Practices and Procedures

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.

In yet another decision that exhibits the current Board’s overreaching and expansive view of its jurisdiction, the Board recently ruled that nurses who supervise and assign other hospital staff are not statutory supervisors.

A Position Expressly Created to be Supervisory is Not Supervisory, According to the Board

In 2016, Lakewood Health Center (“Lakewood”) restructured its staffing system and replaced charge nurses with a newly created position, Patient Care Coordinator (“PCC”). According to the uncontradicted testimony of Lakewood Vice-President of Patient Care Danielle Abel, the hospital created this new position for one specific reason – “to ensure accountability for shift-by-shift work flow of the department….in addition to supervising the employees on their shift.” According to the job description, a PCC “provides overall supervision of staff and patient care,” is “responsible for daily nursing assignments,” and “retains overall accountability for the work flow for their shift, and remains accountable if duties are delegated to another qualified staff member.” Abel testified, without contradiction, that PCCs must assess the patient’s needs and the nurses’ skills when assigning nurses to patient care tasks and are accountable for the nurses’ performance.  The undisputed evidence further showed that PCCs were the highest ranking authority present evenings, nights and weekends and, for the majority of the time, the only person present with the authority to assign and direct nurses.  The Minnesota Nurses Association filed an election petition asserting that the PCCs should be included in the bargaining unit, thereby adding one more dues-paying classification to the potential bargaining unit.

In a terse one-page decision, the Board characterized the undisputed evidence as vague and conclusory and found that Lakewood failed to provide tangible examples demonstrating the PCCs’ supervisory authority. Although Abel testified that PCCs were accountable for assigning and supervising nurses, the Board dismissed her testimony as “simply a conclusion without evidentiary value.”  The Board likewise discounted Abel’s testimony that PCCs exercise independent judgment when assigning nurses because no one testified that the nurses have differing levels of skill and ability and, for most of the shifts in evidence, there was only one nurse available, stating that independent judgment cannot be established if there is “only one obvious choice.”

Miscimarra’s Scathing Dissent Exposes the Flaws in the Board’s Decision

Board member Miscimarra’s dissent harshly rebuked the majority’s decision as abstract, thinly supported and inconsistent with the undisputed evidence. Miscimarra noted that both the PCC job description and Abel’s testimony established, without contradiction, that PCCs were accountable for assigning and responsibly directing subordinate nurses.  In fact, according to Abel’s unrefuted testimony, the very reason that Lakewood created this new position was to impose accountability for patient care and staffing issues on a single person.  Miscimarra strongly criticized the majority for “disregard[ing] unrebutted evidence merely because it could have been stronger, more detailed, or supported by more specific examples,” particularly given that the PCC position was created a mere four months prior to the hearing.  He also noted that the Board apparently and unreasonably wanted specific testimony “to establish the commonsense fact that some employees are more skilled than others” and chastised the majority for ignoring the practical reality that the PCC is often the highest ranking person present at Lakewood, explaining that “[s]omeone has to be in charge at this facility at all times.”  Miscimarra ended his dissent with a biting, but particularly apt, reproach that “the finding that PCCs are not supervisors under Section 2(11) provides yet another illustration of the principle that ‘common sense’ is not so common.”

Employers Must Be Prepared

This decision stands as a stark reminder that employers must be prepared with documentation, examples and other specific evidence supporting supervisory determinations to combat the hostile and skeptical review of the current Board. This decision also signals that 2017 will be no different than 2016 for the Board – it will continue to issue decisions that assail employer’s rights and bolster its relevancy even when it flies in the face of common sense and basic workplace practicalities.

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”), in its recent decision in Graymont PA, Inc., 364 NLRB No. 37 (June 29, 2016), has fired the latest salvo in its long running dispute with the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit concerning the issue of what legal standard should be applied when a union claims that an employer has made a unilateral change in terms and conditions of employment during the term of a collective bargaining agreement and the employer claims that the union waived its right to bargain over the topic in question in a management rights clause or a “complete agreement” clause.

In Graymont, the Board adhered to its “clear-and-unmistakable” waiver approach to analyzing claims under Section 8(a)(5) where the employer claims that the union waived its right to bargain over a particular matter during the term of a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). The three-member majority rejected  the employer’s argument that the  “contract coverage” standard applied by the D.C. Circuit and several other Courts of Appeal was the correct standard for assessing such claims.

