Employment Law Articles

Fast-food workers can’t publicly trash employer in name of organizing

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers can’t interfere with their workers’ right to engage in “protected concerted activity” ­— in other words, their right to organize and as a group push for better pay and working conditions. Employers who fail to abide by this law risk fines and other punishment.

However, a recent decision from a federal appeals court draws a line between protected concerted activity and disloyalty that an employer isn’t required to tolerate. [Read more…]

Arbitration agreement enforceable even though worker signed two months after starting her new job

An employee could be forced to arbitrate a gender harassment claim against her employer even though she didn’t sign the arbitration agreement until two months after she started her job, a federal judge in North Carolina recently ruled.

Employer Ross Stores hired the employee in question, Amy Lesneski, to work as a second-shift supervisor at its distribution center in Rock Hill, North Carolina, in October 2014. Two months later, she signed a “dispute resolution agreement” in which she agreed that she wouldn’t be able to take her employer to court over any potential disputes that might arise. Instead, any claim would be decided by a private arbitrator. [Read more…]

Miscalculating worker’s FMLA leave costly to employer

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, employers of a certain size must allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in a year to deal with personal illness or care for sick family members. If the worker fails to come back when the leave is exhausted, he or she can be considered to have “voluntarily resigned” and the employer no longer has to keep the job open.

But a recent case from Virginia shows that employers must be very careful to calculate leave time accurately and make sure they’re acting in good faith when they decide an employee has voluntarily resigned. [Read more…]

Employees can take CVS to court over unpaid online training time

A class action lawsuit brought by pharmacy technicians in federal court against the CVS drugstore chain highlights the risks employers take by “nickel-and-diming” their workers.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed by technicians in Pennsylvania and New Jersey on behalf of themselves and other CVS pharmacy technicians, the company violated state and federal wage laws and breached their contracts by failing to pay them for time they spent taking a mandatory online training course. [Read more…]

Fitbits may be helpful tool in employment cases, but reliability issues abound

Wearable technology has exploded in popularity over the past few years as a way of monitoring fitness, athletic performance, health and alertness. Fitbits can track things like calories burned, your heart rate at different times, the steps you’ve taken over the course of a day or a week, your blood sugar levels and even your sleep patterns. [Read more…]

Employer couldn’t force religious worker to use hand scanner

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for their workers’ religious beliefs. Employers who disregard this, even when the religious beliefs seem bizarre, run the risk of liability, as a mining company in West Virginia recently learned.

In that case, a coal miner refused to use a new biometric scanner that the employer had installed as an identification device. The miner apparently feared that use of the scanner would give him the “Mark of the Beast,” which according to the Book of Revelations would then brand him a follower of the Antichrist. He requested an alternative identification measure as a form of religious accommodation.

The employer denied the request. The employee resigned and sued for religious discrimination under Title VII. A jury found in his favor and a federal appeals court affirmed, rejecting the employer’s argument that the scanner neither left any kind of mark nor legitimately conflicted with the employee’s religious beliefs. [Read more…]

Supervisor can be sued individually for violating the FMLA

The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees who’ve been employed for at least 12 months by a company with at least 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius to take up to three months of unpaid leave during any 12-month period in order to deal with a medical problem, care for a new child or care for a close relative with a health condition. Employers who fail to abide by the FMLA’s requirements or who retaliate against a worker for taking FMLA leave risk serious legal liability.

Further, according to a recent case out of Massachusetts any supervisor or manager who violates the FMLA can be sued individually too.

In that case, employee Elliott Eichenholz was on disability leave from security services giant Brinks, Inc., when his supervisor Gordon Campbell issued him a performance improvement plan (“PIP”) letter containing a bunch of demands he’d have to meet in the next 90 days to keep his job. [Read more…]

Illinois case highlights importance of taking harassment complaints seriously

A recent case from Illinois demonstrates just how critical it is for employers to conduct a legitimate investigation of all complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In that case, Maria Gracia, a female assembly line supervisor at electronics manufacturing services provider Sigma Tron, complained to human resources that her manager had been sending her graphic email photos, calling her late at night, repeatedly asking her on dates and sending her unwanted text messages. She repeatedly turned him down, but one day, after receiving yet another “No,” the manager allegedly suspended her for two days, claiming it was for excessive tardiness.

