The supervisor did it.

Yep, you’ve concluded that he sent unwanted texts to his subordinate telling her she looked “beautiful.”  Maybe even stopped by her hotel room unannounced one night at a conference for a “nightcap”.

While the subordinate’s career does not appear to have been harmed in the legal sense (i.e. there’s no “tangible employment action”), you’ve concluded that there was something “inappropriate” that happened.

(And let’s state the obvious: harm can exist even outside the “tangible employment action” context — that’s an issue for another post.)

So, back the the issue of the day — something “inappropriate” happened; maybe even something that meets the legal definition of “sexual harassment”.

What then?

Firing? Perhaps.

But what if you conclude that a lesser type of sanction is warranted?  Can you do that? If so, what’s the standard?

In cases where there has been no tangible employment action taken, the EEOC has actually set forth in its guidance a whole discussion that says that firing is but one possibility.  What’s important is that the remedial measures should be designed to:

  • Stop the harassment;
  • Correct its effect on the employee; and,
  • Ensure that the harassment does not recur.

The EEOC’s guidance notes that these remedial measures “need not be those that the employee requests or prefers, as long as they are effective.”

Moreover, “in determining disciplinary measures, management should keep in mind that the employer could be found liable if the harassment does not stop. At the same time, management may have concerns that overly punitive measures may subject the employer to claims such as wrongful discharge, and may simply be inappropriate.”

The EEOC suggests that the employer balance the competing concerns and that disciplinary measures should be proportional to the seriousness of the offense.

What does that mean?

If the harassment was minor, the EEOC suggests, such as a small number of “off-color” remarks by an individual with no prior history of similar misconduct, then counseling and an oral warning might be all that is necessary.

On the other hand, if the harassment was severe or persistent, then suspension or discharge may be appropriate.

And importantly, remedial measures also should correct the effects of the harassment. In the EEOC’s words, “such measures should be designed to put the employee in the position s/he would have been in had the misconduct not occurred.”

The EEOC provides various examples of measures to stop the harassment and ensure that it does not recur.  These include:

  • oral or written warning or reprimand;
  • transfer or reassignment;
  • demotion;
  • reduction of wages;
  • suspension;
  • discharge;
  • training or counseling of harasser to ensure that s/he understands why his or her conduct violated the employer’s anti-harassment policy; and
  • monitoring of harasser to ensure that harassment stops.

As for examples of measures to correct the effects of the harassment, these include:

  • restoration of leave taken because of the harassment;
  • expungement of negative evaluation(s) in employee’s personnel file that arose from the harassment;
  • reinstatement;
  • apology by the harasser;
  • monitoring treatment of employee to ensure that s/he is not subjected to retaliation by the harasser or others in the work place because of the complaint; and,
  • correction of any other harm caused by the harassment (e.g., compensation for losses).

How does this apply in the real world?

Jon Hyman of the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, highlighted a case several years back where the employer didn’t terminate the offending supervisor on the first go around, but rather gave them a last chance.

Unfortunately, the employer didn’t follow through when the supervisor STILL engaged in harassment.  The case, Engel v. Rapid City School District, is worth a read to show how an employer’s reasonableness the first go around, can be used against it when it doesn’t follow through.

The EEOC’s guidance is a helpful guide to employers in navigating these issues.  The employer should look to the particular circumstances of any matter and determine what punishment is appropriate in that particular matter.

Perhaps it will conclude that firing is appropriate.

But if it concludes, based on an analysis of the entirety of the situation, that something less than that is appropriate too, the EEOC’s guidance can be a useful guidepost for that determination.

file101235857424For the last six years, you haven’t seen much on this blog about changes to federal employment laws because, well, there just weren’t any.  What we DID see, however, were changes to regulations and enforcement orders.

Nearly six months into the new Trump administration, we’re now starting to see significant shifts in the federal regulatory scheme too.

A lot of national employment law blogs have been starting to recap them so I’m not going to go too in depth here. Among the changes? A death-knell to the persuader rule, and, earlier this month, a pullback of guidance on joint employment and independent contractor rules.   And it looks like the overtime rule changes are still in limbo as well, with the DOL “rethinking” such rules in news articles this week.

