A record 22 million people were laid off in one month since the coronavirus pandemic shut down large portions of the U.S. economy as of the week ending April 16, according to the Wall Street Journal. The estimated current employment rate is 13.5%. But were all those layoffs really due to the corona virus or did employers use the pandemic as cover to get rid of employees for other reasons, maybe unlawful reasons. This is the big question many unemployed Americans are now asking. Please review the following frequently asked questions and see which applies to you.
FAQ: Were you recently furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated due to COVID, but your co-workers remain employed?
FAQ: Is your Employer still operating and profitable, yet you were laid off or had your compensation reduced due to a business decision to reduce costs or eliminate your job position?
FAQ: Were other younger employees retained, while you were furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated?
FAQ: Were you laid off or terminated and not offered any severance or insufficient severance?
FAQ: Were your unemployment benefits interfered with?
FAQ: If you were unable to continue to work because you were sick, because a family member was sick or because you have young children at home, were you permitted to take FMLA leave or were you instantly laid off or terminated?
FAQ: Were you the only one furloughed, laid off, demoted or terminated or due to COVID, even though your Employer is calling it a “reduction in force”?
FAQ: Do you think your Employer was looking for an excuse to get rid of you?
If you answered yes to any of the above, your seemingly straightforward COVID-based termination may be unlawful. Unfortunately, the majority of Employees in the U.S. are “at-will”. This means that employees are at the absolute and arbitrary whim of their employers and they may be demoted, terminated or otherwise treated adversely for any reason or no reason at all. The exception to the anything goes rule of an at-will employment arrangement is that employees may NOT be treated unlawfully.
If you have recently suffered an adverse change in the terms and conditions of your employment amidst the COVID-19 crisis, you may still have viable claims against your employer for unlawful or wrongful treatment. COVID-19 is not and should not be a catch-all excuse or defense for employers’ bad behavior and even a crisis of this magnitude does not relieve employers of their obligation to treat employees lawfully at all times. If something does not feel right to you about the circumstances of your change in employment, it is prudent to speak to an employment attorney and review the fact pattern surrounding your work situation. It is in your best interest to discern whether your employer may be using COVID-19 as a sham or cover for otherwise unlawful behavior.
Unlawful or wrongful acts that may entitle an employee to monetary damages for claims against their employer will usually fit in one of three scenarios. Employers actions can be shown to be unlawful if they:
1) violate or fail to comply with any legislative mandate, act or
2) breach a valid contract or agreement; or
3) discriminate, harass or retaliate based on a protected class trait.
COVID-19 does not give employers a green light to violate laws, ignore contracts or discriminate against employees, and a termination under any one of those scenarios might be a wrongful one.
Scenario 1 – Statutory Violations:
Employers must abide by all existing laws and statutes, especially as they apply to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the employers’ obligation to stay abreast of and comply with all new mandates imposed and legislation enacted in response to COVID-19, including, but not limited to enhanced FMLA, the CARES Act and the expansion to the Unemployment Compensation Act. This is in addition the existing laws that have long protected employees from discrimination and retaliation such as Pregnancy, Sex Harassment, Sexual Stereotype, Disability, Age, Whistle Blowing and Family Medical Leave, to name just a few. Thus, any analysis of whether your termination was lawful and proper should begin with a review of the facts relative to the controlling law and any revisions and updates to those laws. If you identify any facts in the events leading up to your termination that just do not seem right, you may have uncovered the hidden basis for your termination. For example, you got a good review last fall and received a bonus in January, but in March you were terminated without explanation. The small window between the January bonus and March termination should be closely examined for any facts supporting bogus performance issues, favorable treatment given to other employees and not you and replacement by coworker who is substantially younger and lesser qualified. The examples are endless, but you get the gist. See further discussion below.
