National Labor Relations Board

The Employment Expansion Trifecta: The Wage and Hour Division, The National Labor Relations Board, and . . . OSHA?

September 9, 2015

By Michael D. Billok
Perhaps it is the end of racing season in Saratoga, but the federal employment agencies are certainly looking to hit the trifecta against independent contractors, franchisors, parent companies, and similar entities under the guise of expanding the definitions of employer and employment. First, a little background:  on April 28, 2014, the U.S. Senate confirmed David Weil as the new head of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.  Before he was confirmed, Weil had published a book entitled The Fissured Workplace, a dense lament on the perceived evils of independent contracting and franchising, and companies that Weil claims attempt to "have it both ways" by not bearing responsibility for the workers from whom they ultimately benefit by virtue of the work performed.  It was thus not unexpected that Weil would seek to remedy those perceived evils during his tenure; however, the extent to which this philosophy has reached other agencies is surprising. Fast-forward to July 2015, during which Administrator Weil issued an Interpretation turning the classic test for independent contractor status on its head.  The central tenet used to be control -- does the company set the worker's hours, have the power to discipline the worker, supervise and direct the worker, etc., or instead does the company simply give the worker the contours of the job, and pay contingent on the acceptability of the work?  The new Administrator’s Interpretation, however, focuses on the "economic realities" of the work arrangement, and whether the worker is "economically dependent" on the company.  Most workers have some dependence on the source of the income, and therefore unless a worker has multiple sources of income to demonstrate that he or she is truly in business for himself or herself, many people who currently consider themselves to be independent contractors are now employees in the eyes of the Wage and Hour Division.  As Weil puts it in his interpretation:  "Thus, applying the economic realities test in view of the expansive definition of 'employ' under the Act, most workers are employees under the FLSA." But the Wage and Hour Division is not the only agency to get into the act.  On August 27, the National Labor Relations Board issued a controversial decision in the Browning-Ferris case, basically holding that a staffing agency, franchisor, or contractor that reserves the right to make decisions affecting a worker’s employment, even if the entity does not actually exercise that right, will likely be considered a joint employer.  In short, the NLRB is also seeking to follow Weil’s lead and fuse “the fissured workplace” to hold contractors and other types of entities responsible for possible employment violations under the guise of joint employment. Not to be outdone, OSHA is going for the trifecta.  Late last month, the International Franchise Association disclosed that it is receiving reports from its members that OSHA investigators are seeking information and documents during inspections to tie franchisors into those inspections in order to cite them as employers along with franchisees.  The IFA is concerned that OSHA is (at the behest of unions such as SEIU) looking to simply treat franchisors as employers regardless of the details of a franchisor-franchisee relationship.  Indeed, the IFA obtained a copy of an internal OSHA memo that shows that OSHA is looking to follow the WHD and NLRB’s lead.  The memo states, in part: "Issue Presented for OSHA: Whether for purposes of the OSH Act, a joint employment relationship can be found between the franchisor (corporate entity) and the franchisee so that both entities are liable as employers under the OSH Act. Ultimate determination will be reached based on factual information about the relationship between the franchisor and franchisee over the terms and conditions of employment.  While the franchisor and the franchisee may appear to be separate and independent employers, a joint employer standard may apply where the corporate entity exercises direct or indirect control over working conditions, has the unexercised potential to control working conditions or based on the economic realities.  As a general matter, two entities will be determined to be joint employers when they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment and the putative joint employer meaningfully affects the matters relating to the employment relationship such as hiring, firing, discipline, supervision and direction." The IFA is seeking more information from OSHA via the Freedom of Information Act, and its full statement can be found here. In short, any entity with franchisees, independent contractors, or other vendors should be well aware that any investigation or inspection by the federal agencies tasked with enforcement of labor and employment laws -- the National Labor Relations Board, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, and now, OSHA -- may seek to expand the investigation or inspection well beyond just the franchisee or contractor inspected, to any franchisor, parent company, or beneficiary of a contract for services.

