Tag Archives: NLRB

Dust off Those Handbooks: NLRB Restores Sanity to Employment Policies

Contributed by JT Charron, December 27, 2017

Thirteen years ago the National Labor Relations Board issued its decision in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, 343 NLRB 646, which held that facially neutral work rules violated the National Labor Relations Act if employees would “reasonably construe” the rule to restrict the employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the Act. Following that decision, the Board used the “reasonably construe” standard to invalidate even the most well intentioned work rules. See e.g., T-Mobile USA Inc., April 29, 2016 (finding that employer’s policy requiring employees to maintain a positive work environment violated the NLRA).

On December 14, in The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB 154, the Board overturned Lutheran Heritage and articulated a new test for evaluating the validity of facially neutral work rules. In place of the unworkable “reasonably construe” standard, the Board introduced a balancing test for analyzing facially neutral work rules. Under the new standard, the Board will “evaluate two things: (i) the nature and extent of the potential impact on NLRA rights, and (ii) legitimate justifications associated with the rule.” (emphasis in original).

Workplace investigation

Examining Documents

Utilizing this standard, the Board reversed the administrative law judge’s decision that Boeing’s no-camera rule violated the NLRA. Instead, it found that the employer’s legitimate business reasons for the policy — protecting proprietary information and national security interests — outweighed any potential Section 7 violation. The Board also articulated three broad categories of work rules that would result from the new balancing test:

  • “Category 1 will include rules that the Board designates as lawful to maintain, either because (i) the rule, when reasonably interpreted, does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights; or (ii) the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.”
  • “Category 2 will include rules that warrant individualized scrutiny in each case as to whether the rule would prohibit or interfere with NLRA rights, and if so, whether any adverse impact on NLRA-protected conduct is outweighed by legitimate justifications.”
  • “Category 3 will include rules that the Board will designate as unlawful to maintain because they would prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct, and the adverse impact on NLRA rights is not outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.”

Boeing is a big win for employers and represents a clear change in the Board’s attitude towards work rules. While only time — and additional Board decisions — will tell, the new standard should provide “far greater clarity and certainty” to employers in drafting workplace policies. Additionally, employers may want to consider taking a second look at policies previously removed and/or revised in the wake of Lutheran Heritage and its progeny. Finally, as we head into 2018, employers should evaluate all workplace policies in light of the Board’s new balancing test and be prepared with strong justifications for any policies that have the potential to infringe on an employee’s rights under the Act.

2017 Ending With A Bang: Obama Era NLRB “Micro Unit” Ruling Reversed

Contributed by Jeffrey Risch, December 22, 2017

2017 is coming to an end, and with somewhat of a Bang! for labor relations moving forward under Trump’s NLRB.  In a matter involving PCC Structurals, Inc. and the Intern’l Assoc. of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (19-RC-202188), the NLRB this month overruled its 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center of Mobile, 357 NLRB 934, and reinstated the traditional community-of-interest standard for determining an appropriate bargaining unit in union representation cases.  The essence of the 2017 decision is that the National Labor Relations Act mandates that the NLRB must evaluate, in each and every case, whether the group of employees a union seeks to represent constitutes a unit that is “appropriate” for collective bargaining.

As a reminder… in Specialty Healthcare, the NLRB held that if a union petitioned for an election among a particular group of employees, those employees PRESUMABLY shared a community of interest among themselves.  And so, if the employer took the position that the smallest appropriate unit had to include employees excluded from the proposed unit, the NLRB could not find the petitioned unit inappropriate unless the employer proved that the excluded employees shared an “overwhelming” community of interest with the petitioned-for group.  The practical effect of this ruling made it “next to impossible” for an employer to successfully challenge the union’s petitioned for “micro-unit”.

