Tag Archives: Texas Employment Law

Running Off an Underperforming Employee Is Not a Viable Option

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

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

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

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

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

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

Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

White House Fails Basic “Firing 101”

Note: This is not a political post. President Donald Trump had the right and the authority to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates last night.

From an employment lawyer’s perspective, the White House’s written statement about Sally Yates’ firing is a textbook example of how I advise my employer clients not to behave. https://www.whitehouse.gov/…/statement-appointment-dana-boe…

“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. . . . Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

We employment lawyers encourage our business clients to leave a fired employee with his/her dignity. I would never suggest an employer use loaded words like “betrayed” and “weak” or to impugn a long-term, high-ranking employee’s integrity during a job termination meeting. It is ill-advised in most industries to burn bridges like this or to set your business up for a lawsuit by a scorned ex-employee.

Sometimes terminating an employee’s job is necessary. For advice on how to fire in a more beneficial way, read my blog post on firing without fear.

Simple Hiring Checklist for Texas Employers

hiring-signHiring in Texas can be done in a very efficient and effective manner that reduces your chances of violating employment laws if you follow this simple hiring checklist. While large employers may need to add many more steps, I have found in 25+ years of law practice that many small employers aren’t even doing these simple steps, but should be:

 

  • Is one well-trained centralized manager with human resources experience doing the hiring instead of a group of supervisors who might ask the wrong questions?
  • Do you have a job description of the job for which you are hiring so you know the job-related qualifications?
  • Did you carefully word your job advertising so as not to discriminate?
  • If you require that an application be completed, is your application form up to date and without legal pitfalls?
  • Does the interview focus only on job-related qualifications and not personal information?
  • Do you stay away from open-ended questions like “Tell me about yourself”, which could elicit all kinds of information from the applicant that could be considered the basis of a discrimination claim?
  • Is the interviewer using an outline so that each applicant is asked the same questions and you can compare apples to apples rather than relying on the interviewer’s conversation skills and “gut reaction”?
  • Do not ask questions in the interview about the following topics. If this seems like a whole bunch of rules to remember, try focusing on this one rule: If your question isn’t related to how the applicant could perform the job duties, don’t ask it.
    • Race or color (photographs should not be requested)
    • Gender or marital status or sexual orientation
    • Whether applicant has young children, what his/her daycare arrangements are, or other family questions.
    • Age, including date of birth or when the applicant graduated from high school
    • Religion, including “Where do you go to church?” and “What do you do with your Sundays?”
    • Union membership or affiliation
    • Criminal arrests or convictions (you can run a background check if you decide to actually offer the job, but you must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act in obtaining the background check)
    • National origin or ethnicity (don’t ask about an applicant’s birthplace, accent, parentage, ancestry).
    • Citizenship (only inquire into an applicant’s eligibility to work in the United States, not their citizenship).
    • Education beyond what is necessary for the job (inflated educational requirements can have a chilling effect on minority applicants; therefore only ask educational questions that are relevant to the actual job responsibilities).
    • What clubs and organizations do you belong to? What causes do you support? (this could reveal illnesses, religious beliefs, family issues, marital status, race and other grounds on which you could be accused of discriminating).
    • Are you pregnant? Are you planning on having kids? (pregnancy and/or gender discrimination).
    • Have you ever declared bankruptcy? (discrimination under the Bankruptcy Act).
    • Is English your first language? Do you know that we have an English-only policy? (national origin discrimination)
    • Do you have elderly parents or an illness in the family that would take you away from work? (disability discrimination).
  • Do not ask the following questions in an interview that could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act:
    • Whether an applicant needs a reasonable accommodation to perform the job, unless the disability is apparent or the applicant voluntarily divulges it.
    • Details of an applicant’s worker’s compensation history.
    • Whether the applicant can perform “major life activities,” such as standing, lifting and walking.
    • Whether the applicant has any physical or mental impairments.
    • Whether the applicant is taking prescription medication or any other lawful drugs.
    • If the applicant has used illegal drugs in the past or has ever been addicted to drugs.
    • Whether the applicant has participated in an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program.
    • How frequently the applicant consumes alcoholic beverages.
  • Certain questions are permissible under the ADA:
    • Whether an applicant can perform the essential functions of the job.
    • How the applicant will perform the essential functions of the job, if all applicants are asked this question.
    • Whether an applicant needs reasonable accommodation for the hiring process.
    • Whether an applicant can meet the employer’s attendance requirements.
    • Whether an applicant has ever been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drug if driving is an essential duty of the job.
    • Whether an applicant is a current illegal drug user (drug testing the successful applicant after a conditional offer of the job is the best way to handle this).

Once you think you have narrowed your choices down to the applicant that you would like to hire, you can make a job offer conditional upon the results of these items: Continue reading Simple Hiring Checklist for Texas Employers

Employers Need Solid Reasons for Firing

Discrimination cases filed by former employees against their companies are usually won or lost on one concept—pretext—meaning that the reason given by the employer for the firing appears to the jury as a cover-up or excuse for the real reason, which the plaintiff will strongly suggest is discrimination. If the employer’s reason for firing the employee doesn’t perfectly line up with the facts developed in discovery and at trial, the business has a good chance of losing the case to the disgruntled employee.

Let me give you an example. If you fired Mary for being tardy on five specific occasions, but your security camera tapes, your time clock records, her emails and the testimony of other employees show she was not late on all of the dates that you specified, Mary’s discrimination case just got a big boost because your reasons look like pretext for terminating Mary. Then the door is wide open to say that her termination from employment occurred because she is black, a woman, disabled or born in another country.

When presented with this contrary hard evidence about Mary’s tardiness, it is not going to convince the jury when you say, “Oops, I got the dates of her tardies wrong” even if that is what actually happened. There is little a defense attorney can do to help you with the jury at that point because your reasons for the termination just look like an excuse for something more sinister.

Juries are pretty savvy in sifting through an employer’s reasons. As the employer, you must assure that the reasons you fire an employee are specific, provable, clearly-stated, well-documented and stay consistent from the time you first discipline the employee to the time of trial. Any variation in your reasons will come off looking like pretext.

Here are some other things that employers do that usually will be perceived as pretext in front of a jury: Continue reading Employers Need Solid Reasons for Firing

Employers Required to Display Poster Changes

Effective August 1, 2016, all employers of every size workforce must comply with two new mandatory federal poster changes.  The US Department of Labor (DOL) has updated its Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) poster and the Employee Polygraph Protection Act (EPPA) poster.

The changes to the FLSA poster include removing civil penalty amounts, the addition of the riflsaghts of nursing mothers, and a deletion of text under the Child Labor section. Except for a few very narrowly exempted employers, whether you have two employees or two hundred employees, you need to put up this new poster.

The changes to the EPPA poster include a removal of a civil penalty limit, a change in their toll-free phone number, and an additional TTY phone number. All employers, regardless of the number of employees and regardless of whether you would ever consider giving your employees a polygraph, must display this poster in the workplace.

The mandatory notices must be posted immediately. As with all of your employment posters, these two new ones should be displayed in a prominent and conspicuous place in each of your establishments wherever notices can be readily seen by employees and applicants. A spot right next to your time clock or in your employee entrance area is ideal. Just make sure wherever you place your posters is a place that all of your employees regularly enter.

If you need help knowing which posters besides these two you need to have displayed in your workforce, you can find the lists of required federal posters here and Texas posters here. All of the required posters are available online for free. You don’t need to pay a commercial service for a combined poster that isn’t customized to the specifics of your workplace.

Don’t ignore your federal and state posting requirements. The penalties have risen recently. For example, if you have 15 or more employees, the failure to put up the required EEO poster was raised to $210 in 2014 for each of your locations and is now indexed to the Consumer Price Index to increase with inflation. Considering you have as many as twelve posters required in your workplace, you don’t want to be fined for something so easily remedied.

Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination

Can an employer in Texas still fire someone for smoking pot? For once, my lawyerly answer does not have to be “maybe”. Yes, you can fire an employee for testing positive for marijuana.

Unlike Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C., the Lone Star State still treats the recreational use of marijuana as illegal. It is also illegal to buy, sell, grow or even possess pot in Texas, so going to Colorado to buy it and then bringing it back to Texas is not an option.

If your written substance abuse policy tells your employees that you prohibit “illegal drugs”, then you have the right to enforce that policy regardless of whether the pot is illegal under federal, state or local laws.

Therefore, a Texas employer can still require a drug test of an applicant, a current employee, an employee involved in an accident or when the employer has a reasonable suspicion of drug use. If the test shows that the employee has used marijuana, the employer can discipline or fire the employee for violation of the company substance abuse policy.

But what if the employee claims that he is smoking pot for medicinal reasons? Continue reading Pot Smoking Still Grounds for Termination