Cheryl Orr Quoted on Illinois Medical Marijuana Law Story in Chicago Tribune

San Francisco Partner Cheryl Orr was quoted in a recent story in the Chicago Tribune on Illinois medical marijuana law and the legal implications for Illinois employers whose policies are at odds with the law.  Some of the issues Illinois employers will need to confront include reconciling their drug-free work place policies with patients’ rights, what they can ask job applicants, how to deal with an impaired employee and whether or not an employer can punish an employee for engaging in what is now deemed to be a legal activity.

Cheryl submitted that the Illinois statute may offer civil employment protections for workers.  One provision of the Illinois law appears to narrowly tie the ability to discipline a medical marijuana patient for failing a drug test to those employers who are specifically connected to federal work or funding.  This framework, Cheryl wrote, “creates a plausible argument that the statute does provide protections” for medical marijuana users in the private sector.

LaborSphere previously looked at employer liability under the Illinois law, and other states who have laws providing for some form of legalized medical marijuana, and will continue to follow this ever evolving area of law.

Firing Employees Who Don’t Get Flu Shots: What Risks Do Hospitals Face?

By: Mark D. Nelson

As hospitals continue to see an onslaught of flu patients, they also face challenges to flu vaccination policies designed to reduce the spread of flu to patients and fellow employees.  Hospitals are understandably concerned with protecting patients, visitors and employees from contracting the flu and the potentially serious consequences to the health of elderly and infant patients.  However, protecting patients against flu can create legal liability when employees are disciplined, discharged or suffer other adverse action because they do not get a flu shot.

Employment Considerations for Flu Vaccination Policies—The National Labor Relations Act

What limitations exist on a hospital’s ability to create and implement a flu/other vaccination policy?  Under the National Labor Relations Act, a flu vaccination policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining.  This means that unionized hospitals cannot unilaterally implement such a policy without first giving the union notice of the intended policy and bargain over the policy if the union requests to do so.

A hospital does not have to bargain if the union has “clearly and unmistakably” waived its right to bargain over the issue.  A waiver is typically found in the “Management Rights” clause, which was the case in a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB; the Board) decision, Virginia Mason Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 64 (2012), where the Board found a clear and unmistakable waiver in the Management Rights clause.  That clause stated, in relevant part, that the Medical Center has the right to “operate and manage the Hospital, including but not limited to the right to require standards of performance and…to direct the nurses…to determine the materials and equipment to be used; to implement improved operational methods and procedures…to discipline, demote or discharge nurses for just cause…and to promulgate rules, regulations and personnel policies….”

The Union representing the Medical Center’s registered nurses filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Board and a hearing was held before an NLRB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  The ALJ ruled, and the Board agreed, that the Management Rights clause did not specifically mention wearing facemasks (which the flu policy required in certain areas for non-immunized nurses), but it did “specifically allow the Hospital to unilaterally ‘direct the nurses’ and ‘determine the materials and equipment to be used’ [as well as] implement improved operational methods and procedure.’”  The ALJ noted that the Hospital had several infection control policies that required nurses to wear masks under various circumstances, and found that requiring non-immunized nurses to wear masks was within the Hospital’s authority to “determine the materials and equipment to be used [and] implement improved operational methods and procedures.”

With properly crafted language in a Management Rights clause or elsewhere in a collective bargaining agreement, a unionized hospital has the right to unilaterally implement a new flu vaccination policy or modify an existing policy.

Employment Considerations for Flu Vaccination Policies—Disability and Religious Discrimination

Hospitals, of course, have reached different decisions on how to balance the interests of patients and employees. As such, policies vary in the flexibility given to employees regarding non-vaccination and the resulting consequences:

    • Vaccination encouraged but not mandated
    • Vaccination mandated with exemptions for medical contraindication, religious beliefs (discipline/other adverse consequences for non-exempted employees)
    • Vaccination mandated and masking required for medical contraindication, religious beliefs (discipline/other adverse consequences for failure to be vaccinated or wear mask, as applicable)
    • Vaccination required (discipline/other adverse consequences for non-compliance)

Flu vaccination policies also differ regarding applicability.  Some policies apply only to employees who come into direct contact with patients.  At the other end of the continuum, the policy applies to all employees, independent contractors, students, interns, vendors and others who provide services inside the hospital.

