The Ninth Circuit Asks the California Supreme Court to Weigh in on Bag Checks

On August 16, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order certifying a question regarding an important wage and hour issue to the California Supreme Court: Is time spent on an employer’s premises waiting for and undergoing required exit searches of bags or packages voluntarily brought to work for purely personal convenience by employees compensable as “hours worked” under California law?

The question arose in Frlekin v. Apple, Inc., an appeal in a wage and hour class action brought against Apple, Inc., by current and former nonexempt California retail store employees. In the suit, the plaintiffs sought compensation for time that they spent waiting for and undergoing exit searches whenever they left Apple’s retail store locations, pursuant to the company’s Employee Package and Bag Searches policy. The at-issue policy, which is similar to ones in place at many other large retailers, required that employees undergo unpaid, manager-performed bag/package checks before leaving the stores—at breaks or at the end of their shifts.

In July 2015, a district court certified the case as a class action. However, in November 2015, the district court granted Apple’s motion for summary judgment and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and ruled that time spent by class members waiting for and undergoing exit-related bag searches pursuant to Apple’s policy was not compensable as “hours worked” under California law because such time was neither “subject to the control” of the employer nor time during which the class members were “suffered or permitted” to work.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that employees are under the control of the employer while waiting for and undergoing the bag checks because they are required whenever entering or leaving the premises. Apple countered that the time is not compensable because employees are not required to bring bags to work, and may avoid the searches altogether by not bringing a bag or package to the workplace. In its order certifying the issue for the California Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit noted that Apple’s position “finds strong support” in the seminal California Supreme Court decision Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal. 4th 575 (2000), in which the court held that time spent by employees using employer-mandated transportation to get to a worksite was compensable, while noting that time spent on “optional free transportation” would not be compensable. However, the Ninth Circuit expressed questions about whether differences in context—i.e., employer-provided transport to and from the workplace versus searches at the worksite—rendered Morillion distinguishable.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court previously determined that similar bag checks were not compensable in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, 135 S. Ct. 513 (2014), the California Supreme Court has not addressed the compensability of bag checks under California’s wage and hour laws, which involve a somewhat different definition of compensable work time. As the Ninth Circuit noted in its order, the consequences of any interpretation of California law with respect to bag searches “will have significant legal, economic, and practical consequences for employers and employees” throughout California and will materially affect the outcome of many pending lawsuits. For the time being, employers should consult with qualified employment counsel to mitigate risk while we wait for the California Supreme Court to weigh in.

This post was written by Philippe A. Lebel of  Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
Read more on litigation of wage and hour issues at the National Law Review.

The Latest in the NLRB Handbook Saga? Another Unlawful Recording Policy Fails to Pass Muster

Whole-Foods-Market.jpgLast month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) yet again shed further light on its analysis – and increased scrutiny – of employers’ handbook policies.  The NLRB’s decision in T-Mobile USA, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 171 (Apr. 29, 2016), serves as a follow-up to an earlier decision with respect to rules restricting employees’ use of recording devices.  We talked about the T-Mobile decision in our post last week and thought we would continue the discussion by elaborating on another of the board’s decisions on recording rules.

In one of many recent decisions scrutinizing employer handbook policies, the board in Whole Foods evaluated an employer rule prohibiting the use of recording devices on company premises.  Whole Foods, 363 NLRB No. 87 (Dec 24, 2015).  The NLRB specifically explained that it was not holding that all rules regulating recordings are invalid.  Rather, the board found “only that recording may, under certain circumstances, constitute protected concerted activity under Sec. 7 and that rules that would reasonably be read by employees to prohibit protected concerted recording violate the Act.”  Id. at *3, n.9.  The NLRB further explained that employers are not prohibited from maintaining rules restricting or prohibiting employee use of recording devices, but they must be narrowly drawn so that employees understand that Sec. 7 activity is not restricted.  This was the board’s issue with respect to the Whole Foods policy, as it found the rules to be overly broad.  The board relied on the fact that the rules applied regardless of the type of activity engaged in and that it covered all recordings.

The T-Mobile decision, which we wrote about last week, provides additional insight on how to interpret Whole Foods.  In T-Mobile USA, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 171 (Apr. 29, 2016), the board found the following policy to be unlawful:

To prevent harassment, maintain individual privacy, encourage open communication, and protect confidential information, employees are prohibited from recording people or confidential information using cameras, camera phones/devices, or recording devices (audio or video) in the workplace. Apart from customer calls that are recorded for quality purposes, employees may not tape or otherwise make sound recordings of work-related or workplace discussions. Exceptions may be granted when participating in an authorized [] activity or with permission from an employee’s Manager, HR Business Partner, or the Legal Department. If an exception is granted, employees may not take a picture, audiotape, or videotape others in the workplace without the prior notification of all participants.

