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.

On December 20, 2017, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a bi-partisan bill that effectively makes asking about expunged criminal records off-limits during the initial employment application process.

The law, an amendment to the New Jersey Opportunity to Compete Act (“OTCA”), generally referred to as the “Ban the Box” law, applies to employers with 15 or more employees over 20 calendar weeks who do business, employ persons, or take applications for employment within New Jersey. The OTCA generally prohibits employers from making any oral or written inquiry about an applicant’s criminal background during the initial employment application process.

The amendment, which became effective with signing, goes farther. Now, covered employers are barred from seeking information about the current and expunged criminal records of applicants during the early stages of the employment application process. In addition to barring employers from making oral or written inquiries, the amendment also bars employers from doing online searches for an applicant’s criminal record or expunged criminal record.

In New Jersey, individuals who have been convicted of a prior criminal offense up to and including certain felony offenses may apply to the New Jersey Superior Court to have their record expunged. An individual who was convicted for an indictable offense may present an expungement application after 6 years from the date of his or her most recent conviction, payment of fine, satisfactory completion of probation or parole, or release from incarceration. For disorderly persons offenses and petty disorderly persons offenses an individual may present the expungement application after the expiration of a period of 5 years from the date of his or her most recent conviction, payment of fine, satisfactory completion of probation or release from incarceration. The waiting period to expunge juvenile record is decreased from 5 to 3 years.

Employers may ask about criminal records and any expungements after the initial employment application process. Currently, NJ law does not prohibit employers from refusing to hire an individual because of his or her criminal history. However, under the amendment, employers may not refuse to hire an applicant because of a criminal record that has been expunged or erased through executive pardon, unless the refusal is consistent with other applicable laws, rules and regulations.

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.

Ever since the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued its August 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., holding two entities may be joint employers if one exercises either direct or indirect control over the terms and conditions of the other’s employees or reserves the right to do so, the concept of joint employment has generated increased interest from plaintiffs’ attorneys, and increased concern from employers. Questions raised by the New York Court of Appeals in a recent oral argument, however, indicate that employers who engage another company’s workers on an independent contractor basis would be wise to guard against another potential form of liability, for aiding and abetting acts that violate various anti-discrimination statutes, including both the New York State (“NYSHRL”) and New York City Human Rights Laws (“NYCHRL”) and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”).

On March 28, 2017, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in Griffin v. Sirva, Inc., to answer three questions that had been certified by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit: (1) does the NYSHRL’s prohibition of employment discrimination based on workers’ criminal records limit liability to an aggrieved party’s “employer”; (2) if so, is the scope of the term “employer” limited to a worker’s direct employer, or does it include other entities who exercise a significant level of control over the direct employer’s discrimination policies and practices; and (3) does the portion of the NYSHRL that prohibits aiding and abetting the discriminatory acts of another apply to a non-New York entity that requires its New York agent to discriminate in employment based on a worker’s criminal history.

Griffin illustrates a concern faced by employers in a variety of industries, who subcontract certain types of work to employees of a separate business entity on an independent contractor basis. Among other tasks, companies may engage contractors to provide cleaning services, security, delivery of goods, installation of purchases or, as in Griffin, packing and moving services.  Such subcontracted services may be performed in a variety of settings, ranging from the company’s premises to its customers’ homes.  With increasing concerns regarding workplace violence, companies often choose to conduct their own criminal background checks on these contract workers, either personally or through an outside vendor, in an attempt to protect the company’s employees, customers, and property. This concern is particularly heightened when, as in Griffin, the contract workers in question will be performing services in the homes of a company’s customers.

In these types of scenarios, a question often arises regarding whether the company that engaged the contractors can be liable for violating state or city laws prohibiting discrimination based on criminal convictions, by virtue of requiring the background check, even though that company was not the workers’ direct employer. In resolving this question, courts typically rely on the concept of joint employment, analyzing the extent to which the company is involved in the hiring or firing of the contractors, or in exerting control over their working conditions. Presumably anticipating this sort of analysis, the parties in Griffin (including the State of New York, which filed an amicus curiae brief and was permitted to participate in oral argument) focused their briefing and arguments on whether a company that performs background checks on its contract workers should be deemed an employer under the NYSHRL.  Through its questions at oral argument, however, the court appeared to indicate that there may be a simpler resolution in this type of case, which does not require addressing the complex question of whether the company requiring the background checks is the workers’ employer or joint employer.

In addition to directly prohibiting discrimination based on criminal history, the NYSHRL states that it is “an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person to aid, abet, incite, compel or coerce the doing of any of the acts forbidden under [the NYSHRL], or to attempt to do so.” “Person” is defined as including “one or more individuals, partnerships, associations, corporations, legal representatives, trustees, trustees in bankruptcy, or receivers.” Based on this expansive language, several judges seemed to indicate that the NYSHRL’s “aiding and abetting” provision was sufficiently broad to encompass third parties who conduct background checks on contractors, regardless of whether such entities would otherwise be considered the contract workers’ employer or joint employer.  Assuming the “aiding and abetting” provision covers such conduct, multiple judges noted that imposing liability under that provision would be simpler than wrestling with the joint employment issue.  Further, the judges expressed concern that expanding liability under the main section of the NYSHRL to non-employers would render the “aiding and abetting” provision superfluous.

