After nearly ten years, on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium (the “W3C”), the private organization focused on enhancing online user experiences, published the long awaited update to its Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (“WCAG 2.0”), known as the WCAG 2.1.  Those who have been following along with website accessibility’s ever-evolving legal landscape are well aware that, despite not having been formally adopted by regulators for the vast majority of the private sector, compliance with WCAG 2.0 at Levels A and AA has become the de facto baseline for government regulators, courts, advocacy groups, and private plaintiffs when discussing what it means to have an accessible website.

WCAG 2.1’s Purpose and Key Features

The WCAG 2.1 is intended to provide a better web experience for three major groups of individuals:  users with cognitive or learning disabilities, users with low vision, and users with disabilities using mobile devices.  To achieve that goal, WCAG 2.1 builds upon WCAG 2.0, retaining all of WCAG 2.0’s Success Criteria and adding 17 new Success Criteria – 5 at Level A, 7 at Level AA, and 5 at Level AAA.  (Please note:  (i) the W3C does not recommend Level AAA conformance be required as a general policy for entire sites because it is not possible to satisfy all Level AAA Success Criteria for some content; and (ii) the current legal landscape sets website accessibility compliance at the Level A and AA conformance levels.)  Entities covered by Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), thus focusing on complying with WCAG 2.0/2.1 conformance levels A and AA to make their websites accessible, should be aware that, of the 12 Level A and AA Success Criteria new to WCAG 2.1, there a few notable guidelines that will specifically apply to desktop websites, such as:

  • Requiring the purpose of input fields requesting personal information to be identifiable by assistive technologies;
  • Providing a minimum color contrast ratio for non-text content (including all visible focus indicators) of 3:1;
  • Ensuring individuals with disabilities who choose to override spacing can read page text;
  • Modifying keyboard shortcuts so that individuals with disabilities can turn off or remap the shortcut using a non-printable keyboard character (e.g., Ctrl, Alt, etc.); and
  • Providing status messages (such as, shopping cart updates) that can be presented to the user by assistive technologies without receiving focus.

What WCAG 2.1 Means For Those Currently Complying With WCAG 2.0

As noted above, while formal website accessibly regulations governing all sectors of private business have not been adopted by the U. S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) (and current Trump administration policies suggest that formal regulations will not be adopted in the near-term future), substantial conformance with WCAG 2.0 Levels A and AA has been considered the default standard cited to in the majority of recent litigations and settlement agreements with private plaintiffs, advocacy groups, and government regulators (e.g., DOJ).  In its abstract, the W3C notes, “The publication of WCAG 2.1 does not deprecate or supersede WCAG 2.0.  While WCAG 2.0 remains a W3C Recommendation, the W3C advises the use of WCAG 2.1 to maximize future applicability of accessibility efforts.”  Therefore, as WCAG 2.1 gains more exposure we expect that it will quickly begin to replace WCAG 2.0 as the default standard cited to in future website accessibility litigations and settlement agreements.

Companies that are currently required to conform with WCAG 2.0 (e.g., due to a settlement agreement, internal policy, etc.) should continue their efforts to achieve that required level of accessibility, however, where possible, they should also consider incorporating the new elements added to WCAG 2.1 to the extent feasible (and going forward as new content is added) as a best practice.  (The W3C joins in this recommendation.)  As WCAG 2.1 inherited WCAG 2.0’s requirements and overall structure and frame work, companies will be able to update web content to meet the WCAG 2.1 without losing conformance with WCAG 2.0 (as the backward compatibility built into WCAG 2.1 means content that conforms to WCAG 2.1 also conforms to WCAG 2.0).  That said, given that WCAG 2.0/2.1 remain privately authored guidelines as opposed government-mandated regulations (and, as such, a handful of courts have refused to specifically impose WCAG 2.0 as the required means of complying with website accessibility obligations), we would be surprised to see courts require companies already complying with WCAG 2.0 to immediately require compliance with WCAG 2.1.