Id. at *4.  The administrative law judge found that T-Mobile had set forth valid, nondiscriminatory rationales for the rule, including maintaining a harassment-free work environment and protecting trade secrets, and that the rule was narrowly tailored to these interests.  However, the NLRB reversed, noting that “[t]he rule does not differentiate between recordings that are protected by Section 7 and those that are not, and includes in its prohibition recordings made during nonwork time and in nonwork areas.”  Id. at *5.  Notably, though, the policy did state that the restriction is limited to recordings “in the workplace.”

With respect to the policy justifications alleged, the board conducted the following analysis:

  1. Harassment: T-Mobile asserted that its recording prohibition was in place to prevent harassment and noted that, under federal and state laws, employers have an affirmative obligation to prevent harassing conduct. However, the NLRB found that the recording prohibition was not narrowly tailored to this interest.  The board noted that it neither cited laws regarding workplace harassment nor specified that the restriction is limited to recordings that could constitute unlawful harassment.

  1. Confidential information: T-Mobile asserted as an additional justification its interest in protected confidential information in the workplace. The NLRB noted that the employer’s other policies defined “confidential information” as inclusive of employee information such as employee contact information and wage and salary information.  The board also cited Whole Foods and said that the employer’s interest in protecting confidential information was too insufficient to justify the broad prohibition on recording.

While Whole Foods indicated that such policies are not per se unlawful, the T-Mobile decision makes clear that simply inserting business justifications into the policy will not distinguish the lawful from the unlawful.  The board seems to be closely scrutinizing the justifications and requiring detailed explanations thereof.  The decisions in T-Mobile and Whole Foods indicate that the NLRB will also require that a rule carve out recordings that would be considered protected activity under the Act, and it appears – at least for now – that rules which fail to do so will be struck down.  T-Mobile teaches us that, while recording rules are still lawful in some circumstances, the rules must be especially specific with regard to their application and justifications.  Employers should continue to closely monitor NLRB decisions to stay up-to-date on all decisions analyzing employer handbook policies.

© 2016 BARNES & THORNBURG LLP

Regulating Recording Features of Personal Wearable Technology in Workplace

With each passing day, personal wearable technology, like the Apple Watch and Google Glass, becomes more mainstream and technologically advanced.  Employers should be aware of the challenges posed by employees wearing their technology into the workplace.  Businesses have already had to consider decreased productivity, exposure to computer viruses, and potential data breaches caused by personal wearable technology in the workplace. In addition, employers are now wondering if personal wearable devices are being used to discretely and instantaneously record events and copy information in the workplace. Several employment laws are implicated when employers seek to regulate the recording features of personal wearable technology in the workplace.

Restrictions on personal wearable technology in the workplace are subject to Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits workplace rules and policies that chill discussions among non-management employees about wages, working conditions, work instructions, and the exercise of other concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.  NLRB General Counsel Memorandum No. 15-04  contains examples of both over broad and lawful work rules restricting recording devices in the workplace.  These examples are instructive when drafting employment policies restricting personal wearable devices.

Under Section 7, employers may prohibit employees from copying or disclosing confidential or proprietary information about the employer’s business, using wearable technology or otherwise.  Employers may also prohibit employees from taking, distributing, or posting on social media pictures, video, and audio recordings of work areas while on working time, so long as the policy carves an exception for conduct protected by Section 7.  The exception should expressly cite specific examples of permitted recordings, such as “taking pictures of health, safety and/or working condition concerns or of strike, protests and work-related issues and/or other protected concerted activities.”  Existing employment policies restricting personal cell phone and camera use in the workplace should be updated to include restrictions on the use of recording features of wearable technology.

The recording features of personal wearable technology also provide new methods and means for employees to engage in unlawful workplace harassment and other workplace misconduct.  Employers should consider revising their anti-harassment and conduct policies to prohibit the use of wearable technology, including its recording features, in an unlawful manner.  As technology continues to evolve, so too should employment policies, to address the use of such personal devices in the workplace.

Article By Stan Hill of Polsinelli PC

‘Fight for $15’ Walk-Outs and Protests Continue; Are You Prepared for November 10?

national labor relations boardContinuing its three-year campaign, “Fight for $15” on November 4, 2015, announced plans for worker strikes and protests at fast food restaurants in 270 U.S. cities on November 10. The protests, timed to occur one year prior to the 2016 presidential election, is calculated to send a message to voters and candidates. Protests will culminate with a march on the November 10 Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee.

