Welcome Pennsylvania and New Jersey employers.

Settle in and read on for easy-to-navigate, clear and concise summaries of the employment-law landscape in PA and NJ. Plus, we highlight the latest legal trends and changes in the law. You can even improve the way you and your employees conduct business with our featured guest commentary and insights from other management-side employment lawyers and human resources professionals.

This isn't your average blog; this is The Employer Handbook. Read it cover to cover.

July 7, 2014

Why employee use of social media "off the clock" may still impact your workplace

socialcollage.jpegA few weeks, ago I was speaking about social media and the workplace to a fabulous audience at the 2014 SHRM Annual Conference and Expo. (Email me if you want a copy of my slidedeck).

One of my session themes was that there is no such thing as employees using social media "off the clock." That is, even if an individual tweets or updates her Facebook status outside of the four walls of the workplace, that communication can still impact the workplace.

Dan Davis at IBM Social Business recently blogged about this, and another Twitter user described it as the "24/7 social media conundrum" Two recent incidents described below bear this out.

The complaining waitress and poor tipper, who just happens to be the waitress's Facebook friend.

First, is comes this report of a waitress at the Texas Roadhouse, who, on her own personal time, took to Facebook to complain about customer tips. For this outburst, she was fired.

The article, which is framed in terms of the employee's supposed "First Amendment Rights" cites criticism of the restaurant for taking action against the waitress, ostensibly because she should have the right to complain (or not complain) freely about her working conditions.

However, before you go an sympathetic on me, I should mention that it's not as if the employer were twisting it's proverbial handlebar mustache as it monitored social media for workplace gripes from employees.

No, in this case, the waitress stupidly complained on Facebook about a tip from an "a**hole" customer ... who happened to be one of her Facebook friends! The Facebook friend showed the post to the restaurant manager, which in turn, led to the waitress's termination.

Folks, this is no different than if the waitress had called the customer as a**hole -- to her face. Actually, it is, because not only did the waitress embarrass her Facebook friend, a customer of the restaurant, she did so publicly.

That's a terminable offense. Period.

The Opie and Anthony Show.

As a big Howard Stern fan -- Bababooey! -- I can't say that I'm too broken up over the news from last week that SiriusXM fired Anthony Cumia, of the Opie and Anthony Show following a vulgar, violent, racist, sexist Twitter tirade.

(Gawker has a NSFW recap here).

Yes, Mr. Cumia spewed on his own time. However, what was clearly not schtick, went very viral and became very public. So, SiriusXM decided that the was not the type of person it wanted to continue to employ.

Ignore "off the clock" social media rants at your own risk.

Do employees have the right to complain about work, either offline or online? In many circumstances, they do.

But, would you tolerate the type of behavior described in the examples above? If your response is something along the lines of "what employees do on their own time is not my concern," then, it's time to step into the 21st century. Because online communication is permanent, viral, and does not respect the brick and mortar you use to insulate your employees from the outside world.

Would you stick with a "what employees do on their own time..." line if one of your employees is offended by a Cumia-style rant read on one of your computers in your workplace?

And what if that rant was specifically intended for a co-worker? When one of your employees composes a racist tweet or a sexually-harassing Facebook post aimed at a co-worker, and the "victim" complains to a HR, it does not matter that the speech was off-the-clock. If the victim feels victimized at work, it's a workplace problem. So, treat it accordingly.

Otherwise, don't lose my number when the lawsuit gets filed.

July 3, 2014

The importance of communication during FMLA leave

Thumbnail image for fmla.jpegHow many times has an employee provided you with an incomplete Family and Medical Leave Act certification? Oh, I don't know, maybe a missing return date...

If the FMLA leave is foreseeable, then the employee must provide the employer with the anticipated timing and duration of the leave. However, where the FMLA leave is unforeseeable -- think, car crash -- then that information can wait if the employee herself doesn't know her return date.

But that doesn't mean you -- yeah, you employer -- should let it go.

[Nope, not cueing any music here, m-kay...]

Do I have a case in point? You bet I do.

Suzan Gienapp, a residential nursing care facility employee, told her manager that she needed time off to care for her daughter, who was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer. Apparently, this leave was unforeseeable.

While on leave, Ms. Gienapp mailed in an FMLA form, leaving blank a question about the expected duration for her covered leave. Although the parties debated whether the employer made a verbal request for a return date, there was no dispute that Ms. Gienapp complied with the company's monthly call-in requirements to provide updates. The parties also agree that the company never made a written request for a return date.

