Retail Labor and Employment Law

Retail Labor and Employment Law

News, Updates, and Insights for Retail Employers

Holy Guacamole! An Employee’s Disparaging and Misleading Tweets May Be Protected Under the NLRA

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Retail employers dismayed by employees publicly airing workplace grievances in disparaging social media posts must think twice before taking disciplinary action.  On August 18, 2016, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) confirmed the finding by Administrative Law Judge Susan A. Flynn that Chipotle’s social media policy forbidding employees from posting “incomplete” or “ inaccurate” information, or from making “disparaging, false, or misleading statements” on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites violates Section 8(a)(1) of the National Relations Labor Act (“the Act”).

Chipotle discovered that an employee responded to a customer’s tweet thanking Chipotle for a free food offer, by tweeting back: “@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members make only $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?”  Then, attaching a news article describing how hourly workers at Chipotle were required to work on snow days while certain high-level employees were not, the employee tweeted his displeasure, specifically referencing Chipotle’s Communications Director: “Snow day for ‘top performers’ Chris Arnold?”  Informed by his manager that Chipotle considered his tweets to be in violation of Chipotle’s social media policy, the employee removed them at Chipotle’s request.  Then, several weeks later, Chipotle fired the employee after he circulated a petition about employees not receiving required breaks.

Finding the provision in Chipotle’s policy prohibiting employees from spreading “incomplete” or “inaccurate” information to be unlawful, Judge Flynn opined that: “An employer may not prohibit employee postings that are merely false or misleading.  Rather, in order to lose the [NLRA]’s protection, more than a false or misleading statement by the employee is required; it must be shown that the employee had a malicious motive.”   Judge Flynn also found the policy provision prohibiting “disparaging” statements to be unlawful, explaining that it “could easily encompass statements protected by Section 7 [of the NLRA]” including “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”   Although Chipotle’s social media policy contained a disclaimer that the policy “does not restrict any activity that is protected by the National Relations Labor Act, whistleblower laws, or any other privacy rights,” Judge Flynn concluded that this “sentence does not serve to cure the unlawfulness of the foregoing provisions.”

The NLRB adopted Judge Flynn’s decision that Chipotle was wrong, not only for firing the employee, but for attempting to limit his commentary on social media by its unlawfully termed social media policy.  While agreeing with Judge Flynn’s reasons for finding the social media policy unlawful, the NLRB disagreed with Judge Flynn’s finding that Chipotle violated the NLRA by asking the employee to delete the tweets.  In particular, while Judge Flynn opined that the employee engaged in “concerted activity” even though he did not consult with other employees before posting his tweets because “concerted activities include individual activity where individual employees seek to initiate or to induce … group action,”  the NLRB disagreed, asserting, with no true explanation, that it did not find the employee’s conduct to be concerted.  Agreeing that Chipotle violated the NLRA by terminating the employee after he engaged in protected concerted activity by circulating a petition regarding the Company’s break policy, the NLRB required Chipotle to, among other things, post signs acknowledging that its social media policy was illegal, and to re-instate the employee with back pay.

The message from the NLRB to retail employers is that, barring malicious misstatements, speech concerning terms and conditions of employment is often protected activity, even for employees who want to criticize their employers on Twitter and other social media websites.  To avoid Chipotle’s fate, ensure that your social media policies are up to date and provide for the increasing protections afforded to employee social media activity by the NLRB.

Second Circuit Extends the Reach of the Cat’s Paw

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In employment litigation, plaintiffs often rely on the “cat’s paw” doctrine to hold their employers liable for discriminatory or retaliatory animus of a supervisory employee who influenced, but did not make, the ultimate employment decision.  On August 29, 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Vasquez v. Empress Ambulance Service, Inc., greatly extended the reach of the “cat’s paw,” holding that the doctrine could be applied to hold an employer liable for an adverse employment decision that was influenced by the discriminatory or retaliatory animus of a low-level, non-supervisory co-worker.

The plaintiff, an emergency medical technician employed by the defendant, was terminated within hours of complaining to her supervisors that a male co-worker had sent her a text message containing a graphic, sexual photograph.  Plaintiff alleged that when her male co-worker learned that she had complained, he manipulated his iPhone to make it appear that a conversation containing consensual sexual text banter that he had with another person was a conversation between him and plaintiff and, when questioned by the employer about plaintiff’s allegations, provided printed screen shots of portions of this alleged conversation, telling the employer that he and the plaintiff had been involved in a consensual relationship.  In her lawsuit, plaintiff complained that her employer accepted the co-worker’s tale as true, and rejected her offer to turn over her cell phone for inspection or otherwise refute his claim.  Instead, plaintiff asserted that she was told by her employer that it “kn[e]w the truth,” that she had a sexual relationship with the co-worker, and that her employment was being terminated because she had sexually harassed him.   Plaintiff filed suit, asserting that the employer’s decision to terminate her employment was an act of retaliation in violation of Title VII because she had voiced complaints of sexual harassment.  Relying on the “cat’s paw” doctrine, the plaintiff argued that the employer’s decision to terminate her employment was influenced by false information provided by her male co-worker.  The district court dismissed her complaint, concluding that an employer could not be held liable under the “cat’s paw” doctrine for the discriminatory or retaliatory intent of a non-supervisory co-worker.

On appeal, the Second Circuit disagreed and reinstated plaintiff’s Complaint.  Despite the fact that the male co-worker was a low-level employee without any supervisor authority, the Second Circuit held that the employer’s “own negligence provides an independent basis” to treat the male co-worker as its agent and hold it accountable for his illegitimate intent.  Referencing the allegations that the employer “blindly credited” the male co-worker’s assertions and “obstinately refus[ed] to inspect [plaintiff]’s phone or to review any other evidence proffered by [plaintiff] in refutation,”   the Second Circuit concluded that “an employer may be held liable for an employee’s animus under a ‘cat’s paw’ theory, regardless of the employee’s role within the organization, if the employer’s own negligence gives effect to the employee’s animus and causes the victim to suffer an adverse employment action.”

The impact of this decision on retail employers who are often called upon to make employment decisions based on information provided by one employee about another?  Negligence is the key.  Only when the employer effectively adopts the co-worker’s animus by acting negligently with regards to the information provided may the co-worker’s improper motivation be imputed to the employer to support a claim under the cat’s paw doctrine.  Exercise good faith and be thorough in conducting internal investigations.  Do not ignore warning signs.  Consider all evidence offered in making employment decisions.

Union Organizing Gets a Boost from New York City “Labor Peace” Executive Order

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A new Act Now Advisory will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Union Organizing at Retail and Food Service Businesses Gets Boost from New York City ‘Labor Peace’ Executive Order,” by our colleagues Allen B. Roberts, Steven M. Swirsky, Donald S. Krueger, and Kristopher D. Reichardt from Epstein Becker Green.

Following is an excerpt:

New York City retail and food service unions got a boost recently when Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an Executive Order titled “Labor Peace for Retail Establishments at City Development Projects.” Subject to some thresholds for the size and type of project and the amount of “Financial Assistance” received for a “City Development Project,” Executive Order No. 19 mandates that developers agree to a “labor peace clause.” In turn, the labor peace clause will compel the developer to require certain large retail and food service tenants to enter into a “Labor Peace Agreement” prohibiting their opposition to a “Labor Organization” that seeks to represent their employees. …

If the objective of the Executive Order is to assure labor peace by way of insulation from picketing, work stoppages, boycotts, or other economic interference, it is not clear how its selective targeting of retail and food service tenants occupying more than 15,000 square feet of space—and the exclusion of other tenants and union relations—delivers on its promise. There are multiple non-covered tenants and events that could occasion such on-site disruptions as picketing, work stoppages, off-site boycotts, or other economic interference.

As a threshold matter, there is no particular reason why a labor dispute with a tenant occupying space shy of 15,000 square feet—among them high-profile national businesses—somehow is less disruptive to the tranquility of a City Development Project than one directed at a tenant whose business model requires larger space.

Also, the Executive Order does not address the rights or responsibilities of either landlords or their tenants that are Covered Employers bound to accept a Labor Peace Agreement when faced with union demands for neutrality that go beyond the Executive Order’s “minimum” neutrality requirements. There could be a dispute over initial labor peace terms if a union, dissatisfied that the Executive Order’s Labor Peace Agreement secured only a Covered Employer’s “neutral posture” concerning representation efforts, were to protest to obtain more ambitious and advantageous commitments that are coveted objectives of union neutrality demands, such as …

Read the full Advisory here.

U.S. Department of Labor Updates Mandatory FLSA and Polygraph Protection Act Posters

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Retail employers should take note that the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) updated its mandatory posters notifying employees of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Employee Polygraph Protection Act (“EPPA”).  The FLSA and EPPA posters no longer identify the civil monetary penalties that may be assessed for violations.  The FLSA poster also provides information regarding the rights of nursing mothers under the FLSA.  Employers are required to post the revised mandatory posters as of August 1, 2016, and may download the revised posters from the DOL’s website.

Employers should review their workplace employment law postings to ensure those displayed are up-to-date and in compliance with all applicable laws.

Employers should also be reminded of their responsibilities under the FLSA, including their responsibilities to nursing mother employees who are subject to the FLSA’s overtime requirements. Those nursing mothers are entitled to reasonable break time to express breast milk for one year after the child’s birth and a private place, other than a bathroom, to do so.

Are You a Joint-Employer with Your Suppliers? NLRB Examines Corporate Social Responsibility Policies

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Our colleague Steven M. Swirsky, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Management Memo blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Can Your Corporate Social Responsibility Policy Make You a Joint-Employer With Your Suppliers? The NLRB May Find That It Does

Following is an excerpt:

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), which continues to apply an ever expanding standard for determining whether a company that contracts with another business to supply contract labor or services in support of its operations should be treated as a joint employer of the supplier or contractor’s employees, is now considering whether a company’s requirement that its suppliers and contractors comply with its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Policy, which includes minimum standards for the contractor or supplier’s practices with its own employees can support a claim that the customer is a joint employer. …

Employers are well advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporaries and personnel supplied by temporary and other staffing agencies to assess their vulnerability to such action and to determine what steps they make take to better position themselves for the challenges that are surely coming.

Read the full post here.

Seventh Circuit: Title VII Does Not Cover Sexual Orientation Bias

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Our colleague Linda B. Celauro, Senior Counsel at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Seventh Circuit Panel Finds That Title VII Does Not Cover Sexual Orientation Bias.

Following is an excerpt:

Bound by precedent, on July 28, 2016, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination is not sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The panel thereby affirmed the decision of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana dismissing the claim of Kimberly Hively, a part-time adjunct professor at Ivy Tech Community College, that she was denied the opportunity for full-time employment on the basis of her sexual orientation.

The importance of the Seventh Circuit panel’s opinion is not in its precise holding but both (i) the in-depth discussion of Seventh Circuit precedence binding it, the decisions of all of the U.S. Courts of Appeals (except the Eleventh Circuit) that have held similarly, and Congress’s repeated rejection of legislation that would have extended Title VII’s protections to sexual orientation, and (ii) the multifaceted bases for its entreaties to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Congress to extend Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination to sexual orientation discrimination.

The Seventh Circuit panel highlighted the following reasons as to why the Supreme Court or Congress must consider extending Title VII’s protections to sexual orientation …

Read the full post here.

NLRB Multiplies Impact of Expanded Joint Employer Test: Requires Bargaining in Combined Units Across Multiple Employers

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Our colleagues Adam C. Abrahms and Steven M. Swirsky, attorneys at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Management Memo blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “NLRB Drops Other Shoe on Temporary/Contract Employee Relationships: Ruling Will Require Bargaining In Combined Units Including Employees of Multiple Employers – Greatly Multiplies Impact of BFI Expanded Joint Employer Test.”

Following is an excerpt:

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) announced in its 3-1 decision in Miller & Anderson, 364 NLRB #39 (2016) that it will now conduct representation elections and require collective bargaining in single combined units composed of what it refers to as “solely employed employees” and “jointly employed employees,” meaning that two separate employers will be required to join together to bargain over such employees’ terms and conditions of employment.” …

The potential for confusion and uncertainty is enormous. In an attempt to minimize these concerns, the Board majority stated that the so-called user employer’s bargaining obligations will be limited to those of such workers’ terms and conditions that it possesses “the authority to control.”

Read the full post here.

New York City Enacts Law Requiring Gender-Neutral Restrooms

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New York City Enacts Law Requiring Gender-Neutral Restrooms On June 28, 2016, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation passed earlier this month by The New York City Council to amend the City’s administrative code, plumbing code and building code to require gender-neutral single-occupant restrooms. The new law applies to businesses and other establishments in the City’s five boroughs with existing single-occupancy, publicly-accessible restrooms. The law does not require businesses to build new single-occupant restrooms, nor does it affect larger restrooms with multiple single-stalls.

Instead, the law prohibits the labelling of single-occupant restrooms as gender-specific. Beginning January 1, 2017, signs designating single-person restrooms for one gender, i.e., “men” and “women,” must be removed and replaced with signs for all sexes.  Employers with establishments in the City that may be affected should take advantage of the lead time to ensure compliance.

EEOC Targets Religious and National Origin Discrimination Against Individuals Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern

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The EEOC has released several new guidance tools, for both employers and employees, focused upon religious and national origin discrimination against people who are (or are perceived to be) Muslim. This focus on religious and national origin discrimination is particularly important for retail employers because retailers often require employees to follow dress codes or work at times that may conflict with religious observance.

In December 2015, EEOC Chair Jenny Yang released a statement highlighting the need for employers to “remain vigilant” in light of the recent terrorist attacks. Yang commended employers that have “taken steps to issue or re-issue policies preventing harassment, retaliation, and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.” At the same time this statement was released, the EEOC also released two technical guidance tools regarding religious discrimination: “Questions and Answers for Employers: Responsibilities Concerning the Employment of Individuals Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern” (“Employer Q&A”) and a similar guide for employees.

The Employer Q&A does the following:

  • provides helpful insight on the various measures that employers should undertake to avoid violations of Title VII, which prohibits discrimination based on religion and national origin, among other protected categories;
  • addresses questions about hiring and other employment decisions, harassment, religious accommodation, and background investigations;
  • reminds employers that they may not discriminate against an individual because the individual’s religious garb may make customers feel uncomfortable; and
  • emphasizes the need to engage in an interactive process with employees who request a religious accommodation, such as time off for religious holidays and exceptions to dress and grooming codes.

When evaluating whether the religious accommodation will cause an undue hardship, the EEOC (through the Employer Q&A) explains that employers may not speculate on whether other employees may seek the same accommodation and make decisions based on those speculations. Rather, each accommodation request must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Earlier this year, the EEOC joined forces with other federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, to create an interagency initiative aimed at religious bias. As part of this initiative, in March 2016, the EEOC released another technical guidance tool titled “What You Should Know About Religious and National Origin Discrimination Against Those Who Are, or Are Perceived to Be, Muslim or Middle Eastern” (“What You Should Know Guidance”).

Among other things, the What You Should Know Guidance:

  • summarizes some of the ways in which discrimination against individuals who are (or could be perceived to be) Muslim or Middle Eastern can materialize in the workplace;
  • reminds employers of their obligations to prevent and correct unlawful discrimination or harassment, and provide reasonable religious accommodations;
  • points out several recent cases brought against retailers that involve claims of religious and national origin discrimination and harassment, or a failure to accommodate based on these factors; and
  • highlights the increase in litigation in these areas (in particular, the What You Should Know Guidance reports that, since 9/11, there has been a 250 percent increase in EEOC charges involving religious discrimination against Muslims).

These guidance tools serve as a follow up to the EEOC’s previously released guidance on religious garb and grooming in the workplace, which provides even more detail on how employers should address these issues. Given the EEOC’s increased scrutiny of religious and national origin discrimination against people who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim or Middle Eastern, retailers should be particularly wary of religious or national origin bias. Retailers can work toward preventing this type of bias in the workplace by reviewing and disseminating their anti-discrimination policies and providing training to employees and managers.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five New Challenges Facing Retail Employers.”

The Focus of Equal Pay Laws Is Redefined

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Several states have recently passed laws (California, Maryland,[1] and New York) or have bills currently pending in their state legislatures (California,[2] Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey) [3] seeking to eliminate pay differentials on the basis of sex (and, in some cases, other protected categories) (collectively, “Equal Pay Laws”).

Among other provisions, most of the Equal Pay Laws contain four components. They aim to (i) strengthen current equal pay standards, (ii) create pay transparency rules, (iii) expand equal pay protections beyond gender, and (iv) redefine the geographic reach of existing equal pay laws.

Strengthening of Current Equal Pay Standards

The Equal Pay Laws modify the standards required for plaintiffs to prevail on equal pay claims. Previously, these laws tracked the federal Equal Pay Act, which permits exceptions to equal pay for equal work, “where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.” The Equal Pay Laws, however, each modify the fourth prong, so that they now permit pay differentials based on a “bona fide factor other than sex” (emphasis added). This additional language allows plaintiffs to bring claims alleging that a neutral factor produced a wage differential that disparately impacts employees based on their sex, and notwithstanding this impact, the employer did not adopt an alternative business practice that would serve the same purpose without resulting in the wage differential. The new standard also broadens a plaintiff’s ability to allege a prima facie case of wage disparity.

Pay Transparency

Many of the Equal Pay Laws include pay transparency provisions, meaning that employers cannot create policies or enforce rules that would restrict an employee’s ability to discuss his or her wages with co-workers. The Massachusetts bill, which is still in the state legislature, has another unique twist (one that actually passed the legislature in California earlier this year but was vetoed by the governor). The Massachusetts equal pay law would prohibit employers from asking about an applicant’s salary history on an application or during interviews for employment. This would mean that an employer could no longer ask applicants how much they earned at their past jobs when considering making an offer of employment to an applicant. This twist aims to ensure that prior pay discrepancies are not compounded when an applicant’s pay rate with a new employer is based on unequal pay rates that the applicant received in the past.

Expanding Beyond Pay Equality Based on Gender

While the Equal Pay Laws were initially intended to ensure that women received equal pay in relation to men, some of the Equal Pay Laws seek to expand equal pay protection to other protected categories. The proposed California law, which is intended to amend the recently amended equal pay law in that state, would expand protections to race- and ethnicity-based pay differentials. Further, Maryland’s recently enacted law requires equal pay based on gender identity.

Geographical Reach

Finally, the Equal Pay Laws differ as to their geographical scope. For example, the New York law limits the reach of pay differentials to “no larger than a county.” In other words, women cannot compare themselves to other employees outside the county where they work. Some of the other Equal Pay Laws have significantly broader reach, such as California, which has no geographic limit. The New Jersey law, which was vetoed on May 2, 2016, but may be reintroduced in the state legislature, would permit wage comparisons based on compensation rates “in all of an employer’s operations or facilities.” This could mean that New Jersey employees could base their equal pay claims on the pay differential between their own compensation and that of employees of the employer in other jurisdictions (even in locations where the standard of living is considerably higher). Unlike New Jersey, the law proposed in Massachusetts would permit employers to base pay differentials on geographic location if one location has a lower cost of living based upon the Consumer Price Index.

Conclusion

As a result of the Equal Pay Laws, employers should consider whether to perform an internal audit (with the assistance of counsel) in order to identify and address any potential pay disparities. Indeed, in light of the recently published regulations on the overtime exemption status of various employees, this summer may be a good time for employers to review their pay practices for all employees.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five New Challenges Facing Retail Employers.”

[1] Maryland’s equal pay law was signed by Governor Larry Hogan on May 19, 2016, and becomes effective October 1, 2016. New York’s and California’s laws are currently effective.

[2] California has introduced a second equal pay amendment addressing wage disparity based on race and ethnicity. The first equal pay amendment became effective on January 1, 2016.

[3] Louisiana’s equal pay bill was recently rejected in the state House committee, despite passing the Senate and having strong support from Governor John Bel Edwards.

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