Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, August 26, 2016

More States Pass Domestic Violence Victim Workplace Protection

Domestic violence victims have enough problems without also having to deal with coworkers stigmatizing them and possibly getting fired. The trend is for states to protect sexual violence from workplace discrimination.

Most recently, five states enacted paid sick leave laws that include requiring paid leave for domestic violence victims. Those states are Vermont, California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts and Oregon. These are overall paid sick leave laws that protect both domestic violence victims and employees who need time off to care for victims of domestic violence. The paid leave accrues depending on each state’s law.

I frequently raunch on Florida for being so anti-employee, but I have to give my home state props for being one of nineteen states that have laws protecting employees who become domestic violence victims. Here is a brief summary of the state and local laws protecting domestic violence victims from employment discrimination:

  • Indiana prohibits discrimination for either filing a petition for a protective order or for actions taken by the abuser. It also provides that employer and employee may mutually agree to accommodations.
  • Delaware’s law makes it illegal to discriminate against domestic violence victims and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations such as schedule changes or changes in job duties.
  • North Dakota allows state employees up to 40 hours of sick leave for domestic violence victims and their family members.
  • Massachusetts' law requires employers with 50 or more employees to give up to 15 days off for medical attention, securing new housing, court proceedings and other needs related to the domestic violence.
  • New Jersey's law says an employee/victim is entitled to time off for treatment or counseling, and also says they have to be allowed to attend legal proceedings, civil or criminal, relating to the incident.  
  • California law says an employer can't fire an employee for being a domestic violence victim, and it also requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to secure the workplace for the victim's safety. Employers with 25 employees or more must grant victims reasonable leave to deal with court dates and other issues relating to the domestic violence.
  • Florida law grants domestic violence victims up to 3 days of protected leave. Employers cannot discharge, demote, suspend, retaliate or otherwise discriminate against an employee for exercising their rights to domestic violence leave. To our legislature's credit, this law has been in place since 2007, so we were a whopping 7 years ahead of pro-employee Massachusetts for a change. Miami-Dade County has an ordinance providing for up to 30 days of protected leave.
  • Colorado provides up to 3 days of leave if the employer has 50 or more employees.
  • Connecticut provides for up to 12 days of leave and bans discrimination against domestic violence victims.
  • Washington DC has a sliding scale for leave depending on how large the employer is.
  • Hawaii also has a protected leave, the amount of which depends on the size of the employer. Employers can't discriminate against victims and also must provide reasonable accommodations.
  • Illinois law requires reasonable accommodations, prohibits discrimination and 8 - 12 weeks of protected leave, depending on the size of the employer
  • Kansas law says employers can't discriminate against domestic violence victims who need time off.
  • Maine law grants reasonable protected domestic violence leave.
  • New Mexico provides up to 14 days of protected leave.
  • New York state prohibits discrimination against domestic violence victims. New York City and Westchester County require reasonable accommodations for domestic violence victims.
  • North Carolina prohibits discrimination against victims for taking reasonable domestic violence leave.
  • Oregon requires employers with 6 or more employees to grant reasonable leave and prohibits discrimination. Portland also requires protected domestic violence leave.
  • Rhode Island prohibits discrimination.
  • Washington provides reasonable leave. Seattle has its own leave ordinance and also bars discrimination.
  • Philadelphia provides leave depending on the size of the employer.

proposed federal law to protect domestic violence victims from discrimination at work went nowhere. Wouldn't it be good to have some uniform protections? Who the heck is against protecting domestic violence victims? Do we really think that getting beaten up should be grounds for termination? 

A pretty good summary of state laws up through September 2015 is here. It should also be noted that many states have laws protecting crime victims from being punished for missing time from work to testify in criminal proceedings.

Many states have laws protecting crime victims, allowing them time off from work to testify and/or recover. If the domestic violence causes a serious medical condition, then the employee may also be entitled to Family and Medical Leave if they qualify.

