On July 20, labor organizations across the country are planning a “Strike for Black Lives,” a national walkout in support of “dismantling racism and white supremacy to bring about fundamental changes in our society, economy and workplaces.” When preparing for this and any political strike, employers should develop a response strategy — grounded in NLRB interpretations of employees’ rights to conduct political demonstrations — to limit liability and keep their businesses running.
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.
Last month, Waldron Mercy Academy, a K-8 Catholic school located in Merion, Pennsylvania, fired Margie Winters from her position as Director of Religious Education, a job she had held for 8 years. According to Ms. Winters, her employment contract was not renewed because she is gay and married to her partner. A few days later, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which it held that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry. The majority opinion in Obergefell stated that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage, but did not however, address or reverse the precedent established by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in which the Supreme Court held, in an unrelated context, that churches have the right to make employment decisions free from government interference, including compliance with anti-discrimination laws.
Indeed, in an e-mail to parents, the principal of Waldron Mercy Academy advised that Ms. Winters was no longer working at the school, and reiterated the school’s dedication to Catholicism, stating: “Many of us accept life choices that contradict current church teachings . . . but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings.”
Based on the 2012 precedent established in Hosanna, it is not clear that Ms. Winter has any valid legal challenge to Waldron Mercy’s termination decision, which would violate the laws of many states, if a non-religious organization were involved. Currently, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 18 states and D.C. also prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. And, Lower Merion Township, the home of Waldron Mercy Academy, also has a local antidiscrimination ordinance which provides that it is the public policy of Lower Merion Township to foster the employment of all individuals in accordance with their fullest capacities regardless of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The ordinance further provides, however, that it is not unlawful for religious institutions that are “not supported in whole or in part by governmental appropriations” to refuse to hire or employ an individual on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
In Hosanna, still the leading case on the application of anti-discrimination laws to religious organizations, the Court barred the Plaintiff from bringing an employment discrimination suit against the school. The plaintiff had been promoted to a “called” teacher at the “Christ-centered education” school, but had taken leave after being diagnosed with narcolepsy. After her leave, school officials refused to hire her back. Plaintiff argued that she was fired from the school in violation of the ADA and Michigan state law. The Supreme Court found that the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” (which exempts religious organization from anti-discrimination laws) applied because the school held the Plaintiff out as a minister, and because her job duties reflected a role in conveying the church’s message and carrying out its religious mission.
Thus, even with the passing of numerous state and local ordinances and the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, it appears for the moment that religious institutions will continue to be exempt from statutes prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity and that certain employees of such religious institutions may be barred from bringing suit against the organizations. In Hosanna, the Supreme Court stated that the “ministerial exception” should apply to any employee “who leads a religious organization, conducts worship services or important religious ceremonies or rituals, or serves as a messenger or teacher of its faith.” The recent termination at Waldron Mercy and the Obergefell decision are a reminder to employers operating religious institutions that significant questions may remain about the scope and proper application of the ministerial exception.
For employers, weighing an employee’s health issues with workplace concerns, such as employee safety and productivity, often requires a delicate balance. The challenge may be even greater when handling issues related to mental health. Questions abound on both sides: employees wonder if they should tell their employers about personal events that may be affecting their mental well-being, and employers struggle with difficult decisions concerning employment status when they have an ineffective worker.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) generally bars discrimination against an employee with a disability who is able to perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. The ADA defines “disability” as a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The associated regulations define “mental impairment” as encompassing “any mental or psychological disorder, such as intellectual disability, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities.” Navigating these definitions and avoiding lawsuits and potential liability for claims of mental disability present a serious challenge for employers.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit attempted to clarify the terrain. In Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, No. 13-2212, 2015 U.S. App. LEXIS 3878 (4th Cir. March 12, 2015), the Fourth Circuit reversed the lower court’s summary judgment dismissal of a lawsuit in which the plaintiff, who alleged that she suffered from “social anxiety disorder,” claimed that her former employer violated the ADA by: (1) discriminating against her on the basis of her disability; (2) failing to provide her with a reasonable accommodation; and (3) retaliating against her for seeking to exercise her rights under the ADA. The plaintiff, a deputy court clerk, alleged that her disability left her unable to engage in social interactions with the public at the courthouse’s front counter. In particular, she asserted that “working at the front counter caused her extreme stress and panic attacks.” The plaintiff alleged that, approximately three weeks after requesting reduced public interaction, the defendant terminated her employment.
The Jacobs Court, the first Court of Appeals to address “social anxiety disorder” under the ADA in the employment context, held that interacting with others is a major life activity and that social anxiety disorder can substantially limit one’s ability to engage in this activity. Thus, according to the Court, social disability disorder may constitute a disability under the ADA. The Court also considered the fact that many deputy court clerks at the defendant courthouse did not regularly interact with the public and, therefore, public interaction was not an essential function of the job. The Court concluded that a reasonable jury could find evidence supporting each of the plaintiff’s ADA claims. Accordingly, it reversed the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case for trial.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 4 adults suffer from a mental health disorder. These disorders include depression, bipolar disorder, panic, post-traumatic stress and generalized anxiety disorders. Given the statistics, it is important for employers to understand their obligations under the ADA and similar state and local laws, and to consult with counsel when questions arise.
On October 26, Governor Tom Corbett (R-PA) signed into law the Promoting Employment Across Pennsylvania Act (PEP) (House Bill 2626). This law is touted as an attempt to create new jobs in Pennsylvania and promote economic development.
What does this mean for thousands of Pennsylvania employers? If you are able to create at least 250 new jobs in Pennsylvania within 5 years (with 100 of the new jobs created within the first 2 years), you will be eligible to retain 95% tax witholdings for the persons employed in the new jobs. Under the Act, the employer may select to remit all of the personal income tax witheld from employees then receive a rebate of the tax from the Commonwealth.
Job creators grow while growing the economy in the process. These tax savings may provide opportunities for employers to further increase their number of employees beyond the initial 250 or reinvest in other areas of the business. Presumably, the Commonwealth benefits as well. More persons employed in the Commonwealth lead to economic growth through purchasing power and sales tax revenues.
There are restrictions and critiques. Non-profit entities, religious organizations, utilities, restaurants/bars, gambling establishments, retail stores, and education or public administration offices need not apply. Plus, an open question remains whether the program amounts to an employee paying an employer for his/her job.
To take advantage of this opportunity, employers must enter into an agreement with the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). Any interested employer should move quickly because the ceiling for the program in Pennsylvania is $5 million per year. This Act expires January 1, 2018.
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.