While the fast food workers involved in the walk-outs are not represented for purposes of collective bargaining by a labor union, the walk-outs have largely been organized and funded by the Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”). Employers with union contracts who have lived with the possibility of strikes are generally more familiar with the rights and obligations of employees and employers under the labor law than their non-union counterparts. But now that walk-outs and work stoppages are becoming an accepted strategy in the non-union workforce, non-union employers need to know the rules, too. Indeed, over three years of protests, scores of unfair labor practice charges have been filed against non-union employers alleged to have interfered with employee participation in protected activity. Moreover, on November 4, 2015, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) upheld a decision finding that a St. Louis Chipotle Grill unlawfully discharged an employee because he engaged in fight-for-$15 protests.

“Protected, Concerted Activity”

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees have the right to engage in group activity for the purposes of “mutual aid and protection.” Thus, whether a union is involved, if two or more employees acting in concert walk off the job to protest work conditions or enforce demands relating to the terms of their employment, the walk-out, or strike, generally is protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act. (Quickie, intermittent work stoppages might not be.) Under these circumstances, it would be unlawful to discipline or discharge (or otherwise disadvantage) employees for walking off the job. It also means that unless the employees have been permanently replaced (discussed below), the strikers are entitled to be returned to their jobs when they make an unconditional offer to do so.

Lawful Employer Responses to Protected Concerted Activity

Employers are not without rights in dealing with protected concerted activity (“PCA”). First and foremost, employers have a right to continue business operations. This can be accomplished by assigning managers or hiring replacement workers to do the work of the employees who walked off the job. If the strike is not caused by an employer unfair labor practice, employers have the right to designate the replacement workers either as permanent or temporary. (If the strike is caused by an employer unfair labor practice, employers have the right to designate the replacement workers only as temporary.)

If replacement workers are designated as temporary, when the strikers offer to return to work, the employer is obligated to lay off the temporary workers and put the strikers back to work.

When the employer designates the replacements as permanent, when the strikers offer to return to work, they are placed on a preferential hiring list. In that situation, the employer is not obligated to lay off the replacements, but when positions open up through normal attrition, the employer first has to offer those openings to the former strikers who are on the preferential hiring list.

Walk-outs in the fast food industry have been short, however, typically rendering the hiring of replacement workers impractical. As a practical matter, employers may have to rely on managers or other employees who are not participating in the strike.

Violence and Other Picket Line Misconduct

Employees lose the protection of the NLRA if they engage in certain improper conduct. This includes intermittent or “quickie strikes.” Generally, strikers lose the protection of the NLRA when they engage in a pattern of striking for short periods, returning to work briefly, and then striking again. By engaging in this type of conduct, strikers effectively deny the employer the ability to run its business either by relying on its regular employees or by hiring replacements. The NLRA does not prevent the employer from issuing discipline or discharging employees who participate. However, before taking action, employers should consult counsel and be absolutely certain the particular job action is unprotected.

Other activities that are unprotected include stay-ins or sit-down strikes. A stay-in or sit-down strike occurs when employees refuse to work and also refuse to vacate the employer’s premises. Strikers seek to force the employer to accede to their demands by bringing operations to a halt, preventing the employer from operating. This type of trespasser activity generally is unprotected.

Slow-downs are another tactic sometimes used to impede production. Work is deliberately performed ever more slowly; the employer cannot conduct business and customers fume. Slow-downs are not protected and can be addressed by discipline or discharge.

Lawful Responses to Unprotected Activity

Strikers, of course, are allowed to picket on public property near their place of employment to publicize a labor dispute. They, however, are not privileged to engage in threats, physical assaults, trespass, or property destruction. When they do, employers have these remedies available:

1. Law Enforcement: The most immediate relief available is to call the police. Just because employees ostensibly are engaged in a strike does not immunize them from prosecution when they commit crimes.

2. State Court Injunction: Another remedy is to seek a state court injunction to prohibit violence. This is particularly helpful when there is mass picketing, obstruction of traffic, and blockages of entrances, and the police have difficulty controlling the situation. In these kinds of cases, employers seek court orders prohibiting further violence or destructive activities and limiting to a reasonable number the number of picketers at a particular location at any given time, so police can assure public order.

