Category Archives: Discrimination

Small Texas Employers Newly Liable for Sexual Harassment

Texas employers who have less than 15 employees are no longer protected from sexual harassment claims under the small employer exception. Senate Bill 45, signed by Governor Abbott on May 30, 2021, changes the standard definition of employer in the Labor Code for sexual harassment complaints from “employs fifteen or more employees” to “employs one or more employees”.

This is a major change for small businesses in Texas. It overturns a long-time affirmative defense that many small businesses have relied on to avoid litigation without really worrying about improving their behavior.

New Texas Sexual Harassment Law

Both the federal discrimination law, Title VII, and the Texas discrimination law, Labor Code chapter 21, have excepted small business from any liability for employment actions taken in whole or in part on the basis of sex, religion, age, disability, etc. While the 15-employees or more exception still applies to all of those other categories for the time being, preventing sexual harassment has received a new treatment by the Texas Legislature and, as of September 1, applies to every Texas employer, regardless of employee headcount.

In addition, Governor Abbott signed a companion bill, House Bill 21, on June 7, 2021, that extends the time for filing a sexual harassment claim under §21.141 from 180 days to 300 days after the last harassing act occurred. So now, any Texas employee claiming that they have been sexually harassed in any workplace will have ten months instead of six months to complain to the Texas Workforce Commission’s Civil Rights Division.

“Sex” includes Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Here is an interesting twist to this legislation. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the word “sex” in Title VII’s discrimination prohibitions includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Bostock v. Clayton County, 590 U.S. __ (2020). Recently, a Texas Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether Bostock applies to Texas Labor Code Chapter 21, which bans discrimination in Texas “because of sex.” Tarrant Cnty Coll. Dist. v. Sims, No. 05-20-00351-CV (Tex. App—Dallas, Mar. 10, 2021).

The state appeals court in Dallas held that, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock, they were compelled to read Chapter 21’s ban on sex discrimination “as prohibiting discrimination based on an individual’s status as a homosexual or transgender person.” It is no stretch to apply the Dallas court’s reasoning to sexual harassment, which is just a type of sex discrimination.

Small Businesses Need New Policies

With that background, even the smallest Texas businesses need to make sure they are not allowing any employee or customer to harass another coworker based on that coworker’s sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. While some courts may rule down the road that is not what the Texas Legislature meant to do in its ultra-conservative 2021 legislative session, you do not want your small business to be the test case on Texas’ new sexual harassment law.

Most small employers do not even have Equal Employment Opportunity language or Sexual Harassment policies in their employee policy manuals. That will have to change before September 1, 2021, when SB 45 goes into effect as Tex. Labor Code §21.141.

The new law only applies to harassment in a small business that occurs after September 1, 2021, so if you are a small business owner, now is the time to clean up your employees’ language and offensive behavior (and your own, if any). 

There are other preventative steps every Texas employer needs to take besides just adding a written policy.

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How Employers Can Do Everything Right

University Medical Center in Lubbock won a big victory in an age discrimination case by doing everything right (suggesting to me that they followed the advice of their employment lawyers). Employers can learn eight important lessons from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision issued in the case of Salazar v. Lubbock County Hospital District d/b/a University Medical Center (opinion issued December 7, 2020).

Age discrimination cases are difficult for employers to win because the elderly make very sympathetic plaintiffs and the judges and jurors themselves are often older. But this case gives a blueprint to managers of how to dispassionately and carefully handle the termination of a poor-performing employee.

The allegations that plaintiff Rosemary Salazar asserted in this case sound really bad for the employer in an age-discrimination claim. Salazar had worked at the hospital for 27 years before she was fired in 2017 for poor performance and failure to change her behavior. She was 57 years old at the time of her termination and alleged not only was her firing discriminatory, but also that the same supervisor in her department fired three other long-time employees who were over the age of 60.

Salazar also claimed that she had been given good performance evaluations and that she had “received numerous raises for her job performance.” Finally she said that the employer did not follow its own progressive disciplinary policy in terminating her.

