Employment Law Attorneys
Protecting Your Job During Coronavirus: Two Things Employees Should Look Out For

Protecting Your Job During Coronavirus: Two Things Employees Should Look Out For

By Liz Swedock

COVID-19 is interrupting everyone’s lives these days, worldwide, and for many of us it is negatively impacting our jobs.  Even while we are trying to achieve the work-from-home revolution, an unprecedented number of workers are experiencing frightening job stressors, including drastically reduced workload, changes in job responsibilities, dropped job responsibilities, and job loss.  While not every negative impact can be fixed, there are a few legal protections that all workers should be aware of.

  1. Is your job being impacted in a way that is unethical, or possibly illegal?

The sad reality is that the global recession is going to quickly motivate employers to start firing people.  Businesses are panicked right now about their financial bottom line, and those salaries for all the people who aren’t in the office are looking daunting.  While it may be legal for employers to lay people off due to purely financial concerns, all employees should be their own watchdog for any layoffs, terminations, demotions, or changes in responsibilities that appear to be unfairly – or unequally – happening.

What is unfair or unequal?  Often the answer is discrimination.  These days most people are aware of the protected classes of employees.  They include older individuals (over 40), disabled individuals (physical or mental), gender, race, national origin, religion, and others.  It is illegal for employers to single out any of these classes of individuals for negative treatment.

It’s often not obvious if an employee is being illegally discriminated against, which is why workers should arm themselves with what to look for.  Sometimes illegal mistreatment is blatant, such as bullying and inappropriate remarks.  But it can also be done through much more subtle means, like removal of responsibilities, being taken off projects or sidelined, exclusion from important meetings, or old-fashioned favoritism.

We all know what’s coming.  As the economy is disrupted, companies are going to be forced to start eliminating employees.  So, keep your eyes and ears open and watch out for anything that seems wrong.  Did an entire project get cancelled or an entire team laid off?  That kind of activity might be perfectly legal.  However, does it seem like only the older employees or those with medical conditions are suffering the consequences?  Has your multi-gendered and multi-national team suddenly become, well, a lot less diverse? These types of selective actions could be crossing a line into illegal territory.

  1. Are you being denied rights that you are entitled to, particularly medical leave or accommodations?

The headlines are warning us that a huge percentage of the population should expect to catch COVID-19, a/k/a Coronavirus.  This means that an even larger number of people can expect to be impacted by the virus, including if family members get sick.

If you or an immediate family member gets sick, you may be entitled to take medical leave while your job is protected – meaning, you cannot be demoted or fired.  Federally, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) guarantees employees up to 12 weeks of leave per year if you’ve been an employee for at least one year and worked a minimum of 1,250 hours over the prior year.  FMLA leave is unpaid, which means your employer is not required to pay you while you are on leave, but is required to hold your job for you until you return.  Any negative impact on your job, such as by giving your work away or demoting you because you took leave, is illegal.

In Connecticut, this protection is expanded to 16 weeks of leave for any employee who works 1,000 hours during the prior year.  In New York, since 2018, employees may be entitled to up to 10 weeks of paid family leave, up to 60% of their average weekly pay.  This is one of the strongest protections in the country.

Can you take FMLA leave any time you or a family member gets sick?  For a simple illness, such as a cold or the flu, the answer is usually no.  However, you are entitled to leave for any “serious health condition,” which is defined as “an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition” which involves  “inpatient care” or “continuing treatment by a health care provider.”  Sound confusing?  It is.  Put quite simply, it’s not a black-and-white rule about when legal protections kick in for any individual medical situation.  The bottom line is that if you, or a family member, has a medical problem that requires repeated, or ongoing, medical treatment, you probably qualify for protected leave.

It’s also important to know that individuals can take this medical leave in pieces, or “chunks.”  This is called “intermittent leave.”  What this means is that if you qualify for leave, but you can work sometimes, you can still be eligible for the protections provided under these laws, most importantly that you cannot be fired or demoted while utilizing your leave.  This is extremely important for people who have ongoing medical conditions that require short periods of treatment.

Lastly, every employee with a medical issue should understand how the law defines “disability” and what an “accommodation” is.  Legally speaking, disabilities can be temporary! You can be legally disabled if you have a medical condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and “major life activities” includes working.  Of course, this means that many people who qualify for FMLA medical leave will also qualify under the law as disabled.

So, what protections do you have if you are legally disabled?  A complete answer here would require far more space and time than I’m tackling in this article.  However, the short answer is that your employer is required to cooperate with you so that you can do your job.  In legal terms, this is called an “accommodation.”  If you can do your job with a reasonable accommodation, then it is illegal for your employer to fire you, demote you, or do anything else to hurt your employment.

Just like with medical leave, it’s different for each person.  However, an example how these legal systems work might be something like this – Person A contracts Coronavirus.  Unfortunately, person A has the aggressive symptoms of the virus and needs to be hospitalized for a week, and then required to quarantine at home for a few more weeks.  While they are hospitalized, Person A would be entitled to FMLA (and state) leave while they are in the hospital, and, most likely, while they have to self-quarantine at home.  At the same time, Person A would most likely also qualified as disabled.  This means Person A would have the following protections: the employer has to hold Person A’s job while person A is out, and, while Person A is recovering, the employer is required to offer Person A accommodations so that Person A can do Person A’s job.  In other words, Person A cannot be fired, and must be given options to enable Person A to perform the job.

The takeaway here is to know your rights and stand up for yourself! Don’t expect your HR department to know the law or give you good advice.  Even the most well intentioned employers or human resources people often don’t know how this process works, or what they are legally required to provide to you.  You need to speak to an employment attorney to get the right advice, especially now during this Coronavirus pandemic.

If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact one of our employment attorneys at Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150 or by email at info@capclaw.com.

