Tag Archives: National Labor Relations Act

You CAN Ask Your Employees To Be Happy! Federal Appeals Court Reins In National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, August 17­, 2017

Labor LawMuch has been written and discussed about the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) attack on handbook policies over the past several years. The NLRB has found what many consider to be run-of-the-mill, standard policies that have, for many years, raised no issues or controversy, to be violative of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Last year, the NLRB struck down various policies in a handbook issued by T-Mobile, including one that encouraged employees to be professional and maintain a “positive work environment” in T-Mobile USA, Inc. v. NLRB, No. 16-60284 (5th Cir. 2017). In its decision, the Board reasoned: “[w]e find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, including those protected by Section 7 of the [NLRA], out of fear that the [employer] would deem them to be inconsistent with a ‘positive work environment.’” T-Mobile appealed the NLRB’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Specifically, T-Mobile challenged the Board’s determination that the following provisions from its employee handbook violated the NLRA because they discouraged unionizing or other concerted activity protected by the Act. Provision (1) encouraged employees to “maintain a positive work environment”; (2) prohibited “[a]rguing or fighting,” “failing to treat others with respect,” and “failing to demonstrate appropriate teamwork”; (3) prohibited all photography and audio or video recording in the workplace; and (4) prohibited access to electronic information by non-approved individuals.

On July 25, the Fifth Circuit held that the Board erred in finding that a reasonable employee would construe policies (1), (2), and (4) to prohibit protected activity. The Court reasoned:

In this case, where the record does not suggest that the rules have been applied in the context of union or collective activity, the ‘reasonable employee’ is a T-Mobile employee aware of his legal rights but who also interprets work rules as they apply to the everydayness of his job. The reasonable employee does not view every employer policy through the prism of the NLRA. Indeed, ‘[the Board] must not presume improper interference with employee rights.’

The Court did agree with the Board’s finding that a reasonable employee would construe policy (3) to prohibit protected activity. It reasoned that unlike the other policies such as the “workplace conduct” policy and “commitment –to-integrity” policy, the recording policy blanketedly forbids certain forms of clearly protected activity. For instance, it would prohibit an off-duty employee from taking a picture of a wage schedule. Notably, last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld a similar NLRB decision on workplace recordings.

Bottom line: This federal appeals court decision in T-Mobile USA Inc. v. NLRB gives employers and their counsel additional basis for defending legitimate personnel policies in the face of numerous NLRB decisions issued over the past several years that have been viewed as an attempt to diminish management’s right to set basic employee standards in the workplace. However, it seems that blanket policies prohibiting workplace recordings continue to require careful wording and business justification.

Blunted by the Board: NLRB Weakens Employer’s Right to Permanently Replace Strikers

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, June 30, 2016

11058927 - protesters crowd landscape background illustrationFor more than 75 years, employers have had broad access to a powerful weapon to counterbalance a union’s ability to engage in an economic strike: the right to permanently replace those economic strikers. On May 31, however, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) replaced that powerful weapon with a water gun. In a 2-1 decision, the NLRB held that despite the economic nature of a strike, an employer violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by permanently replacing strikers because the employer was motivated by “a purpose prohibited by the Act.” American Baptist Homes of the West, 364 NLRB No. 13 (May 31, 2016). This ruling effectively overruled long-standing NLRB case law which stood for the principle that employer motive to permanently replace strikers is irrelevant in the context of an economic strike.

In this case, the union and employer were engaged in contract negotiations for 4 months before the union issued a notice of intermittent strike (5 days). Picket signs confirmed that the union was striking over economics:  health care and pension. After day one of the strike, the employer exercised its right to permanently replace a majority of the economic strikers. In finding that the employer violated the Act, the NLRB focused on the following facts:

  • The individual who made the decision to hire the permanent replacements admitted that she was motivated by her desire to avoid another strike at the facility. She “assumed that because these people [temporary workers who the Company extended the permanent job offers to] were willing to work during this strike, they’d be willing to work during the next strike.”
  • When the union’s attorney asked the employer’s attorney for an explanation for the permanent replacements, he replied that the employer “wanted to teach the strikers and the Union a lesson.”

