On July 19, 2017, the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board (“WCB” or the “Board”) issued its final regulations (“Final Regulations”) for the New York State Paid Family Leave Benefits Law (“PFLBL” or the “Law”). The WCB first published regulations to the PFLBL in February 2017, and then updated those regulations in May (collectively, the “Prior Regulations”).

While the Final Regulations did clarify some outstanding questions, many questions remain, particularly pertaining to the practical logistics of implementing the Law, such as the tax treatment of deductions and benefits, paystub requirements, certain differences between requirements that pertain to self-funding employers and those employers intending to obtain an insurance policy, and what forms and procedures will apply.

As we previously reported, when the PFLBL becomes effective on January 1, 2018, most employees working in New York State will be eligible for paid family leave (“PFL”) benefits. Employers are not responsible for actually providing pay to employees during a period of PFL; rather, employee payroll deductions will fund an insurance policy, which will either be managed by a third party or self-funded by the employer, from which employees will receive PFLBL benefits.

On the same day the Final Regulations were published, the WCB also issued an Assessment of Public Comment (the “Assessment”), which addresses certain public comments to the Prior Regulations. The State has also published two fact sheets – one for employees and one for employers – outlining the basic elements of the PFLBL.

The following summary addresses the updates in the Final Regulations, as compared to the Prior Regulations, as well as some additional insight from the Assessment.

Collective Bargaining Agreements. The Final Regulations clarified that employers that have employees or classes of employees subject to a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) are not required to supply such employees with PFL coverage in accordance with the terms of the Law, but only so long as the CBA:

  1. provides paid family leave benefits at least as favorable as those provided in the Law; and
  2. does not include a provision whereby otherwise-eligible employees may waive their rights to paid family leave or otherwise opt-out of the law (except in accordance with the opt-out provisions in the Law for employees who will not become eligible for PFL).

The Final Regulations specify that, except as noted above, a CBA may, indeed, contain paid family leave provisions that differ from the requirements in the Final Regulations. Where a CBA does not provide a different rule, however, the Final Regulations and the Law will govern.

Employee Contributions. The WCB declined to amend the Final Regulations with respect to whether employers must begin employee payroll deductions prior to January 1, 2018. In the Assessment, the Board confirmed that deductions under the Law were permitted to begin on July 1, 2017, but there is no requirement to make deductions prior to January 1, 2018; thus, in 2017, payroll deductions for employee contributions is a permissive choice that employers may make.

Further, the Assessment noted that the Law does not require notification that deductions will begin; however, it is generally best practice to notify employees prior to deducting from employees’ wages. Neither the Assessment nor the Final Regulations address whether as of January 1, 2018, an employer may opt to pay the contributions on its employees’ behalf, or whether alternatively, employers must deduct from employee’s paychecks for this contribution.

Interaction Between Qualifying Leave and Benefits in 2017 and 2018. The Board received a comment asking whether an employee who took leave to bond with his or her child in 2017 will still be eligible for up to the full 8 weeks of PFL in 2018, notwithstanding the leave already taken. The Board stated in the Assessment that employees will, indeed, be eligible for up to 8 additional weeks of leave in 2018 under NYPFLBL, even if the employee exhausted all applicable leave under federal law and the employer’s policies in 2017.

The Law limits the use of PFL and New York State short-term disability benefits (“STD”) in a 52-week period to a total of 26 weeks, which essentially reduces an employee’s eligible for STD based on the amount of PFL used. On the positive side, the Assessment noted that in 2018, the 52-week lookback period includes leave taken in 2017. Thus, an employee who has utilized STD in 2017 will have his or her 26-week allocation during the applicable 52-week period reduced by any STD utilized during 2017 (so long as it was used within the applicable 52-week look-back period).

Waivers of PFL. The Final Regulations revised employers’ requirements to offer a waiver from PFL deductions from permissive to mandatory. The language previously stated that employees who do not meet the PFLBL eligibility requirements “may” be provided the option for a waiver – the “may” has been changed to “shall.” The Assessment clarified that it is the employee’s choice of whether to complete a waiver, not the employer’s.

Coverage Outside New York. The Assessment confirmed that the PFLBL applies to employees who work in New York State. If an employee works outside of New York State, and only “incidentally” works in New York, those employees are not covered by the Law.[1]

Calculation of Daily Benefits. The Final Regulations amended the calculation of benefits when an employee is taking PFL in daily increments (rather than weekly increments). Under the Prior Regulations, if an employee worked a partial week prior to beginning PFL, then, in calculating the level of benefits to which the employee would be eligible for the day(s) off based on the eight weeks prior to taking leave, the employee’s weekly rate could be reduced by the day(s) the employee did not work in that final week. For example, the 8 week period could include a partial week of work, thus reducing the employee’s average wages. The Final Regulations use the same 8-week period as calculating an average weekly wage, which will exclude the final partial week of leave.

Positions with Breaks in Service – Impact on Eligibility. The Final Regulations added a paragraph to the “Eligibility” section, so as to clarify how to calculate consecutive weeks of service for positions that inherently contemplate breaks in service, such as professors who have semester breaks. For such positions, the 26-consecutive week period requirement may be tolled during periods of absence that are due to the nature of that employment. In other words, with respect to such individuals’ employment, the breaks in service would not be considered weeks worked when considering whether the individual had worked at least 26 weeks in the prior 52-week period (for eligibility purposes), but also would not re-start the period of employment to determine eligibility under the Law.

Returning Surplus Contributions. The Board received two comments seeking clarification regarding the requirement to return surplus contributions. The Final Regulations provide that employers shall use the employee contributions to provide PFL benefits, which “means to pay for a policy or self-insure.” The Assessment states that employers are required to return to employees any “surplus amount withheld that exceeds the actual cost” of the annual premium of the PFL policy. No changes were made to the Final Regulations.

Interaction with New York City Earned Sick Time Act (“ESTA”). The Assessment confirms the language in the Prior Regulations that employees may elect to use paid time off (such as vacation, personal days, or sick time) to receive full salary during PFL, but that it is not mandatory. As the PFLBL does not cover an employee’s own illness, PFL would only run concurrently with sick leave under ESTA for purposes of caring for an employee’s family member.

For a summary of the PFLBL, the Final Regulations, and the Assessment, please see this Act Now Advisory.

___________

ENDNOTE

[1] While the Law, Final Regulations, and Assessment do not define “incidentally,” the New York State PFLBL website indicates that employees must work 30 or more days in a calendar year New York to be covered.

When: Thursday, September 14, 2017 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Immigration
  • Global Executive Compensation
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Internal Cyber Threats
  • Pay Equity
  • People Analytics in Hiring
  • Gig Economy
  • Wage and Hour
  • Paid and Unpaid Leave
  • Trade Secret Misappropriation
  • Ethics

We will start the day with two morning Plenary Sessions. The first session is kicked off with Philip A. Miscimarra, Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

We are thrilled to welcome back speakers from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc Freedman and Katie Mahoney will speak on the latest policy developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide during the second plenary session.

Morning and afternoon breakout workshop sessions are being led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai R. Feldblum, will be making remarks in the afternoon before attendees break into their afternoon workshops. We are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Bret Baier, Chief Political Anchor of FOX News Channel and Anchor of Special Report with Bret Baier.

View the full briefing agenda and workshop descriptions here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

While the ADA finished celebrating its 27th anniversary at the end of July, for plaintiffs looking to bring website accessibility complaints in New York the party is still ongoing.  Following on the heels of last month’s decision of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in Five Guys, Judge Jack B. Weinstein of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Andrews vs. Blick Art Materials, LLC, recently denied a motion to dismiss a website accessibility action, holding that Title III of the ADA (“Title III”), the NYS Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law all apply to websites – not only those with a nexus to brick and mortar places of public accommodation but also to cyber-only websites offering goods and services for sale to the public.

The Court’s decision in Blick was comprehensive – spanning nearly 40 pages – addressing the major theories and defenses website accessibility decisions have been considering with increasing frequency for more than a decade, through lenses that were extremely sympathetic to plaintiff’s claims.  Relying upon the Second Circuit’s decision in Pallozzi v. Allstate., 198 F.3d (2d Cir. 1999), recognizing the need to apply Title III broadly to match the expansive remedial and protective purposes of the ADA (albeit in the context of insurance policies), along with other district court decisions within the Second Circuit expressly applying that same theory to website accessibility (NFB v. Scribd and Five Guys), Judge Weinstein rejected the decisions of other circuits and district courts concluding that Title III only applies to a website when there is a connection to a physical place of public accommodation.  Adopting what it deemed to be a “sensible approach to the ADA”, the Court held that, “Blick is prohibited from discriminating against the blind by failing to take the steps necessary to ensure that the blind have ‘full and equal enjoyment’ of the goods, services, privileges, advantages, facilities, or accommodations of its website – provided that taking such steps would not impose an undue burden on Blick or fundamentally alter the website.”  This conclusion was deemed to embody the broad remedial mandate of the ADA, protecting individuals with disabilities from discrimination and allowing them to fully and equally participate in society – one that in 2017 places significant value on the ability to utilize websites – with accommodations needing to evolve alongside technology.  (The Court postponed a decision on whether such an action is appropriate for a class action.)

In reaching its conclusion, the Blick decision was also the latest to reject defenses based upon primary jurisdiction and due process (joining other decisions such as Hobby Lobby and Harvard/MIT.  First, the Court rejected the primary jurisdiction argument because:  (i) the question at issue was legal in nature and within traditional judicial competence (e.g., courts regularly decide similar issues under Title III involving “full and equal enjoyment” and “effective communication”/“auxiliary aids and services”); and (ii) plaintiff is entitled to a prompt adjudication of his claims (and the U.S. Department of Justice’s failure to promulgate regulations seven years after suggesting it would do so cannot be a reason to delay that process).  To alleviate defendant’s concern that the Court might lack the technical background necessary to rule on the issue, the Court ordered a “Science Day”, during which experts will testify and provide demonstrations about website design and assistive technology.  Second, the Court rejected any claims that plaintiff’s claim would violate concepts of due process, finding that the ADA, which requires a contextual assessment of specific facts against a “gray” backdrop of various defined terms (e.g., “reasonable modification”, “full and equal enjoyment”, “auxiliary aides and services”, “fundamental alteration”, and “undue burden”) is merely providing necessary flexibility.  (Moreover, any challenges by defendant regarding whether specific modifications or remedies might be improper was not ripe at the current stage of the litigation.)

While it is still possible the other cases with different facts decided in the EDNY and SDNY may not follow Blick and Five Guys, for now businesses in New York City must take these decisions seriously.  With DOJ no longer expected to issue clarifying regulations in the near future (if at all) and in light of the recent pro-plaintiff decisions in this case, Five Guys, Winn-Dixie, and Hobby Lobby, the plaintiffs’ bar is further escalating its efforts to blanket most major industries with website accessibility demand letters and lawsuits.  Not only are new players emerging every day, but the well-known plaintiff’s attorneys in this area – emboldened by these recent decisions – are becoming increasingly aggressive.  The Blick decision underscores what we’ve been cautioning clients about for some time – businesses with websites that are either connected to a brick and mortar place of public accommodation or use a website to directly sell goods and services to the public who are looking to avoid website accessibility lawsuits should promptly take the steps necessary to make their websites accessible that we have addressed in our previously website accessibility blogs.

On July 21, 2017, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation that would have amended the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination to prohibit employers from requesting salary history information from prospective employees.  The legislation had passed easily though the State’s Democratically controlled Senate and Assembly, with votes along party lines.  With the upcoming gubernatorial election in November, employers may expect to see the bill revived and quite possibly enacted – particularly if the next governor is a Democrat. The proposed amendment may be read here.

 

Today marks the 27th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Unfortunately for businesses, two recent developments in the context of website accessibility suggest that there is no reason to celebrate and every reason to believe the ever-increasing wave of demand letters and lawsuits in this area will continue unabated.

First, in Lucia Marett v. Five Guys Enterprises LLC (Case No. 1:17-cv-00788-KBF), the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has finally issued a decision directly speaking to the applicability of Title III of the ADA (Title III) to websites, denying Five Guys’ motion to dismiss, and holding that Title III does indeed apply to websites.  Facing a class action lawsuit brought by serial plaintiff, Lucia Marett, Five Guys sought to dismiss the claim that its website (which, among other things, allows customers to order food online for delivery or pick up at its brick and mortar stores) violated Title III and related state/local statutes because it is inaccessible to the blind, on the grounds that Title III does not apply to websites and, even if it did, the case was moot because Five Guys was in the process of updating its website to provide accessibility.  The Court rejected Five Guys’ arguments.  Citing both the text and the broad and sweeping purpose of the ADA, the Court held that Title III applies to websites – either as its own place of public accommodation or as a result of its close relationship as a service of Five Guys’ restaurants (which the court noted are indisputably public accommodations under Title III).  Further, the court was unmoved by Five Guys’ ongoing efforts to make its website accessible because they had yet to successfully do so and there was no absolutely clear assurance that further accessibility issues would be avoided.  The fact that the Court leaves open the possibility that a website conducting business only in cyber-space might have to comply with Title III is troubling as, to date, that position had remained an outlier, being only adopted by a couple of district courts.

Second, the Trump Administration has finally released its first Unified Regulatory Agenda and – in accordance with its goal of reducing the number of federal regulations – the private sector website accessibility regulations, most recently earmarked for 2018, have been marked as “Inactive.”  The potential for website accessibility regulations has long been one of the factors mitigating against website accessibility lawsuits.  With no reasonable expectation for such regulations in the near future, the courts will continue to serve as the primary forum for the development of this body of law.

These developments, taken in tandem with the recent post-trial verdict for Plaintiff’s in the Winn-Dixie litigation and the recent Hobby Lobby decision further devaluing various jurisdictional and due process defenses may create a perfect storm further emboldening an already aggressive plaintiff’s bar to continue to push website accessibility demands and lawsuits.  Indeed, in recent weeks we have not only seen another surge in the number of such actions being filed, but regular players in this space are using these decisions to push for greater settlement values, and new “copycat” players are starting to enter the fray.

Given the current climate, the best way for companies to try and avoid these litigations remains promptly taking legitimate and comprehensive steps to make their websites accessible.  This is particularly true for companies whose websites are tied to brick and mortar places of public accommodation but, now, may in some contexts and jurisdictions apply equally to cyber-only businesses.  Companies interested in taking such steps should conduct website accessibility audits (both user-based and code-based; and not simply running an automated scanning tool); add website accessibility obligations into vendor agreements; adopt and implement a website accessibility policy; and conduct training for necessary parties.  To the extent such efforts do not prompt plaintiffs to target other websites, they will certainly improve companies’ leverage for settlement negotiations and/or strategies for defending against litigations.

Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Health Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “DFEH Publishes Materials to Assist Employers With Handling Harassment Allegations.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) recently released a brief, nine-page guide for California employers, which was prepared in conjunction with the California Sexual Harassment Task Force.  This guide is intended to assist employers in developing an effective anti-harassment program, including information about how to properly investigate reports of harassment and understand what recourse is available.  The guide addresses all forms of workplace harassment, including harassment based on sex. …

Read the full post here.

Our colleague at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Wage and Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Tenth Circuit Rules Tips Belong to the Employer If Tip Credit Is Not Taken.”

Following is an excerpt:

When an employer pays the minimum wage (or more) instead of taking the tip credit, who owns any tips – the employer or the employee? In Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., No. 16-1134 (10th Cir. June 30, 2017), the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held they belong to the employer, who presumably can then either keep them or distribute them in whole or part to employees as it sees fit. This directly conflicts with the Ninth Circuit’s decision last year in Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, 816 F.3d 1080, 1086-89 (9th Cir. 2016), pet for cert. filed, No. 16-920 (Jan. 19, 2017) and likely sets up a showdown this fall in the U.S. Supreme Court. …

Read the full post here.

On May 15th, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act (“FIFA”) went into effect in New York City. The Department of Consumer Affairs (“DCA”) recently issued guidelines to help employers comply with the law.

Coverage and Immigration Status

FIFA protects all freelance workers regardless of their immigration status.

Contract Value Threshold

As previously explained, FIFA requires parties that retain freelance workers to provide any service where the contract between them has a value of $800 or more to reduce their agreement to a written contract. Under the DCA guidelines, the value of the contract includes “the reasonable value of all actual or anticipated services, costs for supplies, and any other expenses under the contract.”

Retaliation

FIFA prohibits hiring parties from retaliating against a freelance worker who exercises his/her rights under FIFA. Under the DCA guidelines, retaliation includes, but is not limited to, any adverse action related to perceived or actual immigration status or work authorization. In order to prove retaliation, a freelance worker can provide circumstantial or actual evidence of the hiring party’s adverse action. Any hiring party who denies a work opportunity to a freelance worker covered under FIFA is liable of retaliation regardless of whether a contract exists between them.

Waiver of Rights

All waivers or limitation for a freelance worker to participate or receive money in a judicial action are invalid as a matter of law under FIFA.

Employers should ensure that contracts entered into with freelance workers (or existing contracts that are renewed) with a value of $800 or more comply with FIFA and the published DCA rules.

This post was written with assistance from Corben J. Green, a 2017 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

This issue of Take 5 encapsulates the incredible breadth of societal changes and challenges facing the entire retail workplace. The topics addressed below reflect a microcosm of the many issues currently facing our overall society, covering growing political activism in the workplace, increasing expectations to accommodate religious beliefs, otherwise outrageous employee speech that may very well enjoy protection under the law, and the ever-increasing requirements for criminal background checks enacted piecemeal by states and cities. These extremely topical subjects often tap into broader emotionally charged concerns encountered by retailers.

We also address the ever-timely issue of wage and hour classification, in this case, focusing on the classification of assistant store managers.

The articles in this Take 5 include:

  1. Managing Employees’ Political and Social Activism in the Workplace
  2. Religious Accommodation: Handling Unusual Requests
  3. Second Circuit Agrees with NLRB That Employee’s Vulgar Facebook Tirade Against Manager Is Protected Concerted Activity
  4. Increasing Criminal Background Check Requirements Pose Challenges for National Retailers
  5. Correctly Classifying Assistant Store Managers to Avoid Wage and Hour Misclassification Claims

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

In the latest of an increasing number of recent website accessibility decisions, in Gorecki v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (Case No.: 2:17-cv-01131-JFW-SK), the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied Hobby Lobby’s motion to dismiss a website accessibility lawsuit on due process and primary jurisdiction grounds.  In doing so, the Hobby Lobby decision further calls into question the precedential value of the Central District of California’s recent outlier holding in Robles v. Dominos Pizza LLC (Case No.: 2:16-cv-06599-SJO-FFM) which provided businesses with hope that the tide of recent decisions might turn in their favor.

The Hobby Lobby website provides a variety of services which are closely related to Hobby Lobby’s brick and mortar stores, including:  purchasing products online; searching for store locations; viewing special price offers; and purchasing gift cards.  Plaintiff alleged that Hobby lobby violated Title III of the ADA, as well as California’s Unruh Act, by not providing full and equal access to its website for individuals with disabilities (as the website was inaccessible to individuals who are blind and make use of a screen-reading program).  In the complaint, Plaintiff sought injunctive relief requiring Hobby Lobby to ensure that individuals with disabilities have as full and equal enjoyment of the website as individuals without disabilities.  However, importantly, Plaintiff did not seek the imposition of a specific technical rule or standard for Hobby Lobby to provide full and equal enjoyment.

Hobby Lobby made a motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint on two grounds – due process and the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  In short, Hobby Lobby argued that because the U.S. Department of Justice had not promulgated final website accessibility regulations under Title III setting forth specific accessibility standards, it would violate due process to provide Plaintiff with injunctive relief imposing website accessibility obligations as Hobby Lobby lacked sufficient notice of its obligation.  Additionally, Hobby Lobby argued the action should be dismissed under the primary jurisdiction doctrine which, if applied, would hold that the court should not rule on website accessibility issues until DOJ – the expert regulator in this area – first speaks on the issue by promulgating and adopting regulations.  While these arguments have generally failed in the context of website accessibility, their potential viability was recently revisited following the Dominos decision which dismissed a website accessibility action based on these very grounds (noting that businesses might be able to provide access to a website’s services via alternative means than making the website itself accessible – e.g., a 24/7 toll-free, sufficiently staffed, hotline).

Here, in denying the motion to dismiss, the court rejected each of Hobby Lobby’s arguments.  First, the court took great exception with the contention that Hobby Lobby did not have sufficient notice of the need to make its website accessible.  The court stressed that DOJ had articulated its position that Title III requires website accessibility for over 20 years – including in speeches, congressional hearings, amicus briefs and statements of interest, rulemaking efforts, and enforcement actions and related settlement agreements.  Moreover, at a broader level, the court noted that from its inception, Title III has always required “full and equal enjoyment” and the provision of “auxiliary aids and services” for “effective communication” and further explained that these overarching civil rights concepts could (and should) easily apply to websites and screen-readers.  Second, following up on this reasoning and underscoring other comparable times when courts have interpreted similar issues under Title III’s civil rights provisions, the court disagreed that it would be appropriate to apply the primary jurisdiction doctrine.  The court saw no reason the issue of website accessibility could not be adjudicated in the same way countless other Title III matters had been handled in the past.  Moreover, the court expressed concern that – given that seven years has already passed since DOJ first expressed an intent to promulgate website accessibility regulations under Title III with little progress – invoking the doctrine could needlessly delay potentially meritorious claims.

The Court also rejected Hobby Lobby’s efforts to rely upon the Dominos decision – which was reached in the very same court – to support its arguments.  In Dominos – contrary to the law that had come before it in website accessibility matters decided in other jurisdictions – citing due process concerns, the court did invoke the primary jurisdiction doctrine to dismiss a website accessibility claim.  However, the court in Hobby Lobby, readily distinguished the Dominos decision in concluding it did not dictate the same ruling in this case.  Specifically, in Dominos the plaintiff sought injunctive relief that required Dominos comply with the WCAG 2.0, a specific standard that has not been officially adopted by DOJ in Title III regulations (though it has been officially adopted in other government regulations and is readily used by DOJ in its settlement agreements).  In Hobby Lobby plaintiff merely sought “full and equal” enjoyment of the website’s services without specifying how that would have to be accomplished – a pivotal distinction.

The Hobby Lobby decision underscores the likelihood that the Dominos decision remains, for now, an outlier.  Taken in tandem with last week’s post-trial verdict in Gil v. Winn-Dixie Stores, Inc., this most recent decision should be viewed as another reason why businesses should seriously consider prophylactic efforts to make their websites (at least when linked to places of public accommodation) accessible.  (For now, the most commonly accepted path to accessibility remains compliance with WCAG 2.0 at Levels A and AA).