nurseSo, back in January, I penned a post titled “Can You Fire an Employee Who Has Exhausted FMLA Leave?”

As if to respond, the EEOC yesterday released guidance that basically answers: Not necessarily, because it might violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

And that is the crux of the issue for employers.

Before I go further, let’s remember one thing: The ADA is a statute that demands flexibility.  It requires that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” to employees to enable them to perform the essential functions of their job.

The EEOC’s guidance tries to explain this flexibility in various ways.  Sometimes it clarifies the situation; but in other ways, the guidance only serves to create more questions for employers to ponder.

The guidance is broken down into six key areas.

1. Equal Access to Leave Under an Employer’s Leave Policy. This is fairly straightforward; the same leaves of absence rules applicable to employees without disabilities should be applied to those with disabilities.

2. Granting Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation. The EEOC’s continues to argue that an employer must consider providing unpaid leave to an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation if the employee requires it, and so long as it does not create an undue hardship for the employer.

3. Leave and the Interactive Process Generally.  The EEOC reminds employers that when an employee requests an accommodation such as leave (and note: such requests rarely come in a neat fashion like “I hereby invoke my rights under the ADA for a reasonable accommodation”), the employer should promptly engage in an “interactive process” with the employee.  This process should focus on the specific reasons the employee needs leave, whether the leave will be a block of time or intermittent, and when the need for leave will end. Even under this instance, the employer may consider the “undue hardship” the leave may have on the workplace.

4. Maximum Leave Policies. Although employers are allowed to have leave policies that establish the maximum amount of leave an employer will provide or permit, the EEOC argues that employers may have to grant leave beyond this amount as a reasonable accommodation to employees who require it because of a disability, unless the employer can show that doing so will cause an undue hardship.  Thus, policies with hard caps may violate the ADA.

5. Return to Work and Reasonable Accommodation (Including Reassignment).  In this section, the EEOC argues that employers should avoid “100% Healed” policies, which require that an employee be fully recovered before returning to work.  A temporary transfer to a vacant position might allow the employee to return earlier while the employee continues to heal, for example.  Again, the notion of a “reasonable accommodation” and flexibility controls.

6. Undue Hardship. For employers, this may be the last safeguard and one that might need to be used more.  For example, an employer might argue that the duration and frequency of the leave, and the impact on the employer’s business, make such a leave too difficult under the circumstances.  A big plus for employers, however is that an “indefinite leave” — meaning an employee cannot say whether or when she will be able to return to work at all — “will constitute an undue hardship”.  But overall, employers will need to examine such requests on a case-by-case basis.

Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer Law Blog suggests in his post today that this guidance “goes a long way to answering many of the questions employers will have.”  I respectfully disagree with Jon.  The EEOC’s guidance is an aggressive approach to the law that has yet to be fully tested by the courts.  Rather than create clarity, the guidance pushes the boundaries as to what employers should do. And CT’s anti-discrimination laws have their own requirements which may (or may not) mirror all of the ADA’s requirements.

For example, if an employee cannot do the essential functions of the job he or she was hired for with a reasonable accommodation, why is it reasonable to assign them permanently to another job?

That’s not to say that employers should turn a blind eye to those with disabilities or those in need to some extra time in some circumstances. I’m not advocating that at all; being understanding of your employees is vital being a good employer. And there will be instances where employers will do all that it can to keep a valued employee.

But I worry about the situations in which an employee is abusing leave; there has to be an end point. A point at which the employer can legitimately say “enough is enough.”

And with the EEOC’s guidance, that end point remains as muddy as ever.

USDOL Headquarters in DC
USDOL Headquarters in DC

Over the years in the employment law “blawgosphere” (isn’t there a better term by now?), I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with and conferring with several other attorneys who blog. One of those is Jeff Nowak, whose FMLA Insights blog has become a go-to place on all things FMLA.

