Rebecca's experience spans traditional labor and employment, immigration, and federal contract compliance and audits. She supports clients with their corporate transactions, advising on all aspects of labor and employment diligence, negotiating with new unions and conducting effects bargaining, and assisting her clients with post-acquisition or post-divestiture integration. Prior to joining the firm, she served as Senior VP of HR and Associate General Counsel at one of the nation’s largest student loan guarantors. She is a frequent author and speaker on labor and employment topics confronting HR professionals, including legal issues related to talent management, succession planning, and compliance.
As many states progress through different phases of reopening, companies are preparing for their employees to return to work. Employers are also noting, however, that some states are seeing COVID-19 cases surge. This has generated some concerns from employees who do not want to return to the work place. Can employers require employees to return to work if the employees are not comfortable returning based on fear of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace?
Often, the answer is yes. Employers generally can require a non-high risk employee to return to work where there hasn’t been any cases in the employee’s particular workplace. But as with many broad employment questions, there is no universal answer that covers all cases and employers must look to both federal and state law, and in some instances, local law, to determine whether a particular employee can be required to return to work.
For example, under federal law, employees can refuse to work under certain, narrow circumstances. In these situations, employers must proceed with caution or they risk retaliation claims. It is important to note, however, that a generalized fear of infection alone is usually not enough to permit an employee to refuse to return to work.
Employers must be aware of COVID-19 related protections existing for employees and understand what rights they have in the face of an employee’s refusal to return to work. This post does not cover alternative avenues such as local, state, and federal law governing protected leave, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. These rights and protections vary with each state, so employers should review the most recent return-to-work orders.
Americans with Disabilities Act
Per EEOC guidance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires an employer to work with employees at high risk of serious health complications related to COVID-19 (as determined by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”)) to provide reasonable accommodations like teleworking or taking leave. To avoid the risk of discrimination claims, employers should communicate alternative options to all employees, rather than directly reaching out to employees who have not yet requested an accommodation. As a general matter, employers should work with employees and offer alternative work arrangements where possible.
Occupational Safety and Health Act
Employers who are following current guidelines for safe workplaces – under the CDC or state health departments – would generally be able to require non-high risk employees to return to work without running afoul of safety standards, especially where there have not been any cases of COVID-19 in the employee’s workplace.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) creates a general duty for employers to maintain safe workplaces and mitigate any health or safety hazards but as of the date of this posting has not issued any regulations specifically covering COVID-19 safety requirements. Importantly, for “medium risk” employers (such as retailers and other workplaces open to the public) OSHA’s Interim Enforcement Response Plan for Coronavirus Disease 2019 focuses on incidences of actual exposure rather than the general risk that someone might catch COVID-19 in the workplace because the disease is spreading in the community. https://www.osha.gov/memos/2020-05-19/updated-interim-enforcement-response-plan-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19.
However, it is important for employers to understand that under certain narrow situations, OSHA also permits an employee to refuse to perform unsafe work. The employee may refuse to perform a specific task when all of the following conditions are met: (1) the employee “asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so”; (2) the employee “genuinely believe[s] that an imminent danger exists”; (3) “a reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury”; and (4) the urgency of the hazard does not allow correction through “regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.”
National Labor Relations Act
Employers must also be on the lookout for employee conduct that constitutes protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees unionized and non-unionized employees the right to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of “mutual aid or protection.” In the context of COVID-19, protected concerted activity could occur when two or more employees (or one employee acting on behalf of others) address issues such as safe working conditions and the steps their employers are taking to prevent the spread of the virus.
In contrast, California workers are protected by the state’s Resilience Roadmap because the stay-at-home order is still in effect. If an employer does not provide essential services or is not in an industry allowed to reopen in Stage 2 (or the current stage of the plan), an employee would have good cause to refuse to return to the workplace. Employers should also consult local public health ordinances. Some localities, like the City of Los Angeles, require employers to provide face coverings for all employees.
Some states mandate additional protections for employees at high risk for severe COVID-19 complications. Washington Governor Jay Inslee issued Proclamation 20-46.1, in effect through August 1, amending Proclamation 20-05 to require employers to offer high-risk employees alternative accommodations. If alternative options are not feasible, the employee must be allowed to use accrued leave or seek unemployment relief while the employer maintains health insurance benefits. The order also prohibits employers from permanently replacing high-risk employees and requires employers to maintain high risk employees’ health benefits.
