Lucan_J_WebMy colleague Jarad Lucan returns today with an update on a post regarding the impact that recent labor law decisions are having on colleges and universities.

Two years ago, my colleagues and I reported on the case before the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) related to the Northwestern University’s scholarship football players seeking the right to unionize.

The Regional Director in that case determined that the players were employees under the National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”) and therefore could vote to be represented by a Union in connections with negotiating terms and conditions of employment with the University.

Ultimately, the Board refused to exercise jurisdiction over the players  and therefore left open whether they are employees under the NLRA or not.

At the time we reported on the case,  we discussed some of the impacts of the decision beyond the ability of players to unionize, including that the Board may scrutinize the University’s policies to see if those policies complied with the NLRA.

More specifically, whether the policies were written in a way that would either expressly or implicitly prevent the players from engaging in protected concerted activity.

Apparently, someone did challenge the “Football Handbook” and on September 22, 2016, The Board’s Office for the General Counsel issued an advice memorandum related to that charge advising against the issuance of a complaint.

The memorandum assumed that the football players were employees, and indicated that:

[i]t would not effectuate the policies and purposes of the NLRA to issue complaint in this case because the employer, although still maintaining that athletic scholarship football players are not employees under the NLRA, modified the rules to bring them into compliance with the NLRA and sent the scholarship football players a notice of the corrections, which sets forth the rights of employees under the NLRA.

According to the memorandum, Northwestern modified its handbook pertaining to social media use striking portions of the rules, in most cases replacing with new language.

In particular, Northwestern took out language barring student-athletes from posting things online that “could embarrass you, your family, your team, the Athletics Department or Northwestern University.”

The new text is more specific, telling the athletes not to post things that “contain full or partial nudity (of yourself or another), sex, racial or sexual epithets, underage drinking, drugs, weapons or firearms, hazing, harassment or unlawful activity.”

The memorandum also pointed to changes with the University’s rules on disclosing injury information, which had told players to “[n]ever discuss any aspects of the team, the physical condition of any players, planned strategies, etc. with anyone” saying the “team is a family and what takes place on the field, in meetings or in the locker room stays within this family.”

The new rule says football players should not reveal injuries because of “the need to ensure that teams with whom we compete do not obtain medical information about our student-athletes” but says the rule does not “prohibit student athletes from discussing general medical issues and concerns with third parties provided that such discussions do not identify the physical or medical condition or injury of specific or named student athletes.”

According to the memorandum, “[t]hat modification struck the proper balance of maintaining players’ confidentiality and protecting football team information while at the same time allowing players to speak out on a no-names basis about vital health and safety issues impacting themselves, their teammates, and fellow collegiate football players.”

The memorandum further noted that the school eliminated a dispute resolution policy for student-athletes to bring a “complaint or grievance concerning personal rights and relationships to the athletic program,” which required the players to first bring such issues to the director of football operations.

So if the memorandum advised against an issuance of a complaint, why should you care about it?

Well, as was recently reported, in the Columbia University case, the Board held that student teaching assistants were employees covered by the NLRA.  These employees not only have the right to unionize, but also have the right to engage in protected concerted activity even if they do not unionize.  Any handbook or policies, therefore, governing the terms and conditions of the relationship between the teaching assistants and the college or university will likely come under the NLRB’s scrutiny.

So, employers beware (again): You should review, or have your attorney review, your current policies and handbooks to ensure compliance with the NLRA.

Lucan_J_WebYesterday, the NLRB released an ground-breaking decision allowing  students to organize. My colleague, Jarad Lucan, recaps the importance of this decision not only for schools like Yale University in Connecticut, but beyond.

In its 2004 Brown University decision, the National Labor Relations Board held that graduate student teaching assistants were not employees because they were “primarily students” and their relationship with the University was educational rather than economic in nature.

On August 23, 2016, the NLRB reversed course in its Columbia University decision and held that  the unequivocal policy of the National Labor Relations Act is to “encourag[e] the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and to “protect[ ] the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing.”

Given this policy, coupled with the very broad statutory definitions of both “employee” and “employer,” the Board determined that it is appropriate to extend statutory coverage to students working for universities covered by the Act unless there are strong reasons not to do so.

