Tag Archives: Employers

Office Holiday Parties: Avoid Adding Your Company to the Naughty List

Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Michael Oreskes, Brett Ratner, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer are a few well-known names that have already appeared on the naughty list for 2017. Although the Mad Men days of the sexy secretary sitting on Santa’s lap (the boss’s lap) with his arms wrapped around her while both are drinking a dry martini SHOULD be a vestige of the past, there are those that believe that “keep your hands to yourself” does not apply to them.  And, there are those that understand the “hands-off” rule, yet when under the influence of alcohol, find their inhibitions on the copy room floor.

This year, with stories of sexual harassment and abuse dominating the news, it is more important than ever for employers to consider the potential risks associated with any planned celebration. Employers should keep in mind that office policies that are generally recognized in the workplace sometimes are forgotten when there is a party, especially a party with libations. A holiday office party can embolden inappropriate behavior, from simple innuendos to unwelcome touching that could lead to claims of sexual harassment. The office holiday party can be a quagmire of potential employment issues, even beyond sexual harassment. These issues can include claims due to on-the-job injuries (workers compensation), unpaid wages for attending the party (the Fair Labor Standards Act), or other types of workplace harassment or discrimination (e.g. religion).

As you prepare for your office party, consider whether alcohol should be available, as most issues arise due to someone bending the elbow a bit too much. If you do decide to provide spirits make sure you have someone (a designated responsible adult) that is watching to ensure that your workforce does not get too “relaxed” and cross the line. Possibly limit how much alcohol is served and make sure any employee that drinks a little too much has a ride home. Evaluate in advance whether the party is going to be mandatory or not. If its voluntary and employees do not feel compelled to attend, then employers are not required to compensate employees for their attendance. Review the plans for the party in advance to see if there are any activities that could be considered inappropriate or offensive to members of any protected class.  Finally, make sure that employees understand that the company’s policies and procedures, especially those related to conduct, are still in effect at the party. Most parties are benign and conclude with no real issues to speak of, but you don’t want to be the exception to the rule. You do not want your CEO or VP added to the naughty list.

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

The NLRB Shifts its Strategy in its Attempts to Change the Joint-Employer Standard

After a failed attempt to change the joint-employer standard through legal decision arising out of a pending case before the NLRB, on September 14, 2018, the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register regarding its joint-employer standard. The proposed rule would overturn the standard set by the Board in Browning-Ferris, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015) to determine if an employer is a joint employer. Under the Browning-Ferris standard, the inquiry turns on whether the alleged joint employer had the potential to control aspects of the workplace, either directly or indirectly, regardless of whether the employer actually exercised that authority.

The proposed rule would revert to the pre-Browning-Ferris standard for determining whether an employer will be considered a joint employer of a separate employer’s employees. Under this proposed rule, an employer may be considered a joint-employer of another employer’s employees only if it possesses AND exercises substantial, direct, and immediate control over the essential terms and conditions of employment and has done so in a manner that is not limited and routine. This would effectively reverse the Browning-Ferris standard and render indirect influence and contractual reservations of authority insufficient to establish a joint-employer relationship.

The 60-day period for public comments on this proposed rule began on September 14, 2018, and continues through November 13. After the Board receives and reviews the public comments and replies, it will issue a final rule regarding the joint employer standard. If issued without substantial changes, this rule would be great news for employers as this stricter standard is clearer, provides more consistency, and reduces the likelihood of an employer inadvertently becoming a joint employer.

Ryan P. Portugal
rportugal@williamsparker.com
941-329-6626

Unleashing Weingarten Rights

When conducting investigations of employees in a unionized workforce, employers often feel like the lion tamer in the cage with nothing but a whip and stool between them and legal jeopardy. Unfortunately, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board, In re Circus Circus Casinos, may have just taken the stool away and, in doing so, created a real circus.

The National Labor Relations Act has been interpreted to allow employees to request preferred union representation for investigatory interviews that may reasonably lead to discipline. Up until [this] Circus, this right was understood to arise only if an employee requested representation. Moreover, it was well confirmed that the employee’s selection of a representative could not be used to delay an employer’s investigation. In fact, as recently as September 2017, when the NLRB released to the public an advice memorandum addressing Weingarten rights, in which it noted that:

“[I]f the employee requests an unavailable representative, it is the employee’s obligation to request an alternative available representative in order to remain under Weingarten’s protections; the employer is not required to postpone the interview, secure an alternate representative, or otherwise accommodate the employee’s specific request.”

