By: John J. Toner, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In a decision issued late last week, The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154 (Boeing), the newly constituted “Trump” National Labor Relations Board (“Board”) announced that employers could once again maintain common sense rules regarding employee conduct at the workplace.

Of all the decisions issued in recent years by the previous Board, none was more baffling than those regarding an employer’s required standards of employee conduct contained in employee handbooks. These decisions were premised on a 13-year old decision in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia (Lutheran Heritage) which held that, in addition to an employer’s policy being found unlawful if it explicitly restricted protected, concerted activities under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, a policy would also be found unlawful if :

  • employees would reasonably construe the language to prohibit Section 7 activity,
  • the rule was promulgated in response to union activity, or
  • the rule has been applied to restrict the exercise of Section 7 rights.

The Obama Board used the first test (how would employees “reasonably construe” the language of a policy) to invalidate numerous common sense policies, such as requiring employees not to engage in conduct that impedes “harmonious interactions or relationship” or prohibiting “abusive or threatening language to anyone on company premises.” The Board found these and other policies to be illegal without taking into account an employer’s legitimate justifications or the “real-world complexities” in a workplace.

To further complicate matters, the Obama Board sometimes found policies with the same objective (civility in the workplace) to be lawful. The byzantine nature of these decisions made it nearly impossible for an employer to maintain policies regarding employee conduct with any assurance that the Board would find the policies to be lawful.

In the Boeing decision, the Board majority (Chairman Miscimarra, and Members Emanuel and Kaplan), over a strong dissent (Members Pearce and McFerran), thankfully overruled the Lutheran Heritage “reasonably construe” standard and established a new test for evaluating whether a facially neutral policy, rule, or handbook provision, when reasonably interpreted, would interfere with employee Section 7 rights. Specifically, the Board in evaluating a policy will seek to strike a proper balance between (1) the nature and extent of the potential impact of the policy on employee Section 7 rights and (2) the employer’s legitimate justifications associated with the rule.

To provide greater clarity to all parties, the Board’s majority announced that, in the future, it will analyze the legality of workplace policies based on three categories:

  • Category 1 will include rules that the Board designates as lawful to maintain, either because (i) the rule, when reasonably interpreted, does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of NLRA rights, and thus no balancing of employee rights versus employer justification is warranted; or (ii) the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by justifications associated with the rule.
  • Category 2 will include rules that warrant individualized scrutiny in each case as to whether the rule would prohibit or interfere with NLRA rights, and if so, whether any adverse impact on NLRA-protected conduct is outweighed by legitimate justifications.
  • Category 3 will include rules that the Board will designate as unlawful to maintain because they would prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct, and the adverse impact on NLRA rights is not outweighed by justifications associated with the rule. The Board gave as an example under Category 3 a policy prohibiting employees from discussing wages or other working conditions.

The Board specifically highlighted as examples of policies that would be legal under Category 1, including policies requiring employees to foster “harmonious interactions and relationships” or “rules requiring employees to abide by basic standards of civility,” and overruled previous cases that held to the contrary.

To be sure, there will be some confusion and issues to be addressed as the newly-announced categories are applied to employee handbook policies, but what is certain is that employers can once again lawfully require that employees maintain a reasonable level of civility in the workplace.

 

 

  By: Kyllan Kershaw, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration. Our blog is exploring a different aspect of the memo each day during the first three weeks of December. Click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, & here to find prior posts.

While many employers were surprised by the Obama Board’s inability to overturn IBM Corp.,  341 NLRB 1288 (2004), and extend Weingarten rights to non-union employees, the Obama Board powerfully expanded the scope of Weingarten rights in a number of areas, including significantly diminishing a unionized-employer’s ability to conduct reasonable suspicion drug testing in Manhattan Beer Distributors, 362 NLRB No. 192 (2015).  In Manhattan Beer, the Obama Board majority ruled that a beer distributor violated the NLRA by terminating a unionized employee for refusing to take a drug test without first providing him with a reasonable opportunity to consult in person with an authorized union representative, despite the fact that the employee was able to consult with a union representative via telephone.  Member Johnson’s dissent outlines the numerous ways in which the decision substantially interferes with an employer’s interest in maintaining a safe and drug-free workplace.

The Obama Board likewise expanded Weingarten rights beyond any prior precedent in Howard Industries, Inc., 362 NLRB No. 35 (2015), broadening the range of permissible conduct by union representatives in Weingarten interviews to include allowing union representatives to assist witnesses by providing scripted answers.  In Fry’s Food Stores, 361 NLRB No. 140 (2015), the Obama Board bolstered Weingarten rights further by finding that Weingarten requires that an employee has the right to consult with a union representative not only during the investigatory interview but also before the interview, even without the employee requesting such a meeting.

Fortunately for employers, in GC Memo 18-02, the NLRB’s new General Counsel previews that the General Counsel’s office will seek to nip the Obama Board’s Weingarten overreach in the bud, requiring Regions to submit to the Division of Advice any matters involving the range of permissible conduct by union representatives in Weingarten interviews and matters involving the application of Weingarten in the drug-testing context.  The new General Counsel also rescinded the initiative to overturn IBM Corp. and extend Weingarten rights to non-union employees.

The General Counsel’s change in direction on Weingarten rights is certainly a gift to employers, but GC Memo 18-02 leaves one notable Weingarten decision on the nice list.  Specifically, the GC Memo fails to mention the Obama Board’s controversial decision in E.I. Dupont de Nemours & United Steel Workers Local 699 to allow dishonest employees to receive reinstatement with backpay if an employer violates his or her Weingarten rights, effectively receiving “get out of jail” free cards for any misconduct that occurs during an unlawful interview. 362 NLRB No. 98 (2015).  Alas, while GC Memo 18-02 previews many long-awaited gifts to employers, the Trump Board’s revisiting of E.I. Dupont remains on every unionized-employer’s holiday wish list.  Maybe next year.

  By: Christopher W. Kelleher, Esq. & Danielle A. Vera, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration. Our blog is exploring a different aspect of the memo each day during the first three weeks of December. Click here, here, here, here, here & here to find prior posts.

In April and August of this year, the Second and the Eighth Circuit Courts of Appeals affirmed two Board rulings and held that under certain circumstances even extremely vulgar or racially bigoted speech fall within the protections of the NLRA. In Memorandum GC 18-02, the new General Counsel has signaled his interest in reconsidering the analysis in these cases, and narrowing the outer boundaries of speech protections afforded by the Act. Importantly, this is an opportunity for the Trump Board to change direction regarding the application of the Atlantic Steel factors to social media cases.

In Pier Sixty, an employee was terminated for posting the following on Facebook regarding his supervisor Bob: “Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people !!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***cking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!.” NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, Case No. 15-1841 (2nd Cir. Apr. 21, 2017). The employee posted this online during an authorized break only two days before a contentious union election. Ultimately the ALJ, the Board and the Second Circuit agreed that the vulgar language did not push the comment outside of the NLRA’s protected speech. For a more detailed discussion of this case, Click here.

In Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., the ALJ, Board, and Eighth Circuit agreed that a picketer’s racially bigoted comments toward African-American replacement workers did not provide the Employer with “just cause” to terminate him. Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. v. NLRB, Nos. 16-2721, 16-2944 (8th Cir. Aug. 8, 2017). The picketer shouted at a van full of African-American replacement workers, “Did you bring enough KFC for everybody?” and asked other picketers if they could “smell fried chicken and watermelon” as the van passed by. The Eighth Circuit held that because the speech was merely offensive and not actually threatening, it was protected.

Although the new General Counsel’s Advice memorandum signals that change related to the outer bounds of NLRA-protected speech is on the horizon, until any change is made, Employers should remain vigilant regarding the NLRB’s current position but look forward to potential changes coming in 2018.

 By: Karla E. Sanchez, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration. Our blog is exploring a different aspect of the memo each day during the first three weeks of December. Click here, here, here, & here to find prior posts.

In GC Memo 18-01, the newly appointed General Counsel listed cases concerning no cameras and recording rules as requiring submission to the Division of Advice for consideration as to whether the GC “might want to provide the Board with alternative analysis.” The GC also cited to Purple Communications, 361 NLRB 1050 (2014).  The GC’s inclusion of Purple Communications in its Memo suggests that the GC may disagree with the Obama Board’s decision.

In Purple Communications, the Board majority ruled that employees who have access to an employer’s email system as part of their job, may during non-working time use the email system to communicate about their wages, hours, working conditions, other terms and conditions of employment, and union issues. Then Member Miscimarra and former Member Johnson dissented.

In Purple Communications, the Company had an “Internet, intranet, Voicemail, and Electronic Communications Policy” that only allowed the use of company owned electronic equipment and systems, including email, for business purposes. The Communications Workers of America union filed the charge alleging that the prohibition interfered with employees’ Section 7 rights. The Union prevailed. Notably, the ruling overturned the Board’s 2007 decision in Guard Publishing v. NLRB, 571 F.3d 53 (D.C. Cir. 2009) (“Register Guard”), which held that employees have no statutory right to use their employer’s email systems for organizing or for discussing wages or other terms and conditions of employment.

In their separate dissents, Miscimarra and Johnson articulated various reasons for their disagreement with the Board’s majority. For example, Miscimarra articulated four main concerns and reasons for his dissent:

  • That the Board’s decision “Improperly presumes that limiting an employer’s email system to business purposes constitutes ‘an unreasonable impediment to self-organization.’”
  • That the Board’s decision failed to balance NLRA protections for employees and employers’ property rights.
  • That the Board’s decision significantly affects other legal requirements including well-established legal principles under the NLRA. For example, Miscimarra articulated that employers, unions, and employees would have problems exercising the right to use email systems with other NLRA principles and rights such as the prohibition on surveillance of employees’ protected activities, the Board’s axiom that working time is for working, and employers’ right to restrict solicitation during working time.
  • That the Board’s decision replaced a “longstanding rule that was easily understood,” causing instability, confusion, and uncertainty.

The Purple Communications decision has been viewed by many employers as a taking of employer’s private property. Given the GC’s inclusion of Purple Communications in its GC Memo, there is hope for employers in 2018 that the Obama Board’s deviation from its precedent in Register Guard may be reconsidered under the Trump Board.

 

 By: Kaitlyn F. Whiteside, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration. Our blog is exploring a different aspect of the memo each day during the first three weeks of December. Click here to find prior posts.

With the publication of Friday’s General Counsel Memorandum (GC Memo 18-02), employers may finally begin to see a much-anticipated shift at the NLRB that many have been waiting on since last year’s election.

Of particular concern for many employers is the NLRB’s interpretation of commonplace work rules contained in employee handbooks. According to newly appointed General Counsel Peter Robb, cases involving some potentially unlawful handbook rules must now be submitted to the Division of Advice.  In particular, GC Memo 18-02 notes that the Division of Advice is interested in cases involving certain rules prohibiting disrespectful conduct, rules prohibiting use of employer trademarks and logos, and no cameras/recording rules.

Perhaps most notably, GC Memo 18-02 expressly rescinds the prior General Counsel guidance concerning employer work rules contained in GC Memorandum 15-04. There, former General Counsel Richard Griffin offered thirty pages of guidance on potentially unlawful workplaces rules under the Board’s standard set forth in Lutheran Heritage Village-Livonia, 343 NLRB 646 (2004).

This standard has been criticized in a number of recent dissents, including a lengthy critique by Chairman Miscimarra in William Beaumont Hospital, 363 NLRB No. 162 (2016) (see post here). There, then Member Miscimarra advocated for entirely abandoning the Board’s standard in Lutheran Heritage under which the Obama NLRB greatly expanded the scope of workplaces rules considered to be unlawful under the NLRA.

Lutheran Heritage provides that a facially-neutral rule that does not expressly restrict Section 7 activity, was not adopted in response to Section 7 activity, and has not been applied to restrict Section 7 activity, may still be unlawful if employees would reasonably construe the rule as restricting Section 7 activity. In William Beaumont, Chairman Miscimarra suggested that an alternative approach would be to evaluate facially-neutral rules on “(i) the potential adverse impact of the rule on NLRA-protected activity, and (ii) the legitimate justifications an employer may have for maintaining the rule.”

In GC Memo 18-02, the General Counsel appears to suggest that he may support Chairman Miscimarra’s proffered test. The General Counsel specifically notes that the Division of Advice is interested in any cases in which the outcome would be different under the Chairman’s analysis in William Beaumont. The full implications of Chairman Miscimarra’s proposed test for handbook provisions is unknown. What we can say for sure is that the Chairman sees value in the publication of workplace rules and policies and that he has advocated for predictability and practicality, music to many employers’ ears.  With the General Counsel in place and a full five-member Board confirmed by the Senate, employers may have additional reasons to look forward to 2018.

  By: Brian Stolzenbach, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On Friday, December 1, 2017, newly appointed NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a memo containing a broad overview of his initial agenda as General Counsel. It previews many anticipated developments during the Trump Administration, which our blog will be exploring over the next three weeks.

In keeping with the tradition of prior General Counsels (see here (GC 16-01), here (GC 14-01), and here (GC 11-11) for prior memos from President Obama’s appointees), Mr. Robb provided the NLRB’s Regional Offices with a list of issues that must be submitted to his Division of Advice for consideration before proceeding to issue a complaint in an unfair labor practice case. Although the Regional Offices are instructed to issue complaints in accordance with extant law (i.e., the law created by the NLRB during the Obama Administration), Mr. Robb suggests that he “might want to provide the Board with an alternative analysis.” As usual when the General Counsel’s office flips from Democrat to Republican or vice versa, the memo basically provides a list of important case law developments from the prior administration that are likely to be overturned. Here, Mr. Robb identifies nearly 30 such cases covering 15 important subjects for employers.

In addition, Mr. Robb immediately rescinds seven prior memos issued by President Obama’s appointees and revokes five initiatives set forth in other memos issued by the General Counsel’s Division of Advice during the Obama Administration.

As the numbers above suggest, a full explanation of Mr. Robb’s five-page memo is far more than a single blog can handle. Seyfarth Shaw labor lawyers will be posting an item on this blog each weekday for the next three weeks, exploring a different aspect of the memo each day.

P.S. If you just can’t wait and need a full and complete analysis of the memo more quickly, don’t hesitate to drop your friendly neighborhood Seyfarth labor lawyer a note. Any of us would be glad to oblige.

 

Texting  By: Jennifer M. Holly, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit agrees with the Board that the use of profanity in a Facebook post was not “opprobrious enough” to lose the NLRA’s protections and justify the employer’s termination of the employee.

A server whose “conduct [sat] at the outer bounds of protected, union-related comments” when he posted that his manager is a “nasty mother f***er” and “f*** his mother and his entire f***ing family,” was not “opprobrious enough” to lose the protection of the NLRA, a three-judge panel for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in NLRB v. Pier Sixty, LLC, No. 15-1841 (2nd Cir. Apr. 21, 2017).

Pier Sixty operates a catering company in New York, NY. In early 2011, many of its service employees began seeking union representation.  Following a very contentious union organizing campaign, Pier Sixty employees voted to unionize on October 27, 2011.

Two days before the election, during the work day, a Pier Sixty supervisor gave employee Perez and two other servers instructions, which the Board’s opinion described as “harsh tone,” and included the following instructions: “stop chitchatting” and “spread out, move, move.” Approximately 45 minutes later, Perez, upset by the “continuing disrespect for employees,” wrote the following Facebook post about the supervisor during an authorized break:

Bob is such a NASTY MOTHER F***ER don’t know how to talk to people !!!!!! F*** his mother and his entire f***cking family!!!! What a LOSER!!!! Vote YES for the UNION!!!!!!!

The post was publicly accessible and Perez knew that his post would be visible to his coworkers. Perez removed the post three days later. Management, however, had already become aware of the post, and after an investigation, the employer terminated Perez on November 9, 2011.

Perez filed an NLRB charge alleging retaliation for engaging in protected concerted activities. On April 18, 2013, the ALJ issued a decision finding that Pier Sixty had violated sections 8(a)(1) and 8(a)(3) of the NLRA by discharging Perez in retaliation for his protected activity. Pier Sixty filed exceptions, and a three-member panel of the NLRB affirmed the ALJ’s decision on March 31, 2015.  The NLRB filed an application for enforcement, and Pier Sixty filed a cross-petition for review.

The Second Circuit affirmed the NLRB’s determination based on the deference afforded to the ALJ’s factual findings. The Court explained that in light of the General Counsel’s guidance for evaluating employees’ use of social media to post public criticisms of their employers and workplaces, a nine-factor “totality of the circumstances” test in social media cases had emerged.  The Court acknowledged that while the test the ALJ applied may not have “adequately balance[d] the employer’s interests, Pier Sixty did not object to the ALJ’s use of the test in evaluating Perez’s statements before the Board.”   Accordingly, the Court did not address the validity of the applied test.

Rather, Pier Sixty argued that the Board’s decision that the comments were not so egregious as to exceed the Act’s protection was not supported by “substantial evidence” in the record. The 2nd Circuit disagreed and found:

  • Although the post contained vulgar attacks, the subject matter of the message included workplace concerns.
  • Pier Sixty consistently tolerated widespread profanity amongst its workers, including supervisors, and had never before terminated any employees for such behavior until two days before the union election.
  • The location of the comments was an online mode of communication among coworkers and was not in the immediate presence of coworkers.

Accordingly, the Court found that the Board did not err in ruling that the post, while “vulgar and inappropriate,” was not so egregious as to exceed the NLRA’s protection.

Takeaways for Employers:

  • The Board will not apply the Atlantic Steel test to cases involving social media, even if the posts are public in nature, in light of the fact that the place of discussion is the internet and not face-to-face in the workplace.
  • Companies should ensure policies and handbooks comply with the NLRB’s current guidance on social media and do not interfere with employees engaging in protected concerted activity when off duty. However, while policies prohibiting vulgar and offensive comments need to be sensitive about infringing on NLRA-protected rights, employers should not hesitate to enforce those policies in appropriate circumstances.
  • Employee discipline should not be selectively enforced to prohibit behaviors that relate to union-related activities; discipline should be applied uniformly to all employees.

By:  Bryan Bienias, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed in part and rejected in part the National Labor Relations Board’s Banner Estrella decision regarding an employer’s requirement of confidentiality during workplace investigations. In doing so, the Court did not address, and essentially left intact, both the Board’s prohibition of blanket confidentiality instructions, and its requirement that employers determine the need for confidentiality on a case-by-case basis.

Last Friday, a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit punted on the opportunity to rein in the National Labor Relations Board’s restrictions on the ability of an employer to ensure confidentiality when conducting internal investigations.

The case, Banner Health System v. NLRB, No. 15-1245 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 24, 2017), addressed the non-profit healthcare system’s appeal of the Board’s controversial Banner Estrella decision (originally decided in 2012 and reaffirmed upon remand following Noel Canning).  There, the Board struck down as overbroad a confidentiality policy that prohibited employees from sharing salary and disciplinary information that had not been “shared” by the employee to whom it related.  The Board also found that the company unlawfully maintained a categorical policy of asking employees during investigatory interviews not to discuss certain kinds of human resources investigations.

The Board did not stop there, however, and announced a new rule prohibiting employers from promulgating blanket rules barring employee discussions concerning ongoing investigations. Instead, the Board held that an employer may only prohibit discussions regarding ongoing investigations if it demonstrates on a case-by-case basis that it has a legitimate and substantial business justification that outweighs employees’ Section 7 rights.  The employer must determine whether in any given investigation witnesses need protection, evidence is danger of being destroyed, testimony is in danger of being fabricated, and there was a need to prevent a cover up.

On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court affirmed the Board’s finding that the Company’s confidentiality agreement unlawfully barred its workers from sharing information related to terms and conditions of employment. In this context, the Court deferred to the Board’s conclusion that the confidentiality agreement “struck at the heartland of Section 7 activity without adequate justification” and held that the Agreement expressly reached information about salaries and employee discipline, which “is the sort of overbreadth our precedents squarely forbid.”  The Court also found the confidentiality agreement’s “safe harbor” provision, which allowed employees to discuss salary and discipline information when “shared by the employee,” too ambiguous to adequately protect employees’ right to share innocently obtained information.

However, the Court determined that the Board made “unwarranted logical leaps” and lacked substantial evidence to find that the Company unlawfully maintained a categorical policy of asking employees not to discuss certain kinds of human resources investigations.  The only evidence supporting the Board’s finding was an investigative interview form instructing investigators to request that interviewees not discuss the investigation with coworkers, along with vague testimony from an HR representative regarding how and when the script was utilized. The Court held that this evidence did not establish whether the Company, in practice, categorically requested investigative nondisclosure in all investigations.

Because the dearth of evidence “doomed” the Board’s order as to the investigation, the Court did not reach the Company’s or the amici’s arguments that the Board failed to balance employees’ Section 7 rights against employers’ interests in nondisclosure of workplace investigations.  Nor did it opine on the Board’s requirement of a case-by-case approach to justifying investigative confidentiality.

Takeaway

Despite the Court’s partial rejection of the Board’s Banner Estrella decision, the Board’s rules restricting employer’s use of routine confidentiality instructions during investigations remains the law of the land.  Employers should, therefore, continue refraining from issuing blanket confidentiality policies when conducting investigations.  Instead, employers must consider on a case-by-case basis whether confidentiality is truly needed, and only require confidentiality in those circumstances where it is reasonably required.

Should you have any questions about a current or proposed confidentiality policy, or requiring confidentiality during internal investigations, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations Team to be sure your company’s approach passes legal muster under current law.

Striking  By: Marshall B. Babson, Esq., Katherine Mendez, Esq., and Bryan Bienias, Esq.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Several organizations are planning nationwide strikes and boycott activities on February 16-17 to oppose Trump Administration and Republican policies. Employers impacted by these activities should be mindful of employees’ rights before responding.

Several labor and activist groups are calling for national general strikes and boycotts this week to protest policies enacted and proposed by the new Trump Administration and the Republican Congress.

Thursday, February 16: A Day Without Immigrants. The first action, “A Day Without Immigrants,” is currently scheduled for this Thursday, February 16.  The campaign, promoted in Spanish and English, has been spread through Facebook, fliers, and word of mouth and calls on immigrants and their supporters “not to go to work, open businesses, shop, eat in restaurants, buy gas, go to classes, or send children to school.” While the campaign originally focused on the Washington D.C. area, the campaign is expected to spread nationwide. A similar action in Milwaukee, Wisconsin this past Monday, February 13 drew thousands of protesters.

Friday, February 17: National General Strike. Then, on Friday, February 17, a group called Strike4Democracy has called for a national general strike and plans on “over 100 strike actions across the United States, and beyond.” The campaign calls for participants to forgo work on Friday and, instead “plan or take part in an event in your community” and “occupy public space with positive messages of resistance and solidarity.”

The organizers do not plan on stopping there. They intend to use Friday’s national general strike to “build towards a series of mass strikes,” with another mass strike planned on March 8, 2017, another on May 1, 2017 (May Day), and “a heightening resistance throughout the summer.”

So, what does this mean for employers?

While these general strikes and those planned for the future could wreak havoc on an employer’s operations — as employees fail to report to work or leave shifts early — the National Labor Relations Act provides protection for employees who engage in political advocacy that relates specifically to job concerns and to other workplace issues.

Employers have the right to enforce “neutrally applied work rules” to restrict employees from leaving work for political activities unrelated to workplace concerns. As discussed above, whether an employee’s actions are protected or unprotected turns on whether the employee’s absence relates to activity directed at “terms and conditions of employment” which the employer controls or to workplace concerns that affect all employees. If the absence is due to political activity totally unrelated to workplace concerns, employees could be subject to discipline, although discipline is not necessarily the prudent course to take.

Given the myriad issues to be addressed in these strikes, from immigration reform to minimum wage laws to worker’s rights, employers may be hard pressed to show that employees who participate in these strikes in lieu of working have engaged in unprotected activity. Employers could find themselves in further “hot water” with the NLRB if they discipline employees for absenteeism or tardiness related to the employees’ political activities.

