unfair labor practices

Last week, the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) issued a decision that “begins the process of restoring” a decades-old definition of “concerted activity” under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”) – a definition that, in the Board’s view, had become muddled and unduly expanded as recent decisions “blurred the distinction between protected group action and unprotected individual action.”

In a 3-1 decision, with Member McFerran dissenting, the Board in Alstate Maintenance, LLC upheld an administrative law judge’s dismissal of a complaint issued by the Board’s previous General Counsel, which alleged that Alstate Maintenance, LLC committed unfair labor practices when it discharged Trevor Greenidge, a skycap who worked at JFK airport. As a skycap, Greenidge’s primary job responsibility was to assist arriving airline passengers with their luggage outside of the airport terminal. Greenidge’s supervisor instructed him (and three other skycaps) to assist with moving a soccer team’s equipment. In response, Greenidge commented: “We did a similar job a year prior and we didn’t receive a tip for it.” When the equipment arrived, all four skycaps walked away. The managers sought assistance from baggage handlers inside the terminal; after those baggage handlers completed a significant share of the work, Greenidge and the other three skycaps returned to help complete the assignment. The skycaps were subsequently discharged. The only issue before the Board was whether Greenidge’s comment and actions constituted protected concerted activity and was therefore protected by the Act.

In the Complaint issued on behalf of the Board’s General Counsel following an investigation of Greenidge’s charge, the General Counsel alleged that the actions and comments were protected by the Act because Greenidge was acting with respect to his terms and conditions of employment, and those of his co-workers, the other skycaps who he spoke to about his experience with the soccer team not tipping in the past.

The standards for determining whether an employee has engaged in “concerted activity” was first articulated in two Board decisions from the mid-1980’s, known as Meyers Industries. In Alstate Maintenance, LLC, the Board reiterated that under the Meyers standards, an individual employee engages in concerted activity when he or she does either one of the following:

  1. Seeks to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action. An employee’s “mere talk” must “be talk looking toward group action” – otherwise, it will simply constitute “mere griping.”
  2. Brings “truly group complaints” (as opposed to personal grievances) to management’s attention and can point to record evidence that demonstrates “group activities” (such as prior or contemporaneous discussion of the concern among members of the workforce).

As part of its analysis, the Board overruled its 2011 decision in WorldMark by Wyndham because that decision could not be reconciled with the Meyers standard, and the Board majority found that it erroneously shielded certain unprotected individual action. The Board found that WorldMark improperly deviated from Meyers by holding that any employee who protests publicly in a group meeting automatically engages in protected activity per se – and that such a rule obviated any fact-based analysis as to whether the employee had protested on the authority of other employees (which would be concerted activity) or solely on the employee’s own behalf (which would not be concerted activity).

Applying the Meyers standard in the Alstate case, the Board “easily” concluded that Greenidge’s comment did not constitute concerted activity. First, the comment did not seek to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action. The majority concluded that Greenidge’s comment itself (i.e., “[w]e did a similar job a year prior and we didn’t receive a tip from it”) did not demonstrate that he was seeking to initiate or induce group action, and Greenidge had credibly testified during the hearing that his remark was “just a comment” that was not aimed at changing his employer’s policies or practices. Second, the General Counsel did not contend that Greenidge was bringing a “truly group complaint” to management’s attention. In any event, there was no record evidence of “group activities” – such as evidence that tipping habits had been discussed amongst the skycaps prior to Greenidge’s comment – and the Board concluded that Greenidge’s mere use of the word “we” in his comment did not supply the required evidence of “group activities.”

The Board articulated several factors that might support a reasonable inference that, in making a statement or comment, an individual employee engaged in concerted activity – either by bringing a “truly group concern” to management’s attention or by initiating, inciting, or preparing for group action:

  • The statement was made during an employee meeting called by the employer to announce a decision affecting wages, hours, or some other term or condition of employment,
  • The decision affects multiple employees attending the meeting,
  • The employee who makes a comment in response to such an announcement does so to protest or complain about the decision – not merely to ask questions about how the decision will be implemented,
  • The employee protests or complains about the decision’s effect on the work force generally (or some portion of the work force), not solely about the decision’s effect on the employee himself,
  • The meeting presented the first opportunity for employees to address the decision, so the speaker had no opportunity to discuss the issue with other employee’s beforehand, and
  • Other evidence that a statement made in the presence of coworkers was made to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action – such as an express call for employees to act collectively.

As part of its observation that more recent decisions by the Board had improperly deviated from the Meyers standard, the Board pointed to several cases that concluded that an employee’s statements about certain subjects (such as wages, work schedules, and job security) were “inherently” concerted. As part of its effort to “restor[e]” the Meyers standard, the Board expressed its “interest[ ] in reconsidering this line of precedent in a future appropriate case.”

What Does this Mean for Employers?

 It is important not to over read the application of the Alstate decision. While the Board’s decision concluded that in the context of this statement by an employee to co-workers that he was not calling for group action or expressing a position on behalf of employees collectively, a careful fact based analysis remains critical in all cases.

In footnotes to two recent unpublished NLRB decisions,  NLRB Chairman Marvin Kaplan, who was named to that role by the President following the December 16, 2017 conclusion of Philip Miscimarra’s term, and Member William Emanuel offered interested observers an indication of two additional areas of Board law that they believe warrant reconsideration once Mr. Miscimarra’s replacement is nominated and confirmed, and the Board returns to a 3-2 Republican majority.

While unpublished Board decisions “are not intended or appropriate for publication and are not binding precedent, except with respect to the parties in the specific case,” as in the two cases discussed below, can offer important insights into what Board members are thinking about significant matters, and therefore can give readers an idea what to expect when particular issues come before the Board in future cases. In this regard, they, like the General Counsel’s recent Memorandum on Mandatory Submissions to Advice, give meaningful guidance to employers and advocates.

The Board is Likely to Revisit and Move Away from Obama Era Holdings re Confidentiality in Settlement Agreements

During the past eight years, one of the signatures of the Obama Board was its effort to expand the application of the National Labor Relations Act’s relevance to non-union workplaces. One aspect of this was a series of Board decisions finding that when employers sought to include broad confidentiality provisions in private settlement and separation agreements with employees that restricted the employees’ ability to disclose the terms of such settlements to others, including employees, they were impermissibly restricting employees’ ability to act together with other employees concerning terms and conditions of employment.

In a footnote to a December 27, 2017 unpublished decision denying a motion for summary judgment in an unfair labor practice complaint issued against Baylor University School of Medicine, Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel wrote as follows:

Members Emanuel and Kaplan agree that there are genuine issues of material fact warranting a hearing and that the Respondent is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

However, they believe that, to the extent not already permitted under Board precedent, the legality of confidential severance agreements for former employees should be reconsidered

While the Baylor University decision does not answer the question of when and in what circumstances the Board will recognize an employer’s right to lawfully require confidentiality in settlement agreements and other agreements that where they would have been found to interfere with employees’ Section 7 rights, the tea leaves more than suggest a change in Board law as soon as the Board returns to five members and an appropriate case is before the new majority.

The Board is Likely to Change How It Interprets and Applies the Blocking Charge Rule

Another important area that Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel indicated they want to see the Board re-examine is a Board doctrine commonly referred to as the Blocking Charge Rule.

Under the Board’s 2014 Amended Election Rules, the NLRB holds that when an unfair labor practice charge is filed during the pendency of an representation petition, the Board will not conduct the election if the party that has filed the charge, typically the petitioning union, or in the case of a decertification petition, the incumbent union facing a vote to decertify it as the representative, if the charge alleges actions by the employer that the union claims prevent or interfere with a fair election. Many observers believe that such blocking charges are used tactically by unions that are concerned they face defeat at the polls.

