All posts by Vicki

DOL Finalizes New Salary Minimum

Update: This post from March 2019 has been updated as of September 24, 2019, because on that day the DOL issued the final salary minimum rule, which changed a couple of important items from what was proposed six months ago.

A new federal overtime rule that has been finalized by the U.S. Department of Labor will become effective on January 1, 2020, and employers need to start preparing now to get into compliance.

The final rule requires employers to pay a higher minimum salary to those employees who meet certain white-collar exemptions to the overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Right now, an employer can pay a salaried exempt employee as little as $455 per week ($23,606 annually) and still claim the exemption (and not pay that person overtime) as long as the employee is performing exempt duties, such as executive work or professional work.

On January 1, 2020, the final minimum salary threshold for exempt employees is going to increase to $684 per week ($35,568) annually)(the proposed rule was $5 per week less, so we thought that the annual number was going to be $35,308). That means that if you have any employee whom you are paying on salary in an amount less than $35,568 per year, you as an employer need to spend the rest of 2019 deciding if you will provide that employee with a raise or reclassify that employee as non-exempt and move him to an hourly rate and pay him overtime when he clocks more than 40 hours in any one workweek.

In addition to meeting this increased salary level to $35,568 per year, anyone you are paying on a salary must also actually perform the duties of an exempt employee (the white-collar exemptions: executive, a professional or an administrator). These duties tests are much more difficult to meet than most people think, so don’t just assume that all of your salaried employees are actually exempt. For example, not every “manager” is an “executive exempt employee”, who under the FLSA must have the power to hire and fire and must supervise at least 2 full-time employees, as well as being in charge of a recognizable store, division or branch of your business.

During the rest of 2019, you have time to audit your pay practices to know who you are paying on salary, review their actual job duties to assure that they actually qualify for one of the exemptions, and then confirm that those salaried employees are making at least $684 per week. As you are going through this process, remember that the Equal Pay Act also applies to your salary decisions and you must not violate it when trying to comply with the DOL’s new salary minimum.

And yes, the DOL does measure the salary basis in weekly increments, so the employee must make at least $684 every week, not just averaged out over the year. The final rule does provide employers the ability to make up 10% of the salary basis test with non-discretionary bonuses and commissions. So, if you pay an executive, administrator or professional employee no less than $32,011.20 in yearly salary (divided by 52 weeks) and then the employee earns another $3,556.80 annually in non-discretionary bonuses and commissions (paid on at least a quarterly basis), you will not be in violation of the final rule.

If this proposal gives you a sense of déjà vu, that’s because we went through this process in 2016 when the DOL proposed an increase of the minimum salary for exempt employees of $913 per week ($47,476 annually). That rule was enjoined by a federal judge in East Texas just before it was to take effect and then died in the courts and under the new administration. No such messy reprieve is expected this time with this lower salary threshold, so businesses need to start talking now about properly paying their salaried employees in 2020.

Employer should also be aware that the “highly compensated employee” exemption under the final rule for 2020 has slightly increased. That exemption currently says that any employee making a salary of at least $100,000.00 per year is exempt as long as the employee is performing non-manual work and that employee performs at least one other exempt duty customarily and regularly. The final rule raises that salary threshold for highly-compensated employees to $107,432 per year (the proposed rule was to raise the highly-compensated employee salary minimum to $147,432, which was universally criticized and so reduced by $40,000).

Obviously, if you have to move an employee from exempt status to non-exempt status because of this salary minimum change, you should find a way to clearly communicate that this change is not a demotion, but simply a change in a governmental regulation. You’ll also need to train anyone moving from exempt status to non-exempt status on your timekeeping rules so that all time worked is properly recorded.

“Go Back” Comments Are Unlawful in Workplace

Telling a person in America to “go back to where you came from” has been considered racist and bigoted for decades in this country founded and built by immigrants, and if you as an employer allow this sentiment to ever be expressed at your business, you can expect a racial or national origin discrimination lawsuit to quickly follow.

Regardless of how the current occupant of the White House talks, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which actually investigates and prosecutes discrimination/harassment claims, has long told employers:

Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and created an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct includes insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, “Go back to where you came from,” whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.

