Tag Archives: Employment Law

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

Planning for the Next Hurricane: Employee Pay During and After a Storm

With the onset of the 2018 hurricane season and the effects of Hurricane Irma still being felt by many, employers have a number of concerns. These concerns range from preparing facilities to determining whether a business will stay open. At some point, after decisions have been made about whether a business will stay open and if goods or people need to be moved out of harm’s way, the questions relating to employee pay may arise.

One question that is frequently asked is “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 work site 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 visit dol.gov.

Other issues that arise relate to what constitutes compensable time for non-exempt employees. The FLSA only requires that non-exempt employees be paid for the hours they actually work. However, those non-exempt employees on fixed salaries for fluctuating workweek(s) must be paid their full weekly salary in any week for which work was performed. Further, those businesses, such as hospitals and nursing homes that remain open during a storm and require employees to remain onsite during the storm may have to pay employees required to be onsite during a storm for all time they are at the employer’s place of business, as they may be considered to be “on call.”

It is important for businesses to start planning in advance for the next hurricane. Such plans should include evaluating which employees may be required to continue working during a storm and what portion of their time during a storm is considered compensable.

Heathcare employers also have new ACHA rules to comply with relating to storm preparation (not specifically related to employee compensation). For further information on these regulations see my colleague Steven Brownlee’s recent article, “Senior Living Providers: Are you ready for the Beryl, Chris, and Debby?

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

A New W-4

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has several provisions that impact payroll, employment tax, and employee benefits. In accordance with these changes, the IRS released new withholding tables, as well as a new W-4. Although the IRS is not requiring employers have its entire workforce (hired before March 30, 2018) complete the new W-4, as of February 15, 2018, employers were required to begin withholding from employee wages based on new withholding tables.

At this time, employers should, at a minimum, have all new hires and any employee that has a change in their tax status (e.g., marriage), complete the new 2018 W-4. Further, if employers are not requiring all employees to complete new forms, employers should at least encourage their employees to review their withholdings, as the Act eliminated certain exemptions and allowances. As a result, some employees’ allowances may be overstated, resulting in under-withholding for the year. If employees want to submit a new W-4, they should be allowed.

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

Seminar: What’s a Business to Do in the Age of #MeToo?

In light of all of the attention that is being focused on issues relating to harassment and the #MeToo movement, it is now more important than ever for businesses to develop a better understanding of what constitutes harassment in the workplace.

Join us Wednesday, April 11, at the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance’s upcoming seminar featuring Williams Parker board certified labor and employment attorney Jennifer Fowler-Hermes. Jennifer will discuss types of harassment and provide guidance on how employers can prevent, recognize, and respond to harassment.

WHEN:
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
7:30-8:00 a.m. Networking & Breakfast
8:00-9:00 a.m. Presentation

WHERE:
Keiser University
6151 Lake Osprey Drive
Sarasota, FL 34240

COST:
$10 Members, $20 Non-members

Register Online

MORE ON #METOO:
Catch Williams Parker labor and employment attorney Gail Farb discussing the #MeToo movement on a recent ABC7 news TV segment and roundtable discussion.

Intro Segment (Gail first appears at 2:31):

Roundtable Discussion (Gail first appears at 2:55).

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

The Mark of the Beast and Religious Accommodation in the Workplace

This week, the United States Supreme Court refused to grant certiorari to hear a religious accommodation case from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal, affirming a jury award for a long-term employee that retired because he believed that his employer’s requirement that he use a hand-scanner to clock into work would brand him with the “Mark of the Beast” (as referenced in the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Read the full opinion.

This case began back in 2012 in West Virginia. Plaintiff, an evangelical Christian, requested that he be allowed to use paper timesheets instead of the hand-scanning time clock that his employer was implementing. His request was denied. His employer asserted that he could use his left hand instead of his right hand in the scanner, as the Mark of the Beast is associated with the right hand and forehead. The employee was given an ultimatum, use the hand-scanner or be terminated. He chose to retire. Subsequent to his retirement, he learned that the company accommodated two employees with hand injuries, who could not be scanned, by installing a key pad and providing codes to the employees to enter into the key pad. With this knowledge, the employee sought the assistance of the EEOC, which filed suit on his behalf.

Shortly thereafter, I co-authored an article that discussed not only the facts of the suit, but also the framework under which religious accommodation claims are allowed to proceed. The framework for evaluation of religious accommodations has not changed since the article. Read the full article from The Florida Bar Journal.

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

What is Harassment?

In light of all of the attention that is now being focused on issues relating to harassment and the #metoo movement, employers that do not take time to review policies and train employees may be at a disadvantage if claims ever arise. It is now more important than ever for employers to develop a better understanding of what constitutes harassment in the workplace, as well as how to prevent, recognize, and respond to harassment. Sexual (and other) harassment training is not just about reviewing company policies and telling employees how to report complaints. Training should be tailored for the specific workforce, in person, and promote respect and civility. It should be geared to help employees at all levels in an organization recognize harassment and when others are uncomfortable. In addition, employees that are responsible for receiving, investigating, and responding to complaints should be trained on how to properly fulfill these duties.

Harassment can occur both inside and outside of the workplace. Certain forms of harassment, such as a woman walking down the street getting cat-called by a stranger, do not implicate the workplace at all. However, if that same woman works for a construction company and is walking past other employees of the organization when she is cat-called by them, the same conduct may be workplace harassment and actionable. For more details on what is actionable harassment, see our October 14, 2016 blog post. Not all harassment is immediately obvious, and answering the question “what is harassment?” can sometimes be a difficult task. Are you able to recognize it?

Friends star David Schwimmer and writer and director Sigal Avin released several short videos that reflect different types of harassment in society, including three that involve workplace harassment. These videos start innocent enough, but develop into awkward and uncomfortable situations. At the end of this post is a link to one of these videos. Test yourself, watch the video, and consider the following questions:

Are you able to recognize when the harassment begins?

Can you identify the non-verbal and verbal cues that the employee is giving to indicate that she is not comfortable with the interaction?

Do you think that others in your organization would be able to recognize these cues?

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

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