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.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Donna’s Employment Law Predictions for 2012

I’m getting out my iPad’s magic 8-ball app and looking into the future. I see a big year for employment law issues in 2012. Here’s where I think we’ll see lots of litigation or legislation:

Military: With loads of returning military members, Congress will scramble to plug any new loopholes that keep military service people from being protected in their jobs. Look for lots of USERRA litigation when employers realize they don’t want to let the person who has been in the position go when Johnny comes marching home. Without a doubt.

Sexual harassment: Now that sexual harassment has become a hot-button political issue again, watch for attempts to weaken sexual harassment protections. Also watch the federal courts continue to erode what few protections employees have left. Will the Democrats have the will and the ability to stop sexual harassment from becoming legal? Very doubtful.

Retaliation: Retaliation has been hot, hot, hot, and it will continue to be so. Watch for attempts to weaken whistleblower laws, both legislative and judicial. While the courts have consistently enforced retaliation laws, they’ve been reluctant to rule in favor of employees in any situations where there was doubt about the legislative intent. For instance, the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn’t expressly prohibit employers from discriminating against potential employees who have sued former employers for overtime or unpaid wages. Watch for more courts to hold that the word “employees” doesn’t mean “potential employees.” Will there be a public outcry when potential employers refuse to hire people who demanded they be paid? My sources say no.

Bullying: No state will have the political willpower to pass anti-bullying laws, despite the growing evidence that bullying is more traumatic for employees than sexual harassment. It is decidedly so.

Tax relief: The Civil Rights Tax Relief Act will stall yet again, meaning that employment law settlements will continue to be taxed where personal injury cases aren’t. Try again later.

Unemployed: The unemployed will start to get some rights. More states will pass laws protecting the unemployed against discrimination. Employers will get more creative in denying them jobs by using credit checks and other excuses. Eventually, Congress will have to take action, but gridlock is likely in this election year. Outlook not so good.

Wage theft: As more employers decide the way to save money is to fail to pay employees or former employees, wage theft laws will begin to spread across the country. Maybe seeing a few deadbeat employers hauled off in handcuffs will be good for the economy. As I see it, yes.

Noncompete: Desperate employers trying to prevent employees from skipping to competitors who will treat them better and pay more money are using noncompete agreements as virtual indentured servitude. You’d think that elected officials would look at noncompete abuse and side with their constituents, but instead the trend is to give employers even more right to restrict competition. I predict more states will beef up employers’ ability to enforce noncompetes. The good news is that employees with resources will be using antitrust laws and the lack of legitimate interests to enforce to fight back. Noncompetes will continue to be the weapon of choice to bully former employees. Without a doubt.

Confidentiality and trade secrets
: Agreements where employees promise to keep employer confidential and trade secret information confidential will go hand in hand with noncompetes as a weapon against former employees. Employees who never signed noncompetes will be told by former employers that working for a competitor would inevitable result in disclosure of confidential information. Will judges side with employees who resist indentured servitude? Don’t count on it.

Employees strike back: Working people and the unemployed will eventually wake up to what is happening to them. They’ll start standing up for their rights and demanding that their elected representatives work for them to restore their right to quit and work somewhere else, to get paid and not have a potential employer hold that against them, and that they be able to work free from sexual harassment. Will they do it in time for the November election? Ask again later.

Friday, December 23, 2011

VOW to Hire Heroes Act Fixes Stupid Legal Loophole for Military

Remember back in May when I wrote about a court that said harassing people at work for their military service was not illegal? The case was one where airline pilots who are military members sued after being mocked and ridiculed at work due to their military service. They sued for hostile work environment under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). USERRA says employers can’t deny any “benefit of employment” due to military service. “Benefit of employment” includes “advantage, profit, privilege, gain, status, account, or interest.” The 5th Circuit said USERRA “does not refer to harassment, hostility, insults, derision, derogatory comments, or any similar words. Thus, the express language of the statute does not provide for a hostile work environment claim.”

Well, if you were planning on harassing a subordinate or coworker because they’re in the military, you no longer have a green light. President Obama signed the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 on November 21, 2011. Along with lots of employer incentives and benefits for service people, this new law fixed the stupid loophole allowing harassment.

The Department of Labor hasn’t issued regulations on this yet, but the law is in effect now.

Maybe now Congress can fix some more loopholes in employment laws that end up with stupid results for non-military members. No? I didn’t think so.

Donna’s tips:

a. If you think you’re being harassed due to your military service, report it in writing to HR and give them an opportunity to fix the situation.

b. If the company doesn’t fix the situation and the harassment continues or you are retaliated against for reporting the harassment, you probably have a legal remedy now under USERRA.

c. Anyone who harasses someone due to their military service is a royal jerk who should be fired. I’m just saying.

So what do you think? Is this a good new law? Should you be allowed to harass people due to their military service? What other loopholes should Congress be working on? I’d love to see your comments.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top 10 Things Not To Do At The Office Holiday Party

It's that most wonderful time of the year. Mistletoe, eggnog and holiday parties in the office make employment lawyers rub their hands together with glee. That's because we get very busy in January after all the party-related firings. There's sexual harassment, discrimination, recriminations, finger-pointing – all the stuff of nice legal fees.
Here are the top things you absolutely should not do at the office holiday party if you don't want to be sitting across a table giving your deposition or reviewing your severance package with an employment lawyer in the new year:

Read more on AOL Jobs.

Thanks again to Gina Misiroglu of Red Room for putting me in touch with the AOL people!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Is My Offer Letter a Contract?

Heather submitted this question at Ask A Manager, and I thought it would be a good one to address here:

I was employed at a large successful company - while there, I got a call from a man who is a CEO of a smaller company offering me a job and saying he could beat whatever I was currently making. Long story short, I ended up taking the position in July at the smaller company and leaving my current position. Two weeks ago, the same man who hired me, also hired a sales manager who has convinced my boss that myself and 1 other rep are making too much money and he is trying to significantly lower our salaries and commission structure. My question is: if this man lured me away from my position at with an offer letter of more money and is trying to renege less than 6 months later, what are my rights? Is there a law that states how long an offer letter is good/enforceable?

P.S. Not sure if it makes a difference but I live in Texas...

Heather, the bait-and-switch job offer is more common than you’d think. It happens all the time here in Florida, the center of con artists in the universe. Unfortunately, Texas, like most states in the nation, have at-will employment. That means that you can be fired, demoted, have your pay cut, or be disciplined for any reason or no reason at all.

Sure, the offer letter is probably a contract. It’s an offer and you accepted. There was consideration for it, namely, you started working. But what does that contract actually say? If it lays out your pay structure in writing and says it can only be changed in writing signed by both parties, then they can’t change it without your agreement.

If it says you can be fired at-will, then they can fire you for not agreeing. They can also fire you anytime for any reason.

If it says you can only be fired for cause, then what are your remedies? If the offer says you will be employed from x-date to y-date, then you should get paid out for the length of the employment. It might say that if you’re fired without cause you get a specific amount of severance. It might say that they can fire without cause with x-days of notice, in which case you get paid out for the length of the notice period.

One more possibility: fraud. If they had no intention of honoring the agreement when you were lured in, then you might be able to sue for fraud. It’s tough to prove, so things I’d look at are whether they’ve done the same thing to others. Is this a pattern? Is there some smoking gun or witness that would confirm they never intended to honor the offer? Or did the company have a sudden downturn after you started? If it’s a downturn, then there wasn’t fraud.

Donna’s tips:

a. If you are leaving a secure job for a new position, try to get some assurances in writing about job security. If they want you badly enough, they might agree to put in that they can only terminate for cause and some reasonable severance.

b. If you do get a contract, be careful what you sign. I’ve seen unscrupulous competitors lure top sales people over, have them sign non-compete agreements, then fire them a few months later. Surprise! You’re out of the industry unless you have the financial resources for a long legal fight.

c. Do your due diligence before you accept a job that sounds too good to be true. Google the new employer. Ask to speak to some coworkers before you accept. See if you can find some former employees (try LinkedIn, which lists former employers) to talk to about what their experiences were.

d. If you decline a unilateral pay cut and are fired or quit as a result, you might qualify for unemployment.

Have you ever gotten a job offer that wasn’t what it seemed? If so, did you take legal action or just leave as soon as you could? Do you think there should be some consequences to employers who make phony job offers? If so, what should they be?

I’d also love to hear from other lawyers and HR people, especially in Texas, to see if you have more advice for Heather.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Can My Employer Make Me Speak English, Even On Breaks?

I got this excellent question from flower on Ask A Manager recently:

Hi, I have a question about languages. I work in the shop as a sales assistance. I am from other country and there are working 5 more persons from the same country as me. So about 2 month ago my boss told for us that we can not speak in our language at all times even there are no customers around. Can they do that?

Thanks for asking, flower! This comes up a lot in areas, like South Florida where I live, that have a large immigrant population. Not surprisingly, EEOC has a section in its compliance manual addressing this specific issue because it is a common problem.

In general, English-only rules in the workplace are allowed if they are enacted for non-discriminatory reasons. Examples of good reasons to have English-only rules would be because customers, supervisors and coworkers speak only English; for workplace safety reasons such as emergencies where everyone needs to understand; to promote efficiency for cooperative assignments; and to allow supervisors who speak only English to monitor the employees’ communications with customers.

Examples of illegal policies would be:

• Prohibiting non-English speaking on breaks
• Subjecting speakers of foreign languages to excess scrutiny
• Prohibiting one particular foreign language from being spoken
• Requiring English-only if coworkers and customers speak multiple languages

Employers also must look at alternatives to English-only rules that might have less of a discriminatory impact. For instance, if an employee reports that two coworkers made derogatory comments about a customer in Sanskrit, disciplining the two employees would be the way to deal with the issue rather than an all-out ban on foreign languages.

Donna’s tips:

a. If your employer implements an English-only policy, the biggest question is why they did it. If they just don’t like hearing Spanish all day, too bad. That’s illegal. If there have been safety issues where an employee called out key instructions in Spanish and someone was hurt because they didn’t understand, then the employer might have a legitimate reason for the rule.

b. Sometimes having a few coworkers speaking a foreign language causes problems with other employees. Morale problems may develop as people think they’re being talked about behind their backs. This might also justify an English-only rule.

c. If you think your employer’s English-only rule discriminates against you based on national origin, it might be time to contact an employment lawyer, make a complaint of national origin discrimination with HR, or file a charge of discrimination with EEOC.

I’d love to hear from you on this. Does your employer have an English-only rule? Does it work or cause problems? If you’re an employer or management-side lawyer, have you ever implemented an English-only policy? Why did you think it was necessary? In general, do you think English-only policies should be banned or should employers be allowed to make any rules they want?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Congratulations to the Blawg 100!

I'm incredibly honored to have Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home named one of the American Bar Association's Blawg 100 of 2011. Out of over 1300 nominated, eight of my favorite labor and employment blogs were chosen along with my blog. Of those, I'm pretty sure mine is the only employee-side blog, so I'm extra honored.

Included in the list are:

Employment and Labor Insider by Robin Shea

The Employer Handbook by Eric Meyer

Arizoneout by Dinita James

Connecticut Employment Law Blog by Daniel Schwartz

Delaware Employment Law Blog by Molly DiBianca

Ohio Employer's Law Blog by Jon Hyman

FMLA Insights by Jeff Nowak

Work Matters by Mike Maskanka

If you haven't checked these out, you should. They're all well worth reading.

Thanks so much to everyone who nominated me. It really means a lot.

But it's not over. There are 12 categories of blogs, including Labor and Employment, and ABA wants you to vote for your favorite. You can vote once in each category. Registration only takes a minute and it's ultra-simple, I promise. You don't have to be a lawyer to vote.