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, March 16, 2015

Backlash To Sandwich Noncompetes: Three States Propose Bills To Limit, Ban Noncompetes

After the world woke up and discovered a "secret" everyone who practices employment law already knew, that noncompete agreements are becoming so common even low-level employees like sandwich makers and dog groomers are being required to sign them to keep their jobs, four states are stepping up to change that. Whether the efforts will succeed is another story, but the discussion has finally begun.

Last year, Massachusetts engaged in a failed attempt to ban noncompete agreements because, as anyone with an economics degree can tell you, noncompetes are bad for economic development, especially in the tech sector. Efforts to pass legislation banning noncompetes in Massachusetts have redoubled and another bill is pending this year.

In Hawaii, a proposed bill would prohibit noncompete agreements in the tech sector. The state's Department of Education backs the legislation because it can't find enough qualified tech workers. "For employees of large consumer-oriented companies which do business with nearly everyone, a noncompete agreement tends to effectively eliminate nearly all viable options for employment within the state," the Superintendent of Education said in favor of the ban. "This encourages technology workers to move out of state to secure employment within their chosen field, thus reducing the available candidate pool to fill our most experienced positions."

A bill in New Mexico that would limit noncompete agreements with physicians has overwhelmingly passed in its Senate. New Mexico reports a physician shortage and they hope to alleviate it with this law.

On the flip side, abill getting the lots of press right now is the legislation to radically expand enforcement of noncompete agreements in Wisconsin. The legislation would have Wisconsin's pro-employee law on noncompetes turned into a horror show similar to the one we have right here in Florida. The bill includes gems like allowing employers to say, "sign or be fired" with no additional consideration than continued employment, barring courts from considering economic hardship on the employee, and allowing courts to rewrite the agreements in favor of employers. Even worse than Florida law, the courts won't be able to require employers to post a bond to protect employees from wrongfully issued injunctions.

So, while it looks like Jimmy Johns and its sandwich noncompetes has started a backlash against noncompetes in some states, in at least one Republicans are forging ahead to limit employee rights as much as they can while they can. Did they forget that employees are the very people who are also voters? Will voters in Wisconsin wake up? Will employees in Hawaii, New Mexico and Massachusetts push to regain their right to get a job (not to be confused with the Orwellian-named right to work laws, which are anti-employee laws)?

I'm glad Americans are finally talking about noncompete agreements. I hope voters will wake up in time to help themselves.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Is Incarceration The New Slavery? Does Cheap Labor Explain The U.S.'s High Incarceration Rates?

I was reading an article about Massachusetts inmates suing for minimum wage and it started me thinking. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world. We have about 2.2 million people in prison here. The shockingly high rates started a steep incline shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Sentencing Project charts the incline:

Per the NAACP:
  • African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
  • Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
  • According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today's prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
  • One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
  • 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
The 13th Amendment has an exception to the abolition of slavery: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The effect of this exception is that prisoners who work can be paid $1.00 an hour while working for private, for-profit companies that contract with the prison system for cheap labor. Further, private for-profit companies that run prisons in this country can get free labor for profit.

Prisoners aren't covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act and can't unionize or bargain for better wages. 

Why reform our criminal justice system when the effect is to reinstate slavery and indentured servitude on 2.2 million Americans, most of whom are minorities? Corporations exploiting this system of free and ultra-cheap labor have every incentive to make sure nothing changes, and that our rates of imprisonment keep going up. 

Wanna bet that incarceration rates would drop drastically if prisoners had to be paid minimum wage for their work? Are any elected officials concerned enough about this to do anything to reform this awful situation?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Two First Amendment Rights, Only One Protected: Last Man Standing (Sort Of) Gets It Right

One of my guilty pleasures is watching Tim Allen's show Last Man Standing. Guilty because, unlike the very apolitical Home Improvement, Tim Allen uses his new vehicle to take some slaps at President Obama and liberals in general. In a recent episode, Three Sundays, they addressed two rights protected by the First Amendment, how these rights play out in the workplace, and sorta kinda got them right. However, they didn't explain why one right was protected and one wasn't so I will.

Free Speech: The first issue was the right to free expression. Ryan, the despised-because-he's-a-liberal father of Mike's (the Allen character's) grandchild, has a blog where he posts pictures and criticizes situations he finds on the road (where he's a trucker for a beer company), such as environmental issues and encroachments on Native American land. His company takes umbrage and demands he take down the blog. The problem? He's wearing his uniform in the pictures. Mike tells him it's the right choice to take down the photos. Ryan asks, "I thought you supported my right to free speech, Mike?" Mike responds, "I do, but I also support your company's right to tell you to stuff it."

