All posts by Vicki

Does the First Amendment Apply at Your Company?

Does the First Amendment protect an employee in Texas, allowing him to say whatever he wants on the job–to take a knee in protest, to write a manifesto about how women don’t belong in the tech sector, or to tell the CEO of his company to “kiss my a—, Bob”?

Not a chance. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

By prohibiting Congress from passing laws that abridge freedom of speech, the Constitution did not limit a private sector employer’s right to fire an employee (on the other hand, government employees have some First Amendment protections).

In addition to no constitutional bar, businesses in Texas are protected because Texas follows the “at will” employment rule, meaning a private employer can fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason or no reason at all, including firing an employee because the employer didn’t like something the employee said, either out loud or symbolically.

So, if Jerry Jones had decided to fire any Dallas Cowboy who kneeled during the National Anthem before the Monday Night Football game, the First Amendment would not have protected the player. Neither would Texas law. Interestingly, Jones came up with an inoffensive compromise by encouraging his players to kneel before the anthem to protest racial injustice and even kneeling with them. By the time the anthem played, the whole team was standing in unity, with arms locked together.

Google also was unhampered by the First Amendment when the company fired an employee in August for writing a manifesto blasting Google culture of diversity. Particularly, the employee argued that women occupied fewer leadership positions in the tech industry because of unsuitable personalities. For example, he said that women are more anxious, and therefore unable to handle the stress of high-powered leadership positions. He concluded that efforts by Google to place more women in technology and leadership were “unfair, divisive, and bad for business.”

However, the First Amendment’s application is not the end of the inquiry. There are other laws besides the First Amendment that an employer has to consider (in consultation with the company’s employment lawyer) before firing an employee for expressing herself.

  • Is the employee’s speech related to the employee’s religion? Employers even in the private sector cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and also must accommodate a person’s religion. The discrimination laws always trump the “at will” rule.
  • Is the employer allowing one group to express themselves but not another protected class? For example, if only African-American players for the Dallas Cowboys had kneeled during playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, but some white players failed to put their hands over their hearts, Jerry Jones may have faced a racial discrimination lawsuit if he had fired only the kneeling players for disrespect.
  • Are you punishing any employees for speaking a language other than English at work? For safety or productivity purposes, there may be a limited way in which you can do this during actual work time, but it is a very tricky area of the law and you don’t want to attempt this without serious consultation with your employment attorney.
  • Is the employee complaining about a safety violation, a crime or other public policy matter? In that case, there may be whistleblower statutes that protect the employee.
  • Is the employee expressing problems with wages, hours, shifts, policies or other terms and conditions of employment with other employees? Then the National Labor Relations Act may prohibit you from firing the employee because she is participating in “concerted activity” under this labor statute, even in a non-unionized workplace. This is what happened with the coal miner who sent a paltry bonus check back to the CEO with the words “kiss my a–, Bob” on them. A court made the coal company return that employee to work after he was fired, because his protest was protected concerted activity involving his pay.
  • Texas employers are prohibited from taking adverse action against an employee based on who the employee voted for or for refusing to reveal how he or she voted. Employers must allow employees time off to vote and to take leave to attend a local or state political convention and cannot threaten or retaliate against the employee for such attendance.

Interestingly, there are times when an employer almost has no choice but to fire an employee for expressing himself. For example, if an employee is sexually harassing another employee with lewd comments, suggestive emails and/or pornographic pictures, the hostile environment the harasser is causing with his words and actions may require the employer to fire him after completing an investigation, both to protect the company and the victim.

Employers Must Use Revised I-9 Form Beginning September 18

The very important I-9 form, which verifies a new employee’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States, has been revised again. Employers must start using the revised form on September 18, 2017.

The revision, marked “07/17/17 N” and carrying an expiration date of 08/31/19, has to be completed only by new hires. You do not have to go back and get all of your current employees to recomplete an I-9 just because the form changed after their hire date.

Employers must complete an I-9 form on each new employee within 3 days of hiring. This process started in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which prohibits employers from taking on a new employee without verifying the employee’s identification and eligibility to work legally in the United States.

