Today is Tuesday, October 30th, 2018, marking less than a full calendar week until the polls open across the country for the 2018 elections.  (This, of course, doesn’t include the many states that offer some form of early voting.)  And while “midterm” elections such as this year’s have historically seen lower turnout, a mix of polling, analysis, and reporting suggests that the November 6th election will see particularly strong voter interest.

This is all very interesting, you may be saying to yourself, but what on earth does it have to do with employment discrimination?  Simple!

A majority of states have some form of laws that require employers to provide employees with time off for voting.  In these states, employers are frequently prohibited from taking adverse action or retaliating against employees who exercise their right to take voting leave, with significant penalties for noncompliance.

Just check out this map from Business Insider to get a sense of how prevalent employee state voting leave laws are (disclaimer: do not rely solely on the descriptions from the Business Insider article to assess compliance with state voting leave laws; at minimum, you’ve got to actually read the applicable laws, of course!).

There is no federal law providing voting leave, and state voting leave laws often vary in their scope and terms.  In addressing workplace policies and practices as it concerns state voting leave laws, some questions that typically come up are:  is the leave paid or unpaid?  How much time off must employees be given to vote?  Can employers verify that employees who take voting leave have, in fact, voted?  How much notice must employees provide of the intent to use voting leave?  To what election(s) do voting leave requirements apply?  Is there an exception for small businesses?  Can the employer designate times for employees to take off?  Can employees be required to request absentee or vote by mail ballots in lieu of taking voting leave?  Etc.

With Election Day quickly approaching, employers should review the applicable laws on voting leave in their state(s) of operation, in order to facilitate proper planning and legal compliance.

When I get asked about non-discrimination and harassment prevention in the workplace, a significant proportion of these questions focus on race discrimination and sexual harassment.  Still, employers should be mindful of other protected characteristics under federal and state law, even if charges and lawsuits on those bases are, statistically speaking, less frequent than others.

While EEOC data show that charges alleging religious discrimination and harassment in the workplace constituted only 4% of charges received in fiscal year 2017, religious discrimination and harassment are prohibited by Title VII and pose significant liability risks to employers.  A lawsuit filed recently in federal court in Florida highlights this point.

Christine Choo-Yick was an employee of the US Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency within the federal Department of Homeland Security.  Ms. Choo-Yick is a person of Muslim faith.  While she also alleged sexual harassment, the allegations in her complaint primarily focus on harassment directed at her in the workplace on the basis of her religion:

8. [ . . . ] b.  Many of the Plaintiff’s co-workers have made derogatory and unethical comments about the Plaintiff’s faith and/or race.

c.  During the week of September 4, 2017, Officer Sean Stephens laughed at and criticized the Plaintiff for wearing a Hijab Muslim hair scarf.  He further stated, “what is that you have on your head,” while humiliating the Plaintiff with boisterous laughter.

d.  On or around October 10, 2017, a visiting employee called the Plaintiff a “Hijabist” and a “terrorist.”

e.  On or around November 2, 2017, a co-worker stated that the Plaintiff was a member of ISIS.

Needless to say, these alleged comments are abhorrent.  However, evidence suggests incidents like this are becoming more frequent.  A wide-ranging 2017 study by the Pew Research Center that found incidents of anti-Muslim discrimination in America are on the rise, with 48% of U.S. Muslims saying they were subject to at least one discriminatory incident based on their religion within the previous year.  In the same study, an estimated 75% of U.S. Muslims agreed that there is “a lot of discrimination against Muslims in the United States.”

Apart from the obvious issues of religious discrimination and harassment, comments of this type in the workplace may also implicate discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, and/or national origin under Title VII, depending on the facts.  Indeed, the potential for these issues to be intertwined prompted the EEOC to publish a reminder of employers’ obligations to prevent discrimination and harassment on each of these bases in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

The bottom line for employers: discrimination or harassment on the basis of religion is prohibited.  Period, full stop.  Employers’ policies, practices, and non-discrimination and harassment prevention trainings should be careful not to neglect this point.

Here at our Employment Discrimination blog, we’ve written about the intensifying focus on workplace sexual harassment, in light of the #MeToo movement, at the federal agency level.  Laws addressing workplace sexual harassment, however, aren’t the exclusive province of the federal government.

Indeed, state and local governments have been quite active in addressing sexual harassment in employment.  The Minnesota Legislature, for example, is considering an amendment to the definition of sexual harassment to expand liability for harassment.  New York State has also passed sweeping changes to state law, while New York City has passed a law requiring employers with 15 or more employees to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training.

Delaware has now joined the growing list of states and local taking action on this front.  A recently enacted law requires (among other items) certain employers to to provide mandatory, interactive sexual harassment prevention training every years–including additional training for supervisors.

Our Fox Rothschild colleagues Steven Ludwig and Chaney Hall have written a new Alert detailing the requirements of the Delaware law; check it out to learn more!

 

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), Pennsylvania’s leading agency that investigates and enforces Pennsylvania’s employment discrimination laws, has voted to accept complaints of discrimination from lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals.  Specifically, the PHRC has stated it will interpret complaints alleging workplace discrimination against LGBT individuals to fall under state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sex”:

The term “sex” under the PHRA may refer to sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and/or gender expression depending on the individual facts of the case.

The prohibitions contained in the PHRA and related case law against discrimination on the basis of sex, in all areas of jurisdiction where sex is a protected class, prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and gender expression.

The Commission will accept for filing sex discrimination complaints arising out of the complainant’s sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and gender expression using any and all legal theories available depending on the facts of the individual case.

Discrimination complaints identifying “sex” as the protected class and specifying allegations related to sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender transition, gender identity, and gender expression will be evaluated on a case by case basis throughout the Commission’s filing, investigation, and adjudication processes.

While the City of Philadelphia already prohibited workplace discrimination on these grounds, the PHRC’s actions extend protected status to LGBT employees throughout the Commonwealth.

Our blog has previously discussed the question of whether laws prohibiting sex discrimination inherently protect sexual orientation and/or gender identity in the context of Title VII.  While many observers expect the Supreme Court to eventually weigh in on the Title VII issue, the question remains in flux as a matter of federal law.

In light of the lack of clarity in the Title VII case law, states are beginning to take action.  For example, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission took action earlier this year, unanimously voting to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

The PHRC’s action can be viewed as part of the trend of state agencies taking action to interpret their own state laws independently of federal court guidance.  This is significant because even if the Supreme Court ultimately rules that Title VII does not protect employees’ sexual orientation and/or gender identity, these state agency interpretations would not be overruled.  State court challenges to these agency interpretations, however, remains a possibility and warrants monitoring.

The takeaway for Pennsylvania employers is more straightforward: assess your hiring, equal opportunity, and anti-harassment policies, programs, and practices to make sure they include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected characteristics and reflect non-discrimination and non-harassment principles as it applies to LGBT employees and applicants.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in New Jersey, you likely know that paid sick leave will be the law of the land for all New Jersey employers beginning on October 29, 2018.  We recently issued an update on the law and included a link to the draft poster that has been issued by the State.  More details can be found here.

The poster may not be in final form as the regulations have not been finalized.  However, employers must still post the poster by October 29, 2018.

If you haven’t already reviewed your sick leave policies for compliance, you should do that asap to be ready when the law goes into effect.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the lead agency that administers federal anti-discrimination laws, has publicly announced its preliminary data for Fiscal Year 2018 regarding charges of sexual harassment in the workplace.

And while the data are still preliminary, they are striking, perhaps reflecting the growth and influence of the #MeToo movement.

In several key metrics, the EEOC announced it had seen increasing results relating to charges of sexual harassment in the workplace in FY 2018:

  • the EEOC filed 41 lawsuits against employers that included claims of sexual harassment, an increase of over 50% from the previous year;
  • the EEOC obtained $70 million for employees through enforcement action, an increase of over 47% (or $22.5 million) from the previous year; and
  • discrimination charges filed by employees with the EEOC that included sexual harassment allegations increased by 12% from the previous year.

This uptick in activity related to workplace sexual harassment is part of a longer-term emphasis by the EEOC.  For example, the agency launched a training program in October, 2017, following on the heels of the agency’s extensive task force report on workplace harassment that it issued in 2016.  In addition, the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2021 includes preventing systemic workplace harassment as one of its six substantive area priorities.

In light of the EEOC’s intensifying focus on sexual harassment and the increase in sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC, employers should consider reviewing and updating their anti-harassment training programs, policies, and practices.

 

As an employment lawyer, I anxiously awaited the proposed regulations for the New Jersey sick leave law as the law left some unanswered questions regarding carryover and other issues.  The proposed regulations have been out for a few weeks now and I have had time to thoroughly digest them

Unfortunately for employers, the proposed regulations do not answer some of the questions my clients had regarding the law and create confusion in other areas.  Some of the more incomprehensible sections of the regulations occur in the section dealing with calculating sick leave pay.  Employers with tipped, commissioned or piecework employees should pay special attention to these provisions.

There are many problems with this section, but one of the key ones is how an employer calculates a rate of pay for employees with two or more jobs for the employer, has a fluctuating rate of pay, is paid on piecework, or is a tipped employee.  The proposed regulations at 12:69-3.6 provide that in these cases an employer must look at wages earned in the last seven (7) workdays where leave was not taken and take the earnings divided by the hours worked to get an hourly wage.

The problem with this is that few employees have a seven-day workweek. Instead, many employees have a five-day workweek.  For those employees, an employer would have to go back one workweek plus two more work days in a previous week, which is likely not representative of the employee’s regular work schedule. It also creates an administrative nightmare as the employer could not simply look at the previous workweek to see what was earned.

It would make more sense to use the last week worked or a two-week period which would be more representative of an employee’s schedule.

This is but one issue in the proposed regulations.  I have been working with several of my partners to help business groups prepare comments to the proposed regulations and this is one issue we intend to raise.

If you have other issues or questions about the proposed regulations, we would love to hear from you to see if they could be incorporated into our comments.

Employers can also provide comments directly to the Division of Labor by submitting written comments by December 14, 2018 to:

David Fish, Executive Director
Office of Legal and Regulatory Services
NJ Department of Labor and Workforce Development
PO Box 110
13th Floor
Trenton, New Jersey 08625-0110
E-mail: David.Fish@dol.nj.gov

In our July 24, 2018 post, we reminded employers that mandatory harassment training was going to be required of all employers in New York. Since that post, the State has issued model training materials that can be found here.

Employers are obligated to provide annual “interactive” sexual harassment training for employees.  New hires must also be given training.

Importantly for employers, they also recently clarified the deadlines for when training must be provided.  Employees must receive training at least once per year beginning on October 9, 2018.  This means that employers must insure that all employees receive training between October 9, 2018 and October 8, 2019.  Thereafter, training should be on an annual basis.  The State backed off initial guidance that said that new hires must be trained within 30 days of hire.  Instead, they simply encourage employers to provide training as soon as possible.

It is still a best practice to provide training as part of an onboarding process for new hires.

There also is some clarification as to what is meant by “interactive training.”  According to the State’s website, interactive training can include any of the following:

  • If the training is web-based, it has questions at the end of a section and the employee must select the right answer;
  • If the training is web-based, the employees have an option to submit a question online and receive an answer immediately or in a timely manner;
  • In an in-person or live training, the presenter asks the employees questions or gives them time throughout the presentation to ask questions;
  • Web-based or in-person trainings that provide a Feedback Survey for employees to turn in after they have completed the training

The State cautions that “[a]n individual watching a training video or reading a document only, with no feedback mechanism or interaction, would NOT be considered interactive.”

In general, in person training is often the most effective training as employees are more engaged and can learn from questions posed by their fellow employees.  However, it is not always practical to do in person training.  In those cases, we do recommend a mix of in person and web-based training.

Although employers do not have to immediately provide training for their work forces, time has a way of getting away from all of us.  Arrangements should be made sooner rather than later to get training scheduled.

Over at In the Weeds, our Firm’s blog on the developments in cannabis law, my colleague Joseph McNelis shares a breaking development at the intersection of cannabis law and employment discrimination law.  This legal intersection poses a complicated series of questions, requiring courts to weigh the illegality of cannabis under federal law with state laws that authorize medical marijuana use (which themselves sometimes contain provisions prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of an employee’s state-authorized use of medical marijuana).  As Joe notes, a recent decision by the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut, Noffsinger v. SSC Niantic Operating Company, LLC, addresses precisely this issue.

In July, 2016, the plaintiff in this case applied for and accepted a job offer from a health and rehabilitation center.  Several years prior, she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing a car accident.  On the recommendation of a provider, she began using medical marijuana under Connecticut’s state-authorized medical marijuana program to treat her PTSD symptoms in 2015.  The case recites what happened after the plaintiff accepted the job:

Plaintiff and [employer’s administrator] agreed that a follow-up visit would take place on July 25 for the completion of pre-employment papers, background check, and drug screen.  At this follow-up meeting, plaintiff disclosed to [the administrator] her PTSD diagnosis and her participation in Connecticut’s medical marijuana program.  She explained that she took prescription marijuana in the evenings as a “qualifying patient” under [Connecticut’s medical marijuana statute] and showed [the administrator] her registration certificate and an empty pill container which displayed her name and dosage of her medical marijuana pills.

When the plaintiff subsequently tested positive for THC, a chemical component of marijuana, the employer rescinded the job offer.  The plaintiff then sued under Connecticut’s medical marijuana law, which contains anti-discrimination language:

[U]nless required by federal law or required to obtain funding: . . . (3) No employer may refuse to hire a person or may discharge, penalize or threaten an employee solely on the basis of such person’s or employee’s status as a qualifying patient . . . Nothing in this subdivision shall restrict an employer’s ability to prohibit the use of intoxicating substances during work hours or restrict an employer’s ability to discipline an employee for being under the influence of intoxicating substances during working hours.

Notably, the Court rejected each of the employer’s arguments and granted summary judgment to the plaintiff in this case–although it rejected her claims for attorneys’ fees and punitive damages.

For more details on the case and items for employers to consider in a situation like this, check out Joe’s post.  And for more general background information on states’ legalization of marijuana and how that can impact the workplace, check out our Firm’s recently published Resource Guide.

On Fox’s Immigration View blog, partner Alka Bahal provides a detailed exploration of the I-9 inspection process, in the wake of a recent surge in I-9 audits carried out by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. All employers in the United States are required to have a Form I-9 on file for all employees to verify their identity and authorization to work in the United States.

We invite you to read Alka’s information-packed post addressing concerns facing employers:

Employers Beware: ICE Is Ramping Up I-9 Audits to Record Levels