Nonetheless, in Circus Circus the panel broke with these seemingly settled principles.

So, what led to the three-ring circus of Circus Circus? First, employer directed an engineering department temporary employee to be fitted with a respirator to comply with OSHA regulations. Citing anxiety, the employee advised the third party that was fitting the employee that he wanted to speak with a doctor. The third party denied this request and advised the employer that the temporary employee refused to cooperate.  The employer suspended the employee pending an investigation.

Subsequently, the employer’s HR representative spoke with the employee, informing him that he was to report for a “due process” meeting the next day. The HR representative advised the employee “that if he wanted Union representation that he needed to bring the steward with him.” The employee repeatedly called and left a message with his union about representation for the meeting, but he never received a return call.

The day of the meeting, the employee appeared at the employer’s facility, walking past where the union steward worked. The employee, however, did not attempt to speak with the shop steward. Instead, the employee looked around the HR representative’s office before entering, allegedly searching for a union representative. Nevertheless, no union representative was there. When the meeting began, everyone agreed that the employee stated:

“I called the Union three times [and] nobody showed up, I’m here without representation.”

After the meeting, the employee was separated. The employee would later claim that he told the employer’s representative that he wanted the union at the meeting and, moreover, the representative told him he did not need anyone present because the matter was not a disciplinary action. The employer’s representative denied these allegations.

Focusing on the employee’s statement that he attempted to reach the union, the NLRB panel, in a 2-1 decision concluded that this statement was, in fact, a request for representation. Alluding to the fact that no magic words were needed to invoke Weingarten rights, the majority decided that the employee’s statement about his unsuccessful attempt to reach a representative—standing alone—was sufficient to invoke Weingarten rights. The NLRB affirmed the administrative law judge’s order of reinstatement and backpay.

Although Circus Circus Casinos has since appealed this decision, employers will still be well-served to tread carefully when conducting employee investigations in the interim—lest they wake the lion. As such, employers may want to consider any statement by a union employee referencing their union, their steward, a witness, or a representative as invoking Weingarten rights. A failure to do so may put an employer at risk of taking a nasty bite in the form of reinstatement or back pay.

Attorney John Getty* assisted in preparing this blog post.
*Admitted in Louisiana and Georgia

Arbitration Update: Eleventh Circuit Finds in Favor of Florida Employers

Florida employers are beginning to benefit from recent U.S. Supreme Court and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) rulings.  On June 26, 2018, the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued two decisions in favor of Florida employers in which it rejected NLRB rulings that the employers had violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The cases are Everglades College, Inc. v. NLRB and Cowabunga, Inc. v. NLRB.

Applying the Supreme Court’s Epic Systems decision (for further information on Epic, click here), the Eleventh Circuit held in both cases that the inclusion of class and collective action waivers in these employers’ mandatory arbitration agreements did not violate the NLRA. Additionally, relying on the Board’s Boeing decision (for more information, on Boeing click here), the Eleventh Circuit vacated the NLRB’s holdings that the arbitration agreements were unlawful because employees could “reasonably believe that they were prohibited from filing unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB.”

In Boeing, the NLRB retroactively changed the rationale it used to evaluate the lawfulness of facially neutral employee policies, thus eliminating the broadly applied “reasonably believe” standard that prohibited any rule that could be interpreted as covering protected activity. Without that standard, the Board could not defend its prior decisions in the appeals. Therefore, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the remaining issues in the cases to the NLRB so that it can apply its new Boeing rationale, which does not interpret ambiguities against the drafter and does not ban all activity that could conceivably be included in generalized provisions.

Even with the NLRB General Counsel’s recent memo addressing the application of the Boeing standard (for more on the memo, click here), it is unclear how the Boeing rationale will apply to arbitration agreements. Regardless, employers should remain hopeful as the new standard provides for a more balanced review.

Gail E. Farb
gfarb@williamsparker.com
941-552-2557

[Editor’s Note: Williams Parker attorney Gail E. Farb represented the employer in the Everglades College, Inc. case cited above.]

Employers Hear Music as the Supremes Cut into Employee Class Actions

The United States Supreme Court recently decided two cases addressing class-action proceedings. These cases show that “Things Are Changing” and employers will no longer have “Nothing But Heartache.” Both decisions are employer-friendly, in that these opinions effectively limit participation in class-action lawsuits.

In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court upheld the enforceability of class-action waivers in employee arbitration agreements. Arbitration is an alternative means of resolving a dispute without proceeding to a court trial. A class-action waiver in the employment context is a contract provision in an arbitration agreement that prevents employees from resolving employment disputes in a group. The Court found that employers can put these waivers in their arbitration agreements, and the waivers do not invalidate the agreements. Opponents to these waivers are now screaming, “Stop, In the Name of Love.”

Now, some “Reflections.” In light of this decision, employers should keep two things in mind.

  • The Epic Systems decision does not represent a blanket endorsement of arbitration agreements; rather, this decision requires courts not to overturn arbitration agreements solely because they contain class-action waivers. This case does not prevent courts from refusing to enforce arbitration agreements for other reasons.
  • Epic Systems does not mean all employers should declare, “I’ll Try Something New,” and adopt arbitration agreements. Employers considering using arbitration agreements should evaluate whether arbitrating their disputes is the right choice. Employers should keep in mind that by agreeing to arbitration, they are generally giving up their right to appeal an adverse decision.

In the second case, China Agritech v. Resh et al., which was not an arbitration case, the Court held that employees/former employees who were not certified as members of a class-action lawsuit before the legal deadline to join the lawsuit could not file a new class-action suit after the passage of the statute of limitations on the initial class action. Thus, some employees/former employees who do not timely protect their rights will no longer be able to belt, “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

“No Matter What Sign You Are,” as an employer these decisions are “Automatically Sunshine” and maybe even a bit of “Buttered Popcorn.”

Summer associate Kelley Thompson assisted in preparing this blog post.

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

The Tax Act May Limit Resolutions of Sexual Harassment Complaints

One aspect of the new Tax Act (the Act) that has not been widely reported impacts employers that amicably resolve claims of sexual harassment. The provision denies tax deductions for any settlements, payouts, or attorneys’ fees related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such payments are subject to a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement. Specifically, Section 162(q) to the Internal Revenue Code provides:

PAYMENTS RELATED TO SEXUAL HARASSMENT AND SEXUAL ABUSE.—No deduction shall be allowed under this chapter for—

(1) any settlement or payment related to sexual harassment or sexual abuse if such settlement or payment is subject to a nondisclosure agreement, or
(2) attorney’s fees related to such a settlement or payment.

The intent of this provision is to deter confidentiality provisions in settlements of harassment claims. It is unclear if this provision will actually have the desired impact. Companies may value the confidentiality provisions more than the tax deductions permitted in their absence, and thus continue to enter into confidential settlement agreements. Alternatively, this provision of the Act may end up hurting those bringing harassment claims. Alleged victims may want confidentiality provisions in order to avoid any publicity about their claims. However, by removing tax incentives for employers, an employer may reject a higher settlement amount or settlement of claims altogether.

Section 162(q) of the Act is bound to create confusion as to its applicability as it fails to define key terms. Namely, the Act fails to define “sexual harassment” or “sexual abuse,” both of which are pivotal to the application of the new provision. The Act also fails to contemplate how the provision is to be applied in settlement arrangements involving a variety of claims. Are the sex-based claims separable from a universal confidentiality covenant? Causing further confusion, the Act fails to explain what attorney’s fees are considered to be “related to such a settlement or payment.” Are these only the fees related to settlement negotiations, drafting the agreement, and execution or payment? Or does it extend to the claim’s inception and include the underlying investigation of the claims?

In light of the numerous questions raised by Section 162(q), employers should review their standard settlement agreements and practices and consider revising the breadth of any releases, nondisclosure provisions, or any representations or remedies.

