Monthly Archives: March 2015

March 30, 2015

Drafting Employee Handbook Policies That Pass NLRB Muster


By Brian Mumaugh 

All employers, union and non-union alike, should think about making a thorough review of their employee handbook and policies in light of a recent report on employer workplace rules by the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB’s) General Counsel, Richard Griffin. In his report, Griffin describes a variety of employment policies that the Board has found unlawful and offers the Board’s reasoning as to why. He also points out acceptable policies and explains what wording or context made that policy lawful. The bottom line: a single word or phrase can, in this Board’s view, make the difference between an acceptable policy or one that violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). 

Overly Broad Handbook Policies Can Chill Employees’ Rights 

The Board has long taken the position that even neutrally worded employment policies can violate the NLRA if they have a chilling effect on the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activities. These activities, referred to as Section 7 activities, include discussing wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment with other employees and with outside parties, such as government agencies, union representatives and the news media. 

In his March 18th Report, GC Griffin explains that the majority of policies found by the Board to violate the NLRA, were unlawful because employees could reasonably construe the language of the rule as prohibiting or infringing on Section 7 activities. Consequently, many well-intentioned, seemingly common-sense policies prove problematic for employers due to their possible interpretation as limiting an employee’s right to discuss their pay or working conditions with others.

Handbook Policies That Result in Violations 

The report sets out eight categories of work rules that frequently violate the NLRA and then distinguishes between unacceptable and acceptable language for such rules. The categories and the unlawful aspects of each may be summarized as follows: 

  • Confidentiality Policies: may not prohibit employees from discussing their wages, hours, workplace complaints or other personal information; prohibiting the disclosure of the company’s confidential information may be acceptable;
  • Employee Conduct Toward the Company and Supervisors: may not prohibit employees from engaging in negative, disrespectful or rude behavior or other conduct that may harm the company’s business or reputation; prohibiting employees from disparaging the company’s products, or requiring employees to be respectful to customers, vendors and competitors will typically be acceptable;
  • Conduct Toward Fellow Employees: may not prohibit “all” negative, derogatory, insulting or inappropriate comments between employees as that may interfere with the employees’ right to argue and debate with each other about management, unions and the terms and conditions of their employment; requiring employees to treat each other professionally and with respect as well as banning harassing and discriminatory conduct will typically be lawful;
  • Interactions with Third Parties: may not completely ban employees from talking to the media or government agencies; a policy noting that employees are not authorized to speak on behalf of the company without authorization may be considered lawful;
  • Restricting the Use of Company Logos, Copyrights and Trademarks: may not prohibit all use of company logos and intellectual property because the NLRB upholds employees’ right to use company names, logos and trademarks on picket signs, leaflets and other protest materials; policies that require employees to respect all copyright and intellectual property laws is acceptable;
  • Restricting Photos and Recordings: may not ban employees from taking pictures or making recordings on company property; a policy may limit the scope of such a prohibition depending on a competing protective right (such as a healthcare facility protecting patient privacy by limiting photos of patients);
  • Restrictions on Leaving Work: because employees have the right to go on strike, a policy that prohibits employees from “walking off the job” will be unlawful; policies stating that failure to report for a scheduled shift or leaving early without permission as grounds for discipline may be acceptable; and
  • Conflict-of-Interest Policies: policy may not ban any activity “that is not in the company’s best interest;” policies that give examples of what constitutes a conflict-of-interest, such as having a financial or ownership interest in a customer, supplier or competitor, or exploiting one’s position for personal gain will likely be lawful. 

Few Bright Lines for Lawful Policies 

The report goes on to offer analysis of additional policies dealing with topics such as handbook disclosure, social media and employee conduct related to a particular employer who agreed to revise their policies as part of a settlement agreement with the NLRB. You may have similar policies in your handbook, making it worthwhile to read what policy language the Board considers problematic and what may pass muster. The takeaway, however, is that the lawfulness of many policies may turn on a single word or phrase.  At the present time, it is unclear whether GC Griffin’s report will withstand legal challenge.  The best advice is that given the report and its contents, it is important to take time to review your handbook and compare your wording to the examples provided in the report. Although the report is not a legally binding interpretation of the NLRA, it can help you make an informed decision about the risks involved in including certain provisions in your employee handbook.

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March 26, 2015

Supreme Court: Pregnant Worker With Lifting Restrictions May Continue Lawsuit

Biggs_JBy Jude Biggs 

In a divided decision, on March 25, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court released a long-awaited ruling involving a pregnant worker’s claim under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA). In its ruling, the Court held that the worker could proceed with her lawsuit, because disputes remain as to whether her employer treated more favorably at least some non-pregnant employees whose situation could not reasonably be distinguished from hers.

