Wage Theft Ordinances: Dandelions in the Spring

“Wage theft” ordinances have been popping up in Florida like dandelions in the spring. At first glance, these ordinances look like a lovely spring flower providing employees an administrative and/or legal avenue to recover unlawfully withheld wages. However, these ordinances are really weeds causing headaches not only to employers, but also to employees who are not prepared to navigate the unique procedures for making such claims. A growing list of municipalities, including Miami-Dade County, Broward County, City of St. Petersburg, Pinellas County, and Hillsborough County, have all implemented some variety of a wage theft ordinance, and there is a lack of uniformity among procedures and rules for bringing claims pursuant to these ordinances. Companies operating in one or more of these areas should be aware of the additional regulations that may apply to their businesses, some of which call for triple damages and attorneys’ fees. This task can be quite daunting for any company that operates statewide or in two or more of the participating municipalities. Now, in addition to defending wage claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Florida Minimum Wage Act, Florida Statute Section 448.08, and common law unjust enrichment claims, companies will also be defending claims brought pursuant to these ordinances and sometimes will be defending such claims in two different forums, possibly at the same time.

Knowledge of these ordinances can serve as legal Roundup to help employers defeat attempts by employees to obtain damages. This is best evidenced by Green v. Stericyle, Inc., No. 1:16-CV-24206-CMA (S.D. Fla. Dec. 15, 2016), a case in which an employee brought a wage theft claim that was dismissed by the court because the employee failed to comply with the prescribed procedure. The ordinance did not grant an initial private right of action, but rather provided an exclusive administrative procedure to bring the claim to the county. The employee failed to follow the administrative procedure, thereby compelling the court to dismiss the case. As this case illustrates, although emergence of wage theft ordinances causes problems for employers, the onus remains with the employee to navigate a municipal code to bring a proper claim. Failure to do so could be fatal to the claim.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

Offensive Facebook Posts May Be Protected Speech

Human resources experts often recommend a detailed analysis before disciplining an employee for offensive statements. On April 21, 2017, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals highlighted this requirement and forced an employer to reinstate an employee who had been fired for posting highly offensive comments about his supervisor. Although this case, National Labor Relations Board v. Pier Sixty LLC, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 6974 (2d Cir. April 21, 2017), involved a union organizing campaign, such a dispute can arise outside the union context. It can arise in a breakroom conversation, a media interview, a picket sign, or a social media post. If the content involves protected speech, such as criticism of the terms and conditions of the employee’s employment, and especially if the speech purports to speak on behalf of or for the benefit of others, the speech may be protected, whether or not there is a union involved.

In Pier Sixty, the employee posted on Facebook that his supervisor is a “NASTY MOTHER F—ER” and “F—his mother and his entire f—ing family!!!”  The post criticized his supervisor’s communications style, saying, “…don’t know how to talk to people!!!!”  The post also included a pro-union statement, “Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!”

The court weighed the protections (here, concerted activity) versus how abusive or “opprobrious” the comments were. The court reviewed the context of the statements, including that the employer was found to have permitted past vulgarity and to have engaged in other efforts to impede unionizing efforts. Commenting that these posts fall on the “outer bounds” of protected activity, the court declared the posts to be within the bounds of protected concerted activity and required the employer to bring the discharged employee back to work.

Employers should ensure that workplace rules are consistently enforced and that the reason for discharge does not involve and does not appear to involve a protected reason. Employers should be prepared to articulate and, if required, prove the lawful reason for discharge rather than relying on at-will status.

Kimberly Page Walker
kwalker@williamsparker.com
(941) 329-6628

Another Day, Another March: Did This One Impact Your Workforce?

Yesterday was International Workers’ Day and, around the world, there were marches planned to bring attention to both the accomplishments achieved through the efforts of workers and to the hardships experienced by workers (who are we kidding – these marches are mostly about the latter of these objectives). Although the marches were intended to focus generally on workers’ rights, not all of the scheduled marches were intended to bring attention to the same subset of workers. Some participants marched to support immigrant workers and others to support women workers. More than a few participants in the United States joined the march to protest the policies of the current Administration.

