Connecticut Employment Law Blog

Insight on Labor & Employment Developments for Connecticut Businesses

CT Medical Marijuana Law Protects Employees; Not Preempted By Federal Drug Laws

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Highlight, Litigation

Labor Day has come and gone. Summer is over.  Can we all stop listening to Despacito now. (Please?)

But it’s time to look at a decision that came out during the dog days of summer that might have been overlooked.  A recent federal district court case (Noffsinger v. SSN Niantic Operating Co. LLC, download here) has answered the question of whether Connecticut’s medical marijuana laws were preempted by federal law.

The decision held that Connecticut employees who have received approval from the state agency to use medical marijuana outside of work cannot be fired just because they test positive for marijuana during a drug screening.  In doing so, the court held that employees and job applicants can sue based on a termination or a rescinded job offer.

As my colleague wrote for my firm’s alert:

Unlike the laws of other states permitting residents to be prescribed medical marijuana, Connecticut’s statute expressly makes it unlawful to refuse to hire or to discharge an employee solely because of the individual’s status as a qualifying patient, or for testing positive in a drug screening as a result of using medical marijuana within the protections of the statute. However, Connecticut does not protect such individuals if they are found to be using or are under the influence of medical marijuana during working hours.

The court analyzed federal drug laws and determined that they do not address the issue of employment and do not make it unlawful to employ a medical marijuana user. As a result, even though federal law prohibits possession or use of marijuana, those restrictions do not apply to someone properly using medical marijuana under state law.

The decision follows one from Massachusetts that we previously recapped here.

In prior posts, I’ve talked about the difficulties for employers trying to navigate this still-developing area of law.  Employers should proceed carefully under such circumstances and ensure compliance with the state’s medical marijuana laws that prohibits firing employees solely because of the individual’s status as a qualifying medical marijuana patient.

If an employee is under the influence of marijuana during working hours, that may afford employers the opportunity to take decisive employment action but other circumstances may not be so clear.

Consulting with your legal counsel on this changing area of law is advisable for the foreseeable future while more court decisions define the parameters of acceptable action.

Obama-Era Proposed Overtime Rules Struck Down By Court

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

U.S. Department of Labor Headquarters

A federal district court in Texas yesterday struck down (once and for all?) the changes to the overtime rules proposed by the Obama Administration.  Previously, those rules (affecting the white collar exemptions) had been stayed, but the Court’s ruling suggests that there is a fatal flaw to the proposed rules and barred its implementation.

In doing so, the Court said that the salary-level test that was proposed was too high to determine which workers were exempt from overtime compensation.

Of course, there was little chance that these rules were going to get the go-ahead anyways because the Trump administration has shown no desire to support them either politically or in court.  Indeed, in July, the Department of Labor sought public feedback on ways to revise the proposed rule.

The ruling applies to employers nationwide.

While you’ll see a round of headlines today about how this is a big decision, it really should come as no surprise for those of us who have been following this for many months.

So all that guidance last year about how to comply with the new rules? Forget about it for now.

Keep calm and carry on.

 

“Hold My Position Open Indefinitely” Is Not a Reasonable Accommodation, Court Rules

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

The Connecticut Appellate Court today released an important disability discrimination decision that gives employers some support for employees who struggle with employees who ask for “accommodations” for an indefinite leave for a medical condition.

The case ostensibly addresses the request for “indefinite leave” which I’ve previously talked about it in prior posts.

But the case boils down to a familiar set of facts for employers. An employee who one day says, “I need to take 30 days off for a medical condition” and leaves the employer to twist without further response. As explained by the court:

The plaintiff informed the defendant that she would be taking a leave of absence, did not provide the defendant with any time frame for her return, and did not respond to the defendant’s subsequent attempts to contact her regarding her request for leave. The plaintiff effectively asked the defendant ‘‘to hold [her] position open indefinitely while [she] attempt[ed] to recover. . . .’’

Under these circumstances, the court said that the Plaintiff cannot establish even a prima facie case of discrimination because she cannot show that she “requested a reasonable accommodation that enabled her to perform the essential functions of the job”.

In doing so, the state court reviewed federal law and noted that “[R]easonable accommodation does not require [an employer] to wait indefinitely
for [the employee’s] medical conditions to be corrected . . . .’’

