Category Archives: Labor Law

November 16, 2016

Judge Declares Persuader Rule Unlawful With Permanent Nationwide Injunction

6a013486823d73970c01b8d1fb4b76970c-120wiBy Brian Mumaugh

The U.S. Department of Labor’s final persuader rule was dealt yet another blow today as federal Judge Sam Cummings of the Northern District of Texas issued a permanent injunction declaring the rule unlawful. The ruling will prevent the persuader rule from being enforced anywhere in the nation.

Rule Would Have Expanded Disclosures of Union-Avoidance Activities 

As we’ve reported before, the DOL’s final persuader rule, issued this past March, would have expanded the reporting requirements of both employers and their hired labor consultants who assist with union-avoidance activities. Under the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), when employers hire outside consultants, including attorneys, who are directly involved in  “persuading” workers whether or not to join a union or engage in collective bargaining, they must file a report disclosing the consulting relationship as well as the fees paid to the consultant. Under the now-enjoined  “new rule,” the DOL expanded the scope of reportable activities to include not only those that involved the consultant making direct contact with employees, as was previously included as reportable “advice,” but also those activities where the attorney or labor consultant works with the employer behind the scenes to draft or review documents, presentations, speeches, and other materials to aid the employer in opposing union organizing and other related activities.

Legal Challenge Prevailed 

The DOL’s expansion of the rule as to what constitutes reportable “advice” was highly controversial. The DOL was set to begin enforcing the final rule on July 1, 2016, but numerous business groups filed lawsuits claiming that the DOL overstepped its bounds and that the rule was unlawful. On June 22nd, a Minnesota federal judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction to block the rule, but less than a week later, Judge Cummings in Texas did just that. He issued a preliminary injunction blocking the DOL from enforcing the rule nationwide.

With today’s order, Judge Cummings turned his preliminary injunction into a permanent block on enforcement of the rule. The result is that the employers and labor consultants, including lawyers, will continue to report their persuader activities consistent with the prior rule. In other words, only those activities that meet the “advice” standard under the prior persuader rule are reportable. Such activities generally include only those that involve direct contact between the consultant and the employees.

Is This Rule Dead Forever?

It remains to be seen whether the DOL will appeal this order, but for now, the final persuader rule appears dead. With the new GOP administration taking office in late January, it is unlikely that the DOL, under GOP leadership, would try to advance this union-friendly rule in the years to follow. We’ll keep you posted on any new developments.

January 12, 2016

Anticipating Revisions To The “Persuader Rules” – What You Need To Know

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh

As early as March, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) plans to issue its final rules that will significantly narrow the type of union-avoidance activities that employers and their labor attorneys and relations consultants may engage in without having to report those activities to the government. The tightening of the so-call “persuader rules” will mean that employers who utilize labor relations consultants, including lawyers, to help with union-avoidance or collective bargaining activities will need to disclose many more of those activities, and the fees paid for them.

Evolution of the “Persuader Rules”

In the late 1950’s, because of perceived questionable conduct by both unions and employers involved in union organizing and collective bargaining campaigns, Congress enacted the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA). The LMRDA seeks to make labor-management relations more transparent by imposing reporting and disclosure requirements on labor organizations and their officials, employers, and labor relations consultants.

Under the LMRDA, the reporting requirements for employers and their labor consultants are triggered when they undertake activities intended to directly or indirectly persuade employees to exercise (or not to exercise) the employees’ right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing. Employers must file a Form LM-10 (Employer Report) that discloses all payments made to unions and union officials, persuader payments made to employees and employee committees, persuader agreements/arrangements made with labor relations consultants, including lawyers, which includes the amount and dates of payments made to such consultants, and any expenditures made to interfere with, restrain or coerce employees, or otherwise obtain information concerning employees or a labor organization. Labor relations consultants must file a Form LM-20 specifying, among other things, information about the consultant and the nature of the “persuader activities” to be performed. Under the LMRDA, the DOL must make all such forms available for public inspection.

The “Advice” Exemption

The LMRDA contains an exemption from the reporting requirements for persuader activities for services that give “advice” to the employer. Except for brief periods when the LMRDA was first enacted and again in 2001, the DOL has interpreted this “advice” exemption to apply to activities where a consultant or lawyer prepares a speech or documents for use by the employer, or revises materials initially drafted by the employer. In other words, as long as the consultant or lawyer did not directly deliver or disseminate speeches or materials to employees for the purpose of persuading them with respect to their organizational or bargaining rights, behind-the-scenes activities where the consultant/lawyer drafts materials for use by the employer would not trigger a reporting obligation. Under the proposed rules, that is about to change. 