WCAG 2.1 Is Not Quite the Update Places of Public Accommodation Have Been Looking For

While the publication of WCAG 2.1 will likely receive a reasonable amount of fanfare, once the dust settles and everyone has had time to fully appreciate its content, WCAG 2.1 will likely be considered a let down by both businesses and individuals with disabilities.  As WCAG 2.1 was being drafted over the past four years, the W3C would regularly offer open comment periods to the public.  In the comments received, a large number of respondents requested, even moreso than adding new Success Criteria, that WCAG 2.1 provide updates to the original WCAG 2.0 requirements to help developers apply these guidelines to the newest types of technologies (e.g., touch screen, mobile devices, apps, responsive technology, etc.).  Unfortunately, due to time limitations, such updates are not included in WCAG 2.1 and the original WCAG 2.0 Success Criteria text remains largely unchanged.  The W3C has publically acknowledged this shortcoming noting the WCAG 2.1 advancements are “incremental” and stating, “[m]any people hoped WCAG 2.1 would provide more new guidance than it does.  The requirement of compatibility with WCAG 2.0 along with the aggressive timeline limited what could confidently be added to it. WCAG 2.1 provides important and timely guidance but is still only a step—the Working Group expects to develop another dot-release, WCAG 2.2, to expand the new coverage even further. WCAG 2.2 may be developed under a similar timeline and requirements set than WCAG 2.1 was, though we plan to refine the process to address process challenges experienced during the development of WCAG 2.1.”  Therefore, at this time, companies looking for additional guidance regarding how to apply the WCAG 2.0 requirements using modern programming and design techniques and/or to mobile devices/apps should continue to refer to other sources of  guidance such as:  

Looking Forward

While an additional dot release of WCAG 2 (WCAG 2.2) may be published in the future, the next major version update to WCAG will be WCAG 3.0 (also known as project “Silver”).  Currently, WCAG 3.0 is scheduled for release in 2021 and is intended to be a much more inclusive set of guidelines that are easier to understand and implement.  We will provide additional information on WCAG 3.0 developments as they become available.

Additional Information and Resources

In anticipation of the WCAG 2.1 release, the W3C has completely updated its website to create a helpful, easy to use, interface intended to assist website developers with meeting the WCAG 2.0/2.1 guidelines.  This new information provided on the updated W3C website includes: a list of transcription services (for creating videos with audio descriptions), WCAG 2.0/2.1 tutorials, and information for applying WCAG 2.0/2.1 to mobile apps.   Please see https://www.w3.org/WAI/ for more information.

Massachusetts is one of many states which have adopted legislation, commonly known as a “ban the box” law, prohibiting public and private employers from requesting criminal record information in a prospective employee’s “initial written employment application” and limiting the type and scope of questions an employer may ask a candidate following receipt of an “initial written employment application.” Yesterday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced that her office has settled with four businesses and issued warning letters to 17 others for violations of Massachusetts’s ban the box law, marking the first enforcement efforts by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

According to the AG’s press release, it conducted an investigation into employer compliance with the state’s ban the box law by sampling an undisclosed number of Boston and Cambridge employers. The initial employment applications of 21 of those businesses were found to contain one or more impermissible questions about the applicant’s criminal record, such as whether the applicant had been convicted of violating the law, whether he or she been convicted of a crime or offense other than a minor traffic violation, and whether he or she had ever been convicted of a felony. The four employers that reached agreements with the AG’s Office are Edible Arrangements, Five Guys, L’Occitane, and The Walking Company. The first three were fined $5,000 each (The Walking Company appears to have been given a pass due to its bankruptcy status) and each was required to take steps to comply with the law. The 17 business which received a warning to immediately comply with the law are: Brattle Book Shop, Kingston Grille and Bar, Salvatore’s, Sidebar, Stoddard’s Food & Ale, The Chicken and Rice Guys (two locations), The Oceanaire Seafood Room, Tous Les Jours, Viga Italian Eatery and Catering, Love Culture, and Frette, all in Boston, as well The Middle East Restaurant, Mainely Burgers, Mexicali Burrito Co., Café ArtScience, Meadhall, and Grafton Street Pub & Grill in Cambridge.

