Since the early 1980s, the NLRB has vacillated back and forth on whether non-union employees are entitled to have a co-worker present during an investigatory interview that could result in discipline — a right that has long been afforded union employees pursuant to the United States Supreme Court’s holding in NLRB v. Weingarten, 420 U.S. 251 (1975). In the 42 years since the Supreme Court first extended this right to union employees in Weingarten, the NLRB has changed its position four times as to whether “Weingarten rights” extend to non-union employees.  In what can only be viewed as a victory for retail employers with non-unionized workers, the NLRB, on May 3, 2017, rejected a request that it again reverse course and extend Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  With this Order, the NLRB confirms that retail employers need not acquiesce to a request by a non-union employee to have a co-worker sit in while that non-union employee is questioned in an investigatory interview.

In Weingarten, the Supreme Court concluded that an employer violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by denying a unionized employee’s request to have a union representative present at an investigatory interview which the employee reasonably believed might result in disciplinary action. The Court held that the presence of a union representative “safeguard[s] not only the particular employee’s interest, but also the interests of the entire bargaining unit. . . .” Weingarten, 420 U.S. at 260.  Several years later, the NLRB extended Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  See Materials Research Corp., 262 NLRB 1010 (1982).  However, non-union workers did not savor this right for too long.  In two successive decisions, Sears, Roebuck, & Co., 274 NLRB 230 (1985) and in E.I. DuPont & Co., 289 NLRB 627 (1988), the NLRB reversed course and ruled that Weingarten rights do not extend to non-union employees.  But by 2000, union employees regained this right when, in Epilepsy Foundation of Northeast Ohio, 331 NLRB 676 (2000), the NLRB ruled that Weingarten rights do extend to non-union employees.  In Epilepsy Foundation, the NLRB reasoned that: “Section 7 [of the NLRA] rights are enjoyed by all employees and are in no way dependent on union representation for their supplementation.” Id. at 678.  Just four years later, in IBM Corp., 341 NLRB 1288 (2004), the NLRB changed direction again, ruling that non-union employees do not have the right to have a co-worker present during an investigatory interview that might lead to discipline. In this opinion, the NLRB noted that changes in employment laws and recent security concerns require that investigations into matters like substance abuse, improper internet use, dishonesty, threats, harassment and discrimination be conducted “in a thorough, sensitive, and confidential manner” and that failure to conduct investigations in this manner could expose an employer to claims that it did not conduct a fair investigation or that unfair discipline was imposed based on incomplete information. The NLRB reasoned that the presence of a co-worker increases the possibility that information will not be kept confidential, reduces the chance that the employer will get the whole truth, and increases the likelihood that employees with information about sensitive subjects will not come forward. Accordingly, the NLRB concluded that the right of a non-union employee to a coworker’s presence is “outweighed by an employer’s right to conduct prompt, efficient, thorough, and confidential workplace investigations.” Id.

By application dated November 15, 2016, petitioner Charles Strickler asked the NLRB to reconsider its position and, again, extend Weingarten rights to non-union employees.  By Order dated May 3, 2017, the NLRB rejected this application with virtually no explanation.  Retail employers remain within their rights to deny a non-union employee’s request to have a co-worker present when that employee is being interviewed by the employer, even if the interview may result in discipline.

A new post on the Management Memo blog will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “‘A Day Without’ Actions – How Can Employers Prepare?” by our colleagues Steven M. Swirsky and Laura C. Monaco of Epstein Becker Green.

Following is an excerpt:

[T]he same groups that organized the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington – an action participated in by millions of individuals across the county – has called for a “Day Without Women” to be held on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Organizers are encouraging women to participate by taking the day off from paid and unpaid labor, and by wearing red – which the organizers note “may be a great act of defiance for some uniformed workers.”

Employers should be prepared to address any difficult questions that might arise in connection with the upcoming “Day Without Women” strike: Do I have to give my employees time off to participate in Day Without events? Can I still enforce the company dress code – or do I need to permit employees to wear red? Can I discipline an employee who is “no call, no show” to work that day? Am I required to approve requests for the day off by employees who want to participate? As we explained in our prior blog post, guidance from the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel suggests that an employer can rely on its “lawful and neutrally-applied work rules” to make decisions about granting requests for time off, enforcing its dress code, and disciplining employees for attendance rule violations. An employer’s response, however, to a given employee’s request for time off or for an exception to the dress code, may vary widely based upon the individual facts and circumstances of each case. …

Read the full post here.

