A while back, I had a good discussion with a colleague on a topic with no real firm answers.

No, it wasn’t on whether the Yankees are better franchise than the Red Sox.  The answer to that is unequivocally yes.  (Sorry, Sox fans.)

Rather: When is a employee-related issue a legal one? Or alternatively, when can human resources handle the issue on it’s own?

What comes to mind at first is the old Justice Potter Stewart quote of, “I know it when I see it” but that seems unsatisfying.

For some smaller employers, the answer may lean more heavily towards “legal” in part because there may not be an in-house human resources professional to call on.

But on the flip side, there are some other employers that might rely heavily (perhaps overly so) on their HR contacts to handle matters, trying to avoid unnecessary legal expenses.

What I’ve concluded is what I’ve started with — there are no real answers to the question.

But I can outline a few (non-exclusive) times when a lawyer should probably get involved.

  1. You get a letter from a lawyer threatening legal action on behalf of an employee or, in the case of a non-compete, from a former employer.  Pretty self-evident; lawyer = legal issue.  I’m going to not even dwell on the obvious: an actual lawsuit being filed means an attorney ought to be contacted.
  2. You get a notice from a state or federal agency investigating wage/hour laws, anti-discrimination laws, workplace safety issues, or labor union-related issued. Anything from the DOL, CHRO, EEOC, OSHA, or NLRB (to name a few) has the potential to be a big deal. Things you say there can be used against you too.  The earlier the better.
    1. But unemployment compensation claims may not always rise to that level.  Some employers handle unemployment claims and appeals internally.  For those situations, it depends on the complexity of the situation.
  3. You have to conduct an investigation into a workplace issue, such as sexual harassment, AND you may want that investigation to be privileged and confidential.  Again, HR may be able to conduct a whole host of minor investigations but there are going to be some that involve sensitive issues, or perhaps raise company-wide concerns. Bring counsel involved and let them help to manage the investigation.
  4. You have a complex issue that doesn’t have a clear legal answer.  It’s pretty well-settled now that employers need to engage in interactive discussions with an employee regarding reasonable accommodations that they may need.  Qualified HR can handle those discussions.  But suppose the employee is injured on job, is out on workers’ compensation, has exhausted FMLA time and needs additional time off — what then?

But I’m interested hearing from other lawyers or human resources personnel. When is an issue a legal one and when is HR perfectly capable of addressing it? Leave your best tips in the comments below.

So a few weeks back, I suggested that we were entering into a new era of sexual harassment cases and wondered out loud when the statistics would back up my observations.

We now have our first signs.  Maybe.

In my exclusive continued look at the case statistics from the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, we can see the first signs of an increase.

But as I’ll explain below, it’s difficult to know if this is a statistical anomaly.

Despite significant drops in most types of discrimination complaints, the number of sexual harassment complaints in Connecticut went up last fiscal year to 145, up from 135 the year before.

As a percentage of overall claims, sex harassment employment claims are just 3 percent of the overall claims filed, up from 2.5 percent the prior year.

But here’s the issue: When you look back at prior fiscal years in 2014 and 2015, the number of sex harassment claims is still below those years.

In other words, is it a trend up? Or overall down? Indeed, the numbers from FY 2012 are comparable to FY 2017’s numbers. Except that as a percentage, there were more sex harassment claims made 5 years ago, then now (3.6% to 3.0).

What else do we see? Well, as expected with an overall drop in cases is an drop in claims of wrongful discharge, refusal to provide reasonable accommodations, terms and conditions, and even demotions.

Remaining constant were claims for failure to promote, termination of employment due to pregnancy, and aiding & abetting discrimination.

When you review the basis for claims filed, we see drops in claims for age (FY 2017 451 vs FY 2016 518), race (551 vs 616), sex (507 vs 532) and physical disability (445 vs 520).

Some other bases hold steady or even slightly increase: ancestry claims (200 vs 188) and mental disability claims (103 vs. 110).

For employers, watch the trends. Will sex harassment claims continue to increase? And will overall claims decline?

There’s more that we can glean from these numbers too. I’ll have more in an upcoming post.

 

 

Sometimes, government is thought of as the enforcer of rules.  But sometimes, the government is also in the business of helping businesses too.

The latest example of this is an Employer Resource Guide put out a few weeks ago by the Connecticut Department of Labor. You can download it directly here.  

According to its introduction:

This employer resource guide was created to educate all employers on the wide array of programs, services, and incentives available in Connecticut. This guide will be  periodically updated, and automatically emailed to all registered employers in CTHires, ( www.cthires.com), the Department of Labor’s no cost online job bank. In addition, a link to the resource guide will be available on the Department of Labor’s website, http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/employerresourceguide.pdf.

For some larger employers, much of the information contained here may not be news. But for others, there are programs that the government runs that may be helpful. For example, if you are struggling financially and may need to do layoffs, the Department’s Rapid Response Team can provide some assistance. There are also shared work programs, which I’ve talked about before, which allow employers to maintain some staff on reduced hours, while affording the employees the opportunity to collect unemployment compensation too.

Overall, the guide provides some very useful materials on programs that sometimes fall below the radar.  If you haven’t taken a look recently at the Department of Labor’s offerings, it’s well worth a few minutes of your time to see if there is a program that matches your company’s needs.

“Joe, in response to all this NFL stuff, we want you to display U.S. flags at your workstation.”

“No.”

“Well, then you’re fired.”

Don’t think that can happen? Then you haven’t heard about the Cotto v. United Technologies Corp. case — a long-forgotten Connecticut Supreme Court case from 20 years ago that has particular meaning in today’s environment where standing for the national anthem has become front page news.

Is this patriotic too?

The basic facts are as I described them above:

  • The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he was employed on a full-time basis by the defendant for approximately twelve years.
  • In April 1991, the employer distributed American flags to employees in the plaintiff’s department and it was expected that all employees would display American flags at their workstations.
  • The plaintiff declined to display the American flag and further gave his opinion on the propriety of coercing or exerting pressure on employees to display the American flag.
  • After a suspension, he was fired by his employer on or about May 16, 1992.

The Supreme Court had two things to say on this. First, the Court held that the employee could raise a claim under a state law that an employee’s free speech claims were being violated. Again, i talked more about this law in a post last month.

But that’s only part of the decision. In the other half of the decision, the Court was asked to decide whether the employee actually had a free speech claim.

The Court reminds us first that not everything is a federal or even state case.  “As a statutory matter, a statute that protects constitutional rights in the workplace should not be construed so as to transform every dispute about working conditions into a constitutional question.”

And then the court reminds us, in language that has direct implications for the discussion we’ve been having about standing for the national anthem, that the Complaint was missing a few essential aspects to rise to that level.

Significantly, the plaintiff has not alleged that:  (1) he was directed to manifest his patriotism by saluting the flag or otherwise affirming his allegiance thereto;  (2) he was directed to affix the flag to his person or to his private property;  or (3) he was indirectly directed to associate himself with the symbolism of the flag because the location of his workstation was such that members of the public, or his fellow employees, reasonably could have attributed that symbolism to him personally.

Instead, the claim rested on the requirement for the Plaintiff to affix the flag to the workstation. The Court saw no meaningful difference to that act, versus an employer who did it for the employee — which would not violate the First Amendment.

A direction to the plaintiff to affix a flag to his workstation did not require him either to manifest or to clarify his personal political beliefs.   Because a flag was to be affixed to  each workstation, and because the plaintiff’s workstation was not exposed to public scrutiny, he was not required to assume the risk that others might attribute to him any political beliefs about the flag that he did not share.   In other words, the direction to the plaintiff, as a matter of law, was not a “coercion of belief.”

Hmmm.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve been seeing press reports that the NFL and its teams may require its players to stand at the national anthem.  Let’s suppose that happened in Connecticut too and that a paid employee was fired for refusing.

Given the language in Cotto, could the employee allege that he “was directed to manifest his patriotism by saluting the flag or otherwise affirming his allegiance thereto” — a fact that was missing in the Cotto case?

That obviously is an unanswered question, but it just goes to show that you can learn a lot through your history.

Last week I talked about the new state law regarding pregnancy discrimination that is going into effect on October 1, 2017.  In that post, I mentioned a new notice that was required to comply with the law.

Although there is no set form that is required to be used, the Connecticut Department of Labor has created one that is available for employers to use that will comply with the state law.  It is free to download here.  

