Monthly Archives: August 2016

August 24, 2016

NLRB Reverses Position on Grad Student Assistants, Allowing Them To Unionize

By Steven Gutierrez

Overruling its 2004 Brown University decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) decided that graduate student assistants at private colleges and universities can be considered statutory employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), permitting them to organize and form a union. Columbia University, 364 NLRB 90 (August 23, 2016). The Board concluded that student assistants who perform paid work at the direction of their university have a common-law employment relationship with the university and therefore, are entitled to the protections of the NLRA.

Why Brown University Was Wrong

The 2004 Board that decided this issue in Brown University ruled that graduate assistants could not be statutory employees under the NLRA because they are primarily students and have a primarily educational relationship with the university, not an economic one. The current Board rejected that view, finding that because student assistants perform work, at the direction of the university, for which they are compensated, they are statutory employees and the fact that there may be another relationship not covered by the NLRA, namely an educational relationship, did not foreclose their coverage as employees.

The current Board also disagreed with the Brown University Board’s “fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process and would be inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the [NLRA].” Instead, this Board believes that allowing grad assistants to be covered employees meets the “unequivocal policy” of the NLRA to encourage the practice and procedure of collective bargaining, and will make sure that an entire category of workers are not deprived of the protections of the law.

Multiple Flip-Flops On Graduate Assistants

In overruling Brown University, the Board’s position returns to the position held in the 2000 New York University (NYU) ruling, which itself was overruled in Brown University. Prior to the NYU ruling, however, the Board had long held that various student assistants could not be included in petitioned-for bargaining units.

This new flip-flop on the issue of coverage for graduate student assistants is not surprising given the leanings and make-up of the majority of the current Board, which has favored the extension of coverage and its jurisdiction, when possible. Board member Philip Miscimarra dissented in this case, writing that he agreed with the Brown University reasoning that graduate student assistants have a predominately academic, rather than economic, relationship with their school. He would not have overruled Brown University, or permitted the petitioned-for bargaining unit to proceed.  Read more >>

August 23, 2016

Employer Violates NLRA By Barring Employees From Bringing Class or Collective Actions, Says Ninth Circuit

By Brian Mumaugh

Bad news for employers in the ongoing saga of whether an employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by requiring that employees pursue any legal dispute against the company on an individual basis, rather than in a class or collective action with other employees. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that the NLRA precludes employees from waiving their right to have disputes heard collectively and an employer that requires employees to waive that right as a condition of employment commits an unfair labor practice. Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 13-16599 (9th Cir. August 22, 2016).

Broad Ruling Extends To Any “Separate Proceedings” Requirement

Accounting firm Ernst & Young required its employees to sign agreements mandating that all legal claims against the firm be pursued exclusively through arbitration and only as individuals in “separate proceedings.” When employee Stephen Morris brought a class and collective action in federal court alleging that the firm misclassified employees denying them overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, Ernst & Young sought to compel arbitration on an individual basis pursuant to its arbitration agreement. The district court agreed, dismissing the federal court case and ordering arbitration.

Morris appealed, arguing, among other things, that the “separate proceedings” clause violated the NLRA. Morris relied on determinations by the National Labor Relations Board (the Board) in the D.R. Horton  and Murphy Oil cases in which the Board ruled that concerted action waivers violate the NLRA. The Ninth Circuit agreed. It ruled that when an employer requires employees to sign an agreement precluding them from bringing a concerted legal claim regarding wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment, the employer violates the NLRA.

The Court focused on the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA’s statutory right of employees “to engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of . . . mutual aid or protection” to include a right to join together to pursue workplace grievances, including through litigation. It characterized this as a labor law case, not an arbitration case. It stated that the problem with the contract was not that it required arbitration, but that it excluded all concerted employee legal claims. The Court explained that the same problem would exist “if the contract required disputes to be resolved through casting lots, coin toss, duel, trial by ordeal, or any other dispute resolution mechanism, if the contract (1) limited resolution to that mechanism and (2) required separate individual proceedings.” Read more >>

August 12, 2016

Notice Required By Colorado’s New Pregnancy Accommodation Law

By Besse H. McDonaldDORA notice

As we reported here, effective August 10, 2016, Colorado employers must provide a reasonable accommodation to applicants and employees for health conditions related to pregnancy or physical recovery from childbirth, absent an undue hardship. Along with the new accommodation requirement, Colorado employers also must post a notice of employee rights under the new law as well as provide written notice to new hires at the start of employment and existing employees no later than December 8, 2016. The Colorado Civil Rights Division (CCRD) has published a suggested notice that it deems compliant with the new law.

Available in both English and Spanish on the CCRD’s website, the two-page notice informs employees of the new pregnancy accommodation requirement under Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws. Be sure to print off copies of the notice to post in a conspicuous place in your business in an area accessible to employees, such as break rooms or near employee entrances, where other required employment law notices are posted. Then take steps to provide the notice to your existing employees no later than December 8, 2016 and to all new hires going forward.