If you have followed our blog over the past year, you are aware of the long and tortured history of the National Labor Relations Board’s joint employer standard.  The recent history starts with the Obama Board’s decision to overturn decades of case law.  But the saga continued.

Just last month, we reported on the Trump Board’s proposal to promulgate regulations adopting a joint employer standard.  According to the Board, issuing regulations will clear up the uncertainty currently surrounding the standard that was created by years of case law.  Those who have been following this matter might view the Board’s proposed rulemaking as a welcome opportunity for clarity on an issue that has vexed employers and unions alike in recent years.

But not everyone was pleased by the Board’s announcement.  In a joint letter to Trump-appointed Board Chairman John Ring, United States Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders questioned the Board’s ability to remain independent on the issue given its overturned decision in Hy-Brand (in February 2018, the Board reversed its own ruling after its Ethics Officials determined that one of the Board Members should have been disqualified from participating in the case due to a conflict of interest).  Essentially, Senators Warren, Gillibrand, and Sanders accused the Board of using rulemaking to reinstate the Hy-Brand decision.  In other words, they believe that the Board has already decided on the final rule to be issued based on personal bias and without regard for the notice-and-comment process.  Serious allegations, to be sure.

Earlier this week, Chairman Ring responded to the Senators with a letter of his own.  The Chairman explained, in no uncertain terms, that a majority of the Board will engage in rulemaking on the joint employer issue and that it intends to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking sometime this summer.  He reminded the Senators that all Board Members, both past and present, have personal opinions formed by years of experience.  After assuring the Senators that the Board has not pre-determined the final joint employer rule, Chairman Ring also pointed out that the courts have held that personal opinions do not render Members incapable of engaging in rulemaking unless it can be shown that their mind is “unalterably closed” on the issue.

If we’ve learned anything from this dust-up between the Senators and the Board, it’s that the Board will proceed with rulemaking on the joint employer standard, and that accusations of bias from U.S. Senators will not stop it from doing so.  As we said last time – stay tuned.  More news is coming, and soon.

With increasing frequency, when employees sue their employer or former employer, they also name individual managers or the company’s owners as defendants in their suit.  Under federal EEO laws (e.g. Title VII, ADA, ADEA), individuals generally cannot be held liable for acts of discrimination.  However, employment laws such as the FMLA, FLSA and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act do allow for individual liability under some circumstances.  In Abdellmassih v. Mitra OSR (February 28, 2018), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania addressed whether individuals may be held liable under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”) for failing to issue required COBRA notices.

Mr. Abdellmassih was terminated from his position at a KFC restaurant and sued his employer under a variety of laws.  He named the co-owners of the company as individual defendants with respect to his claims under several laws, including COBRA.  The basis for his COBRA claim was that he was allegedly never issued a COBRA notice after he lost his health coverage due to the termination of his employment.

COBRA provides that a plan administrator who fails to comply with COBRA’s notice requirements may, at a court’s discretion, be held personally liable for up to $100 per day that the required notice is not provided.  Mr. Abdelmassih argued that his former employer’s co-owners served as the health plan’s administrators and, therefore, should be individually liable for the plan’s failure to issue required COBRA notices.  However, upon reviewing the company’s health insurance brochure, the court noted that the owners were not named anywhere in the document – as plan administrators or otherwise.  Indeed, the brochure merely directed employees to contact a human resources representative if they had questions regarding their COBRA rights.  Since the co-owners were not named in the document, the court found there was no basis to impose individual liability upon them under COBRA.  However, Mr. Abdelmassih’s COBRA claim against the corporate entity remained intact.

The lesson of the Abdelmassih case is simple.  When identifying the “plan administrator” in a plan document or summary plan description, avoid naming individuals.  A general reference to the employer (or third party administrator firm) – or the department with responsibility for plan administration (e.g. human resources) –  is the best way to avoid individual liability situations under COBRA.  A quick check of your company’s plan language on this point may save you (or someone in your company) from significant liability!

The Supreme Court of the United States held today that arbitration agreements, which waive the right to proceed as part of a class or collective action, are enforceable in the employment context. In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Court held that employment agreements that call for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve workplace disputes between employers and employees are lawful. Interestingly, the Court’s 5-4 decision was authored by the newest Justice, Justice Gorsuch.

In a series of cases, employees and former employees had asserted that agreements requiring individual arbitration violate the National Labor Relations Act, because the NLRA protects employee rights to proceed in class or collective actions. Although it had previously taken a different position, in 2012, the National Labor Relations Board agreed that arbitration agreements, which waive the right to proceed in class or collective actions, violate the NLRA. The Board’s controversial position was set forth in D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil USA.

