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.

Monday, September 17, 2018

You Don't Have To Work In Dangerous Post-Hurricane Conditions

After a storm, I usually get lots of calls and emails about employers making employees work in conditions they deem unsafe. In general, you don't have to work in unsafe conditions, so I'm re-posting this for those affected by Florence. Here's what OSHA says about workplace safety:
You have the right to a safe workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) was passed to prevent workers from being killed or seriously harmed at work. The law requires that employers provide their employees with working conditions that are free of known dangers. OSHA sets and enforces protective workplace safety and health standards. OSHA also provides information, training and assistance to workers and employers. Workers may file a complaint to have OSHA inspect their workplace if they believe that their employer is not following OSHA standards or that there are serious hazards. Contact OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) if you have questions or want to file a complaint. We will keep your information confidential. We are here to help you.
OSHA also has a flyer about safety during disaster cleanup here. Some basic safety rules:
  • Keep an adequate amount of clean water for drinking.
  • Make sure workers are trained to do any complex or hazardous tasks.
  • Provide the proper equipment such as gloves, respirators, boots, lifting equipment and eye protection.
A host of other specific fact sheets are here. Some particularly useful ones for hurricanes are:
Bottom line for employers is: don't be stupid. Don't have employees in business attire climbing ladders and removing debris. Make sure employees are properly dressed. Don't cheap out and try to use your clerical employees to move downed trees or work around downed power lines. The lawsuit you will face when someone is seriously injured or killed will cost you way more than hiring the correct folks for the job.

The worker's page for reporting problems and with more resources is here.

By the way, if your "exempt" employees are doing debris removal or other scut work, they probably aren't exempt from overtime for that work. But that's another issue for another day.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

If My Office Is Closed Due to Hurricane Florence, Do I Get Paid?

It's time, unfortunately, to re-run this popular and necessary column. I hope you make out okay in Hurricane Florence and suffer no damage. However, you may be wondering if you're getting paid.
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 it's the one time you can be glad that President Obama's overtime expansion was gutted.

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. North Carolina has no such requirement and neither does Texas, (so maybe it’s a good time to start complaining to your legislators). South Carolina has some protections for state employees but none that I've found for private sector employees.  North Carolina does have a law regarding employer adverse weather policies (they aren't required to have them though):
If an employer does establish an adverse weather condition policy, then pursuant to N.C.G.S. §95-25.13(2), the employer must: "Make available to its employees, in writing or through a posted notice maintained in a place accessible to its employees, employment practices and policies with regard to promised wages." The employer must comply with its own adverse weather policy until such time as the employer changes its policy in writing, notifies its employees of such changes prior to the effective date, and does not take away retroactively any benefits already earned, pursuant to N.C.G.S. §95-25.13(3).

Disaster Unemployment Benefits: If your state is declared a disaster, you may qualify for disaster unemployment assistance. If your state gets hit, here's where to start searchingto see if you can get disaster unemployment assistance.

If you’re hit or have already been hit with a 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.

Friday, August 31, 2018

New EEOC Miami Policy: No Opportunity For Employees To Respond

In the bad old days, after an employee filed a Charge of Discrimination, employers would file a position statement and then one of two things happened: either the investigator would read a summary of the position statement quickly over the phone, or the investigator would write up a summary of the position statement. Then the employee would have 10 days to respond.

I say the bad old days, because this process really didn't give the employee a full opportunity to understand the employer's response or fully respond.

That all changed when EEOC implemented new Position Statement Procedures on January 1, 2016, entitling employees to a copy of the position statement if they request it. They also gave employees 20 days to respond to the position statement once received. This was way better, because employees had a full opportunity to read and understand what their employer was saying, and then fully respond to and rebut the position statement.

Even at its worst, EEOC gave employees at least some opportunity to respond. At its best, it gave employees a truly full and fair chance to respond.

But not anymore. I have had several cases recently where EEOC got the position statement and then dismissed the charge without giving the employee any chance to respond at all or even tell them they had received it.

When I asked EEOC's General Counsel to look into this, he referred me to the Director, who did not respond to my query at all. When I followed up because it happened again, the Director decided to insult me personally and tell me to take it up with NELA (the National Employment Lawyers Association) and Congress. So I think I will.

I have already directed my concerns about this utter lack of due process for employees to NELA. If you think this new process is terrible and doesn't comply with EEOC's mission to conduct a full investigation of charges of discrimination, contact your member of Congress and tell them you think EEOC should allow employees an opportunity to respond to employer's position statements so that they may conduct a full investigation.

