Employers Targeted in ICE Raids and Audits

If you think that only illegal aliens need to be concerned about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), then as an employer, you have not been paying attention in 2018, when ICE has clearly put businesses in the crosshairs with compliance audits and enforcement raids.

Take, for example, a raid conducted by ICE in small town Tennessee in April 2018. The Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant reportedly employed at least 104 undocumented immigrants at the time of the surprise raid. The company hired most of these without requiring the employees to complete the required I-9 forms and without making them provide documents showing their identities and authorization to work legally in the United States. To make matters more felonious, these workers were paid in cash each week and not reported on the company’s payroll tax reports.

Last month, the owner of that Southeastern Provision meatpacking plant agreed to a plea bargain in federal court on charges of tax evasion, wire fraud and employing undocumented immigrants. The owner has not been sentenced to prison yet, but he has already agreed to pay at least $1,296,183 to the IRS in restitution.

Similar worksite raids have escalated dramatically under the Trump administration and are happening all over the country. On August 28, a trailer manufacturer located near Paris, Texas, faced one of the largest immigration raids in recent history, when 159 of its approximately 500 employees were arrested by ICE. Because that Texas company, Load Trail, was fined $445,000 four years ago for hiring dozens of undocumented workers, one could reasonably expect the employer to also face jail time and restitution requirements for a pattern and practice of breaking the immigration laws.

How do companies get selected for raids? Continue reading Employers Targeted in ICE Raids and Audits

What Can I Say? Giving References in Texas

Just when you thought you’d heard the last of Fired Felicia, you get a call from Felicia’s prospective employer, who is diligently checking Felicia’s references. What can you as an employer in Texas legally say about Felicia?

Employment lawyers like me have been telling employers for years to remain close-lipped, giving only dates of employment, job title, and last rate of pay. Safe, but almost deceptive in its reticence. We advise this taciturn approach because of our fear that you will say too much and say something defamatory.

Why do I have that fear? Because in a small city like Amarillo, or really anywhere in West Texas, we spend a lot of time on the other end of the reference spectrum. Instead of reticent, we are gleefully chatty.

Hiring managers around here will pick up the phone, ask for their friend who works at Felicia’s last employer, and find out all about Felicia’s problem pregnancy, Felicia’s attitude problem, or Felicia’s suspected but unconfirmed alcohol dependency. That’s when my head explodes as an employment lawyer who is trying to keep the company out of legal hot water.

The rules of references must be one of the most misunderstood areas of human resources. But in Texas, it really shouldn’t be that hard. Here are some simple guidelines: Continue reading What Can I Say? Giving References in Texas

Best Employment Law Training To Be Offered in Amarillo

One of the best employment law training opportunities for managers, human resources personnel and business owners of your company is happening in Amarillo on September 21, 2018.

The Texas Workforce Commission only offers its Texas Business Conference in Amarillo every few years and I recommend it to my clients as a “not to be missed” event. The cost is only $125 per person and just the written materials you will receive at the one-day conference are worth that.

The TWC’s speakers will cover the following in detail:

  • Wage and Hour Law (which is arguably the most violated business law in the country);
  • Independent Contractors;
  • Policies and Handbooks;
  • Worker’s Compensation: How to Control Costs of an On the Job Injury;
  • Hiring/Employment Law Update; and
  • Unemployment Claims and Appeals.

The great news is that the conference will help you no matter whether you are new to human resources issues or have been dealing with them forever.  I’ve been practicing employment law for 30 years, yet I learn something new every time I attend this conference.

If you would like to sign up for this training event, you can find more information and registration here. I hope I see you there on September 21.

Employee Handbook Policies You Can and Cannot Legally Include

For the last several years, the National Labor Relations Board has been regulating which policies your employee handbook can and cannot include, even in your non-unionized workplace. At one point in 2015, there were dozens of handbook policies that were considered to have a chilling effect on an employee’s freedom to organize through “concerted activity”. Those policies were ruled to violate the National Labor Relations Act and as an employment lawyer, when I encountered them in a client’s employment policy manual, I either removed them or added a disclaimer stating that the policies weren’t intended to apply to acts protected by the NLRA.