The Trump NLRB (in a 3-2 party split decision) has now abandoned the “overwhelming” community-of-interest standard stating that “there are sound policy reasons for returning to the traditional community-of-interest standard that the Board has applied throughout most of its history…”

This PCC Structurals case involved a Regional Office’s finding that a petitioned for unit (a “micro-unit”) of approximately 100 welders was appropriate for collective bargaining.  A “micro-unit” is a small and discrete subset of employees at a particular worksite or worksites, which a union seeks to represent.  It is the opposite of a “wall-to-wall unit” that would encompass the majority of an employer’s non-supervisory employees.  Applying Specialty Healthcare’s “overwhelming community of interest” standard, the Regional Director rejected the employer’s contention that the smallest appropriate unit was a wall-to-wall unit of 2,565 employees.

Of course, the more limited that a union defines a petitioned for unit, the less number of employees belong to the unit and the easier it is for the union to “cherry pick” the necessary votes to win an election and get a “foot in the door” of an employer.  We saw this work to the union’s benefit in many cases since Specialty Healthcare (see here).

The Quick Take Away:  Despite this favorable ruling for employers who prefer to remain union-free, it may be temporary due to what political party occupies the White House; and it does not prevent unions from successfully petitioning for smaller units at a place of business that would otherwise meet the “community of interest” standard.  Indeed, smaller units have always been successfully petitioned for by labor unions under this standard.  But, for the time being, big labor may not be able to “cherry pick” a few employees at a time.

A Hint of Change: NLRB Allows Employer to Defend Blanket Prohibition on Use of Cameras/Video Recording Devices

Contributed by Beverly Alfon, May 16, 2017

Recently, there has been much discussion about the composition of the five-member board in Washington, D.C., including President Trump’s appointment of Philip Miscimarra as National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Chairman, and the expected shift from pro-labor initiatives – especially in light of the expiring term of the NLRB General Counsel who was appointed by President Obama. The NLRB recently issued an order that may be a sign of things to come.

No Camera

Camera with a red circle and slash over it

On May 5, a divided NLRB denied the NLRB General Counsel’s motion for summary judgment (a request for judgment as a matter of law where there are no disputed facts) against Mercedes-Benz. Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. (MBUSI), 365 N.L.R.B. No. 67 (May 5, 2017). The General Counsel argued that legal precedent clearly establishes that a company rule prohibiting any use of cameras and video recording devices without prior authorization interferes with employees’ rights to engage in union or protected concerted activity. The General Counsel relied upon the NLRB decisions in Whole Foods Market, 363 NLRB No. 87 , slip op. at 3-5 (Dec. 24, 2015) (in which a similar rule was found unlawfully overbroad) and T-Mobile USA, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 171 , slip op. at 3-5 (April 29, 2016) (same). These decisions state that blanket bans on workplace photography and recordings generally violate the Act.

Mercedes-Benz argued that it should be allowed to show that employees did not interpret the rule to restrict protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and that the rule furthers legitimate business interests, including the protection of proprietary and confidential information, the maintenance of safety and production standards, and open communication. These are nearly identical to the arguments that the board rejected in Whole Foods Market. However, this board majority, including Chairman Miscimarra, agreed that the employer should be allowed to present their evidence at a hearing. Interestingly, they relied upon two decisions in which the employer was ultimately found to have violated the NLRA, including the Whole Foods Market decision.

Bottom line: This NLRB order is notable because it shows some flexibility from the NLRB as to work rules and legitimate business interests – in contrast to recent decisions that many viewed to curb management rights. Ultimately, however, the law has not changed (yet) and the Whole Foods Market decision remains intact. Therefore, before disciplining an employee for taking photos or making recordings in the workplace, you must consider whether the employee’s actions constitute protected activity under the NLRA. Employer policies should remain carefully tailored to specify the restrictions and the business reasons for them. We will be monitoring the developments in this case. Stay tuned.

