As I continue to work on a major redesign and relaunch that I hope (!) to roll out by month’s end which has held up some blog posts, my colleague Gary Starr returns this morning with a new post regarding a recent Connecticut court decision and temps. 

starrEmployers who use a staffing company to supplement their employees may find themselves in for a rude awakening if the temp gets hurt at their worksite.

Ordinarily, an employee injured on the job would be covered by the workers compensation insurance.

A recent Superior Court decision rejected the idea that the temp is covered by the employer’s workers compensation insurance and is allowing a lawsuit to go forward against the employer.

The court found that the temp was an employee of the staffing company and not the employer, even though the temp accepted the assignment with the employer, the work was being done for the employer, and the temp was under the control of the employer at the worksite, and not the staffing company.

While there are several state court decisions that have found this arrangement to be a dual employment situation, other courts have rejected the concept of dual employment.  Under dual employment, the temp would have been covered under the employer’s workers compensation insurance.

Until an appellate court or the Connecticut Supreme Court rules on this issue or the legislature clarifies the statutory scheme, employers using staffing companies to fill out their employment needs, run the risk that if the temp gets hurt, they could be sued.

Such a lawsuit would present a risk of liability that could exceed the workers compensation formulas, with possible punitive damages.

Employers should be careful in their negotiations with staffing companies to try to establish a dual employment relationship with the temp, even having the temp sign a written agreement with the employer accepting the assignment with the employer.  There should also be clarification of the scope of any indemnity.  The employer should check with its workers compensation insurance carrier to ensure coverage of any temps.

While these steps may not avoid the consequences described above, it may provide a basis for arguing for dual employment and for coverage under workers compensation.

Of course, dual employment has its own set of challenges as well so employers using temps need to understand both the pros and cons in such a relationship.

hartfordYears ago, I recall having a friendly conversation with another attorney in Connecticut where the topic turned to the notion of “At Will” employment.

When we couldn’t settle on an answer, we moved on to talking about whether the Hartford Whalers would ever come back.

I think we had a better answer for that question: Probably not.

But this is an employment law blog, not a sports one, so let’s get back to the topic.

Employment-at-will is, from a legal perspective, the notion that an employer may discharge an employee without restriction, that is, for any reason or no reason, without incurring any liability to the employee.

Simple enough, right?

Well, not quite. First off, Connecticut recognizes two major exceptions to this doctrine:

  1. The termination cannot violate an important public policy;
  2. The termination cannot breach an implied contract of employment if one as formed.

And, it should be noted, that there is the obvious exception that the termination cannot violate any other state or federal law — such as the laws prohibiting discrimination.

This again sounds simple enough, but in discussions with employers, there is another topic that comes up — fairness.  In other words, employers typically are wise the ask themselves whether a termination under the circumstances is “fair”.

Now that can mean a lot of things in a lot of situations.  For example, suppose an employer hires an employee, but 3 weeks later the employer loses a major contract and needs to layoff ten employees.  It may not be exactly “fair” to terminate this newly hired employee, but if the employer may be being “fair” by laying off newly hired employees first.

Sometimes, the “fairness” question is framed slightly differently.  Suppose you have a newly hired employee who is late to work a few times in the first 30 days and then shows up to work under the influence of alcohol.  Can you simply terminate the employee then?

Under most circumstances, yes, and most people would say this is fair because the employer is simply holding the employee accountable under its rules and a new employee shouldn’t get a lot of free passes.

But now suppose you have a 20 year employee who has an exemplary record of service.  The employee has no record of tardiness or misbehavior, but after a March Madness weekend, shows up at late to work with bloodshot eyes.  It should be noted, though, that a week before, the employee had complained to his boss that the machine he was working on seemed in need of repair.

Under the employment-at-will doctrine, the employers still has the same right to terminate the employee, but I think most people would think this situation ought to be looked at differently.  If the employer proceeds with the termination, it’s possible that it opens itself up to a threat of a claim.