The majority of the Court forcefully rejected the 2014 guidance of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concerning the application of Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the PDA, as it fell short on a number of fronts needed to “give it power to persuade.” Without ruling for either party, the Court adopted a new standard for courts to use when deciding PDA cases brought under a disparate treatment theory. Young v. UPS, 575 U.S. ___ (2015).  

Despite the Court’s guidance, employers still will face many questions on what accommodations will be required in the future. The standards for “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact” cases may be more confusing in the future for employers who need to make decisions regarding whether and how to accommodate pregnant employees. As a result, employers are wise to respond carefully to accommodation requests by pregnant workers. Employers should review any policies that might have a disproportionate effect on pregnant workers, such as rules limiting job accommodations. In addition, employers should be careful to review restrictions on use of sick pay/sick time, leave eligibility outside of FMLA, lifting restrictions, and light duty assignments to determine: (1) if they disparately affect pregnant employees while accommodating others; and (2) what “strong” business rationale you can offer to defend the distinction.

For additional analysis of the Court's opinion and what it means for employers, please see our full article here.

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March 23, 2015

FMLA and FLSA Lawsuits Are Increasing

Wiletsky_MBy Mark Wiletsky 

The U.S. federal courts saw a whopping 26.3 percent increase in the number of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) lawsuits filed last year over the prior fiscal year, according to statistics recently released by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Wage and hour lawsuits alleging a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) were up a significant 8.8 percent. These filings are the highest they’ve been in the past 20 years of annual statistics reported by the courts. 

The increasing numbers of lawsuits brought under those two employment laws may reflect how difficult it is to understand and administer wage and hour and leave laws. The increase also may be due to the heightened awareness by workers of their rights and benefits under these laws. Regardless of the cause of the increase, the numbers suggest that it is worthwhile for employers to focus their compliance efforts in these two areas. 

Self-Audit Your Pay and Leave Practices 

Before you find yourself defending a lawsuit, take the time to review your payroll and FMLA policies and practices, including these often tricky issues: 

  • Classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt from minimum wage and overtime pay requirements
  • Calculating each non-exempt employee’s regular rate of pay and overtime rate
  • Rounding time at the beginning and end of shifts
  • Automatic deductions for meal periods
  • Treating workers as independent contractors rather than employees
  • Tracking time worked remotely or “off-the-clock”
  • Providing FMLA notices within required time period
  • Calculating FMLA leave for workers with irregular schedules
  • Administering intermittent FMLA leave
  • Not penalizing employees who have taken FMLA leave 

If your self-audit reveals any irregularities, take steps to revise your policies and practices to bring them into compliance with the applicable laws. Don’t forget state and local laws that may impose additional requirements related to pay and leave administration. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to consult with your legal counsel so that you don’t become one of next year’s statistics.

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March 17, 2015

Utah Adds Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity to Anti-Discrimination Laws

Romero_CBy Cecilia Romero 

On March 12, 2015, Utah signed into law a bill that protects individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment and housing. The law contains certain exceptions for religious organizations and permits employers to maintain reasonable dress codes and sex-specific facilities. Here are the details on the employment protections. 

Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Prohibited 

The new law adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected characteristics under Utah’s employment discrimination law, making it unlawful for Utah employers to refuse to hire, promote, discharge, demote, terminate, retaliate against, harass or discriminate in compensation or any other terms of employment because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The full list of protected groups under Utah law is now race, color, sex, pregnancy/childbirth, age, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Defined 

Sexual orientation is defined as an individual’s actual or perceived orientation as heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual. Gender identity is defined by reference to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) which refers to individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. 

Reasonable Dress Codes and Sex-Specific Facilities Permitted 

The new law specifically addresses two frequent concerns for employers. First, the new law allows employers to adopt reasonable dress and grooming standards and second, employers are allowed to adopt reasonable policies that designate sex-specific facilities, such as restrooms, shower rooms and dressing facilities. 

Exemptions for Religious Organizations and Protecting Religious Expression 

The new law protects religious organizations and the expression of religious beliefs. The list of excluded religious groups was expanded through this law to include not only religious organizations, associations and corporations, but also religious societies, educational institutions and leaders, and the Boy Scouts of America. 

State Law Trumps Local Laws 

This new state law supersedes and preempts any laws, ordinances or regulations related to the prohibition of employment discrimination passed by a city, county or other local or state governmental entity. This should help employers maintain uniform policies statewide without having to account for local anti-discrimination laws. Complaints will be handled by the state antidiscrimination division. Recovery under the law is limited to actual damages, not punitive damages. 

Practice Points to Employers 

These new employment protections will affect many of your employment communications so take time now to: 

  • Review and understand the new law;
  • Revise harassment and retaliation policies to include sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited bases for harassment and retaliation; remember such statements might be contained in your employee handbook, on your job applications, in recruiting and training materials and on your website; and
  • Train managers and supervisors on the new law.

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March 12, 2015

EEOC Strategic Enforcement Priorities: More Insight from Denver’s Director (Part Two)

Biggs_JBy Jude Biggs  

As we wrote last week, John Lowrie, the new director of the EEOC’s Denver Field Office, recently offered insight into the agency’s national Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) and how his office will approach those enforcement goals. Here is the second article in the series exploring the third and fourth priorities in the EEOC’s SEP. 

Priority #3 – Developing Issues 

Field Director Lowrie explained the EEOC and its individual field offices are working to advance a number of developing issues. These include: 

  • Reasonable ADA accommodations – one example is telecommuting, where an employee’s physical presence at the company is not an essential job function. The EEOC has successfully pursued this in a case against the Ford Motor Company but the case is being reexamined by the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals so may not stand.
  • Pregnancy discrimination – Mr. Lowrie discussed the lengthy Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) enforcement guidance issued last July. The guidance document contains many hypothetical situations that the agency deems would violate the PDA as well as a section on employer best practices.
  • Title VII accommodations – Mr. Lowrie pointed to the Abercrombie & Fitch religious accommodation case which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court as an example of how the agency looks to ensure employers make reasonable accommodations for characteristics protected by Title VII. At issue in the Abercrombie case is whether a Muslim job applicant who wore a headscarf to her job interview and was denied employment was required to request a reasonable accommodation on religious grounds in light of the company’s “look policy” which would not have permitted wearing the headscarf at work. 

Priority #4 – Equal Pay Act 

The fourth priority in the EEOC’s SEP is enforcement of the Equal Pay Act (EPA). Mr. Lowrie noted that Jenny Yang, who was appointed as the EEOC’s new chairperson last September, had made a recent visit to the Denver field office during which she specifically mentioned EPA issues to the Denver investigators and staff. Because equal pay issues are high on the Chair’s agenda, charges involving allegations of unequal pay based on gender will receive additional attention by EEOC investigators and attorneys. 

Mr. Lowrie also noted that Wyoming is the worst state in the nation for pay disparity issues. Because the Denver field office has jurisdiction over Wyoming (as well as Colorado), the Denver field office may look to change Wyoming’s poor ranking through vigilant enforcement of equal pay charges that come into its office. 

Steps to Avoid Additional Scrutiny 

Because the EEOC is giving priority status to these types of charges, you need to take time to review your compliance efforts related to these issues. First, take a look at your reasonable accommodation process. Have you trained your managers and supervisors to recognize when an accommodation is being requested? Do you engage in an interactive process with the applicants and employees who make accommodation requests? Be certain to document your interactive process and all accommodations decisions you make. Second, review your policies as they relate to pregnant employees. Make sure that you do not treat pregnancy less favorably than other medical conditions and consider possible ADA accommodations if circumstances so warrant. Third, audit your pay grades and compensation structure to make sure that you are paying workers doing the same work equally, regardless of gender. 

Next Installment Will Focus on Final Two EEOC Priorities 

In the next and final article in this series, we will offer insight into the last two of the EEOC’s strategic priorities. Both are areas in which the EEOC has vigorously sued employers whose policies and practices it deems are discriminatory, so stay tuned.

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March 9, 2015

DOL May Issue Interpretations of FLSA Exemptions Without Notice-and-Comment Process

Mark Wiletsky of Holland & Hart

By Mark Wiletsky 

Today the Supreme Court sided with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), holding that a federal agency’s interpretive rules are exempt from notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures. Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, 575 U.S. ___ (2015). The Court’s decision means that the DOL (and other federal agencies) may issue initial and amended interpretive rules without advance notice and without considering input from interested parties. 

DOL “Flip-Flopped” on Interpretive FLSA Rule 

In this case, the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) challenged the DOL’s most recent interpretation on whether loan officers fell within the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) administrative exemption following a series of “flip-flops” in the DOL’s interpretation. In 1999 and 2001, the DOL issued opinion letters stating that mortgage-loan officers do not qualify for the administrative exemption to overtime pay requirements. After new regulations regarding the exemption were issued in 2004, the MBA requested a new interpretation under the revised regulations. In 2006, the DOL issued an opinion letter in which it changed its position, deciding that mortgage-loan officers do qualify for the administrative exemption. In 2010, however, the DOL changed its interpretation again when it withdrew the 2006 opinion letter and issued an Administrator’s Interpretation without notice or comment stating that loan officers once again do not fall within the administrative exemption. 

The MBA sued the DOL, claiming that the DOL needed to use the notice-and-comment process established by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) when it planned to issue a new interpretation of a regulation that differs significantly from its prior interpretation. 

Distinction Between Legislative Rules and Interpretive Rules 

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the text of the APA specifically excludes interpretive rules from the notice-and-comment process, so the DOL was free to change its interpretation on loan officers qualifying for the administrative exemption without providing advance notice or seeking public comment first. The Court pointed to the difference between “legislative rules” that have the force and effect of law, which must go through the notice-and-comment period, and “interpretive rules” that do not have the force and effect of law and, therefore, are not subject to the notice-and-comment obligation. 

