In the months since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, there have been countless efforts to raise awareness of workplace sexual harassment.  Actresses donned black dresses at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this month to promote #MeToo and the related Time’s Up initiative.  Last weekend, the music industry’s elite carried white roses at the Grammy Awards to show solidarity for the movement.  These efforts, however, are not limited to celebrities.  Many other initiatives have sprung up in response to workplace sexual harassment issues – including those in our federal and state legislatures.

The most notable legislative development to date was tucked into the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which President Trump signed into law at the end of December.  The Act adds a provision to the Internal Revenue Code prohibiting tax deductions for payments or settlements “related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse”, and for attorneys’ fees related to such payments or settlements, if the payment is subject to a non-disclosure agreement.  Essentially, it is intended to discourage the use of non-disclosure provisions in settlements of sexual harassment or abuse claims by forcing employers to choose between the tax deduction and confidentiality.  It applies to amounts paid or incurred after December 22, 2017.

The good news is that the provision appears to be limited to settlements involving actual allegations of sexual harassment or abuse, rather than to every settlement involving a general release of claims.  The bad news is that the provision leaves many questions unanswered, including the key question: What constitutes a payment “related to sexual harassment or abuse”?  We anticipate that regulations implementing the Act will address this and other ambiguities in the provision.  Until then, however, employers are well-advised to consult with their financial and legal advisors regarding the applicability of this provision to their individual circumstances.

Employers also should be aware of other legislative initiatives targeting the use of non-disclosure agreements.  An increasing number of states have introduced legislation to prohibit the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment claims entirely.  In November 2017, Pennsylvania Senator Judy Schwank (D) introduced Senate Bill 999 that would ban non-disclosure provisions in any contract or settlement relating to “sexual misconduct”.  Among other things, the bill would prohibit an agreement not to disclose the name of a person suspected of sexual harassment.  It remains to be seen whether, or in what form, Senate Bill 999 may be passed into law.

In the meantime, beyond staying abreast of the latest legal developments, you might be asking yourself, What can my company do to raise awareness of – and effectively address – issues of sexual harassment (and other types of discriminatory harassment) in the workplace?  Click here to learn more about how you can educate your workforce, update and strengthen your policies and procedures, and effectively investigate reported concerns of harassment in your workplace.  We also will cover lingering questions about sexual harassment issues in the workplace and conducting workplace investigations at McNees’ 28th Annual Labor & Employment Law Seminar on May 11, 2018.  Stay tuned to our blog for details, or contact any member of McNees’ Labor & Employment practice group for more information.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), employers are permitted to pay non-exempt employees a fixed salary to cover straight-time earnings for all hours worked in a week, provided several conditions are met: a) the employee’s hours must fluctuate week to week; b) the employee must be paid the fixed salary in weeks where employee works less than 40 hours; c) there must be a clear understanding that the salary is intended as straight-time compensation for all hours worked; d) the employee’s “regular rate” of pay (calculated by dividing the salary amount by the total weekly hours worked) must be at least the federal minimum wage; and e) for each hour worked in excess of 40 in a week, the employee must be paid an overtime premium of at least ½ the employee’s regular rate for that week.  This pay plan, commonly referred to as the “fluctuating work week” method (“FWW”), was long thought to be lawful in Pennsylvania.  However, in two federal court decisions issued in 2012 and 2014, FWW pay plans were found to violate the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (“PMWA”).  Put another way, a pay practice that is permitted under federal FLSA regulations was found to violate Pennsylvania’s state law governing wages and overtime.

The earlier court decisions striking down FWW pay plans were both authored by federal judges who were interpreting state law.  Some employers have held out hope that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania might disagree with their interpretation of the PMWA and resurrect FWW pay plans in Pennsylvania.  This issue has not yet reached Pennsylvania’s highest state court.  However, in Chevalier v. General Nutrition Centers, Inc. the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (an intermediate appellate court) considered the status of FWW plans under the PMWA.

In Chevalier, GNC’s store managers and assistant managers were treated as “salaried non-exempt” employees.  That is, they were paid a fixed salary regardless of how many hours they worked.  GNC also paid its managers an overtime premium consistent with the FWW method; i.e., a “regular rate” was calculated for each week (salary divided by total hours worked) and managers were paid ½ of the regular rate as a premium for each overtime hour worked.

Citing the prior federal court decisions referenced above, the plaintiffs argued that GNC’s FWW plan violated the PMWA.  From the plaintiff’s perspective, GNC was required to calculate each manager’s regular rate by dividing his or her weekly salary by 40 hours – and then pay 1 ½ times this rate for each hour worked in excess of 40.

Interestingly, the Superior Court did not side entirely with either party.  The Court found that GNC properly calculated each manager’s regular rate by dividing his or her weekly salary by the total number of hours worked by the manager in the week (and not by 40, as argued by the plaintiffs).  This holding results in a lower regular rate in weeks during which overtime is worked.

However, upon reviewing Section 231.43(b) of PMWA regulations, the Court agreed with the plaintiffs that overtime hours must be paid at a rate of 1 ½ times the regular rate for all hours worked in excess of 40 – or three times more than the ½ time premium that was being paid by GNC to its salaried non-exempt managers.  By way of example, if a non-exempt manager is paid a fixed salary of $1,000 each week, regardless of hours worked – then his or her “regular rate” is $20/hour in a week during which the manager works 50 hours.  Applying the Superior Court’s reasoning, this manager must then be paid $30/hour (1 ½ X $20) for each of the 10 overtime hours worked that week.

Notably, while the Chevalier case was pending, the Superior Court invited the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry (“L&I”) to state its position as to whether the FWW method of calculating overtime pay is permitted under PMWA.  L&I declined to do so, explaining that, by taking a formal position on the issue, the Department would arguably be taking regulatory action without following the required regulatory review process.

In sum, the Chevalier decision makes it clear that employers may realize some wage savings by treating certain employees as “salaried non-exempt.”  However, the PMWA applies a stricter standard for calculating overtime pay than is permitted under FLSA regulations for FWW pay programs.   While Pennsylvania employers may calculate a salaried non-exempt employee’s “regular rate” in the same manner as they would under an FWW, the PMWA requires payment of 1 ½ times that rate for each overtime hour – and not merely payment of a ½ time premium.

Until the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania says otherwise (or the PMWA is amended), employers who employ salaried non-exempt employees in Pennsylvania should be careful to ensure that their overtime pay practices are consistent with the Chevalier decision.  If you have any questions regarding the Chevalier case or any other wage and hour compliance issue, please contact any member of our Labor and Employment Practice Group.

As many will recall, the U.S. Department of Labor issued regulations in May 2016 that would have increased dramatically the minimum salary requirements for the Fair Labor Standards Act’s “white-collar” overtime exemptions.  The 2016 FLSA regulations would have more than doubled the minimum weekly salary requirement for most white-collar overtime exemptions from $455 to $913 and contained a number of additional provisions, the vast majority of which were not viewed favorably by employers.

In November 2016, mere days before those FLSA regulations were set to become law, a federal judge issued an injunction blocking those regulations from taking effect.  Since then, the possibility of those regulations ever taking effect has diminished substantially.

Now, it appears that the changes the 2016 FLSA regulations promised may become a reality for Pennsylvania employers.  Yesterday, Governor Wolf announced that the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry will propose new regulations under the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act that will increase the minimum salary requirement for the white-collar overtime exemptions under this state law.

The PMWA is the state-law equivalent of the FLSA.  The PMWA and FLSA both place minimum wage and overtime pay obligations on Pennsylvania employers.  While the laws’ requirements are similar, they are not identical.  Employers in Pennsylvania must meet the requirements of both laws to ensure compliance.  In areas where one law is more favorable to employees than the other, employers must comply with the more pro-employee requirements to avoid liability for unpaid minimum wages or overtime pay.