You don’t need to have a law degree to understand that these changes will favor companies.

Last night too, the Trump administration named the final member of a new National Labor Relations Board who will, no doubt, start rolling back other labor law decisions that have favored employees and labor unions as well.

But what will the impact be in Connecticut?

It’s still a bit early to tell, but I think the impact may be muted in some ways. After all, we have a CONNECTICUT Department of Labor that still marches to its own drum.  For example, it has taken a pretty aggressive view on who is (or is not) an employee vs. an independent contractor.

Indeed, as I’ve discussed before, the Obama-era rule changes might have, in fact, helped level the playing field for some Connecticut employers who have felt that they have had to comply with stricter Connecticut rules which made them less competitive nationwide.  With the rollback of some of these rules at the federal level, Connecticut’s higher standards may come back into play more often.

That may be overstating it a bit, but Connecticut employers will have to play catchup to figure out the patchwork of federal and state regulations and the interplay between them.

Perhaps it is more fair to say that things are still shaking out this year for Connecticut employers.  The General Assembly session that just ended was more quiet than most.  But at a national level, employers shouldn’t be too quick to make too many changes because there seems to be many more aspects in flux than in years past.

The only thing I’ll predict for the next six months is that we have all the ingredients in place for a wild roller coaster ride with more changes than we’ve seen in some time.

So buckle up.   Things are just getting interesting.

moquitobYour industry’s major conference is set for Miami Beach – the land of sun, beaches, and, now it seems, mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.

Your key sales employee — the one who was setting up your booth for the conference — has come to you expressing concern about the Zika virus.  Perhaps she’s pregnant. Or perhaps he’s married with a pregnant wife expecting at home.

Now what?

The answers are still developing.  The Department of Labor’s OSHA division advises that:

Employers should consider allowing flexibility in required travel for workers who are concerned about Zika virus exposure. Flexible travel and leave policies may help control the spread of Zika virus, including to workers who are concerned about reproductive effects potentially associated with Zika virus infection.

The CDC has also issued advisories for the Miami-Dade area including that:

  • Pregnant women should not travel to these areas.
  • Pregnant women and their partners living in or traveling to these areas should follow steps to prevent mosquito bites.
  • Women and men who live in or traveled to these areas and who have a pregnant sex partner should use condoms or other barriers to prevent infection every time they have sex or not have sex during the pregnancy.

What can employers do?

First off, employers should not make any blanket decisions for pregnant employees about whether they should travel.  Rather, employers should educate all employees (including any pregnant ones) about the risks associated with the Zika virus.  If an employee refuses to travel, employers should evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

But beyond that and considering that the transmission of the Zika Virus in Florida is still mainly with mosquitoes, employers can advise employees to use insect repellent and to reduce unnecessary outdoor work.

This is still a fluid situation but already there are already many other law blog posts on the subject — nearly all of which are repeating the same information. Any one of them can also be reviewed as well.

Employers should not overreact, but rather recall the lessons learned from prior disease outbreaks like H1N1 back in 2009.  Some flexibility in the short term is going to be required.

wheelchairOver the weekend, I finished planning for our webinar tomorrow on the new overtime rules.  In digging deeper into the materials produced by the Department of Labor on the final rule, I looked at the use of volunteers as a solution — particularly for non-profit organizations.

For the “for-profit” world, this is probably not a realistic option.  The DOL really frowns on any such designation.

But on the last page of the 10-page guidance for non-profits, is a whole section on how non-profit organizations can use volunteer services if certain conditions are met.

To be sure, the new overtime rule doesn’t change the existing rules governing volunteers, but as non-profits look at how to address the issue internally, the use of volunteers may pop up.

So who is a volunteer? According to the DOL: 

A volunteer generally will not be considered an employee for purposes of the FLSA if the individual volunteers freely for public service, religious, or humanitarian objectives, and without contemplation or receipt of compensation. …  Under the FLSA, a person who works in a volunteer role must be a bona fide volunteer.

