Monthly Archives: February 2014

February 20, 2014

EEOC Challenges Separation Agreements

By Mark Wiletsky 

If you use standard separation agreements to secure a release and waiver of claims from employees who are laid off, fired, or who otherwise threaten a claim, you might want to review your agreement.  In a lawsuit filed recently in Illinois federal court, the EEOC alleges that a company with national operations interfered with its employees’ right to file charges with the EEOC and state fair employment practices agencies by conditioning the employees’ receipt of severance pay on signing an overly broad separation agreement. 

According to the EEOC, five separate paragraphs (which are commonly found in separation agreements) are improper: 

  • Cooperation: Employee agrees to promptly notify the Company’s General Counsel by telephone and in writing if the employee receives a subpoena, deposition notice, interview request or other process relating to any civil, criminal or administrative investigation or suit.
  • Non-Disparagement: Employee will not make any statements that disparage the business or reputation of the company or any of its officers or employees.
  • Non-Disclosure of Confidential Information: Employee agrees not to disclose to any third party or use for him/herself or anyone else Confidential Information without the prior written authorization of the company.
  • General Release of Claims: Employee releases company for any and all causes of action, lawsuits, charges or claims, including any claim of unlawful discrimination, that the employee may have prior to the date of the agreement.
  • No Pending Actions; Covenant Not to Sue: Employee represents that he/she has not filed or initiated any complaints prior to signing the agreement and agrees not to initiate or file any actions, lawsuits or charges asserting any of the released claims. 

Disclaimer Allowing Workers to Bring Claims to the EEOC Not Enough 

Recognizing that employers may not prevent workers from filing charges with the EEOC or participating in EEOC or state agency investigations, the paragraph containing the covenant not to sue contained a sentence stating “[n]othing in this paragraph is intended to or shall interfere with Employee’s right to participate in a proceeding with any appropriate federal, state or local government agency enforcing discrimination laws, nor shall this Agreement prohibit Employee from cooperating with any such agency in its investigation.”  In its complaint, the EEOC says this disclaimer is insufficient as it is contained in only one of the paragraphs that contain limits on the employees’ rights. 

What does this mean for employers? 

It’s important to remember that the Court has not agreed with the EEOC’s allegations—and, in fact, it might reject them outright.  Regardless, the risk of such actions is enough to justify a closer look at your standard separation or release agreement.  Even an agreement that has been repeatedly reviewed and revised can likely be improved for clarity.  Make sure the agreement is understandable, does not contain excessive “legalese,” and it should not contain provisions that interfere with an employee’s right to file a charge with the EEOC or state agency.

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February 19, 2014

Utah Rejects Multi-Employer Worksite Doctrine: General Contractor Not Responsible for Occupational Safety of All Workers on Worksite

Construction siteBy Cole Wist (formerly of Holland & Hart) and Trey Overdyke 

In a significant break from federal rulings, the Utah Supreme Court recently rejected the multi-employer worksite doctrine as incompatible with the Utah Occupational Safety and Health Act (UOSH Act).  Hughes General Contractors, Inc. v. Utah Labor Comm., 2014 UT 3. Generally, the multi-employer worksite doctrine makes a general contractor responsible for the safety of all workers on a worksite, including the safety of employees of subcontractors and other third parties.  In rejecting the legal doctrine (which has developed under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act)), the Utah Supreme Court held that Utah’s state occupational safety and health law regulates conduct between employers and employees and does not permit a general contractor to be held liable for the safety violations of a subcontractor. 

General Contractor Appealed Safety Violations by Subcontractor 

Hughes General Contractors oversaw a construction project at Parowan High School involving over 100 subcontractors.  One of the subcontractors, B.A. Robinson, performed masonry work on the project.  The Utah Occupational Safety and Health Division found that scaffolding used and erected in connection with the masonry work violated the UOSH Act.  The UOSH compliance officer determined that Hughes was responsible for the safety conditions for B.A. Robinson’s employees under the multi-employer worksite doctrine.  The Division cited and fined both Hughes and B.A. Robinson for the scaffolding violation. 

