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.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Just Because Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson Survived Doesn't Mean You Have Free Speech At Work

Unless you've been out of the country for the holidays, you probably heard about the brouhaha over Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson's anti-gay and racist comments. He was interviewed by GQ and made comments that got him suspended indefinitely by A&E Television Networks, LLC. That caused an uproar, with petitions from Robertson supporters flying and claims that A&E violated his First Amendment rights. He was then reinstated.

Does this mean that you should let loose with your beliefs about race, women, gays, or religion at work or in your public social media? Heck no. You probably aren't bringing in millions of dollars of revenue to the company. You probably don't have thousands of supporters who will petition for you. You'll just be fired.

My latest article at AOL Jobs has gotten a huge number of angry comments from readers who swear I'm ignorant about the First Amendment and got this wrong. If you're a regular reader here, you know there's no right to free speech at work. You can refresh your memory by reading about Ozzie Guillen's run-in with free speech at work and 10 Workplace Rights You Think You Have - But Don't.  

If you want to read my AOL Jobs piece on Duck Dynasty (or just want to see the comments - over 1500 and climbing), the article is here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Elf's Lament: Don't Forget The Underpaid Workers This Holiday Season

If you're like me, you're probably doing some last minute holiday shopping. While you're loading up on gifts at one of those mega-stores open 24 hours or on holidays, remember that more than 1 in 10 Americans who work full time are still poor. You're probably handing your credit card to someone who lives below the poverty line. About 1 in 4 private sector jobs pays below $10/hour.

I'm on vacation, so rather than make my argument I'll let someone else do it for me. You can even listen to my favorite pro-employee Christmas song, Elf's Lament (about the travails of Santa's workers), embedded above, while you read these. Take a look at this article on why It's Not OK That Your Employees Can't Afford To Eat. And then ponder Pope Francis's snappy retort to Rush and friends who called him a Marxist when he spoke out about the evils of trickle down economics: "The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor."

So, enjoy your family holiday celebrations, drink some eggnog, and toast to the workers who made your holiday celebration possible. Then let's  resolve to follow the good examples set by SeaTac, Washington, New Jersey, California and other American cities and states and raise the minimum wage to a living wage.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Is My Noncompete Enforceable If I'm Fired Without Cause? Don't assume your non-competition obligations end when you're fired


When I wrote an article on How Do I Get Out Of My Noncompete Agreement?, I found out that AOL Jobs readers have lots of questions about noncompetes, and I don't blame you. I get people in my law practice asking me questions on non-competition agreements every week. That's because most people don't even realize they've signed something saying they can't work for a competitor for a year or two after they left, or they thought (wrongly) that a non-competition provision couldn't be enforced. I'm going to answer some reader questions This week, I answer a reader question: Is My Noncompete Enforceable If I'm Fired Without Cause? Read my answer on AOL Jobs here.

Please don't forget that the ABA Blawg 100 is asking for your votes for your favorite blog in the Labor and Employment category. If you think this blog is worthy, I continue to need your vote. Go to the ABA website here. It takes about 30 seconds to register. Then go to the Labor & Employment category. Find Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. Look to the left and you'll see a button that says, "Vote Now." Click it. You're done. The polls shut down at close of business today. If you have trouble voting or questions about anything else, please see the ABA's Blawg 100 FAQ.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Can My Employer Make Me Socialize With Co-Workers? Whether you say yes or no to office events, here are your legal rights

It's holiday party time, so this question I received from a reader is timely:
I just read your article about social media passwords, and I have a question for you that my HR person cannot seem to answer for me. My boss told me that I am not relating to the other employees (I didn't realize that I wasn't) and wants me to go to lunch with them or go shopping with them on the weekend. They are mean and spiteful people who look for any way to manipulate people. She asked me about my personal life and made me feel like I had to answer so I did tell her some things. (I won't make that mistake again.) She made personal comments about my relationship and encouraged me to break it off. I would never, ever tell anyone that. What are my rights here? I spoke with our HR department who said that she can say whatever she wants (no matter how rude!), but I can say, "It's my personal life and I do not wish to talk about it." Did they tell me the truth or leave part out? Can she make me go places on my breaks or off time with people I do not want to go anywhere with? I really need some help.

Thank you for advising me on this.
Especially around the holidays, there's pressure on employees to socialize with co-workers. Some companies try to make the holiday parties mandatory. Others have "team building" events overnight or on weekends. Some expect the team to have lunch together. And guess what? You aren't going to be paid for any of this.

What's an overworked employee to do? Read my AOL Jobs article here to find out what your legal rights are if you want to say no, and what legal rights you have if you decide to attend.

Please don't forget that the ABA Blawg 100 is asking for your votes for your favorite blog in the Labor and Employment category. If you think this blog is worthy, I continue to need your vote. Go to the ABA website here. It takes about 30 seconds to register. Then go to the Labor & Employment category. Find Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. Look to the left and you'll see a button that says, "Vote Now." Click it. You're done. The polls shut down at close of business this Friday, Dec. 20. If you have trouble voting or questions about anything else, please see the ABA's Blawg 100 FAQ.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Can My Employer Trash Me In References? 6 things you need to know about job references

Suzanne Lucas, better known as the Evil HR Lady (she's very nice and not evil at all), did an interesting article about what employers are saying about former employees in references. Hint: It's not good.

Lucas says this: "Reference-checking firm Allison & Taylor estimates that 50 percent of their reference checks come back negative or lukewarm." If you want to chill your blood, read the article for some actual things employers have said about employees.

In my AOL Jobs column, I answer a reader question about whether or not employers can trash employees in job references. You can read it here.

I'm totally slammed at work, so that's it for now. Please don't forget that the ABA Blawg 100 is asking for your votes for your favorite blog in the Labor and Employment category. If you think this blog is worthy, I continue to need your vote. Go to the ABA website here. It takes about 30 seconds to register. Then go to the Labor & Employment category. Find Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. Look to the left and you'll see a button that says, "Vote Now." Click it. You're done. The polls shut down at close of business Dec. 20. If you have trouble voting or questions about anything else, please see the ABA's Blawg 100 FAQ.

Monday, December 2, 2013

American Bar Association Names Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home A Top Legal Blog For Third Year

Thank you so much to those who nominated this blog to the ABA's Blawg 100! The American Bar Association has announced their winners, and Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home was named one of the top labor and employment blogs in the country for the third year in a row. I couldn't have gotten there without your help.

I'm honored to be included as the only employee-side blog in the labor and employment category, along with such terrific management-side blogs as Dan Schwartz’s Connecticut Employment Law Blog, Molly DiBianca’s Delaware Employment Law Blog, Eric Meyer’s The Employer Handbook, Jeff Nowak’s FMLA Insights, Jon Hyman’s Ohio Employer's Law Blog, and Seyfarth Shaw’s Trading Secrets. Dan Schwartz was also named to the blawg hall of fame!

Vote for Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home here

It's such a pleasure to write this blog, mainly because of you, my readers. I love your questions and comments, and enjoy being able to point employees in distress in the right direction. I know my fellow honorees on employer side feel the same about trying to help employers sort through the confusing tangle of employment laws. Here's what the ABA Journal says about this year's Blawg 100:
It's our lucky seventh time at this blog-ranking rodeo. Does luck come into play as we assemble our list? Perhaps. Maybe it's a lucky break for a blogger when one of its readers takes the time to write to us to make sure we give it serious consideration. There are thousands of legal blogs, after all.

But really, it's a blogger's dedication, creativity and engagement with readers and the other minds of the legal blogosphere that make us take notice. We think our familiarity with these blogs ultimately makes us better legal journalists—and getting to know them might make you a better lawyer. At the very least, you might find kindred spirits who articulate the highs and lows of practice with wit and empathy.
If you've been following this blog all for at least a year, you know what's coming. Now is the time to vote for the best of the best in each category. Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home has come close to the top, but hasn't quite made it to the very peak of the labor and employment law blogs yet. I need your help.

