Perhaps you’ve noticed a certain amount of incivility in political discourse. You may have even noticed that the current U.S. president has a somewhat polarizing effect. Some people love him. Some people hate him. And many hold those who don’t share their beliefs in contempt.

What if that incivility spreads into the workplace? Can employers get sued if employees feel that they’ve been discriminated against for their political views?

California Labor Code § 1101 prohibits employers from having “any rule, regulation, or policy” (1) forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or running for office; or (2) “controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.” That statute prohibits employers from taking action against employees for their political activities that don’t directly affect their job performance. So employers in California are not allowed to discriminate based on political activities or affiliations. Employers are, however, allowed to take action when employees’ expression of their political views affects their job performance or that of co-workers.

What if employees claim that their co-workers are creating a hostile work environment because of their political affiliation? “Talia poured coffee on my MAGA hat and it wasn’t an accident!” There the law is less clear. (I’m assuming the employee wasn’t wearing the hat at the time – that would be battery.) Political belief is not a protected category under state and federal discrimination laws. There are plenty of reasons why employers want to prevent abusive behavior in the workplace. But unless the employee is advocating on behalf of a protected group (e.g. arguing that the employer underpays workers of  a particular race) or for employee rights (e.g. seeking to organize workers), I see no law that requires employers to prevent political disagreements at work. In other words, California has yet to recognize a claim for a politically hostile work environment.

One thing that is clear is that employee’s told to refrain from political arguments at work can’t turn to the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. That guarantee doesn’t restrict what private (as opposed to government) employers can do.

In the past, we’ve done a Halloween post on whether it’s OK to discriminate against monsters. But this subject is much scarier.

The Bar Association of San Francisco is presenting a seminar: 2018 Disability Employment Law Updates. It will take place on December 11, 2018, from noon to 1:15, at the BASF Conference Center, 301 Battery St., 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94111.

Ben Bien-Kahn of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP will present the plaintiff’s perspective and I’ll present the defense perspective. The program is approved for 1 hour of of MCLE and is sponsored by the Equality Committee on Disability Rights of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

You can register to attend the event in person or to receive the webcast here. I hope to see you there!

Tyreen Torner has again updated this Chart Summarizing CA State and Local Paid Sick Leave Rules. It summarizes the Paid Sick Leave laws for California, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland, Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Emeryville.

Regular readers of this blog may be asking: “Wait. Didn’t she just do an update in June?” Yes, she did! But there have been changes since then in the rules for Santa Monica, San Francisco, and pesky little Emeryville. Keeping this chart current requires constant vigilance, but Tyreen is up to the task.

No lazy Sunday for Governor Jerry Brown!  Today he signed four new bills into law, taking major steps to combat sexual harassment in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Here is a brief overview of the new laws and what they mean for California employers:

  • Senate Bill 820 prohibits non-disclosure provisions in settlement agreements related to civil or administrative complaints of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and workplace harassment or discrimination based on sex. The bill expressly authorizes provisions that (i) preclude the disclosure of the amount paid in settlement and (ii) protect the claimant’s identity and any fact that could reveal the identity, so long as the claimant has requested anonymity and the opposing party is not a government agency or public official. Settlement agreements signed after January 1, 2019 should be review by counsel to ensure compliance with the new restrictions.
  • Senate Bill 1300 significantly expands liability under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).  The law lowers the burden of proof to establish harassment and provides stricter guidance on what constitutes “severe or pervasive” conduct that rises to the level of unlawful harassment (e.g. rejecting the “stray remark” doctrine that previously required more than one offensive remark to succeed on a claim).  It expands FEHA protection to any harassment by contractors, rather than just sex harassment.  It denies a prevailing defendant from being awarded attorney’s fees and costs unless the court finds the action was frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless. This bill also prohibits release of claims under FEHA in exchange for a raise or a bonus or as a condition of employment or continued employment, but presumably not in separation agreements.  These changes take effect at the start of the new year and we will monitor interpretations or guidance of these new and expansive provisions.
  • Senate Bill 1343 expands the requirements relating to sexual harassment training. Current law requires all employers with 50 or more employees to provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training only to supervisors. The new law now mandates training for all employers with five or more employees and becomes effective in 2020.  In addition, employers must ensure similar training in multiple languages for all workers so they know what sexual harassment is and what their rights are under the law.
  • While not employment-related, Senate Bill 826 requires public companies based in California to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of next year. The requirement rises to two female board members by 2021 if the company has five directors, or to three if the company has six or more directors.

Governor Brown did veto one of the most high-profile sexual harassment measure of the year, Assembly Bill 3080, which would have banned mandatory arbitration agreements.  Brown vetoed similar legislation on 2015 and the law, if passed, likely would have faced challenges that it was preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act.

Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of these new laws.

Since this is a blog about California employment law, we don’t often write about immigration. Sure, we define California employment law broadly enough to include stuff about gorillas and monsters. But usually not so broadly to include immigration. That’s covered beautifully by our friends at Immigration View.

Still, there are some California employment law aspects of last week’s ruling in United States of America v. State of California that deserve attention. In that case, the federal government is arguing that certain state laws impermissibly intrude on the federal government’s authority over immigration. The US sought a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of a number of those provisions, arguing that immigration is exclusively a federal issue. California opposed the injunction arguing that it was well within its rights to regulate employers. (And we know how California loves to regulate employers!)

Judge John A. Mendez of the US District Court for the Eastern District of California granted the injunction in some respects, but denied it in others. For example, he upheld the state’s right to inspect and report on facilities where immigrants are detained. He also upheld a requirement that companies notify workers within 72 hours if the employer learns that ICE is inspecting its Form I-9s.

Two aspects where he granted the injunction are noteworthy. First, Assembly Bill 450, among other things, prohibits employers from consenting to an immigration enforcement agent entering nonpublic work areas or accessing employee records. The court was troubled by the position this puts employers in. On the one hand, the employer has a federal agency seeking access to its workplace. On the other, you have the state saying it’s illegal to consent to that search. The court found these two positions incompatible and enjoined enforcement of that portion of the law. 

The court similarly refused to enforce portions of California Labor Code § 1019.2, which imposes an up to $10,000 civil penalty on employers who re-verify an employee’s eligibility to work in the US when not required by law to do so. Again, it places employers in an unreasonable position. On one hand, they have a continuing legal duty not to employ unauthorized immigrant workers. If they believe that a worker has become ineligible to work in the US, they’re obligated to stop employing that person. At the same time, if they check to see if they’re complying with that federal requirement, the state can subject them to penalties. The court granted the injunction against enforcement of that provision, as well.

Knowing that he won’t have the last word on some of these issues, Judge Mendez spells out his reasoning in considerable detail. He ends his order by joining “the ever-growing chorus of Federal Judges in urging our elected officials to set aside the partisan and polarizing politics dominating the current immigration debate and work in a cooperative and bi-partisan fashion toward drafting and passing legislation that addresses this critical political issue. Our Nation deserves it. Our Constitution demands it.”

A few days ago, many companies celebrated ‘Take Your Dog To Work Day’.  At an increasing number of companies, employees take their pets to work every day.  At other companies, in the ever-changing quest to be the cool kid on the block offering the latest and greatest benefits, the newest perk appears to be puppy playtime.  Google, Aetna and Intel are among the companies that have partnered with a non-profit that brings trained pets into the workplace to reduce employee stress levels for a few hours a week, while Amazon, Google, Ticketmaster, Etsy and Salesforce allow employees to bring their pets to work on a routine basis.

Photo credit: Bruin Suddleson

Pets in the workplace has been a hot topic in various forms for a few years. The issue of therapy or service dogs specifically garnered attention from the DFEH in its 2016 amended regulations requiring businesses to individually assess whether allowing a support animal at work is a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. The regulations define a “support animal” as “one that provides emotional, cognitive, or other similar support to a person with a disability, including, but not limited to, traumatic brain injuries or mental disabilities, such as major depression.” Anecdotally, we’ve also had an increase in hospitality clients who have questions about service dogs in restaurants and hotels. Given the media coverage and public trend of pet-friendly workplaces, businesses may face an uphill battle in establishing that allowing a support animal at work would be an undue hardship, which is the threshold for denying an accommodation. However, because I’m an employment lawyer, before opening your doggy doors to your employees’ four-legged friends, consider the arguments against a pet-friendly workplace which include potential liability for asthma-related disabilities, stress-related disabilities for those who may have a fear of pets, and even potential workers’ compensation claims for pet-related injuries. If you’re considering adopting a pet-friendly workplace culture, be sure to consider these risks and to implement thoughtful guidelines around the privilege to bring a pet to work, whether as an everyday occurrence or as a reasonable accommodation.

Do you want to know the secret of achieving pay equity in the workplace (at least in the long term)?  Well, it is really about the dads. Yes, that’s right.  The more paid time off given to fathers, the more likely it is the a company will achieve long term pay equity.  Why you ask?

Because when time off for babies and kids becomes a parental issue, and not a women’s issue, then women stop being punished (whether directly or indirectly) for taking time off to give birth and raise kids.  And if you are wondering if women really are set back by being pregnant or active parents, then read this recent article in the New York Times.  Women are set back.  Having kids can be a career killer. There is a documented motherhood penalty.

This is why parental leave policies, as opposed to maternity and paternity leave policies, are the wave of the future.  If your business has not revised its time off policies for all parents (whether female/male, gay/straight, birth parent/non-birth parent), then it is time to consider it.  Otherwise, you just could be the next company in the news (and not in a good way).

Oh, and by the way, having a policy is one thing.  But actually encouraging dads to use it is (instead of punishing them for it, whether overtly or covertly) is another critical step.

Happy father lying on sofa holding baby girl and playingIn honor of Father’s Day (albeit a week late), let’s hear it for the dads! Especially if it ultimately helps the moms get paid the same as those dads!

Whenever a celebrity dies, everyone glorifies their accomplishments. So the eulogies for Koko the talking gorilla aren’t surprising in the least. But those eulogies tend to overlook that Koko’s many accomplishments include having been the first gorilla to be accused of sexual harassment.

As we explained in the story linked to above, two women sued the Gorilla Foundation in 2004 claiming that they were pressured to expose themselves to “indulge Koko’s nipple fetish.” Is it just me or does it sound far-fetched for someone to claim to be sexually harassed by a gorilla? The case settled for undisclosed terms.

Rest in Peace, Koko. It would have been an honor to defend you. I’m sorry that you never got your day in court. Were you even deposed?

Digital On Air sign, indicating broadcastingOn Fox’s entertainment industry-focused Pay or Play blog, associate Laurie Baddon wrote a post covering recent reports on employment agreements signed by news anchors working at television stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. Laurie breaks down the controversial elements of the agreements, and examines them in the context of California employment law.

To get a better sense of the legal aspects of this national news story, we invite you to read Laurie’s post on Pay or Play.

Over the past few months, I have read blogs and opinion columns about whether alleged sexual harassers have been proclaimed guilty by their employers and the media without due process.  That is, are companies rushing to fire bad actors in the wake of the “me too” movement unfairly?

Some accused harassers are taking a play from Twisted Sister, saying “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and are seeking legal counsel to help.  In the past, lawsuits filed by alleged harassers have been few and far between, but a new case filed against HSBC bank a few weeks ago in New York, plus few threatened lawsuits we have seen, make me wonder if this will be a new trend.

Let’s talk about what due process entails.  The term “due process” is a legal term found in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which states that the government cannot deprive citizens of “life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” As would be expected, dozens of Supreme Court cases clarify the procedural and substantive elements of “due process.”  Notably absent is a due process requirement in the private employment context.

Employers have more flexibility to set parameters for employees than, let’s say, a judge has in a criminal proceeding.  And that makes sense.  But employers can still face liability for an inadequate investigation as discussed by my colleague Jeff Polsky.  Specifically, the standard for investigating harassment claims in California was established in the 1998 case Cotran v. Rollins Hudig Hall International, Inc., 1998 Cal. LEXIS 1 (January 5, 1998).  The court established employers must simply have a “reasonable and good faith belief” supporting any adverse action taken against an employee.  Given that employment lawyers are seeing the number of harassment claims in the workplace rise, employers should also be prepared for increased push back by alleged harassers.  Some of the ways employers can protect themselves, their workplaces, and ensure an adequate investigation and their own version of “due process” are found here.