The Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities can sometimes be seen as an easy punching bag by legislators, employees, employers and employment law attorneys.

But there’s one area that has been an unequivocal success and where you won’t see almost any headlines.

The CHRO several years ago developed the Kids Court Essay Competition which runs each year.  In it, it gives high school and middle students the opportunity to talk about topics that are important to them and shine a spotlight on others who may not have the same opportunity.  In doing so, the competition focuses on important and contemporary civil justice issues.

This year’s essay topics were:

The CHRO received over 300 (!) entries.  Out of that, five essays were chosen as finalists at both the middle school and high school levels.  Each student then had the opportunity to address the Kids Court — a panel of distinguished lawyers, judges and others assembled for this purpose.

This week was this this year’s Kids Court and I was grateful the CHRO asked me to participate as a judge.

The students displayed a keen awareness of the local community; they each talked about topics that were important to them.  The students that talked about Hate Crimes and Educational Equity had a particular resonance to the current events of today.

As an employment lawyer, I found it notable that none of the finalists’ essays were actually on #metoo.  I don’t think there’s much to conclude from that, other than that the students’ essays on other topics were judged to be better.

In 2018, we’ve seen high school students rise to national prominence in Florida over the issue of school safety and gun violence. Listening to these “kids” and making sure their voices are heard is something that employers should consider. Today’s generation of students are increasingly impatient with the pace of change.

Congratulations to all the finalists and I look forward to hearing their continuing contributions to our civil discourse in the years to come.

 

If you ever read the state labor laws (wait, you haven’t?), you sometimes come across provisions that seem like they were written for another generation.

And indeed, they were.

Take, for example, Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-23.  It prohibits children under the age of 16 from working in the “manufacturing, mechanical, mercantile or theatrical industry”.

That seems to make some sense as far as child labor laws are written. Then it goes on.

It also prohibits working in a “restaurant or public dining room.”

Public Dining Rooms? I was about to write this off entirely as just outdated but there is at least one reference I’ve found in Connecticut to a “public dining room”.  Grasso Tech’s culinary arts program advertises a “public dining room” on Facebook, so perhaps we can give them a break.

And then the statute singles out three other businesses to add to the prohibition: any bowling alley, shoe-shining establishment or barber shop.

It seems an odd arrangement for businesses. Some of it can certainly be seen rooted in safety — you wouldn’t necessarily want minors dealing with sharp tools if a barber shop or the equipment of a bowling alley.

Indeed, Conn. Gen. Stat. 31-25 prohibits minors from operating elevators! Tell that to my kids who love pushing the buttons.

My best guess from review of the legislative history, though, is that the statute is rooted in something more nefarious — that these industries would somehow show the dark side of society.

Now, there are some exceptions for other businesses over the last decade or so that I’ve covered previously; golf courses, or cashiers in supermarkets etc. all have some exceptions.

But the bowling alleys and shoe shining establishment bar still stands.

Some laws are hard to change.

Earlier this week, I made my long-awaited (ok, long-awaited by ME) return on WNPR’s ever-popular “Where We Live” show.

As always, I’m thankful for the invite.

My appearances date back quite some time (remember pizza and child labor in 2010?), so it was nice to be back in the studio to talk about age discrimination and other workplace issues.

So, is age discrimination still a problem?

The answer is plainly “yes”.

A related question, though is how MUCH of a problem? And is it getting better or worse?

By one measure, it’s been going down in a noticeable way the last several years.  In 2008 for example, there were over 24,500 charges filed on age grounds; in 2017 – it was down below 18,500 – a drop of over 20 percent.

Statistics, though, only tell part of the story because historically, you’d expect more to see more charges in a recession than an improving economy.

An article by The New York Times over the winter raised concerns that Facebook Job Ads were being used in a way to target younger potential applicants.  And some have suggested that the federal law itself is too weak.  

So, recognizing the age discrimination remains an issue in society is an easy task. But solving this — and ensuring that workplaces have a diversity of ages, remains a issue of which there are no easy answers.

You might think the title of this post is a bit self-serving or even self-promotional. Is this post just going to be a backhanded way to hire me, an employment law attorney?