Why? Because while the employment-at-will doctrine still applies, a judge or fact-finding would also then ask the same question — does this termination seem “fair”?

If the answer to that question is “no”, then judges and juries will look for alternative explanations.  Here, one could argue that it was the employee’s complaint that was the motivating factor in the termination and the employee was being retaliated against for complaining.  Otherwise, the termination seems a bit “unfair”.

That type of logic may not be “fair” either, but it goes to show that the employment at will doctrine should not simply be relied on in all circumstances.

I’ve yet to have an employer just say, “I didn’t have a reason for firing the employee. I just felt like it.” That may work under the “at will doctrine” but in the real world, it probably wouldn’t fly.

For employers, always try to look at your decisions through a neutral prism.  Or better yet, ask yourself: What would my neighbor think about this? If the termination seems unfair under those circumstances, it may be a clue to re-think your decision.

 

MTMMary Richards’ job interview with Lou Grant is, perhaps one of the most famous job interviews ever. So says Time magazine.

Before I go on, though, there are probably more than a few of you who don’t know what I’m talking about.

But with the passing of Mary Tyler Moore earlier today here in Connecticut, I was reminded of an early exchange from her television show that was included in an employee training seminar I did for employers many years ago.  It was used as an example (with humor) of what NOT to do in a job interview as a supervisor and there were many in the audience who remembered that television show.

I haven’t been able to find the actual video online – but YouTube does have a remake of the job interview featuring cartoons.  And you can get a sense of the dialogue elsewhere.

First, you have the supervisor (Lou) asking Mary what her age was. (Sigh.) To compound matters, he then asks what her religion is. (Double sigh.)

But this is where the show was groundbreaking — Mary doesn’t just respond.  She’s a “modern woman” (as The New York Times called her) and tells him: “I don’t know quite how to tell you this, but you’re not allowed to ask that question when someone is applying for a job. It’s against the law.”  He pushes back — “You gonna call the cops?” To which, Mary demurs.

And the interview continues with personal questions including whether she was married (she was not).  Then Mary stands up and calls him out for asking so many questions that have nothing to do with the job.

Lou responds in a classic line: “You’ve Got Spunk.”  Of course, he then says he hates “spunk” but this was the early 1970s and she was still hired.

It was groundbreaking television.  As NPR reported from an interview Ed Asner (who played Lou), that moment was critical: “It was the most powerful moment in theater I’ve had, because she played it so beautifully,” Asner told NPR in 2001. “The audience was going ‘oh-goo-goo’ at that moment.”

A few years ago, Time Magazine — in calling this show’s pilot one of the 10 best of all time — noted that it really formed the foundation of the workplace-as-family sitcom that so many other shows tried to copy.

As a child of the 70s and 80s, Mary Tyler Moore stood out to me because, well, she kinda seemed like my mom who was already in the workplace. Growing up, I didn’t see it as that unusual.

But now with the hindsight of history, all employment lawyers can point to Mary Tyler Moore as giving workplace issues their rightful place. And for a generation of women, Mary Tyler Moore represented more than just a television show.  She represented them.

Proper hiring procedures are still a topic we’re talking about today and I’ll be presenting on the topic next month.  Maybe it’s time I bring back the Mary Tyler Moore reference.  Watch for details soon.

Rest in Peace, Mary Tyler Moore.

(Due to an editing error (and spell check) an early version of this post referred to her character as Mary Roberts; it is obviously Mary Richards.) 

In the course of my litigation cases, I’ve had a good-natured argument at times with a few counsel who represent employees about the mindset of employers.  The argument I’ve heard from them is that employers are too cavalier in firing employees and just go about hiring someone else (someone younger, they argue).

headahbBut what I’ve heard from my clients over the years is something different.

Typically, the decision to fire an employee is tough, made only after a series of internal conversations.  Employees with performance issues weigh on the supervisor’s minds — the struggle between trying to help the employee improve while still making sure that the needs of the business get done.

Mostly they get it right. But firing a poor performer doesn’t typically solve the issues for employers. Rather, they then need to find the RIGHT person to fill that position.

Hiring the right person is hard.   Just the process of searching for that person can sometimes feel like the proverbial needle in the haystack.  Online resumes come in by the dozen and business pressures make it difficult for employers to just find the time to parse through the resumes and interview candidates.

The headaches with hiring have only gotten worse over the last decade as well.

New laws have been put in place that place restrictions on what employers can and cannot ask and when they can ask those questions. And further restrictions on things like non-compete agreements in certain professions make hiring the right person all the more important.

For example, “Ban the Box” is now the law in Connecticut. Have you amended your employment applications to address this issue? Restrictions on the use of credit reports were put in a few years ago. Have you revised your process accordingly? And how can you search social media without running afoul of laws that ban “shoulder surfing”?  Do you give employees an “offer letter” that outlines the terms of their employment as Connecticut law requires?

I’ve talked about some of these things in prior posts, but I’m going to expound upon it further at our firm’s upcoming Labor & Employment Law seminar later this month.  You can register for the program here; space is very limited at this point.

Are there other topics related to hiring that you’d like to hear addressed at the seminar or on the blog? Be sure to post a comment so we can incorporate that in our free presentation.

hermanMy colleague Marc Herman returns today to bring back the story of wellness programs and whether they will continue to pass legal muster. In the first post of a two-parter, Marc updates us on some litigation. Read on.  

Here’s one for you:  Did you hear the one about the employee that turned down the opportunity to have his annual health insurance premiums waived?   Not a joke, unfortunately.  And there’s not much of a punch line either.

Way back in 2014 –– a time when Donald Trump’s entry into politics was confined to an episode of the Simpsons –– the EEOC embarked on a relentless, and unexpected, crusade against wellness programs.

“Why!?” I hear you cry.  Let me remind you.

The EEOC took issue with various employer-sponsored wellness programs because, according to the EEOC, many such programs violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”).  [Enter smoke, stage left].

Among those employers side-swiped by the EEOC was Orion Energy Systems, Inc. – a Wisconsin-based manufacturer that employs around 250 people.

According to the EEOC, Orion’s incentive-based wellness program violated the ADA by unlawfully subjecting employees to involuntary medical examinations.

What are those? Well, in plain English, involuntary medical examinations are a big no-no under the ADA — consider it the No Exam Rule.  Remember this.  It is important.

Orion had told its employees that if they participated in a wellness program, they would have their annual health insurance premiums waived (a saving of over $400).

Hallelujah!

Wait, not so fast.

Participation in the wellness program also obligated employees to undergo something called a “Health Risk Assessment”  – a fancy name for a medical exam.

Ah, now enter from Stage Right — the No Exam Rule.

You might say – “What’s the big deal!?” “The employees had a choice!”  “How is this involuntary!?”

Well, yes, in a technical sense, the employees had a choice.  They could decline participation if they so wished.  But that’s not the way the EEOC viewed it.

The EEOC said:  Whoa!  No sane employee would choose to forego a waiver of their annual health insurance premium.  Put another way, no employee would voluntarily choose to pay the annual health insurance premium (i.e., opt-out of the wellness program).

The EEOC reasoned that employees have no meaningful choice to opt-out of the program.  Participation would be coerced.  The Health Risk Assessment would be involuntary.

So who’s right?

Well, last week, we finally go through round one: a federal court sided with the employer, Orion.

The court explained that while there “may be strong reasons to comply with an employer’s wellness initiative,” the employee still has a choice.

Orion’s wellness program did not subject employees to involuntary medical examinations.  It was lawful.

Now, before we crack open the cigars and champagne, let us pause.  The decision, while helpful, ought be put in context.