Facts About Employment Rights of Immigrants Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC didn’t come up with this guidance on its own. It followed dozens of court opinions that examined cases in which an employee was harassed with statements like, “Go back to Africa” addressed to a black worker or “Go back to where you came from” addressed to an employee who appeared to the bigot to have been born somewhere other than America.

For example, our own conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a summary judgment appeal in EEOC v. WC&M Enterprises, Inc., 496 F.3d 396 (5th Cir. 2007) that an employee born in India (“Rafiq”), who happened to be Muslim, was entitled to prove he was harassed in a severe and pervasive way when his coworkers and managers said, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from”, started calling him “Taliban,” after September 11, and repeatedly referred to him as an Arab (he was Indian).

Rafiq was told, “This is America. That’s the way things work over here. This is not the Islamic country where you came from.” Rafiq’s supervisor even put in a written warning that Rafiq was “acting like a Muslim extremist” and said he could no longer work with Rafiq because of his “militant stance”. The Fifth Circuit found that a jury could “easily infer that [the coworkers’ and supervisor’s] actions were taken on account of Rafiq’s religion and national origin.”

One way the company tried to defend itself was by saying that it couldn’t have discriminated against Rafiq on the basis of national origin, since the workers were apparently too clueless to understand the difference between India and Saudi Arabia or whichever other Muslim country they mistakenly believed Rafiq was from. “The fact that the coworker ignorantly used the wrong derogatory ethnic remark toward the plaintiff is inconsequential.” LaRocca v. Precision Motorcars, Inc., 45 F. Supp.2d 762, 770 (D. Neb. 1999). The Fifth Circuit agreed and concluded in Rafiq’s case, “It is enough to show that the complainant was treated differently because of his or her foreign accent, appearance or physical characteristics.”

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has said, telling someone to “go back to where you came from” is “insensitive, ignorant and bigoted.” Williams v. CSX Transportation Co. Inc., 643 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2011). It is your responsibility as an employer to make sure that words to that effect aren’t uttered in your workplace, particularly, but not exclusively, if they are said by anyone in management. “The employer is presumed absolutely liable where harassment is perpetrated by the victim’s supervisor.” Nader v. The Brunalli Construction Co., 2009 WL 724597 (D. Conn. 2002).  

So how do you as an employer assure that this kind of discriminatory and harassing talk isn’t heard in your workplace?

Continue reading “Go Back” Comments Are Unlawful in Workplace

Paid Sick Leave Required in Some Texas Cities

Do you as an employer provide your employees in Texas at least six to eight days of paid sick leave every year? If you have employees who work in Dallas or San Antonio, you are about to be required to do so. You should be immediately adding a paid sick leave policy that complies with municipal ordinances that take effect August 1, 2019 in those two cities.

If you have an employee who works at least 80 hours per year in the city limits of Dallas or San Antonio, the new ordinances require you as the employer (if you employ five or more people anywhere) to provide that employee with one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours that the employee works within those city limits. It doesn’t matter if your business isn’t based in one of those cities, just whether your employee performs work there.

Of course, offering this paid sick leave only to your employees who work in San Antonio and Dallas could create workforce animosity and claims of discrimination among your other employees, so employers making changes to their policies need to carefully consider whether a company-wide sick leave policy revision is the smartest move at this point.

Here are the general details of the two municipal paid sick leave ordinances in Dallas and San Antonio. You should ask your employment lawyer to help you include the specifics in your revised written sick leave policy if you have Dallas and San Antonio workers:

  • If you have 15 or more employees, then you must allow your Dallas and San Antonio employees to accrue at least 64 hours of sick leave per year. For smaller employers (5-14 employees employed anywhere), the total amount of paid sick leave required per year is 48 hours.
  • The paid sick leave laws apply to full and part-time employees, so those of you who don’t provide benefits to part-time employees in Dallas and San Antonio will need to revise your policies.
  • These ordinances say that employees can use their paid sick leave as soon as it is accrued. So if you require an initial probationary or orientation period in which paid time off can’t be used, you’ll have to rethink your policy in that regard.
  • This paid sick leave can be used for more than employee’s own mental or physical health problems. The employee can take the paid time off for a family member’s illnesses, any family member’s victimization (such as domestic violence or sexual assault), and for doctor’s appointments for the employee or a family member. “Family member” is defined broadly and includes blood relatives as well as anyone who has such a close association with the employee to be considered family (such as a live-in partner).
  • You have to allow carry over of accrued but unused paid sick leave to the next year if you use the accrual method. However, if you provide all of the paid sick leave the employee will be entitled to at the beginning of the year, then you don’t have to allow carry over (this is also much easier to administer than the accrual method).
  • You can’t retaliate against an employee for using the sick leave he/she is entitled to.
  • Enforcement won’t go into full effect on these ordinances until April 2020, but you should be amending your policies now to comply with the August 1, 2019 effective date.