I want to dissuade you of the notion because that’s actually not my purpose.  (Really.)

But over the years, I’ve had friends and colleagues struggle with finding the right lawyers for their business.  In some cases, my firm (Shipman & Goodwin LLP) might be a good fit for them. In other situations, whether because of conflicts or costs, we might not be.

What I tell people is to take a step back and ask yourself a series of questions to start with.  I thought I’d share just a few of them to start the conversation:

  1. What are my needs? This is perhaps the hardest, but most important question to ask yourself before you start.  If you don’t know what your needs are, it’s really tough to find a good match.  If a lawsuit is filed against you, then obviously you need an attorney who has experience in the area that can represent you.  But is this a one-off matter that will be handled in a few hours, or is this likely to be much larger and need the resources of a firm that can handle this?
  2. Do I have insurance that might cover the lawfirm’s expenses (or, perhaps dictate what lawyer I must hire)? Some employers have purchased insurance to handle defense of employment-related claims and you might not even know about it. Figure that out first because there’s nothing worse than hiring one lawfirm only to find out that you’re going to have to choose another attorney by the insurance company.
  3. Do I have a budget? And if so, what lawfirms can work within that budget so that I can maximize my value? Most lawfirms charge by the hour, but will work with companies to try to fit a budget.   But will that mean you are working with an inexperienced associate? Or a more senior one or a partner on your issue?
  4. Do I have related issues beyond just employment law that a general practice firm can best handle? Over the last 15 years or so, employment law boutiques have popped up and for some companies, they may be a good fit (particularly if covered by insurance). But for others, they may have needs that go beyond that? Will you need to find 2 or 3 lawfirms to handle your issues, or should you go with one firm that can service all of them.
  5. Should I pick a lawfirm or pick an attorney AT the lawfirm? Much like hiring a doctor, there are some tasks that can be handled by a variety of lawyers. But for other issues, you might need to seek out a lawyer with a particular expertise.
  6. Do I know anyone that is currently using a lawyer that can recommend one to me?  You might have found this post via Google, which is both amazing and scary at the same time.  If you have, don’t choose a lawyer just because Google ranked them. Rather, if at all possible, do your due diligence on the lawyer. Word of mouth and recommendations from friends and colleagues remains a great way.  Keep asking around until you find someone you’re happy with. Don’t just settle on the first name that pops up.
  7. Can I find out more about how the lawyer thinks through his or her online presence? And if so, does it match my style?  Have you always envisioned your lawyer being a “pitbull” who will support your view no matter what? Or do you want someone who can methodically look at your issue and perhaps give you advice you may not want to hear? Or something else? There are plenty of different lawyers with differing styles. Find the one that fits your company.

There’s something I left off the list — ratings.  Whether it’s “Best Lawyers”, or “Super Lawyers” or “Chambers” or “Avvo” or something else, be wary of hiring a lawyer exclusively based on such a rating.  While it certainly doesn’t HURT to have a lawyer on such a list, there’s far more important qualities to look for in a lawyer.

What else should you look for? Add your view in the comments below.

In an important 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court this morning held, for the first time, that class or collective action waivers, particularly in wage/hour cases, and contained in arbitration agreements between employers and employees are valid and enforceable.

Because wage and hour class and collective actions are quite costly for employers to defend against, this decision should cause employers in Connecticut (and nationwide) to re-evaluate their employment relationships with employees and consider enacting wide-ranging arbitration agreements that include class-action and collective action waivers.

The decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (download here) was just released at 10 a.m. this morning, so I’ll have more in an upcoming post after I’ve had time to digest it, but here’s the summary from the Supreme Court itself:

In each of these cases, an employer and employee entered into a contract providing for individualized arbitration proceedings to resolve employment disputes between the parties. Each employee nonetheless sought to litigate Fair Labor Standards Act and related state law claims through class or collective actions in federal court. Although the Federal Arbitration Act generally requires courts to enforce arbitration agreements as written, the employees argued that its “saving clause” removes this obligation if an arbitration agreement violates some other federal law and that, by requiring individualized proceedings, the agreements here violated the National Labor Relations Act. The employers countered that the Arbitration Act protects agreements requiring arbitration from judicial interference and that neither the saving clause nor the NLRA demands a different conclusion.