Ryan P. Portugal
rportugal@williamsparker.com
941-329-6626

A NLRB Christmas Story

If the NLRB is Santa, then Santa just left employers a Millennium Falcon under the Christmas tree. One day after issuing two well-received pro-employer decisions, the NLRB overruled one of its most detested decisions from the last eight years, E.I. du Pont de Nemours, 364 NLRB No. 113 (2016), that broke from long-standing board precedent and dramatically altered what constitutes a “change” in the terms and conditions of employment and thus, when an employer is required to bargain with a union. In the DuPont decision, the Board held that bargaining would always be required, even if the parties had not yet agreed to a contract, in every case where the employer’s actions involved some type of “discretion.”

However, on December 15, 2017, in Raytheon Network Centric Systems, 365 NLRB No. 161, the Board continued its Fast and Furious dismantling of many of the more controversial decisions issued during the Obama administration, by rejecting DuPont and returning to what had been long-standing board precedent. The majority of the Board opined:

We conclude that the Board majority’s decision in DuPont is fundamentally flawed, and for the reasons expressed more fully below, we overrule it today. DuPont is inconsistent with Section 8(a)(5), it distorts the long-understood, commonsense understanding of what constitutes a “change,” and it contradicts well established Board and court precedent. In addition, we believe DuPont cannot be reconciled with the Board’s responsibility to foster stable bargaining relationships. We further conclude that it is appropriate to apply our decision retroactively, including in the instant case.

*  *  *

In sum, and for the reasons stated above, we overrule DuPont as well as Beverly I and Register-Guard, and we reinstate Shell Oil, Westinghouse, Winn-Dixie Stores, Beverly II, Capitol Ford, and the Courier-Journal cases. Henceforth, regardless of the circumstances under which a past practice developed—i.e., whether or not the past practice developed under a collective-bargaining agreement containing a management-rights clause authorizing unilateral employer action—an employer’s past practice constitutes a term and condition of employment that permits the employer to take actions unilaterally that do not materially vary in kind or degree from what has been customary in the past. We emphasize, however, that our holding has no effect on the duty of employers, under Section 8(d) and 8(a)(5) of the Act, to bargain upon request over any and all mandatory subjects of bargaining, unless an exception to that duty applies.”

The retroactive application of this decision is of particular importance and may impact many disputes currently pending with the NLRB. This decision will also have great impact on management-union negotiations, and will provide employers greater ability to act without being required to ask for permission from a union. This is particularly true in the context of employers that do not have a collective bargaining agreement in place.

[I wonder if unions are feeling as if they are Randolph and Mortimer Duke in Trading Places, Hans Gruber in Die Hard (one of my favorite holiday flicks), or Ted Maltin in Jingle All the Way.]

In addition to overruling the DuPont decision on December 15, the Board also overruled Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934 (2011) enfd. sub nom. Kindred Nursing Centers East, LLC v. NLRB, 727 F.3d 552 (6th Cir. 2013). The Specialty Healthcare decision made it easier for unions to organize so-called “micro-units.”  With PCC Structurals, 365 NLRB No. 160, the Board reinstated its pre-Specialty Healthcare, community-of-interest approach for determining  “whether a proposed bargaining unit constitutes an appropriate unit for collective bargaining when the employer contends that the smallest appropriate unit must include additional employees.”

We are well into Hanukkah and only a few days before Christmas, let’s hope that the NLRB continues to shower employers with gifts this holiday season and that this Miracle on 34th Street continues.

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

An Employer’s Response to #MeToo

If you did not know the name Harvey Weinstein prior to October 2017, you should now, following the well-publicized allegations against him of sexual assault and harassment spanning decades. The focus on the allegations against Weinstein has resulted in women and men sharing their personal accounts of sexual assault and harassment. Often these personal accounts of improper sexual behavior are tied to the workplace and are prompting a national conversation of the abuse of power in the workplace. Many of these accounts are being made with the hashtag #MeToo. Even persons not willing to share the specifics of their experiences have been using #MeToo to confirm that they were indeed victims. The hashtag itself is not a specific call to action but instead aims to raise awareness of the magnitude of the problem of sexual assault and harassment.