Governor Wolf announced that the proposed PMWA regulations will raise the salary level to determine overtime eligibility for most white-collar workers from the current FLSA minimum of $23,660 (i.e., $455 per week) to $31,720 (i.e., $610 per week) on January 1, 2020.  If the proposed regulations ultimately take effect, the annual salary threshold will increase to $39,832 (i.e., $766 per week) on January 1, 2021, followed by $47,892 (i.e., $921 per week) in 2022.  Starting in 2022, the salary threshold will update automatically every three years.  (The terms of such automatic increases have not yet been released.)

In addition, unlike the 2016 FLSA regulations, Governor Wolf announced that the new PMWA regulations will “clarify” the duties tests for the white-collar exemptions.  We can only assume that such “clarifications” when issued will not be favorable for employers and will make even more currently exempt employees now eligible for overtime.

The Department of Labor and Industry anticipates releasing the proposed regulations for public comment in March 2018.

For Pennsylvania employers, all of this will feel very familiar.  Should the proposed regulations become final and take effect, employers in Pennsylvania will need to take the following steps:

  • Identify those employees currently treated as exempt from overtime pay and determine whether their salaries will meet the new minimum salary thresholds.
  • For those employees currently treated as exempt who earn less than the new minimum salary thresholds, consider whether to increase their salaries to meet the new salary requirements or convert the employees to non-exempt status and pay them for overtime worked.

Of course, Governor Wolf announced only that proposed regulations containing these changes will be coming in March.  There is no guarantee that the proposed regulations will become final in the same or similar form, and, even if they do, legal challenges may await.  The PA Chamber of Business and Industry already has announced its strong opposition to the proposed changes.  There is also a gubernatorial election in November 2018 that may play a large role in the ultimate fate of these proposed regulations.

Whether and to what extent these changes will become law in 2020 remains to be seen.  We will provide updates on the proposed regulations as the situation warrants.  In the meantime, to quote the late great Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again.

Yesterday, we reported on a Commonwealth Court decision that basically concluded that an arbitrator’s award ordering the reinstatement of a discharged employee who is incapable of performing his job violates the “essence test.” We also noted that a subsequent decision of the court seems to be a bit in conflict with that holding. Let’s take a closer look at that decision.

The Commonwealth Court addressed (what appeared to be) a similar question in the context of a state trooper. The Trooper, a male, had a romantic relationship with a female, which ultimately failed. Thereafter, the female Trooper filed complaints that alleged the male Trooper was harassing her. The Pennsylvania State Police conducted an investigation and found the complaints unsubstantiated. Alleging the same behavior, the female Trooper filed for a Protection of Abuse order (PFA). A judge ultimately issued the PFA, which had a condition that the male Trooper could not carry a firearm. Because he could not carry a firearm, the male Trooper was placed on restrictive duty pending an additional internal investigation. Upon confirming that the PFA included a condition that barred him from carrying a firearm, the State Police terminated the male Trooper.

The Trooper filed a grievance and ultimately submitted the issue to arbitration. The arbitrator ordered that the Trooper be reinstated. The State Police appealed to the Commonwealth Court. Same result as the correctional officer, right? He cannot perform the essential duties of his position, so requiring his employment infringes managerial rights? Nope.

There are two key differences. First, unlike the correctional officer, whose collective bargaining rights are set out in the Public Employee Relations Act (PERA), the state trooper’s collective bargaining rights are established under Act 111. In reviewing arbitration awards under PERA the court uses the highly deferential essence test. However, in reviewing arbitration awards under Act 111, the court uses an even more deferential and narrow test. It is indeed narrow, justifying a vacation of an arbitrator’s award only if there is a lack of jurisdiction, irregularity of proceedings, excess in the exercise of powers, or deprivation of constitutional rights. The State Police argued that the Trooper’s reinstatement was in excess of the arbitrator’s powers. The court disagreed, finding that there is only an excess use of powers if the award requires an illegal act or performance of an act which cannot be done voluntarily. No such excess was present here.