Until recently, courts as well as the National Labor Relations Board’s general counsel agreed that such arbitration agreements are enforceable. In 2012, however, the Board ruled that the NLRA effectively nullifies the Arbitration Act in cases like these, and since then other courts have either agreed with or deferred to the Board’s position.

Held: Congress has instructed in the Arbitration Act that arbitration agreements providing for individualized proceedings must be enforced, and neither the Arbitration Act’s saving clause nor the NLRA suggests otherwise.

In doing so, the court relies on two main arguments. First, the Federal Arbitration Act compels this and notes that the Concepcion decision from a few years back foretold this (which I previously previewed in a prior post).  Second, the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t compel a different result.

Justice Gorsuch writes the majority opinion here and concludes: “The policy may be debatable but the law is clear: Congress
has instructed that arbitration agreements like those before us must be enforced as written. ” He criticizes the dissent for its language suggesting a retreat from modern day labor laws:

In the dissent’s view, today’s decision ushers us back to the  Lochner era when this Court regularly overrode legislative policy judgments. The dissent even suggests we have resurrected the long-dead “yellow dog” contract. … But like most apocalyptic warnings, this one proves a false alarm. … Our decision does nothing to override Congress’s policy judgments.

Justice Ginsburg writes the dissent and concludes:

If these untoward consequences stemmed from legislative choices, I would be obliged to accede to them. But the edict that employees with wage and hours claims may seek relief only one-by-one does not come from Congress. It is the result of take-it-or-leave-it labor contracts harking back to the type called “yellow dog,” and of the readiness of this Court to enforce those unbargained-for agreements. The FAA demands no such suppression of the right of workers to take concerted action for their “mutual aid or protection.”

It’s an “Epic” day at the Supreme Court.   Will this have the same effect for state law claims? How should employers implement these changes? When? For all employees?

Lots of questions but today, at least, the Supreme Court answered one of the biggest employment law questions out there.

Over the last several months, I’ve been asked to do far more sexual harassment prevention trainings than typical and the issue of profanity in the workplace has popped up.

No doubt that much of this is due to the recent spate of cases of very public sexual harassment and assault cases (Thank You Matt Lauer!). This has led to the #metoo and #timesup movements becoming more than a mere hashtag.

But at a recent training, we got into a discussion about whether profanity could ever be used in the workplace.  Does it create a “hostile work environment” under federal anti-discrimination law?

I’m not the only one to think about this question. In fact, the Hostile Work Environment podcast (how appropriate!) tackled this subject a few weeks back — and also delved into the subject about whether an employee’s use of profanity could be protected speech as well.

But one of the most interesting cases I’ve seen on the subject differentiated between different types of profanity (h/t Ohio Employer’s Law Blog for the original cite to this case) and came out of the 11th Circuit early this decade.

Before we go further, let me use the words of the 11th circuit to issue a warning:

We recite the profane language that allegedly permeated this workplace exactly as it was spoken in order to present and properly examine the social context in which it arose. We do not explicate this vulgar language lightly, but only because its full consideration is essential to measure whether these words and this conduct could be read as having created “an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.”

(I’m still going to keep this post PG-13 but now that you’ve been warned, read on….)

The court’s decision focuses on the difference between profanity of the general type, which it calls “general, indiscriminate vulgarity” (presumably, words like “sh**”), and “gender-specific, derogatory comments made about women on account of their sex.”

The court said that there was ample evidence that, as one of two female workers, the Plaintiff overheard coworkers used such gender-specific language to refer to or to insult individual females with whom they spoke on the phone or who worked in a separate area of the branch. Indeed, the court said that her male co-workers referred to individuals in the workplace as “bitch,” “f**king bitch,” “f**king whore,” “crack whore,” and “c**t.”

And thus begins a discussion of profanity that hasn’t often been seen in the court system.

[T]he context may illuminate whether the use of an extremely vulgar, gender-neutral term such as “f**king” would contribute to a hostile work environment. “F**king” can be used as an intensifying adjective before gender-specific epithets such as “bitch.” In that context, “f**king” is used to strengthen the attack on women, and is therefore relevant to the Title VII analysis. However, the obscene word does not itself afford a gender-specific meaning. Thus, when used in context without reference to gender, “f**k” and “f**king” fall more aptly under the rubric of general vulgarity that Title VII does not regulate….