Some examples of the many ways in which volunteers may contribute to an organization include:
• members of civic organizations may help out in a community rehabilitation program;
• men’s or women’s organizations may send members to adult day care centers to provide certain personal services for the sick or elderly;
• individuals may volunteer to perform such tasks as driving vehicles or assisting with disaster relief; and
• individuals may volunteer to work with children with disabilities or disadvantaged youth, helping in youth programs as camp counselors, scoutmasters, den mothers, providing child care assistance for needy working parents, soliciting contributions or participating in benefit programs for such organizations, and volunteering other services
needed to carry out their charitable, educational, or religious programs.

So, problem solved right? Well, not exactly. The DOL suggests that volunteers serve on a part-time basis and, here’s the key point:
“should not displace employees or perform work that would otherwise typically be performed by employees.”

And what about having paid employees volunteer their extra time? According to the DOL: paid employees of non-profit organizations may not volunteer to provide the same type of services to the non-profit organization that they are otherwise
typically employed to provide.

The DOL provides two examples:

  1. A non-profit medical clinic has an office manager who handles office operations and procedures. The clinic hosts an annual 5K fun run in order to raise funds for its free services. In past years, the office manager also spent time on race day working by registering runners the morning of the run. Newly non-exempt under the Final Rule, the non-profit clinic may permissibly choose to utilize more volunteers this year to register runners instead of tasking the office manager with that assignment (provided all the conditions for bona fide volunteers are met), thus avoiding the accumulation of overtime hours in that week for the office manager.
  2. Using the same facts as above, many other individuals from the community volunteer on race day. The volunteer activities, such as packet pickups, course marshaling, water distribution, and staffing food tables at the finish line, are activities that are not typically performed by employees of the medical clinic. Based on these facts, the individuals are likely bona fide volunteers.

The use of volunteers can be part of a solution to rising overtime costs at a non-profit, but only just part.  The notion that you can just replace your employees with volunteers is not realistic.

We’ll talk more about this and other overtime issues tomorrow.  Hope you are able to join us.

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.

Governor Malloy with current CTDOL Commissioner Sharon Palmer

You’ve no doubt heard lots about how the U.S. Department of Labor is cracking down on independent contractors.  I’ve recapped it before and my former colleague, Jonathan Orleans, has a new post regarding Uber & electricians.

But in my view, there is a larger, more important battle now being fought in Connecticut and you may not be aware of it.  I touched on it briefly in a post in July but it’s worth digging a little deeper.  Disappointingly, I have not seen anything written about this in the press (legal or mainstream).

A case recently transferred to the Connecticut Supreme Court docket threatens to cause lots of havoc to company usage of independent contractors in Connecticut. The Connecticut Department of Labor has taken an aggressive stance in the case which is leading to this big battle.

The case is Standard Oil of Connecticut v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act and is awaiting oral argument.  You can download the state’s brief here and the employer’s brief here.  The employer’s reply brief is also here.

The employer (Standard Oil) argues in the case that it uses contractors (called “installers/technicians”) to install heating oil and alarm systems and repair and service heating systems at times of peak demand.  The state reclassified the installers/technicians as employees and assessed taxes and interest.  At issue is the application of the ABC Test which is used in Connecticut to determine if these people are employees or independent contractors.

As explained by the CTDOL:

The ABC Test applies three factors (A, B, and C) for determining a worker’s employment status. To be considered an “independent contractor,” an individual must meet all three of the following factors:
A. The individual must be free from direction and control (work independently) in connection with the performance of the service, both under his or her contract of hire and in fact;
B. The individual’s service must be performed either outside the usual course of business of the employer or outside all the employer’s places of business; and
C. The individual must be customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as the service performed

In the Standard Oil case, the employer is challenging the findings on various elements of this test. One of them – Part B , the “places of business” — is potentially far-reaching, according to the briefs filed in the case.  The issue is whether the customers’ homes are “places of business”; if they are, then the consultant cannot be said to be performing services “outside” the employer’s places of business.  The employer argued that viewing customers’ homes as places of business “does nothing to further the Act’s purpose and its practical implications are damning to Connecticut industry….”

