Category Archives: Employee Rights

Supreme Court Outlaws Discrimination Against LGBT Employees

The United State Supreme Court ruled today in Bostock v. Clayton County that employers may be sued for sex discrimination by LGBT employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This opinion resolves a long-time disagreement between the various federal circuit courts and unwieldy patchwork of laws that had protected LGBT employees in some states but not others, and Texas cities like Austin, Dallas and Houston, but not Amarillo.

The Court combined three cases, one in which a male county employee was fired for conduct “unbecoming” a public employee when he joined a gay softball league, one in which a private employer fired an employee just days after he mentioned he was gay, and one where a funeral home fired an employee who presented as male when hired, but later stated that she was going to live, dress and work as a female going forward.

After reviewing each of these job terminations, the Court decided 6-3 in an opinion written by Trump-appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch that an employer who fires an individual based in part on being gay or transgender (and by natural extension, bisexual or lesbian) violates Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex. “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law”, Gorsuch wrote.

The Court pointed out several important rules for employers to know (these apply to any discriminatory job decision, whether it is based on race, age, national origin, disability, religion, etc.):

Continue reading Supreme Court Outlaws Discrimination Against LGBT Employees

Webinar for Texas Employers on CARES and FFCRA

Today, Texas employment attorney Vicki Wilmarth and health insurance benefits expert, Josh Butler, presented a webinar entitled Texas Employer’s Guide to Coronavirus Legal Issues.

Even if you missed the webinar live, you can watch the free 1-hour presentation for an overview about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) (paid leave law) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (“CARES”) (stimulus bill) on your own time. https://youtu.be/BGJCnHOJp18

You can also view the slides from the webinar here.

COVID-19 Paid Leave Laws Affect Small Employers

Congress has passed and President Trump has signed a new law that requires small employers to provide paid leave to employees for two weeks of sick leave and as many as 10 weeks of leave to take care of kids whose schools have closed.

This Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) goes into effect on April 1, 2020. It requires all employers with less than 500 employees, including very small employers and nonprofits, to pay employees whose absences are caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. The DOL has created a fact sheet and an FAQ to help employers understand these laws better.

Here are a few highlights of the FFCRA law:

Paid sick leave for two weeks is available to all full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal, and other kind of employee if the employee has to miss work for one of the following reasons:

  1. Employee is subject to government quarantine; or
  2. Employee has been advised by healthcare provider to self-quarantine; or
  3. Employee is experiencing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis; or
  4. Employee is caring for an individual subject to quarantine or self-quarantine as advised by healthcare provider; or
  5. Employee is caring for children under 18 because schools or “caregivers” are unavailable; or
  6. Employee is experiencing any other condition that is substantially similar to COVID-19, as specified in HHS regulations to come.

Paid Family and Medical Leave is available for up to 10 more weeks (after using up 2 weeks of unpaid time or 2 weeks of Emergency Paid Sick Leave as spelled out above) to all full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal or other kind of employee if the employee has worked for the employer for at least 30 days and then has to miss work for this one reason:

  • The employee is unavailable to work or telework because the employee is caring for a child under the age of 18 because that child’s school or childcare facility is closed because of the coronavirus.

The paid sick leave has to be paid at the employees’ regular hourly rate (including commissions, tips and piece rates, but not overtime rates) if the employee is absent for reasons #1-3, above. The paid sick leave and the paid family and medical leave have to be paid at 2/3 of the employee’s regular hourly rate if the employee is absent for reasons #4-6, above. There are also daily and total caps on the amounts you have to pay the employees for these absences.

Employers with less than 50 employees are subject to these FFCRA paid leave laws, even though you have never before been required to comply with Family and Medical Leave Act or any paid leave law. There is a provision that the Secretary of Labor can exempt a business when giving the leave would “jeopardize the vitality of the business.” In other words, if granting this paid leave could make your company go out of business, and you can prove that in your financials, you might not have to provide this paid leave. You don’t have to get the Secretary of Labor’s permission for this exemption by filing anything, but you will have to be able to document the correctness of your decision after the fact.

This law is not retroactive, meaning you don’t have to pay for leave taken before April 1, 2020, if it wasn’t your company policy to pay employee absences.

However, you also can’t make employees apply your paid time off policy before using this emergency paid sick leave or family leave. It is the employee’s choice alone on how to coordinate their PTO and these paid leave laws.

The good news for employers is that the employer gets a tax credit on payroll taxes for 100% of these amounts paid to employees for emergency sick leave and paid Family and Medical Leave. On the next Form 941 that will be due by July 31, 2020, the IRS will add a line for the employer to take the tax credit. If the amount you paid out to your employees for these paid leave laws exceeds the payroll taxes that you owe, then you are supposed to be able to get a refund from the IRS within 2 weeks after filing your Form 941.

We are still waiting for the Secretary of Labor to provide more guidance through regulations. He should also be providing us with notices, posters and other explanations to give to your employees.

There are also other employment laws that a company has to consider in this crisis, which are summarized here.

Texas Employer’s Legal Guide to COVID-19 Issues

Note: Some of these laws are changing rapidly as the federal government responds to the crisis. For example, paid sick leave and paid family leave are required of small employers beginning April 1, 2020. That’s why some of the information below has been deleted. Be sure to call an employment lawyer for the latest information and advice.

As COVID-19 dominates the headlines, Texas employers still have businesses to run and employees to supervise. The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease “COVID-19”, is creating all kinds of questions for these businesses, and most of those are best answered by medical and governmental resources.

But there are also employment law issues arising that a Texas employer may wrestle with. I wouldn’t even think about giving medical advice, but 32 years of practicing law has given me some insight that you may find helpful about the legal issues you are facing with your employees.

While there are some companies that can and should practice social isolation and allow employees to work from home, many businesses require employees to show up to perform work—think grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, retail, medical offices, hospitals, construction, feedlots, landscapers, agriculture, trucking companies, banks, childcare facilities, etc.

In those businesses, employers must walk the tightrope between compassion for those who are sick and the reality of needing your employees to be present in the workplace. There may also be tension between wanting to pay your employees even while they are absent and a possible huge decrease in your revenue during this time.

So there are no easy answers, but here are the laws you need to consider and discuss with your human resources professionals and your employment attorney BEFORE you take any action involving your employees:

Continue reading Texas Employer’s Legal Guide to COVID-19 Issues

Docking A Salaried Employee’s Pay is Tricky

Paying an exempt employee on salary means that employee receives the same amount of money each week regardless whether the employee works 35 hours or 45 hours. There are benefits for both you and the employee because you don’t have to calculate overtime and the employee doesn’t have to religiously track work hours.

Interestingly, employers ask me all the time about docking that weekly salary of an exempt employee. For some reason, if a salaried worker misses a half-day for a child’s school field trip or a distant relative’s funeral, suddenly employers want to dock the employee’s salary, possibly because the reason for missing work seems trivial. But that’s legally not how salaries work within the context of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The FLSA requires that a salaried, exempt employee be paid a “fixed” weekly salary of at least $684 that cannot be docked regardless of the quantity or quality of work. One way to think about it is to tell yourself that a salaried, exempt employee earns her whole salary for the week by Monday morning at 8:05 a.m.

So if your marketing director is paid $1000 per week, she has to be paid $1000 even for the weeks when she goes home on two separate workdays after lunch because she is sick or when she recklessly spends $20,000 of the company’s funds on an unsuccessful marketing campaign. You cannot deduct from her pay just because she did not work the quantity of hours you expected or perform her job with the quality that you expected.

There are legal deductions you have to take from a salary when required by law (for example, income tax withholding, payroll taxes, child support) and legal deductions you can make for items that are authorized in writing by the employee (for example, health insurance premiums, retirement contributions, salary advance repayments).

But the FLSA is extremely strict when it comes to the employer deducting from an exempt employee’s salary for missed days or poor work.

Here are the absences and acts for which a Texas employer cannot dock a salaried, exempt employee:

Continue reading Docking A Salaried Employee’s Pay is Tricky

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.

“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

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