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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Does Your Severance Agreement Have A Gotcha? Penn State Sues Former President For Hiding Sexual Molestation Charges

I see this kind of language in proposed severance agreements all the time. Something to the effect of, "Employee represents that he is unaware of any violations of any law, statute, ordinance or government regulation by Employer, its agents, employees, officers or directors." There are all kinds of problems with this seemingly benign language, as Penn State's former President may be about to find out.

You see, Penn State is countersuing Graham Spanier, who sued them for breach of his severance contract. Their claim is that Spanier knew of the former football coach's sexual misconduct and didn't disclose it. They say he had a duty to disclose. And if he had language in his severance agreement representing he didn't know of any legal violations by any of their employees, they may be right.

If he's in breach of his severance agreement, they may not have to pay the severance, or may get to demand he repay all or part of it.

The more common problem I see with language like this is that the severance agreement was presented after the employee raised issues of discrimination or blew the whistle on some illegal activity. My cure for that is to add to the clause, "that he hasn't already disclosed." That way, if he's disclosed race discrimination, unpaid wages or any other issues, he isn't lying that there were no such issues.

However, if you have any such language in your agreement, you'd better make sure you have disclosed every single legal violation you know of. Otherwise, you could be in trouble.

I'm not sure if Spanier's contract has this language. They seem to be alleging that he defrauded them by not disclosing material information, and that had they known he covered up Sandusky's misdeeds, they wouldn't have entered into the agreement. That's a whole 'nuther kettle of fish. Fraud is tough to prove. If they're trying to negate his contract based on fraud or some duty to disclose, I think they'll have a difficult time.

This case is a cautionary tale for anyone thinking about signing a severance agreement. Read it carefully and make sure you comply. If you can't, or it says something that isn't true, ask that it be changed before you sign.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Bye Bye Nursing Breaks: Preparing For The Trumpocalypse Part IV

If you are chomping at the bit to see the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, you probably don't know all that you are giving up. For instance, I bet you didn't realize that it was ObamaCare that brought us nursing breaks for moms.

That's right. It's the Fair Labor Standards Act which requires workplaces to give nursing moms reasonable breaks to express breast milk for a year after they give birth. The law also requires employers to provide a place, other than a restroom, shielded from view, free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

However, the amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act that requires employers to do what basic human decency would provide anyhow was part of the Affordable Care Act.

Will Trump's repeal of the Affordable Care Act result in a repeal of this law? Right now Republicans are talking about wholesale repeal, and then maybe a grace period to find alternatives (although some want a repeal with no grace period).

In all the discussions about this repeal and what needs to be preserved, I have heard zero discussion about protecting nursing moms. Considering that Mr. Trump has called pregnancy an inconvenience to employers (then denied saying it, but he did say it), it seems unlikely that he gives one flying hoot about nursing moms in the workplace.

If you think this is an important part of the Affordable Care Act to preserve, it's time to write and call your members of Congress and Senators to tell them family values includes basic decency for new moms.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Federal Contractors, You Don't Know What You've Got 'Til It's Gone: Preparing for the Trumpocalypse Part III

President-elect Trump has promised to undo all of President Obama's executive orders on day one of his presidency. If you are one of those middle class folks who voted for him, you may not realize what you voted for until he does it. If you work for a federal contractor, you will lose a whole heck of a lot if he keeps this promise.

Here's what you've got that may be gone soon:
  • Paid sick leave: You will be entitled to one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked, starting in 2017. Since this is just a few days before the President leaves office, this order will not have much chance to actually go into effect.
  • LGBT discrimination: Gender identity discrimination by contractors is now illegal, along with sexual orientation discrimination. There is no federal law prohibiting this type of discrimination, although EEOC has argued with mixed success that the laws against sex discrimination protect against sexual orientation and sexual identity discrimination. I'm guessing the new president will tell them to stop that as well.
  • $10.10 minimum wage: Starting January 1, 2016, contractors have had to pay $10.10/hour as a minimum wage, and $5.85/hour to tipped employees. If you've been counting on this extra pay, you may lose it soon, so start adjusting your budget.
  • Right to work for a successor company: For service contracts of $150,000 and up, if a new company displaces an existing company, the employees of the predecessor must be offered first shot at jobs under the new contract. Service employees have to be told of their right of first refusal by either posting a notice or giving individual notice to the predecessor contractor’s employees. The predecessor contractor has to provide its successor an employee list by 30 days before the end of the contract. Now, you may have no right to retain your job when a new company takes over.
  • Blacklisting for employment/labor law violations: Anyone applying or bidding for a federal contract of $500,000 or more must currently disclose any employment or labor law violation. They must 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 means that federal contractors need to be very afraid of things like a "cause" finding from EEOC as the law currently stands. Punishment for repeat offenders can be up to cancellation or denial of a contract. But I'm guessing they are fearing much less these days, as this law will go poof soon.
  • No mandatory arbitration: The same order that bans blacklisting also bans 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 applies to subcontractors providing services or supplies over $1 million. Starting in January, your employer may be able to require arbitration again.

As with many protections President Obama helped create for employees, you won't know what you've got 'til it's gone. The middle class is up for some rude surprises very soon. Next time, vote better.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What Happens When The Feds Decide To Enforce Marijuana Laws? Preparing For The Trumpocalypse Part II

While four more states legalized marijuana for recreational use and four passed medical marijuana laws, meaning a majority of states now have some form of legal marijuana, it looks like the Trump administration may step up enforcement on the federal level. What does this mean for workers who need marijuana for disabilities? Nothing good.

So far, seven states have passed laws banning discrimination against medical marijuana users in the workplace. However, states that have laws prohibiting discrimination against employees for engaging in legal off duty activities have pretty much universally decided that, since marijuana is still illegal on the federal level, using it even with a prescription still isn't a legal off duty activity. The Americans With Disabilities Act still doesn't cover medical marijuana as a reasonable accommodation due to its illegality on the federal level.

While it has been looking like the feds were not going to enforce marijuana laws and therefore states with legalized marijuana were on their own to decide how to regulate pot use, it now looks like that may be reversed under Trump. This will embolden employers who want to crack down on employees who use medical marijuana.

If you think you can use marijuana in your state and not be fired, even with a prescription, you might want to wait and see how things fall out with the Trump administration.

Another issue with stepped up enforcement will be whether you can be fired for an arrest or a conviction. In most states you can. Plus, in most states employers can refuse to hire you with a record. This means that even in states that have laws against discriminating against medical marijuana users, you may be out of luck if you are arrested by the feds for your prescription.

Then, of course, there's the issue of prison, which obviously is a major concern. All of this is pretty terrible news for folks with cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV, seizure disorders, Crohn's disease, epilepsy, concussion, Alzheimer's, bipolar disorder and other conditions that are helped by marijuana.

Bottom line is you'll have to wait and see what the Trump administration decides to do about marijuana before you get too comfortable using it for medical or recreational purposes.

Next time, vote better.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Preparing Yourself For The End of ObamaCare (Bracing for the Trumpocalypse Part I)

Well, Donald Trump is our President-elect. He has made a cascade of promises throughout the campaign, and many of them will affect the workplace. First up will be the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. That seems to be Republican priority number one. With control of the House, the Senate, the Presidency and soon the Supreme Court, they will get to do whatever they want for at least two years. So this is happening.

I'm going to write about all the laws/executive orders that will be affected by this so you can start to protect your family and yourself from economic disaster.

