Our colleagues  at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Hospitality Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “New Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave Launches Website, Issues First Round of Guidance.”

Following is an excerpt:

The brand-new Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave (“DFML”) has launched its webpage and issued the first set of guidance for both employers and employees. The DFML was created to help facilitate the implementation of Massachusetts’ new Paid Family and Medical Leave programs (“PFML”). The deadline for employers to start making contributions toward the PFML programs is July 1, 2019, and employees may begin receiving benefits beginning on January 1, 2021.

The DFML’s first set of guidance provides comprehensive FAQ documents, one for employers and one for employees. …

Read the full post here.

As those of you who have followed my thoughts on the state of the website accessibility legal landscape over the years are well aware, businesses in all industries continue to face an onslaught of demand letters and state and federal court lawsuits (often on multiple occasions, at times in the same jurisdiction) based on the concept that a business’ website is inaccessible to individuals with disabilities.  One of the primary reasons for this unfortunate situation is the lack of regulations or other guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) which withdrew long-pending private sector website accessibility regulations late last year.  Finally, after multiple requests this summer from bi-partisan factions of Members Congress, DOJ’s Office of Legislative Affairs recently issued a statement clarifying DOJ’s current position on website accessibility.  Unfortunately, for those hoping that DOJ’s word would radically alter the playing field and stem the endless tide of litigations, the substance of DOJ’s response makes that highly unlikely.

DOJ’s long-awaited commentary makes two key points:

  1. DOJ continues to take the position that the ADA applies to public accommodations’ websites, explaining that this interpretation is consistent with the ADA’s overarching civil rights obligations; and
  2. Absent the adoption of specific technical requirements for websites through rulemaking, public accommodations have flexibility in determining how to comply with the ADA’s general requirements of nondiscrimination and effective communication.

This line of reasoning is similar to that adopted in judicial decisions holding that while the ADA’s overarching civil rights obligations apply to websites, it would be inappropriate to specifically require compliance with WCAG 2.0/2.1, without the WCAG having been officially adopted by the government as a required standard.  Of course, as those cases note, DOJ’s position begs the question, if a business has to make the goods and services offered on its website accessible to individuals with disabilities how else can it provide for “full and equal enjoyment” and/or “effective communication” if the business does not otherwise offer a website in substantial conformance with WCAG 2.0/2.1.  Indeed, DOJ’s views on this issue stops far from providing businesses with an ironclad defense.  While DOJ explains that public accommodations have “flexibility” in determining how to comply with the ADA’s requirements it also cautions that, “…noncompliance with a voluntary technical standard for website accessibility does not necessarily indicate noncompliance with the ADA.” (emphasis added)  By way of example, a select number of cases have contemplated the validity of offering telephone service as an alternative to an accessible website (something DOJ had also previously considered during the since abandoned rulemaking process), with several courts expressing doubt that the availability, speed, and thoroughness of such a telephone service could ever fully equal that of the independently usable accessible website.  With that in mind, any employer looking to establish that it provides a viable alternative to an accessible website would have to be prepared to engage in a significant amount of litigation to prove the viability/accessibility of its alternative offering.

In concluding its response, DOJ seemingly passes the onus for resolving these issues back onto Congress, noting, “Given Congress’ ability to provide greater clarity through the legislative process, we look forward to working with you to continue these efforts [to address the risk of litigation on covered entities].”  Of course, given the number of higher profile matter currently confronting both DOJ and Congress, it would not be surprising if promulgating new website accessibility legislation/regulation will not be high on their lists.

On January 1, 2019, the length of paid leave and amount of weekly benefits under the New York Paid Family Leave Act (“NY PFL”) are scheduled to increase, the first of three yearly increases. The NY PFL, which took effect earlier this year, allows employees to collect up to a maximum of eight weeks of benefits within a 52-consecutive week period. In 2018, employees are eligible to earn 50% of their average weekly salary, up to a cap set at 50% of the state average weekly wage. Currently, the NY PFL benefits has been calculated based on the 2016 New York State average weekly wage, which is $1,305.92 per week. Thus, the maximum benefit amount in 2018 is $652.96 per week.