Expanded Proposed Interpretation of “Advice” Exemption

Believing its long-standing interpretation of the “advice” exemption to be overly broad, the DOL proposed a narrower interpretation that would require reporting in any case in which the agreement or arrangement with a labor consultant/lawyer in any way calls for the consultant to engage in persuader activities, regardless of whether or not advice is also given. The revised interpretation would define reportable “persuader activity” to include activities where a lawyer or consultant provides material or communications to, or engages in other actions, conduct, or communications on behalf of an employer that at least in part, has the objective of persuading employees concerning their rights to organize or bargain collectively. Exempt “advice” would be limited to recommendations, verbal or written, regarding an employer’s decision or course of conduct.

Stated examples of covered persuader activities that would require disclosure include:

  • drafting, revising, or providing written materials for presentation, dissemination, or distribution to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing a speech, video, or multi-media presentation to be presented, shown or distributed to employees
  • drafting, revising, or providing website content for employees
  • planning or conducting individual or group employee meetings, and training supervisors or employer representatives to do the same
  • coordinating or directing the activities of supervisors or employer representatives
  • establishing or facilitating employee committees
  • developing personnel policies or practices
  • deciding which employees to target for persuader activity or disciplinary action
  • conducting a seminar for supervisors or employer representatives

The DOL justifies this expansion of the reporting circumstances, in part, because the role of outside consultants and law firms in managing employers’ anti-union efforts has grown substantially over the years, citing reports that somewhere between 71% and 87% of employers facing organizing drives hire third-party consultants to assist in their counter-organizing efforts. The DOL also states that underreporting of persuader activities is a problem as “employees are not receiving the information that Congress intended they receive.” Regardless of its reasoning, the DOL’s proposed change of its 50-year old interpretation will result in significant burdens on both employers and their consultants.

March 2016 Is New Target Date for Final Rule

Almost five years has passed since the DOL published its proposed rule changing the “persuader rules.” After numerous delays in publishing its final rules, the DOL’s regulatory agenda indicates that it expects to issue the final “persuader rules” this March. We will let you know when the final rules are published, or if the timeline changes. In the meantime, you might want to take advantage of the next few months before the new rules kick in to obtain union-avoidance materials and training from your consultants now. At a minimum, talk to your labor relations consultant/labor lawyer about the upcoming changes so that you are aware of how they may impact your labor strategies in the future.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

December 4, 2015

Court Upholds NLRB Ruling On Overly Broad Employment Policies

Gutierrez_SBy Steven M. Gutierrez 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) may feel emboldened after a recent ruling by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the Board’s decision that an employer’s policies on investigation confidentiality, electronic communications, and work hours were overly broad, potentially chilling employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activities. As a result, employers should expect the further onslaught of NLRB attacks on seemingly neutral employment policies to continue, or worse, escalate.

NLRB’s Attack on Handbook Policies

In recent years, the Board has scrutinized many handbook policies, including those of non-union employers. As we’ve written in a past post, the NLRB attacks those policies that it believes interferes with, or chills, employees’ §7 rights to form labor organizations, bargain collectively, and engage in similar concerted activities. If the employer’s policy or rule would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their statutory rights, then the employer violates §8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act, committing an unfair labor practice.

Analysis of Whether Policies Violate NLRA

The D.C. Court of Appeals set forth the proper analysis for determining whether an employment policy or work rule can amount to an unfair labor practice under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Hyundai Am. Shipping Agency, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 11-1351 (D.C.Cir. Nov. 6, 2015). First, the Board must determine whether the policy explicitly restricts §7 rights, such as by restricting employees from discussing or forming a union. An explicit restriction on employees’ rights will invalidate the policy, amounting to an unfair labor practice.

In the absence of an explicit restriction on §7 rights, the Board must ask whether the rule:

  1. could be reasonably construed by employees to restrict §7 activity;
  2. was adopted in response to such activity; or
  3. has been used to restrict such activity.

If the answer is “yes” to any of these three questions, then the employer must show an adequate justification for the restrictive language to avoid it constituting an unfair labor practice.

Court Upholds Board Order On Three Policies

The Court reviewed the Board’s order regarding four policies maintained by employer Hyundai America Shipping Agency in its employee handbook, namely its policies on investigation confidentiality, electronic communications, work hours, and complaint provisions. Here is how the Court analyzed whether the Board correctly concluded that each of the policies was restrictive of employees’ §7 rights:

  • Investigative Confidentiality Rule: Hyundai had an oral rule that prohibited employees from discussing information about matters under investigation. The Court stated that “this blanket confidentiality rule clearly limited employees’ §7 rights to discuss their employment.” The Court then looked at whether Hyundai had offered a legitimate and substantial business justification for the rule that outweighed the adverse effect on its employees’ rights. While acknowledging that there may be a legitimate business justification for mandating confidentiality for particular types of investigations, such as sexual harassment investigations, the Court found that those concerns did not justify a ban on discussion of all investigations. Because the confidentiality rule was overly broad, the Court upheld the Board’s determination that it violated the NLRA.
  • Electronic Communications Rule: The electronic communications policy in Hyundai’s employee handbook stated that employees should only disclose information or messages from the company’s electronic communications systems to authorized persons. The Court stated that the key to determining the validity of this policy was whether the prohibition was limited to confidential information. Because Hyundai’s rule was not limited to the disclosure of confidential information, a reasonable reader could conclude that it applied to information about the terms and conditions of employment and therefore, it was overly broad and invalid.
  • Working Hours Rule: Hyundai maintained a handbook policy that allowed for employees to be disciplined, including termination, for “[p]erforming activities other than Company work during working hours.” Here, the key distinction is the use of the phrase “working hours” rather than “working time.” “Working time” excludes break periods so restrictions on union activity during working time is acceptable. On the other hand, “working hours” describes the period from the beginning of a shift to its end, including breaks. Because restrictions on union activity during working hours (sg., including break time) is presumptively invalid, the Court upheld the Board’s conclusion that Hyundai’s rule was invalid.
  • Complaint Provision: Hyundai’s handbook provided that employees should voice complaints directly to their immediate supervisor or to Human Resources, rather than complaining to fellow employees which would not resolve the problem. Although the Board had ruled this provision invalid, believing it prohibited employees from complaining about the terms or conditions of work among themselves, the Court disagreed. It stated that although the rule urged employees to voice complaints to a supervisor or to Human Resources, it was not mandatory, did not preclude alternative discussions, and did not provide penalties if an employee complained to fellow employees. Therefore, the Court found that the language would not be read to prohibit complaints protected by §7.

Court Rejects NLRB’s Investigation Confidentiality Rule Standard Affirmed in Banner Health

Interestingly, while discussing Hyundai’s investigation confidentiality rule, the Court rejected the ALJ’s opinion that in order to show a legitimate and substantial justification for an investigation confidentiality policy, the employer must determine whether any “investigation witnesses need protection, evidence is in danger of being destroyed, testimony is in danger of being fabricated and there is a need to prevent a cover up.” The NLRB had reaffirmed that standard in its widely cited Banner Health ruling on confidential investigation policies.

The D.C. Court of Appeals stated that it “need not and do[es] not endorse the ALJ’s novel view” on how employer’s must show a legitimate justification for an investigation confidentiality rule. The Court instead simply held that Hyundai’s confidentiality rule was “so broad and undifferentiated that the Board reasonably concluded that Hyundai did not present a legitimate business justification for it.”

Review and Narrow Your Policies

To help avoid NLRB scrutiny, review your employee handbook and other employment policies to determine whether any language could potentially chill employees’ §7 rights. If possible, narrow any restrictions that may infringe on employees’ rights and make certain that your organization can articulate a legitimate and substantial justification for your restrictions. Because these issues are continually evolving, discuss any questionable policy wording with your employment counsel.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

October 29, 2015

NLRB To Revisit Whether Graduate Teaching Assistants May Collectively Bargain

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

Seeking to overturn long-standing precedent, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) recently agreed to review whether graduate students who work as teaching or research assistants at universities are “employees” for purposes of voting for a union. The United Auto Workers (UAW) is seeking to represent student employees at The New School, a not-for-profit operator of higher education institutions in New York. Like a dog with a bone, the current NLRB is unwilling to give up on finding coverage for grad student assistants, despite two rejections of the representation petition by the Regional Director. 

Is It Work or Educational? 

The UAW petitioned to represent all student employees who provide teaching or research services at The New School. The proposed bargaining unit includes teaching assistants, fellows and tutors, as well as research assistants and associates. 

The facts related to these positions are as follows: 

  • About 350 individuals work in the proposed bargaining unit
  • The positions typically require between 10 and 20 hours of work per week
  • Each graduate assistant position typically lasts for one 15-week semester, but many graduate assistants are renewed for multiple semesters
  • The New School provides approximately $5 million annually to grad students in these positions
  • Each faculty member is allotted up to $5,100 per year to be used for student assistants
  • Teaching assistants are paid $4,500 per semester; teaching fellows receive $5,500 per semester, and tutors are paid an hourly rate, typically $17.00 per hour
  • Research associates can receive stipends of up to $40,000 per year due to grants from the federal government
  • Graduate assistants must provide I-9 forms to be eligible for the positions
  • Payments to the graduate assistants are made through a payroll account and taxes are withheld
  • Payments are disbursed biweekly but do not vary based on the number of hours worked (except for tutors)
  • Graduate assistants are not required to track, and the university does not monitor the amount of time spent on their duties
  • Applicants for these positions must maintain a minimum GPA
  • Some are selected using a formal process of interviews and appointment letters from the Human Resources department while others are offered positions more informally directly from a professor
  • Selection for the position is not dependent on financial need 

When the UAW first petitioned to represent this group of student employees in December 2014, the Regional Director for the New York region dismissed the petition based on the NLRB’s 2004 decision in Brown University, which held that graduate student assistants were not “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act, and therefore, could not be unionized. The 2004 Board had decided that the graduate assistants had a primarily academic relationship with their school, not an economic, work-related one. Case closed, right? Wrong. 