By the way, this isn't the only anti-employee activity EEOC has engaged in since the change in presidential administrations. They have also engaged in dismissing cases immediately upon filing without any investigation (I've seen this happen personally), and I have heard multiple stories of them telling people they don't have a case and refusing to even take their charge (this is particularly awful because filing with EEOC is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit, and employees have a very short time period to file).

People come to EEOC because they need help, because they think their employer engaged in unlawful discrimination. They also come to EEOC because they are legally required to do so if they even want to think about filing a lawsuit. So why has EEOC suddenly decided that its mission is to only help employers and not employees? Has EEOC been given a new mission to try to discourage or prevent employees from exercising their legal rights?

I think some more investigation is warranted.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Is It Legal To Record A Conversation At Work?

In light of Omarosa's recordings of conversations with her bosses at the White House, I thought I'd discuss a question I'm asked all the time in my law practice: Is it legal to record a conversation at work?

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. 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.

Here's what you need to know about recording conversations at work:

One-party consent: In most states, as long as you're a participant in the conversation, you can record at will. South Carolina is one of these states, but the employee who was arrested taped a conversation between other employees, not herself. That's not allowed, even in one-party consent states

All-party consent: Thirteen states, California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington, require all parties to the conversation to consent to being taped. Hawaii, a one-party consent state, requires all-party consent if the device is installed in a private place. A Florida government employee was arrested a few years ago for giving a reporter a tape recording of a conversation she had with a supervisor. She cut a deal for community service, so we don't know how her trial would have turned out. These laws are sometimes referred to as "two-party consent" laws, but if there are three people in the conversation, all three must consent. For a detailed state-by-state survey of workplace surveillance laws, Justia has a summary of laws by state that can give you more details on your state law. The Digital Media Law Project has another handy state-by-state resource here but it is out of date.

Expectation of privacy: You can almost always record conversations in public areas, because the courts say there's no "expectation of privacy" in those places. Whether or not you are a party to the conversation, if it's out there in public, you may be allowed to tape it. Here's where it gets tricky. Many courts have held that there's little or no expectation of privacy in the workplace. There are cases saying, for instance, that a party to a conference call has no expectation of privacy.

As an example, cases in my home state of Florida on the expectation of privacy at work say things like: "Society does not recognize an absolute right of privacy in a party's office or place of business." "[A]lthough defendant may have had reasonable expectation of privacy in his private office, that expectation was not one which society was willing to accept as reasonable or willing to protect." "Society is willing to recognize a reasonable expectation of privacy in conversations conducted in a private home. However, this recognition does not necessarily extend to conversations conducted in a business office."

The problem I have with relying on cases like these to tape at work is the use of weasel-words like "necessarily" and "absolute" and "reasonable." These cases are very fact-specific and that means a court could still find that your boss or coworker had an expectation of privacy. If you get it wrong, you can end up in jail. That Florida employee who was arrested for taping in a public building should give you pause about relying on these "no expectation of privacy" cases too heavily.

Retaliation: If you record a conversation to document illegal discrimination or illegal harassment (we're talking harassment or discrimination based on race, age, sex, religion, national origin, disability, pregnancy, or other protected category, not bullying), then you may or may not be protected against retaliation by your employer. The courts have split on this issue. Depending on your state, your employer may be allowed to fire you for recording a conversation at work (even though they can't fire you for reporting discriminaiton).

Getting permission: One way to get around problems in all-party consent states is, when in doubt, pull out your recorder and turn it on. Say, on the recording, "You don't mind if I tape this do you?" If the other person or people say they don't mind, keep recording. If anyone objects, turn it off. Pull out a pad of paper and a pen and take good notes instead. 

Creative ways around: I had a case where one creative employee knew the harasser was approaching her office so she called a friend and put her on speaker to listen. That way she had a witness. Even taking notes helps bolster a case. Your notes can be evidence. 

Other evidence: Don't forget to save things like text messages (take screen shots and print), emails, Snapchat and other social media. Don't let that stuff be auto-deleted or lose it when you drop your phone in a toilet. It's your burden to prove your case, and losing evidence can be held against you. Have nothing in writing and no witnesses? Your own testimony is evidence. If you come across as credible, that could be enough.

To summarize, you can probably tape a conversation at work that you're part of as long as you live in one of the 37 one-party consent states. You can also possibly tape a conversation that's in a public area (lobby, office or conference room with doors open, stairwell). You can maybe tape a conversation in the office behind closed doors. If you get it wrong, you're in possible criminal trouble, so be careful. Even if you get it right, you can probably be fired for the recording.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Can You Be Fired For Taking Vacation? Yep.

I'm on vacation, and so are many Americans. You shouldn’t have to worry about your job while you’re on vacation. Or should you? A recent survey found that 49% of Americans are taking no vacation this summer. Sadly, 52% did not use all their vacation days last year, and 24% have taken no vaction in at least a year.

