Back in 2011, I discussed a titillating case of strip club dancers (or, a decision says, “performers”, “entertainers”, “dancers” or even “exotic dancers” — although not “strippers”) who were trying to claim wages for the time they worked at a popular strip club in Connecticut.

The story at the time was that they were compelled to arbitrate their claims. 

So private arbitration should mean end of the public story, right?

Well, as it turns out, no. And the analysis of the case has some very real practical implications for employers.

I’ve been going to back through some older posts to do some followups. And in doing so, I discovered that this case had a public ending — except for the fact no one reported on it.

It seems that the dancers won big in an arbitration proceeding and then asked the court to “confirm” the award — making the whole thing public.  (You can read the arbitrator’s award here.)

And as a result, we get a revealing look at the efforts one club made to try to avoid having strippers be deemed “employees” and how it ultimately failed.

The strip club  — sorry, “adult entertainment establishment” as it called itself — had the strippers sign leases “renting” out the poles and space of the strip club. In doing so, the Club argued that these dancers were no more than tenants, and therefore, not entitled to wages, benefits or any of the normal protections that come with being an employee.

Under the “lease”, according to the decision, the dancers agreed to perform “semi-nude (topless) and/or nude dance entertainment” at the Club.”

In doing this work, dancers agreed to “perform consistent with the industry standards of a professional exotic dancer.”

(Aside: Professional exotic dancers have INDUSTRY standards?)

The Lease also provided that there will be set fees (called “entertainment fees”) for certain performances, “such  as couch and table dances,” and that dancers “may not charge more than the set fees.”

Oh, and they wouldn’t be paid any wages.

And here’s where it gets REALLY interesting.

If they ever DID claim wages, the lease provided that they would forfeit all of the entertainment fees they previously earned. And, to top it all off, should the dancers claim to be employees, they will also be liable for any attorneys’  fees, costs, or other damages incurred by the Club as a result of that claim.

But the arbitrator was having none of it.

He detailed the requirements of the strippers saying that there were four principal ways a dancer can “perform” — all of which indicated that they were tied to the Club (and therefore employees).

  • A “stage set”, in which the only income is the tips the customers choose to give her.
  • A “private dance” or “booth dance”, in which the Club sets the “mandatory entertainment fees”.  (A booth dance here cost $25, of which the dancer keeps $20 and pays $5 to the Club.)  Tips encouraged.
  • A “VIP” area in which the fee for that performance is $100 for 15 minutes, $200 for 30 minutes and $300 for an hour and in which the entire fee goes to the Club.  Tips encouraged as well.
  • A “Champagne Room” performance, in which the customer is charged $110 for one half hour and in which the entire fee goes to the Club.  Customer is free to tip the dancer.

At the end of a shift, the dancer must pay “rent” to the Club of $20 and a tip to the DJ.

The arbitrator said that the dancers were employees and therefore entitled to the protections under state and federal law.  Minimum wage was owed, for example. Moreover, the “lease” violated state law because it called for a refund of wages under Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-73.  

The arbitrator noted that while employers and employees have “wide latitude” to enter into wage agreements, that latitude does not extend to permitting parties to override or ignore the requirements of Connecticut law.

The arbitrator took particular note of the paragraphs that required the dancers to return “all” entertainment fees if they challenged their employment status.  These provisions are “clearly designed to penalize the employee for exercising her right to insist upon proper classification.  The inherent purpose of the Lease is to violate the law.”

The decision goes on to analyze the proper penalties and set-offs in such a case.  Here, the arbitrator again was not sympathetic to the employer — and for good reason.  The employer failed to prove it acted “in good faith” — and therefore the dancers were entitled to liquidated (or double) damages.

How much? Nearly $130,000 in damages for two strippers — plus attorneys’ fees.

The case is a great example of what happens on the fringes of wage and hour law. The vast majority of employers in this state play by the rules and wouldn’t even dream of cooking up a “lease” for its employees to sign.

But the law exists to protect the dancers too and here, there’s little doubt that justice has been well-served by the award here.

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.

 

 

“Let’s engage in a Halloween-type party where everybody would be having sex.”

Or perhaps, “So, are you going to wear a bikini for your Halloween costume?”

What is it about Halloween that brings out the creep factor in the workplace?

The first quote is from a real district court case earlier this year which documented a series of alleged comments made relating to a sexual harassment complaint.

(If you’re scratching your head at the reference to a “Halloween-type” party, I’m right there with you.)

The second is from a different case that is no less offensive in its descriptions of pervasive inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

(And, as if you needed confirmation, Princess Leia in a bikini from Return of the Jedi is not appropriate in the workplace, however cool Princess Leia is.)

Now, long time readers may recall a 2008 post about the perils of costumes in the workplace, and another post in 2010 about the perils of enabling sexual harassment when it comes to Halloween.

And yet, it continues.

Suzanne Lucas (a/k/a Evil Hr Lady) recently posted some tips about hosting an Office Halloween party.  Among them:

Costumes shouldn’t make fun of other cultures, the word “sexy” shouldn’t be attached to any workplace costume and the gore should be kept to a minimum. Remember, the goal is to have fun, not to offend. If you want to dress up as a sexy zombie, save that for your own Halloween party with personal friends.

But here’s my simple advice, be afraid. Be very very afraid. There are just way too many bad things that happen on Halloween with far more “tricks” than “treats”.

I realize that sounds like a no-fun lawyer, but how many more sexual harassment cases from Halloween do we really want or need? Do I need to keep writing these posts each Halloween?

Through a recent FOI request, I was able to take a peek at the latest case statistics coming out of the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities. (The CHRO has since added them to the website as well.)

I’ve done these recaps in years before (here’s 2016 for example) and I think you can learn a lot not just on the latest statistics but when you compare them to prior years.

So, what do the numbers from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017 show?

Well, for the first time in several years, we’ve seen a noticeable decrease in the numbers of complaints filed.

In FY 16-17, 2376 total complaints were filed, down from 2616 the prior year – a 9 percent decrease.  Of course, it’s still up from FY 11-12 when just 1838 total complaints were filed.

And what about employment discrimination complaints in particular?

The report also shows a drop in the number of complaints being filed, 1936, as compared to 2160 in the prior fiscal year.  That represents over a 10 percent drop. Again, however, it’s still up from FY 2012 when just 1559 employment claims were filed.

After years of marked increases, it’s nice to confirm what we have been seeing internally — that discrimination claims seems to be on the decline.

It’s difficult to know exactly why; we had seen increases the last few years at a national EEOC level too, but these new statistics from the CHRO show that the trendline up has finally broken.

Certainly the improved economy seems one factor but it’ll be interesting to see if this trend continues.

I’ll have a deeper dive into the statistics in an upcoming post.

One of the interesting strains to come out of the new round of publicity surrounding sexual harassment is a renewed focus on mandatory arbitration provisions.

And it comes from an unexpected source: former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson.

Indeed, Carlson recently gave an interview with former ESPN producer and self-titled “Commander-in-She” Valerie Gordon that may have slipped under radar in which she talks about such provisions.

She notes that mandatory or “forced” arbitration provisions enable sexual harassment to exist under the radar.

I’m doing some advocacy work on Capitol Hill, working on gathering bipartisan support to take the secrecy out of arbitration.  You know the forced arbitration in employment contracts makes these things secret.  We have to stop the silence around it.

In another recent interview, Carlson suggested that these arbitration provisions are often “in the fine print” and not focused on when people start a new job.  She’s talked about it during Senate press conferences this year as well.

I’ll be interested in reading more about Carlson’s perspective in her new book being released today.

Carlson’s message should be well taken by employers; if employers are using these arbitration provisions merely as a means to allow a system of harassment to continue, then shame on them.

But here’s the issue: As with most things employment law related, it’s far more nuanced.

There are times when arbitration makes sense for BOTH the employer and employee. Litigation is expensive — very expensive, some of my clients would say — and is filled with uncertainty and time-consuming drama.  I talked more about this in a 2014 post.

Arbitration can be less expensive and can allow both sides to be heard by a neutral third party much more quickly and effectively than a court system.

And yes, it avoids some publicity but again, that can benefit employees too.

By filing in arbitration, rather than court, an employee’s claims won’t be public and won’t seen by future employers as a potential lawsuit waiting to happen.

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review this once more in a trio of consolidated cases, including whether employers can force employees to sign away rights to pursue a class actions.

And we shall see if the Connecticut General Assembly revisits the issue in the upcoming session in January 2018.  Until then, employers should continue to monitor developments in this area and figure out if mandatory arbitration provisions are right for your business.

 

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.

A few weeks back, I did a post about having our personal data hacked.

What if the hacker was you?

Yes you — the attorney, the employer, or someone else who has confidential information.

I was recently reviewing the online court file of an employment case in federal court for a recent blog post.  It’s available for anyone to see.

(You might be asking, Why? Because it’s always interesting to see other filings and the way cases turn out. Ok, it’s always interesting TO ME at least….).

In looking over some of the court-filed documents, I came across the college transcript of the employee/plaintiff.  It was filed by the attorney as evidence in the case.

Some newer transcripts don’t have some confidential information. But this college transcript was old school: It still contained the Social Security number of the employee AND his date of birth.

And just like that, the attorney has opened up the employee to hacking.

In case you are wondering, yes, there are rules in federal court about this. For example, Local Rule 5(e)8 requires that a party filing a document that will become publicly available shall redact Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, dates of birth and names of minor children.

Attorneys who represent employers should beware that the same rule applies to filings you submit as well.

Beyond court rules, employers have an independent legal obligations to protect Social Security numbers of its employees as well.

And so, in this age of data, it’s up to us all — attorneys and employers — to take the responsibility of protecting data seriously.

You don’t want to hack your own client or employee.

“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.

An applicant for a job posting in education lists his most recent relevant experience as occurring in 1973.  You don’t bring him in for an interview.

Is it gender discrimination?

Beyond that, if he says that he is the most qualified candidate — do you have to hire him?

And if you don’t hire the most qualified person, is that evidence of gender discrimination?

No to all three, says one recent federal court decision.

The decision by the court was quietly released late last month and might otherwise go unnoticed, but it underscores an important point for employers.

In the matter, the Plaintiff argued that the employer discriminated against him because of his gender by denying him the opportunity for a job interview.   The employer chose four female and two male candidates for interviews.

The Plaintiff argued that he was more qualified than the female candidates who were interviewed and ultimately hired by the employer.

The court said, however, that the mere fact that the employer hired people of a different gender does not suggest that it failed to hire the Plaintiff “on account of his gender”.

Indeed, the employer had various reasons as to why the Plaintiff was not interviewed:

  • he hadn’t filled out the entire job application and didn’t answer whether he had any criminal offenses in the last ten years.
  • his resume was “perceived to be outdated, as the most recent job listing in education was from 1973.”

So, you might not think much of the case.

But the court’s decision is notable because it contains language that will be helpful in other cases for employers.  Says the court: “[T]here is no legal requirement that the most qualified candidate be hired.”

In doing so, the quote revisits a quote from an 1980 decision.

Title VII does not require that the candidate whom a court considers most qualified for a particular position be awarded that position; it requires only that the decision among candidates not be discriminatory. When a decision to hire, promote, or grant tenure to one person rather than another is reasonably attributable to an honest even though partially subjective evaluation of their qualifications, no inference of discrimination can be drawn. Indeed, to infer discrimination from a comparison among candidates is to risk a serious infringement of first amendment values. A university’s prerogative to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach is an important part of our long tradition of academic freedom.

All that being said, employers should have SOME rational basis for their decisions. Even if the candidate is “more qualified”, the employer may determine that there are other reasons why the employee should not be hired; maybe the employee’s qualifications cannot overcome a bad job interview, etc.

Keeping bias out of your decision-making process is central to employers.  But it’s nice to know that employers don’t have to be perfect in its determinations of qualifications either.

Shorter is better.

Why? The slang TL;DR comes to mind.

But it turns out there’s an educational component too — at least according to the results of a new study that examined workplace contracts.

In the study, published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology and recapped by Insights by Stanford Business School, “the researchers found that workers whose contracts contained more general language spent more time on their tasks, generated more original ideas, and were more likely to cooperate with others. They were also more likely to return for future work with the same employer, underscoring the durable and long-lasting nature of the effect.”

In other words, contracts that contained pages upon pages of specific do’s and don’t for workers, ended up harming the employment relationship.

Instead, researchers found that “the more general contracts increased people’s sense of autonomy over their work.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the need to write employment contracts in plain English — something that is at the core of a book by Ken Adams whose work has appeared on this blog before.

It turns out that even “minimal changes”, in the words of one of the study’s authors, can have “important consequences.  Especially when it comes to behaviors that are notoriously difficult to include in contracts, such as increasing effort, task persistence, and instilling a stronger sense of autonomy, which leads to higher levels of intrinsic motivation. Reducing the specificity of contractual language can also increase creativity and cooperation.”

From a legal perspective, I’ll blame some lawyers for introducing some language in a contract that can be overkill at times.

(Don’t think lawyers are at least partly to blame for long contracts? Next time you see a “This space is intentionally blank” line in a contract, rest assured that it probably came from a lawyer.)

A few years ago, our practice group went through a standard separation agreement template to remove the “Whereas” clauses and the “Definitions”  — all in an attempt to simplify the agreement. The process took months.  Simplification does not necessarily mean increasing risk. It just takes more time.

Just ask Mark Twain (actually don’t — it’s a misattributed quote.)

Of course, you probably don’t need me to tell you that shorter is better. I just read the abstract and not the entire article.

After all: TL;DR.