If you think this blog is worthy, I need your vote. Go to the ABA website here. It takes about 30 seconds to register. Then go to the Labor & Employment category. Find Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home. Look to the left and you'll see a button that says, "Vote Now." Click it. You're done. The polls shut down at close of business Dec. 20. If you have trouble voting or questions about anything else, please see the ABA's Blawg 100 FAQ.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your support. Do check out the other labor and employment blogs. Even though they're geared toward helping employers rather than employees, they're chock full of great information, good writing, and good humor. You can also  click here for a list of all the honorees' Twitter handles if you want to see the latest employment law news.

Please don't forget to vote!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Walmart Should Have Listened To Me About Firing Striking Workers

About exactly a year ago, I wrongly predicted that Walmart wouldn't fire their striking workers. The article was called Why Walmart Won't Fire Striking Workers - And What That Means For You. The reason I predicted that they wouldn't fire their workers for striking is that the National Labor Relations Act says even non-union American workers have the right to strike and take other actions to protest and try to improve working conditions, and they can't be fired in retaliation.

Despite my warning that the strikers couldn't be legally fired, at least 23 workers were fired and another 43 were disciplined. Well, the NLRB didn't take that sitting down. They just slapped Walmart hard, announcing they will pursue legal claims against Walmart for the employees, which means these employees may get reinstated and awarded back pay. 

Here's what NLRB said about Walmart's actions: “During two national television news broadcasts and in statements to employees at Walmart stores in California and Texas, Walmart unlawfully threatened employees with reprisal if they engaged in strikes and protests on November 22, 2012.” NLRB also found that, “Walmart stores in California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Washington unlawfully threatened, disciplined, and/or terminated employees for having engaged in legally protected strikes and protests.”

What this means is we can expect more Black Friday protests, and probably more battles to improve working conditions at Walmart.

Just a reminder - before you run out the door with placards to protest your workplace, the National Labor Relations Act only covers non-supervisory employees, and while it covers most non-government workplaces, it doesn't cover them all. Plus, you have to be part of "concerted activity" with coworkers to be protected. If you're protesting your own working conditions, you aren't protected against retaliation. However, if you are objecting to something that affects at least one co-worker, or with at least one co-worker, then you may be legally protected.

If you are thinking about organizing at work, smaller micro-unions are now allowed. This means that you don't have to organize the whole company anymore, but can organize a specific group of workers. For instance, a court recently allowed a union to organize a group of nursing assistants at a hospital. The employer thought other non-professional employees should be included, but the smaller unit was approved.

If you decide you want to organize a union at work, or want to know more about your rights to discuss and improve working conditions, I suggest contacting a union like AFL-CIO to get some help and legal advice. There are some legal hoops you'll have to jump through if you actually form a union.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will Recording A Conversation At Work Land Me In Jail?

In light of the arrest of a South Carolina government employee for tape recording a conversation between co-workers, I thought I'd discuss a question I'm asked all the time in my law practice: Can I record a conversation with my employer?

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer to this question, and a mistake can land you in jail. Illegal tape recording can have both criminal and civil penalties. The employee in South Carolina faces up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. My advice is almost always: When in doubt, don't.
Still, many employees want to record a boss or HR at work, and there are good reasons to do so. If you have a sexual harasser, it's handy to catch them red-handed. It's hard to deny something a judge or jury can hear in the harasser's own voice. Some employees want to record meetings with HR to make sure they get all the important information or to have evidence of the reason given for termination or discipline. Other employees want to get evidence of discrimination or other illegal practices of the employer.

If you want to know more about recording conversations at work, read my AOL Jobs article here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Does My Employer Have To Pay Me Even If I'm Illegal?

I received this question from a reader:
I'm in the process to get my green card. I worked for a guy for few weeks. He knew that I didn't have my EAD by that time. He doesn't want to pay me. I have been trying to get my payment over 2 weeks. Yesterday he sent me a text saying "go f**k yourself. if you contact me again I will notify the authorities" What can I do?
The quick answer is that, yes, your employer has to pay you even if you worked without the proper permit or are in the country illegally. If you are a foreign worker in the U.S., you have some hoops to jump through to work legally. Still, that doesn't excuse your employer from paying you for work performed. That being said, wage theft among undocumented workers is very common.

The United States Department of Labor has a program called "We Can Help" specifically directed at helping undocumented workers get paid. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires payment of minimum wage and overtime, applies to legal and illegal workers alike.

Undocumented workers, however, will not be able to recover back pay for time not actually worked or be reinstated to jobs if they sue for discrimination, unfair labor practices, or under other employment laws. While employers still can't discriminate based on race, age, sex, etc. the remedies undocumented workers can receive under many employment laws are limited.

Even though undocumented workers have legal rights, filing suit or complaining to the Department of Labor can be risky. There have been reported cases of undocumented workers who stood up to thieving employers only to face deportation. Employers who use this strategy put themselves at risk. Homeland Security is cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers. Employers who break the law face sanctions including jail time. You might point this out to an employer who tries to blackmail you out of your pay.

Some Florida counties have wage theft laws that also protect undocumented workers. Employers can face double or triple damages if found to violate these wage theft laws. Many states and local governments have additional protections for employees whose employers don't pay wages when due.

If your employer is stealing your wages, contact the Department of Labor or an employment lawyer in your state to discuss your rights.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

HR Wants To Meet! What Do I Do?

You get the call or the email and your heart sinks to your feet. HR wants to meet with you. Unless you think a promotion or raise is in the works, a meeting with HR is usually something employees dread. But if you do some basic preparation, you can be ready for anything.

Read my article in AOL Jobs to find out some things HR may want to meet with you about, and what you should do.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

ENDA (Banning Sexual Orientation Discrimination) Passes In Senate What It Will Mean If It Becomes Law

ENDA is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and the Senate just passed it. I wouldn't get too excited yet, because unless Republicans lose their majority in the House in the midterm elections we aren't likely to see this become law anytime soon. Still, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss what the law will do (and what it won't do) if passed in the House and signed into law.

Read my article in AOL Jobs to find out what ENDA will do if it becomes law, and what it won't do, despite what detractors are saying.

Friday, November 8, 2013

7 Claims Jonathan Martin May Have Regarding Dolphins Bullying Under Florida Law

Now that America finally woke up and realized that workplace bullying is a serious issue, thanks to the Miami Dolphins situation with Jonathan Martin, who quit after the team refused to do anything after he complained about workplace bullying, I thought I'd share my thoughts on the situation from the perspective of a Florida employee-side lawyer.

As I've written before, there is no state in the nation that has passed any law against workplace bullying. We have zero tolerance for bullying in schools, but nothing to protect employees? What a giant waste of corporate resources and time, to deal with the fallout, morale problems, and loss of good people that bullies cause. It's time to pass a law.

In the meantime, I have some theories about what claims Mr. Martin might have under Florida law if/when he decides to sue over this matter. I recently wrote a piece for AOL Jobs called 5 Ways Your Workplace Bully May Be Breaking The Law (call me prescient - the piece came out less than 2 weeks before the incident) where I talked in general about potential claims employees might have relating to workplace bullying.

While I obviously don't know what really happened, there has been lots of press speculation and reporting on what really happened with Martin. I can only speculate on what claims he might have.

Here are four claims I think Martin might have against the Dolphins:
  1. Breach of contract: Surely he has a contract. It must say something about his working conditions. These athletic contracts are huge. If the contract says the Dolphins must provide a safe working environment, it's a straight breach of contract case.
  2. Race or age-based harassment: Bullies tend to target the weak and the different. If Mr. Martin was targeted due to his race or because he was "too young" as the reporting tends to speculate, then he might have a discrimination claim. While the Age Discrimination in Employment Act doesn't cover discrimination based on being too young, the Florida Civil Rights Act covers all kinds of age discrimination. Harassment cases require that you report the harassment and give management a chance to correct the situation, which it seems he did, and was told to punch the harasser, which he thankfully didn't do. The questions will be 1. whether it was so severe or so pervasive that it altered the terms and conditions of his employment and 2. whether it was so intolerable that no reasonable person would have stayed. Having quit, he'll have to show that he was constructively discharged, which is tough, but not impossible. It looks like the coaches might have actually encouraged the harassment. If so, the Dolphins may well be on the hook.
  3. Assault/battery: If anything got physical and management knew about it, then the Dolphins might be on the hook.
  4. Intentional infliction of emotional distress: This is the one I see in all the newspaper articles about what kind of claim he might have but, truthfully, these cases are very tough to win in Florida. He went to the hospital for emotional distress, so he might have some pretty significant damages if he can prove this claim.
I usually recommend against bringing claims against individuals because they're almost always uncollectable even if you win. That's probably not the case against a wealthy football player, so Mr. Martin may have claims against the individual or individuals involved.

Here are 3 claims he might have against his harasser(s):

  1. Tortious interference: I wrote awhile back about using tortious interference claims against harassers. Maybe this would be a good situation for that. The question will be whether the harassers stepped outside the scope of their employment. If management really instructed them to do this, then the harassers might argue they were acting within the scope of their jobs.
  2. Assault/battery: If it got physical, he can sue for whatever damages he suffered.
  3. Intentional infliction of emotional distress: Again, tough in Florida but maybe if things got physical or extreme he could sue his harassers for this.
I'm interested to hear any new facts that come out on this. While I'm sad this happened to Mr. Martin, some good could come out of all this of we get some anti-bullying laws passed as a result. If even a big, tough football player can be devastated by bullying, imagine what ordinary mortals who experience bullying must go through.

So, what do you think? Any other legal theories? Should workplace bullying be made illegal?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How Do I Get Out Of My Noncompete Agreement?

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has recently announced that he supports efforts to make noncompete agreements unenforceable in Massachusetts. Patrick's Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Gregory Bialecki, said this about noncompete agreements:
Non-competes stifle movement and inhibit competition and we do not want that. The evidence is clear-we are not seeing the kind of spin-offs and start-ups at the same rate that previously made Massachusetts an enviable model. Individual career growth is good for the Commonwealth: We encourage our talent to be creative, to be innovative, and to network with other talented people. Furthermore, we encourage employers to recruit talented people. However, we send a mixed message: providing the talent needed to support the kind of explosive growth we want in the innovation economy is considerably more difficult if employees are legally unable to move between jobs in the innovation economy.
If you aren't lucky enough to live in California, which rarely enforces them, or Massachusetts if this legal change passes, how do you get out of your noncompete agreement? In my latest AOL Jobs article I discuss the top 7 ways to overcome non-competition restrictions.

Friday, November 1, 2013

My Employer Filed Bankruptcy. Does That Mean They Can't Enforce My Noncompete?

This question was asked on my post Non-Compete Agreements - Top 5 Ways To Get Out of Yours:
My employer has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and is reorganizing. Does this also invalidate their employment contracts?
This is a good question, Wayne, especially considering how many bankruptcies have been filed in the past few years. I should first say that, being an employment lawyer, what I don't know about bankruptcy law is a whole lot. However, I'll do my best to explain why there's no easy answer to this question. If there are any bankruptcy lawyers out there who want to chime in, I'd love your help answering this.

Executory contracts: Most employment contracts appear to be considered "executory contracts," which are defined as "a contract under which the obligation of both the bankrupt and the other party to the contract are so unperformed that the failure of either to complete performance would constitute a material breach excusing the performance of the other." If it's in this category, then the contract becomes part of the bankruptcy estate, which means it no longer belongs to your employer, but instead belongs to the trustee or the debtor in possession.

Bankruptcy estate: Once it is considered part of the bankruptcy estate, the trustee or debtor in possession will decide whether to assume the contract or reject it.

Contract is assumed: If they assume it, then it remains intact and the bankruptcy estate assumes responsibility for it. That means if your noncompete is part of an employment contract requiring payment of wages and other benefits, the estate has to take these responsibilities on.

Contract is rejected: If they reject the contract, then you can treat it as if they breached it on the date the bankruptcy was filed. Even if the contract is rejected, that doesn't necessarily mean you're out of the non-competition part of it though. Some courts have allowed employers to seek injunctive relief against employees for breaching a noncompete even when the contract was rejected.

One analysis of the case law on these issues is here. In short, it sounds like there's no easy out of a noncompete agreement just because your employer is in bankruptcy. I'd suggest talking to a bankruptcy lawyer in your state about your rights.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

7 Ways To Protect Yourself If Your Boss Is a Bully

Last week, I answered a question from a "used and abused" reader who was facing a workplace bully. I talked about five ways that your workplace bully might be breaking the law. Today, I talk about some things you can do, starting today, to protect yourself if your boss is a bully.

Read my article in AOL Jobs for  seven things you can do, starting today, to protect yourself if your boss is a bully.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Don't Forget About Religious Discrimination When Throwing Your Office Halloween Party

Personally, I love Halloween. Adore it. I have zombies in my courtyard to scare the kiddies, and a graveyard in front of the house with various and sundry body parts poking out. Yes, Halloween is great fun for those who celebrate it. However, there are some religions that ban celebrating Halloween altogether, and some people who have sincerely held beliefs against it.

Halloween is now a pretty secular holiday, but its origins are in the Catholic religion. The Catholic holiday, All Hallow's Eve, is the night before All Saint's Day. I'm not an expert, but I believe the idea was that souls were liberated from Purgatory on that day, so celebrants would pray for the souls of the dead and hold a vigil during the night. The tradition of going door to door came from the UK, when beggars would ask for a "soul cake" in exchange for offering a prayer for the soul of the dead of the household. Earlier Pagans also had a fall holiday featuring bonfires and feasts, called Samhain, that probably influenced the Catholic celebrations, particularly in the UK.

Here are just some of the religions that don't celebrate Halloween:
  • Jehovah's Witnesses: They don't celebrate any holidays or even birthdays.
  • Some Christians: Some believe the holiday is associated with Satanism or Paganism, so are against celebrating it.
  • Orthodox Jews: They don't celebrate Halloween due to its origins as a Christian holiday. Other Jews may or may not celebrate.
  • Muslims: Many Muslims don't celebrate Halloween, again due to its origins in other religions.
I'm sure there are others. In researching this article, I came upon this telling comment about people who can't/won't celebrate Halloween: "I hate debbie downers who don't celebrate holidays, seriously they don't have to stand for anything, they're just fun." When you're dealing with Halloween at work, many celebrants treat those who have religious objections as "debbie downers," party poopers who just don't want to have fun. Even worse, I've seen situations where employees were ordered to decorate desks and come in costumes because the workplace had contests for best decorated departments. When they refused, they were criticized and threatened as not being "team players."

So, I wanted to issue this reminder to all workplaces celebrating Halloween: don't force anyone to celebrate, decorate, or dress for Halloween. Don't harass them if they don't want to participate. If someone has a sincerely-held belief, then it's likely protected by Title VII's prohibition against religious discrimination. It doesn't matter if you agree with them, think they're mistaken, or even think their beliefs are stupid. What matters is respect for the beliefs of the person holding them.

HR folks might want to give themselves a refresher on religious discrimination and harassment before the company's Halloween celebration, so they can be ready when things go awry.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

5 Ways Your Workplace Bully May Be Breaking The Law

I got this question from a reader at AOL Jobs:
Hi Donna,
What action would you suggest staff take when the Executive Director of a tax funded nonprofit organization, which is overseen by a board, is abusive to staff? Staff does not have access to HR; they report to the ED who reports to the board. Some incidents have been "investigated" by one or two board members and the HR of the employer of a board member. Nothing has improved. Incidents have been the ED slapping the hand, kicking, and yelling at an employee to "go do your f****** job," commenting on how an employee is dressed, yelling at staff, "forgetting" they did or said something, not following policies and procedures consistently and speaking harshly as to show their superiority. We are at a loss as to what to do. We are not permitted to speak to any member of the board without the ED's consent. We are a small staff, under 15 employees. Suggestions would be most welcome.
Thank you.
Used and abused
This reader is dealing with a bully, which is all too common these days. A career counselor or health care professional might view things differently, but I give my perspective as an employee-side employment lawyer in my response.

