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Employment Issues Trends and Decisions

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Are employees owed overtime for checking and answering email after hours?


Technology is a double-edged sword. It allows us to work remotely and to have greater flexibility as to where and when we work, but the freedom it affords can also be a burden. All the work that is being done outside of work hours is creating a compliance problem for many businesses.


Read more . . .


Monday, February 27, 2017

Employment Discrimination Laws in a Nutshell -

There are a variety of state and federal laws that make it illegal for employers to discriminate based on certain characteristics when making decisions about hiring, terminating, promoting, demoting or compensating employees, or any other terms and conditions of employment. Employers are also barred from retaliating against employees who file a discrimination-related complaint or engage in other protected activities. While the laws vary from state to state, all employers have an obligation to adhere to the following federal laws.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

This law prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, national origin, religion and gender. Title VII also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the government agency that is tasked with investigating employment discrimination claims.  Before an employment discrimination lawsuit under federal law can be brought, it is necessary to file a claim with the EEOC. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA)

The ADEA prohibits employers with 20 or more employees from discriminating against individuals who are 40 years or older and their age cannot be used as a factor in any employment decision.

The American with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The ADA prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating or harassing disabled employees and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations that will enable a qualified disabled worker to complete his or her job functions.  

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA)

The PDA prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy regarding any aspect of employment in businesses with 15 or more employees. Women who are temporarily unable to perform their jobs due to pregnancy must be treated similarly to other temporarily disabled workers. The ADA may also protect a woman who suffers from a pregnancy related medical condition.

State and Local Laws

Most states and many municipalities have laws governing the treatment of employees. For example, The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD") NJSA 10:5-1 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, familial status, sex or sexual orientation, atypical cellular or blood trait, generic information, or service in the armed forces.  This law is considered "remedial legislation" and can provide relief beyond what federal law may permit.

An example of protection under municipal law is the New York City Human Rights Law, Title 8 of the Administrative Code of the City of New York. This law prohibits discrimination in New York City and provides relief in excess of what is required under New York State law. Individuals are protected from discrimination in many areas, based on a number of protected classes.

The Bottom Line

In sum, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees and potential job candidates because of race, religion, sex, age, disability, pregnancy or national origin. Not only can violations lead to financial penalties, a discrimination lawsuit can damage a business' reputation. By engaging the services of an experienced employment law attorney, you can establish policies and procedures to ensure that your business is in compliance with these laws.

The Law Office of Randall P. Brett assists employers to avoid claims of discrimination and provide strong legal representation in court if needed. The firm also works with employees who have suffered discrimination to achieve just outcomes for their claims.

 


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Oral Contracts - Are They Binding? -

There is quote attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, a famous film producer in the early years of Hollywood, that goes "A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on". While this is actually a misquote of what was really said, nevertheless it conveys a widespread misconception that verbal contracts are unenforceable.  However, a contract made orally with another party, without embodying the particular terms in a signed writing, can still be valid and binding. Even so, any disagreement concerning the deal may pose multiple problems for both parties. 

In order for the court to give a verbal contract legal effect, the terms of the deal will have to be demonstrated.


Read more . . .


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Can Non-Compete Agreements Be Enforced?

Hiring a new employee or training an existing staff member in new skills is a costly endeavor. Employers want to make sure that the money is well spent and the employee will not use the skills or knowledge of the employer's business to compete. Employers try to restrict employees from going to competitor and employees, of course, do not want to be limited to working for only one company especially if a better offer comes along or things do not work out with the employer. Employees also make an investment in their skills and capabilities, and may bring to the employer decades of knowledge of their industry, their profession, or customers. Each side has valuable rights and interests that need to be balanced. What often results is that the employer requires employees to sign a document that restricts who the employee can work for if he/she leaves the current employer.

While permitted in most states (California being a notable exception) Courts typically disfavor “covenants not to compete” or “non-compete agreements.”  Therefore, the terms and provisions of these contracts must not be overly restrictive of the employee.  In order for a non-compete to be upheld, the document must “be reasonable in scope, geography, and time.”  It cannot last for years on end, or prevent the employee from working anywhere in the entire state or states. Likewise, an employer cannot prohibit an employee from working in a large variety of industries, especially if the restriction includes industries wholly unrelated to the employer’s line of work. 