If you have a preexisting condition, it was ObamaCare that made it illegal to deny insurance coverage to you. That means when ObamaCare is appealed, you may never get insurance coverage again. If you are one of the 16.64 million Americans who are insured due to ObamaCare, you may lose that coverage. There has been some backpedaling such that maybe the preexisting condition provisions will stay when other provisions are repealed. We have no idea what, if anything, will replace the Affordable Care Act or if any of it will remain, and we have no idea how soon this may happen. I suggest preparing for repeal with zero replacement.

Here are some things you can do to help prepare yourself for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which could happen as early as January or February 2017:

  1. Ask your insurance company what they plan to do. If ObamaCare is appealed, you may be dropped by your insurance plan. The first thing to do is ask what they plan to do. They may not even know what they plan to do yet if ACA is repealed, so stay vigilant. Read all those inserts they send you. Set a Google alert for your insurance company name and "Affordable Care Act."
  2. Start looking for alternative plans. Find an insurance agent you trust who can point you to alternative plans if you lose coverage. Know which plan you will pick before you lose your insurance so you can switch quickly.
  3. Encourage your employer to have an insurance plan. I know this seems like a long shot, but many employers have health insurance to keep good employees, to improve morale and also to improve attendance. Healthy employees show up more. 
  4. Unionize. If your company won't provide insurance voluntarily, you have the right to discuss working conditions with coworkers and try to organize them. That includes the right to unionize. It may be time to unionize your workplace to protect yourselves against the upcoming war on workers.
  5. Look for a job with insurance. Now might be a good time to find alternative employment that does have insurance if your job doesn't cover you.
  6. Put money in your health care savings. Many employers offer a health savings account. If you have a preexisting condition and may not be able to keep insurance, this may be your best option for now. It won't stop the catastrophic loss that will occur if you are hospitalized, but it will help with regular doctor bills.
  7. Switch to your spouse's insurance. If your spouse's employer has insurance coverage, now is the time to switch from your Affordable Care Act insurance.

The Trump win has already affected the way I advise clients. I used to advise people who lose their jobs to look at their Affordable Care Act options along with COBRA, because ACA is almost always cheaper than COBRA, which is crazy expensive. It was nice while it lasted, but now I'm telling people not to sign up for ACA and to elect COBRA if they can because ACA won't be around much longer.

This is literally a matter of life and death for many people. Next time, vote better.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Facebook At Work: What's The Worst That Could Happen?

So Facebook came out with a yuge announcement that it has a brand new social platform in beta testing called "Facebook At Work." I know, huh? I gasped when I saw this announcement and if you've been doing employment law as long as I have (since dinosaurs roamed), you probably gasped too.

What the heck is Facebook thinking? Well, I know what they're thinking. They're thinking $$$$$. I'm thinking potential disaster. But there's more. Here's what Facebook says about this app:
Workplace gives users access to familiar features like Facebook Live video, Groups, Messenger, and a News Feed, but these Workplace accounts are separate from traditional personal Facebook accounts. The service is meant to help facilitate productive workplace discussion – similar to the popular communications tool Slack – rather than offering a chance zone out at your desk.

Workplace also offers a separate Work Chat app that can be downloaded for iOS and Android devices.

For those looking to connect with contacts in other companies, the service will also offer Multi-Company Groups, which are being called “shared spaces that allow employees from different organizations to work together.” These groups will be rolling out over the course of the next few weeks.
I just have to laugh so I won't bang my head against a wall, which my doctors would definitely frown on. I've written about how Facebook firings are rampant. Let's just talk about some possible disasters that could come from this before your company jumps on this bandwagon to hell:

  • Sexual harassment: How many cases have there been of social media sexual harassment? Too many to count. Yes, you can get accused of sexual harassment for posting museum photos of nude statues, passing on "funny" cartoons or making jokes about politics this season. And yes, employers, if this activity occurs on your social media platform guess who will be responsible? (Hint: it's you). On the other hand, social media can be used against sexual harassment victims too.
  • Race, national origin and other discrimination: Jokes about Bin Laden, Obama and Canadians abound on social media. What do you think will happen when they start circulating on your company social media platform? Who is going to police that? Because someone had better be watching carefully. As to employees, you can't treat Facebook At Work like your regular social media. 
  • Disability discrimination: Social media is a great way to find out more about your employees. Like whether they have a disability or a family member with a disability. And once you find out, what will happen when you try to fire them for poor performance? Nothing good.
  • NLRA: If employees criticize their workplace, working conditions or boss on this or any other social media, they are probably protected. Office gossip? Possibly protected. But there are some posts that can get you fired, so there's a fine line. And if you try to prohibit such discussions in the handbook, you may get slapped by NLRB.
There are lots of ways social media can go wrong already. And with millennials entering the workforce, we have workers who put their entire lives on display.

I'd think long and hard and consult with a management-side employment lawyer before using this new app in a workplace.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Noose In Workplace Doesn't Equal Discrimination, Says Court

People look at me like I'm crazy when I tell them that there are multiple cases saying a noose at work does not equal actionable race discrimination. Well, here's another one. This case was shocking even to me because coworkers testified that there had been multiple instances of nooses hung in this workplace. Plus, the employee claimed other instances of being treated differently than non-black employees.

Yet, in this case the 7th Circuit found that the employer did enough by reporting the incident to the police and leaving the rest to them. Here's what the court said:
Employers are strictly liable for supervisor harassment, Williams, 361 F.3d at 1029, but when a plaintiff claims that co-workers are responsible for the harassment, “he must show that his employer has ‘been negligent either in discovering or remedying the harassment,’” id., quoting Mason v. Southern Illinois University, 233 F.3d 1036, 1043 (7th Cir. 2000). There is no evidence that a supervisor was involved in leaving the noose, so Cole must instead present evidence allowing a reasonable jury to find that the university was negligent—which means in this context that it failed to take “prompt and appropriate corrective action reasonably likely to prevent the harassment from recurring,” Erie Foods, 576 F.3d at 636, quoting Tutman v. WBBM-TV, Inc./CBS, Inc., 209 F.3d 1044, 1048 (7th Cir. 2000). A prompt investigation is the first step toward a reasonable corrective action. See Erie Foods, 576 F.3d at 636, citing Lapka, 517 F.3d at 984.  
The undisputed facts here show that once Cole notified Richards of the discovery of the noose, she spoke to him about it (albeit insensitively, we must assume) and delivered her own notes on the incident to the university 16 No. 15-2305 police. She also reported the incident to Nicklas, then vice president of public safety and community relations, as well as Perez and Daurer. She did nothing more after that, but in these circumstances it was reasonable for the administration, having involved the university police, to leave the investigation to them.
The same would apply to a single instance of sexual grabbing, a single racial or other offensive slur, or other coworker harassment.

Bottom line is this: a single incident with a coworker, no matter how serious, is rarely going to equal a lawsuit against your employer. You have to report it under the company's harassment policy and give them a chance to correct the situation. They don't have to fire the person or take any specific action. They only have to assure it won't happen again. They don't have to tell you what action they took. And you can't just refuse to come back to work.

Not my rule. Don't blame me when I tell you that this is what the courts are saying. Talk to your legislators about changing the law. Better yet, vote well on Tuesday.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Now That My Office Is Closed For Hurricane Matthew, Do I Get Paid?

So I'm sitting here waiting to get hit by Hurricane Matthew, as is most of eastern Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas and I'm already bored. One of the worst parts of hurricanes is waiting in a shutter-enclosed cave, knowing havoc is about to be wreaked. What I do know is that almost every employer in the cone of concern is shut down right now.

