May 2017

pregnancy1On Tuesday, May 23rd, the Connecticut House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure that would greatly expand the already broad anti-discrimination provision that exist under Connecticut law.  The bill, House Bill 6668, would make several substantive changes to the protections including defining what is a “reasonable accommodation” instead of leaving that determination open.

I’ve previously written extensively about the state laws covering pregnant employees before (here and here for example) so I encourage you to familiarize yourself with the current law so you can fully understand the contemplated change. But I’ll try to break it down here.

Existing law makes it a discriminatory practice to:

  • To terminate a woman’s employment because of her pregnancy;
  • to refuse to grant to that employee a reasonable leave of absence for disability resulting from her pregnancy;
  • to deny to that employee, who is disabled as a result of pregnancy, any compensation to which she is entitled as a result of the accumulation of disability or leave benefits accrued pursuant to plans maintained by the employer;
  • to fail or refuse to reinstate the employee to her original job or to an equivalent position with equivalent pay and accumulated seniority, retirement, fringe benefits and other service credits upon her signifying her intent to return unless, in the case of a private employer, the employer’s circumstances have so changed as to make it impossible or unreasonable to do so.

Those provisions would remain unchanged under the bill.

Existing law also makes it a discriminatory practice to:

  • fail or refuse to make a reasonable effort to transfer a pregnant employee to any suitable temporary position which may be available in any case in which an employee gives written notice of her pregnancy to her employer and the employer or pregnant employee reasonably believes that continued employment in the position held by the pregnant employee may cause injury to the employee or fetus;
  • fail or refuse to inform the pregnant employee that a transfer pursuant to subparagraph (E) of this subdivision may be appealed under the provisions of this chapter; or
  • fail or refuse to inform employees of the employer, by any reasonable means, that they must give written notice of their pregnancy in order to be eligible for transfer to a temporary position; 

The bill would delete those three rules and instead expand existing law to make it a discriminatory practice to:

  • limit, segregate or classify the employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities due to her pregnancy;
  • discriminate against an employee or person seeking employment on the basis of her pregnancy in the terms or conditions of her employment;
  • fail or refuse to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee or person seeking employment due to her pregnancy, unless the employer can demonstrate that such accommodation would impose an undue hardship on such employer;
  • deny employment opportunities to an employee or person seeking employment if such denial is due to the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation due to her pregnancy;
  • force an employee or person seeking employment affected by pregnancy to accept a reasonable accommodation if such employee or person seeking employment (i) does not have a known limitation related to her pregnancy, or (ii) does not require a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential duties related to her employment;
  • require an employee to take a leave of absence if a reasonable accommodation can be provided in lieu of such leave; and
  • retaliate against an employee in the terms, conditions or privileges of her employment based upon such employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation.

The changes don’t end there.  The bill creates definitions now for “reasonable accommodation” and “undue hardship”.

  • Under the bill, “Reasonable accommodation” means, “but shall not be limited to, being permitted to sit while working, more frequent or longer breaks, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, light duty assignments, modified work schedules, temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work, time off to recover from childbirth or break time and appropriate facilities for expressing breast milk.”
  • And under the bill, “Undue hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as (A) the nature and cost of the accommodation; (B) the overall financial resources of the employer; (C) the overall size of the business of the employer with respect to the number of employees, and the number, type and location of its facilities; and (D) the effect on expenses and resources or the impact otherwise of such accommodation upon the operation of the employer.

Contrast that with the ADA’s definition of those terms. If passed, the confusion for employers in interpreting these phrases are going to be plentiful.  The ADA, for example, does not define it so precisely in the law and leaves it to regulations to provide further guidance.  The undue hardship definition tracks closer but still differs:

The term “reasonable accommodation” may include (A) making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and (B) job restructuring, part-­time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

A) In general. – The term “undue hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or expense, when considered in light of the factors set forth in subparagraph (B).

(B) Factors to be considered. – In determining whether an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on a covered entity, factors to be considered include – (i) the nature and cost of the accommodation needed under this chapter; (ii) the overall financial resources of the facility or facilities involved in the provision of the reasonable accommodation; the number of persons employed at such facility; the effect on expenses and resources, or the impact otherwise of such accommodation upon the operation of the facility; (iii) the overall financial resources of the covered entity; the overall size of the business of a covered entity with respect to the number of its employees; the number, type, and location of its facilities; and (iv) the type of operation or operations of the covered entity, including the composition, structure, and functions of the workforce of such entity; the geographic separateness, administrative, or fiscal relationship of the facility or facilities in question to the covered entity

You will now have the same words mean different things.

Two other notes: First, the bill creates a broad definition of “pregnancy” by not just including the pregnancy and childbirth but also any “related condition, including, but not limited to, lactation”.   Contrast this with the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act which defines pregnancy to just related medical conditions.

And second, the bill would create a new poster regarding pregnancy discrimination that employers would need to add to their facilities.

The CBIA initially expressed concern about this bill increasing the number of lawsuits and suggesting that “we should consider whether adequate enforcement of existing law is better than making businesses risk endlessly litigating what ‘could have been provided’ to employees in the past.”

For employers, this is a bill that warrants close attention; these have the potential to bring the most significant changes to this area of law in well over a decade.

What Would Clooney Think?
What Would Clooney Think?

Your employee that you are firing should not hear about his firing from a television report first.