Beginning on or after January 1, 2019, leaves of absence taken under the NY PFL will increase to a maximum of 10 weeks of benefits within a 52-consecutive week period. The benefit amount will also increase to 55% of an employee’s average weekly salary, up to a cap set at 55% of the state average weekly wage. In 2019, the NY PFL benefits will be calculated based on the 2017 New York State average weekly wage, which is $1,357.11. The new maximum weekly benefit in 2019 will be $746.41 per week.

An employee’s payroll contribution toward NY PFL is also scheduled to increase beginning on January 1, 2019. The deduction amount will increase to 0.153% of an employee’s weekly salary, at an annual contribution amount less than the cap of $107.97. This is an increase from the 2018 deduction amounts, which were 0.126% of an employee’s weekly salary, with an annual contribution cap of $85.56.

As a reminder, beginning on January 1, 2020, the maximum length of leave will stay at 10 weeks, but the benefits will be calculated based on 60% of an employee’s average weekly wage, up to a cap set at 60% of the state average weekly wage. On January 1, 2021, the last of the annual increases will be set. Then, the maximum length of leave will increase to 12 weeks in a 52-consecutive week period and benefits will be payable based on 67% of an employee’s average weekly wage, up to a cap set at 67% of the state average weekly wage.

The New York City Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) recently issued a 146-page guide titled “Legal Enforcement Guidance on Discrimination on the Basis of Disability” (“Guidance”) to educate employers and other covered entities on their responsibilities to job applicants and employees with respect to both preventing disability discrimination and accommodating disabilities. The New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”) defines “disability discrimination” more broadly than does state or federal disability law, and the Guidance is useful in understanding how the Commission will be interpreting and enforcing the law.

The basic principles of the NYCHRL’s prohibition against disability discrimination are as follows:

  1. Employers may not discriminate against a qualified job applicant or employee on the basis of an actual or perceived physical or mental disability;
  2. Employers may not discriminate against an applicant or employee based upon his or her association with an individual with an actual or perceived disability;
  3. Employers must provide applicants and employees, upon their request, with a reasonable accommodation to perform the essential duties of the job, if the disability is known or should have been known by the employer, unless, among other reasons doing so would result in undue hardship; and
  4. The cooperative dialogue law, which becomes effective October 15, 2018, will require employers to engage in and document a “cooperative dialogue” with a person who has requested an accommodation or who the employer “has notice may require such an accommodation.” As the Guidance makes clear, the Commission generally construes these four tenets and the myriad employer responsibilities they embody liberally. For example, as set forth in the chart below, the NYCHRL prohibits a wide range of conduct.

Prohibited Conduct under NYCHRL

Prohibited Conduct Definition Example(s)
Disparate Treatment Treating a job applicant or employee with a disability or perceived disability differently from other applicants or employees without a disability. Refusal to hire an otherwise qualified applicant as a sales clerk because the individual has a speech impediment (assuming the applicant can still be easily understood).

 

Harassment A single or repeated incident that “creates an environment or reflects or fosters a culture or atmosphere of stereotyping, degradation, humiliation, bias, or objectification,” of an individual because of his or her actual or perceived disability. Under the NYCHRL, the severity or pervasiveness of the harassment is only relevant to damages. A supervisor calls an employee who has cerebral palsy a “spaz,” and states that he would not have hired him or her if he knew that the employee’s disability was “this bad.”
Discriminatory Policies/Practices Policies or practices that exclude workers with disabilities from whole job categories or specific positions without an individualized assessment of the candidate and the essential requisites of the job, unless the employer can demonstrate a legitimate non-discriminatory justification for the exclusion policy.

 

A policy that requires employees to be “100%” healed to return to work and that does not allow for consideration of a reasonable accommodation. (An employer cannot require an employee with a disability “to have no medical restrictions if the employee is able to perform his job with or without a reasonable accommodation.”)

 

Actions Based on Stereotypes and Assumptions Reliance on stereotypes or assumptions when taking adverse action, without regard to an individual’s specific ability or circumstance. Refusal to hire an applicant:

Who uses a wheelchair, because of concerns that the applicant may be unable to attend off-site meetings; or

Whose cancer is in remission, because of concerns that the cancer will recur.

 

Neutral Policies that Have a Disparate Impact

 

Policies or practices that are facially neutral, but more harshly affect one group, unless the policy or practice bears “a significant relationship to a significant business objective of the employer.” “No fault” absence or maximum leave policies;

A policy that, without exceptions, penalizes employees who exceed a permissible amount of sick leave.

