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, June 10, 2024

EEOC Posts Guidelines On Harassment

 I can't tell you how many times per week I have to tell people that harassment is not generally illegal. Bullying, general harassment because you're you, just being mean, are not illegal. If they were, I'd be a billionaire.

But some kinds of harassment are illegal. EEOC has posted guidelinesposted guidelines on what kinds of discriminatory harassment are illegal. Here are some key provisions:

Types of harassment: "All laws enforced by the EEOC prohibit workplace harassment that is based on a protected characteristic. The protected characteristics covered by the laws the EEOC enforces are race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation; gender identity; and pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions), national origin, disability, age (40 or older), and genetic information (including family medical history)."

When is harassment illegal: "To violate the law, harassment based on a protected characteristic must either:involve a change to the victim’s employment (e.g., an employee is fired, demoted, denied a promotion or transfer, reassigned, or receives reduced hours or pay because the employee rejected a supervisor’s sexual advances); or create a “hostile work environment”"

Examples of illegal harassment: EEOC gives these examples:
  • saying or writing an ethnic, racial, or sex-based slur;
  • forwarding an offensive or derogatory “joke” email;
  • displaying offensive material (such as a noose, swastika, or other hate symbols, or offensive cartoons, photographs, or graffiti); threatening or intimidating a person because of the person’s religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs;
  • sharing pornography or sexually demeaning depictions of people, including AI-generated and deepfake images and videos;
  • making comments based on stereotypes about older workers;
  • mimicking a person’s disability;
  • mocking a person’s accent;
  • making fun of a person’s religious garments, jewelry, or displays;
  • asking intrusive questions about a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender transition, or intimate body parts;
  • groping, touching, or otherwise physically assaulting a person;
  • making sexualized gestures or comments, even when this behavior is not motivated by a desire to have sex with the victim; and
  • threatening a person’s job or offering preferential treatment in exchange for sexual favors.
I would add that bullies tend to pick on the weak and the different. Who's weak? Pregnant, disabled, and older employees. Who's different? Race, sex, national origin, color, religion, etc. So look at who the bully is targeting and you might find that they are indeed engaging in illegal harassment. 

Do they have to get it right?: No. If the employer assumes you are Muslim, Black, or have some other protected characteristic and are harassing you because of it, that's illegal

Association: If you're being harassed due to your association with someone with a protected characteristic, such as being married to a Hispanic or a person with a disability, that's illegal.

What is a hostile environment: It isn't easy to prove, but EEOC offers this:
A “hostile work environment” exists when harassment is so severe or frequent (called “pervasive” in the law) that a reasonable person in the employee’s position would find the situation to be abusive.

Each claim must be considered on a case-by-case basis and take into consideration all of the circumstances. Some general guidelines to consider include:

  • A victim does not need to show that harassment was both severe and frequent – just one or the other.* Sometimes, the more severe the harassment, the less frequent it must be, and vice versa.
  • One instance of very serious misconduct may be severe enough. For example, one instance of somebody touching an intimate body part, acting violently, or a supervisor using the n-word can be enough to violate the law.
  • The harasser’s status at the employing organization can be important. Harassment by the company’s owner or the victim’s supervisor can sometimes carry more weight than similar behavior by a coworker or customer.
  • The victim does not need to show that the harassment led to a change in employment, such as a demotion, reduction of hours or rate of pay, or denial of a promotion. Similarly, the complainant does not need to show that the harassment made them perform worse.

*I'm emphasizing this because management-side lawyers like to argue that it must be both severe and pervasive. That's obviously not the law but it needs to be said. Over and over. SMH

What must employers do: Employers are responsible for preventing and for quickly ending harassing behavior once they learn about it , even if the harassment has not yet been severe enough or frequent enough to create a hostile work environment. But they have to know about it, so report it! EEOC offers this: "An employer typically learns about potential harassment when:Somebody complains. The person who complains does not need to be the victim.
  • An owner, manager, or supervisor witnesses the harassing conduct.
  • The harassing conduct is so open and obvious that an owner, manager, or supervisor reasonably should have known what was happening."
These are just a few of the key points raised in this new guidance. It might help if you think you are being subjected to illegal harassment. When in doubt, talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

FTC Bans Most Noncompetes - But Don't Get Too Excited

The long-awaited rule from the Federal Trade Commission regarding noncompetes was released yesterday, and it's a doozy. The FTC "has determined that it is an unfair method of competition, and therefore a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, for employers to enter into noncompetes with workers and to enforce certain noncompetes."