The court then focuses on the notion that what is important to decide if conduct is “severe or pervasive” to create a work environment is the entirety of the situation.

[W]ords and conduct that are sufficiently gender-specific and either severe or pervasive may state a claim of a hostile work environment, even if the words are not directed specifically at the plaintiff…. It is enough to hear co-workers on a daily basis refer to female colleagues as “bitches,” “whores” and “c**ts,” to understand that they view women negatively, and in a humiliating or degrading way. The harasser need not close the circle with reference to the plaintiff specifically: “and you are a ‘bitch,’ too.”

The court opines that “Evidence that co-workers aimed their insults at a protected group may give rise to the inference of an intent to discriminate on the basis of sex, even when those insults are not directed at the individual employee.”

But what if the workplace just had a lot of profanity?

Then, the court says that might not be enough. “If the environment portrayed by [the Plaintiff at the Company] had just involved a generally vulgar workplace whose indiscriminate insults and sexually-laden conversation did not focus on the gender of the victim, we would face a very different case. However, a substantial portion of the words and conduct alleged in this case may reasonably be read as gender-specific, derogatory, and humiliating.”

For employers, the case is a reminder than a hostile work environment need not have pornography in the workplace to satisfy the standard; words can be enough depending on the context and the pervasiveness of it.  Employers should be mindful that profanity in the workplace — particularly when it is sexually-laden and directed at or around others — can have serious legal ramifications.

One last point: The employer here argued that the environment existed before the employee joined too and that it was not, therefore, directed to the Plaintiff.  The court easily dismissed that argument.   Once [the Plaintiff] entered her workplace, the discriminatory conduct became actionable under the law. Congress has determined that [the Plaintiff] had a right not to suffer conditions in the workplace that were disparately humiliating, abusive, or degrading.”

 

Last night, I had the honor of being elected as Chair of the James W. Cooper Fellows Program of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, after serving for a year as Vice-Chair and Chairperson of the Fellows Education & Program Committee.

The Fellows are comprised of outstanding Connecticut lawyers, judges, and teachers of law; the Fellows put on a variety of programs during the year including symposia, roundtable discussions and mentoring programs for high school students.

At the annual dinner, I sat next to and talked with the Keynote Speaker for the evening, Teresa Younger, who is currently President & CEO of the Ms. Foundation — the Foundation started by icon Gloria Steinem.

Those of you with memories here in Connecticut may remember that she was Executive Director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women and Executive Director of the CT Chapter of the ACLU, before leaving to go to the Ms. Foundation.

I’ve met her several times — each time, I’m left with just awe at her accomplishments and, more importantly, by her wisdom and insights.

During her prepared remarks, Ms. Younger had a lot to say about the #metoo and #timesup movements in ways that I think many employers can take notice of.

Among them was her reminder to all of us that the movement isn’t just about stopping harassment in the workplace.

Rather, it’s designed to listen to voices that haven’t yet had the seat at the table, or who have been too timid to speak up thus far.

She highlighted a ABC News report and conversation recently about the shifting views in the workplace and that even among women, there are differences based on age.

As one of the participants in that ABC News conversation said:

From this conversation, I recognized that not everyone feels comfortable and assured in their position to speak up and voice concerns when they experience inappropriate behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Recognizing this, I encourage people experiencing any form of what they interpret as inappropriate behavior not to feel intimidated and talk with a colleague or a supervisor whom they trust and ensure that there is support if they decide to take next steps.

The workplace continues to shift and evolve.  It’s up to all of us to be cognizant of this and adjust our expectations and actions accordingly.

My thanks to Ms. Younger for providing a valuable insight at last night’s CBF meeting.

Earlier this week, it seemed that a bill requiring employers to conduct additional training on sexual harassment matters was a no-brainer to pass the General Assembly.

After all, Senate Bill 132 passed 31-5 in the state Senate and in this #metoo environment (not to mention local elections in the fall), the House looked to be a near certainty.

