January 22, 2013

Updating employee handbooks: now is the time

Posted in Acknowledgment, Arrest records, At-will Employment, Background Checking, Computer Use, Confidential Information, Conviction Records, Criminal History, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Hiring and Recruiting, Internet Policies, Interviewing, Leaves of Absence, Leaves of Absence, Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, National Labor Relations Act, Protected Concerted Activity, Social Media, Social Media in the Workplace, Social Networking tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:47 am by Tom Jacobson

employee handbook1I recently had the privilege of speaking at and moderating a day-long seminar covering recent developments in employment law. Although the topics ranged broadly from background checks to the basics of employee leave, one common theme emerged: employers who have not kept their employee handbooks and other policies up to date are running the increased risk of liability for legal claims brought by their employees.

For example:

  • Some commonly used “at-will” employment acknowledgments, confidentiality clauses, investigation practices, and social medial policies have been deemed to violate the National Labor Relations Act.
  • The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has published guidance on how arrest and conviction records may be used when performing background checks on applicants or employees. Among other things, these guidelines address when an individualized assessment of an applicant’s or employee’s arrest or conviction record should be done.
  • One recent litigation trend is employers and employees (or former employees)  fighting over the ownership of social media accounts and followers.
  • Recent court decisions have broadly interpreted employees’ rights to parenting leave under Minnesota law.
  • At least four states (California, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan) have adopted laws regulating employers’ access to employees’ social media sites, and similar legislation has been proposed in Minnesota.

What you need to know: If your employee handbooks and policies have not been reviewed by legal counsel and updated recently, now is the time. For more information about this process, please contact me at 320-763-3141 or 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 2013 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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November 2, 2012

NLRB’s Halloween at-will advice is not so scary

Posted in Acknowledgment, At-will Employment, Contracts, Disclaimers, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks tagged , , , , , , at 10:28 am by Tom Jacobson

Wednesday was Halloween, and my neighborhood was crawling with trick-or-treaters. The scary part was not the kids or their costumes. Rather, it was the insomnia-inducing sugar rush I got after working quality control on the night shift.

Also on Wednesday, one scary trend in the world of employment law seems to have been averted. The trend was that in a couple of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) cases, common at-will employment clauses were interpreted as violating the National Labor Relations Act. However, on Wednesday the NLRB’s Acting General Counsel, Lafe Solomon, issued an Advice Memo which analyzed two such clauses and reached the not-so-scary conclusion that they did not violate the Act.

In one case, a handbook which had been issued by Rocha Transportation of Modesto, CA included the following at-will clause:

No manager, supervisor, or employee of Rocha Transportation has any authority to enter into an agreement for employment for any specified period of time or to make an agreement for employment other than at-will …. Only the president of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing.

In the other case, the handbook used by Mimi’s Café in Casa Grande, AZ said:

No representative of the Company has authority to enter into any agreement contrary to the foregoing “employment at will” relationship.

The scary part was that in other recent NLRB cases, similar clauses were interpreted as being unlawful waivers of employees’ rights to engage in collective bargaining under the NLRA. If that trend were to continue, the at-will clauses in countless employee handbooks across the country would be subject to challenge.

However, the NLRB’s Halloween Advice Memo allays those fears somewhat by concluding in the Rocha case that because the at-will clause explicitly states that the relationship can be changed, employees would not reasonably assume that their NLRA rights are prohibited. Similarly, regarding Mimi’s Cafe, the Advice Memo notes that the at-will clause was not unlawfully broad because it does not require employees to agree that the employment relationship cannot be changed, but merely stresses that the employer’s representatives are not authorized to alter it.

What you need to know:  At-will employment generally gives employees and employers alike the flexibility to end their relationship at any time, with or without notice, and for any lawful reason. Handbook clauses like the ones noted above are intended to help preserve that status. However, if they are not properly drafted, or if they are inconsistent with an employer’s other documentation, the clauses may be unlawful or may not actually preserve the at-will employment relationship. Therefore, to ensure compliance, employers should have their at-will employment documentation reviewed by legal counsel.  

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 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

July 18, 2012

Is your at-will employment policy at risk?

Posted in Acknowledgment, At-will Employment, Collective Bargaining, Contracts, Disclaimers, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, National Labor Relations Act, Protected Concerted Activity tagged , , , , , , , , at 10:39 am by Tom Jacobson

At-will employment is perceived as a sacred cow for most employers, but in a pair of recent cases the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has successfully challenged the at-will employment policies of two U.S. employers.

Generally speaking, at-will employment is the concept that employees are employed for no particular duration. This means that either the at-will employee or his/her employer may end their employment relationship at any time, with or without notice, and with or without cause. The vast majority of Minnesota employees are at-will employees. The polar opposite of at-will employment is employment subject to contractual terms, such as a union contract.

