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, 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. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Mandatory Religious Liberty Training By Extremist Anti-Abortion Group Coming To Your Workplace

 In a WTAF moment I'm still trying to process, Southwest Airlines has been ordered to provide religious liberty training to its lawyers. The training is part of the remedy a judge appointed by TFG has ordered after the airline lost a religious discrimination case. So far not so bad, right?

But the judge has ordered the training be done by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far right extremist anti-abortion group that wrote the Missouri abortion ban and worked to overturn Roe. They are currently suing the FDA to ban abortion pills. 

I just don't see how forcing them to undergo this kind of extremist religious indoctrination doesn't violate the lawyers' religious liberty. Appoint a real trainer, not some zealots.

The order is stayed now pending appeal, but the case is terrifying. If this case stands, then employers can be ordered to indoctrinate employees in right-wing extremism.

If you find this disturbing, vote blue in all elections, especially Senate and the President, but lower races as well. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Does Your Noncompete Agreement Violate the National Labor Relations Act?

 The NLRB General Counsel is taking the position that noncompete agreements in employment and severance agreements violates the National Labor Relations Act.

Non-compete provisions are overbroad, that is, they reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of Section 7 rights, when the provisions could reasonably be construed by employees to deny them the ability to quit or change jobs by cutting off their access to other employment opportunities that they are qualified for based on their experience, aptitudes, and preferences as to type and location of work. Generally speaking, this denial of access to employment opportunities chills employees from engaging in Section 7 activity because: employees know that they will have greater difficulty replacing their lost income if they are discharged for exercising their statutory rights to organize and act together to improve working conditions; employees’ bargaining power is undermined in the context of lockouts, strikes, and other labor disputes; and, an employer’s former employees are unlikely to reunite at a local competitor’s workplace, and, thus be unable to leverage their prior relationships—and the communication and solidarity engendered thereby—to encourage each other to exercise their rights to improve working conditions in their new workplace.

In addition, non-compete provisions that could reasonably be construed by employees to deny them the ability to quit or change jobs by cutting access to other employment opportunities chill employees from engaging in five specific types of activity protected under Section 7 of the Act. First, they chill employees from concertedly threatening to resign to demand better working conditions. Specifically, they discourage such threats because employees would view the threats as futile given their lack of access to other employment opportunities and because employees could reasonably fear retaliatory legal action for threatening to breach their agreements, even though such legal action would likely violate the Act. Second, they chill employees from carrying out concerted threats to resign or otherwise concertedly resigning to secure improved working conditions. Although extant Board law does not unequivocally recognize a Section 7 right of employees to concertedly resign from employment, such a right follows logically from settled Board law, Section 7 principles, and the Act’s purposes. It is also consistent with the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws. Accordingly, I will urge the Board to limit decisions inconsistent with that right to their facts or overrule them.  

Is this a magic wand that makes your noncompete go poof? No. But it gives you another weapon in your arsenal to challenge your noncompete agreement, assuming your employer is covered by the NLRA (most are). The key here to challenging noncompetes through the National Labor Relations Act is concerted activity. You'd have to be part of a group of employees that want to threaten to resign or go to a better workplace. By yourself, the challenge probably fails. 

Plus, there is no caselaw supporting this specific issue, so there's no guarantee the federal courts as currently constituted (the Supremes have been very pro-employer) would uphold this interpretation.

If you think your noncompete may violate the National Labor Relations Act, you can file a charge against employer with the NLRB within 6 months of the alleged violation, or talk to an employee-side employment lawyer in your state about your rights.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Fired for Advocating for Non-Employees? You May Have Rights

The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that employees who advocate for non-employees such as applicants and interns are legally protected by the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB Chair said, "“Standing in solidarity can be a protected act regardless of the employment status of those you stand with — the question is simply whether, in helping others, employees might help themselves and get help in return."

The case involved an employer's refusal to rehire a former employee. An employee who attempted to rally coworkers in support of the former employee was deemed legally protected.

The thing about the National Labor Relations Act is that it protects "concerted activity" and not just you acting on behalf of yourself. So trying to get coworkers to support an intern or a potential hire now falls within the legal protections of the NLRA.

The Board explained what constitutes "concerted activity":

Thus, as the Board has explained, the statutory concept of protected concerted activity has two elements: the employee’s activity must be “concerted,” and it must be “for mutual aid or protection.” E.g., Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, Inc., 361 NLRB 151, 152–153 (2014). 

“[W]hether an employee’s activity is ‘concerted’ depends on the manner in which the employee’s actions may be linked to those of his coworkers.” Id. at 153 (citing, inter alia, NLRB v. City Disposal Systems, 465 U.S. 822, 831 (1984)). The Board has held that concerted activity “encompasses those circumstances where individual employees seek to initiate or to induce or to prepare for group action, as well as individual employees bringing truly group complaints to the attention of management.” Meyers Industries, 281 NLRB 882, 887 (1986) (Meyers II), affd. sub nom. Prill v. NLRB, 835 F.2d 1481 (D.C. Cir. 1987), cert. denied 487 U.S. 1205 (1988). Notably, the “object of inducing group action need not be express,” and an employee’s statement may, in certain contexts, “implicitly elicit[] support from his fellow employees.” Whittaker Corp., 289 NLRB 933, 933–934 (1988). As the Board stated in Meyers II, “the question of whether an employee has engaged in concerted activity is a factual one based on the totality of the record evidence.” 281 NLRB at 886. “Mutual aid or protection,” in turn, “focuses on the goal of concerted activity; chiefly, whether the employee or employees involved are seeking to ‘improve terms and conditions of employment or otherwise improve their lot as employees.’” Fresh & Easy, supra, 361 NLRB at 153 (emphasis in original) (quoting Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 565 (1978)). Both the “concertedness” and “mutual aid or protection” elements under Section 7 are analyzed under an objective standard, whereby motive for taking the action is not relevant to whether it was concerted, nor is motive relevant to whether it was for “mutual aid or protection.” Id.

The Board further elaborated: "It is well established that “the activity of a single employee in enlisting the support of his fellow employees for their mutual aid and protection is as much ‘concerted activity’ as is ordinary group activity.” Whittaker Corp., supra, 289 NLRB at 933 (1988) (quoting Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. v. NLRB, 407 F.2d 1357, 1365 (4th Cir. 1969))."

Bottom line is that you are allowed to speak up about working conditions and to attempt to get coworkers to take action regarding working conditions. You don't have to succeed in rallying coworkers to join you. Advocating on behalf of non-employees such as potential employees and interns is now legally protected. 

If an employer retaliates against you for doing so, or for taking any other protected concerted action, then you can file a charge against employer with the NLRB within 6 months from the date of retaliation.