Employers countered that the Federal Arbitration Act expresses a strong preference for arbitration and makes clear that arbitration agreements are presumptively valid. The FAA requires that courts enforce arbitration agreements, including procedural terms related to the arbitration process itself. The FAA does provide that arbitration agreements will not be enforced if there is a legal basis to set aside the agreement, such as fraud or duress in the making of the contract. However, in this case, the only argument presented was that the individual arbitration agreements violate the NLRA.

The Supreme Court rejected that contention. Ultimately, a slim majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the employers and held that the FAA requires enforcement of arbitration agreements, including agreements that call for individual proceedings, because such agreements do not violate NLRA. The Court noted that in order for a law such as the NLRA to trump the FAA, there must be a clear statement of intention in the law. The Court found no such clear intention in the NLRA.

The Supreme Court’s decision is the law of the land, and that means that arbitration agreements in the employment context that require individualized claims are lawful. Employers looking to update their employment agreements in light of this decision can reach out to any member of the McNees Labor and Employment Group. In addition, if you are thinking about implementing arbitration requirements for the first time, we can help.

For several years we have been providing updates on the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board’s rather employer-unfriendly joint employer standard.  We have yet another. We believe the final episode in this saga should be good news for employers.  We’re just not sure whether the good news will come from the Courts, from the regulatory process, or both.

This may be hard to follow, but stay with us…

To recap, in 2015, the Obama Board issued a decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, and vastly expanded the situations in which a franchisor or a source employer could be deemed a joint employer with its franchisee or with a supplier of a contingent workforce.  All that needed to be shown under this new standard was some reserved ability by the franchisor or source employer to potentially control the terms and conditions of the other entity’s employees. To the relief of employers, Browning-Ferris quickly appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

As we reported in the Spring of 2017, the Board’s new standard appeared to receive a cool reception from the Court of Appeals during oral argument. We waited and waited, but no opinion came from the Court.

Then, in December 2017, the Trump Board decided Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, and announced that it would return to the prior standard that required proof of a joint employer’s actual exercise of control over essential employment terms, rather than merely having reserved the right to exercise control. After Hy-Brand was issued, Browning-Ferris was no longer relevant, so the Court of Appeals remanded that appeal back to the Board.  All appeared to be right in the world.

Alas, this return to normalcy was short-lived.  In late February 2018, the Board issued an Order vacating Hy-Brand based on a determination by the Board’s Ethics Official that one of the three Members who participated in the matter should have been disqualified. With that disqualification no Board quorum existed.  So, what next?  The Board asks the Court of Appeals for a “do-over”: please recall Browning-Ferris and issue a decision. Please?!

On April 6, a divided Court of Appeals granted the Board’s request and recalled Browning-Ferris, and just like 2017, we again await that appellate decision.

But hold on.  There’s more.  Yesterday the Board announced that it is considering rulemaking to address the standard for determining joint-employer status. That would be actual regulations, folks. New Board Chair John Ring’s comments accompanying the announcement are telling: “Whether one business is the joint employer of another business’s employees is one of the most critical issues in labor law today. The current uncertainty over the standard to be applied…undermines employers’ willingness to create jobs and expand business opportunities. In my view, notice-and-comment rulemaking offers the best vehicle to fully consider all views on what the standard ought to be.”

So, stay tuned for more news.  We know it’s coming.  Just not sure which channel will air it first.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that discrimination against transgender/LBGTQ employees is discrimination on the basis of sex that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.  Moreover, the court held that the employer could not use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as a defense to justify such discrimination.

The Plaintiff began work as a funeral director and presented as a male (birth sex).  Eventually, Plaintiff informed the funeral home that she had a gender identity disorder and would transition to female.  Plaintiff was fired when she informed the funeral home she was no longer going to present as a male and would transition and dress as a female.  The funeral home contended that continued employment would harm its business clients and violated the funeral home’s owner’s Christian beliefs.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit under Title VII alleging unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex.  The funeral home owner defended the termination under the RFRA.  The RFRA prohibits enforcement of a religiously neutral law that substantially burdens religious exercise, unless the law is the least restrictive way to further a compelling government interest.

The district court held that Plaintiff was discriminated against based upon sex stereotypes, but held the EEOC could not enforce a Title VII claim because it would burden the employer’s exercise of religion in violation of the RFRA.  The court granted summary judgment to the funeral home.