Associational Discrimination Taking adverse action against individuals who associate with people who have disabilities based on unfounded stereotypes and assumptions.

 

Firing an employee who volunteers as an aide to people who are HIV-positive out of fear that the employee will contract the disease;

Refusing to hire an applicant with a disabled child because of concerns that the applicant may be an unreliable employee.

Disability Inquiries: What May Employers Ask Applicants and Employees?

 Applicants

The NYCHRL prohibits job postings, applications, interviews, and other selection processes that “directly or indirectly suggest an intent to discriminate” based on disability. For example, employers should not ask an applicant if he or she has or has had a disability, or inquire as to the details of the applicant’s disability. Nor should an employer request medical documentation regarding a disability. The Guidance also cautions employers against adopting a range of practices and policies, from height and weight standards to employment tests, unless the job requirement for which the criterion or test is being used is significantly related to an important business objective.

However, employers may require an applicant to take or pass a medical exam or test after the applicant receives a conditional offer of employment, as long as this requirement is applied consistently to all prospective employees, the test is job-related, and it is not used to screen out individuals with a disability.

The Guidance also cautions employers against asking applicants questions concerning gaps in their work history, “as this may lead to inquiries relating to an applicant’s disability,” or the disability of an individual with whom the applicant is associated.

To avoid potentially improper questions, the Guidance advises employers to focus their application and interview inquiries on the applicant’s ability to perform “the essential requisites of the job, with or without an accommodation,” and to present such questions in a “yes or no” format.

Finally, the Guidance reminds employers that they are required to provide reasonable accommodations to prospective employees during the application and interview processes, such as screen-reading software for a visually impaired applicant.

Employees

Generally, an employer should avoid inquiries into an employee’s disability or perceived disability unless the employee makes a request for a reasonable accommodation or the employer “has notice” of the disability, for example, where a job applicant arrives for an interview in a wheelchair, or an employee shows up for work one day using crutches or wearing a hearing aid. However, within narrowly defined parameters, an employer may inquire about an employee’s disability or require a medical exam when an employee who has been on medical leave wants to return to work. With the focus of any such inquiry limited to information that is necessary to assess the employee’s ability to work, an employer may inquire about the employee’s disability if the employer:

Has reason to believe the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions is impaired;

Is concerned that the employee will pose a direct threat to the safety of him/herself or others; or

Engages in a “cooperative dialogue” to determine whether and what kind of an accommodation should be provided for the employee.

Notably, employers may require all employees to undergo periodic medical examinations, but only if the policy is uniformly applied, the exam is “narrowly focused” on assessing the employees’ ability to perform their job functions, and the test is administered in the same manner to all employees.

New York City Law on Requests for Reasonable Accommodation

Under the NYCHRL, all requested accommodations are presumed to be reasonable. As a result, an applicant or employee need not prove that the requested accommodation: (1) is necessary; (2) does not pose an undue hardship to the employer; or (3) is readily feasible. However, an employer can require medical documentation to support a request for an accommodation, although it cannot require a specific type of documentation.

To overcome the presumption of reasonableness, an employer must show that: (i) there is no accommodation that would enable the applicant or employee to perform the essential duties of the job; (ii) the proposed accommodation would impose “undue hardship” on the employer; or (iii) the applicant or employee was offered and rejected a different accommodation that was reasonable. The mere fact that the accommodation will cause the employer to incur an expense does not constitute undue burden. Rather, the Commission weighs the cost involved in the context of other considerations, including the size of the employer and the duration for which the accommodation is needed.

Further, the NYCHRL imposes a duty on employers to provide reasonable accommodations to applicants and employees both when the disability is known and when the employer should have known about the disability, even if the applicant or employee did not request an accommodation. If the employer suspects or should suspect that the individual may need an accommodation, the employer should not ask the individual if he or she has a disability. Rather, the employer should “ask if there is anything going on that the employer can help with” and inform the person of the support services provided by the employer to individuals with disabilities.

The Guidance instructs employers to assess requests for a reasonable accommodation on a case-by-case basis, and offers some specific suggestions for reasonably accommodating the needs of a disabled applicant or employee. For example, employers can make their online application process accessible to individuals with visual impairments, or allow an employee with anxiety to bring his or her service dog to the office. Employers can also provide a quieter workspace to reduce noisy distractions for an employee with a mental health condition.