But a lot can happen in a few days, and some of the bill’s more controversial provisions were simply too much for the bill to overcome.

Thus, employers do not yet have to worry about the new training requirements and changes to the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

That said, employers still need to follow existing state law regarding training of supervisors (if applicable) and should still exercise caution in dealing with cases of harassment.

One bill that did receive passage late last night was Senate Bill 175, which I haven’t talked much about.

That bill makes a number of changes to government and quasi-public agencies. (In other words, these aren’t applicable to private employers).

Sections 8 and 501 are the key provisions in employment law and limit the use of non-disparagement and non-disclosure agreements.  According to the OLR report:

  • Beginning October 1, 2018, the bill generally prohibits state and quasi-public agencies from making a payment in excess of $50,000 to a departing employee in order to avoid litigation costs or as part of a non-disparagement agreement. Under the bill, “state agency” means executive branch agencies, boards, councils, commissions, and the constituent units of higher education.
  • For state agencies, the bill allows such a payment if (1) it is made under a settlement agreement that the attorney general enters into on the agency’s behalf or (2) the governor, upon the attorney general’s recommendation, authorized it in order to settle a disputed claim by or against the state.
  • It also specifies that, any settlement or non-disparagement agreement cannot prohibit a state agency employee from making a complaint or providing information in accordance with the whistleblower or false claims act.
  • Similarly, any settlement or non-disparagement agreement cannot prohibit a quasi-public agency employee from making a complaint or providing information under the whistleblower law.

For readers who work for the government, these particular provisions — namely seeking approval from the AG’s office — should be reviewed over the next few months.

Today is the last day of the General Assembly session and there are only so many hours to debate and pass bills.

And so, in a year when so many labor & employment law bills were up for consideration, it’s come down to a finish line where just one or two might pass.

The Pay Equity bill I highlighted earlier this week is on to the Governor’s desk, where he has indicated he will sign it.

But the bill making broad changes to the harassment and discrimination laws in the state now appears to be on life support. Perhaps even “mostly dead”.

You will recall from my post earlier this week that the bill passed the Senate with an overwhelming majority with language that seemed to have broad support.

According to a report in CT News Junkie, a deal has yet to be reached in the House and there may be too many issues with it to come to a deal today.

At issue has been the language eliminating the statute of limitations for some sex crimes.  It’s possible that a fix that revises the training requirements could perhaps see it’s way out of the mess but that is seeming increasingly unlikely according to news reports.

There are other bills still floating out there: Paid FMLA, changes to minimum wage, etc. None of them though seems to have enough steam at this stage to get over the finish line.

So stay tuned.  There’s a budget bill that is still up for grabs and the last day always has a way of surprising.

I’ll have a full legislative recap once the dust settles.

Over the weekend, the General Assembly approved a bill prohibiting employers, including the state and its political subdivisions, from asking, or directing a third-party to ask, about a prospective employee’s wage and salary history.

I have previously discussed the measure here.  There were a few versions floating around and it was House Bill 5386 that carried the day (as amended).

The prohibition does not apply in two situations:

  • if the prospective employee voluntarily discloses his or her wage and salary history, or;
  • to any actions taken by an employer, employment agency, or its employees or agents under a federal or state law that specifically authorizes the disclosure or verification of salary history for employment purposes.

While salary may not be inquired, the bill DOES allow an employer to ask about the other elements of a prospective employee’s compensation structure (e.g., stock options), but the employer may not ask about their value.

The bill has a two year statute of limitations. Employers can be found liable for compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and any legal and equitable relief the court deems just and proper.  This bill amends Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-40z

As amended, the effective date of the bill is now January 1, 2019.

The final bill is different from a prior bill because it eliminates provisions that generally would have (1) allowed employers to ask about the value of a prospective employee’s stocks or equity, (2) allowed employers to seek a court order to disallow compensatory or punitive damages, and (3) required certain employers to count an employee’s time spent on protected family and medical leave towards the employee’s seniority.

For employers, upon signature from the governor, this bill will become law.  As such, employers should notify all of their hiring personnel of the new restrictions that are likely to go in place effective January 1, 2019. I’ll have more updates after the legislative session winds down this week.