Three years have passed and several court opinions have frowned on the NLRB’s formerly expansive disapproval regarding employee policies. In addition, the political leanings at the NLRB have shifted. Therefore, a distinctive change has recently occurred in the NLRB’s approach as to which employee policies an employer can enforce and which ones an employer can’t.

In a general counsel’s memo dated June 6, 2018, the NLRB instructed its staff that the following policies are okay to include in an employer’s policy manual and won’t necessarily be treated as an unfair labor practice:

  • Civility rules that require employees to avoid disparaging coworkers and using offensive, rude or condescending language to a coworker or customer;
  • Rules requiring that proprietary information and trade secrets of the employer and confidential information of customers have to be protected by employees (however, just saying everything the employee learns at work is confidential is too broad);
  • Rules prohibiting employees from aiding the competition, self-dealing and nepotism;
  • Rules against insubordination or non-cooperation that affects company operations (usually described as refusal to comply with a supervisor’s orders and/or perform work);
  • Rules prohibiting employees making intentionally dishonest statements or misrepresentations;
  • Rules prohibiting disruptive behaviors, such as “fighting, roughhousing, horseplay, tomfoolery, and other shenanigans.” Also included on the naughty list: “yelling, profanity, hostile or angry tones, throwing things, slamming doors, waving arms or fists, verbal abuse, destruction of property, threats, or outright violence.”
  • Rules prohibiting photography or recording in most business settings. “Employers have a legitimate and substantial interest in limiting recording and photography on their property. This interest may involve security concerns, protection of property, protection of proprietary, confidential, and customer information, avoiding legal liability, and maintaining the integrity of operations,” said the 2018 NLRB General Counsel. So, on balance, the NLRB has decided that it is okay for your policy to tell your employees “no photography, no recording”.

But that doesn’t mean that every rule in your employee handbook is acceptable. You still have to consider if your written policy is infringing on your employees’ rights to participate in protected concerted activity—the joining together of employees to discuss or protest the terms and conditions of their employment. If so, by enforcing that policy, you may be committing an unfair labor practice and you can be investigated and penalized by the NRLB.

Here are five policies that your employee policy manual that are still problematic and could get your company into trouble: Continue reading Employee Handbook Policies You Can and Cannot Legally Include

“Hire American” Doesn’t Justify Employing Only Citizens

As an employer, you have to verify the work eligibility of every employee, and that frustrating process might make you consider hiring only U.S. citizens. Please reconsider.

The form for verification, the I-9 form, is confusing and some of the documents you are presented may not look familiar to you—permanent residence cards, foreign passports, employment authorization documents, tribal documents. So, you may find completion of the required I-9 form stressful, especially since you have to swear under oath on the I-9 itself that the documents the employee presented and you examined appear to be genuine and the person is authorized to work in the U.S. to the best of your knowledge.

It is tempting to consider just making a blanket rule that you will only hire U.S. citizens. Then, you would only need to look at a driver’s license and social security card. Additionally, President Trump signed an executive order last year requiring “Buy American, Hire American” (notwithstanding the fact that he uses foreign guest workers as servers, housekeepers and cooks at his properties like Mar-A-Lago). So, wouldn’t you just be doing your patriotic duty by hiring only American-born workers at your company?

No.

There are both longstanding legal and historical reasons that “Hire American” should only be treated as a slogan and not an employment policy.

The same Immigration Reform and Control Act (“IRCA”) that introduced the I-9 form to American employers in 1986 also codified that employers with four or more employees are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of citizenship status, which occurs when adverse employment decisions are made based upon an individual’s real or perceived citizenship in the U.S. (or lack of citizenship) or an applicant’s legal immigration status.

The IRCA antidiscrimination provisions also prohibit small employers (e.g., those with four to fourteen employees) from committing national origin discrimination against any U.S. citizen or individual with employment authorization. Employers with 15 or more workers were already prohibited from considering national origin in employment decisions by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Any employer who only hires applicants born in the United States discriminates against all other national origins.