If this Board decision is upheld by the Courts, it will likely result in a marked shift of power at the bargaining table that will empower unions to use the leverage of a strike (including intermittent strikes) with less risk to its members, while weakening the employer’s ability to use the leverage of permanent replacements. As described by the dissenting NLRB member, this decision is “a substantial rearrangement of the competing interests balanced by Congress when it chose to protect various economic weapons, including the hiring of permanent replacements.”

Bottom line:  Since March 2016, NLRB charges involving allegations of unlawful motive in the permanent replacement of economic strikers have been subject to heightened scrutiny. NLRB regional offices are required to send these cases up to the NLRB’s Division of Advice in Washington, D.C. for “centralized consideration.” Accordingly, any employer who may consider permanent replacement of economic strikers should consult with counsel to ensure there are legitimate business reasons to defend the decision to permanently replace strikers.

Yep, That Non-Union Employee’s Attitude Is Likely Protected

Contributed by Beverly Alfon

Sure, you’ve heard that non-union employees are protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), too. But do you realize just how quickly the protections of the Act can come into play?  If your front line managers are not properly trained, an employee’s attitude could quite literally turn a situation into a federal case.

14815491_sA federal appeals court recently affirmed the decision of the NLRB against an employer in a case where a non-union employee engaged in conduct that most employers would consider as straight up insubordination, Staffing Network Holdings, LLC v. NLRB, 2016 BL 62551, 7th Cir. No. 15-1534, 3/2/16. This case involved a staffing agency that provided its own employees, including an onsite supervisor, to stock its products. The supervisor had only been working for the company a few months, when a new employee told him that he would not work faster for $8.25 an hour. The supervisor directed the employee to go home because of his attitude and inability to keep up with work. This angered other employees, including Griselda Barrera, who briefly stopped working to tell the supervisor that sending the employee home was unfair. The supervisor told them to get back to work or he could also send them home for their attitude. Barrera refused to go back to work.

The supervisor angrily and repeatedly asked Barrera if everything was fine and told her again he could send her home if she had an issue. Barrera asked the supervisor if he was threatening her. Barrera countered by stating that she could send a letter to the IL Department of Human Rights. The supervisor told her to go home. Barrera refused to leave, insisting that she did nothing wrong. Then the supervisor’s assistant told Barrera to go home and not return to work.

Barrera filed an unfair labor practice charge with the regional NLRB office. The regional director issued a complaint against the employer alleging that it violated the Act by threatening to discharge employees for engaging in protected, concerted activity and by discharging Barrera. The administrative law judge (ALJ) rejected the employer’s assertions of insubordination and awarded back pay and reinstatement to Barrera. The Board affirmed the ALJ findings. The federal appeals court also upheld the decision, noting that “a brief on-the-job work stoppage is a form of economic pressure entitled to protection under the Act.”

Bottom line: Train your front line managers so that they are prepared and react correctly in these situations. A manager’s own behavior (e.g., threatening discharge for the employee’s bad attitude) can provoke an employee into protected activity, even if it appears to be insubordination. This does not mean that “anything goes” for an employee who is protesting a work term or condition, but an employee’s disrespect, rudeness or defiance toward a supervisor in that context will likely be protected under the NLRA.

 

 

California Passes Tough Equal Pay Law: Prepare Now for the January 1, 2016 Effective Date

Contributed by Jonathon Hoag

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law an amendment to California’s gender pay equality law to make it one of the toughest equal pay laws in the nation. The new law takes effect January 1, 2016, giving California employers just a couple of months to prepare.

California and federal law currently prohibit employers from basing pay on an individual’s gender. The California legislature determined that a gender gap of 16 cents on the dollar still exists notwithstanding current laws. Accordingly, the new law includes strict standards with the aim of closing the gender pay gap in California.

gender equalityExisting law requires equal pay for equal work performed in the same establishment. The new law changes this standard by requiring equal pay for those performing “substantially similar” work regardless of job title. In addition, pay comparisons are not limited to the same establishment, allowing comparisons with employees working at different locations (bona fide differences based on regional cost of living differences are acceptable, but this is going to be subject to challenge).

If a pay differential between substantially similar positions is shown, the employer has the burden to establish that the pay differential is based on one or more of the following permissible factors: (1) a seniority system; (2) a merit system; (3) a system that measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (4) a bona fide factor other than sex, such as education, training or experience. While these exceptions remain the same as existing law, employers will be required to show that each factor was relied upon reasonably and that the factors account for the entire wage differential.

