Termination for Social Media Activity May Result in Unemployment Compensation Benefits

Q.  Our Company just terminated an employee for a social media post that was in violation of our social media policy. Will she be entitled to unemployment compensation benefits?

A.  Possibly.

While unemployment compensation laws vary from state-to-state, former employees generally are entitled to benefits unless the employer can prove that the employee’s employment ended due to a disqualifying reason, such as willful misconduct or voluntary discharge.

In a recent Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court decision, Waverly Heights, Ltd. v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, the Court affirmed a benefits award to a former human resources executive who was terminated for sending what the employer deemed to be a racially-charged tweet about the 2016 presidential election. Until her termination, Kathleen Jungclaus had served as the vice president of human resources of a retirement care community for nearly 20 years. Ms. Jungclaus was terminated when she posted a tweet to her personal Twitter account in July 2016 that stated “@realDonaldTrump I am the VP of HR in a comp outside of philly an informal survey of our employees shows 100% AA employees voting Trump!” Per the employer, “AA” referred to African Americans and Ms. Jungclaus’s tweet was an admission to singling out black staff members and asking them about their political preferences.

Ms. Jungclaus’s employer maintained a social media policy that stated it was the employer’s expectation that employees “who identify themselves with” the employer on social media promote and protect the reputation, dignity, respect, and confidentiality of the employer’s residents, clients and employees. Because of the racially-charged nature of the Tweet (and its presumed reference to African American employees), the employer argued that Ms. Jungclaus’s termination for violating the company’s social media policy constituted willful misconduct.

For Pennsylvania Unemployment Compensation Law purposes, “willful misconduct” is defined as “(1) wanton and willful disregard of an employer’s interests; (2) deliberate violation of rules; (3) disregard of the standards of behavior which an employer can rightfully expect from an employee; or, (4) negligence showing an intentional disregard of the employer’s interests or the employee’s duties and obligations.” When an employer seeks to deny a former employee unemployment compensation benefits based on a rule or policy violation, the employer must prove (a) the existence of the rule; (b) the reasonableness of the rule; and (c) the employee’s violation of the rule.

Applying these standards, the Commonwealth Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to support a finding that Ms. Jungclaus did not violate the social media policy because she did not explicitly “identify” herself as an employee of Waverly Heights—even though a Google search of Ms. Jungclaus’s name would reveal that she worked there. Furthermore, the Court concluded there was no evidence of “wanton and willful disregard of an employer’s interests” because there was no actual evidence that Ms. Jungclaus polled African-American employees about their political preferences.  The Court found that mere discussions of current affairs did not rise to the level of willful misconduct.

Importantly, the Court reviewed only whether Ms. Jungclaus was entitled to unemployment compensation benefits. The Court was not asked to consider whether the termination itself was unlawful.

The Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) frequently concluded that overly broad social media policies could have a chilling effect on unionized and non-unionized employee rights to engage in concerted activities under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  As we mentioned in a post earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that an employee’s social media post cursing at a supervisor and his family, made during a union election, was protected activity under the NLRA, and the employee could not be terminated for it. It remains to be seen how the Trump NLRB will interpret and enforce social media policies.

The primary lesson for employers? Unless an employer can affirmatively establish that a terminated employee engaged in willful misconduct or is ineligible for benefits due to other disqualifying reasons, then the terminated employee likely will be entitled to unemployment compensation benefits. Further, when making an employment decision based on an employee’s social media post, tread carefully. At least for unemployment purposes, it is likely that state labor departments and the courts will not find such comments to rise to the level of willful misconduct. Additionally, depending on the content and context of the post, the NLRB may find the post to be a lawful concerted activity protected by the NLRA.

Lee E. Tankle

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 a Shutdown due to Natural Disasters and Inclement Weather

Q: Do I need to pay my employees if my company has closed or temporarily shut down operations due to a natural disaster or inclement weather?

A: It depends.

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and in anticipation of the upcoming winter snow season, many employers are questioning whether they need to pay employees when their company cannot open due to a natural disaster or inclement weather.

Whether an employee needs to be paid will typically turn on whether the employee is exempt or nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Under federal law, nonexempt employees only are entitled to payment for “hours worked.” Therefore, if a business is forced to shut down for a period of time due to a hurricane, blizzard, or other challenge imposed by Mother Nature, there is no obligation under federal law for an employer to pay nonexempt employees. This makes sense because, quite simply, if a non-exempt employee does not work, there is no requirement to pay them. Employers do have the option of permitting non-exempt employees to use vacation or other paid time off during periods of inclement weather.

Companies generally will be required to pay salaried nonexempt employees in the event of a natural disaster unless the employer’s operations are shut down for more than one workweek. Under the FLSA, salaried exempt employees are entitled to receive their full salary for any workweek in which they perform any work (regardless of the number of days or hours worked). As such, if an employer closes its facilities due to natural disaster for less than a full workweek, an exempt employee must still be paid his or her full salary for the workweek. An employer only is entitled to withhold payment of wages to salaried exempt employees if the employer is closed for an entire workweek and the salaried exempt employee performs no work during that workweek. Should an employer decide to close its facility for more than one workweek, an employer can permit an exempt employee to take vacation/paid time off or allow the employee to work remotely.

Paying employees when a business is closed due to weather concerns is not always legally required but doing so will certainly improve employee morale—especially in instances of a life-altering hurricanes like Harvey and Irma where employees have suffered the loss of a home or personal property. If questions arise regarding payment of employees during natural disasters, consult a labor and employment law attorney.

Lee E. Tankle

Physical Exams as a Condition of Employment: Are They Permissible?

Q.  My Company would like to have all applicants for employment submit to a pre-employment physical examination to ensure that they are fit for the position. Is this allowable?

A.  Employers may require an applicant to submit to a pre-employment physical examination, but only after a conditional offer of employment has been made, and even then only under the following conditions:

  • All other candidates in the job category must also be required to submit to the physical;
  • The candidate’s medical history is kept separate from other employment-related records and is treated confidentially; and
  • The results are not used to discriminate against the applicant under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or other discrimination laws.

To ensure that there is no ADA violation, the physical examination should be limited to an assessment of whether the applicant is able to perform the duties of the position, with or without an accommodation. To avoid a claim under the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”), the physician should not request information about the applicant’s family medical history.

It would be helpful to provide the physician with a copy of the job description prior to the examination so that the physician is familiar with the responsibilities expected of the position.

Employers will want to tread carefully in making an adverse employment decision based on the results of a physical exam. The applicant’s offer may not be rescinded unless the issue is job-related and consistent with business necessity, or creates a direct threat to health and safety of the applicant or others, and the condition cannot be reasonably accommodated.  Moreover, the company could violate discrimination laws if it rescinds an offer based on non-medical information learned as a result of the physical (for example, the applicant’s age, religion, etc.)  Likewise, employers could land in hot water if they rescind an offer after learning about an employee’s pregnant condition as the result of the exam.

–Tracey E. Diamond

Employers and Election Day: Voting Leave

Q: Now that the election is finally here, am I required to give employees time off to vote?

The answer to that question depends on which state you are in. There is no federal law that requires employers to give time off to vote, but many states do have such laws.  While the laws vary by state, in general, these kinds of laws provide that employers must provide time off to vote if employees do not have sufficient time to vote outside of working hours.  State laws vary as to whether the time is paid or unpaid, how much time must be given, and how much time is “sufficient” to vote outside of working hours.  Many states provide that employees are only entitled to voting leave if they provide advance notice to the employer.

In New York, for example, employers are required to provide up to two hours of paid voting leave to employees who are registered voters and who do not have sufficient time outside of work hours to vote, so long as eligible employees notify their employer of the need for voting leave at least two workdays before election day. If employees have four consecutive hours between the opening of the polls and the start of their work shift, or between the end of their work shift and the closing of the polls, that is considered sufficient time to vote, and leave does not need to be provided.  Employers can require that the leave be taken at the beginning or end of a work shift.  New York is the only state that requires employers to post a notice of employees’ voting leave rights.  But employers in New York must get these notices posted now, as the rules require that the notice be posted at least 10 workdays before every election and remain posted until the polls close on election day.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey do not have voting leave laws, but both states have similar laws providing that employers may not interfere with an employee’s right to vote, or use threats or intimidation to influence an employee’s vote for a particular candidate.  New Jersey also provides that, within 90 days of an election, employers may not exhibit any notice in the workplace that contains any information that could be construed as a threat intended to influence employees’ political opinions or actions.

Finally, it is important to note that while this year’s Presidential election is receiving the most attention, state voting leave laws also apply to other types of elections (general, special and primary, and ballot proposals, among others, depending on the state).

Jessica Rothenberg