You can safely assume there will be lots of litigation over this new rule. And I wouldn't hold my breath that the Supreme Court in its current makeup will uphold it. Meanwhile, until a court says otherwise, the rule is in place. What does it mean?

Effective date: The rule isn't effective until 120 days after publication in the Federal Register, so presumably that will be from yesterday. That means the rule will be in effect on August 21, 2024.

Existing noncompetes: Most of them are now deemed illegal and unenforceable, except those involving "senior executives," defined as those earning more than $151,164 who are in a “policy-making position”. But most noncompetes are illegal anyhow, with or without the rule, in my opinion. There are many defenses to noncompetes that exist even if this rule is tossed, and that can help people who are waiting for the effective date.

Future noncompetes: Most will be illegal except those for business purchases.

Noncompete clause defined: "Non-compete clause means: (1) A term or condition of employment that prohibits a worker from, penalizes a worker for, or functions to prevent a worker from:  (i) seeking or accepting work in the United States with a different person where such work would begin after the conclusion of the employment that includes the term or condition; or (ii) operating a business in the United States after the conclusion of the employment that includes the term or condition.  (2) For the purposes of this part 910, term or condition of employment includes, but is not limited to, a contractual term or workplace policy, whether written or oral." 

Nonsolicitation agreements: These are provisions saying you can't solicit employees or clients of the company for 1 - 2 years or so. They aren't specifically banned. However, many will be banned in my opinion. The FTC says this:

Non-solicitation agreements are generally not non-compete clauses under the final rule because, while they restrict who a worker may contact after they leave their job, they do not by their terms or necessarily in their effect prevent a worker from seeking or accepting other work or starting a business. However, non-solicitation agreements can satisfy the definition of non-compete clause in § 910.1 where they function to prevent a worker from seeking or accepting other work or starting a business after their employment ends. Whether a non-solicitation agreement—or a no-hire agreement or a no-business agreement, both of which were referenced by commenters, as discussed previously—meets this threshold is a fact-specific inquiry. 

Weasel words:  “It is not an unfair method of competition to enforce or attempt to enforce a non-compete clause or to make representations about a noncompete clause where a person has a good-faith basis to believe that this part 910 is inapplicable.” Not particularly helpful to give a weaselly way out. But the Court or FTC would have to determine that there was a good faith basis to believe that it fell within an exception or that the rule had been stayed by a court.

Notice required: Employers will have to send notices to everyone they have noncompetes with to advise them that the noncompete clause won't be enforced. It has to be hand-delivered or emailed/mailed. 

Existing causes of action: If you're sued for a noncompete or breached one before the effective date, the new rule doesn't apply. However, the FTC did a very nice brief on why these things shouldn't be enforced, and you should be able to use some of their analysis to argue issues like lack of a legitimate interest other than preventing competition, lack of good faith, and some other defenses.

How will this play out? I think the rule will be stayed by a red-friendly court and will be litigated. So it's unlikely it will actually go into effect this year, if at all. 

But let's say employers send out those notices and then the rule is stayed or reversed? What will happen then? Can they say never mind? Or is the noncompete void? Will employers who send the notices have to get new ones signed? I would think that they would be difficult to enforce after the notice goes out. 

One thing is for sure - employment lawyers will be plenty busy for awhile after this.

Noncompete law is very state-specific until this rule goes into effect, so if you have a noncompete agreement, talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state if you want to understand your rights and responsibilities.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

11th Circuit Stops Florida's "Stop Woke" Law Based on 1st Amendment

I know. I know. I keep saying there's no such thing as free speech at work. But while you workers don't have First Amendment protection in private workplaces, private employers do. Because corporations are "people" too. The distinction: the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on speech by government, not by individuals or corporations.

Confused yet? Well, I'm here specifically to discuss Florida's "Stop Woke" law* that said employers couldn't have trainings about not engaging in racism and discrimination in the workplace. The 11th Circuit just held that "Stop Woke" is a clearly illegal restriction on corporate free speech.

Here are some key excerpts from the opinion:

The State of Florida seeks to bar employers from holding mandatory meetings for their employees if those meetings endorse viewpoints the state finds offensive.  But meetings on those same topics are allowed if speakers endorse viewpoints the state agrees with, or at least does not object to.  This law, as Florida concedes, draws its distinctions based on viewpoint—the most pernicious of dividing lines under the First Amendment.  But the state insists that ordinary First Amendment review does not apply because the law restricts conduct, not speech.