In May, 2016, the EEOC published its long-awaited regulation regarding wellness programs.  The regulation defines exactly what a voluntary wellness program is.  However, it only applies to wellness programs commencing on or after January 1, 2017.  This means that the new regulation did not apply to Orion’s.  The decision should, as they say, be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

I shall return with part 2 to further explore the new regulation.  Stay tuned.

DSC_0128Hard to believe, but this week marks the ninth anniversary of the Connecticut Employment Law Blog.

I’m pretty sure that’s 72 years old in “blog” years.  Or dog years. I forget which one.

Coincidentally, this week I stumbled across an old information sheet I filled out for LexBlog (my blog hosting company) in the summer of 2007 with my goals and vision for the blog.  I was asked to write about the “subject and purpose of the blog”.

Here’s what I wrote:

This blog will focus on new and noteworthy developments in the labor & employment law field in Connecticut.  While, at times, it may comment on national employment law topics that may be of interest to Connecticut audience, it will address employment law topics that may be of interest for employers in Connecticut.

The purpose of the blog is educate and inform individuals in the state, while providing a platform for  a discussion of new and noteworthy cases, decisions or statutes.  It will address federal and Connecticut laws, and will highlight decisions that discuss certain areas.

It will address wage & hour decisions, at-will employment employment, discrimination and harassment, and labor relations. While not providing specific advice, it may provide general commentary to employers on topics of interest, particularly to in-house employment lawyers, labor relations professionals and human resources personnel.

I have to say — nine years (and many hundreds of blog posts) later and I think this holds up very well! Nice to know I’ve remained true to my original vision.

Of course, in the interests of full disclosure and just in case you think I was doing this purely for unselfish reasons, I indicated that a “secondary” purpose of the blog was “to increase my exposure and profile in Connecticut.”

I’m very comfortable in acknowledging that has happened too.  (Thanks Google search!)

In the last week, I’ve gotten multiple e-mails from respected attorneys in the state (on both sides of litigation) thanking me for continuing to write. I love those e-mails.

Of course, I’ve also received such e-mails in the last week that said “Useful analysis! For my two cents , people are wanting a AZ CRF2M1 , my colleagues saw a blank form here!” And this classic e-mail, “firsttly thanks to all valuable information great post.nice post dfftheevege ssasup, opsappsmo”.

Ah, spam e-mail — don’t ever change.

And so, this post ultimately is nothing more than a sincere thank you post.

Thank you for continuing to read. Thank you for continuing to encourage me to write.

And a big thank you to my current law firm, Shipman & Goodwin, for being so supportive. And a thank you to my former colleagues who put up with my blogging when it was still this big unknown.

Finally, a thanks to my wife who has politely managed my endless droning on about the blog with a “uh-huh” more times than I can count.

Let’s say we continue on to a big ten year celebration next year and see where we go from there?

(If you really want to see something scary, check out this interview with Lexblog from December 2007 too.)

monkeyIn yesterday’s post, I talked about some of the reasons why an employee’s lawsuit against his or her employer was destined for failure.

But employers, I’m afraid you’re not off the hook that easily. This post is for any employer that just got sued or threatened with suit.

Maybe that lawsuit isn’t so frivolous after all.

Wait a second! You said yesterday that ‘Odds are, you probably weren’t discriminated against’!”  

Ah, but isn’t that rub? Odds. Statistics.  Yes, some (many?) lawsuits brought by employees are losing propositions. But some are not.

Here are some things I tell clients or prospective clients when I see a lawsuit filed or threatened as to why they should take the lawsuit seriously.

1. That frivolous lawsuit is still going to cost you thousands (if not tens of thousands) to defend.  But I thought you said this post was about non-frivolous lawsuits?  True. But for my first point, that’s beside the point entirely.  Whether a lawsuit is frivolous or not, the system of justice through our courts and administrative agencies moves slowly and with some cautiousness.  Even the frivolous ones need to be defended.  Court filings need to be, well, filed.  And court conferences need to be attended.  So your first point always is to recognize that all employment law cases have a cost associated with them.

And as such, all cases have what we call a “nuisance” value as well.  That is — you are going to spend X amount of dollars defending the lawsuit.  It may be cheaper to just pay a certain amount to avoid the cost of defense.  Now, there are business reasons why you won’t want to do so in all or even many cases, but the employer who fails to recognize the nuisance value of the case is destined to be disappointed in the long run.

It’s a bit of hyperbole to say that any person can sue anyone at any time for any reason. But not that much.  Lawsuits are a part of doing business.  Frivolous or not, you will still have spend money to defend your decision. Be prepared for this eventuality when making your employment decisions and deciding whether or not to offer severance in exchange for a release.

2. “At Will” Employment Is a Misnomer.   In Connecticut, the default employment relationship between an employer and employee is “at-will”.  As many offer letters suggest, that means either the employer or employee can terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason or no reason at all.  And so, I sometimes hear employers exclaiming “Connecticut is at-will! We should be able to just fire them for any reason!  How can they still sue?

Continue Reading Maybe That Lawsuit Brought By Your Employee Isn’t So Frivolous

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons
Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

Are you tired of lawyers commenting already on the new overtime rules?

(The answer should be no, of course, since you’re reading this blog and thus have room for one more view.)

But I think it’s fair to say that we haven’t seen a feeding frenzy like this on employment law in many, many years.  And with the massive publicity of this rule comes an opportunity, as I’ll explain too.

So, dear readers, deep breath time.   We’ll get through it together.

There’s already been lots of pixels spilled about how employers can “solve” their overtime issues that will arise under this rule by making various changes in their workplace.

For example, employers can increase an employee’s salary to $47,476 annually if that employee otherwise meets the duties test, to keep an employee “exempt” from overtime.

Or the employer can limit the overtime that the employee can work, explaining that it is concerned with controlling costs.

But in all the analysis, I think one big thing has been overlooked: Employers can use this announcement as an opportunity to review and re-classify all sorts of employees — even if they are not directly impacted by the new rule.

Too often, employers who discover that they have misclassified employees believe that they are in a conundrum. Keep their head down and hope no one notices, or properly classify the employee and keep their fingers crossed that they don’t get sued for back pay.  Neither option is a great one for employers who need to get into compliance. (I once proposed an amnesty proposal to solve this dilemma.)   Sometimes, employers have legitimate reasons why an employee has been classified as non-exempt but wants to avoid any future issues. Perhaps in other situations the employee isn’t working overtime anyways.

But here is where the opportunity comes in: As I highlighted at the start, the new overtime rule has received unprecedented amounts of publicity in the workplace. No doubt most of your employees have now heard something about it.  So, some won’t be surprised if they are notified that things are changing for their position as a result of the new rule.

While the rule doesn’t provide amnesty for employers who make such changes, the new rule does remove some of the suspicions employees may have about the changes — even when those changes are perfectly legal.  Employees may be more understanding.  Employers can explain truthfully that the new rule has required them to review the classification of all of its employees and the changes are as a result of the rule.

So, yes, the rule may be difficult to comply with. But don’t miss out on the opportunities that may arise from this rule as well.  Full compliance with the law will be so much cheaper than paying for a massive wage-and-hour suit.  And as I’ve said before, compliance is the ultimate goal. You should not be looking for ways to circumvent the law.

So ultimately, perhaps you’ll view the new overtime rule as more about lemonade than lemons, as the saying goes.

ashleymendoza1eckertToday, I’m delighted to bring you what I hope will be the first of several updates for employers from the immigration law perspective.  One of my newest colleagues, Ashley Mendoza, along with my law partner Brenda Eckert, have been tracking some of the newest rules for employers coming out of the Department of Homeland Security.  These rules will have a particular impact to employers who recruit from the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) areas.  For employers that rely on foreign workers to help supplement their ranks, this is crucial to understand.

