Since the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB” or the “Board”) 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries, 362 NLRB No. 186, in which it adopted a new, far less stringent test for determining joint-employer status under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”),  employers have been left wondering whether they may be held to be a joint employer of temporary or contract workers that they retain through staffing and temporary agencies.

These concerns have been echoed by employers in other contexts as other agencies, such as the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity have taken similar positions, seeking to expand the concept of joint employer with respect to statutes and regulations they enforce. Notably, both the DOL and the EEOC filed amicus briefs in support of the NLRB’s position with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering whether the NLRB exceeded its statutory authority in Browning-Ferris.

While the loosened standards for determining joint employment remain under consideration by the courts, members of Congress are now seeking to use the power of the purse strings to force the NLRB to discontinue its use of the relaxed standards it adopted in Browning-FerrisLegislation considered yesterday by House Republicans would do away with this expansion of joint employer liability and provide much needed clarity for employers on this issue.

What is the NLRB’s Browning-Ferris Standard for Finding Joint-Employer Status?

The Browning-Ferris decision expanded the definition of joint-employer to hold that if an employer, referred to as the primary employer, merely possesses, but does not exercise, the right or ability to directly or indirectly codetermine the terms and condition of employment of the employees of another employer, referred to as the secondary employer, the primary employer will be held to be the joint-employer of the secondary employer’s employees.

This holding impacts a wide range of workers, such as employees of business arrangements including the use of contractors, retention of personnel through staffing agencies and temporary employment services, and, if the “primary employer is a franchisor, personnel employed by the franchisor’s franchisees. As the Board pointed out when it decided Browning-Ferris, in its view “the current economic landscape,” which includes some 2.87 million people employed by temporary agencies, warrants a “refined” standard for assessing joint-employer status. As the majority put it: “If the current joint-employer standard is narrower than statutorily necessary, and if joint-employment arrangements are increasing, the risk is increased that the Board is failing what the Supreme Court has described as the Board’s ‘responsibility to adapt the Act to the changing patterns of industrial life.’”

While the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling in Browning-Ferris is now before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where the court has been asked to find that the NLRB’s test is not supported by the terms of the NLRA or the common law definition of employer, which is an element of the Browning-Ferris standard itself, recent activity from House Republicans may result in legislative action establishing a new, far narrower standard for determining joint-employer status.

Congress Seeks to Use the Appropriation Process to Force the Board to Discard Browning-Ferris’s Indirect Control Standard

House Republicans have introduced new language in a draft spending bill – that among other things, would set the NLRB’s appropriation for 2018 – to direct the Board to set aside what many in the business community find to be one of the most objectionable parts of Browning-Ferris.

The House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing on Wednesday, July 12, 2017 to discuss the barriers to job and business growth created by the “indirect control” standard of joint employer liability. Small business owners and other employer representatives testified that the joint employer standard threatens their ability to expand, and encouraged the committee to introduce legislation that would define employees as those workers that the employer has direct or actual control over.

On Thursday, July 13, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education voted along strict party lines to approve a markup of their draft spending bill for FY 2018, which would prohibit the NLRB from using the “indirect control” standard in making joint employer determinations and would require the Board to revert to the “direct control” standard. The Appropriations Committee describes the legislation in its press release and on its website as including

two policy provisions to stop the NLRB’s harmful anti-business regulations. The provisions include: A provision that prohibits the NLRB from applying its revised “joint-employer” standard in new cases and proceedings; A provision that prevents the NLRB from exercising jurisdiction over Tribal governments.

This provision, along with the Committee’s proposal to reduce the NLRB’s budget by $25 million (from $274 million to $249 million) will face strong opposition from the Democratic minority, organized labor, unions, and employee lobbying groups. Of course at this point it is not at all clear whether in fact there will actually be a budget for the new fiscal year or, instead, Congress will again adopt a continuing resolution to keep the government running.

What Should Employers Do Now?

Employers and their representatives should of course continue to pay close attention to the budget process and other legislative action, while waiting for Congress to take action on the President’s nominees to the two vacant seats on the NLRB.   There is every reason to believe, assuming Willian Emanuel and Marvin Kaplan are confirmed and take their seats on the Board, that they, like Chairman Philip Miscimarra, who wrote a vigorous dissent in Browning-Ferris, will share the Chairman’s belief that the standard adopted in that case was incorrect and should be set aside. At this time, however, it would be nothing more than speculation to predict when the new Board majority will have an actual case before it in which these issues are present.