The Act says employers cannot subject “any individual, as a condition of employment,” to “training, instruction, or any other required activity that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” a certain set of beliefs.  Id.  It goes on to list the rejected ideas, all of which relate to race, color, sex, or national origin

Discussion of these topics, however, is not completely barred—the law prohibits requiring attendance only for sessions endorsing them.  Id. § 760.10(8)(b).  Employers can still require employees to attend sessions that reject these ideas or present them in an “objective manner without endorsement of the concepts.” 

 By limiting its restrictions to a list of ideas designated as offensive, the Act targets speech based on its content.  And by barring only speech that endorses any of those ideas, it penalizes certain viewpoints—the greatest First Amendment sin.  Florida concedes as much, even admitting that the Act rejects certain viewpoints. 

Florida has no compelling interest in creating a per se rule that some speech, regardless of its context or the effect it has on the listener, is offensive and discriminatory.  “It is firmly settled that under our Constitution the public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” 

No matter how hard Florida tries to get around it, “viewpoint discrimination is inherent in the design and structure of this Act.”  NIFLA, 585 U.S. at 779 (Kennedy, J., concurring).  Given our “profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” the answer is clear: Florida’s law exceeds the bounds of the First Amendment.  New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964).  No matter how controversial the ideas, allowing the government to set the terms of the debate is poison, not antidote.

* I've written about this law before, here and here.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Beware Billionaires Who Want To Gut NLRB

Amazon has now joined SpaceX and Trader Joe's in asking that the National Labor Relations Board be deemed unconstitutional. With the Supreme Court in its current configuration, there's a real possibility that they could decide NLRB should no longer exist or be substantially gutted. 

That would be a terrible thing for employees, and for Americans in general. Here's why.

NLRB is the agency that handles unfair labor practices complaints against both employers and unions. That's what they're mostly known for. But they do so much more. Here are some lesser-known rights NLRB enforces:

  • The right to discuss your pay with coworkers
  • The right to discuss working conditions with coworkers
  • The right to complain about working conditions
  • The right to discuss forming a union
  • The right to refuse to join a union
  • The right to assist or refuse to assist a union
Without the NLRB, these rights would have to be dealt with in courts, if at all. That would clog the court system and make it more difficult for workers to enforce their rights.

Unions are good for America. They're good for the economy. When unions were strong, we had a strong middle class that could afford things like houses and college. We're in the horrible economy we're in because Republicans have systematically done everything they could to gut unions and reduce their power in workplaces and in politics.

Amazon and Trader Joe's, you should be ashamed of yourselves. SpaceX, well, what can I say? Seems like there's no shame to be had there anymore.

While unions are on the resurgence, we'll see more efforts like this one to destroy unions and worker power altogether. So vote well.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Florida Legislator Wants To Make It Illegal To Say Gay (Or Your Pronouns) At Work

Florida seems to be in a race with Texas and some other red states to see which can be the worst state for employees in the nation. Now a legislator has proposed a law (which will likely pass, because GOP be cray cray) that would be similar to the now-infamous Don't Say Gay bill but apply to workplaces. 

Some gems from this ridiculous-but-likely-to-become-law bill include:

Training is illegal: It would be illegal to provide training that included issues of gender expression, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Pronouns are illegal: It would be illegal to discuss your preferred pronouns or for your employer to tell anyone else your preferred pronouns.

Misgendering is legal: It would be illegal for an employer to punish coworkers for deliberate misgendering.

This idiotic law would apply to state employees and nonprofits. So nonprofits that cater to the LGBTQ community would not be able to train employees, discuss pronouns, or punish employees for deliberate misgendering of trans people, including their clients. 

As I said, Florida is likely to pass this law, and our governor will, of course, sign it. So brace yourselves.

The good news is that LGBTQ discrimination is illegal under Title VII, so I'm sure there will be litigation over this. The Supremes are the ones that said Title VII applies to sexual orientation and societal expectations regarding gender roles. Will they reverse themselves? Very possibly.

Vote well friends. Vote blue in every single election if you want the crazy train to stop.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Have A Visual Disability: EEOC Issues Guidance On Your Workplace Rights

 EEOC has issued a guidance to assist workers with visual disabilities regarding their workplace rights. This guidance discusses:

  • when an employer may ask an applicant or employee questions about a vision impairment and how an employer should treat voluntary disclosures;
  • what types of reasonable accommodations applicants or employees with visual disabilities may need;
  • how an employer should handle safety concerns about applicants and employees with visual disabilities; and
  • how an employer can ensure that no employee is harassed because of a visual disability.
Who is covered: EEOC says this about coverage for visual disabilities under the Americans With Disabilities Act
Under the first prong of the ADA’s definition of disability, an individual with a vision impairment who is substantially limited in seeing or in the major bodily function of using special sense organs (here, the eyes), has an “actual disability.” Under the second prong of the ADA’s definition of disability, an individual with a history of an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity—even if the impairment no longer exists—is considered to have a “record of” a disability. An applicant or employee may have a “record of” a disability, for example, when the individual’s substantially limiting vision impairment has been corrected surgically.