This decision comes on the heels of an unpublished decision by the D.C. Circuit in which that court again rejected the Board’s “clear and unmistakable” waiver standard as being applicable to such disputes. In Heartland Plymouth Court MI LLC v. NLRB, No. 15-1034 (May 3, 2016), the D.C. Circuit laid out its disagreement with the NLRB concerning the so-called “contract coverage rule”:

As we have noted several times, there is a “fundamental and long-running disagreement” between this court and the Board as to the appropriate approach by which to determine “whether an employer has violated Section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act when it refuses to bargain with its union over a subject allegedly contained in a collective bargaining agreement.” The Board insists such questions turn on whether the Union “clearly and unmistakably” waived its bargaining rights on the subject through the CBA, but we have repeatedly held “the proper inquiry is simply whether the subject that is the focus of the dispute is ‘covered by’ the agreement.” Under our precedent, if a subject is covered by the contract, then the employer generally has no ongoing obligation to bargain with its employees about that subject during the life of the agreement.

The dispute regarding the appropriate standard made all the difference in the Graymont decision. There, a Board majority held that the Union did not clearly and unmistakably waive its right to bargain over unilateral changes made by the Employer to its work rules, absenteeism policy, and progressive discipline schedule.

In Graymont the employer unilaterally implemented various changes to its work rules, absenteeism policy and progressive discipline schedule; believing it had the management right to do so under it CBA.  There the employer sought to rely  on a negotiated management rights clause under which it retained “the sole and exclusive rights to manage; to direct its employees; … to evaluate performance, … to discipline and discharge for just cause, to adopt and enforce rules and regulations and policies and procedures; [and] to set and establish standards of performance for employees.” . The union initially filed a grievance, but then withdrew it and filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB alleging that the employer had made unilateral changes and failed to bargain.

The Board applied its “clear and unmistakable” waiver standard, and found that the Union did not waive its rights to bargain when it entered into the CBA, because the Board concluded that the CBA’s management rights clause did not “specifically reference” the rules and policies changed – i.e., the work rules, absenteeism policy and progressive discipline policy.

The majority ruling is just the latest example of how the Board’s waiver analysis operates to deprive employers of the benefits of their negotiated agreements – particularly in management rights clauses – and force further bargaining over rights employers understandably believe they have already secured, often in return for other concessions, at the bargaining table. In bargaining with the Union, the employer in Graymont secured the clear right “to adopt and enforce rules and regulations and policies and procedures.” Yet the majority found this language insufficiently clear to constitute a “clear and unmistakable” waiver by the union of its right to bargain, during the term of the CBA, over such changes.

Dissenting, Member Miscimarra noted that “Management-rights language may be general and, at the same time, clear and unmistakable.” Thus, in agreeing to the broad language, “the Union clearly and unmistakably waived its right to bargain over the changes.” He also agreed that therefore the union “had already bargained and agreed that Graymont had the right to make these changes unilaterally.”

The NLRB’s Graymont decision once again demonstrates the uphill battle employers face in asserting their rights, even those secured in writing after bargaining. In effect, the Board’s waiver approach can ignore even clear language, and render rights secured at the bargaining table illusory.  We often encounter employers who believe they have negotiated a strong broad management rights clause only to feel they are victims to a bait-and-switch type attack from a union filing an unfair labor practice charge based on the employer exercising the very rights it thought it had secured.

Combined with the its recent disinclination to defer such matters to arbitration, where they belong, the Board’s decision highlights the danger of an employer acting unilaterally, even with what may appear to be clearly-established rights. Employers should bear this in mind when negotiating, and seek to make management rights clauses as specific as possible. Employers should also bear in mind the Board’s approach to such actions when contemplating unilateral moves, and plan accordingly.

Stop Sign CrosswalkToday, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction halting the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) controversial new Persuader Rule and its new Advice Exemption Interpretation, previously discussed here and here.  The Rule and Interpretation marked a dramatic change by requiring public financial disclosure reports concerning payments that employers make in connection with “indirect persuader activities” that were not reportable under the long standing rules, but that would, if the new rule were to take effect, for the first time, be considered reportable as persuader activity.

Injunction Issues Just In Time

The injunction was issued in advance of the July 1, 2016, enforcement date, which the DOL had stated employers, and labor relations consultants, including attorneys, would need to start reporting engagements covered by the new Rule and Interpretation.  Employers and attorneys have raised concerns about the impact on the attorney-client privilege, including the chilling effect and interference with their ability to obtain/provide advice traditionally exempt from disclosure.

In granting the injunction, the Court concluded:

[The DOL is] hereby enjoined on a national basis  from implementing any and all aspects of the United States Department of Labor’s Persuader Advice Exemption Rule (“Advice Exemption Interpretation”), as published in 81 Fed. Reg. 15,924, et seq., pending a final resolution of the merits of this case or until a further order of this Court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Firth Circuit or the United States Supreme Court.  The scope of this injunction is nationwide.

District Court Order Provides Employers Comprehensive Victory

The Northern District of Texas went one step further than the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota, which last week ruled that the DOL’s Persuader Rule exceeded the agencies authority under the LMRDA, but stopped short of issuing an injunction.  The Court’s Order here gives employers a comprehensive victory, finding not only a substantial threat of irreparable harm but also that the Texas plaintiffs will likely succeed in establishing:

  • The DOL exceeded its authority in promulgating its new Advice Exemption Interpretation in the new Persuader Rule;
  • The new Advice Exemption Interpretation is arbitrary, capricious and an abuse of discretion;
  • The new Advice Exemption Interpretation violates free speech and association rights under the First Amendment;
  • The new Advice Exemption Interpretation is unconstitutionally vague; and
  • The new Advice Exemption Interpretation violates the Regulatory Flexibility Act.

Preliminary Injunction May Only Be Temporary Reprieve for Employers

Obviously a preliminary Injunction is just that, preliminary and temporary in nature.  It is anticipated that the DOL will file an appeal and, depending on the results of the Presidential Election later this year, this could be a looming threat for employers for some time.

Accordingly, employers should first do all they can, including signing long-term agreements with law firms and/or labor relations consultants before July 1, to be prepared in the event the Rule ultimately becomes effective, so as to potentially shield themselves from the obligation to report and disclose so-called indirect persuader activity that has been exempt from reporting under the former rules.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) finds the hiring of permanent replacements for strikers to be an unfair labor practice.

In a 2-1 decision that could benefit unions during contract negotiations, the NLRB found that a continuing care facility in California violated federal labor law when it hired permanent replacements after a series of intermittent strikes. While the NLRB and courts have long held that an employer’s motivation for hiring permanent replacements is irrelevant, in this case, the board held that if the hiring is motivated by an intent to discourage future strikes, it interferes with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The employer in this case will likely seek judicial review. However, in the meantime, the decision adds new risks for employers that may wish to hire permanent striker replacements.

View the episode below or read more about this story in a previous blog post, written by frequent contributor Steven M. Swirsky.

One of the top stories featured on Employment Law This Week: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has joined the National Labor Relations Board in finding that arbitration agreements containing class action waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

At issue is a collective and class action by employees of Epic Systems about overtime pay. The company was seeking to dismiss the case based on a mandatory arbitration agreement that waived an employee’s right to participate in a collective or class action. Unlike the Fifth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit found that a class-action waiver like this one violates the NLRA and, because the contract is unlawful, its enforcement is not required by the Federal Arbitration Act. The Seventh Circuit’s decision creates a split in the federal circuits that means that the U.S. Supreme Court will likely weigh in on the issue.

View the episode below or read more about this story in a previous blog post by Steve Swirsky.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Eooxpk6vNs&feature=youtu.be&t=1m45s

A featured story on Employment Law This Week is the NLRB’s crackdown on employers restricting the content of personal emails sent through the employer’s email system.

In 2014, the NLRB ruled that employees who have email through their employers can use that email to communicate about union-related issues. In a recent election at Blommer Chocolate Company, the union claimed that company email rules interfered with the voting process. Employees were allowed to use the company’s email system for personal emails, but were prohibited from expressing personal opinions in their emails to coworkers. The NLRB found that this rule interfered with elections and that a second election should occur. One of the questions that arises from this ruling is the issue of where the line is between what employers can prohibit – harassment, for example – and what they cannot.

View the episode below or read more about the NLRB’s ruling in an earlier blog post.

May 14th marked the one-month anniversary of the effective date of the NLRB’s Amended Representation Election Rules (“amended rules”).  That day, the Regional Directors for NLRB Regions 2 (New York, NY), 22 (Newark, NJ), and 29 (Brooklyn, NY) discussed their offices’ experiences processing representation petitions filed since the amended rules took effect on April 14th.

With respect to the questions of how the amended rules are actually affecting representation petitions and elections, while one month may not be representative, the data to date does offer some insights that will be of interest to employers, unions, and practitioners.  Perhaps the most interesting fact is that in these three Regional Offices, there were NO hearings held on petitions filed since the amended rules took effect.  In every case, the parties entered into a stipulated election agreement or a consent agreement, or the union withdrew its petition. Out of a total of 32 petitions filed in these regions during the one-month period, eight went to an election and 24 were withdrawn without an election.

What is not clear at this point is how many of the petitions were withdrawn after employers filed Statements of Position challenging the proposed units as inappropriate.  Under the amended rules, if an employer contends that the petitioned-for unit is not appropriate and should include additional classifications and/or locations, the employer must provide both the Regional Office and the petitioning union with the names, classifications, work locations, and shifts of the employees whom the employer believes must be included in the unit. Once a union receives that employee data, it may very well choose to withdraw its petition and then expand its organizing to include the additional employees. It is foreseeable that, in at least some cases, unions may be filing petitions with the expectation that the units will be challenged, in order to get such valuable data.

With respect to the question of how quickly votes are taking place under the amended rules, Regional Directors Karen Fernbach (Region 2), David Leach (Region 22), and James Paulsen (Region 29) reported that the elections based on petitions filed after the amended rules took effect were scheduled for between 25 and 30 days from the petition date.  This data confirms the expectation that the amended rules would result in faster elections than under the long-standing rules that they replaced.  Under the former rules, elections typically took place between 36 and 42 days after the filing of a petition.

The Regional Directors also reviewed the procedures under the amended rules, which were recently summarized in General Counsel Memorandum 15-04 issued by the Board’s General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr.  Under the amended rules, employers not only must post a notice informing employees of the filing of a petition within two days but also must provide the Board and the petitioning union with a list of the names and job titles/classifications of all employees in the petitioned-for unit and all other employees whom the employer believes should be included in the unit.

The fact that there have not been any hearings in these three Regional Offices in the first month of the amended rules is probably a reflection of the fact that the amended rules make it much harder for an employer to have a hearing. The Regional Directors confirmed the fact that employers that want to raise issues, whether about unit composition, supervisory status, or other issues, are generally being told that they may not call witnesses but rather should make offers of proof to establish a record and basis for future appeals and challenges to the Board’s findings.

The Regional Directors acknowledged that, even where employers wish to make offers of proof at pre-election representation hearings, hearing officers are under instructions not to burden the R case record with protracted offers of proof and not to allow parties to delay the hearing “unnecessarily.”  Further, the Regional Directors stated that they were under orders not to allow hearings to go on for too long or permit any post-hearing briefs.  All argument would have to be made orally at a hearing.

According to the three New York area Regional Directors, unless the employer has raised eligibility issues as to more than 20% of the total voter complement, all unit placement and eligibility issues will be reserved for the challenged ballot process at the election or for a post-election hearing.  Obviously, if the challenged ballots are not determinative, issues as to those voters will never be heard. While this benchmark is not included in the amended rules, it has been mentioned on a number of occasions by representatives of the NLRB at various training programs conducted for the labor and management bars throughout the country.  It appears that this 20% standard has now replaced the 10% threshold that the Board relied upon under the prior rules and procedures.

The employer’s Statement of Position must be filed and served on the union within seven days of the filing of the petition and not later than noon on the day before the hearing is scheduled. Any issues not so raised will be waived.

On Friday, May 15, the day after the Regional Directors spoke, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson in Washington, D.C., heard argument on plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the lawsuit brought by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups challenging the validity of the amended rules under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). The hearing focused on the plaintiffs’ claims that the amended rules violate the NLRA and the Administrative Procedures Act. While it is generally not possible to predict from argument how the court will rule, Judge Jackson appeared skeptical that the plaintiffs had established that they were entitled to summary judgment at this stage, suggesting that the litigation is likely to continue.

The amended rules will present significant challenges for employers and their counsel.  More importantly, all of this will be layered onto the much shorter period between the petition and the actual voting, requiring employers to focus year round on appropriate practices and communications to their employees concerning the benefits of maintaining a non-union status.

We will continue to monitor and share data concerning the impact of the amended rules.

The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) unfair labor practice hearing  against McDonald’s, USA, LLC (“McDonald’s) and numerous franchisees opened in New York City on Monday March 30, 2015, before Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) Lauren Esposito. (“ALJ”), a former NLRB field attorney and union lawyer. Also this week, the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) announced that it was investing an additional Fifteen Million Dollars in the Fight For Fifteen campaign, which seeks to organize fast food workers nationwide and that a series of events would take place across the country on April 15th as part of that effort.

In the McDonald’s cases, under the terms of a Case Management Order issued by ALJ Esposito on March 3, 2015, the ULP hearings are scheduled to take place in three phases, with adjournments between each phase.  The hearing which began this week in Manhattan will start with the closely watched claims by the Board’s General Counsel that McDonald’s and its franchisees are joint employers.  The General Counsel will produce witnesses who will offer testimony and evidence on the nationwide joint employer issue and will continue with evidence of joint employer status and evidence on specific violations allegedly committed by the franchisees in New York and Philadelphia.  The hearing will then move to Chicago and will conclude in Los Angeles with the presentation of evidence of joint employer status and evidence regarding specific violations alleged to have occurred in the Midwest and California, respectively.

As we previously reported, on December 19, 2014, the General Counsel of the NLRB issued 13 Consolidated Complaints in Regional Offices across the country charging that McDonald’s and franchisees are joint employers and seeking to hold McDonald’s liable for unfair labor practices allegedly committed by its franchisees. The NLRB’s press release broadly outlined the basis for its decision to issue the Complaints:

“Our investigation found that McDonald’s, USA, LLC, through its franchise relationship and its use of tools, resources and technology, engages in sufficient control over its franchisees’ operations, beyond protection of the brand, to make it a putative joint employer with its franchisees, sharing liability for violations of our Act.  This finding is further supported by McDonald’s, USA, LLC’s nationwide response to franchise employee activities while participating in fast food worker protests to improve their wages and working conditions.”

As a result of the interest generated by these cases, the NLRB has created a separate webpage entitled “McDonald’s Fact Sheet” with links the Complaints and the docket of proceedings.

At recent public appearances, including at the section meeting of the American Bar Association’s Committee on Developments Under the National Labor Relations Act, General Counsel Griffin addressed the legal theories he relied upon in authorizing the issuance of the Complaints alleging joint-employer status.  He noted that it was the General Counsel’s position that the facts (he did not say which ones) would support a finding of joint-employer status under the Board’s existing legal standards and were not dependent upon the Board adopting a new standard such as the one the General Counsel advocated in the amicus brief filed in the still pending Browning Ferris case in which the Board is considering adopting a new more lenient standard for determining whether a joint-employer relationship.

The General Counsel’s  Consolidated Complaints each contain three identical bare bones allegations with respect to the claim that franchisor and franchisees are joint employers: -“(1) McDonald’s and its franchisees are parties to a franchise agreement, (2) McDonald’s possesses and/or exercised control over the labor relations policies of each franchisee, and (3) McDonald’s and the franchisees are joint employers.”

On January 5, 2015, the General Counsel transferred the cases from Regions 4, 13, 20, 25 and 31 to the Regional Director from Region 2.  On January 6, 2015, the Director of Region 2 issued an Order Consolidating the Consolidated Complaints from Regions 2, 4, 13, 20, 25 and 31 with the already-consolidated cases from Region 2, and set the March 30, 2015 hearing date.

McDonald’s filed its Answer to the Consolidated Complaints and a “Motion for a Bill of Particulars or, the alternative, Motion to Strike Joint Employer Allegations and Dismiss the Complaint” alleging that the General Counsel’s consolidated complaint failed to provide it with sufficient notice of the basis for the joint employer status in violation of fundamental due process, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Board’s own internal manuals and guidelines.  The franchisees also filed similar answers.  The General Counsel opposed McDonald’s Motion for a Bill of Particulars, arguing that the allegation of a franchising relationship between McDonald’s and the franchisees provides sufficient notice of the allegations.  The ALJ denied McDonald’s motion.  McDonald’s also filed a Request For Special Appeal with the NLRB seeking permission to file an appeal to reverse the ALJ’ Order denying its Motion for a Bill of Particulars.  That too was denied.

McDonald’s also filed a “Motion To Sever” the Consolidated Complaints, to allow for separate hearings for the charges from the six regional offices that had been consolidated for trial in New York.  While the Board’s Rules and Regulations give the General Counsel discretion to consolidate cases the General Counsel’s discretion is not unlimited.  Where the cases involve different factual issues, different backgrounds and different complaints or legal theories, the Board has held that consolidation was not proper.  McDonald’s argued in these cases that consolidation is improper because the cases  consolidated in Region 2 involve 61 charges, and perhaps most importantly, 22 separate distinct and unrelated employers, as well as 181 unrelated allegations and 30 individual restaurants.  McDonald’s urged the judge to sever the complaints so that each individual franchisee will have his or her case heard by a separate Administrative Law Judge in the region where the case arose.

McDonald’s requested oral argument on its Motion to Sever. On February 11, 2015, the ALJ held a telephone conference with McDonald’s and all of the franchisees and their separate attorneys to address McDonald’s motion as well as scheduling issues.  Given the number of parties and significant issues involved, McDonald’s counsel requested that the teleconference be transcribed by a court reporter, which the ALJ denied.  Not surprisingly, the ALJ  denied McDonald’s Motion to Sever.

On March 3, 2015, the ALJ issued a Case Management Order which the General Counsel had requested.  The Order provides that the issue of whether McDonald’s can be held liable as a joint-employer for the unfair labor practices of its franchisees will be heard before trying the merits of the underlying unfair labor practice allegation.  The Order further requires McDonald’s to present its evidence on the joint employer status specific to a franchisee immediately after the General Counsel and the Charging Parties present their evidence specific to the franchisee which allows the General Counsel and Charging Party multiple opportunities to hear and respond to McDonald’s evidence before resting their cases.  McDonald’s filed a Request for Special Appeal seeking to reverse the ALJ’s Order, arguing that its alleged status as a joint-employer is a remedial issue that should be tried only after the General Counsel has proven the merits of the underlying charges against the franchisees alleged to have committed unfair labor practices and arguing that the sequence of trial unfairly allows the General Counsel and Charging Party a preview of McDonald’s case before they rest their cases.

The pressure on McDonald’s by organized labor extends beyond the NLRB proceedings.  This week the New York Times reported that the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) has pumped more than $15 million into the Fight for Fifteen movement which seeks to raise the wages at McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants and  retailers to a minimum of $15 per hour and helped persuade the NLRB to go after McDonald’s on a joint-employer theory.

In addition to their NLRB claims, workers at McDonald’s restaurants  in at least 19 cities have also filed workplace health and safety complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”), alleging that they had been injured and placed in danger on the job because of a lack of adequate training and protective equipment.

The SEIU has arranged for a coalition of European and American unions to accuse McDonald’s of improper tax practices.  Moreover, Organizers for the Fight for Fifteen will hold rallies in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles on April 15, 2015 in which they expect upwards of 10,000 protestors.

The McDonald’s case along with a pending NLRB case involving Browning-Ferris, are significant high stakes litigation which have the potential to fundamentally alter the way employers conduct business with franchisees and third-party contractors.  Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative (WFI) issued a 40 page report, “Opportunity at Risk: A New Joint-Employer Standard and the Threat to Small Business.”  The report highlights the administration’s ongoing effort to redefine the concept of “joint-employment” relationships, and how these efforts “threaten to disrupt major sectors of the economy such as franchising and subcontracting.”   The report is essential reading for employers, attorneys and anyone else interested in what the impact would be on the economy and employer-employee relations if the legal standards for determining joint-employer status change in the way that the Board’s General Counsel and the SEIU and other unions are urging in the McDonald’s cases and elsewhere.

We will continue to monitor these case closely and keep you appraised of new developments.

On March 18, 2015, NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. issued General Counsel Memorandum GC 15-04 containing extensive guidance as to the General Counsel’s views as to what types employer polices and rules, in handbooks and otherwise, will be considered by the NLRB investigators and regional offices to be lawful and which are likely to be found to unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the Act”).

This GC Memo is highly relevant to all employers in all industries that are under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board, regardless of whether they have union represented employees.

Because the Office of the General Counsel investigates unfair labor practice charges and the NLRB’s Regional Directors act on behalf of the General Counsel when they determine whether a charge has legal merit, the memo is meaningful to all employers and offers important guidance as to what language and policies are likely to be found to interfere with employees’ rights under the Act, and what type of language the NLRB will find does not interfere and may be lawfully maintained, so long as it is consistently and non-discriminatorily applied and enforced.

As explained in the Memorandum, the Board’s legal standard for deciding whether an employer policy unlawfully interferes with employees’ rights under the Act is generally whether “employees would reasonably construe the rules to prohibit Section 7 activity” – that is action of a concerted nature intended to address issues with respect to employees’ terms and conditions of employment. As we have noted previously, this General Counsel and Board have consistently given these terms broad interpretations and have found many employer policies and procedures, in handbooks and elsewhere, that appear neutral and appropriate on their face, to violate the Act and interfere with employee rights.  Many of these cases have involved non-union workplaces where there is not a union present and there is no union activity in progress.

There are two sections to the Memo. Part 1 of the Memorandum, which begins at page 2 and runs to page 20, offers a recap of NLRB decisions concerning 8 broad categories of policies, with summaries of the Board’s holdings and examples of policy language that the NLRB has found to unlawfully interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights and policy language that the Board has found did not unlawfully interfere with employees’ rights.  Section 2 reports on the General Counsel’s settlement with Wendy’s International LLC following an investigation of charges in which the General Counsel found portions of Wendy’s employee handbook unlawfully overbroad, with an explanation as to why the General Counsel found the policies in question to interfere with employees’ rights under the Act and a description of the language Wendy’s adopted to replace the problematic policies as part of its settlement of the charges. Both parts of the Memorandum will be of interest to employers and attorneys who draft, apply and enforce handbooks and other workplace policy documents.

Part 1: Examples of Handbook Rules found by the Board to be Lawful and Unlawful in recent decisions

  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regarding Confidentiality – The Memorandum reviews the Board’s precedents holding that “Employees have a Section 7 right to discuss wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment with fellow employees, as well as nonemployees such as union representatives.” Interestingly, the Memorandum also states that “broad prohibitions on disclosing ‘confidential’ information are lawful so long as they do not reference information regarding employees or anything that would reasonably be considered a term or condition of employment, because employers have a substantial and legitimate interest in maintaining the privacy of certain business information.”  The Memorandum further “clarifies” by advising that “an otherwise unlawful confidentiality rule will be found lawful if, when viewed in context, employees would not reasonably understand the rule to prohibit Section 7 protected activity.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regarding Employee Conduct toward the Company and Supervisors – As explained in the Memorandum, “Employees also have the Section 7 right to criticize or protest their employer’s labor policies or treatment of employees.”  The Memorandum offers an overview of decisional law, with particular attention to cases involving rules that “prohibit employees “from engaging in ‘disrespectful,’ ’negative,’ ‘inappropriate,’ or ‘rude’ conduct towards the employer or management, absent sufficient clarification or context.”  As further noted, employee criticism of the employer “will not lose the Act’s protection simply because the criticism is false or defamatory.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regulating Conduct Towards Fellow Employees – This section of the Memorandum focusses on language and policies that the Board has found to interfere with the Section 7 right employees have ‘to argue and debate with each other  about unions, management, and their terms and conditions of employment,” which the General Counsel explains the Board has held will not lose their protection under the Act, “even if it includes ‘intemperate, abusive and inaccurate statements.” Of particular interest in this portion of the Memorandum is the examination of policies concerning harassment.  The Memorandum notes that “although employers have a legitimate and substantial interest in maintaining a harassment-free workplace, anti-harassment rules cannot be so broad that employees would reasonably read them as prohibiting vigorous debate or intemperate comments regarding Section 7 protected subjects.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Regarding Employee Interaction With Third Parties – This section of the Memorandum focuses on employer policies and provisions that seek to regulate and restrict employee contact with and communications to the media relating to their employment.  The General Counsel notes that “(A)nother right employees have under Section 7 is the right to communicate with the new media, government agencies, and other third parties about wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment,” and that rules “that reasonably would be read to restrict such communications are unlawful.” The General Counsel acknowledges however that “employers may lawfully control who makes official statements for the company,” any such rules must be drafted so as “to ensure that their rules would not reasonably be read to ban employees from speaking to the media or third parties on their own (or other employees”) behalf.
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Restricting Use of Company Logos, Copyrights and Trademarks – The Board has found many employer policies, whether contained in employee handbooks or elsewhere, that broadly prohibit employees from using logos, copyrights and  trademarks to unlawfully interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights.  While the General Counsel acknowledges that “copyright holders have a clear interest in protecting their intellectual property,” the Board has found, with the approval of such courts as the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, that “handbook rules cannot prohibit employees’ fair protected use of that property.”  In this regard the General Counsel states in the Memorandum that it is his office’s position that “employees have a right to use the name and logo on picket signs’ leaflets, and other protected materials,” and that “Employers’ proprietary interests are not implicated by employees’ non-commercial use of a name, logo, or other trademark to identify the employer in the course of Section 7 activity.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Restricting Photography and Recording – While many handbooks and policies prohibit or seek to restrict employees from taking photographs or making recordings in the workplace and on employer policy, the Memorandum states that “Employees have Section 7 right to photograph and make recordings in furtherance of their protected concerted activity, including the right to use personal devices to take such pictures make recordings.”  The Memorandum further notes that such policies will be found to be overbroad “where they would reasonably be read to prohibit the taking of pictures or recordings on non-work time.”
  • Employer Handbooks Rules Restricting Employees from Leaving Work – With respect to handbook or other policies that restrict employees from leaving the workplace or from failing to report when scheduled, the Memorandum notes that “one of the most fundamental rights employees have under Section 7 of the Act is the right to go on strike,” and therefore “rules that regulate when an employee can leave work are unlawful if employees reasonably would read them to forbid protected strike actions and walkouts.”  Not all rules concerning absences and leaving the workstations are unlawful.  A rule would be lawful if “such a rule makes no mention of ‘strikes,’ ‘walkouts,’ ‘disruptions’ or the like” since employees should “reasonably understand the rule to pertain to employees leaving their posts for reasons unrelated to protected concerted activity.”
  • Employer Conflict of Interest Rules – The Memorandum states that under Section 7 of the Act, employees have the right to engage in concerted activity to improve their terms and conditions of employment, even if that activity is in conflict with the employer’s interests.  It cites as examples of such activities that could arguably be in violation of broad conflict of interest policies as protests outside the employer’s business, organizing a boycott of the employer’s products and services and solicitation of support for a union while on non-work time.  The Memorandum notes that when a conflict of interest policy “includes examples of otherwise clarifies that it limited to legitimate business interests (note: as that term is defined by the General Counsel and the Board) employees will reasonably understand the rule to prohibit only unprotected activity.”

Part 2: The Wendy’s International LLC Handbook Cases

The second part of the Memorandum relates to the Board’s settlement of a series of unfair labor practice charges against Wendy’s International LLC (Wendy’s) alleging that various provisions of the handbook were overbroad and unlawfully interfered with employees’ rights under the NLRA.  The company entered into an “informal, bilateral Board settlement agreement.  In this section, the GC explains why various provisions were found unlawful and then sets forth negotiated replacement policies that the GC found did not violate the Act.  While not a formal “safe harbor” since this is the position of the General Counsel and not the Board, it offers very good advice for employers and attorneys in this area.  The Wendy’s policies that the General Counsel argued violated employees’ Section 7 rights and the replacements that the General Counsel found acceptable concerned the following areas:

  • Handbook Disclosure Provision – The handbook in issue contained a broad prohibition against disclosure of the handbook and the information it contained without the company’s express prior written permission.  The General Counsel found this to be unlawful because it prohibited disclosure of employment practices to third parties such as a union or the NLRB.
  • Social Media Policy – While the General Counsel acknowledged that employers have “a legitimate interest in ensuring that employee communications are not construed as representing the employer’s official position,” the General Counsel found the company’s rule to be overbroad since it prohibited a much broader range of communications that would be protected by Section 7.  This included photography and recording and no retaliation provisions.
  • Conflict of Interest Policy
  • Company Confidential Information Provision
  • Employee Conduct
  • Walking Off the Job Without Authorization
  • No Distribution/No Solicitation Provision
  • Restaurant Telephone; Cell Phone; Camera Phone/Recording Devices Provision

While Memorandum GC 15-04 arguably does not contain “new” information or changes in policy or case law, it should be useful for employers and practitioners (and employees) in that it provides a concise summary of the General Counsel’s views on this wide range of matters and examples of language that is likely to be found lawful in future proceedings.  Of course it is important to note that each charge is decided on its own facts and the actions and statements of employers and their supervisors in connection with the application and enforcement of the particular provision will almost always be relevant to the determination of whether the Board will issue a complaint on a particular ULP Charge.