Therefore, any employer who takes into account an applicant’s country of birth or citizenship status when making hiring decisions violates federal law. Your only interest in someone’s citizenship or immigration status should be finding out within the first three days of work whether your new employee is eligible to work in the United States, no matter where that employee is from or whether he or she is a visa-holder, born elsewhere but now a green-card holder, or a citizen, naturalized or native-born.

But it isn’t only for legal reasons that you should never discriminate against legal immigrants in your workplace. Hiring legal immigrants also strengthens our democracy.

It is  important to understand the historical context of denying a legal immigrant the chance to work in America, which is supposed to be the Land of Opportunity. Our history is full of times when we excluded groups of immigrants in ways that now seems nonsensical.

For example, in the 1840’s and 1850’s, Irish immigrants fleeing a deathly famine and British oppression arrived on the East Coast in “coffin ships” (so called because almost 25% of the passengers who started the journey died during the passage). All of the lucky ones who survived to reach the United States were hungry, many were unskilled (often farmers who were initially unsuited to work in urban areas), and almost every one of them was Catholic. This was at a time when some Protestant conspiracy theorists fanned the flames of fear that the pope and his army would land in the United States, overthrow the government, establish a new Vatican in Cincinnati (of all places), and impose the Catholic canon as the law of the land.

(Forgive me if you already know all of this, but it appears to me that, 170 years later, the mistakes of our history are being forgotten and, therefore, will be inevitably repeated).

In cities like Boston, it was hard to assimilate such large numbers of immigrants and some employers decided it was easier just to exclude Irish workers from employment completely. “No Irish Need Apply” was a sign common in Boston storefronts at that time.

National origin and religious prejudice ran high across the country, and bigoted groups formed, such as the Know-Nothing party who believed that Protestantism defined American values and Irish Catholics had no place in America (regardless of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion).

Fortunately, America also had its better angels. Abraham Lincoln was among the many Americans disturbed at the rise of this bigotry, as he explained in an 1855 letter to a friend: Continue reading “Hire American” Doesn’t Justify Employing Only Citizens

Five Tips for Hiring Teenagers

Summer is coming, and you may be thinking about employing some teenagers. Here’s some lawyerly advice: proceed with caution. Employing teens requires you as an employer to foresee potential problems and correct them very early.

Here are five tips for hiring teens:

1. Safety: You have to be much more safety-conscious when you employ teens. In 2014, workers ages 15-19 had more than twice as many injuries that sent them to the emergency room than employees over age 25.

Your company has a legal duty, according to OSHA, to provide a safe working environment for all employees, which means you need to engage in extensive safety training with new teen employees. Cover the most common workplace hazards and injuries such as slips, trips and falls, chemical exposure, burns and cuts, eye injuries, machinery malfunctions, and strains and sprains, as well as any known hazards specific to your workplace.

Remember that teenagers are often uncomfortable acknowledging their ignorance or inexperience, so they may not ask questions that would indicate that they don’t clearly comprehend your training or instructions. They also may not learn without extensive repetition of the rules. Don’t assume that stating a safety rule one time is going to sufficiently train a teen worker.

2. Sexual Harassment: Many recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforcement actions have shown that teenagers are very vulnerable when it comes to sexual harassment. They need as much if not more training than your more mature employees in how to recognize, prevent and report harassment, even if the job is not considered long term for that teen. Continue reading Five Tips for Hiring Teenagers

10 Facts Texas Employers Should Know About Unemployment

Do I have to pay unemployment on my employee who just quit/resigned/got fired/was laid off?

During most of my thirty years as an employment lawyer, I have been asked that question at least once a week. Here are ten basic facts that every employer in Texas needs to understand about our state’s unemployment system: Continue reading 10 Facts Texas Employers Should Know About Unemployment

Transgender Woman Protected From Sex Discrimination, Court Decides

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last month that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating against a transgender woman “on the basis of sex” and also ruled that the supervisor’s belief that gender transition “violates God’s commands” is not a defense to employment discrimination.