Whether an impairment “substantially limits” a major life activity is not meant to be a demanding standard. A vision impairment does not need to “prevent, or significantly or severely restrict,” an individual’s ability to see in order to be a disability, as long as the individual’s vision is substantially limited when compared to the vision of most people in the general population. Further, a determination of disability must ignore the positive effects of mitigating measures (other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses”) that an individual uses. For example, mitigating measures may include the use of low-vision devices that magnify, enhance, or otherwise augment a visual image. An individual with a vision impairment who uses low-vision devices will be substantially limited in seeing compared to most people in the general population who can see without the use of such devices. Another type of mitigating measure is the use of learned behavioral modifications (for example, an individual with monocular vision may turn their head from side to side to compensate for the lack of peripheral vision). An individual with monocular vision, regardless of such compensating behaviors, will be substantially limited in seeing compared to most people in the general population. An individual who is blind should easily be found to have an “actual disability” under the ADA, because they are substantially limited in the major life activity of seeing.

While using glasses or contacts isn't a covered disability, many other vision impairments are covered. Employers can't ask about your vision pre-hiring. They can ask, however, if you can perform the duties of the job with or without accommodations. If you can perform the job with accommodations, the answer is yes. You don't have to disclose the accommodations before being hired. After hiring, they can ask about what the accommodations are in order to determine whether they are reasonable.

Under the ADA, the period after offering an applicant a job but before the individual starts working is called the “post-offer period” and the job offer may be subject to an applicant’s responses to medical questions and/or passing a medical exam. This means, when an applicant discloses after receiving a conditional job offer but before starting work that the applicant has or had a vision impairment, the employer may ask the applicant additional questions, such as:how long the applicant has had the vision impairment;
what, if any, vision the applicant has;
what specific visual limitations the applicant experiences; and
what, if any, reasonable accommodations the applicant may need to perform the job.

After obtaining basic medical information from all applicants, an employer may follow up with an individual who has disclosed a vision impairment, or the extent of a vision impairment, to seek additional information, if additional questions or a requested medical examination is medically related to the information already received. An employer may ask this individual to answer questions specifically designed to assess the applicant’s ability to perform the job’s functions safely.

An employer may not withdraw an offer from an applicant with a vision impairment if the individual is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. If the employer has concerns that the applicant’s vision impairment may create a safety risk in the workplace, the employer may conduct an individualized assessment to evaluate whether the individual’s impairment poses a direct threat (that is, a significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the applicant or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced through reasonable accommodation).

There are many types of accommodations that are considered reasonable. EEOC gives many examples in this guidance that will be a good reference if you are seeking accommodations.

There is a wide range of possible changes in the application process, or in the way an employee performs the work, that can serve as reasonable accommodations for individuals with vision impairments. These can include, for example: assistive technology (such as text-to-speech software); accessible materials (such as braille or large print); modification of workplace/employer policies or procedures (such as allowing the use of guide dogs in the work area), testing (such as allowing alternative testing), or training; ambient adjustments (such as brighter office lights); sighted assistance or services (such as a qualified reader);or other modifications or adjustments that allow a qualified applicant or employee with an ADA disability to enjoy equal employment opportunities.

In general, employers must accommodate disabilities in the workplace, including visual disabilities. This guidance will be an important source of information to individuals with visual disabilities in the workplace. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Were You Harassed At Work? EEOC Issues New Guidance on Workplace Harassment

 I have to say this almost daily, and I'll say it again here: general harassment at work is not illegal. Harassment because you are you is not illegal. Bullying is not illegal. However, bullies tend to pick on the weak and the different, and that may mean the bullying is illegal. EEOC just issued new proposed guidelines on what constitutes illegal workplace harassment and how to prove it. I'll touch on some highlights.

EEOC goes through characteristics that are legally protected and gives examples. Here's what they say about race and color discrimination:

Race and color: Race-based harassment includes harassment based on a complainant’s race, e.g., harassment because the complainant is Black, Asian American, white, or multiracial.Examples of harassing conduct based on race include racial epithets or offensive comments about members of a particular race, or harassment based on stereotypes about the complainant’s race. It also can include harassment based on traits or characteristics linked to an individual’s race, such as the complainant’s name, cultural dress, accent or manner of speech, and physical characteristics, including grooming practices (e.g., harassment based on hair textures and hairstyles commonly associated with specific racial groups). Color-based harassment includes harassment based on skin tone.

