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FMG Law Blog Line

Posts Tagged ‘NLRB’

Company Wrongfully Terminates Employees for Emails Using Profanity

Posted on: May 1st, 2018

By: Joyce M. Mocek

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) recently determined Mexican Radio Corp. (a restaurant company) violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”) when it fired four (nonunion) employees after they sent emails complaining about their wages, work schedules, tip policy and work conditions.

The issues relating to the terminations began when a General Manager discussed with her employees new staffing and tip policies, and said “if you don’t like it, you can go.”  The General Manager also allegedly made a statement about an employee who had been absent from work due to an illness, inquiring if she was “dead yet”.   An employee resigned and sent an email to a group of coworkers complaining about the General Manager.  Current employees responded with a “reply all” email to the group, sharing their concerns.

Management subsequently met with the employees individually and attempted to interview them.  The employer then terminated the employees, providing different reasons for the terminations, including the emails used inappropriate language (profanity), refusal to be interviewed, and missing work.  The employees filed an NLRB charge alleging retaliation.  The ALJ issued a ruling holding the Company had violated section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, which prohibits employers from interfering, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights, by terminating the employees due to their participation in protected activity.

The Company filed exceptions to the ALJ’s decision, including objecting to its reach over nonunion employers.   The Company argued the email(s) contained profanity, and thus lost protection under the Act.  Under Atlantic Steel (a prior NLRB decision), in certain situations, an employer may terminate an employee for otherwise protected conduct if the behavior is “opprobrious” enough.   The NLRB disagreed with the Company’s arguments, finding the amount of profanity in the emails was not enough to lose protection.   The NLRB (affirming the ALJ’s decision in Mexican Radio Corp. and Rachel Nicotra, Case 02-CA-168989) determined the reasons for the terminations provided by the Company were pretextual, the true reason for the terminations were the employee’s participation in activity protected under the Act, and as such, the terminations violated the Act.

Employers  should be mindful of this ruling and the continued reach of the NLRB over nonunion employers when considering employee workplace activities.   This decision reinforces the need to ensure that Company handbooks and policies comply with guidelines relating to email and social media usage, and the need to carefully review and take appropriate action in each situation that may arise involving employee actions in violation of such policies.

If you have any questions or would like more information, pleases contact Joyce Mocek at [email protected].

NLRB Delivers One-Two Punch to Pair of Standards that Have Dogged Employers

Posted on: December 18th, 2017

By: Paul H. Derrick

In a stunning development, the National Labor Relations Board has overruled a pair of controversial standards that have caused headaches in the business community for years.

In the first case, the NLRB reversed an Obama-era decision that put employers potentially on the hook for labor law violations committed by their subcontractors and franchisees.  By a 3-2 vote, the Board erased its decision in a case known as Browning-Ferris Industries, which found a company to be a joint-employer with a subcontractor or franchisee if it had “indirect” control over the terms and conditions of the terms and conditions of the workers’ employment or had the “reserved authority to do so.”

Since that broad standard was adopted, the Board has used it to bring literally hundreds of cases against McDonald’s and other businesses for the alleged acts of their contractors and franchisees.  Going forward, however, the NLRB says that two or more entities will be deemed joint employers under the National Labor Relations Act only if there is proof that one entity actually exercised direct and immediate control over essential employment terms of another entity’s employees.  Proof of indirect control, contractually-reserved control that has never been exercised, or control that is limited and routine will no longer be sufficient to establish a joint-employer relationship.

In a second unexpected development, also by a narrow 3-2 margin, the NLRB overturned its 2004 decision in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, under which many seemingly harmless workplace rules were deemed unlawful.  The Board had determined in that case that employer rules violate the NLRA if they “could be reasonably construed” by employees to prohibit the exercise of rights under the NLRA.

Going forward, the NLRB says that it will consider the nature and extent of a challenged rule’s potential impact on employee rights under the NLRA and the legitimate justifications associated with the rule.  The Board also announced three categories into which it will now classify rules to provide greater clarity and certainty to employees, employers, and unions.

The first category covers rules that are legal in all cases because they cannot be reasonably interpreted to interfere with workers’ rights or because any interference is outweighed by business interests; the second covers rules that are legal in some cases, depending on their application; and the third covers rules that are always unlawful because they interfere with workers’ rights and cannot be outweighed by business interests.  Notably, the Board also announced that it will no longer find a rule to be unlawful simply because it requires employees to foster “harmonious interactions and relationships” or to maintain basic standards of civility in the workplace.

Because of ongoing changes in the NLRB’s composition and the recent nomination of a new General Counsel, these latest decisions will certainly be the subject of challenge and much debate.  If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Paul Derrick at [email protected].

NLRB Tells Appellate Court that Racial Harassment by Picketers is OK

Posted on: November 1st, 2017

By: Paul H. Derrick

The National Labor Relations Board is urging the full Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals not to review a 2-1 panel decision that found a union picketer’s racially derogatory comments toward black replacement workers to be protected speech that could not be used as grounds for his termination. Although admitting that the picketer’s comments to the black workers were offensive, the NLRB stated that the comments simply were not vile enough to lose the protections of the National Labor Relations Act.

The comments in question included the picketer yelling “Did you bring enough KFC for everybody?” toward a van carrying replacement workers and asking if other picketers could “smell fried chicken and watermelon.” Based on those and other comments, the employer elected not to return the picketer to work after its labor dispute with the union ended. The union filed a grievance on the picketer’s behalf, and an arbitrator ruled that the company had just cause to fire him.  An NLRB administrative law judge and the NLRB itself disagreed, however, and ordered that the worker be rehired and given back pay and benefits.  According to the NLRB, the racially derogatory remarks, although directed at minority workers confined in a vehicle that was crossing a hostile picket line, were non-violent and non-threatening offhand comments that would not objectively be perceived as coercive or intimidating.  In other words, they merely reflected the picketer’s animal exuberance.

In its initial appeal to a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit, the company argued that bringing back the picketer would conflict with its obligation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act to eradicate racial harassment in the workplace. In a split decision, two of the panel’s judges ruled that the racial taunting did not create a hostile work environment, was not violent in character, did not contain any overt threats to the replacement workers, and was not accompanied by acts of physical intimidation.  The third judge ruled that the picketer’s termination should stand, reasoning that no employer in America can be required to allow racial bigotry in the workplace.

Whether the NLRB will prevail in its position that picket line racial harassment is an exception to the general rule that such workplace misconduct is absolutely prohibited remains to be seen.  In the meantime, employers should be aware that the NLRB has taken this same position many times over the years, although not all courts agree with it.  Until the U. S. Supreme Court gives more definitive guidance on the issue, there likely will be continued disagreement well into the future.  These cases generally rise and fall on their own unique and specific facts, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer as to how a particular case will be seen by the NLRB or the courts.

If you have any questions or would like more information about this or any other labor law issue, please contact Paul H. Derrick at [email protected].

 

Updates on the “Joint Employer” Standard

Posted on: October 10th, 2017

By: Tim Holdsworth

More than two years have passed since the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) handed down its new and controversial joint employer standard in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, 362 NLRB No. 186 (August 27, 2015). As you may recall, that decision greatly expanded the standard under which an entity could be found as a joint employer under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). In departing from its own well-established standards, the NLRB announced that they will no longer require a joint employer to possess and exercise authority to control employees’ terms and conditions of employment, but instead will find sufficient control if the entity merely reserves this authority. They also announced they will no longer require the employer’s control to be exercised directly and immediately. Instead, the NLRB declared that control exercised indirectly, such as through an intermediary, can establish the requisite control.

The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) adopted a similar standard for who it considered a “joint employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act shortly thereafter.

Neither of these controversial steps has fared well. The Browning-Ferris decision has been under attack in courts, while the DOL rescinded its guidance earlier this year under new Labor Secretary Alex Acosta.

Legislative efforts also have been made to give further guidance to businesses that have struggled with the uncertain and convoluted joint employer scheme. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee approved a bill that would amend both the NLRA and FLSA to require that a company exert “direct, actual and immediate” control over workers to be considered an employer.

We will continue to monitor this legislation and provide any updates. For now, however, employers need to know that the Browning-Ferris standard is still in effect.

If you have any questions about federal, state, or local wage and hour laws, please contact Tim Holdsworth at [email protected] or any of the attorneys in FMG’s Labor & Employment Law Section.

NLRB Reverses Standard for Multi-Employer Bargaining Units

Posted on: July 19th, 2016

By: Timothy Holdsworth

Once again, the NLRB has overturned precedent in their quest to dramatically expand employer liability.  For over a decade, the NLRB has held that multi-employer bargaining units that include temporary employees from a staffing employer (“supplier employer”) and regular employees of a company that jointly employs temporary workers (“user employer”) require the consent of both employers.  Last week, in Miller & Anderson, the NLRB overturned that precedent by ruling that a union may now organize this type of mixed-employee unit without employer consent.  Instead, the employees need only share a community of interest.  In doing so, the NLRB returned to the union-friendly standard from M.B. Sturgis, Inc., 331 NLRB 1298 (2000).

The standard creates numerous problems.  Most importantly, a user employer will have to bargain with a mixed-employee unit even when the majority of its regular employees vote against unionization.  In addition, the rule would also force supplier employers to bargain with unions that represent full time workers of user employers with which the supplier employer has absolutely no employment relationship.

In a previous blog, we discussed how the NLRB in Browning-Ferris reversed precedent to greatly expand its standard for determining whether an employer is a “joint employer,” finding that employers may now be joint employers if they have even the potential to control working conditions.  In light of that ruling, Miller & Anderson takes on greater meaning as companies will more likely be found to be joint employers, thereby creating the types of multi-employer bargaining unit problems discussed above.

Employers should examine business relationships where they have authority to exercise control over employees, and therefore could be found to be joint employers of some of their workforce.  As Board Member Miscimarra has noted regarding joint employment, Browning-Ferris “has already created an analytical grab bag from which any scrap of evidence regarding indirect control or incidental collaboration may result in joint employer status.”