Category Archives: employment law

Proposed changes to Iowa workers compensation cruelly target elderly employees

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Anti-worker changes could be coming to Iowa workers compensation. To me the cruelest reform would be the proposal to end permanent total disability benefits at age 67 and limit workers who are over 67 who become permanently and totally disabled to 150 weeks of benefits. One memorable client of mine demonstrates the callousness of the proposed Iowa reforms.

My client Doris Newkirk was 83 years old when she was injured working as a hostess at Lone Star Steakhouse in west Omaha in June 2006. She was near a bathroom door when a large male co-worker came barreling into the bathroom and caused Doris to fall back and injure multiple parts of her body. Like many retirees, Doris worked because she needed the money. After her injury she was unable to work. Fortunately Doris was able to receive permanent total disability benefits to make up for the income she lost because she wasn’t able to work. Those permanent benefits started in September 2007 and continued for five years and 10 ½ months until her death on July 21, 2013.

If Nebraska law limited those injured over the age of 67 to 150 weeks of permanent total disability benefits, Doris wouldn’t have been paid anything for the last three years of her life. To her credit, Doris travelled from Omaha to Lincoln in her late 80s to testify against similar legislation when it was proposed in Nebraska. According the Business and Labor committee clerk at the time, the state Senator who introduced the bill at the behest of insurance interests made a motion to kill the bill after listening to her testimony.

Workers compensation is a cost of business. But according to CNBC, Iowa has the second lowest cost of doing business in the country. Iowa, like Nebraska, generally ranks well in national surveys of business climate. Iowa’s weakest area when it comes to business climate,  according to CNBC, is quality of workforce. Unlike Nebraska, Iowa lacks vocational rehabilitation for injured workers. If Iowa is looking to reform its workers compensation system, they should consider investing in vocational rehabilitation so injured workers can fully regain their ability to contribute to the economy in Iowa.

Six Questions You Should Answer Before You Become a Whistleblower

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Whistleblowers have helped expose some of the biggest corporate scandals of the 21st century, including Enron and the Bernie Madoff scandals. Whistleblowers usually expose themselves to a real personal risk by opposing wrongdoing. These risks often include getting fired from their job. If you are thinking about blowing the whistle on illegal conduct at work, here are six questions you should ask yourself:

1.         Are you really opposing unlawful or illegal activity? Lawyers who defend companies against whistleblower claims often may paint whistleblowing as mere disagreement about management style or philosophy. As a matter of law, a whistleblower also must have good faith or honest belief that they are opposing illegal conduct. If you are thinking about bringing a whistleblower complaint, it would be a good idea to do a little research. Whistleblowers.gov is a great resource for the various industries that are covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration whistleblower statutes. Most experienced employment attorneys are also willing to do some free consultation for prospective whistleblowers as to whether they are opposing illegal conduct.

2.         Does someone in upper management at your company know about your complaints? This can be intimidating, but in my experience, you will have a stronger case if you bring up your concerns to someone higher up in management than your direct supervisor or worksite manager. This puts the company on notice about the unlawful conduct, and it bolsters your credibility as someone who was concerned enough about the potentially illegal conduct that they reported it to someone within the company who could act on it. Likewise, if someone with authority at your company is on notice of the potentially illegal conduct and that person doesn’t take action, that can bolster your possible case. Sometimes firms will have an “ethics” hotline or will refer you to human resources. I don’t think it hurts to report through those channels, but I think you should also report the unlawful conduct to someone who has the actual authority to change the practice that you are challenging.

3.         Can you frame your complaint as a business problem and suggest solutions to the problem of unlawful conduct and be reasonable in how you report the misconduct? I cribbed this idea from a post from the excellent SkloverWorkingWisdom blog written by attorney Alan Sklover. All things being equal in an employment law case, the party who is most reasonable is going to win. This fact tends to disadvantage employees, because it’s hard to keep a level head when you are being mistreated or being asked to participate in unlawful conduct at work. But do your best to be level headed and objective when you bring up your complaints to management. Like the point in the last paragraph, if the employer ignores your practical solution to the potentially unlawful conduct, then you have bolstered your possible case.

4.         Will other employees will join you in your complaints? Whistleblowers tend to get tarred as tattletales. If co-workers are joining you in your complaints, the case becomes more credible. If you make a legitimate complaint as a group, you also gain protection of the National Labor Relations Act for engaging in protected concerted activity, as well as under any whistleblower law that you might be bringing a case under.

5.         How strongly can you support your claims? To win any whistleblower retaliation case, you must have evidence to prove your case. In most cases, this requires written evidence that often takes the form of emails that implicate possible wrongdoers. If a case gets into litigation, then in theory, such documents must be disclosed. That does not always happen in practice. Additionally, having documents will help a lawyer determine if you have a possible claim and how strong your possible claim could be.

