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.

The worst aspect of California employment law is the way it combines unclear requirements with exorbitant penalties for noncompliance. So employers can’t necessarily tell what the law requires and, if they get it wrong, face crippling financial penalties. The latest illustration of that principle comes from the California Supreme Court’s December 22, 2016 opinion in Augustus v. ABM Security Services, Inc.

The plaintiffs in this consolidated class action worked as security guards and were required to keep their pagers and radio phones on during their 10-minute rest periods and to respond when needs arose. ABM argued that it was providing a sufficient rest period. But the trial court disagreed and decided on plaintiffs summary judgment motions that they were not relieved of all duty and that they were therefore entitled to $90 million in damages, interest, and penalties (the penalty for missing a 10-minute rest period being an hour of pay).

ABM appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that being on call does not constitute performing work. Then the California Supreme Court granted review and reversed the Court of Appeal, reinstating the $90 million judgment.

The Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders clearly state that employees must be “relieved of all duty” during meal periods. But there is no corresponding language in the rest period requirement. Instead, the majority opinion intuited that employees must be relieved of all duties during rest periods from analyzing the definition of “rest.” The court also looked at Labor Code §226.7, which prohibits employers from requiring employees to work during rest periods. Finally, the court focused on the fact that the Wage Orders make provisions for on-duty meal periods, but not for on-duty rest periods. That being the case, it reasoned, on-duty rest periods must not be allowed.

Copyright: twinsterphoto / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: twinsterphoto / 123RF Stock Photo

All of this begs the question whether being required to carry a radio or pager constitutes work. The majority opinion states that employees are not relieved of all duties if they’re required to be on call. This conclusion, it notes, is the most consistent with its interpretation of the Wage Orders and Labor Code and with the axiom that those sources should be construed in a manner to protect employees.

A two-justice dissenting opinion explained that the “the bare requirement to carry a radio, phone, pager, or other communication device in case of emergency does not constitute ‘work’ in any relevant sense of the term.” This was especially true, the dissent noted, given the lack of any evidence that any guards’ rest breaks ever were, in fact, interrupted. The dissent also explained that the majority opinion creates further ambiguity by saying that the employees in question were deprived of their rest periods where they were required to “remain on call, vigilant, and at the ready during their rest periods.” If requiring employees to be “vigilant” and “at the ready” is part of what made these rest periods inadequate, the dissent asked, shouldn’t the court explain what that means? Or do we need another decade’s worth of class-action litigation to sort that out, too?

Here are steps employers should take now to comply with this decision:

  • Prohibit employees from carrying employer-provided pagers, radio phones, or similar communication devices at work.
  • In most situations, you should not prohibit employees from using their personal mobile phones on rest breaks, since the time is their own and they must be free from employer control. But you should not require them to monitor their phones.
  • If an employee’s rest period is interrupted with work requirements, either provide a different uninterrupted 10-minute rest period (you could start the 10 minutes running again after the interruption) or pay the penalty.
  • If, as the employer, you exercise any control over what employees can do during their rest periods, consult counsel as to whether that practice is still defensible.

My December routine is pretty predictable…sitting by the fire with my favorite holiday season beverage and my laptop fully charged to update employment handbooks and forms for the new year.  As an employment law policy and counseling specialist, I’m working on handbook number seven so far this month and thought I would share some of my specific updates with you.

glasses.

  1.  Paid Sick Leave
    Though Los Angeles City Paid Sick Leave went into effect July 1, 2016, there are many employers without compliant policies.  The LA Ordinance doubles CA state-mandated sick pay but does not apply to exempt employees, like the state law does.  Additionally, the LA Ordinance regulations say that if an employer has a more generous PTO policy in existence, the City may deem the employer compliant.  The issue that I’m seeing is that many employer PTO policies exclude part-timers so there is a gap in compliance with respect to those part-timers who may be entitled to accrue more paid sick leave under the LA Ordinance than under the state law.
  2. Harassment
    We’ve said it before, but the “new” DFEH regulations went into effect April 1, 2016.  Most policies generally need a few small tweaks to be compliant, as detailed here.
  3. Fair Pay
    Though it only went into effect a year ago, there are two notable amendments in SB 1063 to the California Fair Pay Act that should be reflected in your policies.  The first amendment mandates that employees of different races or ethnicities be paid the same for performing “substantially similar” work. The other amendment forbids employers from relying on an employee’s salary history alone as justification for a pay gap between employees.
  4. Defend Trade Secrets Act
    New requirements for Confidentiality and Non-disclosure agreements and policies took effect earlier this year as we detailed in this Client Alert.
  5. Domestic Violence Notice
    Expanded protections for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking take effect in 2017. The amended law requires employers to inform each employee of his or her rights established under the law by providing specific information in writing to new employees upon hire and to other employees upon request. Employers will not be required to distribute this information until the labor commissioner publishes the form employers will be able to use to comply with the law, which should happen no later than July 1, 2017.
  6. Wage Theft Prevention
    If you reclassified any employees from exempt to non-exempt given the uncertainty of the DOL regulations, be sure to issue newly non-exempt employees the required Wage Theft Prevention form upon reclassification and ensure compliance with time tracking, meal and break periods.

If you haven’t gotten to these updates yet, I’m sure I will be issuing 2017 edition handbooks straight through January, though I may go back to drinking my vanilla lattes by then.

If you’re a city contractor or private employer in the City of Los Angeles with 10 or more employees, starting January 22, 2017 you will be subject to new restrictions on how you deal with job applicants’ criminal histories. The only employers exempt from these requirements will be those that are required by law to obtain conviction information, are prohibited by law from hiring applicants convicted of a crime, are seeking to fill positions that applicants with convictions are prohibited from holding, or that are filling positions where employees are required to possess or use firearms. All other employers should prepare to take the following steps:

1. Eliminate any questions in your employment applications about criminal histories. Make sure that your recruiters and interviewers also know not to make such inquiries.

2. Include language in all solicitations or advertisements seeking applicants that you will consider qualified applicants with criminal histories in a manner consistent with the Los Angeles Fair Chance Initiative for Hiring.

3. Post a notice informing applicants for employment about the LA Fair Chance Initiative at each workplace, job site, or other location in the City of Los Angeles under your control that job applicants visit. If you have unionized workers, you must also send a copy to the union representing those workers. The City of LA will presumably make such a notice available.

4. Put a “Fair Chance Process” in place. Specifically, after you’ve made a conditional offer of employment, you may ask the applicant about criminal convictions. But you may not withdraw the application based on the response without:

(a) Completing a written assessment that explains the link between the applicant’s criminal history and the risks inherent in the position applied for. This assessment must include discussion of the nature of the offense or conduct that led to the conviction; the time that has passed since the conviction or release from incarceration; and the nature of the position sought. The ordinance allows the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Contract Administration to add to this list of factors in the future.

(b) If you are considering withdrawing a conditional offer of employment, you must first provide the applicant written notice, a copy of the written assessment you created, and any other documents or information supporting the decision. You must then give the applicant five business days to provide any information regarding rehabilitation or other mitigating factors. You must hold the position open during that time.

(c) If the applicant provides such information, you must consider it and complete a written reassessment.

Copyright: welcomia / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: welcomia / 123RF Stock Photo

(d) If you still decide to withdraw the offer, you must then notify the applicant in writing and provide a copy of the reassessment.

5. Maintain all relevant records for three years after receipt of an application for employment.

While the ordinance takes effect January 22, 2017, any violation before July 1, 2017 will result only in a written warning. After that date, employers who make prohibited inquiries are subject to fines of $500 to $2,000 per violation. The fine for failing to include language in an employment advertisement or job posting or for failing to maintain the required records will be $500 per violation. Applicants can also bring civil actions to enforce the ordinance.

LA is not the first city to adopt “Ban the Box” requirements. San Francisco did so in 2014. But LA’s ordinance seems to be the most demanding. Employers are well-advised to consult qualified employment counsel to ensure that they have proper procedures in place for dealing with applicants with criminal backgrounds.

The year end is a time for reflection, and one theme in my practice this year has been the failure of managers (and some HR professionals) to fully understand the interactive process, and to inadvertently cause liability by imposing a 100% healed policy.

Here’s how it often works.  An employee goes out for a medical issue, sometimes work-related, sometimes not.  At some point the employee reaches out about returning to work with some sort of restrictions.

  • The manager believes these restrictions will prevent the employee from performing the job as needed, emails HR and indicates an inability to accommodate the restrictions, and the HR manager takes the manager at her/his word.
  • It is communicated back to the employee that she/he can’t return to work until 100% healed, or fully able to do the job, or similar words.
  • What we have here is a documented example of failure to engage in the interactive process, which equals liability.  Not helpful.
Speech bubbles
Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Here’s how it should work.  The same employee raises a medical issue and reaches out about returning to work with some restrictions.

  • The manager partners with HR to get more details on those restrictions, clarify the scope of those restrictions with the  employee as needed (i.e. interact), and documents those discussions.
  • They review the job description (if one exists) to see what is listed as an essential function of the job, understand how others have been accommodated (or not accommodated) in similar situations, and evaluate whether the employee can or cannot perform the essential functions of the job with any accommodation (whether requested or not).
  • They further discuss with the employee (i.e. interact) and document those discussions.
  • Care is taken to be consistent with accommodations granted (or not granted).
  • No one uses the term 100% healed.
  • What we have here is a documented example of engaging in the interactive process, which should equal no liability.  Very helpful.

While both scenarios can yield the same result, one is a trigger for liability, and one is a great defense to a disability discrimination or failure to accommodate/engage in the interactive process claim.  The choice is yours.  And remember, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

 

On January 1, 2017, the California minimum wage will increase for businesses with more than 25 employees from $10 per hour to $10.50 per hour. This is another step toward a $15 per hour minimum wage on January 1, 2022. You can see a schedule of the planned increases here. The legislation allows the governor to pause increases for a year if budget or economic factors dictate.

Copyright: svlumagraphica / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: svlumagraphica / 123RF Stock Photo

In addition, more than 20 cities and counties, three ports, and various business zones have their own minimum wage/living wage ordinances (which the good folks at UC Berkeley (Go Bears!) have been kind enough to track for you here).

Businesses subject to the state increase (i.e. those with more than 25 employees) will see a corresponding increase in the minimum salary required for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions to $43,680. That’s not so bad considering that, up until last week, we thought that number would be $47,476 under federal legislation that would have taken effect tomorrow but for a Texas judge granting a temporary injunction.

What will the end result be? Over-priced burritos? Robots taking over entry level jobs and developing the skills that will ultimately lead to cyborg attacks? Or just a constantly changing mishmash of laws so confusing that full compliance is all but impossible?

Many employers have taken steps to comply with the US Department of Labor’s Final Overtime Rule that was set to take effect on December 1st. But yesterday, a District Court judge in Texas issued a temporary injunction barring the rules from taking effect nationwide. You can read our take on the issue here.

Copyright: rangizzz / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: rangizzz / 123RF Stock Photo