Federal Judge Dismisses EEOC Complaint Claiming "No Dreadlocks" Policy Discriminates Based on Race

Previously we told you that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was suing an Alabama insurance company for allegedly discriminating against African American job applicants because the company's grooming policy prohibited dreadlocks. Last week, an Alabama federal judge dismissed the EEOC's intentional race discrimination claim that was brought against Catastrophe Management Solutions (CMS).

As you may recall, CMS made a conditional offer of employment to an African-American applicant provided that the applicant cut off her dreadlocks. CMS had a policy that stated "All personnel are expected to be dressed and groomed in a manner that projects a professional and businesslike image while adhering to company and industry standards and/or guidelines . . . hairstyles should reflect a business/professional image. No excessive hairstyles or unusual colors are acceptable…." When the applicant refused to cut her dreadlocks, CMS withdrew the offer. The EEOC alleged that CMS's policy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the policy was racially discriminatory and that CMS refused to hire the applicant because she was black.

Judge Charles R. Butler, Jr. concluded that the EEOC failed to allege sufficient facts to support a plausible claim of intentional discrimination, finding that one's grooming habits are not immutable characteristics (such as sex or race) and are thus not protected by Title VII. The EEOC argued that the definition of race should encompass both physical and cultural characteristics. Judge Butler rejected this argument and cited numerous cases finding that hairstyles like dreadlocks and cornrows are not immutable characteristics unique to a particular race or group and are thus not protected by Title VII. Per Judge Butler, "A hairstyle, even one more closely associated with a particular ethnic group, is a mutable characteristic." However, Judge Butler made it clear that if the EEOC alleged that the policy was applied in a discriminatory manner (if for example the policy was only applied to African American applicants and employees), the EEOC could move forward with its claim. Employers with grooming policies should remember it is important that they enforce them equally and consistently across the board.

Recall that the applicant here never claimed she was wearing her dreadlocks because it was consistent with her religious beliefs. Had she made the claim, CMS likely would have had to allow the applicant to keep her dreadlocks because employers must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs and practices unless the accommodation would be an undue hardship for the employer's business operations.

Employee hairstyles continue to be a hot topic. For example, the United States Army recently released new regulations banning a number of hairstyles, prompting claims of race discrimination and the ire of many enlisted members. Stay tuned as the Alabama case is not the first "dreadlocks" case we have seen and it is likely not the last.

EEOC Sues Insurance Company over Hair Policy

This post was contributed by Lee Tankle, a new associate in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Law Group

An Alabama insurance company is being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for allegedly discriminating against black job applicants. The EEOC alleges that the insurance company's grooming policy prohibiting dreadlocks is discriminatory toward African Americans. 

In May 2010, Chastity Jones applied for a position and participated in a group interview with a Mobile, Alabama insurance claims company. Ms. Jones, an African-American, wore her blond hair in neat curls called "curllocks." Ms. Jones was offered a position as a customer service representative but later that day when she met with Human Resources to discuss her training schedule, the HR representative informed Ms. Jones that the company banned dreadlocks and she would need to cut them off in order to obtain employment. When Ms. Jones refused to cut her hair, her job offer was rescinded.

The EEOC argues that the insurance company's policies discriminate against African Americans based on physical and cultural characteristics in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to an EEOC attorney, the "litigation is not about policies that require employees to maintain their hair in a professional, neat, clean or conservative manner" but "focuses on the racial bias that may occur when specific hair constructs and styles are singled out for different treatment because they do not conform to normative standards for other races."

According to the District Director for the EEOC's Birmingham Office, "[h]air grooming decisions and policies (and their implementation) have to take into consideration differing racial traits, and cannot penalize blacks for grooming their hair in a manner that does not meet normative standards for other races." Some courts have suggested that employer policies banning "afro" hairstyles could be a race-based distinction in violation of Title VII.

This is not the first time the EEOC has brought suit over dreadlocks. In 2011, a Virginia-based transportation company paid $30,000 to settle an EEOC religious discrimination suit. The EEOC claimed the company violated Title VII when it refused to hire a Rastafarian because he wore his hair in dreadlocks. According to the EEOC, the applicant held the sincere religious belief that as a Rastafarian he could not and should not cut his hair in honor of Jah, the name given to the highest power in the Rastafarian faith.

