Important:

Our office is currently closed, but we continue to provide legal services by working remotely.

In light of Governor Wolf’s emergency declaration and current recommendations our office is currently closed.  Our attorneys and staff continue to work remotely, however, and we can assure you they are set up to respond to your calls, emails and all communications.  For more details on AMM operations during this time, read our full update.  

Thank you for your understanding, and please take care.

Patricia Collins

Patricia Collins

Patty has been practicing law since 1996 in the areas of Employment Law, Health Care and Litigation, with extensive experience in advising employers and health care providers as well as complex litigation in federal and state courts. Patty’s knowledge of employment law includes the Employee Retirement Income Security Act; federal and state employment discrimination laws, and employment contracts and wage claims.

To view Patricia Collins' full profile, click here.

Website URL: http://www.ammlaw.com/attorney-profiles/patricia-c.-collins.html

On March 24, 2020, the United States Department of Labor ("DOL") issued limited guidance regarding the Families First Coronvirus Response Act (the “Act”).

Most importantly, the DOL identified April 1, 2020 as the Effective Date of the Act, contrary to the conclusion of most observers that the Act would go into effect on April 2, 2020.  Accordingly, employers of all sizes should plan to come into compliance on April 1, 2020.   The DOL also clarified that the Act is not retroactive.  The DOL also advises not to send requests for the small business exemption to the department, and that it will issue regulations regarding the small business exemption at a later date.  


On March 18, 2020, President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Protection Act (the “Act”) into law.  The Act includes provisions to assist employers and employees during these extraordinary times. 

Expansion of Protections Under the Family and Medical Leave Act

For the period of time beginning April 2, 2020 to December 31, 2020, the Act expands the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  Employees may be eligible for a combination of paid and unpaid leave for a period of up to 12 weeks under the FMLA, under certain conditions. 

This requirement applies only to employers  with fewer than 500 employees. The Act gives the Department of Labor authority to exempt small employers (those with fewer than 50 employees) where the imposition of the Act’s requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.  The Department of Labor will use guidance on this procedure.  Employers of health care professionals and emergency responders may also elect not to comply. 

Eligible employees will receive 2 weeks of unpaid leave and 10 weeks of paid leave.  To be eligible for leave, the employee must have been on the employer’s payroll for 30 days.  The Act applies where the employee is unable to work or telework to care for a child of an employee if the child’s school or place of care has been closed, or the childcare provider is unavailable, due to the Covid-19 crisis.

The employer has no obligation to pay for the first two weeks, but the employee is free to use paid time off during this period.  The employer cannot require the employee to exhaust paid time off.  After the first two weeks of unpaid leave, employers must continue paid leave, calculated as two-thirds of the employee’s usual rate of pay.  The maximum amount of paid leave under the Act is $200 per day and $10,000 in the aggregate.

Employers must return the employee to the same or equivalent position upon return to work.  There is an exception for employers who employ less than 25 employees – if the position no longer exists due to the Covid-19 crisis, the employer must make “reasonable efforts” to restore the employee to an equivalent position over a one-year period. 

Two Weeks of Emergency Paid Leave

The Act requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide full-time employees with 2 weeks of paid sick leave, and to provide part-time employees with the equivalent of average hours per week for 2 weeks, if the employee is unable to work or telework because the employee:
-    is subject to a quarantine or isolation order;
-    has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine;
-    is experiencing symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis;
-    is caring for an individual (not limited to family members) who is subject to a quarantine order, has been advised to self- quarantine, or is experiencing symptoms;
-    is caring for a son or daughter whose school or place of care has been closed or the child care provider is unavailable; or
-    is experiencing similar conditions to any specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services in consultation with the Secretaries of Labor and the Treasury.

A few limitations apply to this requirement.  If the leave is required because the employee is subject to a quarantine order, has been advised to self- quarantine or is experiencing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis, paid leave under this provision shall not exceed $511 per day and $5,110 in the aggregate  Where the leave is necessary to care for another or a child,  paid leave under the Act is limited to $200 per day and $2,000 in the aggregate. The Act limits the required payment to two-thirds of an employee's regular rate of pay (subject to the caps) for care of family members.

For this provision, the Department of Labor has substantial authority to issue guidance on which employers may be excluded from this requirement. 

This leave is available for immediate use by employees, regardless of length of employment.  Employers cannot require employees to exhaust other paid leave before using the paid leave provided by the Act.

Antheil Maslow & MacMinn will continue to provide guidance to employers with regard to the Coronavirus Outbreak on employment, tax and related  issues as they develop.  Please contact Employment Law partner Patricia Collins or Tax Law partner Michael Mills, with questions. 

Late Friday, the United States House of Representatives passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (the “Act”). The President has tweeted his support of the legislation, and the Senate will take it up this week.  