The verification is done by reviewing the employee’s identification and employment eligibility documents, such as a passport, a permanent resident card, or a driver’s license and social security card, and completing the I-9 form. There is a very helpful employer’s guide available online that shows you what a valid document is supposed to look like. Doing your due diligence requires that you consult that guide each time you look at a new employee’s documents.

Because of the views of the current administration, employers can expect an increase in enforcement of immigration laws, including more frequent ICE audits of your I-9 compliance. There are expensive penalties if you as an employer cannot produce accurately completed I-9 forms for each of your current and former employees.

The minimum fine is $216 per error on an I-9 and the maximum is $2,156 per error (including current employees and former employees) for each paperwork violation. That means that a single I-9 form which has multiple errors could cause the employer to be responsible for multiple penalties per form. If ICE determines that the employer has failed to accurately complete I-9s on at least 50% of its employees, the maximum fine of $2,156 will be levied on the employer for each form.

You must keep an I-9 form on every active employee as long as the employee works for you. For a terminated employee, you must be able to produce an I-9 for three years after the hire date or one year after termination, whichever is later. To make it easier to remember, most employers wait to purge I-9 forms until three years after an employee’s termination.

Typically, when ICE appears for an I-9 audit, they will require that you produce I-9 forms for each current employee and any employee terminated in the last three years. You are given 72-hours’ notice to pull all of these forms together, which is why many employers store the I-9 forms together rather than in each employee’s individual file.

Six Steps to Preventing and Reacting to Employee Embezzlement

This week’s local headlines involve the city manager of Sunray, formerly the police chief and city manager of Panhandle, being accused of employee embezzlement. Rob Roach was arrested this week after an investigation by the Texas Rangers for alleged theft by a public official of property between $30,000 and $150,000.

I have no idea about Mr. Roach’s guilt or innocence, but the news did remind me about one of the most disappointing things about my 30 years of law practice in Amarillo, Texas–the large number of times I have had to help an employer who has been ripped off by a trusted employee.

I have seen employees use company credit cards for personal purchases (how many law firms need to be buying diapers at Sam’s?), steal cash paid by a patient for a medical visit, forge signatures on checks made out to the employee (one trusted employee did this while her boss was undergoing chemotherapy), turn in fictitious business expenses, and create false company payrolls or bank accounts.

Unfortunately, employee embezzlement is not unusual in our area, but it is often preventable. We Texans tend to be trusting people, but you wouldn’t just leave the front door to your house open with a sign pointing out where you keep the good jewelry. As a business owner or manager, you should be just as wise about protecting your business and your livelihood from thieves.

Here are six steps that you can take to help curb any embezzlement by your staff:

  1. Set the tone. Do you as a business owner or manager demonstrate integrity in how you do business? Your employees are taking their cues from you. If you cheat on your taxes, overcharge your customers or rip off your suppliers, don’t be surprised if your employees begin to feel that they are entitled to cheat you as well.
  2. Hire well. If an employee is going to be handling money in your business or given a company credit card, be sure to do a criminal background check (following all the Fair Credit Reporting Act requirements for doing so). Check all of the applicant’s references and past employers, asking specific questions about the potential employee’s integrity.
  3. Reduce the opportunity for theft. Guard which ones of your employees will have access to company goods and cash. Protect your keys, passwords, and access to your checks, your online banking and all accounting records. Use the built-in protections of your software. Quick Books, for example, will allow you to set up limited access for certain functions so that no employee has free rein with all of your bookkeeping. Require weekly or monthly balance sheets, budgets and profit and loss reports and study them carefully. In addition, train yourself to use your accounting program so you can randomly double-check things yourself.
  4. Utilize more than one person for the bookkeeping. You should have checks and balances in place, such as having a different person sign the checks than the one who printed them. If your customers pay in cash, your system for receiving the deposits, writing receipts, and reconciling the cash to the accounts must be clear and followed religiously. Cross-train more than one person for each job so that there is someone always available to audit the other’s handling of the money. Take a cue from banks, which often require their financial personnel to take vacations lasting at least one week so that another person can review the absent employee’s money-handling and lending procedures during that break.
  5. Watch employees who are at risk. Triggers such as gambling, addiction and family stressors often proceed employee theft. You must be aware of what is going on in your employee’s lives outside of work if you want to prevent misconduct inside of work. Also, keep in mind that many of your employees have financial problems every day, even without specific triggers. It is just a fact that Americans tend to live beyond their means. Providing free financial education and guidance may not seem like your job, but it could prevent an employee’s desperate attempt to embezzle from you.
  6. Consider surveillance of your workplace. While audio recordings create potential federal wiretapping issues, you can always install video surveillance of your workplace. You can also search employee emails and physical surroundings, like desks. Of course, you need to talk to your employment lawyer before starting these activities to get the proper consents and notices and make sure you are not violating privacy rules, but if you believe some surveillance or searching is the best way for you to protect your property, you should explore this option.