Employers should remember that unless it would be an undue hardship for the employer's operation of a business, an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious practices and beliefs. This could include allowing the wearing of certain head coverings like the Jewish yarmulke or Muslim headscarf or certain hairstyles or facial hair like Rastafarian dreadlocks or Sikh uncut hair and beard.

It is unclear what, if any, impact the federal government shut down will have on this matter. Please contact any of the McNees Labor & Employment attorneys if you have concerns that your grooming policies may be the target of a future discrimination allegations.
 

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. 

EEOC Guidance Highlights the Risks of Using Criminal History Checks in Hiring

This post was contributed by Eric N. Athey, Esq., a Member in McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Practice Group in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC" or "Commission"), if current incarceration rates continue, 1 in 3 African-American men and 1 in 6 Hispanic men will be incarcerated during their lifetimes. The rate for white men is only 1 in 17. Given this disparity in incarceration rates, the EEOC has long been concerned that employer policies restricting hiring based on prior criminal convictions may unfairly deprive minorities of employment opportunities. In Enforcement Guidance issued on April 25, 2012, the EEOC outlined its approach for determining whether an employer's criminal history screening policies violate Title VII on the grounds of either "disparate treatment" or "disparate impact."

Disparate Treatment. Obviously, employers cannot hold applicants to tougher screening standards on the basis of their race or national origin. An employer that considers an applicant's prior criminal history during the hiring process must do so on a consistent, non-discriminatory basis. A disappointed minority applicant with a criminal history may be able to prove he was subject to unlawful discrimination by showing inconsistencies in the hiring process, derogatory statements regarding a particular class or evidence suggesting that certain protected classes are held to a stricter screening standard than other groups.

Disparate Impact. Under Title VII, employers may also be liable for hiring policies that are consistently enforced if the policy disproportionately screens out a particular protected class and the employer cannot show that the policy is job-related for the position and consistent with business necessity. The EEOC's recent Guidance notes that an employer may be liable for the "disparate impact" of a hiring policy even if the employer has a racially balanced workforce. In order to establish that a hiring policy that relies on criminal history information is job-related for the position and consistent with business necessity, the employer will need to show that it operates "to effectively link specific criminal conduct, and its dangers, with the risks inherent in the duties of a particular position." The EEOC notes two ways an employer can establish this: 1) by validating the criminal conduct screen for the position under the Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures; or 2) developing a "targeted screen" which considers a number of factors, including the nature of the crime, the time elapsed and the nature of the job and then conducting an individualized assessment for the people excluded. In other words, if a screening policy has a disparate impact on certain protected classes, an employer must be able to show that the policy is nevertheless reasonable and necessary.

Other Laws. Title VII is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to laws governing the use of criminal background checks in hiring.
 

Employers who use these checks also need to be aware of their responsibilities under the Fair Credit Reporting Act and the Pennsylvania Criminal History Information Act. In addition, some industries (e.g. banking, insurance, public schools) are subject to specific legislation prohibiting the hiring of individuals with certain types of prior convictions. Finally, there is a growing number of municipalities, including Philadelphia, that have passed "ban the box" ordinances that specifically prohibit employers from even asking about prior convictions until late in the hiring process.

What's an Employer to do? Several things are clear from the recent EEOC guidance. First, employers should not adopt blanket rules prohibiting the hiring of anyone with a prior conviction. Secondly, if screening procedures are not statistically validated, then the employer should develop a "targeted screen" that is "narrowly tailored" and that considers multiple criteria when determining whether a prior conviction renders an applicant unsuitable for a position – these include: the nature, severity and age of the offense, the nature of the job, the number of offenses, subsequent employment and rehabilitation efforts. Third, consideration of arrests that do not lead to convictions generally should not be considered.

Given the recent attention that criminal history screening has garnered from the EEOC and various municipalities, it is likely that employers will see increasing challenges from applicants who are rejected due to prior convictions. If you have any questions regarding the EEOC Guidance or this article, please contact a member of the McNees Labor and Employment Law Practice Group.
 