The level of any workforce’s participation in the march for International Workers’ Day directly determines the impact of the event on you as the employer. Clearly, if no one participates then you have no cause for concern, as no one is missing work, no one is violating work rules, and tasks are being completed. However, if your employees did participate, and did so without properly requesting time off, then you have to decide how to respond. If you did not catch either of my blog posts here and here regarding “A Day Without a Woman,” then let this post serve as a refresher on what actions, if any, you can take if one or more of your employees missed work to participate in an International Workers’ Day march.

If the employee was not authorized to participate, his refusing to work when scheduled in order to march constitutes a strike. However, even though considered a strike, your employee may be protected if his activity yesterday was considered protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act, i.e., if there was a sufficient nexus between employment-related concerns and the specific issues that were the subject of the march.

When the motivation for political activity is a national political issue that you as the employer have no control over, such activity will not be protected. In such cases, you may choose to discipline an employee for violating your well-established and neutrally applied policies (you have them right?). On the other hand, when your employees withhold services as an economic tool in their employment relationship with you, such activity is protected. If workers are taking action to alter the terms and conditions of their employment and you as their employer have the power to make the changes being sought, such activity will most likely be protected by the National Labor Relations Act, and any action taken against the employee could subject you to liability.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

Beyond the Hemline: Using Fashion to Recognize Employment Law Issues in the Workplace

There is a well-known saying that a person’s eyes are the keys to the soul. In the employment context, fashion choices are often keys to employee issues that not only impact employee performance and productivity, but also (should) alert employers to issues that, if not properly handled, will lead to legal liability. It may sound odd, but fashion in the workplace often provides insight into issues that implicate important employment laws, and employers should know what to look for.

When I say fashion in the workplace, I am not talking about the fashionista boss with unreasonable expectations from the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada (although that character has some amazing clothes), I am talking more along the line of Peter Gibbons from Office Space (1999). Peter stops coming into work on time, and when he does come in, he is dressed in casual clothing and even wears flip flops. Seriously folks, no one at Initech wondered what was up with Peter? No one investigated? I love the film, but in my Board Certified Labor and Employment attorney opinion, that is really a major plot flaw.

Consider how fashion and employment law are tied in the following scenarios:

  1. On his fifth anniversary with the company, Bob comes to work in a dress and asks to be called Barbara.
  2. Sue shows up to your conservative workplace on a Monday covered in tattoos.
  3.  Joe shows up to work wearing clothing with politically charged statements.
  4. You have an employee whose religious garb violates your company’s dress code policy.
  5. A pregnant employee comes to work with a photo of a pot plant on her shirt.
  6. Jane, who usually comes to work really put together, comes into work several days in a row wearing over-sized clothing and heavy makeup.
  7. You have an employee that appears to be wearing the same three outfits over and over.

Do you know how to properly handle these situations? Are you aware of what laws may be implicated by each? If you are interested in learning more, on Saturday, May 6, 2017, join me and another Sarasota-area employment lawyer at the Holiday Inn Lido Beach from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., where participants will be part of an interactive presentation, including a fashion show presented contemporaneously with each scenario, that addresses the above situations (and others) and, in doing so, will review the basics of several labor and employment law issues, including but not limited to:

  • Religious Accommodation
  • Florida Domestic Violence Leave
  • Family Medical Leave Act
  • Americans with Disabilities Act
  • The Transgender Workforce
  • Gender Bias
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Employment Policies
  • Political Discourse in the Workplace

Although this presentation has been arranged by the Florida Association of Legal Support Specialists, it is open to anyone interested in attending. It has been approved for three General CLER credits. In addition, both HRCI and SHRM have confirmed with the Association that non-pre-approved attendees can obtain certification credits by directly requesting credits from the organizations using the information provided on the Attendance/CLE Certificate provided the day of the event.