I've written before about how workplace bullying is not illegal in any state. Although 23 states have tried to pass anti-bullying laws, none have succeeded. Eleven states currently have anti-bullying laws pending, but I'm not optimistic. Still, there's hope for the bullied. Bullies frequently cross the line into illegal behavior at work. Read my article at AOL Jobs for some examples of how workplace bullies may be breaking the law.

Friday, October 18, 2013

HR Says They Lost My Resume But I Think It's Age Discrimination

This was a question on my post I Reported Harassment and Now HR Wants to Meet With Me. What Do I Do?
I need some help here. I have worked for a company for 10 years. A position opened up and I applied for it. Soon after, the director said they are looking into it and a few days later a guy i trained who is younger than I am got hired. After that another position became available. I applied for it and was told they are looking into it and almost every day the director came to me and said they are looking into it. Also, HR says they never got my resume. Now mind you, this is the second time he told me HR never got my resume. I never received an email or call for this position. They kept saying.HR dropped the ball on this. I was told twice to apply to the position and.both times HR messed up. There are also 2 other guys in the same race class Ii am that got fired or moved for complaining and one of the guys filed a discrimination case against the director. Now they hired someone for the position I applied for that has no experience and I have to.train him. Is.there something I can do? 
 Roy P.
Roy, it sure sounds like you either have the most incompetent HR department around or someone is deliberately jerking you around.  I'd bet on the latter. If you are more qualified than the person who got the job, and the person hired is younger than you, then you may well have an age discrimination claim. I'd definitely suggest talking to an employment lawyer in your state about it.

Now, let's talk about some practical things you can do the next time you see a promotion you want to apply for. I'd suggest taking some steps to make sure your resume gets where it belongs:
  • Send your resume directly to HR: Don't hand it to your boss, who is probably chucking it in the garbage or sending it to HR via turtle. Instead, find out who is in charge of HR and email, fax or hand deliver it to them. 
  • Get proof: Make sure you send it in a way that provides proof they got it. If you fax, keep a copy of the transmission receipt. If you email, send it so you get a read receipt and a delivery receipt. If you hand-deliver it, write down the name of the person you handed it to, along with the date and time.
  • Send a copy to the boss: If the director is someone who is supposed to be doing the screening, then make sure he gets a copy, again with proof of delivery.
  • Follow up in writing: If you haven't heard anything in a week or so, follow up with a brief email asking them to confirm they received it.
  • Update your resume: It's possible your resume is outdated or doesn't reflect all your skills and training. Make sure it accurately reflects your qualifications.
If you think your boss is the one who is tossing your resume, then you might want to report him to HR in writing. Call it a "Formal Complaint of Age Discrimination" and tell them why you think you are the most qualified, how your boss claimed HR lost the resume and you couldn't be considered, and ask them to investigate.

It does sound like the company has a history of retaliation. If they retaliate against you, it might be time to contact an employment lawyer or EEOC.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Last Group Openly Insulted: 7 Ways to Prove Weight Discrimination

I wrote a piece in AOL Jobs called 7 Ways to Prove Weight Discrimination, which I'll excerpt below. But what I really want to talk about are the comments that showed up within a couple hours of the piece going up:
From jmasiulewicz:
"The only category of the ADA that can be voluntarily acquired. A disability by choice. Disgusting."

From rkeeeballs
"If it looks like a fat slob....it is !"

From mckdarren
"Yeah, let's encourage more lawsuits, Donna, instead of encouraging fat people to get control of their lives and health. You're a disgrace."

These jerks prove my point exactly. Overweight people are one of the last groups that Americans feel free to insult openly. Obesity has officially been declared a disease by the medical community. When will we stop treating the overweight like they are less than human?

Anyhow, rant over. Here is the beginning of the article.
In June, the American Medical Association declared that obesity is officially a disease. I've written in the past about weight discrimination and whether it's covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. The big question is whether, now that disability has been declared a disease, the overweight will find more legal protection under discrimination laws.

Well, the lawsuits are already flying. One law firm reports that a client has been sued for weight discrimination, using the AMA's declaration in support of the claim that weight discrimination is now covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. I'm sure there are others being filed around the country. 
So, how do you prove illegal weight discrimination? Here are 7 things you'll need to be able to prove if you want to sue for weight discrimination: 

You can read how at AOL Jobs.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Help! I'm Falsely Accused By My Supervisor. Can EEOC Help?

Hello. I was wrongfully terminated with wild accusations by new management on his first day of working. The assistant manager had said I was getting a verbal warning and that the GM had agreed. The next day on my day off I was let go. It took HR 2 weeks to even answer my calls or emails very rudely. Finally, once they contacted me, they said they were conducting an investigation. This was a month ago. I have yet to hear from them again. I have been leaving all sorts of messages not bombarding but at least one weekly. Please help. Can EEOC do anything? I understand they only seek discrimination cases but I do not know who else to turn to.

Cindy R.

Hi Cindy. I'm so sorry to hear you are being kept in limbo by HR. They probably aren't responding because they don't think the company broke any laws when you were fired. You're right, that EEOC only handles cases involving race, age, sex, national origin, color, genetic information, pregnancy, disability and religious discrimination. They don't handle discrimination based on you being treated unfairly by your boss or falsely accused of something for no reason.

However, before you give up and decide you don't have any claims against your former employer, I'd suggest asking yourself why you think the supervisor singled you out. Are you of a different race, age, sex, national origin or some other legally protected category from your coworkers who weren't singled out? If so, it's possible he was picking on you because of discrimination.

Were you accused of something that other coworkers also did? If so, were they also fired? If not, were they of a different race, sex, national origin, etc. from you? This could also be evidence of discrimination.

Discrimination isn't the only thing to think about in this situation. If you recently made a worker's compensation claim, took Family and Medical Leave, discussed working conditions with coworkers, or objected to something the company is doing that is illegal (examples could be failing to pay overtime, safety violations, anything that is a violation of a law or government regulation), then you might also have been targeted due to a legally protected status. There are all kinds of legally-protected statuses that might apply to your situation (bankruptcy, garnishment, association with a protected person, to name a few).

Other legal protections you might have, depending on your state, could be jury duty, being a witness, domestic violence victim, having a gun in your car, legal marijuana use, marital status, bad credit, and many others.

If your dispute with the manager is purely a personality conflict, then you may be out of luck. But it might be worth talking to an employment lawyer in your state if you think you might fit into a protected category.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Should I Tell My Boss About My Mental Illness? Why You Should Not (And Three Times You Should)

A reader at AOL Jobs recently asked:

I have 7 years tenure with my company with great reviews. My last 6 month review I had met expectations in every area. I am going through a traumatic personal situation. A new manager was hired in October, and she's the one who gave my last review. In January, I disclosed to her I had PTSD. After that she met with me a month later accused me of not working. Took me to regional manager. They said I was making excuses and were disappointed. She recently told me "maybe you can't do this job anymore". She then lied on coaching logs saying I could not do my work. I went out on leave for PTSD. The last day she had me meet her to give me my year review, which stated I was below expectations in every area. When I came back from leave I was put on a performance improvement plan. She continues to lie about my performance. Is there any way to prove discrimination? They put me on an improvement plan for not meeting certain goals, but my counterparts are having the same problems meeting goals. Other counterparts are having even worse issues and are not put on a performance improvement plan. Please advise.

Unfortunately, the stigma associated with any mental illness means most people are afraid to tell their coworkers or boss. When they do, it's all too common to be subjected to sudden criticisms that you never faced before. In this situation, the fact that you had all good reviews before you disclosed your mental illness and were only written up after you disclosed it could be strong evidence of disability discrimination. If you can prove that your performance didn't change, or that your coworkers are failing to meet the same goals as you and aren't being written up, then you should talk to an employment lawyer in your state or EEOC about bringing a disability discrimination claim against your employer.

 In honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week, my latest piece in AOL Jobs covers why you shouldn't disclose a mental illness or disorder to your employer, along with three times you should disclose it. Read more here.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Shutdown Doesn't Stop Employment Law Filing Deadlines

Thanks to the government shutdown, EEOC's website is down. NLRB's website is also down. You might assume the fact the government is shut down means your deadline for filing claims against your employer is extended. You'd be wrong (maybe). If you have a deadline coming up soon for filing a charge of discrimination with EEOC or a charge against employer with NLRB, you may still have to (somehow) get your filing done in time.

My latest piece in AOL Jobs tells you what to do if you have a pressing deadline to file with EEOC or NLRB.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Your Employer Wants To Erase Your Personal Cell Phone And Computer

The concept of BYOD is all the rage in management-side circles right now. BYOD stands for Bring Your Own Device. Basically, the idea is that companies let employees do work for them on their own cell phones, laptops, tablets and other devices. Lots of dark-side, er, management-side lawyers are blogging about employer risks in having employees use their personal devices at work, and I don't necessarily disagree with them. Some of my management-side colleagues even offer sensible advice on the issue, and even offer advice on how to reassure employees about their privacy concerns. I'm all for employers getting advice on how to get things right.

Then I saw this advice in a recent blog post:
Address what happens when the employee stops working for your company: As noted above, employers have a duty to safeguard sensitive company data. Therefore, when an employee terminates his or her relationship with the employer, the employer must ensure that all of its data is permanently erased from the employee’s personal devices. Yet, it is often impossible to separate relevant company data from personal employee information when “wiping” a device. Therefore, employers should require that their employees acknowledge and agree that all of the data on their devices will be erased when the employee stops working for the company.
Come again? Let me get this straight. Your boss is too cheap to buy you a laptop and a company cell phone. Instead, he "lets" you use your own device. You need them for work, so don't hesitate to use your own laptop, cell phone and tablet to get the job done.

Of course, you also used the cell phone to take pictures of your son's wedding, your daughter's school play, and your last vacation. You uploaded those photos to your laptop too. You use your laptop to email your friends from high school, to send out party invitations, and to remind your spouse to pick up the dry cleaning. Your music library that took you three straight days to copy from your old CDs is in the cell phone and laptop. Plus, your manuscript for your first novel in progress is stored in the laptop.

Now that you're leaving the company, they want you to let them erase all your photos, personal info, writing, everything just because you were dumb enough to volunteer to use your personal devices so they didn't have to buy you separate company devices? Have they lost their fricking minds?

Even worse, some employers want you to let them install a program that will allow them to remotely wipe your devices and track your usage.  The technology does exist for companies to remotely wipe only the business data and not your personal data:
Devices get lost or employees leave a company, and suddenly all that corporate information on a smartphone becomes a security threat. In the past, a company could use “remote wipe” technology to delete all data, but with a personal device, this method also trashed family photos, personal contacts, apps, music and anything else that’s stored. Fortunately, remote deletion capability is much more sophisticated these days, and a company can remove just enterprise-related data from a device and leave all the other content intact.
If employees ever do rise up against their corporate masters, it's this kind of overbearing nonsense that will have caused it.

What's an employee to do?

Say no: If your company wants you to use your device for company purposes, say no. Keep your business and personal stuff separate. If they demand you use it, then get something in writing assuring you that they will not demand you erase your device when you leave. If they want to install a remote wiping program, get something in writing stating that none of your personal data will be erased, and that the company will be liable for damages if they erase your personal data.

Say hell no: If they spring this demand on you when you leave, tell them to pound sand. There are less intrusive ways to assure you've erased business data. For instance, the company could hire a computer tech to delete only the company data while you are present to assure that nothing personal is being copied or erased.

Prosecute: If your employer accesses your personal data without your permission, press criminal charges. It's a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act to access your personal data without your permission. They'd prosecute you if you accessed their info. Turnabout is fair.

In general, it's best to use the company devices only for work. Use your personal devices for personal stuff. Don't trust your employer to be reasonable when you leave. Big Employer has lost it's fricking mind.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

10 New (And Legal) Ways Your Employer Is Spying On You

Just when I think I've heard every extreme story about employer spying, I hear a new one that curls my hair. For instance, a company recently turned in a former employee to the local police for making "suspicious" Google searches on the company computer. One employer installed a tracking device in the car of an employee they thought might be moonlighting with a second job. The National Workrights Institute says that two out of three U.S. employers are using some sort of electronic monitoring of employees. Why? Because it works. One study found that monitoring decreased theft by 22% and increased revenues by 7%. Employers don't seem to care that monitoring also causes increased employee stress and dissatisfaction with their jobs.

Think you have the right to privacy at work? Think again. My article at AOL Jobs discusses10 perfectly legal and new ways your employer may be spying on you.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Court Says Lactation Is Related to Pregnancy, Refrains From Saying, "Duh"

I wrote about a really stupid case out of Texas where a federal court said that "lactation is not pregnancy, childbirth, or a related medical condition," and thus decided that "firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination."  I was irked, to say the least. Lactation not related to pregnancy and childbirth? Really?

Well, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals which, to its credit, refrained from saying, "Well, duh," has unanimously ruled that lactation is, indeed, related to pregnancy and is therefore covered by Title VII. EEOC reports this about the decision: "The Fifth Circuit noted the biological fact that lactation is a physiological condition distinct to women who have undergone a pregnancy.  Accordingly, under Title VII and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, firing a woman because she is lactating or expressing milk is unlawful sex discrimination, since men as a matter of biology could not be fired for such a reason. The case was remanded back to the lower court for a trial on the merits."

Personally,  I think the 5th Circuit should be applauded, not only for its common sense, but for the fact that it did not openly mock the lower court's ruling. I wouldn't have had that much self-control.

I should also point out that almost all employers are required to provide nursing mothers with break time to pump breast milk, along with a private space that isn't the restroom to do so. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires this, so employers who fire moms for lactating may also run afoul of this law, even if they aren't large enough to be covered by Title VII.

I rarely get to say this, so: Hooray for common sense in the courts!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How To Tell If Your Employer Is Spying On You

You may know that your employer can legally spy on you at work (and outside of work) in several ways. But how do you actually know if your employer is snooping? Here are some signs that your employer may be spying on you:

Read more at Jobs Week on AOL Jobs.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Guest Post: Will Your Employer Miss The October 1 Deadline For Obamacare Notice?

By Associate Attorney who now chooses to be anonymous, Donna M. Ballman, P.A., Employee Advocacy Attorneys

October 1, 2013 is the first day employees can officially sign up for the Affordable Care Act, a/k/a “Obamacare.” Although you can sign up for Obamacare starting on this date, no one will actually get coverage until January 1, 2014. The gap between enrollment and enactment provides the government and insurance companies time to ease into the new program and make any necessary adjustments for a smoother transition. Open enrollment in the program does not end until late March 2014.

Your employer is supposed provide written notice to all existing employees and any new employees hired, beginning on October 1, 2013. A notice is timely issued if provided within 14 days of an employee’s start date.Your employer is probably going to miss this deadline.

Many small businesses reported that they were unaware of the notice requirements and feared potential risk to penalties. As a result, the Department of Labor (DOL) posted a notice on its website stating that employers cannot be fined for failing to provide the notice. Unfortunately, although the notice is a “requirement,” DOL stated, “If your company is covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, it should provide a written notice to its employees about the Health Insurance Marketplace by October 1, 2013, but there is no fine or penalty under the law for failing to provide the notice.” [Donna's comment: on the other hand, if employees miss any deadline, just see what happens to them. Fair? Ha!]

The main focus of Obamacare is the establishment of the Health Insurance Martketplace (“Marketplace”), which is set to start on January 1, 2014. The Marketplace provides “one-stop shopping” for consumers to find and compare private health insurance options. Section 1512 of the law requires employers to provide employees notice of the coverage options available to them through the Marketplace. Your employer must provide the notice to each employee regardless of their health plan enrollment status or whether or not the employee works part-time or full-time. However, employers are not required to provide notice to dependents or those who may became eligible for coverage but who are not employees.