Will Graduate Assistant Precedent Be Overturned? 

In March 2015, the Board reviewed the initial dismissal of the petition and sent it back to the region for a hearing. The Hearing Officer heard testimony and received evidence during a seven-day hearing, but in late July, the Regional Director found that Brown University still controlled, and dismissed the petition again. 

The UAW requested (again) that the Board review the dismissal of its representation petition. On October 21, 2015, on a 3-1 vote, the Board granted the request for review, finding that it “raises substantial issues warranting review.” 

The vote goes along political lines, with the three democratic members voting to review the graduate assistant issue and the sole republican member dissenting. (Note: the Board is currently short one member.) In his dissent, member Philip Miscimarra wrote that the sole basis for the UAW to seek review is its desire to have the Board overrule Brown University. Miscimarra believes there is no reason to overturn Brown University, pointing, in part, to the prevailing view for more than 40 years that graduate student assistants are not statutory employees, except for a four-year period from 2000-2004 when the ruling flip-flopped in favor of finding they were employees. 

Is another flip-flop likely? It very well could be, given that the current majority of the Board continues to look to expand the reach of the NLRA. But even if the Board should find that graduate student assistants are statutory employees, it will need to address an argument by The New School that they are “casual” or “temporary” employees which would still deny them union representation. 

We will continue to follow this case and pass along any developments as they occur.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

September 11, 2015

Broader Joint-Employer Test Leads to Teamsters Win At Browning-Ferris

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

In a previous article, we noted that the NLRB’s recent Browning-Ferris ruling was significant for those employers who use temporary or staffing agencies to provide workers. The Board set a new, broader test for joint-employer status that does not require the purported joint employer to exercise control over the workers in question. Instead, if the company has the right to exercise control over the terms and conditions of certain workers, it can be deemed a joint employer even if it never actually exercises that control. Now we can see the significance of the impact.  

Based upon the joint-employer determination, the impounded ballots of the workers of Leadpoint Business Services, the entity that staffed Browning-Ferris’s California recycling plant, were counted as part of the bargaining unit, which provided a 73-17 margin in favor of representation by the Teamsters. Depending on the outcome of any objections filed by the company, the NLRB will certify the union as the collective bargaining representative for the recycling center’s workers. This allows the unit to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of employment at that facility. 

Bargaining Over Terms Of Contingent Workers 

Think about this: Browning-Ferris does not “employ” the workers placed at its facility by staffing agency, Leadpoint. It doesn’t hire, pay, provide benefits to, or fire them. Yet, it will be required to sit down at the bargaining table across from the Teamsters to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment of those contingent workers over which it retains authority to control. That is the result of being found a joint employer of the bargaining-unit workers. 

Extension of Joint-Employer Test to Other Contexts? 

Joint-employer status is a critical determination for companies that use contingent workers as well as for franchises. And, it can apply not only in the union context, but also in other employment law contexts, such as for pay purposes under the Fair Labor Standards Act or for discrimination under Title VII. Even though the standards and policy behind a joint-employer relationship under other employment laws may differ from those behind the National Labor Relations Act, this new, broader test will likely be asserted in these other contexts in order to bring in franchisors and companies that use contingent workers as potentially liable parties. 

Appeal Over Joint-Employer Test Coming? 

Because of the high stakes involved in this ruling, it would not be surprising if Browning-Ferris (which is part of Republic Services, Inc.) appealed the NLRB’s ruling, taking its case to the applicable court of appeals. Another option is that after the union is certified, Browning-Ferris could refuse to bargain with the Teamsters which would lead to more proceedings before the Board, and ultimately, the courts. Given that the Board has already ruled in favor of the union on this matter, the company will likely have a better chance seeking review by circuit judges. Either way, this matter is probably not over. 

Stay tuned and we will let you know what develops further. What we do know, is the NLRB will not sit idle and we should expect it to use its power to push the envelope in favor of the nation’s unions.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

August 28, 2015

NLRB Throws Out Years of Joint-Employer Precedent – Adopts Two-Part Test For Joint-Employer Status

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has thrown employers a curve by overruling 30 years of long-standing decisions that narrowed the circumstances under which a joint-employer relationship could be found to exist. In a closely-watched decision, the Board revised its joint-employer standard, dictating a broader two-step test that will result in entities that use contingent workers more likely being deemed joint employers for union representation purposes. Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 186 (Aug. 27, 2015). 