Scenario 2 – Breach of Contract:
Even an at-will employment arrangement must be considered in light of any existing employment contracts or agreements between the employer and employee. In addition to or in the absence of a formal written employment contract, Courts may look to such documents as offer letters, on-boarding communications, employee handbooks, published severance plans and emails in order to demonstrate the existence of any enforceable covenants between the parties that may speak to such topics as causes for termination, compensation, bonus, healthcare, long term incentive compensation and severance. Thus, where a valid contract can be established as to any of your employment terms, your employer is bound by those terms and any deviation may be an unlawful breach for which you might be able to seek and recover damages. So, if you have been terminated or otherwise caused to separate from your employer, even if you are at-will and even amidst the COVID-19 crisis, it is imperative that you review all of your documents in order to discern that you are being treated lawfully according to the terms that were agreed upon and promised to you.
Scenario 3 (THIS IS THE BIGGIE) – Discrimination Claims:
Even if you are an at-will employee who was let go as a result of COVID-19, you may still have a claim for wrongful termination against your employer if their decision to let you go was at all based on discriminatory motives. Discrimination is unlawful and where an adverse act is taken against you because of such protected traits as your age, gender, pregnancy, race or national origin, disability, perceived disability, associational disability or sexual orientation, you may have legal claims against your Employer.
In the absence of direct evidence of discrimination or the smoking gun as we call it, discrimination can be shown if you are a member of the protected class and you were treated adversely (demoted, furloughed, laid off or terminated) under circumstances which give rise to an inference of discrimination, i.e. circumstances that show discrimination was the substantial motivating reason for the adverse act taken against you. The way an employer can defend itself against such a claim and rebut that inference is to show that there was a “legitimate” lawful reason for the termination, such as performance issues and other cause such as a business decision or reduction in force.
Certainly, you can all see where this is heading. COVID-19 and the related financial fallout provides your employer with the legitimate business reason it needs to “lawfully” terminate you. However, this cannot be accepted at face value. In fact, if you are able to show that the supposed legitimate reason relied on by employer was a sham or cover for discriminatory motives, you may prevail on your claims against them in a severance negotiation. There are surely many situations where an employer, especially during these challenging economic times, needs to make a tough business decision to lay off employees or institute a reduction of force, and where their decision to do so is legitimate and truthful.
Employer May Have Used Covid-19 As An Excuse to Fire You
However, there are also many instances where certain employees are selected within the context of a business decisions, based on discriminatory motives. For example, the company makes the “business decision” to lay off only the older employees, or only the female employees or only the pregnant employees. In addition, there might not even be any explicit or formal business decision to reduce costs or a effectuate a reduction in force, but your employer may still feel safe engaging in discriminatory behavior knowing or hoping that any terminations taking place now will be viewed as a necessary and legitimate, due to the Covid-19 business climate. Again, we cannot allow employers to use this catch-all defense to what maybe culpable and unacceptable discriminatory behavior. If you see something, say something to an employment attorney.
There is no doubt that both employers and employees are presently finding themselves in the most difficult and tenuous circumstances. However, employers, in response to COVID-19, seemingly have absolute power and new founded legitimacy to make discriminatorily targeted employment decisions against their at-will employees, under the guise of a business decision. And this is very concerning and unlawful. If you are in a protected class because you are over the age of 40 or fall into any of the other class of protected traits discussed herein, and have seen a change to your employment that you do not believe was made as the result of a good faith business decision, cost reduction, reduction in force in response to COVID-19, or other legitimate basis, we encourage you to speak to an employment attorney immediately. You may be entitled to reinstatement, severance or increased severance or settlement dollars relative to your discrimination claims for wrongful termination or other possible improper acts by your employer.
Carey & Associates, P.C. is currently providing complimentary consultations for potential new clients who are experiencing any employment related issues or believe they might have possible employment claims, as a result of the COVID -19 pandemic. Feel free to contact our office if you need help with that or any of your employment matters.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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 email@example.com or call the office at 203-984-5536.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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.
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.