Union and non-union hospitals should consider the potential for discrimination claims based on a flu vaccination policy that requires any group of employees to get a flu shot or face adverse consequences (such as discharge) if they fail to do so for any reason.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) would likely find such a policy to be unlawful.  The EEOC has taken the position in its “Pandemic Preparedness in the Workplace and the Americans with Disabilities Act” guidance that

“[a]n employee may be entitled to an exemption from a mandatory vaccination requirement based on an ADA disability that prevents him from taking the influenza vaccine. This would be a reasonable accommodation barring undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). Similarly, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, once an employer receives notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents him from taking the influenza vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship as defined by Title VII (“more than de minimis cost” to the operation of the employer’s business, which is a lower standard than under the ADA).”

http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html– 48k – 2009-10-21

A federal district court in Ohio refused to dismiss a complaint by a registered nurse alleging religious discrimination because she was fired for refusing to comply with the hospital’s mandatory flu vaccination policy.  Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, S.D. Ohio, No. 1:11-cv-00917 (12/27/12).   The employee’s refusal was based on her “religious beliefs” in veganism. The court rejected the hospital’s argument that her veganism was merely a “social philosophy or dietary preference.”  According to the court, it was plausible the employee could show that she held her belief in veganism with the same sincerity as traditional religious beliefs.  However, this case is far from over.  The court noted that its ruling on the motion to dismiss “in no way addresses what it anticipates as the hospital’s justification for its termination of the employee — the safety of patients at Children’s Hospital.”

Not all refusals to get a flu shot are based on medical or religious reasons.  A hospital in northern Indiana fired seven employees who refused to get flu shots.  One oncology nurse who was fired said it was “a personal thing.”  The nurse said she gets other vaccinations but it should be her choice whether she gets the flu vaccine.  She said she opposes “the injustice of being forced to put something in [her] body.”  Absent a violation of applicable state law, it is doubtful this employee would have a claim against the hospital for her termination.

Considerations in Creating a Flu Vaccination Policy

Current CDC guidelines do not require hospitals to mandate flu vaccination in any form; the CDC recommends active encouragement of employees to get a flu shot.  However, some hospitals believe it is appropriate to do more to try to protect vulnerable patients from catching the flu in the hospital and then suffering severe health consequences.  These hospitals mandate that at least some groups of employees must be vaccinated.  ”

Terminating or taking other adverse action against an employee who cannot get the vaccine because of a disability (as defined in the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or applicable state law) exposes a hospital to meaningful risk of a discrimination lawsuit.  The same is true for employees who raise a “religious objection.”

Hospitals should evaluate such refusals on a case-by-case basis and explore possible reasonable accommodations of the employees’ refusal to get vaccinated, and the policy should so inform employees. Possible reasonable accommodations could be exempting the employee from the policy entirely, transferring the employee to another position temporarily (until the flu threat ends as determined by local health officials) or permitting the employee to wear a mask when in proximity to patients and coworkers.  From my perspective as a former hospital board chairman, this approach presents a balancing of the hospital’s interest in protecting patients from flu exposure while protecting the legal rights of certain employees who decline to get vaccinated.  In the final analysis, many hospitals believe that risk of harm to patients may trump an individual’s right to refuse when flu epidemics are declared.

Editor’s Note: See our coverage on this topic for non-health care employers here.

The Dos and Don’ts of Implementing a Mandatory Flu Shot Vaccine Policy

By: Meredith R. Murphy

As another flu season approaches and the lines are forming for annual flu shots, many employers are questioning the legality of requiring their employees to receive a flu vaccine shot when they recognize business and safety needs for ensuring their work environments and workforce are better protected from the flu virus.  This need is especially acute for non-hospital employers who care for individuals with compromised immune systems, such as rehabilitation centers or schools.  While a different set of considerations come into play when a hospital is assessing how to implement a flu vaccine policy (see our post on this topic by Mark Nelson here), non-hospital employers have business needs and health concerns that may make implementation of a flu vaccine policy desirable or necessary.

So, what should an employer consider before implementing such a policy?