Ultimately, based on a statement on the FMLA paperwork that the daughter may require assistance through July 2011, the company concluded that Ms. Gienapp would not be able to return to work within the 12-week leave period. Thus, it replaced her. And when Ms. Gienapp later reported for work on March 29, before her leave would otherwise have expired, but after she had been replaced, the company told her that she no longer had a job.

Awkward!!!

FMLA violation? Assuming the truth of Ms. Gineapp's story, yep.

And here's why, according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (opinion here)

"Harbor Crest told Gienapp to call in monthly, and it is conceded that she did so....We assume therefore that Gienapp complied with Harbor Crest's policies....What seems to have happened instead is that Chattic drew an unwarranted inference from the physician's statement in the original form and confused the anticipated duration of the daughter's need for care with the anticipated duration of Gienapp's absence from work, even though these are logically distinct."

Employer takeaways

  1. Communicate. Don't just call, but write/email employees on unforeseen FMLA leave to ascertain the timing of FMLA leave and memorialize those efforts.

  2. Document. Record your efforts to communicate with employees regarding FMLA leave and return to work.

  3. Enforce. Require employees to follow your call-in rules for unforeseeable leave and, thereafter, provide periodic updates on return to work.

July 2, 2014

Dating app maker Tinder sued for, you guessed it, sexual harassment

tinder.jpgI'm often asked, "Eric, where do you find this stuff?"

Why TMZ, of course. Break 'em off TMZ:

"Whitney Wolfe claims in a new lawsuit -- obtained by TMZ -- she was mercilessly brutalized by the other execs who wanted to remove her title because no one would take a site like Tinder seriously if they knew it was founded by a 24-year-old chick.
Wolfe says one of the execs made a romantic play for her and she eventually dated him ... but it didn't end well and she claims he then waged a harassment campaign against her.
She says the guy also texted her when he found out she was interested in someone else, saying, 'I will s**t on him in life. He can enjoy my leftovers.' She says she was also talking to some Muslim men and he texted her, 'You prefer to social climb middle-aged Muslim pigs that stand for nothing.'
And Wolfe says the guy referred to one of her girlfriends as 'a liberal, lying desperate slut.'"

Here is a link to Ms. Wolfe's complaint against Tinder, and another link (here) to a press release about the complaint from the law firm representing Ms. Wolfe.

For those who don't know, Tinder describes itself (here) as "the fun way to connect with new and interesting people around you." More bluntly, TMZ describes Tinder as "an online dating app best known for hooking people up who want to bang."

It is against this backdrop that I offer a takeaway. To establish sexual harassment, one must show that, among other things, not only was he/she offended, but that a reasonable person in their shoes would have been offended by the same workplace behavior. When measuring what is offensive, the nature of the workplace matters. Indeed, what may be offensive in a law firm environment, may not be, say, in a writing meeting on the set of the television show Friends.

Still, there are limits. And just because someone works at Tinder, which apparently helps users bang, doesn't mean that she consents to being the target of nasty, insensitive comments.

So, kindly remind your employees that, no matter the environment, sexual harassment won't fly.

July 1, 2014

3 ways the #HobbyLobby decision affects your workplace

HobbyLobbyStowOhio.JPG

Mid-morning yesterday, the Internet broke shortly after the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in HHS v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc..

Jeez, I'm still cleaning out my Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook feeds.

In case your wifi, 4G, 3G, dial-up, TV, radio, and other electronics picked the wrong day to quit sniffing glue, the long and short of yesterday's Supreme Court decision is this: Smaller, closely-held (think: family-owned) companies don't have to provide Obamacare access to birth control if doing so would conflict with an employer's religious beliefs.

So, how does yesterday's decision affect your workplace? I promised you three ways, and here they are:

  1. The court's opinion creates an Obamacare exception for closely-held business. If your company isn't closely held, then there's nothing to see here.

  2. The Hobby Lobby decision does not allow employers (closely-held or otherwise) to discriminate against employees under the guise of a religious practice. In the dissent, Justice Ginsburg pondered, "Suppose an employer's sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage or according women equal pay for substantially similar work. Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?" Well, no. The majority recognized that "the Government has a compelling interest in providing an equal opportunity to participate in the work force without regard to [a protected class], and prohibitions on [discrimination] are precisely tailored to achieve that critical goal."

  3. The Court's opinion is a good reminder about religious accommodations in the workplace. Title VII requires covered employers to make reasonable accommodations for a worker's sincerely-held religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on business operations. The "sincerity" of an employee's stated religious belief is usually not in dispute. (More on that here). And, in these situations, an employer should not judge the employee's religious belief to determine whether it is plausible. Rather, the focus should usually be on whether the accommodation would impose an undue hardship -- because the burden there is rather low.