The Sixth Circuit reversed and held that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ status.  Perhaps more importantly, the court held that the funeral home was not entitled to a RFRA defense on the ground that continuing Stephens’ employment would not, as a matter of law, burden the employer’s exercise of religion and, even if it did, the EEOC had established that enforcing Title VII is the least restrictive means of furthering the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating and eradicating sex discrimination.

The first cases addressing the impact of Pennsylvania’s Construction Workplace Misclassification Act (“CWMA”) in the context of the Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act, have finally reached the Appellate Courts. The CWMA, which became effective on February 10, 2011, imposes criminal and administrative penalties for the misclassification of employees as “independent contractors” at commercial and residential construction sites in Pennsylvania. “Construction” is broadly defined to include “erection, reconstruction, demolition, alteration, modification, custom fabrication, building assembly, site prep and repair work,” at both residential and commercial sites.

The CWMA details a multi-prong test for determining whether a worker is an “employee” or “independent contractor” for purposes of the Act:

  1. The individual must have written contract to perform such services;
  2. The individual must be free from control or direction over the performance of such services, both by contract and in fact;
  3. The individual must be customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business, with a business location separate from the location of the person for whom services are being performed; and
  4. The individual must maintain liability insurance during the term of the contract of at least $50,000.

What had been unclear for some time, was whether the formal requirements of the CWMA would supplant the common law definition of “employee” under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act, which had focused primarily on a traditional “direction and control test” for distinguishing between independent contractors and employees. This issue was recently addressed in D & R Construction v WCAB. The Commonwealth Court in D & R Construction ruled that, for injuries occurring at construction sites on or after February 10, 2011, the injured worker will be deemed an employee, unless all of the mandatory criteria are in place for a finding of independent contractor status, pursuant to the CWMA. Additionally, all criteria should be given equal weight by the WC Judge, and if any one is absent, the injured worker will be deemed to be an “employee” of the business entity requesting the services.

In light of this ruling and pending clarification by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it is critically important that employers utilizing subcontractors at Pennsylvania residential and commercial project sites, make sure that such subcontractors and their employees meet the definition of “independent contractors” under the CWMA and are properly insured for both liability and workers’ compensation. Contractual indemnification language may also be advantageous, in the event of an unexpected construction site injury or claim.

For further information on construction site injuries or guidance, please contact Micah Saul, Denise Elliott, or Paul Clouser in the Lancaster office.

That sound you just heard was employers everywhere breathing a sigh of relief, and maybe even high-fiving.  That’s because the newly constituted National Labor Relations Board fired off several pro-employer decisions in the last week. The decisions were released in rapid succession in the days prior the expiration of the term of Board Chairman Phil Miscimarra.

As we reported just this week, the Board decided to modify the standard by which it determines whether employer policies are unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act.  That decision will provide some very welcome relief to employers who saw the Obama-era Board find just about every employer policy unlawful.  We also reported that we anticipate that the Board’s approach to social media will similarly become more fair and predictable.

The Trump-Board also made quick work of one of the Obama-Board’s most controversial decisions, Browning-Ferris, which created a new “joint employer” test.  We reported on the new expansive joint employer test adopted by the Board in Browning-Ferris, and expressed our concern regarding increased liability for employers under the new standard.  Browning-Ferris allowed for a joint employer finding, and increased liability, based on theoretical or “reserved” power/control, even if such control was never exercised.  In Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, the Board abandoned the Browning-Ferris standard and declared that joint-employer status requires proof that the putative joint employer has actually exercised joint control over essential employment terms, rather than merely having reserved the right to exercise control.

The Board also reversed the Obama-Board’s Specialty Healthcare decision, which allowed unions to form “micro-units.”  That decision essentially required the Board to rubber stamp the union’s definition of the appropriate bargaining unit for purposes of a union election and bargaining.  This approach exposed employers to an increased risk of organizing campaigns, and the possibility of having to negotiate with several different unions.  On December 15, 2017, in PCC Structurals, Inc., the Board abandoned the Specialty Healthcare standard and returned to its prior framework for determining the scope of a bargaining unit.

Also on December 15, 2017, the Board reversed another Obama-era decision, E.I. DuPont de Nemours, Louisville Works, which had overturned 50 years of precedent.  In DuPont, the Obama-Board dramatically expanded the definition of “change” for purposes of determining whether an employer made an unlawful unilateral change to the terms and conditions of employment.  Under DuPont, an employer was found to have engaged in an unfair labor practice charge for simply continuing to do what it had done many times previously—for years or even decades. Last week, in Raytheon Network Centric Systems, the Trump-Board reversed DuPont, and announced the return to the prior standard for determining whether an employer is authorized to make changes to the terms and conditions of employment after the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement.