The NLRB's Browning-Ferris Decision Significantly Lowers the Standard For Who Is a Joint Employer Under the NLRA

September 3, 2015

By Tyler T. Hendry

In Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”), in a 3-2 decision, expanded who may be considered a joint employer under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”).  The Board’s decision significantly lowers the threshold for joint employer status, making it more likely that entities such as staffing agencies, franchisors, and contractors will be considered joint employers under the Act. A joint employer finding is significant because this means that an entity may be subjected to joint bargaining obligations and potential joint liability for unfair labor practices or breaches of collective bargaining agreements. Joint Employer Analysis Before Browning-Ferris Prior to the Board’s decision in Browning-Ferris, the standard for establishing joint employment was that both entities in question had to share the ability to control or co-determine essential terms and conditions of employment.  Hiring, firing, supervising, and directing employees were generally considered to be the essential terms and conditions of employment.  Board decisions further clarified that the type of control over the essential terms must be direct and immediate, and the alleged employer must have actually exercised that control -- it was not enough that it may have reserved some level of control through a contract.  Rather, the control had to be exercised in practice. Joint Employer Analysis After Browning-Ferris The Board significantly modified this approach in Browning-Ferris.  The Board’s stated new test, which sounds similar to the old test in words, but not in application, is that:

The Board may find that two or more entities are joint employers of a single work force if they are both employers within the meaning of the common law, and if they share or codetermine those matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.

The application of this test is where the Board makes sweeping changes.  The Board will now evaluate the evidence to determine whether an alleged employer affects the means or manner of employees’ work and terms of employment, either directly or indirectly.  In other words, the control no longer needs to be direct or immediate.  Additionally, the Board found that it is not critical that the entity actually exercise such authority so long as it possesses or reserves the right to do so. The Board also expanded on those items found to be “essential terms and conditions” beyond just hiring, terminating, supervising, and directing employees.  The Board included such things as dictating the number of workers to be supplied, setting work hours, controlling seniority and approving overtime, and assigning work and determining the manner and method of work performance. In short, the new test makes widespread changes by finding indirect control significant in establishing an employment relationship, not requiring that such control actually be exercised, and including more terms and conditions of employment as relevant in this analysis that were previously not considered to be “essential.” Applying the New Test in Browning-Ferris The issue before the Board in Browning-Ferris was whether Browning-Ferris, which operated a recycling facility, was a joint employer with LeadPoint, a staffing company that supplied employees to perform various work functions at the facility.  Under the Board’s old test, it is almost certain there would have been no joint employer finding.  LeadPoint set its employees’ schedules, engaged its own human resources manager to work at the Browning-Ferris facility, and had the sole responsibility to discipline, review, evaluate, and terminate its own employees.  In addition, LeadPoint employed an Acting On-Site Manager, three shift supervisors, and seven line leads to manage and supervise LeadPoint employees working at the facility. Nonetheless, applying the new test, the Board found sufficient evidence of direct and indirect control (relying on control both exercised and reserved by contract) to support its joint employer finding.  The Board relied on the following facts in making its determination:  Browning-Ferris gave LeadPoint supervisors fairly detailed directives concerning employee performance that the LeadPoint supervisors then communicated to their employees; Browning-Ferris set some conditions on hiring that LeadPoint was contractually bound to follow (must have appropriate qualifications and meet or exceed Browning’s own standard selection procedures and tests); Browning-Ferris had the authority to discontinue the use of LeadPoint employees; Browning-Ferris determined when overtime was necessary; and Browning-Ferris' contract with Leadpoint prohibited LeadPoint from paying its employees more than Browning-Ferris paid its own employees who performed comparable work. Takeaways and Potential Implications The primary change resulting from Browning-Ferris is that indirect control over terms and conditions of employment may now be enough to create a joint employment relationship.  Unfortunately, the Board’s decision fails to provide any real clarity on just how much indirect control may be sufficient to create such a relationship.  The two dissenting members take issue with how broad the majority’s decision appears to be, stating that “the number of contractual relationships now potentially encompassed within the majority’s new standard appears to be virtually unlimited.”  The dissent then lists the following examples:

  • Insurance companies that require employers to take certain actions with employees in order to comply with policy requirements for safety, security, health, etc.;
  • Franchisors;
  • Banks or other lenders whose financing terms may require certain performance measurements;
  • Any company that negotiates specific quality or product requirements;
  • Any company that grants access to its facilities for a contractor to perform services there, and then continuously regulates the contractor’s access to the property for the duration of the contract;
  • Any company that is concerned about the quality of the contracted services; and
  • Consumers or small businesses who dictate times, manner, and some methods of performance of contractors.

The dissent’s list showcases the potential reach of the Board’s new test and the potential to significantly alter the landscape of how employment is understood under the NLRA. While employers wait for the Board to issue more decisions further delineating the scope of this test, there are some practical steps employers can take.  Employers can revise their contracts to clarify that control over terms and conditions of employment rests with the contractor, use as little detail as possible in directing the work of the contractor, and stay out of all hiring, firing, and wage-related decisions.  Alternatively, some employers may choose to wait to make any changes until this decision is eventually challenged in federal court.  Employers should discuss with counsel how to best respond to this change. Ultimately, because of the wide array of factual arrangements involving contingent workers, franchisees, and independent contractors, and the reality of business relationships, there will certainly be some situations where letting go of some level of operational control is not a practical option.  This must be weighed against the risk of being found to be a joint employer, and carefully evaluated when entering into and reassessing all business relationships.