Image Credit: "HobbyLobbyStowOhio" by DangApricot - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
June 30, 2014

Black man claims a paint company's paint is racist and he was fired for complaining

paintcans.jpgThe Benjamin Moore color gallery contains, among others, Clinton Brown and Tucker Chocolate.

My virgin ears! I mean, how racist can you get?!? Or, so says Clinton Tucker, a former Benjamin Moore employee, who filed a complaint in New Jersey state court in which he alleges that these paint names are hella-racist.

According to Courthouse News Service (here), Tucker says that "being a black man named Clinton Tucker, the plaintiff found this to be extremely racially offensive."

Incidentally, Benjamin Moore also has paint colors called Tucker Orange and Tucker Gray. However, a brief search I conducted yielded no discrimination lawsuit initiated by older or fake-baking employees.

Which brings me to the point of this post, That is, to prevail on a hostile work environment claim, an employee has to show, among other things, that a reasonable person in his shoes would be offended by the same conduct with which the plaintiff takes offense.

And since no one on the face of the earth would find the paint names Tucker Chocolate and Clinton Brown to be racially offensive, then, absent other facts to support a hostile work environment based on race, I think we have a loser claim here.

And an excuse to play Color Me Badd.

*** ducks tomato ***

June 27, 2014

Supreme Court: President Obama botched those NLRB recess appointments

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Supreme Court.jpgIn a unanimous opinion delivered yesterday (here) in NLRB v. Noel Canning, the Supreme Court concluded that President Obama's so-called "recess appointments" of three of the five members of the National Labor Relations Board between the Senate's January 3 and January 6 pro forma sessions were unconstitutional.

Amy Howe from SCOTUSblog.com summarized the decision "in plain english":

"[A]ny recess that is shorter than three days is not long enough to make a recess appointment necessary. And a recess that is longer than three days but shorter than ten days will, in the normal case, also be too short to necessitate a recess appointment."
* * *
"[T]he Senate can prevent the president from making recess appointments even during its longer recesses by holding "pro forma" sessions - that is, sessions at which no work actually gets done - every three days."

So, there you have it. The net effect of this opinion is that any NLRB decision rendered with the three improperly-appointed NLRB members is void of lack of a quorum. (Previously, the Supreme Court held here that the Board is powerless to rule with less than a quorum of three members). Although, with a full quorum now, you'd expect that those case would eventually be affirmed.

For more on the Court's decision on NLRB v. Noel Canning check out:

June 26, 2014

Score? US Men's Soccer's permission slip so your employees can miss work today

I remember a high school classmate of mine who had his mom send in a permission slip to excuse him from missing school for the Philadelphia Phillies' home opener. Mom's note indicated that her son was suffering from "Vernal Flu." 

Get it? Vernal Flu = Spring Fever.

Pretty creative, huh?

The US Men's Soccer team is not impressed.

JurgenNote.jpg

Image Credit: @USSoccer on Twitter

UPDATE: Daniel Schwartz scooped me on this last night with "A Note from the U.S. Coach is a Great Idea, But Not a Good Excuse." NEWMAN!

June 25, 2014

#SHRM14 updates from the best of the bloggerati

Sorry for the late past today, gang. I had planned on putting something together last night, but, two words: sushi coma.

So, here for your enjoyment, whether you're attending the 2014 SHRM Annual Conference and Expo this year, like I am, or whether you've been following along online, is a collection of recent blog posts tracking the event:

June 24, 2014

Nooses, n-words, and confederate flags, but no discrimination #shrm14

nuclear-explosion-356108_640.jpg

Over the weekend, I read this opinion in a race-discrimination with facts so egregious, they'd make David Duke blush.

Let me set the scene for you. This is a workplace where, allegedly, several of the white employees displayed Confederate flag paraphernalia. I'll spare you a verbatim review of the racial graffiti and epithets -- you can view it here -- but, it was pretty darn bad. And what about multiple nooses in the workplace -- eight in total.

[Sidebar: I once attended a deposition of an Ivy League-educated HR Manager who testified that there was a time when she did not understand how a hangman's noose in the workplace would offend a black employee. Hubba-what?!? Folks, just so we're clear here, a hangman's noose is the single worst symbol of racial hate. Period. So eight of 'em is hella-bad!]

All that hate, but no discrimination.

There is no question that nooses, n-words, graffiti and Confederate flags are symbols of racial animus and violence. But that was not enough to convince the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate several of the race-discrimination claims that the lower court had dismissed.

Dismissed?!? Why? Because many of the plaintiffs lacked firsthand knowledge of the bad stuff.

As the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned: "an employee alleging a hostile work environment cannot complain about conduct of which he was oblivious for the purpose of proving that his work environment was objectively hostile."