How did UMC manage to get a win the summary judgment motion and the appeal in this case? In a word: documentation.

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Can an Employer Require COVID-19 Vaccinations of Employees?

Vaccinations for the COVID-19 virus began to be administered here in Amarillo for the first time on Tuesday, December 16, to hospital workers, and now employers are asking if they can require their employees to get vaccinated when vaccines become available to more of the public.

In general, the answer is, yes, an employer can require employees to get vaccinated in order to provide employees and customers a safe environment. Medical and dental offices, schools, food production facilities, nursing homes and other high-risk workplaces will likely mandate vaccinations for their employees. But should other employers require COVID-19 vaccinations?

Duty to Provide a Safe Workplace

A Texas employer currently can legally require vaccinations to provide a safe workplace for their workers. No Texas law prohibits this. As for the relevant federal agencies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to provide safe workplaces. And the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has just indicated in new guidance that it will not object to employers mandating vaccinations.

OSHA’s general duty clause requires that each employer furnish to its employees a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that could cause death or serious physical harm. A fully vaccinated workplace could provide that safety to your employees. And that mandate could protect you as an employer from federal intervention with the new administration in Washington, D.C. Employers can expect increased enforcement by OSHA under the Biden administration, so mandatory vaccinations will give your company a defense to any allegation that you did not make your employees safe from the recognized dangers of COVID-19.

The EEOC has recently issued guidance supporting mandatory vaccination. In new Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance on vaccinations released December 16 (question K5), the EEOC says that an employer can impose on its employees “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace”.

Disability and Religious Objections

Texas employment is generally “at will”, meaning among other things, that an employer can set its own policies and an employee who does not like those policies can quit. Under current Texas law, that holds true with mandatory vaccinations, as long as Texas employers carefully handle two types of legal objections—disability and religious accommodation.

On Wednesday, the EEOC issued specific guidance about vaccinations at work (section K). As expected, the EEOC says that employers will be allowed to mandate COVID vaccines, with those two exceptions: (1) religious objections (Christian Scientists and some branches of Islam come to mind) under Title VII based on a sincere religious belief; and (2) disability (such as Guillain-Barré Syndrome) under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Being an anti-vaxxer is not a religion, so that belief will not be enough to claim an exemption. Courts have confirmed in the past that social, political or economic philosophies are not protected under Title VII protection of religion, so unless an employee has a sincere religious objection or a legitimate disability, you don’t have to accommodate an employee’s failure to cooperate by allowing him/her to opt out of the vaccinations.

You do have to be careful as you address religious or disability objections to vaccination. The EEOC wisely points out in its new guidance (question K5):

Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability [or religious objection] and know to whom the request should be referred for consideration.  Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense). 

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Employees and Covid-19

Ten Ways to Get Sued by Employees During a Pandemic

Even though the idea has been in the news recently, at the current time there is no absolute liability immunity for Texas employers from COVID-19-related claims made by employees who are exposed to the virus in your workplace or otherwise harmed during the pandemic. You can be sued for many different legal failures as an employer during this crisis, so you should know what the law expects of you right now.

The law firm of Fisher Phillips is maintaining a fascinating database of COVID-19-related cases filed so far in 2020. Their database shows that 38 COVID lawsuits have been filed in Texas for claims such as unsafe workplaces, discrimination, paid leave violations, retaliation and even wrongful death. I have no doubt those claims will continue to increase as employers struggle with all of the safety guidance and other rules burying them during this crisis.

I’ve narrowed the possibilities of a Texas employer getting sued during this global pandemic down to these ten mistakes:

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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.):

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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:

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Hiring Focused on Character

I often hear the general perception by business owners and managers that employees under the age of 30 have a lousy work ethic or other character deficiencies. They complain about entry-level employees who aren’t interested in paying their dues and are convinced they are entitled to move into the corner office on the day they are hired. I also hear about inappropriate dress, lack of loyalty and attendance woes among young people. But I know many “kids” under 30 (my 26-year-old son among them) who are incredibly motivated, hard-working, smart and willing to pay their dues.