If you think domestic violence victims have enough problems without also having to worry about being fired, talk to your state legislators and members of Congress and ask them to pass more legal protections for this vulnerable group of employees.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Dear HR: Stop Telling Employees They Can't Apply For FMLA Until They Use Their Vacation

For about the dozenth time this year, I heard another sob story about an employee who absolutely qualified for FMLA leave, yet was told by HR that they couldn't apply until they used up their vacation or PTO time. This is wrong on so many levels, and it screws both the employee and the employer. So stop it.

Seriously. Stop it.

It screws up the employee because their boss assumes they're taking unprotected leave and so those sick and vacation days used for hospital stays, doctor visits and caregiving responsibilities are held against the employee in reviews, consideration for promotions, and discipline.

It screws up the employer because once the employer knows leave should be covered by FMLA, the employer's legal duties under FMLA kick in:
When an employee requests FMLA leave or the employer acquires knowledge that leave may be for a FMLA purpose, the employer must notify the employee of his or her eligibility to take leave, and inform the employee of his or her rights and responsibilities under the FMLA. When the employer has enough information to determine that leave is being taken for a FMLA-qualifying reason, the employer must notify the employee that the leave is designated and will be counted as FMLA leave.

 FMLA is mostly about unpaid leave, but employees do NOT have to use all their paid leave before applying:.

Employees may choose to use, or employers may require the employee to use, accrued paid leave to cover some or all of the FMLA leave taken. Employees may choose, or employers may require, the substitution of accrued paid vacation or personal leave for any of the situations covered by FMLA. The substitution of accrued sick or family leave is limited by the employer's policies governing the use of such leave.
The consequence to employers can be severe. First of all, the employee may be entitled to more leave than you're legally required to give if you mess this up. Second, if the employee's leave should have been designated as FMLA and wasn't, and you hold that time off against them, you're talking FMLA lawsuits plus disability discrimination lawsuits.

Employees, if you qualify for FMLA (you've been there at least a year AND worked 1250 hours or more in the past 12 months AND there are 50 or more employees of the employer within 75 miles of your work location) then don't believe HR when they say you can't apply. As soon as you know you have a serious medical condition and will need doctor's appointments or medical treatment, apply for intermittent leave. Employers frequently forget about intermittent leave, and it's a good thing. Here's more from the Department of Labor on intermittent leave:

(Q) Does an employee have to take leave all at once or can it be taken periodically or to reduce the employee’s schedule?
When it is medically necessary, employees may take FMLA leave intermittently – taking leave in separate blocks of time for a single qualifying reason – or on a reduced leave schedule – reducing the employee’s usual weekly or daily work schedule. When leave is needed for planned medical treatment, the employee must make a reasonable effort to schedule treatment so as not to unduly disrupt the employer’s operation.
Leave to care for or bond with a newborn child or for a newly placed adopted or foster child may only be taken intermittently with the employer’s approval and must conclude within 12 months after the birth or placement. 
(Q) Can an employer change an employee’s job when the employee takes intermittent or reduced schedule leave?
Employees needing intermittent/reduced schedule leave for foreseeable medical treatments must work with their employers to schedule the leave so as not disrupt the employer’s operations, subject to the approval of the employee’s health care provider. In such cases, the employer may transfer the employee temporarily to an alternative job with equivalent pay and benefits that accommodate recurring periods of leave better than the employee’s regular job.
So, HR folks, can we agree that you'll stop telling employees they can't apply for FMLA until they use their vacation? And employees, feel free to show them this post if they say that.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Follow Trump's Advice, Lose Your Sexual Harassment Case

By now you've probably heard Donald Trump's advice to sexual harassment victims: just quit your job. The problem with this (besides the fact that not everyone is a billionaire who can quit without having a job lined up) is that if you do quit, you may well give up your right to sue for sexual harassment.

You see, the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, says that if your employer has a published sexual harassment policy, you have to report sexual harassment according to the policy and give them a chance to fix it. Only if they don't fix it, or if retaliation occurs, can you then sue.

