Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Will My Employment Law Claim Show Up In A Background Check?

I'm constantly asked about whether certain actions against employers for discrimination and other issues will show up in a background check. Other than a lawsuit, most probably will not. And now, even with a lawsuit, a court just allowed a plaintiff to go forward with a sex discrimination suit as "Jane Doe" so her reputation would not be damaged.

So, what kinds of actions will and won't show up on a background check? Here are my thoughts:

Severance agreements: Negotiating a severance agreement should be confidential. While most employers put in the agreement that employees will keep the agreement confidential, I ask that this be made mutual. I don't want employers getting cut and saying something like, "I need to look at the agreement to see what I'm allowed to say." One of the things you can negotiate is what will be said to potential employers in references.

EEOC: While EEOC is a government agency, EEOC charges of discrimination are not generally discoverable. Only the employer and employee are entitled to copies of the charge and responses. While some employers and employees wrongly say that they are in a lawsuit once the EEOC filing is done, this is incorrect. EEOC is not a lawsuit. It is not public record. If EEOC files a lawsuit on your behalf (don't hold your breath) then the suit is public record.

NLRB: The NLRB investigation process is confidential. Once it goes to an administrative law judge and/or court, it becomes public record.

Internal complaint to HR: HR is supposed to keep your complaint of discrimination, whistleblower retaliation or other legal issues confidential. That being said, they also have to investigate. So people who work with you will likely know you complained. Filing an internal complaint is not a public record (unless you work for government, and then sometimes it is). So your employer could retaliate against you by telling potential employers that you complained, but that would be illegal retaliation if you complained about something that is illegal like discrimination. However, if you complained about your boss being unprofessional, incompetent or a bully, your complaint is not legally protected against retaliation.

Lawsuit: If you file a lawsuit, it is public record. It will almost certainly turn up in a background check. However, the lawsuit I mentioned above may start a trend of Jane and John Doe filings to keep this from happening. For the most part, that may be effective. However, if a potential employer dug deeper into a litigation file, it would likely be able to uncover your name in deposition notices and other filings. An ordinary name search background check would be thwarted by a Doe filing. So if you're thinking about suing an employer or former employer, a Doe filing is something to think about.

Friday, May 19, 2017

9th Circuit Decision Proves Need For Laws Banning Prior Salary Inquiries

A few weeks ago I wrote that some states are passing laws banning prospective employers from asking applicants about their salary history. The reason lawmakers give for this law is that basing salary on an applicant's pay with another employer locks in discrimination. This practice particularly impacts women.

A recent case out of the normally very liberal 9th Circuit demonstrates the need for laws banning salary history inquiries. The Court found in Rizo v. Yovino that an employer may legally justify paying women less than men where it based pay solely upon 5% above prior salary. The Court said that, under the Equal Pay Act, prior salary could be a factor other than sex that justified a pay disparity. The appellate court overturned the district court's ruling in favor of the employee:
The district court determined that, under the Equal Pay Act, prior salary alone can never qualify as a factor other than sex, reasoning that “a pay structure based exclusively on prior wages is so inherently fraught with the risk . . . that it will perpetuate a discriminatory wage disparity between men and women that it cannot stand, even if motivated by a legitimate non-discriminatory business purpose.”
The appellate court analyzed the employer's justification for the pay disparity:
The County has offered four business reasons for using Standard Operation Procedure 1440, under which starting salaries are based primarily on prior salary: (1) the policy is objective, in the sense that no subjective opinions as to the new employee’s value enters into the starting-salary calculus; (2) the policy encourages candidates to leave their current jobs for jobs at the County, because they will always receive a 5% pay increase over their current salary; (3) the policy prevents favoritism and ensures consistency in application; and (4) the policy is a judicious use of taxpayer dollars. But, the district court did not evaluate whether these reasons effectuate a business policy or determine whether the County used prior salary “reasonably,” as required by Kouba.
The Court noted that other circuit courts had held, contrary to their ruling, that prior salary was not sufficient justification for gender pay disparities, citing Angove v. Williams-Sonoma, Inc., 70 F. App’x 500, 508 (10th Cir. 2003); Irby v. Bittick, 44 F.3d 949, 954 (11th Cir. 1995); Price v. Lockheed Space Operations Co., 856 F.2d 1503, 1506 (11th Cir. 1988); and Glenn v. Gen. Motors Corp., 841 F.2d 1567, 1570–71 (11th Cir. 1988). So yay for my own 11th Circuit.

Here's what the Court directed the district court to do on remand:
On remand, the district court must evaluate the four business reasons offered by the County and determine whether the County used prior salary “reasonably in light of [its] stated purpose[s] as well as its other practices.” Kouba, 691 F.2d at 876–77. We emphasize that because these matters relate to the County’s affirmative defense rather than to the elements of the plaintiff’s claim, the County has the burden of persuasion. See Maxwell, 803 F.2d at 446. Thus, unlike in a typical case under Title VII involving the burden-shifting method of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), the plaintiff does not have to present evidence that the County’s explanation for the pay differential is a pretext for intentional gender discrimination. Rather, it is up to the employer to persuade the trier of fact that its stated “factor other than sex” actually caused the salary differential, that the stated factor “effectuate[s] some business policy,” and that the employer used the factor “reasonably in light of [its] stated purpose as well as its other practices.” Kouba, 691 F.2d at 876–77. Of course, the plaintiff is free to introduce evidence of pretext (or any other matter that casts doubt on the employer’s affirmative defense) if it chooses to do so. Maxwell, 803 F.2d at 446.
This case was not a disparate impact case, so I wonder what would happen if the same set of facts were raised under the theory that a facially neutral practice of basing pay on prior salary alone has a disparate impact on women.

In the meantime, this case should give the legislators and lobbyists who are pushing laws to ban salary history inquiries some ammunition to prove that salary history inquiries are bad for women and are thus bad public policy.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Dear Business Lawyers: Stop Trying To Get Employees To Waive Their Unemployment Benefits

Things you didn't think you had to say but apparently do. In Florida it is still illegal to try to get an employee or former employee to waive their right to apply for unemployment. It's a crime. Yet I've seen a couple of draft releases in proposed severance agreements attempting to do exactly that. And I also recently got a demand email complaining that a client had signed a release and was therefore breaching by filing for unemployment.

Let's be clear. You can't ask an employee to release or waive their right to unemployment in my home state of Florida. Period.

Here's what the statute says if you don't believe me:
443.041 Waiver of rights; fees; privileged communications.—
(1) WAIVER OF RIGHTS VOID.—Any agreement by an individual to waive, release, or commute her or his rights to benefits or any other rights under this chapter is void. Any agreement by an individual in the employ of any person or concern to pay all or any portion of any employer’s contributions, reimbursements, interest, penalties, fines, or fees required under this chapter from the employer, is void. An employer may not directly or indirectly make or require or accept any deduction from wages to finance the employer’s contributions, reimbursements, interest, penalties, fines, or fees required from her or him, or require or accept any waiver of any right under this chapter by any individual in her or his employ. An employer, or an officer or agent of an employer, who violates this subsection commits a misdemeanor of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
After a brief bout of research, it looks like lots of other states also prohibit this practice. I've found laws prohibiting such waivers in New York, Texas, Minnesota, Maryland, California, North Carolina, and Missouri. That's a pretty good sampling of pro-employer and pro-employee states, so I'm guessing your state may prohibit this as well.

For some reason I have to say this about every ten years or so. The management-side employment lawyers know better. It's the employers who handle business/corporate law who decide to dabble in employment law who need to be reminded.

Therefore, I am saying it. Now cut it out and stop torturing people who have lost their jobs.

Rant over.

Friday, May 5, 2017

If You Have A Preexisting Condition, Choose COBRA or ObamaCare Over Your Mortgage

It used to be that when people lost their jobs, there was only one way to keep insurance coverage, and that was COBRA. The only problem is that when you lose your job, you have to pick and choose what bills to pay and COBRA is crazy expensive. Most people had to go bare. If they had preexisting conditions, it was literally a matter of life and death because they would never get insurance again.

Then came the Affordable Care Act, which is the same as ObamaCare if you haven't already figured that out. The ACA allowed people who lost their jobs to get alternative insurance that was much cheaper than COBRA. Plus, it both banned insurance companies from denying coverage due to preexisting conditions and also from charging more to those with preexisting conditions. So, yes, insurance rates went up for those who were healthy, but it saved billions in government-subsidized healthcare. The reason being that anyone who was uninsured had to go to publicly funded hospitals for all their healthcare needs.

Since the election, I've been warning people who lose their jobs to make sure they elect either ACA or COBRA, and under no circumstances to lose coverage if they have a preexisting condition because I thought preexisting condition coverage would be lost when Trump and the Republicans started to gut the ACA.

I've been accused of being an alarmist, but that's exactly what the latest proposal would do. While it would still prohibit insurers from denying health insurance to those with preexisting conditions, it allows them to raise premiums. A recent study made these findings:
Based on our analysis, we estimate that individuals with even relatively mild pre-existing conditions would pay thousands of dollars above standard rates to obtain coverage. For example, because an individual with asthma costs an issuer 106 percent more than a healthy 40-year-old, she would face a premium surcharge of $4,340. The surcharge for diabetes would be $5,600 per year. Coverage could become prohibitively expensive for those in dire need of care: Insurers would charge about $17,320 more in premiums for pregnancy, $26,580 more for rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune disorders, and $142,650 more for patients with metastatic cancer.
Because there are few things that can bankrupt you as quickly as medical bills, if you lose your job and have to choose between paying your mortgage and paying for insurance, the wise decision might just be to pay for insurance. While your mortgage company may work with you to allow you time to catch up, losing your coverage if the Republicans manage to repeal preexisting condition coverage may literally kill you.

