Happy 25th Birthday, FMLA! 25 Years Later – Where Are We Now?

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is celebrating its 25thanniversary this month. On February 5, 1993, President Bill Clinton signed the FMLA into law guaranteeing certain employees up to 12 unpaid weeks off of work a year to care for children or ill family members, or to recover from one’s own serious health condition. During the time off, an employee’s medical benefits would remain intact.

When initially passed, the statute’s purpose was to address the rising number of American households with working parents who were concerned about losing their jobs when taking time off to care for a child or a sick family member. It was also meant to allow people who had serious health conditions to  remain employed when taking time off work for temporary periods.

Since that time, the FMLA has become a source of contention for employers and employees alike. Employers often feel overburdened by the paperwork’s technical requirements, the ever-increasing threat of litigation, and the costs of complying with the statute.  Employees and workers’ rights groups are concerned about the FMLA’s lack of coverage for part-time and small-business workers and the narrow definition of family.  Either way you slice it, the FMLA is due for a revamp, but are the Trump administration’s budget proposal and tax cuts pushing the FMLA in the right direction?

FY2018 Budget Proposal

Although in its nascent form, President Donald Trump followed up on a campaign promise and included a proposal for paid parental leave in his FY2018 Budget Proposal. The Budget Proposal would give new mothers and fathers up to six weeks of paid parental leave.  The funding for the proposal would come from the Unemployment Insurance system and be funded and run, at least in part, by the states.  A reduction in improper payments, assistance finding new jobs, and the ability to keep reserves in the Unemployment Trust Fund accounts are listed as possible vehicles to fund the program.

As we previously reported, some state and local governments have already enacted their own Paid Family Leave measures.  It is unclear at this point how the new proposal would affect these state and local laws.  Although making coverage mandatory and taking the burden off of employers to pay for leave are attractive goals for many, there are practical concerns about how this proposal would be funded and which employees would be covered.

Tax Act

In December, a bill formally known as the Tax Cut and Jobs Act was signed into law.  Beginning in 2018, employers who voluntarily provide paid family and medical leave are eligible to receive a tax credit of between 12.5 percent and 25 percent of the cost of each hour of paid leave based on the amount of compensation provided during the leave. The employer must provide at least two weeks of leave and compensate the worker for at least 50 percent of the worker’s earnings to be eligible.  The tax credit will only be applied toward paid leave for employees who make less than $72,000.  The employer must also make the paid leave available to both full-time and part-time employees who are employed at the organization for at least a year to receive the credit.

The tax act also broadens the scope of paid leave to cover part-time employees and may incentivize employers to voluntarily provide paid leave, but the act ends in 2019 and may not provide enough credit for all employers to buy into the program.

As the policy landscape shifts at the federal and state level towards paid leave, employers should consider which approach is best for their current situation. If relying on the tax incentive for purely financial reasons, an employer should analyze the numbers to make sure that the tax incentive is worth offering the paid leave, taking into consideration that the tax incentive may extinguish at the end of 2019 unless extended by Congress.  Employers would also be wise to review state and local laws to make sure that their policies align with local paid leave mandates.  Employers could proceed ahead of any mandatory change and voluntarily implement paid leave based on intangibles such as recruitment, retention, and worker productivity or wait and see if the family and medical leave winds change direction yet again.

 

© 2018 Foley & Lardner LLP
This post was written by Taylor E. Whitten of  Foley & Lardner LLP.

R2-Me2? How Should Employers Respond to Job Loss Caused by Robots?

There is no question that the use of robots, along with other similar technological changes in the workplace, will continue to eliminate or downgrade jobs. Indeed, it has been estimated that on average, each workplace robot eliminates six jobs. This article will examine (1) the impact such changes will have on women and (2) whether these changes can be subject to legal challenge as prohibited gender discrimination.

The gender pay gap has become a much debated and controversial topic, but this article will stay out of the fray. However, data produced by the consultancy firm Korn Ferry has concluded that women in Britain make just one percent less than men who have the same function and level at the same employer.  Therefore, some have suggested that the main problem today is not necessarily unequal pay for equal work, but rather the forces and circumstances that lead women to be forced into and stuck in lower-paid jobs at lower-paying organizations. According to The Economist, this is the true gender “pay gap,” which is a much more difficult problem to solve.

Current research suggests that, unless addressed, this gender “pay gap” will increase rather than decrease. Last month, a report to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, predicted that “artificial intelligence, robotics and other digital developments,” and the consequent job disruption, are likely to widen rather than diminish the gender pay gap. See “Towards a Reskilling Revolution” at p. 3. Citing statistics published by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report concluded that of the 1.4 million U.S. jobs that are projected to become “disrupted” because of robotic and other technological changes between now and 2026, 57 percent will be held by women.

But there could be good news for those concerned about gender wage equality. The report argued that an increased awareness of the impending effect of these changes, along with a concerted plan by governments, employers, businesses, labor unions and employees themselves to retrain or “reskill” disrupted workers, will present displaced workers with more opportunities for jobs at higher pay levels than their current wages. In a summary of the main report, the authors predicted that reskilling programs could result in higher wages for 74 percent of all currently at-risk female workers, thereby narrowing the gender wage gap.

Although job disruption from the use of robots will disproportionately impact women, the fact that it will result from “business necessity” means that employees may have difficultymounting successful legal challenges to this practice. Instead, thoughtful employers may want to focus their energies on learning more about the scope of this looming problem and, wherever possible, create or participate in programs that will reskill impacted employees, and thereby provide them with more opportunities in expanding and higher-paid occupations.  Nor is this an unrealistic proposition as, overall, in the decade ending in 2026, the U.S. job market is projected to create 11.5 million new jobs.

 

© 2018 Foley & Lardner LLP
This post was written by Gregory W. McClune of Foley & Lardner LLP.

Recent Challenges to the Use of Hair Follicle Drug Testing

Without question, the trucking industry must do all it can to make sure its drivers are drug-free. However, employers must establish policies and procedures that recognize the diversity in the work force and the need to be flexible in the types of drug tests it administers to drivers and applicants. Hair testing is very effective in detecting drugs but should not be used as an end all for all applicants and experienced drivers. The National Minority Trucking Association reports that of the 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, 1.5 million are minorities. As demands for new drivers increases, minorities are increasingly entering the profession. In addition, employers seek to retain experienced drivers. Recent court cases and EEOC settlements point to the need for those wishing to hire and retain minority drivers to have flexibility when it comes to the types of drug testing used on minority drivers and candidates.

Race-Based Challenges to Hair Follicle Testing

A recent decision from the United States District Court of Appeals for the First Circuit revived a lawsuit filed by eight police officers, a cadet, and a 911 operator. All are African American. All tested positive for cocaine after a hair follicle test was administered by the Boston Police Department. This was the second time the First Circuit found that the hair follicle test had a statistical disparate impact on African American officers in violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title 7 prohibits employers from utilizing “employment practices that cause a disparate impact on the basis of race,” unless those practices are justified by business necessity. A disparate impact claim can succeed even when the employer did not intend to discriminate against persons in a protected class. The Boston Police Department’s officers and cadets had been subject to annual hair follicle drug tests. When the testing agency reported that a sample tested positive for cocaine, a physician chosen by the department checked to see if the individual had been administered certain medications during a medical procedure. If not, the individual could elect to have a “safety net” test of a different hair sample. The safety net tests were much more sensitive than the initial tests in detecting the presence of cocaine and its chemical by-products.

Plaintiffs challenged the reliability of hair testing. They pointed out that the federal government has refused to authorize hair testing in drug screening of federal employees and employees of private industries for which the government regulates drug testing. Plaintiffs argued that black individuals have higher levels of melanin in their hair and that causes cocaine and cocaine metabolites to bind to the hair at higher rates. If someone snorts or smokes cocaine its “aerosolized powder” will deposit on any nearby surface, including non-users hair. These deposits cannot be distinguished from the effects of actual use by current hair testing methods.

The plaintiffs also pointed to statistics kept by the department over a seven-year period. The statistics showed that out of 4,222 blacks that were hair follicle tested, 55 were positive. That compared to 10,835 whites being tested and 30 being positive. This resulted in a standard deviation of 7.14. The court acknowledged Mark Twain’s quip that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. However, the statistical analysis provided by plaintiffs provided to the court that “…we can be almost certain that the difference in outcomes associated over race over that period cannot be attributed to chance alone.”

The court then discussed whether the testing was job related. The court readily agreed that the hair test was job related since abstention from drug use was an important element of police behavior and that having a work force that did not consume drugs was a legitimate business need for the department. It noted that there was no reason why a test need be anything near 100% reliable – as few tests are – to be job related and consistent with business necessity. However, the disparate impact claim of the plaintiffs survived if they could show that an alternative test would decrease the chances of impacting innocent officers. Plaintiff’s suggested that those who had a positive hair follicle test go through a series of random follow up urinalysis tests in order to reduce the number of experienced officers being terminated and recruits being denied the opportunity of joining the force. The court found that a jury could agree with that approach and ordered that the suit go forward.

Religious Challenges to Hair Follicle Testing

In a charge filed with the EEOC, four East Indian Sikh applicants challenged J.B. Hunt’s drug testing policy. The policy required applicants to provide a hair sample for follicle testing. One of the five Articles of Faith for a Sikh is to maintain uncut hair. The Sikhs sought a religious accommodation, but were denied by J.B. Hunt. Though other testing methods were available, J.B. Hunt elected to require hair follicle testing, arguing that hair follicle testing was more accurate – and therefore more likely to assist in the company’s compliance efforts in having a drug-free driver force – than other methods.

The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that Hunt failed to accommodate the Sikhs’ religious beliefs and effectively failed to hire a class of individuals due to race, national origin and religion in violation of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The EEOC believed that alternate testing methods were a reasonable accommodation for the Sikhs, even if marginally less accurate than hair follicle testing. Hunt agreed to pay $260,000 and extend unconditional offers of employment to the complainants. In addition, it agreed to designate an EEOC consultant, develop written policies and procedures, and conduct training for all employees participating in the hiring, compliance, and grievance process.

These cases highlight the need for trucking companies to balance their responsibilities of keeping a drug-free driver corps while also respecting the rights of their diverse applicants and employees. Though hair follicle testing is common in the industry, it is important to note that there are some situations where trucking companies need to be flexible in its use.

 

© 2018 Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, P.C.
This post was written by Doug Heise of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen, P.C.
Read more at the National Law Review’s Transportation Page.

Raise Your Hand If You’re Confused about I-9 Reverifications for Employees with TPS

Temporary Protected Status (TPS) is a humanitarian benefit available to foreign nationals who are unable to return to their home countries because of certain temporary conditions including ongoing armed conflict such as civil war, an environmental disaster like an earthquake, hurricane, epidemic, or other extraordinary conditions. During TPS designation, qualifying foreign nationals are not removable from the US and can obtain work authorization and travel permission.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently terminated TPS for nationals of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan but has granted a period of orderly departure to allow time for this population to wind up their affairs in the US. This has left employers in a quandary about which TPS holders remain able to work and how to comply with Form I-9 Employment Eligibility Verifications.

To help ease the confusion, the chart below illustrates TPS-designated countries, the dates by which beneficiaries were required to re-register and, for those who do re-register, how long their current Employment Authorization Cards (EAD) are automatically extended pending decisions of EAD renewal applications. The TPS termination dates for El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan are also included.

Country

Re-Registration Period Ends

EAD Auto-Extended Until

TPS End Date

El Salvador

03/19/2018

09/05/2018

09/09/2019

Haiti

03/19/2018

07/21/2018

07/22/2019

Honduras

02/13/2018

07/04/2018

Nepal

12/27/2016

06/24/2017

Nicaragua

02/13/2018

07/04/2018

01/05/2019

Somalia

03/20/2017

South Sudan

11/20/2017

05/01/2018

Sudan

12/11/2017

05/01/2018

11/12/2018

Syria

09/30/2016

03/31/2017

Yemen

03/06/2017

09/03/2017

As reflected in the chart above, sometimes DHS issues a blanket automatic extension of the expiring EADs for TPS beneficiaries of a specific country in order to allow time for EADs with new validity dates to be issued. The automatic extension periods are available to those TPS beneficiaries who timely re-register and apply to renew their EADs.

Although an employer cannot specify which documents an employee can present in connection with the I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification process, TPS beneficiaries with automatic EAD extensions may present an expired EAD bearing the C19 eligibility code along with a Form I-797C Notice of Action indicating the eligibility category code A12 or C19. The codes need not be the same.

The M-274 Handbook for Employers is an excellent resource in determining how to complete the Form I-9 for those employees with automatic EAD extensions. It specifies that:

“For a current employee, update Section 2 of Form I-9 with the new expiration date as follows:

  • Draw a line through the old expiration date and write the new expiration date in the margin of Section 2;

  • Write EAD EXT in Section 2;

  • Initial and date the correction.”

For TPS beneficiaries, the new expiration date should correspond with the respective date as noted in the chart above. An employee whose employment authorization is automatically extended along with his/her EAD may cross out the “employment authorized until” date in Section 1, write the new expiration date as reflected in the chart, initial and date the change.

A new employee may present the expired EAD and Form I-797C Notice of Action indicating USCIS’s receipt of the employee’s timely filed renewal application. When completing Section 1, the employee should enter the corresponding date from the chart in the “employment authorized until mm/dd/yyyy” field.

When completing Section 2, the employer should enter into the Expiration Date field the date the automatic extension period expires, not the expiration date on the face of the expired EAD. The employer should enter the receipt number from the I-797C Notice of Action as the document number on Form I-9. Note that reverification is required when the employee’s automatic extension ends.

While an employer is not required to be an expert in I-9 documents and review, having access to reliable resources comes in handy and will take you to the head of the class.

 

Copyright © 2018 Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP, All Rights Reserved.
This post was written by Jennifer Cory of Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP.

New Jersey Amends Its Law Against Discrimination to Provide Protections to Nursing Mothers

On January 8, 2018, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed new legislation (the “Amendment”) amending the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”) to add breastfeeding as a protected class under the law. The Amendment, which takes effect immediately, makes it unlawful to discriminate or retaliate against an employee that the employer knows, or should know, is either breastfeeding or expressing milk for her infant child.

The Amendment also requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to nursing women, unless it would result in an undue hardship to the employer, and specifically requires employers to provide:

  1. Reasonable break time each day for the employee to express breast milk for her child; and
  2. A suitable location with privacy, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the work area for the employee to express breast milk for her child.

To determine whether an accommodation would provide an undue hardship, the NJLAD provides that the following factors should be considered:

  • the overall size of the employer’s business with respect to the number of employees, number and type of facilities, and size of budget;
  • the type of the employer’s operations, including the composition and structure of the employer’s workforce;
  • the nature and cost of the accommodation needed, taking into consideration the availability of tax credits, tax deductions, and outside funding; and
  • the extent to which the accommodation would involve waiver of an essential requirement of a job as opposed to a tangential or non-business necessity requirement.

The Amendment also provides that breastfeeding employees are entitled to paid or unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, in the same manner as “provided to other employees not affected by pregnancy or breastfeeding but similar in their ability or inability to work.” While the Amendment does not provide an express right to leave, it requires employers to treat such a leave request as they would any other request for leave.

While many New Jersey employers have already been subject to similar requirements to provide breaks and private spaces for nursing mothers to express breast milk in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s 2010 Amendment to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the key differences between the breast feeding protections in the FLSA and in the NJLAD are:

  1. Which employees are covered? The FLSA’s protections apply only to “non-exempt” workers (i.e., those workers entitled to overtime pay), while the NJLAD’s protections apply to all New Jersey employees.
  2. Which employers are covered? Small businesses (fewer than 50 employees) may not be covered by the FLSA break-time-for-nursing-mothers provision if they can demonstrate that compliance with the provision would impose an undue hardship. The NJLAD contains a similar “undue hardship” exception, but does not limit the exception to small businesses.
  3. How long must employers accommodate nursing mothers? Protections under the FLSA apply up until one year after the birth of the child, while the NJLAD’s protections do not provide a time limit and apply while the mother is “breast feeding her infant child.” The NJLAD does not define “infant child.”

What should employers do?