Uncovering Your Bias About People Infected By the Coronavirus

Uncovering Your Bias About People Infected By the Coronavirus

By Mark Carey

You know the man in the supermarket you saw today as you hurried for the last roll of TP… yes the one with the facemask and plastic gloves. Was he wearing the protective essentials because he was sick or because he was trying not to get the Coronavirus? Were you afraid to go near him?  Should he wear a symbol (red or green) indicating he was infected or not?

The internal reaction you had was most likely a flight and fight response you could not suppress.  But did you have enough information about this masked shopper to really render a rational conclusion that it was safe to pass? Probably not.  He could have been shopping for an elderly couple, sitting in their car in front of the store, performing a good samaritan deed and wore the protective gear to ensure he was not infecting the food he was gathering.  Would that make you feel different about this fellow?

What if the masked shopper lived with a family of five, all of whom were now contagious with the Coronavirus and the Dad, the only noninfected family member, was wearing the protective gear 24/7 in order to care for his family. Someone must still shop for food when nearly the entire family becomes ill. Would this make you feel different about him?

As we all move through these very uncertain and anxiety filled times, I ask you all to hold your judgments about each other until you can obtain more information, and then don’t judge.  Maybe exchange a few words and see if the person is ok, instead of ignoring them. Or just express a warm “hello” or “good morning”. Everyone has a story or will have a story about how they are coping with this national tragedy, including the New Rochelle Man.  We all will need more compassion and less bias in order to get through this.

According to a recently released Centers of Disease Control projection modeling, 160-214 million Americans are expected to contract the Coronavirus; you and I stand a good chance to become inflicted.  When you do, you will immediately wonder how people will judge you and whether you were careless in your pre-infection days, going to work or a party with a cough or jumped on an airplane.  The point is, no one knew they had the infection before it was too late, as no knows what the early stages of the Coronavirus feel like.

The Coronavirus does not discriminate based on sex, race, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual stereotype, age or political ideology.  We are now ALL on the same team.  Show a smile to a passerby, saw hello instead of looking down or away, volunteer to buy groceries or cook for the elderly, call your parents more often.  Take care of the home team, because we ALL need you right now. Finally, do not forgot what expressing or receiving compassion feels like when this is all over, we need to continue to take care of our home team no matter our differences.  Give a Shaka today.

If you need immediate assistance, please email our Employee Coronavirus Hotline and we will attempt respond to your questions.  Mark Carey can be reached at 203-255-4150 or mcarey@capclaw.com.

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Your Job and the Coronavirus: 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself

Your Job and the Coronavirus: 5 Things To Know and Protect Yourself

The issue is not if the Coronavirus will impact your employment but when it will.  If you contract the Coronavirus or you are quarantined due to a family member having the illness, you need to know the following important pieces of information to protect yourself.

1. Having the Coronavirus is a Disability and You Are Entitled to Protections

If you are diagnosed with the Coronavirus, you will have a physical disability pursuant to state and federal law.  Generally, any impairment of your major life functions is considered a disability and it appears that the Coronavirus is so severe it can become fatal in a short period of time.  An employer who discriminates against an employee who contracts the Coronavirus may be liable under disability laws.  Also, you should request a reasonable accommodation for a disability leave of absence to quarantine yourself and seek medical assistance. Your employer has an obligation to discuss your accommodation, albeit after they order you not to come to the office until you recover.

State and federal disability laws also protect employees who are “regarded as” having the Coronavirus but have not been diagnosed yet or do not even have the virus.  The medical community has only indicated the early signs of the Coronavirus mimic flu symptoms and you will not know which illness you have until you have been tested.  The idea here is that disability laws seek to address discriminatory biases held by employers who speculate a person has a disability but are unsure about the truth of the employee’s medical situation.

Finally, the disability laws also protect employees “associated with” individual family members who have the Coronavirus.  If you are fired out of fear that your family member infected you, you are protected against discrimination and unlawful termination, even though you never contracted the illness.

2.  You May Have Rights Pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act

If you contract the Coronavirus, and you have worked a significant number of hours in the past year, you may be entitled to take time off, paid in some states like New York and soon Connecticut.  You will be entitled to 12 weeks or more and your job will be protected. However, you have to come back to work before the expiration of the FMLA leave or your employer will terminate you.   This leave of absence overlaps with the disability accommodation request above.  A good an employment lawyer will know how to navigate this for you.

3.   You May Be Entitled to Short Term and Long Term Disability Benefits

You may also be entitled to paid time off under your employer’s short term and long term disability benefits plan. Again, this disability leave of absence overlaps with the disability and FMLA leaves of absence.  In order to qualify for benefits, you need to apply for them through your Human Resources Department and demonstrate, via supporting medical documentation, you are totally disabled.  Given the severity of the Coronavirus, you will certainly qualify as having a total disability.  The grey area will be in those cases where the symptoms of the virus are not as severe and you recover within a matter of weeks.  If you recover, and hopefully you do, the STD and LTD benefits will only be paid for the period of your disability.  You would need to return to work after your recovery, but an employment lawyer will guide you through this process.

4.  You May Be Entitled to Workers Compensation

If and only if you contract the Coronavirus while at work, can you file a claim for workers’ compensation benefits.  This type of claim takes longer to collect from the insurer, but more importantly, it may bar you from recovery under other state laws but not federal laws.  Federal laws will always preempt state law claims.

5.  You May Be Entitled To Severance If You Are Terminated

If you are terminated for contracting the Coronavirus, regarded as having the virus or associated with a family member who has it, you should consider hiring an employment attorney to attempt to negotiate a severance package with your employer.  Your employer may already have a severance plan which pays out benefits, i.e. weeks of salary for years of service, and you will need to sign a waiver and release of claims, aka settlement agreement.  An employer will want to avoid any connection to accusations that it fired an employee for having the Coronavirus; it just does not seem fair and the right thing to do.