In the meantime, employers are advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporary personnel supplied by staffing and similar agencies to assess their vulnerability to such action and to determine what steps they make take to better position themselves for the challenges that are surely coming.

Equally critical, employers should carefully evaluate their relationships with suppliers, licensees, and others with which they do business to ensure that their relationships, and the agreements, both written and verbal, governing those relationships do not create additional and avoidable risks.

This post was written with assistance from Sean Winker, a 2017 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

On Tuesday night, the President announced the nomination of William Emanuel, a long time management-side labor employment lawyer, to fill the last remaining vacancy on the five-member National Labor Relations Board.

As we noted in our earlier blog, last week the President announced the nomination of Marvin Kaplan, who currently serves as counsel at the Occupational Safety and Health Commission, to fill the other vacancy on the NLRB.

If the nominations of Messrs. Emanuel and Kaplan are confirmed by the Senate, which seems likely as of now, the NLRB will not only have its first Republican majority in nine years, it will return to a full strength at five members. As cases come before the Board for its consideration, the NLRB will likely reconsider many of the decisions of the Democratic majority Obama Board.  However, as we have noted, Richard F. Griffin, Jr., who was appointed as the Board’s General Counsel, is expected to serve out his four year term and remain in that critical post, in which he decides in many respects, which issues are litigated and presented to the Board, through November 3, 2017.

The nominations of Messrs. Emanuel and Kaplan will now go before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, where they are expected to be advanced.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, the Board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the vacancies are filled, including the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining, and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

The President earlier this week announced the nomination of Marvin Kaplan, who currently serves as counsel at the Occupational Safety and Health Commission, to serve as a Member of the National Labor Relations Board. Mr. Kaplan is a Republican and once confirmed, his taking a seat on the Board will be an important step in the move towards a more employer-friendly Republican majority that can be expected to reconsider many of the decisions of the Democratic majority Obama Board. Mr. Kaplan’s nomination is for the seat most recently held by Member Harry Johnson, and will be for a full five year term continuing into 2022.

The nomination is now before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, where it is expected to be advanced. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee expressed his support, stating “Marvin Kaplan has the qualifications to be an effective member of the National Labor Relations Board. Once Mr. Kaplan’s nomination paperwork is received, the Senate labor committee will move promptly to consider his nomination.” It is not yet known however when that will occur.

As we reported last month, the President is also expected to nominate management side labor lawyer William Emanuel for the other vacant seat on the Board.

If President Trump’s nominees are confirmed by the Senate, the NLRB will have its first Republican majority in nine years.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, the board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the vacancies are filled, including the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

On June 7, 2017, in RHCG Safety Corp. and Construction & General Building Laborers, Local 79, LIUNA, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or the “Board”) rejected an employer’s contention that “a text message cannot be found to constitute an unlawful interrogation” and found that a coercive text message, just like a coercive face-to-face meeting or a coercive phone call, could serve as evidence that the employer had unlawfully threatened or interrogated employees concerning their union support or activity in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”),  and thus could support a finding that the employer committed an unfair labor practice (“ULP”).  The Board noted that the employer had offered “no reason why the Board should provide a safe harbor for coercive employer messages via text messages.”

The Act’s Protection of Employee Activity

The Act provides all employees with the right to engage or refrain from engaging in protected, concerted activity, that is activity concerning their terms and conditions of employment, including but not limited to the right to join and be represented by unions and to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. It is well established that these rights, which are provided for in Section 7 of the Act, protect and apply to employees in both unionized and non-union settings.  The Act prohibits both employers and unions from engaging in conduct that interferes with employees in their exercise of their Section 7 rights.  Under Section 8(a)(1) of the Act, it is an ULP for an employer or its agents to restrain or coerce employees in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.  For example, it is unlawful for an employer to interrogate an employee about his or her support for a union or that of other employees.  It is a violation of Section 8(a)(3) of the Act for an employer to terminate, discipline or otherwise take action against an employee because of his or her exercise of Section 7 rights.