On Sunday June 17, 2018 the New York Times posted an article, There’s An Epidemic of Discrimination Against Pregnant Women at Work involving a case attorneys Jill Saluck and Mark Carey are working on.
The article reported “Throughout the American workplace, pregnancy discrimination remains widespread. It can start as soon as a woman is showing, and it often lasts through her early years as a mother… Many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain…In corporate office towers, the discrimination tends to be more subtle. Pregnant women and mothers are often perceived as less committed, steered away from prestigious assignments, excluded from client meetings and slighted at bonus season.”
The NY Times article explored Erin Murphy’s willful pregnancy and sex discrimination case against her current employer Glencore:
“As a senior woman at Glencore, the world’s largest commodity trading company, Erin Murphy is a rarity. She earns a six-figure salary plus a bonus coordinating the movement of the oil that Glencore buys and sells. Most of the traders whom she works with are men.
The few women at the company have endured a steady stream of sexist comments, according to Ms. Murphy. Her account of Glencore’s culture was verified by two employees, one of whom recently left the company. They requested anonymity because they feared retaliation.
On the company’s trading floor, men bantered about groping the Queen of England’s genitals. As Glencore was preparing to relocate from Connecticut to New York last February, the traders — including Ms. Murphy’s boss, Guy Freshwater — openly discussed how much “hot ass” there would be at the gym near the new office.
In 2013, a year after Ms. Murphy arrived, Mr. Freshwater described her in a performance review as “one of the hardest working” colleagues. In a performance review the next year, he called her a “strong leader” who is “diligent, conscientious and determined.”
But when Ms. Murphy told Mr. Freshwater she was pregnant with her first child, he told her it would “definitely plateau” her career, she said in the affidavit. In 2016, she got pregnant with her second child. One afternoon, Mr. Freshwater announced to the trading floor that the most-read article on the BBC’s website was about pregnancy altering women’s brains. Ms. Murphy, clearly showing, was the only pregnant woman there. “It was like they assumed my brain had totally changed overnight,” Ms. Murphy, 41, said in an interview. “I was seen as having no more potential.”
When she was eight months pregnant, she discussed potential future career moves with Mr. Freshwater. According to her, Mr. Freshwater responded, “You’re old and having babies so there’s nowhere for you to go.” A Glencore spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Freshwater’s behalf. After she came back from four months of maternity leave, she organized her life so that having children wouldn’t interfere with her career. She arranged for child care starting at 7 a.m. so she would never be late. But as her co-workers were promoted, her bosses passed her over and her bonuses barely rose, Ms. Murphy said.
When there was an opening to be the head of her department, Ms. Murphy said she never got a chance to apply. The job instead went to a less experienced man. Ms. Murphy said an executive involved in the selection process had previously asked repeatedly whether she had adequate child care.
Ms. Murphy said that after she missed out on another job, the same Glencore executive told her it was because of the timing of her maternity leave. Ms. Murphy has retained a lawyer and is planning to file a lawsuit against Glencore.”
In response to the NY Times article Attorney Jill Saluck commented, “Sometimes a pregnant employee will be subject to blatantly discriminatory remarks by her employer, indicating a clear bias against pregnant workers. But more often, pregnancy discrimination is much more insidious. Often after pregnancy, a woman’s career will suddenly and inexplicably plateau. Her non-pregnant coworkers will receive raises and promotions, but despite her consistent hard work, she will not be afforded the same opportunities. If this is happening to you at work, chances are that you’re not the only employee that has been subject to this type of discriminatory treatment. Pregnancy discrimination is not just unfair, its illegal, and employers must be called out for derailing the careers of pregnant employees.”
In the case reported in the NY Times article, Erin Murphy v. Glencore, Ms. Murphy filed her legal action in the District of Connecticut on June 18, 2018 (Erin Murphy v. Glencore, Ltd, 3:18-CV-1027 D.Conn). The case will proceed to a jury trial and we expect the jury to send a strong message to the company that pregnancy discrimination will not be tolerated and punished severely.
If you need assistance with your pregnancy discrimination issues at work, please do not hesitate to contact us.
Central to any present-day discussion of pregnancy discrimination is the issue of lactation and nursing moms in the workplace. The practice of breastfeeding has expanded in recent years and various legal issues have accompanied this development.
The law is designed to protect moms who breastfeed in almost all 50 states, Connecticut included.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148, known as the “Affordable Care Act”) amended section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to require employers to provide, “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”
Employers must provide as many breaks as are needed by the employee. Employers are also required to provide, “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”
Therefore, the Federal statute ensures that employers provide nursing employees with a time and a space to “express milk” if there is an employee with this need and the employer is made aware of the need. Moreover, all employers covered by the FLSA must comply with the break time and private place provision for nursing mothers. Small businesses with less than 50 employees, who are not covered by the FLSA may be exempt from the FLSA provisions if they can demonstrate that compliance with the provision would impose an undue hardship.
How does all of this apply to employers and nursing employees in Connecticut?
The FLSA requirements for nursing mothers to express breast milk does not preempt state laws. And in fact, state law in Connecticut actually provides greater protections to nursing employees. The Connecticut Breastfeeding Coalition joined with the Departments of Public Health and Labor, and the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities to create the, “Guide to Connecticut Breastfeeding Nondiscrimination and Workplace Accommodation Laws.” A closer look at the guide and the law in CT will show CT to be a state that gives great deference to, and places high public importance on, the protection of breastfeeding moms in the workplace.
Michele Griswold, chairperson of the Connecticut Breastfeeding Coalition said, “Most people want mothers and infants to be healthy, but not all understand the connection between breastfeeding and improved health outcomes. Taking steps to remove barriers for breastfeeding mothers and their children is a win-win situation for everyone. Increased breastfeeding rates ultimately mean healthier communities.”
Specifically, in the state of Connecticut, ALL businesses, regardless of the size, must provide breastfeeding protection in the workplace. Conn. Gen. Stat. Section 31-40 (along with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, amending Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act) requires employers to provide a reasonable amount of time each day to an employee who needs to breastfeed or express breast milk for her infant child and to provide accommodations where an employee can do so in private. And these CT laws apply to all businesses in CT regardless of their size or number of employees.
Sec. 31-40 entitled CT Breastfeeding in the Workplace reads as follows:
(a) Any employee may, at her discretion, express breast milk or breastfeed on site at her workplace during her meal or break period. CT case law has expanded this provision to mean, when possible this milk expressing activity should occur on your meal or other work break, but if it occurs at another time the employer is not obligated to pay you during the pumping break.
(b) An employer shall make reasonable efforts to provide a room or other location, in close proximity to the work area, other than a toilet stall, where the employee can express her milk in private.
(c) An employer shall not discriminate against, discipline or take any adverse employment action against any employee because such employee has elected to exercise her rights under subsection (a) of this section.
(d) As used in this section, “employer” means a person engaged in business who has one or more employees, including the state and any political subdivision of the state; “employee” means any person engaged in service to an employer in the business of the employer; “reasonable efforts” means any effort that would not impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer’s business; and “undue hardship” means any action that requires significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to factors such as the size of the business, its financial resources and the nature and structure of its operation.
This requirement in CT is a much harder standard to meet than the Federal statute as it defines undue hardship as posing a, “significant difficulty” for the employer.
It is also important to note that whereas the Federal statute defines the protected activity as “expressing milk” in the workplace, the State of CT law is unique in that it protects and allows mothers to actually breastfeed their babies in the workplace, and/or express milk/pump.
If you are a mother returning to work after pregnancy and believe that your employer is failing to provide you with the breastfeeding protection you are owed under Federal and State law, please feel free to reach out to the employment lawyers at Carey & Associates, P.C. for help in this area, or for help with any other matters involving pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
Remember: A CT business is not permitted to discriminate against, discipline or take any adverse employment action because you’ve elected to exercise your right to breastfeed or express milk at work.