But you're not one of these sad cases. You’ve earned three weeks of vacation, and wow, did you work for it. You put in for your three weeks, got it approved, and planned your trip. You have non-refundable tickets to your dream cruise. A week before you leave, you mention that Jane will be covering for you while you’re gone. Your boss says, “Oh, you were serious about taking vacation?” You nod, meekly. You ask a coworker what she thinks he meant. You find out that the last three people who went on vacation were fired.

Should you be worried? The short answer is: yes. There is no law requiring an employer give you any paid vacation. I hear stories all the time of people fired a few days or a week into a scheduled vacation, or the day they get back. Even worse, they’re fired the day before they’re scheduled to leave. They were counting on the vacation pay to cover the cost of the trip. Now they’re left in the lurch.

Vacations are good for you and good for employers. They keep morale higher, prevent employee burnout, reduce stress, and keep you healthier. The good news is that most employers won’t fire you for taking your vacation.

Still, the fear of being fired for taking vacation is justified. If you live anywhere but Montana, you’re probably an at-will employee. That means you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. Do you have any rights? Yes, but not many.

Here are some circumstances where it would be illegal to fire you for taking a vacation: 

Family and Medical Leave: If you have scheduled surgery, are pregnant with a due date, or have an immediate family member who has scheduled medical care, you might be protected. If you put in for FMLA leave, your employer must let you use your paid sick and vacation time first before they put you on unpaid leave. If you’re fired because you used your vacation for FMLA leave, you may be protected. 

Contract: If your employment contract says you’re entitled to vacation, then firing you for taking it might be breach of contract. 

Employee Welfare Plan: If the employer has an established vacation policy for all employees, then it might be an “employee welfare benefit plan” that is covered under ERISA. That means it might be illegal to retaliate against you for exercising your right to take your vacation benefit. 

Union contract: If your union’s collective bargaining agreement provides for your vacation benefits, you might be able to grieve any termination that violates your union contract. If you don't have a union at work, look into forming one if you are concerned about your working conditions.

Discrimination: The company can’t discriminate based on race, age, sex, religion, color, national origin, disability, genetic information, or age in granting and denying vacations. Some states have other protected categories such as sexual orientation, marital status, and domestic violence victims. They can favor your boss’s vacation over yours though. If the boss’s vacation conflicts with yours, even if yours was preapproved, they can renege on the approval. 

State law: Some states provide other protections. When in doubt, talk to a lawyer in your state about your rights.

Other than these limited rights, you can absolutely be fired for taking your vacation or to prevent you from getting a paid vacation. Here’s some more information you need to know about your rights while taking vacation: 

Wrongdoing discovered: If your employer discovers wrongdoing or even poor performance while you’re on vacation, even if you have a protected right to take it, they can fire you for the wrongdoing they discover. That means if you embezzled and they find out because someone covered for you while you were out, or if you didn’t do a key assignment before you left, then you might not have a job to come back to. 

Layoff: Even if you have protected vacation rights, if there is a genuine layoff at your company, they can probably include you in the layoff. 

Pay after termination: If your employer has a “use it or lose it” vacation policy (some states prohibit “use it or lose it” vacation policies), you probably have no right to be paid for your vacation when you’re fired. However, if your employer lets people accrue their benefits and get paid out when they leave, you are probably entitled to be paid your vacation time when you leave. It’s an earned benefit. 

Last minute demand to cancel: Sometimes the boss will demand you cancel your plans at the last minute. Maybe an emergency comes up, or she just decides she can’t live without you. If you refuse and take your vacation anyhow, you can be fired for insubordination or job abandonment.

Should it be legal to fire you for taking your earned vacation? No. But it probably is. The United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t have a law requiring paid vacationOne in four Americans receives no paid vacation.

So take that trip to Europe or your dream cruise. Enjoy! You may have more free time than you expected when you get back. Maybe it's time we join the rest of the civilized world and require some paid leave for workers. Something to think about when you're voting in November and beyond.

And now, back to my vacation, which I am definitely taking as much of as I can.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Can You Rescind Your Resignation? Papa John's Former CEO Wants To Know

In light of the recent brouhaha over Papa John's founder/CEO's use of the n-word, subsequent resignation, then statement that he regretted resigning, I thought I'd address this issue I encounter frequently: can you rescind your resignation?

The answer, sadly, is probably not. However, it mostly depends on how much your employer wants you to stay.

In general, if you quit in a huff, you're gone. Most employers will grab onto anything they can to get rid of someone they think is disgruntled or, in the case of Mr. Schnatter, someone they think has become a liability. So think twice about even mentioning the thought of resignation.

If you quit, then say you changed your mind, your employer does not have to allow you to rescind your resignation. Here are some mistakes I've seen people make that employers jumped on to claim "you quit."

Let's talk severance: You're having problems at work. You've reported them. When HR asks what you want, you say you want severance. Guess what? You just quit. I find that any mention of severance originating from the employee is frequently deliberately misinterpreted as a resignation. Instead, wait for the employer to bring up severance as a possibility before you try to negotiate that exit package.

If this keeps up, I have to leave: Sure, things are terrible. But once you say that if certain practices continue, you'll have to go, your employer may jump on that as a resignation even if you had no intention of going. Nobody likes an ultimatum.

If I don't get a raise, I'll have to look elsewhere: If you're trying to negotiate a raise, better benefits, or just about anything else, don't threaten to start looking for a job. Too many employers will start looking for your replacement.

Walk out: If you leave work in the middle of a contentious discussion with the boss or a coworker, even if you think you were threatened in some way, many employers will claim you abandoned your position. Obviously, if you're in danger you need to get out of there. But if there is any alternative, such as calmly walking into an area with witnesses, do it. Even if you call management and say you're leaving or have left and they say something vague like, "Do what you need to do," many will claim you quit.

Pack your things: This is truly bogus, because there can be any number of reasons why an employee might pack up some or all of their personal belongings, but I've seen a number of employers claim that packing equals quitting. This is usually a desperate defense raised absent some real reason for a firing. Still, be careful. If you really have decided to redecorate or something benign, make sure your office doesn't look like you moved out (or tell someone in management in writing what you're doing and why).

But I never submitted my resignation letter!: I hear this all the time. You said you were quitting, then realized you didn't have a job lined up. You come back to work and find that your exit has been announced. You don't need a resignation letter to make a resignation official, any more than employers need a termination document to make a firing official (well, except in some states where they do need to put it in writing, but not here in Florida and not in most states).

No matter how upset you are, unless you have another job lined up, I recommend against quitting. I especially recommend against quitting without thinking it through. If you quit, you've done your employer a huge favor and maybe cost yourself some unemployment benefits. Proving constructive discharge is incredibly hard.

Think before you quit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Give Thanks And Support To Labor Unions Before It's Too Late

The Supreme Court, hijacked by conservatives when they refused to allow President Obama to appoint a Justice during his term, has predictably put another knife in the back of labor unions. The Republican plan is to eliminate unions altogether. They may succeed. So I wanted to do a rerun of an article I wrote some time ago about why you should give thanks to labor unions and support them by joining, paying dues, and participating.

Anti-union sentiment has spread from state to state, and union busting has become popular under the banner of money savings. Before your billionaire CEO convinces you that labor unions are bad, please don't forget what life was like in the bad old days before unions.

Maybe you don't remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory from your American History classes. I'll remind you. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a sweatshop. Women and children, mostly immigrants, worked for terrible wages in terrible conditions. When a fire broke out, they couldn't escape because the employer had locked them in. Wouldn't want employees to take breaks or anything, would you? The employer said it was to stop theft. The fire escapes had collapsed and the elevators stopped working in the 10-story building. One hundred forty six workers died that day in 1911, many as young as 14. It was, until 9/11, the worst tragedy in New York history.

In a speech about the tragedy, explaining what lessons workers needed to learn from it, Rose Schneiderman said:
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. 
The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire. 
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death. 
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us. Public officials have only words of warning to us--warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable. 
I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.

As a result of this terrible tragedy, New York strengthened its labor laws. An investigation showed 200 factories had equally dangerous conditions for workers.

Before the labor movement, it wasn't uncommon for sweatshops to engage in human trafficking. Workers in coal mines, factories, farms and many other workplaces were sometimes forced to work while getting further and further in debt. Many workers were paid in company "scrip" that they could use only at the company store. They could never save for their families and never hope for a better life. Children had to work starting very young, to help support their families, with no opportunity to go to school.

The next time you hear someone knock the labor movement and say unions aren't necessary, please remember that, without unions, our workers would not have these benefits we take for granted:
  • Minimum wage
  • Overtime pay
  • Safety standards/OSHA
  • Paid vacation
  • Sick days
  • Child labor laws
  • Weekends
  • 40-hour work week
  • Health benefits
  • Unemployment compensation
Now that your job (or old job) doesn't look half as bad anymore, make sure you thank union leaders for the rights you take for granted. Think they can't take away those rights? Then you aren't paying attention. Wake up, before it's too late.

I wrote this in 2011. Now they really are starting to take away those rights. What can you do? Join a union. Pay dues. Participate. Change your workplace for the better. Vote better. Vote in the mid-terms in November. Register some friends to vote.