The notice to employees must: (1) inform you of the existence of the Marketplace, description of services provided by the Marketplace, and ways to contact the Marketplace for assistance; (2) inform you that if the employer plan’s share of the total allowed costs of benefits provided under the plan is less than 60% of such costs, you may be eligible for a premium assistance tax credit and cost sharing reduction; and (3) if you purchase a qualified health plan through the Marketplace, you may lose any employer contribution to any health benefits plan offered by the employer, and all or a portion of such contribution may be excludable from income for Federal income tax purposes.

DOL provides model notices on their website, which is worth looking at if you are considering exploring the Marketplace options, especially since your employer may not send you the notice. The website provides two model notices, one for employers who do not offer a health plan and another for those who do offer a health plan to some or all employees. Employers are not required to use the model notices, as long as the written notice they do provide meets the requirements discussed above.

It is worth looking into the Marketplace even if you are already covered, because you may find more affordable or more comprehensive coverage there.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Noncompete Answers: Am I Bound If My Employer Violates FMLA?; Wages Cut Right After Signing; Can They Restrict My Livelihood?

Having received more questions on noncompete agreements than any other issue, I can only assume that more and more employers are imposing these contracts on employees all over the country. There are lots of defenses to them, but defending takes money. I continue to hope that some legislators will wise up and help their constituents escape indentured servitude, or that some attorneys general will start fighting illegal noncompetes with antitrust laws. In the meantime, I'll keep trying to answer your questions. I encourage anyone who is being asked to sign one, or whose ex-employer is trying to enforce one, to contact an employment attorney in your state for advice. Here are my general answers (not legal advice) to some more non-competition agreement questions:

If My Employer Violates FMLA, Am I Still Bound By My Noncompete?
Hi . I am a nurse, licensed in Kentucky. I had worked 6 plus years with a contact agency that was contracted to the state. My question is this - when an agency is contracted to such an entity, do they have to follow the state's policies and protocol for discipline? I had been a very well respected and appreciated employee that had been contracted to the same entity for over 12 years. When I was both working full-time and caring for my dying Father at home, I had periods of tardiness, which was never a past problem. I was ultimately released by both the Vendor and my agency. My question is this - was it not my agency's place to request - on my behalf - FMLA? I did win my unemployment case.Would I still be bound to my former agency's full non-compete ? 

Gloria L.
Hi Gloria. I'm sorry to hear about your father and the loss of your job all at once. As to the noncompete agreement, there's a defense to enforcement called "unclean hands." This defense means that if your employer wants to keep you from working for a competitor, they must have acted ethically and in good faith. If they broke the law or did something wrong to you, then a court might be persuaded not to issue an order that you can't work for a competitor.

As to whether they have to follow your state's policies, that will depend on their contract with the state. Does that get you anywhere in defending against a noncompete agreement? I don't know how, but it's possible maybe you'd have a wrongful termination claim in your state if they were bound by certain procedures.

Now, let's talk about that FMLA claim. You have to notify your employer of your need for FMLA in most cases. That means, when you saw that your productivity was slipping and you couldn't get in on time, you should have asked for FMLA, either regular or intermittent, so you could fulfill your duties as caregiver for your father. They'd have had to grant it based on what you describe. However, you didn't ask. Should they have offered it? It sounds like they were on notice that you were a caregiver and that you were in trouble, so maybe they should have. This might be a FMLA violation. You should talk to a Kentucky employment lawyer. 

Does all of this get you out of the noncompete? Maybe. Good luck!

I Signed, Then My Employer Cut My Wages
I was asked to sign a noncompete, & when I did was informed that my wages were being cut. No wages were specified in the contract, but had I known beforehand, I would not have signed. Also, less than a week after I signed it my hours were cut & have since been cut to zero. I have since signing, been in a hostile work environment & made to feel I'm doing everything wrong. I am now at zero hours. & I also believe I have grounds for a discrimination & sexual harrassment case. 

Tessa M.
Hi Tessa. In some states, continued employment is valid consideration for a noncompete agreement. That means employers in those states can shove an agreement in front of you and say, "Sign or be fired." However, if they knew they were about to cut your wages and then cut your hours to zero, they should have disclosed it before you signed. The defense you may have is fraud.

As I discussed above, discrimination and sexual harassment might also support a defense of "unclean hands." I'd suggest talking to an employment lawyer in your state about these two defenses and any other defenses you have to enforcement of this agreement.

Is It Legal To Restrict My Livelihood?
I work in Texas and I am reviewing a Non-Competition agreement with the following stipulations:

1.3 Non-Solicitation-Non-Competition. Without prior written approval of COMPANY X management, Consultant agrees:
(a) For a period of twelve (12) months following the termination of this Agreement or the relationship provided hereunder, Consultant will not, either directly or indirectly, call on, solicit, or induce any Consultant or employee of COMPANY X whom Consultant had contact with, knowledge of, or association with in the course of this relationship to terminate his or her employment with Company X.
(b) For a period of twelve (12) months following the termination of this Agreement or relationship provided hereunder, Consultant will not form or hold an interest in any entity that directly competes with COMPANY X.
(c) During the term of this agreement for a period of twelve months following termination of this agreement with COMPANY X, Consultant shall not solicit or induce, any past or current customer of COMPANY X to cease doing business, in whole or in part, with COMPANY X.

Is this legal to create this kind of document--affecting a persons livelihood for an entire year? If that company lays me off can they stop me from pursuing my line of work?

Would you suggest a strategy for filling out this paperwork?

Steve C.
Hi Steve. It really depends on what work you are doing and what kind of business this is. If you are a chemical engineer developing the new formula for Coke, then I can see how they wouldn't want you to go straight to work for Pepsi or form your own soda company. You have a vital trade secret that they need to protect. They might have a legitimate interest to protect. However, if you're contracted to do their landscaping or waste removal, it's hard to imagine any possible interest they would have to protect other than preventing competition.

An agreement that is solely for the purpose of preventing competition violates antitrust laws

Since you're a contractor, you can always say no. If they want you, then you have the power to negotiate more reasonable terms. The time to negotiate is before you sign.

If you have a question on noncompete agreements, discrimination, whistleblowing, employment contracts or any other employment law issue, and don't mind having me answer it publicly, feel free to ask it in the comments section. If you ask me here, you're asking for general information and not for legal advice. The question and answer will be public and will not be covered by attorney-client privilege, nor will it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice or have an urgent legal issue that needs to be dealt with, contact an employment lawyer in your state.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

6 Ways To Prove You're A Victim Of Age Discrimination

 This was a question I got from an AOL Jobs reader:
Last year they hired a younger employee and I have been working at this job for over 30 years and have always been in charge of the bookkeeping department. The new girl is head now. I am 53 years old and I feel I have been discriminated against. I got a huge raise because they were paying the new girl a ton more than what I was making. I need help in deciding whether I could win a discrimination suit.
Age discrimination is rampant in this economy. It's not unusual for older employees to be the first selected in layoffs and demotions. If you actually lose your job, getting work when you're over 50 is tough.

If a younger employee is promoted over you, that could be age discrimination. But the question is, how do you prove it? You can read my article about 6 practical ways you can prove that you've been demoted, fired, passed over or penalized at work because of age discrimination here at AOL Jobs.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Answers to Your FMLA Questions: Employer Questioning Medical Information, Second Opinions, Reduced Schedule

In my continuing quest to answer some questions posted in the comments section of some older posts, I'm answering questions today that were posted in Can My Boss Hold My FMLA Against Me?

