August 31, 2011

Better late than never? Employee wins unemployment claim after two month absence

Posted in Absenteeism, Absenteeism, Attendance, Leaves of Absence, Misconduct, Unemployment Benefits, Unexcused Absence tagged , , , at 9:29 am by Tom Jacobson

In a case that proves that things are not always as they seem, a Minnesota employee has been awarded unemployment benefits despite her failure to report to work for two months.

The case, Genemo v. Donatelle Plastics, Inc., involves Hawi Genemo who was employed by Donatelle Plastics, Inc.  After learning that her mother was seriously ill in a remote area of Africa, Genemo requested and was granted a leave of absence to visit and care for her mother.  The leave was to run from April 21 to May 19, 2010, and she was also told she could request additional time off if needed.

Unfortunately, while in Africa Genemo encountered civil unrest and a lack of mail, electricity, phone service and Internet. Thus, she was unable to contact Donatelle about her situation.  Because of the lack of contact, Donatelle discharged her effective May 27, 2010.  Genemo returned in July, 2010.

Genemo was initially disqualified from unemployment benefits on the basis that her failure to keep in contact with her employer was employment misconduct. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed.  Relying on Minn. Stat. § 268.095, Subd. 6(b)(8), the court noted that it is not employment misconduct when an employee is absent “with proper notice to the employer, in order to provide necessary care because of the illness, injury, or disability of an immediate family member of the applicant.”  Because the initial notice was proper and because further notice was deemed “impractical if not impossible,” the court ruled that even though Donatelle’s decision was reasonable, Genemo’s absence and failure to contact Donatelle was not employment misconduct, so she was deemed eligible for unemployment benefits.

The case reminds us that things are not always as they seem.  Here, the employee’s unique circumstances fit within a narrow exception in Minnesota’s unemployment statute.  The lesson is that jumping to conclusions about an employee’s situation can lead to costly litigation.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson, PA

July 16, 2011

Verizon to pay $20 million to settle EEOC disability lawsuit over attendance policy

Posted in Absenteeism, Attendance, Disability, Discrimination, Interactive Process, Job Abandonment, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Reasonable Accommodation, Sick Leave tagged , , at 11:11 pm by Tom Jacobson

One size does not fit all when it comes to sick leave and attendance policies.  Verizon Communications recently learned that $20 million lesson in a nationwide disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

At issue was Verizon’s “no-fault” attendance policy.   Under this policy, Verizon employees who accumulated “chargeable absences,” were placed on a disciplinary step, and that could eventually result in more serious disciplinary action, including discharge.  According to the EEOC, the problem was that when applying this policy, Verizon failed to make exceptions for employees with disabilities, and this lead to a failure to reasonably accommodate them under the ADA.

In the consent decree (which is still pending court approval), Verizon agreed to pay $20 million.  In addition, Verizon agreed to a number of other non-monetary concessions.  For example, Verizon agreed to revise its attendance policies, provide mandatory training on the ADA, post a notice about the settlement, appoint an internal consent decree monitor to ensure its compliance, and report to the EEOC about all employee disability discrimination complaints relating to the attendance policy or Verizon’s compliance with the consent decree.

The case illustrates that employers who are subject to the ADA must not overlook leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation.  According to Spencer H. Lewis, Jr., Director of the EEOC’s Philadelphia District Office, “This [Verizon] settlement demonstrates the need for employers to have attendance policies which take into account the need for paid or unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation for employees with disabilities.”  And, as noted by EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez, “Hopefully this nationwide decree will further public awareness of the importance of engaging in an individualized interactive process to determine whether a disabled employee must be accommodated under the ADA.”

For more information about this article, see Verizon to Pay $20 Million to Settle Nationwide EEOC Disability Suit, or please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson, PA

June 30, 2011

Parades, puppies and the “Fargo” woodchipper

Posted in Attendance, Breaks, Computer Use, Confidential Information, Contracts, Employee Privacy, Fair Labor Standards Act, Hours Worked, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Overtime, Record Keeping, Social Media in the Workplace, Telework / Telecommuting, Vacation Policies tagged , , at 8:51 am by Tom Jacobson

Last week I took a staycation.  Despite the fact that it was one of the rainiest June weeks on record for our neck of the woods, we had a great time. We watched two parades and a swim meet, spent time with our son who is home on leave from the Air Force Academy, and we played with our litter of Labrador pups .  We even took a side-trip to Fargo to see the wood chipper from the movie, Fargo.  And, except for my first day off when I needed to put out a fire that started the day before, I managed to not check my work e-mail or voice mail for a week.

But what if I had checked my e-mail or voice mail?  What if I had texted my secretary or my clients?  What if I had decided to post this commentary from home during one of those downpours?  Telecommuting, or “telework,” would have allowed me to turn my staycation into a working vacation.

Telecommuting offers tremendous benefits.  It allows for flexible work arrangements.  It can save on fuel and other transportation costs.  It can keep employees productive when circumstances would otherwise prevent them from working.

But telecommuting can also be a trap for the unwary.  Aside from the fact that it can distract us from our R&R, working remotely raises a number of employer-employee issues, such as:

* How are working hours tracked for an employee who works remotely?

* Is the telecommuting employee getting the break time to which s/he may be legally entitled?

* Is the employee entitled to overtime when the hours worked remotely are added to his/her workweek?

* Is an employee really on “leave” if s/he is working remotely while supposedly taking time off?

* Is the employee entitled to any tax deductions for a “home office”?

* To what extent is an employee entitled to worker’s compensation benefits if s/he is injured while working from home, and does this give the employer the right to inspect the employee’s home for safety concerns?

* How secure is the employer’s data if an employee is accessing it from or storing it on his/her home computer?

* What privacy rights, if any, does an employee have with respect to his/her cell phone, computer, etc. that is used to work remotely?

* Which jobs work best for telecommuting arrangements?

* What is lost (or in come cases, gained) when telecommuting co-workers do not have face-to-face contact?

* How can the employer be assured that the teleworking employee is actually working?

To avoid falling into a telecommuting trap, employers need to understand the risks, as well as the rewards, of remote working arrangements.  Then, by developing telecommuting agreements and policies,  employers can take full advantage of the benefits that telecommuting can offer.  For more information about the development and use of such policies and agreements, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson, PA

April 21, 2011

“May” may mean “may” after all

Posted in Absenteeism, Attendance, Misconduct, Progressive Discipline, Unemployment Benefits tagged , , , , , at 12:13 pm by Tom Jacobson

The Minnesota Supreme Court rarely considers claims for unemployment benefits.  That is because most unemployment claims are resolved at the administrative level or by the Minnesota Court of Appeals.  So, when the Supreme Court decides an unemployment case, it’s worth noting.  The Court did so on April 20, 2011, and the decision relates to my post last June regarding Stagg v. Vintage Place, Inc. (When “may” means “must” in a progressive discipline policy, according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals).

In the Stagg case, an employee was fired because of his attendance problems.  The employer’s policies said that for attendance issues, the employee “may” be subjected to progressive discipline.  When it considered the case, the Court of Appeals ruled that despite the word “may” in the policy, the employer could not skip steps.  The appellate court reasoned that the employer’s only discretion was whether to discipline at all, and once the employer decided to discipline for the attendance problem, the employer had to follow each progressive step.  Because Stagg’s employer skipped a step and fired the employee, the court ruled that the employee’s absenteeism was not employment misconduct.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has now reversed the Court of Appeals (see Stagg v. Vintage Place, Inc., http://1.usa.gov/eJF7gk).  The Supreme Court held that when the issue in an unemployment benefits case is employee misconduct, the focus is on the employee’s conduct, not on the employer’s progressive discipline policies.  Specifically, the court stated, “[W]hether an employer follows the procedures in its employee manual says nothing about whether the employee has violated the employer’s standards of behavior. Put another way, an employee’s expectation that the employer will follow its disciplinary procedures has no bearing on whether the employee’s conduct violated the standards the employer has a reasonable right to expect or whether any such violation is serious.”  Because this employer’s attendance policies were clearly stated and communicated to the employee, the court said the employee’s violations were misconduct even though the employer skipped a step in its process.

However, the Supreme Court stopped short of interpreting “may” in this employer’s progressive discipline policy.  The court said that whether or not that language created a contract and whether such a contract was breached would be relevant in a breach of contract case brought by the employee against the employer, but they are not the standard for deciding “misconduct” for the purposes of deciding eligibility for unemployment benefits.

While the Supreme Court’s decision helps employers by clarifying the standard for determining “misconduct” in unemployment benefits cases, the meaning of “may” in a policy such as the one in the Staggcase remains unclear.  Thus, if an at-will employer wishes to retain as much flexibility as possible in its discipline policy, the policy should be written in a way that retains the employer’s discretion over not only when to discipline, but also over how to discipline.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson, PA

%d bloggers like this: