Connecticut Employment Law Blog

Insight on Labor & Employment Developments for Connecticut Businesses

Unpaid Volunteers Are Not “Employees”, Says Court

Posted in CHRO & EEOC, Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation

ambulanceThe CHRO is no stranger to taking aggressive positions in the court system.

So, it can really be no surprise that the agency wanted to expand who is covered by the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

But the Connecticut Supreme Court, as it has done before, was having none of it.  The end result of the case is one that frankly is of interest more to employment lawyers than to the clients we serve.

The newest case, CHRO v. Echo Hose Ambulance, will be officially released this week. But we have an advance release opinion which makes it clear that unpaid volunteers — even those that serve in the volunteer ambulance corp — aren’t entitled to coverage under the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Of course, the issue framed is slightly different; the court said it was called upon to determine “what test” should be applied to determine whether an unpaid volunteer is an ‘‘employee’’. “More specifically, we must decide whether a volunteer must satisfy the predominant ‘‘remuneration test’’ used to resolve similar federal causes of action or Connecticut’s common-law ‘‘right to control’’ test.”

The court concludes that the remuneration test is appropriate. The remuneration test instructs courts to ‘‘conduct a [two step] inquiry by requiring that a volunteer first show remuneration as a threshold matter before proceeding to the second step—analyzing the putative employment relationship under the [common-law] agency test. Remuneration may consist of either direct compensation, such as a salary or wages, or indirect benefits that are not merely incidental to the activity performed.”

The case isn’t that much of a surprise after last year’s Appellate Court decision which held the same thing.  As my colleague, Gary Starr, wrote back then that what matters is how the person is remunerated.  As he noted then, “for employers and organizations, the decision provides a notable reminder to review the status of your volunteers to ensure that you haven’t transformed any of them into “employees”.”

Sex Harassment in the Workplace: An Uptick in Cases, Awareness or Both?

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center
Rainbow over Hartford

Are Things Getting Better or Worse?

The last few weeks it seems that I’ve been reading about sexual harassment in the workplace issues a lot more. Here are a few examples:

So what’s going on? Is sex harassment increasing? Or is this just another round of increased focused placed on a problem that still persists?

Well, if you look at the statistics, you can see part of the story — and part of the problem trying to glean trends from the numbers too.

Last year, I reported on some statistics from the state level about harassment claims.  Indeed, sex harassment cases were down significantly, but general “I’ve been harassed” claims were up nearly 200% over the last decade or so.

The EEOC statistics show slightly different numbers. Sex harassment claims went up by a modest 4 percent in fiscal year 2015, though more generalized “harassment” under Title VII claims also increased by 6 percent.

So, which is it? Up or down? Statistics on case filing don’t tell the full story.  Surveys (yes, including the one in Cosmopolitan magazine) show that women still think some workplaces have issues.

But I would argue that chasing statistics is missing the point. Rather, it’s the perception of whether this is a hot issue that will drive the discussion.  And to that, we’re definitely seeing renewed interest. For example, a few weeks ago, the EEOC issued some findings and statements from a select task force calling on stakeholders “to double down and ‘reboot’ workplace harassment prevention efforts“.  This increased focus on the area will once again bring the issues of sexual harassment to the forefront.

What’s an employer to do? Well, start with the obvious.  Review your existing policies. Are they strong enough? Do they need to be updated to reflect current practices?  And then review your existing training.  Is it updated? Or is it still stuck in the 1990s?   And then look at how your workplace is actually functioning.

Beyond that the EEOC has a whole list of suggestions for employers to follow. You can view the entire compilation, but here are a few examples:

  • Employers should foster an organizational culture in which harassment is not tolerated, and in which respect and civility are promoted. Employers should communicate and model a consistent commitment to that goal.
  • Employers should assess their workplaces for the risk factors associated with harassment and explore ideas for minimizing those risks.
  • Employers should conduct climate surveys to assess the extent to which harassment is a problem in their organization.
  • Employers should devote sufficient resources to harassment prevention efforts, both to ensure that such efforts are effective, and to reinforce the credibility of leadership’s commitment to creating a workplace free of harassment.
  • Employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is prompt and proportionate to the severity of the infraction. In addition, employers should ensure that where harassment is found to have occurred, discipline is consistent, and does not give (or create the appearance of) undue favor to any particular employee.
  • Employers should hold mid-level managers and front-line supervisors accountable for preventing and/or responding to workplace harassment, including through the use of metrics and performance reviews.
  • If employers have a diversity and inclusion strategy and budget, harassment prevention should be an integral part of that strategy.

HR personnel have a lot on their plate now; be sure harassment prevention remains there as well.

Another Day, Another Reversal by the NLRB

Posted in Highlight, Labor Law & NLRB

By now, it’s really not a big surprise when the NLRB reverse course on a prior decision. This week, the NLRB did it again.  My colleague, Jarad Lucan, provides this quick update on temporary/contract employees being allowed to join unions.  Read on.

Lucan_J_WebIn 2004 the National Labor Relations Board in its Oakwood Care Center case said that temporary and permanent workers must bargain separately unless the employer gives consent.

Yesterday, however, the NLRB overturned that precedent stating, “[b]y requiring employer consent, Oakwood has . . . allowed employers to shape their ideal bargaining unit, which is precisely the opposite of what Congress intended.”

Now, after a ruling in Miller & Anderson, temporary workers provided by staffing agencies do not need an employer’s permission to join unions that include its full-time employees as long as they share a “community of interest” with full-time workers.

In dissent, board member Philip Miscimarra said that along with the NLRB’s 2015 joint employer decision in Browning-Ferris Industries Inc, the NLRB’s latest ruling would create issues for  companies that use contract labor and force many staffing firms to bargain with unions that represent the full-time workers of other companies.

As we have discussed previously, in Browning-Ferris, the NLRB said companies may be deemed joint employers of contract workers if they have the potential to control working conditions.  Previously, the board required proof of actual, direct control.

With its latest decision, it could now be easier for workers found to be joint employees under the Browning-Ferris standard to unionize.   Of course, the actual impact of both decisions still remains to be seen.

My former colleagues who write the Management Memo blog also shared this tip for employers as a result of the decision:

At a minimum, a detailed risk assessment of an employer’s workforce and its reliance upon its own employees and temporaries, leased and contract labor employed and controlled, in whole or in part, by so-called supplier employers is in order. “User” employers should determine the goals and risks associated with a relationship and determine whether it is possible and/or desirable to attempt avoid a joint employer relationship or embrace it but attempt to control liability. Both “supplier” and “user” employers should look for contractual provisions regarding defining the relationship, including who controls and does not control certain aspects, indemnification provisions, provisions related to responses and responsibilities related to union organizing and collective bargaining and similar concerns. Experienced labor counsel should be consulted to assist in these issues.

With Your Social Media Policy, It’s “Live” and “Go” Time

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Social Media, Wage & Hour

pokemonRecently, I had the opportunity to revisit a social media policy I had reviewed several years ago.  (Check back to this post from 2008 to see how far we’ve really come.) In doing so, I was reminded — once again — how quickly the tech world is changing and how policies need to continually adapt.  It seemed so quaint — with references to MySpace, Foursquare, and even LiveJournal.  No mention of Snapchat, Instagram, or Vine.

And then I thought of the technology news from the last week demonstrating the dramatic rise and use of Facebook Live and Pokemon Go.

Facebook Live is a capability to broadcast — live — from anywhere (at least with a cell phone connection) at any time.  It was used in dramatic effect in the shootings in both Minnesota and Dallas.

Pokemon Go is something different.  It is a brand-new mobile game app with social media capabilities (you can join a “team”) where users search the real world for virtual monsters that appear on your cell phone in an augmented reality way.  In just a week, it has nearly as many users as Twitter.

Both are going to cause employers big headaches in the months ahead — for differing reasons of course.

There’s no doubt that the rise of livesteaming apps is something new and revolutionary.  And your social media policy should definitely be updated to reflect that. Imagine your workforce broadcasting live from your office — all under the guise of engaging in “protected concerted activity”.  How should the employer react when such events are occurring in real-time?

A policy can help to provide some answers but it’s the exercise of thinking about what your response will be that can be just as helpful.

And then there’s apps like “Pokemon Go” — which are nearly unparalleled in their adoption.  We’ve already had our first firing related to Pokemon Go and that’s no doubt the beginning.  Forbes reports that employers are “nonplussed” with it.

But the response to this app is a bit easier.  If it interferes with an employee’s workplace productivity or is a drain on your resources, it’s appropriate to limit it.

If your policy hasn’t been updated in a few years, use the rise of new apps as an excuse to bring it up to speed.  You can’t keep up with everything but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them either.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go look for Drowzee.

(Photo credit: Imgur.)

New Pay Secrecy Law Finds a Place in Court With Lawsuit

Posted in Highlight, Laws and Regulations, Litigation, Wage & Hour

Well, it was bound to happen.  After nine years of writing the blog on a near daily schedule, some work and personal commitments interfered with my blog writing schedule. But never fear, more new posts from me are now right around the corner.

In the meantime, one of our summer associates, James Joyce, joins the blog today to give an update on a a law passed last year regarding pay secrecy. My thanks to James for his work on this.  James is finishing up his law degree at University of Connecticut.  

joyceLoyal readers may recall that about a year ago, Connecticut’s “Act Concerning Pay Equity and Fairness” Public Act 15-196, became law.   Dan has already blogged about the nuts and bolts of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” and its potential impact on employers.

And, as Dan highlighted, employers need to be mindful of this legislation because it created a private cause of action in court for any violation.  That is where today’s post comes into the picture.

One of the first lawsuits alleging violations of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” was recently filed in Superior Court in Stamford (the case has since been removed to Federal District Court).   The lawsuit raises other issues as well, but for today’s post, we’ll focus on the “Pay Secrecy” claim.

So what’s in this lawsuit? Well, the plaintiff alleges that her former employer maintained a “Pay Secrecy Policy” forbidding employees from discussing their salaries despite the enactment of the “Pay Secrecy Bill” in July 2015.

Specifically, the allegations include a run-in with the human resources (HR) department due to comments the Plaintiff made about salaries and her former employer’s view that this was inappropriate and none of the plaintiff’s business.  The plaintiff received an “Employee Warning Notice” from HR and HR went on to tell the plaintiff she could not discuss her wages or her co-workers’ wages.

Additionally, in February 2016, it is alleged that a former co-worker of the plaintiff was reprimanded for a conversation she had with another employee about the company’s paid time off/holiday policy.  The former co-worker was allegedly told directly by the CEO and by HR that this conversation or any similar conversations violated the company’s policy prohibiting employees from discussing compensation with other employees

Obviously, whether or not these facts are true — or rise to a level of violating the law — will play out in court.  But these types of incidents are just the sort of things that employers need to be aware of to avoid “Pay Secrecy” violations.  The law prohibits employers from implementing policies that prevent employees from, or disciplining employees for, engaging in conversations about salary-related information.

Because this case was recently filed there is no way to predict how the court will rule.  Nevertheless, that does not mean this case should be ignored until it is decided.  Employers should remind their human resources staff and managers of this new Connecticut law.

The downside will be cases like this where the employer may have to spend time and money investigating and defending themselves against the alleged “Pay Secrecy” violations.  Employers also risk being found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper related to the alleged violations.

Settling FLSA Wage & Hour Claims? Court Approval May Be Needed

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Litigation, Wage & Hour
Throw out the release?

Throw out the release?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk at the Connecticut Legal Conference about employment law issues. My talk focused on free speech rights in the workplace — a topic I’ve covered well in some prior posts here and here, for example.

One of the other topics of our discussion was the Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House case — a recent case by the Second Circuit discussing wage & hour claim settlements under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

I’ve talked about this issue in prior posts as well but the general takeaway from the discussion yesterday was a renewed emphasis on receiving approval from either a federal court or the U.S. Department of Labor on any wage/hour claim settlements.

In most employment law cases filed in federal court, when a settlement is reached, the parties typically stipulate to the dismissal of the claim under a rule of civil procedure (Rule 41).

In Cheeks, the Second Circuit said that wasn’t good enough due to the unique nature of wage/hour claims and that employees were particularly susceptible to bad settlements:

We conclude that the cases discussed above, read in light of the unique policy considerations underlying the FLSA, place the FLSA within Rule 41’s “applicable federal statute” exception. Thus, Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) stipulated dismissals settling FLSA claims with prejudice require the approval of the district court or the DOL to take effect. Requiring judicial or DOL approval of such settlements is consistent with what both the Supreme Court and our Court have long recognized as the FLSA’s underlying purpose: “to extend the frontiers of social progress by insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

The Court pointed out settlements in other cases which might be troubling.