The new law includes an additional private right of action for employees who claim they have been discharged, discriminated, or retaliated against for exercising their rights under the statute. The law also gives employees the right to disclose, inquire, and discuss wages, which reflect current enforcement practices under the National Labor Relations Act.

California’s new equal pay law is expected to increase employment-based claims and litigation. Employers should take the following steps to prepare and limit exposure to such claims:

  • Review substantially similar jobs to detect any pay differences.
  • Identify the factors that justify any pay differences and organize documentation that shows the factors are reasonably applied and account for the entire differential.
  • Ensure recordkeeping policies/practices for wage-related information provide for at least a 3-year retention period.
  • Train supervisors on the new requirements, including the employees’ right to discuss wages.
  • Conduct periodic audits to maintain compliance.

Hospital’s Second Bite at the Apple Violated Unionized Employees’ Rights for Open Positions Between Facilities

Contributed by Heather Bailey

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) – although divided – affirmed that Southcoast Hospitals Group violated unionized workers’ rights under Section 8(a)(3) and (1) of the National Labor Relations Act when the hospital created an open position hiring and transfer policy that gave unrepresented workers preference over unionized employees at the non-unionized hospitals.

Southcoast, located in Massachusetts, was comprised of 3 hospitals and 20 ancillary locations. The unionized employees made up 215 of the 550 employees who worked at one of the three hospitals, Tobey. The employees, unionized or not, were allowed to cross-pollinate between the three hospitals for open positions.  Since 1996, the parties’ collective bargaining agreement gave unionized employees the leg up when it came to hiring and transferring to open positions at Tobey and were to be given the “most senior qualified” preference for these positions. Somewhere around 1997-98, the hospital tried to negotiate and change this language to the “best qualified” which would have put the unrepresented employees at the same advantage as the unionized workers. This, of course, was rejected by the Union.

In 1999, the hospital decided to unilaterally change its written human resources policy to the following:

  • Upon application, regular status employees who are beyond the introductionary [sic] period will be given first consideration for job postings providing the regular status employee’s qualifications substantially equal the qualifications of external candidates. Employees in a union will be considered internal candidates if the collective bargaining contract provides reciprocal opportunity to employees who are not members of the union for open positions at the unionized site. Temporary and per diem status employees will be considered prior to external applicants . . . . Employees in a union whose collective-bargaining contract does not provide reciprocal opportunity to employees who are not members of the union will be considered external candidates.

The hospital defended its actions by stating 1) it was trying to head off unrepresented employee complaints of being shut out of represented employee positions (yet, the hospital did not bring one complaining employee or applicant forward) and 2) it was trying to “level the playing field” for the unrepresented employees at the other two hospitals to that of the unionized employees at Tobey. However, the underlying judge noted that the union employees only comprised of 215 of the 550 positions. Thus, the unionized employees were discriminated against and hindered in job advancement for being in the union because the unrepresented employees now had a much higher disproportionate amount of open positions that they were getting preferential treatment for over the unionized employees.

Ultimately, the NLRB agreed that neither of the reasons gave the hospital a “legitimate and substantial business justification” to thwart the unionized employees’ Section 7 NLRA rights that would outweigh the impact this HR policy had against unionized employees who had collectively bargained for rights at their hospital. Among other edicts of back pay and tax consequences and the requirement to reconsider passed over unionized employees for the positions at the non-unionized hospitals, the hospital was ordered to rescind its HR policy and notify all of the employees of same.

Practice Tips: NLRB scrutiny of employer policies is at an all-time high. Any employment policy or practice that makes a distinction between employees based on union member status must be scrutinized for any potential (or actual) adverse effect on the union members and potential (or actual) advantage provided to the non-union employees. If the change is going to give the unionized employees less rights, less opportunities, etc., it is better to be creative and think of a different approach (or get the union’s blessing before making the change). Whenever going against a collective bargaining agreement, it is best to run the change by your labor counsel first.

Decision Reminds Employers to Think Before Speaking to Employees About Union Issues

Contributed by Suzanne Newcomb

On September 4, a Federal Appeals Court upheld a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision finding management comments to employees during the early stages of a union organizing campaign unlawful. Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act makes it unlawful “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in section 7.” Section 7 rights include “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations.” The NLRB and the Courts interpret this language broadly.

people shaking handsBack in 2011 rumors about a possible unionizing campaign prompted an in house attorney and regional HR director to meet with employees, one of whom secretly taped the meeting. Comments made during that meeting were found to unlawfully: (1) threaten by suggesting unionizing was futile; (2) imply a promise of pay increases if the employees did not vote for a union; (3) threaten that unionization would result in demotion for some employees; and (4) threaten blacklisting of union supporters.