Quitting makes things even more difficult. In order to sue for lost wages, you have to show that you were forced to quit. In legal terms, that you were constructively discharged. If you quit, you have to prove that the workplace was so awful due to retaliation or sexual harassment that no reasonable person would stay. When you have a jury of unemployed folks and people working minimum wage jobs with abusive bully bosses, that's going to be a tough thing to convince them.

Also, if you just quit then the harasser will continue their harassment. They'll just pick another victim. So if you don't report it, don't file with EEOC, and say nothing, you guarantee another employee will be sexually harassed.

Here's what you have to do if you want to stop a sexual harasser:

a. Read your handbook: There should be a sexual harassment policy. If it isn't there, the employer is also supposed to have a poster in the break room or other prominent area saying how to report it.

b. Report it in writing: If there's an 800 number, forget that. Report it in writing to HR or someone in management. Otherwise, HR will deny you reported sexual harassment. They'll claim you reported "unfair treatment" or something else not legally protected against retaliation (if they admit you reported anything at all).

c. Tell a coworker: If you don't tell others who work with the harasser what is happening to you and that you've reported it, then the harasser may well move on to an easier victim. The NLRB says your employer can't prohibit you from discussing sexual harassment with coworkers (assuming you aren't a supervisor or in management).

d. Keep notes: Write down each instance, with dates, what happened and names of witnesses. Keep copies of texts and emails. Keep your notes and evidence at home so they can't take it away and conveniently lose it if you're fired.

e. Don't wait: You have either 180 days or 300 days from the sexual harassment to file with EEOC if they don't fix the situation. Don't delay.

f. Talk to a lawyer: If you think you have a sexual harassment or retaliation claim, talk to an employment lawyer in your state.

Don't follow Trump's advice. Don't let a sexual harasser drive you out of a job unless you have another job lined up.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Massachusetts Legislators Fail To Protect Citizens Against Abusive Noncompetes. Again

For a second year in a row, Massachusetts legislators introduced legislation to ban or severely limit the use of noncompete agreements in their state. And for the second year in a row, those efforts failed. Things looked hopeful for awhile, as both houses passed legislation, but then legislators couldn't agree on a compromise. So for the time being the citizens of Massachusetts will have to put up with being limited in their ability to leave their jobs.

This is not a small inconvenience. The White House estimates that 18% of American workers are now covered by noncompete agreements, many of them low wage workers. Jimmy John's has faced two antitrust investigations of its sandwich maker noncompetes. Dog groomers, fast food workers, data entry clerks and other low-level workers are prohibited from working for competitors of their employer for a year or two after they leave, whether they leave voluntarily or are fired because their boss didn't like their shirt or was in a bad mood.

Noncompete agreements are bad for business, bad for innovation, and are certainly bad for workers. Employers can use noncompetes to suppress wages, force employees to stay in abusive jobs, and blackmail employees into feeling trapped in their jobs. So it's a shame the Massachusetts legislature adjourned without a fix.

At least Massachusetts is trying to help their citizens, unlike my home state of Florida, one of the worst states in the nation for employees who want to escape noncompete restrictions. Other states have passed restrictions on noncompetes. Delaware and Colorado ban noncompetes for physicians. Some employees are fighting them through unions. Hawaii banned noncompetes for technology workers and New Mexico banned them for health care workers. Some states ban "sign or be fired" agreements presented after employees start working. Others require pre-hire notice to potential employees that a noncompete will be required. Some allow employees to claim that enforcing a noncompete agreement will cause them undue hardship.

An attempt by Democratic members of Congress to ban them for low wage workers has failed. Now the White House is investigating noncompete agreements and is seeking input from people who have been subjected to unreasonable restrictions.

Bottom line is that it takes real citizens raising holy hell with state and federal legislators and regulators to get the law changed. While there have been efforts to change or limit abusive noncompete agreements, nothing will change unless you speak out. Had the citizens of Massachusetts bombarded legislators with emails and phone calls asking for reform, this year's efforts wouldn't have stalled. So if you think employers shouldn't be able to prevent employees from working for competitors, then call your state legislators and members of Congress and tell them so.

Friday, June 10, 2016

10 Things Every Teen And Young Adult Should Know About Workplace Rights

If you're in high school or college, odds are you're looking for or starting a summer job or internship. Maybe you're even working during the school year. Of course, your school gave you detailed preparation on what your legal rights are when you work. Right? Ha. Not a chance. Schools do roughly zip to prepare teens for the real world workplace. You have to figure this stuff out on your own.

If you're new to the workplace or getting ready to apply for an internship, this is the article for you.
If you are the parent, relative, guardian or friend of a teen or young adult who is about to enter the workforce, do them a favor and print, tweet, email (do teens email?), text, Instagram or Pinterest this to them. (You can probably forget about Facebooking it to them since they all fled when their parents got on Facebook.)

Here's what your high school or college probably didn't teach you about workplace rights:
  1. Sexual harassment: In most states, and certainly here in Florida, sexual harassment of interns is not illegal. Yes, that is horrifying, but true. However, if you are an employee, sexual harassment is illegal as long as you work for a company with at least 15 employees (in Florida it's five in Broward, Dade or in Tampa). If you are put in an uncomfortable situation at work with inappropriate comments, jokes, or even sexual advances, you need to report it right away to HR, preferably in writing. For more on sexual harassment, check out my article How to Prove Sexual Harassment.
  2. At-will: If you live anywhere but Montana, your employment is probably at-will, meaning your employer can fire you for any reason or no reason at all (with some exceptions). They can fire you because they're in a bad mood, because they didn't like your shirt, or because you lipped off to them like you lip off to your parents. Exceptions that would make a firing illegal include firing due to discrimination, making a worker's comp claim, and blowing the whistle on illegal activity of the company. If your boss tells you to do something that isn't illegal (or sexual harassment), then do it. No eye-rolling, back-talk or attitude.
  3. Bullying: Does your school have zero tolerance for bullying? Boy, are you in for a shock. No federal or state law exists that prohibits workplace bullying. However, workplace bullies are very much like school bullies: they focus on the weak and the different. If you need to complain about a bully, make sure you do it in a way that's protected. If the bully is picking on the weak, are they weak because of a disability, pregnancy, or age? If they're picking on the different, is the difference based on race, national origin, age, or religion? If you report illegal discrimination, the law protects you from retaliation. If you report bullying, no law protects you. For more on workplace bullying, check out my articles Help! My Boss Is An Abusive Jerk and 7 Ways To Protect Yourself If Your Boss Is A Bully.
  4. Discrimination: Discrimination against you for being you isn't illegal. However, discrimination and harassment due to race, sex, sexual identity, national origin, disability, religion, color, pregnancy and genetic information are. In some states, there are more categories of illegal discrimination. Whether sexual orientation is a protected category depends on your state and local law. The EEOC says sexual orientation discrimination as part of the laws against sex discrimination, but we'll have to wait to see if the courts agree. Discrimination laws don't apply to everyone. If you're an intern, independent contractor or work for a company with fewer than 15 employees, you may have no legal protection against discrimination.
  5. Human Resources: If your employer is big enough, you probably have someone who is designated as the Human Resources person or a whole department called "Human Resources." It may be referred to as HR. This is the place to go for information about work rules, to report sexual harassment or discrimination, and you'll probably have to go there on your first day to fill out a stack of forms. While they can be very helpful if you have questions or concerns, they aren't your buddies. Human Resources represents your employer, not you. They aren't your mom or your best friend, so don't go to them with every petty complaint, confess you did something wrong, or tell them about the wild party you went to over the weekend. Keep it professional. For more on HR, check out my articleHR Wants To Meet! What Do I Do?
  6. Contracts: In most states, if you're under 18 you can't be bound by a contract, including an employment contract. You (or your parents) can void a contract you've signed while underage. However, once you turn 18, you probably can't void it anymore. Employment contracts might have provisions saying you can't work for a competitor for a year or two, waiving your right to a jury trial, confidentiality obligations, and other important clauses. If you are asked to sign a contract, always read it and keep a copy once you've signed. If you don't understand it, talk to your parents or an employment lawyer in your state about it.
  7. Social Media and Cell Phones: You are expected to work during work hours. That means no texting, emailing, calling, social media, downloading, or surfing at work, unless it's work-related. If you check your texts, emails, or social media on a company computer, cell phone or other device, the company probably has the right to look at it. If you view or send inappropriate pictures, jokes, or videos, you can be fired for doing so. There is very little privacy in the workplace, and you have few rights. Assume you're being watched at all times at work and you won't go wrong. Oh, and remember all those party pics and embarrassing photos you posted before you started applying for work? Employers and potential employers can see them. You probably want to check your social media pages and pull down anything you can that might be inappropriate for an employer to see. For more on workplace privacy, check out my article 10 New (And Legal) Ways Your Employer Is Spying On You.
  8. Dangerous Work: It is every employer's duty to maintain a safe workplace. If you think your workplace is unsafe, you can contact the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report dangerous conditions and get more information. Certain jobs are deemed too hazardous for teens under 18 to do.
  9. What Kind Of Work You Can Do: Depending on your age, there may be limits on the type of work you can do. If you are under 14, you can work, but your options are limited. You can deliver newspapers, babysit, act or perform, work as a homeworker gathering evergreens and making evergreen wreaths, or work for a business owned by your parents as long as it's not mining, manufacturing or one of the occupations designated as hazardous. If you are 14 or 15, you can do things like retail, lifeguarding, running errands, creative work, computer work, clean-up and yard work that doesn't use dangerous equipment, some food service and other restaurant work, some grocery work, loading and unloading, and even do some work in sawmills and wood shops. We're talking non-manufacturing and non-hazardous jobs only. If you are 16 or 17, you can do any job that isn't labeled as hazardous.
  10. Handbook: Read your employee handbook. It contains important information about discrimination, workplace rules, calling in sick and other things you need to know.
Of course, my book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired can help anyone new to the workplace since it covers how to handle workplace crises and issues from the interview and application, to your first day and that giant stack of papers, to workplace disputes, to promotions, to termination, and even post-termination. Plus, I write here every week about workplace rights.