Hughes contested the citation, arguing against the legal viability of the multi-employer worksite doctrine under the UOSH Act.  An Administrative Law Judge upheld the citation under the doctrine and the Utah Labor Commission’s Appeals Board affirmed.  The Appeals Board looked at the governing Utah statute, section 34A-6-201, found that it “mirrored its federal counterpart” and applied federal case law that recognized the multi-employer worksite doctrine to hold Hughes liable for the safety violations of a subcontractor.  Hughes appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals which asked the Utah Supreme Court to decide the applicability of the multi-employer worksite doctrine under the UOSH Act. 

Workplace Safety Obligations Extend Only to Employers under the UOSHA 

Similar to its federal OSHA general duty clause counterpart, the UOSH Act requires each Utah employer to provide “a place of employment free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or physical harm to the employer’s employees and comply with the standards promulgated under this chapter.”  Utah Code § 34A-6-201(1).  At the trial level, the Utah Labor Commission read this provision broadly to extend the safety responsibilities to anyone with supervisory control over a particular worksite.  The Utah Supreme Court instead interpreted this provision as focused on the employment relationship.  The Court held that the duty to furnish a workplace free from recognized hazards and to comply with the UOSH Act standards is one that extends between employer and employee.  The Court stated “the relevant control is not over the premises of a worksite, but regarding the terms and conditions of employment.”  In determining whether an employment relationship exists, the relevant factors include the existence of covenants or agreements, the right to direct and control the employee, the right to hire and fire, the method of payment (i.e., wages versus payment for a completed job or project) and the furnishing of equipment.  

Applying its analysis, the Court found Hughes was not an “employer” in connection with the work done by B.A. Robinson’s workers.  B.A. Robinson was the sole employer involved in the masonry work and controlled the workers involved in the scaffolding problems that resulted in the citations.  Hughes did not have any of the rights of control that would deem it an employer in connection with the work done by B.A. Robinson’s employees (e.g., no right to hire or fire, no payment of wages, etc.). 

 

Utah Safety and Health Act Distinguished from Federal Law 

Numerous federal courts have recognized the multi-employer worksite doctrine under the federal OSH Act.  However, the Utah Supreme Court analyzed the structure of the federal OSH Act and found that it sets forth the duty to comply with certain safety standards in separate sub-sections of the statute.  By contrast, the Court held that Utah law requires “each employer” to provide a safe workplace and to comply with promulgated standards in a single provision of the statute.  

Second, the Utah Supreme Court distinguished its decision because of the lack of administrative deference that applied in interpreting Utah law.  The Court noted that when federal courts resolve ambiguity in a statute, the courts look to the interpretation of the statute provided by the relevant federal agency and defer to the agency’s viewpoint as long as it is based on a permissible construction of the statute.  The Court wrote that federal courts typically have not rendered an independent assessment of the meaning of the relevant OSH Act provision and instead have deferred to the federal agency’s regulation that construes the statute to allow for the multi-employer worksite doctrine.  However, Utah has not adopted a similar standard of judicial deference to an agency’s resolution of a statutory ambiguity so the Court conducted its own independent determination to find that the Utah law did not allow for the multi-employer worksite doctrine. 

Important Victory for General Contractors 

It is unclear what broader impact this decision may have.  For now it is a significant victory for general contractors overseeing projects in Utah.  Time will tell if state courts in other occupational safety and health state plan jurisdictions will follow Utah’s lead in rejecting the multi-employer worksite doctrine.  Should these courts flirt with the idea, they may find the Utah Supreme Court’s analysis to be a helpful road map.  Further, it will be interesting to watch the impact this may have on the multi-employer worksite doctrine in federal OSHA jurisdictions.  We will keep you posted on any new developments on this issue. 

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February 12, 2014

Wyoming Legislature Convenes, Again!

By Bradley T. Cave

The Wyoming Legislature convened its 2014 Budget Session on February 10.   Most of the Legislature’s time will be consumed with the state’s finances, but a few significant employment measures have been proposed.  If any of these bills can obtain the two-thirds vote required for introduction of non-budget bills, Wyoming employers may need to call their legislators! 

Criminal Penalty for Misclassification of Employees as Independent Contractors.  House Bill 16 is the most concerning measure proposed this session, and it is a surprise that the measure was approved by the Joint Corporations Committee.   It would create a misdemeanor criminal penalty for “knowingly failing to properly classify an individual as an employee” to reduce the employer’s unemployment contributions or to reduce or avoid the payment of benefits to an employee.  The offense would permit a sentence of up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $750.00.   The measure would add the same language to the workers compensation statute, making it a misdemeanor offense to knowingly fail to properly classify an employee on a workers compensation payroll report or generally in connection with workers compensation coverage. 