  • DO  evaluate the business need for the policy. Whether it be concern for patients, clients, or customers or, rather, a need to ensure that your workforce is less likely to be on leave due to a flu outbreak, an employer must be prepared to identify its reasonable business interest if the policy is challenged.
  • DO consider what type of policy suits business needs. Some employers are implementing mandatory policies for all employees to receive a flu shot.  Others are only requiring that certain categories of employees receive a flu shot, i.e., those with regular access to patients or individuals with compromised immune systems.  Still others are implementing a policy that “strongly encourages” flu vaccinations.
  • DO review any applicable Collective Bargaining Agreements. Under the National Labor Relations Act, a flu vaccination policy is a mandatory subject of bargaining.  This means that a unionized employer cannot unilaterally implement such a policy without giving the union notice of the policy and bargain over the policy if the union requests.  However, as set forth under recent National Labor Relations Board caselaw, a union may waive a right to bargain over such a policy by way of a Management Rights Clause.  See Virginia Mason Medical Center, 358 NLRB No. 64 (2012).   If unionized, employers should evaluate the breadth of their clause to see if the union has waived the right to bargain regarding the employer’s right to direct employees, to determine materials and equipment to be used and/or to implement improved operational methods and procedures.  In the Virginia Mason case, the NLRB specifically recognized this type of waiver language as permitting the Medical Center to require non-immunized nurses to wear facemasks.
  • DON’T refuse to engage in an interactive process with any objecting employees.  Employers should be prepared to work with an employee’s health or religious objections to receiving a flu shot.  The Equal Employment  Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that employees may be exempt from a mandatory vaccination requirement based on an ADA disability or a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance.” See www.eeoc.gov/facts/pandemic_flu.html -48k-2009-10-21. Further, the EEOC has issued an informal guidance letter on health care workers’ requests from employer-mandated vaccinations under Title VII, opining that Title VII defines religion very broadly and that an “employee’s belief or practice can be ‘religious’ under Title VII even if the employee is affiliated with a religious group      that does not espouse or recognize that individual’s belief or practice, or if few – or no – other people adhere to it.   See http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/foia/letters/2012/religious_accommodation.html.  Courts have recognized that such “sincerely held” beliefs may include lifestyle choices such as veganism. See Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, No. 11-917, 2012 WL 6721098 (S.D. Ohio December 27, 2012).  In such instances where an employee expresses a health or religious-based objection to a mandatory flu vaccine policy, the employer should discuss reasonable accommodations with the employee, e.g., exempting the employee from the policy entirely, transferring the employee to another position temporarily (until the flu threat ends as determined by local health officials) or permitting the employee to wear a facemask when in proximity to patients and coworkers.
  • DON’T  terminate any employee who refuses a flu shot without engaging in the interactive process if they are objecting for health or religious reasons.  Further, any disciplinary measures should be uniformly implemented in the case of employees in violation of the policy.  Employers may also want to consider progressive discipline for first-time offenders, e.g., issuing a warning letter for an initial failure to show proof of a flu shot or failure to wear a facemask.
  • DO ensure that any policy implemented is enforced uniformly. Require proof that employees have received a flu shot.  In the case of objectors, seek a waiver that the employee is unable or objects to vaccination and then engage in the interactive process to agree upon a reasonable accommodation.
  • DO consider making flu shots available to employees on-site to maximize compliance with any flu shot policy.
  • DON’T implement a policy without contacting your state’s Department of Health or any other related agencies.  These agencies can provide guidance on the manner in which vaccine policies should be implemented for various categories of employers or regarding possible accommodations for objecting employees.

Unpaid Internships – Opportunity or Liability?

Editor’s Note: The following post by Los Angeles Partner Mark Terman appeared in the latest issue of the California HR Newsletter.  To view the entire newsletter click here.  To sign-up to receive the California HR Newsletter see the instructions below.

Unpaid Internships – Opportunity or Liability?

By: Mark E. Terman

The Issue: How can employers reduce risks of the sharp increase of class action litigation by unpaid interns and adverse publicity for companies and key executives over failure to pay wages?

The Solution: Employers should evaluate and correct their unpaid internship practices or, alternatively, treat interns as minimum-wage employees who, if properly classified as part-time or a short-term temporary employee, may not be eligible for certain employee benefits.

Analysis: Unpaid internships have long been used by students and newcomers to build a resume, launch a career or simply land a paying job.  Employers can capitalize on this to teach their business and find talent; but, they should not use interns just to cut labor costs.

If the intern is closely supervised and taught a curriculum that can be applied to multiple different employers, is not primarily doing work that regular paid employees do, has no guaranty of becoming employed, and an advance writing specifies that there will be no pay, odds are that intern can lawfully be unpaid in California.  If a school or college will give course credit, the odds further increase.  The overarching theme is that unpaid internships must be educational and predominantly for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.

Non-compliant employers risk expensive class action and regulator’s claims to reclassify interns as employees and to recover unpaid minimum wages, overtime pay, interest, multiple penalties, and attorney’s fees. “Warning bells” include: use of unpaid interns to minimize labor costs or provide extended job interviews; no supervised education and training beyond what the intern might observe; and a predominance of clerical or “go-fer” duties.

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May Certain Employee Classes be Excluded?

Editor’s Note: The following post by Los Angeles Counsel Summer Conley appeared in the latest issue of the California HR Newsletter.  To view the entire newsletter click here.  To sign-up to receive the California HR Newsletter see the instructions below.

May Certain Employee Classes be Excluded?

By: Summer Conley

The Issue: May employers exclude certain classes of employees (e.g., interns, part-time employees, temporary employees) from
participation in a qualified retirement plan?

The Solution: Yes, subject to certain caveats.  Employers should consider how they define excluded employees, as well as
coverage and nondiscrimination requirements.