Example 1: Color-based Harassment. Shawn, a Pakistani-American with brown skin, files a charge of discrimination alleging that two of his direct supervisors have subjected Shawn to unlawful harassment based on color. Shawn alleges that on a near-daily basis, his supervisors call him “turd” and otherwise make comments to him that suggest his skin is the color of human feces. According to Shawn, one supervisor exited the bathroom, placed a cup containing feces on Shawn’s desk, and stated the feces looked like Shawn. Based on these facts, Shawn has alleged harassment based on color.

They also describe national origin, sex/gender, religion, pregnancy/childbirth/related conditions, sexual orientation and gender identity, age, and disability-based harassment and give examples. 

Here are some other issues they cover:

Erroneous perception: "Harassment based on the perception that an individual has a particular protected characteristic, for example, the belief that a person has a particular national origin or religion, is covered by federal EEO law even if the perception is incorrect.[47] Thus, harassment of a Hispanic person because the harasser believes the individual is Pakistani is national origin harassment, and harassment of a Sikh man wearing a turban because the harasser thinks he is Muslim is religious harassment, even though the perception in both instances is incorrect."

Association: "The EEO laws also cover “associational discrimination.” This includes harassment because the complainant associates with someone in a different protected classor harassment because the complainant associates with someone in the same protected class. Such association may include, but is not limited to, close familial relationships, such as marriage, or close friendship with another individual belonging to a protected group."

Same class: "Harassment that is based on the complainant’s protected characteristic is covered even if the harasser is a member of the same protected class."

Societal expectations: "Harassment based on protected characteristics includes harassment based on social or cultural expectations regarding how persons of a particular protected group, such as persons of a particular race, national origin, or sex, usually act, appear, or behave.This includes, but is not limited to, harassment based on assumptions about racial, ethnic, or other protected characteristics, or sex-based assumptions about family responsibilities, suitability for leadership roles,or sex roles."

Example 9: Causation Established Based on Sex Stereotyping. Eric, an iron worker, alleges he was subjected to sexual harassment from his foreman, Joshua. The investigation reveals that Joshua found a remark Eric made to be “feminine” and then began calling Eric “pu__y,” “princess,” and “fa___t,” often several times a day. Several times a week, Joshua approached Eric from behind and simulated intercourse with him. On about ten occasions, Joshua exposed himself to Eric. Based on these facts, the investigator concludes that Joshua targeted Eric based on his perception that Eric did not conform to traditional male stereotypes and subjected Eric to harassment based on sex.

Causation: The guidance gives many examples of how to prove that it was discrimination that caused the behavior as opposed to something else. 

Example 10: Causation Established by Social Context. Ron, a Black truck driver, finds banana peels on his truck on multiple occasions. After the third of these occasions, Ron sees two white coworkers watching his reaction to the banana peels. An investigation reveals no evidence that banana peels were found on any other truck or that Ron found any trash on his truck besides the banana peels. Based on these facts, an investigator concludes that the appearance of banana peels on Ron’s truck was not coincidental. The investigator further finds that the use of banana peels invokes “monkey imagery” that, given the history of racial stereotypes against Black individuals, was intended as a racial insult. It thus constitutes harassment based on race.

Example 12: Comparative Evidence Gives Rise to Inference that Harassing Conduct Is Based on a Protected Characteristic. Tyler is a manager for an educational services firm. Tyler directly supervises two women, Kailey and Anu, and two men, Sandeep and Levi. Tyler grants Kailey’s request for time off to visit her dying sister. When Kailey returns, Tyler confronts her and yells at her for not reading her “damn email” while she was away. From then on, Tyler regularly hovers over Kailey and Anu as they work to make sure they don’t “mess up.” Tyler also yells and shakes his fist at Kailey and Anu when he is angry at them. This conduct continues, and Kailey and Anu file EEOC charges alleging harassment based on sex. During the investigation, the investigator finds that Sandeep and Levi report that Tyler, although occasionally irritable, generally engages in friendly banter with them that is different from the aggressiveness that Tyler displays toward female employees. Tyler sometimes even allows Sandeep and Levi to relax in his office in the afternoons, doing little or no work. Tyler also permits Sandeep and Levi to leave the office early and does not monitor their work performance. Tyler’s different treatment of women and men who are similarly situated would support an investigator’s conclusion that Tyler’s treatment of Kailey and Anu was based on their sex.

This proposed guidance is pretty comprehensive and is a good resource to review if you think you've been illegally harassed. When in doubt, talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights.