Category Archives: New Developments

Update stream from publisher Wolters Kluwer

N.L.R.B. on Recent Decisions Regarding Employee Rights Posting

The following text is the entire public announcement by the National Labor Relations Board on April 17, 2012, concerning the requirement that employers post notices of certain federal labor law rights:

“In light of conflicting decisions at the district court level, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily enjoined the N.L.R.B.’s rule requiring the posting of employee rights, which had been scheduled to take effect on April 30, 2012.

“In view of the D.C. Circuit’s order, and in light of the strong interest in the uniform implementation and administration of agency rules, regional offices will not implement the rule pending the resolution of the issues before the court.

“In March, the D.C. District Court found that the agency had the authority to issue the rule. The NLRB supports that decision, but plans to appeal a separate part that raised questions about enforcement mechanisms. The agency disagrees with and will appeal last week’s decision by the South Carolina District Court, which found the N.L.R.B. lacked authority to promulgate the rule.

“Chairman Mark Gaston Pearce said of the recent decisions, ‘We continue to believe that requiring employers to post this notice is well within the Board’s authority, and that it provides a genuine service to employees who may not otherwise know their rights under our law.'”

New Online Resource Steps through F.M.L.A. Eligibility

The U.S. Department of Labor recently released an updated version of its Family and Medical Leave Act Advisor. The F.M.L.A. Advisor is an online resource that, through an interactive question-and-answer program, helps to clarify which employers are required to provide F.M.L.A. leave and which employees are eligible to take such leave. The resource also provides links and information concerning valid reasons for leave, notice requirements, certification steps, citations to regulations, and other information.

The Advisor may not answer all difficult F.M.L.A. questions, and it does not provide information on how to handle cases that involve not only F.M.L.A. but also the Americans with Disabilities Act or state worker’s compensation law. Nevertheless, it is a helpful first step that, in some cases, may provide all the assistance that a human resources manager needs.

Federal Agency To Require Posting of Employee Labor Rights

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a Final Rule that will require covered employers to notify employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, effective November 14, 2011. 

Private-sector employers (including labor organizations) whose workplaces fall under the National Labor Relations Act will be required to post the employee rights notice where other workplace notices are typically posted. Additionally, employers who customarily post notices to employees regarding personnel rules or policies on an internet or intranet site will be required to post the Board’s notice on those sites. Copies of the notice will be available from the Board’s regional offices may also be downloaded from the NLRB website

The notice, which is similar to one required by the U.S. Department of Labor for federal contractors, states that employees have the right to act together to improve wages and working conditions, to form, join and assist a union, to bargain collectively with their employer, as well as to refrain from any of those activities. It provides examples of unlawful employer and union conduct, and instructs employees how to contact the NLRB with questions or complaints. 

The Board received approximately 6,500 comments during the 60-day comment period following publication of the Proposed Rule in the Federal Register, and accepted an additional 500 that arrived after the deadline. In response to the comments, some parts of the rule were modified. For example, employers will not be required to distribute the notice via email, voice mail, text messaging or related electronic communications even if they customarily communicate with their employees in that manner, and they may post notices in black and white as well as in color. The final rule also clarifies requirements for posting in foreign languages. Similar postings of workplace rights are required under other federal workplace laws. 

Questions about compliance with this or other requirements can be directed to this firm, to the National Labor Relations Board, or to other resources familiar with employment and labor law.

Text credit in part to Nancy Cleeland, Director of N.L.R.B. Office of Public Affairs

New Aid to Employers Paying Health Benefits for Early Retirees

The White House announced Tuesday that it would help pay medical bills for early retirees who have health insurance provided by their former employers. Under the program, the federal government can reimburse employers for 80 percent of the cost of claims from $15,000 to $90,000 a year for a retired worker who is 55 or older and not eligible for Medicare.

The program will run from June 1 of this year to Jan. 1, 2014, when many early retirees will be able to enroll in health plans offered through new state-based markets known as insurance exchanges. John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, which represents large employers, welcomed the new program, saying it would make health benefits “more affordable for employers and early retirees and their families.” Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, predicted that 4,500 employers — 3,000 private entities and 1,500 state and local governments — would seek federal aid under the program.

Employers can apply through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Applications will be available by the end of June 2010.

The federal aid will be available to private employers, state and local governments, nonprofit and religious organizations and labor unions that sponsor health benefit plans. It will be available to employers who pay premiums to insure early retirees, as well as to employers who assume the risk themselves and pay claims with their own assets. Under the new law, employers must use the federal money to reduce “health benefit costs” for themselves or their retirees — for example, by reducing premiums, deductibles or co-payments. As a condition receiving federal aid, employers must maintain their current contributions to the cost of retiree health benefits. Many companies expected to apply for the new program already receive federal subsidies under a 2003 law to help offset the cost of providing prescription drug benefits to retirees, Ms. Sebelius said.

Edited from the New York Times, May 7, 2010

Federal Minimum Wage Increases

Effective July 24, 2009, the federal minimum wage increases to $7.25 per hour. This is the last increase required by the 2007 Minimum Wage Act.

Employers of covered employees must post a notice that describes, among other things, employees’ minimum wage rights. A link for posters is available below, under “Resources.” Note that the U.S. Department of Labor is likely to revise the currently available posters.

Minnesota employers who are not covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage provisions are likely to be covered by the state’s wage and hour laws. Minnesota’s minimum wage remains unchanged, at $5.25 per hour for employers grossing less than $625,000 and $6.15 per hour for employers at or above that level. More information on Minnesota’s minimum wages, including some exemptions, information on the training wage, and discussion of the fact that there is no tip credit allowed in Minnesota, is provided in the official notice available below, under “Resources.”

Whether a particular classification of employee is covered by the federal minimum wage law is an analysis that is beyond the scope of this brief article. The answer depends in part on the nature of the employer’s enterprise and in part on the specific duties of the employee. If you have questions about coverage, you might contact any of the following: the Wage and Hour Division of the Employment Standards Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor; your employment law advisor; or this firm.

Resources:

  1. Federal minimum wage and other wage-and-hour posters
  2. Frequently asked questions about federal employment posters
  3. Compliance assistance with federal wage-and-hour issues
  4. Minnesota employment posters
  5. Information on Minnesota minimum wage law

E.F.C.A. Moves Ahead with Revisions

The Employee Free Choice Act is a bill that was drafted when it had no chance of moving successfully through Congress. It sought to eliminate union elections by allowing unions unlimited time to campaign and then requiring employers to accept the union if sufficient numbers of employees expressed interest. The Bill’s supporters argued that eliminating secret ballot elections would prevent employers from coercing employees during a campaign period. In reality, however, coercion occurs at the point when organizers ask coworkers to sign on to a union campaign. The Bill would have retained that problem, while eliminating an employer’s right to express differing views.

Yesterday Democratic Senators negotiated a compromise to the Bill by retaining an employee’s right to a secret ballot election on becoming unionized. This is a significant development and a gain for employees and management alike.

The Bill still retains other, poorly thought out provisions. For example, if there is an impasse in negotiating a first contract, a third party will be brought in to impose contract terms. But the agency that would manage that process is not presently staffed to do so, and the procedure by which a third party would decide which proposals to impose has not been outlined. Additionally, the civil penalties provided in the Bill would be based on a host of factors that do not include the effect on the employer.

It is clear that the Bill is progressing through the Senate, but it is not the cakewalk that it’s organized supporters had hoped for. Stay tuned.

Resources:

  1. The text of E.F.C.A. as it was introduced originally in the House.
  2. An article in the N.Y. Times on the recent negotiations to retain the secret ballot.

New E.E.O.C. Guidance on Severance Agreements

On July 15, 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued updated and comprehensive guidance on the issue of employee waivers of discrimination claims contained in severance agreements. Although the recent guidance is directed to employees, it contains valuable information for management, as well. The document
addresses, among other topics, the requirements of the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act. It also provides a checklist for employees, which has obvious value for human resources staff who are drafting material or preparing for layoff conferences, and model text for an enforceable waiver.

The guidance pertains only to the limited issues presented by discrimination waivers in severance agreements. There are many related issues regarding both general compliance requirements and also problems arising from specific workers or worksites that the guidance does not attempt to address. It is important, therefore, not only to review this recent expression of the E.E.O.C.’s position but also to continue to use more comprehensive checklists, involve in-house expertise, or consult with an employment lawyer.

F.M.L.A. Amended: 26 Weeks for Military-related Medical Reasons

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act has been amended to add two types of required leaves of absence. The 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (“N.D.A.A.”) amends the F.M.L.A. to provide a new 26 week leave to care for a family member who is in the military and is undergoing treatment or is temporarily disabled due to a serious injury or illness. The N.D.A.A. also extends the familiar 12 week leave to care for a family member who has experienced an as-yet-undefined “qualifying exigency.”

Prior to the 2008 N.D.A.A., the F.M.L.A. required covered employers to grant eligible employees up to twelve workweeks of unpaid leave during a twelve month period for one or more of the following reasons:

  • for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
  • for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
  • to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

The National Defense Authorization Act amendments to the F.M.L.A. extend the scope of the law to permit a “spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin” to take up to 26 workweeks of leave to care for a “member of the Armed Forces, including a member of the National Guard or Reserves, who is undergoing medical treatment, recuperation, or therapy, is otherwise in outpatient status, or is otherwise on the temporary disability retired list, for a serious injury or illness.” This part of the N.D.A.A. became effective on January 28, 2008. The Department of Labor is preparing guidance and proposed regulations to implement the new leave.

The amendments also extend the F.M.L.A. by permitting an employee to take leave for “any qualifying exigency (as the Secretary [of Labor] shall, by regulation, determine) arising out of the fact that the spouse, or a son, daughter, or parent of the employee is on active duty (or has been notified of an impending call or order to active duty) in the Armed Forces in support of a contingency operation.” This part of the amendment is not yet effective; it will become effective after the Department of Labor issues final regulations defining “any qualifying exigency.”

Limitations on Vacation Leave Payouts

Minnesota’s highest court has issued its opinion in Lee v. Fresenius Medical Care, Inc. This case addresses the question of whether an employer can attach conditions to an employee’s being paid for accrued but unused vacation leave.

Susan Lee worked for Fresenius Medical Care, and had accrued unused paid time off. Fresenius terminated Lee for alleged misconduct. The Fresenius employee handbook provided:

Unless otherwise required by state law, if you do not give acceptable notice, you may not be paid for earned but unused PTO, and you may not be considered eligible for re-employment. In addition, if your employment is terminated for misconduct, you will not be eligible for pay in lieu of notice or payment of earned but unused PTO unless required by state law.

Fresenius denied Lee payment for her unused PTO; Lee sued, arguing that, because she had earned the PTO under the employer’s policy and because accrued PTO is a type of wage, Fresenius violated a Minnesota wage payment statute by refusing to pay for the unused time.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that employers are not required to offer vacation leave or pay in lieu of leave. If they do extend such an offer, they can define eligibility for the leave or payments as they wish, so long as the policy does not violate any law. For example, an employer could offer vacation leave so that it accrues at a certain rate each month, but condition the use of the leave on approval by a manager; or an employer could limit the carryover of leave from one year to the next and require that most or all of an employee’s available leave be taken within some period of time; or—as in the Lee case—an employer could require a minimum notice of termination before the employee is entitled to be paid for accrued but unused leave, or even prohibit such payments completely if the employee is terminated for cause.

In Lee, the Court ruled:

[W]hen employers choose to offer paid time off as a benefit, employers and employees can contract for the circumstances under which employees are entitled to paid time off and payment in lieu of paid time off, so long as the contract provisions are not prohibited by or otherwise in conflict with a statute.

The Court essentially adopted its now-familiar analysis of how an employee handbook can become a binding contract. If the policy text is sufficiently clear, if the employee has sufficient notice of the policy, and if the employee thereafter signifies his or her acceptance of the policy by continuing to work for the employer, then the policy may be contractually binding.

Since the Supreme Court announced this “unilateral contract” approach to employee handbooks in 1983, most employers with handbooks have attempted to avoid any potentially binding effect by plainly stating that the provisions of the handbook are not intended to form a contract. The Lee case, however, supports the better practice of disclaiming the contractual effect of only some provisions while emphasizing that certain other provisions are binding, including for example the limitations on vacation leave or pay.

The Lee case had a strenuously argued dissent. The dissenting judge wrote that, if an employer’s policies define how vacation leave is earned, then once it has been earned it cannot be taken away without constituting an unlawful forfeiture. The majority rejected that analysis, finding instead:

[E]mployers may offer, and employees may accept, a contract provision that attaches conditions to the right to accrued vacation “wages,” whether in the form of actual paid time off or payment in lieu of paid time off…. [S]uch conditions define what has been earned.

The principles of the Lee case apply to vacation, paid time off, non-statutory sick leave, and a range of other benefits that are not mandated by law. Most vacation leave or paid time off policies that were written or revised by Nierenberg Employment Law have been carefully drafted to provide a benefit of time off only, and not payment in lieu of leave; those policies are consistent with this new case and should not need revision. However, all employers should nevertheless review their vacation, sick leave, and paid time off policies to be sure that they reflect the policies and values of the organization and that, if desired, they take advantage of the opportunities presented by this case.

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