Other states mandate employer responsibility for providing protective equipment to its employees. In New York, Executive Order 202.16 requires essential employers to provide face coverings to employees in direct contact with members of the public. Empire State Development also released guidance for determining whether a particular enterprise is subject to workforce reductions under relevant executive orders. If an employee works for a non-essential New York business that is not encompassed by its region’s current phase of reopening, they cannot be forced to come into work.
Employers are encouraged to work with employees who have concerns about working safely under applicable state orders and federal guidance. Although an employee may bring safety or retaliation concerns directly to their local OSHA office or to the state department of labor, proactive efforts to discuss a safe workplace can help minimize this risk.
Finally, it may behoove employers to understand when an employee could secure unemployment benefits for refusing to return to work. Generally, a refusal to work disqualifies an individual from unemployment benefits. But in the current COVID-19 pandemic, many states have relaxed the criteria to allow for continued benefits when the refusal to work is because of a personal situation exacerbated by COVID-19.
Unemployment Insurance Benefits
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (“DEED”) says that employees offered a suitable opportunity to return to work, and who are not subject to an exemption under Executive Order 20-05 or state law, may not continue receiving unemployment benefits. If an employee refuses a suitable offer of employment, they can be held overpaid for unemployment insurance benefits received. DEED clarified that if an employer cannot provide reasonable accommodations upon an employee’s request, they might still be eligible for unemployment benefits. Additionally, Executive Order 20-54 provides that the failure of an employer to implement a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan constitutes an adverse work environment that could qualify a complaining employee to receive unemployment benefits.
The Employment Security Department (“ESD”) released guidance stating that individuals receiving unemployment benefits must be available for “suitable work,” including any offer to return to previous employment after a layoff caused by COVID-19. Individuals must have good cause to refuse an offer to return to work and continue receiving unemployment benefits. Good cause may apply to those considered high risk by the CDC and those living in a household with a person at high risk. School or daycare closures, providing care for a family member, employer noncompliance with worksite safety guidelines, or a substantial change to the job may also be accepted as good cause. Employees may not refuse work and retain unemployment benefits because they make more on unemployment or because of a fear of returning to work without having good cause to refuse.
The Employment Development Department (“EDD”) released guidance emphasizing that employees that refuse to accept “suitable” employment when offered are ineligible for unemployment benefits. The EDD considers factors such as the degree of risk involved to the individual’s health and safety when determining if particular work is “suitable.” If an employer has complied with state requirements and safety regulations for reopening, an employee may not have good cause to refuse to return to work. If an employee indicates on their certification for continued benefits that they refused work, the EDD will investigate accordingly.
Employers that are following CDC and state and local guidelines regarding social distancing and other precautions in the workplace will often be allowed to require non-high risk employees to return to work when there are no cases of COVID-19 in the employer’s workplace. However, like so many employment related legal issues, the devil is in the details and exceptions abound. When employees refuse to return to work and challenge their employer’s ability to compel them to do so employers should consult with knowledgeable counsel to make sure they are on solid ground.
Many U.S. employers have recently experienced frustration over legal obstacles to keeping high quality foreign-national employees. These valuable employees have often been with the company since finishing a degree and sometimes even interning with the employer. Other employers experience delays in hiring foreign nationals needed for specialized positions despite the obvious qualifications of the candidate.
These employers’ frustrations reflect the current climate of immigration law and policy. The standards applied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) in adjudicating H‑1B temporary work visa petitions have been shifting, both formally and informally, to the detriment of businesses seeking to hire or retain noncitizen professionals in specialty occupations—as well as those they would seek to employ. This, along with other similar trends in how the executive branch enforces immigration laws, requires that employers and their legal advocates test new strategies on behalf of their clients. If USCIS denies your H-1B petition and your awesome employee may have to leave the country, what options do you have?
Immigration lawyers, who typically fight their battles within administrative agencies, are increasingly looking to federal courts for judicial review of agency actions. One recent case highlights that strategic litigation can have a powerful impact, and suggests that specialized litigators may be a vital addition to the legal toolbox for businesses that depend on international hiring. See RELX, Inc. (d/b/a LexisNexis USA)v. Baran, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130286.
Subhasree Chatterjee earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering in her home country of India in 2011, and her master’s degree in business administration and analytics in the United States, from the University of Ohio, in 2016. She also has several years of professional experience in data analytics in both India and the United States.
Chatterjee began working as a data analyst for LexisNexis at its Raleigh, North Carolina Center for Excellence in 2017, at which time she was authorized to work in the United States because of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) associated with her F-1 student visa. But Chatterjee’s student visa and OPT was set to expire on August 3, 2019.
Lexis filed a petition for Chatterjee to remain in the United States through the H-1B nonimmigrant visa program so that she could continue in her role as data analyst supporting the company’s “flagship” product, LexisAdvance. The government denied the petition on the grounds that the data analyst position was not a “specialty occupation.”
By statute, a specialty occupation is “an occupation that requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge; and attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree in the specific specialty (or its equivalent) as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States.” 8 U.S.C. § 1184(i)(1). And by regulation, the position must meet at least one of four criteria to qualify as a specialty occupation: (1) a baccalaureate or higher degree is normally the minimum requirement for entry into the particular position; (2) the degree requirement is common to the industry in parallel positions among similar organizations or the position is so unique or complex that only an individual with a degree can perform it; (3) the employer normally requires a degree or its equivalent for the position; or (4) the nature of the specific duties are so specialized and complex that the knowledge required to perform the duties is usually associated with attainment of a baccalaureate degree or higher. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(4)(iii)(A).
In support of the H-1B petition, Lexis and Chatterjee submitted what the court would later call a “mountain of evidence” on three out of these four regulatory grounds, any one of which would have been sufficient to qualify the data analyst position as a specialty occupation. They responded to a request for redundant evidence and, following an initial denial, pursued administrative reconsideration. These efforts were unsuccessful.
To justify its denial, the government asserted, contrary to its regulations and past practices, that a specialty occupation is one requiring a degree from a particular academic discipline. In other words, for example, if the position could be filled by someone with a degree in computer science or engineering, then it could not be a specialty occupation.
Exactly one month before Chatterjee’s work authorization would expire, she and Lexis filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Washington D.C., serving USCIS, the Department of Homeland Security, and leaders of each, challenging the denial as a violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and seeking a preliminary injunction.
Given the extremely short timeline before Chatterjee’s status would expire, the court placed the case on an expedited schedule to resolve the matter on its merits, skipping over the motion for preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs moved for summary judgment. The government spontaneously reopened the H-1B petition and then moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the reopening deprived the court of jurisdiction because plaintiffs’ claims were no longer ripe.
On August 1-2 (the two days immediately preceding the expiration date of Chatterjee’s work authorization), the court held a hearing on both motions. The government’s motion was denied from the bench. In a subsequent memorandum, District Judge Emmet Sullivan concluded that the government’s “position [was] untenable,” that the “decision was not based on a consideration of the relevant factors and was a clear error of judgment,” and that “USCIS acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and abused its discretion.” RELX, Inc., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 130286, *28, 31 (quotations omitted).
At the same time, plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion for an order directing USCIS to grant Lexis’s petition and place Chatterjee on H-1B status was granted—and just in time. Chatterjee was able to keep her job and remain in the United States, and Lexis continued business as usual with its data analytics team at full strength.
In the current market, employers and their legal counsel need to use all avenues available under the law to help hire and retain top talent. Litigation is not only an option, but may be a necessary addition to the overall toolbox of talent management strategies, especially when it comes to international hiring.
While portions of California’s Immigrant Worker Protection Act have been enjoined, employers remain subject to notice obligations. California passed a statute limiting the extent to which employers could cooperate with federal immigration officials. Litigation quickly ensued, and a recent decision enjoined enforcement of part of the law, while leaving other provisions unaffected. With the speed of the news cycle, employers may understandably require clarification as to which immigration policies are actually in effect. What portions of the sanctuary state law were enjoined, and what parts remain effective?
The Immigration Worker Protection Act (AB 450), which went into effect in January 2018, imposed three primary obligations on employers:
A prohibition against allowing or consenting to a federal immigration enforcement agent’s request to enter nonpublic areas in the workplace, or to access employee records, without a judicial warrant;
A prohibition against re-verifying the employment eligibility of a current employee outside the time and manner required by federal law; and
A requirement to provide notice to employees upon receipt of a Notice of Inspection of Form I-9, and after the inspection, provide notice regarding the results of the inspection.
Almost immediately, the law was challenged in court, in a case called United States v. California. On July 5, 2018, John A. Mendez of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California issued a preliminary injunction blocking the enforcement of the first two of the above obligations, but not the third obligation concerning notice. The court reasoned that the first prohibition on cooperation with federal immigration officials likely “impermissibly discriminates against those who choose to deal with the Federal Government,” and therefore violates the intergovernmental immunity doctrine. The court also found that the second prohibition on early re-verifications likely violates the Supremacy Clause. The notice obligation, on the other hand, regulates the employer’s “failure to communicate with its employees,” and is therefore likely a permissible exercise of state power.
Accordingly, as it currently stands, the notice provisions are in effect. Under the statute, employers must notify employees and labor union representatives within 72 hours of receiving a Notice of Inspection of Form I-9. Employers must include the name of the federal agency conducting the inspection, the nature of the inspection, the date the employer received the inspection notice, and a copy of the inspection notice. Additionally, within 72 hours after the inspection takes place, employers must also provide affected employees and their labor union representatives with the results of the inspection, a timeframe for correcting any deficiencies found, the date and time of any meetings with the employer to correct any deficiencies found, and a notice to the employees about their rights to representation during any meeting with the employer.
It is important to note that at this point the court entered a preliminary injunction; the ultimate enforcement of the statute may change when the case reaches completion, and even then, an appeal to the Ninth Circuit (and perhaps ultimately to the Supreme Court) is likely.
Social media has created a minefield of concerns for both employees and employers. The news is full of stories of employees documenting their questionable off-duty conduct on social media, or posting comments containing racist or derogatory remarks. Often, the employer—or sometimes, the rest of the online community—will demand that the employee be fired. In such a scenario many employers may be wondering: What could prevent an employer from lawfully terminating an employee based on social media activity, and what steps can employers take to best handle these situations?
Recent examples abound:
Last year an employee of a large corporate bank was terminated following a racist rant on Facebook. Throngs of customers contacted the bank, threatening to close their accounts if the employee was not fired. The employee was promptly terminated for her “reprehensible” comments.
Many readers may remember the notable case of a public relations director in 2013, who, before boarding a flight to South Africa, tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Despite her 170 followers, her tweet immediately went viral worldwide. By the time she landed in South Africa eleven hours later, her manager had informed her that she’d been fired.
Most recently, on October 31, 2017, a marketing director for a government contracting firm was terminated after a photograph of her flipping off President Trump’s motorcade went viral on social media.
In the wake of the September “white nationalist” marches, numerous Twitter accounts were created to identify and draw attention to the participants. Many employers have been inundated with demands that these individuals be terminated, and have been quick to distance themselves from the employees. In this situation, there are several things employers should consider. First, be aware of state and federal laws which may affect the way you might react to employee social media use. For example:
Off-duty Conduct Laws. Some states have laws prohibiting employers from disciplining or firing employees for activities pursued in their personal time—including the use of lawful substances such as medical marijuana and tobacco.
Protection of Political Views. A few states (and some cities and counties) protect employees from discrimination based on their political views or affiliation. In such a state, terminating or disciplining an employee for purely political social media activity or for political conduct outside the workplace could be illegal.
NLRB Protections. The National Labor Relations Act and similar state laws protect employees’ rights to communicate with one other about their employment. More specifically, employees have the right to engage in “protected activity” regarding their workplace—sharing grievances and organizing online in protected activity. Under these laws, an employee who is fired for posting online complaints about their wages, benefits, tip sharing, management, or hours, etc. could have a strong legal claim. As we noted in a recent post, this protection can be quite robust, leading to the reinstatement of a union employee fired after posting: “F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!” (He was saved by the last sentence, which linked the rant to his union activities.)
Prohibitions on Retaliation. Beyond NLRB protections, many employment laws protect employees from retaliation for claiming that their rights have been violated. If an employee complains online about workplace discrimination, harassment, or other legal violations, that employee may be protected.
However, at the end of the day most states are “at-will” employment states, meaning both employers and employees are free to terminate the employment relationship at any time with or without reason. Therefore—if an employer determines that an employee’s speech outside the workplace runs counter to the employer’s values or public image, the employer could have solid grounds for termination. While this is not the case in all states (for example, Montana), in the vast majority of states employment is considered at-will. So long as the aforementioned laws are taken into account, chances are good that an employer can safely terminate an employee for objectionable conduct online. While consulting with legal counsel prior to any such termination is recommended, employers can take the following affirmative steps to provide proper procedure in the event of an employee’s worrisome or unacceptable online behavior.
Social Media Use Policy. Adopt a policy, included in your handbook, informing employees that their personal social media accounts, online networking account, blogs, and general online posts could get them in trouble at work. Explain what types of content could create problems, including harassing and bullying behavior or discriminatory or offensive language. This can include online conduct that may be associated with the company or which could cause serious interpersonal problems in the workplace.
Be Consistent. As with all employment policies, be consistent when enforcing your social media policies. If a female employee is terminated for posting objectionable material on the internet but a male employee is not for the same or similar conduct, the female employee may have a cause of action for sex discrimination. Always enforce your policies consistently to protect your company.
Use of profanity by employees, whether in the workplace, outside the workplace, or on social media, presents difficult legal issues for the employer, as highlighted by a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturning the firing of an employee who engaged in a highly profane Facebook rant against a supervisor. Although an employer has a justifiable interest in keeping profanity out of the workplace, its interest does not overshadow an employee’s Section 7 protected rights to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).
In yet another NLRA-social media decision (see here and here), the court considered whether the vulgar and offensive language – directed at a supervisor – in an employee’s statement advocating for unionization is protected activity under the NLRA. See NLRB v. Pier Sixty, 855 F.3d 115 (2d Cir. 2017). The court held that language was protected and overturned the company’s termination of the employee in question.
Two days before a union election, an employee posted the following statement on Facebook:
Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people!!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***ing family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!
The post was visible to the public for three days before the employee took it down. Company management saw the post before it was removed and terminated the employee. An unfair labor practice charge followed shortly afterward, alleging a violation of section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.
Section 7 of the NLRA guarantees employees the right to “self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations . . . and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157 (emphasis added). Section 8(a)(1), in turn, protects these rights by prohibiting employers from interfering with, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of these rights. 29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(1). Ordinarily, an employer is prohibited from discharging employees for participating in union-election activity, and the employee’s Facebook post did explicitly call for a pro-union vote in the upcoming election. But the protections of the NLRA are not absolute. The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) has long held that an employee engaged in “ostensibly protected activity may act in such an abusive manner that he loses the protection” of the NLRA. See NLRB v. City Disposal Sys., Inc., 465 U.S. 822, 837 (1984).
Here, the NLRB had ruled in favor of the employee. The Second Circuit upheld the Board, agreeing that the statement came close to, but did not cross, the line. The Board and the court applied a “totality-of-the-circumstances” test. Although the court gave considerable deference to the Administrative Law Judge’s factual findings (which were upheld by the Board), employers can find some comfort in the court’s note that the post seems “to sit at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments.”
The court provided several reasons for its decision:
First, although the post can be characterized as “dominated by vulgar attacks” on the supervisor, the message addresses the workplace concern of how management treats employees, qualifying the post as “concerted activity for the purpose of collective bargaining.”
Second, profanity among employees had been consistently tolerated by the employer, so it could reasonably be inferred that the employee was not fired for mere profanity, but for the protected, union-related content of the comment.
Third, the employer had engaged in other unlawful, anti-union conduct as the election approached, including threatening pro-union employees with the loss of their jobs or benefits, and by implementing a “no talk” rule prohibiting discussion of union issues.
Fourth, the court gave some weight to the fact that this post was made on Facebook—“a key medium of communication among coworkers and a tool for organization in the modern era,” and that the employee apparently (although erroneously) believed the post would not be publicly available. The court found that the Facebook posting was different from an outburst in the presence of customers.
Accordingly, there are a few takeaways for employers to keep in mind.
Implement a Clear, Written Policy. To effectively discipline employees for using offensive or vulgar language at the workplace, employers should have a clear written policy against profanity that informs employees of the rules regarding the use of profane or vulgar language in their interactions with colleagues and customers. The policy should specify the consequences for violations.
Enforce the Policy Consistently and Uniformly. Employers should be consistent in enforcing any policy against profanity in the workplace. Past failures to enforce or to impose appropriate sanctions may tie the employer’s hands in future situations where a sanctionable activity may arguably be clothed with NLRA-protection. (Consistency would necessarily include, for example, applying the policy to profanity by supervisors and managers as well as by line employees. The employer’s tolerance of profanity by supervisors was cited by the court as proof of inconsistent enforcement.) Consistent and uniform enforcement of the policy is key.
Be Careful Not to Limit Protected Activities. The enforcement of a policy against profanity or other inappropriate conduct must be balanced against an employee’s right to engage in protected activities under the NRLA. The employer’s other anti-union conduct in the Pier Sixty case was a factor in the decision. The Pier Sixty court has made clear that not all offensive language loses NLRA-protection. This decision confirms courts’ willingness to broadly construe the coverage of the NLRA, especially when considering employee activities on social media. Employers should carefully consider the context of potential profanity policy violations before taking disciplinary actions.
When faced with the question of whether to fire an employee who uses vulgar and offensive language in a Facebook post directed at a supervisor and her family, you should first determine whether the subject matter of the Facebook comment touches on any workplace concerns. If not, there may not be NLRA- protected conduct. But if the subject matter—notwithstanding the vulgarity—is arguably related to working terms and conditions, you should take extra caution to make sure that any discipline will not run afoul of the NLRA. Consider the company’s practice with regard to policing profanity at work. If the company has tolerated profanity use among its employees in the past, you may not be in a good position to sanction an employee for a statement that, although offensive, may be protected under the NLRA.
In an unexpected decision, on Tuesday, November 22nd, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against implementation of the Department of Labor’s (“DOL’s”) controversial final Rule expanding overtime eligibility for millions of workers, which was set to take effect on December 1st.
The DOL’s new Rule, issued on May 18, 2016, nearly doubled the salary threshold for the so-called “white collar exemptions” from the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (“FLSA’s”) minimum wage and overtime requirements. Under the old Rule, employers satisfied the minimum salary threshold if they paid exempt employees a salary of $23,660 annually (or $455/week). The new Rule increased this requirement to $47,476 annually (or $913/week). According to the DOL, this new threshold was set based on the salary level at the 40th percentile of earnings for full-time workers in the lowest-wage Census Region (which currently is the South). See DOL Factsheet, Final Rule to Update the Regulations Defining and Delimiting the Exemption for Executive, Administrative, and Professional Employees, available at https://www.dol.gov/whd/overtime/final2016/overtime-factsheet.htm.
Since the 1940s, the DOL’s regulations have required employers to satisfy both a “salary” and a “duties” test in order to classify employees as exempt executive, administrative, or professional employees. The DOL last updated the minimum salary requirement in 2004. When it issued the new minimum salary requirement in May 2016, the DOL stated that in focusing on the salary component in its new Rule, its intent was to “simplify the identification of overtime-protected employees, thus making the [executive / administrative / professional] exemption easier for employers and workers to understand and apply.” See DOL Factsheet, supra. The DOL observed that—absent an upward salary adjustment by their employers—the new Rule would expand the right to receive overtime pay to approximately 4.2 million workers currently classified as exempt. See id.
Despite this lengthy regulatory history, in deciding to issue a nationwide preliminary injunction, U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant held that while Congress delegated significant authority to the DOL to define exempt duties, it did not authorize the DOL to limit application of the white collar exemptions based on salary level. The District Court noted: “While [Congress’s] explicit delegation would give the [DOL] significant leeway to establish the types of duties that might qualify an employee for the exemption, nothing in the [executive / administrative / professional] exemption indicates that Congress intended the [DOL] to define and delimit with respect to a minimum salary level.” As such, in promulgating the May 2016 final Rule, “the [DOL] exceed[ed] its delegated authority and ignore[d] Congress’s intent by raising the minimum salary level such that it supplants the duties test.”
Although the District Court stated that its decision applies only to the DOL’s May 2016 final Rule – and expressly disclaimed an intent to make a “general statement on the lawfulness of the salary-level test for the [executive / administrative / professional] exemption” – proponents of the DOL’s final Rule likely will continue to argue that the District Court’s decision runs counter to an established understanding of the state of the law and considerable judicial precedent across the country enforcing the DOL’s minimum salary requirement for decades. Indeed, despite the District Court’s attempt to limit its holding, the court’s rationale would appear to have considerably broader implications than an injunction only against the new minimum salary requirement.
Yesterday’s preliminary injunction is a welcome development for employers concerned about the DOL’s abrupt and significant increase in the minimum salary requirement for the white-collar exemptions. It is clear that the new minimum salary requirement will not go into effect for U.S. employers on December 1, 2016, as anticipated. However, employers should not assume that the DOL’s final Rule is dead. The District Court’s order only imposes a preliminary injunction, which the District Court could lift itself after further litigation, although that outcome seems relatively unlikely at present. The DOL also could appeal any final injunction to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a possibility that also is uncertain given the imminent change in presidential administrations. Further, future litigation will determine whether the Eastern District of Texas’s rationale could be adopted more broadly to have a more sweeping effect on the longstanding salary basis test.
While the future of the DOL’s new minimum salary requirement is now uncertain, employers should remember that the duties requirements for the FLSA’s white collar exemptions remain intact. Employers should remain diligent in ensuring that only those employees whose primary duties satisfy one or more of the applicable exempt duties tests are treated as exempt from overtime requirements.
Employers also should remain aware of exemption requirements under applicable state law, which are unaffected by developments at the federal level. For example, employers must remember that during the period the injunction is in effect, they still must comply with varying state-level minimum salary requirements that are higher than the existing federal minimum. For example, California requires that white-collar exempt employees be paid a monthly minimum salary of at least twice the state’s minimum wage. California’s minimum wage will increase starting January 1, 2017, with annual increases thereafter. As of January 1, 2017, the California salary minimum will be $43,680, lower than the $47,476 proposed requirement at issue but far above the current federal salary requirement.
QUESTION: We conduct drug testing whenever an employee is injured at work or in involved in an accident. I recently read that this may violate OSHA’s anti-retaliation rule. How can that be? I would think OSHA would want employers to drug test to keep workplaces drug-free and safe.
Question: We have been flooded with coverage of Zika, from the Rio Olympics to the recent travel restrictions in Miami As an employer, I want to be prepared and proactive to protect my employees, but I am also concerned about overreacting. I understand there are many reported cases of Zika, but only six cases where the individual actually became infected with the virus by a mosquito bite in the United States. I want my company to take prudent measures, but also not to panic and cause my employees to unnecessarily fear for their wellbeing. What can (and should) I do to protect my employees? Also, are there any state or federal employment law obligations implicated by a potential Zika outbreak that I should be aware of? Answer→
Question: I am a manager in a medium-sized retailer that has locations and employees in 16 states. The company maintains a social media policy, which was recently updated. Last week, I noticed that one of our employees posted some pretty nasty things about the company on Twitter. She accused the company of not treating employees fairly because some had to work on days when others did not. Perhaps worse, in response to customers who were praising the company’s products and services, she basically called the company cheap by saying it did not provide good pay or benefits. I have not noticed any reaction from other employees to the tweets, but I am worried they will hurt employee morale and possibly drive away customers. Is there anything I should consider before disciplining the employee who tweeted these things?
Question: I own a small manufacturing company that employs 25-35 employees, depending on our workload. Over the years, a number of my customers and my employees have “friended” me on Facebook. Last week, I saw that one of our employees had posted a comment that I don’t pay enough overtime and that I’m, “f—ing cheap,” because I don’t give enough paid vacation. Almost worse, I saw that three other employees “liked” the post. I work hard to treat my employees fairly, and to ensure that I staff adequately so that employees do not need to work overtime. I’m afraid this post is going to hurt employee morale, and I’d like to fire the employee who posted and the ones who liked the post. Is there anything I should consider?
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