Indeed, the employer argues that “it will be impossible for [the employer]-or any Connecticut business–to ever utilize the services of an independent contractor.”

Continue Reading The Real Battle over Independent Contractors and the ABC Test In Connecticut

Time to find your happy place.
Time to find your happy place.

Whatever happened to summer vacation? You remember, that downtime, when nothing much happened?

First, there were new proposed OT rules. Then, word came out EARLY (I got an alert at 6a!) today that the U.S. Department of Labor issued new “guidance” that will try to limit the misclassification of employees as indpendent contractors.

The goal is nothing less than ensuring that most of these workers qualify as employees under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Here’s the key quote:

In sum, most workers are employees under the FLSA’s broad definitions… The very broad definition of employment under the FLSA as ‘to suffer or permit to work’ and the act’s intended expansive coverage for workers must be considered when applying the economic realities factors to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.

It states elsewhere:

This Administrator’s Interpretation first discusses the pertinent FLSA definitions and the breadth of employment relationships covered by the FLSA. When determining whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor, the application of the economic realities factors should be guided by the FLSA’s statutory directive that the scope of the employment relationship is very broad. This Administrator’s Interpretation then addresses each of the factors, providing citations to case law and examples. All of the factors must be considered in each case, and no one factor (particularly the control factor) is determinative of whether a worker is an employee. Moreover, the factors themselves should not be applied in a mechanical fashion, but with an understanding that the factors are indicators of the broader concept of economic dependence. Ultimately, the goal is not simply to tally which factors are met, but to determine whether the worker is economically dependent on the employer (and thus its employee) or is really in business for him or herself (and thus its independent contractor). The factors are a guide to make this ultimate determination of economic dependence or independence.

I’ve talked about the economic realities test before.  This not a new issue.

In fact, the USDOL had a fact sheet in 2014 stating almost the exact same thing.

But the USDOL’s new “interpretation” is certainly going to force employers to take a new look at their relationships to determine whether independent contractors should be better classified as employees.  And it’s going to raise some questions on enforcement as well.

So, to remind you, what are those factors under the “economic realities” test?

  1. Is the work an integral part of the employer’s business?
  2. Does the worker’s managerial skill affect the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss?
  3. How does the worker’s relative investment compare to the employer’s investment?
  4. Does the work performed require special skill and initiative?
  5. Is the relationship between the worker and the employer permanent or indefinite?
  6. What is the nature and degree of the employer’s control?

But, and here’s where we all need to take a deep breath, this type of analysis isn’t all that new or surprising.  Courts have been using it for a while.  And it shouldn’t cause you to drop everything you’re doing today to look at this.

In fact, if you’re in Connecticut, I would actually suggest taking an even deeper breath because the issue is even more complicated than that.

There is a case now pending at the Connecticut Supreme Court — Standard Oil of Connecticut v. Administrator, Unemployment Compensation Act, that is examining whether certain contractors are “employees” under a different test — the ABC Test, and the proper application of that test under Connecticut’s own misclassification laws).

As explained by the CTDOL:

The ABC Test applies three factors (A, B, and C) for determining a worker’s employment status. To be considered an “independent contractor,” an individual must meet  all three of the following factors:
A. The individual must be free from direction and control (work independently) in  connection with the performance of the service, both under his or her contract of hire and in fact;
B. The individual’s service must be performed either outside the  usual course of business of the employer or outside all the employer’s places of business; and
C. The individual must be customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business of the same nature as the service performed

Yes, in addition to the USDOL’s “Economic Realities” test, the Connecticut Department of Labor uses a different test for unemployment compensation purposes named the “ABC” test.

And don’t even get me started on the IRS’s “20 factor” test.

Are you in your happy place yet?

Maybe it’s time for that vacation after all.

Or, if you’re an employer, just take this latest news in stride. If you have independent contractors, the guidance is really just another reminder that the use of these contractors continues to be heavily disfavored by government agencies.

But if you’ve been reading this blog (see this post, for example, from 2010), you’ve known that, right?

Somewhat quietly (at least to me), the Connecticut Department of Labor has issued updated guidance regarding compliance with the state’s Paid Sick Leave law.