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: “NLRB Acting Chair Dissents Point to Likely Changes to Board Election Rules and Employee Handbook and Email Standards.”

Following is an excerpt:

NLRB Acting Chair Philip Miscimarra has given the clearest indication to date of what steps a new Republican majority is likely to take to reverse key elements of the Labor Board’s hallmark actions of the Obama administration once President Trump nominates candidates for the Board’s two open seats and the Senate confirms. In each of these cases, Miscimarra highlighted his earlier opposition to the majority’s changes in long standing precedents and practices. …

Read the full post here.

On January 5, 2015, less than one month after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) voted to adopt a Final Rule to amend its rules and procedures for representation elections, a lawsuit has been filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, asserting that the Board exceeded its authority under the National Labor Relations Act (Act) when it amended its rules for votes on union representation and that the new rule in unconstitutional and violates the First and Fifth Amendments of the US Constitution.

The suit was filed by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation and the Society for Human Resources Management.  It seeks an order vacating the Final Rule, declaring the Final Rule to be contrary to the Act and in excess of the Board’s statutory jurisdiction and authority and to violate the First and Fifth Amendments.

The claims raised in the suit are essentially the same as those which were raised by in an action filed in the same court in 2012, in response to the NLRB’s December 2011 adoption of a very similar set of changes to its representation election procedures.  That action also challenged the Board’s action based on what it found to be the Board’s lack of a quorum at the time it adopted those rule changes in 2011. Because the Court found that the Board lacked a quorum at that time, it found it unnecessary to address the substantive arguments about the changes in the election rules that are the essence of the new lawsuit.

While the Complaint does not indicate that the plaintiffs are seeking an order enjoining the Board from implementing the new election procedures under the Final Rule while the case is litigated, the plaintiffs are likely to request such an order as the Final Rule’s effective date of April 15th nears.  In the earlier challenge to the Board’s 2011 rulemaking, the Court granted an injunction in April 2012 enjoining the Board from putting the new rules and procedures into effect, while it considered the merits of the challenge.

While Republican members of Congress have with increasing frequency indicated their desire to reign in the Board in a variety of areas where they have seen it as exceeding its mandate or moving in directions that they do not agree with, it is almost certain that President Obama would veto such legislation and it is not likely that the sufficient support would be present to override a veto. Thus as the New York Times observed  earlier this week, those who oppose administrative actions such as this are turning increasingly to the courts in hopes of relief.

We will continue to monitor and report on developments in this closely watched case.

On Epstein Becker Green’s OSHA Law Update blog, Eric Conn reviews the agreement between the NLRB and OSHA, which allows employees to file out-of-date safety related whistleblower claims to be filed with the NLRB.

Following is an excerpt from the blog post:

On May 21, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) published a memorandum discussing a new agreement between NLRB and OSHA regarding a backdoor route for employees to file safety related whistleblower claims that are too stale to be filed with OSHA. The NLRB memo directs OSHA representatives to “notify all complainants who file an untimely [OSHA] whistleblower charge of their right to file a charge with the NLRB.” As a result of this agreement, employers should expect an increase in the number of unfair labor practice claims filed by employees alleging retaliation for protected safety related whistleblower activity.

To access the full blog post, please click here.

 

by Anna A. Cohen

On September 28, 2011, a National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Knauz BMW lawfully terminated the employment of Robert Becker, a salesperson, after he posted pictures and comments on his Facebook page about two different workplace incidents — an automobile accident and a dealership sales event.  The judge also found that several Employee Handbook policies, unrelated to social media postings, contained overly broad language.  Karl Knauz Motors, Inc. d/b/a Knauz BMW and Robert Becker, Case No. 13-CA-46452 (Sept. 28, 2011).