In other words, an employee cannot rely on evidence of racial harassment of which he is not personally aware to prove that his work environment was objectively hostile. And while some of the plaintiffs were able to show that they were personally exposed to acts of race discrimination, the ones who relied on "me too" evidence about those incidents had their cases dismissed.

Employer wins.

Employer takeaway.

But, not really. Because, well, it probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars defending these legal actions (without factoring in the cost of paying judgments). So, for the love of God, if your workplace at all resembles the allegations presented here...

Well, you're probably not reading this blog anyway.

June 23, 2014

What HR should know about same-sex marriage and the FMLA #SHRM14

Thumbnail image for fmla.jpegFolks, I get the feeling you may be inundated with extra blog posts over the next few days.

That is, I'm punching this post out from the airport, as I await my flight to Orlando, where I'll be attending the Gathering of the Juggalos 2014 SHRM Annual Conference and Expo.

Two speaking gigs for me and lot of other conference time to listen, learn, and blog.

My first session is Tuesday, where I'll present "Meeting the Challenges That Leaves of Absence and Attendance Issues Present Under the FMLA and ADA."

So, the timing of last week's announcement from the U.S. Department of Labor couldn't have come at a better time.

(Thanks for holding off on the announcement. Let me know what you think of that bottle of 12-year I sent you).

Same-sex couple will enjoy the same FMLA rights.

The Family and Medical Leave Act permits eligible employees to take leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The FMLA defines family member as "a husband or wife as defined or recognized under State law for purposes of marriage in the State where the employee resides." So, if your employee resides in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, then that employee can take leave under the FMLA to care for a spouse with a serious health condition.

The Department proposes to define spouse as follows:

"Spouse, as defined in the statute, means a husband or wife. For purposes of this definition, husband or wife refers to the other person with whom an individual entered into marriage as defined or recognized under State law for purposes of marriage in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State. This definition includes an individual in a same-sex or common law marriage that either (1) was entered into in a State that recognizes such marriages or, (2) if entered into outside of any State, is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State."

Here's the long and short of it, under the proposed rule, all legally married couples (opposite-sex, same-sex, common-law) would have the same FMLA rights, regardless of residence.

Be heard on this proposed rule.

If you have comments on the proposed rule, you can leave them below. But, until the Department recognizes this blog as an official forum for public comment -- mailing second bottle of scotch shortly -- you can leave comments for the rule officially the the Department here.

June 20, 2014

Survey reveals the top workplace productivity killers (Hint: one rhymes with "mocial sedia")

And most of them revolve around technology.

According to a CareerBuilder survey, here are the top ten:

productivity.png

Now, on the flip side, it's easy to see how technology and, in particular, social media, could increase productivity in the workplace. Indeed, a 2013 Microsoft study, emphasizes how social media can improve collaboration and the speed with which information is shared.

We'll debate the pros and cons of social media in the workplace at my SHRM Annual sesh next week.

But, for now, how about a list of 11 hella-crazy things employees have seen co-workers doing when they should have been busy working:

  • Employee was blowing bubbles in sub-zero weather to see if the bubbles would freeze and break
  • A married employee was looking at a dating web site and then denied it while it was still up on his computer screen
  • Employee was caring for her pet bird that she smuggled into work
  • Employee was shaving her legs in the women's restroom
  • Employee was laying under boxes to scare people
  • Employees were having a wrestling match
  • Employee was sleeping, but claimed he was praying
  • Employee was taking selfies in the bathroom
  • Employee was changing clothes in a cubicle
  • Employee was printing off a book from the Internet
  • Employee was warming her bare feet under the bathroom hand dryer

I've seen the bathroom selfies on Facebook. Totally weird! What's the craziest thing you saw a co-worker doing in the workplace? Let me know in the comments below.

Image Credit: CareerBuilder.com

June 19, 2014

#SHRM14: Let's grab coffee (you're buying)

shrm.jpgAnd by coffee, I mean turkey legs and frozen blueberry-mango rum lemonade.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow down...

You see that badge over there? You know what I had to do to get that badge?
Buy the full version of Photoshop
Spike the Kool-Aid of everyone on the SHRM Annual Conference Speaker Selection Committee
I beat out thousands (trillions?) of other speaker submissions to be selected as a SHRM 2014 Annual Conference & Exposition speaker.

And, crew, I got selected to speak not once, but twice. Know what that means? ***Ducks Lucifer's pitchfork***  Say, is it just me, or do any of you smell sulfur?

It means that SHRM trusts me to speak intelligently about: (1) social media in the workplace; and (2) tackling leave issues under the FMLA/ADA.