Employers should aggressively resist this proposal because it would greatly raise the stakes of classification decisions that are rarely clear cut.    One of the three factors in the definition of an independent contractor for unemployment and workers compensation purposes – whether the individual “represents his services to the public” – is not even in the employer’s control, and could change without the employer’s knowledge.  A second factor in the definition – whether the worker is free from control or direction over the details of performance of the services – often depends on the perspective of the person looking at the relationship.  Independent contractor relationships are not “check the box” decisions.  While an employer could not be convicted of the proposed crime unless they “knowingly” misclassified an employee, the determination of whether a decision was “knowingly” incorrect is the stuff of jury trials.  Also, the measure is not needed.  Employers already face aggressive auditing by the Employment Tax Division about the independent contractor classification of workers, and audits can result in civil liability and substantial administrative costs. 

Finally, don’t buy the argument that the criminal penalty will only be pursued in the worst cases – if a criminal penalty for misclassification is adopted, it will remain a subtle and unspoken threat to employers whenever the Department of Workforce Services conducts an audit and questions independent contractor relationships, and employers may need to “lawyer up” and protect themselves at an entirely new level whenever the Department audits those relationships. 

Update: Although House Bill 16 failed to get the two-thirds vote needed to be introduced during the budget session, it was proposed by the Joint Corporations committee and is likely to be raised in future legislative sessions. 

Minimum Wage Increase.  House Bill 45 is a perennial attempt to raise the minimum wage for employees not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The measure would increase the standard minimum wage from $5.15 per hour to $9.00 per hour, and increase the minimum hourly wage for tipped employees from $2.13 to $5.00.  As in past years, this bill is not likely to make much progress. 

Repeal of Vacation Pay Amendment.  Last year, the Legislature amended the wage collection statute to give employers the flexibility to offer paid vacation that was forfeited upon termination of employment, rather than being considered unpaid wages which were required to be paid out after termination.   House Bill 57 would repeal the language adopted last year.   We expect this measure also has a dim future. 

Bottom Line.  Employers should pay attention to House Bill 16 and watch if it is proposed again in future legislative sessions.  If it makes any progress, employers will want to contact their legislators.  You can track the progress of these and all the measures before the Legislature here through the link entitled “2014 Bill Tracking Information.”

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February 7, 2014

NLRB Again Proposes Rules to Speed Union Elections

By John M. Husband

After dropping its appeal of a District Court ruling that invalidated its “ambush election” rules, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has proposed those rules again.  By a vote of 3-2, the Board reissued proposed amendments to its representation case procedures.  The Board states that the amendments are designed to remove unnecessary delays and inefficiencies in representation case procedures.  The effect, however, is expected to be an increase in union wins as the union election procedures are streamlined and votes occur quicker. 

Board Lacked Quorum When Rules Adopted in 2011 

The NLRB first proposed its rules to speed up the union election process in June of 2011.  At the time, the Board had just three members as two positions were vacant.  Despite an outcry by the business community and receipt of almost 66,000 comments, two of the three Board members voted to adopt the rules.  The final rules were published in December of 2011 and went into effect on April 30, 2012. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other interested groups sought to stop the implementation of the ambush election rules by suing the NLRB in federal court in the District of Columbia.  Just two weeks after the rules went into effect, the judge in the case invalidated the rules, finding the Board lacked a three-member quorum needed to pass the rules.  Although two of the Board members voted in favor of the rules, the third Board member, the sole Republican, did not participate in the vote.  Finding that the rules were invalid for lack of the statutorily-mandated quorum, the judge did not need to address the challenge to the rules’ constitutionality and the lack of authority of the NLRB to adopt the rules.  In a distinct incident of foreshadowing of this week’s events, the judge specifically stated “nothing appears to prevent a properly constituted quorum of the Board from voting to adopt the rule if it has the desire to do so."  

The NLRB appealed the District Court’s decision, asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to reverse the lower court’s ruling.  On December 9, 2013, the NLRB withdrew its appeal pursuant to a joint stipulation by the parties.  It did so in anticipation of doing exactly what the District Court judge had suggested, namely proposing the rules again so that a properly constituted quorum of the Board can vote to adopt the rules.  Board Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce and Board members Kent Y. Hirozawa and Nancy Schiffer approved the re-issuance of the proposed rules. 