Because the content is useful, I’m using it down below so that employers can cut and paste it into a handbook or into a notice to be given to employee upon starting work too.  One can quibble with some of the word phrasings that are used, but overall — and stating the obvious — if you use this, you’ll be in compliance according to the state.

Covered Employers

Each employer with more than 3 employees must comply with these anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation laws related to an employee or job applicant’s pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions, including lactation.

Prohibition of Discrimination

No employer may discriminate against an employee or job applicant because of her pregnancy, childbirth or other related conditions (e.g., breastfeeding or expressing milk at work).

Prohibited discriminatory conduct includes:

  • Terminating employment because of pregnancy, childbirth or related condition
  • Denying reasonable leave of absence for disability due to pregnancy (e.g., doctor prescribed bed rest during 6-8 week recovery period after birth)*
  • Denying disability or leave benefits accrued under plans maintained by the employer
  • Failing to reinstate employee to original job or equivalent position after leave
  • Limiting, segregating or classifying the employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities
  • Discriminating against her in the terms or conditions of employment

    *Note: There is no requirement that the employee be employed for a certain length of time prior to being granted job protected leave of absence under this law.

Reasonable Accommodation

An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to an Employee or job applicant due to her pregnancy, childbirth or needing to breastfeed or express milk at work.

Reasonable accommodations include, but are not limited to:

  • Being permitted to sit while working
  • More frequent or longer breaks
  • Periodic rest
  • Assistance with manual labor
  • Job restructuring
  • Light duty assignments
  • Modified work schedules
  • Temporary transfers to less strenuous or less hazardous work
  • Time off to recover from childbirth (prescribed by a Doctor, typically 6-8 weeks)
  • Break time and appropriate facilities (not a bathroom) for expressing milk

Denial of Reasonable Accommodation

No employer may discriminate against employee or job applicant by denying a reasonable accommodation due to pregnancy.

Prohibited discriminatory conduct includes:

  • Failing to make reasonable accommodation (and is not an undue hardship)**
  • Denying job opportunities to employee or job applicant because of request for reasonable accommodation
  • Forcing employee or job applicant to accept a reasonable accommodation when she has no known limitation related to pregnancy or the accommodation is not required to perform the essential duties of job
  • Requiring employee to take a leave of absence where a reasonable accommodation could have been made instead
    ** Note: To demonstrate an undue hardship, the employer must show that the accommodation would require a significant difficulty or expense in light of its circumstances.

Prohibition of Retaliation

Employers are prohibited from retaliating against an employee because of a request for reasonable accommodation.

Notice Requirements

Employers must post and provide this notice to all existing employees by January 28,2018; to an existing employee within 10 days after she notifies the employer of her pregnancy or related conditions; and to new employees upon commencing employment.

Complaint Process

CHRO:

Any employee aggrieved by a violation of these statutes may file a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO). Complainants have 180 days from the date of the alleged act of discrimination, or from the time that you reasonably became aware of the discrimination, in which to file a complaint. It is illegal for anyone to retaliate against you for filing a complaint. CHRO main number: 860-541-3400 CHRO website: www.ct.gov/chro/site/default.asp CHRO link “How to File a Discrimination Complaint”: http://www.ct.gov/chro/taxonomy/v4_taxonomy.asp? DLN=45570&chroNav=|45570|

DOL:

Additionally, women who are denied the right to breastfeed or express milk at work, or are discriminated or retaliated against for doing so, may also file a complaint with the Connecticut Department of Labor (DOL). DOL phone number: 860-263-6791 DOL complaint form: For English: http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/wgwkstnd/forms/DOL-80%20fillable.doc For Spanish: http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/wgwkstnd/forms/DOL-80S%20fillable-Spa.doc

“President Trump is a Big Fat Idiot” or, for that matter, “Secretary Clinton is a Sore Loser.”

Let’s suppose you see one of your employees tweeting one of these expressions on Twitter during non-work hours from a personal account.

Can you discipline or even fire your employee over that tweet?

That, in essence, is at the heart of an issue that has been circulating in the sports pages (and in the President’s press briefings) over the last week due to the tweets of ESPN Sportscenter Anchor Jemele Hill from her personal account that were critical of the President.

The New York Times, in fact, ran a story on Saturday discussing the legal ramifications; it was nice to be quoted in the article.

While that article does a good job of summarizing the law in part, there’s a bit more to the story that is useful exploring (however briefly) in a blog post.

First off, people do not generally have a First Amendment protection for things that that they say that their employer finds out about.

Say you go to a white supremacist rally in, oh, Charlottesville and your employer finds out about your speech at the rally. You can be fired because of that generally.

But but but.

A state like Connecticut has a law that says that gives employee a right to sue their employer if the employer disciplines or fires the employee because of that employee exercised their free speech rights under both the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, AND the Connecticut Constitution.

Importantly, the speech has to be of a matter of “public concern” and courts will look to see if the person is speaking in his or her capacity as a concerned citizen; criticisms of your own personal workplace will often times not satisfy this standard.

Political speech is almost always the type of speech that courts will consider of a “public concern”.

The Connecticut Supreme Court said in 1999 (not 2015 as The New York Times indicated) in Cotto v. United Tech. Corp. that Connecticut’s free speech statute applied to speech made at an employer’s premises.

Continue Reading Calling President An Idiot May Be Protected Speech (But Maybe Not)

For those unfamiliar with the way a lot of Connecticut laws get implemented, October 1st could seem like just another day.  (Though for my kids, they would be impressed that it was a different October 1st in 1982 that EPCOT opened at Disney World.)

But a lot of bills that are passed by the Connecticut General Assembly go into effect on October 1st each year. This year is no exception.

For employers, the biggest of these bills is the new law concerning “Pregnant Women in the Workplace”.  I’ve previously recapped the law for pregnant employees in a prior post way back in May, but because we’re getting close to implementation, it’s time for a little refresher.

Existing law makes it a discriminatory practice to:

  • To terminate a woman’s employment because of her pregnancy;
  • to refuse to grant to that employee a reasonable leave of absence for disability resulting from her pregnancy;
  • to deny to that employee, who is disabled as a result of pregnancy, any compensation to which she is entitled as a result of the accumulation of disability or leave benefits accrued pursuant to plans maintained by the employer;
  • to fail or refuse to reinstate the employee to her original job or to an equivalent position with equivalent pay and accumulated seniority, retirement, fringe benefits and other service credits upon her signifying her intent to return unless, in the case of a private employer, the employer’s circumstances have so changed as to make it impossible or unreasonable to do so.

Those rules remain unchanged. But the new law revises some other provisions and adds more to the protections. Effective October 1st, it will now also be unlawful to:

  • Limit, segregate or classify the pregnant employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities due to her pregnancy;
  • Discriminate against an employee or job applicant on the basis of her pregnancy in the terms or conditions of her employment;
  • Fail or refuse to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee or job applicant due to her pregnancy, unless the employer can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship;
  • Deny employment opportunities to an employee or job applicant if the denial is due to the request for a reasonable accommodation due to her pregnancy;
  • Force an employee or job applicant affected by pregnancy to accept a reasonable accommodation if she (i) does not have known limitation related to her pregnancy, or (ii) does not require a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential duties related to her employment;
  • Require an employee to take a leave of absence if a reasonable accommodation can be provided in lieu of the leave; and
  • Retaliate against an employee in the terms, conditions or privileges of her employment based upon the employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation.

The changes don’t stop there. The new law also explains that the word “pregnancy” will also include “pregnancy, childbirth or a related condition, including but not limited to, lactation”.  It also expands the definition of “reasonable accommodation ” and “undue hardship”.

  • “Reasonable Accommodation” means, but is not limited to, being permitted to sit while working, more frequent or longer breaks, periodic rest, assistance with manual labor, job restructuring, light duty assignment, modified work schedules, temporary transfers to less strenuous or hazardous work, time off to recover from childbirth or break time and appropriate facilities for expressing breast milk; and
  • “Undue Hardship” means an action requiring significant difficulty or expense when considered in light of factors such as (A) the nature and cost of the accommodation; (B) the overall financial resources of the employer; (C) the overall size of the business of the employer with respect to the number of employees, and the number, type and location of its facilities; and (D) the effect on expenses and resources or the impact otherwise of the accommodation upon the operation of the employer.

Continue Reading Two Weeks Until New Protections for Pregnant Employees Become Effective

U.S. Department of Labor Headquarters

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

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

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

The ruling applies to employers nationwide.

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

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

Keep calm and carry on.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the election happened. Which changed everything.

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

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

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

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

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