The HR rep brought Gracia to meet with a company vice president, who, instead of ordering a thorough investigation of the complaints, invited the alleged harasser and retaliator into the meeting to help “sort things out.” After hearing both “sides of the story,” the HR rep and the VP told Gracia to shake hands with the manager and “work together” with him to “solve their disputes.” [Read more…]

Non-disabled worker can bring action under ADA

An employer can land in hot water under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) if it discriminates against a worker based on that worker’s disability. In other words, an employee can’t be fired, denied a promotion or treated negatively because of his or her disability. But did you know that an employer also violates the ADA by mistreating a non-disabled employee whom it thinks is disabled?

Take a recent case out of Virginia involving Joseph Cash, who worked as a service director for a car dealership in the town of Lexington.  He had worked for the dealership for three years when he took another job in 2013. He returned in 2015, but soon after had to take time off to deal with a bleeding ulcer and chronic anemia. While he was out, he and his wife stayed in touch with a supervisor. When Cash got back, he presented a doctor’s note requesting that he be able to work at the dealer’s location in Roanoke, which was closer to his home, or to work half days until he was better.

In response, his supervisor immediately replaced him at the Lexington location and cut his salary by a third. The supervisor also complained about Cash’s absence several years earlier for hip replacement surgery — an absence that had been covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. [Read more…]

Mishandling terminations can lead to headaches, so consider the human factor

If you’re an employer and you’re reading this, chances are you’ve had to fire an employee for one reason or another. It could have been for cause or for economic reasons. Maybe the worker was simply not a good fit. In most situations, the employee probably left peacefully, although perhaps a bit angry or hurt.

But some workers don’t leave quietly and instead come back at their employers with lawsuits, even if there were legally valid reasons for the firing. In those cases, it’s often how the employer fired the worker and not the job loss itself that triggered the employee’s response. However, a little bit of smart strategy can defuse some of the tension in an emotionally fraught situation and potentially head off a lawsuit that could be costly, distracting and stressful, even if you win.

So how do you keep a legally justifiable termination from backfiring? By handling the termination in a manner that doesn’t come across as callous and disrespectful. [Read more…]

Tips are considered wages, court decides

Employers in the service industry should consult with an employment lawyer before requiring workers to pool their tips. That’s because the laws regarding tip pooling can be complex and employers who engage in certain tip-pooling practices run the risk of violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage laws.

This happened recently in South Carolina. Zen 333, a restaurant in Charleston, didn’t allow bartenders or wait staff to take tips directly from customers. Instead they had to put them into a tip pool that was divided among the staff. Servers also had to contribute 4.5 percent of their gross food and alcohol sales directly to “the house” and 3.5 percent of their alcohol sales to the bartenders, who in turn had to contribute a percentage of their alcohol sales to “the house.” According to bartenders and waiters, the restaurant’s owners would withdraw these mandatory contributions from the tip pool and if the cash tips didn’t cover those contributions they’d take the difference from credit-card tips.

The bartenders, who were paid $40 plus tips for all shifts worked, and the servers, who were paid $2.25 an hour plus tips, took the restaurant to court, claiming that this practice violated FLSA and the state wage law because it resulted in them not being paid the wages they earned. [Read more…]

Employers take note: ‘Hostile environment’ claims can be costly

A “hostile” work environment is one where an employee is constantly confronted with offensive behavior by co-workers or supervisors. This can include sexually charged or bigoted comments and jokes, repeated requests to engage in sexual activity, taunting, or insulting personal comments. An employer that doesn’t properly investigate workers’ complaints of a hostile environment , or that investigates but fails to take proper action in response, can face discrimination and sexual harassment claims, as Kansas City, Missouri recently found out.

In that case, LaDonna Nunley, an African-American woman who had worked as a chemist for Kansas City’s water department for 24 years, claimed that a co-worker had engaged in a pervasive pattern of offensive speech directed toward her, including comments referencing genitalia and comments comparing President Barack Obama to a bowel movement. She said she reported the comments to supervisors but they failed to discipline the co-worker.

Ultimately Nunley, who also claimed that she was passed over for promotions in favor of less qualified, younger white workers, brought age, sex and race discrimination claims against the city along with a claim of hostile work environment. [Read more…]

Signature not enough to bind worker to arbitration clause

Mandatory arbitration agreements, which require employers and employees to forego court if they get into a legal dispute with one another and take the case to a private third-party arbitrator to resolve, are a popular way for employers to avoid the unpredictability and expense of the court system.

But if you plan on subjecting workers to such agreements, it’s critical to give actual notice of the terms, as a restaurant in North Carolina recently learned.

