violated the policy would be subject to disciplinary action. The policy defined gossip in a number of different ways, including: "talking about a person's personal life when they are not present; talking about a person's professional life without his/her permission; and creating, sharing or repeating rumors about another person, that are overheard or that constitute hearsay."

The ALJ found that the policy violated the Act because it was overly broad and essentially banned any discussion of an employee's professional life and negative comments/criticisms of other employees. The ALJ found that, as a result, the policy prohibited employees from discussing the terms and conditions of employment, which is an activity clearly protected by the Act. The ALJ concluded that because the policy contained no narrowing or clarifying language, and did it further define any terms, the policy was unlawful.

That last part is interesting to us, because the NLRB has repeatedly emphasized the importance of clarifying language in policies, and has encouraged employers to carefully define terms. It looks to us like the employer in this case gave that a shot, and one could argue that the employer did define gossip carefully. One could also argue that a reasonable reading of the policy would render it lawful. Obviously, the ALJ did not see it that way.

The ALJ also concluded that, because the employee who brought the complaint was terminated, in part, for violating the policy, her termination was also a violation of the Act. The ALJ ordered that the employee be made whole.

This decision is another in a series of decisions attacking employer workplace policies. Unfortunately, this trend is likely to continue. Employers should not simply throw up their hands and give up, however. Instead, employers should work with counsel to careful draft policies and procedures. In addition, employers should continue to closely scrutinize termination decisions that may involve protected activity under the Act.

E-Cigarettes in the Workplace: A Burning New Question for Employers

This post was contributed by Tony D. Dick, Esq., an attorney in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor & Employment Practice Group in Columbus, Ohio.

In just a few short years, electronic-cigarettes (also known as “e-cigarettes” or “vapes”) have become a burgeoning industry in the United States. In case you are like me and are always last to know about the latest trends, e-cigarettes are essentially battery-powered devices that heat a liquid nicotine solution until it turns into a vapor mist that can be inhaled by users. They are available in a variety of exotic flavors, including Apple Pie, Bubble Gum, Cotton Candy, and Mint Chocolate Chip, and are used by young and old alike. Though few studies have been conducted on the long-term health risks or benefits of e-cigarettes, proponents of the product argue that they are a better alternative to traditional cigarettes because users inhale fewer harmful chemicals, there is no open flame involved, and the vapor cloud created from using the product does not have a distinctive odor and dissipates rather quickly.

Though they are not officially classified as cessation devices, e-cigarettes have quickly become the most popular smoking cessation product on the market – topping both nicotine patches and nicotine gum. It is projected that e-cigarettes will rake in close to $2 billion in sales this year alone – more than doubling sales for 2012. They have become so popular that it is estimated that within the next 10 to 15 years, the sale of e-cigarettes will actually surpass the sale of traditional cigarettes.

It should be clear then that if you have not already had an employee ask to use an e-cigarette in the workplace, that day is coming. The question for employers is whether they should allow the use of these products at work or ban them like traditional cigarettes. Because e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they are not covered under either Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act, or Ohio’s Smoke-Free Workplace Act. Accordingly, employers are free to set their own rules and policies concerning the use of e-cigarettes at work based on their particular preferences and priorities.

Those who advocate for their use in the workplace claim that e-cigarettes can help increase employee productivity by eliminating the need for frequent outdoor smoke breaks during the day. They also suggest that e-cigarettes can be a helpful tool for those who wish to quit smoking altogether, thereby helping to decrease the employer’s healthcare costs. On the flip side, opponents of e-cigarettes argue that, while there are no known health risks associated with e-cigarettes, this is because the product is still in its infancy. They point out that e-cigarettes still contain nicotine and at least trace amounts of carcinogens which may be harmful to the user and those around them. Opponents also argue that banning e-cigarettes in the workplace eliminates the possibility of complaints from other employees and customers who may be annoyed or uncomfortable with the vapor that e-cigarettes emit.

As the usage of e-cigarettes continues to increase and more becomes known about their effects, state and local laws may be passed that limit or ban their use in public places and the workplace. Employers should pay special attention to any future developments. In the meantime, employers should determine their position on the use of e-cigarettes in the workplace and clearly communicate that position to their employees in their existing smoking policies.

Security is Key to "BYOD" Policies

This post was contributed by Tony D. Dick, Esq., an Associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Practice Group in Columbus, Ohio.

In the last several years, there has been an explosion in the number of workers who use their own personal mobile devices to perform work functions (commonly referred to as “Bring Your Own Device” or “BYOD”). In fact, according to a study conducted last year by tech giant Cisco, approximately 90% of all workers say they use their own personal smartphones, tablets or laptops in some work-related capacity, whether the practice is officially endorsed by their employers or not. A number of factors have contributed to this trend, including the enormous popularity of personal mobile devices such as iPhones, iPads, and Android devices in general, advances in technology that have made using such devices relatively easy and more intuitive, and the focused marketing of personal devices as potential business tools.

Though the statistics show that the practice of BYOD is widespread across American business, surprisingly, only about 30% of employers have formal BYOD policies in place that provide guidance for employees to follow when it comes to using their personal devices for work purposes. Such policies are especially important given the risks and challenges that come along with BYOD.

One of the most obvious challenges associated with BYOD is the inherent lack of control an employer has over an employee’s personal mobile devices. This lack of control can lead to increased data breaches, privacy violations, and exposure to viruses, malware, and data theft. Compounding these risks is the fact that almost half of all workers that utilize their own personal devices for work admit to not even taking the most basic security precautions, such as using password protection on their devices. Another obvious challenge concerns the potential for overtime violations that can occur when an employee is using their own personal electronic devices to perform work. In fact, in just the last couple years, there have been multiple lawsuits initiated by non-exempt employees who claim they are entitled to overtime pay for the time spent reviewing and responding to business e-mails on their personal devices during non-work hours.

Even with these risks, there are a number of reasons why businesses should embrace BYOD. For one, BYOD is generally more cost effective than the traditional arrangement where the company provides and manages all hardware devices. Studies also suggest that, on average, employees who use mobile devices for both work and their personal lives perform approximately 240 more hours of work per year than those who do not. At the same time, employees are reporting that they feel more satisfied and empowered by being able to use their own electronic devices at work and the flexibility that BYOD affords them.

Whether or not you believe that the benefits outweigh the risks, it does not appear BYOD is going anywhere in the near future. Accordingly, employers should adopt comprehensive BYOD plans to mitigate potential security risks and legal liability that naturally comes along with employees utilizing personal mobile devices to perform work tasks. At a minimum, every BYOD plan should address three core components:
 

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Be Clear: Include Class Arbitration Waivers in Arbitration Clauses

This post was contributed by Esch McCombie, a Summer Associate with McNees Wallace and Nurick LLC. Mr. McCombie will begin his third year of law school at the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law in the fall, and he expects to earn his J.D. in May 2014.

The Supreme Court of the United States continued its hot streak in the arbitration and class action waiver arena with two recent decisions. These decisions are important for employers because they may offer employers a way control expenses related to dispute resolution with employees. Because those expenses can be so high, many employers are considering implementing employment arbitration agreements, consistent with the direction provided by the Court.

In Oxford Health Plans, LLC v. Sutter (pdf), the Supreme Court held that courts owe almost complete deference to arbitrators' interpretations of arbitration agreements. And, if an arbitrator determines that the parties agreed to allow class proceedings, a court should not overturn the arbitrator's interpretation no matter how "good, bad or ugly" the interpretation may be. This means that an employer could be forced into a class action arbitration even if not specifically provided for in an agreement. Just a few weeks later, however, the Supreme Court provided direction to employers to avoid the potentially troubling situation presented by Oxford Health.

In the subsequent decision, American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (pdf), the Supreme Court held that individuals can waive their right to class proceedings under federal law by agreement.  In short, the Supreme Court ruled that the law only requires that individuals can pursue their statutory claims. Class action waivers, the High Court said, only effect individuals' abilities to prove, not pursue, statutory claims. The plaintiffs in Italian Colors attempted to bring a class action antitrust suit despite having signed a class action waiver. The expert fees to prove damages would cost over $100,000 (and perhaps up to $1 million) when even the treble recovery would be only around $35,000 per plaintiff. Without a class proceeding, the plaintiffs argued, they could not share this cost and their claims were therefore not worth the cost of proving them.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court held that a class proceedings waiver is enforceable, unless there is no actual agreement under state law [because the agreement is "unconscionable," for example] or if a federal statute guarantees parties' rights to class proceedings for a particular claim. The Supreme Court left open the door for plaintiffs, however, to argue that excessive filing and administrative fees, as opposed to expert fees, meet an exception designed to prevent "prospective waiver of [the] right to pursue statutory remedies."

So, you might ask: What does this mean? It is simple, really. An employer who wishes to avoid class proceedings should have employees expressly waive that option in an agreement. In so doing, the employer not only removes the uncertainty associated with an arbitrator's interpretation of the agreement, but also helps ensure that class proceedings are avoided, assuming there are no statutory rights to class proceedings for the specific claim and that the agreement is not otherwise unenforceable. 

 

Many Companies Placing Emphasis on Cultural Fit Over Qualifications When Hiring New Employees

This post was contributed by Tony D. Dick, Esq., an Associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Practice Group in Columbus, Ohio.

A client shared an interesting article that appeared recently in BusinessWeek which highlights a growing emphasis among H.R. professionals and job interviewers in finding job candidates that are a good “cultural fit” for an organization, even when that means a less qualified candidate is ultimately selected for a particular job.  The article focuses on a comprehensive study conducted by Northwestern University professor, Lauren Rivera, who found that many employers are making hiring decisions “in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners.”  According to the study, while qualifications and accolades will usually help a candidate get their foot in the door, more and more people are being asked questions in interviews about their hobbies, pop culture interests, and world views in an effort to determine whether a prospective employee will be compatible with current employees.

The job review website, Glassdoor.com, found that among the 285,000 interview questions it collected from hiring managers in the last year, questions concerning an interviewee’s favorite movie, favorite website, most recent leisure read and most uncomfortable experience all ranked among 2012’s most common interview inquiries.  The article also provides anecdotal examples of job candidates being asked in interviews about where they like to vacation, what cities they would like to visit in the future and even whether they prefer Star Wars or Star Trek.

There are a number of reasons why employers are focusing more and more on cultural fit as a key criterion in hiring.  For one, employers are increasingly recognizing the substantial costs associated with training a new employee, which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars depending on the job and industry.  In order to make such an investment, employers want some level of assurance that the employee will mesh well with others within the work environment.  The article also suggests that companies are placing a newfound emphasis on cultural fit in the workplace as a means to attract and retain Millenials who are more prone to moving from job to job and demand a company culture that is less hierarchical and more flexible.

There are downsides to placing a special focus on these types of questions in interviews, however.  For example, it is quite possible that an interviewer will miss an opportunity to select the best candidate for a position simply because he or she did not like the candidate’s answer to an inane question about who their favorite superhero is and why.  Further, as the article points out, when an employer seeks to hire employees because it believes they will be pals with other workers, it has the tendency of creating a rather homogeneous workforce.  This can hinder diversity of thought and lead to counterproductive groupthink.

Beyond the practical drawbacks, as a labor and employment attorney, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that the line between choosing candidates based on cultural fit and discrimination is, at times, a very thin one.  As Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resources and Management points out in the article, “A lot of times, cultural fit is used as an excuse. Maybe a hiring manager can’t picture himself having a beer with someone who has an accent.  Sometimes, diversity candidates are shown the door for no other reason than they made the interviewer a little less at ease.” 

When an employer utilizes an amorphous concept like cultural fit as a factor in the hiring process, it opens the door to an argument that discriminatory animus tainted the decision, especially when the person passed over for the job is equally or more qualified for the position.  Still, there are very real upsides to trying to ensure the prospective employee will be an ideal fit within the organization’s culture.  The article, which can be accessed here, is good food for thought and definitely worth the read.

 

EEOC Releases Strategic Enforcement Plan

This post was contributed by Kelley E. Kaufman, Esq., a Member in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Law Group. A version of this post appeared in an Employer Alert published by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Group in October 2012. The Employer Alert can be accessed here.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC" or the "Agency") recently released a draft of its Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2012 through 2016.  The Agency has requested public comment on the Plan, which describes its strategy for targeted enforcement and the integration of administrative and legal enforcement activities.  These efforts that are meant to help the Agency meet its responsibilities in the face of increasing demand and limited resources.

Most notably for employers, the EEOC's Plan outlines the nationwide priorities for its enforcement efforts in private, state and local government, and federal sectors.  These priorities include:

  • Eliminating systemic barriers in recruitment and hiring, which includes targeting not only class-based intentional hiring discrimination, but also facially-neutral hiring practices that have an adverse impact on certain protected groups (e.g., race, age, gender).  Those topics of particular interest to the EEOC under this initiative will include pre-employment testing, background screening, date of birth screenings in Internet applications.
  • Protecting immigrant, migrant and other vulnerable workers by targeting practices such as disparate pay, job segregation, harassment and trafficking, as well as policies that may include discriminatory language.
  • Targeting retaliation, as well as policies and practices that are designed to discourage or prohibit the exercise of rights under the anti-discrimination laws.  Retaliation claims represent the largest category of EEOC charges filed.  The Plan indicates that this initiative will, in part, also target over-broad waivers, settlement provisions that prohibit filing charges with the EEOC or providing information in EEOC and other legal proceedings, and the failure to retain records as required under the EEOC regulations. 
  • Addressing "emerging employment issues" including a variety of issues under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, and those involving pregnancy leave.  Another emerging issue in the EEOC's crosshairs include coverage for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under the anti-discrimination laws.  Most recently, the Agency has taken the position that discrimination based upon an individual because he or she is transgender is discrimination because of sex.  Macy v. Department of Justice, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (April 20, 2012).
  • Continued targeting of harassment, including a renewed focus on national education and outreach for both employees and employers.

As the EEOC notes in its Plan, this targeted approach on clearly-identified issues and strategies "shifts the enforcement paradigm from complaint-driven to priority-driven." 

Employers should take note of the target areas, which highlight the areas on which the Agency will be focusing in the coming years – and areas on which employers should be focusing now.  Taking time to review company policies, procedures and training in these target areas now may help avoid costly and time-consuming claims in the future. 

Current Trends in State Labor and Employment Law

This post was contributed by Tony D. Dick Esq., an Associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Practice Group in Columbus, Ohio.

Political and economic tensions continue to influence employment-related legislation at the state level. As we approach the halfway point in the year, there are several noteworthy trends in state employment law that you should be aware of in order to proactively address potential high risk areas for your operation and stay compliant with the law. Below is a summary of some of the hot-button issues affecting employers at the state level.

The “Ban the Box” Movement

Some 65 million adults in the United States have a criminal record. According to a recent survey, more than half of all employers utilize criminal background checks to screen out prospective employees with criminal convictions. Recognizing the high recidivism rates for convicted criminals who cannot find work, more than 3 dozen states, counties, and local municipalities have implemented “ban the box” legislation in the last couple years.

Under these laws, employers are restricted from asking about a job seeker’s criminal history on an initial application. Depending on the specific law, an employer can inquire about a prospective employee’s criminal history either during the interview phase or after a conditional offer of employment. Proponents of “ban the box” laws argue that by preventing employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on the initial application, the applicant with a criminal conviction on his record will have a higher likelihood of receiving a job interview where he can attempt to impress the employer with his qualifications and job skills. Among the states that have adopted such laws are Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Mexico. Municipalities with “ban the box” ordinances include Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Seattle and Washington D.C.

Considering Credit History in Hiring

More than a half dozen states limit the use of an applicant’s credit history in the hiring process. Another 20 states have bills pending that would regulate employment credit checks. The majority of these proposed laws would prohibit employers from using consumer credit information in the hiring process, unless the sought-after job involves financial decision-making or the handling of sensitive information. In contrast, New Jersey’s pending bill would ban the use of credit information in any employment situation by adding financial status as a protected category under the state’s anti-discrimination law.

Social Media and Privacy

As Congress and other states debate the issue, Maryland became the first state to make it illegal for employers to ask job applicants and employees for their social media passwords, or to retaliate for an employee’s refusal to do so.
 

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Ban on Texting While Driving in Pennsylvania & New CDL Requirements

Recently, members of McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Transportation, Distribution & Logistics Group issued an Alert containing two articles that will certainly be of interest to many employers.  The Alert can be accessed by clicking here.

The first article, by Barbara A. Darkes, summarizes Pennsylvania's implementation of the new medical certification requirements for individuals holding Commercial Drivers Licenses. 

The second article, by James J. Franklin, summarizes a new law which bans texting while driving on all Pennsylvania roadways effective March 9, 2012. 

Employers should review these developments carefully and revise their policies as necessary. 

First NLRB Administrative Law Judge Opinion On Employee Discipline For Social Media Use

On September 6, 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (Board) announced that a Board Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) had issued the first decision involving employee social media use. We previously reported that the Board has been very active in this area, issuing complaints and guidance, but this is the first actual decision from a Board ALJ. In the decision, Hispanics United of Buffalo (PDF), the ALJ ruled that the non-profit employer unlawfully discharged five employees after the employees posted comments on Facebook.

The ALJ first found that the small non-profit organization (which after the terminations at issue had only 25 employees) was covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), even though the organization operated only in the Buffalo, New York area. The ALJ went on to hold that the employees' Facebook comments amounted to concerted protected activity under the NLRA, and as such, their comments were shielded from discipline.  The ALJ concluded that the terminations were therefore unlawful, and ordered the employees reinstated with back pay.  

The facts are as follows:

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National Labor Relations Board Issues Social Media Report

Recently, the Acting General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (Board) released a report, basically a score card, detailing the Board’s actions on 14 cases involving social media. Employee social media use has been a hot topic for the Board, for both union and non-union employers, and for us.

The Acting General Counsel’s report (PDF) is insightful and it covers a wide range of issues, including when employee social media use is protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the permissible scope of employer social media policies, and how unions can get in trouble when using social media.

The report’s discussion of cases involving employee discipline confirms things we have previously discussed: the NLRA protects employees who engage in concerted activity from discipline, but there are limits to that protection and certain activity will lose the protection. Based on a review of the report, it seems that the Board is willing to stretch the definition of protected activity to shield employee social media activity. For example, the report indicates that the Board has found protected activity where an employee called a supervisor an “a—hole” and were an employee referred to a supervisor as a “scumbag.” It seems that the home team is getting the calls.

The report also details when employer social media policies end up out of bounds, which apparently, is quite frequently. The Board did not approve of any of the employer social policies reviewed, and found only one provision of one policy acceptable. The Board found that all of the policies were overly broad and not narrowly drawn; and therefore, in violation of the NLRA.

The report provides valuable insight into the Board’s view of social media in the workplace, and the odds that will face employers, both unionized and non-union employers alike, if employees file charges related to social media use.
 

Top Labor and Employment Law Blog Nomination

We are happy to report that we have been nominated as one of the LexisNexis Top 25 Labor and Employment Blogs of 2011!  We are both humbled and honored by our nomination. 

You can comment/vote on the list of nominees by clicking here.  If you have not previously registered you will need to do so by starting here (this is free and quick).

Thanks!

Another Update on Social Media and Employee Discipline

We previously reported, the National Labor Relations Board (Board) has been very active in the area of employee social media use.  Recently, the Board's Office of General Counsel issued three (3) Advice Memorandums directing the dismissal of charges, which challenged discipline issued to employees based on the employees’ social media activity. This latest action, or inaction, by the Board offers us an opportunity to provide another update on social media and employee discipline. 

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in concerted activity from discipline. Board precedent defines concerted activity as (1) group action or action on behalf of other employees; (2) activity seeking to initiate or prepare for group activity, or (3) bringing a group complaint to the attention of management.  The recent announcements by the Board's Office of General Counsel shed light on the limits of the protections afforded to employees by the NLRA.

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An Update on Social Media and Employee Discipline

A few months back, we reported that the National Labor Relations Board (Board) had issued a complaint against a company for disciplining an employee because she posted insulting remarks about her supervisor on her Facebook page. We subsequently reported that the complaint was settled. Since that time, the Board has remained very active in the the social media area, and has demonstrated an apparent desire to actively police that space.  The Board has issued several complaints, which send a strong message that the Board is interested in protecting the social media space for employees.

Before we move forward to discuss the Board's activity, lets first take a step back and remember that the rules of the game have not changed too much. The only difference is, the game is being played in a new arena. Since the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (Act), employees have had the right to engage in concerted activity and to discuss the terms and conditions of employment without retribution from their employers. The right to discuss the terms and conditions of employment, includes the right to discuss wages, benefits, working hours and working conditions, and under the Board's precedent, also includes the right to complain about supervisors and managers in some cases. The Act prohibits covered employers from disciplining employees who exercise these rights.

While these employee rights have not changed, they are now being exercised in a new forum. Employees, and unions, have flocked to social media. Unions are using social media to help organizing campaigns, and employees are using social media for just about everything. As a result, conversations that used to occur in the break room and bar room now take place on Facebook or via Twitter. In the past, employers were probably not even aware that employees were discussing the terms and conditions of employment, but now these conversations on posted on the Internet, and in some cases, have a very wide audience.

When these discussions are offensive or disparaging, employers often want to take action. Understandably, employers may wish to discipline employees whose comments demonstrate a lack of professionalism or violate employer policies. However, the Board has been quick to step in and issue a complaint if, in the opinion of the Board, the employer's action has violated the Act.

The Board has issued complaints involving Facebook and Twitter, complaints involving negative comments about individual supervisors and the employer as a whole, and complaints against both union and non-union employers. As the Board's first widely publicized social media complaint demonstrates, it does not matter what the forum is, employers cannot discipline an employee for discussing the terms and conditions of employment, and social media policies cannot prohibit employees from exercising their rights under the Act. The Board seems intent on protecting employee use of social media. Importantly, however, the Board's authority ends at the outer limits of the Act. Recently, the Board dismissed a complaint involving an employee termination because the employee's inappropriate tweets did not involve the terms and conditions of employment and therefore, were not "protected activity" under the Act.

The Board's activity highlights some key points. 

Continue Reading...

Time to Revise Your Internet Postings and Electronic Resources Policies (Again!)

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

As social media continues to affect your business, there are a few more steps that you should be taking to protect your assets. The Federal Trade Commission has revised and posted its "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (.pdf)."

What does this mean for employers? You could be held liable for false or unsubstantiated statements about your Company's services or products that are made by your employees on blogs or social networking sites.

Duty to Disclose? Employees who endorse their employer's products have a duty to disclose the employment relationship at the time of the endorsement or testimonial . . . even when it is posted on a site that is NOT maintained by the employer.

Time for a Check-Up? Your current Internet Postings and/or Electronic Resources Policy should be reviewed to ensure that it puts employees on notice of their duty to disclose the employment relationship. Also, your policies should already contain guidance to employees regarding privacy rights, monitoring and the improper use/disclosure of proprietary and confidential information. 

Employers should take time now to review and update their policies.
 

Third Circuit Distinguishes "Sexual Stereotyping" from "Sexual Orientation" Discrimination

In Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc., the Third Circuit reversed a district court's granting of summary judgment in favor of an employer on a claim of gender stereotyping discrimination. The claim was brought by an admittedly homosexual employee who alleged he was subject to gender discrimination, retaliation and religious discrimination based on his effeminate actions and mannerisms. The Third Circuit acknowledged that Title VII does not protect employees from discrimination based upon their sexual preference, but may allow claims for gender stereotyping. The Third Circuit noted that a “gender stereotyping” claim was first recognized by the Supreme Court as a viable cause of action in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989).

In reversing summary judgment, the Third Circuit held that

"…every case of sexual orientation discrimination cannot translate into a triable case of gender stereotyping discrimination, which would contradict Congress’s decision not to make sexual orientation discrimination cognizable under Title VII. Nevertheless, [an employer] cannot persuasively argue that because [an employee] is homosexual, he is precluded from bringing a gender stereotyping claim. There is no basis in the statutory or case law to support the notion that an effeminate heterosexual man can bring a gender stereotyping claim while an effeminate homosexual man may not. As long as the employee — regardless of his or her sexual orientation — marshals sufficient evidence such that a reasonable jury could conclude that harassment or discrimination occurred “because of sex,” the case is not appropriate for summary judgment."

The Court's decision raises obvious issues for employers in dealing with sexual harassment and sex discrimination claims. Employers cannot automatically assume the sexual orientation claims will be dismissed by a court as unprotected under Title VII. The allegations of discrimination must be evaluated in light of gender stereotypes.

In Prowel, the employee alleged the following facts in support of his claim:

"Prowel identifies himself as an effeminate man and believes that his mannerisms caused him not to “fit in” with the other men at Wise. Prowel described the “genuine stereotypical male” at the plant as follows:

[B]lue jeans, t-shirt, blue collar worker, very rough around the edges. Most of the guys there hunted. Most of the guys there fished. If they drank, they drank beer, they didn’t drink gin and tonic. Just you know, all into football, sports, all that kind of stuff, everything I wasn’t.

In stark contrast to the other men at Wise, Prowel testified that he had a high voice and did not curse; was very well-groomed; wore what others would consider dressy clothes; was neat; filed his nails instead of ripping them off with a utility knife; crossed his legs and had a tendency to shake his foot “the way a woman would sit”; walked and carried himself in an effeminate manner; drove a clean car; had a rainbow decal on the trunk of his car; talked about things like art, music, interior design, and decor; and pushed the buttons on the nale encoder with 'pizzazz.'"

PA Department of Insurance Provides Mini-COBRA Guidance

Pennsylvania's Mini-COBRA law became effective July 10, 2009. The law provides COBRA-like medical insurance continuation to employees who work for smaller business not covered by the federal law. The Department of Insurance clarified some of the coverage issues and provided a model notice for covered businesses to provide to employees. Employees who elect Mini-COBRA may also be eligible for a 65% premium assistance provided by the federal stimulus legislations. Fortunately, small business will not need to "front" the premium assistance payment because Pennsylvania's Mini-COBRA law places the obligation on the insurer.

President Obama focuses on Immigration Compliance and Enforcement

The President and Vice President met with a bipartisan group of Congressional leaders in late June to discuss one of today's most contentious issues – immigration – and how to go about reforming the broken immigration system. One of the White House's focal points for immigration reform is enhanced enforcement efforts. The President noted that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor are working to crack down on employers who are exploiting illegal workers.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is launching a new audit initiative by issuing Notices of Inspection (NOIs) to 652 businesses nationwide - which is more than ICE issued throughout all of last fiscal year. The notices alert business owners that ICE will be inspecting their hiring records to determine whether or not they are complying with employment eligibility verification laws and regulations. Inspections are one of the most powerful tools the federal government has to enforce employment and immigration laws. This new initiative illustrates ICE's increased focus on holding employers accountable for their hiring practices and efforts to ensure a legal workforce.

The Department of Homeland Security announced that the Administration will push ahead with full implementation of the rule requiring use of E-Verify by government contractors, which will apply to federal solicitations and contract awards Government-wide starting on September 8, 2009. The federal contractor rule extends use of the E-Verify system to covered federal contractors and subcontractors, including those who receive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. DHS also announced it will scrap the Social Security No-Match Rule, which has never been implemented and has been blocked by court order, in favor of the more modern and effective E-Verify system. On July 8, the U.S. Senate adopted an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2010 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that will require federal contractors to use the government’s voluntary electronic employee verification system known as E-Verify. The spending bill also extends E-Verify for three more years.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) also recently announced that the Employment Eligibility Verification form I-9 (Rev. 02/02/09) currently on the USCIS Web site will continue to be valid for use beyond June 30, 2009. USCIS has requested that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approve the continued use of the current version of Form I-9. While this request is pending, the Form I-9 (Rev. 02/02/09) will not expire. USCIS will update Form I-9 when the extension is approved.   Employers will be able to use either the Form I-9 with the new revision date or the Form I-9 with the 02/02/09 revision date at the bottom of the form.

Supreme Court Rejects choice of Lawsuits Defense

A governmental employer cannot throw out a employment promotion test because it thinks that the test results have a disparate impact against a minority group unless there is a "strong basis in evidence" to believe it will be liable for discrimination unless it rejects the test results. Fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer’s decision that is based on race even if the employer will be sued regardless of which group it favors.

In Ricci v. DeStefano, the City of New Haven, Connecticut used a validated test to select firefighters for promotion. However, the results the promotion examination to fill vacant lieutenant and captain positions showed that white candidates had scored higher than other minority candidates. Strong public opposition to use of the test followed. Confronted with arguments both for and against certifying the test results—and threats of a lawsuit either way—the City threw out the results based on the statistical racial disparity.

White and Hispanic firefighters who scored well on the exams but were denied a chance at promotions by the City’s refusal to certify the test results, sued the City, alleging that discarding the test results discriminated against them based on their race in violation of Title VII. The City responded that had it certified the test results, it could have faced Title VII liability for adopting a practice having a disparate impact on minority firefighters.

The District Court granted summary judgment for the City, and the Second Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed holding that City discriminated against the White and Hispanic firefighters who passed the test because there was not a strong basis in evidence to throw out the test scores in response to their disparate impact. The City conducted hearings on the test results and determined that there was a statistical adverse impact on minority employees. This showed that there was at least a prima facie case of disparate impact. However, this fear of litigation alone cannot justify the City’s reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions. To reject the test, the City needed to go further and show that the exams at issue were not job related and consistent with business necessity, or if there existed an equally valid, less discriminatory alternative that served the City’s needs. Based on the record the parties developed through discovery, there was no substantial basis in evidence that the test was deficient in either respect.

Under Title VII, before an employer can engage in intentional discrimination for the asserted purpose of avoiding or remedying an unintentional, disparate impact, the employer must have a strong basis in evidence to believe it will be subject to disparate-impact liability if it fails to take the race-conscious, discriminatory action. The Court’s analysis held that the City’s actions would violate Title VII’s disparate-treatment prohibition absent some valid defense. All the evidence demonstrates that the City rejected the test results because the higher scoring candidates were white. Without some other justification, this express, race-based decision-making is prohibited. The question, therefore, is whether the purpose to avoid disparate-impact liability excuses what otherwise would be prohibited disparate-treatment discrimination.

The Court held that certain government actions to remedy past racial discrimination—actions that are themselves based on race—are constitutional only where there is a “strong basis in evidence” that the remedial actions were necessary. The same interests are at work in the interplay between Title VII’s disparate-treatment and disparate-impact provisions. However, the Court gave little other guidance on how employers may use tests in the hiring and promotion processes.

Pennsylvania Enacts "Mini-COBRA" requiring Insurers to offer Continuation of Health Coverage Options for Employees of Small Businesses

Effective July 10, 2009, medical insurers covering small employers in Pennsylvania will be required to offer COBRA-like continuation coverage to qualified employees and their eligible dependents. The new law covers small employers who have between two and 19 employees on a typical business day during the preceding calendar year. 

The so-called mini-COBRA coverage expands on the federal COBRA law that covers employers with at least 20 employees and allows employees who are involuntarily terminated to qualify under a federal economic stimulus law for a 65% federal subsidy of both COBRA and mini-COBRA premiums.

Like the federal law, qualifying events for coverage under the new Pennsylvania mini-COBRA are loss of group coverage due to termination of employment, death, divorce or marital separation. However, there are some key differences between the federal COBRA  and Pennsylvania’s mini-COBRA law, some of which are as follows:

  • Under the Pennsylvania law, an employee or dependent must have been continuously covered by medical insurance for three months prior to termination of coverage and may not be covered or eligible for coverage under another medical plan or Medicare.
  • Under the Pennsylvania law, continuation coverage must be extended for nine months; under federal COBRA law, coverage is available up to 18 months when employment is terminated and 36 months in situations involving death, divorce or legal separation.
  • Under the Pennsylvania mini-COBRA law, beneficiaries can be charged a premium up to 105% of the group rate; federal COBRA beneficiaries can be charged a premium of up to 102% of the group rate.
  • Pennsylvania mini-COBRA obligations apply to insurers; federal COBRA applies to employers that provide medical coverage through self-insurance or insurance products.

Employers and insurers will need to provide notices to employees and dependents of the provisions of the new law as well as their rights to elect continuation coverage upon the occurrence of a qualifying event.

Supreme Court Age Discrimination Decision in "Mixed-Motive" Cases Invites Legislative Reversal

The United States Supreme Court decision in Gross v. FBL Financial Services, Inc. creates a rift between the treatment of so called "mixed-motive" cases under the ADEA and Title VII. Under Title VII, an employee may allege that he suffered an adverse employment action because of both permissible and impermissible considerations—i.e., a “mixed-motives” case. If a Title VII plaintiff shows that discrimination was a “motivating” or a “ substantial” factor in the employer’s action, the burden of persuasion shifts to the employer to show that it would have taken the same action regardless of that impermissible consideration.

The Supreme Court declined to apply the mixed-motive burden shifting to ADEA cases holding that a plaintiff bringing an ADEA disparate-treatment claim must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that age was the “but-for” cause of the challenged adverse employment action. The burden of persuasion does not shift to the employer to show that it would have taken the action regardless of age, even when a plaintiff has produced some evidence that age was one motivating factor in that decision.

Congress amended Title VII to explicitly authorize discrimination claims where an improper consideration was “a motivating factor” for the adverse action, see 42 U. S. C. §§2000e–2(m) and 2000e–5(g)(2)(B),while leaving the ADEA language unchanged. The Supreme Court viewed this omission as a congressional policy statement and declined to recognize the so called "mixed motive" analysis in ADEA claims. However the Courts' opinion invites Congress to fix the discrepancy by legislatively negating the Court's decision much like it did in with both the ADA Amendments Act and the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act:

Unlike Title VII, the ADEA’s text does not provide that a plaintiff may establish discrimination by showing that age was simply a motivating factor. Moreover, Congress neglected to add such a provision to the ADEA when it amended Title VII to add §§2000e–2(m) and 2000e–5(g)(2)(B), even though it contemporaneously amended the ADEA in several ways, see Civil Rights Act of 1991, §115, 105 Stat. 1079; id., §302, at 1088.

Expect Congress to harmonize the treatment of Title VII and ADEA claims so that the mixed motive analysis applies to both. Congress should really fix the differentiation between age discrimination cases and other discrimination claims. For some reason unknown to me, Congress placed protections from age discrimination in the Fair Labor Standards Act (governing topics like minimum wage and overtime) rather than just adding "age" to the list of Title VII's protected classifications. As a result, federal age discrimination claims have different rights, procedures, and damages.

Employers should Protect Registered Trademarks and Company Names from Appropriation on Facebook

On June 9, Facebook, the social networking website, publicly announced that beginning Saturday, June 13 at 12:01 a.m. U.S. EDT, it will allow users to adopt personalized username URLs (e.g., facebook.com/yourname). Trademark owners who want to prevent their trademarks from being registered as a Facebook username URL by another Facebook user should take action as soon as possible and preferably before Saturday.

According to a release by our Intellectual Property Group, it is suggested that once a URL is assigned to a user it cannot be transferred, and under the new Facebook policy it can never be used again, even by the rightful owner of the trademark. Trademark owners who might someday consider marketing through Facebook are encouraged to reserve their trademarks before Saturday, June 13 when the general registration opens.

Trademark owners can reserve their trademark on the Facebook platform by submitting relevant information to Facebook through its trademark protection contact form, available at Preventing the Registration of a Username | Facebook. It appears that a separate form is required for each trademark and registration number. Facebook promises to then advise the trademark owner when the username URL is available for the owner to adopt.

Who is a "Management Level Employee" for Imputing Notice of Co-worker Harassment to an Employer?

An employer's liability for co-worker harassment exists if the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action. In other words, an employer may be liable for non-supervisory co-worker harassment if the employer was negligent in failing to discover the co-worker harassment or in responding to a report of harassment. Knowledge of a sexually hostile work environment arises when a "management level employee" obtains enough information to raise the probability of sexual harassment in the mind of a reasonable employer.

In its decision in Huston v. The Proctor & Gamble Paper Products Corp., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that an employee’s knowledge of allegations of co-worker sexual harassment may typically be imputed to the employer in two circumstances:

  1. "where the employee is sufficiently senior in the employer’s governing hierarchy, or otherwise in a position of administrative responsibility over employees under him, such as a departmental or plant manager, so that such knowledge is important to the employee’s general managerial duties. In this case, the employee usually has the authority to act on behalf of the employer to stop the harassment, for example, by disciplining employees or by changing their employment status or work assignments. The employee’s knowledge of sexual harassment is then imputed to the employer because it is significant to the employee’s general mandate to manage employer resources, including humanresources;" or
  2. "where the employee is specifically employed to deal with sexual harassment. Typicallysuch an employee will be part of the employer’s human resources, personnel, or employee relations group or department. Often an employer will designate a human resources manager as a point person for receiving complaints of harassment. In this circumstance, employee knowledge is imputed to the employer based on the specific mandate from the employer to respond to and report on sexual harassment."

The court went on to clarify that mere supervisory authority over the performance of work assignments by other co-workers is not, by itself, sufficient to qualify an employee for management level status unless the worker has  a mandate generally to regulate the workplace environment. This reasonably bright line test should help employers to avoid allegations of constructive knowledge of workplace problems; provided, job descriptions clearly define the employee's job duties. Employers should examine generalized policy statements that create a "duty" to report workplace harassment or mistreatment.

E-Verify Rule for Federal Contractors Delayed until September 8, 2009

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) announced the third postponement of the implementation of the final rule requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to begin using E-Verify system which is now delayed until Sept. 8, 2009.

The Civilian Agency Acquisition Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council (collectively known as the Federal Acquisitions Regulatory Councils) will published an amendment in the Federal Register on June 5, 2009, postponing the applicability of the final rule until Sept. 8, 2009. The rule was first published on Nov. 14, 2008 requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to agree to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their employees. I previously summarized the rule in "E-Verify Final Regulations Issued Requiring Government Contractors and Subcontractors to Verify Employment for New and Existing Employees who Perform Contract Work."

May Unemployment Rate increases to 9.4%

The Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for May show the national unemployment rate reaching a 26 year high to 9.4% up from 8.9% in April.  The number of unemployed persons increased by 787,000 to 14.5 million.  Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed persons has risen by 7.0 million, and the unemployment rate has grown by 4.5 percentage points.

Unemployment rates rose in May for adult men (9.8%), adult women (7.5%), whites (8.6%), and Hispanics (12.7%).  The jobless rates for teenagers (22.7%) and blacks (14.9%) were little changed over the month.  The unemployment rate for Asians was 6.7% in May, not seasonally adjusted, up from 3.8 percent a year earlier.

The BLS statistics by job class and sector continue to show weakness in the construction, manufacturing, wholesale/retail and leisure/hospitality sectors.  All sectors are as follows:

 

Sector of the Economy

Unemployment Rate for May 2009

Unemployment Rate for April 2009

Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction

13.3%

16.1%

Construction

19.2%

18.7%

Manufacturing

12.6%

12.4%

     Durable goods

13.2%

12.8%

     Nondurable goods

9.0%

11.8%

Wholesale and retail trade

11.9%

9.0%

Transportation and utilities

8.5%

9.0%

Information

9.5%

10.1%

Financial activities

5.7%

6.0%

Professional and business services

10.9%

10.4%

Education and health services

4.9%

4.6%

Leisure and hospitality

11.9%

10.2%

Government workers

3.1%

2.6%

Employment Law implications of Obesity and BMI after the ADA Amendments Act

The ADA Amendments Act re-wrote the definition of disability so that it will likely include obesity-related health conditions and perhaps obesity itself as a protected disability. Before the ADA Amendments, being overweight and even obese was not generally considered a "disability". For example in EEOC v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., a court determined that non-physiological morbid obesity was not a protected disability.

The EEOC is considering regulations regarding the equal employment provisions of the ADAAA.  In December 2008, the EEOC commissioners deadlocked along party lines on whether to approve former Chair Naomi Earp’s proposed regulations. According to the EEOC’s agenda, a notice of proposed rulemaking will be issued by August of this year.  I predict that obesity will become a protected disability requiring employers to reasonably accommodate the condition.  I also expect that the correlation between BMI and obesity will be challenged by agruing that disqualifying an employee based on a high BMI consistitutes "regarded as" disability discrimination.

The ADA changes have important implications for businesses including employment discrimination claims, health plan design, and wellness program administration. There are several issues that merit discussion when examining obesity such as following. 

What is Body Mass Index (BMI)? BMI has become the unofficial scientific measure for assessing obesity. BMI is a function of height and weight (BMI calculator). The Center for Disease Control classifies a person who has a BMI of less than 18.5 as underweight; normal is 18.5-24.9; overweight is 25-29.9; obese is over 30; and extremely obese is over 40.

What is the BMI analysis telling us about our weight? A Report by the Trust for America's Health recently disclosed statistics about obesity trends. In the Report, Pennsylvania had the 24th highest rate of adult obesity with 25.7 percent of its population having a BMI over 30. The Report correlated obesity figures with other factors like Diabetes and Hypertension rates. It also noted levels of admitted physical activity (or inactivity). Twenty-Four percent of Pennsylvanians admit no physical activity.

How good is BMI as a measure of obesity? Martica Heaner points out the limitations of BMI in her posts BMI Blues and Is Body Mass Index a Bad Measure?:

The BMI works well for research purposes, but doesn’t necessarily translate precisely to the individual. Unfortunately, it tends to convey that people that exercise regularly, for example, are overweight, when they are not actually overfat. A fit person tends to have more muscle, so their body weight is a reflection of body fat as well as muscle and other lean tissue.

Since the problem with being overfat is that health risks are increased, a BMI in the overweight range is probably not a negative indicator for a fit person. Regular exercise, low body fat and increased muscle mass are all factors that tend to outweigh any health risks suggested by a higher BMI.

Is there correlation between high BMI and bad health? According to the CDC, the BMI ranges were established based on the health consequences associated with obesity as determined by different BMIs. Some, like Paul Campos in his book, The Obesity Myth, challenge this conclusion. However, the correlation between high BMI and bad health is quickly becoming an assumption.

Other than being incorrectly labeled "overweight" or "obese", why should we care whether BMI is a accurate health status predictor? BMI is fast becoming the legal standard for determining whether someone is "obese" and therefore a "health risk". Those with high BMIs can face increase cost and eligibility barriers for certain employee benefits.

Individual insurance policies for life, disability and medical insurance almost universally use underwriting procedures that take into account BMI as a basis for determining insurability and premium. A survey by the Texas Office of Public Insurance Counsel found that insurance company individual health plan underwriting guidelines used BMI as a basis to deny coverage, charge a higher premium, and offer less coverage. The California Insurance Commission has made comments alerting consumers about BMI as a basis for insurance denial.

Some group health plans are community rated and not subject to medical underwriting. These plans calculate premium based on the expected claims of the community not the individual employer group. Other group health insurance programs can be subject to medical underwriting in which BMI analysis and other factors will be used to price the coverage for the group. An employer with a compliment of employees with potential for high claims (including high BMI) will face higher premiums or denial. Likewise, self-insured medical plans that utilize stop loss coverage may undergo medical underwriting where BMI will be factored into the rate for reinsurance.

Group health plan wellness program incentives may be keyed to BMI targets for premium discounts and other incentives. The availability of incentives to those with high BMI is subject to limitations including situations when it is "unreasonably difficult" or "medically inadvisable" for a participant to attempt to achieve the BMI standard.

Jon & Kate Plus 8 Reality TV Show faces Child Labor Investigation

The Gosselin Family, which has been the center of a media attention in recent weeks, is reportedly under investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry for child labor law violations stemming from their children's appearance on the reality TV show "Jon & Kate Plus 8". Much of the reality show is filmed in the family's Wernersville, Pennsylvania home. The Gosselins have twin daughters age 8 and five-year old sextuplets, all of whom appear on the show.

The obvious legal issue is whether a children's involvement in a reality TV filmed in the children's home with the participation of parents constitutes "work in, about, or in connection with, any establishment." An "establishment" is a place "where work is done for compensation of any kind, to whomever payable." Children employed on a farm or in domestic service in private homes are excluded.

In Commonwealth V. McKaig (decided in 1937), a court found that it is not a violation of child labor laws for a nine year old child to give skating exhibition for an amateur skating society where she received no compensation; the exhibition was not for profit, although admission fee was charged; and the exhibition was not held at place of public resort but one privately leased for purely private purpose. The court focused on the role that the child played in the overall program and found that it is material that professional skater appeared on same program for compensation if child's skating was in no way linked with his. However, a child would have been engaged in "work" If  the participation of the child been "linked with commercial channels and so connected with the work of others as to be immediately supplementary to that work or in direct aid and direction of the work of others." Reality TV as "work" will be an interesting legal issue. The Gosselin children play an integral part the show and their roles may be somewhat staged. Furthermore, the family has created a business around the show. 

Pennsylvania's Child Labor Law regulates that hours and types of work that minors under the age of 18 may perform. The Child Labor Law specifically requires the Department of Labor and Industry (L&I) issue a special permit for "the employment of minors seven and under eighteen years of age in theatrical productions, musical recitals or concerts, entertainment acts, modeling, radio, television, motion picture making, or in other similar forms or media of entertainment in Pennsylvania where the performance of such minor is not hazardous to his safety or well-being." The Child Labor Law requires that performances occur before 11:30 p.m. and be no more frequent than two per day and 8 per week. There are also rules for "temporary" employment of minors as part of the performing cast in the production of a motion picture, if the department determines that adequate provision has been made for the educational instruction, supervision, health and welfare of the minor provided a minors work as part of the performing cast does not exceed forty-four hours in any one week and eight hours in any one day.

With the end of school approaching and children entering the summer workforce, employers should review their child labor law compliance.

President Obama selects Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court Nominee

Judge Sotomayor's resume is summarized by CNN and her most notable opinions are compiled by the New York Times. Judge Sotomayor's most significant employment-related decision came in Ricci v. DeStefano which is now before the United States Supreme Court. Ricci  is a discrimination case brought by white firefighters after the city threw out results of a promotion exam because too few minorities scored high enough.   The appellate court allowed the city to disregard the test results that had a disparate impact on minorities analyzing the role of Uniform Employee Selection Guidelines on employer testing procedures and results. The case has important implications for any employer that uses testing as part of its employment and promotion practices. The Connecticut Employment Law Blog has followed the case since it was initially decided.

Lessons Learned from the almost Pandemic: 2009 Novel Influenza A H1N1 a/k/a Swine Flu

The swine flu is thankfully less severe than anticipated and certainly not the "pandemic" that was feared and even predicted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports at least 5,469 cases of swine flu in the United States with Pennsylvania accounting for 55 cases. Six deaths are linked to the outbreak.   The CDC continues to warn that, "we are not out of the woods."

Managing communications about a potential pandemic is a "no win" situation for government agencies. The risks of over and under communicating are evident when one compares the approaches of the Mexican and U.S. governments. Commentators are already analyzing the swine flu "overreaction overreaction" and its impact on the next potentially real pandemic.

The communication and response from the Human Resource department can create the same credibility gap that governments face. Human Resource Professionals should book mark some of the resources that emerged from this go round some of which we identified in our prior post as well as the EEOC's Guidance "ADA-Compliant Employer Preparedness for the H1N1 Flu Virus." 

Employers should view the pandemic false alarm as an opportunity to plan for all manner of business "disasters." The following are some addition areas of planning  and development of an action plan include the following:

Healthy Families Act: Proposed Legislation Mandates Seven Days of Paid Time Off

Representative DeLauro introduced the Healthy Families Act (H.R. 2460) which would require businesses with 15 or more employees to provide up to seven days of annual paid sick leave.  The paid leave could be taken to attend to an employee's own or a family member’s illness, or used for preventative care such as doctor’s appointments. In addition, the bill provides leave for employees who are the victims of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.  Sick time requests may be oral or in written at least seven days prior to foreseeable absence or otherwise as soon as practicable. The employee must provide notice of the expected duration of the absence. Medical certification is required if more than three consecutive days are taken off.

Employees would earn one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked up to a maximum of 56 hours (seven days) annually. Leave begins accruing from the first day of employment, but may not be taken until an employee works for 60 days. Up to 56 hours of paid sick leave would carry over from year to year, but an employer may permit additional accrual beyond the 56 hour minimum. Employers are not required to pay terminated employees for unused paid time off. If a separated employee is rehired within 12 months, that employee is entitled to the accrued leave already earned, and would be entitled to take sick leave immediately.

A business's existing paid time off policy would not need to modified if it met or exceeded the minimum time periods and allow employees to take such leave for illness and other circumstances outlined in the Health Families Act. Employers must post a notice of the substantive and remedial provisions of the Act.

Aggrieved employees may bring civil claims to recoup unpaid time off benefits and to enforce the Act's discrimination and retaliation protections.  The Secretary of Labor also has investigative and enforcement powers. The Bill, if enacted, is effective six months after the Department of Labor issues required regulations.