The Guidance also discusses leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation. It advises that a paid or unpaid leave of absence is an appropriate accommodation mostly “in circumstances in which no other accommodation can be made,” or where, under the facts of the situation, it is the “preferred” accommodation. The Commission advises that, absent special circumstances, an employer should seek an accommodation that allows an employee to remain working.

Finally, the Guidance encourages employers to include information on their reasonable accommodation policies and processes in an employee handbook.

Compliance

Employers should review current policies and practices, including application forms and accommodation request forms, to ensure that they are consistent with the Guidance, particularly with respect to the procedures and documentation requirements under the new “cooperative dialogue” law. Additionally, employers should update employee handbooks to reflect any modifications in company practices concerning accommodation and the cooperative dialogue process. Employers also should train managers and supervisors on their obligations with respect to avoiding disability discrimination and following the reasonable accommodation process, including the substantive and documentation requirements imposed under the cooperative dialogue law.

Finally, employers should ensure that Human Resources and supervisory personnel understand the potential interplay of the cooperative dialogue law with another recently enacted statute – the Temporary Schedule Change for Personal Events Law – which became effective on July 18, 2018. Many requests for accommodation involving proposed changes to the hours or location of work will implicate both laws, and will require the employer to document the requests and employer responses in a particular manner.

This post was written with assistance from Alison Gabay, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Our colleagues   at Epstein Becker Green have a resent post on the Wage and Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to our readers in the retail industry: “California Supreme Court’s Clarification of De Minimis Doctrine Leaves Many Questions Unanswered – and Does Little to Ease Plaintiffs’ Path to Class Certification.”

On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, ostensibly clarifying the application of the widely adopted de minimis doctrine to California’s wage-hour laws. But while the Court rejected the application of the de minimis rule under the facts presented to it, the Court did not reject the doctrine outright. Instead, it left many questions unanswered.

And even while it rejected the application of the rule under the facts presented, it did not address a much larger question – whether the highly individualized issues regarding small increments of time allegedly worked “off the clock” could justify certification of a class on those claims. …

Read the full post here.

The expiration date for the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) model Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) notice and medical certification forms has once again been extended. The new expiration date is now August 31, 2018. Expiration dates are located at the top right corner of the model FMLA forms.

The DOL’s model FMLA notices and certification forms were originally due to expire on May 31, 2018, then again on June 30, 2018, and the DOL has again pushed the expiration date, now to the end of August, from the July 31, 2018 expiration date. Once approved by the Federal Office of Management and Budget, the new FMLA forms will be valid through 2021.

As previously posted, we will continue to monitor the DOL’s website and post any further developments on an extension of the current forms or issuance of new forms.

This post was written with assistance from Alison Gabay, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

A legislative bargain requires give-and-take from all stakeholders. On June 28, 2018, Massachusetts Governor Baker signed House Bill 4640, “An Act Relative to Minimum Wage, Paid Family Medical Leave, and the Sales Tax Holiday” (the “Act”). This “grand bargain” gradually raises the minimum wage, provides for paid family and medical leave, makes permanent the Commonwealth’s annual tax holiday, and phases out Sunday and holiday premium pay requirements. While Massachusetts employers must now adjust to an increased minimum wage and new paid family medical leave program, retailers with eight or more employees may see those costs mitigated by the gradual elimination of Sunday and holiday premium pay mandates.

Currently, Massachusetts retailers must provide premium pay of 1.5 times the regular hourly rate to non-exempt employees who work on Sundays or certain holidays designated by state law. The holidays covered by the premium pay laws are New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day. The premium pay requirements do not apply to employees who are exempt from overtime pay mandates under Massachusetts law, specifically executive, administrative, and professional employees who earn more than $200 per week.

The Act will reduce, and ultimately remove, Massachusetts’ Blue Law premium pay requirement in accordance with the following schedule:

Effective Date Premium Pay Rate
January 1, 2019 One and four-tenths (1.4)
January 1, 2020 One and three-tenths (1.3)
January 1, 2021 One and two-tenths (1.2)
January 1, 2022 One and one-tenth (1.1)
January 1, 2023 No premium pay

Though covered employers will no longer be required to offer premium pay for Sunday and holiday work, the other provisions in the Blue Law remain unchanged. As such, retail employers may not require employees to work on Sundays or holidays, nor may employers discriminate or take adverse action against employees who refuse to work such shifts.