In that case, two white employees who worked under a Latino supervisor alleged that he often made racist remarks to them, saying among other things that because they weren’t Hispanic, they couldn’t relate to customers or co-workers or handle day-to-day situations. [Read more…]

Disabled workers may need accommodations beyond FMLA leave

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), companies with more than 50 employees must allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with medical issues. But if a worker isn’t ready to return after 12 weeks, employers should talk to an employment attorney before taking any disciplinary action. That’s because an employee who’s used all of his or her FMLA leave may still be entitled to more leave time as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In a recent Massachusetts case, bank employee Amanda LePete took 12 weeks of FMLA leave when she had a baby. While she was out she developed post-partum depression. As her return date approached she was still suffering symptoms so she sought medical help and tried to extend her leave. When her counselor couldn’t pin down a specific date when she might be able to return the bank sent her a letter setting a hard deadline, telling her she’d be fired if she didn’t return on that date. Panicked, she and her attorney appealed to human resources to extend her leave but the request was denied. She subsequently got a letter telling her she was fired.

LaPete filed a disability discrimination claim against the bank under the ADA and state anti-discrimination law. [Read more…]

When is employee travel time compensable?

If you’re a “non-exempt” employee — typically someone who doesn’t work in a professional, executive or managerial capacity and who earns an hourly wage — your compensation structure is pretty simple. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) you get paid for the hours you work and if you put in more than 40 hours in a week, you get overtime.

But what about time you spend traveling for work? That seems simple too. You don’t get paid for commuting time to and from work. But you do get paid for time you spend traveling around during the workday.

This seems straightforward on the surface. But there are little wrinkles and nuances that workers and employers need to understand. [Read more…]

Employer can’t fire worker for refusing to share tips, Minnesota court rules

A server at a restaurant who was fired after refusing to share more of his tips with other workers could sue the restaurant for wrongful discharge, the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently decided.

Todd Burt, the server in question, worked at a restaurant where wait staff had to split tips with the people who bussed tables. When Burt refused to share his tips, his employer warned that “there would be consequences” if he didn’t do so. He still refused and was fired.

After his employer terminated him, he filed suit. Specifically, Burt claimed firing him was illegal under Minnesota’s wage and tip law, which prohibits mandatory tip pooling or tip sharing. His resulting unemployment caused him lost wages, he alleged. [Read more…]

NYC imposes new rules for freelance contracts

The nation’s largest city just passed a law that will change the way employers do business with independent contractors.

Under the new law, any agreement with an independent contractor for services that pays more than $800 in a 120-day period must be in writing. The contract must contain the name and mailing address of both the hiring party and the contractor, an itemization of all services to be performed, the value of the services, the rate and method of pay and the date by which the hiring party must pay. If no date is specified, the contractor needs to be paid within 30 days of the job being done.

Hiring parties that violate this law can face fines and lawsuits and can even be ordered to pay double damages and attorney fees. [Read more…]

Single day of FMLA abuse is grounds for termination, says 4th Circuit

United Airlines did not violate the federal Family and Medical Leave Act when it fired a worker for putting in for family leave on a scheduled workday in the middle of an extended out-of-country vacation, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled.

Masoud Sharif, who worked for United at Washington-Dulles International Airport, decided to take a 3-week vacation to South Africa in March 2014. However, United had scheduled him for two customer-service shifts right smack in the middle of his time off. Using United’s shift-swap website, Sharif found someone to cover the second day, but not the first. Then Sharif — who’d been previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and had been authorized to take FMLA days intermittently to deal with panic attacks — requested a day of medical leave for the first day.

The airline found it odd that Sharif took FMLA leave for the only shift he was scheduled to work those three weeks and that his time off coincided with that of his wife, also a United employee.  It also noticed he’d taken FMLA leave under similar circumstances a year earlier.  In an interview with human resources when Sharif returned, he claimed he tried to get back to Washington the day of his scheduled shift but couldn’t get on a flight and suffered a panic attack that caused him to use FMLA leave, although records showed he flew to Italy the next day to see his niece. [Read more…]

EEOC updates guidance on ‘national origin’ discrimination

Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act bars employers from discriminating based on national origin. In other words, employers cannot fire, refuse to hire, demote or take any other negative action against a worker or job candidate based on where that person or his or her ancestors come from. Employers also can’t take negative employment actions against someone who seems to have physical, cultural or language traits that they associate with a particular ethnic or national group (i.e., having an Italian accent, wearing traditional Indian garb or having a stereotypically Jewish last name or facial features).