Good luck with your summer job! May you never need an employment lawyer.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hey, Frontier: Suspending Women For Breastfeeding Is Illegal

The story about Frontier Airline's treatment of female pilots who are breastfeeding and need to pump while at work wasn't very surprising to me, because employers still get the whole pumping-at-work thing wrong. Here's what the four pilots who just filed with EEOC say happened:

"Rather than support me, company management questioned my parenting choices as well as my commitment to my career. They even questioned why I didn’t switch to formula,” pilot Shannon Kiedrowski said in a blog post about the complaint. 
Kiedrowski said she and the other pilots were put on unpaid leave at 32 weeks and weren’t allowed to perform other work for the airline. Women who are in their late third trimester are usually discouraged from flying. 
When they returned to work, the company offered no accommodations for breastfeeding mothers, they said. Three of the pilots said they suffered breast infections because they couldn't pump regularly, due to work-schedule demands, and Kiedrowski said she received unspecified discipline for pumping aboard an airplane.

I'm not sure why employers get this so wrong. First of all, twenty-seven states have laws protecting women from breastfeeding discrimination at work. Florida is not one of them, by the way (so wake up, Florida legislators). But Colorado, where this story took place, is one of them. The states protecting women are Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming, plus DC and Puerto Rico.

Women were still having problems with this issue in the other 23 states when Congress finally woke up in 2010 and passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act which, among other things amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to require employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth each time such employee has need to express milk, and a private place other than a bathroom for her to do so. (This law only applies to employees who are not exempt from overtime.)

Then there were some weird cases where judges said pregnancy discrimination didn't include discrimination against women who were lactating because lactation was not a condition caused by pregnancy. Doh!