The second difference is more fundamental: unlike the correctional officer, the State Police’s justification for the Trooper’s termination was not his inability to perform the essential functions of a police officer (carry a firearm), but it was the harassing conduct underlying the issuance of the PFA. According to the State Police, the underlying conduct violated department regulations for “unbecoming conduct” and “conformance of laws.” However, those regulations required physical abuse, commission of a felony or misdemeanor, or use of a firearm. None of the harassing conduct underlying the PFA involved any of this type of conduct. Thus, the court found the arbitrator did not exceed his authority in concluding that there was not just cause for the Trooper’s termination.

So, for our public employer subscribers, these cases serve as a reminder that arbitrator decisions are subject to great deference on appeal, making success during arbitration of critical importance. But more importantly, it makes clear that if you are planning on terminating an employee who has established that he or she is unable to perform the essential duties of his or her position, that must be the documented basis (or at least part) for the termination.

In November 2017, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion concerning an arbitrator’s reinstatement of a state correctional officer (“CO”). The CO was responsible for monitoring inmates who worked on the prison’s loading dock. As far back as 2015, the CO’s supervisors noticed unauthorized food items in the dock area. Despite instruction to remove all unauthorized food from the dock, the CO continued to allow inmates to remove food from deliveries, and he personally took food for himself. Finding that he violated several orders, the CO was temporarily removed from his position and later reinstated. Shortly after his reinstatement, a routine search of the dock again found contraband food. This time he was discharged.

The CO filed a grievance and later submitted the issue to arbitration, claiming that the Department of Corrections violated the collective bargaining agreement by discharging him without just cause. The arbitrator agreed and reinstated the CO with a 30-day suspension. The arbitrator found that the CO was not irredeemable, just that “he should not be in a position which requires his supervision of inmates.” The arbitrator noted that the CO must have agreed with his inability to supervise inmates because he applied for, and was granted, a transfer to a guard tower position prior to his termination. Thus, the arbitrator found there was just cause to discipline the CO, but termination was not warranted.

The Department appealed the arbitrator’s award to the Commonwealth Court. The Court reviewed the award using the well-established “essence test,” which is a highly deferential standard. The essence test requires the court to affirm an arbitrator’s award so long as it can be rationally derived from the collective bargaining agreement. The Department argued that the award was not rationally derived from the CBA. It asserted that the award required it to employ a CO who could not perform the functions of the job, i.e. the care, custody and control of inmates. The Commonwealth Court agreed.

The court held that since the arbitrator found that the CO should not be in a position which requires supervision of inmates, the CO could not perform the statutorily-defined duties of a correctional officer. Thus, reinstatement would force the Department to employ an officer with limitations on his ability to interact with inmates. The court found this was in direct contradiction to the managerial rights enumerated in the CBA, which provided the Department had authority to direct its workforce to satisfy its operational needs. Accordingly, the court found arbitrator’s award was not rationally derived from the CBA.

For many public employers in Pennsylvania, the court’s decision is a welcomed limitation on the seemingly limitless power of arbitrators. It just makes sense that an arbitrator should not be permitted to reinstate an employee who the arbitrator himself has determined is incapable of performing his job.

However, a subsequent decision of the Commonwealth Court, analyzing a similar issue, has left some public employers scratching their heads. We will cover the subsequent decision in a post tomorrow.

In a recent change of position, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) has endorsed a new standard for determining when an unpaid intern is entitled to compensation as an employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  We previously reported on an earlier DOL effort to tighten up the restrictions on the use of unpaid interns.  It looks like the DOL has decided to change course.

By way of further background, the United States Supreme Court has yet to address the issue, but several federal circuit and district courts have attempted to determine the proper standard to assess these situations.  Recognizing that internships are widely supported by the education community, these courts have sought to strike a balance between providing individuals with legitimate learning opportunities and the exploitation of unpaid interns.