This area can be a minefield for employers, so the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued updated guidance for employers on how to stay out of trouble.

For example, with respect to job openings, the EEOC urges employers to advertise and recruit in ways that attract the most diverse candidate pool possible, such as posting online, advertising at job fairs and publicly posting job announcements with various community organizations, instead of using techniques that may “screen out” certain groups, such as word-of-mouth advertising or only posting in places that will reach a homogeneous audience. [Read more…]

Beware the use of ‘big data’ in hiring

As technology has advanced in recent years, so have hiring tools. Among these tools are “algorithms” — formulas developed by data analysts and computer programmers to help employers cut the hundreds or even thousands of online job applications down to a smaller number that meet certain stated job qualifications. This could include educational requirements or particular skills necessary for the position.

These algorithms also enable employers to subject applicants to personality tests and find online information about potential candidates, and even help the employer reach out to people who might be a good fit but haven’t actually applied.

However, these tools can also pose a danger. Employers may set the algorithms to look for candidates who look like their idea of a “top performer,” but this could lead to weeding out women, racial minorities, people with disabilities or other groups protected by antidiscrimination laws. [Read more…]

The Trump Administration: What should employers expect?

Since the moment he announced his candidacy nearly two years ago, nothing about Donald Trump has been predictable. So trying to determine what the Trump Administration might mean for employers is guesswork at best.

Still, we can probably expect his overall policies to be quite a bit different than they’ve been for the past eight years, and if he has any intention of keeping his campaign promises it wouldn’t be surprising to see him reverse certain workplace policies that the Obama Administration put into place.

One big area Trump may target is Obama-era executive orders that affect government contractors, since he may view them as hindering economic growth and job creation and it won’t take an act of Congress to undo them. [Read more…]

‘Critical’ and ‘hostile’ work environment not the same thing

If you’re subject to pervasive harassment, intimidation and/or abuse and it’s so bad that you can’t work there anymore, you may be able to bring a “hostile environment” claim.

In some cases, these claims have resulted in employers paying significant damages.

However, employees need to clear a pretty high bar to establish a hostile environment. As a recent Pennsylvania case shows, just having a mean boss who maintains an unpleasant working environment isn’t necessarily enough. [Read more…]

Company burned in court for misleading job candidate

Competition is tight for highly skilled workers. And it’s understandable that as an employer, when you need to fill a position quickly you’re going to try and sell the position in the best light possible. But it’s a really bad idea to withhold important information from a job candidate, especially if the opportunity in question is less than secure.

Take for example a recent case out of Massachusetts. The employer, Boston-based Loomis, Sayles & Co., was planning to launch a new hedge fund. To staff the launch, Loomis set its sights on Vishal Bhammer, who was working in finance in Hong Kong. During the recruitment process, Loomis made numerous promises to Bhammer about its commitment to the launch and the resources it planned to dedicate to the fund.

Ultimately Bhammer accepted an offer. And relying on Loomis’s assurances that it was safe to do so, he gave notice to his employer and moved to Singapore as the position required. [Read more…]

RIF of worker on medical leave creates problems

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, people who work for companies with more than 50 employees are generally entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year in order to deal with a medical condition, care for a new baby or tend to a sick family member.

But can an employer lay off a worker on FMLA leave for economic reasons, like as part of a companywide “reduction in force” (RIF)?

In most cases, the answer is “Yes.” But employers still need to tread carefully, because if the employee can show evidence that his or her FMLA leave contributed to his or her inclusion in the layoffs, the employer could get hit with an FMLA retaliation claim. [Read more…]

Beware the ‘cat’s paw’ and investigate before you act

The oddly named “cat’s paw” theory (which comes from one of Aesop’s Fables) refers to a scenario where an employer disciplines or fires an employee for what it thinks are legitimate reasons, but does so based on information from a supervisor who had illegal motivations. In most cases, it means the supervisor who reported the worker for discipline was motivated by racial or religious prejudice or a desire to retaliate against the worker for asserting certain rights. In these situations, a court can still hold the employer responsible for unlawful discrimination or retaliation.

A recent decision from a federal appeals court suggests that the cat’s paw theory may be wider-reaching than many of us thought. In that case, a female employee complained to supervisors about an explicit photo sent to her by a co-worker. The co-worker then apparently manipulated text messages on his phone to make it look like the woman had willingly taken part in sexually charged conversations and that he had been a target of sexual harassment. Relying on the co-worker’s so-called evidence, the employer fired her. The employer also apparently conducted no investigation and rebuffed the woman’s offer to display her own phone to rebut the co-worker’s version of events.

She sued the company in federal court claiming she was fired in retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment. [Read more…]

Hot topics in the employment law world

Labor and employment law is a constantly changing area and it can be tough to keep up with the most recent developments that affect employers’ and employees’ rights in the workplace. To help you stay up to date, here are two areas where companies have been getting in trouble recently:

  • Disability, medical leave and privacy issues

Dealing with employee health issues can be a minefield for employers, as home-improvement retailer Lowe’s found out recently when it had to settle a disability discrimination claim brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for $8.6 million. The EEOC accused Lowe’s of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by firing workers who had been on medical leave longer than the limits the company had set. It seems Lowe’s made two mistakes here: It imposed an arbitrary medical leave limit that may have contradicted what employees were entitled to under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and it apparently refused to accommodate workers with disabilities by allowing longer leaves that wouldn’t have imposed an unreasonable hardship on the company.

A case out of Pennsylvania also shows that employers must be careful when dealing with employees who need time off to deal with a medical situation. In that case, a worker took two months off to care for ailing parents. When she called to check in, she was told she would be fired if she didn’t resign on her own. Though it’s disputed as to whether the worker formally requested FMLA leave, a federal judge said it didn’t matter. It was enough that as soon as it was possible to do so she informed the employer of her need to take leave and told them why. [Read more…]

‘No vacancy’ is no defense in promotion lawsuit

Can an employer be sued for not promoting someone, even if there’s no vacancy in the job to which she wants to be promoted?

Maybe, according to a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.

Janean Chambers was a blind black woman who worked for the Department of Health and Human Services. She was at a GS-9 pay grade and wanted to be promoted to a GS-11 job. [Read more…]

Yoga teacher could be fired for being ‘too cute’

A Manhattan yoga teacher who claimed her female boss fired her because the boss’s husband thought she was attractive can’t bring a lawsuit for unjust termination, a judge has ruled.

Dilek Edwards worked as a yoga instructor and massage therapist at a chiropractic clinic owned by Stephanie Adams – a former Playboy model – and her husband, Charles Nicolai.

Edwards apparently had given Nicolai some massages, and Nicolai praised her work and told her that his wife might become jealous because she was “too cute.” [Read more…]

New rules for company ‘wellness’ programs

Corporate wellness programs – designed to help workers quit smoking, manage stress, lose weight and address other health issues – are becoming popular with employers. Many businesses see them as a valuable perk as well as a way to reduce absenteeism and health care costs.

However, under federal law, these programs must be voluntary – employees can’t be forced to participate in them. Further, there are limits on how companies can obtain and use medical and genetic information about workers and their families.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued new rules that clarify what’s allowed. [Read more…]

Workers’ ‘right to gripe’ gets another boost

The National Labor Relations Board is cracking down on workplace rules that are designed to promote harmony and civility, but that restrict employees from complaining about their working conditions.

All employees (even those who don’t belong to a union) have a right under federal labor law to talk to each other about their pay and conditions and to agitate for improvements. Here are some examples of workplace rules that the NLRB thinks might violate that right: [Read more…]

Should companies buy wage-and-hour insurance?

Wage-and-hour lawsuits under the Fair Labor Standards Act have increased by 30 percent in just the last five years, and with the huge changes that took place on December 1, that number is expected to increase even further.

Some companies are buying specific insurance policies to protect them against these claims.

If a business already has an employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) policy, this might not be necessary because these claims may already be covered. However, many EPLI policies specifically exclude coverage for wage-and-hour violations. Other general liability policies might in theory cover wage-and-hour suits, but these insurers are often very aggressive in contesting their obligation to cover such claims after they arise.

Businesses that are concerned might want to review their policies with an employment attorney.

What the new overtime rules will mean for businesses and employees

Major changes to the federal overtime rules went into effect on December 1, and this could mean big changes in the workplace.

Some 4.2 million employees who aren’t eligible for overtime now will become eligible under the new rules. This could prompt many businesses to reduce overtime hours, hire new workers, raise or lower salaries, convert salaried employees to hourly employees, and adjust bonuses and commissions. It could also mean changes for workers who telecommute or have flexible schedules.