Analysis: While employers may generally exclude a specified class of employee from participation, it is important to clearly
understand how the class is defined and beware of nondiscrimination rules.  For example, “interns” and “independent contractors” may actually be employees, but it may still be possible to exclude them.  In the latter category, plans often exclude temporary employees.  If the definition of temporary employee is hours-based (e.g., a person hired for a short period of time) then the employee must be allowed to participate if the employee satisfies a year of service (i.e.,1,000 hours).  Similarly,
while interns may be excluded, it is important to define who constitutes an intern.  Additionally, there are special rules for “leased employees.”  Finally, even if the exclusion is permissible, the employer will need to make sure coverage and nondiscrimination tests are passed despite the exclusion.

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Jersey City Passes Paid Sick Leave Law

By: Meredith R. Murphy

Following the lead of its neighbor across the Hudson River [see our earlier coverage of New York’s paid sick leave law here], New Jersey’s second most populated city, Jersey City, has passed an ordinance to require employers with ten or more employees to offer as many as five paid sick days a year.  The bill is sweeping in its application, impacting all businesses employing workers who work at least 80 hours a calendar year in Jersey City.  However, employee headcount is critical to determining employers’ obligations under the law:

10 Or More Employees In Jersey City:  5 Paid Sick Days
Fewer Than 10 Employees In Jersey City:  5 Unpaid Sick Days

Counting Employees:  Full-time, part-time and temporary workers all count toward the total number of employees for purposes of this new law.  Further, if an employer’s workforce fluctuates, the number of employees will be calculated based on the average number of employees who worked for compensation during the calendar year.

Accrual and Carry Over:  Accrual of paid sick leave is not automatic.  Rather, workers earn one hour of sick time, paid or unpaid, for each 30 hours worked, accruing a maximum of 40 hours per year.  New workers can only begin to use sick time on the 90th calendar day of employment.  Employees may carry over up to 40 hours of sick time into a new calendar year but may not use more than 40 hours of paid sick time in any year.  Further, if an employee is separated from employment but later re-hired within six months, the previously accrued but unused sick time must be reinstated.  However, the law makes clear that employers need not pay out accrued but unused sick time at separation.

Using Sick Time:  Likely inconsistent with many employers’ policies, employees can use sick time in hourly increments or the smallest unit of time the employer uses to account for absences or other time off.  Like FMLA leave, Jersey City sick time covers more than an employee’s own illness.  It can be used to care for the mental or physical illness, injury or health condition, treatment, medical diagnosis, or preventative care of the employee’s family members.  It can also be used due to an employee’s need to care for a child whose school or place of care has been closed by order of a public official due to a public health.  The Jersey City leave law is more broad than federal or New Jersey family leave laws, covered family members include a wide range of relations, including, but not limited to, biological, adopted, foster or step child, legal ward, domestic partner, civil union partner, grandparents and spouses.

Requesting Sick Time:  Employees need only make a verbal request and must only provide notice “as soon as practicable.”  Employers may ask for reasonable documentation if the employee requests more than three consecutive days of sick time.  However, employers may not, as a condition of an employee’s taking sick time, require that an employee search for or find a replacement worked to cover the hours during which the employee is absent.

Notices  Covered employers must provide employees with written notice of the law at the commencement of their employment.  Additionally, notice of the law must be posted in an accessible place.  Violation of the notice and posting requirements carries a civil fine of up to $100 per employee and $500 per establishment.

Record-Keeping:  Employers must retain records showing the hours worked and paid sick leave taken by all employees for a period of three years.  Records must be made available to the Department of Health and Human Services.  Under the law, a failure to maintain adequate records creates a rebuttable presumption that the employer has violated the ordinance.

Enforcement and Audits:  The Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services is vested with the power to enforce the ordinance, adjudicate complaints, provide information about paid sick leave, create posters and notices and conduct audits.  Audits and investigations may include private interviews of employees and former employees.  Violations carry fines up to $1,250 and/or a period of community service not to exceed 90 days.

Anti-Retaliation and Private Right of Action:  The ordinance also creates a private right of civil action without the need to first file a complaint to the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services.  Further, employers may not retaliate against employees for exercising their rights under the law, including any employee’s request for using sick time or filing a complaint about a violation.  The ordinance specifically creates a rebuttable presumption of unlawful retaliation if the employer takes adverse action against an employee within 90 days of filing a complaint, informing any person about an alleged violation, cooperating in the investigation or prosecution of any alleged violation, opposing any policy or practice made unlawful by the law or informing any person of their rights available under the ordinance.

No Duplication of Leave:  If an employer already provides a paid leave policy (i.e., paid time off or “PTO”) which provides leave equal to or in excess of what is required under the law, then there is no need to provide additional leave because of this law.

A link to a copy of City Ordinance 13.097 may be found by clicking here: Jersey City Paid Leave Law.