Equal employment opportunities offer protection against being discriminated due to race, color, religion or sex.
Gender Identity Discrimination
When employers fire employees because of their sex, it is illegal under state and federal laws. Now, individuals who are in the process of transitioning their sex (transgender) are also protected against employer discrimination because of their sex.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled (see full opinion) that employers who fire employees because the employee has announced they are transitioning to become a man or woman, violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Court specifically held that employers cannot discriminate against an employee who is gender “non-conforming” without violating their rights.
Here is an excerpt from the judgement:
“Second, discrimination against transgender persons necessarily implicates Title VII’s proscriptions against sex stereotyping. As we recognized in Smith, a transgender person is someone who “fails to act and/or identify with his or her gender”—i.e., someone who is inherently “gender non-conforming.” 378 F.3d at 575; see also id. at 568 (explaining that transgender status is characterized by the American Psychiatric Association as “a disjunction between an individual’s sexual organs and sexual identity”). Thus, an employer cannot discriminate on the basis of transgender status without imposing its stereotypical notions of how sexual organs and gender identity ought to align. There is no way to disaggregate discrimination on the basis of transgender status from discrimination on the basis of gender non-conformity, and we see no reason to try.”
If you are a transgender employee experiencing discrimination at work, please contact Mark P. Carey, PC to determine how to stop the illegal behavior.
If public shaming is the new normal for dealing with sexual harassers, then how do we fix the ineffective sexual harassment laws currently in place? I have the quick fix and it makes perfect sense.
Make Sexual Harassers Personally Liable
Currently, when sexual harassers do their evil deeds, there is no penalty. Under federal law, only employers are liable. In a few states, offenders are held personally liable, for example, Massachusetts and Ohio. If the harasser understands that placing his hand on a woman’s breast or other body part has a $150,000 price tag for the single act, the harasser will think twice. If the harasser also understands that they could lose their job in addition to paying a huge settlement to the victim, then they would avoid groping other employees.
Remove the Caps on Damages Under Federal Law
Under federal law, damages for sexual harassment offenses are capped at $300,000 for both back pay and punitive damages. Trust me, this compromise struck between Congressional Democrats and Republicans in enacting the 1991 Civil Rights Act was far too low to make any real difference to deter sexual harassment. We need to remove the cap on damages that were promoted by the Washington D.C. K Street lobbyists whom promoted the caps in the first place.
Make All Settlements of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Public But Conceal Victim Identities
I recently wrote about making sexual harassment settlements transparent. Transparency of all sexual harassment settlements will deter both the employers and employees from engaging in unwanted sexual harassment. We would hope that companies do more to take care of the very employees who promote the employer’s products and services; the same employees who have close professional relationships with their customers and vendors. While transparency will add further deterrence, we also need to conceal the identities of the victims of sexual harassment in settlement agreements. There is no need to harm these victims any further.
All Perpetrators of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Will be Listed on the National Sex Offenders Registry
If the price tag for an occasional groping did not stop bad behavior, the next solution will. Currently, we have a nationwide sex offender registry. If you are convicted of criminal or civil sexual assault, you are automatically registered on the sex offender registry. We now need to modify current state and federal laws regarding sexual harassment at work and place all perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment on that list.
Provide a Tax Deduction to Victims of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment for Pursuing Claims of Discrimination
Prior to the 2018 tax overhaul, victims of sexual harassment could claim a tax deduction for legal fees and expenses in pursuit of sexual harassment claims. The tax act removed that benefit from both employers and employees. I propose reinstating the tax benefit only to employees who are the victims of sexual harassment. Frankly, it is morally the correct thing to do. We should not be cutting victims off at the knees.
If you have questions or would like to speak about an issue you’ve encountered in the workplace, we help clients located in New York, Manhattan, Connecticut, and nationwide. Contact us today!