The NLRB Unanimously Shuts Down Attempt to Unionize Northwestern's Scholarship Football Players

August 17, 2015

In a long-awaited decision issued on August 17, 2015, the five-member National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) unanimously shut down an attempt by Northwestern University’s scholarship football players to become the first group of college athletes to form a labor union.  This Board holding vacates the direction of election issued by an NLRB Regional Director in March 2014 and dismisses the representation petition filed by the College Athletes Players Association (“CAPA”), but does not address the fundamental issue of whether the players are “employees” under the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).  Instead of deciding this issue, the Board declined to assert jurisdiction over this case based on its conclusion that it “would not promote stability in labor relations” and therefore would not effectuate the policies of the Act. The Board noted that it had never been asked to assert jurisdiction in a case involving college athletes, nor had there ever been a petition for representation of a unit of a single college team, or even a group of college teams.  The Board also pointed out that the players in this case did not “fit into any analytical framework” the Board had used in other cases involving college students (such as graduate student assistants or student janitors and cafeteria workers) because this case involved student athletes who receive scholarships to participate in what traditionally has been regarded as an extracurricular activity.  The Board also distinguished these scholarship players from professional athletes, because the scholarship players are required to be enrolled full time as students and meet various academic requirements.  The Board further observed that bargaining units in professional sports have never been limited to a single team’s players – they have always included the players of all teams in the entire league.  Therefore, the Board concluded that there was no precedent that required it to assert jurisdiction, and that it was free to exercise its discretion to decline jurisdiction over this case. In justifying its decision to decline jurisdiction, the Board explained that Northwestern is a member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”), which has a “substantial degree of control over the operations of individual member teams, including many of the terms and conditions under which the scholarship players (as well as walk-on players) practice and play the game.”  Under these circumstances, the Board determined that its assertion of jurisdiction over only Northwestern and its scholarship football players would not promote stability in labor relations across the NCAA.  The Board further explained that Northwestern competes in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (“FBS”), where 108 of the 125 member schools are public institutions that are not covered by the Act.  As a result, the Board does not have jurisdiction over the vast majority of the FBS teams.  In fact, the Board pointed out that because Northwestern is the only private school in the 14-member Big Ten Conference, it “cannot assert jurisdiction over any of Northwestern’s primary competitors.”  The Board cited this as an additional reason why its assertion of jurisdiction over only Northwestern and its scholarship football players would not promote stability and uniformity in labor relations. Although the Board’s exercise in restraint in this decision comes as somewhat of a surprise given this Board’s activism in expanding the reach of the Act, the Board made clear that its decision does not “preclude a reconsideration of this issue in the future,” and should be interpreted narrowly.  In fact, the Board seemingly opened the door for consideration of a broader proposed bargaining unit than scholarship football players at one university by stating that its decision is not intended to “address what the Board’s approach might be to a petition for all FBS scholarship football players (or at least those at private colleges and universities).”  So, the landscape of collegiate athletics will remain the same for now, but this may not be the last unionizing effort of student athletes that we see.

NLRB Revisits and Overturns Longstanding Precedent Regarding Disclosure of Witness Statements

July 31, 2015

By Sanjeeve K. DeSoyza
As we reported in an earlier blog post, the National Labor Relations Board issued the American Baptist Homes of the West (“Piedmont Gardens”) decision in December 2012, overturning more than 30 years of precedent shielding witness statements from disclosure.  In June 2014, however, the Supreme Court handed down the Noel Canning decision, in which it found that President Obama’s January 2012 Board appointments were invalid and thus the Board lacked the necessary quorum of three members to issue valid decisions from that date until August 2013 (when a full five-member Board was properly appointed).  As Piedmont Gardens was one of the Board decisions invalidated by the Noel Canning ruling, the Board issued an order setting aside the decision but retained the case on its docket. After reconsidering the case, the Board issued a decision on June 26, 2015, reaffirming its earlier decision.  In doing so, the Board overruled the blanket exemption -- first established by the Board’s 1978 Anheuser Busch decision -- that allowed employers to withhold witness statements in response to pre-arbitration requests for information.  Arguing that the Anheuser Busch rationale was “flawed,” the Board held that such statements are now subject to the same standard applicable to all other union requests for information:  an employer must furnish “relevant” information that is “necessary” to the union’s proper performance of its duties as collective bargaining representative. Under this new standard, an employer that seeks to withhold the production of witness statements on “confidentiality” grounds must first establish that:  (i) witnesses need protection; (ii) evidence is in danger of being destroyed; (iii) testimony is in danger of being fabricated; and (iv) there is a need to prevent a cover-up.  As the Board took pains to point out, “a legitimate and substantial confidentiality interest requires more than a generalized desire to protect the integrity of employment investigations.” If the required confidentiality showing can be made, the Board would then weigh the employer’s interest in confidentiality against the union’s need for the information.  Even if the Board finds that the confidentiality interest outweighs the union’s need, the employer cannot simply refuse to provide the information but “must seek an accommodation that would allow the [union] to obtain the information it needs while protecting the [employer]’s interest in confidentiality.” This decision places yet another unnecessary burden upon employers.  The Board cites no evidence that the old standard hamstrung unions in performing their collective bargaining duties.  Under Anheuser Busch, unions were still entitled to witness names and could conduct their own investigations.  Now employers can offer no assurance of confidentiality to employees, who will likely be more hesitant than ever to provide truthful accounts against their union brethren for fear of reprisal. In the wake of this decision, employers should reassess their investigatory methods, including best practices for preserving confidentiality, and avoid blanket rejections of union requests for witness statements.

NLRB General Counsel Issues Memorandum on Changes in Representation Case Procedures

April 13, 2015

By Subhash Viswanathan
On April 6, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") General Counsel issued a guidance memorandum to explain the changes in the procedures for processing union representation petitions under the NLRB's final rule on "quickie" elections that was adopted on December 15, 2014.  Although a resolution was passed by Congress to block the NLRB from implementing the quickie election rule, President Obama vetoed the resolution, paving the way for the NLRB's final rule to take effect on April 14, 2015. Although the practical effect of the NLRB's final rule will likely be a shorter time period between the date when a representation petition is filed and the date when the election is held, the General Counsel noted in the guidance memorandum that "neither the final rule, nor this memorandum, establishes new timeframes for conducting elections or issuing decisions."  The guidance memorandum supersedes any provisions contained in the NLRB's manuals and other guidance to the extent that those provisions are inconsistent with the guidance memorandum. For a summary of the NLRB's final rule, see our December 15, 2014 blog post.

NLRB General Counsel Issues Guidance Memorandum on Employee Handbook Rules

March 27, 2015

By Tyler T. Hendry
The General Counsel for the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) recently published a guidance memorandum that provides specific examples of lawful and unlawful employee handbook rules in the areas of confidentiality, professionalism and employee conduct, use of company logos, copyrights and trademarks, conflicts of interest, photography and recording, and interaction with the media and other third parties.  The memorandum also includes General Counsel-approved handbook rules that were adopted as part of an unfair labor practice settlement with the fast-food chain, Wendy’s. Over the past few years, the NLRB and its General Counsel have aggressively scrutinized many frequently used employee handbook provisions.  The basis for this scrutiny is the alleged infringement of the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).  Section 7 activity includes the right to discuss, challenge, question, and advocate changes in wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment in both unionized and non-unionized work environments.  Of course, it also includes the right to engage in union organizing.  A majority of the current NLRB will deem an employee handbook provision to violate the NLRA if it specifically prohibits Section 7 activity or if “employees would reasonably construe” the rule as prohibiting such activity.  It is this “reasonably construe” language that has resulted in many common employee handbook provisions being declared unlawful by the majority of the current NLRB. While one could editorialize at length regarding the razor-thin distinctions drawn between the provisions found lawful and unlawful, the usefulness of the guidance for employers lies in its concrete examples, some of which are highlighted below. Confidentiality Rules A confidentiality policy will be deemed by the current NLRB to violate the NLRA if it specifically prohibits employee discussions regarding terms and conditions of employment, such as wages or workplace conditions, or if employees would reasonably construe the policy to prohibit such discussions. Unlawful
  • Do not discuss customer or employee information outside of work, including phone numbers and addresses.
  • Never publish or disclose the employer’s or another’s confidential or other proprietary information.  Never publish or report on conversations that are meant to be private or internal to the employer.
Lawful
  • No unauthorized disclosure of business secrets or other confidential information.
  • Do not disclose confidential financial data, or other non-public proprietary company information.  Do not share confidential information regarding business partners, vendors, or customers.
Employee Conduct/Professionalism Rules The memorandum reinforces that employees have the right to criticize their employer’s policies and actions toward its employees, and therefore, any policies prohibiting disrespectful, inappropriate, or rude conduct toward the employer have been deemed unlawfully overbroad.  In contrast, rules requiring employees to be respectful to co-workers, clients, and customers have generally been found to be lawful. Unlawful
  • Be respectful of the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.
  • No defamatory, libelous, slanderous, or discriminatory comments about the company, its customers and/or competitors, its employees, or management.
Lawful
  • No rudeness or unprofessional behavior toward a customer or anyone in contact with the company.
  • Being insubordinate, threatening, intimidating, disrespectful, or assaulting a manager/supervisor, co-worker, customer, or vendor will result in discipline.
Use of Company Logos, Copyrights, and Trademarks The NLRB has found that a broad ban on use of an employer’s name, logo, or other trademark is unlawful because it may restrict the use of the company name and logo on picket signs, leaflets, and other protest material. Unlawful
  • Do not use any company logos, trademarks, graphics, or advertising materials in social media.
Lawful
  • Respect all copyright and other intellectual property laws.  For the employer’s protection as well as your own, it is critical that you show proper respect for the laws governing copyright, fair use of copyrighted material owned by others, trademarks, and other intellectual property, including the employer’s own copyrights, trademarks, and brands.
The release of this guidance suggests the NLRB will continue to aggressively enforce and scrutinize the employment policies of union and non-union employers.  An unlawful policy is itself a violation of the NLRA, and if an employee is disciplined or terminated for violating an unlawful policy, the discipline could be rescinded and the employer could be ordered to restore the employee to his/her position with back pay. As seen in the examples above, tweaking one or two words or adding additional context and clarification to what would be an otherwise overbroad policy can mean the difference between an unlawful or lawful policy.  Employers should, therefore, use this memorandum as a guide in reviewing and revising their handbooks and other employee rules.

The National Labor Relations Board Strikes Again -- How Managerial Are Your Faculty and How Religious Is Your Institution?

December 22, 2014

By John Gaal

In the latest example of dramatic changes to well-developed principles of federal labor law and policy, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB" or Board") issued its long-awaited decision in Pacific Lutheran University last week.  For a description of the Board's decision and its potential impact on union organizing at colleges and universities, please click here for our article on the Bond Higher Education Law Report.

Two Bond Webinars Scheduled Regarding Recent NLRB Developments

December 15, 2014

By Subhash Viswanathan

Recent activity by the National Labor Relations Board has significantly changed the landscape of union organizing campaigns and representation elections.  Attorneys from Bond, Schoeneck & King's Labor and Employment Department will conduct two free webinars this week to explain these recent developments and their impact on employers.  Each webinar is scheduled for 45 minutes. Ray Pascucci will conduct a webinar on December 17 at 3:00 p.m. to review the Board's final rule on "quickie" union representation elections and provide some practical recommendations to prepare for the possibility of a fast-track union organizing campaign.  Andy Bobrek will conduct a webinar on December 18 at 11:00 a.m. to review the Board's decision in Purple Communications, Inc., holding that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer's e-mail system during non-working time to communicate about union organizing and discuss their terms and conditions of employment.  

NLRB Issues Final Rule on "Quickie" Elections

December 14, 2014

By Subhash Viswanathan

On December 15, the National Labor Relations Board's final rule amending the current procedures for handling union representation elections (which has become known as the "quickie" or "ambush" election rule) was published in the Federal Register.  The final rule will become effective on April 14, 2015. Although Board Chairperson Mark Pearce hailed the new representation election procedures as "a model of fairness and efficiency for all," the new procedures provide unions with a significant advantage in representation elections in a number of ways.  Among other things, the new rule shortens the time period between the filing of a petition and the scheduling of an election, requires employers to provide the union with a list of employees in the proposed bargaining unit earlier in the process, requires employers to provide to the union personal telephone numbers and e-mail addresses for employees in the proposed bargaining unit, and limits the issues that may be litigated by employers in a pre-election hearing.  The impending implementation of the final rule makes it even more important for employers to be able to recognize potential union activity as early as possible and to have a plan in place to respond quickly to a union representation petition once it is filed. This is the second time the Board has issued a final rule amending union representation election procedures.  The Board's first final rule was issued on December 22, 2011, but it was declared to be invalid by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on May 14, 2012, because the Board lacked a quorum when it voted on the final rule.  The Board initially appealed the District Court's decision, but subsequently withdrew its appeal and re-issued its proposed rule in February of 2014. The final rule was approved by Board Chairperson Mark Pearce and Board Members Kent Hirozawa and Nancy Schiffer.  Board Members Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson dissented and voted against the issuance of the final rule.  The final rule:

  • Permits electronic filing of representation election petitions and electronic transmission of election notices, voter lists, and other documents (which is intended to speed up processing);
  • Requires that pre-election hearings be scheduled as early as eight days after the hearing notice is served on the parties (currently, pre-election hearings can begin up to two weeks after a petition is filed);
  • Limits the issues that can be raised by an employer at a pre-election hearing only to those that are necessary to determine whether it is appropriate to conduct an election, and defers all other issues until the post-election stage (currently, employers can litigate any issues regarding voter eligibility and inclusion within the proposed bargaining unit at a pre-election hearing);
  • Requires employers to provide to the Board and the union, at least one business day before the pre-election hearing, a "Statement of Position" identifying any issues they intend to raise regarding the petition and a list of employees in the proposed bargaining unit with their job classifications, shifts, and work locations (currently, employers are not required to provide a list of employees in the proposed bargaining unit until after an election is directed or an election agreement is approved);
  • Eliminates the right to file post-hearing briefs after a pre-election hearing unless the Regional Director determines that they are necessary, and instead provides only for oral closing arguments at the conclusion of the hearing;
  • Provides that an employer's request for Board review of a Regional Director's decision will not stay the election, unless the Board orders otherwise; and
  • Requires employers to provide the Excelsior list of voter information to the union within two business days after an election is directed or an election agreement is approved, and requires employers to include employees' personal telephone numbers and e-mail addresses on the list if that information is available (currently, the time frame to provide the list is seven days after an election is directed or an election agreement is approved and the list need only include names and home addresses).

Currently, the general time period from the filing of the petition to the representation election is approximately five to six weeks.  The amendments contained in the final rule will likely shorten that time period to approximately two to three weeks, which will give employers much less time to communicate with employees regarding the drawbacks of unionization, to explain the realities and risks of the collective bargaining process, and to dispel the myth that unionization will automatically result in better wages and benefits.  Accordingly, it will be even more important for employers to train their supervisors to recognize and report some early warning signs of union activity and to develop a plan to respond quickly to a union representation petition once it is filed. Ray Pascucci, one of my colleagues in the Labor and Employment Department of Bond, Schoeneck & King, will be conducting a webinar on the Board's final rule on Wednesday, December 17, at 3:00 p.m.  Ray will review each element of the final rule and provide some practical recommendations to prepare for the possibility of a fast-track union organizing campaign.  More details will follow.

NLRB Overrules 2007 Decision and Holds That Employees Have a Right to Use Their Employer's E-Mail System for Union Organizing

December 11, 2014

By Subhash Viswanathan

On December 11, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ("Board") issued a 3-2 decision (with Board Members Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson dissenting) in Purple Communications, Inc., holding that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer's e-mail system during non-working time to communicate regarding union organizing and to engage in other protected concerted activities under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act ("Act").  The Board's decision overruled its 2007 decision in Register Guard. Purple Communications' electronic communications policy provided that its electronic communications systems and equipment were "to facilitate Company business" and that "all such equipment and access should be used for business purposes only."  The policy also prohibited employees from using its systems and equipment to engage "in activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with the Company" and to send "uninvited e-mail of a personal nature."  There was no dispute that, under the Board's 2007 Register Guard decision, the policy was perfectly lawful as written. In the fall of 2012, the Communications Workers of America ("Union") filed petitions to represent employees at seven of Purple Communications' facilities.  After an election was held, the Union filed objections to the results of the election at two facilities and an unfair labor practice charge, alleging (among other things) that the electronic communications policy interfered with the employees' Section 7 rights. The Administrative Law Judge, relying on the Board's 2007 Register Guard decision, found the electronic communications policy to be lawful.  The Board majority, however, found that the Register Guard decision improperly placed too much weight on the property rights of employers in their own e-mail systems and too little weight on the Section 7 right of employees to communicate in the workplace about their terms and conditions of employment.  The Board majority also believed that the Register Guard decision failed to recognize the importance of e-mail as a means by which employees engage in protected communications.  Therefore, the Board majority overruled its Register Guard decision and held that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer's e-mail system during non-working time to engage in communications protected by Section 7 of the Act. The Board made clear in its decision that this presumption applies only to employees who have been granted access to the employer's e-mail system in the course of their work and does not require an employer to provide access to its e-mail system to employees who do not otherwise need it.  In addition, the Board held that an employer may rebut the presumption and justify a total ban on non-business use of its e-mail system by demonstrating that "special circumstances make the ban necessary to maintain production or discipline."  Virtually no guidance is provided in the decision regarding what those "special circumstances" might be, but the Board majority stated that "we anticipate that it will be the rare case where special circumstances justify a total ban on non-work e-mail use by employees."  The Board remanded the case back to the Administrative Law Judge for a determination of whether Purple Communications could successfully rebut the presumption and justify the scope of its prohibition on the personal use of e-mail. The restriction that employees may use their employer's e-mail system for Section 7 purposes only during non-working time raises a significant question:  can an employer monitor employee use of its e-mail systems during working time to ensure compliance with this restriction and discipline employees who are found to have engaged in Section 7 activity through e-mail during working time, without risking potential liability for unlawful surveillance or discrimination based on union activities?  According to the Board's decision, an employer may continue to notify employees that they should have no expectation of privacy in their use of the employer's e-mail system and may continue to monitor the use of its e-mail system for legitimate business purposes.  However, the Board stated that this monitoring is lawful only if "the employer does nothing out of the ordinary."  For example, the Board's decision leaves open the possibility that an employer's increased monitoring during a union organizing campaign or an employer's particular focus on employees who are known union activists could result in potential liability under Sections 8(a)(1) or 8(a)(3) of the Act. Members Miscimarra and Johnson both wrote strong dissenting opinions.  In the view of the dissenters, an employer's interests in controlling the use of its own electronic communications system should prevail over employees' interests in using that system for union organizing activities, especially in light of the availability of other electronic communications networks such as employees' own personal e-mail and social media sites. Many employers' electronic communications policies already permit employees to engage in some limited personal use of their e-mail systems as long as that personal use does not interfere with the employee's work duties or the work duties of other employees.  This type of policy may very well be lawful even under the Board's Purple Communications decision, because, on its face, it likely would not be interpreted to prohibit Section 7 protected activity during non-working time.  At this point, however, if your electronic communications policy contains a blanket prohibition on the use of your e-mail system for personal reasons, you may want to consider potential revisions to your policy. Andrew Bobrek, one of my colleagues in the Labor and Employment Department of Bond, Schoeneck & King, will be conducting a webinar on the Board's Purple Communications decision on Thursday, December 18, at 11:00 a.m.  More details will follow.

The NLRB Holds That Certain Activity on Facebook is Not Protected

December 3, 2014

The exact limits of employee protected speech on social media are still finding definition, but a recent National Labor Relations Board decision identifies at least one limit:  premeditated insubordination.  In Richmond District Neighborhood Center, the Board held that two employees who discussed their plans on Facebook to engage in insubordinate activity on the job did not engage in protected activity, and the employer therefore did not commit an unfair labor practice by rescinding their rehire offers. In Richmond, the employer operated a teen center in San Francisco.  At an employee meeting, the employer solicited feedback on the program and employees submitted their perceived “pros” and “cons” regarding the program.  Following the meeting, two employees requested a follow-up meeting and the employer denied their requests.  During the subsequent summer break (during which employees are sent offer letters for rehire), the employer sent the two employees offer letters and the two employees engaged in the following conversation on Facebook about their plans to return to the program the following year: EMPLOYEE 1:  I'll be back, but only if you and I are going to be ordering s***, having crazy events at the Beacon all the time.  I don't want to ask permission, I just want it to be LIVE.  You down? EMPLOYEE 2:  Im gOin to be a activity leader im not doin the [teen center] let them figure it out and when they start loosn kids i aint helpn HAHA EMPLOYEE 1:  hahaha.  Sweet, now you gonna be one of us.  Let them do the numbers, and we'll take advantage, play music loud, get artists to come in and teach the kids how to graffiti up the walls and make it look cool, get some good food.  I don't feel like bein their b**** and making it all happy-friendly-middle school campy.  Let's do some cool s***, and let them figure out the money.  No more Sean.  Let's f*** it up.  I would hate to be the person takin your old job. EMPLOYEE 2:  Im glad im done with that its to much and never appriciated sO we just gobe have fuN dOin activities and the best part is WE CAN LEAVE NOW hahaha I AINT GOBE NEVER BE THERE even thO shawn gone its still hella stuCk up ppl there that dont appriciate nothing EMPLOYEE 1:  You right.  They dont appreciate s***.  Thats why this year all I wanna do is s*** on my own.  have parties all year and not get the office people involved.  just do it and pretend they are not there.  i'm glad you arent doing that job.  let some office junkie enter data into a computer.  well make the beacon pop this year with no ones help. EMPLOYEE 2:  They gone be mad cuZ on wednesday im goin there aNd tell theM mY title is ACTIVITY LEADER dont ask me nothing abOut the teen cenTer HAHA we gone have hella clubs and take the kids ;) EMPLOYEE 1:  hahaha!  F*** em.  field trips all the time to wherever the f*** we want! EMPLOYEE 2:  U f**** right see u WednesdaY EMPLOYEE 1:  I won't be there wednesday.  I'm outta town.  But I'll be back to raise hell wit ya.  Dont worry.  Whatever happens I got your back too. After a co-worker took a screenshot of the conversation and showed the employer, the employer rescinded the employees’ rehire offers.  The Board's General Counsel challenged the revocation of the offers as an unfair labor practice, arguing that the employees’ Facebook conversation constituted protected concerted activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. The Board disagreed, noting that the “Facebook exchange contains numerous statements advocating insubordination” which could not be “easily explained away as a joke, or hyperbole divorced from any likelihood of implementation.”  The Board distinguished the conversation from “brief comments” which, in contrast, might be dismissed as hyperbole.  The Board held:  "The magnitude and detail of insubordinate acts advocated in the posts reasonably gave the Respondent concern that [the employees] would act on their plans, a risk a reasonable employer would refuse to take.  The Respondent was not obliged to wait for the employees to follow through on the misconduct they advocated.”  Accordingly, the employees’ conduct was not protected and the employer did not commit an unfair labor practice by withdrawing the rehire offers. This decision demonstrates that even the current Board has a limit to what type of employee conduct on social media must be tolerated by employers.  Although this decision will likely enable employers to more confidently take action against employees who discuss premeditated insubordination on social media, the distinction between true threats of insubordination and what the Board might consider to be hyperbole is somewhat murky.  Employers should still tread carefully before disciplining employees for conversing on Facebook about work-related issues.

NLRB Holds That Discharge of Employees for Facebook Conversation Was Unlawful

September 10, 2014

By Robert F. Manfredo
On August 22, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ("NLRB") issued companion decisions in Three D, LLC d/b/a Triple Play Sports Bar and Grille, holding that the employer violated the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") by terminating two employees for participating in an online discussion on Facebook.  The Triple Play decision is yet another reminder to employers to exercise caution in imposing discipline against employees for conduct that takes place on social media.  The decision also underscores the need for employers to review their existing social media policies to ensure that the policies are not so overly broad that employees might interpret them to prohibit complaints and conversations about their terms and conditions of employment. Triple Play is a bar and restaurant whose employees are not unionized.  In January 2011, Jillian Sanzone and another employee discovered that they owed more in State income taxes than they had expected due to a withholding error by Triple Play.  While at work, Sanzone complained about this issue to other employees who, in turn, complained to the employer.  In response, the employer planned to hold a meeting in February with its staff members and payroll company to discuss the employees' concerns. On January 31, 2011, Jamie LaFrance, who had left her employment with Triple Play in November 2010, posted the following “status update” to her Facebook page:  "Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them.  They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!!  Now I OWE money . . . Wtf!!!!"  Several employees and non-employees responded to LaFrance’s post with various comments, most of which used profanity and criticized Triple Play's owners.  One employee, Vincent Spinella, did not post a comment, but did select the “Like” button under LaFrance’s original comment.  Sanzone posted her own comment, stating:  “I owe too.  Such an asshole.” One of Triple Play's owners learned about the Facebook discussion through his sister, who was a Facebook “friend” of LaFrance.  When Sanzone reported to work on February 2, 2011, Triple Play's owners notified her that she was being discharged because of her Facebook comment.  On February 3, 2011, when Spinella reported to work, Triple Play’s owners called him into a meeting, questioned him about the Facebook conversation, and informed him that he was being discharged because his selection of the "Like" button meant that he supported the "disparaging and defamatory comments" of the other participants in the conversation. The NLRB affirmed the Administrative Law Judge’s decision that the Facebook discussion constituted concerted activity under Section 7 of the NLRA and “was ‘part of an ongoing sequence’ of discussions that began in the workplace about the Respondent’s calculation of employees' tax withholding.”  The NLRB also held that Sanzone and Spinella were engaged in protected concerted activity because the Facebook discussion related to “workplace complaints about tax liabilities, the Respondent’s tax withholding calculations, and LaFrance’s assertion that she owed back wages.”  Notably, the NLRB found that Spinella’s selection of the “Like” button “expressed his support for others who were sharing their concerns and ‘constituted participation in the discussion that was sufficiently meaningful as to rise to the level of’ protected, concerted activity.” In balancing the interest of Triple Play's owners in preventing disparaging comments by their employees, the NLRB held that Spinella's and Sanzone’s comments were not “so disloyal” as to lose protection under the NLRA.  Accordingly, the NLRB affirmed the Administrative Law Judge’s decision that Triple Play violated the NLRA by interrogating and discharging Spinella and Sanzone because of their participation in the Facebook conversation. Notably, the NLRB also found that Triple Play's “Internet/Blogging” policy violated Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.  Although the policy did not explicitly restrict protected activity, the NLRB held that the policy, insofar as it prohibited employees from engaging in “inappropriate discussions about the company,” was overly broad.  In light of Triple Play's discharge of Spinella and Sanzone, the NLRB reasoned that Triple Play's other employees could reasonably interpret the policy as prohibiting discussions regarding their terms and conditions of employment.