The NLRB Rules That Chipotle’s Handbook Policies Violated the NLRA

As we have previously covered here, here and here, the NLRB has opined that various common handbook provisions are unlawful under the NLRA because they may have the effect of inhibiting employees from engaging in protected activities, such as discussing wages, criticizing management, publicly communicating about working conditions and discussing unionization.

Last week, an NLRB judge provided further guidance in this area in ruling in Chipotle Services LLC and Pennsylvania Worker’s Organizing Committee (Nos. 04-CA-1437314; 04-CA-149551) that Chipotle violated the NLRA by maintaining unlawful policies, improperly forcing an employee to delete social media posts critical of Chipotle, and terminating the employee for his attempts to have his co-workers sign a petition protesting Chipotle’s alleged denial of work breaks.

The last part of the ruling was not entirely surprising – the facts strongly indicated that Chipotle terminated the employee because of, and shortly after, his attempts to have his co-workers sign the petition.  However, in finding unlawful various Chipotle policies related to confidentiality, social media, solicitation, ethical communications, and political activities, the decision highlights the difficulties employers face in crafting policies that balance the competing interests of an employee’s right to engage in concerted activity and, among other interests, an employer’s need to protect its confidential information and brand.  Some of the policies which the NLRB held were unlawful included:

  • • A social media policy that prohibited “false” and “misleading” social media posts, on the basis that “an employer may not prohibit employee postings that are merely false or misleading . . . it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive,” as well as the provision of the policy prohibiting the disclosure of “confidential” information, where the term “confidential” was vague and undefined;
  • • A policy prohibiting “improper use” of Chipotle’s name or trademarks, on the basis that “employees would reasonably interpret any non-work-related use of [Chipotle’s] name to be improper”;
  • • An “ethical communication” policy that “prohibit[ed] exaggeration, guesswork and derogatory characterizations of people and their motives,” on the basis that it could be read to prohibit criticism of managerial decisions.

The decision reiterates the NLRB’s previous guidance that broad or vague rules relating to (or not carefully defining) concepts such as “civility,” “respect,” “disparagement” and “confidential information” will be found unlawful because some employees may read them to prohibit protected activity, even where (as here) the policies also contain a disclaimer that they do “not restrict any activity that is protected or restricted the NLRA . . .”

Finally, it should be noted that the policies at issue in the case were, in fact, outdated versions, with Chipotle having replaced them with new versions at the time of the events at issue.  The judge found this fact irrelevant, as the Chipotle supervisors (for reasons unclear) relied upon the prior versions of the policies in counseling the employee and ultimately terminating him.  Employers, therefore, should take care to properly distribute new policies to staff and counsel them on their application, lest they lose the benefits of any remedial policy updates.

Federal Court Holds that FLSA’s “Fluctuating Workweek” Method Violates Pennsylvania Law

A recent decision out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Foster v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc., Civ. No. 09-453 (W.D.Pa. August 27, 2012), highlights the challenges employers face in simultaneously complying with both local and national wage and hour regulations.  In Foster, the court held that the “fluctuating workweek” method of overtime compensation – which is expressly permitted by the FLSA – is not permitted under Pennsylvania law.

Under the fluctuating workweek method, an employer pays a nonexempt employee a fixed weekly salary, regardless of the number of non-overtime hours worked.  This method is generally used in industries in which an employee’s hours change unpredictably from week to week based on factors such as customer demand or seasonal variation – e.g., lawn maintenance companies, golf courses, or the travel industry.  In using this method, the employer benefits from significant cost savings over traditional methods of overtime calculation and the employee benefits from the stability of a fixed weekly salary.

There are five requirements for using the fluctuating workweek method.  The employee’s hours must fluctuate from week to week; the employee must receive a fixed salary that does not vary with the number of hours worked (excluding overtime); the salary must be high enough that the employee’s regular rate of pay is at least the minimum wage; the employer and employee must have a clear mutual understanding that the salary is fixed; and the employee must receive overtime compensation equal to at least one-half the regular rate for all hours worked over forty.

In Foster, the court’s analysis focused on this last requirement.  The court held that “the payment of overtime under the FWW method, at any rate less than one and one-half times the ‘regular’ or ‘basic’ rate,” is impermissible under the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Law.  We’ll be watching this decision (if appealed) and subsequent cases closely, because if this interpretation of the Minimum Wage Act is upheld, the primary advantage to the employer in utilizing the fluctuating workweek method is eliminated.  In the meantime, Pennsylvania employers who use this method to compensate nonexempt employees should reconsider their policies, given that it may no longer result in cost savings.  Moreover, this case should serve as a reminder that, although many local wage and hour regulations are modeled after (and in some respects identical to) the FLSA, compliance with the FLSA does not guarantee compliance with local statutes.