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.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

New Laws Protect Pregnant and Nursing Workers

Two new federal laws that President Biden signed on December 29, 2022 will provide more protection for pregnant and nursing workers. While pregnancy discrimination is already illegal, these laws provide additional protection. 

Pregnant Workers Fairness Act: This law goes into effect on June 27, 2023 and applies to discrimination claims after that date. This law makes clear that employers with at least 15 employees must provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers unless providing the accommodation would cause an undue hardship on the employer. This makes pregnancy accommodations similar to disability accommodations, but pregnant workers only have to prove pregnancy, not a disability. The requirement of accommodation is triggered by a "known limitation" of pregnancy. 

This law clarifies the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which didn't mention accommodations. The Supreme Court held in 2015 that employers must grant accommodations to pregnant employees if they provide such accommodations to other similarly-situated non-pregnant employees. The cases have been all over the place on this, so this new law makes the requirement very clear.

Cases under this law are handled the same way Title VII claims are handled.

Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act (PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act): This law amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to provide reasonable break times to all nursing employees, and a private place to express breast milk. This law came into effect on December 29, 2022. Employers with less than 50 employees will be exempt if compliance creates an undue hardship. Employees who work remotely have the same entitlement to breaks as other employees and must be able to do so without being observed by employers. 

The Fair Labor Standards Act already provided for break time and private space for most employees, but this law expands that protection to employees who were considered exempt from overtime and remote workers. 

Breaks are only paid if they are less than 20 minutes or if the worker is not completely relieved from duty during the break. 

Employers who break this law or who retaliate can be liable for lost wages, liquidated damages, compensatory damages, other economic losses, and even punitive damages.

See what happens when you vote well? Keep voting well, and keep fighting for employee rights.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

Can My Employer Trash Me In Job References?

I constantly hear comments like, "I know my employer is only legally allowed to give out my dates of employment and job title." The people who say this are so sure this is the law. They're also wrong, wrong, wrong. They even get angry when I tell them they're wrong.

Here are six things you need to know about job references:
  1. Not one single federal law exists limiting what employers can say in references. I know you think you're sure about this law existing. You probably heard it from a friend or on TV. There is no such law.
  2. No state prohibits employers from giving out truthful information about an employee's job performance. There is not a single state law that I've found (and I'm sure my employment lawyer colleagues around the country will chime in if they know of one) saying that employers can only give out dates of employment and job title. Discussing job performance is allowed.
  3. Most states don't require employers to give any reference at all. Some vindictive employers will simply refuse to return calls from prospective employers. Employees who have to undergo background checks may be disqualified from a job just because a former employer refused to speak. While some states require employers to give out specific limited information, most require nothing at all from former employers. This can also be a problem if you need to apply for unemployment or public assistance.
  4. Some states require employers to give former employees a letter with specific information (varies from state to state). These states are California, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington. You can check out each state's requirements here.
  5. Most states give employers some immunity from slander and libel suits. Each state's immunity is a little different, but employers in most states get a lot of leeway in what they can say about former employees.
  6. Truth is always a defense to a slander or libel suit. Even in states without immunity, if your employer gives out truthful information, you won't be able to sue for slander or libel. Truth is a defense. If your employer makes false statements of fact (as opposed to opinion), such as falsely saying you stole money or didn't meet quota, then you might have a defamation case against them.
When you leave, it's important to figure out what your former employer is going to say about you to potential employers before you start interviewing. Here are some things you can do to find out.

Ask: Some employers will tell you, if you ask them, what they will say to potential employers in references. Find out if, for instance, they'll say you're eligible for rehire.

Put it in an agreement: If you're presented with a severance agreement, one important point to negotiate will be neutral references. A contract where the employer agrees to only give out dates of employment and job title can be enforced.

Check the union contract: If you have a union, many collective bargaining agreements include a provision that the employer can only give out dates of employment and job title.

Look at your handbook: Many companies have a neutral reference policy. Some have a phone number or person where you're supposed to direct references. A company with a neutral reference policy will usually follow it. They have it for a reason. If you find out your former supervisor is violating the policy, complain to HR or the supervisor's boss. They may get in trouble, and will almost certainly be ordered to cut it out.

Reference-checking company: There are companies that will pretend to be potential employers and check references for you. They can give you a report about what your former employer is saying. If they're saying something untrue, you may want to get a lawyer to write a cease and desist letter for you. If they're breaching a non-disparagement agreement, you might be able to sue for breach of contract.

If you think your former employer is defaming you, or if they are breaching a non-disparagement agreement that they aren't allowed to say negative things about you, contact an employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

Thursday, April 13, 2023

DOL's New Rule On Classification of Employees Vs. Contractors Will Benefit Workers

 Last year, the Department of Labor announced a new proposed rule about how workers are classified as employees or independent contractors. The comments period has ended, so we can expect the new rule to be implemented any time. 

DOL noted, "As explained below, as used in this proposal, the term “independent contractor” refers to workers who, as a matter of economic reality, are not economically dependent on their employer for work and are in business for themselves." And that is exactly how it should be. Instead, employers are misclassifying employees as contractors to avoid the application of employment laws and to avoid paying employment taxes.

The new rule would actually revert to an older rule that has existed in interpreting the Fair Labor Standards Act. "The ultimate inquiry is whether, as a matter of economic reality, the worker is either economically dependent on the employer for work (and is thus an employee) or is in business for themself (and is thus an independent contractor). To answer this ultimate inquiry of economic dependence, the courts and the Department have historically conducted a totality-of-the-circumstances analysis, considering multiple factors to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor under the FLSA."

This new rule will benefit workers in several ways:

Greater protection under labor laws: Workers who are classified as employees are entitled to greater protection under labor laws. For example, they are protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to form and join a union, the Fair Labor Standards Act, which sets the minimum wage and overtime standards, state and federal discrimination laws, and whistleblower laws.

Better pay and benefits: Workers who are classified as employees are typically eligible for a wider range of benefits and may be entitled to a higher minimum wage. For example, employees are typically entitled to overtime pay, paid time off, and health insurance, while independent contractors are not.

Improved working conditions: Workers who are classified as employees are entitled to a safe and healthy workplace. This includes protection from workplace hazards and discrimination. Employers are also required to provide reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. Employees can also unionize to negotiate for better working conditions. Contractors cannot.

No double taxation: Independent contractors have to pay double the amount of social security and medicare taxes. Employers pay half of these employment taxes for employees. 

Overall, the Department of Labor's new rule on worker classification benefits workers by providing increased job security, better pay and benefits, improved working conditions, greater protection under labor laws, and clarity for both workers and employers. By ensuring that workers are classified correctly, the rule helps to ensure that workers receive the benefits and protections they deserve.

If you think you are misclassified as a contractor, contact an employee-side employment lawyer in your state. You also can report your employer to the Department of Labor and the IRS. They may additionally be liable under state wage theft laws. 

Thursday, April 6, 2023

How Do I Prove I Was Laid Off Due to Age Discrimination?

 Older employees, along with the disabled and pregnant employees, are the most targeted employees in layoffs. There seems to be an assumption that the "old guys" will be retiring soon anyhow so it doesn't matter. It does. Targeting older employees is illegal. 

How do you figure out whether you were selected due to illegal age discrimination? Here are some factors to consider:

  • Comments: If your boss makes comments about age, that's direct evidence of discrimination. As an example, referring to older employees as, "geezer," "old man," or "pops," may indicate age discrimination. It can be more subtle. Saying the company wants a "young image," asking questions about your energy level, asking when you intend to retire, or saying you may not be able to keep up with the new changes can all be evidence of age discrimination.
  • Different treatment: If you are selected as one of the employees to be laid off but younger, less qualified employees are kept on, then that is also evidence of discrimination. Let's say the position requires a certification. You have it but the younger employee is working to get it. You're more qualified. That is evidence of age discrimination. Seniority can also be a measure of your qualifications. If you've been in the position for 20 years with all good reviews and the younger employee has only held the job for a year, that's a good indication that age discrimination is occurring.
  • Different options: If you are told you have to take the severance, where other younger employees are given the option of stepping down to a lower paying position, or transferring to a different department, then that could also be age discrimination. On the issue of stepping down versus taking the severance package, if it's offered to you, that's a decision you need to weigh carefully. If your retirement benefit (assuming you work for the rare company that still has one) is measured by your last year or several years' pay, then you may want to go for the severance package if offered. On the other hand, if you aren't vested in some benefits or can't retire yet and only have a few years left, stepping down may be the best option. This might be a good time to meet with your accountant or a financial planner to discuss the best options for you.
  • Disparate discipline: Since the company is looking at disciplinary history, if you are suddenly targeted for discipline for picky things that younger employees also do and aren't disciplined for, then that is another sign that you are being targeted due to your age.
  • Check that list: In a layoff employers should attach a list of the job titles and ages of people who were selected for layoff, and those kept on. It might show a pattern of age discrimination.

If you think you're being targeted due to your age, talk to an employment lawyer in your state. Sometimes discrimination can give you leverage to negotiate a better severance package.