Tag Archives: NLRA

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.]

The NLRB Continues to Retreat on Its Assault of Handbook Policies

In a recently released memo, the NLRB General Counsel confirmed the Board’s December 2017 signal of a shift in how the Board will scrutinize employer personnel policies. In December 2017, the NLRB changed course when it replaced the Lutheran Heritage standard, which had been aggressively used by the Board to invalidate personnel policies, with the Boeing standard (as discussed in our post from December 2017, “The NLRB’s Holiday Gift to Employers”). The Lutheran Heritage standard evaluated whether employees could “reasonably construe” a policy as barring them from exercising their rights under the NLRA. If the answer was “yes,” the policy was improper. The Lutheran Heritage standard was often applied in a manner that gave the appearance that the NLRB thought employees were lacking in intellect or common sense. Thus, the switch to the Boeing standard was generally celebrated by employers.

Even so, many employers felt that although the Boeing standard was a step in the right direction, it was somewhat complicated. In response to these criticisms, on June 6, 2018, NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued GC 18-04 “Guidance on Handbook Rules Post-Boeing.” This guidance provides examples of the policies (which he refers to as rules) that would fit into each of the three categories, and also makes it clear that the NLRB will no longer interpret ambiguities in rules against the drafter, “generalized promises should not be interpreted as banning all activity that could be considered included.”

The memo explains that the Boeing standard balances the personnel policy in question’s impact on NLRA-protected rights with the employer’s legitimate business justifications. The Boeing analysis uses three categories to determine the legality of rules:

Category 1: Rules that are Generally Lawful to Maintain

Category 2: Rules Warranting Individualized Scrutiny

Category 3: Rules that are Unlawful to Maintain

The memo goes on to state that Category 1 includes rules that may have been found unlawful under the Lutheran Heritage standard. It also explains that the types of rules in this category are generally lawful because the rules do not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA-protected rights or because there are business justifications associated with the rule. Rules in this category include:

(a) civility rules;

(b) no photography, no-recording rules;

(c) rules against insubordination, non-cooperation, or on-the-job conduct that adversely affects operations;

(d) disruptive behavior rules;

(e) rules protecting confidential, proprietary, and customer information or documents;

(f) rules against defamation or misrepresentation;

(g) rules against using employer logos or intellectual property;

(h) rules requiring authorization to speak for company; and

(i) rules banning disloyalty, nepotism, or self-enrichment.

The memo provides that charges alleging that rules in Category 1 are facially unlawful are to be dismissed, recognizing however, that special circumstances could render a normally lawful rule in Category 1 unlawful. Facially lawful rules cannot be used to prohibit protected activity or to discipline employees for engaging in protected activity.

Category 2 rules are to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Such rules are not facially lawful or unlawful. If rules in this category restrict NLRA-protected rights, then the question is whether the employer’s business interest in having the rule outweighs the restriction on NLRA-protected rights. Some “possible examples” of Category 2 rules are:

(a) broad conflict-of-interest rules that do not specifically target fraud and self-enrichment and do not restrict membership in, or voting for, a union;

(b) confidentiality rules that encompass employer business or employee information;

(c) rules regarding disparagement or criticism of the employer;

(d) rules regulating the use of the employer’s name;

(e) rules generally restricting speaking to the media or third parties;

(f) rules banning off-duty conduct that might harm the employer; and

(g) rules against making false or inaccurate statements.

Category 3 rules are unlawful to maintain because they prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct and the adverse impact on NLRA-protected rights outweigh any justifications for them. Category 3 rules include:

(a) confidentiality rules specifically regarding wages, benefits, or working conditions; and

(b) rules against joining outside organizations or voting on matters concerning.

In light of Boeing and GC18-04, employers should be more confident in their ability to maintain appropriate policies for their workplaces, including those that dictate professional behavior. The new approach is clearer and provides for a balancing of employer justifications with employee rights, resulting in common-sense personnel policies being upheld as lawful. Employers are now better positioned to defend attacks on their well drafted, common-sense personnel policies.

Summer associate Ryan Larson assisted in preparing this blog post.

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

Jimmy John’s Takes on Disloyal Employees and the NLRB and Wins

Doling out a refreshing victory, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit sided with Jimmy John’s in a protected, concerted activity case brought under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). On July 3, the full en banc court reversed an earlier decision of a three-member panel of the court that had affirmed a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) ruling for the employees. Unless appealed to the Supreme Court, this decision brings to an end a torturous legal saga lasting over six years.

This case was set in motion in October 2010 when an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)-affiliated union lost a union election to represent Jimmy John’s employees at ten franchised stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, owned and operated by MikLin Enterprises. After the unsuccessful election, several union supporters continued to pressure the franchisee’s management to adopt workplace policy changes, including the adoption of paid sick leave. The disgruntled sandwich-makers claimed that current attendance policies forced them to work while sick.

The dispute escalated when six of these employees placed posters in and around the restaurants, calling attention to their claims. The posters featured two identical side-by-side pictures of a Jimmy John’s sandwich. One was labeled as being made by a “sick” employee and the other by a “healthy” employee. The caption below the picture read “Can’t tell the difference?” and was accompanied by a message criticizing the employer’s attendance policies. The employer terminated the six employees responsible for these posters.

The employees challenged their terminations claiming that the employer’s actions were in retaliation for concerted protected activity under the NLRA. Both the NLRB and the three-member panel of the Eighth Circuit agreed. However, the full panel of the Eighth Circuit ruled that the terminations were lawful. Specifically, it found that the claims about food safety were false and misleading and therefore, sufficiently “disloyal” to place the actions of the six employees outside of the protections of the NLRA.

The decision is heartening for employers, as many recent NLRB decisions have been overly protective of worker actions that were calculated to harm a company’s reputation.

John M. Hament
jhament@williamsparker.com
(941) 552-2555

The United States against the United States? A Government Flip-Flop That May Help Employers

On June 16, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice did an about-face when it filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of the United States in an important labor arbitration case, NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA. The Murphy case presents the question of whether arbitration agreements can restrict employees from participating in class or collective actions. The brief filed by the Department of Justice argues that employers can impose such restrictions. See the full brief here.

Arbitration agreements have traditionally required employees to submit their claims to arbitration rather than through the court system. The trend over the last several years is for employers to include class action or collective proceeding waivers in such agreements. Such provisions are believed to reduce litigation costs associated with class and collective actions (which are on the rise). In response to this trend, the NLRB ruled that such waivers violate the NLRA when they are a condition of employment.

Several of the NLRB’s cases regarding such arbitration agreements have been appealed to the circuit courts, resulting in contradictory decisions on this issue. The Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits held that such arbitration agreements are enforceable, with the Seventh Circuit finding that these agreements violate the NLRA. There are similar challenges to agreements being made in other circuits, including the Eleventh Circuit. Based on the split of authority on this issue, the Supreme Court accepted review of the case argued before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

When the NLRB submitted its petition for writ of certiorari in Murphy, the Department of Justice supported the NLRB and its argument that the ability for an employee to engage in concerted activities is the “core substantive right” of the NLRA, and prohibiting class and collective actions infringe on that right. However, in its new brief, the Department of Justice argues that the NLRB failed to give adequate weight to the congressional policy of favoring arbitration agreements. This change of heart by the Department of Justice creates the potential for an unusual situation. Typically, when the Solicitor General’s office files an amicus brief, a lawyer for the government will present oral argument before the court on that side of the case. Given that the NLRB sits on the other side of the case, the upcoming oral arguments may consist of a lawyer for the United States arguing against a lawyer for a U.S. agency: the United States arguing against the United States.

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

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

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