But a cautionary note: It’s a bit technical. There’s really no way around that. Immigration laws are just filled with technical requirements. Indeed, that’s one reason why a qualified immigration lawyer is often needed to help employers navigate these rules. Brenda and Ashley are leading the way here at my firm and I thank them for this detailed update.

Yesterday (May 10, 2016), the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) implemented major modifications to Optional Practical Training (“OPT”) extensions for students on F-1 visas enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (“STEM”) degree programs.

IMG_7083The new regulations, published at 8 CFR Parts 214.2(f) and 274a, authorize a 24-month STEM OPT extension period, replacing the previous 17-month STEM OPT extension period.

While at first glance, the new STEM OPT extension regulations may seem a cause for celebration, there are a number of added requirements and oversight provisions and, for some U.S. employers, the benefits may not outweigh the burdens.

What is OPT?

OPT is a form of temporary employment available to students holding F-1 visas that directly relates to a student’s program of study. The employment is often paid, and may take place during and/or after completion of the degree program.

The overarching idea is that OPT will afford eligible international students and new graduates the opportunity to gain hands-on practical experience to supplement what they learned during their degree program. Students may be authorized for a total of 12 months of full-time OPT at each educational level (e.g., undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate).

The application process is relatively straight forward. The student must first request approval from his or her designated school official (“DSO”), who will then make a recommendation to the electronic Student and Exchange Visitor and Information System (“SEVIS”) by endorsing a Form I-20.

Thereafter, the student must file the Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, supporting documentation, and a filing fee of $380.00 with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).

The extension & the changes to it

Since 2008, eligible students who graduate with a qualified STEM degree and are presently engaged in a period of approved post-completion OPT may have the option to extend their OPT for a period of 17 months.

This is the existing STEM OPT extension, and this is what the new regulations modify. These changes will affect all parties involved in the STEM OPT extension process. This includes the students and the U.S. employers with whom the students will train during the course of the approved period of STEM OPT.

Not to be forgotten, however, are the DSO’s who perform pivotal work with students behind-the-scenes to recommend them for OPT and extensions and maintain student records in SEVIS.

So, what’s new?

The better question, really, is what isn’t new.

The new regulations provide a comprehensive overhaul to the STEM OPT program.

Continue Reading Major Modifications to Immigration Programs May Cause Major Headaches

locplane[1]My colleague Chris Engler returns today with a recap of a new case in Connecticut that is of particular interest to employers who provide (or don’t provide) employment references.

We have all heard the admonition that “less is more.”

In an opinion that will be released next week, the Connecticut Appellate Court reminds us just how true that admonition is.  In fact, the court’s decision gave one employer more than 400,000 reasons to heed the adage in the future.

The case, Nelson v. Tradewind Aviation, LLC, arose from a defamation lawsuit.  According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff had worked as a pilot for Tradewind Aviation for a summer back in 2007.  At the end of the season, the company needed to downsize for the winter.  The plaintiff and others were laid off.  His termination paperwork indicated that he had been laid off due to lack of work.

A few months later, the plaintiff was offered a job by another aviation company.  In accordance with federal regulations, this company had the plaintiff request his employment records and other forms from Tradewind Aviation.  Unlike the termination paperwork provided to him when he was laid off, on the new forms Tradewind Aviation’s representatives wrote that the plaintiff was involuntarily terminated and had had performance issues.

Tradewind Aviation then sent a letter to the prospective employer elaborating on these performance issues.  The next day, it faxed over a copy of a drug test report (which concluded that plaintiff had not taken any drugs) along with a note that allegedly tied the supposed performance issues to drug use.

When the prospective employee rescinded its job offer to the plaintiff, he filed suit against Tradewind Aviation.  He claimed that his former employer had engaged in defamation with malice.  A few years later, a jury wholeheartedly agreed, to the tune of over $407,000 in damages.

Not surprisingly, the employer quickly appealed the verdict.

Continue Reading Less May Be More When It Comes To Job References