It was the last semester of my senior year in college – right after Spring Break – when I heard the news that would forever shape my views on mental illness.

A friend and fellow editor of the college newspaper I worked for, Steven Ochs jumped to his death from one of the many bridges near his hometown in Pittsburgh, PA.

A group of us ended up driving out there across the fields of Pennsylvania to mourn his passing. It was the first time I was a pallbearer at a funeral and I knew then that was something I never wanted to be for a friend again.

Steven was a remarkable young adult.

I wish you could’ve known him.  He wrote amazing columns for our college paper and editorials nearly every weekday.  Thanks to the internet, you can still read a few here.

I can still remember sitting in his newspaper office couch and hearing him talk; he was always a few steps ahead of me.  I thought he had a promising future.

I thought about Steve a bunch last week, when the celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Boudrain became headlines.

Those people, along with Steve, seemingly had everything that would want.

And yet.

As anyone who has had a friend or relative commit suicide, there’s a certain amount of second guessing that goes on. What signals did I miss? What could I have done differently? Was I a good enough friend? Why didn’t he ask for help?

And a lot times, it just comes down to a simple question too: Why?

Every suicide of a employee impacts the workplace as well.  And sometimes it is at the workplace itself – but regardless, suicides have been on the rise the last several years. As a Wall Street Journal article from earlier this year noted:

Nationwide, the numbers are small but striking. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suicides at workplaces totaled 291 in 2016, the most recent year of data and the highest number since the government began tallying such events 25 years ago. U.S. suicides overall totaled nearly 45,000 in 2016, a 35% increase compared with 10 years earlier, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Who is most at risk? According to the BLS study, 45- to 54-year-old males had the highest likelihood of committing workplace suicide. And workers in the public sector had a higher propensity for workplace suicide while workers in the private sector suffered the majority of these fatalities. The private industry sectors with the highest propensities for workplace suicide were finance and insurance; professional, scientific and technical services; and health care and social
assistance.

The solutions are far more complex than a simple employment law blog post can capture.  Some of them are rooted in society.  But discussions regarding mental health — and bringing those discussions in the workplace — is often seen as one important step that can be done.  A renewed emphasis on making sure employees know about and use Employee Assistance Programs is also another important step.

HR staff can sometimes be at the front lines.  Figuring out that an employee might need help can be a part of a solution but as we all know, it might still not be enough.

We can only hope that as we raise awareness of this, that we can stop some suicides from occurring so that 25 years from now, someone else isn’t writing a blog post about one of their friends as well.

 

 

Ten years ago today, I wrote about the then-Tenth Anniversary of one of the horrible events that made a lasting impact on Connecticut employers.

I recounted the Connecticut Lottery shootings that happened a decade earlier.

Today, marks 20 years. (The CT Mirror has another perspective here.)

The New York Times report of that event is still chilling in its matter of factness:

Angered about a salary dispute and his failure to win a promotion, a Connecticut Lottery accountant reported promptly to his job this morning, hung up his coat and then methodically stabbed and gunned down four of his bosses, one of whom he chased through a parking lot, before turning the gun on himself.

Since that time, we’ve had other workplace shootings in Connecticut including one even deadlier (Hartford Distributors) and, of course, the massacre in Sandy Hook.

I’m reminded of a post I did early on that was titled: Are there really any lessons to be learned from evil? In it, I suggested the answer was “perhaps” — if only because employers need to keep reviewing their workplace violence policies and keep figuring out ways to spot trouble before it arises.

Just in 2014 alone, there were over 400 workplace homicides nationwide reported to OSHA.

Indeed, it seems the rare case where workplace violence just pops up out of nowhere.

OSHA does have some resources on the subject — but many of them are starting to be dated. 

One of the more useful items was a set of guidelines issued in 2015 targeting healthcare and social service workers.

It calls on employers to develop workplace violence prevention programs from five building blocks:

  1. Management commitment and employee participation;
  2. Worksite analysis;
  3. Hazard prevention and control;
  4. Safety and health training, and
  5. Recordkeeping and program evaluation.

There are far more details in the report than a blog post could recap but for employers looking to reduce the risk of a workplace shooting at their facility, getting started on your own program is as good a place to start as any.

As we remember the victims of the Connecticut Lottery shooting, may we honor their memories to keep bringing change and safety to our workplaces.