But then the Supremes came out with the Young v. UPS case saying employers had to accommodate women with pregnancy and pregnancy-related conditions the same as other employees. So now I think it seems clear that an employer has to accommodate a breastfeeding mom who needs some breaks to express breast milk the same they'd treat a man with prostate problems who has to take frequent breaks to express, um, pee. EEOC certainly agrees that allowing time to express breast milk is a reasonable accommodation for pregnant women.

Bottom line: I don't care if your employer thinks it's icky. They still have to grant you reasonable time to express breast milk during work hours, in a private place that is not a bathroom. and they can't just suspend you without pay because they think it's gross or inconvenient.

Friday, April 8, 2016

North Carolina Now Requires Men To Use Your Employer's Ladies' Room

If you work in North Carolina, be warned: your employer now has to require men to use the ladies' room. Not all men, but some men. These men have beards, mustaches, and yes, penises. But they have to use the ladies' room due to a new law just signed by your governor. And if you're a business, you are now legally required to humiliate some customers and allow others to be frightened. This law was meant to attack the LGBT community, but it will have some unintended consequences.

As I sat writing this I looked over one of the most beautiful vistas on the planet. You see, I was on vacation in North Carolina, a place I truly love. The people here are so nice. So what the heck is going on with the North Carolina legislature? How did this lovely place turn into the epicenter of a nasty anti-LGBT potty obsession?

While I was on vacation enjoying spring in the mountains, the North Carolina legislature enacted an ugly set of laws attacking the LGBT community. The worst of these is a law requiring businesses to only allow people to use the restroom designated for their "biological sex" defined as "The physical condition of being male or female, which is stated on a person's birth certificate."

So let's think about the effect of this really stupid bill.  Here are just some of the ridiculous consequences that will result:

  • You're a business owner. A major client was born male but dresses as a female, considers herself female, and has had the operation to become female. You can't let her use the ladies' room. Bye, bye client.
  • You're in the ladies' room. A person who dresses like a male, has a beard, and a low voice enters the ladies' room. Oh, yeah. He has a penis. It turns out the male was born female. Not only do you have to let him use the facility, but the business owner can't try to prevent this. 
  • You were born male but dress as a female. You consider yourself female. Your coworkers and boss have accepted you as a female. Your employer can't let you use the ladies' room. You have to use the men's room, explain to customers why you are in the men's room, and risk being attacked in the men's room by anyone who is either homophobic or just a rapist. 
  • You're an employer. Your employee is a female who identifies as male. He dresses like a male, has taken hormones that cause him to have a beard, and goes by a male name. You have to require him to use the ladies' room. Your female employees object and say it's sexual harassment to have him there. Female customers object. You're damned if you do and damned if you don't let him use the men's room. 
  • Your top female customer has a male autistic child age 7. You have to stop her from taking him in the restroom with her because the law has an exemption only for children under age 7 to accompany an adult of the opposite sex. She has to leave this child unaccompanied outside the restroom if she really has to go.

As a female who identifies as female, I really don't appreciate the North Carolina legislature telling me that I have to share the ladies' room with a female-born who identifies as a male. As a parent, I don't appreciate the legislature telling parents they have to leave their children unaccompanied if they need to use the facilities. As a business owner, I wouldn't appreciate the North Carolina legislature telling me I have to humiliate a client or an employee.

The good news is that this is a law with zero teeth. The North Carolina legislature included no penalties in the law for violations. There is no criminal or civil penalty if you break this law. What are business supposed to do? Demand to see a birth certificate before entry to the restroom? There is absolutely no way for businesses to practically monitor their restrooms to enforce this law. Plus, business risk violating federal anti-discrimination laws if they enforce this new law.

My advice to the transgendered: use the restroom you feel comfortable in. My advice to parents: take the kid with you. My advice to employers: don't get involved in employee potty issues. They just want to pee.

If you're transgender and want to understand your rights in North Carolina, talk to an employment lawyer in your state.