The Employment Law Department here at Antheil Maslow & MacMinn wishes a Happy New Year to all of our clients. In the interest of making this year the best it can be, we offer the following New Year’s resolutions for employers:
1. Resolve to document:
Document everything: employee successes, employee’s failures to meet expectations, attendance, complaints, suggestions, and anything that may be of significance to the employee or the workplace. This is good risk management for employers. For employees, it is a fundamental aspect of workplace fairness, and prevents the situation where an employee may be caught off guard by a particular decision of the employer.
A corollary to this resolution is to make documentation easy. For example, managers can use email, which will include a date and time stamp, be maintained on company servers, and creates an electronic paper trail. Managers are more likely to comply with a simple system.
2. Resolve to retain key employees:
We spend much of our day talking about restrictive covenants – agreements not to compete or solicit customers and employees after the termination of employment. We draft them, read them, counsel employees and employers about them. While these agreements are important to protect the employer, they will not help employers keep their stars. Instead, employers should ensure a positive workplace, where key employees know that they are appreciated. Some ways to accomplish this: fair compensation and benefit programs; attainable equity or bonus programs; realistic work-life balance policies; and recognition of employee successes. It is also worthwhile to recognize that “stars” exist at every level in an organization: the top salesperson and the reliable receptionist both contribute to the success of the business.
3. Resolve to cultivate the culture:
This resolution will help with resolution 2, but is important in its own right. How are managers communicating with employees? Are they fair, professional and clear? Are you looking the other way on unprofessional or inappropriate conduct? Do you ever say “That’s just (insert name here)” about a particular manager?
What we learned in 2017 is that it is folly to look the other way on a toxic workplace culture: it wastes time, pulls focus from work, results in bad press and litigation, and chases away good employees.
A focus on these three resolutions will help lower risk and ensure a compliance workplace. Feel free to contact us to help accomplish these resolutions.
A recent article from NPR entitled “Trainers, Lawyers Say Sexual Harrassment Training Fails” got me thinking about employee training programs. Specifically, every employment lawyer will advise employers to provide training for employees regarding harassment and discrimination. I would like to say that employers follow this advice in order to ensure a professional and safe workplace, but the truth is that employers provide training mostly because their lawyers advise them that training will bolster a defense in the event of a harassment claim. This cynical approach to employee training is, I think, the reason why the experts cited in the article concluded that training is not working.
Training is a “check the box” activity: the employer gets to say that it provided training, in the event of a claim. The employees are required to attend in order to keep their jobs, and so they attend and zone out. The article accuses employees of going through the motions, but employers probably are too. The lawyers told them to train, so the employer is training.
Here’s what I’ve learned: the serious offenders, those who engage in serial harassment, inappropriate relationships or even assault, are going to engage in that behavior no matter what training you provide. An employee who lacks the insight to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable (everywhere, really) will not have an epiphany during mandatory employee training. One-on-one training often helps in these situations, but not always, and not fundamentally (that is, the employee will know what to do to stay employed, but will not really care that the behavior was inappropriate).
Having said that, I want to be clear, employers should provide training – it is good risk management for certain employers. But, perhaps it should be a more sincere activity on both sides: employers should consider more interactive training, smaller groups and individualized training for departments. They should also engage in a healthy evaluation of their workplace culture prior to planning the training.
Further, if the goal is prevention of harassment, hostile work environment claims or other unacceptable workplace behaviors, training is not always the answer. Instead, employers should remember that culture comes from the top. If officers, supervisors and managers maintain professionalism, it sets the tone. It might be valuable to warn and provide one-on-one training to managers who do not demonstrate professional behavior, but in the end, appropriate workplace behavior should be a qualification for any leadership role.
No lawyer will ever advise an employer not to provide training, but perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about what training looks like for specific employers. Avoiding litigation cannot be the only goal, or the training will never work. We can work with employers to come up with a training plan that complies with the law, and is appropriate for their business.
Harvey Weinstein’s conduct is irresponsible, atrocious and potentially criminal, but that’s not the point of this blog. Instead, I would like to take the opportunity presented by Weinstein’s case (and the many others in the news this year) to talk about reporting and remediating workplace harassment.
Weinstein is the next in a line of prominent men accused of decades of harassment. It appears that at places like Fox and Miramax, and now Amazon, harassment by the boss was a feature of workplace culture. How did responsible employers allow this to continue? Did the women not complain? Did the employer bury the accusation? Didn’t anyone know? There is some evidence that the answer to all of these questions is yes: the women felt that they could not complain, the employer buried the accusations with financial settlements, and many knew and did not raise any red flags out of fear or intimidation.