NLRB Finds Violation for Independent Contractor Misclassification

Contributed by Noah A. Frank, September 22, 2016

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) enforces the National Labor Relations Act, the law that allows private sector employees to address the terms and conditions of their employment (e.g., wages, hours, benefits) through collective action. Through a recently released Advice Memorandum, the NLRB expanded its role to include regulating independent contractor relationships.  Pac. 9 Transp., Inc., Advice Mem., No. 21-CA-150875 (NLRB 12/18/2015, released 8/26/2016).

independent-contractorIn Pac 9, multiple unfair labor practice charges were filed, alleging violations of the Act as it related to the company’s relationship with its independent contractor drivers. The NLRB Regional Director sought an opinion from the NLRB General Counsel as to whether the NLRB had jurisdiction and whether a complaint should issue. Recognizing that the NLRB “has never held that an employer’s misclassification of statutory employees as independent contractors in itself violates” the Act’s protection of an employee’s rights, the General Counsel nonetheless recommended that, absent a settlement agreement, the company should be ordered to:

  • cease and desist telling workers that they are independent contractors (rather than employees), and
  • rescind portions of its independent contractor agreements that purport to classify the workers as “independent contractors.”

The General Counsel confirmed that the traditional common law independent contractor test would apply. While no factor is determinative, control was the most important. Other factors include: a distinct occupation or business, direction of work, skill required, providing supplies & equipment, length of the relationship, method of payment, the company’s and worker’s regular businesses, the parties’ belief as to whether they were employee/employer or independent. The General Counsel found it significant that the workers lacked: entrepreneurial opportunity, realistic ability to work for others, ownership or proprietary interest in their work, control over important business decisions, and real investment of capital. Therefore, these factors militated towards an employment relationship.

The Bottom Line:

In a year of NLRB-activism in the non-union workforces (e.g., see our posts on employee handbooks), companies using independent contractors to supplement their workforce must now worry that the NLRB will come after them for a misclassification issue. This is in addition to complying with regulations and tests from the IRS, U.S. and state Departments of Labor, unemployment and worker’s compensation boards, and other agencies regulating the employment relationship. Pac 9 demonstrates that while independent contractor agreements are not the last word in defining the relationship.

Care must be used when engaging individual workers as “independent contractors.” Multiple governmental agencies’ independent contractor tests must be analyzed to confirm that the relationship is both structured and implemented correctly. This includes written contracts, proof of insurance policies, and following good corporate practices. Experienced employment counsel can assist with forming the relationship and ensuring compliance for best practices.

NLRB Rules that Graduate Assistants at Private Universities May Unionize

Contributed by Julie Proscia, August 23, 2016

Today, August 23, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision ruling that graduate students, who work as teaching and research assistants at private universities, are entitled to collectively bargain.

The NLRB did so by expanding its interpretation of the definition of statutory employees to include student assistants working at private colleges and universities. The decision reversed a 2004 decision involving a similar campaign at Brown University. While many graduate students at public universities are already unionized, their right to do so was covered by various state laws and not federal law.

classroomThe controversy in question involved a bid by the United Auto Workers to organize graduate students at Columbia University. The University argued that collective bargaining would intrude on the educational relationship between graduate students and their universities. While this argument was successful in the past it did not sway the current Board. Rather the Board countered that the argument “is unsupported by legal authority, by empirical evidence or by the board’s actual experience.” Moreover, the Board noted that the Act contained no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage and further found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from its protections.

Although it is not clear whether or not the expansion will adversely impact the educational experience it is clear that the NLRB is progressively gaining ground in their goal to expand labor rights one step, or in this case, student at a time.

NLRB Strikes Down Employee Handbook’s No-Recording Rules

Contributed by Steven Jados

The NLRB has, once again, struck down work rules the Board deemed overly broad. This time, the employer is Whole Foods Market, and the rules at issue essentially barred employees from photographing or making audio or video recordings during working hours—that is, when employees were being paid to do their assigned work. These rules did not apply while employees were on break.

Readers may remember that the NLRB’s rationale for striking down various employer policies in recent years has hinged on protecting employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act to engage in “concerted activity for mutual aid or protection.”  For example, the NLRB has struck down rules barring employees from discussing their wages because those discussions, in the NLRB’s eyes, are concerted activity protected by law.