When improperly written, employee handbooks and similar written policies can be interpreted as contracts which, contrary to the at-will concept, give employees the right to continued employment, pre-termination disciplinary actions and/or other protections. Thus, to preserve the at-will relationship, astute employers include in their employee handbooks and other policy documentation language disclaiming any contractual relationship and confirming the at-will status.

These types of disclaimers were recently challenged by the NLRB in the cases of Hyatt Hotels Corporation and American Red Cross Arizona Blood Services Region. The Hyatt case involved an acknowledgment form which indicated that the employees’ at-will status could not be altered except by a written statement signed by the employee and specified company executives. Similarly, the American Red Cross case involved a disclaimer which stated that the employees’ at-will status could not be amended, modified or altered in any way.

The NLRB argued that these limitations on how the employees’ at-will status could be changed were unlawful interference with the employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity, such as collective bargaining. The Hyatt case was settled when Hyatt agreed, among other things, to discontinue using the challenged language in its acknowledgment form. The American Red Cross case resulted in the NLRB issuing an order compelling the employer to cease and desist from using the disputed language in its forms.

What you need to know: To preserve the at-will employment relationship, employee handbooks and related policy documentation must include appropriate disclaimers.  However, to reduce the risk of a legal challenge, those disclaimers must be carefully written so as to not interfere with employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Existing disclaimers should be reviewed by legal counsel for compliance in light of these recent NLRB cases. 

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 2012 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

June 16, 2010

Contractual Disclaimer in Employee Handbook Defeats Lund Boat Employees’ Claims

Posted in Contracts, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, Vacation Policies tagged , , , , at 10:49 am by Tom Jacobson

In a June 15, 2010 decision the Minnesota Court of Appeals has re-affirmed the importance of contractual disclaimers in employee handbooks.

The case, Roberts v. Brunswick Corp., involved a change in the vacation policy at the Lund Boat Company which is owned by Brunswick. After Brunswick acquired Lund, it implemented a new vacation policy. Several Lund employees were unhappy with the change because they preferred the old policy, and they believed Brunswick was contractually obligated to follow it. The employees also felt that Brunswick breached that contract by refusing to honor a promise to credit them with earned vacation pay.

In the employees’ ensuing class-action lawsuit, the trial court sided with the employees. The trial court concluded that the company’s employee handbook, which included the old vacation policy, created a unilateral employment contract because it referred to vacation pay in the context of a general benefit.

Brunswick appealed, and the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision on the handbook-as-a-contract issue. Crucial to the appellate court’s decision was the fact that the handbook included a disclaimer establishing that the handbook did not created a contract. Because it did not create a contract, Brunswick was free to modify its vacation policy, and doing so was not, therefore, a breach of contract.

The case stresses the importance of including a properly drafted contractual disclaimer in employee handbooks for Minnesota employers who do not want to be contractually bound to policies and procedures stated in their employee handbooks and policy manuals.

You can read the entire opinion at http://bit.ly/bQT99q.

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.

June 9, 2010

When “may” means “must” in a progressive discipline policy, according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals

Posted in Contracts, Disclaimers, Employee Handbooks, Misconduct, Progressive Discipline, Unemployment Benefits tagged , , , , , at 11:19 am by Tom Jacobson

In a rare reversal of an unemployment law judge’s decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled that despite an employee’s “ongoing attendance problems” which had resulted in warnings and a suspension, the employee did not commit employment misconduct, and he is, therefore, eligible for unemployment benefits.

At issue was the employer’s progressive discipline policy which said that for attendance problems, the employee “may” be disciplined in accordance with a schedule that progressed from an oral warning, to a written warning, to 3 and 10 day suspensions, and finally, termination.  The Court of Appeals rejected the argument that by using the word “may” in the policy, the employer retained the discretion to skip certain steps.  The Court reasoned that the employer’s only discretion was whether or not to discipline at all and that once it decided to discipline for the attendance problem, it had to follow each progressive step.  Because the employer in this case skipped the 10 day suspension and fired the employee, the Court ruled that the employee’s absenteeism was not employment misconduct.

The Court also rejected the argument that the employer’s obligation to follow the progressive discipline was nullified by a contractual disclaimer.  The Court noted that this argument might have been successful, but there was no evidence of any such disclaimer in the record.

The case, Stagg v. Vintage Place, Inc., highlights the importance of making sure that when employers want to maintain an at-will workforce, their employee handbooks must contain language that properly disclaims any contractual obligations and maintains the employer’s discretion regarding discipline and discharge policies and procedures.  It also points out how important it is to make sure that critical evidence is part of the record before an unemployment decision is appealed.

You can read this unpublished decision at http://www.lawlibrary.state.mn.us/archive/ctapun/1006/opa090949-0601.pdf.

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.

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