These ordinances have not been without controversy. The business lobby in Texas is fighting hard against these paid sick leave laws. A similar one in Austin is currently enjoined by a court battle, headed to the Texas Supreme Court, and won’t be taking effect as scheduled. But the court battle will take significant time and the 2019 Texas Legislative session ended last month with the lawmakers failing to pass any bill to standardize these municipal ordinances statewide or prohibit cities from passing them, so there is little chance that Dallas and San Antonio’s laws won’t go into effect in August, even if they are challenged in court later.

Even if you don’t have Dallas and San Antonio employees, I think all Texas employers must consider offering paid sick leave right now. Not only are states and cities all over the country requiring this, but employees are coming to expect this benefit.

Plus such a change can benefit an employer in a time of historically low unemployment in this state. It seems that almost every employer that I represent tells me that he/she can’t hire and keep good help. So shouldn’t you be offering some kind of paid sick leave to improve your hiring and retention? Maybe it would be helpful to adopt a policy that would comply with these city ordinances as part of a more comprehensive review and beefing up of your benefits to attract and retain high-quality employees.

Even Walmart (long regarded as one of America’s worst employers) recognized in 2019 the value of providing its hourly employees with 48 hours of paid sick leave per year in addition to regular paid time off. In fact, Walmart’s new company-wide paid sick leave policy looks surprisingly similar to the ordinances just passed by Dallas and San Antonio. Walmart wasn’t being altruistic, of course. It just made the move to standardize its policies to comply with a nationwide patchwork of new state and municipal laws requiring employers provide paid sick leave.

Firing For Abortion is Discrimination

Since abortion laws are such a hot topic right now, employers should be warned: firing a woman for obtaining an abortion is discrimination.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”), which amended the federal discrimination law, Title VII, prohibits employers from taking adverse action against an employee “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions”. The EEOC and the courts who have examined this question agree that this definition includes protection for women who chose abortion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance on the PDA states as follows:

Title VII protects women from being fired for having an abortion or contemplating having an abortion. . . . Title VII would similarly prohibit adverse employment actions against an employee based on her decision not to have an abortion. For example, it would be unlawful for a manager to pressure an employee to have an abortion, or not to have an abortion, in order to retain her job, get better assignments, or stay on a path for advancement.

While our Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has not ruled on this question, the most recent court to examine this issue is a federal district court in Louisiana, which answers to the Fifth Circuit. In Ducharme v. Crescent City Deja Vu, LLC (E.D. La. May 13, 2019)(emphasis added), last week the judge plainly stated:

[A]n abortion is only something that can be undergone during a pregnancy. Title VII requires that “women affected by pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions shall be treated the same for all employment-related purposes.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e(k). A woman terminated from employment because she had an abortion was terminated because she was affected by pregnancy.

The judge in Ducharme found support for this decision in two earlier appellate cases. Doe v. C.A.R.S. Prot. Plus, Inc., 527 F.3d 358, 364 (3rd Cir.), order clarified on other grounds, 543 F.3d 178 (3rd Cir. 2008) (“Clearly, the plain language of the statute, together with the legislative history and the EEOC guidelines, support a conclusion that an employer may not discriminate against a woman employee because she has exercised her right to have an abortion. We now hold that the term ‘related medical conditions’ includes an abortion.”); Turic v. Holland Hosp., Inc., 85 F.3d 1211, 1214 (6th Cir. 1996) (“Thus, the plain language of the statute, the legislative history and the EEOC guidelines clearly indicate that an employer may not discriminate against a woman employee because ‘she has exercised her right to have an abortion.’).

There is another important lesson in this case besides understanding that abortion cannot play any role in an employment decision. The lesson for business owners, managers and supervisors is to think before you speak and keep your strong opinions about sensitive topics like abortion out of the workplace.

Even though the judge’s opinion acknowledged that a woman choosing abortion is protected under Title VII, the ex-employee in Ducharme did not prevail on her claim against her employer in part because she failed to demonstrate that her employer actually fired her for the abortion instead of the on-the-job drinking. A significant part of the court’s reasoning was based on the fact that the employer who did the firing, Ms. Salzer, did not actually demonstrate an anti-abortion bias:

Perhaps most fatal to plaintiff’s pregnancy discrimination claim, however, is the complete absence of any support for any alleged anti-abortion animus by Ms. Salzer. Here, it is uncontroverted that Ms. Salzer had never said anything about abortion or religion to Ms. Ducharme at any time during their 18-month relationship. Ms. Ducharme does not dispute that when she informed Ms. Salzer that she was planning on undergoing an abortion, Ms. Salzer did not attempt to talk her out of it and did not say that she disapproved of the decision. There is no evidence that prior to that, Ms. Salzer had ever said anything to suggest to Ms. Ducharme that she would disapprove of the abortion. Ms. Salzer had never said anything political about abortion. Ms. Ducharme did not think of Ms. Salzer as religious.

So the employer did not:

  • Say anything about abortion or religion to Ms. Ducharme at any time during the 18 months Ms. Ducharme worked there;
  • Try to talk Ms. Ducharme out of her decision to have an abortion;
  • Express disapproval about Ms. Ducharme’s decision;
  • Generally talk about her religious or political views in the workplace.

Consider how differently this case could have gone if the employer was a known abortion opponent who lectured his/her employees on the evils of abortion, strongly objected when an employee asked for time off for an abortion and then fired that employee soon thereafter. That employer’s words and actions on this sensitive medical, religious and political issue would definitely come back to bite the employer in a discrimination case.

Or consider the flipside. What if the employer were very strongly in favor of abortion rights and did not want a top-performing female employee to lose any work time to pregnancy and a maternity leave? That employer’s statements encouraging the employee to end the pregnancy “for the good of the business” and to increase the employee’s chances of advancement could also be strong evidence in a pregnancy discrimination case.

The lesson is that your workplace is not the right place for a boss to pontificate on religious and political hot topics. As an employer, you can be you without hostility or stridency towards who your employees are or what they believe. Successful leaders create more welcoming, tolerant workplaces and give fewer lectures.

When an Employee’s Social Security Number is Incorrect (or Fake)

In 2019, the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) is again starting to send “No Match” letters after a seven-year hiatus to employers who reported payroll taxes for an employee under an incorrect (or fake) Social Security number.

What are the legal do’s and don’ts when the company receives an “Employer Correction Notice” (more commonly known as a No Match letter) from the SSA or otherwise finds out that an employee’s Social Security number isn’t accurate?

  1. Don’t overreact. There are a number of reasons that an employee’s Social Security number may have been reported incorrectly, the most common being a transposition of numbers in the company’s system or a name change. Your responsibility as an employer is to carefully address this matter so you don’t violate any discrimination laws, but you also protect the company now that you know there is a problem.
  2. Don’t ignore. You have to act in response to a No Match letter or other knowledge that a Social Security number is invalid. But what actions you need to take should be discussed with your employment lawyer, who you should call immediately upon receipt of the No Match letter.
  3. Don’t fire anybody (yet). The letter itself will say, “You should not use this letter to take any adverse action against an employee, such as laying off, suspending, firing or discriminating against that individual just because his or her name or SSN does not match our records.”
  4. Don’t confuse the Social Security Administration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). No match letters come from SSA and must be addressed through the SSA system. There may be a connection between the incorrect Social Security number and the employee’s eligibility to work in the United States, but you are a long way from making that determination yet when you have just received the No Match letter. On the other hand, ICE may regard a failure on the part of the company to act correctly in response to a No Match letter as an indication of guilt in employing undocumented workers, which is why having an employment lawyer walk you through this process is essential.
  5. Do check your records. Make sure the mistake is not on your end—check that you correctly reported the name and Social Security number that your employee provided to you. If the mistake was yours, notify SSA of the correction.
  6. Do ask the employee to address the problem. After you confirm that the mistake is not on your end, you need to notify the employee in writing that he/she has the responsibility to clear up any discrepancy with SSA by a reasonable deadline (at least 90 days).  Advise your employee that failure to act immediately, to provide the corrected documents in a reasonable time or to provide a good-faith explanation of the problem could later be grounds for termination.
  7. Don’t make an employment eligibility decision yet. There is a dangerous tendency for Texas employers to suspect a Hispanic employee with an incorrect Social Security number might be ineligible to legally work in the United States. This bias could quickly get you sued for discrimination. Give every employee with a mistaken Social Security number a chance to correct that mistake through the SSA procedures. Don’t require an employee to fill out a new I-9 employment eligibility form until the SSA procedure is complete and then only if the employee used the incorrect Social Security number on the first I-9 that the employee filled out.
  8. Don’t turn a blind eye to an affirmative statement of ineligibility by the employee. On the other hand, employees will sometimes tell you when confronted with Social Security number mistake that the employee doesn’t have a Social Security number. Your response should still be, “Talk to SSA and get this corrected.” But if the employee actually says, “I’m not in the United States legally and can’t get a Social Security number because I’m not eligible to work here,” you have to take that admission of ineligibility to work seriously. There is a requirement that employers must terminate any employee immediately upon receiving actual knowledge that the employee is not authorized to work, such as when the employee admits to having submitted false documents for I-9 purposes or to entering the country illegally and never applying for a work permit. This is a red flag warning to call your employment attorney.
  9. Do consider if you need to adopt verification procedures at time of hiring. The SSA provides a verification service that you can use to check Social Security numbers for payroll purposes only (not I-9 purposes) at the time of hiring. Many background checking services will also offer this as part of their criminal background check. But if you are going to start verifying Social Security numbers with new hires, you must be consistent and verify every single employee to whom you make a job offer or your inconsistency can be considered discrimination.
  10. Don’t mistake SSA verification for E-Verify. E-Verify is the federal database for verifying employment eligibility for I-9 purposes. This is where you can find out if your employee really is legal to work in the United States. However, at the present time, there are so many red-tape and technical problems with E-Verify, which has been known to mistakenly block eligible workers, that I do not recommend that employers enroll in that system if you don’t have to (enrollment is mandatory for some employers, such as federal contractors).

“Do As We Say, Not As We Do”: The Lesson for Employers from the Shutdown

As the federal government’s shutdown nears the end of its third week, one has to wonder why many federal employees are required to work even when they aren’t being paid. Could you as a private employer ever require your employees to work without pay during a crisis period at your business? Of course not.

About half of the 800,000-strong federal workforce is sitting at home worrying about their finances because they are “furloughed”. At least that group is not performing any work, so being unpaid is legal, although obviously unacceptable for their financial security.

The other half, those whose jobs involve public health and safety, are required to report to work even though Congress has not appropriated any money to pay their salaries. FBI agents, air traffic controllers, TSA agents, the Coast Guard, and, ironically, Border Patrol officers, are all working without pay right now. If one of these essential employees refuses to report to work because of the lack of compensation, he/she will be considered absent without leave and faces disciplinary action.

Most federal employees are on biweekly pay, so on Friday, January 11, the bulk of that workforce will receive nothing for work performed December 23 through January 4. No money for rent, food, transportation, etc., will be available to those workers until both houses of Congress pass funding legislation and the President signs it.

A federal shutdown has never lasted more than three weeks before, so the fact that the shutdown is dragging on and there are no positive signs of an agreement right now is obviously distressing to these employees, many of whom are poorly compensated and live paycheck to paycheck.

The federal government is unique in its ability to require this kind of unpaid servitude of its employees. As the Atlantic recently explained:

Since the enactment of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, federal employees have been legally prohibited from striking. That law was intended to prevent public-sector workers from leveraging a work stoppage that could cripple the U.S. government or major industries in negotiations for better pay, working conditions, and benefits. But it likely did not envision a scenario where the government would require its employees to work without paying them, as is the case now.

What prevents you as a private employer from taking a play from this playbook and requiring your employees to work without pay when your business has a cash flow problem?

Continue reading “Do As We Say, Not As We Do”: The Lesson for Employers from the Shutdown

Employees Secretly Recording Workplace Conversations

Is it legal for one of your employees to secretly record your conversations with that worker for the employee to use as evidence in a discrimination case? If you are a Texas employer, the answer is “yes”.

Texas is a “one-party” consent state, meaning that as long as one party to the conversation knows about the recording, the recording is legal. This can lead to your employee secretly starting the video app on his smartphone in his pocket just before he walks into your office for a disciplinary meeting. He knows the conversation is being recorded, so as the supervisor, you don’t have to be informed in a one-party consent state like Texas.

More than 30 states have the one-party consent rule, while California, Washington, Florida and a few other states require that every person being recorded give permission to the recording. These “all consent” states make it impossible for a supervisor to be secretly taped when talking to an employee. Making a recording without permission in one of those all consent states can lead to both criminal liability and exclusion of the tapes as evidence in the employee’s discrimination or other lawsuit.

In Texas, however, when an employer is taped, the recordings can be material evidence when an employee sues for discrimination. The Houston Chronicle reported in 2011 that one-third of the discrimination complainants who reached out the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission office in Houston brought audio tapes from their workplace to play for the EEOC investigators.

If there is a recording with you as a supervisor using a racial slur, firing an older employee while saying that the company needs “fresh and energetic workers” or suggesting to a subordinate that he/she can expect a raise if the employee will accompany you to a hotel, you might as well get your checkbook and pen out now to facilitate the inevitable settlement.

Besides the obvious – THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK, here are some other steps you as an employer can take to protect yourself and the company from employees taping all of your interaction:

  • Adopt a written policy banning recording: As of June 2018, the National Labor Relations Board has newly declared that employers may prohibit employees using recording devices and cameras at work. This is a change from a 2015 NRLB opinion that such policies had a chilling effect on employees asserting their rights to document poor working conditions. In 2018, it was decided that no-photography/no-recording rules have little impact on NLRA-protected rights and could actually improve working conditions by forcing supervisors and subordinates to have open discussions and exchanges of ideas.
  • Ask employees if they are recording: Before you have a hard discussion with an employee, such as a disciplinary warning, ask the employee if he/she is recording the conversation. Make a written note of his response (juries don’t like liars who produce recordings when they stated they weren’t taping). You can remind the employee about the company policy prohibiting such recordings. Ask the employee to set his phone on your desk so you can assure that he isn’t recording or, even better, have him leave it at his desk before coming into your office.
  • Be careful about disciplinary actions for recording: If an employee does record in your workplace, don’t automatically warn or fire that employee even if it violated your policy. You need to know what the employee recorded, so ask to listen to the tapes. If the employee did record or photograph unsafe workplace conditions, sexual propositions, racial epithets, etc., then you need to do a formal investigation and apply effective remedial measures to fix the problem the employee’s recordings uncovered. Then carefully decide with your legal counsel whether disciplining the employee who violated your recording policy could lead to an unfair labor practice, retaliation or whistleblower claim.
  • As the employer, don’t audiotape others in the workplace without consent: While you may have video cameras in the non-private areas of your workplace for safety purposes or to monitor productivity, it becomes more complicated to make audio recordings. Wiretapping (recording the conversations of others without consent when you are not a party to the discussion) is illegal under several statutes. So, you would need permission of every employee as well as the consent of every vendor or guest who comes into your business if you were going to wholesale audiotape all the interactions in your workplace. It can be done, but it is complicated to do correctly, and the wiretapping law is easily violated. And personally, in more than 30 years of practicing employment law, I’ve only seen a handful of situations where widespread audio recording was helpful to a lawsuit defense, much less positive employee relations.

Texas Employers Must Comply with Election Laws

Since Election Day is Tuesday, November 6, here are some quick reminders for employers about the Texas election laws that you must follow.

Employers must give all employees a reasonable time off to vote on Tuesday, assuming the employee hasn’t taken advantage of early voting.  So here’s how you apply that law:

  • You can ask if the employee voted early, but you cannot retaliate against an employee for his/her failure to take advantage of early voting. 
  • You need to just accept the employee’s word about whether he/she voted early.