While the press release does not indicate whether the AG’s Office intends to expand its probe, continued enforcement seems likely in light of AG Healey’s remarks that “Jobs are the pathway to economic security and building a better life. But unfortunately, many of our residents with criminal records face barriers to securing employment. These actions are an effort to give all job applicants a fair chance.”

Enforcement of ban the box legislation is not limited to regulators in Massachusetts. Well over a year ago, the New York State Attorney General announced settlements with two major national retailers – Big Lots Stores and Marshalls – for violation of New York’s ban the box law by inquiring about the criminal history of job applications on initial employment applications at their Buffalo stores. The New York AG imposed fines that were substantially greater than those set by the Massachusetts AG: Big Lots agreed to pay a monetary penalty of $100,000, and Marshalls a penalty of $95,000. Both were required to adopt new policies and training, and report their remediation to the New York AG.

These actions highlight that businesses operating in jurisdictions with ban the box laws must ensure that their pre-hiring practices comply with such laws or risk regulatory fines, not to mention public disrepute and potential civil liability.

We published an article in Club Director, titled “Harassment and the #MeToo Movement in the Private Club Industry.” Following is an excerpt:

The recent heightened awareness to sexual harassment issues affects a wide range of industries, and has prompted employers to consider ways to get ahead of the problem. In order to reduce the risk of such complaints, private clubs may take a number of proactive steps.

Anti-Harassment Policy: Clubs should develop a zero-tolerance policy against harassment that includes, at a minimum, the following elements:

  • Expressly prohibit any sexually harassing or inappropriate behavior by staff or members toward employees, guests, members or patrons.
  • Define sexual harassment, making clear that it includes inappropriate relations, touching, and communication (i.e., emails, phone calls, text messages, or messages through social media).
  • Firmly state that any individual (staff or members) found to have engaged in sexually harassing behavior will be subject to discipline and/or immediate dismissal or expulsion.

Click here to download the full version in PDF format.

Our colleagues Jeffrey H. Ruzal, Adriana S. Kosovych, and Judah L. Rosenblatt, attorneys in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice, co-authored an article in Club Director, titled “Recent Trends in State and Local Wage and Hour Laws.”

Following is an excerpt:

As the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) appears to have relaxed its employee protective policy-making and enforcement efforts that grew during the Obama administration, increasingly states and localities have enacted their own, often more protective, employee-protective laws, rules and regulations. To ensure full wage and hour compliance, private clubs should consult their HR specialists and employment counsel and be mindful of all state and local requirements in each jurisdiction in which they operate and employ workers. Here are just some of the recent wage and hour requirements that have gained popularity among multiple jurisdictions.

Click here to download the full version in PDF format.

So far, 2018 has brought an increasing number of labor and employment rules and regulations. To help you stay up to date, we are pleased to introduce the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management Webinar Series.

Epstein Becker Green’s Hospitality service team took a deeper dive into our recently released Take 5 during the first webinar. Topics discussed include:

  • Additional measures to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees in the hospitality workplace
  • Compliance training in the hospitality workplace
  • Transactional due diligence, including labor relations issues
  • The risk of self-reporting overtime and minimum wage violations under the Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program

Watch a recording of the webinar video here and download the webinar presentation slides.

Last week, the EEOC released its latest edition of its federal sector Digest of Equal Opportunity Law, a quarterly publication featuring recent Commission decisions and federal court cases selected by EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. This edition features an article titled, “Promising Practices for Preventing Harassment,” which is the fruition of an EEOC task force on workplace harassment. The article, which is particularly timely given the #MeToo movement, advances five core principles to deter and remedy harassment: (1) committed and engaged leadership; (2) consistent and demonstrated accountability; (3) strong and comprehensive harassment policies; (4) trusted and accessible complaint procedures; and (5) regular, interactive training tailored to the audience and the organization.