It occurred to me that you may be wondering: do I get paid for this?

Whether you’re entitled to be paid when the office is closed depends on whether you are “exempt” salaried or not. Just being salaried doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t entitled to overtime. It’s possible to be salaried and still non-exempt from the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many employers misclassify employees as exempt to avoid paying overtime. If you work more than forty hours per week, it’s better to be non-exempt. But in the case of weather and emergency closings, it’s probably better to be exempt.

Exempt employees: If you’re exempt and you worked any portion of the work week, you have to be paid your entire salary, whether or not the office is closed for a natural disaster such as hurricane, snow, tornado, or flood. Further, Department of Labor regulations state, “If the employee is ready, willing and able to work, deductions may not be made for time when work is not available.” This would include natural disasters, so if you are able to work after a storm then you must be paid even if you didn’t work any portion of the week. If you can’t get there on time or have to leave early due to the flooding but the office is open, they can’t deduct for any partial days you worked.

Vacation time and PTO: Your employer can deduct from your vacation time or PTO for the time taken. However, if you have no accrued vacation or PTO time available, they still can’t deduct from your pay if you’re exempt.

Non-exempt employees
: If you are non-exempt, then your employer doesn’t have to pay for the time the office is closed. However, if your company takes deductions and you’re a non-exempt salaried employee it may affect the way overtime is calculated.

Who Is Exempt?: You’re not exempt unless you fall into very specific categories, such as executives, administrative employees, or learned professionals. Plus, your job duties must fall within those categories, not just your title. In addition, your employer must treat you as exempt by not docking your pay when you miss work. This is one of those rare times when it's better to be exempt, so be glad the new rules expanding entitlement to overtime don't go into effect until December i.

Pay For Reporting To Work: If you report to work after a natural disaster, only to find out that the workplace is closed (assuming they didn’t notify you), many states have laws that require your employer to pay you a set minimum amount of time if you show up as scheduled. Florida has no such requirement (so maybe it’s a good time to start complaining to your legislators).

If you’re hit with the big storm, get in touch with your supervisor or manager as soon as possible to find out whether or not you’re expected to be at work. If you can’t get in touch with anyone, then only go in if it’s safe for you to do so.

Stay safe!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Can You Be Fired For Your Facebook Posts? Yes (With Exceptions)

Do I really have to tell you to watch what you say on social media? Apparently I really do because I run into people all too often who were fired for inappropriate postings, emails, texts, or other comments. My best advice is this: don't put anything in writing that you don’t want posted on the front page of the company newsletter.

Examples of social media firings I've heard of that stand out are posting cruise pictures while on FMLA leave (doh!), posting a foul curse-laden rant about the company (probably legally protected), posting a photo of a nude museum statue (a coworker complained of sexual harassment even though they weren’t FB friends), and posting pictures of an office party gone wild (with some resulting retaliation by a boss captured on film). Basically, I’d say use your judgment and think twice, then think again before you post, whether pictures or just your thoughts. If you don’t think it would go over well on the company newsletter front page, don’t post it.

That being said, although HR does get involved in employee social media posts, 90% of the time it’s none of their business. And the NLRB would agree with me to the extent that employees have the right to gripe about and discuss working conditions. However, if the comments are racist, sexist or otherwise demonstrate that you are inclined toward unlawful discrimination or harassment, then I’d say it depends on the situation. You might be someone HR would want to give extra scrutiny to regarding your workplace behavior. 

But if you posted, say, a Nazi symbol on your Instagram but acted respectful and considerate of coworkers at all time, then I’d go back to my position that it’s none of HR’s business. On the other hand, posting a Nazi symbol, sexist comments or other evidence of a bias means that, if HR is watching or finds out about it, they’re on notice of the employee’s propensity to discriminate. If you do it at work, then the company could be strictly liable. So it’s a balancing act. You probably want to avoid being on that HR tightrope by watching what you post.

Most times it’s better for HR not to know what people are posting unless it somehow becomes disruptive at work. If HR is checking employee social media, they may accidentally find out about your disability, pregnancy, sexual orientation or other protected status and subject the company to potential discrimination claims.

If HR is going to scrutinize social media, personal emails written on work devices or other things that employees may think are none of their business, then HR should make a written policy and put people on notice. Otherwise, it will become a morale issue.

Some states have laws protecting employees for being fired for legal off-duty activities. Those laws may protect employees who post on their own time. 

For political posts, some states have laws that may help. For instance, in Washington State, it's illegal to retaliate against employees for failing to support a candidate, ballot position or political party.
California, Colorado, New York, North Dakota and Louisiana, say it's illegal to retaliate against an employee for their off-duty participation in politics or political campaigns. In Florida, it's a felony to "discharge or threaten to discharge any employee in his or her service for voting or not voting in any election, state, county, or municipal, for any candidate or measure submitted to a vote of the people." Here in Broward County, it's illegal to fire employees based upon political affiliation.

So you do have some legal protection for some social media posts. However, use caution, especially during political season.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Trump Campaign Noncompete Agreements May Break Multiple Laws

You may have seen that the Trump campaign is imposing confidentiality and noncompete agreements on its staffers that are quite broad. Here's the agreement, posted online. It's a great example of what not to do. Let's take a look at what they did wrong for a moment.

Election law: The agreement is with The Trump Organization. If Wikipedia has it right, “The Trump Organization (formerly Elizabeth Trump & Son) is an American privately owned international conglomerate based in Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. It serves as the principal holding company for Donald Drumpf's [okay, so some John Oliver fan has been playing with the site, but I think the rest is correct] business ventures and investments.” So they may well be violating election laws here because it is the campaign, not “the Trump Organization” that should be hiring campaign workers. If they work for The Trump Organization, then there are some serious in-kind contribution issues going on. On the other hand, if they are being paid by the campaign, why is the campaign paying for legal issues relating to his family members? I wonder if the Federal Election Commission has already opened an investigation on this.

National Labor Relations Act: Onto the employment law issues, NLRB has been cracking down on non-disparagement agreements that seem to prevent or discourage criticism of management during employment, and this one does that. An example is Quicken Loans, Inc., 359 NLRB No. 141 (June 21, 2013), where an administrative law judge found that a similar provision would have a chilling effect on employees who wanted to discuss working conditions. The judge said the "line between lawful and unlawful restrictions is very thin and often difficult to discern." The judge found the agreement language violated the law and that prohibiting disclosure of "non-public information relating to . . . the Company's business, personnel . . . all personnel lists, personal information of co-workers . . . personnel information such as home phone numbers, cell phone numbers, addresses and email addresses" would hinder employees' exercise of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.

Antitrust: I don’t know what level employees that The Trump Organization is imposing these agreements at, but there can be serious antitrust issues if the company has no legitimate interest to protect other than preventing competition. The New York AG has been going after companies imposing noncompetes with no legitimate interest. A good example is the Jimmy John’s case. The FTC and Department of Justice also have antitrust divisions that could scrutinize a noncompete agreement imposed solely to prevent competition. Here are some pieces I’ve written on topic:

Non-Compete Agreements Can't Be Used to Prevent Competition

Low-Wage Worker Noncompetes? Can You Say Antitrust?

I'm not the only one who has noticed problems with these agreements. For an excellent analysis of some legal problems with this agreement, take a look at Robert Teachout's piece on SHRM's website, Trump Noncompete Agreement Draws Criticism.