A “reasonable time off to vote” is considered two hours. However, since the lines are predicted to be long on Tuesday, do not discipline any employee who has to wait in line to vote and thereby takes a little longer than two hours away from work. 

The time off to vote should be paid time off if it cuts across the working hours, according to a Texas Attorney General’s opinion. 

It is a crime for an employer to:   Continue reading Texas Employers Must Comply with Election Laws

Four Steps to Protect Your Company’s Secrets When Employees Leave

What can you do to protect your company secrets when Angela, your vice-president of sales, announces she is leaving your company and going to work for your competitor? Is there a way to keep Angela from telling her new employer all about your customers’ preferences, your company’s proprietary pricing, or the new business line you are exploring?

Truthfully, the day Angela announces her resignation is way too late to adequately protect your company’s most important secrets. Your efforts to safeguard your formulas, recipes, passwords, marketing plans, customer lists or other information you would like to keep confidential should have started before Angela was even hired.

There is no time like the present to begin taking at least four concrete actions if you value your business secrets:

  1. Physically protect your confidential information. Remember the urban myths that the secret recipe for KFC chicken or the formula for Coca-Cola were locked in a safe somewhere in company headquarters? According to Fox News, those are actual precautions taken by these companies. “The recipe [for Coca-Cola] lies in a vault in a downtown Atlanta SunTrust Bank vault and only two executives at a time have access to it.” As for KFC: “’Colonel Harlan Sanders’ Original Recipe eleven herbs and spices are inscribed in pencil on a yellowed piece of paper inside a Louisville, Kentucky safe’, says KFC spokesman Rick Maynard. ‘The safe lies inside a state-of-the-art vault that is surrounded by motion detectors, cameras and guards.’” Corporate espionage and theft of trade secrets is big business these days. These two food companies are serious about safeguarding their trade secrets. Are you as careful with yours?
    1. Do you at least have good password procedures, firewalls and cyberthreat protection, files marked “confidential”, inventories of your laptops and other equipment, and limitations on which employees have access to the keys to your business kingdom?
    2. Do you teach your new employees what information is confidential, how to protect it, remind employees frequently about their confidentiality obligations, and take immediate action if there is any breach in confidentiality?
    3. Do you prevent employees from downloading company documents onto flash drives or leaving the premises with your files?
    4. If you don’t take serious measures to protect your trade secrets, you really shouldn’t expect your current or departing employees to care either. Plus, the new Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act doesn’t even recognize information as a trade secret unless the owner can demonstrate that the business has taken reasonable measures to keep the information secret. So without active measures to protect the secrecy of your proprietary information, you are helpless in the courts when your secrets are stolen.

Continue reading Four Steps to Protect Your Company’s Secrets When Employees Leave

Five Steps for Responding Well to Harassment Claims

Two nooses hanging near a loading dock and racist graffiti on a company truck designed to be seen by the company’s African-American employees will almost certainly lead to an expensive racial harassment lawsuit against a business, but the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently sided with an employer who promptly took five comprehensive steps in response to this reprehensible conduct.

In its June 2018 opinion, the Court held that YRC, the employer, responded appropriately to these incidents at its Irving, Texas facility. The opinion gives all employers helpful guidance on how to combat harassment in the workplace. Tolliver v. YRC, Inc. (5th Cir. 2018).

It is important to note that the Court acknowledged that the racist actions were “morally unacceptable” and “reprehensible. But the plaintiffs didn’t allege that the acts were directed specifically toward them and “for the most part, learned about the acts secondhand”. So, the Fifth Circuit did not find that this conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive enough to change the terms or conditions of employment as to these particular employees, meaning that their personal racial harassment claims weren’t strong to begin with.

But what really mattered to the Court is that the employer took prompt remedial action to protect all employees after these horrifying incidents occurred. The steps YRC followed offer guidance for all employers facing any kind of harassment situation, whether involving racial harassment, sexual harassment, ethnic harassment, etc.

Let’s call these the Five Steps to Responding Well to a Harassment Claim: Continue reading Five Steps for Responding Well to Harassment Claims