The utility of this article is not the simple identification of these principles, which are familiar and uncontroversial, but rather its identification of practices/strategies an employer can implement to achieve these aims. These recommendations include:

  • Regularly and effectively train supervisors and managers about how to prevent, recognize and objectionable conduct that, if left unchecked, may rise to the level of prohibited harassment.
  • Direct staff to periodically, and in different ways, test the complaint system to determine if complaints are received and addressed promptly and appropriately.
  • Create a harassment complaint system with multiple avenues of complaint.
  • Conduct live, interactive harassment training on a regular basis.

Helpfully, the articles also enumerates specific statements that should be included in a harassment policy, including but not limited to, that:

  • The policy applies to employees at every level of the organization, as well as to applicants, clients, customers, and other relevant individuals;
  • Harassment based on, at a minimum, any legally protected characteristic is prohibited;
  • Employees are encouraged to report conduct that they believe may be prohibited harassment (or that, if left unchecked, may rise to the level of prohibited harassment), even if they are not sure that the conduct violates the policy;
  • The employer will provide a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation;
  • The identity of individuals who report harassment, alleged victims, witnesses, and alleged harassers will be kept confidential to the extent possible and permitted by law, consistent with a thorough and impartial investigation;
  • The organization will take immediate and proportionate corrective action if it determines that harassment has occurred; and
  • Retaliation is prohibited, and that individuals who report harassing conduct, participate in investigations, or take any other actions protected under federal employment discrimination laws will not be subjected to retaliation.

As the article acknowledges, these practices are not legal requirements under federal employment discrimination laws. However, employers should take note of these recommendations as they may enhance employers’ compliance efforts in both the short- and long-term.

Massachusetts employers should take note of a provision in the Massachusetts criminal justice reform law – signed into law last week – that amends the type and scope of questions an employer may ask an applicant about his or her criminal history following an “initial written employment application.”

Since 2010, Massachusetts has prohibited public and private employers from requesting criminal record information in a prospective employee’s “initial written employment application” (commonly known as a “ban the box” provision). Following receipt of an “initial written employment application,” Massachusetts employers were further prohibited from inquiring about (1) an arrest, detention, or disposition regarding any violation of law in which no conviction resulted; (2) a first offense for drunkenness, simple assault, speeding, minor traffic violations, affray, or disturbance of the peace (all classified as misdemeanors); or (3) any conviction for a misdemeanor where the date of conviction, or the completion of any resulting period of incarceration, occurred five or more years prior to the date of the application, unless such person has been convicted of any offense within the preceding five-year period.

The new law, effective October 13, 2018, modifies one of these existing restrictions and adds yet another constraint. First, the law decreases the period in which an employer can ask about a misdemeanor conviction or a resulting incarceration from five to three years preceding the date of the employment application.  In other words, an employer cannot ask an applicant questions about misdemeanor convictions/resulting incarcerations that occurred three or more years prior to the date of the employment application, unless the applicant was convicted of any offense within the preceding three years.  Second, the law creates a blanket prohibition as to any and all inquiries about sealed or expunged criminal records.  Consequently, these amendments afford expanded privacy and protection to candidates.

In light of these amendments, employers should revisit their hiring practices and procedures, and potentially provide supplemental training to those individuals involved in the hiring process.

The federal Equal Pay Act (“EPA”) mandates equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.  Employers that pay men and women different wages for the same work are strictly liable for violations of the EPA unless they can show that one or more of four exceptions apply to explain the wage disparity. The four statutory exceptions are seniority, merit, the quantity or quality of the employee’s work, or “any other factor other than sex.”  The Ninth Circuit recently took up the question of the meaning of the fourth, catchall exception – “any factor other than sex” – in order to consider whether an employer may rely, in whole or in part, on an employee’s prior salary as a basis for explaining a pay differential in Aileen Rizo v. Jim Yovino.

Rizo was a math consultant who worked for the Fresno County Office of Education (“County”). After learning that comparable male employees were earning more for the same work, Rizo filed suit against her employer, alleging that its practice of calculating the salaries for newly hired employees based on their salary history violated the EPA. The County did not dispute that Rizo was paid less than her male counterparts, but it argued that basing her salary on past earnings was a lawful reason for the pay differential as it constituted a “factor other than sex” under the EPA.

On April 9, 2018, the Ninth Circuit sitting en banc rejected the County’s argument. The Court held that “prior salary alone or in combination with other factors cannot justify a wage differential.” Writing for the majority, Judge Reinhart stated that justification of a pay disparity based on “‘any other factor other than sex’ is limited to legitimate, job-related factors such as a prospective employee’s experience, educational background, ability, or prior job performance.” The Court explained that the terms “job-related” and “business-related” are not synonymous and that an employer cannot explain a pay differential based on the benefit to the business as opposed to a legitimate work-motivated consideration.  Some examples of job-related factors identified by the Court included shift differentials, job hazards, physical job requirements, and training.  Unlike each of these things, past salary was not a “job-related” factor but rather, potentially, a business-related factor.

The Court further opined that permitting an employer to rely on historical pay information was inconsistent with the purpose of the EPA, which was to correct past pay discrepancies caused by sex discrimination.  “It is inconceivable,” wrote Reinhart, “that Congress, in an Act the primary purpose of which was to eliminate long-existing ‘endemic’ sex-based wage disparities, would create an exception for basing new hires’ salaries on those very disparities….”  Thus, the majority concluded that relying on past salary in order to explain a wage differential was improper, even if it was only one of the factors ultimately considered.  Confusingly, the Court also noted that there could be instances in which past salary might play a role in individualized negotiations and declined to resolve whether past salary could be taken into account in such circumstances.  However, given the broad pronouncement against factoring past compensation into current salary considerations, it would seem unlikely that the current court would countenance such an exception.

In finding that past salary may never be considered, the Rizo decision overrules the Ninth Circuit’s prior ruling in Kouba v. Allstate Insurance Co. 691 F.2d 873 (9th Cir. 1982).  Kouba held that past salary could be one of the factors considered by employers in evaluating pay, as it was a “factor other than sex” permissible to justify pay gaps between men and women under the EPA.  Notably, four of the eleven judges on the panel concurred with the decision in Rizo, because salary history was the sole reason for the pay disparity, but separated from the majority on the issue of excluding salary history from consideration under any circumstance.  The Rizo decision has also exacerbated a circuit split on whether salary history may be considered, and to what extent.  While certain circuits have taken an approach similar to the concurring judges in Rizo, permitting it as long as it is not the sole basis for a pay disparity, the Seventh Circuit has held that salary history is always a legitimate factor other than sex.

While California employers are no longer entitled to inquire about past salary as part of the job application process as of January 1, 2018, in light of the Rizo decision, employers with operations in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii may wish to take actions to ensure that any pay disparities are not based on salary history, such as not asking about salary history during the hiring process (even in states where this practice is not prohibited by law) and conducting pay equity audits.

Our colleague  at Epstein Becker Green has a post on the Wage and Hour Defense blog that will be of interest to our readers in the hospitality industry: “Federal Court Concludes That 7-Eleven Franchisees Are Not Employees of 7-Eleven.

Following is an excerpt:

In November 2017, four convenience store franchisees brought suit in federal court against 7-Eleven, Inc., alleging that they and all other franchisees were employees of 7-Eleven. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, entitled Haitayan, et al. v. 7-Eleven, Inc., case no. CV 17-7454-JFW (JPRx).

In alleging that they were 7-Eleven’s employees, the franchisees brought claims for violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the California Labor Code, alleging overtime and expense reimbursement violations. The trial court granted judgment in 7-Eleven’s favor, concluding that 7-Eleven was not the four franchisees’ employer under California law or federal law. …

Read the full post here. 

Featured on Employment Law This Week: Under the recently signed Consolidated Appropriations Act, Congress has amended the FLSA to address tip pools. The amendment prohibits employers from keeping employees’ tips or distributing any portion of the tips to managers or supervisors. Non-tipped, back-of-the-house employees, like cooks and dishwashers, may participate in tip pools when the employer pays at least the minimum wage and does not take a tip credit. The amendment also provides for enhanced damages and penalties when employees are deprived of tips.

Watch the segment below: