With Memorial Day coming up this weekend, it’s often a time (or it ought to be a time) to reflect on the sacrifices made by our military.  And at the same time, consider how we, as a society, treat our veterans.

This issue was highlighted for me many years ago.  During a court proceeding in which fraudulent behavior of the witness was being discussed, the witness brought up his past military service, perhaps as a way to seek leniency from the court.

To my surprise, rather than dismiss the comment as outright pandering to the court, the judge took a few minutes to express appreciation to the witness for his service and to note that the judicial system should be sensitive to the needs of veterans.

The court didn’t rule in favor of the witness but I was still struck by the judge’s sensitivity.  It was a learning moment for me that all of us involved in the legal system ought to treat veterans in a similar way — with, at a minimum, recognition for their service and respect.  It didn’t matter at that time whether the veteran was honorably discharged or not; it was their service that mattered.

It is with that background in mind that employers should consider the new guidance from the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) entitled “Guide to the Nondiscrimination in Hiring and Employing Connecticut Veterans”.

In it, the CHRO reminds us that employment discrimination on the basis of “status as a veteran” became illegal effective October 1, 2017.

And what is a “veteran”? Anyone who served? Actually no.

According to the statute, “veteran” means “any person honorably discharged from, or released under honorable conditions from active service in, the armed forces.”

Thus, by its own terms, employers cannot discriminate against veterans who received an “honorable discharge” or a discharge “under honorable conditions”.

But the CHRO guidance addresses whether employers can make hiring decisions regarding veterans who have received discharges under the three other primary designations:  “other-than-honorable discharge, bad conduct discharge, and dishonorable discharge.”

The CHRO calls these designations (along with the discharge under honorable conditions) as “less-than-honorable” or “bad paper” discharges.

The CHRO’s guidance suggests that discrimination against someone who received these “bad paper” discharges might also violate the law because of their “disparate impact on veterans of color, LGBT veterans, and veterans with disabilities”.

Thus, the CHRO opines, “reliance on discharge status” may still violate Connecticut’s anti-discrimination laws.

What’s the proposed solution from the CHRO? Several suggestions are offered:

  • “Provide individualized consideration to veterans with less-than-honorable discharges. This means you should consider the nature of the discharge (i.e. why the veteran was discharged—was it for a minor infraction or because of behaviors related to a mental health condition?), the time elapsed since the discharge, the nature of the positions sought and how the discharge is in any way related to the position the veteran is applying for.
  • Second, you should provide the veteran-applicant the opportunity to present her case for why the discharge should not be factored into your hiring decision. You might also consider the presence of mitigating circumstances like PTSD if the veteran discloses them to you.
  • Additionally, for those service members who were discharged due to conduct arising from a disability like PTSD, you have an independent obligation under both state and federal law to provide “reasonable accommodations” such as making the physical work environment accessible or providing a flexible work schedule.
  • Finally, if you contract with a consumer reporting agency such as HireRight or TransUnion to conduct background checks and your background check results in the discovery of information about an individual’s discharge status, you are required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to provide notice to the veteran applicant prior to taking any adverse action….”

Employer Takeaways

The CHRO’s guidance here is reminiscent of guidance issued by the EEOC in the early 2010s regarding the use of criminal background checks and the potential for a racial disparate impact.

At the time, some argued that the agency overstepped its authority because there was nothing that outright prohibited the use of such checks under the law and the reach to “disparate impact” was a step too far.

One could make a similar argument here that the CHRO’s suggestion that discrimination against veterans of all types of discharges might also be covered — after a new law that was passed that prohibited discrimination against only those veterans those who received honorable discharges — might be deemed to be overreach.  The legislature only sought fit to protect veterans with honorable discharges; why can’t employers consider those with “bad paper” discharges as a factor in their hiring decisions?

I’ll leave that for the policy-makers to debate.