Please visit falss.org for more information and to register.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

Guidance for Employers from the Dark Side?

A long time ago in what seems like a galaxy far away, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act. Since then, Congress has continued to pass laws governing the employee/employer relationship. In 1938, it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act; in 1964, it passed the Civil Rights Act; and in 1993, it passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. These acts and many others can make businesses feel like they have been thrown into a trash compacter or frozen in carbonate. Management attorneys, a.k.a the light side of the force, provide guidance and counsel to businesses and assist in navigating these laws which seem to appear and/or change as if powered by a hyper drive. On Thursday, April 27, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. at Michael’s on East in Sarasota, businesses will have an opportunity to learn about recent developments and current trends related to wage and hour compliance, employee criminal conduct, and sexual orientation and gender identity not only from their Jedi, but also from a Sith, a.k.a. a plaintiff’s employment attorney. It is not often that businesses have an opportunity to learn from both sides of the Force.

This seminar will provide guidance in important areas of employment law to assist professional service providers in their role as employers. The workshop will include best practices from legal compliance and human resources perspectives, and will conclude with a Sith providing insight into employers’ mistakes that strengthen the dark side. This seminar is intended to be an interactive presentation with the aim of providing solutions to troublesome employment issues confronting law firms and other professional service providers. To learn more about this event and to register, visit the Sarasota County Bar Association website.

Disclaimer: This seminar does not have a Star Wars theme; I just watched The Force Awakens on HBO this weekend.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

Setting the Stage for Supreme Court Review of Whether Title VII Prohibits Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Three circuit courts of appeal have issued opinions on whether Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination. The Second Circuit (New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) and Eleventh Circuit (Alabama, Georgia, and Florida), relying on past precedent, have held that Title VII does not prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. However, on April 4, 2017, the Seventh Circuit (Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin) issued a conflicting opinion, becoming the first circuit to hold that sexual orientation discrimination is indeed prohibited. Now, with the circuits split on this issue, the stage is set for the U.S. Supreme Court to be asked to resolve this conflict. However, recent reports opine that the employer in the Seventh Circuit case will not appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. If the employer does not appeal, another case will have to make its way through the lower courts before the divergence of opinion can take center stage at the Supreme Court.

Until the battle is fought before the Supreme Court, Florida employers should keep in mind that while Florida falls under the jurisdiction of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and thus, arguably sexual orientation discrimination is not currently prohibited by Title VII, many municipalities, including the City of Sarasota and City of Miami, have local ordinances that prohibit such discrimination. Further, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency charged with enforcing Title VII, takes the position that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes sex discrimination and is therefore prohibited.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

A Successful Challenge to Local Minimum Wage Ordinances in Florida

With efforts to raise both the federal and state minimum wage meeting lackluster success, advocates of raising the minimum wage have been focusing on effecting change at the local level. In Florida, such efforts have led to ordinances raising the minimum wage in municipalities such as the City of Miami and the City of West Palm Beach. However, on March 27, 2017, a court struck down the City of Miami’s Living Wage Ordinance, finding that it is prohibited by Florida Statute § 218.077, which proscribes a municipality from establishing a minimum wage separate from the state or federal minimum wage. In reaching its decision, the court rejected the City of Miami’s argument that Article X, § 24(f), of the Florida Constitution provides explicit authority for municipalities to enact their own wage ordinances. The City still has time to appeal the decision to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.

The decision will lend support to challenges to other wage ordinances in the state. In addition, this decision may cull current efforts in other municipalities to increase minimum wages.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

How Well Do You Know Intermittent FMLA Leave?

A recent Family and Medical Leave Act case decided by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals offers some clarity on one of the most challenging aspects of administering FMLA, the dreaded intermittent leave. Intermittent leave is when an employee takes leave on an intermittent basis or a reduced schedule when medically necessary to care for a seriously ill family member, covered service member, or because of the employee’s own serious health condition.

The 11th Circuit’s recent case involved an employer that provides in-home healthcare services to the terminally ill and an employee that worked as a clinical social worker with many duties relating to care plans for the employer’s terminally ill patients. The employee requested intermittent leave to care for her elderly mother who was quite ill. The employer approved her leave request.

The employer’s leave policies required employees use PTO concurrently with an approved medical leave. In the six months following her initial request for leave, the employee frequently received notices from her employer keeping her advised of her PTO usage and letting her know when her PTO balance was low. It also reminded her that exhaustion of PTO, along with absences, could adversely impact her job and benefits.

Ten months after her initial request for leave, the employer requested not only an updated certification, but also additional documentation “to support the need of intermittent use of FMLA.” Shortly thereafter, the employer advised the employee that her leave entitlement was running low, that she may want to conserve her remaining FMLA leave, and that her continued time away from the workplace compromised the quality of care being provided to patients. Shortly thereafter, the employee altered the plans she had made to care for her mother, choosing not to take an approved leave.

Eleven months after she began using intermittent leave the employee was separated from her employment. She was informed that she was separated for poor performance. Her performance issues were documented by the employer. These issues included care plans not being timely updated, a patient without a care plan, time sheets for patient visits not being timely completed, and failure to coordinate the bereavement group. However, just days before her separation, the employer mentioned in a discussion regarding her performance issues, that “’quality of care’ [was] suffering due to repeated ‘emergent’ leaves of absence.”

How did the court evaluate these facts when the employee asserted an interference claim? Did it find that the employer’s record of performance issues supported the decision to terminate? Did it find that the employer interfered with the employee’s use of her FMLA entitlement? Need some help? Well, here are some FMLA facts that may assist in analyzing this fact pattern:

  • The regulations provide that when an employee takes unforeseeable FMLA leave, the employee must notify the employer as soon as practicable in compliance with the employer’s usual and customary notice and procedural requirements for requesting leave.
  • The regulations interpreting the FMLA provide that, aside from an annual re-certification, an employer is prohibited from obtaining additional documentation from the healthcare provider once a complete and sufficient medical certification has been obtained.
  • If there is an existing certification, an employee’s notice to the employer that there is a recurrence of the need for leave, is sufficient notice to the employer.
  • When an employee’s FMLA leave entitlement is exhausted, any further absences are not subject to the protections of the FMLA.
  • An interference claim is established when an employee shows that she was denied a benefit to which she was entitled. Benefits under the FMLA include taking leave and being reinstated following a leave period (subject to certain restrictions).
  • Unlike retaliation claims, intent is not relevant to an interference claim. Interfering in an employee’s ability to take leave encompasses not only refusing to authorize such leave when an employee is qualified, but also discouraging an employee from using such leave.
  • To recover for interference, an employee must show that she was harmed by the interference.

Although the district court granted summary judgment for the employer on the employee’s interference claim, the 11th Circuit Court reversed. The 11th Circuit found that many of the employer’s statements, such as, “[y]our continued unpaid time away from the workplace compromises the quality of care we are able to provide as an organization,” discouraged the employee from using the time she was entitled to. Further, since the employee was terminated, she suffered damage.

So, you ask, how does this case provide clarity? For one, it affirms that generally employers should not be requesting additional documentation from an employee already on an approved intermittent leave. Second, employers should avoid making statements that may be interpreted as discouraging the use of leave. Next, when discussing performance issues with an employee on an intermittent leave employers should not provide a causal connection between the leave and the performance issue, i.e., focus on a discussion of the performance difficulty and ascertain what can be done by the employee (other than to stop missing so much work) to improve performance. Finally, do not forget that during the period of intermittent leave, the employer may require the employee to transfer temporarily to an available alternative position with equivalent pay and benefits, for which she is qualified and which better accommodates the intermittent nature of the leave.

Protecting Your Valuable Business Information and Relationships

When survey after survey of America’s workforce confirms that a large majority of employees admit to taking data from their current or former employers without permission, safeguards to protect proprietary and confidential information, including trade secrets, become a priority. The loss of corporate data can be devastating. When a former employee or former business owner solicits business contacts or employees, the results can be equally damaging. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, it is essential for businesses to have a well-developed plan in place to protect corporate data and business relationships. Such plans should employ several tools, including, but not limited to, appropriate security safeguards, confidentiality policies, and agreements containing restrictive covenants.

As discussed in a May 2016 blog post, a federal civil remedy became law and employers no longer are limited to state court remedies to combat a misappropriation of trade secrets.

Restrictive Covenants in Florida – In Florida, a business can use restrictive covenants to obtain a promise from an employee, independent contractor, officer, agent, or even a seller of an acquired business not to engage in any behavior contrary to its business interests. Certain restrictive covenants protect specific interests. For example, a covenant “not to compete” is generally a promise that the employee, independent contractor, officer, agent, or seller will not be involved, in any capacity, in a competitive business in a certain geographic area for a certain time period. Other restrictive covenants include covenants “not to solicit” the employer’s customers, clients, donors, or current employees and covenants “not to disclose” the employer’s confidential business information.

Enforcement of restrictive covenants in Florida is governed by statute. The current statute provides that the enforcement of contracts that restrict or bar competition is permitted as long as the restrictions are reasonable in time, area, and line of business. Additionally, the contracts must be in writing and signed by the persons agreeing to the restrictions. To enforce a restrictive covenant, a business must be able to demonstrate that the covenant it seeks to enforce was based on the need to protect a “legitimate business interest(s)” and that the contractual restraint is reasonably necessary to protect such interests. Florida courts deem restrictive covenants not supported by a legitimate business interest to be unenforceable. In determining whether a restrictive covenant is properly supported, Florida courts may not take into consideration the relative hardship the enforcement of a restrictive covenant would have on the person against whom enforcement of the agreement is sought.

To read more on restrictive covenants, Florida’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act, and best practices for protecting information and relationships see the full article in Williams Parker’s recently published edition of Requisite, a firm publication offering insights on important legal issues. Additionally, you may view the digital version of Requisite in its entirety for more articles on topics critical to senior executives in managing their businesses and the associated risks.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558

New Information About “A Day Without A Woman” Provides Some Insight to Employers

WomensMarchFlyerInstagram4Recently, additional details were released regarding the March 8, 2017, A Day Without A Woman, organized by the same group responsible for the Women’s March in January. In addition, other groups, such as the International Women’s Strike, are now planning their own events on March 8, International Women’s Day. Some of these organizations are encouraging women to ask their employers for the day off, while others appear to suggest women should actually refuse to work. When an employer approves the time away from work, then employees are not really engaged in a “strike” in the traditional understanding of the word. On the other hand, refusing to work when scheduled without employer approval is a strike.

As explained in our previous post, the purpose of the strike determines how an employer can legally respond to its employees that refuse to work. If workers are taking action to alter the terms and conditions of their employment, and their employer has the power to make the changes being sought, such activity will most likely be protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

The basic platform set forth for A Day Without A Woman, as explained in the draft letter to employers that can be downloaded from the Women’s March website, is that the event is to recognize “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system — and the pervasive and systemic gender-based inequalities that still exist within our society, from the wage gap, to vulnerability, to discrimination, sexual harassment, and job insecurity.” As stated, this platform appears to focus on national, general objectives that may weigh in favor of a finding that the activity is not protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Yet, as evidenced by the charges filed against several McDonald’s a few years ago, if employees’ own wages and work conditions are an inherent and primary motivator for their participation in the strike, then the strike may be protected.

Some employers may choose to support the national platform being proposed, and either allow those wishing to participate time off without question, or shut down their operations for the day. Other employers that are unable to provide such support and need workers in order to meet client expectations, may want to impose disciplinary action pursuant to a well-established policy applicable to employees who refuse to work. If this is the case, they should first ascertain the reasons for such refusal before imposing any such disciplinary action.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes
jfowler-hermes@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2558