The case in question arose in the context of a union organizing campaign by Laborers Union Local 79 among employees of RHCG Safety Corp. (also known as Redhook Construction Group). The union had petitioned the NLRB for a representation election, in which employees were to vote on whether they wanted Local 79 to become their bargaining representative. During the campaign, an employee texted his supervisor, to inquire about returning to work after an approved leave of absence. The supervisor replied by text, “U working for Redhook or u working in the union?” According to the unanimous Board decision, in which Chairman Miscimarra joined with Members Pearce and McFerran, an employee would understand the supervisor’s message to strongly suggest that working for Redhook was incompatible with supporting or working in the union.  The Board therefore agreed with the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) who had conducted the ULP hearing, that the text message constituted an unlawful interrogation and violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

In its exceptions to the ALJ’s decision Redhook argued to the Board that a text message could not constitute an unlawful interrogation, but according to the Board’s decision, Redhook failed to offer any reason to support its position that a text message could not support a finding of an unlawful interrogation.  The Board rejected Redhook’s contention, finding “an unlawful interrogation need not be face-to-face.”   The Board also rejected the argument that the text message at issue was inadmissible at the ULP hearing because the screenshot of the text offered by Counsel for the General Counsel did not include the entire communication between the employee and his supervisor.  The Board reasoned that the Federal Rules of Evidence permit introduction of only a part of a writing, and there was nothing in the record to suggest the text message at issue was incomplete or that the “missing” text messages could have negated the coercive nature of the “are-you-for-the union” inquiry.

What Should Employers Do Now?

The Board’s decision highlights the need for employers to carefully consider how to communicate with employees in the ordinary course of business and during an organizing campaign. Given the issues workplace texting presents for employers, it is advisable for employers to review their communication policies to make clear what methods of communication are allowed in the workplace.  Employers should also review their record retention policies to make sure that all permissible mediums of communication are covered by the policy.  Texting is a casual form of communication. To the extent employers permit text messaging among employees, it may also be necessary for employers to remind employees that text messages are workplace conversations, and the dos and don’ts applicable to face-to-face meetings and telephone calls apply equally to text messages.  Employers should also pay even greater attention to all forms of communications, both formal and informal, and by the company as well as by supervisors and managers whose actions and statements can be attributed to the employer, in the presence of organizing or other union activity.

According to news reports, the Trump administration has submitted Marvin Kaplan and William Emanuel for FBI background checks, and it plans to nominate them by June to fill a pair of vacancies at the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”).

The administration hopes to have the new members confirmed by the Senate before the August recess.

Kaplan is currently counsel to the commissioner of the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. He previously served as the Republican workforce policy counsel for the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Emanuel is a shareholder at the management firm Littler Mendelson PC in Los Angeles. He has represented business groups seeking to invalidate state laws that his clients say allow unions to trespass on their property.

The five-seat board currently only has three members: Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra (R) and Members Mark Gaston Pearce (D) and Lauren McFerran (D). The vacant seats are reserved for Republicans. The Board is generally composed of three Members of the President’s party and two from the other party.

If President Trump’s nominees are confirmed by the Senate, the NLRB will have its first Republican majority in nine years.

As discussed in our earlier advisory, the board is likely to consider a number of significant legal issues once the vacancies are filled, including the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act “(NLRA”), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

While this will ultimately be a welcome change to employers, for those with cases pending the current union leaning majority may still have several months to issue Obama-era type decisions.

As we recently reported, Dish Network, LLC unwittingly fell into the trap of a stipulated record, which proved fatal to its defense of a confidentiality admonishment issued to a suspended employee. The stipulated record in Dish Network, LLC did not set forth any business justifications for the confidentiality admonishment – an indispensable element in proving the lawfulness of such orders. Dish Network endeavored to cure this deficiency in its post-hearing brief, but the Board rejected its belated effort, in part, because the stipulated record was silent on this issue. This case served as a reminder that employers should exercise extreme caution before submitting to a stipulated record and voluntarily curbing their ability to proffer contextual evidence at a hearing to justify its workplace rules.

The Majority in Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc. Holds That an Employer Has the Right to Present Contextual Evidence at a Hearing Which Might Justify a Facially Overbroad Rule

In Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, Inc., the Board recently reaffirmed employers’ rights to present contextual evidence at a hearing when defending workplace policies and rules. In this case, the General Counsel challenged Mercedes-Benz’s rule banning cameras and video recording devices in its vehicle manufacturing plant without prior authorization. The General Counsel argued this rule was facially unlawful because it banned all recordings – with no exception for protected concerted activity – and filed a motion for summary judgment.

Mercedes-Benz defended the motion by arguing that it must be permitted to present contextual evidence at a hearing. Mercedes-Benz asserted that the rule not only furthers its legitimate business interests – including the protection of proprietary and confidential information, the maintenance of safety and production protocols and open communication – but, through “candid communication between employees and managers at daily meetings,” employees also understood that the rule was not intended to curtail protected concerted activity. Without a hearing, Mercedes-Benz would be deprived of the opportunity to establish these crucial contextual details.

The majority, comprised of Chairman Philip A. Miscimarra and Member Lauren McFerran, agreed. In a rather terse footnote, the majority explained its reasoning:

In previous decisions implicating similar rules, the Board has permitted employers to adduce evidence regarding asserted business justifications and about whether the rules were communicated or applied in a manner that clearly conveyed an intent to permit protected activity. [Citations] Because the Respondent has raised similar arguments here, we give the Respondent the same opportunity to adduce evidence at a hearing.

The Dissent Argues That a Facially Overbroad Rule Obviates the Need for a Hearing

Member Mark Gaston Pearce dissented. Pearce argued that Mercedes-Benz’s “weak” contextual argument did not warrant a hearing because “[t]he Board has consistently held that the mere maintenance of an overbroad rule such as the rule here tends to impermissibly chill employee expression.” Pearce also dismissed Mercedes-Benz’s purported justifications. First, Pearce explained that Mercedes-Benz’s “asserted business interests are inadequate because the rule…is not tailored to address only those concerns and to exclude Section 7 activity.” Second, Pearce attacked Mercedes-Benz’s proffering of its “open communications” to employees which purportedly conveyed that the rule did not preclude protected activity.

[Mercedes-Benz] argues only that it discussed unspecific business management issues with employees at the daily meetings. It does not assert that it instructed any – let alone all – employees that they could engage in protected recording in spite of the rule, as would be required to effective clarify the rule’s scope.

Help to Employers Asserting Their Rights to Defend Their Workplace Rules

The General Counsel often leverages the threat of a summary judgment motion to pressure employers into stipulating to the facts of a case challenging its workplace rules. Employers should avoid submitting to this pressure and voluntarily relinquishing their right to present an evidence-based, full defense. This decision gives employers a useful tool when asserting its right to present a full and comprehensive defense in the face of such pressure from the General Counsel.

On April 25, 2017, Dorothy Dougherty, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) and Thomas Galassi, Director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, issued a Memorandum to the agency’s Regional Administrators notifying them of the withdrawal of its previous guidance, commonly referred to as the Fairfax Memorandum, permitting “workers at a worksite without a collective bargaining agreement” to designate “a person affiliated with a union or community organization to act on their behalf as a walkaround representative” during an OSHA workplace investigation.

The Lawsuit Challenging the Participation of Union Representatives in OSHA Inspections

Two days later, on April 27, 2017, the National Federation of Independent Business filed a  with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, effectively declaring victory in their lawsuit challenging the issuance of the Fairfax Memorandum as being inconsistent with and unsupported by the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the regulations issued under it allowing for the limited participation of third party experts during OSHA conducted workplace safety inspections.

For readers who have been following this issue and the litigation, the withdrawal of the Fairfax Memorandum and the plaintiff’s decision to discontinue their law suit should come as no surprise. This past February, the court denied OSHA’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the Fairfax Memorandum and OSHA’s decision to allow the participation of union representatives in non-union workplaces, finding that the plaintiff had “stated a claim upon which relief can be granted,” and that “the [Fairfax Memorandum] flatly contradicts a prior legislative rule as to whether the employee representative” in such a walk-around inspection “must himself be an employee.”

OSHA and the DOL’s Decision to Withdraw the Fairfax Memorandum

Less than a week later, OSHA filed an Unopposed Motion For Extension of time to answer the complaint in the Federation’s lawsuit, explaining to the Court that “the extension of the deadline for defendants to answer is necessary to allow incoming leadership personnel at the United States Department of Labor adequate time to consider the issues.”

The Memorandum withdrawing the Fairfax Memorandum reiterates the requirements of 29 CFR 1903.8 (c) that an employee representative who accompanies an OSHA representative during a walkaround workplace inspection “shall be an employee of the employer,” and that the only exceptions in which a non-employee may participate is “where good cause is shown” and the participation of a non-employee, such as an industrial hygienist or a safety engineer” is “reasonably necessary to the conduct of an effective and thorough inspection of the workplace” in the judgment of the OSHA Compliance and Safety Health Officer conducting the examination. Notably, however, rather than actually stating that the Fairfax Memorandum was inconsistent with the provisions of the statute or the OSHA regulations, the April 25th memorandum simply refers to it as “unnecessary.”

What this Means for Employers

First and foremost, OSHA’s issuance of the April 25th memorandum makes clear that union representatives who are not the certified or recognized bargaining representative of the employees at a facility to be inspected by OSHA have no legal right to participate in such inspections.  Accordingly, it is equally clear that an employer faced with such an inspection at a facility that a union is seeking to organize should understand that the union’s representatives have no right to participate.

An important effect of the withdrawal of the Fairfax Memorandum will be to deny unions a potentially potent tool for organizing. As Judge Fitzwater described in his Memorandum and Order denying OSHA’s motion to dismiss the Federation’s lawsuit in February, unions such as the UAW in its ongoing organizing campaign at Nissan in Tennessee have come to rely upon participation in OSHA inspections as a valuable tool.

No doubt with the confirmation of Secretary Acosta, leadership of the Department of Labor will continue to review and reassess positions and actions taken during the past eight years.

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  An employee’s Facebook rant was protected activity, says the Second Circuit.

In the midst of a tense union campaign, a catering company employee posted a profanity-laced message on Facebook. The post insulted his supervisor and encouraged colleagues to vote for unionization. The employee was subsequently fired. Upholding an NLRB ruling, a panel for the Second Circuit found that the post was protected under the NLRA and the employee should not have been terminated. The Court noted that Facebook is a modern tool used for organizing. Our colleague Ian Carleton Schaefer is interviewed.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post about the ruling.

In NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, the Second Circuit held that an employee’s expletive-laden Facebook post – which hurled vulgar attacks at his manager, his manager’s mother and his family – did not result in the employee losing the protection of the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”).  But even though the Second Circuit conferred protected status on this unquestionably obscene post, it did not create a protected right to level profane verbal assaults on management when discussing union business.  Such conduct has been, and will continue to be, unprotected in most circumstances.  Nevertheless, this case acts as an important reminder for employers:  if they choose to allow vulgar conduct in the workplace when it does not pertain to union activity, they must also allow it when it does.

A Pier Sixty Employee Posted an Obscene, Pro-Union Facebook Message in Response to Management’s Alleged Disrespect

Pier Sixty operates a catering company in New York, New York. In 2011, its employees embarked on a tense organizing campaign during which management allegedly threatened employees with discipline for union activity, disparately enforced a no-talk rule and told employees “bargaining would start from scratch” if they voted to unionize.  Two days before the election, Hernan Perez, a server employed by Pier Sixty, posted a vulgar Facebook message after his supervisor gave him instructions in a tone that Perez perceived to be disrespectful.  That post read:

Bob is such a NASTY [expletive] don’t know how to talk to people!!!  [Expletive] his mother and his entire [expletive] family!!!!  What a LOSER!!!  Vote YES for the UNION.

The Facebook post was accessible by Perez’s Facebook friends, which included 10 coworkers, and by the public, although Perez insisted he did not know that at the time. Perez deleted the post three days later, but Pier Sixty management had already learned about it and, after conducting an investigation, terminated Perez.

Perez’s Facebook Post Constituted Protected Activity Because Pier Sixty Routinely Tolerated Similarly Profane Outbursts from Employees

The Second Circuit ultimately concluded that Perez’s Facebook post constituted protected activity because Pier Sixty routinely permitted vulgarities in the workplace. Notwithstanding the profane language, Perez’s post “explicitly protested” management’s mistreatment and “exhorted employees to ‘Vote YES,’” while Pier Sixty’s anti-union animus was uncontested.  Given these circumstances, “the Board could reasonably determine that Perez’s outburst was not an idiosyncratic reaction to a manager’s request but part of a tense debate over managerial mistreatment in the period before the representation election.”  Moreover, Pier Sixty consistently tolerated “widespread profanity in the workplace,” and both management and employees used “daily obscenities” without consequence.  In the six years preceding Perez’s termination, there had only been five written warnings issued for such language and no terminations – until Perez. The Second Circuit noted that “it is striking that Perez – who had been a server at Pier Sixty for thirteen years – was fired for profanities two days before the Union election when no employee had ever before been sanctioned (much less fired) for profanity.”

The Second Circuit also found the manner in which Perez communicated his ire to be significant. Social media is a “key medium of communication among coworkers and a tool for organization in modern era,” and, despite publicly posting the message, Perez’s outburst did not occur “in the immediate presence of customers nor did it disrupt the catering event.” Thus, the Court found the post to be distinguishable from other “opprobrious conduct” cases it had considered.

Notably, although the Second Circuit deemed Perez’s post to be protected under the Act, it also cautioned, “this case seems to us to sit at the outer-bounds of protected, union-related comments, and any test for evaluating ‘opprobrious conduct’ must be sufficiently sensitive to employers’ legitimate disciplinary interests.”

Court Questioned the Validity of the Board’s “Totality of the Circumstances” Test

In 2012, the Second Circuit, in NLRB v. Starbucks, 679 F.3d 70 (2012), concluded that the test traditionally employed by the Board to assess whether obscenities uttered in the workplace constitute protected activity – the Atlantic Steel test – did not sufficiently accommodate employers’ legitimate interest in preventing employees’ public outbursts in the presence of customers and remanded the case to the Board to develop “more balanced standards for evaluating ‘opprobrious’ conduct in that context.”  The Office of the General Counsel subsequently issued Memorandum OM 12-59, which set forth a nine-factor “totality of the circumstances” test to assess the protected nature of employees’ social media communications, which the Second Circuit characterized as “more employee-friendly.”  The Board employed this test in Pier Sixty, LLC, but the Second Circuit questioned the test’s legitimacy, stating that “we are not convinced the amorphous ‘totality of the circumstances’ test adequately balances an employer’s interests…”  Ultimately, though, because Pier Sixty did not object to it the Second Circuit applied the test – without sanctioning its validity.

Lessons Learned From Pier Sixty

This case serves as a reminder that employers must take the long view when deciding whether to discipline employees for workplace conduct that is inappropriate but not particularly offensive to the employer. Here, Perez’s posting would have likely fallen outside the bounds of protected activity had Pier Sixty disciplined employees for similar vulgarities in the workplace.  However, because Pier Sixty routinely tolerated such conduct from management and employees alike, the Second Circuit could not find that Perez’s conduct was “so egregious as to exceed the NLRA’s protection.”

This case also signals that the Second Circuit, and perhaps other courts, may be willing to abandon the Board’s “totality of the circumstances” test in favor of a standard that better protects employer’s legitimate interests in regulating employees’ workplace conduct. Employers defending cases in which the Board employs this test should vigorously argue that this standard improperly intrudes upon their legitimate business interests.

Philip Miscimarra. Credit: NLRB.gov.

On April 24, 2017 President Trump designated Philip Miscimarra as Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board). The move follows the President’s late January designation of Board Member Miscimarra as Acting Chairman.

A Republican Chair

Miscimarra, a management-side labor lawyer and a Republican, was nominated to serve on the Board by then President Obama in 2013 and was confirmed by the Senate for a four year term that continues through December 16, 2017.  President Trump can nominate Chairman Miscimarra for another term if he should wish to do so. While Board Members are subject to Senate confirmation, the President may, in his discretion, designate a Member of the NLRB to serve as Chair at his pleasure.

Two Vacancies Remain On the NLRB

The Board is composed of five Members and at this time two of the seats on the Board are vacant. The vacant seats are reserved for Republicans.  The Board is generally composed of three Members of the President’s party and two from the other party.  Board Members Mark Pearce and Lauren McFerran are both Democrats.

What Is Likely To Change With a New Majority

Notably, Chairman Miscimarra, through a series of dissenting opinions taking issue with decisions of the Obama Board’s Democratic majority has offered a significant overview of issues as to which, once there is a new Republican majority on the NLRB, employers, unions and other advocates can expect the Board to likely move, as cases presenting the issues come before it for decision. These include such issues as the NLRB’s test for determining whether joint employer relationships exist, the standards for evaluating whether handbooks and work rules interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), appropriate units for collective bargaining, the question of whether graduate students and research assistants are employees under the NLRA with the right to collective bargaining and a host of other decisions from the past eight years that more expansively interpreted the NLRA.

Election Rules and Procedures

Also notable is the fact that Chairman Miscimarra was a dissenter when the Board adopted its Amended Representation Election Rules that took effect in May 2015. Those rules, often referred to as the “ambush” or ”quickie” election rules that have not only cut the time between the filing of a representation petition and a vote from an average of 40-45 days to approximately 25 days. Since the Amended Rules took effect, Mr. Miscimarra has pointed out that they have placed an undue priority on speed, compromising the rights of employees to make informed decisions when they vote and the right of employers to meaningfully communicate with employees before an election.

Because the Amended Rules were adopted under the Board’s rulemaking authority, any further revisions in the election rules must also be made either through the same lengthy process or by Congress through legislation. For the Board to do so will require a new majority that agrees that change is needed. While various sources have suggested that the new administration is considering who it will nominate for the vacant seats on the Board, only time will tell when the President will submit his nominations and the Senate will consider them.