If you would like more information about this topic and need to speak to an employment attorney, please contact Mark Carey at info@capclaw.com or call Carey & Associates, P.C. at 203-255-4150.

 

 

 

Googlers Unite-Ignore Unions-Use the Hong Kong Method

Googlers Unite-Ignore Unions-Use the Hong Kong Method

This article is directed at Google employees who participated in or wanted to participate in recent walkouts and signed open letters to management.  Googlers stop wasting your time trying to form a union or engaging in public organizing efforts, there is a more effective way to get management to bow to your demands and without the risk of termination. There is no need to risk losing your job like Laurence Berland, Sophie Waldman, Paul Duke and Rebecca Rivers.  Google management will squash your efforts to align with the Communication Workers of America. The CWA only wants your union dues and will never protect you from discrimination and retaliation under federal and state employment laws.

Back in the fall of 2019, the NY Times published an article about how disrespected Google employees were embracing and becoming inspired by a recently republished short book about labor organizing and solidarity to effect changes within the company.  Curious, I purchased the small paperback to understand why Googlers were continuing to protest under the following call to action: “A company is nothing without its workers. From the moment we start at Google we’re told that we aren’t just employees; we’re owners. Every person who walked out today is an owner, and the owners say: Time’s up.” (Source).

The NY Times story summarized the current movement at Google as follows: “Some workers argued that they could win fairer pay policies and a full accounting of harassment claims by filing lawsuits or seeking to unionize. But the argument that gained the upper hand, especially as the debate escalated in the weeks after the walkout, held that those approaches would be futile, according to two people involved. Those who felt this way contended that only a less formal, worker-led organization could succeed, by waging mass resistance or implicitly threatening to do so.”

For Googlers, the way forward in their labor battle to effect positive change should not and cannot in any way remotely relate to a “labor organization” as that term is defined under the National Labor Relations Act.  Management at Google has already brought in their consultants to “fix” the problem, mainly by convincing employees not to organize.  There is a new way to maintain a collective voice but without the fear of reprisal and termination.

Just Say “No” To Unions

Googlers must vote “No” to unionization and collective bargaining, but vote “Yes”
to a decentralized and leaderless collective.  Liz Shuler, the secretary-treasurer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. stated in the NY Times article above, “You don’t have the law behind you to protect you like you would if you have recognized agents like a union,” Either you accept Ms. Shuler’s mantra, and that of union activists nationwide, or you move forward, all the way forward, and accept the advent of a new non-unionization movement that is happening right now. The NLRA won’t catch up to this new momentum because the statute is irrelevant.  Management will not know how to quell this collectivism because there is no centralized labor organization to bargain with and that’s the essential point, it is leaderless and decentralized.

The Hong Kong Protest Method

Employees can now realize their true leverage to invoke change within their organizations, without the need to form a represented collective bargaining unit to address their concerns with management.  I now propose the Hong Kong Protest Method to employment civil disobedience, but without the element of violence. A decentralized and leaderless movement that has no discernable identity for government regulators to challenge them. Yet the protest movement in Hong Kong fully describes its’ strategy of inclusion via Wikipedia, “[t]hrough a participatory process of digital democracy activists are able to collaborate by voting on tactics and brainstorming next moves in an egalitarian manner in which everybody has an equal say. Telegram chat groups and online forums with voting mechanisms to make collective decisions have facilitated this type of flexible co-ordination.”

Googlers now have access to technology on their phones to air their concerns collectively under the radar in order to defeat a formidable opponent like management. Under the cloak of pseudonyms on message boards, airdrop communication broadcasts and other forms of subversive communications, employees can complain about important issues such as forced arbitration, sexual harassment, ending pay inequality, boycotting Project Dragonfly, without the fear of retaliation. What has worked in Hong Kong can work here inside of Google.

It is time to begin and give the real owners of Google a fair say in the direction of the company. Management will have no choice but to tolerate your dissent, because Google can’t fire all of you!

If you would like more information about this article, please contact Mark Carey at mcarey@update-capclaw.mystagingwebsite.com or 203-255-4150.

Several Great Reasons to Get Rid of the Employment At-Will Rule

Several Great Reasons to Get Rid of the Employment At-Will Rule

By Mark Carey

What do you mean I can be fired for any reason or no reason at all? Who made up this rule? Why do I have to follow the employment at-will doctrine?  Well, you don’t and there are several reasons companies and employees should shift to a modified approach that satisfies the expectations of both the employer and the employee.

I can honestly say that over the past twenty-three years handling employment law cases for both executives and employees, my clients are really confused and bewildered by the employment at-will rule and the significant financial impact it creates when employers decide to let them go.  Many clients always state they understand the basic rule that they can be fired at any time and they can leave at any time.  But beyond that they know absolutely nothing about why the rule came into being or more importantly how they can negotiate around it.  When a termination occurs the adverse impact is clear, the uncertainty of the break in career trajectory and financial resources.

At the executive level, I routinely negotiate employment contracts that provide for termination “for cause” and “termination for good reason” by the executive.  This is standard in the industry at the executive level. However, I do confront the hybrid cases, where the employer “shoves” in the provision identified as “termination for any reason”. Well, that sounds like the employment at-will rule doesn’t it, because it is.  Enter the LeBron James Rule. (I made up this rule).  When negotiating employment contracts, employees needs to identify their leverage factor; it is what makes the employer throw money or equity in order to induce the hire.  LeBron James can write his own ticket to work wherever he finds the highest bidder, and he can demand the termination for cause and good reason provision with a severance payout.  Find your leverage and do not be shy about asserting it.

Well you might say not everyone is as fortunate as LeBron. I disagree and this is what has bugged me for many years.  We all too often knee jerk react and accept this stupid and ill-conceived rule that your employment is as good as the last minute or hour you just worked. Some say, just be grateful you have your job etc.  Give me a break!  There is a new way to handle this.