Now, no employee was actually disciplined for violating the rules at issue in this most-recent case—and there is no accusation that the rules actually infringed on any employee’s right to engage in concerted activity for mutual aid or protection.  There also was no evidence that any employee even believed that the rules prohibited protected concerted activity.  Nevertheless, the NLRB felt it necessary to ban these rules based on the possibility that employees might believe the rules prohibited the recording of, for instance, picketing or unsafe working conditions—things that may generally be considered protected concerted activity.

No CameraOne of the more interesting aspects of the decision, aside from the fact that no one was harmed by the rules at issue, is that the NLRB dodged the issue of whether the rules would be enforceable in states in which at least some of the prohibited recording is illegal under state law. Whole Foods argued that in some of the states in which it does business, it is illegal to record a private conversation without the consent of the parties involved in the conversation. The NLRB, apparently having no interest in issuing a decision with any nuance, rejected that argument (with no acknowledgement of the irony) because such laws were not in effect in all of the states in which Whole Foods operated.

Also interesting is the fact that the NLRB did not overrule prior precedent in which no-camera rules were upheld in a hospital setting.  The rationale for that prior precedent was essentially that the privacy of hospital patients and their medical information outweighed potential concerns over employees’ protected concerted activity.

With all of that in mind, it is likely that some no-recording rules could survive NLRB scrutiny.  The key to drafting enforceable rules will be making them apply to a narrow set of circumstances—circumstances that, ideally, are already protected by existing laws on consent for recording, or which can be tied to significant privacy interests, like medical patient privacy or, perhaps, the protection of trade secrets—although the NLRB’s decision is unclear as to whether the protection of trade secrets would be a valid basis for a no-recording rule.

The bottom line is that employers implementing broad no-recording policies that could be misconstrued to cover protected employee activity face a considerable risk that those rules will be deemed unenforceable by the NLRB.  As such, we recommend that employers work closely with experienced legal counsel to craft no-recording rules that closely align with operational needs and other applicable laws, and at the same time make clear that the rules will not infringe on employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Finally, we note in closing that Whole Foods appealed this decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on January 5, 2016.  We will monitor that action closely, and provide updates here with any further information as it becomes available.

Tips For Drafting Severance Agreements To Avoid Scrutiny From The EEOC and NLRB

Contributed by Debra Mastrian

The EEOC and NLRB continue to actively review severance agreements, in addition to social media policies and employee handbooks. The provisions that draw the most scrutiny are waivers or releases of claims, confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions.

18108277_sAny attempt to interfere with an employee’s right to file an administrative charge, communicate with the agencies, or participate in agency investigations, are troublesome. Remember that while an employee can waive or release an EEOC or NLRA claim, the employee can still file a charge of discrimination or an unfair labor practice charge. You can, however, require that the employee waive any right to individual relief in the event a charge is filed. You should always include appropriate carve out language and the language should not be limited to just the EEOC and NLRB, but should apply to any other federal, state or local agency charged with enforcement of any laws. You should consider using a separate, bold paragraph (omnibus carve out) and then refer to that carve out paragraph in each provision that may restrict the employee’s rights. Do not condition payment of the severance on a withdrawal of a pending agency charge, but instead require the employee to complete and return an appropriate agency withdrawal form and notify the agency of the agreement.

Confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions can run afoul of Section 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRB is concerned with broad provisions that may prohibit employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment or saying anything about their employer. Any provision that requires an employee to keep company information confidential should be carefully defined and limited to trade secrets and other non-public proprietary business information and should not be so broad as to cover all company and employee information. A provision that requires the employee to keep the severance agreement confidential should be limited to disclosure of the severance payment or specific terms, rather than the entire agreement. A non-disparagement provision that applies to statements about an employer should be limited to false statements that are willfully, maliciously or knowingly made. You can still prevent an employee from disparaging customers, suppliers and vendors.

You should add a savings provision that nothing in the severance agreement is intended to prohibit the employee from exercising his or her rights under the NLRA.

Employers should have their severance agreements reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they are current.