New Jersey employers should review their procedures and practices to ensure compliance with the Amendment by:

  1. Reviewing anti-discrimination and reasonable accommodation policies to ensure compliance with the law;
  2. Training supervisors and managers on how to handle accommodation requests related to breastfeeding;
  3. Providing an employee who is breastfeeding with reasonable break times and a suitable private location, other than a toilet stall, in close proximity to the work area to express breast milk for her child.

In addition, employers should consult with counsel before denying an employee an accommodation related to breastfeeding to determine whether an “undue hardship” may be established.

 

©2018 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
More Labor and Employment News on the Labor and Employment Practice Group page.

Keep Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’: DOL Reissues 17 Opinion Letters That Had Been Withdrawn Under the Obama Administration

In late June 2017, the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced it would be reinstating Opinion Letters issued by its Wage and Hour Division, which was a practice that had ceased back in 2010. This announcement is significant from both the procedural and substantive basis. From 2010 to July 2017, Opinion Letters were replaced by Administrator Interpretations, which set forth a more general interpretation of the law and regulations as they pertained to a particular industry or set of employees. Opinion Letters, on the other hand, are official written opinions that set forth how wage and hour laws apply in very specific circumstances as presented to the DOL Wage and Hour Division via specific employer questions asking for a formal opinion to guide the employer as to how to proceed. In other words, employers submit questions based on their specific factual circumstances and policies and the DOL issues a written opinion as to the legality of the employer’s policies.

With Opinion Letters back, businesses have been waiting to see what the DOL would do with them. In the first week of 2018, the DOL answered that question by re-instating 17 Opinion Letters that were issued in January 2009 but withdrawn during the Obama administration. The DOL also reissued over a dozen advisory Opinion Letters that had been published during former President Bush’s administration, but were also later rescinded.

Because Opinion Letters answer specific business questions related to wage and hour issues in various business segments, the 17 reinstated Opinion Letters and the dozen plus reissued advisory Opinion Letters may provide businesses specific and tailored guidance on various wage/hour issues under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The reinstated letters cover a wide variety of topics including, appropriate inclusions in an employee’s regular pay rate, types of employment that qualify for the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime exemptions, and how ambulance service workers’ “on-call” time should be treated for purposes of “hours worked” under the FLSA. Here is the full list of reinstated Opinion Letters (all dated January 5, 2018) and links:

Number

Letter Subject

FLSA2018-1

Construction supervisors employed by homebuilders and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-2

Plumbing sales/service technicians and section 7(i)

FLSA2018-3

Helicopter pilots and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-4

Commercial construction project superintendents and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-5

Regular rate calculation for fire fighters and alarm operators

FLSA2018-6

Coaches and the teacher exemption under section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-7

Salary deductions for full-day absences based on hours missed and section 13(a)(1) salary basis

FLSA2018-8

Client service managers and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-9

Year-end non-discretionary bonus and section 7(e)

FLSA2018-10

Residential construction project supervisor and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-11

Job bonuses and section 7(e)

FLSA2018-12

Consultants, clinical coordinators, coordinators, and business development managers under section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-13

Fraud/theft analysts and agents under section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-14

Calculation of salary deductions and section 13(a)(1) salary basis

FLSA2018-15

Product demonstration coordinators and section 13(a)(1)

FLSA2018-16

Volunteer fire company contracting for paid EMTs – joint employment and volunteer status

FLSA2018-17

Construction supervisors employed by homebuilders and section 13(a)(1)

As demonstrated by the list above, there are a number of broad topics covered, i.e., Section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, which exempts employees employed in a bona fide administrative function, and a number of extremely narrow ones, e.g., those dealing with helicopter pilots, coaches, construction supervisors employed by homebuilders.

Here is a summary of some of the noteworthy findings in the reinstated Opinion Letters:

Bonus Compensation

The DOL reviewed the issue of whether certain bonuses (or other payments) should be included in an employee’s regular rate of pay under the FLSA. See FLSA2018-5, FLSA2018-9, and FLSA2018-11.

Exempt Employee Deductions

The DOL reviewed the issue of whether a salary deduction is permissible when an exempt employee is absent for a full day, but does not have enough leave time in the employee’s leave bank to cover the entire absence. The DOL concluded that, “if the absence is one full day in duration, the employer may deduct one full day’s pay or less. Therefore, in answer to your first question, if an employee is absent for one or more full days, but does not have enough time in his or her leave bank to cover the entire absence, the employer may make a deduction from the employee’s pay for any portion of the full-day absences that is not accounted for by the leave bank.” SeeFLSA2018-7.

Administrative Exemption

In reviewing whether client service managers at an insurance company qualified as exempt administrative employees, the DOL focused on the “independent judgment” factor in determining that their primary duty was to use independent judgment over matters of business significance when issuing advice and, generally, without first seeking upper-level management approval.

On-Call Hours

The DOL concluded that on-call hours of ambulance service personnel are not compensable time under the FLSA for purposes of the regular rate and overtime calculations. The issue arose from an ambulance service’s unwritten policy that required on-call employees to arrive for service at the ambulance garage within five minutes of being notified. The DOL determined the five-minute requirement was “not a significant hindrance” to the employees that would require the employer to convert their on-call time to compensable hours worked. Notably, the scope was an ambulance company servicing a small city of approximately 4,000 individuals.

Takeaways:

  1. Nothing New as the DOL Returns to the Prior Opinion Letter Process. The important news is the return to the more focused, less-sweeping means to establishing DOL-interpretation policy. Otherwise the information provided in the reinstated Opinion Letters is not new; it has been available to businesses for years and, as such, most businesses with issues relevant to the topics in the reinstated Opinion Letters are likely already complying. The reinstated Opinion Letters do not take on any topics that had been severely altered during the Obama administration. We addressed this rolling-back issue in our All Things HR in a post titled “The Way We Were: The NLRB’s Time Machine Resets the Clock on Employer Work Rules and Joint Employer Status” demonstrating this is not just a NLRB mantra, it looks to be the DOL’s too.

  2. Ranging Applicability. As the ambulance-employer DOL Opinion Letter demonstrates, some of the reinstated Opinion Letters will have very limited applicability as Opinion Letters are only as good as the overlapping facts in the circumstances presented in them and the business seeking to use them as guidance. Nevertheless, while many Opinion Letters focus on specific legal issues specific to certain employers/businesses/industries, they are still valuable resources and may provide answers or guidance in many areas in wage and hour law.

  3. More Defenses Available to Businesses. Opinion Letters were and continue to be another tool businesses have in their arsenal to help ensure compliance with the FLSA, and another tool in their defense arsenal. Specifically, Section 10 of the Portal-to-Portal provides businesses an affirmative defense to all monetary liability if the business can demonstrate it acted “in good faith and in conformity with and in reliance on any written administrative regulation, order, ruling, approval, or interpretation” of the DOL Wage and Hour Division. See 29 U.S.C. § 259 and 29 C.F.R. Part 790.

In addition, Opinion Letters can be used to prove the “good faith” defense against the double liquidated damages penalty available under the FLSA, and the third-year of damages in the case of willful violations, of which the bar is extremely low. See 29 U.S.C. § 260. The availability of newly-issued Opinion Letters means that a business can request and obtain an Opinion Letter addressing a specific practice, policy, and/or factual circumstance for guidance and rely on a favorable Opinion Letter in response to a charge or lawsuit on the same issue.

  1. This is a Good Thing. This is good news for businesses because it demonstrates two things: (1) businesses will be able to have and rely on additional resources to meet their statutory and regulatory wage and hour obligations; and (2) the Trump administration seems intent on turning back the clock to a time pre-Obama administration, but not necessarily instituting new guidance or interpretations (not in the labor and employment context at least). This means that businesses are likely already familiar with what they should be doing and have been doing it.

© Copyright 2018 Dickinson Wright PLLC
For more Labor and Employment news go to the National Law Review’s Labor and Employment Page.

Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment in the Wake of #MeToo

Revelations of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and those that have followed, have ignited sexual harassment complaints against employers across all industries. Recent news more than confirms that the issue of sexual harassment is not limited to Hollywood. As U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic recently said in an interview with Law360, “We see this everywhere. This happens to women in workplaces all over the place.”

