Employees’ Right to Representation During Employer Interviews

Q.  I am the HR Manager for a non-union workplace and we are investigating an issue involving employee misconduct. One of the employees whom I want to interview has requested that a coworker attend the interview as his “representative.” Can we say no?

A.  Yes!

While the NLRB has flip-flopped on this issue several times over the past few decades, the current ruling is that employees in non-union workplaces do not have so-called “Weingarten” rights to representation during company interviews.

The history of whether Weingarten rights to representation cover non-union employees is an interesting example of the effect of the shifting political landscape over time. Back in 1975, the United States Supreme Court held, in the case NLRB v. Weingarten, that an employer violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by denying a unionized employee’s request to have a union representative present at an investigatory interview which the employee reasonably believed might result in disciplinary action.  Six years later, the NLRB extended Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  However, in a pair of subsequent cases in the mid-1980’s, the NLRB reversed this decision and ruled that Weingarten rights did not extend to non-union employees.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and a new set of competing decisions. In the case, Epilepsy Foundation of Northeast Ohio, the NLRB reversed its prior decision and instead found that non-union employees did indeed have a right to have a co-worker present during an investigatory interview that could lead to discipline.  However, just four years later, in IBM Corp., the NLRB changed direction again, ruling that Weingarten rights did not extend to non-union employees.  In the IBM Corp. opinion, the NLRB noted that an employee’s right to a representative was outweighed by the employer’s right to conduct prompt, efficient, thorough, and confidential workplace investigations.

Since the IBM Corp. case, the NLRB has rejected subsequent attempts to extend Weingarten rights to non-union workers.  In a NLRB Office of the General Counsel Advice Memorandum,  dated December 1, 2016 but not released until two months ago, the Office of the General Counsel urged Region 6 to use a pair of cases against General Electric Company to press the Board to extend Weingarten rights to unrepresented employees.  However, both cases were withdrawn.  Given the change in the make-up of the Board under the Trump Administration, it is unlikely that the Board will take up this issue anytime soon.

So, for the time being at least, employers of non-union workers can continue to conduct investigatory interviews without permitting employee representation. On the other hand, Weingarten rights of unionized workers remain intact.

— Tracey E. Diamond

 

AN EMPLOYER’S DUTY TO ACCOMMODATE NOT SO-COMMON RELIGIOUS PRACTICES

Q.  An employee has requested that the company give her an accommodation due to a religious practice I have never heard of. Do we have to comply with this request?

A.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and applicants against religious discrimination and requires that an employer accommodate an individual’s religious practices unless doing so would create an undue hardship on the employer. Typically, employers are asked to accommodate more mainstream religions by way of scheduling accommodations or dress. However, lesser known religious practices also must be accommodated if the employee can establish a sincerely-held belief in the religious practice and that the accommodation would not impose an undue hardship on the company.

Recently, the United States District Court for Western District of Pennsylvania, as well as the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, have addressed accommodating the religious practice known as the “mark of the devil” or the “mark of the beast.” In both instances, the Courts held that the employee’s allegations were sufficient to establish a sincerely- held belief in the religious practice.

In Kaite v. Altoona Student Transp., Inc., the employee worked as a school bus driver and refused to have fingerprints taken because she believed that fingerprinting was the “mark of the devil” and if she submitted to it she would not get into heaven.  The employee asked for an accommodation in the form of a different type of background check that did not include fingerprinting.  The employer refused and terminated the employee’s employment for failing to comply with the State’s background check law.

The United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania rejected the employer’s attempt to dismiss the case, holding that, at least at the motion to dismiss stage, the employee had sufficiently alleged a prima facie case of religious discrimination.

To establish a prima face case, the employee must show: (1) she holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) she informed her employer of the conflict; and (3) she was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement.  Once the employee establishes a prima facie case, the employer then has the burden to prove either that it reasonably accommodated the plaintiff or that it was unable to do so without “undue hardship.”  Here, the employee stated that (i) she had a sincere religious belief that being fingerprinted constituted the “mark of the devil” and would prevent her from going to heaven; (ii) this belief conflicted with her job requirement that she undergo a background check; (iii) the employer was aware of her sincerely-held religious belief; and (iv) the employee subsequently was terminated for failing to comply with the fingerprinting requirement. This was enough to overcome a motion to dismiss.

Similarly, in EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the employer implemented a biometric hand-scanner system for the purpose of requiring employees to check in and out of work.  The employee refused to use the a scanner because of his religious belief that the use of the scanner was the “mark of the beast.”  The employer refused to accommodate the employee’s religious belief, although the employer accommodated others who could not use the hand scanner for non-religious purposes.  The EEOC brought suit on the employee’s behalf, which went to trial.  The jury returned a verdict for the employee totaling $586,860.00 ($150,000 in compensatory damages and $436,860.74 in front and back pay and lost benefits).  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling denying the employer’s motion for a new trial and motion for judgment.

Both of the cases illustrate an employer’s need to be tolerant in accommodating all religious practices, not only those that are considered more mainstream. Employers should remember that demonstrating a sincerely-held belief is typically a “low bar,” and most employees likely will be able to establish this element of their claim.

Moreover, these cases serve as a reminder that, when making determinations regarding accommodating religious practices, the company should:

  • Review whether it has made exceptions for non-religious reasons; and
  • Consider the actual hardship to the employer in accommodating the employee’s request.

Kali T. Wellington-James

Surveillance in the Workplace

Q.  Can employers prevent employees from recording conversations in the workplace.

A.  Sometimes.

As technology continues to advance, so does the likelihood that everything you say and do is being recorded, even in the workplace. With most employees having access to smartphones and other similar devices, there has been an increase in the number of employees engaging in surreptitious surveillance as a means of trying to document alleged wrongdoing and to assert and prove legal claims.  These recordings are being used more frequently in discrimination litigation.  Employees who secretly record workplace conversations often regret it, because the recordings usually depict an employer attempting to be reasonable, and it makes the employee look sneaky and manipulative. However, employers often want to prevent these recordings from happening in the first place. Whether an employer can prevent employees from recording conversations in the workplace depends on federal and state wiretapping laws, and the interests the employer is attempting to protect in relation to employee rights.

Federal law permits the recording of conversations as long as one of the parties to the conversation consents. This means that, so long as the person doing the actual recording consents to the recording, such a recording is permissible.  However, whether more than one-party consent is required varies from state to state.  While most states only require one-party consent, 12 states, including Pennsylvania, require two-party consent.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is a two-party consent state, meaning that it is illegal to intercept or record a conversation unless all parties to the conversation consent. Under Pennsylvania law, it is a felony to record a private conversation without obtaining the appropriate consent.  Thus, if an employee secretly records a private workplace conversation with his or her coworkers or employer, the employee may be subject to a civil lawsuit and criminal charges.

New Jersey

By contrast, in New Jersey, only one-party consent is required to record an in-person or telephone conversation. Thus, it is legal to record a workplace conversation as long as you are a party to the conversation.  However, if an employee records a conversation that he or she is not a part of (for example, if the conversation occurs between a coworker and a supervisor), the employee must obtain consent from at least one of the parties to avoid civil and/or criminal penalties.

“No-Recording” Policies

Employers who wish to prevent their employees from recording workplace conversations should distribute a “no-recording” policy. However, such policies must be drafted carefully to avoid running afoul of the National Labor Relations Act.  For example, no-recording policies that completely ban employees from recording any workplace activities are likely to be considered unlawful.  Employees, even in an non-union environment, are permitted (at least in one-party states) to record conversations or events regarding the terms and conditions of their employment. Such conduct could be considered to be lawful “concerted activity.”

On the other hand, employers are permitted to place properly-tailored limits on an employee’s ability to record workplace activities without violating Section 7 rights. Including a disclaimer in the policy that informs employees that the policy is not intended to interfere with their Section 7 rights is an effective way to reiterate the types of recordings that the employer is not barring.  Employers also should make sure that they are able to identify and articulate legitimate business reasons for prohibiting employees from recording during certain times and in certain places, such as protecting confidential or proprietary information.  Also, if an employer’s state law prohibits nonconsensual surreptitious recordings, it is recommended that the employer refer to the state law in their recording policy.

In addition, employers should be careful to follow these best practices:

  • When meeting with employees, employers should refrain from saying anything that they would not want recorded and make sure to comply with company policies and procedures.
  • Employers should always conduct themselves in a professional and fair manner, as if they were being recorded.
  • In situations where employers are aware that they are being recorded, they should make it clear whether they object or consent to the recording,
  • Consistently enforce the no-recording policy among both employees, supervisors and visitors.
  • Employers should not record discussions with their employers; however if an employer chooses to record a workplace conversation, he or she should inform all parties in advance, even in a single consent state.
  • If an employer feels that he or she is being recorded, the employer should ask the employee(s). Employers do not have to participate in a conversation that is being recorded and can refuse to have a discussion with anyone who insists on recording.
  • Before terminating, disciplining or pursuing criminal or civil charges against an employee for recording in the workplace, seek the advice of counsel.

— Renee C. Manson

 

 

 

Paying Employees During Short Rest Breaks

Q: Do I need to pay non-exempt employees when they go on short rest breaks of 20 minutes or less?

A: Yes.

The United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) has long taken the position that when employers offer non-exempt employees short breaks of under 20 minutes, the time spent on that break is “compensable” under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which has jurisdiction over employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware) adopted the DOL’s position in a case brought by the DOL against American Future Systems, d/b/a Progressive Business Publications (“Progressive”). The Court concluded that the FLSA “does require employers to compensate employees for all rest breaks of twenty minutes or less.”

The facts of the case are as follows: Progressive’s sales representatives are hourly, non-exempt employees. In 2009, Progressive eliminated paid breaks but implemented a policy called “flexible time,” allowing employees to log-off their computers at any time. However, Progressive only paid employees if they were logged off their computer for less than 90 seconds. If an employee took more than 90 seconds to go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, or decompress from a particularly tough sales call, Progressive did not pay the employee.

The FLSA requires that employees are paid for all hours “worked,” but does not define the term “work.” Referring to the FLSA as “humanitarian and remedial legislation” which is to be liberally interpreted, the Third Circuit concluded that the brief periods spent by Progressive’s sales representatives when they logged off the computer clearly were compensable breaks under the FLSA. As the Court reasoned,  “[Progressive’s policy] forces employees to choose between such basic necessities as going to the bathroom or getting paid unless the employee can sprint from computer to bathroom, relieve him or herself while there, and then sprint back to his or her computer in less than ninety seconds. If the employee can somehow manage to do that, he or she will be paid for the intervening period. If the employee requires more than ninety seconds to get to the bathroom and back, the employee will not be paid for the period logged off of, and away from, the employee’s computer.” The Court concluded that this result is contrary to the FLSA and that Progressive’s “flexible time” policy was merely an attempt to circumvent the FLSA’s rules regarding compensable time.

Not all breaks are compensable under the FLSA. For example, the DOL takes the position that bona fide uninterrupted meal periods of 30 minutes or more are non-compensable.

The lesson from this case? Employers should review their policies and practices to ensure that employees are compensated for all types of breaks that are 20 minutes or less. This is true even if an employee violates the company’s break policy. The employee may be disciplined for violating the break policy, but he/she still must be paid.  The good news is that paying for short rest breaks will improve employee morale and avoid liability under the FLSA.

Lee E. Tankle

California’s New Parental Leave Law Adds to the Complexities of Administering Leaves of Absence for National Employers

Q: I heard there is a new parental leave law in California.  How does it compare to other states’ laws and will it affect my business if I have employees in California?

A: Parental leave laws are one of the most complicated aspects of employment law to administer and track.  There are federal, state, and local laws at play, and there is very little uniformity across the laws and across the states.  Even within one state, there may be multiple laws applicable to parental leave, and it can be difficult to navigate the interaction and overlap between the laws.  California’s new parental leave law continues to add to this complexity.

As a starting point, it is important for employers to understand the difference between laws that provide leave entitlement and laws that provide compensation during leave. Laws that provide leave entitlement generally provide eligible employees with a certain amount of leave for qualifying reasons.  The leave is unpaid, but most laws and/or employer policies require or allow employees to use accrued paid time off for part or all of the leave.  Many states also have laws that provide compensation for time off, but do not necessarily provide a leave right.

California’s new parental leave law is an entitlement leave law.  Effective January 1, 2018, employers with 20 to 49 employees nationwide must provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for baby bonding.  In essence, this expands to smaller employers the obligation to provide baby bonding leave under the California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”), which applies to employers with 50 or more employees nationwide.  To qualify for leave,  employees must have worked for the employer for at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months, and work at a worksite where the employer employs at least 20 employees within 75 miles.

In addition to baby bonding leave (as mentioned above), the CFRA, a leave entitlement statute, provides employees up to 12 weeks off to care for an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or for the employee’s own serious health condition. A third California leave entitlement law – the California’s Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDL) – entitles an employee to up to 16 weeks of leave for disabilities related to pregnancy.   The PDL applies to employers with five or more employees nationwide, and there is no minimum requirement of number of hours or years worked for an employee to be eligible.

California’s leave entitlement laws work in conjunction with the state’s Paid Family Leave (“PFL”) program. California PFL is a compensation law, and provides up to six weeks of partial pay to employees who take time off from work to care for a family member with a serious health condition or to bond with a new child.  California PFL applies to all employers who employ one or more employees, and have been paid wages of $100 or more in any quarter of the previous calendar year.  There is no minimum number of hours or days worked for employees to qualify for California PFL benefits.  California PFL is only a compensation law, however, and not a leave entitlement law – thus, it does not create any rights to leave, but rather provides partial pay for leave taken under leave entitlement laws and/or employer policies.  If the leave taken under FMLA, CFRA and/or PDL is for baby bonding or to care for a family member with a serious health condition, the employee can partially fund the leave for up to six weeks through California PFL.

For employers with employees in more than one state, it is important to understand the differences between the statutes of each state, as well as the leave entitlement provided by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and administer them accordingly.   New Jersey, for example, has an existing paid family leave law (PFL), which is similar to California’s law.  To be eligible for New Jersey PFL (a statute that provides compensation rights but not leave rights), an employee must have worked at least 20 calendar weeks or earned at least $7,150 during the 12 months preceding the leave.  New Jersey also has a leave entitlement law, but does not provide a leave entitlement for an employee’s own serious health condition.

As discussed in an earlier post, New York also has a new family leave law that is effective January 1, 2018.  Like California and New Jersey PFL, New York PFL provides partially paid leave for an eligible employee who is providing care for a family member with a serious health condition, and for bonding with a child.  New York PFL also covers  time off for reasons associated with a spouse, child, or parent’s active military duty.  However, unlike California and New Jersey PFL, New York PFL provides both leave entitlement and compensation entitlement.

Given the complexities around leaves, employers should ensure their Human Resources personnel are thoroughly trained, and have access to legal counsel for consultation.

Jessica Rothenberg