The following comments by management officials during the meeting were found to unlawfully imply that unionizing was futile and would not produce the benefits sought:

  • Be “very careful” when listening to the union’s “sales pitch.”
  • “In many cases, when you enter these negotiations, if you ever get there, employees tend to lose things.”
  • Negotiations are “a wide open game of uncertainty” in which “nothing is guaranteed” even if the union wins the election.
  • Answering “it’s possible” when asked if unionizing would cause wages to decrease adding, “we start from scratch…we don’t start with what you guys are making today.  Everything goes to zero.”
  • Employees at a unionized location have gone nearly three years without a bargaining session or contract. The bargaining process is “never automatic” and employees might never see the benefits they seek.

The finding of an unlawful implied promise to raise wages arose when, in response to an employee’s specific request, management agreed to review the current pay structure to ensure it was fair and competitive adding, “we want a chance to address … [your concerns] before you pay somebody else to address them.”

Management’s answer to questions about the apprentice and journeyman system was found to be an unlawful threat to demote certain employees if the workforce unionized. Finally, reference to union membership as a “scarlet letter,” and suggestions that other employers might be less inclined to hire job applicants who had worked in a union shop, were deemed unlawful threats to blacklist employees for union activity.

As the Court stated, “the underlying message…is that an employer…needs to take care in the rhetoric it uses when discussing union issues with its workers.” Employers must be very careful when discussing union related matters with their employees. Special and careful considerations must be paid to developing labor law. Detailed scripts, approved through seasoned labor counsel, should be in place to ensure appropriate language is being communicated.

“We Recommend Keeping This Confidential” Still Violates the Law According to the NLRB

Contributed by Jamie Kauther

Over the last few years the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) has been cracking down on employee confidentiality mandates. An employer can legally require employees to keep trade secrets and legally protected information confidential, but according to the NLRB’s most recent ruling on August 27, 2015 an employer cannot even “recommend” that employees keep internal investigations confidential  (Boeing Co., 362 N.L.R.B. No. 195, 8/27/2015). The Board ruled that Boeing Company’s revised policy that “recommends” employees refrain from discussing HR investigations was unlawful as it violates employee’s rights to engage in concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

Confidential StampThe Board explained that although employers may “legitimately require confidentiality in appropriate circumstances” the impact of any confidentiality policy must be limited. Essentially, the Board created an individualized balancing approach that requires an employer to weigh its interests in confidentiality against employees’ Section 7 rights. Although it laid out examples of what situations would tip the scales, the Board did not set a clear standard. The examples provided include instances of likely witness intimidation or harassment, destruction of evidence or other misconduct that could jeopardize the investigation’s integrity. However, no specific examples were provided as to when these issues can occur. This standard imparts on employers a requirement to tailor-fit their confidentiality policies to be enforced on a case-by-case basis. As the Board explained, “generalized concern” about the integrity of all investigations is “insufficient to justify [a] sweeping policy,” including one that simply “recommends” confidentiality.

This new individualized balancing standard is a bit of a head scratcher. However, the Board did identify some bad practices that would not pass muster. It expressly pointed out Boeing’s requirement to have employees sign a policy notice without a Section 7 disclaimer in the policy or notice that the employee could disregard the confidentiality recommendation. The Board held that this clearly communicated Boeing’s improper desire for confidentiality.

So what is a best practice in light of this decision? Remove sweeping confidentiality policies pertaining to internal investigations and eliminate requirements that when employees sign notices they understand the confidentiality recommended. Instead, discuss with the employee during an investigation the desire for confidentiality based on the facts of the specific investigation. Remember this ruling only applies to what limits can be placed on employees with knowledge of the investigation. It has no bearing on a company’s approach or handling of an investigation – meaning the company can and should still clearly reiterate in its policies that it will handle all investigations with discretion and will preserve the confidentiality of all involved persons to the extent possible. Essentially, an employer can still control the information it relays, just not what other involved employees communicate.