The Board was not persuaded by the Brown University Board’s self-described “fundamental belief that the imposition of collective bargaining on graduate students would improperly intrude into the educational process and would be inconsistent with the purposes and policies of the Act.”ColumbiaSeal

According to the Board in the Columbia University case, “[t]his ‘fundamental belief’ is unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence, or by the Board’s actual experience.  Thus, we hold today that student assistants who have a common-law employment relationship with their university are statutory employees under the Act.”

Although the Board did state that there may be “strong reasons” not to extend the protection of the Act to students working for universities, it did not specify what those reasons might be.

The Board did, however, reject Columbia’s arguments against recognizing their student workers as employees under the Act as detrimental to the pursuit of the school’s educational goals.  The Board did not find compelling Columbia’s claims that collective bargaining leads to strikes, grievances over classroom assignments and eligibility criteria for assistantships.

According to the Board,  “labor disputes are a fact of economic life—and the Act is intended to address them.”

Importantly, in the Columbia University  decision, the Board determined that a bargaining unit consisting of graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants is an appropriate unit for unionization.  In other words, the Board determined that undergraduate teaching assistants fell within the broad definition of “employee” under the Act and in this case had a common-law employment relationship with the University.

This determination greatly expands the potential “employees” at any private university that may now have the protection of the Act whether they unionize or not.

Perhaps referring back to its recent decision to decline jurisdiction over the grant-in-aid scholarship football players at Northwestern University, the  Board did state, “[w]e do not hold that the Board is required to find workers to be statutory employees whenever they are common-law employees, but only that the Board may  and should find here that student assistants are statutory employees.”

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.

Are you an early bird? (Raises hand.) Do you still listen to AM Radio? (Hand still raised.)

Well, then you may have caught my repeat appearance a short while back on the CBIA Business Minute — a production every weekday morning heard locally at 5:59 a.m. on WTIC-AM (1080 on your radio “dial”).

Long time readers may recall may last appearance way back in 2009 where I talked about the effects the recession was having on employers.

But this time around, it’s all about the National Labor Relations Board.

Fortunately, the CBIA also put the business minute program up on its website. Each is, well, just a minute to listen to and is perfect for employers who want to know a bit about the agency.

My thanks to the CBIA for the invitation to appear.

Next week, I will be speaking at the CBIA Annual HR Conference along with my colleague Jarad Lucan about why you should care about the NLRB.

Unfortunately, if you don’t already have tickets, it’s sold out. It’s being held at the Radisson in Cromwell, Connecticut and features some great topics for consideration. 

But the basic gist of our presentation will be a continuation of some of the themes I’ve talked about before on the blog (here, here and here, for example) — namely that the NLRB is continuing to expand its sphere of influence.

Naturally, our presentation is entitled: “The NLRB in 2016: Why it May Be Your Biggest Headache — Particularly If You Don’t Have a Union.”

For employers that are used to dealing with unions in their workplace, many of these issues won’t be a surprise.

But as I’ve talked about before, the NLRB has been critical of even those employers without unions.  The Triple Play case regarding discipline of employees for comments on Facebook is a perfect example.

For employers then, it’s important to understand the concept of “protected concerted activities” and the fact that any employee — whether a union member or not — may be protected by federal law for his or her actions.

If you’re attending the CBIA’s HR Conference next week, feel free to say “hi”.  Should be a great event.

Lucan_J_WebstarrMy colleagues Gary Starr and Jarad Lucan return today with a post that we have sent out as client alert, but which may be of interest to readers of the blog as well.  It tackles the subject of protected concerted activity.  (Hint: It may be broader than you think.)

Is a non-union employee who speaks out about employment matters protected by the National Labor Relations Act?  If so, under what circumstances?

That question is critically important because if the employee is protected and is fired, the employer may have to reinstate him, pay back pay, and post a notice that the employer violated employee rights.

The answers are not so simple.

Was the employee griping to management about work?  Did he take any action to mobilize employees to support him?  Was he seeking to induce group or collective action?

A recent Third Circuit decision (MCPC Inc. v. NLRB) addressed this situation.  A computer engineer went to lunch with his boss and three co-workers to build team spirit, as the company was aware that it was understaffed and wanted to bolster morale.  During lunch the computer engineer complained that there were too few engineers to do all the work and that the company should have hired more engineers rather than a $400,000 per year executive, whom he named.  Two employees at the lunch agreed.

The manager reported the conversation to the company CEO, who was particularly disturbed by the disclosure of the new executive’s salary, which was confidential.  There was an investigation into how the computer engineer knew the executive’s salary.  It was found that a project he was working on allowed him to view confidential information.  The CEO then met with the computer engineer and asked how he obtained the confidential information.  The computer engineer did not give a straight answer.  He first said he found it on the Internet and denied that he had gone into the HR data base.  He next said the executive’s salary was water cooler scuttlebutt, and then claimed he had heard it from two employees.

Shocked at hearing this explanation, the CEO spoke with one of these long-time employees, who denied providing any confidential information.  The CEO concluded that the computer engineer had breached the company’s confidentiality policy, had lied to him, and was not trustworthy.  As the business required maintaining confidentiality of customer data, the CEO fired the computer engineer for lying and disclosing confidential information.

The fired employee fought his discharge at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  After a hearing, an administrative law judge (ALJ), concluded that the computer engineer’s lunch comments were protected, that the Company’s confidentiality policy was overly broad and unlawful, and that the firing was unlawful. The NLRB upheld that decision ordering reinstatement and back pay.  An appeal followed.

The Court noted that the computer engineer had not discussed the work situation with others before the lunch nor did he seek support from others afterwards.  The Court held, however that prior action, being selected as a spokesperson, or having plans to pursue the issue with others afterwards is not required for protected activity.  What does matter is whether the conduct was taken with the intent to induce or effect group action in furtherance of group interests.  As the computer engineer’s complaints related to work, they were protected as two co-workers had agreed with his views.

While the NLRB ended its analysis there, the Court determined that the Company had the right to explain the reason for the termination.  There needed to be a review whether the Company would have fired the computer engineer for a reason that did not involve protected activity, such as his evasiveness, dishonesty, and lack of trustworthiness.

The computer engineer’s shifting explanations raised issues of honesty and trust and could be independent reasons for the firing.  As neither the ALJ nor the NLRB had considered the alternative basis for the discharge and had not explored whether the reasons were a pretext for an unlawful firing, the Court sent the case back for a further examination of the employer’s rationale.  The Court told the NLRB to examine whether the company had established the importance of integrity and honesty in its business and whether employees had been disciplined in the past for similar activities.

We recommend before firing any employee to closely review the facts when an employee is raising concerns about work.

Is he simply griping on his own account or serving as a spokesperson for others?  Have others agreed with him?  If so, he probably is engaged in “protected concerted activity.”  This can occur even if there is no union and no union organizing taking place.  If the comments warrant discipline, conduct a review of what expectations have been violated; are those expectations in writing and narrowly drawn to be enforceable; and have others been disciplined in the past for similar activities.  Undertaking this review in advance could save 5 years of litigation and legal fees.  Further, a review of the policy relied on to support discipline is required as the NLRB has been scrutinizing policies to favor employee rights.

This case is another reminder that terminations should occur only after analysis and reflection and policies need to be carefully drafted to satisfy the NLRB.

yankees-300x300On Friday, at my firm’s annual Labor & Employment Law seminar, I’ll be talking about the NLRB and Employee Handbooks with my colleague, Chris Engler.  Among the topics we had planned to discuss was the ongoing Triple Play Sports Bar & Grille case that I had previously posted about here and here.

So of course yesterday, the Second Circuit released an long-awaited decision on that very case. And it’s a strikeout for the employer.

The case involves a mix of old and new concepts. Old: Employees have the right to improve the terms and conditions of their workplace — so called “Section 7” rights to protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act, even if they are not “unionized”.  New: It applies to Facebook and other types of social media.

And now, even to Facebook “likes”.

In the case, Jillian Sanzone and Vincent Spinella, two employees of Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille, located in Watertown, discovered that they owed more in State income taxes than they had originally expected. One of the employees discussed this issue with co-workers, and complaints were made to the employer.

The discussion continued on Facebook, and a former employee, Jamie LaFrance, posted the following “status update” to her Facebook page: “Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money . . . W[*]f!!!!”

Continue Reading Employer Strikes Out; Facebook Likes Protected by NLRA, Says Second Circuit

My colleague, Jarad Lucan, who has been busy with his own labor cases, today returns with post about the latest from the NLRB.  There are many posts out there on the subject (here, here, and here, for example), so Jarad is going to touch on its impact for Connecticut employers.  

Lucan_J_WebAs you’ve no doubt read, the National Labor Relations Board, refined its test for determining whether two ostensibly separate entities can be viewed as joint-employers.  In its Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc. case, the Board concluded that Browning-Ferrris was a joint employer of workers supplied to it by a staffing agency that it contracted with.

According to the Board:

Today, we restate the Board’s joint-employer standard to reaffirm the standard articulated by the Third Circuit in Browning-Ferris decision [A different case involving the same employer here]. Under this standard, the Board may find that two or more statutory employers are joint employers of the same statutory employees if they “share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.” In determining whether a putative joint employer meets this standard, the initial inquiry is whether there is a common-law employment relationship with the employees in question. If this common-law employment relationship exists, the inquiry then turns to whether the putative joint employer possesses sufficient control over employees’ essential terms and conditions of employment to permit meaningful collective bargaining.

Central to both of these inquiries is the existence, extent, and object of the putative joint employer’s control. Consistent with earlier Board decisions, as well as the common law, we will examine how control is manifested in a particular employment relationship. We reject those limiting requirements that the Board has imposed–without foundation in the statute or common law–after Browning-Ferris. We will no longer require that a joint employer not only possess the authority to control employees’ terms and conditions of employment, but also exercise that authority. Reserved authority to control terms and conditions of employment, even if not exercised, is clearly relevant to the joint-employment inquiry.  As the Supreme Court has observed, the question is whether one statutory employer “possesse[s] sufficient control over the work of the employees to qualify as a joint employer with” another employer. Nor will we require that, to be relevant to the joint-employer inquiry, a statutory employer’s control must be exercised directly and immediately. If otherwise sufficient, control exercised indirectly–such as through an intermediary–may establish joint-employer status.

But the outstanding question is: How big is this decision?

From our perspective, it’s still “to be determined.”

Certainly, it’s significant that the Board’s indication that it will no longer require that joint employers actually exercise the authority to control terms and conditions of employment, necessarily means that employers in business relationships such as the one at issue in the Browning-Ferris case may have joint-bargaining obligations that they do not even know exits and may be liable for unfair labor practices without engaging in any wrongdoing.

But this case will likely be appealed and it remains to be seen how much of this decision will be adopted by the courts.

Whatever the impact, the decision is significant enough that Congress is already discussing legislation to specifically address the decision.

Although the decision only applies to private sector employers, Connecticut’s State Board of Labor Relations looks to federal law for guidance in interpreting our State’s labor laws.

Thus, all employers in Connecticut, both private and public sector, should review this decision and any business contracts that may be impacted closely.  Independent contractor and franchise agreements, in particular, should be reviewed to be brought up to the latest in employment law. If you haven’t had your contracts renewed in the last decade, it’s probably time to do so now.

Lucan_J_WebMy colleague, Jarad Lucan, returns today to recap a notable labor case that the Connecticut Appellate court decided this week (but officially released on March 24, 2015).  It’s worth a read, even for non-union types, if only to show the importance of consistency in arguments.

A recent Appellate Court case, AFSCME, AFL-CIO, Council 4, Local 2405 v. City of Norwalk et al., reminds us that there are some subtle textual differences between the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Connecticut Municipal Employee Relations Act (MERA) that municipal employers and labor practitioners should keep in mind.  The case also reinforces the notion that consistency in the arguments a party makes before a court is vital to the potential success of those arguments.

I will give you a bit of a warning though: the decision includes a very technical analysis. But  I will try my best to summarize the key points without losing everyone’s attention.

It is common practice for Connecticut courts and the State Board of Labor Relations (SBLR) to look to the NLRA when interpreting and applying the State’s employee relations acts, including the MERA.  There is certainly nothing unusual about this practice, and given the similarities between the Federal and State acts, it simply makes sense.

For example, Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA and Section 7-470(a)(1) of the MERA prohibit employers from interfering, restraining or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by either act.  In addition, both Federal and State law prohibit employers from discriminating, harassing, or retaliating against employees who engage in protected activity.  While this later prohibition is specifically set forth in the Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA, the MERA does not include a statutory analogue.  Instead, the SBLR has interpreted Section 7-470(a)(1) to encompass this prohibition.

Good so far?

When a union raises a claim that an employer has discriminated, harassed, or retaliated against an employee because of his or her protected activity, the central question is whether any adverse employment action taken against an employee was motivated by anti-union animus.   This means that the employer’s intent is generally at issue.

In order to determine the employer’s intent, a burden-shifting framework first established by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in its Wright Line decision is utilized at both the Federal and State level.  Under this framework, the union must make a prima facie showing that an employee’s protected activity was a motivating factor in the employer’s adverse employment action against the employee.

The elements of this prima facie case are (1) the employee engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer knew of the employee’s protected activity; and (3) the employer acted as it did on the basis of anti-union animus.

In contrast, when a union raises a claim that the employer’s actions simply tend to have the effect of coercing or interfering an employees exercise of their rights, whether they are actually coerced or not, the employer’s intent is not at issue and therefore the Wright Line standard is not applicable.  Still with me?

This seems straightforward enough when dealing with claims brought under the NLRA.  Claims that an employer discriminated or retaliated against an employee because of that employee’s protected activities  are brought under Section 8(a)(3) of the NLRA, and all parties understand that the Wright Line standard will apply.  Claims that the employer’s actions simply coerced or interfered with an employee’s exercise of his or her rights (for instance the implementation of a social media policy that prohibits an employee from making disparaging comments) are brought under Section 8(a)(1), and all parties generally understand that the Wright Line standard is not applicable.  In other words, two different sections are in play.

Under MERA — Connecticut’s law — however, both discrimination and retaliation claims and coercion and interference claims are brought under the same statutory section, Section 7-470(a)(1).  Thus, it is up to the parties, particularly the party bringing the complaint, to identify under what theory the case will be litigated.  That is precisely the issue in the City of Norwalk case.  I know it  took us a while, but I think we got there in one piece.

Here’s where the new case gets interesting.  In that case, the Union claimed that the Supervisor of the  City’s Department of Public Works retaliated against employees in the Department because of their protected activities.  Thus, when the Union presented its case to the SBLR, the Union argued that the employer’s intent was at issue and the case should be analyzed under the Wright Line standard.  That is exactly what the SBLR did.  Under that framework, the SBLR determined that the City did not subject the employee to any adverse employment action and therefore the Union failed to establish that the City acted on the basis of anti-union animus.   The SBRLR dismissed the complaint.

The Union appealed the case to the Superior Court, which upheld the SBLR’s decision as being supported by substantial evidence.  On appeal, the Union shifted gears and argued that the SBLR applied the wrong legal standard in deciding whether it met its prima facie burden.  Specifically, the Union contended that it may meet its obligation to prove anti-union animus merely by demonstrating that the employer’s conduct coerced employees from engaging in protected activities.

The Appellate Court rejected this argument stating, “[b]y electing to cast its claims as falling under the Wright Line standard before the [SBLR], the trial court, and this court, the union may not attempt to import a test that is fundamentally inconsistent with the Wright Line standard. . . . The [SBLR] decided the case on the theory on which the union advanced it.  Accordingly, the [SBLR] cannot now be faulted for not applying a standard that is inconsistent with the overall standard the union urged it to use in adjudicating its claim of discrimination.”

For employers and their attorneys, it is critical to understand both the differences in state and federal law and fashion a defense to the particular claim that is being brought. Here, the procedural posture of the case allowed the employer to prevail — merits of the underlying case notwithstanding.

Bans on taking photos at work are addressed in the NLRB report.
Bans on taking photos at work are addressed in the NLRB report.

The NLRB’s General Counsel’s office today released a lengthy report “concerning recent employer rule” cases.

That sounds generic. It’s not.

Rather, the NLRB is now outlining its views on otherwise-neutral employer policies and whether they could be deemed to violate federal labor law.  While part of the report is a recap of existing caselaw, this is probably the most comprehensive approach I’ve seen in a while. And more importantly, it provides policies that were approved by the NLRB in a recent settlement with Wendy’s.

This is an issue I’ve talked about before, whether policies on photos and videos, or social media, or confidentiality.

There’s a lot to take in but this should provide employers with guidance should they wish to avoid the NLRB’s steely gaze.

The “model” policies it approves of may not be your preferred language (and indeed, in one area, it would seem to almost encourage union-related activities), but employers who want to stay well within the limits of the law will certainly want to use this as a guide.

I’ll have more on this in an upcoming post after a more comprehensive review.

Hat tip: Jon Hyman.