So if you're drafting a noncompete or confidentiality agreement, the Trump campaign's agreement is a good example of what not to do. If your employer's agreement looks a lot like this one, it may be time to get some legal advice from an employee-side employment lawyer in your state, because the laws on noncompete agreements vary from state to state.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Is Retaliation Illegal? Sometimes

Lots of people approach me every week and say they feel they were retaliated against. I usually have to ask, "Retaliation for what?" I think there's a basic misunderstanding of what retaliation is, and when it's illegal. The first part of the problem is understanding retaliation itself. Webster's defines retaliation as:
To do something bad to someone who has hurt you or treated you badly : to get revenge against someone
So retaliation = revenge.

The next issue, which is the core problem in retaliation cases, is whether what you did that was "bad" in your employer's eyes is something that is legally protected against retaliation. Here are some examples:

1. Complaining about your boss being incompetent: Your boss is pretty much guaranteed to retaliate if you complain about him to management. If you complain that he's incompetent, you have zero legal protection. He's allowed to exact his revenge. However, if you discuss with coworkers that your boss is a terrible manager and you go to his boss or HR to discuss improving your working conditions on behalf of yourself and your coworkers, then you may well be protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

2. Complaining about illegal activity: If you complain that a coworker or your boss is embezzling company funds, taking kickbacks or stealing company property, you probably have zero legal protection (if the company is publicly traded, you may have some protection as an SEC whistleblower, but most people have no protection). And I see it happen time after time, that an employee reports that a coworker is ripping the company off and they are retaliated against. However, if you complain that he's trying to make you defraud Medicaid or do something else that's illegal on behalf of the company, you may well be a protected whistleblower.

3. Complaining about bullying, hostile environment or harassment: Bullying is only illegal in Tennessee, and only if you're a government employee in Tennessee. Complaining about bullying comes with zero legal protection against retaliation. If you complain that you're in a hostile environment or being harassed, you're complaining about bullying. Again, zero legal protection. However, bullies tend to pick on the weak and the different. If you report that the bully is targeting you or others around you based on race, age, sex, national origin, religion, disability, pregnancy or other legally protected status, then you have legal protection against retaliation. You have to add the discrimination piece to have legal protection. 

The other possible legal protection if you complain about bullying is the National Labor Relations Act. If you discuss with coworkers that the bully is making life miserable and you go to management or HR to report this on behalf of coworkers and yourself (and you aren't a supervisor, and you are otherwise covered under the NLRA) then you may be legally protected against retaliation.

4. FMLA, worker's comp claims, disability accommodations: You do have legal protection against retaliation for seeking a remedy under many employment law statutes. If you take Family and Medical Leave, make a worker's comp claim or seek accommodations for a disability, you are likely protected against retaliation. However, if you just take sick time or vacation time, most states have no law protecting you against retaliation for that.

5. Complaining to police: If you're punched in the face by a coworker or threatened, most states don't legally protect you against retaliation for going to the police. However, EEOC says, in its latest guidance on retaliation, "it is protected opposition for an employee to contact the police seeking criminal prosecution of a coworker who engaged in a workplace assault motivated by disability, race, or sex, even though it is not a complaint to a manager or to a government agency that enforces EEO laws." So you're legally protected if your coworker punched you due to your religion or race. You're also legally protected if you file a police report about rape at work. 

6. Complaining to DOL, OSHA, EEOC: If you go to the Department of Labor to complain about unpaid overtime, OSHA to complain about workplace safety issues or EEOC to file a charge of discrimination, you are always legally protected against retaliation.

So you can see that retaliation is mostly legal. However, in many situations it only takes a little change in your complaint or activity to be legally protected against retaliation. The way you complain makes all the difference. Think carefully before you make a complaint at work if you want to prevent retaliation.

Friday, August 26, 2016

More States Pass Domestic Violence Victim Workplace Protection

Domestic violence victims have enough problems without also having to deal with coworkers stigmatizing them and possibly getting fired. The trend is for states to protect sexual violence from workplace discrimination.

Most recently, five states enacted paid sick leave laws that include requiring paid leave for domestic violence victims. Those states are Vermont, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts and Oregon. These are overall paid sick leave laws that protect both domestic violence victims and employees who need time off to care for victims of domestic violence. The paid leave accrues depending on each state’s law.

I frequently raunch on Florida for being so anti-employee, but I have to give my home state props for being one of nineteen states that have laws protecting employees who become domestic violence victims. Here is a brief summary of the state and local laws protecting domestic violence victims from employment discrimination:

  • Indiana prohibits discrimination for either filing a petition for a protective order or for actions taken by the abuser. It also provides that employer and employee may mutually agree to accommodations.
  • Delaware’s law makes it illegal to discriminate against domestic violence victims and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations such as schedule changes or changes in job duties.
  • North Dakota allows state employees up to 40 hours of sick leave for domestic violence victims and their family members.
  • Massachusetts' law requires employers with 50 or more employees to give up to 15 days off for medical attention, securing new housing, court proceedings and other needs related to the domestic violence.
  • New Jersey's law says an employee/victim is entitled to time off for treatment or counseling, and also says they have to be allowed to attend legal proceedings, civil or criminal, relating to the incident.  
  • California law says an employer can't fire an employee for being a domestic violence victim, and it also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to secure the workplace for the victim's safety. Employers with 25 employees or more must grant victims reasonable leave to deal with court dates and other issues relating to the domestic violence.
  • Florida law grants domestic violence victims up to 3 days of protected leave. Employers cannot discharge, demote, suspend, retaliate or otherwise discriminate against an employee for exercising their rights to domestic violence leave. To our legislature's credit, this law has been in place since 2007, so we were a whopping 7 years ahead of pro-employee Massachusetts for a change. Miami-Dade County has an ordinance providing for up to 30 days of protected leave.
  • Colorado provides up to 3 days of leave if the employer has 50 or more employees.
  • Connecticut provides for up to 12 days of leave and bans discrimination against domestic violence victims.
  • Washington DC has a sliding scale for leave depending on how large the employer is.
  • Hawaii also has a protected leave, the amount of which depends on the size of the employer. Employers can't discriminate against victims and also must provide reasonable accommodations.
  • Illinois law requires reasonable accommodations, prohibits discrimination and 8 - 12 weeks of protected leave, depending on the size of the employer
  • Kansas law says employers can't discriminate against domestic violence victims who need time off.
  • Maine law grants reasonable protected domestic violence leave.
  • New Mexico provides up to 14 days of protected leave.
  • New York state prohibits discrimination against domestic violence victims. New York City and Westchester County require reasonable accommodations for domestic violence victims.
  • North Carolina prohibits discrimination against victims for taking reasonable domestic violence leave.
  • Oregon requires employers with 6 or more employees to grant reasonable leave and prohibits discrimination. Portland also requires protected domestic violence leave.
  • Rhode Island prohibits discrimination.
  • Washington provides reasonable leave. Seattle has its own leave ordinance and also bars discrimination.
  • Philadelphia provides leave depending on the size of the employer.

proposed federal law to protect domestic violence victims from discrimination at work went nowhere. Wouldn't it be good to have some uniform protections? Who the heck is against protecting domestic violence victims? Do we really think that getting beaten up should be grounds for termination? 

A pretty good summary of state laws up through September 2015 is here. It should also be noted that many states have laws protecting crime victims from being punished for missing time from work to testify in criminal proceedings.

Many states have laws protecting crime victims, allowing them time off from work to testify and/or recover. If the domestic violence causes a serious medical condition, then the employee may also be entitled to Family and Medical Leave if they qualify.

If you think domestic violence victims have enough problems without also having to worry about being fired, talk to your state legislators and members of Congress and ask them to pass more legal protections for this vulnerable group of employees.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dear HR: Stop Telling Employees They Can't Apply For FMLA Until They Use Their Vacation

For about the dozenth time this year, I heard another sob story about an employee who absolutely qualified for FMLA leave, yet was told by HR that they couldn't apply until they used up their vacation or PTO time. This is wrong on so many levels, and it screws both the employee and the employer. So stop it.

Seriously. Stop it.

It screws up the employee because their boss assumes they're taking unprotected leave and so those sick and vacation days used for hospital stays, doctor visits and caregiving responsibilities are held against the employee in reviews, consideration for promotions, and discipline.

It screws up the employer because once the employer knows leave should be covered by FMLA, the employer's legal duties under FMLA kick in:
When an employee requests FMLA leave or the employer acquires knowledge that leave may be for a FMLA purpose, the employer must notify the employee of his or her eligibility to take leave, and inform the employee of his or her rights and responsibilities under the FMLA. When the employer has enough information to determine that leave is being taken for a FMLA-qualifying reason, the employer must notify the employee that the leave is designated and will be counted as FMLA leave.

 FMLA is mostly about unpaid leave, but employees do NOT have to use all their paid leave before applying:.

Employees may choose to use, or employers may require the employee to use, accrued paid leave to cover some or all of the FMLA leave taken. Employees may choose, or employers may require, the substitution of accrued paid vacation or personal leave for any of the situations covered by FMLA. The substitution of accrued sick or family leave is limited by the employer's policies governing the use of such leave.
The consequence to employers can be severe. First of all, the employee may be entitled to more leave than you're legally required to give if you mess this up. Second, if the employee's leave should have been designated as FMLA and wasn't, and you hold that time off against them, you're talking FMLA lawsuits plus disability discrimination lawsuits.

Employees, if you qualify for FMLA (you've been there at least a year AND worked 1250 hours or more in the past 12 months AND there are 50 or more employees of the employer within 75 miles of your work location) then don't believe HR when they say you can't apply. As soon as you know you have a serious medical condition and will need doctor's appointments or medical treatment, apply for intermittent leave. Employers frequently forget about intermittent leave, and it's a good thing. Here's more from the Department of Labor on intermittent leave:

(Q) Does an employee have to take leave all at once or can it be taken periodically or to reduce the employee’s schedule?
When it is medically necessary, employees may take FMLA leave intermittently – taking leave in separate blocks of time for a single qualifying reason – or on a reduced leave schedule – reducing the employee’s usual weekly or daily work schedule. When leave is needed for planned medical treatment, the employee must make a reasonable effort to schedule treatment so as not to unduly disrupt the employer’s operation.
Leave to care for or bond with a newborn child or for a newly placed adopted or foster child may only be taken intermittently with the employer’s approval and must conclude within 12 months after the birth or placement. 
(Q) Can an employer change an employee’s job when the employee takes intermittent or reduced schedule leave?
Employees needing intermittent/reduced schedule leave for foreseeable medical treatments must work with their employers to schedule the leave so as not disrupt the employer’s operations, subject to the approval of the employee’s health care provider. In such cases, the employer may transfer the employee temporarily to an alternative job with equivalent pay and benefits that accommodate recurring periods of leave better than the employee’s regular job.
So, HR folks, can we agree that you'll stop telling employees they can't apply for FMLA until they use their vacation? And employees, feel free to show them this post if they say that.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Follow Trump's Advice, Lose Your Sexual Harassment Case

By now you've probably heard Donald Trump's advice to sexual harassment victims: just quit your job. The problem with this (besides the fact that not everyone is a billionaire who can quit without having a job lined up) is that if you do quit, you may well give up your right to sue for sexual harassment.

You see, the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, says that if your employer has a published sexual harassment policy, you have to report sexual harassment according to the policy and give them a chance to fix it. Only if they don't fix it, or if retaliation occurs, can you then sue.

Quitting makes things even more difficult. In order to sue for lost wages, you have to show that you were forced to quit. In legal terms, that you were constructively discharged. If you quit, you have to prove that the workplace was so awful due to retaliation or sexual harassment that no reasonable person would stay. When you have a jury of unemployed folks and people working minimum wage jobs with abusive bully bosses, that's going to be a tough thing to convince them.

Also, if you just quit then the harasser will continue their harassment. They'll just pick another victim. So if you don't report it, don't file with EEOC, and say nothing, you guarantee another employee will be sexually harassed.

Here's what you have to do if you want to stop a sexual harasser:

a. Read your handbook: There should be a sexual harassment policy. If it isn't there, the employer is also supposed to have a poster in the break room or other prominent area saying how to report it.

b. Report it in writing: If there's an 800 number, forget that. Report it in writing to HR or someone in management. Otherwise, HR will deny you reported sexual harassment. They'll claim you reported "unfair treatment" or something else not legally protected against retaliation (if they admit you reported anything at all).

c. Tell a coworker: If you don't tell others who work with the harasser what is happening to you and that you've reported it, then the harasser may well move on to an easier victim. The NLRB says your employer can't prohibit you from discussing sexual harassment with coworkers (assuming you aren't a supervisor or in management).

d. Keep notes: Write down each instance, with dates, what happened and names of witnesses. Keep copies of texts and emails. Keep your notes and evidence at home so they can't take it away and conveniently lose it if you're fired.

e. Don't wait: You have either 180 days or 300 days from the sexual harassment to file with EEOC if they don't fix the situation. Don't delay.

f. Talk to a lawyer: If you think you have a sexual harassment or retaliation claim, talk to an employment lawyer in your state.

Don't follow Trump's advice. Don't let a sexual harasser drive you out of a job unless you have another job lined up.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Massachusetts Legislators Fail To Protect Citizens Against Abusive Noncompetes. Again

For a second year in a row, Massachusetts legislators introduced legislation to ban or severely limit the use of noncompete agreements in their state. And for the second year in a row, those efforts failed. Things looked hopeful for awhile, as both houses passed legislation, but then legislators couldn't agree on a compromise. So for the time being the citizens of Massachusetts will have to put up with being limited in their ability to leave their jobs.

This is not a small inconvenience. The White House estimates that 18% of American workers are now covered by noncompete agreements, many of them low wage workers. Jimmy John's has faced two antitrust investigations of its sandwich maker noncompetes. Dog groomers, fast food workers, data entry clerks and other low-level workers are prohibited from working for competitors of their employer for a year or two after they leave, whether they leave voluntarily or are fired because their boss didn't like their shirt or was in a bad mood.

Noncompete agreements are bad for business, bad for innovation, and are certainly bad for workers. Employers can use noncompetes to suppress wages, force employees to stay in abusive jobs, and blackmail employees into feeling trapped in their jobs. So it's a shame the Massachusetts legislature adjourned without a fix.

At least Massachusetts is trying to help their citizens, unlike my home state of Florida, one of the worst states in the nation for employees who want to escape noncompete restrictions. Other states have passed restrictions on noncompetes. Delaware and Colorado ban noncompetes for physicians. Some employees are fighting them through unions. Hawaii banned noncompetes for technology workers and New Mexico banned them for health care workers. Some states ban "sign or be fired" agreements presented after employees start working. Others require pre-hire notice to potential employees that a noncompete will be required. Some allow employees to claim that enforcing a noncompete agreement will cause them undue hardship.

An attempt by Democratic members of Congress to ban them for low wage workers has failed. Now the White House is investigating noncompete agreements and is seeking input from people who have been subjected to unreasonable restrictions.

Bottom line is that it takes real citizens raising holy hell with state and federal legislators and regulators to get the law changed. While there have been efforts to change or limit abusive noncompete agreements, nothing will change unless you speak out. Had the citizens of Massachusetts bombarded legislators with emails and phone calls asking for reform, this year's efforts wouldn't have stalled. So if you think employers shouldn't be able to prevent employees from working for competitors, then call your state legislators and members of Congress and tell them so.

Friday, June 10, 2016

10 Things Every Teen And Young Adult Should Know About Workplace Rights

If you're in high school or college, odds are you're looking for or starting a summer job or internship. Maybe you're even working during the school year. Of course, your school gave you detailed preparation on what your legal rights are when you work. Right? Ha. Not a chance. Schools do roughly zip to prepare teens for the real world workplace. You have to figure this stuff out on your own.

If you're new to the workplace or getting ready to apply for an internship, this is the article for you.
If you are the parent, relative, guardian or friend of a teen or young adult who is about to enter the workforce, do them a favor and print, tweet, email (do teens email?), text, Instagram or Pinterest this to them. (You can probably forget about Facebooking it to them since they all fled when their parents got on Facebook.)

Here's what your high school or college probably didn't teach you about workplace rights:
  1. Sexual harassment: In most states, and certainly here in Florida, sexual harassment of interns is not illegal. Yes, that is horrifying, but true. However, if you are an employee, sexual harassment is illegal as long as you work for a company with at least 15 employees (in Florida it's five in Broward, Dade or in Tampa). If you are put in an uncomfortable situation at work with inappropriate comments, jokes, or even sexual advances, you need to report it right away to HR, preferably in writing. For more on sexual harassment, check out my article How to Prove Sexual Harassment.
  2. At-will: If you live anywhere but Montana, your employment is probably at-will, meaning your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all (with some exceptions). They can fire you because they're in a bad mood, because they didn't like your shirt, or because you lipped off to them like you lip off to your parents. Exceptions that would make a firing illegal include firing due to discrimination, making a worker's comp claim, and blowing the whistle on illegal activity of the company. If your boss tells you to do something that isn't illegal (or sexual harassment), then do it. No eye-rolling, back-talk or attitude.
  3. Bullying: Does your school have zero tolerance for bullying? Boy, are you in for a shock. No federal or state law exists that prohibits workplace bullying. However, workplace bullies are very much like school bullies: they focus on the weak and the different. If you need to complain about a bully, make sure you do it in a way that's protected. If the bully is picking on the weak, are they weak because of a disability, pregnancy, or age? If they're picking on the different, is the difference based on race, national origin, age, or religion? If you report illegal discrimination, the law protects you from retaliation. If you report bullying, no law protects you. For more on workplace bullying, check out my articles Help! My Boss Is An Abusive Jerk and 7 Ways To Protect Yourself If Your Boss Is A Bully.
  4. Discrimination: Discrimination against you for being you isn't illegal. However, discrimination and harassment due to race, sex, sexual identity, national origin, disability, religion, color, pregnancy and genetic information are. In some states, there are more categories of illegal discrimination. Whether sexual orientation is a protected category depends on your state and local law. The EEOC says sexual orientation discrimination as part of the laws against sex discrimination, but we'll have to wait to see if the courts agree. Discrimination laws don't apply to everyone. If you're an intern, independent contractor or work for a company with fewer than 15 employees, you may have no legal protection against discrimination.
  5. Human Resources: If your employer is big enough, you probably have someone who is designated as the Human Resources person or a whole department called "Human Resources." It may be referred to as HR. This is the place to go for information about work rules, to report sexual harassment or discrimination, and you'll probably have to go there on your first day to fill out a stack of forms. While they can be very helpful if you have questions or concerns, they aren't your buddies. Human Resources represents your employer, not you. They aren't your mom or your best friend, so don't go to them with every petty complaint, confess you did something wrong, or tell them about the wild party you went to over the weekend. Keep it professional. For more on HR, check out my articleHR Wants To Meet! What Do I Do?
  6. Contracts: In most states, if you're under 18 you can't be bound by a contract, including an employment contract. You (or your parents) can void a contract you've signed while underage. However, once you turn 18, you probably can't void it anymore. Employment contracts might have provisions saying you can't work for a competitor for a year or two, waiving your right to a jury trial, confidentiality obligations, and other important clauses. If you are asked to sign a contract, always read it and keep a copy once you've signed. If you don't understand it, talk to your parents or an employment lawyer in your state about it.
  7. Social Media and Cell Phones: You are expected to work during work hours. That means no texting, emailing, calling, social media, downloading, or surfing at work, unless it's work-related. If you check your texts, emails, or social media on a company computer, cell phone or other device, the company probably has the right to look at it. If you view or send inappropriate pictures, jokes, or videos, you can be fired for doing so. There is very little privacy in the workplace, and you have few rights. Assume you're being watched at all times at work and you won't go wrong. Oh, and remember all those party pics and embarrassing photos you posted before you started applying for work? Employers and potential employers can see them. You probably want to check your social media pages and pull down anything you can that might be inappropriate for an employer to see. For more on workplace privacy, check out my article 10 New (And Legal) Ways Your Employer Is Spying On You.
  8. Dangerous Work: It is every employer's duty to maintain a safe workplace. If you think your workplace is unsafe, you can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report dangerous conditions and get more information. Certain jobs are deemed too hazardous for teens under 18 to do.
  9. What Kind Of Work You Can Do: Depending on your age, there may be limits on the type of work you can do. If you are under 14, you can work, but your options are limited. You can deliver newspapers, babysit, act or perform, work as a homeworker gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths, or work for a business owned by your parents as long as it's not mining, manufacturing or one of the occupations designated as hazardous. If you are 14 or 15, you can do things like retail, lifeguarding, running errands, creative work, computer work, clean-up and yard work that doesn't use dangerous equipment, some food service and other restaurant work, some grocery work, loading and unloading, and even do some work in sawmills and wood shops. We're talking non-manufacturing and non-hazardous jobs only. If you are 16 or 17, you can do any job that isn't labeled as hazardous.
  10. Handbook: Read your employee handbook. It contains important information about discrimination, workplace rules, calling in sick and other things you need to know.
Of course, my book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired can help anyone new to the workplace since it covers how to handle workplace crises and issues from the interview and application, to your first day and that giant stack of papers, to workplace disputes, to promotions, to termination, and even post-termination. Plus, I write here every week about workplace rights.

Good luck with your summer job! May you never need an employment lawyer.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hey, Frontier: Suspending Women For Breastfeeding Is Illegal

The story about Frontier Airline's treatment of female pilots who are breastfeeding and need to pump while at work wasn't very surprising to me, because employers still get the whole pumping-at-work thing wrong. Here's what the four pilots who just filed with EEOC say happened:

"Rather than support me, company management questioned my parenting choices as well as my commitment to my career. They even questioned why I didn’t switch to formula,” pilot Shannon Kiedrowski said in a blog post about the complaint. 
Kiedrowski said she and the other pilots were put on unpaid leave at 32 weeks and weren’t allowed to perform other work for the airline. Women who are in their late third trimester are usually discouraged from flying. 
When they returned to work, the company offered no accommodations for breastfeeding mothers, they said. Three of the pilots said they suffered breast infections because they couldn't pump regularly, due to work-schedule demands, and Kiedrowski said she received unspecified discipline for pumping aboard an airplane.

