In a closely watched case for employers, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands, recently held that retiree healthcare benefits provided in a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) may be subject to modification following the expiration of the CBA.

Grove v. Johnson Controls, Inc. was a class action suit brought on behalf of a group of retirees, who were all former bargaining unit members.  Generally, the retirees alleged that they were entitled to healthcare benefits “for life” pursuant to the terms of the CBAs in place at the time of retirement.  When the employer placed a cap of $50,000 on the amount of benefits to be paid to the retirees, they brought suit.  The retirees argued that their entitlement to healthcare benefits had vested, and that the employer’s decision to cap their benefits was a violation of the Labor Management Relations Act and/or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision and rejected these arguments.  The court held that the employer was not required to provide retirees healthcare benefits for life, and instead was only required to provide those benefits for the duration of the relevant CBA.  Essentially the court held that when the CBA expired, so did the employer’s obligation to continue to provide retiree healthcare benefits.  In reaching its decision, the court applied ordinary principles of contract interpretation, and noted that those principles provide that all contractual obligations cease upon the expiration of the CBA.

The court’s holding does leave open the possibility that other retirees could establish a vested entitlement to lifetime retiree healthcare benefits if the CBA language supported such a right.

As noted, this is an important decision for employers.  Many employers face significant legacy costs related to retiree healthcare, pension benefits and other post-employment benefits.  In light of Grove, many employers may begin to evaluate their post-employment benefit obligations.  However, these employers must carefully evaluate any such contractual obligations, because as Grove makes clear, whether retiree healthcare benefits are vested for life will be determined on a case-by-case basis with reference to the specific CBA language.

The Secretary of Labor, John Acosta, announced recently that no further delays will apply to the Department of Labor’s new Fiduciary Rule on investment advice conflicts of interest and related prohibited transaction exemptions.  The effective date of the Rule is June 9, 2017, with an enforcement date of January 1, 2018.  The final Fiduciary Rule significantly expands the circumstances in which broker-dealers, investment advisers, insurance agents, plan consultants and other intermediaries are treated as fiduciaries to ERISA plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  When treated as fiduciaries, these individuals are precluded from receiving compensation that varies with the investment choices made or from recommending proprietary investment products, absent an applicable exemption.

Generally, the Fiduciary Rule provides that individuals providing fiduciary investment advice may not receive payments that pose a conflict of interest, unless a prohibited transaction exemption (PTE) applies.  The Rule recognizes several new PTEs, including

1)  “Best Interest Contract Exemption” (BIC Exemption):  Under the BIC Exemption, an advisor and firm may receive commissions and revenue sharing so long as the adviser and firm enters into a contract with its clients that:

  • Commits the firm and adviser to providing advice in the client’s best interest.
  • Warrants that the firm has adopted policies and procedures designed to mitigate conflicts of interest.
  • Clearly and prominently discloses any conflicts of interest that may prevent the adviser from providing advice in the client’s best interests.

2)  Principal Transactions Exemption:  Under this new PTE, an adviser may recommend fixed income securities and sell them from the adviser’s own inventory as long as the adviser adheres to the exemption’s consumer-protection conditions ensuring adherence to fiduciary norms and basic standards of fair dealing.

Financial institutions are advised to adopt policies and procedures ensuring that advisers comply with the Rule’s impartial conduct standards. However, during the transition period (until January 1, 2018), there is no requirement to give investors any warranty of their adoption, and those standards will not necessarily be violated if certain conflicts of interest exist.  Sponsors of ERISA-governed plans, as plan fiduciaries, are advised to clearly identify circumstances where their plan’s record keepers and advisors are acting as fiduciaries, and which services or actions are permitted under the rule’s carve-outs.

Finally, while we recommend complying with the Fiduciary Rule as soon as possible following the June 9th effective date, we note that there exists some uncertainty with the Fiduciary Rule as the DOL (i) continues to evaluate public comments, and (ii) under direction of the Trump Administration, is charged with reexamining the Fiduciary Rule to determine whether it may adversely affect the ability of Americans to gain access to retirement information and financial advice.

Back in 2015, Pittsburgh enacted a paid sick leave ordinance, following a trend among cities throughout the country. Pittsburgh’s paid sick leave ordinance required employers with fifteen employees or more to provide up to forty hours of paid sick leave per calendar year. Employers with less than fifteen employees were not spared. The ordinance required that those employers provide up to twenty-four hours per calendar year. The impact: 50,000 workers would receive paid sick leave.