In this particular case, the court said, the plaintiff, prior to her departure, informed her supervisor that she would be taking leave for ‘‘over thirty days depending on my lung condition . . . .’’  At a subsequent deposition, the court went on to say, the plaintiff was asked, with respect to her request for leave, that ‘‘you didn’t know how long you were going to be out, correct?’’ The plaintiff responded, ‘‘[c]orrect.’’

The forms submitted by the employee at the time were confusing and the Plaintiff did not respond after requests by certified and regular mail by the employer for more information.  When the employee was told to submit information by a date certain and did not do so, the employer just went ahead and fired her. The court upheld that termination.

For employers, the case offers some helpful reminders:

  • Reasonable accommodation is an interactive process. So long as the employer holds up its end, courts will be more inclined to support the employer in the end.
  • Seeking medical documentation from employees regarding their requested leaves is both necessary and essential to defending a claim where the documentation is vague.  Don’t hesitate to followup and set firm deadlines to the employee to provide the information.
  • As always, seek legal counsel to help navigate through this and work through any issues regarding termination.

Employers may feel like anti-discrimination laws are rigid, but there is built-in flexibility for employers if they know where to look.

The case, Thomson v. Department of Social Services, can be downloaded here. 

Revisiting the Fluctuating Workweek Method: CT Supreme Court Says No for Retail Employees

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

It never seems to fail; I go on vacation and the Connecticut Supreme Court issues one of the few employment law decisions it issues every year during that week.

Fortunately for all of us, it concerns the fluctuating work week method of overtime computation which most employers in the state consciously either avoid or try not to understand.  (In very basic terms, the formula calculates a pay rate based on the number of hours an employee actually works in a particular weeks.)

I’ve previously discussed the “perils of trying to rely on a fluctuating work week.” As recently as 2012, I said that “while it can provide some benefit for employers, it must be done properly and must not be raised after the fact.”  And I noted way back in 2008 that employers have to jump through a variety of hoops to make sure they are compliant.

Add to this cautionary tale the latest Connecticut Supreme Court case of Williams v. General Nutrition Centers, Inc. 

The court held that overtime pay for retail employees who receive commission cannot be calculated using the federal fluctuating workweek formula.

And beyond that, the court raised two important principles.  

First, it said that Connecticut law does not prohibit the use of the fluctuating method in general. Thus, for most employers and most employees, the use of the fluctuating work week is definitely in play.

Second, and perhaps most critical here, the Court said that Connecticut Department of Labor regulations that govern overtime pay for retail employees do prohibit the use of the fluctuating method for those employees:

By setting forth its own formula for mercantile employers to use when computing overtime pay, one that requires them to divide pay by the usual hours worked to calculate the regular hourly rate, the wage [regulation] leaves no room for an alternative calculation method….The wage order’s command to use a divide by usual hours method therefore precludes use of the fluctuating method’s divide by actual hours method, except, of course, when an employee’s actual hours match his usual hours.

It should be noted as well that while the case concerned retail employees, the regulation at issue applies to all businesses in the “mercantile trade.”

For employers that rely on the fluctuating workweek method of calculating overtime in Connecticut, this case is a good reminder to revisit those practices now to make sure they comply with this new Connecticut case. Seeking the advice of your trusted counsel to look at your particular circumstances is critical given the court’s decision.

Vacations: Necessary for the Soul, but Not Required By Law

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

Like many of you, I long for vacations.  I like to plan them out in advance and then spend the intervening weeks and months plotting and scheming.

What restaurants and new foods should we try? What attractions should we try to visit? And while that private tour my Facebook friend recommended sounds neat and all, what can we really afford to do?

Having just returned from a trip overseas, I can attest that vacations are good for the soul too.  They provide time with friends and family and a much needed perspective.  There is simply more to life than the constant barrage of news that seems to infiltrate our lives nowadays.

But where do vacations fit in the legal schemes employers set up in Connecticut?

Well, for one thing, vacations are not mandated by any state or federal law.  Employers are free to decide whether or not they want to give their employees any vacation days.  But many employers recognize that offering vacation days makes jobs more attractive and also leads to happier employees in the long run too.

That said, Connecticut law basically leaves it to the employers to set up policies — and then requires them to follow them.  The point this truly becomes an issue occurs when an employee leaves employment and still has vacation days that have accrued.

The key law here is Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-76k, which states:

If an employer policy or collective bargaining agreement provides for the payment of accrued fringe benefits upon termination, including but not limited to paid vacations, holidays, sick days and earned leave, and an employee is terminated without having received such accrued fringe benefits, such employee shall be compensated for such accrued fringe benefits exclusive of normal pension benefits in the form of wages in accordance with such agreement or policy but in no case less than the earned average rate for the accrual period pursuant to sections 31-71a to 31-71i, inclusive.

In plain English, the law dictates that employers follow their policies and practices.  Don’t want to pay your employees accrued vacation time upon termination? The law says that is ok, but only if your policies say that in advance.

As you craft your vacation policies, here are some other questions for an employer to consider:

  • Do your policies require employees to seek time off in advance?
  • Do you require employees to coordinate with other vacation schedules?
  • Do you have a “use it or lose it” policy on vacations, where employees are required to use vacation time by the end of the year, or do you allow for some carryover? If so, how much?
  • Do you have employees vacation time on a pro-rata basis? In other words, do employees get a day vacation for each month during the year worked?
  • Do your policies dictate that if the employee does take vacation time that has not accrued, what the penalties are?

Vacations are great. Encourage your employees to use them.  Just make sure your company’s policies are clear enough that you won’t be dealing with headaches later on.

Can a Legislature Really Change a Collective Bargaining Agreement?

Posted in Labor Law & NLRB, Legislative Developments, Wage & Hour

My law partner, Gabe Jiran, talks today about whether it’s all that easy to change the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.  Is it just as easy as a vote? Or does it require something more? The answer has implications for all employers.  

With all of the talk about the financial difficulties faced by the government, I, and others in here, sometimes get the question of whether the State of Connecticut or other states might try to change the laws on collective bargaining or try to pass legislation to alter the terms of its existing collective bargaining agreements.

Other states have started down this road, but it is not that easy.

Recently, the Connecticut Attorney General was asked to opine on whether the General Assembly could statutorily change the contracts covering State employees to address the fiscal crisis.  A link to the opinion is here.

The short answer is that the State could do so, such as by passing a statute that wage increases be delayed or eliminated in State contracts.

However, the United States Constitution imposes a pretty heavy burden on the State to justify any such changes.

The relevant factors are:

  1. the severity of the fiscal crisis;
  2. the nature and duration of the contractual changes;
  3. the extent that the State has attempted to implement other alternatives in the past;
  4. the extent to which the State has studied and made findings about the feasibility of other alternatives;
  5. whether these alternatives would be a less dramatic option;
  6. the extent to which the fiscal crisis existed or was foreseeable when the State entered into the existing contract; and
  7. the State’s representations during negotiations for the existing contract.

Based on cases utilizing some or all of these factors, the State would face an uphill battle if it wanted to change an existing contract.

For example, a federal appeals court struck down the State of New York’s plan to delay wage increases for employees because New York had alternatives such as raising taxes or shifting money around in its budget.  In another New York case, the same court found that a $1 billion deficit was not a dire enough fiscal crisis to justify a delayed wage increase.

However, one case found that the City of Buffalo was able to impose a wage freeze when it was undeniable that Buffalo was in a fiscal emergency and that the wage freeze was a last resort after looking at other options.

In discussing the matters with others here, we expect that Connecticut and other states will continue to look for creative options to address their financial situations with employees.

However, it is doubtful that these options will involve changes to existing contracts without negotiation with the unions involved.  In addition, any State attempts to change contracts in the private sector would be almost certain to fail.

Compliance with Today’s Anti-Discrimination Laws Through a History Lesson

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

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Over the weekend, I was doing a lot of driving.  Having a kid at camp near the New Hampshire border to pick him up will do that.

So, it was time for me to catch up on some podcasts I had downloaded but hadn’t yet listened to.

I had already finished S-Town (worthy of a listen) but one of the others that I had been meaning to catch up on was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”.

In these episodes, he revisits an item from history that is often overlooked.

The first two episodes I picked were the most recent ones (State v. Johnson, and Mr. Holloway Didn’t Like That) and were based, in part, on interviews with legendary attorney Vernon Jordan and concerned legal cases from the Civil Rights Era.  Start there.

But the other one I listened too was from earlier in the season, called “Miss Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment”.

It too is riveting.

It tackles the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (the legendary school desegregation case) but from the perspective of the teachers who worked at the “colored-only” schools and who were subsequently laid off — allegedly for “performance” related reasons.

Even as a history major in college, I don’t remember hearing about this — how thousands upon thousands of black teachers lost their jobs when the schools that they taught at were closed. Different reasons were given — sometimes it was deemed to be too “difficult” for white students to be taught by black teachers.

But the effect was the same — a generation of teachers were lost to history.

That could be the end of a discrimination story, but Gladwell notes that the impact of this decision isn’t just that these teachers lost their jobs.

But rather, black students lost the opportunity to be taught by black teachers. And empirical research has shown that for black students, having a black teacher can be pivotal in reducing drop-out rates and ensuring students’ success.

The impact of these decisions still resonates today.

Gladwell highlights a study from just last year that looked for explanations about the under-representation of students of color in gifted programs.  Their conclusion?

Even after conditioning on test scores and other factors, Black students indeed are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers, a concerning result given the relatively low incidence of assignment to own-race teachers among Black students.

For schools that employ teachers (including many of our clients), the podcast is a good reminder that the employment decisions that are made have a big impact beyond just the teachers themselves. Students lives and their successes and failures depend, in part, on the teachers that they have in life.

For other employers, listening to this podcast is a reminder that our laws governing the workplace are not all that old. Our current laws are a reflection on what occurred in the recent past. Indeed, the major federal law — Title VII — wasn’t passed until 1964 — nearly a decade removed from the Brown decision.

We’ve made a lot of progress, thankfully, since then. But ensuring fairness and eliminating race discrimination are still items that should remain high up in a company’s “must-do” list.

If you’re looking for something different to listen to, give the podcast a listen.  Gladwell may have his own agenda, but it’s thoughtful and entertaining.  And it’s a good reminder that compliance with employment laws is about more than just doing the right thing.

Where Do The Proposed Federal Overtime Rule Changes Stand?

Posted in Highlight, Laws and Regulations, Wage & Hour

My colleague, Gabe Jiran, returns the blog today with this quick post updating us on where things stand on the DOL’s proposed changes to the overtime rules (and providing me with an excuse to link to one of the few songs to mention “overtime” in the title.)

As you may recall from some of the prior posts here, employers scrambled to address the Department of Labor’s changes to the salary threshold for white collar exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  That change would have increased the salary threshold from $23,360 to $47,476 annually in December, 2016.

However, several states challenged this increase, resulting in a federal court in Texas issuing a nationwide injunction stalling the increase.  Of course, many employers had already made changes to address the increase, but the injunction still stands.

Then the election happened. Which changed everything.

Now, the DOL under the new Trump administration has indicated that it will not advocate for a specific salary level under its regulations, but will instead gather information about the appropriate salary levels.

The DOL has thus issued a request for information to get feedback, which can be accessed here.

What does this mean for employers? While this process will most likely result in an increase in the salary levels, it seems that the DOL will do so based on responses to its request for information rather than arbitrarily setting a salary level.

For now, employers should continue to follow the current regulations and the $23,360 salary level while, of course, also following the Connecticut guidelines where applicable too.

But stay tuned here: Developments in this area now seem on the way.

Another Employer’s Defense in Disability/Medical Marijuana Case Goes Up in Smoke

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Featured Content, Highlight, Laws and Regulations

While the relaunch of the blog has been delayed a bit more (I swear it’s coming soon), it’s time to have another post in the interim. My colleague Gary Starr is back with an interesting decision from the state next door — Massachusetts. As some Connecticut employers cross state lines (and marijuana cases continue to arise), the case is a reminder that the law continues to evolve in unexpected ways.

Many states have approved the use of medical marijuana, despite the fact that the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.  As a result there is a tension between state rights to use medical marijuana and federal law prohibiting its possession.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had an opportunity to determine how to balance the rights of an employee who had been prescribed and was taking medical marijuana for Crohn’s Disease versus the employer’s interest in complying with federal law and maintaining a drug free work place.  The Court found that the employee had sufficiently alleged that she was a qualified individual with a disability who was entitled to a reasonable accommodation related to use of medical marijuana.

As a result, her firing after testing positive could be challenged and she could pursue a disability discrimination claim under state law.

As part of the hiring process, a new employee was required to take a drug test.  She immediately explained to her supervisor that she suffered from Crohn’s disease and she had been prescribed and was using medical marijuana which was improving her appetite and allowing her to stabilize her weight.  She said that she did not take it before work or during working hours, but that if tested, she would test positive.  After being tested and getting a positive result, the human resource administrator called and fired her.  When the employee tried to explain the she had a prescription, the administrator told her that the company follows federal law, not state law.

The employee ultimately sued in state court claiming that she was being discriminated against because of her disability and that the company had failed to accommodate her disability.

The lower court had dismissed the case, but the highest Massachusetts court concluded that the employee had sufficiently alleged that she had a disability, that she was qualified for the position, and that she was entitled to a reasonable accommodation.  As a result, the case was sent back to the lower court for further proceedings.

The high court, however, also made clear that the employer could still win, but the employer must show that the accommodation was not reasonable and/or caused an undue burden.  The court noted that the employee could not come to work intoxicated, nor could the employee engage in tasks that could pose a risk to the public.

It also noted that if the employer was subject to federal laws related to a drug free work place or similar obligations, then the accommodation could be found unreasonable.

In Massachusetts, employers must not simply apply a drug free work environment policy, but must look at each situation to determine whether the employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation.  In states that have adopted medical marijuana statutes — like Connecticut — employers must decide whether the employee has a disability, how to handle a request for an accommodation, and whether there is a compelling reason to deny the accommodation based on undue hardship.

It is also critically important to meet with and discuss the situation with the employee to determine whether there is an alternative to the use of medical marijuana and to review how the job is structured to see if the employee can do the essential functions without violating company policies or impairing the company’s business operation.  It is also important to determine the scope of the medical marijuana statute to determine whether employees have additional employment rights under state statutes.

In states where an employee has been prescribed medical marijuana, employers may not be able to fire an employee who has simply failed a drug test.  More questions must be asked before firing someone who tests positive for marijuana.

This is Why the Number of Employees You Have Matters in Employment Law

Posted in Discrimination & Harassment, Featured Content, Highlight, Human Resources (HR) Compliance, Laws and Regulations, Manager & HR Pro’s Resource Center

There are many confusing aspects of employment law — not the least of which is that certain laws only apply to employers of a certain size.

For example, the federal age discrimination law, ADEA, only applies to a business if it has 20 or more employees who worked for the company for at least twenty calendar weeks (in this year or last).

Now in some instances, that might not matter in Connecticut because Connecticut’s general anti-discrimination laws generally (with exception) apply to employers of three or more employees.

Why does this matter? Because there are some aspects of this federal law (and others) that don’t apply to small employers.

One prime example of this is the requirement that employers comply with the Older Worker Benefit Protection Act, which is part of ADEA.  This law requires separation agreements to have certain conditions, including 21 days for the employee to consider the release.  But employers who are under 20 employees are not covered by ADEA and thus don’t need to follow this particular legal requirement (even if it may still be a good idea).

Another area that this comes up is in FMLA coverage.  Most people are aware that FMLA only applies to employers who have 50 or more employees.

But there is a secondary requirement that is often overlooked — that the employee asking for such leave be located in an office that itself has 50 or more employees within a 75 mile radius.

By way of example: Suppose an employer has 1000 employees, but only 25 located in Connecticut and there are no offices within 75 miles.  An employee has a serious health condition; is the employee eligible for FMLA leave?

The answer is no.  At least 50 employees must work for the employer within a 75 mile radius.

Practical Law had a good summary of this:  

Employers should analyze whether the employee meets the 50 employee and 75 miles requirement when the employee gives notice that leave is needed. An employee who is deemed eligible for FMLA leave continues to be eligible for the next 12 months even if the number of employees drops below 50. To determine whether an employee is eligible, the distance is based on:the employee’s physical work site using surface miles over public streets, roads, highways and waterways by the shortest route; or if an employee has no fixed work site, the employee’s work site is his home base, the site to which he reports or the site from which his work is assigned.

Now, nothing prevents an employer from giving all of its employees FMLA-leave, but they’re not required to.

Thus, employers who are in various locations should be sure to look at all the employer-size rules to figure how where they are covered and how. Because size really does matter.