3. Employer Discipline and Discharge: If the threats, violence and property destruction are egregious enough, the employees involved lose the protection of the NLRA, which means they can be discharged or disciplined. (However, a full investigation should be conducted before the employer takes action to determine what the employee actually did or said. In addition, investigation of past discipline in similar situations not involving protected concerted activity is important because the rules (under the NLRA) prohibit discrimination against employees who engage in such activity. In other words, if, in the past, an employee who was not participating in protected concerted activity engaged in violence for which he was suspended, an employee who engages in similar violence while partaking in protected concerted activity generally also should be suspended, rather than discharged.) Employees should not suffer greater discipline for their misconduct because it occurs while they engage in activity the law protects.

While there is no bright line for evaluating when misconduct becomes unprotected, some general guides may be kept in mind. For example, simple name-calling, momentary blocking of ingress and egress at employer facilities, and simple trespass onto an employer’s property, without any accompanying destruction or violence, probably will not be sufficient to cause the employee to lose the protection of the NLRA. However, physical assaults, participating in extended blocking of ingress or egress, and property destruction are generally the types of conduct that will cause an employee to lose the protection of the NLRA.

Minimum Wage Surges in 2015 and Beyond

Multi-state employers take note: changes in the minimum wage will take effect this year.  At the state level, advocates pushing for an increase in the minimum wage saw significant victories in 2014 and many increases will take effect in the coming weeks.

Minimum Wage Surges

A comprehensive list of past, current and future wage increases is available here.  Employers should also ensure they comply with applicable notice requirements and update their postings, which are generally available on the respective agency websites.

Employers should note the following state and local minimum wage increases in 2015, with additional increases occurring in 2016 and beyond.  Furthermore, several states, including New York and New Jersey, will see annual cost-of-living increases to their minimum wage.

    • Alaska:  Effective February 24, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $8.75/hour and $9.75/hour on January 1, 2016.

    • Arkansas:  Effective January 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $7.50/hour.  Subsequent increases will bring the minimum wage to $8.00 in 2016 and $8.50 in 2017.

    • California:  In July 2014, California employees saw an increase in the minimum wage to $9.00/hour.  Effective January 1, 2016, this rate will rise to $10.00/hour.

  • Oakland, California:  Effective March 2, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $12.25/hour and will increase in subsequent years based on cost-of-living increases.

  • San Francisco, California:  Over the next four years, San Francisco employees will see a gradual rise in the minimum wage to $15.00/hour.  In addition, effective January 1, 2015, employers in San Francisco must pay employees who work at least two hours a week (with limited exceptions) at least $11.05/hour.  OnMay 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $12.25/hour.  The next bump, to $13.00/hour, will take place on July 1, 2016.  On July 1, 2017, the minimum wage will increase to $14.00/hour, and, finally, on July 1, 2018, the minimum wage will increase to $15.00/hour.

  • Delaware:  Effective June 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $8.25/hour.

  • Illinois: Chicago employees will see a gradual increase in the minimum wage over the next five years.  Chicago’s employees will receive their first increase on July 1, 2015, when the rate goes to $10.00/hour.  The rate will increase to $10.50/hour in 2016, to $11.00/hour in 2017, to $12.00/hour in 2018, and to $13.00/hour in 2019.

  • Maryland:  Effective January 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $8.00/hour and to $8.25/hour onJuly 1, 2015.  Subsequent increases will bring the minimum wage to $8.75 in 2016, $8.25 in 2017, and $10.10 in 2018.

  • Minnesota:  Large employers (annual gross revenue of $500,000 or more) will see an increase in the minimum wage to $9.00/hour on August 1, 2015 and $9.50/hour on August 1, 2016.  Small employers (annual gross revenue of $500,000 or less) will see an increase in the minimum wage to $7.25/hour on August 1, 2015 and $7.75/hour on August 1, 2016.  Minnesota employers should take note that if the combined amount of its gross revenue is more than $500,000, starting August 1, 2014, it must pay the “large” Minnesota employer minimum wage rate.  In addition, for those employees who are under the age of 20, Minnesota will increase the 90 day training wage to $7.75/hour on August 1, 2015 and $7.75/hour on August 1, 2016.

  • Nebraska:  Effective January 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $8.00/hour and to $9.00/hour on January 1, 2016.

  • New York:  Effective December 31, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $9.00/hour.

  • South Dakota:  Effective January 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $8.50/hour.

  • Washington, D.C.:  Effective July 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $10.50/hour and to $11.50/hour on July 1, 2016.

  • West Virginia:  Effective January 1, 2015, the minimum wage will increase to $8.00/hour and to $8.75/hour on January 1, 2016.

Locally, Milwaukee County voters strongly supported a ballot referendum in November endorsing a statewide increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour; however, it is unlikely that the Wisconsin Legislature will vote to increase the minimum wage during the next term.

At the national level, President Obama will face an uphill battle in passing a higher federal minimum wage under the next Congressional term.  Given the outcome in the 2014 elections, any additional increases in the minimum wage over the next two years will likely be dependent upon further changes to state and local laws.

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The Affordable Care Act—Countdown to Compliance for Employers, Week 1: Going Live with the Affordable Care Act’s Employer Shared Responsibility Rules on January 1, 2015

Mintz Levin Law Firm

Regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) employer shared responsibility rules including the substantive “pay-or-play” rules and the accompanying reporting rules were adopted in February.  Regulations implementing the reporting rules in newly added Internal Revenue Code Sections 6055 and 6056 came along in March. And draft reporting forms (IRS Forms 1094-B, 1094-C, 1095-B and 1095-C) and accompanying instructions followed in August.

With these regulations and forms, and a handful of other, related guidance items (e.g., a final rule governing waiting periods), the government has assembled a basic—but by no means complete—compliance infrastructure for employer shared responsibility. But challenges nevertheless remain. Set out below is a partial list of items that are unresolved, would benefit from additional guidance, or simply invite trouble.

1.  Variable Hour Status

The ability to determine an employee’s status as full-time is a key regulatory innovation. It represents a frank recognition that the statute’s month-by-month determination of full-time employee status does not work well in instances where an employee’s work schedule is by its nature erratic or unpredictable. We examined issues relating to variable hour status in previous posts dated April 14July 20, and August 10.

An employee is a “variable hour employee” if—

Based on the facts and circumstances at the employee’s start date, the employer cannot determine whether the employee is reasonably expected to be employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week during the initial measurement period because the employee’s hours are variable or otherwise uncertain.

The final regulations prescribe a series of factors to be applied in making this call. But employers are having a good deal of difficulty applying these factors, particularly to short-tenure, high turnover positions. While there are no safe, general rules that can be applied in these cases, it is pretty easy to identify what will not work: classification based on employee-type (as opposed to position) does not satisfy the rule. Thus, it is unlikely that a restaurant that classifies all of its hourly employees, or a staffing firm that classifies all of its contract and temporary workers, as variable hour without any further analysis would be deemed to comply. But if a business applies the factors to, and applies the factors by, positions,  it stands a far greater chance of getting it right.

2.  Common Law Employees

We addressed this issue in our post of September 3, and since then, the confusion seems to have gotten worse. Clients of staffing firms have generally sought to take advantage of a special rule governing offers of group health plan coverage by unrelated employers without first analyzing whether the rule is required.

While staffing firms and clients have generally been able to reach accommodation on contractual language, there have been a series of instances where clients have sought to hire only contract and temporary workers who decline coverage in an effort to contain costs. One suspects that, should this gel into a trend, it will take the plaintiff’s class action bar little time to respond, most likely attempting to base their claims in ERISA.

3.  Penalties for “legacy” HRA and health FSA violations

A handful of promoters have, since the ACA’s enactment, offered arrangements under which employers simply provided lump sum amounts to employees for the purpose of enabling the purchase of individual market coverage. These schemes ranged from the odd to the truly bizarre. (For example, one variant claimed that the employer could offer pre-tax amounts to employees to enroll in subsidized public exchange coverage.) In a 2013 notice, the IRS made clear that these arrangements, which it referred to as “employer payment plans,” ran afoul of certain ACA insurance market requirements. (The issues and penalties are explained in our June 2 post.) Despite what seemed to us as a clear, unambiguous message, many of these schemes continued into 2014.

Employers that offered non-compliant employer-payment arrangements in 2014 are subject to penalties, which must be self-reported. For an explanation of how penalties might be abated, see our post of April 21.

4.  Mergers & Acquisitions

While the final employer shared responsibility regulations are comprehensive, they fail to address mergers, acquisitions, and other corporate transactions. There are some questions, such as the determination of an employer’s status as an applicable large employer, that don’t require separate rules. Here, one simply looks at the previous calendar year. But there are other questions, the answers to which are more difficult to discern. For example, in an asset deal where both the buyer and seller elect the look-back measurement method, are employees hired by the buyer “new” employees or must their prior service be tacked? The IRS invited comments on the issue in its Notice 2014-49.