With the outpouring of support for victims of sexual harassment, the creation of the #MeToo movement in the last quarter of 2017, and Time magazine’s “Silence Breaker” person of the year, it is clear that this is an issue that employers will need to proactively address in 2018. A study by theBoardlist and Qualtrics, based on a survey conducted this summer, reported that 77 percent of corporate boards “had not discussed accusations of sexually inappropriate behavior and/or sexism in the workplace.” Less than 20 percent of the 400+ people surveyed had reevaluated their company’s risks regarding sexual harassment or sexist behavior, even in light of the recent revelations in the media. Plainly, those numbers are expected to, and no doubt will, increase in the coming year.

Failure to take affirmative steps to prevent harassing behavior and adequately respond to allegations of sexual harassment can have serious consequences. While sexual harassment claims may originate as internal complaints, which must be promptly addressed, they may also result in a discrimination charge filed with the EEOC or the corresponding state or local agency. Since fiscal year 2010, roughly 30 percent of the approximately 90,000 charges of discrimination received by the EEOC each year have alleged sex-based discrimination, and the number of charges alleging sex-based harassment has gradually increased from just below 13 percent to just above 14 percent. Next year, this number is expected to increase because employees are becoming more comfortable reporting and publicizing incidences of sexual harassment in light of recent news, and due to the EEOC’s digital upgrade that allows employees to file EEOC complaints online.

Sexual harassment claims may also lead to litigation, which can be expensive and time-consuming and can create negative publicity. For instance, Mr. Weinstein’s former company, The Weinstein Co. (“TWC”), has been named in a $5 million civil suit alleging that executives of the company did nothing to protect women who did business with Mr. Weinstein, despite being aware of his inappropriate behavior. On December 6, 2017, TWC was one of the named defendants in a proposed class-action racketeering lawsuit alleging that TWC helped facilitate Mr. Weinstein’s organized pattern of predatory behavior. Additionally, the New York attorney general’s office is investigating TWC for potential civil rights violations in its handling of claims of sexual harassment.

There may also be unseen consequences of sexual harassment on the makeup of a workforce. Various studies have reported that harassment may lead to the departure of women from the workforce or the transition into lower-paying jobs. Further, women in jobs with a higher risk of sexual harassment often earn a premium over employees in positions with a lower risk of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, therefore, may have real impact on compensation and implicate the pay gap and pay equity.

For these reasons, many employers are looking to implement and also supplement sexual harassment training seminars provided for their employees in order to combat sexual harassment in the workplace.

Employers should also consider whether their current practices include the following:

  • A robust complaint procedure. Sexual harassment at work often goes unreported. According to the EEOC, as many as three-quarters of harassment victims do not file workplace complaints against their alleged harassers. Make sure that you have reporting mechanisms in place to receive complaints and consider allowing employees to complain directly to human resources, to a supervisor, or to an anonymous hotline.
  • A prompt investigation of complaints. Upon receiving a complaint, promptly and thoroughly investigate the allegations, and make sure that your employees do not retaliate against the alleged victim or any person who cooperates in the investigation.
  • Independent investigations. Ensure impartiality in the process. In certain cases, that may mean hiring an outside consultant or outside legal counsel to conduct the investigation.
  • Thorough communication practices. A common objection asserted by complainants is that they are not informed about the status of an investigation. While complainants need not (and should not) be notified about the details or even given regular status reports, inform the complainant that an investigation will occur and be sure to provide closure—regardless of the outcome of the investigation.
  • A proactive approach. Consider conducting employee engagement or climate surveys (with or without a consultant) to better understand the work atmosphere, rather than simply reacting to workplace complaints. Before doing so, consult with counsel to determine whether and how such a survey may be conducted (potentially under the self-critical analysis privilege, depending on the jurisdiction) to avoid it unwittingly becoming evidence in a proceeding.
  • An atmosphere of inclusiveness. Foster an atmosphere of inclusiveness to help prevent sexual harassment. Make sure that your top-level management is involved in setting the tone, modeling appropriate behavior, and effecting positive change. Some organizations should consider creating a task force to root out and address inappropriate conduct—again with the oversight of legal counsel.
  • Effective training. While most employers conduct some form of anti-harassment training (and those that don’t offer training, should), make certain that your training is designed to effectively combat sexual harassment. Tailor the training to your specific workplace and audience. Use real-world examples of what is, and is not, harassment, and make sure that managers know how to spot potential issues and respond to any and all complaints.
©2017 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. 
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