Two-Part Joint Employer Test 

In its 3-to-2 decision, the Board reaffirmed a 1982 joint-employer standard under which the Board will find that two or more statutory employers are joint employers of the same employees if they share or codetermine the essential terms and conditions of employment. First, the Board will determine whether the putative employer has a common-law employment relationship with the employees in question. If that relationship exists, the Board then will determine whether the employer possesses sufficient control over the employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment to permit meaningful collective bargaining. 

Employer Need Not Exercise Control Over Employees 

Over the past 30 years, joint-employer cases have defined the degree of control that an employer must assert over the workers to be deemed a joint employer. Those cases, including Laerco and TLI, required that the putative employer actually exercise control over the terms and conditions of employment to be deemed a joint employer. In addition, exercising that control had to be direct and immediate, not of a limited and routing nature. Simply possessing the authority to exercise control, without actually exercising that control, was not enough under long-standing Board law. 

That requirement is now gone. The Board ruled, in Browning-Ferris, it will no longer require that a joint employer exercise its authority to control the terms and conditions of the employees’ employment. The proper inquiry will be whether the statutory employer “possesses sufficient control over the work of the employees to qualify as a joint employer with” another employer. In addition, control exercised indirectly, such as through an agent or intermediary, may be sufficient to establish joint-employer status. 

BFI Deemed A Joint Employer With Temp Agency 

After articulating its revised test, the Board applied it to the BFI case at hand. The case arose after a union sought to include certain workers at the BFI Newby Island Recyclery in a bargaining unit during a union election. The workers were employed by Leadpoint Business Services, a temporary labor services agency, and were assigned to work at BFI’s recycling plant as sorters, screen cleaners and housekeepers. The contract between BFI and Leadpoint specifically stated that Leadpoint was the sole employer of the workers and there was no employment relationship between BFI and those workers. 

The Board concluded that BFI was a joint employer of the workers with Leadpoint. Contributing factors leading the Board to determine that BFI is a common-law employer and shares or codetermines essential terms and conditions of employment include: 

  • BFI retained the right to require that Leadpoint meet or exceed BFI’s own standard selection procedures and tests, requires drug tests and prohibits Leadpoint from hiring workers deemed to be ineligible for rehire by BFI;
  • BFI retained the right to reject any worker that Leadpoint refers to its facility “for any or no reason” and to discontinue the use of any personnel that Leadpoint assigned to it;
  • BFI managers had requested the immediate dismissal of certain workers due to misconduct and Leadpoint dismissed them from BFI’s facility shortly afterward;
  • BFI controlled the speed of the material streams and specific productivity standards for sorting;
  • BFI managers assigned specific tasks that need to be completed, determined where workers are to be positions and exercised near-constant oversight of workers’ performance;
  • BFI identified the number of workers it needs, the timing of the shifts and when overtime is necessary, even though Leadpoint selects the specific employees who will do the work;
  • Despite Leadpoint determining pay rates, administering payroll and benefits and retaining payroll records, BFI prevented Leadpoint from paying employees more than BFI employees in comparable jobs and used a cost-plus model under the contract;
  • After a new minimum wage law went into effect, BFI and Leadpoint entered into an agreement for BFI to pay a higher rate for the services of Leadpoint employees. 

As a result of finding that BFI was a joint employer of these workers, the Board ordered the Regional Director to open and count the impounded ballots cast by the employees in the petitioned-for unit. If the employees voted for union representation, BFI will have to collectively bargain over the terms and conditions of employment over which it retains the right to control. 

Implications For Employers 

The Board seeks to prevent companies from insulating themselves from the application of labor laws by using temporary or other contingent workforces and this new standard will further their goal. This new, broader standard for joint-employer status will make it easier for unions to include contingent workers into bargaining units at the facilities for which they are providing services. In addition, as pointed out by the dissent, this change “will subject countless entities to unprecedented new joint-bargaining obligations that most do not even know they have, to potential joint liability for unfair labor practices and breaches of collective-bargaining agreements, and to economic protest activity, including what have heretofore been unlawful secondary strikes, boycotts and picketing.” 

If your organization uses contingent workers, you should review your existing labor services agreements and, to the extent possible, renegotiate any terms that reserve your right to control the terms and conditions of the contingent workers’ employment. You also should attempt to eliminate any functional oversight and decision-making to ensure that you are not exercising any control, whether directly or indirectly, over the contingent workers. The reservation of the right to dictate any terms or conditions of employment, or the actual exercise of that control in any way, is likely to lead you to be deemed a joint employer of those workers.

We will keep you posted of further developments, including any appeals of this decision.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.

August 18, 2015

NLRB Unanimously Declines Jurisdiction Over Northwestern University Football Player Union Petition

Gutierrez_SBy Steve Gutierrez 

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) declined to assert jurisdiction over the petition filed by a union seeking to represent Northwestern University’s scholarship football players. In 2014, the Regional Director for the Region covering Northwestern University found that Northwestern’s football players who received grant-in-aid scholarships were employees within the meaning of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Act) and were entitled to petition for union representation. In its unanimous decision announced yesterday, the Board dismissed that union petition, deciding that it would not assert jurisdiction over these specific college athletes as doing so would not promote stability in labor relations or further the purposes of the Act. 

Board Refuses to Decide Whether College Athletes Are Statutory Employees 

After considering the positions of the union seeking to represent Northwestern’s football players, the University, who contended that its scholarship players were not statutory employees, and the many interested parties who submitted briefs, the Board refused to decide the controversial issue raised by the Regional Director’s 2014 decision, namely whether Northwestern’s grant-in aid scholarship football players are employees under the NLRA. Instead, by refusing to assert jurisdiction, the Board dismissed the union’s petition to represent this group of college athletes, effectively nullifying the impounded ballots that had been cast in the union election in April 2014. 

Single Team Athletes Unlike Other Covered Cases 

The Board distinguished this group of athletes from other types of students and athletes for which the Board has asserted jurisdiction. First, the Board focused on the nature of the college sports leagues and structure of college football bowl divisions. It noted that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Big Ten Conference (to which Northwestern University belongs) dictate eligibility requirements, minimum academic standards, scholarship terms, amateur status, mandatory practice hours and other rules under which the scholarship athletes may compete. The Board saw these rules as distinguishing the scholarship players from graduate student assistants or student janitors and cafeteria workers whose employee status the Board had considered in other cases. 

The Board then distinguished Northwestern’s scholarship players from professional sports leagues, which are covered by union contracts. Previous Board cases involving professional sports have involved leaguewide bargaining units that cover all players across the league. Here, the union sought to represent players from a single team. The Board cannot assert jurisdiction over the majority of colleges and universities that make up the college football divisions as the vast majority are public institutions which are not employers under the Act. Consequently, the Board could not assert jurisdiction over most of Northwestern’s primary competitors. The Board found that asserting jurisdiction over a single team, rather than across an entire league, would not promote stability in labor relations. 

Rare Limit On Board’s Reach 

In recent years, the Board has extended its reach, offering NLRA protections in expansive ways and revising rules to make it easier for unions to win elections. Today’s ruling is a rare exception to that expansive trend, curtailing the reach of the NLRA to the scholarship football players at a private university. The Board did, however, express the limited nature of this decision, noting that changed circumstances may prompt a reconsideration of this issue in the future. We’ll have to wait to see if unions try again to organize scholarship athletes under different conditions.

December 23, 2014

National Labor Relations Board continues down a controversial path!

By  Steven M. Gutierrez         Gutierrez.Steven

In recent years, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has issued some notable decisions that impact both union and non-union employers nationwide.  In the past month, two important pronouncements have been made by the NLRB.  Both are controversial; however, anyone that has been following the last several years’ NLRB activity, neither was unexpected. 

The first pronouncement is found in a holding of the NLRB issued on December 11, 2014 in Purple Communications, Inc., 361 NLRB No. 126.  In this matter, Purple Communication’s electronic communications policy, which prohibited employees of Purple Communications from using the company’s email and communication systems in activities on behalf of organizations that had no professional or business affiliation with the company, was found unlawful.  In holding that the policy was unlawful, the NLRB overruled Register Guard.  Under Register Guard, employers could prohibit employees from using the employer’s email system, provided that the ban was not applied discriminatorily.  Under the new Purple Communications standard, there is now a presumption that employees who have been given access to the employer’s communication system are entitled to use that system to engage in concerted protected activity during their non-working time.  Employers who can show special circumstances can justify a ban on this kind of communication, but the burden will be high and the ban must be supported by evidence that there is a specific business interest at issue. 

The second pronouncement comes from the issuance of a final rule, on December 12, 2014, when the NLRB amended representation election procedures.  The new rules become effective on April 14, 2015.  Pursuant to the final rule, the time period between filing of a union election petition and the date of the election is reduced and expedited.  What normally would have taken six to seven weeks, will now be accomplished in 10-21 days.  Further, issues related to voter eligibility and bargaining unit inclusion are resolved after the election.  Notably, an employer will now be required to submit a “Statement of Position” prior to the pre-election hearing, and will be found to waive arguments concerning the election that are not raised in the Statement of Position. This new rule will most certainly make it easier for unions to organize and reduce the time an employer previously had to communicate with its employees in advance of a union petition requesting a vote.

Based upon these two developments and others in the past year, you can be virtually certain that the NLRB will continue with its controversial ways in the coming year.  It is clear to this author, the NLRB would like to make it easy for unions to assert greater influence and stem the tide of the continued decline in membership.


December 12, 2014

Supreme Court Says No Pay For Security Screening Time

Supreme Court Says No Pay For Security Screening Time

By Brad Williams

Should employers pay employees for time spent in mandatory, post-shift security screenings designed to deter theft?  Not according to a recent Supreme Court decision.

