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!

 

I recently participated in a panel discussion about ADA/FEHA reasonable accommodation and interactive process issues for the LA County Bar Association. I presented on a panel with a plaintiff’s attorney and a disability rights expert/mediator.

Doctor's note
Copyright: hvostik / 123RF Stock Photo

Despite our differing points of view, there were many things we agreed upon, including the need for employers and employees to actively engage together in an interactive dialogue (not monologue) about requested accommodations, and what might work for both the employer and the employee. We agreed that it was necessary and helpful for the employer to document those communications, not only to prove they occurred if challenged, but to avoid misunderstandings. We also agreed that the employer is not required to provide the exact accommodation requested if there are other reasonable accommodations that would achieve the desired result.

Another thing we agreed on was the need for consistency in accommodations, and the problems that occur when one employee is granted a type of accommodation (such as a special parking spot or a schedule change) and another is not, and there is no clear reason why. On that issue, the attendees seemed to like my idea of keeping a Reasonable Accommodation Log, to track how certain issues are accommodated company-wide, and to promote consistency across departments or divisions.

However, one issue that sparked a lot of debate among the panelists (and attendees) was my recommendation to employers to consistently request a doctor’s note to substantiate requests for accommodations, and to facilitate the interactive process. My advice was based on my experience with employees who ask for the moon (such as the stated need for a walking desk, or first class air travel, or a job transfer to a role for a preferred supervisor), but often can’t substantiate those requests with any medical requirement. I argued that since many disabilities are not visible, that accommodation requests can’t be properly evaluated without medical justification. Plus, if you ask for doctor’s notes from some, and not others, then you run into a consistency problem. So my vote is for doctor’s notes.

Boy did I get push-back! My other panelists argued that it is hard for an employee to get a doctor’s note, and often the doctor doesn’t write what they need. They also argued that requiring a note for a small request, or for successive requests, could amount to harassment. I was challenged:  If someone is in a wheelchair are you going to require a note for every structural issue needed to grant full access? To raise the desk, widen the doorway, order transcription equipment, etc.? My answer was “of course not.” I responded that one doctor’s note should cover all of those issues.

So employers are in a bind. If you don’t ask for a doctor’s note, and you accommodate someone out of goodwill, then you could be stuck with that accommodation for a very long time, because once you give it, it is presumed reasonable, and there is a high burden to take it away (which is why some accommodations should be documented as “temporary” by the way). But if you insist on a doctor’s note, the employee feels harassed and pressured.

So what is the answer? I still believe employers should consistently get doctor’s notes, and actually review them to make sure they support the requested accommodation. But ask for them nicely, and be open to granting a temporary accommodation in the meantime.

Here’s your annual roundup of new California employment laws. Since we’ve discussed many of these laws when they were enacted, I’m including links to those earlier discussions.

In addition to statewide legislation, local ordinances continue to proliferate. These include paid parental leave in San Francisco and numerous cities that have enacted their own minimum wage and paid sick leave requirements.

Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: alexraths / 123RF Stock Photo

What can employers do to get ready?

  • Review pay practices to identify potential disparities based on race and ethnicity, as well as gender.
  • Ensure that applications do not elicit information on prior salary or juvenile convictions.
  • Obtain and install appropriate signage for single-user restrooms.
  • Make sure that human resources staff, hiring managers, and supervisors understand the changes affecting them.
  • Wonder what surprises the legislature has for us in the year ahead!

Reasonable accommodation issues are tough.  Employees often want a lot of things that are not justified by a doctor’s note, and appropriately documenting the interactive process can be an uphill battle.

If you are in the LA area and have burning questions about how to reasonably accommodate employees under the ADA and California’s FEHA, then please come hear me speak for the LACBA on October 27th.  Topics for discussion will include:

  • Disability Leave:  How long is too long?  How long do you have to keep the job open during the leave?
  • Interactive Process Communications:  If there is no documentation, can you prove they occurred?
  • Undue Hardship:  Is it ever too hard to accommodate?  How expensive is too much?
  • Assistive Technology:  How does new technology change what’s reasonable? (i.e., is everyone entitled to a headset and a standing or walking desk?)

If you can’t make it, look for a blog post next week on tips discussed and lessons learned.

I have been conducting harassment prevention training for California clients since AB 1825 became effective back in 2005. After presenting what must be hundreds of sessions in the last decade, I am always on the look-out for new topics to discuss, and new hypotheticals to present, and sometimes the universe just cooperates with me. Watching the second Presidential debate last weekend was one of those experiences.

Young businessman arguing with sad stressed coworker
Copyright: vadymvdrobot / 123RF Stock Photo

Since 2015 (AB 2053), California law has required employers to train management on abusive conduct (also known as “bullying”). While bullying is not yet illegal, it should be against most employer policies, and should lead to discipline for employees who violate those policies.

Bullying is defined as workplace conduct, with malice, that a reasonable person would find hostile, offensive and unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests. The law goes on to say that bullying may include:

  • Derogatory remarks, insults, and epithets;
  • Verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating, or humiliating;
  • The gratuitous sabotage or undermining of a person’s work performance.

So let’s consider the following hypothetical:

A group of managers is in a team meeting where each person is supposed to present on their enumerated topics to a group of colleagues. When one manager is talking, the other one (who is physically larger) is pacing behind, making faces, and making noises (something between a snort and a grunt). The hands are gesturing and fingers pointing. The manager pacing also repeatedly interrupts the colleague, either with snide comments, jokes (which get laughs or cheers), or insults. Is this bullying?

Would a reasonable person find this conduct to be hostile? Offensive? Unrelated to an employer’s legitimate business interests? Is this verbal or physical conduct that a reasonable person would find threatening, intimidating or humiliating? Absolutely.

In fact, many employment attorneys and HR professionals I know were physically uncomfortable while watching the debate, at least in part because we were witnessing conduct that no reasonable employer could tolerate. While we certainly cannot require free speech to be polite or politically correct, we certainly can and should agree that this type of bullying would not be okay in any workplace.

We posted before on AB 1732, which Governor Brown signed yesterday. This law prohibits businesses and government entities from labeling any “single-user toilet facility” as either “male” or “female.” It defines “single-user toilet facility” as “a toilet facility with no more than one water closet and one urinal with a locking mechanism controlled by the user.”

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) issued a statement that:

Copyright: nu1983 / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: nu1983 / 123RF Stock Photo

“California is charting a new course for equality. Restricting access to single-user restrooms by gender defies common sense and disproportionately burdens the LGBT community, women, and parents or caretakers of dependents of the opposite gender. Bathroom access is a biological need. This law will ensure more safety, fairness, and convenience access for everyone.”

There’s no word yet on whether users of “single-user toilet facilities” will be statutorily required to put the seat down. The law takes effect March 1, 2017.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued its new “Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issueson On August 25, 2016. Careful readers will be able to deduce from the section titled “Expansive Definition” that the EEOC uses an expansive definition of what constitutes protected activity. This activity is “protected” in the sense that any adverse action taken against someone for engaging in it is, by definition, retaliatory.

The EEOC Enforcement Guidance lists the following types of protected activity:

  1. Complaining about discrimination against oneself or others – This is the prototypical protected activity.
  2. Threatening to complain about discrimination against oneself or others
  3. Providing information in an employer’s investigation of discrimination or harassment
  4. Refusing to obey an order reasonably believed to be discriminatory
  5. “Passive resistance” – The EEOC gives the example here of a supervisor refusing a request to dissuade subordinates from filing EEO complaints. Apparently, the refusal doesn’t need to be articulated. Just not acting on the request is considered protected.

    Copyright: rtimages / 123RF Stock Photo
    Copyright: rtimages / 123RF Stock Photo
  6. Advising an employer on EEO compliance
  7. Resisting harassing behavior – The EEOC gives the example of an employee telling a supervisor to “leave me alone” and “stop it.” The fact that it’s a supervisor seems important here because the supervisor’s knowledge is imputed to the employer.
  8. Intervening to protect others from harassing behavior – Again, the EEOC example involves a co-worker intervening to stop harassment by a supervisor.
  9. Requesting accommodation for a disability or religion
  10. Complaining that pay practices are discriminatory – There doesn’t need to be an explicit reference to discrimination. If a woman says her pay is unfair and asks what men in the job are being paid, the EEOC deems that protected.

By taking a very broad view of what constitutes protected activity, the EEOC all but ensures that retaliation claims will remain the most popular charge it receives. We’ve previously described six steps that employers should take to protect themselves from these charges. As with so many types of employment claims, it pays to be proactive.

Bridgeport Continuing Education will be hosting a seminar titled: “Wrongful Termination, Harassment and Discrimination Claims” on July 29, 2016 in San Francisco. I will be speaking about Litigating and Defending Discrimination Claims, along with Jocelyn Burton. The program offers 5 hours of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education. You can get details and register here.

I hope to see you there!

Copyright: carlosphotos / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: carlosphotos / 123RF Stock Photo

Last month, the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace issued a report. Among other things, it identified risk factors that can lead to harassment. They are:

  1. Homogeneous workforces – In other words, those that lack diversity.
  2. Workplaces where some workers don’t conform to workplace norms – This would include, for example, a man who’s perceived as overly feminine or a woman perceived as overly masculine.
  3. Workplaces with cultural and language differences – So too much homogeneity can be a problem, but so can too much diversity. Got it!
  4. “Coarsened Social Discourse Outside of the Workplace” – If people are crude outside of work, it’s more likely to spill over to the work environment.
  5. Workplaces with many young workers – According to the EEOC, young people are less aware of the laws and workplace norms. This makes them more likely to cross the line themselves and more likely to accept behavior that older workers know is over the line.

    Copyright: ocusfocus / 123RF Stock Photo
    Copyright: ocusfocus / 123RF Stock Photo
  6. Workplaces with large power disparities – The workers with less power are more vulnerable and the higher power ones “may feel emboldened to exploit them.”
  7. Workplaces that rely on customer service or client satisfaction – The key here is whether compensation is tied to customer satisfaction. If so, employees may be willing to put up with inappropriate conduct since it costs them money to object.
  8. Places where the work is monotonous or easy – “Idle hands …”, you know?
  9. Isolated workplaces – Fewer people around means fewer witnesses.
  10. Workplace cultures that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption – Let’s all drink to that!
  11. Decentralized workplaces – If senior management is far away, lower levels of management may feel less accountable.

So the answer is simple. To minimize the risk of harassment claims you need to make sure that your workforce is diverse, but not too diverse; that everyone conforms to the same norms; that people behave appropriately even when they’re not at work; that you don’t hire those pesky young people; that you eliminate hierarchies; that you stop paying attention to customer service; that you make all the work interesting; that you have everyone work at one location; and that you discourage drinking.

If you’re not able to run your business that way, we’ve identified 6 questions employers should ask before receiving a harassment complaint.