Earlier this week, as I peeked up from my bed covers, I heard the lovely, comforting sound I heard when I was a kid.

“Come on Down!”

“The Price is Right” was starting.

Sure, Bob Barker is no longer the host, but I didn’t care.

At that moment, when my stomach was churning and the room was moving a bit, all I was hoping for was a round of Plinko. (I did, however, miss the ultimate Plinko win a few weeks back.)

Well that, and maybe a spin of the wheel where someone wins a $1000.  (And I missed this record-setting set of spins too.)

Netflix? My head hurts.

Bingeing on a show? Too much thinking.

But at 11 a.m. — like chicken soup — The Price is Right was there for me.

Is it the classic show for working folk to watch when they’re sick? Who knows.

With an iPhone by your side and the e-mails piling up, it’s hard to just rest and let your body recover.

In fact, I would argue that it’s harder in this 24/7 work environment to just tune out. But one of the myriad of bugs going around this winter laid me up for a few days.

Sure, I could’ve read up about paid time off, or debate whether flu shots should be required.

But where’s the fun in that?

Employment laws are great — except when you’re the person you is the subject of them. Thankfully, my firm (and our clients) are understanding. Better to stay home and not get others sick, than to come in.

We know not all employers are like that. However, this winter, it seems to have shifted a bit — at least informally.  The messages have been getting out — don’t come into work sick.

Spring is coming. And work resumes.

But The Price is Right is, at least for me, a reminder that taking care of yourself is eternal.

 

Are you ready for blockchain’s impact in employment law?

This seems to be the new equivalent to the buzz a decade ago that social media was going to change the world (it kinda did).

Perhaps bigger.

At this point in the post, there are probably two reactions: 1) Tell me more!; and 2) What are you even TALKING about?

So, let’s start with the second question first — what is the “blockchain”? There are many discussions, but one recent ABA article had this to say:

Blockchain is commonly defined as a decentralized digital ledger in which transactions are recorded chronologically and publicly. In its infancy stages, blockchain was the mechanism that tracked cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. However, as the technology evolved, variations such as private, permissioned, and consortium blockchains have emerged. Ultimately, blockchain technology can facilitate many types of business transactions.

Another article by a lawyer described the hype as follows:

By design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data—once recorded, the data in a block cannot be altered retroactively without obviously corrupting later blocks, which depend on the original data from the earlier block as part of the hash. It can take enormous time and energy to go back and rehash subsequent blocks to try to hide the earlier alteration, and in the meantime new blocks are being added to the chain. This makes a blockchain extremely resistant to modification.

The applications of the blockchain are still in the infancy phase.  (The hype cycle for blockchain is in the “peak of inflated expectations” period and it projects that we are still 5-10 years off from maturity.) And thus, any discussion regarding its implications in the employment law arena are necessarily speculative.

But let the speculation begin.

For example, one human resources expert suggested some uses for this technology as follows:

  • It may make the concept of a “self-sovereign identity” for employees a reality, making verification of past employment or certifications easier and more secure. (Or this breathless article about “Blockchain-based CVs Could Change Employment Forever.“)
  • Potentially, you could run payroll off the blockchain to make those transactions more secure.
  • It could also be used to help employers keep confidential health information and transmit it more easily.

It only takes some imagination to go beyond that as well.

  • “Smart” employment law contracts, in which transactions automatically happen, could be introduced into the workplace.
  • Or the blockchain could be used to secure IP rights to company products, thereby avoiding the confusion as to whether the employee or the employer “owns” such rights.

Blockchain is still very much developing and I wouldn’t be surprised if this article seemed a bit dated a few years from now.  After all, who would’ve thought you could order a car (Uber) inside a social messaging app (Facebook) just a decade ago?

But employers and their attorneys who stay up on technology should understand the potential implications for blockchain in the workplace and be ready to adapt once the technology becomes mature enough to use.  From my perspective, there’s still time to keep reading about this developing technology; the time for action is still yet to come.

With a weekend of football championships behind us, this post tackles the privacy developments that employers here in Connecticut need to run down.  Indeed, while I could just pass off two recent posts from my colleagues, it’s worth going through a progression of options.

One development is for the U.S. “patriots”, while another one lets you fly like an eagle to Europe to understand the implications that an EU regulation can have on US employers.

Since my beloved New York football giants were out of it since week one, I’m going to just quarterback what you need to know and, for the sake of everyone, put the football puns on the sideline for the rest of the post.