In general, employees must be paid time-and-a-half if they work more than 40 hours in a week, unless the employee is “exempt.” Currently, employees are “exempt” if they earn at least $23,660 per year; are paid on a salary basis; and perform managerial, professional, or administrative tasks. Employees who do not have managerial, professional, or administrative jobs are exempt if they earn more than $100,000. [Read more…]

‘Gender identity’ discrimination claims on the rise

Transsexuals and other employees who identify with a different gender than the one they were born with are beginning to bring job discrimination lawsuits.

While the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination doesn’t specifically mention “gender identity,” the U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission believes that gender identity is covered by the law, and has begun bringing claims against businesses. One company in Minnesota has already paid a settlement in a case brought by the EEOC over its refusal to allow a transgendered worker to use a preferred restroom, and a federal appeals court has ruled that a transgendered individual could sue for wrongful termination. [Read more…]

Another ‘close call’ on who gets overtime

One factor in deciding whether employees are eligible for overtime is whether they exercise judgment and discretion in the course of doing their work. Employees who are empowered to make independent decisions typically don’t qualify for time-and-a-half.

When there’s a dispute about overtime eligibility, this sometimes leads to an ironic situation in which bosses claim in court that their workers are highly skilled decisionmakers, while the workers themselves argue that they’re just mindless drones. [Read more…]

Federal contractors must provide paid sick leave

Starting next January, companies that have federal contracts must allow employees to earn up to seven paid sick days per year, under new regulations issued by the Labor Department.

Employees can earn one sick day for each 30 hours spent on work related to the federal contract, up to seven days per year. These days carry over from one year to the next, although an employee who quits or is fired without using them doesn’t have to be compensated for them. [Read more…]

Worker could be fired even if boss discriminated

An employee could be legally fired for misconduct even if his supervisor “got the ball rolling” toward his termination as a result of racist attitudes, according to a federal court in Philadelphia.

The case involved a black school janitor and a female black principal who strongly disapproved of the janitor’s dating white women. The principal made inappropriate comments to the janitor, made false accusations against him, and told co-workers that he had “a target on his back.” [Read more…]

Cutting workers’ hours to avoid Obamacare may be illegal

The Affordable Care Act says that any company with more than 50 full-time employees must offer health care benefits or pay a penalty. A full-time employee is defined as someone who works at least 30 hours a week.

Some businesses have tried to get around this requirement by cutting workers’ hours to just below 30 hours a week. The idea is to avoid paying for their employees’ medical care while also avoiding the penalty. [Read more…]

Company sued for not protecting worker from ex-boyfriend

In a recent case in Missouri, a woman left work and got in her minivan in the parking lot to go home, only to find that her estranged boyfriend was hiding in the back with a gun. They had an argument and he shot her, causing a serious injury. She sued her employer, arguing that better security measures could have prevented the incident.

It turned out that a different employee had been kidnapped from the same parking lot a decade earlier, and in response, the company installed security cameras around the property. However, the company later disregarded advice to reposition the cameras to provide better coverage. [Read more…]

What rights do employees have to talk about politics at work?

This year’s presidential election has produced one of the most colorful and contentious political seasons in recent memory. It’s not surprising that employees want to talk about the candidates and the issues. For this reason, it’s important to know what everyone’s rights are – both those of employees who want to express their opinions, and those of employers who want to minimize disruptions and avoid having their staff members offend co-workers or customers.

While many people talk about “free speech,” it’s important to know that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution doesn’t protect every type of speech. All it really says is that the government can’t punish you for your speech. It doesn’t say that a private employer can’t punish people for their political opinions. [Read more…]

Company can’t ask for ‘inexperienced’ job applicants

A medical device company in Illinois posted an ad for a job in its legal department, saying it would only consider candidates who had no more than seven years of relevant legal experience.

It got a resume from 59-year-old Dale Kleber, who had previously served as general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, CEO of a national trade organization, and interim CEO of a different medical device business. The company didn’t even give Kleber an interview, and hired a 29-year-old instead. [Read more…]

49-year-old replaced by 42-year-old can sue

Salesman Robert Liebman was fired at age 49 after working for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for 27 years. He sued under the federal age discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination against workers over age 40.

MetLife argued that Liebman’s firing couldn’t possibly be discrimination because it replaced him with someone who was 42 years old, and thus was also protected by the law.