While it is premature to predict how the Court of Appeals may ultimately rule in Griffin, particularly given the recent unexpected death of one of the court’s seven members, Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, companies who engage workers on an independent contractor basis should be aware that potential joint employment issues may not be their only concern with regard to such workers. Regardless of whether a company exerts sufficient control over its contract workers to be deemed a joint employer, if the company operates in a jurisdiction whose anti-discrimination laws allow for “aiding and abetting” liability, that provision may serve as an alternative basis of potential liability for a company that conducts criminal background checks on contract workers engaged through a separate business entity.  Specifically, because the NYSHRL, NYCHRL, and NJLAD each include broad provisions that prohibit any person or entity from aiding, abetting, inciting, compelling, or coercing any acts that violate those laws, businesses that operate in New York State, New York City, or New Jersey should ensure that any background check requirement imposed on another entity’s workers complies with all applicable “ban-the-box” and anti-discrimination laws (e.g., NY State Correction Law Article 23-A, the NYC Fair Chance Act, and the NJ Opportunity to Compete Act), in order to avoid potential liability under the applicable “aiding and abetting” provisions in those jurisdictions.

California’s Fair Employment & Housing Council has finalized and adopted new regulations to establish criteria for the use and consideration of criminal history information in employment decisions where such use may constitute a violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The new regulations take effect July 1, 2017, and are available here and on the Council’s website.  The regulations are intended to clarify, outline and maintain consistency between the laws governing the consideration of criminal history information in employment decisions.

The regulations reiterate existing prohibitions on the use of criminal history information and also require employers to demonstrate a business necessity, in addition to job-relatedness, for requesting a criminal history if the policy or practice of considering criminal history information creates an adverse impact on applicants or employees based on certain protected classes. Applicants and employees bear the initial burden of demonstrating that the policy or practice has an adverse impact on a protected class.  If this showing is made, the burden shifts to the employer to establish that the policy is justifiable because it is job-related and consistent with business necessity. To do so, the employer must demonstrate that the policy or practice is appropriately tailored, taking into account several factors including: (i) the nature and gravity  of the offense or conduct; (ii) the passage of time; and (iii) the nature of the position held or sought.  Even if an employer can demonstrate job-relatedness and consistency with business necessity, an applicant or employee may still bring a claim if he or she can show that there is a less discriminatory alternative available to advance the employer’s legitimate concerns.

Retail employers in California should review their policies and practices to ensure that their use of criminal history information complies with the new regulations. Employers are also reminded of their obligation to comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 et seq., and the California Investigative Consumer Reporting Agencies Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 1786 et seq.

On December 9, 2016, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed ordinances no. 184652 and 184653, collectively referred to as the “Fair Chance Initiative.” These ordinances prohibit employers and City contractors (collectively “Employers”), respectively, from inquiring about job seekers’ criminal convictions until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. Both ordinances will go into effect on January 22, 2017 and will impact all employers in the City of Los Angeles and for every position which requires an employee to work at least an average of two hours per week within the City of Los Angeles and all City contractors and subcontractors, regardless of their location.

No Criminal Inquiry Until After Offer

Specifically, these ordinances prohibit Employers from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history, at any time or in any manner, unless and until a Conditional Offer of Employment has been made to the applicant. Following the Conditional Offer of Employment, Employers are permitted to request information regarding the applicant’s criminal history. However, Employers can only withdraw or cancel the conditional offer as a result of the applicant’s criminal history after engaging in the “Fair Chance Process.”

New “Fair Chance Process” Required

The “Fair Chance Process” requires Employers to prepare a written assessment highlighting the specific aspects of the applicant’s criminal history that pose an inherent conflict with the duties of the position sought by the applicant. Employers must provide the applicant with written notification of the proposed withdrawal of the conditional offer, a copy of the written assessment regarding the risks posed by the applicant’s criminal history, and any other relevant documentation. The applicant is then given an opportunity to provide the Employer a response to the written assessment, including any supporting documentation. Employers must wait at least 5 business days after the applicant is informed of the proposed withdrawal before taking any action, including filling the position for which the applicant applied.

New Posting and Recordkeeping Requirements

Additionally, Employers’ job postings must now include a notice stating that they will consider all qualified applicants regardless of their criminal histories, in compliance with these ordinances. Employers must also conspicuously post a notice regarding the “Fair Chance Initiative” in a location in the workplace visible to all job applicants; this notice must also be sent to each union or workers’ group with which the employers have any agreement that governs over employees. Further, Employers must retain all job application documents for three years. Penalties for violations of these ordinances may be assessed at up to $500 for the first violation, up to $1,000 for the second violation, and up to $2,000 for subsequent violations. The City may then, at its discretion, distribute a maximum of $500 from that penalty directly to the applicant. The penalty provision of the ordinances will not go into effect for employers in Los Angeles City until July 1, 2017. However, the penalty provision for City contractors is effective immediately.

Exceptions from these ordinances include: (1) employers who are required by law to seek a job applicant’s criminal history; (2) positions for which an applicant would be required to possess or use a firearm; (3) positions which, by law, cannot be held by an individual with a criminal history; and (4) employers who are prohibited, by law, from hiring persons with criminal convictions.

Employers with operations in the City of Los Angeles should:

  1. Remove questions regarding criminal history from job applications;
  2. Ensure future job postings include required equal employment notices;
  3. Defer inquiries regarding criminal history until making conditional job offers; and
  4. Ensure the Fair Chance Process is followed before denying employment based on criminal history.