The first incident Becker posted on his Facebook page concerned an accident at a Land Rover dealership also owned by Knauz on an adjacent property.  Becker posted pictures of the accident, as well as comments such as “This is your car:  This is your car on drugs.”  The same day, Becker also posted pictures of a dealership sales event.  Becker and other salespersons disagreed with the General Sales Manager’s choice of food and beverages for the event, including hot dogs and chips.  Becker posted pictures of the other salespersons with the food and beverages, as well as several comments on his Facebook page, such as:

The small 8 oz bag of chips, and the $2.00 cookie plate from Sam’s Club, and the semi fresh apples and oranges were such a nice touch…but to top it all off…the Hot Dog Cart.  Where our clients could attain a over cooked wiener and a stale bunn [sic]…

Although both posts were made on the same day, managers of the dealership testified that Becker’s employment was terminated because “[he] had satirized a very serious car accident that occurred at our Land Rover facility on his Facebook page by posting pictures of the accident accompanied by rude and sarcastic remarks about the incident.”

The ALJ held that the termination for the posting of the accident was lawful because the posting did not amount to protected or concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  Rather, Becker posted it “apparently as a lark, without any discussion with any other employee of the Respondent and [it] had no connection to any of the employees’ terms and conditions of employment.”

On the other hand, the ALJ opined that had the dealership terminated Becker’s employment for the Facebook postings regarding the sales event, the termination would have been unlawful.  According to the ALJ, the sales event posting constituted protected concerted activity that could have affected Becker’s compensation.  Although unlikely, a customer may have been “turned off” by the food offered at the event and may not have purchased a car or may have given the salesperson a lower rating.  Further, Becker and another salesperson both spoke up during a meeting about what they considered to be the inadequacies of the food being offered at the event and salespersons also discussed the subject after the meeting.  Although only Becker complained about it on his Facebook page, the ALJ equated Becker’s posting to an individual employee bringing a group complaint to the attention of management, which is protected concerted activity.  The ALJ concluded, however, that Becker had been terminated for the first, unprotected posting and not the second, protected posting.

The ALJ then considered charges regarding certain policies in the dealership’s Employee Handbook.  The ALJ upheld the dealership’s “Bad Attitude” policy, which mandated that employees “display a positive attitude toward their job” because it protected the relationship between the dealership and its customers.  The ALJ held, however, that a policy entitled “Courtesy,” which prohibited employees from being “disrespectful,” was overly broad, as “[d]efining due respect, in the context of union activity, seems inherently subjective.”  The ALJ also held that two other policies entitled “Unauthorized Interviews,” and “Outside Inquiries Concerning Employees” were also overly broad as employees “would not be able to discuss their working conditions with union representatives, lawyers or Board agents.”

Although the dealership previously notified its employees that the Employee Handbook policies at issue were rescinded and the dealership did not commit any other unfair labor practices, the ALJ nonetheless held the rescission to be insufficient.  The ALJ faulted the employer for not providing further explanation about the rescission to its employees and found the rescission inadequate to inform employees that the dealership would not interfere with their rights.  The dealership was ordered to post a notice informing employees of their rights to form, join or assist a union, among other things, and that the dealership would not interfere with employees’ rights.

Although the ALJ upheld the employment termination, this case provides examples of what may be considered to be protected, concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA, in connection not only with social media policies and practices, but Employee Handbook policies in general.  For further information see Act Now Advisory: Helpful Guidance Summarizing the National Labor Relations Board’s Position on Social Media Issues: Two Reports and One Decision.

by Steven M. Swirsky and Michael F. McGahan

On Thursday, August 18, 2011, the Acting General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) issued a report on the outcome of 14 cases involving employees’ use of social media or social media policies in general. This report follows a more expansive “Survey of Social Media Issues Before the NLRB” issued by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on August 5, 2011, which addresses 129 cases involving social media reviewed by the NLRB at some level. Further, after these reports were published, an NLRB administrative law judge (“ALJ”) issued the first decision of its kind – finding that terminating employees for using social media to express concerns about the workplace violates the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or “Act”).

Read together, those two reports and that ALJ decision begin to give employers some guidance on reacting to the use of social media by their employees, and on developing social media policies. Most of the cases covered in the reports are at early stages of investigation or litigation, or were settled. Thus, the NLRB’s position may evolve further as cases are decided on fully developed records.

Generally, the cases reported on fall into two categories: (1) claims that employees have been retaliated against in violation of the NLRA as a result of statements made about their employers or working conditions on or in any of the wide variety of social media channels available, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogs, podcasts, and the like; and (2) claims that an employer’s social media policy violates the NLRA because its prohibitions may “chill” employees in the exercise their rights under the Act.

Read the full advisory online