Despite all precautions, you may someday suspect that an employee has embezzled from you. If you are unfortunate enough to be ripped off by an employee, here are the six steps to reacting to the theft:

  1. Internal investigation. You can put an employee you suspect of embezzlement on a suspension while you investigate. Get help from your employment attorney as you gather documents and talk to coworkers so that you understand exactly what happened and how much was stolen.
  2. Confront the employee. Before you fire the suspect, have a face-to-face meeting with the employee to allow the employee to explain, if possible. If the evidence still demonstrates that the employee is guilty, then talk to the employee about a confession (in writing) and repayment of the debt. Once caught, some employees are ashamed and cooperative. However, do not block the employee from walking out (you will be accused of false imprisonment) or defame the employee by sharing information about the theft with those who have no pressing business need to know.
  3. Fire the employee. Don’t worry about a wrongful termination suit or unemployment claim. Clear evidence of theft by the employee is one of the strongest defenses to any kind of legal complaint by a former employee. However, be very careful about deducting your losses from the employee’s final paycheck. The employer has the burden to demonstrate that the employee is personally and directly responsible for the theft before the deduction can be taken, so make sure your evidence is solid.
  4. Alert your insurance company. Most business insurance policies include an employee theft provision. You may be able to recoup some of your losses with insurance. File a claim with the insurance company and provide it with the evidence. Just understand that often the insurance company will insist that you also involve the police.
  5. Prosecute the theft. Your insurance company may require this before reimbursing you for your losses. More importantly, you need to prosecute to prevent the employee from doing this to another employer. Getting away with a theft once makes it more likely the employee will steal again.
  6. Analyze and correct your procedures. Do a deep dive into your security vulnerabilities that led to the embezzlement. Did you allow one person too much access? Were you sloppy with your checks and balances? Did you fail to review your credit card statements? You need to understand why this happened and how to prevent it in the future.  

Taking Care of Your Employees After A Natural Disaster

Employers along the Texas Gulf Coast are trying to determine how best to help their employees in the emergency that is the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. As business owners and managers, we have the responsibility to try to take care of our most important business resources–our human resources–in the face of catastrophe.

While lots of websites and plans are in place telling a business about stocking emergency supplies, sheltering in place and creating evacuation plans, there are fewer guides for what to do for your employees in the long days and weeks afterwards.

After any natural disaster, whether it is a hurricane on the Texas Coast or a tornado or blizzard in the Texas Panhandle, you are going to first need to check on the well-being of your employees. For that reason, you need to keep updated phone records and emergency contact information for your employees in a safe place, preferably electronically so that you can access it from any location.

Organize a group text, a telephone tree or a call-in phone number so you can determine where each employee is, if each employee is physically okay, and whether the employee will be able to report to work. Don’t assume that just because you can get the business open that you will have employees to work in it.

Then you need to worry about money, because your employees certainly are worrying about it. According to a large survey in 2016 by GoBankingRates.com, half of all Americans have less than $1000 in their savings account. Even more sadly, 34% had no savings at all.

In addition, 60% of workers in America are paid by the hour and federal law only requires employers to pay an employee for hours actually worked. So being away from work even for a day or two can have devastating financial consequences for many employees.

Some will brave any conditions to make sure they don’t risk losing a day of pay or losing their job. The New York Times illustrated this in a story about the first day after Houston started getting the four feet of rain that Hurricane Harvey eventually dropped on that city.

Gloria Maria Quintanilla appeared as a speck on the horizon, wading through waist-high waters in the middle of the road with a sack thrust over one shoulder and an umbrella perched on the other. Ms. Quintanilla, 60, seemed to epitomize Houston’s work ethic, its resolve and its shock.

“I worked at the hotel up there,” she said when a reporter approached. As she walked, she explained that she was an immigrant from El Salvador, here since 1982. She makes $10 an hour washing and ironing sheets and towels at the Doubletree.

She had started the journey from home more than an hour before.

“It was my day to work, and I’m a very responsible person,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “I had no idea it was going to be like this.”

The large majority of your hourly employees need to work, want to work and want to fairly earn their pay. However, when their homes are underwater or destroyed in a tornado, they may need extra help. Even if you don’t normally provide salary advances or employee loans, in times of natural disasters, you may need to bend the rules and allow those.

Continue reading Taking Care of Your Employees After A Natural Disaster

Preventing Racism and Incivility in Your Workplace

As a business owner or manager, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to combat racism and hatred in your workplace. Despite the bitterness of current political discourse and the appalling display of racism in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, or maybe because of it, everyone deserves to be able to go to work and feel accepted, valued and safe.

From a legal perspective, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the discrimination statutes of every state prohibit racism. Racist expressions in the workplace can lead to discrimination cases that are costly, both in terms of money and company goodwill. For example, a Dallas milling company settled with the EEOC in 2012 for $500,000 after 14 African-American employees alleged that their supervisors did nothing when the complainants faced racist graffiti and slurs by co-workers, including “KKK”, swastikas, Confederate flags, and “die, n—-r, die” as well as nooses displayed in the workplace.

This kind of discrimination can hijack the future of a company. Why would anybody with a conscience choose to work there ever again? Or do business with such a company once these actions were known? No amount of wise counsel from an employment lawyer like me can really defend, much less restore a company’s prosperity after these sorts of egregious actions are allowed to occur.

Employers trying to avoid discrimination lawsuits and to build a culture of decency can put into place anti-discrimination policies and training, can immediately investigate and take remedial action when racism is suspected or discovered, and can make advancement and better pay at the company dependent on an employee’s or manager’s embracing of equality.

But perhaps the most important way you can prevent discrimination at your company is by setting an example of what you expect from your employees. You are the yardstick by which your company is measured.

Christine Porath, a leading authority on decency in the workplace, says in her book that 25% of employees acknowledge that they acted uncivilly in the workplace because they saw their bosses acting that way.  As the boss, you need to have zero tolerance for incivility because it is like a gateway drug—incivility often becomes prejudice, harassment and discrimination. Getting away with one often leads to the others.

As a business owner or supervisor, you set the tone for your employees. Your words and actions determine if the workplace is respectful or hostile. You must tell your workers that bigotry is unacceptable and that you have a zero tolerance for stereotyping, name-calling, racial slurs, bullying and other abusive behaviors.

But more importantly, you personally must show your employees, not only by avoiding participating in these kinds of abuses, but also by making a special effort to “be the behavior you want to see” in your employees—respectful of all people, patient, empathetic, humble, transparent, honest and self-controlled.

Ending racism in the workplace is not just your legal responsibility—it is a moral one. Continue reading Preventing Racism and Incivility in Your Workplace

Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

In my long experience as an employment law attorney, I have come to realize that employers really, REALLY hate to fire employees. Some employers are scared of confrontation, others hate admitting they made a bad hire, and some just can’t find the right words.

Whatever the reason for being unable to fire a poor performer, employers often ask me about “running off the employee”. Running off an employee usually means making the employee so miserable the employee will voluntarily quit.

The employer trying to run off an employee may give the employee the worst duties at the company, criticize the employee in front of others, deny the employee’s vacation request, cut the employee’s pay, transfer the supervision of the employee to the worst supervisor, or make the employee work the graveyard shift.

Of course, this approach to termination often also makes the employee so angry that when the employee leaves, he or she becomes much more likely to sue the employer.

Running off an employee is the layman’s way of doing what we in the legal field call a “constructive termination”. A constructive termination occurs when the employer makes the working conditions so intolerable that any reasonable employee would feel forced to resign.

When an employee quits with good cause because the employer made continuing to work there intolerable, there are numerous legal consequences, such as: Continue reading Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

A nursing mother in your workplace has certain employment rights that you as an employer must understand. Until the time that the child is one year old, Texas employers must provide the time and space for the mother to breastfeed the baby (if children are allowed at the workplace) or to express milk to be stored for later.

The federal compensation law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), was amended in 2010 to require employers to provide nursing mothers with “reasonable” break time to pump breast milk. Employers must realize that there is no one definition of what is “reasonable” that applies to every new mother.

The Department of Labor says in its Fact Sheet #73 regarding Break Time for Nursing Mothers, “employers are required to provide a reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother. The frequency of breaks needed to express milk, as well as the duration of each break, will likely vary.” Speaking from experience, nursing may take 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 40 minutes or even longer and isn’t standardized from mom to mom, day to day, or break to break.

If you provide coffee breaks or meal breaks during the day to other employees and pay them during that break (which the FLSA requires you to do if the break is less than 20 minutes), then you should allow your nursing mothers to use those breaks if convenient and be paid during those breaks just like any other employee.

Otherwise, nursing breaks do not have to be compensated, so you can require a nonexempt (hourly) employee to clock out during the break so that the nursing break isn’t paid. If that means that the employee has to stay longer each day to actually perform work for 40 hours per week, you as an employee can require that extra time. Or you can choose to pay the employee for only the hours worked, which may be less than 40 when lots of nursing breaks are taken.

The easiest way to address compensation is to have a written policy that states that all nursing breaks of 20 minutes or less are paid, but longer breaks are unpaid.

You also have a responsibility as an employer to provide a place for the nursing mother to breastfeed or express milk. That place cannot be a bathroom. The area must be private with a lock on the door or another way to assure that the public and/or coworkers won’t barge in while the employee is nursing or pumping. If you have more than one nursing mother employed at a time, it is common practice to have a sign up or reservation-type system for the room you designate for expressing milk.

The secluded place the employer provides must be functional for expressing milk, meaning it should at least be furnished with a comfortable chair. Many employers provide a small dorm-sized refrigerator and a Sharpee in the nursing area so that the expressed milk can be labelled and dated and kept cool until the new mother can take it home.

Texas allows employers who adopt a new mother-friendly written policy to advertise that it is a “mother-friendly” business. If that “carrot” approach doesn’t convince you, then the “stick” is that failure to provide adequate breaks and a secure place for nursing mothers means that not only will your business be violating the FLSA, but also the employee can bring a sex discrimination or sexual harassment action if you have at least 15 employees.

A federal court has also ruled that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to pregnancy and maternity, so you can also be sued under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. You must additionally prevent an employee from being retaliated against for exercising her rights as a nursing mother, i.e., you must assure that her supervisor doesn’t give her a poor evaluation or demote her because her nursing rights create some disruption in the office.

Small employers (less than 50) have one defense to these kinds of claims. Continue reading Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

As an employer, you should be committed to a drug-free and alcohol-free work environment that protects both your employees, your customers and the general public.

Drug testing your employees is an important component of that safety commitment. However, while many employers test before hiring an applicant, nearly two-thirds of employers never conduct a drug or alcohol test on current employees, according to a Society for Human Resources study in 2011.

When employers do test current employees for drugs, employees test positive about 4.2% of the time, according to the latest numbers from the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. That number is creeping up and is at its highest level since 2004.

Even if you are a small employer with only 25 employees, that still means that one of your current employees could test positive for drugs right now. What if that one person is the delivery driver, the heavy machinery operator, the EMT, the security guard or any other safety sensitive employee working for you? Are you willing to take a chance with the safety of your other employees and your customers?

That only 4.2% of employees test positive for drugs or alcohol is actually a little low considering how many people are actually addicted to those substances. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2016 estimated that 8% of all Texans have a substance abuse disorder, with three-quarters of those Texans addicted to alcohol. The rest are hooked on marijuana, meth, heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids, in that order.

As a Texas employer, you don’t have to allow employees to be impaired at work. Continue reading Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

Key to Good Hiring: Good Interviews

In these times of low unemployment, don’t you as an employer want to know the key to good hiring? After all, a bad hire means that recruiting dollars are wasted, projects remain incomplete and you may even lose customers or good employees who are tired of dealing with the subpar employee.

In an ideal workplace, each new hire performs the job duties well, fits into the culture, contributes new ideas and energy, forms close professional relationships with coworkers and increases the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization.

But how do you achieve that ideal? You have to know the key–good hiring requires good interviewing.

Okay, that should have been obvious. But in my 25+ years of experience in the world of employment, I’ve seen more poor interviews than good ones. See if any of these questions sound familiar:

  • How did you hear about this job?
  • Tell me about yourself.
  • How do you know so and so?
  • Do you know how to use a computer?
  • Do you like to work in a fast-paced (or casual, or family-oriented, etc.) environment?
  • Insert any other close-ended question that provides zero information here.

Open-ended questions that are too general like “tell me about yourself” will only inform you of whatever the applicant wants you to know. Close-ended questions that require just a “yes” or “no” answer provide you with no useful information.

We often treat interviews like we are trying to make small talk at a cocktail party. And we often have similar awkward results. So how do you interview well? Continue reading Key to Good Hiring: Good Interviews

Hiring Older Applicants Protects Against Age Discrimination Claims

As older applicants know, getting a new job when you are over 50 years old is difficult and the reason often involves age discrimination. Employers like to recruit youthful employees, but they overlook the expertise and loyalty that older workers offer. Graying workers are fighting back in the form of age discrimination suits, so employers would be wise to reevaluate their aggressive pursuit of young workers.

Texas Roadhouse, the restaurant chain, recently agreed to a $12 million settlement in an age bias suit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that Texas Roadhouse overlooked older applicants for server, bartender and host positions. The restaurant denied any wrongdoing, but after spending years in litigation and countless dollars on attorneys’ fees, Texas Roadhouse agreed to ensure that older applicants are considered consistently alongside younger ones. Silicon Valley is also facing allegations that no one over 40 is welcome to apply for a job (women of all ages face similar barriers in the tech industry).

In a more unique claim, PriceWaterhouseCoopers is the defendant in a class-action lawsuit targeting its college campus recruiting program. The 53- and 47-year-old named plaintiffs allege that their applications for entry-level positions were rejected because they did not fit PwC’s usual profile of a Millennial college grad starting a career in accounting. The plaintiff’s pleading scornfully mentions PwC’s brochures featuring lots of smiling 20-somethings. PwC admits that 80% of its employees were born in 1980 or later. Statistics like that make PwC a rich target for an age bias suit by an angry Baby Boomer or Gen X’er.

Smart employers are learning that the emphasis on hiring people under 40 can backfire. In 2016, more than 20,000 age discrimination claims were filed with the EEOC and another 2500 such claims were made to the Texas Workforce Commission that year.

Employers who fail to hire older workers risk more than just lawsuits. They miss out on the loyalty and tenure of older employees. While young people are prone to changing jobs frequently, older applicants tend to stay and be productive for many years. Society for Human Resource Management research shows that the employers they surveyed have discovered that older workers are more “mature/professional” and have a “stronger work ethic”. They found that contrary to stereotypes, older workers actually miss less work days and are excited to learn new things.

Mature workers often have broad networks and contacts. Their work and life experience mean they require little training or supervision. And many applicants born in the 1950s and 1960s have been using computers consistently since the Apple 1 was invented, so their technical skills are well-honed.

These realizations have caused some employers to adopt an “older workers first” preference in their hiring practices.

How can you as an employer avoid age bias mistakes with your recruiting and hiring and take advantage of the benefits of hiring older workers? Continue reading Hiring Older Applicants Protects Against Age Discrimination Claims