Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog

Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog

NLRB Issues Critical Guidance On Employer Handbooks, Rules and Policies, Including “Approved” Language

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My colleagues Steven M. Swirsky and Adam C. Abrahms published a Management Memo blog post that will be of interest to many of our readers: “NLRB Issues Critical Guidance on Employer Handbooks, Rules and Policies Including “Approved” Language.”

Following is an excerpt:

On March 18, 2015, NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. issued General Counsel Memorandum GC 15-04 containing extensive guidance as to the General Counsel’s views as to what types employer polices and rules, in handbooks and otherwise, will be considered by the NLRB investigators and regional offices to be lawful and which are likely to be found to unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the Act”).

This GC Memo is highly relevant to all employers in all industries that are under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, regardless of whether they have union represented employees.

Because the Office of the General Counsel investigates unfair labor practice charges and the NLRB’s Regional Directors act on behalf of the General Counsel when they determine whether a charge has legal merit, the memo is meaningful to all employers and offers important guidance as to what language and policies are likely to be found to interfere with employees’ rights under the Act, and what type of language the NLRB will find does not interfere and may be lawfully maintained, so long as it is consistently and non-discriminatorily applied and enforced.

Read the full blog post here.

Five Steps Toward Boosting Employee Safety and Avoiding OSHA Citations

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Our colleague Valerie Butera recently authored Epstein Becker Green’s March issue of Take 5 in which she outlines actionable steps that employers can take to improve safety in the workplace and avoid costly OSHA citations.

Following is an excerpt:Take 5 banner

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) was created by Congress to ensure safe and healthful working conditions for employees. OSHA establishes standards and provides training and compliance assistance. It also enforces its standards with investigations and citations.

Although it’s impossible for employers to mitigate against every conceivable hazard in the workplace, there are five critical steps that every employer should take to improve safety in the workplace—and avoid costly OSHA citations. Read on for the steps:

  1. Conduct an Internal Safety and Health Audit Under Attorney-Client Privilege
  2. Create a Strong Safety Culture
  3. Ensure That Safety and Health Documentation Is Current and Well Communicated
  4. Train Employees in Safety and Health, Regularly and Comprehensively
  5. Protect Contractors and Temporary Workers, Too

Click here to read the full Take 5 online.

Strategic Use of Arbitration Agreements in FLSA Context Gets Boost

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In a case that has strategic implications for employers’ use of arbitration agreements in response to collective claims brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the Eighth Circuit has held that former servers at an Arkansas pizzeria chain lack standing to challenge the pizzeria’s enforcement of an arbitration agreement that bars current employees from joining the FLSA collective action.  Conners v. Gusano’s Chi. Style Pizzeria, No. 14-1829 (8th Cir. Mar. 9, 2015).

In Conners, the plaintiff filed a proposed collective action lawsuit on behalf of herself and other restaurant servers, alleging Gusano’s maintained an illegal tip pool in violation of the FLSA.  One month later, Gusano’s distributed a new arbitration agreement to all current servers which required individual arbitration of all employment disputes, including Conners litigation.

The former servers, who were not subject to the new agreement and had moved for conditional class certification, argued that Gusano’s engaged in improper communication with putative class members and sought to preclude the pizzeria from enforcing the agreement against the current servers.  In arguing that they had standing to challenge the agreement, the former servers alleged that they had suffered “a concrete and particularized injury” in the form of an increased share of litigation expenses.  Even assuming that was true, the Eighth Circuit held that the plaintiffs could not show an “actual or imminent” threat because, at the time of the challenge to the agreement, no current employees had opted into the lawsuit, and there was no indication that the arbitration agreement had chilled the participation of any current employees.  Therefore, the plaintiffs lacked standing and the courts did not have jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of the arbitration agreement.

Companies facing potential class or collective actions under the FLSA or state wage laws in the Eighth Circuit should take heed of the pizzeria’s strategic use of arbitration agreements in this case.  Gusano’s acted quickly after the filing of the Conners lawsuit and issued a new arbitration policy.  Notably, the arbitration agreement contained an explanation of “its scope, the required procedures for invoking arbitration, the effect the agreement will have on the employee’s ability to pursue relief in court, the right of every employee to opt out of the agreement free of retaliation, and how to opt out effectively.”  Along with the new agreement, the pizzeria issued a two-page memorandum describing the agreement’s terms in “plain English” and expressly explaining to employees that their failure to opt-out of the new policy would prevent them from joining the pending lawsuit.  By doing so, Gusano’s appears to have complied with the U.S. Supreme Court’s admonishment in American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304 (2012), that express contractual waivers of class arbitration are enforceable.

By acting swiftly and transparently, Gusano’s may limited the scope of the proposed collective action in Conners, and companies, particularly those in the Eighth Circuit, in similar situations should take note.  This strategy, however, is not without legal risk, and courts in other circuits may have a different view of Gusano’s course of conduct.  Employers who act too hastily and heavy-handedly in procuring signed agreements may be accused of improperly coercing employees into waiving their rights, which may nullify the waiver.  Further, if a new arbitration agreement is distributed before notice of a pending collective action has been disseminated, the employer might unintentionally inform employees about, and potentially encourage them to join, the lawsuit.

There are practical considerations as well.  Seeking a waiver of class or collective arbitrations under these circumstances may damage employee relations and erode employee morale if employees perceive that their employer is attempting to unfairly restrain the rights.  In addition, an employer may be subjected to increased fees if a number of employees bring individual arbitrations or if employees file suit in court and forces the employer to move to enforce the arbitration agreement.  Each of these considerations must be weighed carefully before instituting a new policy.

D.C. Circuit Reinstates FMLA Claim Even Though Plaintiff’s Leave Request Was Granted

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Client service is paramount in the hospitality industry, and frequent or extended leaves of absences by employees may make providing the same level of consistent service difficult.  But employers should take heed of the recent decision by the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals when considering employee requests for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.  In Gordon v United States Capitol Police, No. 13-5072 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 20, 2015), the D.C. Circuit held that an employer who discourages an employee from taking FMLA leave may be liable for an interference claim, even if that discouragement was “ineffective.”  In other words, don’t bully, discourage, or make employees jump through unnecessary hoops if they ask for FMLA leave, because those employees may still have a viable lawsuit for FMLA interference despite having received the requested leave.

Judy Gordon, an officer with the Capitol Police, was granted FMLA leave to address intermittent periods of severe and incapacitating depression.  Before her leave commenced, Gordon’s superiors ordered her to submit to a “fitness for duty examination” because of her FMLA request.  While waiting for the examination, Gordon was reassigned to administrative duties, resulting in a loss of $900 (the equivalent of three days’ pay).  Gordon passed the examination, was reinstated to her prior post, and took the requested FMLA leave and returned without incident.  Nonetheless, Gordon sued, asserting claims of interference and retaliation under the FMLA, and alleging that the presence of the “fitness for duty examination” on her permanent record would be detrimental to her prospects for pay increases, promotions, and transfers.

Addressing an issue of first impression for the D.C. Circuit, the court considered whether Gordon could proceed with her FMLA interference claim even though she was granted and ultimately took the requested leave.  Drawing an analogy between the interference provisions of the FMLA and the NLRA – which courts have interpreted to permit NLRA Section 8 claims based on actions that have a “reasonable tendency” to interfere with employees’ rights, regardless of whether they actual did – the court held that “an employer action with a reasonable tendency” to interfere with an FMLA right may support a valid interference claim “even where the action fails to actually prevent such exercise or attempt.”

Here, the D.C. Circuit reinstated the inference claim because it found that subjecting Gordon to a fitness for duty examination, which resulted in her loss of $900 and potentially impacted her future career prospects, would have a “reasonable tendency” to interfere with an employee’s exercise of FMLA rights.  The court also appeared to be influenced by allegations in the complaint that upper-managers frowned upon FMLA leave generally and were looking for ways to prevent Gordon from taking leave.

In its decision, the court set a low threshold for what constitutes an adverse action sufficient to support an FMLA retaliation claim.  One of the elements of a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation is a showing that the plaintiff was adversely affected by an employment decision.  The court refused to decide whether that element requires a showing of “material adversity” – as articulated for Title VII claims in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, 548 U.S. 53, 68-70 (2006) – or something less, such as any monetary loss, no matter how small – as suggested in Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 535 U.S. 81 (2002).  Rather, the court concluded that the loss of $900, the equivalent of three days’ pay, was more than de minimis and met the higher “material adversity” threshold, allowing the FMLA retaliation claim to proceed.

This decision is a reminder to employers, particularly those with operations in Washington, DC, to tread carefully when processing requests for leave under the FMLA.  Although leaves of absence can be disruptive to the workforce, and employers are within their rights to make certain inquiries into the need for leave, the mere fact that FMLA leave is ultimately granted will not insulate an employer from potential liability for conduct that has the potential to dissuade an employee from requesting leave.  To avoid unnecessary litigation, employers should instruct their leave administrators and supervisors to refrain from openly questioning or criticizing an employee’s request for leave and from requiring additional certifications beyond those contemplated by the law.

Five Health Care Developments Important to Employers

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Our colleagues Adam C. Solander, August Emil Huelle, Stuart M. Gerson, René Y. Quashie, Amy F. Lerman, Frank C. Morris, Jr., Kevin J. Ryan, and Griffin W. Mulcahey contributed to Epstein Becker Green’s recent issue of Take 5 newsletter.   In this special edition, we address important health care issues confronting hospitality employers:

  1. Potential ACA Changes Impacting Health Care Employers Under the New Congress
  2. Pending Supreme Court Cases Involving the Affordable Care ActTake 5 banner
  3. Telemedicine and Employers: The New Frontier
  4. Wellness Programs Under EEOC Attack—What to Do Now
  5. Employer-Sponsored, On-Site Health Care

Read the full newsletter here.

DHS Extends Eligibility for Employment Authorization to Certain H-4 Dependent Spouses of H-1B Nonimmigrants

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Robert S. Groban, Jr. and the Immigration Law Group of Epstein Becker Green recently issued an alert that will be of interest to hospitality employers.

On February 24, 2015, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a final rule that extends eligibility for employment authorization to certain H-4 dependent spouses of H-1B nonimmigrants who are seeking employment-based lawful permanent resident status. H-4 spouses who fit the eligibility criteria will be able to apply for employment authorization starting on May 26, 2015.

Read the full Client Alert here.

Key Issues Facing Places of Public Accommodation at the 25th Anniversary of the ADA

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Our colleague Joshua A. Stein authored Epstein Becker Green’s recent issue of its Take 5 newsletter.   This Take 5 highlights five recent developments and future trends under Title III that places of public accommodation should keep their eyes on in 2015.

  1. Website Accessibility
  2. Accessible Point-of-Sale Devices and Other Touchscreen Technology
  3. Movie Theater Captioning & Audio (Narrative) Description
  4. The Availability of Sign Language Interpreters at Health Care Facilities
  5. “Drive By” Design/Construction Lawsuits

 Read the full newsletter here.

 

January 2015 Immigration Alert

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Robert S. Groban, Jr. and the Immigration Law Group of Epstein Becker Green recently issued an alert that will be of interest to employers. Following are the main topic headings:

Read the full alert here.

Legislation Introduced to Change Full-Time Employee Definition under the Affordable Care Act

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Our colleague August Emil Huelle at Epstein Becker Green has an Employee Benefits Insight Blog post that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Legislation Introduced to Change Full-Time Employee Definition under the Affordable Care Act.”

Following is an excerpt:

On January 7, 2015, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Donnelly (D–IN) along with Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced the Forty Hours is Full Time Act, legislation that would amend the definition of a “full-time employee” under the Affordable Care Act to an employee who works an average of 40 hours per week.  In the coming days, the House is expected to vote on its own version of this legislation, the Save American Workers Act.

The teeth of the Affordable Care Act have the ability to sink excise taxes on employers who do not offer affordable healthcare coverage to full-time employees, which the Affordable Care Act defines as employees who work an average of 30 hours per week.  In announcing the introduction of the legislation, Senator Collins argued that the current definition “creates a perverse incentive for businesses to cut their employees’ hours so they are no longer considered full time.”  The implication being that the Forty Hours is Full Time Act will increase employee wages because the employers who reportedly reduced employee hours below 30 per week in an effort to avoid costs associated with providing healthcare coverage to employees (or the tax for not providing coverage to employees) are the same employers who will raise employee hours above 30 per week if they are not faced with such costs.  

Read the full blog post here.

NLRB’s New Election Rules Challenged As Unconstitutional

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On January 5, 2015, less than one month after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) voted to adopt a Final Rule to amend its rules and procedures for representation elections, a lawsuit has been filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, asserting that the Board exceeded its authority under the National Labor Relations Act (Act) when it amended its rules for votes on union representation and that the new rule in unconstitutional and violates the First and Fifth Amendments of the US Constitution.

The suit was filed by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation and the Society for Human Resources Management.  It seeks an order vacating the Final Rule, declaring the Final Rule to be contrary to the Act and in excess of the Board’s statutory jurisdiction and authority and to violate the First and Fifth Amendments.

The claims raised in the suit are essentially the same as those which were raised by in an action filed in the same court in 2012, in response to the NLRB’s December 2011 adoption of a very similar set of changes to its representation election procedures.  That action also challenged the Board’s action based on what it found to be the Board’s lack of a quorum at the time it adopted those rule changes in 2011. Because the Court found that the Board lacked a quorum at that time, it found it unnecessary to address the substantive arguments about the changes in the election rules that are the essence of the new lawsuit.

While the Complaint does not indicate that the plaintiffs are seeking an order enjoining the Board from implementing the new election procedures under the Final Rule while the case is litigated, the plaintiffs are likely to request such an order as the Final Rule’s effective date of April 15th nears.  In the earlier challenge to the Board’s 2011 rulemaking, the Court granted an injunction in April 2012 enjoining the Board from putting the new rules and procedures into effect, while it considered the merits of the challenge.

While Republican members of Congress have with increasing frequency have indicated their desire to reign in the Board in a variety of areas where they have seen it as exceeding its mandate or moving in directions that they do not agree with, it is almost certain that President Obama would veto such legislation and it is not likely that the sufficient support would be present to override a veto. Thus as the New York Times observed  earlier this week, those who oppose administrative actions such as this are turning increasingly to the courts in hopes of relief.

We will continue to monitor and report on developments in this closely watched case.

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