Finding that the clear text of the APA exempted interpretive rules from the notice-and-comment process, the Court overruled prior precedent in a line of cases that has come to be known as the Paralyzed Veterans doctrine. Under that doctrine, if an agency had given its regulation a definitive interpretation, the agency needed to use the APA’s notice-and-comment process before issuing a significantly revised interpretation. The Court’s ruling today specifies that no notice or comment process is needed for interpretive rules, whether it is an initial interpretation or a subsequently revised one. 

Implications of Court’s Decision 

Today’s ruling means that the DOL’s interpretation excluding mortgage-loan officers from the administrative exemption stands. More broadly, it means that federal agencies, such as the DOL, are permitted to issue and amend interpretations of their regulations that will take effect immediately without any advance notice to the regulated parties. Accordingly, employers should stay on top of new developments so as not to miss any new regulatory interpretations that may impact their employment practices.  

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March 2, 2015

EEOC Strategic Enforcement Priorities: Insight from Denver’s Director (Part One)

EEOCBy Jude Biggs  

Knowing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) top priorities can help you direct your risk management efforts and avoid enhanced scrutiny. John Lowrie, the new director of the EEOC’s Denver Field Office, recently spoke to the Labor and Employment Section of the Colorado Bar Association about the agency’s national Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) and how his office will approach those enforcement goals. This article is the first in a series that will share Mr. Lowrie’s insight into how EEOC investigators and attorneys in the Denver Field Office work toward fulfilling the national enforcement priorities. 

Certain EEOC Charges Get Immediate Attention 

The Denver field office currently has 12.5 investigators, 7 attorneys, 3 mediators and 1 administrative law judge. With the volume of charges received by the Denver office remaining steady at between 1,800 to 2,000 charges each year, charges alleging certain types of claims get enhanced attention which can include immediate review by the legal staff, up to and including the director himself. 

Which charges receive this immediate attention? Any charge that touches on one of the EEOC’s six national strategic enforcement priorities. Here we discuss the first two priorities in the national SEP, including Mr. Lowrie’s perspective from the Denver Field Office. 

Priority #1 – Remove Barriers to Employment 

According to Field Director Lowrie, there are two main components to the EEOC’s first enforcement priority of removing barriers to employment: (1) arrest and conviction records, and (2) medical screening questions and procedures.  If a charge alleges discriminatory use of criminal background checks in hiring or the inappropriate timing or use of medical questions or exams, the EEOC will escalate that charge for immediate review. 

The EEOC has brought several high-profile lawsuits in the past few years alleging that blanket “no hire” policies that prohibit hiring an applicant with a criminal record have a discriminatory impact on African Americans and other protected classes in violation of Title VII. In the Peoplemark case, however, the EEOC was ordered to pay the prevailing employer over $750,000 in attorneys’ and expert witness fees when the court ruled that no company-wide criminal background check policy existed, an allegation that was essential to the EEOC’s case. Similarly, in the Freeman case, a federal appeals court recently upheld the dismissal of the EEOC’s case, calling its expert’s analysis “utterly unreliable.” Despite its losses, the EEOC is pursuing claims based on criminal background checks, with lawsuits against BMW, Dollar General and other companies still ongoing. 

Priority #2 – Vulnerable Workers 

The second strategic enforcement priority is the protection of vulnerable workers. Field Director Lowrie explained that this includes agricultural workers, immigrant and migrant workers and mentally disabled workers. 

When discussing immigrant and migrant workers, Mr. Lowrie noted the EEOC does not look at whether the workers are authorized to work in the U.S. or if they are in the country illegally, commenting that the EEOC is not ICE or Homeland Security. Instead, the EEOC looks to enforce the anti-discrimination laws under its jurisdiction so that employers do not escape enforcement just because they use unauthorized workers. 

As for protecting mentally disabled workers, Mr. Lowrie specifically mentioned the EEOC’s win in a case against a turkey farm in the Midwest in which over thirty men with intellectual disabilities were housed in substandard facilities, denied medical care and harassed both verbally and physically for years. 

Stay Tuned for Insight into Other Top EEOC Priorities 

In the next few weeks, we will explore the EEOC’s remaining strategic priorities. In the meantime, review your background check policy to ensure you do not have a blanket “no hire” criminal record exclusion. Check that your employment application does not state that applicants will be automatically excluded if they have a criminal record. Make sure that you do not ask for medical information, such as family medical history, or send applicants for a medical exam until after a conditional job offer has been made. Be careful with wellness programs, ensuring they are voluntary. And if you employ vulnerable workers, make certain that your policies and practices do not single them out for disparate treatment in pay, job assignments or other conditions of employment.

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