“Ambush Election” Rules Would Speed Union Election Process 

Published in the February 6, 2014 Federal Register, the proposed changes are virtually identical to those proposed in 2011.  Highlights of the proposed amendments include: 

  • A union may file its representation petition electronically, rather than by hand or regular mail.
  • A hearing must be held within 7 days of the union filing its petition.
  • Employers must provide a comprehensive “statement of position” on the union’s representation petition in advance of the hearing; any issues not included in the statement are waived.
  • Pre-election hearing is to determine only whether a question concerning representation exists; issues related to individual voter eligibility may be deferred to post-election procedures.
  • The parties right to file a post-hearing brief is discretionary as allowed by the hearing officer.
  • Deadline for employer to provide voter eligibility list is shortened from 7 work days to 2 work days from the Direction of Election.
  • Employer must provide email addresses and telephone numbers for employees eligible to vote in addition to the required names and home addresses.
  • Election need not wait for 25 days after the issuance of a Direction of Election.
  • Pre-election appeals to the Board are eliminated, leaving only a discretionary appeal of both pre- and post-election issues after the election occurs. 

Two Board Members Dissented 

Board members Philip A. Miscimarra and Harry I. Johnson III are not in favor of the proposed rules.  Although stating that they share in the majority’s desire to protect and safeguard the rights and obligations of those subject to the National Labor Relations Act, they do not believe it necessary to adopt a “wholesale rewrite” of the Board’s election procedure. 

Interested parties and the public may submit comments on the proposed rules until April 7. Electronic comments may be submitted through http://www.regulations.gov. Comments may also be mailed or hand delivered to: Gary Shinners, Executive Secretary, National Labor Relations Board, 1099 14th Street NW., Washington, DC 20570. The Board intends to hold a hearing on the amendments during the week of April 7.  We will keep you informed of developments on this issue.

 

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February 6, 2014

Donning/Doffing Protective Gear Is Not Paid Time Due to Collective Bargaining Provision, Says U.S. Supreme Court

Safety glassesBy Scott Randolph 

Time spent by workers to put on and take off safety glasses, ear plugs and respirators is not paid time where the collective bargaining agreement covering the workers does not pay workers for time spent changing clothes, according to the Supreme Court.  Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., No. 12-417, 571 U.S. ___, (2014).  At issue was whether time spent putting on protective gear fell within a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regarding time spent changing clothes at the beginning or end of a workday.  A unanimous Court ruled that while some of the protective items were not actually “clothes,” the majority of the time at issue was spent donning and doffing “clothes” and the time spent putting on and off other non-clothes items need not be subtracted as paid time. 

Workers Sought Backpay for Time Spent Putting On and Off Protective Gear 

A group of current and former employees at U.S. Steel Corporation’s steelmaking facilities filed a collective action under the FLSA seeking backpay for time spent putting on and taking off various pieces of protective gear.  The twelve items of gear included a flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, a hood, a hardhat, a “snood” (like a balaclava), “wristlets,” work gloves, leggings, steel toed boots, safety glasses, earplugs and a respirator.  U.S. Steel required workers to wear these items to protect workers from hazards regularly found in its steel plants. The amount of backpay at stake was potentially very large given the amount of time spent to change into and out of these items by each worker every work day. 

Donning/Doffing Normally Compensable Unless Negotiated Away By Union 

Time spent by employees to put on and take off required work clothing is normally compensable time under the FLSA.  However, under FLSA §203(o), parties may collectively bargain over whether “time spent in changing clothes . . . at the beginning or end of each workday” must be compensated.  The collective bargaining agreement between U.S. Steel and the union representing the steel workers provided that time spent changing clothes was not paid time.  The issue then before the Supreme Court was the meaning of “changing clothes” and whether that phrase includes putting on and taking off protective gear.  The workers argued that donning and doffing protective gear does not qualify as “changing clothes.” 

Court’s Test: Whether The Vast Majority of Time Is Spent “Changing Clothes” 

The Court first looked at the meaning of “clothes” and relying on dictionary definitions, concluded that for purposes of §203(o), “clothes” means “covering for the person, wearing apparel, dress . . .” Although the workers claimed that items used to protect against workplace hazards are not included in the definition of “clothes,” the Court disagreed, finding no basis for omitting protective clothing from the definition of “clothes.”  