Improper conduct by those in positions of power in several large companies is now being highlighted, and high-ranking officials in several of those companies are having to answer for their conduct, even if such conduct is outside of a relevant limitations period for a legal claim. On November 1, 2017, NPR’s senior vice president for news resigned on the heels of allegations of sexual harassment against him by several women, including two that, according to the Washington Post, claim that “he unexpectedly kissed them on the lips and stuck his tongue in their mouths.” Questions are now being asked regarding when NPR, and other companies, first learned of allegations of harassment and why firmer action was not taken by the company.

Due to this intense focus on harassment in the workplace, companies may want to evaluate if the policies and procedures that they have in place are sufficient, if their leadership truly understands what is appropriate behavior, and if employees are familiar with how to make complaints. To do this employers should consider the following:

  • Review written policies to ensure they are easily understood and provide the proper protections for employees
  • Conduct management training regarding harassment and appropriate behavior
  • Conduct employee training to ensure employees are aware of policies in place to protect them and understand the reporting procedures

Employers should anticipate that, with the increased focus on sexual misconduct, an issue may come up within their own companies. Understanding the issue and being prepared to provide a proper response is usually a better option for employers than merely responding to an issue when it arises.

You may also want to read our past posts relating to sexual harassment.

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

Florida’s Minimum Wage Is Set to Increase: What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

It is only October and across the state, in department stores not named Nordstrom, holiday decorations are appearing. It may seem that, like these stores, reporting to you that on January 1, 2018, Florida’s minimum wage will increase, may be premature. But, like the holidays, the new minimum wage will be here before you know it. If you are not prepared, then you may be updating your payroll on New Year’s Eve.

Great, now I have Harry Connick Jr’s melancholy version of the 1947 classic by Frank Loesser stuck in my head (and it’s only October):

Maybe it’s much too early in the game
Ooh, but I thought I’d ask you just the same
What are you doing New Year’s
New Year’s Eve?

On January 1, 2018, Florida’s minimum wage will increase from $8.10 to $8.25 an hour. Employers should be prepared to make adjustments to their minimum wage earners. Failing to pay non-exempt employees Florida’s statutory minimum wage can result in claims against employers pursuant to Section 24, Article X of the State Constitution and Section 448.110, Florida Statutes. The maximum tip credit ($3.02) that can be taken by Florida employers with tipped employees will remain the same, but the direct wage paid to tipped employees will increase from $5.08 to $5.23 an hour.

In addition to raising the minimum wage, Florida employers are required to post a minimum wage notice in a conspicuous and accessible location. Before the beginning of 2018 you will be able to download the 2018 Florida Minimum Wage Notice from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s website. This notice requirement is in addition to the requirement that employers post regarding the federal minimum wage (which has not been increased). There will also be commercially available Florida-specific “all-in-one posters” that satisfy both the federal and state notice requirements. The 2018 “all-in-one” posters should also be available in the near future.

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

Should I Pay Exempt Employees Who Miss Work Due to Bad Weather Conditions?

As Florida prepares for a potential direct hit by Hurricane Irma, employers have many concerns. At some point, when decisions have been made about if a business will stay open and if goods or people need to be moved out of harm’s way, the following question will most likely be asked: “Should I pay exempt employees who miss work due to bad weather conditions?”

When it comes to deductions from exempt employees’ salaries it is easy to get into trouble.  The general rule is that an exempt employee is entitled to receive his or her entire salary for any workweek he or she performed work. This means, if the worksite closes for a partial week due to bad weather conditions (such as a hurricane), and the exempt employee has worked during that workweek, the employee is entitled to his or her full salary. However, if the employer has a leave benefit, such as PTO, and the employee has leave remaining, the employer can require the employee to use paid time off for this time away from work. If the employee does not have any remaining leave benefit, he or she must be paid.

If the work site remains open during inclement weather and an employee is absent (even if due to transportation issues), the employee can be required to use paid time off.  If the employee does not have any paid time off remaining, the employer may deduct a full-day’s absence from the employee’s salary. For a more detailed explanation see this opinion letter from the U.S. Department of Labor.

As for non-exempt employees, the FLSA only requires that employees be paid for the hours they actually work. However, those non-exempt employees on fixed salaries for fluctuating workweeks, must be paid their full weekly salary in any week for which work was performed.

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