In keeping with the rulings of the courts, the DOL, stated last Friday that “the Wage and Hour Division will update its enforcement policies to align with recent case law [and] eliminate unnecessary confusion among the regulated community…”

Accordingly, the DOL rescinded a 2010 Fact Sheet and adopted the primary beneficiary test, which considers the following factors to determine whether an intern or student is, in fact, an employee under the FLSA:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

No one factor is determinative and, therefore, the inquiry of whether an intern or student is an employee under the FLSA depends upon the unique circumstances of each case.  The Labor & Employment attorneys at McNees are ready to help employers with the analysis of whether the intern or the employer is the primary beneficiary of the relationship.

Typically, a drug test cannot be certified as positive until a Medical Review Officer (“MRO”) verifies the result.  For drivers subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act, Department of Transportation Regulations state that an MRO must verify as positive a confirmed test result for drugs, unless the employee presents a legitimate medical explanation for the presence of the drug in his/her system.  The employee bears the burden of establishing the legitimate medical reason for the positive test.

With the passage of state laws legalizing the use of medical marijuana, including here in Pennsylvania, many have questioned whether the use of medical marijuana, pursuant to state law, constitutes a legitimate medical reason for a positive drug test. In an updated “Medical Marijuana Notice” issued this fall, the Department of Transportation answered the question.  The DOT said “No.”

The DOT’s Notice makes it clear that marijuana, in all forms, remains illegal under federal law and the DOT expects that MROs will treat marijuana, whether used recreationally or medicinally, as illegal.  Accordingly, the Notice provides that “Medical Review Officers will not verify a drug test as negative based upon information that a physician recommended that the employee use ‘medical marijuana’ . . . It remains unacceptable for any safety‐sensitive employee subject to drug testing under the Department of Transportation’s drug testing regulations to use marijuana.”

The implications of medical marijuana use for CDL drivers is now clear.

But, what about drug tests for employees not regulated by the DOT?

The reality is that most MROs follow DOT testing guidelines for all drug tests in an effort to ensure consistency.  Accordingly, even when a non-DOT regulated employee tells the MRO that he/she is certified to use medicinal marijuana, the MRO will nonetheless certify the test as positive.  The MRO may include an external note to the employer that the employee claimed medicinal use.  However, the MRO will not seek to confirm the employee’s claim or to otherwise determine if the employee is a certified user.

The take-away is this . . . drug testing facilities will not help employers decide how to handle medical marijuana use.  A positive drug test will be a positive drug test, regardless of whether the employee is certified to use medical marijuana.  Accordingly, at the end of the day, outside of the CDL context the burden remains on the employer to decide, in accordance with its policies, how, if at all, the employee’s medicinal use impacts employment status.

Should you have any questions about your company’s drug testing procedures or your drug testing policies as the Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Act nears full implementation, do not hesitate to contact us.

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.

We have been talking about the National Labor Relations Board’s assault on Employee Handbooks, policies and rules for years now.  Frankly, precious few of these posts have contained good news for employers.  See for yourself!

Then, yesterday, in a 3-2 vote (split along party lines) a Republican majority overturned the NLRB’s 2004 Lutheran Heritage standard governing facially-neutral workplace rules, policies and handbooks.  Under the old standard, the Board could find that an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act simply by maintaining a policy that could be “reasonably construed” by an employee to prohibit the exercise of rights protected by the Act – even if the employer never applied it to restrict employee rights!  What the Board put in that “reasonably construed” category did not seem reasonable to many, many employers and, in my opinion, was extremely one-sided.

In announcing the new standard, in a decision involving the Boeing Company the majority announced that it was providing greater clarity and criticized the prior Board for invalidating “common sense rules and requirements” under the Lutheran Heritage standard.