These decisions are certainly indicative of a return to a more employer-friendly Board.  These decisions reversed some of the more controversial, and problematic, decisions of the Obama-Board.  We are certainly hopeful these are a sign of things to come from the Board.  However, with the expiration of the term of Chairman Miscimarra, we may need to wait some time before we receive another batch of pro-employer decisions.

Last year, OSHA issued a new electronic reporting rule that requires employers with more than 250 employees in industries covered by the OSHA recordkeeping regulations, as well as employers with 20-249 employees in designated “high-risk industries” (including manufacturing, construction, and many healthcare establishments), to electronically submit injury and illness data from their OSHA 300 logs and related forms. Much of the information electronically will be made available to the public on OSHA’s website because, in OSHA’s view, “behavioral economics tells us that making information publicly available will ‘nudge’ employers to focus on safety.”

The original July 1, 2017 deadline by which covered employers were required to submit data from their Form 300A Annual Summary for 2016 was previously extended by OSHA in order to “provide the new administration the opportunity to review the new electronic reporting requirements prior to their implementation and allow affected entities sufficient time to familiarize themselves with the electronic reporting system.”   The deadline is now December 15, 2017. Accordingly, covered employers must log onto OSHA’s Injury Tracking Application (ITA) and submit their 2016 OSHA Form 300A information electronically on or before December 15, 2017.

Whether OSHA will maintain the future electronic reporting requirements under the new rule remains to be seen. A recent OSHA press release indicates that “OSHA is currently reviewing the other provisions of its final rule to Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses, and intends to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking to reconsider, revise, or remove portions of that rule in 2018.” Considering the Trump administration’s record of scaling back Obama era government regulations, it would not be a surprise to see a change here as well.

Stay tuned for additional updates in 2018 …

Last November, we explained the decision in the case of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Scott Medical Health Center, P.C., from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.  There, the court concluded that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.  Our previous post on this case can be found here.

To recap, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) filed the lawsuit on behalf of a gay, male former employee of Scott Medical, alleging that his supervisor subjected him to anti-gay epithets and a hostile work environment based on his sexual orientation.  The court refused to dismiss the case because, in the words of U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a subset of sexual stereotyping and thus covered by Title VII’s prohibitions on discrimination ‘because of sex’.”

On September 25, 2017, the court entered a default judgment against Scott Medical on the issue of liability.  The court found that the company had committed an intentional violation of Title VII.  This finding was based on the fact that Scott Medical’s Chief Executive Officer was aware of the supervisor’s harassing actions and refused to take any action to stop the conduct or correct the hostile work environment.

On November 16, 2017, after a trial on issue of damages, Judge Bissoon ordered Scott Medical to pay the employee $5,500.43 in back pay and prejudgment interest.  More importantly, she also ordered Scott Medical to pay the statutory maximum amount of $50,000 as compensatory and punitive damages.  If not for the statutory cap on such damages, Judge Bissoon opined that “punitive damages in the amount of $75,000 would be warranted by the evidence” in this case.

Notably, the supporting evidence cited by the court included the fact that Scott Medical failed to train the harassing supervisor on its anti-harassment policy.  In fact, Scott Medical could not identify anyone who would have provided such training to any of its supervisors.  Similarly, the former employee testified that he never received a copy of the Company’s anti-harassment policy and was never trained about harassment in the workplace.

There are several clear takeaways from this case.  First, as we explained here, regular and effective anti-harassment training is an essential part of preventing harassment in any organization.  This case provides 55,000 reasons to ensure that such training is provided to supervisors and managers, as well as all other employees.

The second takeaway is to revisit your organization’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Anti-Harassment policies, and consider adding sexual orientation as a protected trait.  As you update your policies, keep in mind the importance of responding promptly and appropriately when complaints are raised about harassment – including harassment based on sexual orientation.  It also may be a good time to update your anti-harassment training to specifically address issues of discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation.

There also may be more to come with the Scott Medical case.  Now that a final judgment has been entered, an appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals may be forthcoming.  If the case is appealed, the Third Circuit likely will be forced to reconsider several prior decisions in which it found that sexual orientation was not protected under Title VII.  We will continue to provide updates as developments in this area occur.

An ever-increasing number of employers are sponsoring wellness incentives as a means of encouraging employees to developing healthy habits. In turn, employers gain healthier, more productive work forces.  Wellness incentive programs aren’t without their risks, however.  In this podcast, Denise Elliott discusses whether employees are covered by workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained while participating in an employer-sponsored wellness program.