TSpring Cleaninghe equinox has come and went, meaning warm weather is thankfully approaching. This also means spring hiring season is here for many employers. However, caution is advised. Given the ease of un-vetted online job postings, many forget that these posts are legal minefields (and public too). Federal, state, and local agencies (as well as plaintiffs’ attorneys) can see job ads just as well as potential candidates. As you pack away the winter coats, make sure to dust off your job posts and remove any potential legal snares.

One of the most common issues we see regarding job ads is “preference” language. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) explicitly states that it is “illegal for an employer to publish a job advertisement that shows a preference . . . because of his or her race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” While this may seem obvious, inadvertent word usage that may show a preference for one protected category over another is often overlooked.

For example, the EEOC notes that the phrase “recent college graduates” may indicate a preference for younger employees, and may violate the law. In addition, historically gendered job titles are frequently used in the hospitality industry, such as “waitress,” “hostess,” or “delivery boy.” Government agencies will often argue that such terms indicate a preference for one sex, gender, or age over another, even if all sexes, genders, and ages were welcome to apply. Moreover, legitimate job requirements, such as “must be able to lift ‘x’ pounds,” must be evaluated with legal counsel to ensure that disability and accommodation laws are complied with, as well as to ensure no overtime exemption misclassification issues are created.

In addition, in some states and localities additional discrimination protections are offered above those available under federal law. The New York City Commission on Human Rights (“NYCCHR”) issued notable guidance in 2015 on the treatment of transgendered employees and applicants. The NYCCHR has since aggressively investigated offending job advertisements that indicate a proclivity toward traditional gender categories, among other problematic conduct. (More information on NYC’s transgender guidance is available here.)

However, remember that simply sanitizing one’s advertisements is not enough. Hiring practices matter too. The EEOC notes that “an employer’s reliance on word-of-mouth recruitment . . . may violate the law” where the newly hired employees mirror the current workforce.

In sum, it is critical to review all job advertisements for problematic language, and train human resources and hiring personnel to be aware of these issues. Discriminatory job language can cause unneeded headaches with federal, state, and local governmental agencies, or that job posting may be “Exhibit A” in your next lawsuit.

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A notable case caught our eye recently coming out of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Namely, The EEOC sued CRST International, Inc. (“CRST”) claiming that it, among other things, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to accommodate and retaliating against a prospective truck driver.

The new driver allegedly requested the use of a prescribed emotional support animal to mitigate post-traumatic stress and mood disorder. CRST purportedly told the new driver simply to leave his dog at home and refused to provide an accommodation, citing unbendable company policies, and effectively rescinded his employment offer. Unfortunately, usually these policies must bend, or at the very least the possibility explored.

While the CRST case is in its early stages, and no court decisions have yet been issued, this complaint serves as a great illustration of just how far reaching the disability discrimination laws are. Here many employers would scoff or summarily dismiss the seemingly unworkable request of having a service animal in a trucking business. However, the CRST complaint reminds us of the potential disability accommodations that employers must consider and make. Regardless of the nature of the requested accommodation, the employer is, at the very least, required to engage in the interactive process with the employee and determine what, if any, reasonable accommodations can be made. Otherwise, you may end up on the wrong side of an EEOC lawsuit alleging ADA retaliation and failure to accommodate.

Please remember that when an employee or prospective employee requests a workplace disability accommodation in order to perform his or her job, an employer generally must consider the accommodation and, if it can be implemented without undue hardship, it must be granted. Anytime an accommodation request is received, never dismiss the request out-of-hand. Make sure to talk to your in-house human resources department or legal department, or involve outside counsel if necessary, to determine your legal obligations. Also, note that your state or local laws may provide additional protections beyond the ADA.

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As my colleague Raquel Gutierrez warned last year, proposed wage payment regulations were set to become effective March 7, 2017. These regulations, created by the New York Department of Labor (“NYDOL”), would have caused new compliance headaches for New York employers. The proposed regulations placed specific notice requirements on employers to inform employees in writing of the methods by which they can receive wages. The regulations also would have implemented various restrictions with respect to payroll debit cards and direct deposits, most notably prohibiting certain financial services fees and requiring local withdrawal access. For the time being, employers needn’t worry about these proposed changes.

The New York Industrial Board of Appeals (“IBA”)—the intermediate administrative appellate body that oversees the NYDOL—has blocked implementation of these regulations by issuing a decision invalidating these proposed restrictions. The IBA found that the Commissioner of Labor overstepped her authority by, among other things, attempting to regulate issues that were truly the province of financial services regulations. For the moment, this alleviates at least one new administrative burden for the New York employer community.

However, please note that even though the NYDOL’s new regulations will not be implemented at this time, all existing laws and regulations regarding the payment of employee wages remain in effect. This includes, but is not limited to, requirements that employers obtain written authorization prior to paying employee wages by direct deposit or by payroll debit card, as well as restrictions on employers from charging fees or making deductions from wages. It is also possible that the NYDOL will submit alternate regulations in order to further its agenda.

As always, your friendly Fox Rothschild attorneys will monitor any new regulatory activity in this regard (or if the IBA’s decision is appealed further) and publish updates here or on our client alerts page.

37744565 - legislation blank list, business conceptEarlier this month, members of the New Jersey General Assembly introduced legislation to prohibit employers from seeking wage/salary histories from prospective employees.  Assembly Bill 4119 (“A-4119”) follows on the heels of other states that are looking to take action on this issue, as well as similar efforts at the federal level.

The public policy rationale often cited by legislatures in passing these kinds of bills is that they may help close the gender wage gap.  The substantive discussion of whether these efforts are effective is beyond the scope of this blog, so for our purposes, we are focusing solely on the effect this legislation would have on employers.

Specifically, A-4119 would make it an unlawful employment practice:

For any employer to seek the wage or salary history of a prospective employee, or require, as a condition of employment, that an employee disclose information about either the employee’s own wages, including benefits or other compensation, or about any other employee’s wages; and for any employer to require that a prospective employee’s prior wage or salary history meet any minimum or maximum criteria as a condition of being interviewed, or as a condition of continuing to be considered for an offer of employment. 

As far as such things go, this is a broad prohibition — and one that would subject employers to liability under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.

In addition to the text above, there are three other provisions to note.  First, the bill also notes that it would not prohibit prospective employees from volunteering wage/salary history, as long as that disclosure was not coerced by the prospective employer.  Second, employers are only permitted to confirm (or permit the would-be employee to confirm) wage/salary history after making an offer of employment.  Third, A-4119 also includes an anti-retaliation provision.

As with all proposed legislation, standard disclaimers apply:  this is the bill in its current form, which may or may not ultimately be enacted, and which may or may not be amended to varying degrees if it is ultimately enacted.  We will continue to monitor this legislation and provide any relevant updates should it move in the New Jersey Legislature.

First, a disclaimer.  Let me assure you that the contributors to the Employment Discrimination Report run the full gamut of the political spectrum.  This is not a post about politics, it just so happens that our demonstrative example comes from the presidential race.

It is not uncommon for employers and employees to execute Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) to govern the employment relationship following its conclusion.  To wit, one of the major presidential candidates made all campaign employees (and volunteers but that is a whole other can of worms) sign an NDA that governs all information of a “private, proprietary or confidential nature or that (the candidate) insists remain private or confidential.”  The NDA in question further prohibits former employees from making negative comments regarding the candidate or family members…in perpetuity.  It’s worth noting that the other major candidate also has asked campaign employees to execute an NDA, though the substance of it remains undisclosed.

Compensation on the Whisper

When executing NDAs with employees, be it at the end of the employment relationship or as part of a restrictive covenant at some earlier point, it’s important to do keep the scope reasonable so as not to be judicially struck later.  Here are some simple rules that were not followed above:

  1. Identify with specificity the information that must be kept private and confidential. Simply saying “confidential information” is a recipe for failure on this front, as the ambiguity as to what information is “confidential” will be read against the employer.
  2. Put a time frame on the responsibility. While it is not per se impossible to have an agreement enforced in perpetuity, the path of least resistance is put a time frame on the responsibility that bears some relationship to legitimate business necessity.
  3. Restrict Nondisparagement to Reasonable Topics. While nondisparagement clauses, the legal cousin of NDAs, are valid, they similarly need to be narrowed in scope to include only information for which there is a legitimate business purpose.

While keeping your corporate information in-house is a compelling aim, understand that there is no fool-proof way to keep information under wraps.  But adhering to simple rules of the road will help make sure that What Happens At Work, Stays at Work.

As my colleague Christina Stoneburner wrote earlier in the week, we aren’t even through summer 2016, yet the number of new employment laws and regulations enacted that employers must contend with are already piling up.  Massachusetts recently joined the fray, with Governor Baker signing into law earlier this month S.2119 (effective January 1, 2018), which addresses pay equity discrimination based on gender.  Notably, the new pay equity legislation reiterates what Massachusetts and federal law have long stated: pay disparities based on gender are unlawful.  However, this new law goes further, is more employee-friendly than ever, and specifically addresses neutral conduct that arguably affects gender pay equality.

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One unique and notable component of the new law is a first-of-its-kind “ban the box” type prohibition that makes it unlawful to inquire regarding the prior salary history of prospective employees (similar to the prohibition of criminal conviction questions that many jurisdictions have recently adopted). Questions about prior salaries are extremely common and can be found on most employment applications.  However, this practice must now be eliminated in Massachusetts.  The intent of the legislature is to root out historic pay discrimination by forcing pay decisions to be made based on the job and not prior salaries.  The law prohibits, any time prior to making an offer of employment (with salary offer), either directly requesting prior salary information from the prospective employee and/or his or her former employers, or indirectly researching the same.  Moreover, employees cannot be prohibited from discussing their wages amongst themselves (although such policies are already prohibited by current interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act).

In addition, the law reiterates that actual pay differences based on gender are expressly prohibited where employees are engaged in “comparable work,” which is defined as any job(s) (regardless of titles) that require “substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility . . . under similar working conditions.”  Moreover, the law clearly delineates the few bona fide non-discriminatory reasons allowed for neutral pay policies, namely: (i) seniority pay systems, (ii) merit pay systems, (iii) production or sales quality/quantity pay systems, (iv) geographic differences, (v) job relevant education, training, and/or experience, and (vi) job related travel.  Lastly, the statute contains an anti-retaliation provision that prohibits taking retaliatory action against employees or applicants that oppose practices prohibited by the law.

An action enforcing the statute may be brought within three years of any discriminatory act, either by the attorney general or through civil litigation by the affected employee(s) and/or applicant(s), including but not limited to by class action.  Damages recoverable include any owed or diminished wages and benefits, as well as additional “liquidated” damages (which doubles any owed compensation) and any reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

The one piece of good news for employers is that an affirmative defense is provided in the statute where an employer, within the prior three years, conducts a good faith self-evaluation of its pay practices in order to eliminate pay discrepancies based on gender. As a result, it is recommended that prior to the effective date of the act that employers conduct a thorough review of all employee handbooks, non-disclosure agreements, employment applications, and other new hire policies and forms, as well as review institutional pay structures and systems, to ensure compliance with the law.  As always, your friendly Fox Rothschild attorneys are here to help in this regard.

 

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We are honored to have been named by Working Mother Media and Flex-Time Lawyers as one of the 50 best law firms for women.  This is the fourth time we have been named to the list.

Our Firm works very hard to insure the advancement and retention of all attorneys, but we do have targeted initiatives, such as our Women’s Initiative, to focus on female attorneys. The Women’s Initiative, along with the Diversity Committee, serve as resources and advocates for minority lawyers at the Firm.

Diversity initiatives such as these can have many positive impacts on companies, including improving employee morale, decreasing discrimination charges, and reducing employee turnover. Studies have also shown that having a diversity program improves a companies bottom line and can increase customer-base as customers seek to find business partners whose work forces match theirs in terms of diversity.

Diversity programs are not without critics, however.

Employers who are thinking about setting up diversity initiatives do need to be careful that they are not exposing themselves to claims of reverse discrimination.  One of the keys to this is insuring that all employees, regardless of whether part of the majority or minority, understand the importance of these initiatives for the company as a whole.  Another key is to consult with employment counsel as to the lawful interest groups that can be established without violating discrimination laws.

Employers who are looking for some practical suggestions as to human resources policies that help manage diversity can also review the EEOC’s Best Practices of Private Sector Employers for suggestions.

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A Colorado federal judge recently ordered the City and County of Denver to pay $1.67 million to job applicants who alleged that Denver’s employment screening tests had a disparate impact on black and Latino applicants.  The class action was tried in an 8-day bench trial in April 2016 after Judge Krieger denied summary judgment.

Denver used ACCUPLACER tests published by College Board as pre-placement tests.  The tests were developed to place students in college-level courses and were not validated for use in making hiring decisions.

This case is a rather expensive reminder that any type of employment test must be validated for employment purposes.  The EEOC has issued guidance on the use of employment tests that provides some best practices for employers to follow.

The most important thing to think about is whether the test is really job-related.  In other words, does the test actually relate to job skills that are required for the job?  Then, the test must also be checked to insure that it does not have a disproportionate impact on any protected class.

Employers who have tests validated once cannot simply assume that the test is safe to use in perpetuity.  If job duties or skills have changed for the position for which the test is being administered, then the test should be re-validated.

Finally, employers should not just assume that because a test is simple it does not need to be validated.  Even a simple math test given to applicants who may handle money would need to be validated.

 

As many of you probably know, the EEOC has issued a proposed rule that, if adopted, would require significant changes to the EEO-1 reporting requirements.  The rule proposal is designed to help the EEOC gather data related to pay discrimination claims.  If adopted, it will require employers who are required to complete annual EEO-1 reports to submit pay data for all employees in addition to the number of employees in each racial classification.

This rule is likely going to increase the number of investigations and complaints filed alleging pay disparity.  The EEO-1 reports, by themselves, will be used in a broad sense to identify statistical anomalies that may trigger an investigation.  Missing from that raw data will be any legitimate reasons for pay disparities, such as experience and education levels.  However, employers will be required to comply with what could be a lengthy investigation process.

The comment period is currently scheduled to end on April 1, 2016.  Recently, ten Republican senators sent a letter to the EEOC asking for the comment period to be extended 90 days.  No word yet on whether the extension will be granted.

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As most employers are acutely aware, additional employee protections, prohibitions, and, most importantly, costs continue to pile on to the employer community every year, particularly in New York City (among other jurisdictions).  In addition, this trend shows no sign of abating given the current legislative environment.  As a consequence, thoroughly vetting prospective employees has become more critical than ever for employers.

Once an Trial by Fireemployee is on boarded, it is increasingly difficult, or impossibly fraught with liability, to terminate that employee.  Gone is the time when you could simply hire an employee and “see how it works out” during an orientation period with relatively limited liability.  Moreover, traditional mechanisms for reviewing employees before hire, such as criminal and credit background checks, or reviewing a candidate’s past unemployment history, have been curtailed in an increasing number of jurisdictions.  This has resulted in the need for more and more creative strategies and practices to ensure the right employees are hired from the outset.

One idea we occasionally hear is the possibility of an unpaid trial or try-out period for prospective employees.  This can take various forms, however typically a prospective employee, after completing his or her initial interviews, will be asked to “show what he or she can do,” i.e. prove his or her ability to directly perform the job.  This could either be a survey, a written test, the preparation of sample work product, a simulated workday (or more), or a combination of all of the above.  This practice can be incredibly helpful for a number of professions and industries.  A prime example would be for attorneys.  If a prospective law firm were to ask me, on the spot, to prove my legal writing ability by preparing a sample motion to dismiss, it would be incredibly difficult for me to fake my claimed abilities.  However, like all employment policies, this practice must be well crafted and implemented with caution.

As my fellow labor and employment colleagues here have previously written, laws involving the treatment of unpaid internships have seen heavy scrutiny recently in the federal courts.  However, the permissible bounds of unpaid trials, try-outs, simulations, and tests have not yet been explored, and almost no analysis and interpretive guidance exists.  As a result, some questions remain.  What may I ask a candidate to do?  Is a trial period appropriate if unpaid?

One solution is to simply pay the prospective employee for the trial period in order to avoid any unpaid wage liability.  However, paying any applicant poses a whole host of other issues.  If payment is given for a trial period, it (arguably) indicates an employment or quasi-employment relationship.  This is not advisable, as an employer wants to retain the ability to say “yes” or “no” to the candidate after the try-out has concluded, while minimizing exposure under employment and immigration laws (to the extent one can).  Furthermore, the proper tax treatment of such pre-employment payments is unclear.

While still an open issue, the better practice, depending on the exact facts, would be to have an unpaid pre-employment trial period or simulation.  In theory, the applicant would not yet be considered an “employee.”  However, the key is to ensure that any simulation or trial conducted is truly a test, occurs prior to an offer of employment, and that any work product is used for evaluative purposes only.  If the simulation or trial involves a cook who must prepare sample dishes, any food that is prepared cannot be served to customers or otherwise benefit the restaurant.  If the simulation or trial involves a typist who must transcribe audio recordings, the transcription cannot be a “real” project for a client or business, but simply a sample to be reviewed and evaluated.  Any materials and supplies used must also be provided by the employer.  The more the process hinders the business and is relatively short in duration, the more likely it will be found to be lawful.

An unpaid trial period or test can be a useful tool to evaluate a candidate and increase the quality of your hires.  However, any such policy should simply determine the candidate’s ability to perform the job and not otherwise benefit the business.  Before implementing any such policy, it is also critical that legal counsel review it thoroughly.  Whether a pre-hire trial, try-out, test, or simulation is appropriate under the circumstances is highly fact dependent and the answer may change depending on the state and/or local laws that may apply.