How to screen job applicants without asking for the Facebook password

There has been a lot of backlash against the practice of employers asking potential employees for their Facebook password. So much so that U.S. senators are calling on the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation to determine whether this practice is lawful. Facebook is also weighing in and threatening legal action against employers who engage in this practice.

Employers can avoid the current controversy by using other less risky approaches to screen applicants. One such practice is to conduct a thorough background check that complies with the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Be sure to disclose the background check to the applicant, receive authorization in writing, and use the information the applicant directly provides to you to minimize legal liabilities and inaccurate results.

 

 

You can also view this video at www.jdsupra.com

EEOC Targets Employers' Leave of Absence and Attendance Policies

Does your company’s leave policy call for an employee’s termination following the expiration of his or her leave entitlement?  Does your company charge “attendance points” against employees regardless of the reason for the absence?  Does your company require employees to be released to work without restrictions before they are permitted to return from a medical leave?  If so, beware: “inflexible” leave of absence and attendance policies are being targeted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and plaintiffs under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). 

Recently, McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC's Labor and Employment Group developed and distributed an Employer Alert warning employers about the risks in these areas and providing valuable guidance.  To read the Employer Alert click here

Third Circuit Holds Ledbetter Fair Pay Act Does Not Save Untimely Failure-to-Promote Claims

A recent decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals allows employers to breathe a sigh of relief. In Noel v. Boeing Co. (pdf), the court concluded that an otherwise untimely discrimination claim, alleging that the employer discriminated against an employee by failing to promote the employee, is not rendered timely by the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the "Act") (pdf). The court's decision limits the reach the Act, and it is now clear that claims involving discrete acts of discrimination are not covered by the Act.

The decision involved discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act brought by Emmanuel Noel, an African-American employee at Boeing's Ridley Park, Pennsylvania facility. Basically, Noel claimed that Boeing failed to award him off site job assignments, which allowed for higher pay and per diem payments, and failed to promote him to a higher pay grade around September 2003. At that time, two white employees were promoted to a higher pay grade. In March 2005, Noel filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and eventually filed a lawsuit in June 2006. Noel's suit alleged multiple counts of race and national origin-based employment discrimination and retaliation, but the trial court held for Boeing on all counts. Noel appealed only the trial court's finding that his failure to promote claim was untimely.

Under Title VII, an employee in Pennsylvania must file a complaint with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged discriminatory act or it will be deemed untimely. Noel's complaint was filed with the EEOC in March 2005, well beyond the 300 day filing period following the alleged discriminatory promotion decision in September 2003. For this reason, the trial court dismissed his failure to promote claim. On appeal, Noel argued that the Act saved his otherwise untimely failure to promote claim.

The Act, passed by Congress in 2009, was in response to the Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber, Co., Inc. On January 29, 2009, we posted information regarding the Act and the Court's Ledbetter decision. The Act extended the time line for filing complaints of discrimination and states that "in pay discrimination matters an unlawful employment practice occurs each time an individual is affected by application of a discriminatory compensation decision." As a practical matter, this means that each time an employee receives a pay check that contains the effects of a discriminatory pay decision, the 300 day countdown for filing a complaint of discrimination with the EEOC is restarted.

Noel argued that the Act's paycheck rule made his claim timely because each time he received his pay check he felt the effects of the 2003 failure to promote decision. The Third Circuit disagreed. The court found that in order for an untimely claim to be saved by the Act, the claim must involve pay discrimination and the plaintiff must point to some discriminatory compensation decision or practice.

The court first held that Noel did not allege a pay discrimination claim because he did not allege that he received less pay for doing equal work. The court noted that the white employees were promoted, and as a result, they were not doing the same work as Noel. The court concluded that this was not a pay discrimination claim, which alleges lower pay for equal work.

The court then went on to address whether a failure to promote claim is a discriminatory compensation decision under the Act. The court concluded that in accordance with the plain language of the Act, only decisions involving compensation are covered, and discrete employment decisions, such as promotion decisions, are not within the scope of the Act. A failure to promote claim is not a discriminatory compensation decision, and therefore Noel's untimely failure to promote claim was not saved by the Act.