Mike got it right. As I've said before, the First Amendment doesn't protect your right to free speech at work. People freaked out when I wrote about this in the context of Duck Dynasty. Fewer cared about Ozzie Guillen when he commented about his love for Fidel. Your employer can fire you if they don't like your speech at work. The one exception that's notable is that they can't fire you if you aren't a supervisor and are talking to coworkers or to management on behalf of coworkers about working conditions. Had Ryan's blog been about working conditions then it may well have been protected.

Freedom of Religion: Kyle, the not-so-bright coworker and boyfriend of one of Mike's daughters, is being forced to work on Sundays and he wants time off to go to church. He asks Mike: "Do I have an amendment for my freedom of religion?" Mike says, "It's the same one.You can practice whatever religion you want. Nobody can tell you any different." Kyle then goes on to insist that his boss give him time off for church on Sundays. Here's where the show missed the boat. Kyle's right to have time off isn't from the First Amendment. It's from Title VII, the anti-discrimination law so hated by conservatives like Allen. Among other things, that law requires employers to grant reasonable accommodations for religious reasons and religious practices.

So, while you have rights under the First Amendment, those right aren't protected at work. However, federal and state discrimination laws protect you from religious discrimination. Will we hear Allen making any pro-Title VII comments on the show? Doubtful. And that's probably why he didn't mention it on the show. Title VII protects everyone - black, white, Hispanic, Protestant, Muslim, Atheist, Cuban, American, male, female -from discrimination at work. It probably protects you. It even protects Tim Allen in his workplace, real or fictional.

Monday, February 23, 2015

More Pro-Employee Bills To Watch In The Florida Legislature

To their credit, some Florida legislators are doing their darndest to try to fix Florida's anti-employee legal climate. I wrote about some pro-employee bills filed, and now there are some more to keep an eye on this legislative session:

Banning employer fraud: A bill proposed would make it illegal for an employer to procure an employee's services fraudulently, and also beefs up anti-retaliation provisions for employees who complain about unpaid wages.

Pregnancy discrimination: Two identical bills would add pregnancy to the protected classes under the Florida Civil Rights Act. I'm not sure why this is being done in light of the Florida Supreme Court's ruling last year that pregnancy is already protected.

Overtime: Another bill changing Florida's overtime pay law from 10 hours per day to 8 was withdrawn, but this new bill replaces it.

Bullying: A second bill that would ban workplace bullying has been filed.

Unemployment: A bill that would modify unemployment qualifications is a mixed bag. It would protect victims of domestic violence but also would disqualify disabled employees who turn down a reasonable accommodation offered. Disabled employees will now face a trial over their discrimination claims in the unemployment proceeding if this bill passes. Overall, I think it's more anti-employee than pro-employee.

I'll be keeping an eye on these bills during the session. Wanna bet that zero pro-employee bills will pass? I won't hold my breath that this legislature or governor would do anything to help the majority of its working citizens.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Florida Bill Would Make It A Crime To Change Male Baby's Diaper In Ladies' Room

In a proposed bill directed at legalizing both discrimination and harassment of transgendered people, Florida Representative Frank Artiles (R- Hell, er, I mean, Miami) has proposed a bill making it a crime for a person born of one sex to enter a public restroom designated for the other sex. The point, I believe is to maximize humiliation and embarrassment for both pre- and post-op transgendered citizens and tourists of Florida.

The bill says:
"Sex" means a person's biological sex, either male or female, at birth. For purposes of this paragraph, the term "male" means a person born as a biological male and the term "female" means a person born as a biological female.
The crime:
A person who knowingly and willfully enters a single-sex public facility designated for or restricted to persons of the other biological sex commits a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
The supposed purpose:
The purpose of this act is to secure privacy and safety for all individuals using single-sex public facilities.
It even provides that you can sue the person who enters the restroom and the owner of the restroom:

A person who knowingly and willfully enters a single-sex public facility designated for the other biological sex is liable in a civil action to any person who is lawfully using the same single-sex public facility at the time of the unlawful entry for the damages caused by the unlawful entry, together with reasonable attorney fees and costs.
An owner of public accommodations, a school, or a place of employment who maintains single-sex public facilities and advertises, promotes, or encourages use of those facilities in violation of subsection (2), or fails to take reasonable remedial measures after learning of such use, is liable in a civil action to any person who is lawfully using those facilities at the time of the unlawful entry for the damages caused by the unlawful entry, together with reasonable attorney fees and costs.
So let's think about the effect of this really stupid bill.  Here are just some of the ridiculous consequences that will result if passed:

  1. You're a business owner. A harried mom with a baby and a male toddler asks for directions to the ladies' room. You don't stand and bar the door. Instead, you're a human being. You direct her to the restroom. You can be sued. The male toddler can be arrested. If the baby is male, he can possibly be arrested, or the mom could be arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 will be sued if they try to prevent this. 
  4. You were born male but dress as a female. You consider yourself female. Your coworkers and boss have accepted you as a female. It is a crime for you to 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. 
  5. You're a middle school principal. Some 12-year-old boys think it's hilarious to toss a mouse into the girl's room. The girls scream. You catch the boys running away. The school can be sued if it fails to take unspecified "remedial measures" regarding the prank, and the boys just committed a crime.
  6. You're an employer. Your employee is a female who identifies as male. She dresses like a male, has taken hormones that cause her 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. You're sued either way.