The other common theme in these cases is the kind of harassment that took place: abuse of position, arrogance about complaints, “quid pro quo” promises, and intimidation.
Employers should consider their policies and practices to ensure a workplace free from this conduct. Serial harassers poison the culture of the workplace and hurt the bottom line. A recent article in the Wall Street Journalnoted the impact on the workplace of “rude” employees. Imagine the impact of intimidating, harassing executives who abuse their power? If employers have a serial harasser in a leadership position, it is time to face the music and address the behavior.
Employees should have an easy means of complaining. Policies should allow employees to “go around” the harassing superior in order to make the complaint, and the harasser should not be included in decision making regarding the complaint. Employers should avoid overly formal complaint procedures or reliance on form over substance. Employers should conduct professional, confidential investigations, and farm the investigation out to a third party if necessary.
It is important to note that settlements are not a license to keep a harasser employed. The employer still has knowledge of the harasser’s bad behavior, and steps should be taken to avoid repeated incidents. Those steps might include termination of important employees.
A common theme in these high-profile cases is that the conduct started (and thus the culture was created) in a “different time” when these workplace protections were not in place. That’s absurd. Title VII became law in 1964, and employers should pride themselves on operating a modern workplace, compliant with laws that have been on the books for decades.
So, how modern is your workplace? Do you have a serial harasser? Are you burying complaints to protect an executive? Do your employees have a safe, easy way to make complaints to an independent person? AMM can help employer develop a common sense policy that protects your business and your employees.
…At least until there is another overtime update.
Let’s review the history of these regulations. Prior to leaving office, President Obama’s Department of Labor significantly revised the salary requirements in order for certain classifications of employees to qualify for exemptions from overtime pay under the Fair Labor and Standards Act (“FLSA”). The DOL increased the salary minimum to qualify for an exemption from approximately $23,000 to approximately $47,000. Small employers and nonprofits scrambled to find a way to comply with the new regulations by the compliance deadline of December 1, 2016.
On November 22, 2016, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued an injunction against the implementation of those rules. Small employers and nonprofits breathed a sigh of relief and tabled their new policies and employee classification changes.
Between November 22, 2016 and August 31, 2017, much happened in the Eastern District of Texas and the Fifth Circuit. Appeals were filed, extensions of time to file briefs were granted, and the Department of Labor, now led by President Donald Trump, revised its position on these rules. President Obama’s DOL had argued that the new regulations were a proper exercise of DOL’s rule making, and the President’s executive, powers. President Trump’s DOL argued that while the DOL and the President were within their rights to establish and revise a salary requirement, they would not defend this particular salary requirement.
On August 31, 2017, the Eastern District of Texas agreed, essentially, with the Trump DOL. The Court found that while the DOL is free to set and revise a salary requirement, this particular salary requirement was not enforceable.
The good news is that the salary requirement set by the Obama DOL was so high as to present a significant financial and operational burden for small employers and nonprofits, and this ruling eliminates that concern. However, the ruling leaves this DOL, or any DOL, free to revisit the salary requirement. In other words, we will all take this ride again sometime in the future.
Employers should continue to ensure compliance with the existing rules, and check back in with AMM for any future changes to the salary requirement.
Clarifying its earlier rulings, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (which includes Pennsylvania) has ruled that a single utterance of a racial slur at the workplace could support a claim for harassment.
In this case, two African-American males (plaintiffs) brought suit challenging their firing on the basis that their termination was discriminatory and racially motivated.
The employees specifically alleged that when they arrived at work on various occasions, an anonymous note was written on the sign-in sheets: “don’t be black on the right of way.” They also asserted that while they had more experience working on pipelines than the non-African-American workers, they were only permitted to clean the pipelines rather than work on them. Significantly, a supervisor of these two African-American employees used a severe racial slur to threaten firing if a specific project was not completed to his satisfaction.
The two employees reported this offensive language to a superior and two weeks later they were fired without explanation. After being rehired they were again terminated for “lack of work”.
The suit filed in federal District Court specifically alleged unlawful harassment, discrimination and retaliation. The District Court dismissed the harassment claim, holding that the facts in the complaint did not support a finding that the alleged harassment was “pervasive and regular”. The Court also dismissed the related claims of discrimination and retaliation.
I hear a lot of interesting stories in my line of work: there are as many interesting employment law problems as there are interesting people, which is to say, a lot. A recent opinion from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit encapsulates this variety nicely, and serves as a reminder not to disregard unorthodox employee requests.
In EEOC v. Consol Energy, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Consol Energy on behalf of one of Consol’s employees, Beverly K. Butcher. Mr. Butcher worked diligently for Consol Energy for 37 years when his employer decided to install a biometric hand scanner to track employee attendance. Consol required each employee to have his or her hand scanned, and then, upon entering or departing the workplace, required the employee to wave the hand over the scanner.
Mr. Butcher identifies as a devout evangelical Christian. While the hand scanner seems like a fairly innocent and efficient way to track employees, Mr. Butcher did not see it that way. Mr. Butcher’s faith informed his belief in an Antichrist, whose followers are condemned to everlasting punishment. The followers of the Antichrist are identified by the Mark of the Beast. Mr. Butcher feared that the use of the hand scanner would result in his receiving the Mark of the Beast. No one disputed that Mr. Butcher’s belief were sincerely held. Indeed, Mr. Butcher resigned rather than submit to the new hand scanning rules, after his employer failed to accommodate his request.
The EEOC sued on Mr. Butcher’s behalf, arguing that the failure to accommodate Mr. Butcher’s sincerely held religious belief violated Mr. Butcher’s civil rights. A federal jury in West Virginia returned a verdict in excess of $550,000 in Mr. Butcher’s favor, finding that Consol had constructively discharged Mr. Butcher in violation of his rights to accommodations for his religious beliefs. For want of a simple accommodation, Consol Energy risked a verdict in excess of a $550,000, not to mention the related legal fees and expenses. Interestingly, Consol does not appear to have offered any operational reason for its failure to accommodate: other employees were permitted to clock in by entering their personnel numbers into a keypad, without additional cost or burden to the company. Indeed, email produced in the case seems to indicate that the employer was scoffing at the religious objection.
It would have been cheap and easy for Consol to accommodate the request. The failure to do so appears to be based on a judgment about the validity of the request. This type of fact pattern presents itself often in many contexts: religious accommodations, disability accommodations, requests for medical leave. It is easy, as Consol Energy appears to have done, to disregard requests as “kooky” or “odd.” This is a mistake. If the accommodation is not needed, or is overburdensome, or is not based in fact, that will come out in the accommodation process. The danger lies in not following the process that such a request, however strange, requires. Certainly, it is well worth the effort in the beginning to avoid the stress and expense of litigation later.
Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Senators are considering a tax on employer-sponsored health insurance plans to raise revenue. It is not my intention to discuss the politics of this proposal, and instead, I write to consider how such a proposal would alter the economics of recruiting and retaining employees.
Until now, it went without question that those who secured health insurance through their employers did so on a pre-tax basis. Employers, for their part, can deduct the cost. This incentivizes employers to offer health insurance coverage to employees as part of a compensation package. Health benefits are hugely important to employees when deciding whether to accept new positions. As such, these plans are powerful recruitment and retention tools.
In my practice, time and again, I hear that talented and experienced employees do not want to leave their current employment, not because of well-drafted restrictive covenants (as many employers believe), but because of their compensation package, that includes health insurance. Spouses and children may have medical conditions that require care, and employees resist the stress of leaving behind good coverage for new jobs or self-employment. Employees believe, in many cases correctly, that the cost of health insurance is cheaper through employer-subsidized plans than in the individual market, and that they can get better coverage for their dollar through their employer.
This is particularly true right now, as the healthcare debate rages on, and employees feel insecure about how their health insurance will work in the future. The Senate’s proposal would remove a tool from an employer’s recruitment arsenal, and dramatically change the economics of recruiting and retaining talented employees. Of course, employers have other tools, and should not rely totally on health insurance, but it is hard to overstate the importance of this coverage to employees. The implementation of such a tax would mean that employers would need to reconfigure compensation packages and rethink the manner in which they provide health insurance coverage to employees.
Lawmakers have referred to the tax-favored treatment of employer-sponsored health insurance plans as discriminatory to those who purchase their health insurance individually. Interestingly, removing these tax protections would also remove the incentive for employers to provide such healthcare. It would be interesting to know from these lawmakers if that is what they intend. A move away from employer-sponsored health insurance does not just change the economics of the employment relationship; it changes the economics of healthcare.
Of course, the healthcare debate impacts employer / employee relationships even as the status of the Affordable Care Act and employer-sponsored health insurance remains unclear. It is simply impossible for employers, or for their lawyers for that matter, to plan for changes in healthcare while proposals are floated and then rejected by lawmakers. However, the proposal to end the tax-favored treatment of employer-sponsored health insurance would mark a radical change. It will be interesting to see if it makes its way out of the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Let’s check in with the January 2017 case filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas challenging the Obama Administration’s proposed changes to overtime regulations. Those regulations would have required employers to reclassify many employees considered exempt from overtime rules to non-exempt status, requiring the employer to now pay overtime to those employees. The rule was widely considered a boon to employees, but a burden for small businesses and nonprofits.
Those rules would have required that in addition to meeting certain requirements with regard to an employee’s duties, the employee must also earn a minimum salary of $47,476 to qualify for “exempt” status. The current rule requires that the employee earn a minimum salary of $23,660. The dramatic increase in the salary requirement caused employers to reevaluate classifications and to generate new policies regarding overtime and work hours in advance of a December 1, 2016 deadline.
As previously discussed on this blog, on November 22, 2016, the Eastern District of Texas entered an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the new rules. Many clients have asked me, dreading the answer, whether that injunction remains in place. On December 1, 2016, the United States Department of Labor appealed the injunction order, and sought a stay of the Court’s order prohibiting enforcement. The Court denied the stay, and the matter is now on appeal. During the appeal, the Department of Labor cannot enforce the new rules. The appeals court granted a request submitted by the Department of Justice to extend time to file appellate briefs while “incoming leadership personnel” considered the issues. That brief is now due on June 30.
The Trump Administration has three choices: defend the rule, withdraw the rule, or rewrite the rule. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta has telegraphed that a review of the rule was necessary, but that the salary increase was too dramatic. However, the Department of Labor’s repeated requests for extensions to file a brief indicate that it is not necessarily an easy call. For example, because the Eastern District’s order granting the injunction called into question the rulemaking authority of the Department of Labor, there may be good reason for the administration to challenge the court’s injunction order, even though it does not necessarily agree with the rule.
The overtime rules will remain in limbo until at least June 30, 2017. We will continue to monitor the situation. In the meantime, employers are not required to change their overtime policies or the classifications of their employees.
By Patricia Collins, Esquire
On May 2, 2017, the House passed the Working Families Flexibility Act. The purpose of the Act is to give employees flexibility in how they choose to be paid for overtime: in wages or in compensatory time off. The Act crystallizes a tension I see often in my representation of employers.
Presently, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires employers to pay nonexempt employees overtime compensation for work hours in excess of 40 in a workweek. Employers cannot compensate employees for those overtime hours in compensatory time off (“comp time”). Such a policy violates the FLSA, exposing the employer to liability for the unpaid overtime hours as well as penalties and attorney’s fees.
The FLSA prohibition against payment in comp time is intended to protect employees from abusive overtime demands by employers. The statutory obligation to pay additional wages for hours over forty in a workweek, so the argument goes, forces the employer to base the decision to require overtime hours on business and financial considerations. The FLSA’s ban on comp time legislates a policy determination that offering comp time will not protect employees from abusive demands by employers.
Republicans this week argued otherwise. They argue that permitting employees to take comp time rather than payment for overtime work gives employees flexibility. Democrats who opposed the bill countered that the Act’s provision allowing employers the final say does not adequately protect employees.
Practically, the Act sits at the tipping point of many competing considerations: employers want to establish policies that comply with the law, protect the business, and benefit employees. Employees want flexibility, but they also need to be paid for their work. The reality is that banked comp time can be a liability for employers because there are jobs for which attendance is extremely important, and unscheduled or unpredictable time is off is sometimes expensive or interferes with the progress of work. Further, employees might not be free to use that comp time in the manner they would like if it interferes with the employer’s business. Most employers offer paid time off in a set amount, in order to create predictability as to an employee’s attendance. While this proposed rule might create flexibility and reduce overtime costs, I do wonder whether it is really a savings in the long run.
It will be interesting to see how the Senate balances these concerns, and whether employers will create policies that allow comp time. The bill now goes to the Senate – no word yet on whether they will vote on it. Stay tuned!
By Patricia Collins
Reprinted with permission from the February 28th edition of the The Legal Intelligencer © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.Further duplication without permission is prohibited
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, in Metalico Pittsburgh v. Newman, et al (No. 354 WDA 2016, April 19, 2017), dealt a blow to employees attempting to avoid the application of a non-solicitation covenant.
In Metalico, two employees, Newman and Medred, executed employment agreements containing a covenant not to solicit customers, suppliers and employees during the “Post-Employment Period.” The Post-Employment Period varied depending upon the manner of the termination of employment, and commenced upon the last day of employment with Metalico. At the end of the three-year period, Metalico terminated the employment agreements, but continued to retain Newman and Medred as “at-will” employees, and recited new compensation and other terms of employment. These terms differed from those contained in the employment agreement. Newman and Medred were terminated one year later. Metalico filed suit against Newman and Medred, alleging that they were violating the non-solicitation covenant in their subsequent employment.
On the eve of a preliminary injunction hearing, Newman and Medred filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, arguing that the employment agreements containing the non-solicitation covenants had terminated, and therefore the non-solicitation provisions no longer applied. They argued that the agreement to continue as “at-will” employees acted as a novation of the employment agreement.
The trial court agreed with Newman and Medred, and granted their motion for partial summary judgment. But the Superior Court did not agree. Instead, the Superior Court found that the covenant remained in place pursuant to a survival provision in the employment agreement. That provision stated that if employment under the agreement “expires,” the agreement continues in effect “as is necessary or appropriate to enforce” the non-solicitation covenant.
The trial court found that upon converting Newman’s and Medred’s status to “at will” employees, the parties had stated new terms for the employment relationship going forward. In so doing, the parties did not recite that the non-solicitation provision would stay in place. The failure to continue the compensation and benefits provided in the employment agreement, in the trial court’s view, invalidated the non-solicitation covenant. The trial court justly noted: “Metalico cannot claim the benefits of its bargain while denying its employees the same.”
The Superior Court disagreed, noting that because the survival language was included in the employment agreement, it constituted the bargained-for benefit for the employees. The Superior Court rejected any argument that there was a failure of consideration, because failure of consideration only applies if the consideration was never received – the employees here did receive three years of the promised compensation and benefits under the agreement. The Superior Court refused to find that the parties to the employment agreement intended to terminate and extinguish the previous agreement, thus extinguishing the non-solicitation covenant as well. In so doing, the Superior Court relied upon Boyce v. Smith-Edwards-Dunlap Co., 580 A.2d 1382 (Pa. Super. 1990). However, the Boyce case dealt with the use of the restrictive covenant as a defense to a claim raised by the employee.
It is well-settled that restrictive covenants in employment agreements are disfavored under Pennsylvania law. Courts, including the Superior Court, have refused to enforce such agreements on technicalities. For example, in Socko v. Mid-Atlantic Systems of CPA, Inc., 99 A.3d 928 (Pa. Super. 2014), the Superior Court refused to enforce a covenant not to compete in an employment agreement entered into after the commencement of employment and not accompanied by any beneficial change in the employee’s status, but which recited that it was signed “under seal” under the Uniform Written Obligations Act. The Court found that a seal does not provide adequate consideration to enforce a restrictive covenant. Instead, the Superior Court noted, there must be “actual valuable consideration.” The holding in Socko left employment law practitioners and litigators with the belief that there are no “gotchas” when it comes to restrictive covenants.
Metalico appears to change that. Metalico voluntarily agreed to let the employment agreement terminate and to continue employment on an “at-will” basis. This change of status benefits Metalico, leaving it free to terminate the employees or change their compensation and benefits at will (thus the name) and without concern about the terms of a written agreement. The employees lost these protections. The practical result of the Superior Court’s holding is that the employees lost the protections of the agreement, but retained their post-employment obligations. This is inconsistent with Pennsylvania’s historical animosity towards these restrictive covenants, and appears to truly represent a “gotcha” for these employees.
Metalico expands the universe of enforceable restrictive covenants. This is not an uncommon fact pattern, and one which might have given an employer’s attorney pause prior to filing for a preliminary injunction in the past. The holding could have the impact of reducing the care required in drafting, terminating and enforcing disfavored restrictive covenants, and eliminating some of the defenses available to employees seeking to avoid the covenant. Interestingly, nowhere in the opinion does the Superior Court recite the oft-cited language that such covenants are disfavored in the law. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court takes the opportunity to do so on appeal.
Patricia Collins is a Partner with Antheil Maslow & MacMinn, LLP, based in Doylestown, PA. Her practice focuses primarily on commercial litigation, employment and health care law. To learn more about the firm or Patricia Collins, visit www.ammlaw.com.