Ugh, you got fired by a computer! Artificial Intelligence has arrived in the workplace at breakneck speed. Decisions about your performance and termination are being made by artificially intelligent machine learning computers. I enjoy sci-fi but the news of computers making decisions about performance and terminations has serious legal implications you should be concerned about.
Artificial Intelligence in Use Today
Companies such as Google and Bridgewater Associates have built powerful computers that render decisions about performance and termination. Currently, AI computers operated by Google and Facebook have been found to discriminate based on race or gender. See NYTimes Article July 9, 2015. Companies in the recruitment field have begun using AI in recruiting. For example, the new start up company Pymetrics built an AI machine to remove bias in the recruiting process.
A Very Disturbing Future For Employees in Employment Discrimination Cases
Today, employment discrimination cases are determined by direct or circumstantial proof of intentional discrimination against a variety of protected classifications of employees, i.e. sex, age, disability, race, sexual orientation etc. Employment Attorneys, courts and juries routinely examine the human interactions underlying factual evidence to determine if an employee was terminated or adversely treated because of an unlawful bias or intent to discriminate held by a supervisor, a.k.a. a decision maker. What happens when you replace the “human” decision maker with an Artificially Intelligent computer? Answer, chaos!
I predict that employers will shift the decision making to a computer and eliminate the decision making from their managers and human resource personnel. This AI HR Bot will conduct internal investigations, interview employees and witnesses and render a decision to terminate. All these functions will comply with current state and federal laws required of all employers. Most importantly, the AI HR Bot will make the “final” decision to terminate the employee, leaving employees and their attorneys, helpless to prove some human being held a discriminatory bias against them. You could expect this future to arrive in one to three years.
What can you do to prepare for the future when computers terminate you? Computers function on data, so employees should create lots of positive favorable data inputs for the AI computer to examine. For example, you should use company email to document abuse and make complaints to your manager. You should also use emails to write rebuttals to factually baseless performance reviews that are done on-line by your manager. Save all of your supporting data on your own home computer. Finally, you should hire an employment attorney to guide you through the process to develop a case to support your lawsuit or severance package.
If you have employment law questions or need help with specific workplace issues, contact Carey & Associates, P.C. Our employment lawyers can consult with you regarding your issue and offer guidance on the next steps.
Kindness and common courtesy in the workplace are evaporating today. New standards around what’s considered “nice” versus what crosses a professional line, are being set. Along with this movement, it has become difficult for a man to offer a simple compliment to a woman in the workplace without risking harassment claims.
In light of the multitude of public male figures being terminated due to inappropriate sexual behavior or sexual harassment in the workplace, I cannot help but push the pause button for a second to ask how this effects our workplace culture.
Yes, it empowers women to stand up for their rights and complain about gender discrimination or unwelcomed sexual advances by male colleagues. Yes, it validates a woman’s right to protect her self-worth, her career and her dignity. I encourage any woman who is treated differently or unlawfully at work to file a complaint and stand up for her rights. Always. But there is a flip side too.
Gender Discrimination in the Workplace
On the other side of this movement are men who are now fearful of interacting with their female colleagues while at work.
No employee should be subject to fear in the workplace.
In fact, men have now become so oversensitive and fearful that a woman may bring a complaint against them, that it prevents them from even so much as saying a cordial, “Good morning” to their female co-workers.
Some of the women reading this may say, “Great!” “It’s about time!” or, sarcastically, “Poor baby.” But this part of the movement is actually not a good thing. This apprehension can possibly lead to hostility in the workplace towards women because this fearful male colleague will now only say, “Hello,” or choose to interact with only his male counterparts and is hence, treating women differently. It creates a type of circular gender discrimination in the workplace.
Gone are the days of a casual conversation between a male employee and his female counterpart for fear that the woman may later could misconstrue the polite comments made toward her. Something as innocent as a man complimenting a woman on the way she is dressed or if she gets a new hairstyle is not seen as acceptable the same way a woman in the workplace offering a compliment like, “You look nice today,” to a man.
Handling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Gender discrimination is happening in varied ways in today’s workplace. Men should be able to go about their daily job duties without being fearful that one wrong look, one innocent comment, will get them fired. Likewise, women shouldn’t be talked to less frequently because of the changes happening.
I am certainly not saying that a man making inappropriate, sexual advances towards a woman is the same as him saying, “Good morning,” to a woman. I am simply using these extreme examples to demonstrate that men now fear even the most innocent of comments becoming misinterpreted as harassment.
I recently had a client (let’s call him Tim) who came to me after being terminated for violating company policy and having an inappropriate relationship with a co-worker (let’s call her Betty). Betty reported Tim’s alleged behavior to her superior and after a one day investigation, Tim was fired for cause. No severance, no presenting his side of the story, just fired after nearly a decade of good work performance. Tim’s story is that Betty made sexual advances towards him every time he was working in the same office. She propositioned him with sexual favors and encouraged him to meet up with her after work. Tim, refused her advances repeatedly. This continued for over a year. One evening, Tim let his guard down and gave into Betty’s sexual advances. Betty, a week or so thereafter, complained to her boss of Tim’s alleged sexual harassment and Tim was fired. Betty was not. And now Tim, sitting in my office, wonders how he could have protected himself.
The obvious answer goes without saying. But what Tim should have done was reported Betty’s inappropriate sexual advances from the beginning. He regretted making friendly conversation with her and had not been fearful of speaking to his female co-workers before his termination. But, as he sat in my office and reflected on the situation, he said that he would have to reevaluate how he acted towards any future female co-workers as he was now fearful.
Employment Law & Gender Discrimination
Sexual harassment under the law is considered gender discrimination. Both men and women are protected under Title VII as well as Connecticut and New York State laws. However, favorable case law to support a male employee’s gender discrimination claim is sparse.
Recently, the Second Circuit Court in Littlefield v. Autotrader.com, 834 F.Supp.2d 163, 168 (W.D.N.Y. July 12, 2011), Mr. Littlefield sued his former employer claiming reverse gender discrimination. He had been fired by Autotrader after his female co-worker, Ms. Long, claimed he engaged in sexually inappropriate behaviors towards her at a job training session. Autotrader fired him without hearing his side of the story. His story, like Tim’s above, was that Ms. Long was the aggressor and engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior towards him. Mr. Littlefield argues that Autotrader did not discipline Ms. Long or even investigate her behavior and instead, simply credited her version of the events. Littlefield also argued that Autotrader’s investigation of the circumstances leading up to his termination was “tainted” from the outset by “negative animus towards male employees,” thus giving rise to an inference of discrimination. The Court did not agree and reasoned that because Mr. Littlefield did not complain to Autotrader about Ms. Long’s inappropriate behaviors towards him, he could not show that he was treated differently than a comparator (the comparator being Ms. Long or another female employee). Mr. Littlefield’s claim for discrimination was dismissed.
The Eighth Circuit and Seventh Circuit have likewise reasoned that a male employee’s failure to complain about a female aggressor’s inappropriate behaviors defeat his gender discrimination claim for failing to identify a female comparator. See Yeager v. City Water and Light Plant of Jonesboro, Ark., 454 F.3d 932 (8th Cir.2006); Morrow v. Wal-Mart Stores, 152 F.3d 559, 562-63 (7th Cir.1998).
The take-away here for the fearful male employee in Tim’s situation above, is that you need to complain about a female aggressor’s behaviors. Men should no longer remain silent about this issue should it arise.
While each workplace’s culture is driven by its players and circumstance, shouldn’t every workplace be a cordial and favorable environment for both men and women?
By Kirsten Schneider
If you have employment law questions or need help with specific workplace issues, contact Carey & Associates, P.C. Our employment lawyers can consult with you regarding your issue and offer guidance on next steps.