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, January 31, 2014

Reason For Outrage On Sunday: Unpaid Super Bowl "Volunteers" Are Illegal

The NFL will have an estimated 13,500 "volunteers" working at the Super Bowl. The NFL just announced that 1500 of these "volunteers" will now be paid. The rest will have to sign waivers agreeing not to sue, not to participate in a class action suit, and to arbitrate if they do sue.

Since when is the NFL a not-for-profit agency? Am I missing something? There's no such thing as an unpaid volunteer working for a for-profit company. Period. Ask Major League Baseball, which is now defending against a class action suit for all the "volunteers" it had working  without pay at for profit events. The NFL, which makes about $10 billion a year, can afford to pay minimum wage to its workers.

Imagine Goldman Sachs or Burger King soliciting volunteers to come work for them. We'd be outraged. So why is there little outcry when one of the most profitable for-profit enterprises solicits thousands of people to work for free?

Here's what the Department of Labor has to say about when volunteers may work without pay:

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) defines employment very broadly, i.e., "to suffer or permit to work." However, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the FLSA was not intended "to stamp all persons as employees who without any express or implied compensation agreement might work for their own advantage on the premises of another." In administering the FLSA, the Department of Labor follows this judicial guidance in the case of individuals serving as unpaid volunteers in various community services. Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service.

For example, members of civic organizations may help out in a sheltered workshop; men's or women's organizations may send members or students into hospitals or nursing homes to provide certain personal services for the sick or elderly; parents may assist in a school library or cafeteria as a public duty to maintain effective services for their children or they may volunteer to drive a school bus to carry a football team or school band on a trip. Similarly, an individual may volunteer to perform such tasks as driving vehicles or folding bandages for the Red Cross, working with disabled children or disadvantaged youth, helping in youth programs as camp counselors, scoutmasters, den mothers, providing child care assistance for needy working mothers, soliciting contributions or participating in benefit programs for such organizations and volunteering other services needed to carry out their charitable, educational, or religious programs.

Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers. On the other hand, in the vast majority of circumstances, individuals can volunteer services to public sector employers. When Congress amended the FLSA in 1985, it made clear that people are allowed to volunteer their services to public agencies and their community with but one exception - public sector employers may not allow their employees to volunteer, without compensation, additional time to do the same work for which they are employed. There is no prohibition on anyone employed in the private sector from volunteering in any capacity or line of work in the public sector.
The Department of Labor also discusses the issue of a shortage of workers (which I can't believe there would be anywhere in this economy:

If your business has a shortage of workers and is looking to “volunteers” to help out, be aware that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) has stringent requirements with respect to the use of volunteers.  In general, covered, nonexempt workers working for private, for-profit employers have to be paid at least the minimum wage and cannot volunteer their services.  Check with DOL for the rules governing the circumstances where volunteering in the public and private, non-profit sectors may be allowed.
For-profit companies can't ask staff to volunteer to work at for-profit activities. The Department of Labor advises:

Just like other individuals, staff of facilities that provide employment and services to workers with disabilities may volunteer to perform certain tasks for their employers without creating an employment relationship under the FLSA. However, under the FLSA, employees may not normally volunteer services to for-profit employers. 

Employees of a work center or hospital cannot volunteer to perform the same services they are normally employed and paid to perform. For example, a secretary cannot volunteer to respond to correspondence generated by a special fund-raising drive.

Individuals, including staff members, who “volunteer” to help a work center or hospital meet production deadlines required by contract or subcontract work orders are not considered volunteers under the FLSA and an employment relationship exists when they are engaged in such activities.
 If a for-profit employer mandates employees to work on charitable activities, then the employees must be paid. DOL explains it this way:

[W]hen an employer directs an employee to volunteer, that time is compensable.  The regulations state:

Time spent in work for public or charitable purposes at the employer's request, or under his direction or control, or while the employee is required to be on the premises, is working time.  However, time spent voluntarily in such activities outside of the employee's normal working hours is not hours worked.
29 C.F.R. § 785.44 .... 

Therefore, we caution that volunteer activities “must be truly voluntary and any coercion or pressure, whether direct or indirect by the [employer] to participate in this program outside of [] duty hours would negate the voluntary nature of the program.”  WH Opinion Letter January 29, 1999....  [E]mployers may encourage their employees to volunteer their services for public or charitable purposes outside of normal working hours without incurring an obligation to treat that time as hours worked so long as participation is optional and non-participation will not adversely affect working conditions or employment prospects.
Several courts have upheld agreements where employees agreed to waive their right to bring class actions and to arbitrate Fair Labor Standards Act claims. However, an employee can't agree to waive their right to be paid. It will remain to be seen whether a court will uphold any part of these releases the "volunteers" are signing for the Super Bowl.

In an economy where a huge part of the population is unemployed, it's a darned shame that a for-profit organization like the NFL is taking advantage of members of the community and simultaneously avoiding a golden opportunity to provide much-needed work to thousands of people.

They're breaking the law. Be outraged.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Are You One Cold (Or Super Bowl Flu) Away From Being Fired?

It's cold and flu season, so you may be sick right now. It's likely you'll be sick at some point this year. Maybe you'll suffer from Super Bowl flu on Monday after too much partying on Sunday (or your boss will assume you partied too much if you call in sick Monday).

So what are your rights? Can you be fired for being out sick? What if you have a doctor's note? Connecticut and six cities (Jersey City, NJ; New York City; Portland, OR; San Francisco, CA; Seattle, WA; and Washington, DC) have paid sick leave laws. Nebraska and California legislators recently introduced bills to require employers to give paid sick leave. If you don't live in any of these places, you could possibly be out of luck.

My latest article at AOL Jobs discusses the legal rights you have if you call in sick, and what to do if you are told you'll be fired if you miss work. Don't forget those flu shots!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Help! My Employer Is Making Me Work Overtime Off The Books. What Do I Do?

This question from an AOL Jobs reader reflects an all too common situation that many hourly workers face:
Hello. I was reading an article 10 Tricks Employers Use To Cheat Workers Out Of Their Overtime. Here's my problem. My fiancée works at a restaurant, and she recently received a raise from $9/hr to $12/hr. But the owner asked her to take her overtime off the books. The first 2 weeks went by without a hitch, but over the past month, her OT has been short. The past week, she worked 10 hours OT, and received $90, which not only is less than the $18/hr that she is entitled, but he gave her less than her normal 12/hr. He claims that he can't afford to pay her overtime. What should we do? She's clocked in for every minute that she's there, and gets a little slip every time she punches out, but the owner still cuts her a check for usually 38 or 39 hrs, and gives her whatever he pleases in regard to her OT. What can we do?
Many employers cheat hourly employees out of overtime, and demanding they work "off book" is one way they do it. In this case, your fiancée has proof of her hours, so she has some options. You asked two different questions: "What can we do?" and "What should we do?" There may be two different answers, but my latest article at AOL Jobs discusses your options.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Vikings Football Player Speaks Up For Gay Marriage, Is Fired: Can He Sue? Maybe

Chris Kluwe is a punter for the NFL. He used to play for the Minnesota Vikings. That is, until he started speaking up in favor of marriage equality. He got permission from the team to do some ads for the cause, but things changed when he wrote and published a letter to a Maryland state official defending a Ravens football player's right to free speech on the same subject. After that, his coach asked him to stop. He didn't.

His coach began to make negative comments about gays repeatedly in Kluwe's presence that they hadn't made in all the years he had worked for them. He also made comments to the effect that Kluwe, "would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible"

He was singled out for harsh criticisms that others had not been subjected to. The comments got increasingly angry, such as: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows."

He was instructed to kick in such a way that it helped the team but made him look worse in the stats. Ultimately, he was replaced. His full statement about what he says happened is here. A story that has the team's response is here.  The team is now investigating and maybe they'll do something, maybe not. 

Let's assume everything he says is true. Does he have a remedy? Let's examine what possible claims he may raise:
  • Free speech: This would be a non-starter. I've written about the fact that there's no free speech at work here, here, here and here. The First Amendment protects you against government action, not corporate action.
  • Sexual orientation discrimination: Minnesota has a law against sexual orientation discrimination, but there's no law protecting speech in favor of marriage equality. If he were fired for objecting to sexual orientation discrimination within the team, then he would be protected against retaliation, but there's still no openly gay football player in the NFL. The law in Minnesota does protect against perceived sexual orientation discrimination, but I see no indication that the coach actually thought he was gay. If Minnesota has an association discrimination provision in the law, then maybe he can argue he was fired for associating with gays. My guess is he's out of luck on sexual orientation discrimination.
  • Political activity: Minnesota has a law on the books making it a crime to retaliate against an employee because of that person's political activity. I think this one may be a winner. The question will be whether he has a remedy under this law because it makes violations a misdemeanor. Any Minnesota lawyers out there want to weigh in?
  • Contract: He almost certainly has an employment contract and I know absolutely zero about football contracts. I'd guess they can dump a player pretty much at will, although there may be some hoops they have to jump through. Unless he can only be fired for cause, or the contract says he can't be fired for political activity or for discriminatory reasons, he may have little or no remedy there. Anyone know what's in his contract?
  • Religious discrimination: If his coach actually told him he'd burn in hell, this would be the way I'd probably go with it. The coach has strong religious beliefs against gay marriage and Kluwe doesn't share those religious beliefs. In Florida, with no law protecting against political activity discrimination or sexual orientation discrimination, this might be the only way to go with a case like this one. I recently wrote about whether religious discrimination laws allow harassment of employees for various reasons, which you can read here.
Can he sue? I'd say maybe. He has one possible federal claim, one pretty good state law claim and one possible state law claim. I'm guessing we haven't heard the last of Mr. Kluwe, so we'll soon find out.

I said it to conservatives and now I'll say it to liberals: it's best to keep those controversial opinions to yourself at work and in public. If you have a boss who holds strong contrary views, or if you're likely to offend your employer's customers with your opinions, keep them to yourself and your friends (but not in social media). I guess it's a good thing I'm my own boss . . .

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Does Your Religion Excuse Homophobic, Racist or Sexist Behavior At Work?

When I wrote the piece about Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson and his suspension for making racist and anti-gay comments in an interview done to promote his show, many readers told me that Mr. Robertson should be protected by religious discrimination laws. After all, the argument went, he was only expressing his religious beliefs about gays.
Tt is not freedom of speech, it is freedom of RELIGION--what Phil said was congruent with what the Bible says. Violation of the free exercise clause is the issue, not speech. Can you imagine firing an employee because they expressed atheist beliefs or supported Obama and his queer minions?????
Even though employers have to accommodate religious beliefs at work, do religious discrimination laws allow you to express your beliefs that "the gay lifestyle," and gay marriage are sinful? Are you allowed to tell your female coworkers that women belong in the home and should be subordinate to men? Can you dig out old Jeff Davis's views of the Bible to share with your African-American co-workers?

I write about the legal issues involved in determining how much religious expression at work is protected, and when it isn't in my latest article at AOL Jobs.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Donna's Employment Law Predictions for 2014

Last week I revealed how I did on my predictions for 2013 (pretty darned good, if I do say so myself). Today, I look into my crystal ball for 2014. Here's what I see on the horizon:
  1. Minimum Wage: Raising the minimum wage will be a hot political issue in 2014. We saw some movements in 2013 to make significant increases, and that will continue. Unless something drastic happens in the midterm elections, it's doubtful we'll see anything significant on the national level, but look for more states to increase the minimum wage to the $ 9 - 10 range. Some may go even higher, like Seattle's move toward $15. Raising the minimum wage is great for the economy. Unlike trickle-down economics, it gets money circulating quickly. Henry Ford had the right idea: pay your employees enough so they can buy your products.
  2. Legalize It: Legalized marijuana will spread to more states, creating some confusion for employers. Can they fire employees who test positive, like Colorado? Or will their state prohibit firings for legal marijuana use like Connecticut, Arizona, Rhode Island, Maine, Colorado and New York? Colorado has a law, as do other states, prohibiting firing/discrimination for legal off-duty activities, so watch for some litigation over this issue there. Look for marijuana growers and sellers to push for laws like tobacco users have in several states protecting them from discrimination at work. In the meantime, medical marijuana users will seek protection under the ADA and other disability discrimination laws.
  3. Health Care: ObamaCare kicked in and it will change the way we look at health insurance. Sure, it isn't ideal. But when a million or so people who've never had health insurance or who haven't had it in years suddenly can get medical treatment, they'll start to expect to be treated like human beings instead of human waste. From here, we'll be very close to an upheaval in the way we deal with health insurance. This year, we'll see some confusion as the regulations kick in, some stupid employers dumping insurance and cutting people to part-time to avoid paying insurance, but the employer mandates have been delayed until 2015, so most of the stupid employer activity will be at the end of the year and into next year. I say that employers who do this are stupid because they'll ultimately lose good employees. With more people covered, there will be more health care jobs available.
  4. Internships Cut: With employers under attack for unpaid internship programs that don't actually educate the interns and replace regular employees, some programs will simply disappear. That's not all bad, since the interns-as-slaves programs need to die. We'll see better internship programs cropping up, ones that are truly educational, or paid internships. But most of the new programs will start up after this year. This will be a year of lost programs. We'll also see some attempts to put interns under the protection of discrimination and sexual harassment laws. Some may succeed on the state or local levels, but there's no way that happens on a national level with Congress as it is currently configured.
  5. Failed Again: Attempts to pass anti-bullying laws and the Civil Rights Tax Fairness Act will fail just like they do every year.
  6. NLRB and EEOC Cut Off By Courts: NLRB and EEOC will continue to try to expand the protections employees have. Courts will continue to stop them. Still, they'll inch forward with some new progress for employees. Baby steps.
  7. Lip Service: While the midterm elections kick in, we'll hear lots of big proposals to help employees. Little or nothing will pass due to gridlock. Failures will include the FAMILY Act, Arbitration Fairness Act, and ENDA. However, the fact that each of these bills will be blocked will become fodder to take down some of the more anti-employee members of Congress. Maybe 2015 will see some progress.
  8. Background Checks: EEOC's efforts to demonstrate that criminal background checks have a disparate impact on blacks have been pretty well crushed so far. However, there will continue to be efforts to ban credit checks. More states will ban or limit use of credit information in hiring. The federal efforts to do so will fail. More states will pass ban-the-box laws barring many inquiries about arrest and conviction records in job applications. There is zero chance such a law will pass on the federal level this election year.
  9. Pregnancy Discrimination: The issue of whether pregnancy is covered under the Florida Civil Rights Act will be resolved one way or the other by the end of the year. I think the Florida Supreme Court will say it is already covered. If not, then the legislature will pass a fix. The difference will be for all those women caught in between. If the Court doesn't rule for employees, lots of new moms who thought they were covered and sued under state law will be out of luck. Rule wisely, Supremes.
  10. LGBT Protections: States and local governments will continue to pass discrimination laws banning LGBT discrimination. The feds will fail again, but EEOC will continue to push for application of existing law to LGBT employees.
  11. Religious Discrimination: Religious employees will push the limits on their ability to proselytize and pray at work. There will be a disconnect between the right to practice religion vs. the right not to be harassed for not sharing a religion and also LGBT rights. Look for right-wing religious groups to push the argument that religious discrimination laws allow them to speak out against gay rights in the workplace. In an election year, we'll see extreme positions pushed on both sides.
Well, that's it for my predictions. I think this year will be one where employees start to wake up to how few rights they have and start to push for more. Major change will come only with a change in Congress.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

If My Office Is Closed For Snow, Do I Get Paid?

With a blizzard hitting the Northeast and Midwest, now is a good time to discuss what happens to your pay when your office is closed.

Whether you're entitled to be paid when the office is closed depends on whether you are "exempt" salaried or not. If you're salaried, it doesn't necessarily mean you're exempt from the requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many employers misclassify employees to avoid paying overtime. In the case of weather and emergency closings, it's probably better to be exempt.

If you're stuck in the snow, find out what your rights are by reading my article on AOL Jobs here.

We're having a cold snap here in South Florida too. It got down into the high 40s last night and is supposed to be in the 60s all day today. The schools had to robo-call all the parents to tell us to bundle the kiddies up warm. Can't wait to see the boots, sweaters and coats all day. Florida winter. :)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Still No Free Speech At Work: Response To Your Comments on Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty

Wow! I had no idea so many of my readers loved Duck Dynasty. With almost 2000 comments, I can't possibly respond to them all. When I wrote last week that A&E was probably within its rights to suspend Phil Robertson for making racist (yes, it's racist to say blacks were better off under Jim Crow) and homophobic comments (and I didn't even know then about the sexist and disturbing comments he made about marrying 15-year-old girls), you had lots to say. Some of you talked about religious discrimination. Some wanted to know more about his contract with A&E. I'll talk about those issues in another article.

First I wanted to respond to the fact that even more of you still don't believe that the 1st Amendment doesn't protect you at work.

No First Amendment Protection For Employees? What A Dingbat!

Many of you chastised me for even suggesting such a thing:
  • ihave1465fans The dingbat writer of this article diesn't seem to know that Rights in America belong to individuals, not to selected collectives. She is part of a major problem in the country where people seem all too eager to throw their rights away !
For more on the reader comments (I included some of the highlights) and my response, read my article at AOL Jobs.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Call Me Prescient: How My 2013 Employment Law Predictions Fared

If you are a regular reader, you'll recall that I made predictions at the beginning of 2013 about what I thought we could expect. How did I do? Call me Cassandra.

Here's what I said would happen, and what really did:

1. Even More Active NLRB: Look for stepped up activity against employers on social media restrictions, attempts to suppress worker concerted activities and lopsided agreements. NLRB will do what other government agencies have punted on: help employees.

Sure enough, NLRB didn't disappoint. They were up to full strength by the middle of  the year. They continued to press for employee rights in non-union workplaces. They struck down some overbroad social media policies and policies on confidentiality of investigations. They rolled out an app to inform employees in union and non-union workplaces about their rights. It wasn't all pro-employee. NLRB upheld several Facebook firings. See also here and here for some of 2013's social media cases.

2. EEOC Will Start Stepping Up Not to be outdone by NLRB, EEOC will become more active as well. This year saw the beginnings of activity to address gay rights and retaliatory confidentiality agreements. Look for more activity that actually helps employees, and for an agency that no longer accepts employer position statements as gospel.

EEOC tried to step up with the issuance of a guidance and then a clarification to its guidance on criminal background checks, but was repeatedly shot down in the courts. Let's hope they don't give up on this important issue, which definitely has a disparate impact on minorities. EEOC also stepped up its enforcement of Title VII regarding LGBT employees under the theory of "sexual stereotyping." They also cracked down on overbroad agreements that limit employees' ability to file with EEOC. I still see a tendency to accept employer position statements as gospel, at least here in Florida, but there's definite progress. Baby steps.

3. Marijuana Litigation With flat-out legalization in two states and legal medical marijuana in many more, we’ll start to see litigation on the employment-protection provisions built into many of these new state statutes. The fact that it’s still illegal under federal law will make things complicated. Will the feds finally give up and recognize state’s rights? Probably not this year, but definitely within the next 5 years.

Sure enough, the litigation has begun. See also here and here. Still nothing on the federal front to recognize states' rights, but it's only a matter of time.

4. Gay Rights Expansion Speaking of states’ rights, with gay marriage spreading across the country, the feds can’t be far behind. We probably won’t see Congress adding sexual orientation to Title VII or gay spouses to FMLA this year, but I think it’s going to happen this Presidential term.

Wow! What a year for gay rights. The Defense of Marriage Act was stricken down, which led to the Feds deciding that FMLA and EBSA do protect gay couples in states that legalized gay marriage. While there was no legislation passed to amend Title VII or FMLA, ENDA did pass the Senate (although it is stalled indefinitely in the House).

5. Strikes All of a sudden, workers are waking up. They’ve realized they don’t have to put up with crappy working conditions in silence. We’ll see more non-unionized workforces going on strike. We’ll also see some Wal-Mart and fast food corporations retaliating for the strikes that have happened last year and which will continue in 2013. Fortunately, I think NLRB will take action to slap employers for illegal retaliation.

2013 saw more fast food strikes and Wal-Mart strikes.  As predicted, Wal-Mart retaliated and NLRB slapped them.

6. Federal Courts Become (Slightly) Less Anti-Employee While federal courts have long been a sad place for employees, especially here in the 11th Circuit, some recent cases indicate that the times may be changing. Look for some rulings in favor of employees for a change. All it will take is a couple of Supreme Court appointments over the next four years and it will be a different world for employees. This year, the Supremes will, for the most part, continue to bend toward corporate interests instead of the working people.

There were some baby steps toward becoming more pro-employee in the federal courts. The usually very pro-employer 11th Circuit sided with the NLRB in a recess appointment case.  Several federal courts found that sex discrimination includes sex stereotyping, providing protection for LGBT employees. Some other pro-employee decisions here and here. Still, the Supremes came in overwhelmingly pro-employer this year. Overall, the federal courts remain a relatively unfriendly place for employees in many circuits.

7. Arbitration Under Fire
Although arbitration clauses have been the darling of employers, who are sneaking them into applications, handbooks and that giant stack of papers employees sign on their first day, look for some attacks this year coming from government agencies. Watch for NLRB, EEOC, FTC and maybe even DOJ to subject arbitration agreements to extra scrutiny. It’s doubtful Congress will take action this year, but if they do something to help consumers, employees will probably be able to benefit.

Some courts have tossed one-sided pro-employer arbitration agreements. However, the Supremes upheld class action waivers in arbitration agreements. The NLRB lost when it attempted to invalidate an arbitration agreement. Meanwhile, FTC is challenging a consumer arbitration clause. No legislation passed to help consumers or employees this year.

8. Bullies Will Slide Although states periodically consider anti-bullying laws, they always fail to pass. It’s likely 2013 will be no different. Watch for more consciousness-raising but no legal action this year.

Still no anti-bullying laws passed in 2013. Sigh.

9. Privacy Protections More state legislatures will pass laws against demanding employee social media passwords and other egregious employer snooping. Congress might even do something to stop some of the worse invasions of privacy, but I won’t hold my breath. They’re too busy with gridlock to actually do anything that might protect their constituents.

Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Vermont and Washington passed laws against demanding social media passwords, with at least 36 states trying to follow suit.

10. Background Check Restrictions More states will place limitations on background checks and what background information employers can use against applicants. Watch for laws limiting use of criminal records, unemployment, and credit history against applicants. EEOC will continue looking for disparate impact of background check information against women and minorities. It’s only a matter of time, say 2013 or 2014, before we see a case arguing that use of criminal records has a disparate impact on men, but it won’t come from EEOC.

10 states and almost 60 local governments have passed "ban the box" legislation prohibiting or limiting the use of criminal background checks. Some major employers also announced they'd end the practice. There was one unsuccessful case arguing that criminal background checks had a disparate impact on men. It didn't come from EEOC. As I discussed in 2 above, EEOC lost a number of criminal background cases this year based on racial impact. It is no surprise that it didn't try to expand the theory to include sex discrimination.

Overall, 2013 was a mixed bag for employees. Better than some years, and we definitely saw some activity to protect employees. The biggest surprise was the passage of some minimum wage increases, with 13 states raising the minimum wage.

Stay tuned for my predictions for 2014.