So, it was no surprise yesterday that Jeff was one of the first to talk about a new FMLA notice that will be issued by the U.S. Department of Labor that can be used interchangeably with the existing notice. He also added this scoop:

After today’s announcement, I had the opportunity to connect with the DOL’s Branch Chief for FMLA, Helen Applewhaite, about the timing and obligations to post the new General FMLA Notice. She confirmed that employers would be allowed to post either the current poster or the new version. In other words, employers will not be required to change the current poster. For those that want to use the new poster, I will post a link as soon as DOL releases it.

Jeff also linked to a new employer’s guide to the FMLA, a companion of sorts to a 2012 release by the DOL for employees.   This 71-page guide will be a good starting point for employers on the basics of the law but it leaves more complex issues about the law unanswered.  For more on it, see Jeff’s post and a followup post by Jon Hyman, of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog this morning as well.

Connecticut employers though should exercise extreme caution about using this guide as a bible.  As most employers in Connecticut are aware, there are significant differences between Connecticut’s FMLA law and the federal counterpart.  And because employers with 75 or more employees in Connecticut are covered by both, there is a significant risk that employers using only the federal FMLA guide will get the law wrong.

Connecticut has historically posted a comparison of the two laws that is helpful, again as a starting point.  But that comparison is now 17 years old and doesn’t address many of the current issues or things such as a military exigency leave that have occurred through changes to the FMLA law over the years.

So what’s an employer in Connecticut to do? Ignore it? Read it?

Probably a little of both.

There are certainly items helpful in both guides but, in my view, they aren’t a substitute for talking with counsel about more complicated issues such as intermittent leave and FMLA’s interaction with the ADA and Connecticut’s Paid Sick Leave law.

If nothing else, be aware that when FMLA leaves do occur, there may be more to the solution than what is posted in the USDOL’s employer guide.

 

My colleague Peter Murphy and I have been talking a lot about background checks lately.  It’s easier than ever to run a basic Internet search on someone, but what information do you find? And are there any limts?

Today, Peter talks about two recent settlements of background check claims against employers. Both cost the employers big dollars. Here’s what you can learn from them.

Peter Murphy

 

Back in March, Dan noted that plaintiffs’ lawyers were brining an increasing number of lawsuits under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (“FCRA”).

This seems to be occurring for two reasons. First, the FCRA contains very specific steps an employer must follow when obtaining and then using a background check for employment related purposes, including the following:

  1. Make a clear and conspicuous written disclosure to the job applicant that a consumer report may be obtained for employment purposes;
  2. Have the applicant authorize in writing the procurement of the report;
  3. And, before taking any adverse action based in whole or in part on the report, provide the applicant with:
    1. a copy of the report; and
    2. a description in writing of the employee’s rights under the FCRA.

If one of these steps is being systematically violated by an employer, then there is the potential for a lawsuit involving multiple plaintiffs or even a class of plaintiffs across the employer’s operations.

The second reason for the increasing number of FCRA lawsuits is that they expose employers to damages for each FCRA violation, as well as punitive damages, costs, and significant attorney’s fees.

Thus, unless employers review their hiring practices and ensure FCRA complaint, they could be exposed to costly lawsuits, as Dan and others warned back then.

Their warnings were prescient, as demonstrated by two recent settlements in FCRA cases.

In the first case, the employer accepted online job applications–just like almost all employers. The applicants alleged that the employer’s online application system did not comply with the FCRA’s procedural provisions addressing authorizations for a background check, or provide FCRA mandated disclosures to the applicants.

These procedural violations could have been enough to expose the employer to liability under the FCRA.

According to the applicants, however, the employer also was taking adverse employment actions based on information in the background checks without providing them a copy of the report or the required opportunity to correct or explain any discrepancies.

Although the employer denied any wrongdoing, it ultimately agreed to a $5.053 million settlement that recently was approved by a district court judge.

The only ones getting rich as a result of this settlement, though, were the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who received about $1.52 million in attorneys’ fees in comparison to the $50 payment to each of the eligible class members.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys were just as pleased with a district court’s preliminary approval of an FCRA settlement in a case pending in Virginia. Just like the prior case, the claims in this case stemmed from allegations that the employer violated the procedural protections of the FCRA, and then also failed to give job applications the ability to respond to adverse information in the background check.

Under the judge’s recent order, the plaintiffs’ attorneys would get 25 % of the $4,000,000 proposed settlement, and each potential class member would receive statutory damages of $53.

The numerous procedural and substantive provisions of the FCRA can be difficult to decipher, and as the above examples demonstrate small compliance mistakes can lead to costly and time consuming lawsuits.

Although we may sound like a broken record, employers should therefore consult with trusted counsel when necessary to ensure that their job application process can survive a FCRA challenge, and that their authorization forms and disclosure notices comply with FCRA’s requirements.

It’s not as easy as it first appears.

Pizza workers may be covered.

This week, one of Connecticut’s own, Representative Rosa DeLauro introduced the “Schedules That Work Act” bill in Congress.  It would ostensibly help part-time workers secure stable schedules.

It would, among other things “ensure employees get two weeks notice about their work schedules, as well as extra pay to compensate for last minute changes”, as summed up by The New York Times.

I’m not going to spend time detailing all the nuances of the bill because, well, it has virtually no chance at all of getting passed in the gridlock that is Washington, D.C.  (If you want further details, the National Women’s Law Center has a good one here.)

One of the bill’s proposals, however, would establish a “reporting time pay requirement” which would entitle certain restaurant and retail workers to a minimum of four hours of pay even if the employer wanted to send them home early during a shift.

But what’s been missing in the discussion so far in the discussion is that Connecticut has long since had rules in place in the restaurant and mercantile industries that mandate something similar.  I first covered these rules back in 2011.

The problem for employers is that you won’t find those rules in the law itself.  Instead, you will find them in certain “wage orders” issued by the Connecticut Department of Labor. Thankfully, those orders are now available online.  (The mercantile trade order is here and the restaurant order is here.)

Both orders were updated in the last few months to take into account the minimum wage increases too.

(Speaking of minimum wage for a moment, did you check out Funny or Die’s Mary Poppins “quitting” because of her pay? Very well done.)

For restaurant workers, a two hour minimum rule (in 31-62-E1 (b)) applies, unless notice is given the day before and applies to the minimum rate, not the regular work rate.

An employee regularly reporting for work, unless given adequate notice the day before to the contrary, or any employee called for work in any day shall be assured a minimum of two hours’ earnings at not less than the minimum rate if the employee is able and willing to work for that length of time. If the employee is either unwilling or unable to work the number of hours necessary to insure the two-hour guarantee, a statement signed by the employee in support of this situation must be on file as a part of the employer’s records.

For mercantile workers, a four hour minimum rule (in 31-62-D2 (d)) applies, and its phrased slightly differently. Those employees get their “regular rate”.

An employee, who by request or permission of the employer, reports for duty on any day whether or not assigned to actual work shall be compensated for a minimum of four hours earnings at his regular rate. In instances of regularly scheduled employment of less than four hours as mutually agreed in writing between employer and employee, and approved by the Labor Department, this provision may be waived provided the minimum daily pay in every instance shall be at least twice the applicable minimum hourly rate.

What’s the practical application of this rule? Suppose you’re a retail store and have an employee who’s shift that day is from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m.  At 3 p.m., you realize that you have more than enough workers to cover the shift and send the employee home “early”.  Under Connecticut’s rule, that employee is entitled to a minimum of four hours of pay, even though they only “worked” for two.

And one more thing: For restaurant workers, the order also provides that on the 7th consecutive day at work , the employee is entitled to pay at time and a half.

So, ignore the headlines for the time being. Instead, use this summer to catch up on the rules that you may not have known about.

Earlier this month, Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed several  bills affecting employers — one that has garnered a great deal of publicity and a few that that have not. (The Office of Legislative Research has just released a full list of the vetoed bills here and the summaries of the bill are taken from the report.) 

Here’s a brief recap of the bills affecting employers:

  • An Act Establishing the Connecticut Healthcare Partnership — This act requires the comptroller to convert the state employee health insurance plan, excluding dental, to a self-insured arrangement beginning July 1, 2009 and would have allowed small employers to participate, ultimately.  The bill passed the Senate (21-12) and the House (109-36).  In vetoing the act, the Governor stated, in part:

Although including employees of sCopyright 2009, Daniel A. Schwartz. All Rights Reservedmall businesses in the plan appears to address the issue of access, this plan is simply too expensive for the typical small employer and thus unlikely to increase the number of residents who have health care insurance. I note that nine local chambers of commerce – whose membership is largely composed of small businesses – oppose this bill.

Although the Partnership bill has changes somewhat from last year, it still retains its most problematic component – a significant cost to the state. This is the direct result of pooling an unknown employer risk group with the state employees’ health insurance plan and prematurely converting such plan to a self-insured model. Those who most likely would be attracted to the pool would be those whose claims experience – the main driver of health care costs – is worse than that of the current state employee pool. When the experience of these new members is averaged across the entire pool, it will drastically increase premiums for the state and all those who have joined the pool. … This is a potentially fatal flaw, since the bill requires that premium payments remitted by these newly pooled employee groups ‘be the same as those paid by the state.

  • An Act Concerning Green Jobs – This act requires the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to apply for federal economic stimulus funds available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and use the funds to establish a program to create green jobs and promote green energy and conservation. It passed the General Assembly unanimously.  In vetoing the bill, the Governor stated:

This legislation is both unnecessary and inconsistent with the current state plan for applying for green jobs and green energy stimulus funds. . . .The Green Collar Jobs Council created by Executive Order No. 23 has already reviewed available ARRA green job grant opportunities and has recommended which entities should apply for such grants. . . .In particular, the Green Jobs Council… identified a list of lead applicants for each grant, including the Department of Labor, Connecticut Business and Industry Association, Energy Workforce Development Consortium and Community Colleges. With respect to energy-related stimulus funds, the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) has taken the lead. These entities, as opposed to [DECD], are the most well-suited to both apply for and receive federal stimulus monies related to green initiatives. ”

  • An Act Concerning the Standard Wage for Certain Connecticut Workers – This act creates a new method for determining the hourly wage and benefits for employees under the standard wage law, which governs compensation for employees of private contractors who do certain types of work in state buildings. Under the act, such employees hired after July 1, 2009 will receive the same hourly wages and benefits as employees working under the union agreement covering the same type of work for the largest number of hourly nonsupervisory employees, as long as it covers at least 500 employees, in Hartford County. Those already working for standard wage employers on or before July 1, 2009 will be paid an hourly wage based on the current standard wage law, but after July 1, 2009 their benefits will be the same as those working under the Hartford County union contract for the same type of work. This creates two tiers for hourly pay while keeping all employees at the same level of benefits.  It passed the Senate (30-6) and the House (112-35).

    In vetoing the measure, the Governor stated. 

    This legislation creates an exception to current law and provides varying wages and benefits to certain employees of contractors at a potentially significant cost to the state. The law mandates that a select group of employees will be paid union contract wages and benefits, instead of the Department of Labor’s determined standard wage rates, and creates two distinct classes of janitors – those hired before July 1, 2009 and those hired after such date.

    By removing the link of certain employees’ wages and benefits to the Department of Labor’s standard wage rates, we are exposing the state to an unknown and unmanageable level of cost. There will be an entire subset of services whose price will be dictated by privately conducted union negotiations and contracts to which the state is not a party. Both groups of janitors perform the same critical services for the state and therefore should be paid the same wage rates, regardless of when an individual was hired. I cannot sanction wages and benefits that are determined completely outside of the state’s control and that have not been included in the budget for the next biennium.

 

While everyone remains focused on the bcourtesy morgue fileudget dilemma at the state legislature, other business — slowly and quietly — is still occurring. 

Late last month, the House unanimously passed H.B. 6185, a measure that would create civil penalties for employers that do not provide access to personnel files of their employees. 

Specifically, this bill subjects any employer, officer, agent, or other person who violates the provisions of the Personnel Files Act to a $300 civil penalty for each violation.

The Labor Department imposes the penalty and can ask the attorney general to initiate civil action to recover any unpaid penalties.

The bill now moves on to a Senate vote where, if it gets put on the calendar, its prospects seem strong.  Nevertheless, many bills never make it to a vote so its eventual passage is no sure thing.

For employers, compliance with the Personnel Files Act should be routine.  I’ve previously discussed the basics of personnel files in posts here and here. 

Earlier today, President Obama welcomed Lilly Ledbetter to the White House and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  You can find the text of the act here and even leave your comments on it. You can read the President’s remarks here. And you can find the White House blog entry on the subject here.

In signing the bill, the President said:

So signing this bill today is to send a clear message: that making our economy work means making sure it works for everybody; that there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces; and that it’s not just unfair and illegal, it’s bad for business to pay somebody less because of their gender or their age or their race or their ethnicity, religion or disability; and that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook. It’s about how our laws affect the daily lives and the daily realities of people: their ability to make a living and care for their families and achieve their goals.

Ultimately, equal pay isn’t just an economic issue for millions of Americans and their families, it’s a question of who we are — and whether we’re truly living up to our fundamental ideals; whether we’ll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put on paper some 200 years ago really mean something — to breathe new life into them with a more enlightened understanding that is appropriate for our time.

I’ve covered the bill extensively in prior posts, which you can find here, but some final remarks on this new law for now are worth mentioning:

The new law, because it would apply to cases still pending that were filed the day before the Court’s ruling, or thereafter, it has the specific effect of overturning the Ledbetter decision. It cannot alter any case that has been finally decided, however. Congress had the authority to overturn the Ledbetter ruling because that was based only on the Court’s reading of a statute, and not a constitutional provision.

  • The bill’s main purpose is to extend statute of limitations on compensation decisions. But the effect of the bill will be to allow for a potential look back on compensation decisions for several years — and perhaps much, longer.

Six months ago, I predicted a renewed emphasis on reduction in force laws and regulations with the possibility of an economic slowdown looming.  With six months left to go in the year, I’m still feeling good (if you can feel "good" about such things) about that prediction. 

Is the economy still on the yellow brick road or are we walking deeper into the forest filled with lions, tigers and bears?

The statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission do not paint a rosy picture.  

The numbers of discrimination claims filed with the EEOC are up.  

And up by a lot.

In fact, the EEOC reported a 21 percent increase in charges for the first quarter of 2008, over the same period last year. 

So what can employers do? I talked a few weeks ago about one aspect of reductions in force — namely compliance with the OWBPA (Older Worker Benefit Protection Act) and how compliance with that law can avoid one pitfall associated with a reduction in force. 

But another law that is commonly misunderstood is the WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act.  WARN is not a mandatory severance law; in other words, it doesn’t mean that employers need to give employees severance when they are affected by a mass layoff or plant closing.

What WARN does require is that the employer give notice to employees who may be affected by a plant closing or mass layoff.  The Department of Labor has prepared this fact sheet for employers to answer some of the basic questions.   It is a law that is, frankly, fairly easy to comply with, and yet there are still some employers who are facing class actions for their alleged failure to comply

In addition to notice to employees, the employer must also notify the Connecticut Department of Labor of its proposed actions.  The state then posts them in monthly reports available here.  You can view July’s report here.

What is fascinating about the reports thus far is that Connecticut has, as of now, avoided some of the mass layoffs that have plagued some of the other states.  The June reports for Connecticut show only 400 or so employees statewide who received WARN notices.  Moreover, numbers released over the weekend show that Connecticut employers have added jobs, not eliminated them.  Whether this trend continues will be an item to watch for in the second half of 2008.

In an upcoming post, I’ll highlight some of the particulars of WARN in more detail.  Until then, try to avoid the fields of sleeping flowers.