I suppose that would seem an obvious rule to follow. But apparently not.

Let me back up.

Earlier today, the President fired FBI Director James Comey — an act that really is more for politics blogs, than an employment law blog.

But as the details of the firing trickled out in the evening, one detail jumped out at me — James Comey found out he was fired through the television.

From The New York Times:

Mr. Comey was addressing a group of F.B.I. employees in Los Angeles when a television in the background flashed the news that he had been fired.

In response, Mr. Comey laughed, saying he thought it was a fairly funny prank.

Then his staff started scurrying around in the background and told Mr. Comey that he should step into a nearby office.

Now, I’m sure there are many who don’t feel sorry for Mr. Comey; but still, where’s the humanity in firing someone via television?

Of course, this kind of schtick isn’t reserved just for politics. I remember back in 2009, I gave the following tip as well: Do not do layoffs or firings via e-mail. Period. (And last year, I wrote about how to conduct firings without getting sued too.)

So, for employers that are having to conduct firings, let me offer five suggestions for the actual informing of employees that they are being fired.

  1. Do it in person if possible, and have a witness.  If it’s not possible (distance, other circumstances), a phone call is a backup option.
  2. Do it in private.  Pick a time perhaps near the end of the day (or beginning) and perhaps in a location in the office that is away from crowds.
  3. Be brief and direct.  And plan in advance, what you are going to say.  Don’t draw it out, and don’t use wishy-washy language.  Some employers start with the “I have some bad news for you today.”
  4. Don’t argue with the employee or get into lengthy discussions regarding the termination. Be clear that the decision is final.
  5. Be sensitive.  Yes, firing an employee is typically hard on the employer, but guess what? It’s harder on the employee. Always.  Acknowledge the employee may disagree with the decision but be consistent with your message.

There is obviously a lot more to a termination meeting than this. Successful meetings are the result of preparation and practice.

But just remember: Your employee should find out he is being fired first from you — not a third party.

numbersThis week, the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, a self-described “free market” think tank, issued an article suggesting that Connecticut had nearly the same number of discrimination complaints as our neighboring state, Massachusetts.

(This isn’t the first time it’s been critical of the CHRO.)

In doing so, the Yankee Institute claimed that these statistics raise “questions as to whether Connecticut is simply more litigious or if the policies at the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities are encouraging more claims.”

The basis for its analysis is a raw look at the statistics of claims filed — something I covered way back in December 2016 in two posts here and here.

I noted back then that the statistics only told part of the story and unfortunately here, the Yankee Institute’s arguments fall into this trap of relying too heavily on just a few statistics.

For example, yes, discrimination complaints have risen in the last few years as the Yankee Institute argues, but the types of complaints being filed are changing.  The Yankee Institute’s article lumps them all together as if they are fungible.

For example, as I noted in December: If you look at the claims involving termination of employment, there were 1216 filed in FY 2016, which is actually down from historical peaks in 2003, when there were 1385 such claims.

Instead, a different type of claim is being filed over the last 15 years — with huge increases in the “terms and conditions” area.

That is, employees who claim that they are being discriminated against in the “terms and conditions” of their employment when it comes to things like hiring, promotions and pay.  It could also mean an employer is not approving leaves, or granting breaks or any other term or condition of employment, however small.

In 2003, there were 411 such claims filed.  In 2014, there were 782.  By FY 2016, however, that number has skyrocketed to 1056!

In my mind, that likely means that more current employees are bringing discrimination claims against their employers.

chro99This is bolstered by a look at the “harassment” statistics. Notably, I’m not talking about sexual harassment claims, which continue to trend noticeably downward.  Just 135 such claims were filed in FY 2016, down from 185 the prior year and the lowest number by far in the 15+ years of available data.

Instead, this is a catch all claim for “I’m harassed” because of some other reason.  Just 175 such claims were filed in 2003, though that number was up to 380 in 2014.  For FY 2016, that number is up to 545.

That’s a more than 210% increase in over a decade!

Is the CHRO to blame for this trend? Without more critical analysis, I am hesitant to place the blame on the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

Anecdotally, I hear more arguments that employees are throwing around the phrase “hostile work environment” — not understanding that having a difficult boss is not illegal harassment.

The Yankee Institute’s article is also critical of the CHRO’s closure rate for “No Reasonable Cause” at 54 percent, compared to 87 percent of the Massachusetts claims closed for a lack of probable cause.

The CHRO issued a statement of their own on Facebook this week, with its own explanation for the discrepancy:

Many companies in Connecticut choose to resolve those matters prior to going through the full investigation process, by mediating those claims. Mediation works to the benefit of both parties, allowing for faster resolution and less time and money spent on investigations. These cases are frequently closed in fewer than six months from filing.

Here too, I think there is a danger than just looking at the numbers.  Both sides have some merit to their arguments.

As the Yankee Institute correctly notes, complaints ARE more costly and employers sometimes feel that they should pay something on even meritless claims to avoid the cost of litigation.

But the CHRO can also point to the fact that it has been dismissing more cases of late on Early Legal Intervention, giving employers more opportunities to avoid the cost of the CHRO process.  And the CHRO has been using mediation more effectively in the past — even if cases are getting through Case Assessment Review that probably shouldn’t.

Statistics are helpful; but when a state agency or a think tank starts using the numbers without providing context, reader beware.