But, what authority did Pittsburgh have to impose such a requirement?

The Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association, among others, challenged whether Pittsburgh actually had authority to enact the ordinance. Initially, the trial court found that the Steel City had no such authority. Pittsburgh appealed, arguing that because it had adopted a Home Rule Charter, it had authority to exercise broad powers and authority.

A few weeks ago, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued its opinion, agreeing with the trial court that Pittsburgh indeed lacked the necessary authority. The court found that the Home Rule Charter Law has an exception with respect to the regulation of businesses. The exception specifically provides that “a municipality which adopts a home rule charter shall not determine duties, responsibilities or requirements placed upon businesses, occupations and employers . . . except as expressly provided by [separate] statutes . . . .” Although Pittsburgh attempted to point to various statutes which it felt provided it with the needed authority, the court was not convinced. Struck down by the court, it was – and remains – the worst of times for Pittsburgh’s paid sick leave ordinance.

But, what about Philadelphia? It is a home rule charter municipality. It has a paid sick leave ordinance. Does the Commonwealth Court’s opinion effectively render its ordinance invalid, too? Nope. Philadelphia’s authority is derived from a different law, which applies only to cities of the first class (oh, and Philly is the only First Class City in Pennsylvania under the law). It includes no such limitation on the regulation of businesses. Yet, while Philadelphia’s statute may be unaffected by the court’s opinion, it may not be best of times for Philadelphia’s ordinance either. The Pennsylvania State Legislature is making efforts to affect Philadelphia and all municipalities. Senator John Eichelberger’s Senate Bill 128 would ban municipalities from passing sick leave and other leave requirements that are stronger than those required by federal and state governments. The bill was voted out of committee and is set for consideration by the Senate.

So, for our blog subscribers with businesses only in the city limits of Pittsburgh, there is no requirement that you establish a paid sick leave program for your employees. However, Philadelphia’s paid sick leave ordinance remains alive and well, and you must abide by its requirements. While some do not expect the General Assembly to move this bill through both chambers before the end of the current session, we will track the bill’s progress and update this blog should it be considered and voted on by the Senate. So, stay tuned for future posts on legislation effecting Philadelphia’s and all municipalities’ authority to impose paid sick leave requirements.

Employers often shy away from discharging employees for disciplinary reasons when those employees are receiving workers’ compensation benefits, such as in instances where the employee is working a modified duty assignment.  However, such employees can and should be held to the same standards as other employees, including compliance with applicable policies and procedures.  Additionally, so long as the discharge is found to be related to the disciplinary violation, any subsequent loss of earnings will be deemed to be unrelated to the work injury, thus rendering the discharged employee ineligible for reinstatement of workers’ compensation wage loss benefits.

In a recent unreported Commonwealth court case, (Waugh v. WCAB, No. 702 C.D. 2016), the Claimant was employed as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at a medical center.  She had sustained an accepted work injury to her right arm, when a patient grabbed and twisted her arm in the course and scope of her employment.  She underwent two surgeries and eventually returned to work in a modified duty capacity.

While working modified duty, Claimant was reprimanded for acting outside the scope of her employment for administering medication to a patient.  Several months later, there was a similar incident, in which Claimant applied a tourniquet to a patient while assisting a phlebotomist, who was attempting to draw blood.  Employer’s policy in the event a phlebotomist cannot locate a vein, is to call a specialized IV team to insert the needle and draw blood.  Claimant was terminated for this second instance of acting outside the scope of her employment.  Despite her protests that she was “only trying to help,” the termination was held to be proper, as was the workers’ compensation determination denying reinstatement of benefits.

The Court reaffirmed the longstanding rule that a lack of “good faith” on the part of the claimant, is sufficient to deny reinstatement of workers’ compensation wage loss benefits.  This is so, even where unemployment benefits are awarded, on the basis that the employer had not established a case of willful misconduct under the Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Act.

The determination of good faith or bad faith is obviously “fact sensitive,” but in situations where the employer would discharge the employee absent a workers’ compensation backdrop, this factor alone should not discourage the employer from taking the appropriate disciplinary action, including discharge.

For further information, on this subject, please feel free to contact Denise Elliott, Micah Saul or Paul Clouser, in our Lancaster office.

As we previously noted, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a law in November that amends the Pennsylvania Banking Code to permit the use of payroll debit cards, with certain conditions.  The law brought welcome clarity to this murky issue by authorizing formally the payment of employee wages via debit card and setting forth the requirements that need to be met to do so.  We discussed these requirements in our prior post on this topic.

This law is set to take effect on May 4.  Employers who wish to consider the payroll debit card option for paying employees (or who already are doing so) should review the specifics of the law to ensure they are in compliance when this law takes effect.

Workplace rights for LGBT individuals has been a rapidly developing area of the law.  A little over two years ago, former President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against employees on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs followed suit by issuing regulations protecting the rights of LGBT workers employed by federal contractors and subcontractors.  Then, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission published guidance suggesting that the Agency considers sexual orientation and gender identity to be protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Despite these developments, no federal appellate court had ever ruled that Title VII protects workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  That changed earlier this week.

In a groundbreaking 8-3 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (having jurisdiction in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin), ruled that sexual orientation is a protected trait under Title VII and that employers may not discriminate against employees on that basis.  The case, Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, involved an openly lesbian professor who had worked for the college as an adjunct staff member for over fourteen years.  She applied for six different full-time jobs during her tenure and was rejected for each of them.  Then, the college failed to renew her adjunct contract in 2014.  She filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC alleging that she was discriminated against on the basis of her sexual orientation.

The district court dismissed her case on the basis that sexual orientation was not recognized as a protected trait under Title VII.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed.  It held that sexual orientation was a protected characteristic because, in essence, actions taken on the basis of sexual orientation are a “subset of actions taken on the basis of sex,” which is protected by Title VII.  The Court reasoned that sexual orientation discrimination claims are “no different from the claims brought by women who were rejected for jobs in traditionally male workplaces, such as fire departments, construction, and policing. The employers in those cases were setting the boundaries of what jobs or behaviors they found acceptable for a woman (or in some cases, for a man).”

The Seventh Circuit’s ruling is not binding precedent on Pennsylvania employers.  However, as we reported last year, at least one federal district court in the Commonwealth considers sexual orientation to be a protected trait under Title VII.

The Seventh Circuit’s ruling may ultimately prove to have a much broader impact.  The Hively decision now means that circuit courts are officially split on the issue of whether Title VII protections include sexual orientation (last month, the Eleventh Circuit held that sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected under the statute).  When federal circuit courts provide conflicting rulings on the same legal question, the Supreme Court of the United States is more likely to issue its own ruling on the subject in order to ensure consistent application of the law.

We will continue to monitor any future developments on the subject.  As always, we’ll report any updates right here.

For much of 2016, employers and HR professionals were focused on preparing for the new Fair Labor Standards Act white-collar overtime exemption regulations.  The Department of Labor issued the final regulations on May 18, 2016, with an effective date of December 1, 2016.

As you may remember, the new regulations more than doubled the minimum weekly salary requirement for most white-collar overtime exemptions from $455 to $913.  The new regulations contained a number of additional provisions, the vast majority of which were not viewed favorably by employers.

And then, right before Thanksgiving, everything came to a screeching halt.  A federal district court issued on November 22, 2016, a nationwide preliminary injunction blocking the new FLSA white-collar overtime exemption regulations from taking effect on December 1.  Few anticipated the issuance of an injunction blocking the regulations, much less one a mere eight days before the regulations were set to take effect.  Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

You may have noticed that we have not provided an update on this issue on this blog since the issuance of the injunction in November 2016.  That is because, frankly, not much of note has happened, either in the litigation in which the injunction was issued or regarding the issue in general.

As expected, the Department of Labor filed an appeal of the preliminary injunction on December 1, 2016.  The DOL initially sought to fast-track the appeal, asking the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for an expedited briefing schedule.  The motivation for this strategy was obvious.  The DOL’s leadership was set to change with the inauguration of Donald Trump in January, and the best hope for the new regulations was to have the injunction overturned before this change in leadership could affect the DOL’s litigation strategy.

The DOL’s strategy initially was successful, with the Fifth Circuit agreeing to an expedited briefing schedule, with all briefs regarding the appeal set to be filed by February 7, 2017.  However, on January 25, 2017 (i.e., shortly after the Trump administration took office), the DOL asked the Fifth Circuit for an extension of time to file its reply brief “to allow incoming leadership personnel adequate time to consider the issues.”  The Fifth Circuit ultimately agreed to extend the deadline for the DOL to file its reply brief until May 1, 2017.

Meanwhile, the federal district court that issued the preliminary injunction in November is still considering a summary judgment motion that could result in a final order being entered in that case.  Also, a motion filed by the Texas AFL-CIO in December 2016 to intervene as another defendant in the case also remains pending before that court.  The AFL-CIO sought to intervene because of its fear that the DOL’s new leadership will decide to cease defending the challenged regulations.

Time is not on the side of the currently enjoined FLSA overtime exemption regulations.  As the appeal of the injunction drags on into the spring, the likelihood of the Trump administration DOL withdrawing the appeal and abandoning the fight to defend the regulations grows.  If it does so, the injunction likely will become permanent, placing the final nail in the coffin of the controversial regulations.

So, as we have been saying for months, stay tuned.

In City of Allentown, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the City to implement an interest arbitration award which contained (among modifications to wages, sick leave, vacation, pension and overtime) a minimum staffing requirement of 25 firefighters per shift.

As every public sector employer and practitioner knows, a municipality has no obligation to bargain with a union representing police officers or firefighters over inherent managerial policy (overall budget, standards of service, organizational structure, selection and direction of employees).  I mean, it says so, right there in the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act!  The PLRA is forever linked to Act 111, which makes it mandatory for municipalities to bargain with police and fire unions over the terms and conditions of employment (compensation, hours, working conditions, other benefits).

Act 111 also provides the mechanism for municipalities and unions to submit their disputes to binding interest arbitration, but only those disputes which concern mandatory subjects of bargaining.  An arbitration panel that issues an award on a topic that is a managerial prerogative exceeds its powers.

But, what happens when a dispute concerns both a mandatory subject (i.e. it is rationally related to the terms and conditions of employment) and a managerial policy (i.e., budget or direction of personnel)?  Well, then the question is whether bargaining with the union over the issue would unduly infringe on the municipality’s essential managerial responsibilities.  That is the analysis that the Supreme Court applied to the minimum staffing dispute facing the City of Allentown and the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 302.

Prior case law left us with this:  the total number of firefighters that a municipality employs is a matter of managerial prerogative and a municipality need not bargain over that number.  An arbitration award that mandates a total complement number is illegal.  Prior case law also left us with this:  the number of firefighters actually assigned to a particular station or to a piece of fire equipment is a mandatory subject of bargaining, as it is rationally related to the safety of firefighters, i.e. a working condition.  So, an arbitration award that mandates the minimum crew on each rig is perfectly legal.

Confused?  Citing safety concerns and relying heavily on arbitration testimony that increased staffing leads to a safer working environment and a decrease in injuries and physical stress, the Court concluded that minimum staffing had a “direct and significant impact on firefighter health and safety” and did not unduly infringe on the City’s financial burdens.

More directly, the Court (currently comprised of 1 elected Republican, 5 elected Democrats and 1 Republican appointed by a Democrat Governor) did little more than pay lip service to how minimum staffing leads to increased overtime, or how increased overtime leads to increased pension expenses, or how increased pension expenses lead to unfunded pension liabilities, or how unfunded pension liabilities are crippling so many municipalities across the Commonwealth.

So what now? It appears that the overall complement is still a decision left for the public employer; however, once that number is set, then the parties must negotiate regarding the number of employees assigned to each shift.  Certainly, this leaves many questions unanswered.  And certainly, the impact on municipal budgets, already strained and struggling, will be significant.

As a general rule, an employee who is injured while commuting to or from work is not entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, as the injuries are not deemed to be “in the course and scope of employment” by virtue of the longstanding “going and coming rule.”  There are exceptions to the rule, including: (1) situations where there is no fixed place of employment and the employee is therefore deemed to be a “traveling,” as opposed to “stationary” employee; (2) the employee is on a special assignment for the employer; (3) the employment contract includes transportation to and from work; or (4) special circumstances exist, such that the employee was furthering the interests of the employer when injured.

In an interesting recent case, the Commonwealth Court awarded compensation under the special circumstances exception, despite the fact that Claimant was commuting to work at the time of his motor vehicle accident.

The employee, Miller, was a salaried director of maintenance services, exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. His regular work hours were from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.  The employer maintained a four building campus as a facility for senior residents.  The campus had a system of security cameras, whose maintenance was an important priority for the employer.

Miller testified that in addition to his regular hours, he would be called in while off-site two to three times monthly.  In such instances, he received “comp time,” in lieu of additional pay.  The comp time accrued from the time he answered the phone, until he arrived back at home.  On the morning in question, Miller was “feeling very poor and weak.”  He stayed home past his usual 7:00 a.m. start time, with the intention of taking a sick day.  However, the employer called and requested that he stop in to reset the security cameras, after which he could return home for the rest of the day.  En route to the facility, Miller became nauseous and veered off the road, hitting a telephone pole.  He sustained multiple injuries, including a broken eye socket, broken pelvis, ruptured bladder and multiple scars and disfigurements.

The key issue before the WC Judge was whether Miller was commuting to a fixed place of employment, such that the “going and coming rule” barred his claim, or whether special circumstances existed, such that an exception to the rule applied.

Since “but for” the security camera emergency, Miller would not have made the trip to work, the Judge, and subsequently the Commonwealth Court, concluded that this factor brought the case within the “special circumstances” exception to the going and coming rule, and awarded benefits.

The key takeaway is that commuting cases are often fact sensitive and need to be analyzed carefully, to determine whether workers’ compensation benefits are appropriate.  For example, construction workers who might at first glance appear to be “traveling” as opposed to “stationary” employees, are frequently deemed to be “stationary,” if they are working at only one job site at a time.  As such, the “going and coming” rule might preclude compensation in such cases, absent special circumstances.

Please contact Paul Clouser, Denise Elliott or Micah Saul, if you have questions about situations in which your employees may or may not be deemed to be “in the course and scope” of their employment, pursuant to the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act.

The use of temporary employees provided by agencies that supply laborers, secretaries, nurses or other skilled or unskilled workers to the public and private sector is increasing. Employers who use these temporary agency workers’ must be wary of the relationships created by the use of the temporary agency workers. Are the temporary workers “employed” by the agency, the borrowing employer, or both, for purposes of the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”)?  The answer will determine which entity or entities may claim immunity from a common law action, under the exclusive remedy provisions of the Act.

The critical test for determining whether a worker furnished by one entity to another is “employed” by the latter, is whether the worker is under the latter’s right of control with respect to both the work performed and the manner in which the work is performed.  For example, suppose a municipal township needs a temporary worker to ride on the back of a municipal trash truck.  After receiving only minimal instruction, the worker falls from the moving truck on his first day of work and dies ten (10) months later.  Suppose the agency, Labor Ready, pays $770,000 in workers’ compensation benefits.  A civil suit is then initiated by the decedent’s estate against both Labor Ready and the Township.  Does the decedent’s estate have a viable civil claim against either entity? Under this fact pattern, the trial judge dismissed, on summary judgment, both Labor Ready and Rye Township, finding that both entities were “employers” entitled to protection under the immunity provisions of the Act.  The ruling was affirmed by the Commonwealth Court on appeal.  Nagle v. Labor Ready and Rye Township (Pa. Cmwlth. 2016).  Similar results have been reached in volunteer fire fighter liability cases, where both the volunteer fire company and the sponsoring township enjoy immunity.  Indeed the “borrowed employee” doctrine provides broad immunity in both the public and private sectors, at least where the borrowing employer exerts the requisite degree of control over the borrowed employee, (See, e.g., Hendershot v. Emmeci Northampton County 2016). A temporary agency supplied a machine operator to its manufacturing client and the agency employee sustained serious injuries while cleaning the machine.

Nevertheless, despite broad interpretation on the “borrowed employee” doctrine, employers have been found to be liable for damages beyond workers’ compensation, in circumstances where: (a) the requisite degree of control does not exist (i.e. a company leases a piece of equipment with an operator and the operator is then injured on the company’s premises) or (b) the borrowing employer forfeits its immunity by filing an Answer to the workers’ compensation claim petition denying that it is the employer, and alleging that the temporary agency is solely responsible.  Black v. Labor Ready (Pa. Super. 2010).

Employers should be sensitive to the range of potential outcomes when staffing positions with “borrowed employees,” and should review any temporary agency agreements to insure the broadest possible immunity from suit, along with proper indemnification language, with respect to agency employees who are hired into temporary positions or assignments.

Please contact a member of our Labor and Employment Group for specific legal analysis of temporary employment arrangements at your facility.