If your company is affected by any of the strike activity this week or in the months ahead, contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations Team.

By: Michael Rybicki, Esq.

Seyfarth Summary: The relevance of the National Labor Relations Act to industries and business sectors that have not traditionally had to deal with its implications – such as hedge funds.

The New York Times recently ran on the front page of its business section a lengthy article discussing the National Labor Relation’s Board challenge to a number of provisions of an employment agreement that Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund firm, requires each full-time employee to sign. Under the headline Confronting Wall Street’s Secretive Culture – N.L.R.B. Challenges Confidentiality Clauses, the article notes that the Board is challenging Bridgewater’s confidentiality, non-disparagement, and arbitration clauses and went on to state “[t]he unusual action is calling into question longstanding practices and prompting some companies to re-examine their employment agreements.”

With all deference to The Times, however, for a number of years the Board has been finding confidentiality provisions (see e.g., Target Corporation, 359 NLRB No. 103 (2013)) and non-disparagement clauses (see Dish Network Corporation, 359 NLRB No. 108 (2013)) unlawful and has steadfastly maintained, despite much criticism from the courts, that clauses restricting employees to arbitrating disputes are unlawful (D. R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB 184 (2012)). If anything is “unusual” – if unsurprising – it is that the Board is going after a hedge fund.

Although many employers (and some of their attorneys) think that the application of the National Labor Relations Act is limited to union-represented employees or at least limited to union or union-related activities, such as collective bargaining, union organizing, or union strikes, hand billing, picketing, or boycotts, the Act’s coverage is much broader. As the Board’s website notes:

  • The NLRA applies to most private sector employers, including manufacturers, retailers, private universities, and health care facilities.
  • Employees at union and non-union workplaces have the right to help each other by sharing information, signing petitions and seeking to improve wages and working conditions in a variety of ways.See NLRB Website: FAQ’s.

The Complaint against Bridgewater (Case Number: 01-CA-169426 (06/30/2016)) is not the first one in the financial sector. For example, as Seyfarth Attorney Ashley Laken noted, the D.C. Circuit recently upheld the Board’s finding that the confidentiality and non-disparagement provisions of Quicken Loan’s employment agreements (see our earlier blog post here) violated the Act.

Confidentiality agreements, for example, can be drafted to lawfully prohibit the disclosure of a wide variety of confidential information, see e.g., GC MEMORANDUM OM 12-31, Case 7 (pp. 17-18) (a rule by a drugstore chain prohibiting the disclosure of confidential information lawful where the rule was clearly in the context of not disclosing personal health information); see also GC MEMORANDUM OM 12-59, p. 20 [Walmart, Case 11-CA-067171] (finding lawful a rule requiring employees to maintain the confidentiality of the employer’s trade secret and confidential information where rule was sufficiently contextualized by examples of prohibited disclosures (i.e., information regarding the development of systems, processes, products, know-how and technology, internal reports, policies, procedures or other internal business-related communications) for employees to understand that it does not reach protected communications about working conditions).

It seems reasonably clear, however, that too often the implications of the NLRA for industries and sectors that have not traditionally had to deal with issues arising under the Act are not considered. Further, even where they are at least considered, frequently all that is done is to include a so-called “savings clause,” stating in effect that nothing contained in an employment agreement, handbook, or work rule, shall be construed as restricting activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act. The Board, however, routinely finds such clauses ineffective. Chipotle Services LLC d/b/a Chipotle Mexican Grill, 364 NLRB No. 72 (2016); see also ISS Facility Services, Inc., 363 NLRB No. 160 (2016).

As noted, the National Labor Relations Act applies to most private sector employers, including industries and business sectors that have not traditionally had to deal with issues arising under its provisions. However, because it provides for only compensatory damages and generally does not offer the opportunity for attorney’s fees, it has generally been ignored by the Plaintiff’s Bar. But in today’s digital age, where employees can readily become aware of the Act’s scope via social media and online content providers, the Act’s implications need to be considered by almost all private sector employers when drafting employment agreements, handbooks, and work rules –  areas into which the Board clearly is looking to expand its effective reach.