For employers, the takeaway should be that the CHRO will be looking at discrimination against veterans who received so-called “bad paper” discharges more closely.  While the law may not outright prohibit it, the CHRO will be looking at whether the employer’s decisions might have a disparate impact on a protected class.

And for employers, making individualized determinations on an applicant based on the applicant’s overall fit and qualifications for the position isn’t a bad practice anyways.

 

 

zombieAs I did last year, after I posted on the general statistics of the CHRO to see if we could glean any trends, I took a deeper dive into what the statistics this year show.  And there were definitely a few surprises.

Obviously, at the risk of repeating yesterday’s post, FY 2015-2016 was a very big year for employment claims.

But because less employees are being fired or laid off (unemployment in Connecticut is at moderately low levels and the newest national figures this morning show just a 4.6 percent unemployment rate) than in a recession, what gives?

Well, if you look at the “discharge” claims — that is, the claim that “I was fired because of discrimination” — there was a modest increase in those claims to 1216 in FY 2016, up from 1174 in FY 2015.  But still, discharge claims are down from their historical peaks in 2003, when there were 1385 such claims.

But the bigger increase continues to be in the “terms and conditions” area.

That is, employees who claim that they are being discriminated against in the “terms and conditions” of their employment when it comes to things like hiring, promotions and pay.

It could also mean an employer is not approving leaves, or granting breaks or any other term or condition of employment, however small.

In 2003, there were 411 such claims filed.  In 2014, there were 782.  By FY 2016, however, that number has skyrocketed to 1056!  That’s a 35 percent increase in just the last two years.

In my mind, that likely means that more current employees are bringing discrimination claims against their employers.

This is bolstered by a look at the “harassment” statistics. Notably, I’m not talking about sexual harassment claims, which continue to trend noticeably downward.  Just 135 such claims were filed in FY 2016, down from 185 the prior year and the lowest number by far in the 15+ years of available data.  

Instead, this is a catch all claim for “I’m harassed” because of some other reason.  Just 175 such claims were filed in 2003, though that number was up to 380 in 2014.  For FY 2016, that number is up to 545.

That’s a more than 210% increase in over a decade!

Retaliation claims are also up again — an increase from 753 to 776. Though, it should be noted, that rise is a bit slower than the past few years.

What’s the takeaway?

As I noted last year, you may be looking for claims in the wrong spot.  Dismissal claims are up modestly but “harassment” and “terms and conditions” claims continue to see the biggest increases.

Thus, managing your current employees and getting legal counsel involved to help advise you, may be more helpful to keeping such claims to a minimum than just talking with counsel exclusively about terminations.

Regardless, employers should continue to be mindful that the trend of increased discrimination claims in Connecticut shows no signs of slowing down.

 

Time once again to bring back an occasional feature that takes a look at stories that have now fallen from the local newspapers’ headlines.  After all, have you ever noticed that it is somehow "big news" that a lawsuit is filed but you rarely hear about a lawsuit’s dismissal?

This installment updates the lawsuit that was brought against the Tribune Company by its former "watchdog", George Gombossy. I reported on the case last fall.  He claimed in the lawsuit that he was fired in retaliation for speech that was protected by the First Amendment (and its state law equivalent, Conn. Gen. Stat. Sec. 31-51q).

Earlier this month, a Superior Court judge threw out the lawsuit concluding that Gombossy’s legal claim was without merit.  Gombossy has detailed the decision on his new website.   

In doing so, the Court rather easily dismisses the notion that Gombossy had any First Amendment right to have his columns published by the Hartford Courant and notes that he has no First Amendment rights when the speech was "on the job".  The court also dismisses his claim that his company made certain promises about his job to him. 

But as with all of these types of claims, the lawsuit is far from over. Gombossy filed an amended complaint last week again raising claims of wrongful discharge and promissory estoppel. Whether this new complaint will survive another motion will have to be the subject of another "What Ever Happened To…" column later this year or next.