When Can My Employer Question My Medical Information?
Hello, I found out that I was pregnant on one day, and told my manager on the next day. I found out about the FMLA forms for prenatal care visits and intermittent FMLA that could be taken for complications during pregnancy by a co-worker several days later. I filled out the prenatal care visit form, and was approved for that. I missed a day due to morning sickness that would not allow me to go into work. I called in prior to my shift starting, citing that it was morning sickness, and my midwife filled out the intermittent FMLA form for it. My employer declined it the first time because it was not filled out appropriately. I went in see my midwife a month after that absence and she went over the form with me and filled it out completely, including a referral to a physical therapist for sciatica that has been caused by my pregnancy.
They contacted the day after I turned it in and told me that they couldn't approve it for the following reasons: 1) I had not been seen by a doctor to treat me for severe dehydration due to morning sickness and 2) I had not been prescribed any anti-nausea medication. The physical therapy was also declined because 1) I had not set up any appointments yet (I was waiting until I was approved, so that my job was protected. My company has a very strict attendance policy) and 2) They said that they cannot accept a mere referral from the doctor. My case manager said she would submit it for a peer review. When I hadn't heard anything back from them for a few weeks, I called to see if I could find out the status. I was told that my case manager had made a note in the case (that was not discussed over the phone when we talked a few weeks ago) that the peer review could not take place until I had officially scheduled an appointment for the physical therapy.
I am nervous that if I do schedule the appointment, take the appointment, it may still come back declined, which could potentially leave me with no job. There had been no further contact with me to indicate that they were waiting on action from me. They had also indicated that they could not approve the day I missed for morning sickness because they are unable to approve absence for morning sickness retroactively, and that my doctor would have had to fill out the FMLA form prior to me missing that day and provide a medical statement to prove that the morning sickness was severe enough to warrant FMLA.
I am wondering if this is something employers are able to do? In my reading of the FMLA, incapacity due to severe morning sickness does not have to be confirmed or seen by a doctor. And the fact that my doctor confirmed that I had been having morning sickness for a while before then should have been enough; as well as the fact that the sciatica was placed on the FMLA form as being caused by pregnancy. Are they able to deny my FMLA request due to the reasons that they cited, or am I way off base in my understanding of the FMLA? 
Hi Koifishy. Incapacity due to morning sickness is definitely a FMLA-protected medical condition. A nurse-midwife is a "health care providers" whose medical certification should be accepted under FMLA. The employer can't demand that it be done by a specific type of provider. Here's what the Department of Labor says about acceptable health care providers:
Health care providers who may provide certification of a serious health condition include:
  • doctors of medicine or osteopathy authorized to practice medicine or surgery (as appropriate) by the State in which the doctor practices;
  • podiatrists, dentists, clinical psychologists, optometrists, and chiropractors (limited to treatment consisting of manual manipulation of the spine to correct a subluxation as demonstrated by X-ray to exist) authorized to practice in the State and performing within the scope of their practice under State law;
  • nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, and clinical social workers authorized to practice under State law and performing within the scope of their practice as defined under State law;
  • Christian Science practitioners listed with the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston, Massachusetts;
  • any health care provider recognized by the employer or the employer's group health plan's benefits manager; and,
  • a health care provider listed above who practices in a country other than the United States and who is authorized to practice under the laws of that country.
If your employer requests a certification, you are generally supposed to provide it within 15 days of their request. It has to be complete and sufficient and turned in on time. As to the "retroactive" certification, most FMLA certifications have some retroactive aspects. If you're hospitalized for a medical emergency, you obviously can't get a certification in advance of the hospitalization. Same with most illnesses. Normally, the medical practitioner will issue a certification that says the condition started before the certification. Otherwise, how would a certification ever get done? Their claim makes no sense. However, you did wait a month to get the certification. They are supposed to request the certification, so if you didn't get it done within 15 calendar days, that may be what they are talking about.

They're also contradicting themselves. With the referral to a specialist, they're complaining you haven't gone yet. Since you're supposed to give advance notice of the need for FMLA if you can, giving advance notice of a specialist appointment is exactly what you are supposed to do. It sounds like this employer is doing everything they can to interfere with your FMLA rights. FMLA interference is illegal. I suggest talking to an employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

My Company Wants To Send Me To a Doctor For a Second Opinion
My doc just filled out my FMLA paperwork and I received the paperwork back from my company saying I was approved for FMLA and I just received a phone call today saying I have to see a independent evaluation. Can they do that if I have already been approved? Also they said my doc did not give enough information

Hi Peepers. I'm sorry to say that your employer is allowed to ask for a second (and third) opinion. Here's what the Department of Labor says about second opinions:
An employer may, at its own expense, require the employee to obtain a second medical certification from a health care provider. The employer may choose the health care provider for the second opinion, except that in most cases the employer may not regularly contract with or otherwise regularly use the services of the health care provider. If the opinions of the employee's and the employer's designated health care providers differ, the employer may require the employee to obtain certification from a third health care provider, again at the employer's expense. This third opinion shall be final and binding. The third health care provider must be approved jointly by the employer and the employee.
Do I Need FMLA To Get a Reduced Schedule?
I have chronic insomnia and am on FMLA. Where I work we are on 10 hr. days (5am-3:30pm) 5 days a week. My doctor wants me on 8 hr.days (6:30am-3pm) for several months to see if this different work schedule works. My question, do I have to have accumulative FMLA time to be approved?

Cathy H.
Hi Cathy. You might be able to use FMLA intermittent leave to get a reduced schedule. The other thing you might want to do is ask for an accommodation for your disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act. A reduced schedule could be something your employer would have to accommodate. In order to deny the accommodation, they'd need to show that accommodating you would be an undue hardship. That would depend on your job, but in a big enough company they'd have a hard time showing such a hardship.

If you have a question on FMLA, discrimination, whistleblowing, employment contracts, non-competition agreements or any other employment law issue, and don't mind having me answer it publicly, feel free to ask it in the comments section. If you ask me here, you're asking for general information and not for legal advice. The question and answer will be public and will not be covered by attorney-client privilege, nor will it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice or have an urgent legal issue that needs to be dealt with, contact an employment lawyer in your state.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Can An Employer Force You To Quit? 5 things to think about before signing a forced resignation letter

One question I'm surprised I've never gotten at AOL Jobs is one of the most common questions I get in my law practice. That is, whether your boss can force you to quit. Sometimes, a supervisor will try to make you so miserable you'll quit, but some will come right out and say it's time to turn in your resignation.

What are your rights if your employer shoves a resignation letter in front of you and tells you to sign? Should you resign when asked?

In my latest AOL Jobs article, I talk about the top 5 things to think about before you sign a forced resignation. You can read it here.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Noncompete Answers - Company Lost The Customer Contract; Employer Owes Me Wages

On the ever-popular topic of non-competition agreements, I continue to get tons of questions. I'm answering some more today.

Is My Noncompete Agreement Enforceable If My Employer Owes Me Wages?

Q: My former employer wrote such an ambiguous non-compete that it virtually eliminates any chance of me finding any employment in my field. Plus they owe me $9500 and say they won't pay unless I provide them with proof I'm not competing.

They made exceptions to the non-compete during my employment and now say that I'm violating the agreement by continuing to do the exceptions that they allowed.

They are in Illinois - I am in Florida. 

Mr. High School

Hi Mr. High School. You raise several interesting issues, so I'll touch on all of them quickly. The one that I hear most often is whether a noncompete agreement is enforceable if your employer owes you wages. The answer is a whopping, clear-as-mud, maybe. If your noncompete agreement is part of an employment agreement that sets out your wage rate and other terms and conditions of employment, then the failure to pay those wages is a breach of the agreement. If they breached before you started working for a competitor, then the breach should eliminate your obligations. However, this may vary from state to state (and judge to judge) so I can't predict how a judge in the state where it ends up in court would see it.

If the noncompete agreement is separate and doesn't include any promises about wages, then the issue is less clear. I'd still argue that the failure to pay the wages owed negates your obligations, but the question would really depend on the specific facts and contract language. I'd suggest talking to an employment lawyer in your state about this to be sure.

If they've made exceptions to the noncompete and allowed you (or coworkers) to compete in specific circumstances or with specific companies, it will be really tough for them to argue that they have a legitimate interest to protect in enforcing the restrictions against you alone (or you now, when you've previously been allowed).

You also mention that they're in a different state than you. If the agreement says which state's law applies, then that's probably which state law you'll be dealing with. If the agreement is silent on which state's law applies, it's probably the state where you executed the agreement. Frankly, Florida law is so horrid on noncompetes that you're probably better off if you can apply Illinois law (but I'll defer to any Illinois lawyers out there who disagree.)

My Company Lost It's Contract - Can I Stay?