Taking a page from the COBRA rules, the IRS could require employers to treat sales of substantial assets in a manner similar to stock sales, in which case buyers would need to carry over or reconstruct prior service. While such a result might be defensible, it would also impose costly administrative burdens. Currently, this question is being handled deal-by-deal, with the “answers” varying in direct proportion to the buyer’s appetite for risk.

5.  Reporting

That the ACA employer reporting rules are in place, and that the final forms and instructions are imminent should give employers little comfort. These rules are ghastly in their complexity. They require the collection, processing and integration of data from multiple sources—payroll, benefits admiration, and H.R., among others. What is needed are expert systems to track compliance with the ACA employer shared responsibility rules, populate and deliver employee reports, and ensure proper and timely delivery of employee notices and compliance with the employer’s transmittal obligations. These systems are under development from three principal sources: commercial payroll providers, national and regional consulting firms, and venture-based and other start-ups that see a business opportunity. Despite the credentials of the product sponsors, however—many of which are truly impressive—it is not yet clear in the absence of actual experience that any of their products will work. It is not too early for employers to contact their vendors and seek assurances about product delivery, reliability, and performance.

An In-Depth Analysis of the NLRB’s Decision to Permit Employees to Use Employer Email Systems for Union Organizing and Other Non-Work Purposes

Sheppard Mullin Law Firm

The rights of employees under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act have been given quite the digital treatment over the last few years.  In its newest decision issued on December 11, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that “employee use of email for statutorily protected communications on nonworking time must presumptively be permitted by employers who have chosen to give employees access to their email systems.”  The full decision can be found here.

In Purple Communications, Inc. and Communications Workers of America, AFL–CIO. Cases 21–CA–0951 51, 21–RC–091531, and 21–RC–091584, the Board overturned its previous decision in Register Guard, 351 NLRB 1110 (2007), which held that employees do not have a right to use their employers’ email systems for Section 7 purposes.  But, as seen in recent years, the Board has embraced the digital age and has concluded that employee Section 7 rights include everything from social media to, in this case, company email.

Like most companies, Purple Communications, Inc., has an “Internet, Intranet, Voicemail and Electronic Communication Policy” in its employee handbook.  Among other things, this policy prohibits employees from using the “computer, internet, voicemail and email systems, and other Company equipment” to engage in “activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with [the] Company” or “sending uninvited email of a personal nature.”  The Communications Workers of America filed an unfair labor charge regarding this policy, and the Administrative Law Judge found the policy lawful under Register Guard, dismissing the allegations.  This new decision by the NLRB then followed.

In overturning Register Guard, the Board stated that email has “effectively become a natural gathering place pervasively used for employee-to-employee conversations” and the fact that this “gathering place” is virtual does not undermine the role that email plays in Section 7 protected workplace discussions.  In fact, the Board concluded that “email’s effectiveness as a mechanism for quickly sharing information and views increases its importance to employee communication,” especially in the seven years since Register Guardwas issued.  Interestingly, the Board relied on empirical evidence regarding the rise in “teleworking” and email usage for all work functions, at the physical workplace and remotely, to demonstrate that email has become a significant platform for employee communication.  Accordingly, it was held that email’s use for Section 7 activity must be protected under the NLRA.  The Board will no longer “perpetuate” an “outmoded assessment of workplace realities.”

The Board attempted to preemptively address employers’ concerns about the ruling, by stating that this decision is a “limited one,” in that it addresses only email and not any other types of electronic communication systems.  Moreover, businesses are not prevented from monitoring their computers and email systems for legitimate management purposes.  Finally, the Board stated that an employer may justify a ban on non-work use of its email system if it can point to “special circumstances” that necessitate the ban, including system overload, the nature of the business, and excessive costs.  Regardless, the Board’s dissenting members apparently are not convinced, arguing that this decision will lead to significant problems down the road.

Interestingly, the Board fails to directly address the decision’s effect on other types of policies that could be affected, such as non-solicitation and non‑distribution policies.  The Board distanced itself from the issue, stating that “we do not find it appropriate to treat email communication as either solicitation or distribution per se.”  The dissent took issue with this stance and predicts that this decision will make it very difficult to determine what communications violate lawful restrictions against solicitation in the future.

Although the Board did not outright declare Purple Communication’s electronic communications policy unlawful, employers should be wary of overly broad or restrictive electronic communications policies.  As with the onslaught of social media decisions and subsequent policy revisions, employers should take a hard look at their electronic communications policies in light of this decision and consider whether their policies put them at risk in this evolving digital age.

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