But employers who have been following the developments in this area — namely the changes to the law by the legislature — won’t be surprised much by the minor changes that have been made.

The changes to the guidance are essentially in conformity with the revisions to the law.

For example, to determine if an employer is subject to the law, the number of employees that an employer has on the payroll as of October 1st will be used.  It also notes that “radiologic technicians” have been added to the coverage of the law, consistent with the changes.

Nevertheless, if any employers have been using the previous guidance, it’s time to use this useful new resource and discard the prior guidance.

Notably, the CTDOL has also updated their posters for Paid Sick Leave for employers to use.  These new posters should be displayed immediately by employers in place of the old ones.

 

Last week, we talked about an employer’s obligations when it comes to an employee who has cancer. But what about an employee’s spouse? Does the employer have any legal obligations there?

Let’s start first with a story:

Jake and his supervisor, Alex, have had a great working relationship but lately, things seems to have changed. At least that’s how Jake sees is after he told Alex that his wife is suffering from a long-term disability — cancer.

Although Jake has been a good performer for years, Alex has recently expressed his concern that Jake will not be able to satisfy the demands of the job due to the need to care for his wife. Alex begins to set unrealistic deadlines for projects for Jake and even yells at Jake in front of co-workers about the need to meet the deadlines.

Alex also began requiring Jake to meet company policies that have never been strictly followed, such as giving 2 weeks advance notice of leave.  Now, Alex has removed Jake from team projects because Jake’s co-workers don’t think Jake can be counted on to complete his share of work “considering all of his wife’s medical problems.

Jake is frustrated. He’s complained to management but to no avail.  Now what?

At first glance, you might think this is a FMLA issue; taking time off for a family member’s serious health condition is one of the key points of the FMLA. But a deeper look shows that’s not really what’s going on.  This doesn’t have to do with leave.

Instead, it seems that the supervisor is treating an employee differently because of his relationship with someone who has a disability.   The question is — is there a legal claim?

According the EEOC, there is.

Indeed, given this above scenario, the EEOC concluded in Q&A release that “the employer is liable for harassment on the basis of [Jake’s] association with an individual with a disability.” In other words, the employee may have a claim under the ADA.

Continue Reading The “Association” Game: How a Spouse’s Cancer May be Covered by the ADA

Last week, my colleagues Peter Murphy and Harrison Smith, offered to write about the latest developments in the law regarding pregnancy.  The post was scheduled to come out today, when, much to our surprise, the EEOC yesterday afternoon released long-awaited guidance on the subject.

So much for that post!

After a quick rewrite last night, here’s the very latest that includes both my comments and additional sourcing from Peter & Harrison….

Just a few short weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that next term it will once again tackle an issue that raises strong feelings in many women (and men)–how pregnant women are treated in the workplace in comparison to non-pregnant employees. 

As anyone interested in employment law knows, both Congress and the EEOC have focused extensively in recent years on getting employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees.  Although what constitutes a reasonable accommodation remains a difficult determination in certain circumstances, the need to engage in an interactive dialogue with disabled employees over accommodations now is well established. 

What to do with pregnant employees under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, however, has been less clear.  The EEOC yesterday chimed in with new guidance on the subject.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the background.

The Federal Courts of Appeals are split on whether, and in what situations, an employer that provides work accommodations to non-pregnant, disabled employees with work limitations must also provide work accommodations to  pregnant employees who are “similar in their ability or inability to work” as the non-pregnant employees.  

In the case coming to the Supreme Court, Young v. United Parcel Service, the trial court and the Fourth Circuit held that the PDA does not require employers to provide accommodations to pregnant employees.  

The Fifth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits agree with the Fourth Circuit, while other courts, such as the Tenth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit, hold otherwise.

Since 2012, the EEOC has been kicking around the subject of revising its guidelines on the subject.  By a 3-2 vote, the EEOC decided that it could not wait until the Supreme Court gave birth to a clarifying decision, and so yesterday the EEOC issued its final pregnancy discrimination guidelines. Continue Reading EEOC Declines a “Pregnant” Pause; New Guidance Awaits Supreme Court Decision