I'm not sure why employers get this so wrong. First of all, twenty-seven states have laws protecting women from breastfeeding discrimination at work. Florida is not one of them, by the way (so wake up, Florida legislators). But Colorado, where this story took place, is one of them. The states protecting women are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming, plus DC and Puerto Rico.

Women were still having problems with this issue in the other 23 states when Congress finally woke up in 2010 and passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which, among other things amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth each time such employee has need to express milk, and a private place other than a bathroom for her to do so. (This law only applies to employees who are not exempt from overtime.)

Then there were some weird cases where judges said pregnancy discrimination didn't include discrimination against women who were lactating because lactation was not a condition caused by pregnancy. Doh!

But then the Supremes came out with the Young v. UPS case saying employers had to accommodate women with pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions the same as other employees. So now I think it seems clear that an employer has to accommodate a breastfeeding mom who needs some breaks to express breast milk the same they'd treat a man with prostate problems who has to take frequent breaks to express, um, pee. EEOC certainly agrees that allowing time to express breast milk is a reasonable accommodation for pregnant women.

Bottom line: I don't care if your employer thinks it's icky. They still have to grant you reasonable time to express breast milk during work hours, in a private place that is not a bathroom. and they can't just suspend you without pay because they think it's gross or inconvenient.

Friday, April 8, 2016

North Carolina Now Requires Men To Use Your Employer's Ladies' Room

If you work in North Carolina, be warned: your employer now has to require men to use the ladies' room. Not all men, but some men. These men have beards, mustaches, and yes, penises. But they have to use the ladies' room due to a new law just signed by your governor. And if you're a business, you are now legally required to humiliate some customers and allow others to be frightened. This law was meant to attack the LGBT community, but it will have some unintended consequences.

As I sat writing this I looked over one of the most beautiful vistas on the planet. You see, I was on vacation in North Carolina, a place I truly love. The people here are so nice. So what the heck is going on with the North Carolina legislature? How did this lovely place turn into the epicenter of a nasty anti-LGBT potty obsession?

While I was on vacation enjoying spring in the mountains, the North Carolina legislature enacted an ugly set of laws attacking the LGBT community. The worst of these is a law requiring businesses to only allow people to use the restroom designated for their "biological sex" defined as "The physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person's birth certificate."

So let's think about the effect of this really stupid bill.  Here are just some of the ridiculous consequences that will result:

  • You're a business owner. A major client was born male but dresses as a female, considers herself female, and has had the operation to become female. You can't let her use the ladies' room. Bye, bye client.
  • You're in the ladies' room. A person who dresses like a male, has a beard, and a low voice enters the ladies' room. Oh, yeah. He has a penis. It turns out the male was born female. Not only do you have to let him use the facility, but the business owner can't try to prevent this. 
  • You were born male but dress as a female. You consider yourself female. Your coworkers and boss have accepted you as a female. Your employer can't let you use the ladies' room. You have to use the men's room, explain to customers why you are in the men's room, and risk being attacked in the men's room by anyone who is either homophobic or just a rapist. 
  • You're an employer. Your employee is a female who identifies as male. He dresses like a male, has taken hormones that cause him to have a beard, and goes by a male name. You have to require him to use the ladies' room. Your female employees object and say it's sexual harassment to have him there. Female customers object. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't let him use the men's room. 
  • Your top female customer has a male autistic child age 7. You have to stop her from taking him in the restroom with her because the law has an exemption only for children under age 7 to accompany an adult of the opposite sex. She has to leave this child unaccompanied outside the restroom if she really has to go.

As a female who identifies as female, I really don't appreciate the North Carolina legislature telling me that I have to share the ladies' room with a female-born who identifies as a male. As a parent, I don't appreciate the legislature telling parents they have to leave their children unaccompanied if they need to use the facilities. As a business owner, I wouldn't appreciate the North Carolina legislature telling me I have to humiliate a client or an employee.

The good news is that this is a law with zero teeth. The North Carolina legislature included no penalties in the law for violations. There is no criminal or civil penalty if you break this law. What are business supposed to do? Demand to see a birth certificate before entry to the restroom? There is absolutely no way for businesses to practically monitor their restrooms to enforce this law. Plus, business risk violating federal anti-discrimination laws if they enforce this new law.

My advice to the transgendered: use the restroom you feel comfortable in. My advice to parents: take the kid with you. My advice to employers: don't get involved in employee potty issues. They just want to pee.

If you're transgender and want to understand your rights in North Carolina, talk to an employment lawyer in your state.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Florida Adds "Financial Information" To List of Trade Secrets That Can Get You Tossed In Jail

Florida continues to be one of the worst states in the nation for employees. Zippo has passed so far in favor of employees this legislative session, but legislators thought, "Gee, Florida just isn't rotten enough for employees. Let's make it worse."

So they added the very broad category of "financial information" to the list of trade secrets that, if taken, can land employees in jail. What is financial information? Anything with numbers on it, including the office pool on Mary Lou's due date? Only banking and accounting documents? Who knows? Did the Republican legislature think to define it? Nope.

Still, in order to prove this crime, the prosecution will also have to prove that the information was:
1. Secret;
2. Of value;
3. For use or in use by the business; and
4. Of advantage to the business, or providing an opportunity to obtain an advantage, over those who do not know or use it when the owner thereof takes measures to prevent it from becoming available to persons other than those selected by the owner to have access thereto for limited purposes.
So taking a post-it with "$1.00" written on is is probably not enough for a conviction, but when you're gathering up documents to prove how much you're owed in commissions or to prove discrimination, you need to be careful. Some poor schmo will be the first person to get the honor of testing the constitutionality of this very broad law. Don't let it be you.

Employers already had the remedy of injunction and money damages if employees took and used trade secrets to form their own company or help a competitor, so this seems like overkill. But there's nothing this legislature seems to think is too harsh to impose on Florida working folks.

Vote well, people. Vote well.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Employment Law Blog Carnival (#ELBC) Freaky February Holiday Edition

February isn't just Valentine's Day, despite what the greeting card and flower industries would like you to believe. February ought to be designated National Weird Holiday Month, because it is filled with odd and different holiday celebrations. Since I'm honored to be hosting the Employment Law Blog Carnival this month, featuring the best employment law blogs around in one handy place, I get to share some of these unusual holidays with you.

February 2: Groundhog Day

In honor of the holiday that has large rodents predict the weather while we deny scientific evidence of global warming, Michael D. Haberman at Omega HR Solutions gives us If Lily Ledbetter sees her shadow does that mean more government regulation?

February 8: Laugh and Get Rich Day

Okay, so you won't get rich on unemployment. But Philip Miles at Lawoffice Space explains in The Unemployment Compensation Retaliation Exception to "At Will" Employment how the law protects you from being fired for claiming unemployment benefits. Which seems like it would be impossible, since you have to be unemployed to get unemployment, right? But read this post for an interesting and rare situation. Then collect your benefits and laugh all the way to the bank.

February 9: Toothache Day

I question why we need to honor toothaches, but there you have it. Eric Meyer's post in The Employer Handbook, The 24/7 world of social media can bite your employees when they least expect it reminds us that employees who aren't careful with their social media posts may get bitten by their posts. So I guess it's social media that will get the toothache? Okay, it's a stretch, but how can I resist a day honoring tooth pain?

February 11: Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk Day

When an employee reports discrimination or something else illegal, the temptation is to retaliate. But maybe employers should remember their mother's caution: don't cry over spilled milk. Once the cat's out of the bag, you can't retaliate, at least not legally. Check out William Goren's Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues from the EEOC: the ADA Version at the Understanding the Americans With Disabilities Act blog before you even think about retaliating against an employee.

February 12: National Lost Penny Day

This is the day you are supposed to gather up all your pennies and cash them in. Which you may have to do if your employer isn't handling your 401K correctly. Check out Jewell Lim Esposito at Benefits Law Advisor's More Permissible Mid-Year Changes to Safe Harbor Plans and Safe Harbor Notices to find out if your employer's plan is up to snuff. (If you don't understand the photo, ask a nerd.)

February 14: Valentine's Day

We can't forget the most hyped February holiday of them all. For lovers (at least lovers of employees), Robert Fitzpatrick in Fitzpatrick on Employment Law offers The 4th Circuit Loves Plaintiff's Lawyers.

February 16: National Do A Grouch A Favor Day

Independent contractor issues can make most employers grouchy. Before you take your crankiness out on your staff, let me do you a favor and tell you to read William Goren's Does § 504 Apply to Independent Contractors? at the Understanding the Americans With Disabilities Act blog.

February 20: Hoodie Hoo Day 

Dealing with pension issues makes me need a break, for sure. Hoodie Hoo day is described as, I kid you not, "On this winter day, people go out at noon, wave their hands over their heads and chant 'Hoodie-Hoo'." Jewell Lim Esposito at Benefits Law Advisor's post Trying to Sort Through Retirement Plan Operational Issues? February 1: IRS Offers Discounts on Some Fees for Employer’s Voluntary Compliance Submissions may help you sort through some sticky retirement plan issues. But you can always go outside and chant.

February 20: Love Your Pet Day 

In a great example of people who are ruining things for everyone, Mike McClory in Bullard's Employment Law posts Employment Law Prop Bets ~ EEOC, OFCCP, Minimum Wage, and Flying Turkeys, in which he discusses, among other headier issues, an emotional support turkey allowed on a flight, with its own seat.

February 22: Be Humble Day

Employers might want to be a little more humble when dealing with employee religious accommodations. Janette Levey Frisch at the Employerologist can help employers with when they have to (and don't have to) grant religious accommodations in Do You Have to Allow Your Employees Unscheduled Prayer Breaks?

February 25: National Chocolate-Covered Nuts Day

Mike McClory in Bullard's Employment Law talks about whether you have to accommodate nutty religious beliefs in his post Fictional Mailbag: Religious Accommodation And Request For Relief From “Park To The East” Policy

February 26: Tell a Fairy Tale Day

Employers tell all kinds of fairy tales about why they can't or won't pay wages. If you're tired of excuses and are ready to take action (at least in California), check out Andrea Paris's Wage Claim Process In California.

February 27: No Brainer Day 

My post, Grow Up! Florida Legislators Need To Get Over Potty Issues discusses an issue that should be a no-brainer but which is too complex for potty-obsessed legislators: LGBT discrimination.

And now my work is done. So I'll celebrate February 28: National Public Sleeping Day, a little early and take a nap. 

Friday, February 12, 2016

Grow Up! Florida Legislators Need To Get Over Potty Issues

Potty issues are apparently a big political concern here in Florida.

When I first moved to Florida from the liberal Northeast, I became involved in the campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. I thought it was a no-brainer. But while phone banking I encountered numerous people arguing with a straight face that passing the ERA would mean unisex bathrooms. I was astounded. Well, now we have plenty of unisex bathrooms in this country and the world didn't end.

Yet Florida legislators haven't gotten over their potty issues. Last year, a bill that would have made it a crime to use a bathroom marked for the opposite sex passed one committee before dying a well-deserved death in another. The bill was so poorly written that it would have been a crime to change a male baby's diaper in a women's restroom. All for the purpose of harassing the transgendered.

Just when I thought the worst of the potty issues had come and gone, this happened: a bill to make LGBT discrimination illegal in Florida failed because Florida legislators fear they'll pick up gay cooties in the potty. Well, okay, they didn't actually say cooties. But, in the words of one Republican lawmaker, “you could have a lot of weirdos doing weird things in bathrooms.” These legislators claim they fear that men could dress up as women and really be sexual predators out to attack women in bathroom stalls. Alrighty then.

Here's the thing. Sexual predators could do that very thing right now. There's nothing to stop them other than that it's already illegal to sexually assault people, whether in restrooms or elsewhere. And there has not been a single reported instance of any attack by a transgender person against a person of the opposite sex in any restroom in any state where LGBT anti-discrimination laws have passed. Not one. Zero. Zip.

I'm way more concerned for the transgender man who identifies as a woman and the post-op transgender woman who dress as females yet have to use the men's room. Not only are they being forced to put themselves at risk of physical or mental abuse, but isn't that more disturbing to men and women than just letting people use the potty they feel comfortable using?

The argument, in short, is specious. Which brings me back to cooties. Because that's the only explanation I can come up with for this silly argument. Yet we are continuing to allow legalized discrimination against gay workers in Florida all because Florida legislators haven't gotten over their potty issues.

So I say to Florida legislators, grow up! Get over your potty issues and pass a law that most of Florida's major corporations support and that will actually benefit voters in our state.

Friday, February 5, 2016

My Predictions for 2016

OK, so I waited a bit, and a month of 2016 has already passed. Still, I promised that I'd give you my predictions for the year, so here they are:

Political firings: Since it's an election year, we'll hear about people being fired for discussing politics at work, for supporting the wrong candidate, and for being involved in certain campaigns. We'll also hear some threats from CEOs and other corporate types that if their employees vote for certain candidates (read: not Republicans) they'll be fired. Is that illegal? Depends on the state. In some cases, it depends on the city or county. Should be an interesting and litigious campaign season.

LGBT discrimination: Some states and localities will pass laws against LGBT discrimination, but my home state of Florida will fail again.

Obama to the rescue: The President will continue to be active with his pen. He'll try to squeeze in some more pro-employee executive orders before he goes to the big speaking circuit.

Clear choice: The candidates for President will make their positions on working people very clear. You will need to vote very carefully. You could easily lose many workplace rights if you vote wrong.

EEOC steps up: EEOC will step up its activities in one final burst before the new President gets a chance to gut it (or not gut it - see above about voting well).

NLRB steps up: NLRB will also try to help working people as much as it can while it still can. Employers will complain bitterly.

Do-nothing Congress: Congress will do zip to help working people. They're too busy campaigning and fighting among themselves. They will try some anti-employee crap. The President will veto it.

Criminalization: We'll see more employees arrested and prosecuted for things like trade secrets violations, whereas employers who steal wages will walk.

Joint employer: Whether franchises and placement agencies are joint employers with parent companies and the companies employees are placed with will be a hot issue this year. Federal agencies say yes. Some courts will say no. The Supremes won't decide this year, so more litigation will ensue.

Guns at work redux: We have many states with take-your-guns-to-work laws that protect employees from being fired as long as they have guns in lock boxes in their vehicles. Now employees and the NRA are going to push to allow employees with concealed weapons permits to carry into the workplace. Next, if they succeed, they'll push open carry in the workplace. Will employers wake up and rise up against the NRA? Not likely this year because they're supporting the same candidates. Be careful what you wish for, employers.

There will be lots more going on than all this because the elections usually cause some havoc. But here you have my predictions for the year. Vote well, so I can have some good predictions in 2017.