First up, the Connecticut Supreme Court last week recognized a private right of action that patients have against their doctors for unauthorized disclosure of confidential information obtained in the course of that relationship.”  My colleagues in the Health Law group have a detailed post here. As noted by my partners:

This case is significant because it provides yet another avenue by which physicians may be held liable for violating HIPAA. This is because the Court decided in 2014 that “HIPAA and its implementing regulations may be utilized to inform the standard of care applicable to such claims arising from allegations of negligence in the disclosure of patients’ medical records …” Thus, if physicians owe a duty of confidentiality to their patients and violating HIPAA is found to breach that duty, the Court held that patients now have the right to sue their physician for damages caused by a violation of HIPAA. Whether a patient will be successful in such a lawsuit remains to be seen.

The case serves as a reminder to health care professionals and, perhaps just as importantly, to their staff to protect confidential health information to comply with the law and avoid legal liability from patients.  If you do any work in the health care area, the decision and the tips flowing from the case are a must read.

On a broader scale, Connecticut employers that do business in Europe or do business from EU citizens should also take note of new regulations coming into effect in late May 2018.  Again, my colleagues posted about this on the School Law blog, but it’s worth a look.

So what are we talking about? As my colleagues noted:

The requirements of the European Union (“EU”) General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) come into effect on May 25, 2018.   These regulations promise to usher in sweeping changes to the way institutions, companies, and other organizations collect and handle the personal data of EU residents.

The GDPR is a holistic set of data privacy requirements that address the entire life cycle of collection, use, and disclosure of the “personal data” of EU residents. While we anticipate jurisdictional challenges that may someday limit the GDPR’s reach outside of the EU, the law as currently drafted purports to affect institutions of higher education, companies, and other organizations, such as boarding schools, worldwide. This means that the GDPR will affect not only institutions that do business with or operate inside of the EU, but will also affect institutions in the United States that processes the personal data of persons residing in the EU.

For more on the subject, check out this comprehensive post from my fellow law partners.  

Privacy law has increasing implications for employers and employees.  Employers need to ensure proper training in these areas to ensure compliance.

My colleague, Jarad Lucan, returns today with a very special post on a ground-breaking week at the NLRB.  For Connecticut employers, the decisions change a lot of what has been going on at the NLRB for the last several years.  

Back in January of 2013, I wrote an article for the Connecticut Law Tribune entitled “For the NLRB, a December to Remember,” which you can read here if you are interested . In that article, I discussed a slew of Obama Administration Labor Board decisions that were handed down in December of 2012 and that construed labor law in a way favorable to employees and unions.

Based on decisions last week from the new Trump Administration Labor Board (issued just before Chairman Philip Miscimarra’s term expired), this December has proven to be another memorable one;  this time, however, employers that are the beneficiaries.

In a decision involving The Boeing Company and its no-camera rule that prohibited employees from using camera enabled devices to capture images and video in the workplace without prior approval, the Labor Board took aim at its 2004 Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia decision and the standard from that decision applicable to workplace rules and policies.

Under the Lutheran Heritage standard, an employer’s facially neutral workplace rule was determined to be unlawful if it would be “reasonably construed” by an employee to prohibit or restrict the employee’s rights afforded by the National Labor Relations Act.

For years, that standard had been used to find unlawful countless employer policies related to confidentiality, privacy, social media use, and courtesy.

In place of the Lutheran Heritage standard, the Labor Board, in The Boeing Company case, established what amounts to a balancing test.

Under the a new test, the Labor Board first looks at whether the rule or policy, when reasonably interpreted, would potentially interfere with employee rights under the Act.

If it does, the Labor Board then looks at two things:  (1) the nature and extent of the potential impact on employee rights protected by the Act; and (2) the legitimate justifications associated with the rule.  If the justifications outweigh the impact, the rule will be lawful.

The decision also lays out three categories into which the Labor Board will classify rules.

The first category covers rules that are legal in all cases because they cannot be reasonably interpreted to interfere with employees’ rights or because any interference is outweighed by business interests; the second covers rules that are legal in some cases depending on their application; and the third covers rules that are always illegal because they interfere with employees’ rights in a way not outweighed by business interests.

Applying the new test to The Boeing Company no-camera rule, the Labor Board determined that the rule was lawful.