I propose getting rid of the employment at-will rule and replacing it with the modified form we see in executive employment contracts. Specifically, employees can be fired for cause or terminated by the employee for good reason. If the good reason event occurs, then the employer pays a severance amount to take care of some of the financial issues related to your transition to new employment.  If you land a job, your severance stops, as this is fair in an economic theory way of thinking.  “Termination for cause” means you violated the law and company policies.  “Termination for good reason” means the employer materially changed your title, salary, reporting structure, location of your office etc.

Now here are several positive effects of eliminating the employment at-will rule based on my research into this issue.

  1. Management vs. Everybody: Eliminating the employment at-will rule will get rid of the large divide between management and employees. Literally, this is the trust divide.  If you scare employees into believing they can be fired any time, management is not creating a loyal and trusting environment that spurs innovation and creativity which will push the company forward in profound economic ways.  Employers want employees to be focused on their work, but this rule is utterly distracting and frankly non-motivating. The rule erodes any semblance of entrepreneurial creativity among the team.  Employers need to seriously rethink this one.
  2. HR vs. Everybody: Honestly, did you really believe the Human Resources Department was there to help you. I make it my mission to point this out to every client I have. They (HR) have a duty of loyalty to the employer and have absolutely no interest in doing what’s right for you. By eliminating the employment at-will rule, employees will closer align themselves with HR and HR will do a better job of “caring” for the very employees that make up the company; without employees you have no company. Where did all those employers go astray?
  3. Eliminating Fiefdoms: Does your boss have their favorites? Do they hire from the last place of employment? Are there any “brown-nosers” in the team who believe the only way to the top is to “work it” what ever that means to you. It’s childish and it’s irritating to say the least.  You know what I am referring to.  Why do other employees do this and why do supervisors encourage it?  Eliminating the employment at-will rule will breed meritocracy, but not the type Bridgewater Associates thinks they are creating.  Employees will begin to feel compassion for their coworkers and work more closely as a team or family, instead of putting a knife in their back at work. Employees will work with management for the company common good; all will prosper together not just the few.
  4. Reducing Discrimination: If you create trust, honesty, transparency and vulnerability, then you create lasting relationships where employees want to stay and work.  Employment discrimination bias arises from many reasons, but my theory is that if you get rid of the employment at-will rule you will gut the walls that employees build in their work environments with the sole goal of getting ahead.  Think about it. If you say something or do something negative about another person to make yourself look better in the eyes of your employer, you will do it to get ahead.  That negative comment or idea could be motivated based on gender, age, race, religion or manipulation like seeking sexual favors in exchange for career advancement.  We need a sea change to course correct our current direction.  The status quo just doesn’t work anymore; although it may work for employment attorneys like myself as we are very busy policing this garbage.  If you see something, say something. Have the courage to speak out, you will be protected.

Finally, here is my shout out to older employees. If you are an older employee “we honor your wisdom and experience, you are worth every penny we pay you”.  Employees who are in their fifties and even sixties are well paid because they have many years of experience to offer, more than someone twenty years their younger.  I say we should keep them on board and ignore the bottom-line cost issues and focus on their economic impact these older wiser employees can create for the company.  Management must stop terminating the baby boomers because the economic argument that fosters this decision making is not financially sound and never was to begin with.  It’s like a bad drug addiction.  Remember, wisdom still is a virtue for a reason.

When will this change occur? When management realizes they can make greater revenue multiples by providing better job security.  They will have to stop listening to management side defense employment counsel who banter incessantly to maintain the employment at-will rule for every client. The world isn’t flat, or at least until someone very smart said it wasn’t.  Same goes here, management should adopt this new rule and maybe just maybe they will convince themselves that #employees matter.

If you want more information about employment law issues, please feel free to contact Mark Carey, Carey & Associates, P.C., at mcarey@update-capclaw.mystagingwebsite.com or call the office at 203-984-5536.

Employer Tactics Revealed: How Employers Use Age to Terminate Employees

Employer Tactics Revealed: How Employers Use Age to Terminate Employees

Very often, someone will come to our office having just been fired, feeling that the reason given by their employer just doesn’t make sense.  For example, a seasoned marketing executive loses his job shortly after his company brings in a team of young consultants. When the marketing department turns its focus exclusively upon social media, his role and responsibilities are gradually minimized.  Eventually, he is terminated and replaced by several of his own former trainees.

In another instance, a Senior Benefits Administrator with 30 plus years of stellar performance is suddenly criticized by her new manager as, “incompetent” and “not a forward thinker”. She is placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and her workload is increased so much that she can no longer keep up. Meanwhile, the company posts a job ad for an entry level Benefits Administrator.  After the new hire has shadowed her for a few weeks, her manager fires her for failing the PIP.

In yet another instance, a Strategy Analyst is abruptly demoted after over a decade in his supervisory position. He is assigned to “project work” as his role in the firm is slowly marginalized. The firm’s turns its employee recruitment efforts on finding “young”, “energetic”, “enthusiastic” new graduates.  His compensation is drastically reduced when the firm decides to allocate the lion’s share of the annual bonus pool to its new hires. When he complains, he is warned that he could easily be replaced by a kid right out of school for a fraction of his salary.

Age discrimination occurs when an employer treats an individual who is qualified for their job differently because of their age. The federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) protects job applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age.  Many states, including Connecticut, have similar laws protecting older individuals.

You may be a victim of age discrimination if:

Your performance reviews start going down as you get older;

Your employer makes frequent age-related comments;

You are disciplined for behavior that younger employees are not disciplined for;

You are passed over for promotions in favor of younger employees;

You are reassigned to unwanted or unpleasant tasks while younger employees get better assignments;

You are passed over for hire in favor of a younger job candidate or replaced by younger worker.

But proving that you were demoted or fired because of your age can be a difficult task.  First, direct evidence of discrimination, such as your boss telling you he is firing you because you are too old, is very rare.  Most employers will try protect themselves by carefully documenting a narrative explaining why your firing had nothing to do with age.

In each of the real-life examples above, the employer set up a pretext of poor performance to cover up its true discriminatory motives.  If you are suddenly and inexplicably given a poor performance review or placed on a PIP, your employer may be building a pretext to pave the way for your termination.  Knowing that your performance has remained consistent, you are blindsided by your supervisor’s sudden and inexplicable criticism.  Attempting in vain to save your job, you then try to to work even harder.   By the time you are terminated, you feel somehow responsible for failing at your job. It’s not your fault, it’s your age!

In addition to prohibiting employers from treating older workers differently than their younger counterparts, the law also prohibits policies and practices that have a “disparate impact” on older workers. This particularly insidious type of age discrimination occurs when an employer’s seemingly neutral policies have a disproportionately adverse impact upon older workers.  For example, a company announces that it will be laying off all employees above a certain salary level. This policy has a disproportionately adverse impact on older workers who generally earn larger paychecks.

But courts are reluctant to second guess a company’s layoff policy, where the employer can show that it is a “business necessity”, in this case, cost-saving.  In order to win a disparate impact claim, an employee would then need to bring forth evidence of an equally effective, but non-discriminatory way for the company to achieve the same goal. The cost-saving “business necessity” excuse makes disparate impact claims particularly hard to prove.  Older workers tend to earn higher wages than younger workers by virtue of their added years of experience.  Making the situation even murkier is that the impact of these “cost saving” layoffs tends to fall specifically on older workers in middle to upper middle management positions.  In a case like this, the company’s officers, also over the age of 40, decide to get rid of its long-term managers and replace them with younger workers at lower salaries.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar and/or you just received a severance package, you should consult our employment lawyers. Please call (203) 255-4150 or email Jill Saluck at JSaluck@update-capclaw.mystagingwebsite.com.

 

History in the Making Today: Sexual Orientation Discrimination is Illegal

History in the Making Today: Sexual Orientation Discrimination is Illegal

By Mark Carey

Sexual Orientation discrimination is being argued today before the United States Supreme Court in the combined cases of Bostock v. Clayton County George and Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda. The Court is also holding argument in a similar transgender discrimination case of Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. EEOC. The trio of cases are as important as the same sex marriage equality issue ratified by the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.  These cases are history in the making and I predict the Court will hold that sexual orientation discrimination and discrimination based on transgender status constitute sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because adverse employment decisions discriminating against the LGBTQ community are being made “because of sex” of the employee.

The controversy around the cases has more to do with “perceived politics” infecting the bench than whether sexual orientation discrimination falls within current federal law “because of sex”, which it does.  Although the Court’s majority now leans to the conservative side, the Court cannot ignore prior precedent written by Justice Scalia in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services.  In Oncale, the Court held,

“Courts and juries have found the inference of discrimination easy to draw in most male-female sexual harassment situations, because the challenged conduct typically involves explicit or implicit proposals of sexual activity; it is reasonable to assume those proposals would not have been made to someone of the same sex. The same chain of inference would be available to a plaintiff alleging same-sex harassment, if there were credible evidence that the harasser was homosexual. But harassing conduct need not be motivated by sexual desire to support an inference of discrimination on the basis of sex. A trier of fact might reasonably find such discrimination, for example, if a female victim is harassed in such sex-specific and derogatory terms by another woman as to make it clear that the harasser is motivated by general hostility to the presence of women in the workplace. A same-sex harassment plaintiff may also, of course, offer direct com-parative evidence about how the alleged harasser treated members of both sexes in a mixed-sex workplace. Whatever evidentiary route the plaintiff chooses to follow, he or she must always prove that the conduct at issue was not merely tinged with offensive           sexual connotations, but actually constituted ‘discrimina[tion] … because of … sex.’”

The Court does record oral arguments and posts them to the Court’s website at the end of each argument week.  I encourage you to listen to the case, especially because the Trump Administration is arguing that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation discrimination, even though the U.S. EEOC has ruled that it does fall within the statute.

If you would like more information about sexual orientation discrimination and transgender discrimination, please contact employment attorney Mark Carey at 203-255-4150 or mcarey@update-capclaw.mystagingwebsite.com.

Performance Improvement Plan Playbook

Performance Improvement Plan Playbook

By Jill Halper

A while back I blogged an article on Performance Improvement Plans and what they really mean for an employee who has just been placed on one, or threatened to be placed on one. More so than any other blog article I have written, this one received the most prolific feedback, with so many reaching out to express how much the article resonated with them and their experience with their current or former employer.

As a result of the positive response received, I have decided to provide to our readers a follow up article to expand on and provide greater detail into the ever offensive, likely unlawful, usually unfair and sham scenario that often wrecks tremendous havoc on one’s work life only to often be followed by an improper, possibly illegal termination.

The Law Related to Performance Improvement Plans

The best place to start with any legal discussion is with the law. As you likely know, the law is derived from statutes and case law, also called common law. In the matter of performance improvement plans as they relate to discrimination in the workplace, the statutory law is generally designed to protect employees. As discussed in my prior article on this topic, the federal law as promulgated in the ADEA, ADA and and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and as essentially mimicked by state law, prohibits discrimination and makes it unlawful to treat certain classes of employees (i.e. age over 40, race, religion, maternity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin) adversely because of their age, gender, disability etc. As such, when an employer treats an employee adversely, such as a demotion or termination, for reasons based on any of those characteristics, it may be UNLAWFUL, and they could be found liable and subject to compensatory damages and sometimes punitive damages, which may translate into an increased severance package or a financial settlement to the grieved employee. The statutes also prohibit retaliation by an employer for any complaints or claims of discrimination made by any of these protected employees. In other words, if you believe that you are being discriminated against at work and you put your employer on notice of this and they subsequently terminate you, for no legitimate reason, you may also have a retaliation claim. It is important to note that placing an employer on notice does not necessarily mean filing formal claims against them. Simply communicating to them that you believe you are being discriminated against at work will suffice for this purpose. So, it is possible that you can make them aware that you are being discriminated against or treated disparately, and still go on to work there without issue. But it is more often the case that once you make these complaints, you are likely looking for a way out and they are likely looking for a way to get you out, so at least you have ammunition now to pursue a retaliation claim (in addition to a discrimination claim) if they do go and terminate you for no legitimate reason.

So how does this relate to the subject of the Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)? As described above, while the statutes are pretty clear about the unlawfulness of discrimination and retaliation in the workplace, the case law helps set forth what constitutes discrimination and retaliation and how one would be able to make out a successful cause of action for these claims. And this is where it could get more complicated for the grieved employee seeking to prove discrimination or retaliation. In the landmark case, McDonnel Douglas Corp. v. United States, 411 U.S. 792, 793, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 1820, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973), the court established what has been termed the McDonnell Douglas framework which is used to this day in analyzing and determining liability in discrimination cases. Under this framework, where there is no DIRECT evidence of discrimination (such as an email telling an employee that they are too old and making too much money), and a claimant or plaintiff is attempting to prove discrimination by indirect evidence (such as they were treated differently than other employees) the employee/plaintiff must first make out their prima facie case of discrimination by showing that they were in a protected class, qualified for the job, and that they were treated adversely under circumstances giving rise to discrimination. The burden then shifts to the employer/defendant to show that the reason they were treated adversely was not related to being in a protected class, but rather was due to a legitimate work-related reason such as non-performance or some sort of disciplinary issue. Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, once the employer puts forth evidence that there was a “legitimate reason” for the adverse action taken against the employee, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff/employee to show that the supposed legitimate reason proffered by the employer is a sham, false or not legitimate and that the acts of the employer were actually motivated by discrimination.

A PIP Is a Tool Used to Fire You!

Your employer certainly understands how the discrimination laws work, as summarized above. Thus, it is equally important that employees understand this as well, especially those who are dealing with a PIP at work, so that they know what they need to do when faced with this situation. As discussed in my prior article, employers with discriminatory motives who are looking for a “legitimate” reason to terminate someone will use the PIP as a way of establishing and documenting a performance reason, even where none exists. As a result, the PIP is a tool used by employers not to help employees improve, but rather to help employers meet their burden of proving that the adverse action taken against the employee is “legitimate, and that their actions were not unlawfully motivated by discriminatory animus. Employers and in particular, their human resources departments, are well versed in discrimination law and they know that if they terminate someone in a protected class, they will be held to the above framework in defending a discrimination suit. Therefore, they must show that there are performance issues and that despite their good faith attempts to help the employee improve, the employee is deficient and there are solid grounds for termination NOT rooted in discrimination.

Methods Employees Can Use to Fight Back

So, what do you do the minute you learn that you are going to be placed on a PIP and you believe that it is unwarranted or not “legitimate”? Just as your employer is and has been plotting their defense by having placed you on this sham PIP in order to document the legitimacy of the adverse actions they intend to take against you, you need to start plotting a strategy that will help you keep or prolong your employment as well as a strategy for prevailing on discrimination claims once you lose your job – WHICH YOU LIKELY WILL – if you are placed on an undeserved PIP.

Lawyer Up, Your Employer Already Has

Given what has been explained above, the first thing you should do is call one of our employment attorneys. Your employer no doubt has counsel; you should have counsel as well given what is at stake. The future of your employment and your ability to earn a living is being messed with and you need to be well advised and to make sure your rights are protected. There are very specific deadlines called statutes of limitations which provide a certain amount of time within which you are permitted to bring discrimination claims, wage claims and whistle blower claims against your employer, at which time thereafter you are forever precluded from doing so. So, if nothing else you should understand what those end dates are. More importantly, and something an attorney will walk you though is how to formally rebut the findings in the PIP. It is important that your personnel file includes these rebuttals because if and when it gets to a point where you are terminated and bring claims, the matter will often hinge on the legitimacy issue and whether the PIP was warranted or not. Certainly, if you are being told that you need improvement in certain areas and you disagree, or if you are being told in your PIP reviews that you are not improving or not meeting the goals of the PIP and you disagree, that is something you want to document in writing and refute, so it is in your personnel file if and when you need it. Another tip we provide to our clients is to quickly and articulately inform your employer that you believe you are being treated unfairly or being discriminated against and that the PIP seems to be motivated by same. In doing so, that is something that can be used to help prove retaliation. This strategy can often buy you some more time at your job as the key to a retaliation claim is causation and the key to causation is timing of the termination relative to the claims asserted. If the date of termination follows closely the date of the complaint, it is easier to establish retaliation, and the employers know this. So, by lodging a complaint that places the employer on notice that you believe you are being discriminated, the employer might be less inclined to make a swift termination. While you will very likely be terminated at some point, making the complaint will often buy you some time, which translates into more paychecks and more opportunity to get your ducks in a row for filing formal claims and a potential lawsuit. Our office has additional tactics and strategies we use to help protect our clients when they are placed on or even threatened with an undeserved PIP, so feel free to contact us immediately, should that be you.