In [one case], the proposed settlement agreement included (1) “a battery of highly restrictive confidentiality provisions ․ in strong tension with the remedial purposes of the FLSA;” (2) an overbroad release that would “waive practically any possible claim against the defendants, including unknown claims and claims that have no relationship whatsoever to wage-and-hour issues;” and (3) a provision that would set the fee for plaintiff’s attorney at “between 40 and 43.6 percent of the total settlement payment” without adequate documentation to support such a fee award….. In [another case], the district court rejected a proposed FLSA settlement in part because it contained a pledge by plaintiff’s attorney not to “represent any person bringing similar claims against Defendants.” … “Such a provision raises the specter of defendants settling FLSA claims with plaintiffs, perhaps at a premium, in order to avoid a collective action or individual lawsuits from other employees whose rights have been similarly violated.”

Would these apply to claims that were not filed in federal court to begin with? The speakers said the decision left that open a bit but still recommended that parties seek USDOL approval or even file the suit in federal court and seek judicial approval at the same time.

While the court noted that this might be difficult, “the burdens…must be balanced against the FLSA’s primary remedial purpose: to prevent abuses by unscrupulous employers, and remedy the disparate bargaining power between employers and employees.”

Note: These same rules do not apply to settlements under the state wage/hour laws and if you’re not covered by the FLSA, there isn’t much of a need to follow that — at least until the issue is raised in state courts.

But suffice to say that if you get a claim by a current or former employee regarding, say, past overtime wages, be wary of settling the claim without receiving outside approval.

Volunteers: Can They Really Help Fix Your Issues With New Overtime Rules?

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Wage & Hour

wheelchairOver the weekend, I finished planning for our webinar tomorrow on the new overtime rules.  In digging deeper into the materials produced by the Department of Labor on the final rule, I looked at the use of volunteers as a solution — particularly for non-profit organizations.

For the “for-profit” world, this is probably not a realistic option.  The DOL really frowns on any such designation.

But on the last page of the 10-page guidance for non-profits, is a whole section on how non-profit organizations can use volunteer services if certain conditions are met.

To be sure, the new overtime rule doesn’t change the existing rules governing volunteers, but as non-profits look at how to address the issue internally, the use of volunteers may pop up.

So who is a volunteer? According to the DOL: 

A volunteer generally will not be considered an employee for purposes of the FLSA if the individual volunteers freely for public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives, and without contemplation or receipt of compensation. …  Under the FLSA, a person who works in a volunteer role must be a bona fide volunteer.

Some examples of the many ways in which volunteers may contribute to an organization include:
• members of civic organizations may help out in a community rehabilitation program;
• men’s or women’s organizations may send members to adult day care centers to provide certain personal services for the sick or elderly;
• individuals may volunteer to perform such tasks as driving vehicles or assisting with disaster relief; and
• individuals may volunteer to work with children with disabilities or disadvantaged youth, helping in youth programs as camp counselors, scoutmasters, den mothers, providing child care assistance for needy working parents, soliciting contributions or participating in benefit programs for such organizations, and volunteering other services
needed to carry out their charitable, educational, or religious programs.

So, problem solved right? Well, not exactly. The DOL suggests that volunteers serve on a part-time basis and, here’s the key point:
“should not displace employees or perform work that would otherwise typically be performed by employees.”

And what about having paid employees volunteer their extra time? According to the DOL: paid employees of non-profit organizations may not volunteer to provide the same type of services to the non-profit organization that they are otherwise
typically employed to provide.

The DOL provides two examples:

  1. A non-profit medical clinic has an office manager who handles office operations and procedures. The clinic hosts an annual 5K fun run in order to raise funds for its free services. In past years, the office manager also spent time on race day working by registering runners the morning of the run. Newly non-exempt under the Final Rule, the non-profit clinic may permissibly choose to utilize more volunteers this year to register runners instead of tasking the office manager with that assignment (provided all the conditions for bona fide volunteers are met), thus avoiding the accumulation of overtime hours in that week for the office manager.
  2. Using the same facts as above, many other individuals from the community volunteer on race day. The volunteer activities, such as packet pickups, course marshaling, water distribution, and staffing food tables at the finish line, are activities that are not typically performed by employees of the medical clinic. Based on these facts, the individuals are likely bona fide volunteers.

The use of volunteers can be part of a solution to rising overtime costs at a non-profit, but only just part.  The notion that you can just replace your employees with volunteers is not realistic.

We’ll talk more about this and other overtime issues tomorrow.  Hope you are able to join us.

Travel Time: An Added Complication to New Overtime Rules

Posted in Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center, Wage & Hour

cablecarI’m looking forward to “seeing” lots of you at next week’s free webinar we’re having on the new overtime rules and how they impact Connecticut employers.