If you care about this, call your Congress member and Senator now and tell them to stop this folly before they kill a bunch of people.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Fox Proves It: Sexual Harassment Is Contagious

I've always said that sexual harassment is not about sex: it's about power. In that way it's just another form of bullying. And if you remember your playground bullies, if they got away with it once, they accelerated their behavior. Sexual harassers, like bullies, engage in more and more extreme behavior until someone stops them.

The other thing about playground bullies is that their behavior is contagious. Some weaker personality chimes in to get approval from the alpha bully. Then others join in the bullying. Well, it happens with sexual harassment too, and Fox just proved it.

We have all seen the headlines. First it was Roger Ailes, the alpha harasser, who got away with sexual harassment for years before he was ousted. His behavior set the tone for the entire corporation.

From there, the women at Fox were emboldened, and they spoke up against Bill O'Reilly. After millions in payouts, the network finally got rid of him too. But it took a long, long time, didn't it?

And now there's a new allegation, this time about Sean Hannity. I'm not surprised if it's true, because sexual harassment is truly contagious. If one gets away with it, then it spreads. If this really happened, then I bet others will come forward.

This is yet another reason for employers to take sexual harassment complaints seriously. If the victim is ignored or fired, if the harasser is allowed to continue, then pretty soon you have a full-blown Animal House at work. And does any shareholder really want that going on? Does that in any way help the work get done? No, of course not. It's a distraction. It destroys morale. And as the Fox multi-million payouts demonstrate, it ultimately destroys the bottom line.

Women were afraid to report the harassment at Fox, until the first woman finally stood up, and then others came forward. That's just what happens with those playground bullies: when the first kid stands up to them then others get the nerve to stand up too. Which means that reporting sexual harassment is also contagious.

When the company takes the sexual harassment complaint seriously and makes sure the harasser is stopped, then other victims won't be afraid to come forward.

So, HR folks, take those sexual harassment complaints seriously and stop those harassers the first time they harass. Or ultimately they'll grab you in the p***y and you shouldn't be surprised.

And victims of sexual harassment, try to come forward. You have to report it to HR and give them a chance to fix it according to the Supreme Court, and that's very, very hard. But if you don't report it, then the harasser will do it to other women, and the harassment will get worse. It may even spread. If you stand up to the harasser, then other women will be empowered to stand up for themselves.

Monday, April 24, 2017

States With Pro-Employee Laws: No Asking About Applicant Salary History

In a movement that started in Massachusetts, states and cities are starting to ban employers from asking applicants about their salary history. The reason behind the legislation is that basing pay on prior salary can lock in pay discrimination. The sponsor of the Philadelphia ordinance explained: “Simply put, when a woman is paid less at the beginning of her career she will continue to earn less throughout her career. By eliminating the question of salary history we will be one step closer to decreasing the wage gap.”

The Massachusetts law makes it illegal to:
[S]eek the salary history of any prospective employee from any current or former employer; provided, however, that a prospective employee may provide written authorization to a prospective employer to confirm prior wages, including benefits or other compensation or salary history only after any offer of employment with compensation has been made to the prospective employee.
New York is the most recent city to ban salary history inquiries. Puerto Rico also has a salary history ban. Similar proposed laws are pending in D.C., California, New Jersey, New York State and in Congress (that one won't pass, but it's a nice try).

This is a good move to try to end the pay gap that still exists between men and women. It could well help stop the cycle of pay disparity for women and minorities.

And really, what business is it of anybody what you make now? Employers should know what they plan to pay for a job and actually pay it. While nothing stops you from saying no to such inquiries now, unless you're a highly sought after recruit saying no may end the interview.

For multistate employers, this may have an impact on the way they conduct interviews and prepare applications now. For others, now is the time to start rethinking this outdated and unduly nosy practice.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Trump Says It's Okay For Federal Contractors To Break Employment Laws

Another week, another prediction sadly fulfilled. On December 2, I did a list of executive orders protecting employees of federal contractors that I predicted would be rescinded under Trump. A very important one just bit the dust.

The Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Rule provided two important protections for employees that are now gone:

Blacklisting for employment/labor law violations: Anyone applying or bidding for a federal contract of $500,000 or more was required to disclose any employment or labor law violation. They had to disclose any administrative merit determination, arbitral award or decision, or civil judgment rendered against them within the preceding three-year period for a violation of any of a list of labor and employment laws, plus they have to update their violation information every six months and, for some contracts, obtain the same violation information from their covered subcontractors. This meant that federal contractors needed to be very afraid of things like a "cause" finding from EEOC. Punishment for repeat offenders could be up to cancellation or denial of a contract.

I predicted that employers would fear no more because they knew the rule would be gone soon.

No mandatory arbitration: The same executive order also banned agreements that require mandatory arbitration for discrimination and sexual harassment claims. Specifically, "for all contracts where the estimated value of the supplies acquired and services required exceeds $1 million, provisions in solicitations and clauses in contracts shall provide that contractors agree that the decision to arbitrate claims arising under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or any tort related to or arising out of sexual assault or harassment may only be made with the voluntary consent of employees or independent contractors after such disputes arise." This also applied to subcontractors providing services or supplies over $1 million.

Federal contractors may now resume requiring employees to arbitrate.