Next, the Court considered the meaning of “changing” as the workers argued that because items of protective gear where put on over the worker’s street clothes, they were not “changing clothes” which was required for the §203(o) exclusion to apply.  The Court disagreed.  It decided that “changing” can mean both substitution and alteration.  Consequently, time spent in altering dress must be included within the meaning of “changing clothes.” 

Finally, applying its interpretation of the meaning of “changing clothes” to the twelve articles of protective items at issue in this case, the Court found that the first nine items were designed and used to cover the body.  The Court found that the flame-retardant jacket, pair of pants, hood, hardhat, “snood,” “wristlets,” work gloves, leggings and steel toed boots clearly fit within the interpretation of “clothes” as articles of dress.  The three remaining items, the safety glasses, ear plugs and respirator, did not fall within that meaning.  The question then became whether the time spent putting on and taking off those three items must be deducted from the noncompensable time and be paid time. 

The Court held no, a deduction was not required for the minimal time spent donning and doffing these three safety items.  The Court rejected the de minimus doctrine that had been relied upon by the lower appellate court which says that “the law does not take account of trifles,” noting that the FLSA provision at issue in the case was “all about trifles.”  However, rather than making federal court judges into time-study professionals, the Court adopted a test that asks “whether the period at issue can, on the whole, be fairly characterized as ‘time spent in changing clothes . . .’” In cases where the vast majority of time in question is devoted to donning and doffing equipment or other non-clothes items, then the entire period would not qualify as “time spent in changing clothes” under §203(o).  However, where the vast majority of time is spent donning and doffing “clothes,” then the entire period of time qualifies as “time spent in changing clothes” and the time spent putting on and off other non-clothes items need not be subtracted.  The Court found that the latter was true in this case, meaning that the entire time spent donning and doffing protective gear by the steel workers was “time spent in changing clothes” under §203(o).  Therefore, because their collective bargaining agreement did not provide pay for time spent changing clothes, the workers were not entitled to backpay for the time spent putting on and taking off their protective gear.

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February 4, 2014

Colorado General Assembly Considers Labor and Employment Bills

By John Karakoulakis 

Colorado’s 2014 Legislative Session began on January 8th and nearly 400 bills have been introduced already.  Below is a description of proposed legislation impacting labor and employment issues for Colorado employers. The proposed changes to the workers’ compensation system could result in one of the more controversial bills this session.  We will keep you apprised of these and any other bills affecting employment matters as they progress through the legislative process.

2014 Labor & Employment Legislation

Number

Title

Summary

Draft

Workers’ Compensation Benefits

The bill seeks to make changes to the following three areas of the workers’ compensation system: 1) Allow for more doctor choice for workers; 2) Address the issue of job separation when a claim is made; and 3) Add a penalty provision for employers that willfully placed employees in a dangerous situation. This last provision is drawing the most concern because it is seen as overly broad and would expose employers to litigation.

Draft

Worker Access to Employment Records

Would allow employees to have access to their personnel records and provide written rebuttal information to be added to their file.  Creates a new civil cause of action for an employee to file against an employer for not complying with the provisions of the bill. The employee can seek actual damages, back pay, reinstatement, or other equitable relief, and reasonable attorney fees and costs.

SB-005

Wage Claims

Reintroduced this year after significant changes from the version of the bill that was killed by the business community last year. The bill speeds up the process by which workers can claim they did not get their full wages and creates a process by which the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment can adjudicate those claims.  These changes which remove last year’s criminal penalties and a provision to require claims to be settled in district court resulted in most business associations taking a neutral stance on the bill, so it is now expected to pass.

HB-1033

Regulatory Reform

Provides relief for business under 100 employees that unknowingly violate a regulation that was put in place within the prior year and one that is defined as a “minor violation” which is mostly clerical in nature and does not affect the life safety of the public or workers.  The first violation of such a rule will result in a warning and written education sent to the business.

HB-1040

Drug Testing Criminal Provisions

Establishes a level 1 drug misdemeanor for an employee who is legally required to undergo drug testing as a condition of the person's job and who uses a controlled substance without a prescription; or knowingly defrauds the administration of the drug test. Also establishes a level 2 drug misdemeanor for any other person who knowingly defrauds a drug test.

   

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