On September 24, 2019, the United States Department of Labor announced a new final rule regarding eligibility for overtime pay.   The rule requires employers to revisit their classifications of employees as exempt in order to ensure compliance. 

As I discussed in previous articles (Texas Federal Judge Blocks New Overtime Rules and Speaking of Overtime Rules and One Final Overtime Update) the DOL announced rules in 2016 to dramatically increase the salary threshold in order for certain categories of employees to meet the standards for exemption from federal overtime requirements.  The rules were met with litigation and a stay of their enforcement. 

The new final rule raises the salary threshold from $455 a week to $684 a week, or $35,568 a year.  Employers may now use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions to satisfy up to 10% of the salary level.  Employees will still have to meet requirements related to their duties in order to meet the standards of exemption for the overtime requirements. 

This final rule will become effective on January 1, 2020.  As we advised in 2016,  employers should take steps to ensure compliance by the end of the year.  The first step is to identify any employees who are classified as exempt but are making less than $422 a week, and develop a plan to reclassify those employees, or revise their compensation.  This is a good time to revisit the job duties of those employees to ensure that they meet the applicable standards for exemption in terms of their duties as well as their salary.  This is also a good time to review overtime policies to ensure appropriate recordkeeping, efficient use of overtime and compliance with applicable law. 

AMM can help employers navigate these new rules and review their employee classifications to ensure compliance and minimize risk. 

 

Reprinted with permission from the June 21st edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2019 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

In Fort Bend County v. Davis, 587 U.S. ___ (2019), the Court held that the requirement that a plaintiff in an employment discrimination case brought under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq, file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) prior to filing a complaint in court is a procedural and not a jurisdiction requirement.  Therefore, an employer’s failure to assert the absence of an appropriate charge of discrimination in a motion to dismiss results in a waiver of the defense.  The Supreme Court’s decision resolves a split in the circuits regarding whether the requirement is jurisdictional, and highlighted the importance of the charge of discrimination and the motion to dismiss in employment discrimination cases.

 

Reprinted with permission from the April 19th edition of The Legal Intelligencer. (c) 2019 ALM Media Properties. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.

On April 12, 2019, in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, a jury returned a verdict that serves as a reminder to employment law practitioners of the importance of treating mental health issues with sensitivity and consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and taking a practical approach to reasonable accommodations.  The jury in Schirnhofer v. Premier Comp Solutions LLC, Western District of Pennsylvania docket number 2:16-CV-00462, found that the employer, Premier Comp Solutions LLC (“Premier”), had discriminated against the Plaintiff, Ms. Schirnhofer, on the basis of her mental health disability, and in violation of the ADA.  The jury awarded Ms. Schirnhofer $285,000 in damages:  $35,000 in backpay, and $250,000 in non-economic damages.

This summary of the facts of the case is drawn from the Court’s opinion on Premier’s summary judgment motion, issued on March 28, 2018.  Ms. Schirnhofer began her employment at Premier in 2009, and was terminated on February 5, 2014.  She was employed as a billing assistant in the billing department.  During the course of her employment, she had good performance reviews.  Ms. Schirnhofer was diagnosed with anxiety and other mental health issues prior to her employment with Premier.  Her condition was exacerbated in 2012 when her newborn grandchild died, and a co-worker with whom she was close left Premier.  What followed was a series of interpersonal problems, and conflicts with and complaints about co-workers.  Premier’s president and Ms. Schirnhofer’s co-workers had referred to her as “Sybil” (referencing a character in the movie Sybil who suffered from mental health issues).  The human resources representative noted that she should seek “medical attention.”  Ms. Schirnhofer eventually asked for a reasonable accommodation in the form of two additional ten-minute breaks.  She provided a letter from her physician regarding the need for such breaks to accommodate her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and her Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  On January 28, 2019 Premier denied the request, despite the advice of its human resources professional to provide the accommodation.  Instead, Premier offered to move her work area.  On a particularly bad day in February, 2014, Ms. Schirnhofer took to Facebook to vent her anxiety.  She was terminated on February 5, 2014 for her Facebook posts in violation of Premier’s Social Media policy.   Ms. Schirnhofer sued, alleging that Premier had terminated her in retaliation for her request for an accommodation, that Premier had discriminated against her in violation of the ADA, and that Premier had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation.   The jury returned a verdict in her favor on the issue of discrimination, but found that Premier had not retaliated against Ms. Schirnhofer.

The lessons for employment law practitioners in this verdict are many, among them:  mental health issues and accommodations are subtle, and require sensitivity; requests for reasonable accommodations provide an excellent opportunity for risk management; and, it is quite expensive to be wrong.

A recent case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit demonstrates the ongoing struggle to apply the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to the “side gigs” that have come to signify the modern employment market.  In Acosta v. Off Duty Police Services, Inc., United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Nos. 17-5995/6071 (February 12, 2019), the Sixth Circuit held that security offers working for Off Duty Police Services (“ODPS”) as a side job were employees entitled to overtime pay under the FLSA.  

ODPS workers were either sworn law enforcement officers who worked for law enforcement entities during the day, or unsworn workers with no background in law enforcement.  All workers had the same duties, but sworn officers earned a higher hourly rate.  Duties included “sitting in a car with the lights flashing or directing traffic around a construction zone.”  They were free to accept or reject assignments, but would be punished by withholding future assignments if they did so.  When they accepted an assignment, ODPS instructed the workers where to report, when to show up, and who to report to upon arrival.  ODPS provided some equipment, but workers did have to use some of their own equipment.  Workers followed customer instructions while on assignment, and only occasionally received supervision from ODPS.  ODPS paid workers for their hours upon submission of an invoice.  Workers did not have specialized skills, as sworn officers and unsworn workers had the same duties.   

ODPS treated the workers as “independent contractors.” As the facts set forth in the Sixth Circuit opinion demonstrate, the factors relevant to determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee do not provide a clear answer.  The United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky broke the tie this way:  the court held that “nonsworn workers” were employees, but that the sworn officers were independent contractors because they “were not economically dependent on ODPS and instead used ODPS to supplement their incomes.”   

The Sixth Circuit disagreed, noting that the FLSA is a broadly remedial and humanitarian statute, designed to improve labor conditions.  The Sixth Circuit applied the “economic reality” test to determine that the sworn offers were also employees and not independent contractors, and to uphold the finding that unsworn workers were employees.  Specifically, the Court noted that the officers provided services that represented an integral part of the business, and that the work required no specialized skills, that the officers made only limited investment in equipment, and that the workers had little opportunity for profit or loss.  The Court noted that the facts did not “break cleanly in favor of employee or independent contractor status” regarding the right to control the work for the sworn officers. 

In the last segment of this series, we focused on concerns for employers in drafting and enforcing restrictive covenants.  The choices for employees are fewer, and none of them are good.   Employees are generally asked to sign restrictive covenants at two points:  either at the beginning of their career or upon a promotion or other significant improvement in employment status.  Such agreements diminish employees’ choices should they want to move on from their current employment, whether or not the restrictions are actually enforceable.

Some employers require employees to sign a restrictive covenant at the outset of their employment.  If the employee was recruited and has other employment choices, the employee has some bargaining power to reduce the duration or scope of the restrictions.  But this is seldom the case, and the law recognizes that employees generally have limited (or no) bargaining power in these situations.  The law disfavors restrictive covenants for precisely this reason:  the agreement imposes a post-employment restriction that may hinder the employee’s ability to earn a living at a time when the employee has little or no bargaining power to negotiate the restriction.

This calculus changes a little when the employee is required to sign a restrictive covenant in conjunction with a promotion or other benefit, such as participation in a stock option or bonus program.  Then the employee has to decide whether the value of the promotion or other benefit is enough to justify agreeing to the post-employment restriction.  Where it is not, the employee can refuse to sign, forcing the employer to decide how valuable this employee is to the employer.  However, the employee should factor into this decision that the employer is free to terminate the employee for refusing to sign.  And, this might be a good thing, as the employee will be leaving the employer without a noncompete. 

Frequently, employees breach the restriction without consulting an attorney first based on the widely held, mistaken, belief that courts do not enforce noncompetes.  Let’s be clear:  courts will enforce noncompetes where the law permits them to do so.  More importantly, the old employer will sue the employee and the employee’s new employer for breach of the agreement.  The new employer may terminate the new employment to avoid the costs of litigation.  Litigation regarding these matters is expensive, time-consuming and stressful.  Practically speaking, most employers will refuse to hire an employee with a restrictive covenant even if it is unenforceable for any number of technical reasons we have discussed in this series. 

At the very least, employees should consult an attorney prior to signing, even if they have limited bargaining power, to understand the restrictions in place.  We can help employees with that review, and we can help employees navigate the minefield of finding new employment when they have a noncompete in place. 

Part 2 of our Noncompete Series will focus on employers.  Noncompetes, when well drafted, are a powerful tool to protect customer relationships, confidential information, trade and training secrets, and key employee relationships.  But, the law does not favor these agreements, so drafting requires care, and, as a practical matter, timing is everything.  

While noncompetes are disfavored and maligned, they do serve useful purposes for certain employers.  There are two types of restrictions that such agreements can impose:  general prohibits on certain kinds of competition; or, prohibitions on soliciting customers, vendors, employees, contractors, or other valuable relationships.  For the most part, restrictions on soliciting customers, employees and other key relationships are easier to enforce.  They allow the employee to continue to work, and protect those relationships for the employer.  For some employers, these restrictions, tailored to their business and in place for a sufficient period of time, are enough.  Generally, these restrictions tend to last a year or perhaps two.  Employers will need to weigh the dangers of making the restriction too long, and thus unenforceable, as against the time it takes for those relationships to go stale.  

Restrictions on competition generally are another matter.  The general principle applied by the court is this:  a court will not enforce the restriction if it is not designed to protect a legally recognized protectable interest, renders an employee unable to pursue his chosen profession, or appears designed to eliminate fair competition.   The court will only act to protect the following interests:  trade secrets or confidential information, specialized training the employee received from the employer, or customer good will developed using the employer’s resources.  Given these competing factors, it is best to narrowly tailor the restriction to the employer’s business.  An employee is more likely to comply with such a restriction (thus avoiding court), and a court is more likely to enforce it as written.

Employers next must consider when to ask employees to sign noncompetes.   These agreements are enforceable when signed at the beginning of the employment relationship.  A noncompete executed by an employee after the employee has worked for the employer for a period of time is not enforceable unless accompanied by a raise or promotion, or some other benefit.  This creates a practice problem for employers.  Often, a noncompete is not required at the beginning of employment, but circumstances change:  employees are promoted, the nature of the business changes, the employer becomes more sophisticated about its internal procedures, for example.  A skilled employee with options in the marketplace may very well refuse to sign such a restriction where the new consideration offered is simply not worth it.  So, for example, while a bonus of $500 is enough to make the agreement legally enforceable, it may also not be enough to cause the employee to sign.  This creates a difficult situation for the employer – should the employer terminate and lose the key employee, or allow the employee to stay without a noncompete?  

Creating a noncompete program for employees is complex, and many of the issue are interrelated.  In addition to the legal concerns, employers must consider what concerns and relationships truly require protection, as well as retention and morale issues. We have helped many employers sort through these issues and are uniquely equipped to help businesses navigate difficult noncompete issues.  

The third installment of my Navigating Noncompetes series will look at noncompetes from the employee's perspective, outlining potential issues which should be considered before signing such an agreement.

  

Wednesday, 31 October 2018 19:56

NAVIGATING NONCOMPETES PART 1: THE BASICS

A recent Washington Post article proclaimed that “even janitors have noncompetes now.”   New Jersey and Pennsylvania are considering legislation to regulate the terms and enforceability of documents that restrict employees’ ability to compete with their former employees.  "Noncompete Litigation Lessons from the 10th Circuit". These restrictions require discussion and attention:  they impact the economy, employee mobility, and the trade secrets and good will of businesses.  In the coming weeks, we will explore issues relating to noncompetes in order to shed some light on this complex employment law topic, and offer guidance to both employers and employees grappling with the potential risks and consequences of missteps in these agreements. 

This week, let’s start with the basics.

Pennsylvania law recognizes that an agreement that restricts the ability to compete is a restraint on trade, and courts should construe them narrowly.  Such agreements are only permitted in two contexts: where they are ancillary to the employer – employee relationship (including independent contractor relationships), or where they are ancillary to the sale of a business.  The restriction must be reasonable in terms of scope, geography and time.  A court will review whether the restriction in the agreement is narrowly tailored to address certain legally protectable interest, such as good will, trade secrets or specialized training.

Such agreements, as with all contracts, must be accompanied by consideration.  In the context of employment-related noncompetes, continued employment will not suffice.  Instead, the noncompete must be executed at the beginning of the employment relationship, or, if signed during the employment relationship, accompanied by additional consideration such as a promotion, raise or bonus. 

Noncompetes come in many forms:  restrictions on working for competitors or setting up a competing business; restrictions on soliciting or accepting work from customers, clients, vendors or suppliers; restrictions on working as an employee for a customer, client, vendor or supplier; and restrictions on soliciting employees away from the employer.  Limitations on solicitation are generally more enforceable than blanket restrictions on competition.  Some noncompetes are accompanied by a period of severance pay, commonly referred to as “garden leave”.  Some agreements include provisions for the employer to release an employee from a noncompete under certain conditions. 

When an employee breaches a noncompete, the employer has a powerful weapon to enforce the document:  the employer can request an emergency order from the court prohibiting the employee, and even the employee’s new employer, from engaging in activity in breach of the agreement.  The court proceeding that results in the emergency order, called a preliminary injunction, usually occurs quickly, and such litigation is expensive and stressful.  Often, noncompete agreements have provisions that require the employee to pay the employer’s legal fees in the event of a breach.   A court is free to “blue pencil” the noncompete.  This means that the court can rewrite the restrictions in a manner that is reasonable and consistent with the employer’s legally recognized protectable interests. 

In the next installment of my Navigating Noncompetes series, you will see how to apply some of these basics to examine the issues that employers should consider in drafting and enforcing noncompetes

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