The phase out of premium pay is intended to provide relief for retailers; however, it also appears to create a subtle complication that may raise costs for Massachusetts retailers over the next four years. Under federal and state law, employers must pay non-exempt employees one-and-one-half premium pay for all hours worked over 40 in a week. Premium pay for work on Sundays and holidays may be creditable toward overtime compensation, but only if it is at least one-and-a-half times that employee’s “regular rate” of pay for the given workweek.

The “grand bargain” legislation thus reduces premium pay below this one-and-one-half-times threshold, such that it is no longer excluded from the overtime pay calculation, and therefore, the Massachusetts premium pay can no longer be used to satisfy the federal and state overtime pay requirements. As such, if an employee works more than 40 hours in the workweek, and some of those hours fall on a Sunday or qualified holiday, Massachusetts retailers may be required to provide the employee with both (1) the Sunday or holiday premium, and (2) overtime (above and beyond the premium pay already provided). To further complicate matters, the premium pay received for time worked on the Sunday or holiday will need to be incorporated into the employee’s regular rate of pay, which will affect the calculation of the employee’s overtime rate of pay. Note also that employees’ entitlement to decline Sunday/holiday work (and not be retaliated against) stays in effect as part of the grand bargain. It remains to be seen whether this fact, when considered along with the elimination of premium pay, will impact the number of employees willing to work on Sundays/holidays.

While state lawmakers may choose to revise the statute as it pertains to this complication, overall, the elimination of premium pay should still come as a welcome relief to many Massachusetts retailers, especially those directly competing with stores across the border in New Hampshire. Given that the first reduction in pay is set to take effect in a matter of months, covered employers should notify their employees about the reduction, ensure overtime calculations comply with federal and state laws, and confirm payroll systems are updated to reflect these changes.

This post was written with assistance from Eric I. Emanuelson, Jr., a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) model Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) notices and medical certification forms expire on July 31, 2018. However, the new model forms have not yet been released. The current FMLA forms were originally due to expire on May 31, 2018, but the expiration date was first extended to June 30, 2018 and then to July 31, 2018.

Every three years, the DOL must obtain approval for continued use of its forms from the Federal Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”). Once the OMB approves the new model FMLA forms, they will be valid through 2021. Employers can continue to use the current forms, but they should be aware of the upcoming expiration date and check the DOL’s website periodically for the updated forms. Expiration dates are located at the top right corner of the model FMLA forms.

We will continue to monitor the DOL’s website and post any further developments on an extension of the current forms or issuance of new ones.

This post was written with assistance from Alison Gabay, a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Yesterday, the New York Attorney General (“NYAG”) announced a settlement with national retailer Aldo Group Inc. (“Aldo”) for violation of New York City’s ban the box law, which, among other things, prohibits employers from inquiring into a prospective employee’s criminal history on an initial employment application. The NYAG’s investigation revealed that (i) Aldo’s employment applications impermissibly inquired into the applicant’s criminal history and (ii) Aldo lacked consistent policies and procedures for evaluating the criminal records of applicants and employees, leading store-level managerial employees to believe they had wide latitude in how they could consider the criminal records of applicants and that they could bar applicants with a felony conviction from employment.

Under the settlement terms, Aldo will pay a $120,000 fine to New York State, modify their employment applications to bring them into compliance with New York’s ban the box law, create new policies and training to ensure that its stores individually assess applicants’ criminal histories at the appropriate point in the application process, and report the company’s remediation to the NYAG.

This is the first ban the box settlement reached by the NYAG in 2018, but the fifth such settlement overall. In 2017, the NYAG settled with Marshalls and Big Lots, as reported here.

This settlement should serve as another wake-up call to businesses operating in New York to bring their pre-hiring practices into compliance with New York’s ban the box law. The NYAG’s enforcement efforts are likely to continue and the costs of noncompliance are steep.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: NJ Senate Advances Ban on Sex Harassment Confidentiality Agreements.

The New Jersey Senate wants no more secrecy around harassment claims. On a 34-to-1 vote, the chamber approved legislation banning confidentiality agreements involving sexual harassment claims. The bill is still pending in the House, where a vote is expected in the next few weeks. The legislation would also allow victims to keep their identities confidential and would establish jurisdiction in Superior Court, arguably bypassing arbitration agreements.

Watch the segment below.