Category Archives: Employment Law

State Minimum Wage Increases for 2014

Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will increase the state’s minimum wage to $9 on July 1, 2014, and $10 at the beginning of 2016. (The state’s current minimum wage is $8.) So far, three other states have passed minimum wage increases that will take effect in 2014: Connecticut’s wage will increase to $8.70 for 2014, then $9 for 2015; New York’s wage will increase to $8 at the end of this year, then $8.75 at the end of 2014, then $9 at the end of 2015; and Rhode Island’s minimum will hit $8 at the beginning of 2014. (Nolo has minimum wage information for all 50 states and the District of Columbia at our Wage & Hour page.)

The federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, is now lower than the minimum wage in more than a third of the states. About half of the states have the same minimum wage as the federal government, and a handful of states either have a lower minimum wage or have no minimum wage at all. As a practical matter, this final group of states also uses the federal minimum wage. The federal wage rate is a floor, not a ceiling. States are free to adopt a higher minimum wage, and employers within the state must pay the higher rate. But in states with a lower minimum wage, employers must generally comply with the federal law unless they are so small and local as to not be subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act.

States generally adopt higher minimum wage rates to try to bring wages into line with the cost of living. But, according to the Center for Poverty Research at U.C. Davis, the federal minimum wage is not cutting the mustard. A full-time employee who works 40 hours a week for a full year, without taking a single unpaid day off, earns about $15,000 annually, just a few thousand dollars above the poverty level for a single person (and well below the poverty level for a family with one or more children).

President Obama has called for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $9; he also appointed a Secretary of Labor, Thomas Perez, who supports raising the minimum wage. However, based on the current climate in Congress (which today is on the verge of shutting the government down), it doesn’t seem likely that a federal wage increase will happen any time soon. And that means the real action will remain at the state and local level.

Wage and Hour Violations at Restaurants

A couple of days ago, the New York Times published an article about wage and hour violations at Urasawa, a very trendy — and expensive — sushi restaurant in Beverly Hills. According to the article, workers were not paid overtime and not allowed to take legally required breaks. An employee interviewed for the article also noted that he was required to buy his own $700 set of knives, at a time when he was earning between $9 and $11 an hour. (Although the article didn’t mention it, this is a separate violation of California law, which requires employers to bear the cost of uniforms, tools, and other items necessary for employees to do their jobs.)

Restaurants are too frequently in violation of wage and hour laws, from overtime and break rules to minimum wage, uniform, and tip requirements. If the violator is extremely upscale, like the restaurant cited in the Times article, employees are often willing to put up with substandard conditions in exchange for the opportunity to gain the experience and cachet that stem from working at a trendy spot. (Apparently, diners are also willing to put up with a lot to eat there, from a $1,000 price tag for dinner for two to rules about how the food must be treated that would make Sienfeld’s Soup Nazi blush.) At the other end of the spectrum, employees working at fast-food franchises and low-budget eateries often don’t know their rights and work for an owner who is operating on a financial shoestring.

In recent years, the Department of Labor has taken steps to remedy this situation, from revising the regulations on tip credits to partnering with the Subway restaurant chain to make sure that employees know their rights. Let’s hope it works! Because I don’t know about you, but for my own selfish reasons, I’d prefer to have my food prepared by workers who are allowed to go to the bathroom when they need to.

Big Win for Employers in Supreme Court Harassment Case

supctDo you have more than one supervisor? If so, you’re not alone. Plenty of people work for companies in which the power to hire, fire, promote, and discipline employees is vested in only a few employees, but many more employees are authorized to direct the work of others and actually keep the trains running on time. Well, the Supreme Court has news for the many lower-level employees who schedule, oversee, train, and direct the work of other employees: You’re not supervisors under Title VII.

In a racial harassment case (Vance v. Ball State University), the Supreme Court decided that employees count as supervisors under Title VII only if they are authorized to take tangible employment actions against an employee. A tangible employment action is a significant change in employment status, such as hiring, firing, promotion, or reassignment to a job with substantially different duties. In making this decision, the Court rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation that employees who don’t have this authority might also be supervisors if they have the authority to direct an employee’s daily work activities.

The distinction between supervisors and regular employees is hugely important in determining an employer’s liability for harassment. An employee who is harassed by a coworker can hold the employer legally liable for the harassment only if the employer was negligent. This means that the employee has to show that the employer knew, or should have known, about the harassment and failed to take appropriate corrective action.

An employee who is harassed by a supervisor has an easier burden. If the supervisor’s harassment results in a tangible employment action (as defined above), the employer is strictly liable, period. If the supervisor’s harassment doesn’t result in a tangible employment action, the employer is liable unless it can prove that (1) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct harassment (by, for example, training employees, adopting a policy prohibiting harassment, creating an appropriate complaint procedure, and investigating harassment complaints quickly and fairly), and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of opportunities the employer offered to prevent or correct harassment (for example, by failing to make a complaint).

The distinction between supervisor harassment and coworker harassment takes into account the power an employer gives its supervisors. The employer’s decision to delegate authority to the supervisor is what makes this type of harassment possible, so it’s only fair to hold the company responsible for the actions of those who have this responsibility.

The practical effect of the Court’s decision is that fewer employees will qualify as supervisors and, therefore, that more victims of harassment will have to meet the more difficult negligence standard to win their cases. In other words, this case is a clear win for employers, who will have an easier time avoiding liability for harassment.

Interestingly, it’s much easier for an employee to qualify as a supervisor when that result benefits employers. For example, an employee is an exempt “executive” employee under the Fair Labor Standards Act – and, therefore, not entitled to earn overtime – if the employee directs the work of at least two other employees (among other things). The employee need not have the authority to hire and fire, as long as the employee’s suggestions or recommendations about personnel decisions like these are given “particular weight.” Similarly, under the National Labor Relations Act, an employee is a supervisor if he or she has the authority to perform one of 12 responsibilities, including assigning work and responsibly directing employees. If you’re a supervisor under the NLRA, you are not protected by the law and may not join a union.

Take This Internship and . . . Pay For It

blackswaneditLast week, two unpaid interns who worked on the film “Black Swan” won a lawsuit against Fox Searchlight Pictures. The interns claimed that they should have been paid for their work, which included such important cinematic tasks as taking out the garbage, ordering lunch, booking flights for their bosses, and assembling office furniture. The judge for the federal District Court in Manhattan agreed, finding that the two interns were treated as employees and were, therefore, entitled to compensation for their time.

These days, internships are an increasingly popular option, especially for students and recent graduates who can’t find paid work in their fields. CNN Money recently reported an 8.8% unemployment rate — and an almost 19% “underemployment” rate — among recent college grads, both rates still higher than before the economic downturn began. Many young people are willing (or desperate enough) to work without pay to get their foot in the door of their chosen profession. Of course, they’d rather get paid. But if the only way to break into a field is by doing grunt work day and night without pay, some people will take that deal.

This is where the law steps in to set some boundaries. Employment law pushes back against the metric of “whatever the market will bear” to require employers to pay at least the minimum wage, to protect employees from unsafe working conditions, and to prohibit harassment, for example — even if plenty of employees might tolerate mistreatment and subsistence wages just to get and keep a job. That desperate job seekers are willing to put up with almost anything in exchange for work doesn’t mean it’s legal.

That’s what Fox learned last week, and what employers in other popular industries are starting to understand. According to an article about the case in the New York Times, similar lawsuits have been filed against television, modeling, and fashion magazine employers, claiming interns should have been paid. Employers in these sexy fields have been some of the worst offenders in not paying interns, presumably because so many people are desperate to work in film and fashion.

There’s nothing shocking about desperate job seekers or employers willing to exploit them, sadly. There’s nothing surprising about the outcome of the case, either. The law about unpaid internships is very clear. Employers may hire people to work without pay only if the job meets a strict six-part test, including that the job must benefit the intern, must not provide the employer with an immediate advantage, must be closely supervised, and must not be a required stepping stone to a paid position. (You can find details on the six factors in Am I really an intern or just an employee who isn’t getting paid?) But Fox argued that the judge should forget the factors and instead simply weigh whether the intern or the employer gained more from the arrangement. If the intern benefitted more, then it’s a legal internship. The judge was not impressed by this argument, nor by the college credits offered for some internships, nor by the fact that the interns who sued undoubtedly did learn some things about the film industry during their unpaid time at Fox.

All beside the point, as the judge made clear. The six-part test is strict for a reason: Internships are a somewhat disruptive exception to the usual workplace exchange of labor for money. As such, they are intended to be rare.

 

Bad Credit Could Cost You a Job

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a chilling article about employer reliance on credit reports, The Long Shadow of Bad Credit in a Job Search. The main character was a poor guy who couldn’t find work as a shoe salesman after he couldn’t pay medical bills incurred for an injury he suffered after getting laid off (and losing his insurance).

The article points out that employers are actually a bit less likely to check credit reports on applicants than they have been in the past. While previous surveys (conducted by our friends at SHRM) have found that about 60% of employers check credit reports on applicants, that number is now down to about 50%. At the same time, however, many people have seen their good credit ratings go down the tubes in the last five years. So fewer employers are checking, but they may be dinging a higher percentage of candidates for poor credit.

Why do employers check credit reports, anyway? For certain positions, a credit report might reveal pertinent information. You may not want an employee who never pays bills on time to manage a department budget, prepare economic forecasts, or have free access to a company credit card. In many situations, however, poor credit reveals no more than bad luck: high medical bills, divorce, and job loss account for many financial woes. Although there are certainly some people who run up huge debts on luxury items, never planning to pay for them, there are many whose debts are based on sadder — and more mundane –circumstances.

Rejecting these applicants for jobs puts them in a Catch-22: They lost a job, which hurt their credit, which will prevent them from getting a job, and so on. In recognition of this, states are starting to step in and prohibit employers from using credit reports in making hiring and other job decisions. Nine states have passed these laws so far, and more are considering similar legislation. You can find our articles on these laws in State Laws on Employer Use of Credit Reports; for more information on the rules for using applicant credit reports in hiring, including notice and consent requirements, see Can Prospective Employers Check Your Credit Report?

Do You Really Want to Contest Unemployment Benefits?

The unemployment rate is gradually declining, but my own personal barometer — based on the admittedly unscientific measurement of questions people ask me because they know I’m an employment lawyer — shows that interest in unemployment remains high. Employers and employees want to know the same thing: What reasons for leaving a job disqualify someone from getting benefits?

Here in California, the rules about eligibility for unemployment are among the most generous in the country. An employee who quits a job for good cause can still get benefits. Good cause includes not only job-related reasons (such as dangerous working conditions or harassment) but also circumstances wholly apart from work. For example, if you quit your job because you need to relocate with your spouse, escape domestic violence, or care for an ailing family member, you will likely be eligible for unemployment benefits.

Employees who are fired can get benefits unless the termination was based on misconduct. If that sounds like a low standard, that’s only because you haven’t heard how California defines the term. An employee has committed misconduct only if all of the following are true:

  • The employee owed a material duty to the employer, such as showing up for work.
  • The employee substantially breached that duty: A minor or one-time transgression isn’t enough to meet this requirement.
  • The employee showed a wanton or willful disregard for that duty. In other words, the employee wasn’t just careless or thoughtless but, instead, intentionally violated the duty or showed a reckless disregard for the consequences of your breach of the duty. Inefficiency, inability to perform the job, or good faith errors in judgment don’t meet this standard and won’t render someone ineligible for benefits.
  • The employee’s breach tends to materially harm the employer’s business interests.

That third factor is the key that unlocks benefits for many fired employees. Poor performance, mistakes, and even incompetence are not supposed to be enough to deny benefits: The intention requirement in the standard means the employee must have been making a choice, either to engage in wrongdoing or to perform poorly. An employee who really can’t do the job is supposed to get benefits. (For comprehensive — and comprehensible — information on unemployment in California, check out the Unemployment Insurance page at the website of the always awesome Employment Law Center.)

Some of the questions I’ve been asked lately (on the employer side) kind of remind me of that old Mad Magazine cartoon, “Unclear on the Concept.” Here are a couple of examples:

Can we ask employees to waive the right to collect unemployment in a severance agreement? Only if you don’t mind breaking the law. In California, unemployment benefits may not be waived. A contractual agreement by an employee to give up the right to apply for or collect unemployment is void and invalid. What’s more, severance pay ordinarily doesn’t count as “wages,” and so doesn’t reduce the amount of benefits a former employee can collect. (If severance is paid out over time as if it were wages, the employee may have to delay collecting benefits.)

Can we ask employees to agree that failing to meet our performance standards constitutes a voluntary quit? Same answer. It really doesn’t matter what you require employees to agree to: Employees are entitled to benefits when they lose their jobs unless they commit misconduct, as defined above, or quit without good cause, also as defined above. The EDD doesn’t care how you redefine these terms in a performance improvement plan or employment contract. If an employee is terminated because of poor performance, that is not a voluntary quit. In fact, employers who try this strategy might be facing more problems than an increase in unemployment claims: Requiring employees to sign a contract that you know you can’t enforce could arguably constitute an unfair business practice, which takes an employer into territory where huge damages can be awarded.

To return to the title of this post, it is almost never in the employer’s interest to try to contest benefits this aggressively. Fighting an employee’s claim on dodgy grounds will turn the employees you still have against you: They will find out about it, and they will not be feeling the love. It will take time and money to appeal employee claims. And you will make a bitter enemy of the employee you fired, one who has every incentive to file a lawsuit against your company. By all means, challenge claims by bad apples who are trying to game the system, who truly committed misconduct, who quit for no good reason, who stopped even trying to do their jobs months before you fired them. But otherwise, it’s generally best to let the system do what it’s supposed to do: provide some help to those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, until they can find new work.

Supreme Court’s FLSA Decision on Collective Actions

Last week, the Supreme Court decided a case about collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Collective actions are similar to class actions, in that they give an employee the right to file a lawsuit on behalf of a group of employees who have the same basic claim against the employer. The Court’s decision took a strange turn, resulting in a victory for the employer that skirted a primary issue in the case.

Here’s what happened: Laura Symczyk filed a collective action against her employer, Genesis Healthcare, claiming that it had an unfair policy of docking employees for a 30-minute meal break every shift, whether or not the employee had to work during that time. (If an employee must work through a meal, the employee is entitled to be paid; nobody disputes this basic assertion underlying the employee’s case.) Symczyk was the only named employee in the case, but anticipated that others would join in once the collective action was conditionally certified: that is, once the court found that the group of employees were similarly situated to Symczyk because they were subject to the same policy or practice.

Before Symczyk tried to certify the collective action, Genesis offered to settle her claim. Genesis said it would pay her $7,500, plus fees and costs. Symczyk didn’t respond, and Genesis withdrew the offer.

This settlement offer was made under Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under Rule 68, if one party doesn’t accept a settlement offer, that party will be responsible for all of its lawsuit costs after the date the offer was made, unless that party gets a judgment that’s better than the settlement offer. The purpose of this Rule is to give both sides a strong incentive to settle: The defendant has good reason to offer a generous settlement, both to get out of the lawsuit and to make it more likely that the plaintiff won’t do better at trial. The plaintiff has a good reason to accept, both because the offer is likely to be generous and because the plaintiff may have to foot a large litigation bill if the judgment isn’t better than the settlement.

With me so far? Because here’s where things get weird. The trial court threw out the lawsuit, finding that Symczyk no longer had an active dispute against the company because she had been offered all of the relief to which she was entitled. Because Symczyk no longer had a claim, she couldn’t represent other employees, and so the whole case got tossed.

The problem is that Symczyk didn’t accept the settlement offer; she turned it down. She didn’t get any money in settlement and, because the court tossed her case, she won’t get any money at trial. This should not be possible: Plaintiffs who turn down a Rule 64 settlement offer have a right to take their chances in court. The plaintiffs may win or they may lose, but they buy the opportunity to take their best shot by forgoing the settlement. It isn’t fair to throw a case out when the plaintiffs have neither settlement nor judgment in hand. Nonetheless, one federal judiciary circuit has interpreted Rule 64 to allow this type of penalty, presumably in an effort to put a stop to unnecessary litigation.

But the Court skipped right past this issue to decide that, if Symczyk’s case was properly dismissed, then she can no longer represent the group. Employee attorneys take issue with this, arguing that employees should have a chance to replace the named plaintiff-employee when this happens and continue with the lawsuit. Otherwise, defendant-employers could “pick off” the named employee (by making a Rule 68 offer) and get any collective action filed against it thrown out of court.

This is an interesting argument, but not the one the Court should have decided. In almost any federal court, Symczyk’s case would not have been dismissed and she would still be capable of representing the group. By leaving this fundamental issue undecided, the Court hasn’t clarified things very much for those on either side of an FLSA collective action.

Time to Update Your Company’s Harlem Shake Policy

It was bound to happen: All those Harlem Shake videos on YouTube have finally gotten the attention of the lawyers. According to Law.com, the Federal Aviation Association is investigating safety concerns over a Shake incident by passengers on a Frontier Airlines flight. (You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the group was led by members of Colorado College’s Ultimate Frisbee team.) Safety concerns were also cited in the firing of a group of Australian miners for their on-the-job Shake performance. (See more in the Law.com article, When the Harlem Shake Bumps Against Workplace Policy.)

The article didn’t even scratch the surface of employees recently fired for participating in dance crazes, including an Oxford Librarian fired for allowing the filming of a Harlem Shake video at the University, and the Gagnam Style 14, a group of young lifeguards in Southern California who were fired, then rehired, after posting their homage video. Ride those horsies straight to the unemployment line, kids! Even Conan O’Brien has gotten into the act, firing an Indian chief, an astronaut, a giant banana, and someone dressed as a pillow, just as they start gettin’ their Shake on. (Okay, so this last one seems to be a parody.)

Some employment lawyers have taken this opportunity to talk about the infiltration of social media into the workplace, draining company resources and lowering employee productivity. I suppose that’s fair enough, and there may be true safety concerns when employees are getting their groove on down a mine shaft. On the other hand, some of these videos look to be real morale boosters. They can even be useful to employers: A local rescue group for older dogs (Muttville) has posted theirs — which includes people dressed as dogs and actual dogs — as a promotional video. At least we can be glad it isn’t thirty years ago, when the Streak was popular! Oh wait, it still is for this fired guy.

 

 

President Obama’s Proposed Minimum Wage Increase

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of many things. Not shoes and ships and sealing wax, but immigration reform, proposals to stop gun violence, climate change, and energy policy. The proposal that seemed to get the most press afterwards, however, was his call to raise the minimum wage to $9 (from the current rate of $7.25 an hour) and tie further increases to the cost of living.

Perhaps one reason this got the most press is that it’s so concise. Unlike, for example, immigration reform or steps to halt climate change, raising the minimum wage is simple and straightforward. The details of the proposal are clear. No comprehensive plan is necessary, and there aren’t a lot of moving parts. Of course, that doesn’t mean the proposal is without controversy. The Chamber of Commerce has long opposed increases in the minimum wage, and other business groups have come out against any increases.

What would be the practical effect of the President’s proposal? Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia require employers to pay a higher minimum wage than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour. As of today, however, only one state — Washington — has a minimum wage of at least $9. As a practical matter, this means wages would go up in virtually every state if the rate were raised all at once. (Except in cities that have their own higher minimum wages. In San Francisco, for example, employers must pay at least $10.55 an hour; where I work, in Berkeley, vendors with the city must pay at least $13.03 an hour with medical benefits, or $15.20 an hour without.)

Final FMLA Regulations Cover Veterans and More

On February 6, 2013, the Department of Labor issued its final regulations implementing statutory amendments to the FMLA. These regulations incorporate the amendments Congress passed in 2010. Among other things, the 2010 amendments:

  • tweaked the way eligibility and hours are calculated for flight crews
  • expanded the right to take qualifying exigency leave to cover not only employees with family members in the National Guard and Reserves, but also employees with family members in the regular armed forces, and
  • expanded the right to take military caregiver leave to cover not only employees with family members who were seriously injured while on active military duty, but also employees with family members who exacerbated a preexisting injury while on active duty and employees with family members who are veterans suffering from a serious injury incurred while on active duty.

About a year ago, the Department of Labor issued proposed regulations implementing these provisions and seeking input from the public on a few key issues, including how to implement the leave provision to care for a veteran. Rather than issuing proposed regulations on this topic, the Department decided to hold off until it had received comments and issued its final regulations. As a result, the Department delayed the effective date of this provision. Until it issued final regulations defining the key terms (including who qualifies as a veteran and what constitutes a serious injury for a veteran), the Department took the position that employers were not legally required to provide this type of FMLA leave.

That has now changed. As of the effective date of the final regulations (March 8, 2013), employers are now required to provide FMLA leave to employees who need time off to care for a family member who is a veteran and suffered a serious injury while on active duty.

The final regulations have changed military family leave in a few important ways:

  • Veterans defined. One of the reasons why Congress amended the FMLA was to allow time off for employees to care for family members who had served in the military and later manifested serious health problems, notably PTSD. The final regulations define “serious injury,” and make clear that injuries are covered whether they manifest before or after the veteran leaves the military. The veteran must have been in the military in the five years before the employee first takes FMLA leave. However, the time between the Congressional amendments (October 28, 2009) and the effective date of the final regulations (March 8, 2013) doesn’t count against this five-year limit. The Department excluded this time because employers weren’t required to give leave to care for an injured veteran during this period. 
  • Qualifying exigencies expanded. As required by Congress, the final rule expands qualifying exigency leave to cover not only family members who are members of the National Guard and Reserves, but also family members who are in the regular armed forces and are deployed to a foreign country. This type of leave is intended to allow employers to handle practical matters arising from a family member’s deployment. The final regulations make a few changes to this type of leave. For example, employees may take up to 15 days off for a family member’s rest and recuperation leave (the previous limit was five days). The final regulations also add a new type of qualifying exigency leave, to allow employees to take time off to make arrangements for a military family member’s parent who is incapable of self-care. For example, the employee might need to hire a caretaker for the parent, tour care facilities, and so on.

The Department of Labor has issued a helpful FAQ set on the final regulations.