The Sixth Circuit, which decides federal cases brought in Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio, reviewed the firing of Aimee Stephens from her job at a funeral home in which she had originally worked as a male in the case of EEOC v. R.G & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes (U.S. 2018)

After she was diagnosed with gender identity disorder, Stephens told her boss, Thomas Rost, that she was planning to transition to female. Her boss fired her. Rost stated during the lawsuit that he terminated Stephens’s employment because “he was no longer going to represent himself as a man” and that a person’s sex is “an immutable God-given fit”.

The Sixth Circuit decided, like the Second and Seventh Circuits (covering New York, Vermont, Connecticut and Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, respectively) before it, that a company violates an employee’s civil rights if the employer fires that worker on the basis of sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

The funeral home where Stephens worked hoped that its termination of her would be protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (U.S. 2014).

However, almost three decades ago. the U.S. Supreme Court had already rejected the argument that a supervisor’s religious squeamishness was sufficient to overcome the civil rights laws. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith (U.S. 1990) that a person may not defy neutral laws of general applicability even as an expression of religious belief. “To permit this,” wrote conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, “would make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”

Despite this long-standing Supreme Court precedent, the funeral home argued that the presence of a transgender employee would require Rost to leave his job, because forcing him to work with a transgender person was an infringement of his religious rights and also would “often create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones”. Continue reading Transgender Woman Protected From Sex Discrimination, Court Decides

Hook Ups and Break Ups in the Workplace

More than one-third of American employees have dated a coworker, according to Harris Polls’ latest annual survey for Career Builder, so as an employer, you are going to be inevitably faced with the problems that coworker hook ups and break ups can cause in your workplace.

In the beginning of a workplace romance, it is important for employers to find out about the relationship and set the ground rules before things get messy. You can adopt a written policy that requires employees to notify the company when they “start dating”, although defining that is pretty difficult. Nowadays, does “dating’ mean they’ve had the first date, the second hook up, or just that one of them has changed his or her relationship status on Facebook?

Some employees are not going to readily tell you that a relationship has started. The Career Builder survey shows that 25% of the relationships at work involved a married coworker. So those people will probably stay quiet. However, the study also showed that 37% of employees thought they had to keep their office romance a secret at work.

As the employer, you can’t stay in the dark, so you need to assure your employees that you have to know and that you will work with them to help everyone adjust to the new coworker relationship.

Once you know about the new couple, you have to communicate your expectations to them. You can do this by written policy, a specific “love contract” that the new couple signs, or by verbal coaching, although something in writing is always preferred by your employment lawyer.

You have to address the end of the relationship in the beginning. While about 31% of workplace romances lead to marriage, the Career Builder survey says, that leaves 69% that result in a break up and the bitterness that a soured romance can cause in your workplace. Break ups can even cause good employees to leave your company (6% leave, according to that study).

Anticipating that greater than two-thirds of the dating relationships between your employees will eventually end, what are the necessary ground rules of hook ups and break ups that an employer should impose? Continue reading Hook Ups and Break Ups in the Workplace

Written Policies to Protect Your Business During the Opioids Epidemic

With the current opioids epidemic raging across America, including in the Panhandle of Texas, employers are asking me if they can drug test current employees for prescription medications such as hydrocodone. Can a Texas employer try to prevent a workplace accident or death by testing when opiate use is suspected, or do you just have to hope that employee won’t hurt someone?

You have to consider the Americans with Disabilities Act when deciding if you are going to drug test your employees and how you should react to a positive test. The ADA protects an employee’s rights to lawfully take over-the-counter and prescription drugs to treat a disability.

However, the ADA doesn’t protect current substance abusers. So, since abuse of prescription drugs isn’t protected, how an opiate was obtained, how it is being taken, and if the employee is too impaired to work safely become crucial questions if your employee appears impaired.

Usually, I get a call from an employer about drug testing when an employee is falling asleep on the job, is slurring words, seems disoriented, has difficulty performing routine tasks, and/or is excessively absent, belligerent or erratic. At that point, drug testing may be appropriate, but I have to ask if the employer has laid the groundwork to do the drug testing and to respond appropriately to a positive test.

As with most employment law issues, you have to protect your business with well-written policies long before you are faced with an employee who appears to be high on Vicodin. Continue reading Written Policies to Protect Your Business During the Opioids Epidemic