One of the issues that we’ll touch upon is how the new rules are going to add complications for many employers — and particularly non-profits.

Take, for example, an employee whose job requires travel in Connecticut, perhaps meeting clients.  If that employee makes under the new salary threshold — $47,475/year — (and doesn’t meet any other exemption) then the employee will have to be classified as non-exempt, and therefore eligible to receive overtime.

All of a sudden, time spent travelling needs to be tracked and accounted for. And those rules aren’t necessarily easy.

I’ve talked a bunch about these rules in prior posts (here, here, and here, for example). The interaction between state and federal law on the subject is enough to make your head spin.

But the gist of it is that non-exempt employees will need to be paid for travel time during normal working hours (whatever those may be), but not necessarily for commutes to and from work.

If you are moving an employee from exempt status to non-exempt status, it’s just another example of how application of the relatively straightforward new overtime rule can have added complications.

For more on these issues, feel free to sign up for our June 7th at noon webinar.

Is There A Difference Between Firing Because of Age vs. Salary?

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight

franklinUp on Fortune magazine’s column “Practically Speaking” is the following question:

Frank has been with us for more than 20 years. He works in the warehouse and has done a good job for us. I like him. But, to be honest, for the work he performs I could easily replace him someone younger and … cheaper. Would it be wrong to let him go?

Well, what a loaded question.  The advice column side-steps an important issue and gets into a discussion regarding overhead, benefits, etc.

If you follow this path blindly, you may walk right into a lawsuit.

Why? Because discrimination laws prohibit discrimination on the basis of age and you’re already acknowledging that you want someone “younger” — even if salary considerations may also be involved.

In fact, there have already been cases that talk about similar scenarios. In one case, a supervisor told an employee that he was “looking for younger single people” and that, as a consequence, the employee “wouldn’t be happy [at the company] in the future.”  In other cases, comments about replacing workers with “younger, cheaper” ones can also be used to support an age discrimination claim.

Even without the comment, a replacement by an employer of an employee with someone significantly younger can give rise to an inference of age discrimination.

So, case closed?

Well, maybe in this instance, since the employer already has this “younger” notion embedded in its decision-making process.

But suppose the employer is looking to cut costs and wants to replace higher salaried workers with cheaper ones: Can it do that?

Well, after the court’s decision in Gross (which I discussed way back here): Maybe.  The court there held that age must be the decisive factor in the employer’s decision and that “but for” the employee’s age, the employer would not have made the same decision.

Thus, an employer who believes it can get the same work done by an someone at a lower salary may sometimes survive an age discrimination claim — so long as age doesn’t factor into the decision.  But before you do this, be sure to consult with legal counsel as it’s a minefield to navigate.  This is particularly true in Connecticut where it remains to be seen how closely the courts will truly follow federal law in this instance.

And one more note:  Terminating employees to avoid further pension obligations or other benefits is likely illegal in many instances under federal law.  The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA), which we often think of as only applying to separation agreements, also made it illegal for employers to use an employee’s age as the basis for discrimination in benefits, and to target older workers for their staff cutting programs on the basis that benefits were too costly.

Cost considerations are certainly important for companies to consider. But tying those considerations to age is a step too far under the law.   Be sure to understand the distinctions. And try not to blindly follow advice columns (or even blog posts!); each circumstance is different and getting appropriate legal advice in this instance really is critical.

Free Webinar: Important CT Employer Update on New Federal Overtime Rule

Posted in Highlight

With the new federal overtime rules going into effect later this year, I thought it would be useful to talk about in a free webinar.

And apparently, many of you think it would be useful too because in the 48 hours that we’ve opened up the signups to our webinar, we already have a record-breaking number of signups.

worker3But because it’s online, we have room for more.  So consider this your invite to attend a free webinar on June 7th from noon to 1 p.m. EDT.

Topics will include:

  • Overview of the new federal overtime rule
  • Comparison with Connecticut’s existing (and unchanged) wage and hour rules
  • Tips on how to comply with both state and federal law
  • Discussion of common scenarios arising under the new law

I know there’s a lot of anxiety about these rules, but I hope this webinar can put a smile to your face and ease some of your concerns.

If not, then watch the James Corden version of the “Chewbacca Mom” meme.    If that doesn’t put a smile to your face, I’m not sure the webinar is going to help.