April Unemployment up to 8.9%

The Department of Labor released unemployment data on April's unemployment rates. The unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent, and the number of unemployed persons increased by 563,000 to 13.7 million in April. Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has risen by 6.0 million, and the unemployment rate has grown by 3.9 percentage points. The unemployment rate has steadily risen this year from a rate of 7.6% in January, an 8.1% rate in February and an 8.1% rate in March. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) increased by 498,000 to 3.7 million over the month and has risen by 2.4 million since the start of the recession in December 2007.

Pennsylvania's unemployment rate for March was 8.2% which was above the national average. The April unemployment rate for Pennsylvania will not be released until later in the month.

Getting behind the raw numbers shows that certain groups and economic sectors are harder hit by the economic downturn. The national unemployment rates are greater for men than women. Unemployment rates rose in April for adult men (9.4%) but remained relatively stable for adult women (7.1%). The jobless rates for Whites (8.0%)and Hispanics (11.3%) were little changed over the month, but rose for Blacks (15.0%) and Asians (6.6%). The following Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows unemployment levels for construction and manufacturing of 18.7% and 12.4% respectively:

 

Sector of the Economy

Unemployment Rate for 2008

Unemployment Rate for 2009

Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction

3.6%

16.1%

Construction

11.1%

18.7%

Manufacturing

4.8%

12.4%

     Durable goods

4.8%

12.8%

     Nondurable goods

5.0%

11.8%

Wholesale and retail trade

4.5%

9.0%

Transportation and utilities

4.0%

9.0%

Information

4.4%

10.1%

Financial activities

3.4%

6.0%

Professional and business services

5.3%

10.4%

Education and health services

2.8%

4.6%

Leisure and hospitality

6.9%

10.2%

Government workers

1.7%

2.6%

Business Preparedness: Pennsylvania Employer's Guide to Pandemic Resources

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that as of April 28, 2009, there are no reported cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection in Pennsylvania. However, the Center for Control reports 91 laboratory confirmed cases in the United States and tragically the first U.S. fatality.

Best practices for Human Resources should involve planning for business interruption and continuity in the event that the current situation reaches a pandemic proportion.  A list of issues from Human Resource Policies and Pandemic Planning Workplace Questions complied at PandemicFlu.gov. is as follows:

Human Resource Policies and Pandemic Planning

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Privacy Issues

Workplace Benefits

Workplace Safety and Health Issues

Unemployment Issues and Financial Assistance

Private Sector Workplace Issues

Other valuable employer preparedness resources are as follows:

EFCA Resurrected: Pennsylvania Senator Specter switches Political Parties

Veteran Republican Senator Arlen Specter disclosed plans Tuesday to switch parties, a defection that will move Democrats closer to total control of the U.S. Senate. The switch may also revive EFCA in its original form despite Senator Specter's withdraw of support for the pro-union legislation last month. Senator Specter faces a difficult primary in Pennsylvania

Senator Specter was a co-sponsor of EFCA last year but withdrew his support.  In an announcement made on March 24, 2009, he proposed alternative amendments to the NLRA addressing his perceived issues in delays and problems with the unionization process.  His floor comments on his change of heart about EFCA will require some political backtracking, if he is now to support the measure consistent with his new party's position:

On the merits, the issue which has emerged at the top of the list for me is the elimination of the secret ballot which is the cornerstone of how contests are decided in a democratic society. The bill’s requirement for compulsory arbitration if an agreement is not reached within 120 days may subject the employer to a deal he or she cannot live with. Such arbitration runs contrary to the basic tenet of the Wagner Act for collective bargaining which makes the employer liable only for a deal he or she agrees to. The arbitration provision could be substantially improved by the last best offer procedure which would limit the arbitrator’s discretion and prompt the parties to move to more reasonable positions. 

For now, EFCA in its original form, may have been given new life in the Senate.

E-Verify Federal Contractor Rule Delayed until June 30, 2009

The applicability date of the final rule requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to begin using U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ (USCIS) E-Verify system has been pushed back by six weeks to June 30, 2009, with hint that it may be abandoned or revised. The USCIS website contains the following notice:

The Civilian Agency Acquisition Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council (collectively known as the Federal Acquisitions Regulatory Councils) will publish an amendment in the Federal Register tomorrow postponing the applicability of the final rule until June 30, 2009. The rule requiring federal contractors and subcontractors to agree to electronically verify the employment eligibility of their employees was first published on Nov. 14, 2008, and went into effect on Jan 19, 2009.

The extension provides the Administration an adequate opportunity to review the entire rule prior to its applicability to federal contractors and subcontractors.

My previous posts on the E-Verify rule are here:

E-Verify Final Regulations Issued Requiring Government Contractors and Subcontractors to Verify Employment for New and Existing Employees who Perform Contract Work

Mandatory use of E-Verify for Government Contractors delayed again to May 21, 2009

Good News: SHRM reports delay in E-Verify Regulations' Effective Date until February 20, 2009

USCIS Reminds all U.S. Employers of Requirements to Use Revised Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification

There is no delay. April 3, 2009 is the effective date for use of the revised I-9 Form according to the USCIS. The following resources are available for compliance with the revised form and more limited scope of acceptable documents:

Revised I-9 Form (English)

Revised I-9 Form (Spanish)*

List of Documents Acceptable for Employment Verification

Questions and Answers

Handbook for Employers

*Note: The Spanish version of Form I-9, available below on this page, may be filled out by employers and employees in Puerto Rico ONLY. Spanish-speaking employers and employees in the 50 states and other U.S. territories may print this for their reference, but may only complete the form in English to meet employment eligibility verification requirements.

Revised I-9 Form Effective April 3, 2009: No Delay...yet.

Frankly, I was expecting a delay in the effective date of the Revised I-9 Form, so I have been procrastinating a reminder post. I am tired of checking the USCIS website for information. However, I am wary since there has been no report on the comments received during the 30-day re-opening of the comment period which ended March 4, 2009.

The Revised I-9 Form is effective April 3, 2009.  The USCIS has issued a Q&A on the Revised I-9 Form. There is also a Handbook for Employers on the Revised I-9 Form. The US Citizenship and Immigration Service ("USCIS") has revised the Form I-9 and acceptable documents issuing the following summary:

The interim final rule narrows the list of acceptable identity documents and further specifies that expired documents are not considered acceptable forms of identification. An expansive document list makes it more difficult for employers to verify valid and acceptable forms and single out false documents compromising the effectiveness and security of the Form I-9 process.

Employers must complete a Form I-9 for all newly hired employees to verify their identity and authorization to work in the United States. The list of approved documents that employees can present to verify their identity and employment authorization is divided into three sections: List A documents verify identity and employment authorization, List B documents verify identity only, and List C documents verify employment authorization only.

The rule eliminates Forms I-688, I-688A, and I-688B (Temporary Resident Card and older versions of the Employment Authorization Card/Document) from List A. USCIS no longer issues these cards, and all that were in circulation have expired. The rule also adds to List A of the Form I-9 foreign passports containing specially-marked machine-readable visas and documentation for certain citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). The rule makes other, technical changes to update the list of acceptable documents. The revised Form I-9 includes additional changes, such as revisions to the employee attestation section, and the addition of the new U.S. Passport Card to List A.

Arbitration of Discrimination Claims upheld by U.S. Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court upheld a provision in a collective-bargaining agreement that clearly and unmistakably requires union members to arbitrate ADEA claims is enforceable as a matter of federal law. Accordingly, there is no legal basis for the Court to strike down an arbitration clause in a collective bargaining agreement, which was freely negotiated by a union and company, and which clearly and unmistakably requires employees to arbitrate the age-discrimination claims. However, the Court declined to rule on specific factual issued related to whether the waiver of discrimination claims under the contract by employees' in this case was clear and unmistakable. It also would not rule on whether the contract waived substantive rights protected by federal law which could not be vindicated in an arbitration. These issues were not properly before the Court.

The decision in 14 Penn Plaza LLC v. Pyett has important implications for unionized employers who face employment discrimination charges and lawsuits. These claims may be forced into the arbitration forum and out of court depending on the language in the contract. The scope of the arbitration clause including any limitations will be an important focus of future litigation.

Important IRS clarification of COBRA Subsidy Provisions

On March 31, 2009, the IRS issued a notice relating to premium assistance for COBRA continuation coverage under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Notice 2009-27 contains many helpful clarifications on the following topics:

  • INVOLUNTARY TERMINATION
  • ASSISTANCE ELIGIBLE INDIVIDUAL
  • CALCULATION OF PREMIUM REDUCTION
  • COVERAGE ELIGIBLE FOR PREMIUM REDUCTION
  • RECAPTURE OF PREMIUM ASSISTANCE
  • PAYMENTS TO INSURERS UNDER FEDERAL COBRA
  • COMPARABLE STATE CONTINUATION COVERAGE

The Q&A section answers many nagging questions particularly on "involuntary termination" eligibility including the following as meeting the definition:

  • An involuntary termination means any severance from employment due to the independent exercise of the unilateral authority of the employer to terminate the employment, other than due to the employee’s implicit or explicit request, where the employee was willing and able to continue performing services (this leaves in question where employees accepting a "voluntary layoff" may qualify).
  • Any temporary layoff with recall rights qualifies as a termination, but a reduction in hours does not qualify. However, an employee’s voluntary termination in response to an employer-imposed reduction in hours may be an involuntary termination if the reduction in hours is a material negative change in the employment relationship for the employee.
  • Any termination elected by the employee in return for a severance package.
  • Any employee-initiated termination from employment constitutes an involuntary termination from employment for purposes of the premium reduction if the termination from employment constitutes a termination for good reason due to employer action that causes a material negative change in the employment relationship for the employee.

Employers should be complying with the Notice requirement of the ARRA before April 18, 2009.

 

Pennsylvania Senator Specter Opposes EFCA but Suggests extensive NLRA Reform

Senator Arlen Specter announced his opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act as currently proposed. His vote was critical to the Democrats efforts to invoke cloture under Senate rules and bring the bill to a vote that would almost certainly have gained a simple majority to pass. The Senator's comments on the Senate Floor acknowledge the importance of his vote:

In June 2007, the vote on the Employee Free Choice was virtually monolithic: 50 Senators, Democrats, voted for cloture and 48 Republicans against. I was the only Republican to vote for cloture. The prospects for the next cloture vote are virtually the same. No Democratic Senator has spoken out against cloture. Republican Senators are outspoken in favor of a filibuster. With the prospects of a Democratic win in Minnesota, yet uncertain, it appears that 59 Democrats will vote to proceed with 40 Republicans in opposition. If so, the decisive vote would be mine. In a highly polarized Senate, many decisive votes are left to a small group who are willing to listen, reject ideological dogmatism, disagree with the party line and make an independent judgment. It is an anguishing position, but we play the cards we are dealt.

The Senator's floor comments left open the possibility that he would support some other initiative to reform the unionization process and identified the following specific suggestions:

SOME SUGGESTED REVISIONS TO THE NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS ACT

(1) Establishing a timetable:

(a) Require that an election must be held within 10 days of a filing of a joint petition from the employer and the union

(b) In the absence of a joint petition, require the NLRB to resolve issues on the bargaining unit and eligibility to vote within 14 days from the filing of the petition and the election 7 days thereafter. The Board may extend the time for the election to 14 additional days if the Board sets forth specifics on factual or legal issues of exceptional complexity justifying the extension.

(c) Challenges to the voting would have to be filed within 5 days with the Board having 15 days to resolve any disputes with an additional 10 days if they find issues of exceptional complexity.

(2) Adding unfair labor practices:

(a) an employer or union official visits to an employee at his/her home without prior consent for any purpose related to a representation campaign;

(b) an employer holds employees in a “captive audience” speech unless the union has equal time under identical circumstances;

(c) an employer or union engages in campaign related activities aimed at employees within 24 hours prior to an election.

(3) Authorizing the NLRB to impose treble back pay without reduction for mitigation when an employee is unlawfully fired

(4) Authorizing civil penalties up to $20,000 per violation on an NLRB finding of willful and repeated violations of employees’ statutory rights by an employer or union during an election campaign

(5) Require the parties to begin negotiations within 21 days after a union is certified. If there is no agreement after 120 days from the first meeting, either party may call for mediation by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service

(6) On a finding that a party is not negotiating in good faith, an order may be issued establishing a schedule for negotiation and imposing costs and attorney fees.

(7) Broaden the provisions for injunctive relief with reasonable attorneys’ fees on a finding that either party is not acting in good faith

(8) Require a dissent by a member of the Board to be completed 45 days after the majority opinion is filed;

(9) Establish a certiorari-type process where the Board would exercise discretion on reviewing challenges from decisions by an administrative law judge or regional director.

(10) If the Board does not grant review or fails to issue a decision within 180 days after receiving the record, the decision of the administrative judge or regional director would be final.

(11) Authorizing the award of reasonable attorneys’ fees on a finding of harassment, causing unnecessary delay or bad faith

(12) Modify the NLRA to give the court broader discretion to impose a Gissel order on a finding that the environment has deteriorated to the extent that a fair election is not possible.

Time to Re-evaluate Employment Practice Liability Insurance

Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI) can provide valuable protection; particularly,  given the predicted rise in employment related legal claims and enhanced government enforcement initiatives. Furthermore, EPLI remains a relative bargain in the continued “soft” insurance market and employers should consider adding or increasing insurance coverage to protect against employment claims. EPLI insurance is somewhat quirky and the following are some considerations when evaluating policies:

1.         Coverage: EPLI policies usually cover claims of wrongful discharge, workplace harassment and discrimination. Many offer a more comprehensive list of covered acts, including negligent hiring/supervision/evaluations, invasion of privacy, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Coverage typically applies to claims made by full time employees so as to exclude those by part-timers, temporary, seasonal and independent contractors. In comparing policies, look for one that has the most expansive coverage. 

2.         Exclusions: EPLI policies exclude many claims based on the statute that creates the legal right or the activity that gives rise to the claim. Exclusions apply to the Fair Labor Standards Acts; the National Labor Relations Act; the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN); the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA); the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA); the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA); the costs associated with providing "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); as well as claims arising out of downsizing, layoffs, workforce restructurings, plant closures or strikes. Punitive damages are always excluded. Carefully evaluate the excluded claims in light of your business practices. In the case of multi-state operations, be aware that some state laws create substantial employment rights that must also be evaluated under the policy language.

3.         Policy Limits and Deductibles: Policy limits and deductibles usually apply on a per claim and aggregate basis. For example, coverage may be limited to $250,000 for each separate claim with an overall aggregate cap of $1 million for all claims. Employers must formulate their insurance goals in setting the appropriate deductibles and limits. Some employers view EPLI insurance as catastrophic coverage and are willing to accept a high deductible that allows them to handle smaller claims themselves. However, other employers are looking for more blanket coverage.

4.         Defense Costs, Selection of Counsel and Settlement: Defense costs are usually included within the EPLI policy’s limits, which has good and bad points. Many times, the legal expense is the largest cost to an employer in dealing with merit less claims. However, including defense costs means that every dollar an employer spends defending a claim reduces the amount available for settlement or to pay a judgment. Since the existence of insurance coverage must be disclosed as part of discovery in most law suits, a plaintiff’s attorney will factor insurance coverage into his or her case evaluation. The defense cost feature may influence plaintiffs’ counsel to try to settle early, rather than force an employer to incur litigation costs that will only erode the insurance dollars available for potential settlement. Employment claims often have significant employee relations ramifications making settlement a particularly important issue. Insurers view employment claims the same as any other insurance matter by evaluating only the potential for liability and the amount of damages. The employer and insurer may be at odds over settling a case. EPLI policies address this stalemate by either giving the insurer the right to settle without the employer’s approval or, more frequently, giving an employer control over settlement, but adding a “hammer clause”. These clauses are designed to limit the insurer’s potential exposure if the policyholder passes up an opportunity to settle a claim recommended by the insurer. Hammer clauses provide that if there is an offer to settle a claim that the policyholder refuses accept, then the insurer will not be liable for a subsequent settlement or judgment in excess of a rejected settlement amount.  

5.         Policy Types and Insurance Company Notification: EPLI policies are typically written on a “claims made” basis meaning that the claim must be incurred during the coverage period and reported to the insurer during an extended reporting period. Employers who have already experience significant layoffs prior to the effective date of coverage will not have claims arising from those actions covered by new insurance; however, if an employer increases coverage, it may be able negotiate a retroactivity for the larger policy limits. Since employment actions may take years to turn into a claims, an employer may be left with no coverage if the policy is dropped or tail coverage isn’t purchased. Untimely notice to an insurance carrier can void coverage for and employment claim.

New COBRA Model Notice for ARRA Compliance Published by DOL

The Department of Labor Published Model Cobra Notices implementing the provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. 

Individuals eligible for the special COBRA election period described above also must receive a notice informing them of this opportunity. This notice must be provided within 60 days following February 17, 2009. Plan administrators must provide notice about the premium reduction to individuals who have a COBRA qualifying event during the period from September 1, 2008 through December 31, 2009. Plan administrators may provide notices separately or along with notices they provide following a COBRA qualifying event. This notice must go to all individuals, whether they have COBRA coverage or not, who had a qualifying event from September 1, 2008 through December 31, 2009.

Individuals involuntarily terminated from September 1, 2008 through February 16, 2009 who did not elect COBRA when it was first offered OR who did elect COBRA, but are no longer enrolled (for example because they were unable to continue paying the premium) have a new election opportunity. This election period begins on February 17, 2009 and ends 60 days after the plan provides the required notice. This special election period does not extend the period of COBRA continuation coverage beyond the original maximum period (generally 18 months from the employee's involuntary termination). COBRA coverage elected in this special election period begins with the first period of coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009. This special election period opportunity does not apply to coverage sponsored by employers with less than 20 employees that is subject to State law.

UPDATE:  IRS Notice 2009-27 clarifies many issues related to implementation of the COBRA subsidy.

Employee Free Choice Act Moving Forward, Are You?

On March 10, 2009, Representative George Miller introduced the Employee Free Choice Act of 2009 (H.R. 1409) The Bill has 222 cosponsors from the House of Representatives comprised of 435 members. The Bill has been referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor. You can keep track of its progress through an RSS Feed.

H.R 1409 is identical to H.R. 800 which passed in the House of Representatives by roll call vote last year. Last year's vote totals were 241 Ayes, 185 Nays, 8 Present/Not Voting. Last year H.R. 800 failed a cloture motion, preventing consideration of the bill, in the Senate by roll call vote. The totals were 51 Ayes, 48 Nays, 1 Present/Not Voting. Obviously, the political composition of Congress has dramatically changed since last year's votes.

The Text of the Bill is relatively brief but its impact is great. The Bill has three sections, streamlining union certification, facilitating initial collective bargaining agreements, and strengthening enforcement. Read the Bill so you can discuss it intelligently. Observe that there is no effective date for the legislation included in the Bill once it is passed by Congress.  However, well before the time it is enacted, employers should already have implemented a responsive strategy.

Employment Discrimination Litigation will Increase in 2009 and Beyond

Business downsizing, a poor job market, and increased government enforcement will dramatically increase employment discrimination lawsuits for the foreseeable future. We got a glimpse of this trend with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) release of 2009 charge statistics noting a record number of discrimination claims filed last year. The EEOC report shows that 95,000 charges were filed, up 15%. The agency also reports financial recoveries of $376 million for victims of discrimination.

Charge activity for 2009 should rise exponentially. The economy shed 2.4 million jobs in the last 4 months mostly due to permanent layoffs. Job prospects are bleak with current unemployment at 8.1 %, the highest level in 25 years. The Obama Administration's budget increases spending on Department of Labor enforcement activities.

Employees have up to 300 days to bring a discrimination charge with the EEOC so many of the potential claims from recent layoffs haven't yet been filed. An employee's proclivity to sue an employer for discrimination is related in part to economics. In a good economy, employees find new jobs quickly and don't look back. While unemployed, economic and emotional factors may motivate employees to pursue litigation. Recent news reports describe the plight of many workers facing job loss and financial ruin.

Obama Executive Order promotes use of Union Contractors

Executive Order 13502 is the first step to funneling a significant portion of the $787 billion in Stimulus Bill money to union workers. Executive Order 13502 promotes the use of Project Labor Agreements in large scale construction projects where the total cost to the federal government exceeds $25 million. Bush Administration Executive Orders prohibiting the use of project labor agreements have been revoked under the Obama Executive Order.

The term "project labor agreement" as used in this order means a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with one or more labor organizations that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project and is an agreement described in 29 U.S.C. 158(f).   Project Labor Agreements require all contractors, whether they are unionized or not, to subject themselves and their employees to unionization in order to work on a government-funded construction project. The terms of the union collective bargaining agreement are part of the public construction project's bid specifications.  In order to receive a contract, a contractor must sign the agreement and subject its employees union dues and work rules on the construction project.

E.O 13502 is currently discretionary allowing the executive agency to mandate the use of PLAs if it determines that a PLA will "advance the Federal Government's interest in achieving economy and efficiency in Federal procurement, producing labor-management stability, and ensuring compliance with laws and regulations governing safety and health, equal employment opportunity, labor and employment standards, and other matters." However, E.O. 13502 requires the Department of Labor and OMB to make a recommendation about whether broader use of project labor agreements would help to promote the economical, efficient, and timely completion of such projects. The recommendation is due by early August, 2009 and is to cover both Federal construction projects those receiving Federal financial assistance.

The likely result of the DOL/OMB study will be the expanded requirements for project labor agreements to all federal and federally assisted construction contracts. Given the enormity of government spending on public works project under the current and future stimulus bills, project labor agreements are a huge boon for unions. Similar union preferences may also find their way in other aspects of federal contracting affecting trillions of dollars in government spending.

Nonunion employers, already facing enhanced unionization risks, must further prepare to impact of project labor agreements. Strategies in this area may include business restructuring through double breasting, training managers and adopting defensive policies and practices.

EFCA Legislation may be Introduced as early as March 9, 2009

The Employee Free Choice Act will reportedly be introduced in Congress on Monday, March 9, 2009 according to the National Association of Manufacturers blog called The ShopFloor.   Unions are mobilizing their membership for passage by targeting legislators with messages like the following one appearing on the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO:

On Monday, March 9th Congressman George Miller and Senator Ted Kennedy are expected to introduce the Employee Free Choice Act into the House of Representatives. 

This is the first step in the long fight to make the Employee Free Choice Act the law in this country. We have a lot of work to do, including convincing Senator Feinstein that the Employee Free Choice Act is good for workers, our communities and critical to rebuilding our economy because it opens the door for us to earn better wages, health care and retirement benefits by signing a card to join a union.

Meanwhile, President Obama reportedly told AFL-CIO leaders that EFCA will pass giving his backing to the bill according to a Wall Street Journal report.  One labor scholar has begun an EFCA Countdown, while acknowledging EFCA's passage may be a bloody fight.

Employers limited in use of Genetic Information

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA) was enacted to curtail the use of genetic history in employment-related areas. GINA includes two titles. Title I, which amends portions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, and the Internal Revenue Code, addresses the use of genetic information in health insurance. Title II prohibits the use of genetic information in employment, prohibits the intentional acquisition of genetic information about applicants and employees, and imposes strict confidentiality requirements.

The law is effective November 21, 2009. The EEOC has begun its regulatory and information process with the issuance of EEOC's Questions & Answers on GINA and Proposed Regulations.

Union Leader Predicts EFCA passage by August 2009

Andy Stern, President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), was recently interviewed by USA Today where he predicted the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) by August. 

Unions have substantial political clout and this prediction should be respected. According to Department of Labor filings, the SEIU has almost 1.7 million members and spent $32.9 million on political activities and lobbying in 2007. The SEIU's 2008 report will likely show an increase in its political spending on the Presidential Election. Mr. Stern has also expressed his sentiments on organized labor's role in the election and its expectations in a Wall Street Journal Interview as follows:

"We just won an election. It's no secret." By "we," Andy Stern means "American workers." He also means Big Labor. Speaking on behalf of the fastest growing trade group in America, the Service Employees International Union -- and as one of labor's most powerful figures today -- Mr. Stern sets this simple bar for the Obama presidency: "I expect nothing less than what he said he was going to do, and we should hold him accountable."

Labor has its sights on EFCA and this pending legislation has enormous potential consequences for employers. Currently, employers cannot make significant workplace policy or other changes once a union files a petition for election. Under EFCA, there may not be an election, only a card check.  Employers may not be aware of organizing efforts or have insufficient time to react. Employers should be putting into place union avoidance programs before EFCA becomes law. Developing an action plan should include the following items:

  • Assessing union eligibility of working supervisors under RESPECT Act.
  • Educating supervisors on authorization cards and the Nuts and Bolts of EFCA.
  • Adopting union-free policies on solicitation, bulletin boards, and use of e-mail.
  • Initiating engagement surveys.

More information is contained in our prior posts as follows:

Nuts and Bolts of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and RESPECT

Bosses do not Deserve RESPECT

Why not Educate Employees on the Significance of Union Authorization Cards?

Employee Engagement Surveys may be Critical to Combating Union Organizing Efforts

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

IRS Releases Information for Employers to Claim COBRA Assistance Credit on Payroll Tax Form

On February 26, 2009, the Internal Revenue Service released detailed information that will help employers claim credit for the COBRA medical premiums they pay for their former employees.

Under the new law, eligible former employees, enrolled in their employer’s health plan at the time they lost their jobs, are required to pay only 35 percent of the cost of COBRA coverage.  Employers must treat the 35 percent payment by eligible former employees as full payment, but the employers are entitled to a credit for the other 65 percent of the COBRA cost on their payroll tax return.

  • Employers must maintain supporting documentation for the credit claimed. This includes:
  • Documentation of receipt of the employee’s 35 percent share of the premium.
  • In the case of insured plans: A copy of invoice or other supporting statement from the insurance carrier and proof of timely payment of the full premium to the insurance carrier.
  • Declaration of the former employee’s involuntary termination.

The informational Release is IR-2009-15, includes an amended Form 941 and the Instructions,  together with a Q&A for Employers.  The Q&A makes the following notes on implementing and claiming the subsidy:

  • The Employer may provide the subsidy (65%) and take the take the credit on its employment tax return only after it has received the 35% premium payment from then intdividual.
  • The law became effective on the date of enactment, Feb. 17, 2009. However, under a transition rule, the regular premium amount may continue to be paid for up to two months after enactment (e.g., for March and April), and the subsidy can be provided retroactively.
  • An employer can reduce its tax deposits or claim the credit on its quarterly return.
  • An assistance-eligible individual can be any COBRA qualified beneficiary associated with the related covered employee, such as a dependent child of an employee, who is covered immediately prior to the qualifying event. The qualifying event for purposes of eligibility for the subsidy is involuntary termination of the covered employee’s employment that occurs during the period beginning Sept. 1, 2008, and ending Dec. 31, 2009. The individual must also be eligible for COBRA coverage, or similar state coverage, during this period.
  • Model notices implementing the law will be issued shortly apparently by the Department of Labor.
     

 

New Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis

The Associated Press reports that "California Rep. Hilda Solis won confirmation Tuesday as President Barack Obama's labor secretary, giving the agency a decidedly pro-worker tilt after years of business-friendly leadership under the Bush administration…. The 80-17 vote ended more than a month of delays prompted by GOP concerns over Democrat Solis' work for a pro-union organization, and later, revelations about her husband's unpaid taxes."

Ms. Solis is a union proponent as described by John Phillips of The Word on Employment Law in his post Hilda Solis, Secretary of Labor Nominee — Say, “Union Yes”.  At her confirmation hearing, Secretary Solis avoided being drawn into a fight over matters such as the Employee Free Choice Act a/k/a the 'card check' bill, which she co-sponsored in the House. She received campaign contributions from several unions in her 2006 bid for Congress.  The new Secretary of Labor's Biography appears on the Department of Labor website.

IRS issues new Tax Withholding Tables implementing Making Work Pay Credit

On February 21, 2009, the Internal Revenue Service released new withholding tables implementing the new Making Work Pay credit, one of the key tax provisions included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The new withholding tables, along with other instructions related to the new tax law, will be incorporated in new Publication 15-T. This publication will be posted to this Web site next week and mailed to more than 9 million employers in mid-March. The IRS states that employers start using these new tables as soon as possible but not later than April 1.

Eligible workers will get the benefit of this change without any action on their part.  Workers don’t need to fill out a new W-4 withholding form to get the Making Work Pay credit reflected in their take-home pay.

Available for tax years 2009 and 2010, the Making Work Pay credit is 6.2 percent of a taxpayer’s earned income with a maximum credit of $800 for a married couple filing a joint return and $400 for other taxpayers.  Most workers will qualify for the maximum credit.  The Making Work Pay credit is phased out for a married couple filing a joint return whose modified adjusted gross income (AGI) is between $150,000 and $190,000 and other taxpayers whose modified AGI is between $75,000 and $95,000

Premium Assistance for COBRA Benefits a part of Stimulus Legislation

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has passed both the House and Senate and awaits the President's signature. The substance of the Act as it relates to COBRA continuation subsidies is as follows:

COBRA Subsidy: Eligible Employees who are involuntarily separated from employment can receive a 65% subsidy toward COBRA premiums for up to 9 months. The Eligible Employee or a third party must pay the remaining 35% of the COBRA premium. Employers cannot pay this amount. Severance agreements that offer employer-paid health continuation should be drafted to take advantage of the subsidy.

Employee Eligibility: Individuals who have been involuntarily terminated between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009 with annual incomes less than $125,000 (individual) or $250,000 (joint) are eligible for the COBRA premium assistance. The amount of the subsidy covers both employee and family coverage. The premium assistance is not considered income to the Eligible Employee. 

Employer/Health Plan Payroll Tax Credit: Employers or health plans (if they administer COBRA benefits) must front the COBRA subsidy amount and in exchange receive a credit against payroll taxes for the cost of the subsidy. 

Duration of Subsidy: The subsidy terminates upon offer of any new employer-sponsored health care coverage or Medicare eligibility.

Special Elections and Alternate Enrollment Options: Qualified individuals, who initially decline COBRA coverage, have an additional 60 days after they receive notice of the special election period to elect to receive the subsidy. The election period begins on the date of enactment. Group health plans may provide a special enrollment right for eligible individuals to elect different coverage under the plan in conjunction with a COBRA continuation coverage election. The alternate coverage must meet certain requirements and may not be more expensive than the original coverage.

 Notice Requirements: COBRA notices must include information on the availability of the premium assistance. Model notices from the Department of Labor will be published 30 days after enactment.

Effective Date:  The law is effective for premiums as of the first calendar month following the date of enactment.

UPDATE:  IRS Releases Information for Employers to Claim COBRA Assistance Credit on Payroll Tax Form

Don't use Revised I-9 Form: USCIS Delays Rule Changing List of Documents Acceptable to Verify Employment Eligibility until April 3, 2009

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced today it has delayed by 60 days, until April 3, 2009, the implementation of an interim final rule entitled “Documents Acceptable for Employment Eligibility Verification”.  The Revised I-9 was to take effect on February 2, 2009. 

The delay will provide DHS with an opportunity for further consideration of the rule and also allows the public additional time to submit comments. A notice announcing the delay was transmitted today to the Federal Register.  In addition, USCIS has reopened the public comment period for 30 days, until March 4, 2009.

Employers must complete a Form I-9 for all newly hired employees to verify their identity and authorization to work in the United States, but should not use the Revised Form.  The interim final rule will amend regulations governing the types of acceptable identity and employment authorization documents employees may present to their employers for completion of the Form I-9.  Under the interim rule, employers will no longer be able to accept expired documents to verify employment authorization on the Form I-9.

UPDATE:  There are no further delays in use of the revised I-9 Form and further compliance resources have been issued by the USCIS (click here for more information).

Pennsylvania Employers prepare for Super Bowl Flu Outbreak

Last year a survey called "Super Bowl Fever Sidelines Employees on Monday Morning" reported that 1.5 million adults may call in sick the day after the big game.  The solution to the productivity loss is so obvious.

Why isn't the Super Bowl on Saturday?  It has spawned websites and a great media debate. There is even a movement for a national holiday replacing President's Day.  If President Obama (a Steelers Fan) wants to throw employers a bone,  then he should focus on this problem. 

Go Steelers!

 

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.

 

Mandatory use of E-Verify for Government Contractors delayed again to May 21, 2009

The Chamber of Commerce reports another delay in the implementation of Federal Acquisition Regulations that require mandatory use of the E-verify system by government contractors. An agreement was reached in the pending litigation for the purpose of allowing the Obama Administration an opportunity to review pending regulatory actions left over from the Bush Administration.  The new effective date is May 21, 2009.  Our prior post outlines the requirements:  E-Verify Final Regulations Issued Requiring Government Contractors and Subcontractors to Verify Employment for New and Existing Employees who Perform Contract Work

New I-9 Forms and Other Changes to Acceptable Documents effective February 2, 2009

The US Citizenship and Immigration Service ("USCIS") has revised the Form I-9 and acceptable documents issuing the following summary:

The interim final rule narrows the list of acceptable identity documents and further specifies that expired documents are not considered acceptable forms of identification. An expansive document list makes it more difficult for employers to verify valid and acceptable forms and single out false documents compromising the effectiveness and security of the Form I-9 process.

Employers must complete a Form I-9 for all newly hired employees to verify their identity and authorization to work in the United States. The list of approved documents that employees can present to verify their identity and employment authorization is divided into three sections: List A documents verify identity and employment authorization, List B documents verify identity only, and List C documents verify employment authorization only. 

The rule eliminates Forms I-688, I-688A, and I-688B (Temporary Resident Card and older versions of the Employment Authorization Card/Document) from List A.  USCIS no longer issues these cards, and all that were in circulation have expired.  The rule also adds to List A of the Form I-9 foreign passports containing specially-marked machine-readable visas and documentation for certain citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI).  The rule makes other, technical changes to update the list of acceptable documents.  The revised Form I-9 includes additional changes, such as revisions to the employee attestation section, and the addition of the new U.S. Passport Card to List A.

The revised I-9 Form can be downloaded from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service website. Revisions to instructions and the Handbook for Employers are pending.

The Employment Law Post also highlights these changes.

UPDATE:  Don't use Revised I-9 Form:  USCIS Delays Rule Changing List of Documents Acceptable to Verify Employment Eligibility until April 3, 2009

Title VII's Antiretaliation Protections can extend to an Employee's Involvement as a Witness in an Employer's Internal Investigation

In its decision in Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson City, the United States Supreme Court considered the scope of Title VII protections from retaliation for employees who act as witnesses in an employer's internal investigation into harassment. The Court held that an employee's involvement in the employer's internal investigation constituted opposition to unlawful employment practices when she responded to her employer's questions in a manner disapproving of accused harasser's sexually obnoxious behavior toward her. The Court's decision unfortunately does not create a bright line standard for employers defining the scope of an employee's involvement in an internal investigation which can trigger protections from retaliation. Employers should tread very carefully in this area.

Continue Reading...

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.

OFCCP's Accessible On-Line Application Requirement

Employers that rely on a web-based application and recruiting processes should examine their websites for compliance with the ADA’s employment provisions which require accessibility and accommodation in the hiring process.   A recent OFCCP Directive sets forth the agency's policy on review of employer websites where applications are solicited:

Effective immediately, all compliance evaluations shall include a review of the contractor's online application systems to ensure that the contractor is providing equal opportunity to qualified individuals with disabilities and disabled veterans. The review should include whether the contractor is providing reasonable accommodation, when requested, unless such accommodation would cause an undue hardship. In this directive, the term "online system" shall include, but not be limited to, all electronic or web-based systems that the contractor uses in all of its personnel activities.

Website accessibility is a growing issue as we discussed in a prior post highlighting a lawsuit under the ADA against Target Corporation's commerce site: Business Websites Face Americans with Disabilities Act Accommodations Claims. Given the OFCCP's initiatives on systemic discrimination, this area is ripe for compliance activity.

The OFCCP has recommended the following action steps in a recent webinar:

  • Prominently display a notice outlining your reasonable accommodation process, & provide timely & effective accommodation.
  • If kiosks are used, ensure that they are physically accessible.
  • Allow people who cannot use the online system because of a disability to apply in an alternate way.
  • Consider designing online systems using universal design techniques & interoperable technology to:
    • Reach out to and receive applications from qualified applicants with disabilities, and
    • Minimize the need for individual reasonable accommodations.

Resources for evaluating accessibility of system including the interoperability with assistive technologies can be found at Accessible Systems Racing League. The OFCCP's Power Point Training Program entitled Accessible Online Applications Systems and Tools for Achieving Them is also a good resource.

Carnival of HR

The Pennsylvania Labor and Employment Blog is pleased to host the Carnival of HR which will be held on January 21, 2009.  The Carnival of HR, started by the Evil HR Lady, features recent posts from the best of the HR and management blogging community. You can participate in two ways:

1. Read: Read the posts in the latest carnivals when they come out every two weeks.

2. Submit a post: Submit your own post on HR or management issues. Posts are usually due a few days before the carnival publishing date, and you can find a complete list of hosts and dates here. (Rules: One post per blogger, and posts should be something you've written in the last couple of weeks.) 
Please e-mail a link to your post together with a brief description to mmoore@mwn.com. The usual rules apply:  one post per contributor; human resources related post appearing in the last 2-3 weeks.  Please submit your post by January 19, 2009 @ 8:00 p.m. EST.

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?

 

Good News: SHRM reports delay in E-Verify Regulations' Effective Date until February 20, 2009

SHRM is reporting the delay of E-verify regulations until February 20, 2009. There is no such report on the Homeland Security or Dept of Justice websites. Stay tuned.  A previous post discusses the regulations: E-Verify Final Regulations Issued Requiring Government Contractors and Subcontractors to Verify Employment for New and Existing Employees who Perform Contract Work

UPDATE: Mandatory use of E-Verify for Government Contractors delayed again to May 21, 2009

 

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.

Human Resources Legal Compliance Checklist for 2009

Human Resource Professionals face a demanding legal compliance year in 2009. The following five items should be added to your "To Do" list for the first quarter of '09:

ADA Amendments Act Compliance (effective 1/1/2009):  The amendments greatly expand the definition of disability refocusing compliance on determining whether the employee is "qualified" and evaluating reasonable accommodations. Employers should consider the following:

  • Revising job descriptions to define essential job functions and minimum qualifications.
  • Formalizing the interactive process for assessing disability issues.
  • Educating supervisors on the expanded ADA coverage.

E-Verify Registration and Immigration Compliance (effective 1/15/2009):  Government contractors and subcontracts may need to register for and use the E-Verify System for new and existing government contracts. Employers who may be covered should inventory their existing contracts and review prospective contracts and subcontracts to determine whether they are covered by the regulations.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has amended regulations governing the types of acceptable identity and employment authorization documents that employees may present to their employers for completion of the Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. Under the interim rule, employers will no longer be able to accept expired documents to verify employment authorization on the Form I-9. There are other changes to the types of acceptable documents. Employers must use the revised Form I-9 (not yet issued) for all new hires and to re-verify any employee with expiring employment authorization beginning January 31, 2009. The current version of the Form I-9 will no longer be valid as of February 2, 2009.

 

FMLA Regulations Implementation (effective 1/16/2009):  Amendments to the FMLA's regulations require action by employers in the following areas:

EFCA and RESPECT Act Planning:  This pending legislation has enormous potential consequences for employers. Developing an action plan should include the following items:

Wage & Hour Self-Audit:  As evidenced by Wal-Marts recent record settlement, wage and hour lawsuits will play prominently in 2009. A self-audit of compliance practices can mitigate these claims particularly in the following areas;

  • Employee classification (exempt vs. non-exempt)
  • Off the clock work (starting times, breaks and meal periods)
  • Donning and Doffing
  • Child labor

Why not Educate Employees on the Significance of Union Authorization Cards?

There is an elephant in the room.  Should we talk about it or ignore it and hope it goes away?

Many employers utilize this approach when the rumblings of a union organizing campaign are heard. When EFCA becomes law, by the time the rumblings are heard, it may be too late to educate your workforce on the significance of signing a union authorization card. Employees may have already signed a card based on the promises by a union business agent.

 

An authorization card is a very innocuous looking form. It resembles a magazine subscription renewal, but it is a legal power of attorney that authorizes a union to act as the collective bargaining agent for the employee in negotiations with the employer. It also provides the union with data about the employee including his or her home address and telephone number so the union representatives can contact the employee or pay them a visit at home. The card typically asks for information about salary, department and type of work the employee performs. The NLRB and courts have compared secret ballot elections to "card checks" and noted there problems:

"Card checks are less reliable because they lack secrecy and procedural safeguards… union card-solicitation campaigns have been accompanied by misinformation… workers sometimes sign union authorization cards…to get the person off their back.”

There is no special mechanism in EFCA for employers to challenge the validity of the cards presented to show the union's majority status. Traditionally, card challenges are unsuccessful unless an employer can show serious misconduct or intimidation.

 

Employees need to know the company's position on unionization, including at least the following about signing union authorization cards:

 

  • Employees have a right under the NLRA not to sign a card, not to support a union and to oppose unionization.
  • After EFCA, signing a card can result in the unionization of the company without an election.
  • Once an employee signs a card, he or she may not be able to get it back.
  • Signing a card gives a union personal information that may be used to contact the employee later.

Department of Labor Issues FMLA posters and Forms

The DOL issued a revised Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) poster, reflecting the recently published final rule which is now available for viewing and downloading. Every employer covered by the FMLA is required to post and keep posted on its premises, in conspicuous places where employees are employed, a notice explaining the Act’s provisions.  

The Department provides optional forms for use by employers and employees during the FMLA process.  The Department has revised its Certification of Health Care Provider form (WH-380), and divided it into two separate forms for an Employee’s Serious Health Condition (WH-380E) and a Family Member’s Serious Health Condition (WH-380F).  The Department has also revised its Notice of Eligibility and Rights and Responsibilities form (WH-381).  In addition, the Department has added new forms for Designation Notice to Employee of FMLA Leave (WH-382), Certification of Qualifying Exigency for Military Family Leave (WH-384), and Certification for Serious Injury or Illness of Covered Servicemember for Military Family Leave (WH-385).

The poster and forms become effective on January 16, 2009.  Additional compliance assistance materials are also available on our FMLA Final Rule Web site at http://www.dol.gov/esa/whd/fmla/finalrule.htm. Employers must also amend handbook provisions to reflect the new regulations.

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?”

Continue Reading...

Separation Agreements: Benchmarking Severance Pay Amounts

Reductions in Force, Layoffs, Downsizing, Rightsizing or whatever you may call it is occurring with greater frequency as the economic conditions continue to deteriorate. The business objects are reducing costs, preserving talent, treating separated employee with compassion and avoiding litigation. The compassion and litigation avoidance may go hand in glove.

The most prevalent litigation avoidance strategy is getting a release from separated employees for which a company pays severance and provides other benefits. Some companies pay severance without requiring a release and others pay enhanced severance if the employee releases claims.

I frequently get asked how much severance is appropriate. There is no right answer to this question, but depends on a myriad of factors including the size of the company, its financial condition, the number and positions of employees being released, the tenure of the employees and the risk of litigation.

Ann Bares at Compensation Force has a post that notes Global and US Severance Pay Benchmarks. There is a caveat on the international benchmark information. Severance pay is mandated by some governments outside the United States including Canada and many European countries. The amount of mandated severance varies depending sometimes on age, years of service and the reason for separation. Also missing from the analysis might be unemployment benefits received by US employees. As usual, it is not an "apples-to-apples" comparison.

Also keep in mind that releases of employment-related claims should be reviewed by legal counsel.

ADA Amendments Act Webinar: December 4, 2008

Webinar Registration

Congress recently passed legislation amending the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will greatly expand the coverage of the Act.  On Thursday December 4, 2008, McNees Wallace & Nurick will host a 45 minute webinar to discuss these new changes to the ADA and what employers should know before the amendments take effect on January 1, 2009.  Please join Samuel N. Lillard and Michael A. Moore, attorneys with McNees Wallace & Nurick’s Labor & Employment Law Practice Group, as they tell you exactly what the new legislation means for employers and what your business should do to comply with the new amendments and avoid costly litigation.

Thursday, December 4, 2008 12:00 PM - 1:00 PM EST : Online Registration link here.

Another Headache for HR in 2009: Twenty-Seven Bi-Weekly Paydays

As if HR didn't have enough on its plate with E-Verify compliance, new FMLA regs, and EFCA planning, next year is one of those strange years with 27 bi-weekly paydays instead of 26. Bi-weekly pay programs pay employees in 14-day increments resulting in a 364 day annual pay cycle. Since there are either 365 or 366 days in a year, every 5 years or so, there is a calendar year with 27 pay periods instead of the typical 26.

The 27 pay periods for 2009 create a compensation issue for salaried employees. Bi-weekly pay is typically calculated by dividing annual salary by 26 and employees are accustomed to a payroll amount based on this division. Continuing this practice in 2009 will result in an "extra" paycheck in 2009, but the normal 26 pay periods will resume in 2010. Some commentators have characterized this as a "timing issue". It is not. There are never years with only 25 pay periods to offset the years with 27.

Employers approach this situation in two ways. Some employers adjust salaried employee bi-weekly compensation for the 27 pay period years by dividing the stated annual salary by 27 rather than 26 resulting in a lower pay for each pay period in the year. Salaried employees are paid the same gross salary in smaller increments. However, this approach can cause problems with automatic deductions. Other employers allow the extra pay check and inflated compensation, not wanting to mess with the largely automated payroll system. Both approaches will require employee communication and may be influenced by an employer's past practice.   Legal issues can arise from reducing the bi-weekly salary amount.

 

Paying salaried employees on a semi-monthly basis (twice a month) avoids this problem because there are always 24 paydays. However, semi-monthly pay doesn't always work well for hourly employees because it may require estimating hours and overtime based on misalignment of the 7-day workweek with the 15 or 16-day pay period. Many employers don't want the expense of running two payrolls so they live with the 27 payday problem.

Avoid Wage & Hour Problems from Year End Bonus Payments to Hourly Employees

Many employers traditionally provide year end bonuses and holiday gifts for their employees. Bonuses may be included in a nonexempt employee’s regular rate depending upon the manner in which the bonus is calculated and the company’s prior communication. Inclusion in the regular rate impacts overtime calculations and payments.

Bonuses paid to nonexempt employees are included in the determination of the employees’ regular rate under section 778.208 unless the bonus falls into one of several exceptions. The bonuses are allocated to the pay period and added to other wages paid to nonexempt employees and then divided by the hours worked for the same period to determine the new regular rate under the methodology described in section 778.209. For bonuses earned over more than one work week, the bonus must be allocated to pay periods to which the bonus applies and the regular rate recalculated. If overtime was worked during this period, the overtime rate must be revised to be time and a half the recalculated regular rate that includes the bonus payment. This is a nightmare.

 

Department of Labor regulations provide for several exclusions. Among these excludable bonus payments are discretionary bonuses, gifts and payments in the nature of gifts on special occasions, contributions by the employer to certain welfare plans and payments made by the employer pursuant to certain profit-sharing, thrift and savings plans. These exemptions are discussed in Section 778.211 Discretionary Bonuses, Section 778.212 Gifts and Holiday Bonuses, Section 778.213 Qualified Profit Sharing and Savings Plans, and Section  778.214 Other Qualified Plans.  Bonuses which do not qualify for exclusion from the regular rate as one of these types must be totaled in with other earnings to determine the regular rate on which overtime pay must be based.

 

Typically any bonus announced in advance and tied to work performance, hours or other productivity will not qualify for an exemption.  There three ways to manage the recalculation problem, other than utilizing qualified plans:

 

1.  Holiday Bonuses: The Holiday Gift and Bonus exemption under section 778.212 allows for the exclusion from calculation of an employees “regular rate” of pay “sums paid as gifts; payments in the nature of gifts made at Christmas time or on other special occasions, as a reward for service, the amounts of which are not measured by or dependent upon hours worked, production, or efficiency…”   The following sets forth some of the parameters of the exclusion:

If the bonus paid at Christmas or on other special occasion is a gift or in the nature of a gift, it may be excluded from the regular rate under section 7(e)(1) even though it is paid with regularity so that the employees are led to expect it and even though the amounts paid to different employees or groups of employees vary with the amount of the salary or regular hourly rate of such employees or according to their length of service with the firm so long as the amounts are not measured  by or directly dependent upon hours worked, production, or efficiency. A Christmas bonus paid (not pursuant to contract) in the amount of two weeks' salary to all employees and an equal additional amount for each 5 years of service with the firm, for example, would be excludable from the regular rate under this category.

 

2.  Discretionary Bonuses: This is an area of DOL audit scrutiny and should not be used on a regular or aggressive basis. Truly discretionary bonuses are not included in the regular rate of pay under section 778.211, if both the fact that payment is to be made and the amount of the payment are determined at the sole discretion of the employer at or near the end of the period and not pursuant to any prior contract, agreement, or promise causing the employee to expect such payments regularly. The following sets forth some of the parameters of the exclusion:

For example, any bonus which is promised to employees upon hiring or which is the result of collective bargaining would not be excluded from the regular rate under this provision of the Act. Bonuses which are announced to employees to induce them to work more steadily or more rapidly or more efficiently or to remain with the firm are regarded as part of the regular rate of pay. Attendance bonuses, individual or group production bonuses, bonuses for quality and accuracy of work, bonuses contingent upon the employee's continuing in employment until the time the payment is to be made and the like are in this category. They must be included in the regular rate of pay.

 

3.  Percentage Total Earnings Bonus: Bonuses based on a percentage of the nonexempt employee’s total earnings under section 778.210 do not result in a recalculation of the regular rate because overtime is already been accounted for in the calculation.   Under this method, the bonus is described as a percentage of the nonexempt employee’s total (W-2) earnings, thereby including both regular and overtime payments and obviating the need for recalculation of the regular rate.

 

The Ohio Employer's Law Blog is also a great resource on this topic.

Nuts and Bolts of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and RESPECT

Basic Provisions: 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 the NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.
  • Mandates initial collective bargaining contract be negotiated within 120 days of union certification. If no contract is reached, the first contract is produced by an arbitrator through an interest arbitration process. The first contract covers employees for 2 years.
  • Imposes sanctions on employers who engage in unfair labor practices during a union representation drive including $20,000 per violation and double back pay awards for discharged employees.

The RESPECT Act changes the definition of supervisor under the NRLA to allow working supervisors to become union members. Working supervisors are those who don't spend a majority of there time in strictly management activities. Working Supervisors have there current status as supervisors as a result of assigning or directing the work of others.

 

Employment Implications: EFCA is a monumental change to the NLRA which eliminates the employer's campaign to rebut a union organizing drive following the filing of a petition with the NLRB. Authorization cards are an unreliable mechanism for determining employee union interest. Interestingly, there are no changes to the decertification process in EFCA. To get rid of a union, employees must file a petition with the NRLB and go through the traditional secret ballot election process.

 

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.  Reliance on arbitrators to craft a contract where none has existed before is ridiculous. The arbitrator will likely be unfamiliar with the business and the result will likely be a cookie cutter agreement that ignores important operational issues.

 

If enacted, EFCA will result in unprecedented organizing activity with employers losing their ability to demand a secret ballot election and engage in hard bargaining over a first contract. With the RESPECT Act, working supervisors will gain the right to organize and employers will lose one of their primary avenues to influence employees and obtain information.

 

Obama Administration Views: The Obama Administration's transition website (Change.gov) states that the Administration will "fight for the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act" and supports the passage of the RESPECT Act.

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.
 

 

E-Verify Final Regulations Issued Requiring Government Contractors and Subcontractors to Verify Employment for New and Existing Employees who Perform Contract Work

Federal government contractors and subcontractors will be required to begin using the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ E-Verify system starting Jan. 15, 2009 (now 5/21/09), to verify their employees’ eligibility to legally work in the United States.  The Civilian Agency Acquisition Council and the Defense Acquisition Regulations Council amended the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to reflect this change.  E-Verify must be used to verify all new employees and all employees who work on the covered government contract unless the employees were previously verified or commenced work for the employer before the June 6, 1986 the effective date of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.  Contract Officers will insert clauses in new contracts and solicitations.  In addition, certain existing government contracts may be amended to include the requirements.

E-verify provisions on covered contracts apply to all government contractors and subcontractors with limited exceptions detailed in the final regulations. Each covered contractor and subcontractor must: 

  • Enroll in the E-Verify Program within 30 days of the award of a contract, if not already enrolled.
  • Those employers already enrolled in E-Verify for 90 days as of the effective date of the new regulations must verify all new employees with 3 days of hire.
  • Those employers not enrolled in E-Verify must begin to verify all new employees within 90 calendar days of E-Verify enrollment whether or not such employee performs work on the government contract or subcontract within 3 days of the date of hire.
  • Verify each existing employee assigned to the contract within the later of 90 calendar days of E-Verify enrollment or 30 calendar days after the employee's assignment to the contract
  • Employees previously verified through E-Verify are exempt.
  • Elect to verify all employees hired after June 6, 1986 whether or not assigned to the contract.
  • The phrase “employee assigned to the contract” refers to individuals who were hired after June 6, 1986 who are “directly performing work under the contract,” and to exclude employees who normally perform support work, or who do not perform any substantial duties applicable to an individual contract.
  • Subcontracts must include a clause requiring compliance by the subcontractor.
  • A new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) will be published shortly.

The Final Regulations are summarized by the Office of Acquisition Policy and appear on the DHS website with a Small Entity Compliance Guide.

Final Regulations in .pdf: FAR Employment Eligibility Verification

DHS Website: Frequently Asked Questions: Federal Contractors and E-Verify

 

UPDATE:  Mandatory use of E-Verify for Government Contractors delayed again to May 21, 2009

Will Your Employees be some of the 5 million Workers Unions expect to add to their Membership under the Employee Free Choice Act?

Change is coming to Washington and to America's workplaces. President Elect Obama launched a new website Change.gov where he explains his labor agenda which included passage of the Employee Free Choice Act. The Obama Administration's transition views are summarized at the Connecticut Employment Law Blog.
Unions are on board too. After their push for Obama, Unions seek new rules for organizing workforces through the EFCA, as observed by Steve Greenhouse of the NYTimes:

With union membership sliding to 7.5 percent of the private-sector work force, one-third the rate in 1983, unions see enactment of the bill as the single most important step toward reversing their loss of membership and power. Some labor leaders predict that if the bill is passed, unions, which have 16 million members nationwide, would add at least five million workers to their rolls over the next few years.

The impact of the EFCA will be monumental so we will be dedicating a lot of blog time to this topic. Look for future posts in the following areas:

  • Nuts and Bolts of EFCA: examines the specifics of the proposed legislation.
  • Employer's Guide to Authorization Cards: looks in detail at authorization cards, their legal significance and how they are solicited by unions.
  • Identifying and Training Supervisors to Maintain your Union-Free Status: outlines the role of supervisors in disseminating the employer's message including the impact of the RESPECT Act.
  • Employee Engagement Surveys as a Tool to Combat Union Organizing: keeping your finger on the pulse of employee.
  • Becoming Politically Active in Response to EFCA: making your business's voice heard in Washington and particularly by the one Republican Senator, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has co-sponsored the EFCA.
  • How to Avoid Unfair Labor Practices when you are an Organizing Target: negotiating the legal landscape of traditional labor law.

 

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
 

Injunction "No-Match" for DHS Rulemaking

On October 23, 2008, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an advance copy of its supplemental final no-match safe harbor regulation initially issued in August 2007. The original regulation was set to take effect in September 2007 but was enjoined by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The revised regulation is expected to be published in the Federal Register any day, and will take effect immediately. Of course, it is possible (even likely) that another lawsuit may be filed seeking to block this final regulation.

While the substance of the regulation has not changed, DHS did address the two main concerns that lead the court to enjoin the original regulation. First, the preamble of the new regulation clarifies that employers will be considered to have constructive knowledge only if they receive a no-match letter from the Social Security Administration (SSA). That is, DHS will not impute constructive knowledge based on any other communication from the SSA. Second, DHS explained that it would not take action based on no-match letters involving employees hired before November 6, 1986 (the date the Immigration Reform and Control Act was enacted).

The revised regulation outlines the steps an employer must take in order to benefit from a “safe harbor” if the employee named in a no-match letter turns out to be an unauthorized worker. Upon receipt of a no-match letter, the employer should check internal records and either make appropriate corrections or ask the employee to correct the discrepancy within 90 days. Once the discrepancy is resolved, the employer should update the relevant I-9 paperwork and notify agencies of the correction. If the discrepancy cannot be resolved within 90 days, the employer must complete a new I-9 form for the employee by the 93rd day. In completing this new I-9, the employer may not accept any document with the social security number contained in the no-match letter. In addition, the new verification document must include a photo. If the employer is still unable to verify the identity and employment authorization of the employee, the safest course of action is to terminate the employee, or risk facing charges.

Employers should develop and implement a policy to ensure compliance with the process described in our August 2007 Employer Alert. Employers should note, however, that no-match letters were not issued in 2007 and will most likely not be issued in 2008.

ADA Amendments may Open the Door for Nicotine Addiction Claims

Today’s smokers [are] more addicted to nicotine according to a new study, which notes that 73% of those trying to quit are “highly dependent”. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20.2% of Americans are smokers. Pennsylvania has a slightly higher rate of smoking at 21.5 % with 51.9% attempting to quit. Many of these smokers are also employees.

Smokers are feeling the heat in the workplace through smoke-free workplace policies. Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog has a post asking Are there legal risks with smoking bans?  He notes that pushing back on these employer initiatives are  29 states which have enacted laws protecting employees who smoke from discrimination.

Pennsylvania has no law protecting smokers from discrimination. To the contrary, Pennsylvania’s new Clean Indoor Air Act mandates smoke-free workplaces and precludes employees from smoking indoors. However, the law allows employers to prohibit smoking anywhere on company property; it does not prevent the continuation of outdoor smoking areas. Employers are left with the sometimes delicate task of crafting a policy concerning outdoor smoking and monitoring the break schedules of employees who wish to smoke. In addition, many wellness programs have targeted smoking with cessation programs coupled with both financial incentives and penalties.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was recently amended to expand the definition of “disability” to the point that it may encompass nicotine addiction. The few ADA cases on “smoking” as a disability have not recognized a claim based on the pre-amendment definition of disability. However, the rationale for denying disability status to “smoking” or “nicotine addiction” is squarely predicated on the remedial nature of the condition exempting it from coverage of the ADA as expounded in Sutton v. United Airlines, Inc. The ADA Amendments expressly abrogated Sutton.  In the only published case of which I am aware, the court in Brashear v. Simms set forth the following rationale in dismissing a smoker’s ADA claim:

…[E]ven assuming that the ADA fully applies in this case, common sense compels the conclusion that smoking, whether denominated as “nicotine addiction” or not, is not a “disability” within the meaning of the ADA. Congress could not possibly have intended the absurd result of including smoking within the definition of “disability,” which would render somewhere between 25% and 30% of the American public disabled under federal law because they smoke. In any event, both smoking and “nicotine addiction” are readily remediable, either by quitting smoking outright through an act of willpower (albeit easier for some than others), or by the use of such items as nicotine patches or nicotine chewing gum. If the smokers' nicotine addiction is thus remediable, neither such addiction nor smoking itself qualifies as a disability within the coverage of the ADA, under well-settled Supreme Court precedent.

Pennsylvania employers can and must adopt policies prohibiting smoking in the workplace. However, employers may well be required to reasonably accommodate nicotine-addicted employees much as they would need to do so with other addictions, like drugs and alcohol. The scope of such accommodations must be explored. Section G of the EEOC’s Guidance on Applying Performance Standards to Employees with Disabilities may prove helpful.

 

UPDATE:  How will this new wrinkle weigh in the mix: Under Obama will smoking become  "cool" again?

Obama Victory may give rise to Unprecedented Unionization of the American Workplace

Union membership and the public perception of the role of labor unions are relatively unchanged in recent years. Union membership was up only slightly in 2007 based on a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Department of Labor, which published the following statistics on union membership:

     Percentage of unionized workforce
     Total - 12.5%
     Public sector - 36.5%

     Private sector - 7.8%

Public perceptions of unions is also remained constant. An annually conducted Gallop Poll shows a relatively constant union approval rating hovering around 60%, with only 22% of those polled feeling that unions would be “stronger” in the future.

The 2008 Election may dramatically change the landscape of U.S. labor relations with a reinvigoration of organized labor. The following influence could align to compel unprecedented unionization:

  • Payback to Union Supporters: Democratic candidates received substantial support from organized labor both financially and in getting out the vote. This support will garner political power, which will likely translate into a pro-union legislative agenda.
  • Uncontested Legislative Agenda: Senator Obama is the cosponsor of the EFCA and RESPECT Act both of which are strongly supported by unions. A Democratic majority in the House and Senate will pave the way for an uncontested legislative agenda that will likely include these laws. Republicans could be unable to slow the process down using a “filibuster” if the Democrats secure a 60-seat majority in the Senate to invoke cloture on floor debates.
  • Economic Woes: The economy downturn will continue to hurt businesses making necessary reductions in force, smaller paychecks and other cuts in benefits. The promises of job security and better wages are typical union themes. Nervous workers may turn to unions for help.  Traditionally, unions were forced to the bargaining table where strikes were their primary weapon to put economic pressure on an employer. The historic economic balance between unions and employers will be upset by passage of the EFCA, which mandates arbitrator-crafted contracts within 120 days after initial union recognition.
  • Unprepared Employers: Passage or the RESPECT Act and the EFCA would be a one-two punch for which many employers will be grossly unprepared. RESPECT would make many working supervisors eligible to unionize and to assist a union in collecting cards and other organizing activities. Employers would be unable to use these working supervisors as advocates for their union-free message or to collect intelligence on organizing activities. The EFCA would eliminate the secret ballot and mandate first contracts through arbitration.

 

Prohibition of Excessive Overtime in Health Care Act will Exacerbate Nursing Shortage

Clinical staffing problems for Pennsylvania healthcare facilities created by shortages of nursing professionals will be greatly exacerbated by a new law prohibiting mandatory overtime for employees engaged in direct patient care. The Commonwealth is already facing a nursing shortage, which is growing worse. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Pennsylvania health care providers will experience a 41 percent vacancy rate in nursing positions by the year 2020, requiring more than 54,000 nurses to provide adequate patient care. Restrictions on the amount of work time for an already short labor pool will likely increase problems.

The Prohibition on Excessive Overtime in Health Care Act becomes effective on July 1, 2009. Health care facilities covered by the law include hospitals, ASCs, hospices, long-term care facilities and other inpatient facilities, but it excludes private physician offices and group practices. Employees protected by the law include all nonsupervisory employees involved in direct patient care activities or clinical services, including individuals employed through a temporary service or employment agency. Physicians, physician’s assistants, dentists, and job classes with no direct patient care are excluded from the overtime limitations.

 

A health care facility cannot compel a protected employee to work more than an agreed to, predetermined and regular daily shift exclusive of “on call” time, unless one of the following exceptions applies:

(1)     the employee voluntarily agrees;

(2)     there is an unforeseen emergent circumstance but as a “last resort”, after exhausting other staffing options and giving the employee one hour arrange for family care alternatives;

(3)     the extended work is required to complete a patient care procedure already in progress, but only if the employee’s departure would have an adverse effect on the patient.

 

Employers are permitted to have agreed upon, predetermined and regular shifts greater than 8 hours; however, an employee who volunteers to work more than 12 consecutive hours shall be entitled to 10 hours off duty but may waive the entitlement. Employers may not retaliate against employees who refuse to accept work in excess of the limits. Employers who violate the law are subject to fines ranging from $100 to $1000 per violation.

 

The Department of Labor and Industry is to develop regulations within 18 months.  The law received modest press as it was signed by the Governor along with 31 other pieces of legislation.

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

Bosses do not Deserve RESPECT

October 16th is the annual celebration of Boss’s Day, which has traditionally been the day for employees to “thank their boss for being kind and fair throughout the year”. In most workplaces, it is clear who is a boss and who is not. The boss is the one who tells you what to do, completes your performance review and hassles you when you do not follow company policy.

The term “boss” generally means “supervisor”. For us in the legal-compliance world, knowing who is a supervisor and who is not is very important. Supervisors are not paid minimum wage and overtime; cannot be members of a union; and make the company liable for their actions like sexual harassment. Organized Labor has pushed the NLRB to narrowly define supervisor, but the Supreme Court rejected previous definitions as inconsistent with the text of the NLRA. In Oakwood Healthcare Inc, the NLRB modified the definitions of "assign," "responsibly direct," and "independent judgment" (all used to determine a supervisor) to conform to the Supreme Court rulings in NLRB v. Kentucky River Comty. Care, Inc. and NLRB v. HCR.

The RESPECT Act would make three major changes to the current definition. It would eliminate the two most common supervisory duties- the authority "to assign" other employees, and the authority to "responsibly to direct" other employees. In addition, the RESPECT Act would require that the "majority of a supervisor's work time" be spent engaging in the remaining duties outlined in the NLRA definition below.

The new definition of “supervisor” under Section 2(11) of the NLRA would read as follows:

Any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, and for a majority of the individual’s worktime, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay-off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them,or to adjust their grievances or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.

 

Changing the definition of “supervisor” would significantly affect many workplaces by:

  • Create divided loyalties among front-line supervisors who assign work to employees. Under the RESPECT Act, such supervisors would be covered by the NLRA and could then form, join or assist labor organizations; be eligible to vote in NLRB supervised elections; solicit signatures for union authorization cards from "co-workers;" or picket, go on strike or engage in other work stoppages that would be inconsistent with a supervisor's duty.
  • Fundamentally tip the balance between the dual functions of the national labor policy: (1) to protect the rights of rank-and-file employees in exercising their rights to form, join or assist a union without managerial or supervisory interference, while at the same time (2) ensuring supervisors act as agents in the interests of their employers in matters of labor-management relations.
  • To the extent that the NLRA definition is changed, there may also be changes to the FLSA’s definition, triggering litigation involving individuals currently classified, as "supervisors" but who may not meet a new definition.

Organized Labor’s legislative wish list includes the Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Trades workers ("RESPECT") Act, along with similarly misnamed Employee Free Choice Act.   Candidate Obama supports both acts; while Candidate McCain opposes them. The addition of supervisors to the ranks of potential union members and the ease of organizing workforces without a secret ballot election would dramatically change the balance of labor management relations. It would also greatly increase the dues collected by unions from organized employees.

Criminal Background Checks - Act 73's Impact on Pennsylvania Employers

Employers engaging in business where employees have “significant likelihood of regular contact with children” should be paying close attention to the amendments to Pennsylvania’s Child Protective Services Act, also know as Act 73. Act 73 became effective on July 1, 2008, and has taken many employers off guard.

Act 73 expands criminal background check requirements under the Child Protective Services Act beyond its traditional scope, which included employees engaging in child care professions, adoptive parents and foster families. Now, “prospective employees applying to engage in occupations with a significant likelihood of regular contact with children, in the form of care, guidance, supervision or training” must also undergo criminal background checks prior to being employed. Examples of such prospective employees identified by Act 73 include, social service workers, hospital personnel, mental health professionals, members of the clergy, counselors, librarians and doctors. 

What background checks are required for covered prospective employees? A Pennsylvania criminal background check, a Department of Public Welfare clearance and a report of Federal criminal history record information verified by a fingerprint check.   The Federal fingerprint check is new. Applicants with founded reports of child abuse during the five-year period preceding their application are ineligible to be hired. Applicants with any state or Federal convictions related to certain crimes (e.g. homicide, rape, indecent exposure and corruption of minors) are also ineligible to be hired. 

Act 73 is creating some headaches for employers in a couple of areas. The Act’s general statement concerning “significant likelihood of regular contact with children” is not further defined and there are no anticipated regulations coming to give further guidance to employers. Employers, such as hospitals, that provide services to children and adults are struggling to define what employees fall within Act 73’s requirements. For example, housekeeping and environmental services employees may have contact with children simply by being present in the hospital, although childcare is not part of their job.

 

Another area causing difficulty for employers is the new requirement of a Federal background fingerprint check. Employees are initially responsible for obtaining the Federal background check. These checks can take upwards of sixty days and many applicants are simply unaware of the new requirements at the time they apply. The result has been difficulty in filling needed positions quickly. Employers are permitted to hire employees on a provisional basis provided that the employee provides proof of application for a Federal background check. Provisional hiring periods for in-state applicants cannot exceed 30 days. The period is 90 days for out of state applicants.

 

Employers should approach Act 73 with an abundance of caution, especially in light of its potentially broad reach. Intentional failure of a person to obtain necessary background checks from a covered applicant is a misdemeanor of the third degree.

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%.

"Excessive Subjectivity" and Discrimination - A New EEOC Sex Discrimination Lawsuit

On September 23, 2008, the EEOC filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York against Sterling Jewelers Inc., the largest specialty retail jeweler in the United States. The EEOC's Complaint alleges that Sterling "pays its female retail sales employees less than male employees performing substantially equal work and denies female employees promotional opportunities for which they are qualified." The lawsuit seeks relief on behalf of a class of potentially thousands of current and former female employees of Sterling throughout the U.S. Sterling owns and operates the Kay Jewelers and Jared The Galleria of Jewelry stores and various regional retail jewelry establishments.

In both the Complaint and press release issued by the EEOC on September 24, 2008 to announce the lawsuit, the EEOC claims that Sterling's system for making promotion and compensation decisions is "excessively subjective" and has resulted in both disparate treatment and disparate impact sex discrimination. The "excessive subjectivity" claim is the primary allegation of unlawful discrimination in the complaint.

 

The use of subjective criteria in employment decisions often is unavoidable. Simply put, purely objective criteria is not always available or appropriate for hiring, compensation, promotion, and discharge decisions. "Excessive" subjectivity, however, can give rise to allegations of discriminatory treatment and systematic bias. Employers and their counsel often struggle to balance the desire to use all appropriate criteria when making employment decisions, including both objective and subjective criteria, with the knowledge that "excessive subjectivity" in the decision-making can create perceptions of bias and increase the potential for discrimination claims. 

 

Of course, determining what is "excessive subjectivity," as opposed to typical subjectivity common in many employment decisions, can be difficult. This problem is more significant for larger employers that lack a centralized structure for employment decision-making. An employer with more independent decision-makers has a greater chance for "excessive subjectivity," especially if the employer has not promulgated clear guidelines or requirements for the decision-making process.

 

The EEOC has made clear that it views "excessive subjectivity" in compensation and promotion systems as a high priority enforcement issue for the agency. The Sterling case, with its nationwide scope and focus on this issue, emphasizes the EEOC's commitment. Employers and their counsel should be aware of this issue and review their hiring, compensation, and promotion procedures to determine whether changes could produce a better structured, less subjective system.

Why Union Organizers come Knocking on an Employee's Door and Why the Employee Free Choice Act will increase those "House Calls"

One big frustration for union organizers is access to employees for the purpose of soliciting union authorization cards and peddling the union message. Sophisticated employers have no solicitation policies, which force union organizers out of the workplace and into the parking lots and homes of employees.

The primary barrier to union home visits is determining where employees live. Until a union files a petition for election, an employer isn’t obligated to hand over employee names and address. To file a petition for election under the current law, a union must obtain signed authorization cards from 30% of the employees in an appropriate unit. Home visits are a very effective way of putting pressure on employees to sign cards, because most people view the visit as an intrusion and just want the “visitor” to leave. Therefore, they sign the card without much thought to its significance.

Unions use a variety of methods to get employee addresses such as company directories and just asking employees. Unions will go to great lengths to obtain employee addresses even employing a controversial method called “tagging.” Tagging involves Union members writing down the license plate number of employee vehicles in an employer’s parking lot and running the license plates to obtain the name and address of the person who owns the vehicle. Addresses are then used for home visits. The practice of tagging was recently struck down, in Pichler, et al. v. UNITE, decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. 

The Employee Free Choice Act will fundamentally alter the role of authorization cards and increase the importance of house calls. Under the EFCA, a union can be recognized as the bargaining representative for a company’s employees if it obtains signed authorization cards from more than 50% of the employees in an appropriate unit. Pressuring employees at home will likely become even more frequently employed tactic.

One Less Tactic In Organized Labor's Arsenal: Third Circuit says No To "Tagging"

In Pichler, et al. v. UNITE, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has weighed in on the controversial union organizing tactic known as "tagging." In its effort to organize employees of Cintas Corporation, the largest domestic employer in the industrial laundry industry, UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees) engaged in "house calls," i.e., knocking on doors at the homes of Cintas' employees in an effort to convince them to support the Union. In order to locate the home addresses of these employees, the Union would record the license plate numbers of cars found in Cintas' parking lots to access information contained in state motor vehicle records relating to those license plates. This process was known as "tagging."

Unfortunately for the Union, a group of Cintas employees, objecting to what they perceived to be a violation of their privacy rights, sued the Union under the Driver's Privacy Protection Act. That federal statute provides that a "person who knowingly obtains, discloses or uses personal information, from a motor vehicle record, for a purpose not permitted under this chapter shall be liable to the individual to whom the information pertains, who may bring a civil action …" While the statute enumerates 14 exceptions to the general prohibition, the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's conclusion that union organizing was not listed among the 14 "permissible uses." 

The Court's majority rejected the Union's assertion that there were two exceptions which made its tagging permissible: the "litigation" exception and the "acting on behalf of the government" exception. The Court's majority reasoned that it did not matter whether the Union may have used the confidential information for either of these permissible purposes because it clearly admitted using the information for an impermissible purpose, union organizing. It was on this point that Judge Sloviter dissented. She asserted that summary judgment should not have been granted, so that a jury could determine whether the Union's "primary purpose" in obtaining and using the confidential information was to monitor potential legal violations by Cintas, a permissible use under the statute.

The Court also reversed the lower court's finding on punitive damages, holding that the plaintiff employees were entitled to a jury trial on their punitive damages claim. However, the most substantial impact of the Third Circuit's decision may be in its clear message to union organizers: tag at your own risk. And employers may be heartened to know that if, as many expect, the Employee Free Choice Act is soon enacted, unions will be far less likely to use tagging in their quest to obtain those valuable authorization cards.

 

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.

Pennsylvania Workplaces Must be Smoke-free by September 11, 2008

The effective date of Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act is fast approaching leaving many employers with questions about what they should be doing to comply with the new law. Here are some steps that employers may wish to consider in fostering good employee relations and avoiding the civil and criminal penalties associated with violations of the CIAA:

Get Familiar with the Requirements of the Law. An Employer Toolkit is available from the Department of Health setting out the basic requirements of the law. We have posted on the CIAA as follows:

Pennsylvania enacts Clean Indoor Air Act Prohibiting Smoking in most Public Places including Workplaces

Department of Health Issues Guidance for Employer Compliance with the Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air Act

 

Post Required Signage Designating Nonsmoking Areas. Employers must post signs prohibiting smoking in the workplace and designating outdoor smoking areas that are not too close to entrances or exits. Downloadable signs for both “No Smoking” and “Smoking Permitted” in English and Spanish are available from DOH.

 

Adopt a Policy on Workplace Smoking for Employees and Customers. Adopting a policy is not an express requirement of the law but makes good sense for effective employee communications and to establish the employer’s good faith defense to civil and criminal penalties under the law. The DOH (through its partner PACT) has a sample policy, which I do not recommend. At a minimum, a policy should designate the all indoor workplace areas as nonsmoking and, if elected, those outdoor areas where smoking is permitted. Other restrictions on smoking such as time and frequency of breaks should be addressed. The consequences of violating the policy should be set forth along with acknowledgment of the CIAA anti-retaliation provisions for employees who complain about violations.

 

Conduct Training for Supervisors and Employees. Employers should notify employees of the new law and its restrictions either in conjunction with introduction of the policy or otherwise. Avoid pitting the smokers against the nonsmokers. This is a state law, you don’t have a choice. Mention of the criminal fines and consequences of violation of the law is appropriate.

 

Consider a Smoking Cessation Program to help Smokers Adapt to the New Law. As mentioned previously, the CIAA may be a chance to offer a wellness program including a smoking cessation component.

Tobacco Free Workplace Policies may be integrated with Wellness Programs

 

Apply for Necessary Exemptions.  Drinking Establishments, Cigar Bars, and Tobacco Shops should apply for an exemption if they intend to allow smoking under the exemptions provided in the CIAA. 

WARN Act's Faltering Company Exception Clarified

Businesses face increasing uncertainty over the availability of financing because of the economic downturn and tightening of credit markets.   Financially troubled businesses may need to curtail operations through a plant closing or mass layoff if additional financing is not received. Employers need to manage compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) as their negotiations with financial markets unfold.

WARN provides for an exception to the sixty-day notice requirement when a “faltering company” is confronted with a possible plant closing; however, the exception is a narrow one that requires careful employer analysis. An employer claiming the exception must prove: (1) it is actively seeking capital at the time the 60-day notice would have been required; (2) it had a realistic opportunity to obtain the financing sought; (3) the financing would have been sufficient, if obtained, to enable the employer to avoid or postpone the shutdown; and (4) the employer reasonably and in food faith believed that sending the 60-day notice would have precluded it form obtaining the financing.

A recent court decision in In Re: APA Transport Corp. Consolidated Litigation discussed several critical elements of the faltering company exception including the following:

Consolidation of related companies into a “Single Employer”

Related companies may be treated as a “single employer” for determining whether the employer meets the 100-employee coverage threshold for WARN and to assess whether the company is faltering. The faltering company exception is not available if a related has adequate capital to continue operations and it is treated as a single employer. Five factors are used to determine if related companies are liable under WARN on “single employer” grounds:

  • Common ownership
  • Common directors and/or officers
  • De facto exercise of control, i.e., one company was the decision maker for the employment practice that gave rise to the litigation
  • Unity of personnel policies emanating from a single source
  • Dependency of operations, i.e., interchange of employees or equipment or commingling of finances.

Timing and Proof of “Actively Seeking Additional Financing” 

 

According to the court, WARN requires that steps to “actively seek financing” be taken “at the time that the 60-day notice would have been required.” Therefore, the actions of the company occurring during the period of time, which is sixty days before the plant closing, must demonstrate active pursuit of financing. The court rejected APA’s argument that a company may qualify for the faltering company defense irrespective of whether it was actively seeking capital at the time the notice was required, so long as it did no foresee the shutdown that occurred sixty days later. Employers must demonstrate the timing and steps it took to secure financing.  The court’s view of the exception places a degree of omniscience on employers to predict exactly when the company will shut down.

 

Incidentally, the faltering company exception does not apply to mass layoffs under WARN.

Business Websites Face Americans with Disabilities Act Accommodations Claims

Target Corp. has agreed to pay $6 million in damages to plaintiffs in California unable to use its online site as part of a class action settlement with the National Federation of the Blind. The issue centers on the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirements that retailers and other public places to make accommodations for people with disabilities. Target had argued that the ADA covered only physical spaces. The California court held that the ADA covers an online retailer’s website. Websites can be made more accessible through screen-reading software that converts text into speech for visually impaired access. The court certified the case as a class action before it settled.

The case has important implications for retailers who may now face class action lawsuits. Employers that rely on a web-based application and recruiting processes should also examine their websites for compliance with the ADA’s employment provisions which require accessibility and accommodation in the hiring process.   A recent OFCCP Directive sets forth the agency's policy on review of employer websites where applications are solicited:

Effective immediately, all compliance evaluations shall include a review of the contractor's online application systems to ensure that the contractor is providing equal opportunity to qualified individuals with disabilities and disabled veterans. The review should include whether the contractor is providing reasonable accommodation, when requested, unless such accommodation would cause an undue hardship. In this directive, the term "online system" shall include, but not be limited to, all electronic or web-based systems that the contractor uses in all of its personnel activities.

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.

Per Employee Fines for Violations of OSHA Standards on Personal Protective Equipment and Training

Employers are unhappily surprised to learn that OSHA citations can include multiple fines for what is seemingly the same violation, particularly when fines are tallied up for each employee exposed to a hazard.   OSHA recently clarified its regulations concerning its longstanding policy of issuing per employee fines for violations of PPE and training obligations:

Under OSHA's longstanding egregious policy first implemented in 1990, OSHA may seek a separate penalty for each discrete violation in cases where an employer has flagrantly disregarded its legal responsibilities for the safety and health of workers. The proposal addresses several recent legal decisions suggesting that differences in wording among OSHA standards may affect OSHA's ability to issue separate penalties for each discrete violation in certain circumstances.

The regulatory clarification became necessary after several administrative and court decisions declined to enforce the imposition of per-employee fines in PPE and training cases based upon the wording of OSHA regulations. The OSHA proposed regulations revise the wording to make clear the agency's intent to impose per-employee fines for such violations. The revisions primarily affect PPE and training related to health hazards, such as asbestos and lead. Specific changes within the proposed rule include the following: (1) new paragraphs in the introductory provisions of OSHA's standards that all PPE and training requirements impose a separate compliance duty to each covered employee, and that each employee not protected or trained may be considered a separate violation; and (2) revisions of the language of some existing respirator and training requirements. The proposed regulations also make clear that training programs must account for differences in individual employees such as language requirements.

Drinking Establishment Exemption Process Detailed by PA Dept of Health

The Department of Health (DOH) released additional Guidance and an application for an exemption for drinking establishments, cigar bars, and tobacco shops under Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act (CIAA). The DOH information tangentially addresses the cross over between the prohibition on smoking in “workplaces” that may also be exempt “drinking establishments”.  For example, the law and guidance prohibit individuals less than 18 years of age in an exempt establishment at any time for any reason and require signage to that effect. Obviously, this creates a whole class of jobs that those under 18 may not perform supplementing existing child labor and liquor laws governing employment of minors.

The CIAA preempts local smoking ordinances except it does not apply to the City of Philadelphia, which has its own grandfathered Ordinance regulating smoking in public places.

 

Other postings on this subject include the following:

 

Pennsylvania enacts Clean Indoor Air Act Prohibiting Smoking in most Public Places including Workplaces

 

Department of Health Issued Guidance for Employer Compliance with Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air Act

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.

Department of Health Issues Guidance for Employer Compliance with the Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air Act

The Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) has issued Guidance in preparation for the September 11, 2008 effective date of Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act (CIAA). The Guidance has the following noteworthy provisions and references collateral documents:

  • Owner/Employer Compliance ToolkitAdditional guidance will be available in a Toolkit which will be available on the DOH website beginning August 20, 2008.
  • Signage RequirementsSignage for entrances and areas where smoking is not permitted is also available on the DOH website beginning August 20, 2008.
  • Outdoor Smoking AreasDOH recommends that outdoor smoking areas be a minimum distance of 20 feet from any doorway, if possible.
  • FAQ PublishedA frequently asked question section is added to the DOH website. The most interesting FAQ answer relates to the establishment of separate smoking facilities, which the DOH indicates, “The CIAA does not permit the construction of separate area with its own ventilation system and entrance for the sole purpose smoking.”
  • Exemption Approval ProcessAdditional Guidance will be published for obtaining an exemption for tobacco shops, cigar bars, and drinking establishments.
  • Workplace ExemptionsAdditional Guidance will be published for obtaining an exemption for organizations, workplaces, facilities, residences, and events.

For additional information on the CIAA, see our prior post Pennsylvania enacts Clean Indoor Air Act Prohibiting Smoking in most Public Places including Workplaces.

UPDATE:  Pennsylvania Workplaces Must be Smoke-free by September 11, 2008

Making Sure Your "HEART" Is In The Right Place When It Comes To Soldier-Employee's Benefits

On June 17, 2008, President Bush signed into law the Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act of 2008 (the "HEART Act"). The HEART Act extends or modifies several tax and retirement benefits for active-duty and former military service members, and employers and plan administrators should be familiar with its provisions.

Retirement Plans

            Currently, for purposes of retirement plan vesting or accruals, an individual's period of qualified military service is treated as a period of employment, which is credited when the soldier-employee returns to work. As such, if the individual dies during military service, his or her survivors do not receive accelerated vesting, ancillary life or other benefits they may have received if the employee died while actively performing his civilian employment. Under the HEART Act, retirement plans must pay the survivors of a soldier-employee who dies during qualified military service any benefits (other than those that accrued during military service) that the plan would have paid had the employee died during active employment. If a plan fails to follow this provision, it will be disqualified. Of note, this provision is effective for military service related deaths and disabilities occurring on or after January 1, 2007, so some plan sponsors may have to provide this benefit retroactively or risk disqualification.

            In addition to this mandatory provision, the HEART Act provides that retirement plans may elect to provide optional benefits to soldier-employees and their families. Notably, under one of the optional benefits, a plan may treat someone who dies or becomes disabled during qualified military service as if he or she resumed employment the day before the death or disability occurred and then terminated employment because of the death or disability. This optional benefit allows the plan to pay out benefits that would have accrued during the soldier-employee's military service presuming he or she was reemployed. Plan sponsors that elect to make this benefit available must do so for all employees performing qualified military service on a reasonably equivalent basis.

Differential Wage Payments

            The voluntary payments made by some employers to service members during a qualified military leave to account for the difference between what the soldier-employee makes in the military and what his or her average compensation was while actively employed are commonly referred to as "differential wage payments." Under prior law, the Income Revenue Service (IRS) took the position that these payments were not subject to tax withholding and were not required to be treated as compensation for retirement plan purposes. Under the HEART Act, however, as of January 1, 2009, differential wage payments will be deemed wages subject to income tax withholding and must be treated as compensation of the employee for retirement plan purposes. In the HEART Act, "differential wages" is a term of art that includes: "compensation paid by an employer to an individual who is on active duty in the uniformed services for a period of more than 30 days, that represent all or a portion of the wages the individual would have received from the employer if the individual had remained in active employment with the employer." Any plan amendments relating to differential wages must be made on or before the last day of the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2010. 

Flexible Spending Arrangements

            The HEART Act permits health flexible spending arrangements ("FSA") to provide "qualified reservist distributions." A soldier-employee may be eligible for a "qualified reservist distribution" if he or she is called to active military duty for at least 180 days (or for an indefinite period), and the distributions are made during the period beginning with the active-duty call and ending on the last day of the FSA's coverage period that includes the date of the active-duty call. Although this provision will help employees avoid the FSA use-it-or-lose-it rule, a number of important issues remain open for clarification. Specifically, the permissible amount of the distribution, timing of the distribution, and taxation of the distribution are not squarely addressed under the HEART Act. Accordingly, employers may amend their FSAs to include qualified reservist distributions as of June 17, 2008, it is advisable for employers to wait to offer these distributions until after the IRS clarifies some of the foregoing issues.

Electronic Monitoring of Teleworkers

John Phillips at The Word on Employment Law posted about the “Electronic Leash” and cites to a Wall Street Journal post by Sue Shellenbarger that conjures up visions of 1850 sweatshops with following description of employer’s exploitive electronic monitoring of home workers:

In a budding trend some employment experts say is invasive, companies are stepping up electronic monitoring and oversight of tens of thousands of home-based independent contractors. They're taking photos of workers' computer screens at random, counting keystrokes and mouse clicks and snapping photos of them at their computers. They're plying sophisticated technology to instantaneously detect anger, raised voices or children crying in the background on workers' home-office calls. Others are using Darwinian routing systems that keep calls coming so fast workers have no time to go to the bathroom.

The Home Shoring business proponents put a different spin on the work environment tauting flexibility for workers and accountability for businesses using their services. Although I have never worked in a call center, my interaction with employers that have them shows me that they are highly structured work environments where productivity is closely monitored. Many employees who do not work at home are subject to some of the same types of electronic monitoring that seems objectionable to home workers. Maybe this begs the question, but why should the home-work environment be any less supervised than the at-work environment?

Employer’s biggest concern for at home workers is the lack of supervision. Many advocates of working at home know it has limitations. Teleworking is not for everyone. As noted by Brittany Maling at HR World, it requires self-disciplined and efficient workers who are most successful if their home office mimicks the traits of the traditional work environment. Perhaps the future of telecommuting has reached its tipping point, but there are still many issues to be worked out including the proper balance between mistrust and obsessive monitoring.

From a legal perspective, the degree of electronic supervision directed toward an independent contractor will likely result in a recharacterization of the relationship to one of employee/employer.   We have previously outlined the other legal issues in Legal issues in Telecommuting: Gas Prices make Businesses Reconsider Policies.

HR GENERALIST RESOURCES: EEOC Issues New Compliance Assistance on Religious Discrimination and Accommodation

On July 22, 2008, the EEOC issued a new section of its Compliance Manual addressing the subject of religious discrimination. The section "provides guidance and instructions for investigating and analyzing charges alleging discrimination based on religion." The new section does not change a Pennsylvania employer's legal obligations, imposed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), as amended, with respect to religious discrimination and accommodation. It does, however, provide a handy reference tool for many religious discrimination issues and offer some insight into the EEOC's current thinking on this often difficult subject. 

As a protected trait under both Title VII and the PHRA, religion may form the basis of disparate treatment, harassment, retaliation, and failure to accommodate claims by applicants and employees. The EEOC's new section is divided into five sections reflecting the different types of possible religion discrimination claims:

  • Coverage issues, including the definition of "religion" and "sincerely held," the religious organization exception, and the ministerial exception.
  • Disparate treatment analysis of employment decisions based on religion, including recruitment, hiring, promotion, discipline, and compensation, as well as differential treatment with respect to religious expression; customer preference; security requirements; and bona fide occupational qualifications.
  • Harassment analysis, including religious belief or practice as a condition of employment or advancement, hostile work environment, and employer liability issues.
  • Reasonable accommodation analysis, including notice of the conflict between religion and work, scope of the accommodation requirement and undue hardship defense, and common methods of accommodation.
  • Related forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on national origin, race, or color, as well as retaliation.

In addition to the standard harassment, disparate treatment, and retaliation requirements, the EEOC continues to recognize and enforce the following employer obligations:

  • Reasonable Accommodation. Once on notice, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship. A reasonable religious accommodation can be any adjustment to the work environment or requirement that will allow the employee to practice his religion. Examples of such accommodations may include allowing flexible scheduling, voluntary substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and lateral transfers, and modification of grooming requirements and other workplace practices and rules.
  • Undue Hardship. An employer need not accommodate an employee's religious beliefs and/or practices if doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employers' legitimate business interests. The undue hardship defense to providing religious accommodation requires a showing that the proposed accommodation in a particular case poses a “more than de minimis” cost or burden. This standard is far lower than that required for an undue hardship under the ADA, which is defined in that statute as “significant difficulty or expense."
  • Religious Expression and Participation. Employers must permit employees to engage in religious expression, unless the religious expression would impose an undue hardship on the employer. Generally, an employer may not place more restrictions on religious expression than on other forms of expression that have a comparable effect on workplace efficiency. Likewise, employees cannot be forced to participate, or not participate, in a religious activity as a condition of employment.

In addition to a description of the applicable legal requirements, the EEOC's new Compliance Manual section on religious discrimination also contains questions-and-answers and "best practices" information designed to assist employers with their compliance obligations. 

The issuance of this new compliance assistance demonstrates that the EEOC remains focused on religious discrimination and accommodation issues. For this reason and numerous others, employers also should be aware of and compliant with these requirements.

First Amendment Free Speech Protections Limit University's Enforcement of its Sexual Harassment Policy

A Federal Appeals Court in Philadelphia enjoined Temple University from enforcing its “facially overbroad” sexual harassment policy because some speech that creates a “hostile or offensive environment” may be protected speech under the First Amendment. In DeJohn v. Temple University, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated a public university’s Policy on Sexual Harassment that reads like that of many private employer’s, finding fault with the italicized language:

For all individuals who are part of the Temple community, all forms of sexual harassment are prohibited, including the following: an unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors,  or other expressive, visual or physical conduct of a sexual or gender-motivated nature when… (c ) such conduct has the purpose and effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work, educational performance, or status; or (d) such conduct has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

The court found three areas of the policy language that were overboard so as to potentially stifle protected free speech:

  • The phrase “gender-motivated nature” is too indefinite taking into account the speaker’s motivations not limiting only the affect of speech and possibly inhibiting expression of a broad range of social issues. The Court also cautioned that “we must be aware that ‘gender’ to some people, is a fluid concept.”
  • The phrase “conduct which has the purpose and effect of unreasonably interfering” is too broad as it prohibits speech that “intends” to cause disruption. The university may only prohibited speeches that it reasonably believes will actually and materially disrupt the learning environment. (Interestingly, the “purpose and effect” language used by the EEOC.)
  • The phrase “unreasonably interfere[s] with an individual’s work” is too restrictive because it may encompass speech that creates a hostile or offensive environment but is protected nonetheless. A policy may prohibit speech that “substantially” interferes by using an additional standard like “severe and pervasive.”

Many employees in the private sector believe they have a constitutional right to say whatever they want in the workplace.  This is not the case and employees in the private sector may be disciplined for violating workplace conduct standards.

Private employers are not subject to the free speech protections of the First Amendment.  They can also take solace in the fact that a federal court is less likely to wordsmith their employment policies. The case shows the difficulty that all employers face in regulating workplace speech and conduct.  There are obvious challenges in drafting a harassment policy that is not so replete with legalese that is becomes incomprehensible to the workforce.

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.

FLSA causes Global Warming: Sixteen Other Reasons to Consider a 4-day Work Week

It’s no secret that the FLSA is anachronistic, but now it’s ruining the planet too. The 40-hour week divided into 5 consecutive workdays is a product of the FLSA, which was enacted in 1938. During the last 70 years, we have been consuming energy by commuting to work and operating facilities all the while pumping green house gasses into the atmosphere for an extra day a week.

Aaron Newton makes this brilliant observation in his post on The 4 Day Work Week:

The notion of our standard work week here in America has remained largely the same since 1938. That was the year the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, standardizing the eight hour work day and the 40 hour work week. Each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday workers all over the country wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast and go to work. But the notion that the majority of the workforce should keep these hours is based on nothing more than an idea put forth but the Federal government almost 70 years ago. To be sure it was an improvement in the lives of many Americans who were at the time forced to work 10+ hours a day, sometimes 6 days of the week. So a 40 hour work week was seen as an upgrade in the lives of many of U.S. citizens. 8 is a nice round number; one third of each 24 hour day. In theory it leaves 8 hours for sleep and 8 hours for other activities like eating, bathing, raising children and enjoying life. But the notion that we should work for 5 of these days in a row before taking 2 for ourselves is, as best I can tell, rather arbitrary.

Mr. Newton then goes on to offer Sixteen Reason Why this is an Idea Whose Time has Come. This post is a “must read” for HR Professionals whose businesses may be evaluating the 4-day workweek option and looking for supporting reasons. The key downsides to the four-day week are losses in employee productivity and customer service. Comments challenging the 4-day workweek appear at the Oil Drum, which reprinted Newton’s post.

We have also outlined some legal limitations on the four-day concept in previous posts as it continues to garner a lot of media attention:

Four-Day Work Week Wave is Coming and Energy Expenses And Gas Prices Motivate Employers To Move To Four Day Workweek: What Are The Legal Issues?

 

Tobacco Free Workplace Policies may be integrated with Wellness Programs

As the effective date of Pennsylvania’s Clean Indoor Air Act approaches, businesses may wish to seize the opportunity to create a comprehensive tobacco-free workplace program including wellness initiatives. The no smoking law applies to all indoor work areas and permits an employer to completely prohibit smoking on its property. However, legal and employee relations considerations suggest an integrated approach to workplace smoking.

Smoking-related business cost are well documented. The Center for Disease Control has the following statistics on smoking:

  • For 1997–2001, cigarette smoking was estimated to be responsible for $167 billion in annual health-related economic losses in the United States ($75 billion in direct medical costs, and $92 billion in lost productivity), or about $3,561 per adult smoker.
  • An estimated, 20.8% of all adults (45.3 million people) smoke cigarettes in the United States.
  • Among current U.S. adult smokers, 70% report that they want to quit completely. In 2006, an estimated 19.2 million (44.2%) adult smokers had stopped smoking for at least 1 day during the preceding 12 months because they were trying to quit.

Design of an effective wellness program to address smoking can take many forms and requires collaboration between insurance brokers, benefit providers and legal advisors in light of limitations placed on certain aspects of their design including HIPAA's Nondiscrimination Requirements.    HIPAA regulations affect the design of wellness programs that take into account "health factors" when providing incentives under the program. Programs such as the following that do not take into account a participant's health factors when a reward is given or withheld for participation by an employee or beneficiary:

  • Health Assessments
  • Diagnostic testing that does not take into account test results
  • Preventive care encouragement incentives such as waivers of co-pays or deductibles
  • Smoking cessation programs so long as the benefit is received regardless of whether the employee quits smoking
  • Health education seminars
  • Gym membership reimbursement

Wellness programs that give rewards for healthy conduct or that penalize unhealthy activities (like smoking) must meet all of the five following standards:

  • Limited Reward:       All rewards offered under the program must not exceed 20% of the cost of coverage (total amount of employee and employer contribution). The reward can be in the form of a discount or rebate of premium or contribution; waiver of deductible, copayment or coinsurance; or the value of a benefit provided under the plan.
  • Reasonably Designed to Promote Health or Prevent Disease:    The plan must have a reasonable chance of improving health or preventing disease in a way that is not overly burdensome.
  • No More that Annual Qualification for Award:    Individuals eligible to participate must be given the opportunity to qualify at least once a year.
  • Uniform Reward Availability for "Similarly Situated" Individuals: The reward must be available to all similarly situated individuals and there must be a reasonable alternative for receiving the reward for any individual for whom it is unreasonably difficult due to a medical condition or for whom it is medically inadvisable to attempt to obtain the applicable standard. Physician verification may be required.
  • Plan Material must Describe all Terms:     The plan must describe all terms of the program and the availability of a reasonable alternative. The following language may be used to satisfy the alternative:

"If it is unreasonably difficult due to a medical condition for you to achieve the standards for the reward under this program, or if it is medically inadvisable for you to attempt to achieve the standards for the reward under this program, call us at            and we will work with you to develop another way to qualify for the reward."

Business initiatives to regulate off duty conduct have some legal risk. However, courts have so far rejected smoker’s claims of disability based upon nicotine addiction.

Use of Subjective Hiring Criteria May Require Procedural "Safeguards"

Most hiring decisions are predicated in some part on subjective criteria. Let’s take for example, “Attitude and communication skills” which are on the top the hiring criteria for Phil Gerbyshak at Slacker Manager’s based on his post 5 Must Have Skills. Undoubtedly these traits were assessed by one or more members of the Phil’s hiring team based on how the candidates presented themselves at the interview. This hiring approach is universally practiced by companies across the country and loathed by government enforcement agencies.

The EEOC and OFCCP have initiatives targeting an employer’s selection process. The EEOC announced its focus on employment testing and screening resulting in a fact sheet Employment Tests and Selection Procedures. Likewise, OFCCP has a program targeting Systemic Discrimination, which examines criteria used in the hiring process. Subjective criteria are scrutinized because of the fear that they will be manipulated for a discriminatory purpose.

Courts examining subjective hiring criteria have not outright prohibited their use, but have cautioned against their advancement because they are “easily fabricated”. Recently in Wingate v. Gage County School District, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an employer’s use of subjective criteria did not create an inference of age discrimination when objective criteria were also utilized to make the employment decision.

The legal analyses of subjective hiring criteria revolve around theories of disparate treatment or disparate impact. The measure of compliance has its origin in the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, which define interview questions as means of selection criteria and set forth the parameters for compliance.

The legal compliance for disparate treatment focuses on the following:

  • Whether the subjective criteria are job related
  • How they are measured
  • Whether the criteria are uniformly applied

According to Section 30 the OFCCP Compliance Manual, employers that utilize subjective hiring criteria will be evaluated for disparate treatment based, in part, upon their use of “safeguards” in the hiring process:

Safeguards consist of efforts made by the contractor to limit the possibility of differential application of the selection criteria/processes. In other words, treating members of a minority group or women differently than others in the application/evaluation of the criteria/processes. An example of a uniformly applied subjective process with safeguards could be an interview where all persons who pass the required test are interviewed regardless of minority or sex status; all interviewers are professionally trained in interviewing; all persons interviewed are asked the same questions; responses are documented; and answers are all evaluated in the same manner.

The legal compliance hurdles for disparate impact have a slightly different focus. The EEOC describes this process as follows:

  • If the selection procedure has a disparate impact based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, can the employer show that the selection procedure is job-related and consistent with business necessity? An employer can meet this standard by showing that it is necessary to the safe and efficient performance of the job. The challenged policy or practice should therefore be associated with the skills needed to perform the job successfully. In contrast to a general measurement of applicants’ or employees’ skills, the challenged policy or practice must evaluate an individual’s skills as related to the particular job in question.
  • f the employer shows that the selection procedure is job-related and consistent with business necessity, can the person challenging the selection procedure demonstrate that there is a less discriminatory alternative available? For example, is another test available that would be equally effective in predicting job performance but would not disproportionately exclude the protected group?

Employers who want to assess attitude and communication skills should consider the following additions to their hiring procedures:

  • Make attitude and communication skills an express criteria in job descriptions and summaries of minimum job requirements
  • Describe its job relatedness and business justification
  • Assess whether the criteria is creating an adverse impact
  • Implement “safeguards” in the hiring process describe in OFCCP Guidance

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

Corporate Social Responsibility: A Way of Life for Some Businesses

Nondiscrimination is a cornerstone of many CSR programs and a fundamental tenet of employment laws. However, for some, social responsibility and religion are inextricably intertwined creating a contradiction for CSR proponents. David W. Miller, Ph.D., Head of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture and professor of Business Ethics at Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Management, makes the following observation:

Many in the corporate world would rather not bring religion into the boardroom. Fair enough, especially if the purpose is to misuse religion for selfish or inappropriate purposes. But if advocates of CSR are interested in finding new allies in the quest to encourage businesses to become more ethical and attentive to their responsibilities to a wide range of stakeholders, they should think anew about the role of faith in the workplace.

CSR programs may benefit from the “faith-at-work” movement. Religion’s growing influence in business and government is reflected in faith-based and community initiatives like Bush’s Executive Order 13342 or Obama’s plans to “to build a ‘real’ partnership between faith-based organizations and the White House” if he becomes president.   Companies face challenges as the lines blur between CSR programs and religious practice at work.

For some “faith-friendly companies” , there isn't a distinction between social responsiblity and religious practice.   For example, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, there are businesses that are not on the cutting edge of technology, that aren’t familiar with the latest HR buzz words like outsourcing, SOX, etc., and that will never access the internet to read this or any other blog. Yet companies adopting this “business model” are substantial contributors to the local economy, take “going green” to a completely new level, and make social responsibility a way of life. 

Amish businesses have no corporate policy on social responsibility, but these businesses make the same sorts of contributions to community and environment that Starbucks reports in its mission statement on corporate responsibility. The Amish community lives off-the-grid and takes care of one another. Typically using windmills to pump water and a horse and buggy for their daily commute, they have no need to purchase Renewable Energy Credits to meet environmental goals. They have no health insurance; do not participate in government programs like social security and welfare. If someone needs help, the community provides it. Businesses may close so employees may engage in social service like a barn raising for family in the community.

Extreme for modern businesses…yes. However, there may be take-aways for any business evaluating a CSR program:

  • Initiatives may need to be “systemic”
  • Keep them simple
  • Emphasize community
  • Reject Hochmut (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) and Value Demut (humility)

The Genesis of a New Frontier in Employment Law: What's "GINA" Got To Do With You?

On May 21, 2008, President Bush signed into law the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 ("GINA"). GINA amends three employment-related laws including: (1) Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII); (2) the Employee Retirement Insurance Security Act (ERISA); and (3) the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). While most of the provisions will become effective in 2009, it is important for employers to be familiar with GINA's basic concepts and provisions to better prepare for the Act's implementation.

Why GINA?

At the time of GINA's passage, thirty-five states had laws relating to discrimination in employment based on genetic information. Pennsylvania does not. As the state laws vary, one of Congress's goals in enacting GINA is to provide for an umbrella federal provision applicable to all persons in the U.S. GINA does not preempt state laws that provide more protection for genetic information. Notably, this law is responsive to many efforts in the medical community to personalize medical care, such that diagnosis and treatment plans would be tailor made for each patient based on his or her genetic make up.

What Is "Genetic Information" Under GINA?

Under GINA, “genetic information” is broadly defined to include information about: (1) an individual's genetic tests, (2) the genetic tests of the individual's family members, and (3) the manifestation of a disease or disorder in a family member. “Family member” is defined to include an individual’s spouse or dependent child by birth or adoption, and certain other relatives of such individual, individual’s spouse or dependent child. “Genetic information” does not include information about the sex or age of any individual.

How Does GINA Amend Title VII?

The GINA amendments to Title VII are effective November 21, 2009. Specifically, GINA:

1.            Makes it an unfair employment practice for employers, employment agencies and others to discriminate against individuals based on “genetic information” in hiring, firing and other terms and conditions of employment; and

2.            Makes it unlawful to limit, segregate, or classify employees in any way that would deprive or tend to deprive the employee of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect the status of the employee because of genetic information.

            Notably, GINA provides that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has one year to issue implementing regulations and that an individual’s rights and remedies under GINA are analogous to those provided under Title VII; except no disparate impact claims are available under GINA.

Moreover, GINA generally prohibits employers from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information except under specific circumstances, such as for genetic services offered by the employer and for purposes of complying with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Like the Americans with Disabilities Act, GINA provides that to the extent an employer has genetic information, the employer must keep the information confidential. GINA is dissimilar from the ADA, however, because GINA prohibits discrimination based on the possibility of contracting a disease per family history or testing, whereas the ADA prohibits discrimination based on current/past/perceived disability.

How Does GINA Amend ERISA?

GINA's amendments to ERISA are effective May 21, 2009. Under GINA, an ERISA-covered group health plan cannot:

  • Request, require or purchase genetic information for underwriting purposes or in advance of an individual's enrollment;
  • Adjust premiums or contribution amounts of the group based on genetic information; or
  • Request or require an individual or family member to undergo a genetic test except in limited situations specifically allowed buy GINA.

Under GINA's amendments to ERISA, a group health plan's noncompliance may present significant liability for both the plan and its sponsor. Participants or beneficiaries will be able to sue noncompliant group health plans for damages and equitable relief. If the participant or beneficiary can show an alleged violation would result in irreparable harm to the individual's health, the participant or beneficiary may not have to exhaust the typical administrative remedies before suing in court.

            How Does GINA Amend HIPAA?

            HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, covers genetic information with additional safeguards.  HIPAA protects the privacy of an individual's medical information. GINA amends HIPAA to specifically state that genetic information should be considered medical information and receive the same privacy protections.  In addition, HIPAA now specifies that genetic information without a current diagnosis of illness is not a pre-existing condition. The HIPAA amendments will be published in the Federal Register no later than 60 days after GINA's enactment and will be effective upon publication.

How Does GINA Amend The FLSA?

In addition to creating an entirely new protected trait, GINA also contained amendments to the child labor provisions of the FLSA. The amendments to the FLSA are effective as of May 21, 2008. Specifically, the amendments (1) increase the penalty for child labor violations by $1,000 per violation and (2) raise potential employer liability to $50,000 where a violation causes the death or serious injury of a minor.  This amount can be doubled for repeat or willful violations.

How To Prepare For GINA?

Although not currently effective, it is recommended that employers take a proactive position on preparing their enterprises for GINA. Some things to consider include:

·        Revising EEO and Anti-Harassment Policies to include "genetic information."

·        Monitoring your group healthcare plan to assure that it will be in compliance, afterall GINA provides for plan sponsor liability.

·        Creating a policy to flag genetic information provided for FMLA leave v. genetic information provided for other forms of leave. As of now, it appears that only FMLA leave situations fit within the leave exception to GINA.

·        Create a policy wherein genetic information is stored in the same manner as all medical documents submitted for ADA purposes (i.e. confidentially).

·        Stay Tuned to What the Agencies Issue During The Next Year!

Four-Day Work Week Wave is Coming

Most state workers in Utah are shifting to 4-day week with announcement of the 'Working 4 Utah' initiative, extending state government service hours from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday beginning the first week of August. State administrative offices will be closed on Fridays but essential public services will remain open that already run on extended hours and during the weekends. Utah Governor Jon Huntsman stated that

As we go forward with this initiative, we will conserve energy, save money, improve our air quality, and enhance customer service…. We live in a dynamic, ever-changing environment, and it's crucial that we take a serious look at how we can adapt and maintain our state's unparalleled quality of life.

 Working 4 Utah cost saving analysis examined the impact of moving from five 8-hour days to four 10-hour days in terms of Reduction in Energy use for Government Buildings; Fuel Savings from less Commuting; Employee Financial Savings; and Emission Reductions.

Workforce Management notes that the Gas Price Could Revolutionize U.S. Workplace.  We have posted on Energy Expenses And Gas Prices Motivate Employers To Move To Four Day Workweek: What Are The Legal Issues? and FLSA causes Global Warming:  Sixteen other Reasons to Consider a 4-day Work Week.   Several Pennsylvania Counties and municipalities are mulling four day workweeks, including Berks County, Centre CountyYork County, and BEA School District.  But, Warren County has reportedly rejected the idea.  Give us your thoughts on the subject:

 

The Supreme Court's D.C. Gun Ban Decision: What It Doesn't Mean

On June 26, 2008, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark decision confirming that the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution protects an individual's right to keep and bear firearms. In District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court interpreted the language of the Second Amendment for the first time in nearly 70 years and struck down the District's 32-year-old ban on handguns and trigger-lock requirements for other firearms.

This decision already has generated significant national attention and debate. Although the Court formally recognized the individual right to bear arms in Heller, the majority's decision does not define the scope of that right. Thus, the full meaning and ramifications of this decision will be unclear for many years to come. 

That said, we can state what the Heller decision does not mean. From an employment law perspective, the Heller decision should have no effect on an employer's ability to promulgate weapons or workplace violence policies that ban handguns or other types of weapons from its facilities. Constitutional protections are not applicable to private sector employers, absent some form of state action. For the same reason that an employee may not rely on the free speech protections of the First Amendment as a defense to discipline issued by a private sector employer, an employee cannot rely on Heller and the Second Amendment as a defense to a violation of an employer's weapons or workplace violence policy. As for public sector employers, Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, expressly noted that the right recognized in Heller "is not unlimited" and that the decision should not "cast doubt" on restrictions barring firearms near schools or in government buildings. If the government may lawfully prohibit the carrying of handguns in government buildings, public sector employers also may have reasonable employment policies regarding handguns and other weapons. 

Thus, employers can enjoy the national debate and discussion following the Heller decision while knowing that it should not impact their employment policies.  The "RIght to bear Guns at Work" was the subject of a post on CNN's Small Business noting that some state laws provide for a right of employees to bear arms in workplace settings.  Pennsylvania has no law that creates a right for employees to bring firearms to work.

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

Sometimes a wait and see approach is the right call when it comes to proposed legislation, but not for nonunion employers facing the possible passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). EFCA will radically change the way unions organize employers by eliminating the “campaign” phase and secret ballot election that have been the hallmark of industrial relations since the inception of the NLRA in 1935.

Under EFCA, a union can organize an employer based simply on a majority card showing. The following actions will place an employer in much better position should EFCA become law:

  • Educate your managers and supervisors now, not only on the card-signing process itself, but more broadly as to why unionization may be anachronistic in the 21st Century workplace.
  • Audit your current HR practices and make improvements before the union is on the scene (as it may be an unfair labor practice to do so after the union begins contacting your employees).
  • Make sure your employees have a recognized channel for bringing their concerns to management, a way they can "let off steam." (If not, your claim later that they don't need a union to represent them may fall on deaf ears.)
  • Make sure your supervisors are consistently administering disciplinary policies in a non-discriminatory equitable fashion.
  • Train your managers and supervisors on what they can and cannot say during an organizing campaign, and maybe more importantly, what they should be saying if the union shows up.
  • Review your policies on solicitation, distribution of literature, bulletin board postings, and employee use of e-mail, while necessary changes can still be made. Again, if you wait until the union is on the scene to tweak, you will be committing an unfair labor practice.
  • Review your wage and benefit structures. If you're not competitive in your industry or geographical area, the union will seek to exploit this in suggesting to your employees they need union representation.

Most experts believe EFCA is likely to be enacted in 2009.  Presidential candidate John McCain opposes EFCA and submitted a statement to the Congressional Record on June 26, 2007 in which he stated as follows:

I am strongly opposed to H.R. 800, the so-called “Employee Free Choice Act of 2007.” Not only is the bill’s title deceptive, the enactment of such an ill-conceived legislative measure would be a gross deception to the hard working Americans who would fall victim to it.

Barak Obama has repeatedly advocated its passage and has the following position statement on his website:

The current process for organizing a workplace denies too many workers the ability to exercise their right to do so. The Employee Free Choice Act will allow workers to form a union through majority sign up and card checks, and strengthen penalties for those employers who are in violation. The choice to organize should be left up to workers and workers alone. It should be their free choice.

Organized labor will be pushing hard for EFCA, and if there is a Democratic Administration and Congress, passage of EFCA would be a virtual certainty. As noted by Kris Dunn this is The Hidden Career Killer for HR Pros unless you act now.

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

OFCCP Audits Focus on Systemic Discrimination

The OFCCP reports a record $51.7 million recovered for 22,251 workers. Of the recovery, 98% was collected for cases of systemic discrimination in the application process because of unlawful employment policy or practice according to a published account. Much of the monetary recovery came from the 14 cases of systemic discrimination referred to litigation with the DOL’s lawyers.

Government contractors are selected for audit in several ways including the use of a mathematical model that predicts the likelihood of a finding of systemic discrimination. The model analyzes data from five years of OFCCP compliance evaluations to formally identify and characterize relationships between reported EEO-1 workforce profiles and findings of discrimination. The OFCCP publishes compliance lists for one year audit cycles beginning in October of each year.

We have been involved in many of these style OFCCP audits and the approach is the same. The audit is triggered by an anomaly in a business' EO Survey which shows a statistical disparity in either hires or terminations. For example, the percentage of minority applicants differs by more than 80% from the percentage of minorities hired (the four-fifths rule). The investigation into the disparity in the hiring process follows the road map set out in the OFCCP's Compliance Manual as follows:

  • Summarizing the hiring process by obtaining an employer's summary
  • Establishing the minimum objective criteria for the position.
  • Evaluating the Pass/Fail Points for disparate impact (i.e., when does an applicant move to the next step of the process).
  • Evaluating both the objective and subjective criteria for uniform application to all applicants and for business relatedness.
  • Evaluating specific safeguards as to the application of selection criteria including how well each is documented for each applicant.
  • Measuring statistical disparity by Impact Ratio Analysis (IRA) of each step and criteria.

There are many problems with the OFCCP's investigatory process, a few of which are described as follows:

1.    The OFCCP loathes subjective hiring criteria. I had a client who required that its customer service candidates be "personable and friendly". The OFCCP started out with the position that this was not a "job-related" criteria. When that didn't fly with its own legal department, the OFCCP interviewed every hiring manager and asked them to define how it applied the "personable and friendly criteria". When the hiring manager responses weren't exactly the same, the OFCCP found adverse impact because the hiring procedures weren't uniformly applied to all applicants.

2.    The OFCCP's standard for adequate record keeping of each hiring decision is extremely high and it finds that inadequate records are a form of systemic discrimination.

3.    Finding adverse impact based on the four-fifths rule is a joke in terms of its lack of statistical significance. The rule has its origin in the EEOC's Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. However, knowing that the OFCCP uses this flawed measure makes it all the more important to use this measuring stick when self-assessing your employment practices.

Once the OFCCP makes a finding of a prima facie case of pattern and practice discrimination, it will presume that all members of the class are victims of discrimination and assess liability against the contractor.   The employer can only argue about who is eligible for an award and how much. This is where an employer must decide to dig in its heals and litigate or settle.

A settlement with the OFCCP for systemic discrimination in the hiring process will include back pay plus interest and job offers to the affected class, internal mandated and OFCCP approved training, follow up reporting to the OFCCP and publicity in the form of an OFCCP Press Release.

U.S. Supreme Court Decides Several Employment-Related Cases

On June 19, 2008, the United States Supreme Court issued four employment-related decisions that are briefly summarized as follows:

Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory:  The government ordered its contractor to reduce its workforce. The contractor had its managers select employees for layoff based on factors including performance, flexibility, critical skills and seniority. The resulting reduction in force netted 31 employees, 30 of which were over 40. Several laid off employees sued claiming the neutral factors used for layoff had a disparate impact on older workers.

The Court noted that the employees in a disparate impact case must isolate and identify specific employment practices that are allegedly responsible for the statistical disparity disfavoring older workers. The employer must prove that the neutral factors constitute “reasonable factors other than age”. Reasonableness differs from business necessity.

Chamber of Commerce v. Brown:  The Court struck down a California law that prohibited employers who receive state funding from using those funds to “assist, promote, or deter union organizing.” The Court held that the NLRA preempts state laws that attempt to regulate areas that the NLRA protects or prohibits.

Kentucky Retirement System v. EEOC:  Kentucky’s pension program imputed additional years of service for workers in “hazardous positions” who became disabled so as to credit them with service to reach “normal retirement” under the plan. An employee who worked past normal retirement age and then became disabled challenged the plan on the basis of age discrimination. He argued that the disability pension calculation disadvantaged older workers based on their aged.

The Court noted the distinction between “age” and “pension status”. When an employer adopts a pension plan that includes age as a factor, and that employer treats employees differently based on pension status, a plaintiff must prove that the differential treatment was “actually motivated” by age and not pension status to prevail under the ADEA.

Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. v. Green:   A life insurance company was the administrator of an employer’s long-term disability plan so it decided an employee’s eligibility for benefits and paid the claim out of its pocket. The insurer determined that an employee was not eligible for benefits and the employee appealed.

The Court analyzed the standard of review of a plan administrator’s denial of benefits under ERISA when the administrator is both the decision maker and the payer of benefits. In such a situation, the administrator has a conflict of interest, which a court may consider as a factor in accessing whether the decision is an abuse of its discretion under the plan. The administrator’s decision is entitled to “deference” and the court may not substitute its judgment for that of the administrator; however, it may consider the conflict as part of its assessment.

Hat tip to Connecticut for being faster by a nose.

E-Verify Coverage and Criticisms: Government Contractor Compliance Quandary

The Amendment to Executive Order 12989 has government contractors and subcontractors scrambling to evaluate their legal obligations. Details remain sketchy, but the following information may help prepare a compliance strategy:

What is the Effective Date for Using E-Verify?

Employers have no immediate requirement to start using E-Verify. According to a SHRM news report, the deadline for federal contractors to sign up for E-Verify “still needs to be determined” and will be made public through the standard government regulation process, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) Acting Director Jonathan Scharfen said, following his testimony June 10, 2008, on E-Verify before the House Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law Committee. Once a deadline has been determined, E-Verify will be able to handle the roughly 200,000 contractors who will have to sign up or risk losing their federal contracts, he said.

Which Employers will be Covered?

The Amendment to E.O. 12989 requires E-Verify use for (i) all persons hired during the contract term by the contractor to perform employment duties within the United States; and (ii) all persons assigned by the contractor to perform work within the United States on the Federal contract.The original E.O. 12989 set forth the parameters of the order by referencing the debarment provisions of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. Based on the combination of references it appears that the new E-Verify system will be applicable to the employees of all first tier contractors (and their affiliates) and the employees of sub-contractors working on the government contract. It is unclear whether E-Verify applies to existing contracts and/or existing employees.

Are there Alternatives to E-Verify?

An alternate program called New Employee Verification Act (NEVA) (H.R. 5515), has been introduced by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas. NEVA would transform the current paper-based employment verification process by requiring employers to participate in one of two electronic employment verification systems. Employers would enroll through their state’s existing “new hire” reporting program which was originally designed to enhance child support enforcement. The new hire-reporting program is an electronic portal already used by 90 percent of U.S. employers. Commentators have noted “serious flaws” in this program too.

Have the Accuracy Issues with E-Verify been Resolved?

The DHS report “Debunking the E-Verify Error Rate” touting the accuracy of the E-verify System is based on 1000 queries conducted by an independent reviewer noted automatic confirmation of 942 (94.2%) of the sample queries. Five (.5%) of applicants were able to resolve the mismatch by correcting information with the Social Security Administration. The balance of 52 (5.2%) applicants could not be hired because of unconfirmed information. There is no analysis as to whether the rejected applicants where illegal workers or erroneous rejections.

GAO Report issued on June 10, 2008 entitled “E-Verification: Challenges Exist in the Implementing the Mandatory Electronic Employment Verification System” evaluates the accuracy of E-Verify as follows:

According to USCIS, under the current voluntary program the majority of E-Verify queries entered by employers--about 92 percent--confirm within seconds that the employee is authorized to work. About 7 percent of the queries cannot be immediately confirmed as work authorized by SSA, and about 1 percent cannot be immediately confirmed as work authorized by USCIS because the employee information queried through the program does not match information in SSA or DHS databases. With regard to SSA tentative nonconfirmations, USCIS and SSA officials told us that the majority of erroneous tentative nonconfirmations occur because employees' citizenship or other information, such as name changes, is not up to date in the SSA database, generally because individuals have not contacted SSA to update their information when changes occurred.

Should a Contractor get a “Head Start” by signing up for E-Verify in Advance of the Effective Date?