Under the 2014 Amended Election Rules, it is quite easy for a union to use such a charge to block an election:

Section 103.20 of the final rule requires that a party wishing to block processing of the petition must file a request to block and simultaneously file a written offer of proof in support of its unfair labor practice charge. If the Region believes the charge precludes a question concerning representation and no request is filed, the Region may ask the Charging Party if they wish to request to block.  If so, the Charging Party should be informed that they must file a request to block and an offer of proof, including the names of witnesses who will testify in support of the charge and a summary of each witness’s anticipated testimony. In addition, the Charging Party must promptly make the witnesses available to the Region.

In a December 20, 2017 unpublished decision in a case involving a decertification petition filed by an employee of ADT, in which the incumbent union filed ULP charges, to prevent an election:

Member Kaplan agrees with the decision to deny review here. He notes, however, that, consistent with the Petitioner’s suggestion, he would consider revisiting the Board’s blocking charge policy in a future appropriate case. Member Emanuel agrees that the determination to hold the petition in abeyance in this case was permissible under the Board’s current blocking charge policy, but he believes that the policy should be changed. Specifically, he believes that an employee’s petition for an election should generally not be dismissed based on contested and unproven allegations of unfair labor practices.

One of the more interesting aspects of this decision and footnote is that both Chairman Kaplan and Member Emanuel, although not disagreeing with the Regional Director’s application of the rule in the case before them, each expressed their view that the Blocking Charge Rule, which is not a rule at all but rather a Board-created doctrine or policy “should be changed.”

Steven M. SwirskyOver the past week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit weighed in on two separate related efforts by the Obama-Board to expand the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) to workers who are not in traditional employer-employee relationships.

One Court – Two Cases

In a March 3, 2017 decision, the Court rejected the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) finding that FedEx Home Delivery drivers were employees and agreed with the company that the drivers were independent contractors and therefore did not have the right to union representation under the Act.   On March 9th, the Court heard the much anticipated argument on the challenge by Browning –Ferris Industries of California Inc., to the Board’s 2015 decision adopting a new and much looser standard for determining joint employer status. While it is not certain when the Court’s decision will be released, the questions asked by the judges who heard the appeal suggested that they are by no means convinced that the new test articulated in Browning-Ferris is the correct one and consistent with what Congress intended when it passed the Act.

The Court Found FedEx Ground Drivers Are Independent Contractors, Not Employees

A key question in the gig economy is the relationship between a worker and the company for whom they provide services. Those workers who are employees under the Act have the right to join and be represented by unions; independent contractors do not.  The NLRB has gone so far in its efforts as to hold that misclassification of a worker the Board considers to be an independent contractor commits an unfair labor practice when it does so.  The Board has also argued before the Courts that its views on whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor should be afforded deference by the Courts.

The D.C. Circuit’s decision in the FedEx case is of particular interest with regard to each of these propositions. First, the Court noted that under the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in NLRB v. United Insurance Company of America, the “determination of whether a worker is a statutorily protected ‘employee’ or a statutorily exempt ‘independent contractor’ is governed by common law” and “there is no shorthand formula or magic phrase that can be applied to find the answer.” Thus, while the Board argued that the Court should afford great weight to its application and analysis of the common law test for determining whether the drivers were employees or independent contractors, because the question is “a question of pure common law agency principles ‘involv[ing] no special administrative expertise that a court does not possess,” the Court found that deference to the Board’s views was neither appropriate nor required.

The Court in its analysis and application of the common law test found that the NLRB was wrong to place greater weight on certain factors than others. Because the facts in the FedEx case were virtually identical to an earlier case the Court had considered with the same parties in 2009, the Court held the Board was not entitled to the deference that would be due “between two fairly conflicting view,” because the Court had previously considered and decided the issue.

The Board’s Browning-Ferris Joint Employer Test

The Board’s 2015 Browning-Ferris decision held that an employer could be deemed a joint-employer of another employer’s employees if it was found to exercise or even just has the right to exercise “indirect control” over the other employer’s employees. The D.C. Circuit heard argument on March 9th on the company’s challenge to this standard.  While it is too early to say whether the Court will defer to the Board in this case, the Court’s questions suggested that it at least has doubt as to the Board’s new standard.  For example, Judge Patricia Millet questioned the practicality and future application of the indirect control standard, asking the Board’s attorney “What assurance do we have that this test and particularly indirect control is going to continue to police the line properly between genuine joint employers and [contractors]?

As in the FedEx decision, the application of the common law standards was before the Court, this time in connection with the common law test for determining the existence of an employer-employee relationship, which is one of the requirements of the Browning-Ferris standard. Counsel for Browning-Ferris argued that “the notion of exertion control dovetails with Congress’ understanding of the essence of a common-law employment relationship as direct supervision.” If the Court agrees with this proposition, then it would seem questionable that the Court will accept the Board’s view that possession, without exercise, of indirect control is sufficient to find a joint-employment relationship.

What Do These Cases Tell Us?

Since last November’s election, there has been a great deal written and said about what a Trump Labor Board will likely mean for the legacy of the Obama Board. However, in examining that legacy it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the Board’s decisions are not self-enforcing and are subject to review and enforcement by the Courts of Appeal.  While the Board continues to follow its Doctrine of Non-Acquiescence, meaning it will not accept the holdings of any court other than the United States Supreme Court as binding upon it if it disagrees with the Court’s interpretation of or views concerning the application of the Act, the D.C. Circuit and other Courts have continued to take serious issue with the Board’s position.

It will be interesting to see, once a new Board with a majority of members is appointed by the new President, not only how it addresses the myriad of representation and unfair labor practice precedents that are the product of the Obama Board, but also whether it continues to stand by the Doctrine of Non-Acquiescence and how this shapes its relationship with the judiciary.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board), which continues to apply an ever expanding standard for determining whether a company that contracts with another business to supply contract labor or services in support of its operations should be treated as a joint employer of the supplier or contractor’s employees, is now considering whether a company’s requirement that its suppliers and contractors comply with its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Policy, which includes minimum standards for the contractor or supplier’s practices with its own employees can support a claim that the customer is a joint employer.

Unions are Pursuing Joint Employer Claims Based On CSR Policies

My colleague Dan Green and I recently examined a case  in an article published in Epstein Becker Green’s most recent Take Five in which the Temporary Workers Of America, (TWOA) argued just that, seeking to require the client of the Lionbridge Technologies, the company that actually employs the workers it represents, to participate in negotiations for an initial collective bargaining agreement after the TWOA was certified by the NLRB as the representative of a unit of agency temporaries. Notably, TWOA describes itself as “a start up union devoted to defend and promote the interests of workers classified as ‘temporary.’” Notably, when the TWOA filed its petition for a representation election, it did not claim at that time that the temporary employer’s client was a joint employer with it and only did so after it won the election and was certified.

When the client declined the union’s request to participate because it was not an employer, the TWOA filed unfair labor practice (ULP) charges alleging that the client was unlawfully refusing to bargain. The Board has been aggressively investigating that assertion, including issuing investigative subpoenas to the alleged joint employer demanding extensive documentation and information from it concerning its business relationship with its supplier.

The NLRB Is Aggressively Using Its Subpoena Power to Investigate Joint Employer Allegations

While the customer moved to revoke the investigative subpoenas, the Board denied its motion to revoke the investigative subpoena, noting its “broad investigative authority, which extends not only to substantive allegations of a charge, but to ‘any matter under investigation or in question’ in the proceeding.” (emphasis in original).  Referring to its broad investigative powers, Members Hirozawa and McFarren went on to say that nothing in the Board’s Rules “can be read to impose a requirement that the Regional Director articulate ‘an objective factual basis’ in order to compel the production of information that is necessary to investigate” a pending ULP charge.

Dissenting, Member Miscimarra challenged the use of investigative subpoenas by the Regional Director to pursue the TWOA’s bare faced assertion that the contractor-employer’s client was a joint employer of its personnel. “I believe that a subpoena seeking documents pertaining to an alleged joint-employer and/or single employer status of a charged party requires ‘more . . . .than merely stating the name of a possible single or joint employer on the face of the charge,’” and that, as Section 10054.4 of the Board’s own Casehandling Manual holds, documentary evidence such as that which the Board’s subpoena called for should only be pursued if “consideration of the charging party’s evidence and the preliminary information from the charged party suggests a prima facie case.” (emphasis in original).  Here Member Miscimarra points out the TWOA merely claimed Lionbridge Technologies and its client were a “’joint employer’ without additional factual information about the joint employer allegation.”

What This Means For Employers Now

Since the Board issued its decision in Browning Ferris Industries last August, lowering the threshold for finding a joint employer relationship, it has continued to open the gates for increased organizing and union activity, including announcing it will hold elections and certify unions to represent units made up of both directly employed and secondarily employed employees in its Miller & Anderson, Inc. decision this past June.

As with the TWOA and its pursuit of Lionbridge and its client as joint employers, unions are now taking advantage of these opportunities in a number of ways, both in representation cases and by demanding that putative joint employers come to the table for bargaining.

Employers are well advised to review the full range of their operations and personnel decisions, including their use of contingent and temporaries and personnel supplied by temporary and other staffing 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.

One of the hallmark initiatives of NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin Jr. has been the pursuit of more aggressive remedies in response to what the General Counsel considers to be egregious unfair labor practices (“ULP’) activity.  While his predecessors and prior Board members spoke of “special remedies” that they would seek to impose in what they deemed extraordinary cases, General Counsel Griffin and today’s National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) are much more frequently arguing for and directing remedies that go beyond those that the NLRB routinely imposed over the first 75 years following passage of the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act” or the “NLRA”).

The General Counsel Wants Guitar Center Stores to Pay the Union’s Bargaining Expenses

On July 24, 2015, Peter Sung Or, Regional Director Region 13 issued a Consolidated Complaint (pdf) against Guitar Center Stores, Inc., a nationwide retail chain, accusing the company of bargaining in bad faith in its negotiations with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (“Union”) for contracts at the Chicago, New York and Las Vegas locations where the Union represents sales employees.  The Complaint consolidates seven ULP charges involving negotiations at those locations for collective bargaining agreements.  In addition to seeking the traditional remedy of an order directing the employer to bargain in good faith, the Complaint also calls for a Board order that would require the company “to reimburse the Union for its costs and expenses incurred in collective bargaining for all negotiations from July 2013 forward, including for example, reasonable salaries, travel expenses, and per diems” incurred by the Union.  The Complaint does not call for a date when the obligation to pay the Union’s bargaining expenses would conclude, but  apparently the General Counsel wants the employer to pay these costs until negotiations are completed and contracts are reached at each of these locations.

This Case Reflects the General Counsel’s Decision to Pursue “Enhanced Remedies” Much More Routinely

This case reflects decisions by the NLRB and its General Counsel to take a much more aggressive approach in seeking what are arguably punitive remedies against employers who are alleged to have violated the  Act and to more aggressively seek injunctive relief in the federal courts against what the General Counsel and Board believe to be serious ULP activity .  Section 10 of the Act gives the Board broad authority to remedy ULPs in order to effectuate the purposes of the Act and to encourage collective bargaining.  However, the Supreme Court has long interpreted this authority as being entirely remedial– the Board has no authority to issue punitive remedies such as fines or damages other than back pay.  Traditionally, the Board has ordered an employer who violated the Act to: (i) cease and desist the conduct found to be unlawful; (ii) cease and desist from violating the Act in any like or related manner; (iii) take appropriate affirmative action, e.g., rehire, bargain in good faith; expunge records, make employees whole, and (iv) post a notice to employees for 60 days.  In truly egregious and rare cases, the Board has ordered an employer to bargain with a union without an election where an employer commits such serious unfair labor practices that a fair election cannot be held and where the union can show that a majority of employees supported the union before the unfair labor practices– so-called Gissel Bargaining Order (pdf). The Board also has authority to seek Section 10(j) injunctive relief in appropriate cases.  Here too, the General Counsel is continuing to exercise his discretion to recommend (pdf) and pursue such relief far more than in the past.

Starting in 2006, the General Counsel begun  a series of initiatives involving bargaining for  initial contracts and undocumented aliens, in which the General Counsel has sought to expand the scope of the Board’s traditional remedies in cases of “extraordinary and flagrant violations.”  See “NLRB Reiterates Its Position That Undocumented Workers Are Entitled To ‘Conditional Reinstatement’ in Unfair Labor Practice Cases. These new remedies include: (i) extension of the certification year for bargaining with a newly certified union, (ii) gaining access to the employer’s property, (iii) notice reading by Board agents or Company officials, (iv)  imposing a schedule for bargaining; (v) requiring reports of bargaining status, and (vi) reimbursement of bargaining or litigation costs.

As a result of these initiatives, labor unions, as well as the General Counsel are starting to request that the Board award bargaining expenses as part of the remedy in cases where the Board finds that an employer has bargained in bad faith. NLRB General Counsel Griffin recently commented on this trend at the Annual Midwinter meeting of the ABA Labor and Employment Section when he stated that “[t]his is a continuation of previous initiatives by the Office of the General Counsel (citations omitted).  The relief may be requested by the Charging Party or sua sponte by the Regional Director, when the Regional Director believes such relief may be appropriate.” See General Counsel Memorandum GC-15-05, at 25 (pdf).

It is not yet clear how the federal courts will view the Board’s increased awarding of enhanced remedies since at this point there have been very few cases in which such Board orders have been subject to judicial review.  While the Supreme Court has long and unequivocally held that the Board cannot impose punitive remedies, recent court of appeals cases appear to cast doubt on where the line is drawn.  On May 8, 2015 the D.C. Court of Appeals in a case entitled FallBrook Hospital Corporation v NLRB  upheld the Board’s authority to award bargaining costs in a case in which the Board had found an employer to have engaged in what it referred to as an  egregious case of bad faith bargaining.  Citing the Board’s discretion in fashioning remedies for violations of the Act, and the great degree of deference that the Courts are to afford the Board’s interpretation of the Act,  the Court noted that the Hospital had not only committed a large number of ULPs but also had acted  in an “obstinate and pugnacious manner” in its negotiations with its employees’ union representative and had bargained with a “closed mind” and, in the course of the parties’ negotiations had “put up a series of roadblocks designed to thwart and delay bargaining.” For these reasons the Court deferred to the Board and enforced its order directing the Hospital to reimburse the union for its expenses and costs over the course of the negotiations.

What’s Next?

Given, all of this, it is no surprise that unions are increasingly asking for the Board to pursue these and other types of enhanced remedies when they file ULP charges and over the course of Board proceedings. Whether and where the Board will draw a bright line differentiating between what it will consider to be an egregious violation which it believes justifies and requires enhanced remedies and more routine hard bargaining cases, in which it will hold traditional remedies are adequate is yet unknown.  Also unknown is whether the Board is prepared to issue orders calling for such enhanced remedies when it is a union, not an employer, that has bargained in bad faith, is also unknown at this stage.

By Kara M. Maciel and Lindsay A. Smith

On March 12, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (“the Board”) concluded that a beef processing company committed an unfair labor practice in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) when it terminated three workers for striking in protest of their working conditions (“Greater Omaha Packing Co.”).  More significant, however, was the Board’s decision to reverse an Administrative Law Judge’s finding concerning the employer’s questioning of an employee.  Prior to the strike, one of the terminated employees’ supervisors requested that the employee come to his office, at which point the supervisor asked the employee what he wanted.  The employee responded that he wanted “an increase” and was immediately terminated by the supervisor.  On these facts, the NLRB found a separate violation of the NLRA under Section 8(a)(1) because it determined that the questioning was coercive, separate and apart from the actual termination of the employee.

Board case law surrounding the unfair labor practice of coercive questioning/solicitation became revitalized this past July when the Board reversed almost 30 years of precedent with its decision in Albertson’s, LLC.  Under Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, an employer is not allowed to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights.  The Board has found that an employer’s solicitation of employee grievances can be considered coercive because it “raises an inference that the employer is promising to remedy the grievances” and/or may convey the employer’s displeasure with the employee, as was the case in Greater Omaha Packing, Co.  This treatment of employer questioning has a long-standing basis in Board precedent, however, the Board reversed its precedent in Albertson’s, LLC by finding that such questioning violates the NLRA even if an employee fails to state a grievance or remains silent.  Therefore, the Board in Greater Omaha Packing, Co, reinforced its treatment of grievance solicitation and expanded the possible bases for a violation of Section 8(a)(1).

Although the affected employee in Greater Omaha Packing, Co. did express a grievance in response to his supervisor’s solicitation, the decision is significant in its warning to the Board.  Member Johnson concurred in the decision, but warned that the Board should not take this so far as to adopt a “gag rule” that would discourage employers from discussing the merits of workplace complaints with an aggrieved employee, specifically where those employees are unrepresented.  He asserted that there is actually nothing “more conducive to labor peace” than an employer and aggrieved employee being able to meet and discuss their views as to what is fair and to determine what the employees want.

Management Missives

These recent cases are important because employers must be aware that their ability to solicit grievances directly from an employee is limited by Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA.  Even straightforward questions such as “what do you want,” may be interpreted by the Board as coercive based on the context of the question and its implications from the perspective of the employee. 

An employer may avoid being perceived as using coercion if they:

  • Establish a policy and practice of open dialogue with employees before and unrelated to union or other protected activity;
  • make certain participation by an employee is completely voluntary;
  • engage in a real discussion with the employee about the opposing views and possible solutions;
  • inform the employee there will be no reprisal based on the employee’s participation in the discussion;
  • avoid linking any discussion with current union or other protected activity, and
  • take steps to address some of the concerns raised by the employee as a part of the regular open dialogue practice. 

By Maxine Neuhauser

As we have discussed on a number of prior occasions (Fifth Circuit Rejects The NLRB’s D.R. Horton Decision On Arbitration Waivers; Obama’s Labor Agenda Continues to Advance – Griffin Confirmed as NLRB GC; NLRB Administrative Law Judge Finds Medical Center’s Technology Usage Policies Violated Employees Rights Under the National Labor Relations Act. and Labor Law vs. Common Sense – NLRB Continues Targeting Non-Union Employers and Common Sense) the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” ) and its Administrative Law Judges continue to find that employment policies designed to provide protection to employers and employees may be unfair labor practices (ULPs) under the Act.

In Boch Imports, Inc. d.b.a. Boch Honda and International Ass’n of Machinists, Case No. 1-CA-83551 (Jan. 13, 2014), the ALJ ruled that multiple provisions in the employee handbook of a retail automobile dealership (“Boch” or “Company”) constituted ULPs in violation of of the National Labor Relations Act (“Act”) because they impinged on the employees’ rights to discuss their conditions of employment and to engage in concerted activities.  The ALJ targeted the following policies:

  • Confidential  and Proprietary Information. This provision included a prohibition barring employees “from disclosing or authorizing the disclosure or use of any “Confidential Information,” including “compensation structures and incentive programs.”
  • Discourtesy. This provision included a prohibition of employees ,“use of profanity or disrespect to a … co-worker  or engaging in any activity which could harm the image of the Company. . .      .”
  • Inquiries Concerning Employees. This provision included a  prohibition barring employees from providing, “personal information of any      nature concerning another employee (including references) to any outside      source unless approved by the Human Resources Department and authorized,      in writing by the employee . . . .”
  • Social Media Policy.This policy included provisions  that:
    •  prohibited employees from disclosing any information about the Company’s employees or customers;
    •  required employees to identify themselves when posting comments about the Company or its business;
    •  prohibited employees from referring to the Company in postings that would negatively impact the Company’s reputation or brand;
    •  prohibited employees from engaging in activities that could have a negative effect on the Company, even if occurring off Company property or off the clock;
    •  prohibited employees from using the Company’s logos for any reason;
    •  prohibited employees from posting videos or photos recorded in the workplace;
    •  required employees to contact the Company’s Vice President of Operations before making statements to the media;
    •  required employees to provide the Company with access to any commentary posted by employees on social media sites; and
    •  required employees to write and post respectfully.
  • Solicitation and Distribution. This provision restricted non-employees from soliciting and distributing literature or other materials at any time on property adjacent to the Company’s premises.
  • Dress Code and Personnel Hygiene. This provision barred, “Employees who have contact with the public” from wearing “pins, insignias, or other message clothing which are not provided to them by the Company . . . .”

The ALJ upheld the ban on the wearing of pins because of the potential for pins to cause accidental damage to vehicles (e.g., by falling into an engine or scratching a vehicle’s interior or exterior). The ALJ ruled, however, that the blanket prohibition to insignias on clothing constituted a ULP because customer exposure to insignias, “alone, is not a special circumstance allowing the employer to prohibit the display.” Rather, “There are numerous factors that need to be weighed to determine whether a displayed item constitutes special circumstances and should be permitted, including size and the message thereon.”

The Boch decision addresses many, but not all, of the employer policies that the NLRB has been targeting recently. In December 2013, for example, an ALJ found that an employer’s “No Gossip Policy” constituted a ULP. In Laurus Technical Institute and Joslyn Henderson, Case 10-CA-093934 (Dec. 11, 2013). The employer, a school, had fired an employee for violating the school’s no-gossip policy, which defined “gossip” as including:

  • talking about a person’s professional life without his/her supervisor present;
  • negative, or untrue, or disparaging comments or criticisms of another person or persons; and
  • creating, sharing, or repeating a rumor about another person.

The ALJ in that case had no difficulty in finding that the no-gossip policy was overbroad and that the employee’s discharge for violating the policy likewise violated the Act.

The Boch and Laurus decisions illustrate the increased scrutiny that the NLRB has been giving to employee handbooks over the past few years. These and other recent cases show that the NLRB is taking aim at employee handbooks and broadly interpreting whether an employer’s policies and prohibitions would reasonably tend to chill employees in the exercise of their statutory rights under the Act. Accordingly, employers that have not done so recently may wish to consider a handbook review.

 

 

Steve M. SwirskyOn Friday, November 16, I participated in a free 75-minute webinar discussion with Lafe E. Solomon, Acting General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board.  The webinar was moderated by Terence H. McGuire of the Practical Law Company.  We discussed:

  • Factors that the NLRB considers when deciding whether to prosecute unfair labor practices based on these employment practices.
  • Legal considerations surrounding these employment practices besides compliance with the National Labor Relations Act.
  • The NLRB’s stance on what is and is not a lawful at will disclaimer.
  • Social Media and communications policies.
  • The NLRB’s position on employer requirements for confidentiality in connection with workplace investigations.
  • Waivers of the right to pursue claims in class actions.
  • What’s next on the NLRB’s prosecutorial agenda and how employers can prepare.

Click here to view this complimentary webinar, “Employment Practices Facing NLRB Scrutiny.”