Tag Archives: Federal Employment Law

Vaccine/Testing Mandate Voided by Supreme Court for Businesses with 100+ Employees; Healthcare Workers Mandate Upheld

On Thursday, January 13, 2022, the United States Supreme Court completely voided the OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard that required employers with 100+ employees to institute this week a vaccine or testing requirement on its employees. However, the Supremes also upheld the OSHA requirement that any size of healthcare facilities that accepts Medicare or Medicaid payments must vaccinate their workers.

The Large Employer Rule Struck Down

When addressing the OSHA ETS for large employers, the Supreme Court majority stated that the Secretary of Labor had acted too broadly. The six conservative justices ruled that “Applicants are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Secretary lacked authority to impose the mandate. Administrative agencies are creatures of statute. They accordingly possess only the authority that Congress has provided. The Secretary has ordered 84 million Americans to either obtain a COVID–19 vaccine or undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense. This is no “everyday exercise of federal power.”

They went on to emphasize this opinion that “Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly. Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category.

Technically, the mandate is “stayed” pending more legal action in the Sixth Circuit and possible writs of certiorari back to the Supreme Court. However, for all practical purposes, large employers can stop their efforts to determine the vaccination status of employees, stop requiring masks of all unvaccinated employees, forget about workplace testing for COVID-19 beginning in February and withdraw the written policies they just put into place.

Healthcare Mandate Gets Approval of Supreme Court

Healthcare facilities, however, have to get into compliance with the CMS mandate. The 5-4 decision states that the Secretary of Health and Human Services does have the power to require vaccinations of healthcare workers (except those with medical or religious exemptions). “Ensuring that  providers take steps to avoid transmitting  a dangerous virus to  their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the  medical profession:  first,  do  no  harm.  It  would be the very opposite of efficient and effective  administration for  a facility that is supposed to make people well  to  make them sick with COVID–19.”

There has been a stay pending on this mandate in 26 states, including Texas. However, that stay is no longer effective, and 10 million healthcare workers will have to be fully vaccinated or claim a medical or religious exemption (which may make them ineligible to work) in the next six weeks. Unless Health and Human Services updates their schedule, healthcare facilities that received Medicare or Medicaid payments have until January 22 to get a written vaccination mandate in place. By that date employees either have to have had at least one dose of the vaccine or have submitted a medical or religious exemption request.

By February 28, healthcare employees have to be fully vaccinated or have been granted an exemption. And exemptions don’t mean that the employee can keep working. For example, unvaccinated employees may not be able to be involved in direct patient care. Eventually, that could result in no available work for that employee. Employers should get their employment lawyer involved in the exemption process because it can lead to eventual termination of the exempt employees, which has to be done carefully to avoid discrimination claims.

Texas Employer’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2022

The time between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a good time for employers to reflect on resolutions for 2022. What can you as an employer do in the new year to make your job easier, be a better employer and avoid legal landmines peppering the workplace landscape?

After more than 30 years of advising companies on employment law issues and as a small business owner myself, I have an awareness of and empathy towards the challenges that you are facing. But sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and make some difficult changes. So here are some suggestions of changes you either have to or should consider making in 2022 because of recent changes to the law or the employment arena.

Prepare for the Vaccine Mandate or Testing Policy (for Employers of 100 or more)

Yep, its back. On Friday, December 17, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the injunction on OSHA’s vaccine or testing mandate. That means that employers with 100 or more employees (“large employers”) are once again required to comply with OSHA Emergency Temporary Standard (“ETS”) that puts employers in the position of either requiring employees to get vaccinated or to undergo weekly testing.

In examining the reasons that OSHA argued in favor of enforcing the ETS, the Sixth Circuit ruled, “It is difficult to imagine what more OSHA could do or rely on to justify its finding that workers face a grave danger in the workplace. It is not appropriate to second-guess that agency determination considering the substantial evidence, including many peer-reviewed scientific studies, on which it relied.” The Sixth Circuit found that the mandate was both constitutional and that OSHA was acting within its statutory authority to enforce occupational health and safety in implementing the mandate.

I’ve already provided an explanation of what the ETS requires of large employers. What has changed since November 4 when I wrote that post is that OSHA has extended the deadlines, but not by much. Here are the current deadlines with which OSHA expects large employers to comply:

  • January 10, 2022:
    • Large employers must require unvaccinated employees to wear masks when indoors in the workplace or when travelling in vehicles with coworkers.
    • Large employers must have a written policy in place notifying employees of their obligation to get vaccinated or undergo weekly supervised COVID-19 testing (not at-home testing).
    • Large employers should have documented each employee’s vaccination status and started accepting paperwork for religious and medical exemptions (which means those employees won’t have to be vaccinated but will have to be tested weekly).
  • February 9, 2022:
    • Employers must start testing unvaccinated employees weekly.
    • OSHA will start enforcing the ETS.

In addition to meeting these deadlines, as a large employer, you still have significant obligations regarding daily recordkeeping, notices to employees, onsite testing and paid time off for vaccines and vaccine side effects, all outlined in the original ETS.  And meeting those obligations by the new deadlines means you are going to be busy for the next few weeks.

The Sixth Circuit’s ruling, which is effective nationwide, has already been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. There is still a chance that this ETS will not take effect. However, the Supreme Court has consistently upheld every COVID vaccine mandate with which it has been presented over the last year. The most recent occurrence was on Monday, December 13, when a 6-3 court (conservatives Kavanaugh, Barrett and Roberts voted with the three liberal justices) upheld New York State’s requirement that all health care workers there have to be vaccinated, even though religious exemptions will not even be considered for employees doing direct patient care. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn a much more uncompromising mandate just last week.

Get Serious About Preventing Sexual Harassment

As of September 1, 2021, Texas now has one of the strictest laws in the country prohibiting sexual harassment. Instead of only affecting employers with at least 15 employees like every other federal and state discrimination law, Texas’ new sexual harassment law not only makes employers with just one employee liable, but also for the first time allows harassed employees to sue supervisors and managers (and company owners) individually for sexual harassment along with the company.

To protect your business, at a bare minimum, you must have a written policy prohibiting sexual harassment in your employee manual. In that policy, you must name a person to whom employees should report the harassment who will take the complaint seriously and get an investigation performed.

Continue reading Texas Employer’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2022

New Federal Vaccine Mandate Immediately Affects Employers with 100+ Employees

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration released its new vaccine mandate as an Emergency Temporary Standard today for employers who have at least 100 employees (“large employers”). The ETS is effective on November 5, 2021, and large employers only have 60 days to fully implement their vaccination plan, so time is of the essence.

Each large employer can decide if that company is going to (1) mandate that every employee gets vaccinated (while allowing limited religious and medical exemptions) or, instead, (2) mandate that its employees have a choice between vaccination and weekly testing. However, either way, large employers have to start requiring all unvaccinated employees to be masked at all times indoors as of December 5, 2021, except when they are alone in their own closed office. The new rules are summarized here.

Here are the highlights of the Emergency Temporary Standard mandate:

Does it apply to your company?

Do you have 100 names on your payroll (full-time, part-time, temporary or seasonal workers who perform work for your company at any point on or after November 5, 2021)? If so, this ETS applies to your company. “In determining the number of employees, employers must include all employees across all of their U.S. workplaces, regardless of employees’ vaccination status or where they perform their work,” according to the FAQs released by OSHA today.

The count of employees is corporate-wide, not by individual location. Even those who are working from home are counted (although some parts of the mandate do not apply to those workers who are exclusively remote workers). Similarly, those who work exclusively outside are counted when determining if you have 100 workers, but the mandate does not apply in the same way to outside workers.

Independent contractors are not included when you are counting to 100. Neither are temporary workers that you use who are actually employed by a staffing company.

Federal contractors were already subject to a separate vaccine mandate under Executive Order 14042. Healthcare employers who receive Medicare or Medicaid funds have their own stricter vaccination ETS also released today, which does not allow for testing as an alternative to vaccination. To make it easier for all employers to comply with the differing requirements, the deadline for the federal contractor vaccination requirement has been aligned with those for the healthcare entity rule and the large employer rule. Employees falling under the any of these rules will need to have their final vaccination dose – either their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or single dose of Johnson & Johnson – by January 4, 2022. 

But what about Gov. Abbott’s Executive Order Saying No Vaccine Mandates in Texas?

I won’t get into all of the politics of this, but this OSHA standard preempts Gov. Abbott’s order (which he couldn’t persuade the Texas Legislature to turn into law in the last special session). The U.S. Supreme Court has already backed vaccine mandates in at least three separate instances this year. I would not count on the Supremes ruling that Gov. Abbott’s executive order will prevent OSHA from enforcing this new Emergency Temporary Standard. And you probably don’t want the exorbitant legal expense for your company to be the test case for this political pissing match between the state and the feds anyway.

What are my next steps?

Continue reading New Federal Vaccine Mandate Immediately Affects Employers with 100+ Employees

DOL Finalizes New Salary Minimum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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

Sexual Harassment Focus Should Prompt Employer Vigilance

To no one’s surprise, my life as an employment lawyer for the last two months has focused primarily on one issue—sexual harassment. I have conducted several investigations and advised numerous employers on this issue recently because the national news and the #MeToo movement have had a direct impact on employers in the Texas Panhandle area, including some of my smaller employers.

Female employees nationwide and locally obviously feel freshly empowered to say something about any mistreatment and to expect that their complaints will be seriously addressed. As Oprah Winfrey predicted at the Golden Globes awards ceremony, “For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

While the recent sexual harassment focus is inspiring to many women as a political call to arms, business owners and human resources directors are trying figure out how to hear and handle the resulting complaints with compassion, but also with practicality. That’s where your employment lawyer can help.

Any claim of sexual harassment is what we employment lawyers consider an emergency for your company. When an employee alerts you to a problem, you have to spring into action immediately to make the complainant safe, undertake a thorough and impartial investigation of the claim and finally, resolve the matter with the appropriate discipline. At that point, it is too late to improve upon your written policy or regret a bawdy joke that you recently told.

If you are a business owner or manager in a company with at least 15 names on the payroll, you would be wise to expect to face a sexual harassment complaint sometime in the near future, and to take these six steps now to lessen the sting of such a complaint: Continue reading Sexual Harassment Focus Should Prompt Employer Vigilance

Employers Must Use Revised I-9 Form Beginning September 18

The very important I-9 form, which verifies a new employee’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States, has been revised again. Employers must start using the revised form on September 18, 2017.

The revision, marked “07/17/17 N” and carrying an expiration date of 08/31/19, has to be completed only by new hires. You do not have to go back and get all of your current employees to recomplete an I-9 just because the form changed after their hire date.

Employers must complete an I-9 form on each new employee within 3 days of hiring. This process started in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which prohibits employers from taking on a new employee without verifying the employee’s identification and eligibility to work legally in the United States.

The verification is done by reviewing the employee’s identification and employment eligibility documents, such as a passport, a permanent resident card, or a driver’s license and social security card, and completing the I-9 form. There is a very helpful employer’s guide available online that shows you what a valid document is supposed to look like. Doing your due diligence requires that you consult that guide each time you look at a new employee’s documents.

Because of the views of the current administration, employers can expect an increase in enforcement of immigration laws, including more frequent ICE audits of your I-9 compliance. There are expensive penalties if you as an employer cannot produce accurately completed I-9 forms for each of your current and former employees.

The minimum fine is $216 per error on an I-9 and the maximum is $2,156 per error (including current employees and former employees) for each paperwork violation. That means that a single I-9 form which has multiple errors could cause the employer to be responsible for multiple penalties per form. If ICE determines that the employer has failed to accurately complete I-9s on at least 50% of its employees, the maximum fine of $2,156 will be levied on the employer for each form.

You must keep an I-9 form on every active employee as long as the employee works for you. For a terminated employee, you must be able to produce an I-9 for three years after the hire date or one year after termination, whichever is later. To make it easier to remember, most employers wait to purge I-9 forms until three years after an employee’s termination.

Typically, when ICE appears for an I-9 audit, they will require that you produce I-9 forms for each current employee and any employee terminated in the last three years. You are given 72-hours’ notice to pull all of these forms together, which is why many employers store the I-9 forms together rather than in each employee’s individual file.

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

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.