On December 9, 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously held in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, No. 13-433 (2014), that post-shift, anti-theft security screenings are not compensable work time under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  The decision reversed a Ninth Circuit decision holding that workers in two warehouses were entitled to pay for periods spent waiting for, and being screened at, security checkpoints after their shifts had ended.  The workers claimed that they spent roughly twenty-five minutes per day in such screenings, which included removal of their wallets, keys, and belts.

Splitting from other courts to have considered the issue, the Ninth Circuit held that such time was compensable because the workers’ post-shift screening activities were necessary to their principal work activities, and were performed for the benefit of their employer.  However, the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of compensable work time under the FLSA echoed that in earlier judicial decisions that had been expressly overruled by Congress.

Specifically, in response to a flood of litigation caused by the earlier decisions, Congress had passed the Portal-To-Portal Act in 1947 to clarify that employers are not obligated to pay employees for activities which are “preliminary” or “postliminary” to the principal activities they are employed to perform.  As such, time spent before or after a worker’s “principal activities” is not compensable unless it is spent on activities that are themselves “integral and indispensable” to the worker’s principal activities.  Regulations interpreting the Portal-To-Portal Act had long held that activities like checking into and out of work, or waiting in line to receive paychecks, is not compensable work time.

In its December 9th ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that just because an activity may be required by, or may benefit, an employer, does not mean that it is a compensable “principal activity,” or is “integral and indispensable” to a principal activity.  The warehouse workers’ employer did not employ the workers to undergo security screenings; it employed them to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and to package the products for shipment to customers.  The security screenings were also not “integral and indispensable” to the warehouse workers’ principal activities because their employer could have eliminated the screening requirement altogether without impairing the workers’ ability to perform their jobs.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court stated a new definition of “integral and indispensable” activities to guide lower courts.  An activity is now “integral and indispensable” to an employee’s principal work activities if it is an “intrinsic element of those activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities.”  Examples include time spent by battery-plant employees showering and changing clothes because chemicals in the plant are toxic to humans.  It also includes time spent by meatpacker employees sharpening knives because dull knives cause inefficiency and other problems on the production line. 

The Supreme Court’s decision gives employers much-needed certainty regarding the compensability of certain “preliminary” or “postliminary ” activities.  It clarifies that most employers may continue performing uncompensated pre- and post-shift security or anti-theft screenings without fear of successful FLSA collective actions.  The decision is particularly relevant to employers in the retail industry, who regularly conduct anti-theft screenings, and to other employers who are increasingly performing security screenings in an era of heightened concerns over terrorism.

Because the FLSA sets minimum standards for wage and overtime payments, states may set higher standards for compensable work  time, including with respect to “preliminary” or “postliminary” activities.  Unions may also bargain with employers to make such activities compensable.  But the Supreme Court’s recent decision helps push back on the tide of FLSA collective actions filed by employees claiming that certain activities are compensable because they are essential to their jobs.  The decision also follows a similar Supreme Court decision in January 2014, Sandifer v. U.S. Steel Corp., No. 12-417 (2014), in which the Court held that time spent by union-employees donning and doffing personal protective equipment was not compensable.  Taken together, these decisions suggest a concerted judicial effort to address the explosion of FLSA collective actions.


November 10, 2014

NLRB Unwilling to Give Up on Workers’ Right to Class Actions

Mumaugh_BBy Brian Mumaugh

Reaffirming its controversial D.R. Horton decision, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) recently ruled that an employer who required its employees to agree to resolve all employment-related claims through individual arbitration, waiving their right to pursue class actions, violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  Though two members of the Board dissented, the three member majority pointed to the core objective of the NLRA, namely the protection of workers acting in concert, to find that mandatory arbitration agreements waiving an employee’s right to file a class or collective action is unlawful.  Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 361 NLRB No. 72 (Oct. 28, 2014).

Employees Filed FLSA Collective Action

Four employees of Murphy Oil USA, Inc., which operates over 1,000 retail fueling stations across 21 states, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Alabama alleging that the company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by failing to pay overtime and requiring employees to perform work-related activities off-the-clock.  They brought the case as a collective action under the FLSA which allows them to sue on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated Murphy Oil employees.  The company asked the court to dismiss the collective action, seeking to enforce arbitration agreements signed by the employees that require that all claims be arbitrated on an individual basis.  One of the plaintiff-employees then filed an unfair labor charge with the NLRB alleging that the company was violating Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA by using and enforcing mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibited employees from engaging in protected, concerted activities. 

Board Asserts D.R. Horton Was Correctly Decided

In deciding this NLRA violation issue, the Board believes the rationale articulated in its 2012 D.R. Horton case is correct, asserting that “[m]andatory arbitration agreements that bar employees from bringing joint, class, or collective workplace claims in any forum restrict the exercise of the substantive right to act concertedly for mutual aid or protection that is central to the National Labor Relations Act.”  The Board states that the basic premise of federal labor law – protecting the right of workers to engage in collective action – makes the NLRA different from other labor and employment statutes.  The Board points to earlier Supreme Court decisions that made clear that the NLRA protects employees “when they seek to improve working conditions through resort to administrative and judicial forums  . . .”  Other court decisions cited by the Board held that individual agreements between employees and an employer (as opposed to collective bargaining agreements) cannot restrict employees’ Section 7 rights.  Relying on these cases and the majority’s interpretation of the core objective of federal labor law, the Board adheres to its position that protecting workers’ right to pursue collective actions to improve working conditions is a substantive right under the NLRA that cannot be waived by employees through a mandatory arbitration agreement.

Fifth Circuit Got D.R. Horton Decision Wrong, According to the Majority Opinion of Board

In December 2013, a divided Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the NLRA did not override the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), thereby allowing an employer’s arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms, including the agreement’s waiver of class claims.  D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, ___ F.3d ___, 2013 WL 6231617 (5th Cir. Dec. 3, 2013).  Rather than settling the issue for the NLRB and employers nationwide, the Fifth Circuit’s decision did little to quell the NLRB’s belief that class action waivers violate the NLRA.  In the Murphy Oil case, the Board attempts to explain why it believes the Fifth Circuit got it wrong. 

First, the Board asserts that the Fifth Circuit simply followed other FAA cases that did not involve a substantive right under Section 7 of the NLRA.  The Board argues that both the NLRA and the FAA must be accommodated and the Fifth Circuit’s decision gave too little weight to the NLRA and its underlying labor policy.  Second, the Board states that the Fifth Circuit’s decision forces workers into more costly and disruptive forms of concerted activity than bringing a collective action in court.  The Board believes that there is no basis for carving out concerted legal activity as entitled to less protection than other concerted activities, such as picketing, strikes and boycotts.  Third, the Board notes that the Supreme Court, while favoring arbitration, prohibits a prospective waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies and an arbitration agreement that precludes employees from filing joint, class or collective claims regarding working conditions in any forum amounts to a prospective waiver of a right guaranteed by the NLRA. 

Analysis By Other Circuits Rejected by Board

The Board pays little attention to and dismisses decisions by three other circuit courts of appeal that rejected the Board’s D.R. Horton rationale.  In essence, the Board states that the Second and Eighth Circuits purportedly did not conduct a thorough analysis of the legal issues and the Ninth Circuit amended its decision to refrain from deciding the issue.  Consequently, the Board found those decisions to be unpersuasive.

Two Board Members Dissent

Two of the five board members dissented, rejecting the majority’s D.R. Horton rationale.  Member Miscimarra stated that the NLRA “cannot reasonably be interpreted as giving employees a broad-based right to “class” treatment under other Federal, State, and local laws.” Member Johnson stated that the Board’s “interpretation of the FAA – which otherwise requires an agreement to be enforced exactly according to its terms – would allow Section 7 to swallow up the FAA itself.”  The dissenters also noted that the majority essentially ignored numerous clear decisions of the Supreme Court.  In citing the Supreme Court’s 2011 AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion case, member Johnson stated “Notably, the Court forbade [the majority’s] interpretation [of the FAA] when it decided that the FAA’s savings clause could not be construed to include a right that would be “absolutely inconsistent” with the FAA’s provisions.”  He went on to write:

The governing law could not be plainer.  Provisions in arbitration agreements precluding class actions may not be condemned simply because they restrict an employee’s ability to use litigation procedures established under other statutes in litigating those employment-related claims.  This is especially so where the governing statutes clearly describe the litigation procedures as procedural rights.

The dissenting members believe that employees and employers may enter into agreements that waive class procedures in litigation or arbitration. 

What’s Next For Arbitration Agreements That Waive Class Actions?

The current majority of the Board appears unpersuaded by federal court decisions—not to mention the Supreme Court of the United States–holding that its position in D.R. Horton  is simply wrong.  It appears that, absent a further Supreme Court decision on the issue, the NLRB General Counsel likely will continue to issue complaints against employers who require employees to sign arbitration agreements that include a waiver of joint, class and collective actions.  If and when the makeup of the Board changes, the dissenting opinion may become the majority opinion for future cases.  In the meantime, employers who mandate such agreements should continue to enforce them.  In other words, if faced with a class or collective action by an employee or employees who signed an agreement waiving class claims, the employer should ask the court to compel individual arbitration, dismissing the class/collective action.  Despite the Board’s current position,  a court is likely to grant that request.  Employers should review their arbitration agreements, however, to ensure that any disputes arising under the NLRA are not subject to the mandatory arbitration provision and that employees are not prohibited from participating in proceedings before the Board.

Click here to print/email/pdf this article.