Throughout my 32 years of practicing employment law full-time, I’ve also heard lots of similar stereotypical complaints about women in the workplace (“they can’t get along with other women—it’s always a cat fight” or “they just quit when they have children”). And sometimes, I have unfortunately been privy to pure misogyny, racism, ageism, and other bigotry when discussing problem employees.

I have a radical observation from more than 30 years of practicing employment law: Character is not generational, racial or gender-specific. I’ve worked with some terrific young employees and some terrible older ones, some unbelievably hard-working women and some slacker men, some brilliant minorities and some completely ignorant WASPs. The real debate is not about an employee’s age, race, gender or any other data point over which the employee has no control, but the employee’s individual character. So I encourage employers to focus on character more and stereotypes less (actually, not at all).

As an employer, I know you want to fill any open position with an employee who will exhibit responsibility, honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm, flexibility, initiative, dependability, civility, judgment and a distinct sense of right and wrong, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, or other protected characteristic.

You won’t find nearly as many business books that focus on character instead of generational conflict or the “downfalls” of diversity. The subject of character often sounds old-fashioned and faintly religious.

But all of us have reluctantly dealt with people with poorly-developed values: gossips, drama queens, whiners, liars, cheats, etc. There is no reason to have those kinds of people working for you and it is not illegal to refuse to hire them. But you have to be able to spot poor character in your hiring process to avoid bringing this poison into your workplace.

To hire better employees, first identify the character traits that are most important to you. Think back about what really disappointed or angered you about the personalities of unsuccessful employees in the past. Were they always tardy? Then dependability is very important to you. Did they steal company time by shopping on the internet on the company computer for hours a day? Then honesty and productivity are probably high on your list. Did your former employee pot-stir, pitting employees against one another? Then you are looking for someone who treats everyone with respect and doesn’t enjoy gossip.

Design an employment process that doesn’t just focus on job skills, but also zeroes in on the character traits that matter most to you. Ask open-ended questions about values in the interview, but don’t rely solely on your ability to judge character. No hour-long interview is going to tell you everything about an applicant’s character.

But you can find out some aspects of an applicant’s character if you ask about:

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Can I Drug Test My Texas Employees for Marijuana?

As 2020 begins, many Texas employers are wondering if they can still drug test their employees for marijuana use. Several states have legalized recreational marijuana and most states allow medical marijuana. So what is a Texas employer to do?

After all, Texas sort of, kinda, decriminalized weed in the 2019 legislative session. When they legalized hemp because it is a drought-resistant agricultural crop, the Texas Legislature effectively said that cannabis with less than 0.3 percent concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gets you high, is “legal hemp”, while anything above that threshold is illegal marijuana.

However, making the determination of THC concentrations takes sophisticated equipment that the police departments and private testing labs don’t have yet. Many Texas police departments and district attorneys have announced they are not even bothering to prosecute possession of use of small amounts of marijuana. Therefore, it is, for all practical purposes, very difficult to determine if your employees are engaged in legal or illegal activities when it comes to weed.

In addition, the Texas Legislature expanded “compassionate use” (medical marijuana) in Texas, so that specialty doctors can prescribe medical marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, terminal cancer, autism, and many kinds of seizure disorders. Past state law only allowed those very few patients diagnosed with intractable epilepsy to be prescribed medical cannabis products, which in Texas may only contain low levels of THC. Now, many more of your employees may be legally prescribed medical marijuana and you have to worry about violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when testing for marijuana.

Finally, CBD oil, which is a hemp-derived product, is legal in Texas and is being sold on every street corner. Unfortunately, there is little regulation of CBD products, so they may contain surprise ingredients like THC. The Fort Worth Star Telegram recently reported on lawsuit filed by a CBD consumer against a CBD oil manufacturer because he lost his truck-driving job after testing positive for marijuana when he used CBD oil for his aching back.

So do you as a Texas employer still test for marijuana? Yes, legally you still can. Think of weed like alcohol. It is may be more legal than it was before, but it can still impair your employees’ job performance and judgment, so you are entitled to know if your employee is stoned.

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“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?

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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.