A PIP Can Be Considered An Adverse Action

One final important point relative to the PIP discussion is the matter of what is considered an adverse action. As mentioned above, the adverse action is an essential component of making out a discrimination case. While an adverse action almost always means a demotion or termination, it CAN also include other acts by your employer that materially alter or affect the terms and conditions of your employment. Case law here generally provides that an adverse employment action is one which is “more disruptive than mere inconvenience or alteration of job responsibilities” and usually is meant to include actions that cause a significant change in employment status such as hiring, firing, failing to promote and reassignment.” Terry v, Ashcroft 336 F. 3d 128 (2d Cir. 2003). However, there is some recent case law that has introduced a broader interpretation of what constitutes an adverse action and has determined that being placed on a PIP in certain instances may be an adverse action. In the case of Amato v. Hearst Corp., aff’d, 149 Conn. App. 774, 89A.3d 077 (2014), the court stated that the threat of termination of the Plaintiff under a PIP, “in conjunction with the Plan’s imposition of new, burdensome conditions of employment was sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action”. This case also discussed other factors to be taken into consideration when determining if the act of being placed on a PIP is tantamount to an adverse action, such as whether the mandates of the PIP restricted the employer’s freedom by requiring them to be in their office for longer periods of time than other employees. Another factor to consider is whether the PIP negatively impacts your personnel file and reputation in a way that might prevent future employment opportunities. In another case, the court held that whether an undesirable employment action qualifies as being adverse is a fact specific, contextual determination. Zelnik v. Fashion Inst. of Tech., 464 3d 217, 226 (2d  Cir. 2006).

The bottom line is that the mere act of being placed on a PIP might constitute an adverse action in and of itself – even before and without a demotion or termination. This will often come down to the details and a totality of the circumstances analysis. In the event you believe the PIP is not justified, discriminatorily motivated and has materially altered your employment, you might have a case of discrimination just by having been placed on an unwarranted PIP by your employer. This also means that the clock to file a suit could start running from the date you are placed on a discriminatory PIP, which is another reason you should contact our employment attorneys immediately.

Attorney Jill Halper can be reached at (203) 255-4150 or jhalper@update-capclaw.mystagingwebsite.com

What’s Your Job Strategy In The Face of the New Recession?

What’s Your Job Strategy In The Face of the New Recession?

The next recession is now here, depending on the of source of information or this source.  The Federal Reserve is reversing interest rate hikes to soften the economic expansion and the unemployment rate is at a 50 year low.  We are well past the cyclical ten year timeframe as recessions go.  What is your strategy to preserve your job in the face of this new recession? What is your strategy if and when you are laid off?

You are probably thinking, “what strategy?” You get up, go to work and hope you can continue to remain an at-will employees until the end of the new pay period, under the presumption you have no control over your job. Better yet, you planned on retiring from your company in the distant future.  On the other end of the spectrum, there are employees who think their longevity with their employers will insulate them from any headcount reductions during recessions.  Both viewpoints are wrong and employees can control their employment outcomes during a recession.

5 Strategies To Save Your Job During a Recession

The following strategies are followed by our clients when they see the “writing on the wall” by their managers. Although some clients never see the messaging from their employer, we do.  Depending on how soon you pick up all the clues determines which strategy to pursue.  Hint, the sooner you speak with an employment attorney the better.  If we are engaged earlier in the process, we can evaluate and develop an aggressive strategy that will force the employer to maintain your employment and/or pay a larger severance package with more favorable terms.

  1. Plan Ahead and Gather Intelligence From Managers and Coworkers

Are you proactive about your employment or do you follow the wait and see approach?  Becoming proactive with your employer means obtaining objective feedback from your managers and coworkers.  No, I am not referring to the annual performance review or 360 reviews.  A proactive employee will develop an initial assessment of his or her own performance by quietly engaging in one on one discussions with managers and coworkers about their working relationship and performance. You will need to keep detailed notes of these conversations in order to track the information over time and over various contexts.   Forget about the formalities of the annual review or the vague performance metrics employers follows.  I am talking about all the intel you can gather by having a straight up ever day conversation with your manager and coworkers.  Examine the body cues such as facial expressions, tone of voice and the context of conversations in relation to those cues.  Observe more instead of being reactionary or defensive.  The better you are at this task, the more intelligence you will pick up, as your manager or coworker will not know you are gathering information. Once you collected this information, you will need to strategize how to position yourself as a thought leader, influencer, leader and over-all get the job done kind of employee.  Lead by example and always remain the consummate professional during all interactions with your employer and coworkers.

Ironically, your employer is collecting similar information about you and your coworkers. In a recent article from SHRM, “A good way to begin is by collecting information about the organization’s workforce that can be used for long-range planning. ‘[HR] should be looking at the data, knowing who is where in their careers, who is where in their teams’… ‘Are people ready to move into the next position? Are they happy where they are?’ Review job descriptions and tasks and determine whether responsibility for those tasks can be more evenly distributed throughout the team. By understanding the big picture, HR leaders can advise business leaders on how to ready the workforce for future changes without resorting to morale-damaging layoffs.”

  1. File Internal Complaints of Discrimination to Maintain Your Job

Once we determine you are may be the victim of employment discrimination or have other employment claims, we will advise you about bringing these claims to your employers attention without escalating to an external governmental agency.  The main idea here is to engage in a protective activity to force your employer to “back the heck off” and cause them to reevaluate your potential termination.  Our longest standing record to keep an employee employed using this method is two years (my opposing counsel in that case was not happy, but I was not there to please him).

If necessary, you may need to file your discrimination claims with governmental agencies in order to preserve your legal rights.  The same antiretaliation laws apply and employers will back off for a limited period of time in order to avoid you asserting an easy to prove retaliation claim.

  1. Dealing With Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS)

Combatting those inaccurate, one-sided and self-serving performance improvement plans. We wrote about this issue in Are Performance Improvement Plans (PIPS) Illegal?  A PIP is a clear indicator you will be terminated and you will need to engage an employment attorney ASAP!

  1. Severance Negotiation Based Years of Service

This strategy is relatively straight forward.  If you are slated for termination in a layoff, your employer may have a severance plan governed by ERISA, a federal statute that governs these plans.  Essentially, an ERISA severance plan spells out the amount you will be paid a salary continuation based on the number of years you worked for the company.  There is one catch, you will need to sign a waiver and release of all your legal claims against the employer in order to receive the payout.  You will also need an employment attorney to review the settlement agreement to insert favorable terms or get rid of unfriendly terms like noncompetition agreements.  Make sure when speaking with an employment attorney that he or she is an ERISA attorney, as there is a difference.  Our ERISA attorneys know how the statute works and will even point out in certain cases that you can create an ERISA plan based on one employee, “you”, even though the employer never created an ERISA plan.  Engage us to learn more.