A wait and see approach may still be the best play as the uncertainties of the effective date and coverage are resolved by regulations. In any event, employers should carefully considered a compliance strategy based on yet unresolved contingencies:

  • Scope of Operations covered by E-Verify
  • Whether Verification applies to existing employees or just new hires
  • Effect on Hiring and Retention of Workforce
  • Centralization of Hiring Process
  • Communication with No-Match Employees and/or Applicants
  • Assistance to Employees in correcting No-Match
  • Appreciating the Scope of the No-Match Safeharbor and IRCA's Anti-discrimination protections

Pennsylvania enacts Clean Indoor Air Act Prohibiting Smoking in most Public Places including Workplaces

Governor Edward G. Rendell signed into law the Clean Indoor Air Act, announcing that the Act “will protect Pennsylvanians from the deadly health effects of secondhand smoke by prohibiting smoking in most public places, including restaurants, workplaces and a portion of casino floors.” The new law is effective September 12, 2008.

The Act covers the indoor areas of all “workplaces” which includes all places of employment and those where volunteer activity is conducted. It seems the all too familiar outdoor smoking areas at workplaces survived the Act’s prohibitions, unless the owner of the public place prohibits smoking on the entire property (indoor and outdoor), which is expressly allowed under the legislation. Signage is required designating both smoking and nonsmoking areas.

The Act contains exemptions to smoking prohibitions for rooms within lodging establishments, tobacco sellers and manufacturers, long-term care facilities, private clubs, and drinking establishments. The Act does not expressly address issues created when an exempt area is also a workplace, although a common sense reading would allow smoking in exempt areas even if work were performed there. Perhaps the Department of Health will clarify this technical inconsistency. The Act has anti-retaliation provisions that state “a person may not discharge an employee, refuse to hire and applicant for employment or retaliate against an employee because that individual exercises a right to a smoke-free environment required under this act.” 

Penalties for violations of the act range from $250 for the first offense escalating to $1000 for subsequent offenses. An affirmative defense is provided for good faith efforts to prohibit smoking. Employers must comply with the Act by posting a sign containing the international no smoking symbol and enforcing no smoking policies including relegating smoking activities to designated outdoor areas.

UPDATES: Pennsylvania Workplaces Must be Smoke-free by September 11, 2008 (includes action steps for compliance with the law;  Department of Health Issues Guidance for Employer Compliance with the Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air Act

Energy Expenses And Gas Prices Motivate Employers To Move To Four Day Workweek: What Are The Legal Issues?

Companies face increased energy cost as the nation’s average gasoline price reached $4.00 per gallon this week spurring a new round of cost cutting measures. Even in prior years, some employers have allowed employees to work alternate workweek schedules, such as four 10 hour days, for summer months. When this schedule is feasible from a production and service perspective, the benefits typically can be two-fold: reduced operational costs for the employer and longer weekends for employees.

As featured recently on the TODAY SHOW, many employers are considering changes to their workweeks as a means of cutting employee commuting expenses and reducing business operational costs. Changes in workweeks can raise legal issues for employers as follows:

  • Overtime. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act, non-exempt employees must be paid for all hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. Nevertheless, employers in some industries may have a practice of paying 'daily overtime' for work in excess of 8 hours per day. This must be considered in assessing the value of any alternative workweek.  
  • Child Labor Limitations. State laws limit the number of hours that children may work in a day and week depending on the age of the child. Pennsylvania limits the hours of work in a day for children under the age of 18 who are covered by its child labor laws.
  • Unemployment Compensation. Employees who quit because of a change in their hours or schedule generally are not eligible for unemployment compensation. A change from a day day workweek to a four day work week, without any loss of hours, is not likely to be viewed as a 'substantial change' that might provide necessitous and compelling reason for someone to quit their employment and receive benefits. 
  • Collective Bargaining.  Absent a clear provisions in a CBA delegating such discretion to the employer, a change in the hours of work would be a mandatory subject of bargaining. As such, most unionized employers would be required to obtain the Union's assent prior to adopting a "four-10's" type work week. This may also require addressing and resolving contractual issues involving shift differentials, premium pay and daily overtime in the context of a side letter agreement.

We previously discussed telework as a strategy for addressing similar employee relations issues in our post "Legal Issues in Telecommuting:  Gas Prices make Businesses Reconsider Policies."

White House Mandates use of E-Verify by All Government Contractors

On June 6, 2008, President Bush amended Executive Order 12989 to require that all federal contractors verify the legal status of their employees by using the government’s electronic employment verification system or face sanctions including debarment from future contracts:

Executive departments and agencies that enter into contracts shall require, as a condition of each contract, that the contractor agree to use an electronic employment eligibility verification system designated by the Secretary of Homeland Security to verify the employment eligibility of: (i) all persons hired during the contract term by the contractor to perform employment duties within the United States; and (ii) all persons assigned by the contractor to perform work within the United States on the Federal contract.

DHS has designated E-Verify as the employment eligibility verification system for all federal contractors and touted its effectiveness:

More than 69,000 employers currently rely on E-Verify to determine that their new hires are authorized to work in the United States. Employers have run more than 4 million employment verification queries so far in fiscal year 2008. Of those queries, 99.5 percent of qualified employees are cleared automatically by E-Verify.

Commentators have questioned the accuracy and capacity of the E-Verify system. Michael Aitken, SHRM Government Affairs Director has said, “ mandating participation in a system that doesn’t really work won’t give employers the tools they need to ensure a legal workforce.” DHS has responded publicly in its release “Debunking the E-Verify Capacity Problem.” I have suggested taking a Wait and See Approach to E-Verify. However, the wait is over for government contractors who will soon see how the system fairs. Bush’s Order has no clear effective date, but appears to be prospectively applicable to new or renewed government contracts.

Genie cannot be put Back in the Bottle once Botched EEOC Filing gets to Court

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Federal Express v. Holowecki decision lowered the bar on what qualifies as a “charge” for purposes of an employee satisfying the procedural prerequisites for getting into court on a federal discrimination claim. Commentators, like Jon Hyman at the Ohio Employer’s Blog, have criticized Holowecki as unfair to employers:

My problem with this ruling is that Fed Ex never had any meaningful way to respond to the Intake Questionnaire. That form was never sent to it, and it had no notice that a proceeding had even been initiated until after the actual charge was filed 6 months hence. Thus, an employee can proceed to federal court on an age discrimination class action lawsuit, without the employer, who had no notice that a charge had even been filed with the EEOC, having the benefit of trying to settle the claim pre-lawsuit. During the EEOC's conciliation process, the stakes are decidedly much lower than they are once an actual lawsuit is filed. For one thing, claimants usually are not represented by counsel at the EEOC. The same is rarely true in federal court. This decision prejudices employers who will be denied any opportunity to resolve a case via the EEOC's informal conciliation process.

The Supreme Court’s decision noted this unfairness and suggests that staying the court proceedings to allow conciliation and settlement might mitigate it:

The employer’s interests, in particular, were given short shrift, for it was not notified of [employee’s] complaint until she filed suit. The court that hears the merits of this litigation can attempt to remedy this deficiency by staying the proceedings to allow an opportunity for conciliation and settlement. True, that remedy would be imperfect….

In Holender v. Mutual Industries North, Inc., the Third Circuit cited the Supreme Court’s language and remanded a case involving a technically deficient charge of discrimination to the district court that granted summary judgment with a footnote instruction to “entertain a motion under Holowecki to stay the proceedings while the parties try to settle this matter.”  Although the Third Circuit is merely following a directive from the high court, staying the proceedings doesn’t address the problems created for an employer and is a waste of time for the following reasons:

  • The damage to an employer’s case is already done by belated notice of the employee’s discrimination claim. Documents have not been preserved and witnesses may be unavailable because the employer wasn’t notified within the 300-day limitations period for filing a charge. Notice failures could add years to the limitations period.
  • The EEOC’s conciliation process is predicated on the agency’s “expertise” in addressing employment claims and benefits from informality. This point was noted by the Court in its comment that “[o]nce the adversary process has begun a dispute may be in a more rigid cast that if conciliation had been attempted at the outset.”
  • The federal court process has ample settlement opportunities without staying the proceedings.

Sue your Employee?: Self-Insured Health Plans Reimbursement Actions have Public Relations and Legal Concerns

Self-insured medical plans typically contain “subrogation clauses” that allow the plan to claim reimbursement from a personal injury recovery of a participant. The self-insured plan’s reimbursement right exists even if state laws prohibit such attachment as ERISA pre-empts the state limitation. For example, the Supreme Court ruled that ERISA trumped Pennsylvania’s anti-subrogation law allowing a self-insured plan to recoup payments it made for medical expenses from an injured participant’s tort recovery.

Recently in its decision in Sereboff v. Mid Atlantic Medical Services, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a self-insured health plan’s legal right of reimbursement from a participant’s personal injury recovery. Enforcement of this right requires that the plan sponsor include reimbursement language in both its plan document and summary plan description. Specifically, well-drafted documents should address the following:

  • Identifying the individuals covered by the reimbursement right in addition to the participant (e.g., dependents, heirs, etc.). 
  • Specifically reference the right of subrogation and reimbursement.
  • Specifically reject common law doctrines such as the "make whole" and "common fund" doctrines.
  • State that the plan has a first priority equitable lien with respect to any proceeds (from any source) that will be held in a "constructive trust" for the benefit of the plan and that the participant consents to both the lien and the constructive trust.
  • Require participant cooperation with respect to the plan's ability to enforce its rights, including requiring participants to execute subrogation and reimbursement agreements as a condition to receiving benefits.
  • Specifically reference the plan's right to offset future benefits to the participant.

Properly drafted (and consistent) language in plan documents and summary plan descriptions will serve to thwart any efforts to block the enforcement of a self-insured plan's reimbursement rights. However, a medical plan’s action in seeking reimbursement from an employee or dependent may not be without other repercussions.

Substantial adverse publicity and damage to employee relations could result when medical plans seek to recoup payments from accident victims. Consider the media firestorm that rained down on Wal-Mart after it tried to recoup $470,000 in medical reimbursements from a $1 million tort recovery of an injured employee. Wal-Mart’s was tarred with the title of “Worst Person in the World” from one media pundit. Ultimately, the Wal-Mart plan relented allowing a brain-damaged former employee to keep the money, even though Wal-Mart probably had a clear legal right to reimbursement.

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.

On-Line Postings And Your Corporate Image: Can You Terminate Employees For Personal Postings?!?

Freedom of Speech is a right granted by The United States Constitution and enjoyed by all Americans. Employees exercising their free speech rights by blogging, posting on MySpace and YouTube may be surprised to learn limits of their Constitutional protections and should acquaint themselves with the term “dooced”.

Generally, employees of private sector employers have no constitutional “free speech” rights in the workplace and beyond.  A quick civics’ lesson reveals that the Bill of Rights creates limits on the government’s actions to curb constitutional rights but does not typically restrain private employers from restricting an employee's speech and expression.

Employees should pause before reporting to work wrapped solely in a flag, speaking their mind or blogging about the cruelties of their employer. Freedom of speech may only go as far as an employer’s tolerance for commentaryPennsylvania courts have rejected wrongful discharge claims based on First Amendment protections asserted by employees who were terminated for criticisms of their employers. Geary v. U.S. Steel Corp., 456 Pa. 171, 319 A.2d 174 (1974) and Wagner v. General Elec. Co., 760 F.Supp. 1146 (E.D. Pa. 1991).

Every employee owes the employer a duty of loyalty. The duty of loyalty owed by an employee to his or her employer is fairly broad and may encompass: "harmful speech, insubordination, neglect, disparagement, disruption of employer-employee relations, dishonor to the business name, product, reputation or operation, or nondisclosure of important information to the employer." Lee, Konrad, Anti-Employer Blogging: Employee Breach of the Duty of Loyalty and the Procedure for Allowing Discovery of Blogger's Identity Before Service of Process is Effected.

Employee comments need not be made at work. Employees have been fired for blogging and posting on MySpace. In one of the more infamous cases Ellen Simonetti, a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, was fired in 2004 because of her "Queen of the Sky" blog content. Simonetti posted provocative pictures of herself in a Delta uniform on a Delta airplane.

The airline, concerned for its image, found her inappropriate actions to be grounds for her termination. While the case remains unsettled due to an administrative discharge under bankruptcy laws, Simonetti has gone on to publish a book and is reportedly trying to seal a movie deal—all based on her termination from employment for her blog. 

An employer’s power to terminate an employee for expressions of opinion is not absolute. Notable exceptions exist for “union activity”, anti-retaliation provisions of discrimination laws, and Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance.  An excellent discussion of the law in these areas appears in a New York Law Journal article by Jeffery S. Klein and Nicholas J. Pappas entitled When Private Sector Employer Fires Worker for Blogging.

Many employers have chosen to adopt policies on employee communications for a whole range of purposes. Policies can be helpful in defining an employee’s actions in the following areas:

  • Authority to comment to news media on official matters
  • Authority to communicate with or about customers and vendors
  • Use of work time
  • Use of employer’s computer and other resources
  • Disclosure of confidential or proprietary information
  • Prohibition on content of communication that is disloyal, discriminatory, inflammatory, threatening, or disparaging of the company, its employees, customers, products, etc.
Since many corporations have blogs, they have also developed blogging policies and guidelines. IBM’s Blogging Policy is an example of one employer’s approach.

Applicants with Criminal Records: The Pros and Cons

Anyone who has spent any time recruiting knows that it is difficult to sift through a pile of applications without finding several job seekers with criminal convictions. About 3.2 percent of the U.S. adult population, or one in every 31 adults, was in the nation’s prisons or on probation or parole at the end of 2006.   Getting Out of Prison and Into a Job posted by Eve Tahmincioglu highlights the job search difficulties for convicted felons. It also reports that 700,000 people are released from prison annually, two-thirds of which are back in prison within 3 years. Similar demographic facts are compiled by Dr. Ira Wolfe in his book The Perfect Labor Storm 2.0 .

Many employers shy away from this pool of available labor even though it might be socially compelling to give someone a "second chance".  Federal and State governments have reacted to this situation by creating tax incentives for employers who hire convicted felons.  A federal tax credit of $2,400 is available for employers who hire ex-felons. Philadelphia offers a $10,000 tax incentive. Both programs have minimum employment periods.

Employers must weigh the following with regard to applicants with criminal convictions:

  • Prohibited Employment: State and federal laws may prohibit employment of a convicted felon in certain jobs such as financial services, teaching, adult and childcare, law enforcement, etc.
  • Negligent Hire:  Many states recognize legal claims by customers and employees when an employer negligently hires an employee when the employer knew or should have known that the employee would pose a safety risk to others. Applicants with criminal convictions for violent crimes may fall into this category.
  • Disparate Impact Discrimination: The EEOC’s guidance on the consideration of arrest records notes that blanket exclusions from hiring will likely have an adverse impact on minorities. Employers should establish a business justification for use of criminal record by evaluating the nature and gravity of the offense, the time that has passed since the offense, and the requirements of the job sought.
  • Limitations on the Use of Criminal History: Section 9125 of Pennsylvania’s Criminal History Record Information Act states that felony and misdemeanor convictions may be considered by an employer only to the extent to which they relate to the applicant's suitability for employment in the position for which he has applied. Employers must give a rejected applicant written notice that the criminal conviction was used in whole or in part as the basis for the employment decision.

Legal issues in Telecommuting: Gas Prices make Businesses Reconsider Policies

As gas prices approach $4.00 per gallon, more employees desire the telework options that have typically been of greater interest to workers for “family reasons”. Companies that formerly dismissed telework programs now find that attracting and retaining employees may depend on increased flexibility around attendance at the office. While productivity and IT issues abound, there are also some important legal considerations, including the following:

  • Worker’s Compensation: Employees who work at home have worker’s compensation coverage for injuries that occur in the scope of their employment. Employment scope excludes activities that are not in furtherance of the employer’s business or that are purely for the personal convenience of the employee.   Working at home blurs this distinction.

A carefully drafted policy can address some of the legal concerns including the following:

  • The class of jobs eligible for the telework based on an analysis of the position’s essential functions.
  • Limits on employees in those classes of eligible jobs based criteria such as performance, disciplinary record, time with company and time in the job realizing that ADA accommodation may trump these requirements.
  • Job performance and productivity standards including the consequences of not meeting these standards.
  • Restriction defining the “workday” and the “work location”
  • Prohibitions on performing personal activities while working during the workday.
  • The system for tracking hours of work including clear delineation of work/nonwork time and settling limits on overtime.
  • Compensation for travel to and from company office.
  • Safety mandates for the home work environment.
  • Protections for IT and other confidential/proprietary information.
  • Systems for addressing problems that arise when the employee is fired or quits.

Managing Workplace Romance requires more than a "Love Contract"

Kris Dunn at the HR Capitalist has a post on The "Love Broker" - Making Your Employees Sign A Workplace Relationship Prenup... Are such contracts really necessary and do they offer any legal protection? 

While taboos on workplace romance may have eased, legal and morale problems persist.   Office surveys show that 40% of workers admitted they have dated a co-worker. However, the same survey states that 84% of businesses do not have policies on workplace romance. David Javitch notes in his post on Dealing with an Office Romance, that there may be even bigger workplace risks for morale problems created by perceived favoritism and the looming sexual harassment claim. Courts can hold an employer liable for the sexual favoritism created by a supervisor's romantic involvement with a subordinate. Sexual harassment claims remain high with the EEOC reporting over 12,500 claims filed in 2007 resulting in EEOC settlements totaling almost $50 million. Million Dollar verdicts are common.

Love Contracts”  are usually called Consensual Relationship Agreements by the lawyers who draft them.  Agreements are typically used when a supervisor is dating a subordinate but can also apply to co-workers.  The agreements attempt to provide the employer with a defense to a a sexual harassment claim by documenting that the relationship is consensual (not unwelcome).  Employees view them as intrusive and HR managers loath monitoring the workplace rumor mill to determine if a contract is necessary.

Love Contracts have limited utility absent a broader policy and training approach. Employers should consider the following in addressing workplace romances:

Implement a Strong Policy against Sexual and other Harassment

The EEOC has issued extensive guidance on sexual harassment policies and their ability to reduce an employer's liability for harassment.   One of the most critical components of such a policy is an effective complaint procedure to redress claims of harassment. The risk of sexual harassment claims skyrockets when supervisors fish off the company dock.   Sexual harassment by a supervisor means automatic liability for a company, if it culminates in a tangible employment action like termination or discipline.

Develop a Policy on Office Romance without calling it "Fraternization"

The D.C. Court of Appeals in Guardsmark v. NLRB overruled an employer's no fraternization rule because it violated the rights of employees to engage in concerted activities. The court examined an employer’s policy that stated employees must not “fraternize on duty or off duty, date or become overly friendly with client’s employees or with co-employees.”  The court ruled that the generic term “fraternize” was overly broad because employees might infer that it prohibited both romantic relationships (which the employer could reasonably regulate) and fraternal relationships involving the discussion of terms and conditions of employment (that are protected by section 7).

Train Supervisors

Supervisory training on sexual harassment can demonstrate a company's good faith attempts to comply with the law. Such training should explain the types of conduct that violate the employer's anti-harassment policy; the seriousness of the policy; the responsibilities of supervisors and managers when they learn of alleged harassment; and the prohibition against retaliation.

Proactively Evaluate and Confront Situations

Most employers are content to sit passively and watch an office romance unfold. Many will not act unless it "becomes a disruption". Consider some proactive steps. If the romance is between co-workers, make sure they understand that it cannot affect productivity. If it is between a supervisor and subordinate, evaluate whether there should be changes in the reporting structure. Do not automatically transfer or reassign the female in the relationship or you will risk a discrimination claim.

Company Liability for Employee Cell Phone Use while Driving

Employers may be liable for injuries and damage where an employee’s job-related cell phone use contributed to the accident. Whether the cell phone use is within the scope of employment depends upon many factors including the employee’s job duties, who provided the phone, when the accident occurred, whether it was a business call, and whether the employee was complying with the employer’s policy on cell phone use.

PennDOT statistics show there were 5,715 accidents linked to the use of hand-held phones and 367 accidents attributed to hands-free phones in Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2006. Mark Stuckey of MSNBC.com reports on a new study that concludes that hands-free phones can reduce the number of traffic fatalities and accidents. The study by Jed Kolko, a fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, estimates that the 4,000 annual traffic fatalities in California could be reduced by 300 people as a result of a pending hand-held cell phone ban for California drivers. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, many states are adopting laws banning hand-held cell phone use. Pennsylvania state laws don’t address cell phone use, but many local ordinances prohibit all but hands-free operation.

A business's liability can be significant.  For example, a Georgia employer paid $5.2 million dollars to settle a claim related to an employee's use of a cell phone while driving.  Businesses should manage their potential liability by adopting a policy on cell phone use and then enforcing it. A policy should consider addressing the following:

  • Banning cell phone use while driving for all employees or classes of employees depending on job responsibilities.
  • Mandating that employees comply with all applicable state and local laws governing cell phone use.
  • Requiring employees to use only hands-free devices while driving.
  • Providing company cell phones with hands-free features.
  • Prohibiting the use of text message and e-mail features while driving.
  • Providing safety training on cell phone use including:
    • Requiring employees to pull off the road to make or take phone calls.
    • Instructing employees to avoid or to terminate phone calls involving stressful or emotional conversations.
    • Prohibiting cell phone use in adverse weather or difficult traffic conditions.
    • Restricting driver cell phone use to brief conversations.

Update:  We need frequent reminders that the policies we write as HR professionals have real life implications.  Here is a link  to bring this point home.  Employees should also consider their own civil, criminal and emotional liability:  Driver Hits, Kills Pedestrian While Texting.

Update 1/12/09:   Ban Cell Phones While Driving, Safety Council Says

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?

FMLA Leave Rights Expanded for Military Service Members

On January 28, President Bush expanded leave entitlements under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) through his signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2008. (The NDAA is an annual act that authorizes various requirements for National Defense.) The FMLA leave provisions incorporated into the law are designed to provide assistance to service members and their families with some of the hardships that can result from military service. The two new categories of leave are "caregiver leave" and "active duty leave." It is important to note that only the "caregiver leave" portion of the law is effective immediately. The "active duty leave" portion will not be effective until the Secretary of Labor publishes guidance and procedures for such leave.

Caregiver Leave: This portion of the NDAA allows a "spouse, son, daughter, parent or next of kin" to take up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a member of the Armed Forces, including a member of the National Guard and Reserves, who is undergoing medical treatment, recuperation or therapy, is otherwise on outpatient status, or is otherwise on the temporary disability retired list, for serious injury or illness. Employers may still implement FMLA procedures like requiring substitution of paid leave and notice, for example. The leave is available on an intermittent basis, but is only available for use in a single 12 month period.

Active Duty Leave: This category of leave would address situations in which an employee faces "any qualifying exigency" arising out of the fact that the "spouse, or son, daughter, or parent of the employee is on active duty or has been notified of an impending call or order to active duty." The term "any qualifying exigency" has not yet been defined by the Secretary of Labor and this provision will not be effective until definitive regulations are published. In the interim, the Department of Labor encourages employers to use good faith efforts to provide active duty leave to qualifying employees.

Employers will need to amend their FMLA policies to incorporate the new provisions and add the insert to their current FMLA poster.

NLRB Limits Right to Use Company E-Mail for Union Organizing

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) issued an important decision concerning employee usage of company e-mail systems for purposes of union solicitation. In The Guard Publishing Company d/b/a The Register-Guard, 351 NLRB No. 70 (2007), the Board narrowly held, by a 3-2 majority, that the Company did not commit an unfair labor practice by maintaining a policy that prohibited the use of e-mail for all “non-job-related solicitations.” The Board held that employees have no statutory right to use their employer’s e-mail system for Section 7 purposes (such as union organizing or engaging in other protected concerted activities). Additionally, the Board modified its approach regarding discriminatory enforcement of employer policies related to solicitation, postings on employee bulletin boards, and other forms of employee communications.

This case raises implications for every employer who either (1) has a union and is concerned about union or employee usage of e-mail or (2) is non-union and wishes to utilize its no solicitation and employee communication policies to help lawfully limit outside solicitations. If a non-union employer waits until union activity actually emerges and then revises its policies, those revisions may be deemed by the NLRB to be unlawfully motivated. Changes to a company’s employee communications policies, particularly no solicitation policies, should be carefully reviewed for legal compliance. 

The Guard is a unionized newspaper publisher. The Company’s employee communications systems policy (CSP) stated as follows:

Company communication systems and the equipment used to operate the communication system are owned and provided by the Company to assist in conducting the business of The Register-Guard. Communications systems are not to be used to solicit or proselytize for commercial ventures, religious or political causes, outside organizations, or other non-job-related solicitations.

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