That's a lot of pressure. Let's just hope I remember to wear pants. Pretty sure I can pull it off. (The pants and the presentations).

But otherwise, when I'm not speaking, Your Blogness is up for whatever; not in a Bud Light "Up for Whatever" kinda way. See, turkey legs, et al, supra. Rather, I'd like to meet some of my readers -- the ones that aren't crazy stalkers.

So, if you're not a crazy stalker, and you like this blog, and you're gonna be at SHRM14, then drop me a line, and let's plan some time to meet. I look forward to catching up.

See you in Orlando.

June 18, 2014

3d Cir: No FMLA interference where employee receives all leave requested

Thumbnail image for fmla.jpegNow, before I get to the FMLA, let me talk about another recent decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court. On Monday, the high court ruled (here) that:

  1. Claims asserted under the "improper quality of patient care" provision of New Jersey's Conscientious Employee Protection Act "must be premised upon a reasonable belief that the employer has violated a law, rule, regulation, declaratory ruling adopted pursuant to law, or a professional code of ethics that governs the employer and differentiates between acceptable and unacceptable conduct in the employer's delivery of patient care."

  2. A plaintiff asserting that his or her employer's conduct is incompatible with a "clear mandate of public policy concerning the public health" must, at a minimum, identify authority that applies to the "activity, policy or practice" of the employer.

To the two of you who care about that opinion, you're welcome. And, to the rest of you who slogged through this post to here, huzzah! Your reward is this #LockInLuc campaign ad (h/t Deadspin) and a post about the FMLA.

(Ok, to keep reading, here's some bribery: the ESPN highlights from yesterday's 0-0 World Cup "thriller" between Mexico and Brazil....)

Uh, yeah, FMLA time.

So, I read this opinion yesterday from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and I was all like, "What am I missing here?"

The court reminded us that an FMLA interference action has nothing to do with discrimination. Instead, what matters is whether the employer provided the employee with the entitlements guaranteed by the FMLA."

Well, duh.

In other words, if an employee is FMLA eligible, requests FMLA from an FMLA-qualifying employer, gets FMLA leave, feels better, returns from FMLA leave, and gets fired, that's not FMLA interference.

Employer takeaway: Think twice before firing an employee on the day the employee returns from FMLA leave. It may not be FMLA interference, but you'll find yourself defending an FMLA retaliation claim.

June 17, 2014

President Obama to ban LGBT discrimination by federal contractors -- eventually

The White House announced the news yesterday via Twitter.

Just two years ago, the White House indicated that President Obama would not sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, preferring that Congress act to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), legislation that would have banned LGBT discrimination in the private sector, entirely. However, ENDA stalled out in the House after passing the Senate last November.

And, according to Jennifer Bendery and Sam Stein reporting at The Huffington Post (article here), while President Obama has directed his staff to being drafting an Executive Order for his signature, there's no guarantee that he'll sign it right away:

"Notably, [a White House] official would not say whether the president will sign the order into law on Monday -- suggesting the White House is leaking the news to warn lawmakers that they have a limited window to pass more sweeping workplace discrimination legislation before he acts without them."

According to Edward Isaac-Dovere and Jennifer Epstein reporting at Politico (article here), there is some speculation that a delay in implementing the Executive Order could have to do with "the upcoming Supreme Court's decision on the Hobby Lobby case, on the religious exemption for businesses to claim leeway from Obamacare's contraception mandate."

Other speculation suggests that, given the upcoming June 30 White House's annual LGBT Pride Month reception, a signature on the Executive Order could come within the next two weeks.

Whatever the timing, absent a federal law on LGBT workplace discrimination, there are still many protections available for private-sector employees. Many states and municipalities already have laws banning LGBT discrimination. Further, same-sex discrimination based on gender stereotypes is also unlawful under Title VII. Moreover, many Fortune 500 companies (88% to be exact) have already banned LGBT discrimination in the workplace.

But as for a federal law specifically banning LGBT discrimination, it's wait and see.

June 16, 2014

EEOC sues a nonprofit that assists the disabled for, yep, disability discrimination

So much for that case of Monday writer's block...

From a recent EEOC press release:

According to the EEOC's suit, Disability Network denied a deaf independent living specialist reasonable accommodations and then fired him. For example, the nonprofit refused the employee his requests for TTY equipment, a video phone and the ability to use text messaging, and refused to provide him with alternate accommodations.

* * *
"The irony in this case is incredible," said EEOC Trial Attorney Nedra Campbell. "Disability Network was formed to help and protect people with disabilities - and so was the ADA, under which we now have to sue them for violating their mandate and betraying an employee."