As a female who identifies as female, I really don't appreciate the Florida legislature telling me that I have to share the ladies' room with a female-born who identifies as a male, nor that I would have to leave a male toddler outside the ladies' room in order to use it. As a business owner, I don't appreciate the Florida legislature telling me I have to humiliate a client or an employee.

This is the dumbest thing I've ever seen out of the Florida legislature, and that includes the fact that they failed to pass a law against bestiality for years, until it finally passed in 2011 (apparently the pro-bestiality lobby is strong in Florida). Hopefully the Florida legislature will realize this bill for the dumba** proposition it is and vote it down.

I'm not optimistic.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Odds Of Getting EEOC To File Suit For You? Not Much Better Than Odds Of Getting Struck By Lightning

EEOC has issued its 2014 Performance Report and the big news everyone announced was that the number of charges dropped. What I found disturbing when I read the summary was that there were 88,778 charges filed nationwide, and of those EEOC only filed 133 "merit" suits, that is, suits where they found cause and decided to sue on behalf of an individual or group of employees.

So the odds of having EEOC sue on your behalf are .1% (133/88778=.001), or about 1 in 1000. Now, when I'm telling clients that they shouldn't hold their breath and hope for EEOC to file suit on their behalf, I usually say that the odds are about the same as getting struck by lightning, and I laugh. I thought I was being facetious. So I looked it up.

The odds of getting struck by lightning in your lifetime are about 1/3000. So you're about three times as likely to have EEOC file a suit on your behalf as you are to be struck by lightning. Not great odds.

Here in Florida, the odds of getting struck by lightning in your lifetime are probably higher. There were 7528 EEOC charges filed in Florida in 2014. I've asked for the number of merit suits filed and if it isn't more than 3 (I only found press releases for two) then the odds here are about the same as getting struck.

So, when employers complain that EEOC isn't fair to them, I'll add this to my list of why I'll only play them the world's smallest violin.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Can Your Employer Force You To Sign A Contract Saying You Volunteered To Work On Sunday?

It's been awhile since I answered my reader questions here. This question is one I found interesting:

I have a question about unfair work practices. My husband works for a very large company that does extremely high volume during the Christmas season. All employees were required to work on Sunday (following a six day work week). They were told that everyone was expected to be there despite the fact that no one had a day off during the week. This morning when they arrived, they were told that they had to sign a document that said they had volunteered to work on Sunday, otherwise they would be sent home. Most of them signed because they were already there and had planned on working today. Are companies allowed to do something like this?

I can read this question three different ways, so I'll address them all. 

Agreement to volunteer to work for free: The first way I read it is whether your employer can make you sign an agreement that you are a volunteer so as to avoid paying you. The answer is a flat-out no. An agreement that tries to waive your right to overtime or to be paid for all hours worked under the Fair Labor Standards Act is not enforceable. Furthermore, if you work for a for-profit company, you are never a "volunteer" such that you can agree to work for no pay. If the employer suffers or permits you to work, then you are entitled to pay.

Agreement to waive religious accommodation: If you have requested a religious accommodation to work on Sunday, then the EEOC and courts would refuse to enforce an agreement waiving future discrimination. In other words, you can't be forced to sign an agreement to be discriminated against in the future. On the other hand, where states like Florida allow employees to be required to sign agreements in consideration of continued employment, if the employer handed you an agreement on Monday that said you were agreeing that you waived your right to sue for religious discrimination because you worked voluntarily on Sunday, would that stand? The truth is, maybe. The courts have been very harsh on employees regarding noncompete agreements and arbitration agreements that are presented as "sign or be fired," so would a "sign or be fired" release fly? I think probably not, but I'd never underestimate the ability of employers to push for case law that grinds employees' rights into dust. Allowing a waiver like that immediately after an act of discrimination for the sole consideration of continued employment would make a mockery of the employment discrimination laws. If an employer presents you with an agreement saying sign a waiver of discrimination that just happened or be fired, I think that would be unlawful retaliation and discrimination.

Agreement to work on Sunday: If the agreement simply says that you agree to work on Sunday, and you don't have any need for a religious accommodation, then your employer can make you sign an agreement to work on Sundays, and they can say you voluntarily agreed to work on Sundays. Which I guess is true, if they mean you "voluntarily," under threat of losing your job, decided to sign. If you live in one of those states like Florida that doesn't consider "sign or be fired" to be economic duress, then they can probably make you agree.