The court also found support for its decision in Justice Ginsburg's blistering dissent in the Ledbetter decision, which many believe prompted Congress to pass the Act. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg distinguished discriminatory compensation decisions, which may go undetected by employees for years, and discrete actions which are immediately felt by employees. Justice Ginsburg specifically referenced failure to promote decisions as discrete acts.

The court held that the Act was only intended to save untimely discriminatory pay decisions, and not all employment decisions. The court's rationale and decision should apply to other discrete employment actions, such as demotions and terminations. This is a good sign for employers, who under the Act may face liability for discriminatory pay decisions years or even decades after those decisions are made.
 

EEOC Issues Proposed Regulations Defining Employers' Affirmative Defense Under ADEA

On February 18, 2010, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) addressing the meaning of the “reasonable factors other than age” defense under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The ADEA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based upon their age, but protects only those employees or applicants who are 40 years or older. In addition, the ADEA provides employers with statutory defenses, which include provisions for a “bona fide occupational qualification" defense and a “reasonable factors other than age” defense.

The “reasonable factors other than age” (RFOA) defense precludes liability for actions otherwise prohibited under the ADEA so long as the employment decision is based upon reasonable factors other than age. The EEOC's NPRM takes into consideration two relatively recent United States Supreme Court cases, Smith v. City of Jackson and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories, which each evaluated disparate impact claims under the ADEA. Disparate impact claims involve the allegation that an employer’s practice, although neutral on its face, has a discriminatory impact on a protected class – under the ADEA, workers aged 40 years or more. 

Specifically, and with the Supreme Court’s Smith and Meacham holdings in mind, the EEOC proposes to revise the federal regulations to illustrate that under the RFOA defense, the evaluation of an employer’s practice “turns on the facts and circumstances of each particular situation and whether the employer acted prudently in light of those facts.” Thus, the EEOC’s proposed approach attempts to balance employers’ rights to make reasonable business decisions with the ADEA’s goal of protecting older workers from facially neutral employment practices that disparately impact their employment. In addition, the proposed amendments provide guidance as to the factors that will be considered in evaluating an employer's facially neutral practice under the ADEA.

What is a “Reasonable Factor”?

The NPRM first addresses the key “reasonableness” requirement of the RFOA defense. Under the proposed amendments, the RFOA defense “requires evidence that the challenged practice was reasonably designed to further or achieve a legitimate business purpose and was reasonably administered to achieve that purpose.” As this language suggests, both the structure of the employment practice and the way in which it is implemented affect its reasonableness. Further, this "reasonableness" analysis requires consideration of what the employer knew – or should have known – about the impact the practice would have when it took the action. Thus, an employer cannot hide behind a lack of knowledge – and a reasonable employer will evaluate its process to determine whether it will have a disparate age-based impact.

The EEOC included in its proposed amendments a non-exhaustive list of factors relevant to a determination of the “reasonableness” of an employer's practice. The proposed factors will serve to provide some guidance to employers in evaluating the susceptibility of an employment practice to attack under the ADEA. The factors include whether, and to what extent, the employer took steps to accurately define and apply decision-making factors – for example, through the training, guidance, or instruction of its managers. Other considerations include the extent and severity of the resulting harm to the protected class, and whether the employer had other options available.

Importantly, the EEOC is careful to note in the NPRM that these factors do not require an employer to adopt the employment practice with the least severe impact on members of the protected class. This is in contrast to the more stringent "business necessity" test available for Title VII discrimination claims. Under the RFOA defense, the availability of a less discriminatory practice will not – standing alone – make the employment practice unreasonable; however, employers should be aware that it will be considered a relevant factor in determining “reasonableness” under the RFOA defense.

Factors “Other than Age”

Under the NPRM, the RFOA defense would require that employers base an employment practice on a non-age factor – i.e., seniority or salary. As the EEOC notes in the NPRM, although these factors may often correlate with age, they are “analytically and factually distinct from age.” On the other hand, an employer’s “unchecked” use of subjective criteria related to age-based stereotypes may not be distinct from age.  

The proposed amendments to the federal regulations include another non-exhaustive list of factors, which may be relevant to an assessment of whether an employer's facially neutral practice is based on a non-age factor. The factors include the extent to which the employer gave supervisor's unchecked discretion to assess employees subjectively, and whether supervisors were given guidance or training in the non-discriminatory application of the evaluation factors. 

The NPRM cautions that employers who give supervisors unchecked discretion to engage in subjective decision-making should be well aware that an age-based disparate impact might result. In response, employers should make the effort to objectify evaluation criteria wherever possible in such situations and take steps to train supervisors for awareness (and avoidance) of age-based stereotyping. Employers should be aware that giving supervisors such unfettered discretion to make employment decisions may also subject them to liability not only for disparate impact claims, but also for disparate treatment claims under the ADEA and other employment discrimination laws.

Employers: Prepare to Review and Update Your Practices Now

The EEOC will consider any comments received on or before April 19, 2010, prior to adopting final regulations regarding the ADEA’s statutory RFOA defense. Although the proposed regulations outlined above are not yet final, employers can take steps now to shore up their practices and to prepare for these anticipated changes to the RFOA defense, particularly in a reduction-in-force (RIF) context. 

Pennsylvania employers should be poised to update their applicable policies and procedures, using the proposed regulations and the factors included therein, to provide some guidance. In addition, employers can be prepared to provide training to their managers and other decision-making personnel once the rules become final. 

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.

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:

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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?

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Employee's Abortion As Basis For Discrimination Claim

A company’s termination of a female worker's employment for missing work in violation of an attendance policy is illegal discrimination if the termination decision is sufficiently related to the woman’s exercise of her right to an abortion. On May 30, 2008, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Jane Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc., and held that:

Clearly, the plain language of the [Pregnancy Discrimination Act], together with the legislative history, and the EEOC guidelines, support a conclusion that an employer may not discriminate against a woman employee because she has exercised her right to have an abortion. We now hold that the [PDA’s] term “related medical conditions” includes an abortion.

The Third Circuit reversed a district court's decision, which granted summary judgment in favor of a company that operated a business insuring used cars. The Third Circuit found that there were issues of fact that must be resolved by a jury, not a judge. 

The decision also noted the following items unique to a pregnancy discrimination case:

  • There are three elements to a prima facie case of pregnancy discrimination to be proven by an employee:
    • She is or was pregnant and her employer knew she was pregnant
    • She was qualified for her job;
    • She suffered an adverse employment action; and
    • A nexus exists between the pregnancy and the adverse employment action that suggests unlawful discrimination.

The legal analysis for pregnancy discrimination claims follows the rubric set forth for Title VII discrimination claims. Set forth below is a brief overview of the analysis as discussed in Jane Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc.

Employee's Prima Facie Case:

  • A nexus can be demonstrated by showing that the pregnant employee was treated less favorably that similarly situated non-pregnant employees. Anemployer's more favorable treatment of temporarily disabled non-pregnant workers raises an inference of discrimination.
  • A discriminatory motive can be demonstrated by remarks by a company decision maker critical of pregnancy or abortion and by the temporal proximity between the abortion and the employee’s separation from employment.

Employer's Burden of Production:

  • An employer may defend a discrimination claim by producinga legitimate nondiscriminatory business reason for an employee’s termination. For example, in Jane Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc., the employer’s justification for the employee's termination was job abandonment for failing to call in under its absenteeism policy. 

Employee's Burden to Prove Pretext:

  • The employee must then show the justification is a mere pretext for discrimination by evidence that either casts doubt upon the employer’s reason as fabricated or shows that discrimination was the employer’s true motivation. The evidence of record in Jane Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc., created a material issue of fact regarding whether C.A.R.S.'s legitimate nondiscriminatory reason was pretextual.

Social views aside, it appears that in the Third Circuit an abortion is now a recognized activity, covered under the PDA, for which an employee cannot be treated differently in the terms and conditions of her employment. Irrespective of an employer's social views, employers must now recognize the differing treatment of employees who have undergone an abortion presents the possibility for claims under the PDA, and most likely the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.