The Labor Board reasoned that the rule potentially affected employees’ rights protected by the Act, but that the impact was comparatively slight and outweighed by important business justifications, including, in that case, national security interests.

In light of this decision, employers should take a fresh look at their workplace rules and policies.  However, unlike such reviews following previous Labor Board rulings when employers would rush to revise or eliminate rules held to be invalid, employers should consider each rule and the justification behind the rule.

In another big move, but in a decision likely to impact less employers, the Trump Administration Labor Board majority voted to overturn the Obama Administration Labor Board’s controversial 2015 Browning-Ferris Industries ruling, which I wrote about here.

In Browning-Ferris Industries, the Labor Board held that two partners in a business relationship are joint employers when one has even “indirect control” over the other’s employees.

The Labor Board’s decision restored the Board’s prior “direct control” standard for weighing joint employer status.  As the Labor Board majority stated, “[w]e return today to a standard that has served labor law and collective bargaining well, a standard that is understandable and rooted in the real world.”

Additionally, the Trump Administration Labor Board majority voted to overturn the 2011 Specialty Healthcare “Micro-Unit” standard.

That decision related to the appropriateness of the make-up of a newly petitioned-for bargaining unit and seemingly placed great emphasis on the extent in which the petitioned-for unit was organized.

Under that standard, and employer could only add to the individuals included in a petitioned-for unit if it could prove an overwhelming community of interests.

The Labor Board has now returned to previous precedent and will examine whether petitioned-for employees share a community of interests “sufficiently distinct” from excluded employees to warrant their own unit.

In the coming months, the Trump Administration Labor Board is likely to overturn other labor law decisions, including those related to college student’s rights to unionize, and employee use of employer e-mail systems to engage in protected concerted activities, among others.

Such is the nature of a labor board that pays little regard to precedent and instead shifts according to the administration in power.

Stay tuned.

My partner Gary Starr returns with this pre-Thanksgiving tale that seems appropriate not for the holiday, but for the headlines of late. 

Happy Thanksgiving and stay out of trouble.

Another day, another celebrity figure accused of harassment.

Or worse.

Many of the accounts reveal the abuse of power and the lack of respect shown to women.  A recent case adds another aspect to the ways in which harassment or discrimination against women may occur.  While the case is out of New York, the scenario is one that has applicability in states like Connecticut.

The basic facts:

  • A chiropractor hired an attractive yoga and message therapist to his office staff.
  • While he oversaw the medical aspects of the business, his wife served as the chief operating officer.
  • During the therapist’s six months of employment, she described her relationship with the doctor as professional.
  • His wife, however, was disturbed by her presence.
  • Within 3 months, the chiropractor commented to the therapist that she might be “too cute” and his wife may become jealous.
  • Three months later, the wife texted the therapist that she was no longer welcome at the office and she “should stay the [expletive] away from my husband.”
  • Later that day, the chiropractor fired the therapist.

So what happened next?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the therapist filed a gender discrimination claim under New York law.

She said her firing was motivated by sexual attraction and as such was unlawful gender discrimination.

She did not claim that she was actually harassed, but argued that it could be inferred that the discharge resulted from the chiropractor’s desire to appease his jealous wife and therefore the motivation was sexual in nature.

The discharge allegedly occurred for reasons of jealousy, not because the employee had a consensual affair with her boss.

This case was not based on the employee’s conduct, but because the therapist was sexually distracting to the doctor and disturbing to his wife.

While this case originally was dismissed, the appellate division of the New York Supreme Court decided to allow the therapist to pursue her claim.

The court explained that what potentially made the discharge unlawful was not that the wife had urged the firing, but the reason she urged her husband to do it and his compliance.

The therapist had not done anything inappropriate and had allegedly performed her work satisfactorily.  She now has an opportunity to overcome her status an at-will employee to prove that the motivation of the chiropractor and his wife was sexual in nature.

The court made clear that a spouse can urge a husband to fire an employee, but what makes it unlawful is the basis for the firing.  In this case, there are allegations of a gender-based motivation, which was sexual in nature.

What the court ruling suggests is that attractiveness can be a protected condition … if the person is singled out because of his/her appearance. It’s not always going to be the case, but at least here, the allegations are enough to let the case proceed.

The motivation to fire someone due to his/her appearance can be viewed as sexual in nature and therefore discriminatory.  In light of the headlines on sexual harassment, this decision adds a new dimension and another source of problems at work.

You can download the case here.