Not only is there more clarity, there is balance.  Rather than considering only how the facially-neutral policy, rule or handbook provision could be “reasonably construed” the Board will consider two things:

  1. The nature and extent of the potential impact on employee rights protected by the NLRA and
  2. The employer’s legitimate justifications associated with the rule

The Board also categorized the rules:

  1. Category 1. Lawful rules, where the rule does not expressly prohibit or interfere with NLRA rights or the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by the employer’s justifications for the rule.  Examples offered by the Board in this category are the no-cameras in the workplace rules and the civility rules.  Remember this one on courtesy?  Please and thank you (you can say that now)!
  2. Category 2. Rules which require individualized scrutiny to determine whether any adverse impact on NLRA rights is outweighed by the employer’s legitimate justifications.
  3. Category 3. Unlawful rules that prohibit protected conduct and the impact on those employee rights is not outweighed by employer justification.  Here, is where the policies prohibiting employees from discussing wages and benefits would fall.

This is good news, for union and non-union employers alike.  Seems that the NLRB will be focusing less on policing innocuous handbook policies and, perhaps, the pendulum will begin swinging back.

In days past employees discussed and debated workplace issues around the water cooler. That sentimental past-time has long since been replaced by online social media networking and the reach of social media is stunning.

There are more than 2 billion monthly active Facebook users as of June 2017.  65% of these users on average log into Facebook daily and are considered active users. Five new profiles are created every second. The highest traffic occurs mid-week between 1-3pm. There are 328 million monthly active Twitter users, 100 million daily active tweeters and 500 million Tweets sent every day.

Disgruntled employees now use social media to speak out about employers and co-workers, using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and the like. An on-line attack has the potential to cause harm to the good-will of companies, and negatively impact the morale and reputation of employees.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regulates the employer-employee relations of private union and non-union workplaces.  In recent years the Board has consistently acted to protect from discipline unhappy employees who resort to social media and has waged an active war with employers to expand the rights of employees to use their employers’ private email systems.

As a result, many employers are asking fundamental questions. Do employees have a right to use social media sites while at work? Can I monitor employees’ social media activity? Do I need a social media policy?

The statistics vary but somewhere between 25% to 50% of companies have a social media policy in place. About 30% have policies that delineate how employees must present themselves when posting on the internet; nonetheless, 75% of the employees of these companies use social media regardless of the company’s policy.

The National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to act together to address wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment. This is referred to as “protected, concerted activity.” When an employee posts a complaint on Facebook or Twitter about a company policy, such as vacation or flexible work hours, or complains about a work unit’s supervision, the employee may be engaging in protected activity that the NLRB considers to be beyond the reach of disciplinary action.

What are some of the factors that employers need to consider?

  1. Was the post for purely personal reasons?
  2. Did other employees join in or “like” the post?
  3. Did the post concern work-related issues?
  4. Was the post so disloyal or egregious so as to lose protected status?

While an employee may post a comment or observation a company considers disrespectful or objectionable that may qualify as protected, concerted activity, there are recognized limitations.  One such area includes proprietary and confidential information, and trade secrets.  Another area that is off limits includes comments about co-workers that are based on race, age, religion and other unlawful activity, such as sexual harassment.

However, in the absence of evidence of these off-limits areas, comments that companies have considered disrespectful, damaging to the company’s reputation, inappropriate in violation of company policies, or even as flat out false have been found lawful and protected.  And, to add insult to injury, the NLRB also has held the underlying company handbook personnel policies to be illegal.  As a result, employee discipline has been overturned, the employee reinstated with back pay and other lost benefits, and the company ordered to revise the underlying policy.

Now, some relief may be on the horizon for 2018 and beyond.  On December 1, 2017, the new NLRB General Counsel issued a memorandum to field offices directing them to submit cases involving several of these contentious social media, handbook policy and use of company email issues to the Division of Advice for further guidance.  This action acts to essentially freeze regional offices from moving new cases forward.

In the meantime, how does an employer navigate the murky social media waters?

  1. Notify employees that internet use will be monitored and that there is no expectation of privacy in the use of the company’s email and internet system.
  2. Implement a social media policy and train employees on its content.
  3. Designate a person to be responsible for implementing and administering these steps, and monitoring compliance.
  4. Implement a procedure to report policy violations.
  5. Prohibit the use of social media networking during working time.
  6. Review underlying policies (confidentiality, non-disparagement, harassment, etc.) to assure the policies do not infringe on concerted, protected activity.