I remember back in 2004 when AB 1825 passed, requiring all California businesses with over 50 employees to train all managers and supervisors on harassment prevention.  It was one of the first significant employment laws signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he became California governor (and yes, that is ironic given the allegations against him).

Uncomfortable employee
Copyright: bbtreesubmission / 123RF Stock Photo

For the past 13 years, I have been conducting harassment prevention training for clients.  I have probably done that training 150 times.  And each year when I update my materials, there are always plenty of new and juicy stories from my cases, and the news, to refer to.

I always start each training by asking – why are we doing this?  Is it still needed?  Well, apparently, it is.  Especially in the tech industry.  Have you been following the stories last week about Uber?  Can it be that such stuff still happens in work places in California?

For those of you who haven’t been following, here are the highlights.

  • The issues started on February 19th when Susan Fowler wrote a very compelling blog post detailing her experiences as a female engineer at Uber.
  • Her account is very troubling from an HR standpoint, including overt sexual overtures from management, and reports to HR that were incredibly mishandled.
  • Fowler contends that Human Resources essentially sided with management, protected the serial harasser, and lied to her and others about it; in legal terms that is called ratifying bad behavior.
  • By February 21st, Uber had retained former US Attorney Eric Holder to lead an independent review into Fowler’s claims.
  • Board member Arianna Huffington and the company’s Head of HR were also tapped to assist.
  • Then on February 22nd, the New York Times wrote an article titled “Inside Uber’s Aggressive, Unrestrained Workplace Culture.”  Indeed, that article brought to my mind images of the excesses portrayed by Leonard DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street before the stock crash.
  • Then on February 23rd, Uber’s CEO met with over 100 of the company’s female engineers (the “Lady Eng Group“), who told him that the company has a “systemic problem” with sexism.

Wow.  How can this be?  13 years after AB 1825?  Haven’t businesses learned that harassment costs money?  Public embarrassment?  How much money does a company have to lose to take such claims seriously?  How many good (and typically female) employees need to exit?

After defending such claims for employers for over 20 years now, I know that not all harassment allegations are true, and that there are two sides to every story.  I also know that sometimes well-meaning Human Resources professionals are thwarted by management.  But I also know that company culture starts at the top, and if management doesn’t live the stated company values, the employees don’t either.  And if management endorses an aggressive bro-centric abusive environment, then its employees will too.

Or as one of my favorite hospitality clients likes to say “fish rots from the head.”

Fingers crossed for Uber that they get it right, and fix whatever issues are festering and detracting from their mission.  Or in the reported words of Ariana Huffington, stop hiring “brilliant jerks.”

A December 2016 publication from the EEOC titled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights” doesn’t exactly break new ground. It does, however, highlight issues that arise repeatedly in disability discrimination cases and, therefore, bear repeating. Here are the key takeaways:

  1. The definition of what constitutes a disability is broader than many realize. The guidance tells employees: “You can get a reasonable accommodation for any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, ‘substantially limit’ your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other ‘major life activity.'” That’s the EEOC’s standard. California’s is even broader.

    Copyright: arquiplay77 / 123RF Stock Photo
    Copyright: arquiplay77 / 123RF Stock Photo
  2. As the guidance warns, employers deciding whether someone can perform the essential functions of a position or whether they pose a significant risk to others may not rely on “myths or stereotypes.” Instead, employers must base those decisions on objective evidence.
  3. Employers trying to gather objective evidence face conflicting obligations. On one hand, they need to understand the employee’s limitations so that they can make an informed decision on offering an accommodation. On the other, they are limited in terms of what they can ask by the employee’s privacy rights. The guidance cautions employees that they may need to disclose information concerning a mental condition when seeking a reasonable accommodation. A publication issued contemporaneously, “The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work,” informs healthcare providers that they also may need to make certain disclosures, provided that they have their patients’ written authorization. In light of these conflicting obligations, employers should focus on the employee’s specific limitations, rather than their underlying cause or diagnosis. Employers also need to ensure that any medical information they do receive is kept confidential.
  4. The way to gather objective evidence on an employee’s limitations and possible accommodations is through the interactive process. Employers need to engage their workers in a frank discussion of the essential functions of the position, whether the employee can perform those essential functions, and what accommodations may be available. I discuss what the interactive process requires in more detail here.
  5. Flexibility is key. The employer must be open to different accommodations that may enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. (Here’s a list of possible accommodations.) If a particular accommodation turns out to be ineffective, the employer must consider alternatives. If no accommodation will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the position, the employer must consider moving the employee to other available positions or placing the employee on an unpaid leave. Considering the employee for other open positions requires more than telling them to apply for whatever interests them. In California, it requires giving the employee “preferential consideration.”
  6. Employers only need to offer a leave of absence if it will help the employee get to a point where he or she can return to work in some capacity. Also, employers don’t have to grant indefinite leaves.
  7. An employer doesn’t have to hire or keep people in jobs they can’t perform.” That encouraging statement comes straight from the EEOC’s guidance. It also cautions employees that “an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.”

This remains one of the more complicated areas of employment law. Employers that don’t understand the extent of their obligations expose themselves to costly litigation and government investigations.

What do you get when you cross blue state liberal marijuana laws with red state conservatism? A purple haze.

Copyright: chris2766 / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: chris2766 / 123RF Stock Photo

California voters approved recreational use of marijuana for adults in the November 2016 election. But federal law still characterizes marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic. The extent to which the current administration will attempt to enforce federal marijuana laws in more permissive states is anyone’s guess. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made comments at a press conference yesterday that indicated that the Department of Justice may take a dim view of recreational use, regardless of applicable state law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is also well-known for his opposition to marijuana.

What does all this mean for California employers? Even though recreational use is legal, the law does not:

  • Require employers to permit use, possession, sale, or growth of marijuana in the workplace;
  • Prohibit policies against the use of marijuana by current and prospective employees; or
  • Prohibit pre-employment testing.

The problem with testing is that it’s not yet sensitive enough to tell whether someone was impaired at a particular point in time as opposed telling whether they’ve consumed marijuana in the last 30 days or so. Moreover, many employers have moved away from pre-employment testing because it eliminates too many seemingly qualified candidates.

Want more information about the marijuana laws in your area, check out our Cannabis Law Practice Group or follow practice co-chair Josh Horn on Twitter.

Potluck

Attention hospitality professionals.  Come join me and Sahara Pynes at the Potluck Conference on February 20-21st at the Hudson Loft in downtown Los Angeles.

This new conference is for professionals in the evolving hospitality industry, including hotels, restaurants, venues for private dinners, off-site catering, pop-ups and underground supper clubs.  It is open to innovators from all walks of the hospitality industry (chefs, designers, producers, venue operators) to share a forum of conversation, workshops, and education.

I will be providing a keynote address on Tuesday, February 21st on the Top 10 Trending Topics in Hospitality HR.  Sahara will follow with a session on Employee Documentation from A to Z.

Check it out.  You can register here.  We hope to see you there!

We recently updated a 15-page Employer’s Guide to Doing Business In California. The guide provides clear summaries of California’s unique requirements for meal and rest periods, the Fair Pay Act, paychecks and wage statements, the various leaves of absence, and more. If you subscribe to that whole “ounce of prevention” theory, this is a great way to see if your company is complying with California’s unique employment law requirements. You can download a pdf of the Guide here.

Spending a little time to determine if your company is sufficiently protected is a lot quicker and cheaper than waiting for a lawsuit and learning first hand why California ranks as the number one judicial hellhole.

Copyright: ibreaker213 / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: ibreaker213 / 123RF Stock Photo

Special thanks to Cristina ArmstrongTyreen Torner, and Sahara Pynes for their work updating prior versions of the guide.

No matter which part of the political spectrum you might find yourself on, whether it be the far left, the alt right, or somewhere in between, this past weekend certainly provides some food for thought applicable to California employers.

Gender equality word cloud
Copyright: arloo / 123RF Stock Photo

The country, and many workplaces, have become increasingly polarized.  Yet many people are craving inclusion and a sense of hope.  Employees want to be valued, appreciated and heard.  Supporters of the new administration certainly voiced a sense of hope that things might change, and that those left behind by a growing economy will see some actions to address their concerns.  The hundreds of thousands of people who marched in various cities across the county, including a reported 750,000 here in Los Angeles, also voiced a need for a sense of inclusion with other like-minded individuals, even if those people may have different views on specific issues.

While discussions about politics in the workplace can be divisive and are universally not recommended, discussions about inclusion are important.  That inclusion can be based on sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, disability or any other category protected by law.  In fact, the law here in California has granted protections to individuals in workplaces who raise concerns about pay equity, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation for raising concerns about any such issues.  So open discussions in the workplace should be welcomed.

Many people are wondering what they can do to make a difference.  On that issue, and as it relates to inclusion in the workplace, here are a few suggestions (several adapted from the Father of a Daughter Initiative):

  • When someone at work opens up to you about an issue they believe is unfair, hear them out and resist the urge to be defensive.  You don’t need to agree, but you can certainly listen and try to understand their point of view.
  • Act to correct issues of bias or micro-inequities you may witness or hear about.  This can be as simple as repeating and emphasizing what someone with less power says at a meeting, while explicitly giving that person credit (“as Maria just said, I agree that we need to ….”).  This concept has been referred to as “shine theory” or “amplification.”
  • If you are in a position of power, make sure to look beyond your regular go-to personnel, and expand your net to someone you may not have considered for a special assignment or important role.
  • Be a visible advocate for those in your workplace less powerful than you are.

My hope, as Co-Chair of my firm’s Womens’ Initiative, is that this weekend’s momentum can be followed by many individual acts of inclusiveness at work.  Change starts with each one of us.  Let’s all be open to alternate points of view, make a difference in our own way, and strive to be a positive influence on those around us.

I hope you’ll join my Fox colleagues Keith Chrestionson and Jaemin Chang and me on January 27 for the next in our series of breakfast briefings in our San Francisco office.  Our breakfast series explores various topics of interest to the Bay Area’s business communities in informal presentations and interactive Q&A sessions.  This session will focus on new California laws and local ordinances that are most likely to affect employers throughout the state, including:

  • Legalization of marijuana and its effect on the workplace
  • Amendments to the California Fair Pay Act
  • “All gender” bathrooms
  • New rules for meal and rest periods
  • Domestic violence leave
  • Expanded prohibitions on smoking at work
  • State disability and paid family leave benefits
  • Local ordinances (parental leave, minimum wage)

The event will take place at:

345 California Street
Suite 2200
San Francisco CA 94104-2670
(View Google Map)

The presentation and Q&A session will begin at 8:30 a.m., followed by a networking reception at 9:30 a.m. Breakfast and refreshments will be served.  Please register here by January 25.

Last Friday, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear cases from the 9th,  7th, and 5th Circuits in which the courts are split on the issue whether class action waivers in employee arbitration agreements violate Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act by inhibiting employees’ rights to engage in “concerted activity”.  The NLRB has been promoting this novel theory for the past few years, under which the arbitration agreement can be invalidated notwithstanding the fact that it is otherwise enforceable under the preemptive effect of the Federal Arbitration Act.  Readers of this blog will recall that the California Supreme Court rejected that theory in Iskanian v. CLS. The defendant in that case argued that a class action does not necessarily involve “concerted” action at all.  A class action merely requires one employee with a complaint and a lawyer to file the case.  Only in the world of legal fiction can such a case automatically constitute “concerted activity”.  That legal fiction is a far cry from the scenario — several employees standing around the water cooler griping about wages and talking about unions and strikes —  envisioned by Congress in 1935 when the phrase “concerted activity” was coined.

Now, the US Supreme Court will settle the issue, and the lower  courts and particularly the NLRB will finally be bound by the result.  The cases will be briefed and argued later in the year.  By then, there will likely be a full complement of nine Justices on the Court.  The current Court may be split 4-4 on this issue.  The new Justice, assuming she or he is confirmed over what  is likely to be fierce opposition in the Senate,  will thus probably  be the deciding vote in these casesThe cases are Morris v. Ernst&Young (9th Cir.), Lewis v. Epic Systems (7th Cir.), and Murphy Oil v. NLRB (5th Cir.).  In these cases, and other employment cases likely to come before the Supreme Court in the near future, the stakes are high and the issues profound.  As we have said before, what a difference an empty chair makes.

Let’s pick up where we left off. In our last post of 2016, I was complaining about the California Supreme Court’s decision in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc. The majority opinion in that case said that employees who were required to carry phones or pagers on their rest breaks, even if they didn’t get called or paged, were deprived of their statutory breaks and were therefore owed a one-hour penalty. While I found plenty to complain about in that decision (I’m good that way), there’s another issue I want to address.

Copyright: bruno135 / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: bruno135 / 123RF Stock Photo

The third sentence of the decisions says: “During required rest periods, employers must relieve their employees of all duties and relinquish any control over how employees spend their break time.” The language comes from Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, which dealt with meal periods. But what does it mean? Are employees exempt from substance abuse, dress code, firearm possession, and harassment prevention policies during breaks? Stated differently, is the employer powerless if workers use their break time to get drunk, strip off their clothes, and chase co-workers around the workplace with guns demanding sexual favors? I’d like to think that the answer is “no,” but Augustus, in interpreting the wage orders, urges us to give language its “plain and commonsense meaning,” If that’s what we’re supposed to do, it would be nice if the courts chose their words with a little more care. The penalties for not complying with wage and hour laws are draconian enough without the laws being too vague for employers to know what’s expected.