Category Archives: Employee Rights

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

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

Religious and National Origin Discrimination in Heated Political Times

It is easy for employers to lose sight of the obligation to protect all employees regardless of national origin or religion with all the heated political rhetoric we hear right now. But it is still against every federal and state civil rights law for an employer with 15 or more names on the payroll to allow any workplace harassment or discrimination on the basis of where someone is from, what language they speak or what religion they practice.

Since 2001, religious and national origin discrimination cases filed by Muslims and others of Middle Eastern ancestry have increased. Similarly, when illegal immigration is a hot topic, employees of Mexican heritage are often targeted for discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now receives approximately 3000 charges each year about religious discrimination and 9000-10000 charges of national origin discrimination in the workplace.

In some circumstances, the discrimination is quite blatant.  In Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois (7th Cir. 2015), the Muslim plaintiff of Saudi Arabian origin alleged that her supervisor was a devout, vocal Christian who was unfriendly to her from the beginning. The supervisor allegedly referred to one of Huri’s colleagues as a “good churchgoing Christian” while calling Huri “evil”.  The supervisor reportedly also made a show of saying Christian prayers in the workplace while holding hands with employees other than Huri.

Any employer should be able to quickly recognize the legal and morale implications of such behavior and correct it. But other questions arise when well-meaning employers are confronted with an employee who may be from a culture or religion that the employer is unfamiliar with. That’s why in 2016 the EEOC released guidelines specifically about preventing discrimination against employees on the basis of national origin. These guidelines join the EEOC’s specific guidance on the workplace rights of employees who are perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern and the EEOC’s guidance on best practices to prevent religious discrimination in business settings.

What does an employer need to do to prevent or address any hostility in the company towards an employee on the basis of that employee’s national origin or religion? Continue reading Religious and National Origin Discrimination in Heated Political Times

Requiring a “Full Recovery” May Violate Disability Law

Have you ever asked an employee for a doctor’s note confirming that the employee is “fully” recovered from an injury or illness as a condition to returning to work? If so, you may be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

I have often talked employers off the ledge of demanding that an employee present a “full release”. Ever since George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990, it has been risky to assume that an employee must return to “full” duty after surgery, a serious illness or an injury. The employer must try hard to put the disabled employee back to work, but job duties may have to be modified, reassigned or eliminated to reasonably accommodate the worker.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance, “Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act”, released last year, states that an employer is in violation of the ADA “if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions—that is, be 100% healed or recovered—if the employee can perform her job with or without reasonable accommodation unless the employer can show providing the needed accommodations would cause an undue hardship.”

Whole Foods was recently sued for not putting Yolanda Toolie back to work when she returned from a spinal fusion with a 10-pound lifting restriction. She says that Whole Foods made her stay on unpaid leave for almost six months until she was fully cleared by her doctor, instead of finding a way to accommodate her restricted ability. After a second surgery, she alleges that Whole Foods fired her because she wasn’t eligible for Family and Medical Leave (which she would have qualified for if she had been allowed to work after the first surgery without the requirement of a “full recovery”).

If these allegations have any merit, Whole Foods could have avoided this suit if it had gone through the reasonable accommodation process with Toolie, a deli clerk, and found a way to put her back to work despite her lifting restriction. Maybe someone else could have lifted the product boxes while she operated the slicer, for example, or maybe she could have transferred to the Whole Foods bakery, where the heaviest thing she would have lifted was a loaf of gluten-free organic brown rice bread.

Putting an employee on indefinite unpaid leave is the accommodation of last resort, since the employee will not receive a salary while not working. Instead of telling an employee to stay home until he is back to 100%, the following reasonable accommodation process should be followed: Continue reading Requiring a “Full Recovery” May Violate Disability Law

How Should Employers Respond to 2016 Election?

Employers are facing a time of uncertainty in the workplace as a result of last week’s election. Does an employer still have to worry about compliance with the revised overtime rules? Do you still have to complete the Affordable Care Act tax forms due in January? What about paid maternity leave—must an employer provide salary for six weeks to new mothers? There will certainly be upheaval in the workplace because of the significant change in the governing philosophy to come in January.

Alth19-ryan-trump-mcconnell-w710-h473ough Mr. Trump is already backing off of some of his campaign rhetoric, there are some workplace issues that you as an employer will be affected by:

  • Immigration compliance should be your top concern under this new administration. As an employer, you must be certain that you are correctly completing an I-9 form on every new employee and assuring that you are only hiring applicants who are eligible to work in the United States.
    • A new I-9 form was released today, so you will need to start using that new form dated November 14, 2016, immediately with your new hires. The old 2013 form you have been using may not be used after January 21, 2017. You do not have to recertify your current employees just because they were hired when a different I-9 version was in use.
    • Trump has said that he wants all employers to use E-Verify, the internet verification program used by federal contractors to verify I-9 information provided by a new hire against records from Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. E-Verify sounds much easier in theory than it has proven to be in practice. Get ready for significant paperwork and several new steps whenever you receive a tentative non-confirmation letter from E-Verify on a new hire.
    • Remember that it is illegal to discriminate against an applicant on the basis of national origin or ethnicity. As an employer, you cannot have blanket hiring prohibitions against any group. You must individually check the employment eligibility of each person to whom you offer a job.
  • The new overtime law, which requires employers to pay at least $47,476 in salary to employees whom the employer wants to exempt from the overtime requirements, goes into effect in two weeks on December 1, 2016. That means that you as an employer need to comply with that law now without regard to how it may change down the road.
    • A change to the overtime law is not included in the new administration’s first 100-day plans and Mr. Trump only addressed it one time on the campaign trail. Changing the overtime regulation does not seem to be a top priority, but the possible changes that have been mentioned are an elimination of the automatic increases now scheduled every three years and a small business and/or nonprofit exception to the overtime rule.
    • The final overtime regulation took more two years to become effective after President Obama proposed it. Even if a change to it were fast-tracked, I think that you will have to comply with the current regulation at least until the end of 2017.
    • And even if the new rule is changed next year, are you really going to decrease the salaries of your management employees after they saw the increase this year? If you would consider a decrease as a possibility in the future, then think about putting your salaried employees on hourly pay and overtime pay immediately (by December 1) instead of giving them salary whiplash when this regulation changes down the road.
  • The Affordable Care Act is going to change significantly. How it will change, we don’t know, except that Mr. Trump has promised that it will be “replaced”, not just repealed. If that is the case, employers will still have to deal with healthcare headaches. They will just be new headaches rather than the ones we have learned to cope with over the last six years. For now, as an employer, you must continue to comply with the ACA, including sending out the Form 1095-C after the first of the year.
  • Trump has proposed six-week paid maternity leave. Never before has the federal government required a private employer to provide any paid leave, unless the company was a federal contractor. The Family and Medical Leave Act only requires unpaid leave.
    • This would be a radical departure from Republican policies in the past, which have always frowned on mandates to employers to pay people not to work. There is no indication yet that the U.S. Congress would go along with Mr. Trump’s proposal.
    • Meanwhile, employers should be more concerned right now about complying with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in effect since 1978, but which has grown more teeth in the last couple of years thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Young v. UPS and stricter enforcement by the EEOC.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains the law and no administration would dare push for its revision, or the revision of later laws that prevented discrimination on the basis of age or disability. That means that as an employer (if you have 15 or more employees), you must continue to keep your workplace free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, disability, etc.
    • There were 3500 charges of religious discrimination filed in 2015 with the EEOC. That number has risen 44% in the last 10 years. Employers must be extra vigilant that some of the tenor and tone of the election rhetoric doesn’t lead to any hateful actions in their workplace against, for example, a Muslim employee.
    • Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is not prohibited by the actual language of Title VII and it seems unlikely that the new administration would champion gay rights in the workplace. There is also no state law in Texas preventing such discrimination, although most of the larger cities in Texas have local ordinances. But employers need to know that the EEOC has targeted employers who are allowing discrimination against LGBT employees and there are several court rulings that back up the EEOC’s position that “sex” as a protected class includes sexual orientation, so all employers should continue to protect their LGBT employees from harassment and unfair treatment.

 

 

Cussing Out the CEO

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What is the proper response from the company when two employees express their anger at the CEO when they receive bonus checks by returning the checks, voiding them, and writing, “kiss my a– Bob,” and “eat sh– Bob” on the checks? According to the National Labor Relations Board, firing them is improper.

After returning the checks, the employees posted pictures of the checks on a private Facebook page.  Other employees followed suit by also voiding their checks and posting them to the Facebook page.  However, only the first two employees wrote profanities on their checks.  Not very long following this incident, both employees were fired.  They filed grievances shortly thereafter with the NLRB.

The NLRB reinstated the employment of the two West Virginia coal miners.  After their union voted against bonuses based on productivity, the coal mine management decided to implement the bonus program anyway.  Apparently the two miners were unimpressed with the company’s generosity.

The NLRB judge who presided over the case found that the two miners had been wrongly discharged and that the words on the checks, “while profane and offensive, were nevertheless expressions of protest and outrage over what those employees viewed as implementation of a plan that would adversely affect their safety conditions and which constituted what the employees believed was a surprising violation of the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement.” Continue reading Cussing Out the CEO

HR Director Can Be Individually Liable for FMLA Violation

Most human resources professionals and managers think that working for a corporation gives them some protection from being sued themselves by former employees, but a federal appeals court recently held that an HR director can be individually liable for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals made this decision in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, No. 15-888-CV (2d Cir., Mar. 17, 2016).

The Second Circuit decided that the HR director who instigated the firing of an employee who was out on leave to care for her ailing sons could be sued in addition to the company who formerly employed the plaintiff. The FMLA provides that for purposes of being a defendant in a lawsuit, an “employer” includes “any person” who “acts, directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer” toward an employee. Therefore, a manager, supervisor, vice-president, HR director, leave administrator and other decision-making employees could be sued along with their company if the FMLA isn’t administered correctly.

The courts look at the “economic realities” of the situation, including whether the HR director had the power to hire and fire employees; supervise and control employee work schedules or conditions of employment; determine the rate and method of payment; and maintain employment records. Although a vice-president actually made the final firing decision in the Graziadio case, the evidence suggested that the HR director played an important role and the vice-president essentially just rubber-stamped the HR director’s recommendation of terminating the employee who was on leave.

These kinds of decisions are frightening to management employees who have to make hiring and firing decisions and those who have to administer the complex FMLA. However, this ruling should not come as a complete surprise to those of us who live and work in Texas, because the Fifth Circuit, which rules on federal cases in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, made a similar ruling ten years ago.

In addition, our Fifth Circuit court approaches the Fair Labor Standards Act (wage and hour) cases in the same manner. If the economic realities demonstrate that a supervisor was responsible for the misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor (meaning that the proper taxes weren’t paid, among other violations of employment laws) or the underpayment of minimum wages or overtime, then that supervisor may face a personal lawsuit by a former employee, along with the company being sued.

How can you as a manager or HR director protect yourself from a lawsuit that could endanger your personal assets? Continue reading HR Director Can Be Individually Liable for FMLA Violation

Let Employees Discuss Their Wages

Employees can discuss their wages with their coworkers, despite many employers’ policies to the contrary. If this wasn’t clear enough when the National Labor Relations Board and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals emphatically told employers that (see this post for more information), now the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is joining the chorus.

On January 21, 2016, the EEOC issued a 73-page proposed guidance to its investigators concerning retaliation claims. All of the laws EEOC enforces, like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII, make it illegal to fire, demote, harass, or otherwise retaliate against applicants or employees because they complained to their employer about discrimination on the job, filed a charge of discrimination with EEOC, participated in an employment discrimination proceeding (such as an investigation or lawsuit), or engaged in any other “protected activity” under employment discrimination laws (more on the proposed guidelines concerning retaliation is coming in future posts).

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Employees Can Talk About Their Wages

Slipped into the middle of the proposed guidance is a section emphasizing that not only will the National Labor Relations Board come after you as an employer for unfair labor practices if you fire someone for discussing their wages, but that the EEOC might pursue a claim against you also. The EEOC said that reprisal for discussing compensation may violate the retaliation provisions of laws it enforces, such as the Equal Pay Act (requiring that similarly-situated women be paid the same as men for the same work) or Title VII (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc.).

All employers should review their current written employment policies to assure that any statement prohibiting wage discussions among coworkers has been removed. In addition, employers must not fire, demote, cut the wages or hours of or otherwise retaliate against an employee who discloses his/her compensation package with coworkers or others, whether shared verbally, by showing another person the pay stub or even by posting information about any worker’s pay on social media.

Texas Discrimination Charges Too Numerous

Texas leads the nation in number of charges filed with the EEOC alleging gender discrimination, race discrimination, age discrimination, and disability discrimination, according to a recent story from the Society for Human Resource Management.  It is time for more employee training and better personnel policies for your Texas business so you don’t have to battle a discrimination charge.

 

Texas Employers Wrestle with Open Carry of Handguns

Texas employers are still confused and wrestling with the laws regarding the open carry of handguns in their workplaces.  I’ve written about this before (here and here), but I understand that this issue is on the minds of many employers in the state right now.

As of January 1, 2016, Texas now allows the more than 825,000 residents who are licensed to carry a handgun to openly display the gun in a shoulder or hip holster. They may also choose to conceal the handgun and carry it with them on their bodies or in bags or purses.

The state has only banned handguns completely in the following workplaces: bars or restaurants earning more than 51% of their revenue from alcohol sales (they’ll have a sign up stating that fact), correctional facilities, high school, collegiate and professional sporting events, school grounds and school buses, polling places, courtrooms and court offices, racetracks and secure areas of airports. It is also illegal under federal law to carry handguns in federal governmental buildings, such as post offices, courthouses, the IRS office, etc.

If the required signs are visible, then hospitals, nursing homes, amusement parks, churches and private businesses like yours can prohibit the carrying of pistols onto the premises by employees and/or visitors.

Even without hanging the required signs, employers can put a written policy in their employee manual prohibiting employees from bringing handguns into the workplace. Should you do this? It depends on your beliefs about guns in general, how comfortable your employees are being around gun-toting coworkers, whether you are located in a safe area of town, whether you have other ways to keep your employees secure, whether you want to face firing a volatile employee wearing a sidearm, and how your customers will react to seeing your employees armed. Have a conversation with your employees to determine the best option for your business.

Once you have decided whether to allow your employees to carry handguns and have adopted a written policy explaining the employee rule, the next question is whether to prohibit customers, vendors and other visitors to your workplace from carrying any kind of handgun on your private property. Continue reading Texas Employers Wrestle with Open Carry of Handguns