Employees may have concerns about revealing confidential documents and/or be concerned that their employer may take legal action against them for revealing company information. Many whistleblower laws protect certain types of information from being deemed confidential. Employers are also somewhat reluctant to act against whistleblowers, because this can invite more retaliation litigation. But potential whistleblowers should be aware of possible legal liability for disclosing company information, so an employee should be very careful about how they choose to share company information. Attorney-client communications, even those communications involving prospective clients are confidential. By consulting with an attorney, a prospective whistleblower can get some guidance as to whether they are risking legal liability by disclosing information.

Evidence can also take the form of witness testimony, which is why it is helpful if you have a group of employees opposing potentially unlawful conduct.

6.         Are you willing to change jobs or relocate? Even if what you think is a valid whistleblower complaint is merely a dispute with a manager over something that it isn’t illegal, the fact for you is that if you are doing something or working in an environment that you don’t like, you are almost setting yourself up to fail. This is probably even more true if you have a valid whistleblower claim. Studies show that it is easier to find a job while you are still employed. Even with anti-discrimination laws, employers have broad discretion to fire employees under the “employment at-will” doctrine. The underappreciated flip side of employment at-will for employees is that they can quit without cause or notice. If you are in a dysfunctional or even hostile work environment, it’s smart to take advantage of the ability to quit freely if you have another job lined up.

Gorsuch, Chevron and Workplace Law

Judge Gorsuch

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Employers and their attorneys are widely hailing President Trump’s nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Part of the reason that management-side lawyers are praising Gorsuch is his position on Chevron deference. Gorsuch’s views on Chevron could affect how workplace laws are interpreted and how they apply to workers.

Chevron deference is a legal rule that a court will give the benefit of the doubt about the interpretation of the law to how the executive agency charged with enforcing that law understands the law. Gorsuch has criticized Chevron on separation of powers basis, stating that Chevron deference gives too much power to the executive branch at the expense of the legislative and judiciary branches. Recently, government agencies have been interpreting employment laws in a way that is more favorable toward employees. Recent rules issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act are a prime example.

Many workers who get hurt on the job are told that they must come back to work with no restrictions. Chevron deference could be a powerful legal tool for workers faced with such policies. The new EEOC regulations on the ADA outlaw 100-percent-healed policies or policies that require plaintiffs to return to work without restrictions. In the EEOC guidance on the issue, the EEOC cites Kaufman v. Peterson Health Care VII, LLC 769 F. 3d 958 (7th Cir. 2014) as an example of policies that they believe to be unlawful under ADAAA. This case represents a subtle but real shift from current 8th Circuit law as stated in Fjellestad v. Pizza Hut of America, 188 F. 3d 949, 951-952 (8th Cir. 1999) where the 8th Circuit joined other federal circuits that held that failure to engage in an interactive process in accommodating a disability was not per se discrimination, and that there was no duty to engage in the interactive process. The EEOC’s interpretations of the new regulations still require that a plaintiff be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

But as indicated by Kaufman, courts may be less likely to dismiss cases before trial, or in legal terminology, to grant summary judgment, on the issue of whether a plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation if the defendant does not engage in an interactive process or summarily decides that an employee should not be allowed to return without restrictions.

The fact that there is a split between regional appellate courts, a so-called circuit split, over “100 percent healed” policies increases the chances that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether 100-percent-healed policies violate the ADA. Another issue where there is a circuit split that the U.S. Supreme Court will decide is the legality of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements.

Many workers unwittingly give up their rights to have employment-law disputes heard in court when they agree to mandatory arbitration clauses as a term of employment. In D.R. Horton Inc., 357 N.L.B. No 184 (2012) the National Labor Relations Board ruled that mandatory arbitration clauses prohibited Fair Labor Standards Act collective action cases because they interfered with protected concerted activity under 29 U.S.C. §157 and 29 U.S.C. § 158. In Lewis v. Epic Systems, 823 F. 3d 1147, 1154 (7th Cir. 2016), the 7th Circuit struck down a mandatory arbitration clause partly based on giving Chevron deference to the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton. The 9th Circuit agreed with the 7th Circuit in Morris v. Ernst and Young, LLP, No 13-16599 (Aug. 22, 2016). Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the 8th Circuit disagreed with the D.R. Horton decision in Owen v. Bristol Care, 702 F. 3d 1050 (8th Cir. 2013).

If confirmed, Gorsuch would be unlikely to give much weight to the opinions of the EEOC or NLRB in interpreting employment laws. Chevron deference is an unpopular concept with pro-business conservatives. Recently, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation that, if enacted, would abolish Chevron deference.

Conversely, Chevron deference is a popular concept with progressive employee and civil-rights advocates, as it allowed the Obama administration to expand employee protections in the face of a hostile Congress. But with the advent of the Trump administration and his immigration policies, progressives have a newfound appreciation for separation of powers.

Also, employee advocates probably will not like many of the new rules and regulations issued by Trump appointees such as Labor Secretary nominee Larry Puzder. A prospective abolition of Chevron could be helpful to challenging rules made by a Trump administration. An example from the last Republican administration is instructive. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158 (2007) gave Chevron deference to Bush administration rules to exclude home health aides from coverage under the FLSA. It was nine years later that the rule was overturned, giving Chevron deference to Obama administration rules regarding home health aides and the FLSA.

Department of Labor Weighs In on New Age of Salary Servitude for ‘Executives’

Today’s post comes from guest author Roger Moore, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Most of the U.S. workforce has the right, provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act, to be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours in a week. Before the federal government set rules for overtime, most employees worked longer hours, and millions of Americans worked six or seven days a week, as Chinese factory workers do today. Salaried workers also have the right to be paid a premium for overtime work, unless they fall into an exempt category as a professional, an administrator, or an executive. Exempt employees must be skilled and exercise independent judgment, or be a boss with employees to supervise. However, many companies have worked to get around these overtime rules by classifying employees like cooks, convenience store employees or restaurant workers as “managers,” “supervisors,” or “assistant managers or supervisors,” so that their employer can deny them overtime under this exception. 

In May 2016, the Department of Labor issued its final rule establishing a new minimum salary threshold for the white-collar exemptions (executive, administrative and professional) under the Fair Labor Standards Act. This new threshold of $913 per week ($47,476 annualized) more than doubles the current minimum weekly salary threshold of $455 per week ($23,660 annualized).  While that may seem like a huge increase, the old threshold level is only $2 a week above the poverty level for a family of four. Twenty-one states have filed suit to challenge this rule, citing the rule will force many businesses, including state and local governments, to unfairly and substantially increase their employment costs. 

The old rule allowed companies to put employees on “salary” at a low rate and require them to work sometimes significant overtime. The fact that so many government entities are concerned about this new rule substantially increasing their employment costs underscores the extent to which even government entities have taken advantage of employees in this fashion. Can you imagine earning $25,000/year and having to work 50, 60 or 70 hours a week? Even at 50 hours a week, that equates to an hourly wage of only $8.01!

In the first year, the department estimates that the new rule may affect, in some manner, over 10 million workers who earn between $455/week and the new $913/week threshold.  

The median worker has seen a wage increase of just 5 percent between 1979 and 2012, despite overall productivity growth of 74.5 percent (Mishel and Shierholz, 2013), according to the Economic Policy Institute. One reason Americans’ paychecks are not keeping pace with their productivity is that millions of middle-class and even lower-middle-class workers are working overtime and not getting paid for it. Before this rule change, the federal wage and hour law was out of date. This change purports to correct this modern day servitude that the law – for the last 30 years – has carved out a huge exception, allowing workers to be taken advantage of simply by assigning them a title and paying them a salary.  

 

Sources:

What Does Supreme Court’s Warehouse Workers’ Ruling Mean?

Today’s article is a re-post from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Last Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that contracted warehouse workers for Amazon did not have to be paid for time spent waiting to clear through an anti-theft security screening after their shifts. Justice Clarence Thomas ruled that time spent in an after-work security screening was not integral and indispensable to the primary activity of a warehouse worker, therefore not covered under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. So what does that mean for you?

First of all, this should mean that any worker who has to go through a security check after work will not have to be paid by their employer for the time that process takes. However other pre- and post- workday activities should still be covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Donning and doffing safety equipment is still compensable because such safety equipment helps an employee work safely. Call-center workers still should be paid for time spent booting up and logging into a computer and phone because a call-center employee is unable to do their job if they are not logged into their phones and computers. Employees should also consult with a lawyer about state wage and hour law as state law may be friendlier to employees.

Do I Have a Wrongful Termination Claim?

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Assuming you do not have an employment contract, you can only claim wrongful termination if the firing was motivated by certain unlawful reasons. Unlawful reasons include discrimination based on sex or gender – this includes sexual harassment and pregnancy – as well as race, religion, nationality and disability. In certain places and in certain situations, sexual orientation discrimination can also be unlawful. Disability in this context will often mean any serious or chronic health condition you have. Disability discrimination can also mean that you are taking care of someone with a disability.

You also cannot be discriminated against by your employer for certain activities on the job. This is commonly referred to as retaliation. One of these activities is taking extended leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for your own or for a loved one’s medical condition. Other common protected activities include opposing unlawful discrimination; filing a safety complaint; filing a workers’ compensation complaint; complaining of pay practices; or complaining about other illegal activities. If you are a government employee, you might also have some claims based on constitutional law. 

Essentially, not all terminations are unlawful. But if your situation fits into the categories described above, then be sure to contact an experienced employment attorney. In addition, it is wise to ask for advice about applying for unemployment, even if there’s not a wrongful termination case.

OSHA Claims Backlogged Due to Increased Online Filing

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

OSHA’s recent decision to allow employees to file whistleblower cases online has led to a large increase in filings. According to OSHA investigators, this increase in filings hasn’t been met with a proportionate increase in staff. There is now a large backlog in OSHA claims. One investigator estimated it takes over 400 days for OSHA to conclude investigating claims.

The delay created by the backlog hurts investigations for many reasons. Witnesses become unavailable, and recollections of events change. Unscrupulous employers also can use the delay to hide or destroy documents and intimidate witnesses.

Of course, employees who feel they have been retaliated against oftentimes have the option of filing a state or local fair employment agency claim on the basis of retaliation. Employees might also have the option of filing for retaliatory discharge without filing a fair-employment case, as is oftentimes the case if they are fired for filing workers’ compensation. However, this summer the U.S. Supreme Court likely made many types of retaliation cases more difficult to win with their decision in the Nasser case. The court ruled in Nasser that employees claiming retaliation cases under federal Title VII must prove that exercising their rights under Title VII was a “but for” cause of their termination.

But under whistleblower laws under OSHA – such as the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), which protects interstate truckers, and Dodd-Frank, which protects workers in the financial services industry – an employee must only show that their report of illegal conduct was a contributing factor to their termination.

Employees with a retaliation case should consult with an experienced employment attorney to determine the best forum for any wrongful-termination case.

I Was Offered a Severance Agreement. Now What?

If you are given a severance agreement, consult with an attorney

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Federal law requires that many employees who are offered severance agreements be advised by their employers to consult with an attorney before signing a severance agreement. If you have a severance agreement, you should consult with a knowledgeable employment-law attorney as soon as possible. Almost all severance agreements have a short time period, usually no more than 21 days, for the employee to accept the agreement. Here are some of the factors to consider in whether to accept a severance agreement.

If you have a severance agreement, you should consult with a knowledgeable employment-law attorney as soon as possible.

A. The value of the certainty of a severance agreement versus the uncertainty of a wrongful-termination suit. This requires an attorney to evaluate the strength of any possible employment-law claims you might have against your former employer. In many cases, the value of a certain amount of guaranteed severance pay is worth more than the uncertain outcome of a wrongful-termination claim that might not resolve for at least a year. Certain types of unfair-employment practices create more fear of litigation for employers than others. Employers are often willing to pay severance in order to avoid the expense and uncertainty of litigation. This fear can give employees some leverage in negotiations, which could lead to an increase in severance pay. However, every situation is different.

If an employee decides to reject severance and pursue a wrongful-discharge claim, a knowledgeable employment-law attorney can advise you on your chances of receiving unemployment benefits. Employers, especially smaller ones, will often fight unemployment claims if there are bad feelings surrounding a termination. If an employee is found to have been fired for misconduct, they are potentially losing many thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits. Before you reject severance, you should know your chances for receiving unemployment benefits.

B. A knowledgeable employment attorney may be able to review the severance agreement and find contract provisions to offer the employer in order to increase the severance pay. The fear of litigation is a stick, but sometimes employees can offer carrots in the form of favorable contract language to increase severance benefits.

C. Severance pay is not the only consideration in a severance agreement. A standard severance agreement often includes a provision that the employee is eligible for COBRA. COBRA requires that the employee pay the entire premium for health insurance. Sometimes employers are willing to pay that COBRA premium for a period of time.

Another possible severance benefit is the guarantee of a positive reference. A severance agreement is a contract releasing any claims – usually with the exception of workers’ compensation (see below) – by the employee against the employer. However, if the employer breaches the contract in regards to a positive reference, that can give the employee a breach-of-contract claim if the severance agreement is drafted properly. Many companies are willing to check out what employers are saying about former employees for a reasonable fee, so employees can enforce contract provisions regarding positive references

D. Workers’ Compensation. The laws regarding settling a workers’ compensation claim are very precise. I have never seen a severance agreement that creates an enforceable release of a workers’ compensation claim. However a savvy employer may be able to release your workers’ compensation claim through a severance agreement under recent changes in Nebraska’s workers’ compensation law. This is why you should consult with a lawyer who is familiar with fair employment and workers’ compensation law. This is especially true if you have an ongoing workers’ compensation claim against your employer.

E. You still might be able to bring a wrongful termination suit even if you signed a severance agreement. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has provided guidelines about when a severance agreement is not binding on the employee. If you feel you were railroaded into signing a severance agreement, it still might be worth your time to consult with a knowledgeable employment attorney.