I got two questions on this topic. Here they are:

Hi I signed a contract with a company that states I cannot work for myself, or any other company in my line of profession for 1 yr.. My contract is up in may and my boss has moved to South America. Since being over there he has messed my wages up and hardly replies to my emails. The customers are not contracted with this company and I would like to take them on myself. If my company has gone elsewhere and I took over the duties for the customers they left behind, where do I stand?

Lee B.
Hi Lee. I answered the issue about the unpaid wages above. I'll answer your question about your company moving after the question below.

Sounds like this is more of a hot topic than I knew. I am a victim also--I started working for company x in March 2004. A while after I started, the manager's position came open and they offered it to me. I am pretty sure it was at this time they made me sign a non-compete. (I am contract labor). The company that owned the building I was working in then was purchased by another company. In 2008 this building closed down and I transferred to another building. About 6 months later I was again asked to sign a non-compete. Now the company "x" that I work has lost their contract in the building so I am being told because of the non-compete I cannot stay and do the same type of work for the new company.
I applied and was going to be hired by the company that owns the building for a totally different type of job, but they are now saying they have a "policy" that states I cannot work for them for 12 mos. then have to reapply, when I was originally told by my supervisor that I could do any other job in the building other than the services they provide. Now that has changed. So, now am waiting for an answer from the new company as to whether or not they can get me out of the non compete--which is slim to nothing chance. If not I will be looking for a new job and am restricted can't do the three jobs listed above, OR work in any of the buildings owned by current building I'm in.
I live in a rural area where there are virtually NO JOBS so I may be in the unemployment line because of this stupid non compete! I will never sign one again. 

Tired of This
Hi Tired of This. I'm tired of ridiculous noncompete restrictions too, which is why I enjoy fighting them when I can. To answer Lee and you, if your company has either abandoned a geographic area of business or lost the customer through someone's fault other than yours, such as through competitive bidding, then I think it will be really tough for them to prove there is any legitimate interest to protect in enforcing a noncompete agreement against you.

Remember, agreements that are for the sole purpose of preventing competition are illegal. They violate antitrust laws. Noncompete laws are an exception to antitrust laws. Your employer must show a legitimate interest to protect. Legitimate interests might be things like trade secrets, confidential information that's truly confidential and not available from public sources, and customer goodwill. If they can't show a legitimate interest other than preventing competition (or spite) then they should lose in court.

The problem is, most employees don't have the resources to fight if they're sued, and most new employers will just fire you if they get a nastygram from your former employer because they don't want to be in the middle of a lawsuit. I'm hoping that the Department of Justice and some state Attorney's General will start stepping up for the common man and enforcing antitrust laws against bullying employers.

In the meantime, you should contact an employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

If you have a question on noncompete agreements, discrimination, whistleblowing, employment contracts or any other employment law issue, and don't mind having me answer it publicly, feel free to ask it in the comments section. If you ask me here, you're asking for general information and not for legal advice. The question and answer will be public and will not be covered by attorney-client privilege, nor will it establish an attorney-client relationship. If you need legal advice or have an urgent legal issue that needs to be dealt with, contact an employment lawyer in your state.

Friday, August 23, 2013

You Say Let's Talk Severance/Your Employer Hears I Quit (Or, Employees Are From Pluto, Employers Are From Uranus)

As sometimes happens when you've been practicing as long as I have (hint - I may have had a pet with a name ending in -saurus), you find yourself chatting with an opposing counsel with whom you've had many encounters over the years. These conversations can sometimes lead to some frank exchanges. I had one of these conversations a few days ago.

The topic was what it means when an employee says they want to talk about a severance package. He insisted it meant the employee had resigned. I hear this all the time from management-side lawyers, and I understand where they're coming from.

However, my clients never see it that way. I told this fellow attorney-saurus that I've never had a single client who meant they were quitting when they said to their boss or HR that they wanted to discuss severance. My colleague seemed shocked by this. "Then what did they mean?" he asked.

I had to explain that employees who say they want to discuss severance are usually making a cry for help. They've gone to the boss or HR with some dire problem. Maybe they've been sexually harassed or discriminated against. Maybe it's a bullying situation. Sometimes they've blown the whistle and are suffering retaliation. They've reported it and gotten no relief. So they say, "Fine. Let's talk severance."

What they probably mean is, "If you won't help me, you risk losing me as an employee." They're usually hoping that this final cry for help will result in some action being taken. They sometimes mean, "Rather than torture me into making me quit, let's just part ways amicably now." They're still hoping the employer will come to their senses.

I'm not sure why there's such a large communication disconnect between employer and employee on this, but my management-side colleague seemed genuinely surprised by my analysis. So I thought I'd share it.

Employers use any mention of a severance package to get rid of a complaining employee. They'll claim you quit before you can finish your sentence. And guess what? If you quit, you usually don't get severance. To an employer, severance goes to employees who have been laid off or fired with little or no cause. Quitters get squat.

So I'll say this to employers: Listen more carefully. If you like this employee, you may be able to salvage things if you act quickly. Plus, if they've just reported sexual harassment, discrimination or blown the whistle on something illegal, you might have handed them a lawsuit by escorting them quickly to the door.

To employees everywhere, be warned: If you even mention a severance package, your employer will claim you quit. Wait for them to bring it up. Then you might actually get some money to tide you over while you're looking for something else. If you were the victim of discrimination, illegal retaliation or sexual harassment, you might also have leverage to negotiate a better package if the employer fires you for reporting it.

I'm sure there are other things that employees and employers hear differently. Do you have any other examples where employees are from Pluto and employers are from Uranus? I'd love to hear them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Old Workers Rule! (Age Discrimination Drools) - Guest Post

By Associate Attorney who now chooses to be anonymous, Donna M. Ballman, P.A., Employee Advocacy Lawyers

Do you remember walking down the beach and seeing an older gentlemen wearing one of those delightfully tacky, yet funny, t-shirts stating, “Old Guys Rule!” You look at the shirt, then the man, and you smile thinking, “Yeah! That old guy does rule! More power to the old people!” Okay, maybe your thoughts weren't that dramatic, but you probably at least know someone over the age of 40 who still needs and/or wants to work, and who you are fond of. Or maybe, you are one of those 40+ workers declaring your own awesomeness. Since when did 40 become “old” anyway? Isn’t 40 the new 30? [Donna’s note: And here I thought 50 was the new 30.]

As a result of improving healthcare and standards of living, the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to increase to 2 billion by the year 2050. In the year 2000 there were only about 600 million people over the age of 60 worldwide. Our government has the responsibility of ensuring that older Americans are able to enjoy a decent standard of living, while contributing to society, as long as they want and are able to. The first step towards ensuring older Americans’ ability to make a living is to modify current laws that make it easy to discriminate against workers over the age of 40.

Currently, Federal Courts do not treat discrimination based on age the same as discrimination based on other categories of protected workers, such as race, sex, national origin and religion. An employee bringing suit based on one of these other protected categories only needs to demonstrate that the protected category was a contributing factor in the adverse employment decision. In such cases, the burden of proof then shifts back to the employer to show that it would have made the same decision regardless of the discrimination.

On the other hand, employees who claim that they were discriminated against due to their age must demonstrate to the Court that age was the “but for” cause of the adverse employment action.

This unequal treatment under discrimination laws appears to be changing. Just a few weeks ago, the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA), a bi-partisan bill, was reintroduced to the House and Senate. This bill appears to have strong support from both parties and in both houses. Perhaps, this is because there are no Senators under the age of 40 and only a handful of Congressmen and Congresswomen under 40. Whatever the case may be, under POWADA, when an employee demonstrates discrimination was a “motivating factor” behind an adverse employment decision, the burden would then shift back to the employer to show that it would have made the same decision regardless of the unlawful discrimination.

POWADA would be a win for older employees who have been unfairly discriminated against in the workplace. All forms of workplace discrimination should be treated equally under the law, and POWADA would be a positive step towards making that a reality. If POWADA is enacted into law, the old guy on the beach will become that much cooler. He will now be able to keep his job, make more money, allowing him to buy a matching hat for his t-shirt! Perhaps it would read, “Old Guys Rule the Workplace.”