  1. Getting Rid of That Noncompete Agreement on the Way Out

Great, you will be getting terminated but your employer stuck you with a noncompete, either at the start of your job or as part of the severance agreement. What do you do?  The noncompete does not benefit you at all, only your employer.  Now you have to navigate away from jobs you would normally apply for given your years in the same industry.  Is this fair? No.  Someone has to pay the utilities, mortgage and household expenses, but do not count on your employer to do you a favor. I have long taken a stand against these selfish one sided agreements and forced employers to rescind them or obtain an order from the court to void them.  We can help you remove your noncompete agreement with your employer and make you a free agent in the job market.  We will challenge the validity of the agreement with the employer directly and if the employer does not back down, we will take them to court through what is called a declaratory judgment action. Essentially, we ask courts to void the agreement due to lack of intention by the employee to enter into the agreement, aka a lack of consideration.

If you need more help planning for your future employment issues, please contact an employment attorney in our office. Employment law is all we do.

Quant Employee Records Business Meetings and Court Refuses to Enjoin Him

Quant Employee Records Business Meetings and Court Refuses to Enjoin Him

On February 14, 2019, after three full days of trial testimony, a federal judge in Connecticut denied an employer’s (Graham Capital Management in Darien, CT) motion for injunction because the employer could not demonstrate any harm beyond their mere “insecurity” about what the employee, a quantitative financial researcher, would do with recordings made during company business meetings. See full Court Decision Denying Injunction here.

The employee Steve Bongiovanni, age 56, filed an age discrimination lawsuit in Connecticut state court on December 29, 2017; he remained employed after the lawsuit was filed. Bongiovanni alleges his supervisor Ed Tricker, age 33, made the following discriminatory remark, [w]hy should we pay you so much when we can hire some young kid right out of college for $150K?”  Under state and federal age discrimination laws, Mr. Tricker made an unlawful direct statement implicating not only Mr. Bongiovanni’s age but also the fact he was paid to much.  Not surprisingly, Mr. Tricker denied the statement during cross examination.  As far as direct evidence goes, it does not get any better than Mr. Tricker’s age based statement.  Mr. Bongiovanni was later fired on October 1, 2018 for recording company meetings in attempt to capture evidence to support his age discrimination and retaliation claims.

The Court denied the employer’s injunction motion based on the following findings. “It is worth noting that the content of the audio files is sketchy and significantly limited in scope when compared to the content of confidential information accumulated in Bongiovanni’s head over years of employment with GCM. Therefore, Bongiovanni’s possession of these recordings does not significantly affect his ability to misappropriate GCM’s proprietary information.” In Connecticut, it is legal to record nontelephonic conversations with your coworkers so long as “you” consent to the conversation.

The Court went on to hold, “Bongiovanni argues that his intent in making the recordings is clear from his testimony. He testified in a believable and convincing way that his purpose in making the recordings was to support his discrimination claims against GCM. Indeed, when GCM challenged Bongiovanni’s right to unemployment benefits, the Connecticut Employment Security Appeals Division Referee found that Bongiovanni “did not knowingly violate the employer’s policy.” Moreover, Bongiovanni submits that he has no intention of utilizing the recordings to compete against GCM and no intention of disclosing the recordings to any person or entity outside of GCM. Bongiovanni has offered to stipulate with GCM to a protective order that would effect the exact confidentiality GCM seeks here through injunctive relief. Accordingly, Bongiovanni contends that GCM has failed to demonstrate any threat of disclosure by Bongiovanni to a third party.”  Strangely, when Bongiovanni’s attorneys offered to enter into a protective order regarding the same company information, the employer objected!

“During the course of the three-day hearing, testimony from GCM supervisory employees focused on the primary threat of harm caused by Bongiovanni’s removal of recordings from GCM’s premises: insecurity.”…“Bongiovanni is not competing with GCM. Indeed, to date, he is not employed by anyone, much less a competitor.”

“As the court noted during the hearing, it is willing and able to order Bongiovanni to return his copies of the recordings to GCM to remedy any danger of insecurity. Moreover, as discussed above, Bongiovanni has offered to stipulate to the return of his copies of the recordings. Nevertheless, GCM is not seeking the return of Bongiovanni’s copies of the recordings. The problem for GCM is that the remedies it does seek – that Bongiovanni be enjoined from (a) using GCM’s confidential information or trade secrets in any manner or for any purpose, and from (b) disclosing GCM confidential information or trade secrets to any person or entity outside of GCM – will not prevent the harm of insecurity illustrated by GCM’s testimony.” “The instant case is one more step removed, as no evidence demonstrates that Bongiovanni is actively misappropriating from GCM”

“The court understands GCM’s wariness of Bongiovanni considering his secret recordings and discrimination lawsuit against the company. However, “a preliminary injunction is an extraordinary and drastic remedy, one that should not be granted unless the movant, by a clear showing, carries the burden of persuasion. GCM’s mistrust of Bongiovanni is not evidence of irreparable harm sufficient to warrant the injunctive relief sought by GCM. Accordingly, GCM’s motion for preliminary injunction will be denied.

During the course of the proceedings, Bongiovanni’s counsel Mark Carey, was asked by GCM’s counsel on three separate occasions to enter into a stipulated injunction; all such requests were rejected by Bongiovanni.  As argued during the preliminary hearing, GCM filed the complaint and motion for injunctive relief against Bongiovanni only to create a defense to his age discrimination lawsuit.

Please contact Mark Carey if you would like to discuss your employment law situation.