But a federal appeals court in Atlanta said it didn’t matter that Liebman’s replacement was also over 40. As long as his replacement was “substantially younger,” Liebman could sue and have a jury decide if he was discriminated against.

Employers can be tripped up when requiring arbitration

A growing number of employers are requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements, saying that any future employment disputes must be resolved by arbitration rather than going to court.

Arbitration has a lot of advantages for businesses – it can be quicker and cheaper to resolve than a lawsuit, and the details of any disagreements don’t become a matter of public record.

However, if companies require employees to sign these agreements without thinking them through carefully, they can backfire. [Read more…]

Company sued for breaking oral promise not to fire someone

Denise Parker was an administrator at a nonprofit youth leadership organization for nearly 40 years, receiving consistently strong performance reviews.

But when the organization hired a new CEO, his management style lowered morale and made many employees worried about losing their jobs. Parker herself received a vague warning that there were people “lined up in the street” waiting to take her job. [Read more…]

Two mistakes companies make with non-compete agreements

A lot of companies require their employees to sign non-compete agreements (where the employee agrees not to work for a competitor for a certain amount of time after leaving the company), non-solicitation agreements (where the employee agrees not to seek business from the company’s customers after leaving), or confidentiality agreements (where the employee agrees not to divulge the company’s proprietary information to anyone).

But two recent cases show that companies can make mistakes with these agreements that render them legally invalid. [Read more…]

Workers with substance abuse issues benefit from ‘last chance agreements’

Substance abuse is a rapidly growing workplace issue, especially given the recent opioid epidemic. Many employers are scratching their heads wondering what they can do, and many employees affected by the problem are wondering if there is a way to save their jobs.

Of course, substance abuse is a major problem in the workplace, since it can lead to absenteeism, lost productivity, increased health care costs, and in the worst cases, accidents, injuries and even violence. [Read more…]

Worker fired for medical marijuana use

A Colorado company could fire an employee who tested positive for marijuana use even though he used the drug for medical purposes, and even though marijuana is legal under state law, the Colorado Supreme Court recently decided.

The employee sued under Colorado’s “lifestyle law,” which prohibits businesses from disciplining employees for lawful activities done on their own time.

But the court said that because marijuana use is still illegal under federal law, the “lifestyle law” didn’t apply. [Read more…]

Are commissioned employees entitled to overtime?

The C&C Salon company recently agreed to pay $800,000 to a group of hairstylists in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut who claimed they had been denied overtime pay. The salon company had originally argued that the stylists were commissioned salespeople and therefore were not entitled to overtime, but a federal judge approved the settlement and said it was fair.

The case is not at all unusual – many businesses believe that commissioned salespeople are not entitled to overtime. And in fact, the rules can be a little hard to follow.

So, when exactly can a salesperson collect both a commission and overtime pay? [Read more…]

Businesses must investigate harassment even if they’re skeptical

A company has a legal obligation to investigate all claims of harassment fairly and objectively – even if the company is initially skeptical and thinks the claim is bogus.

That’s the upshot of a recent case involving a Massachusetts hospital.

Michael Saxe was a security guard who claimed he was sexually harassed at work by a female co-worker after he declined to get involved with her. He complained to his boss, and the hospital’s HR director conducted an investigation. [Read more…]

Company in trouble for confusing timekeeping system

Donna Vitali, a bookkeeper at a property management firm, was supposed to get a paid hour-long lunch break every day. In reality, though, she frequently felt pressure to work through her lunch break.

While Donna’s work during lunch breaks didn’t automatically qualify as overtime, it counted toward the 40-hour threshold above which hourly employees have to be paid time and a half. So it mattered whether her work during the lunch breaks was tracked.

In this case, the company had an electronic timekeeping system. However, it was apparently very confusing, and had no clear way to capture time spent by employees working during a paid lunch break. Donna’s attempts to resolve the issue with the payroll department went nowhere. [Read more…]

Employee can’t be fired for gossip about possible layoff

LaDonna George drove a route for a vending machine company. She requested several days off the week after her father’s funeral. When the company denied her request, she became emotional, scrawled a note to the employer and left.

When she returned the following week, she mentioned to a fellow driver, Steve Boros, that she had seen an online job posting for a route driver. She wondered aloud to Steve whether their employer had placed the ad because it was about to fire one of its drivers.

Steve, believing he was about to be fired, approached the employer about it. The employer responded by firing LaDonna, for (among other things) spreading gossip and suggesting to other workers they were about to be fired. [Read more…]