Two other elements are analyzed by a court to determine the validity of a non-compete agreement:  (1) there must be mutual consideration between both the employer and employee at the moment the contract is signed and (2) the non-competition agreement must protect “a legitimate business interest of the employer.”  Preventing a former employee from working for an employer’s business rival, or preventing disclosure of trade secrets or personally identifiable information of important clientele, are typically considered justifiable business interests.

Non-compete agreements are generally implemented to protect a company’s most important assets:  its reputation and its confidential information.  However, the terms protecting these assets cannot be overly broad or vague.  Thus, in evaluating the “reasonableness” of a non-competition agreement, the court will conduct a “balancing test.”  This is a comparison of the employer’s need to protect its “business interests” with the “burden that enforcement of the agreement would place on the employee.” 

The validity of non-compete agreements is decided on a case-by-case basis. The court will consider circumstances such as the length of time certain information will be kept confidential, and the company’s reasons for limiting the employee's job search to a geographical area. If the court finds that the agreement serves a valid interest and does not exceed the range necessary to protect that interest, the entire agreement may be upheld. The agreement cannot prohibit the employee from earning a living or be against the public's interest (for example, it is in the public's interest to permit people to hire any attorney they wish to, so non-compete agreements are generally prohibited in law firms).

The court also has the option of doing away with overly intrusive terms in a non-compete, rather than invalidating the agreement entirely. In cases in which a non-compete is perceived by the court as punitive, unduly restricting an employee from obtaining employment, the agreement will not be upheld.  A licensed attorney who specializes in employment law will be able to gauge the likelihood that a particular non-compete agreement will be enforceable.

The Law Office of Randall P. Brett assists employers and employees in navigating this important but difficult area of the law. Give us a call if you have questions about non-compete agreements or any other matter.


Monday, November 9, 2015

An Overview of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) --

Frequently, I receive questions from my clients regarding whether an employee is permitted to take time off for a medical condition, for the birth of a child, or to care for a family member.  I would like to give a definitive answer but, like most areas in the law, it all depends on the facts. Specifically, whether an employee is entitled to leave, how much, and must the employer pay for the leave time and hold the employee's job open for his or her return, depends on whether the employee is qualified for, and the employer covered by, a specific federal or state law. This piece will attempt to provide some information but as I have stated in previous postings, you should consult with your own attorney for guidance in your own situation.

The Family Medical Leave Act is a federal law that allows employees to take significant time off from work to take care of a loved one with an illness, medical problem or condition. The law does not require an employer to pay the employee for the time missed, but allows the employer to substitute accrued paid vacation/sick time for unpaid leave taken during the FMLA, meaning that the employee’s leave cannot be extended beyond the statutory period by using his or her vacation time. The FMLA prohibits employers from enforcing any negative consequences against the employee for exercising his or her rights under the FMLA. These would include termination, cutting back on hours, reducing pay, or diminishing the employee’s title or responsibilities.

The FMLA applies to businesses with more than 50 employees. To qualify, an employee must have worked for the employer for at least one year and must have worked at least 1250 hours in that year. The law allows the employee to take up to 12 non-consecutive weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a spouse, parent or child who has a serious medical condition. There is special consideration given to family members caring for ill military service members. The parents, spouses, and children of these individuals are permitted to take up to 26 weeks off each year to care for their loved one. 

The most common use of the law is to allow an employee to take time off work after a child is born, even though most would not call pregnancy a “serious medical condition.” This is commonly referred to as maternity leave. Although it is not customarily exercised, fathers have an equal right to take time off to bond with their children after birth. The FMLA also allows new parents to take time off work immediately after an adoption. Some people use the Family Medical Leave Act to care for family members dealing with mental health issues, including dementia, addiction, or schizophrenia. The law covers any medical condition which require an overnight stay in the hospital, chronic conditions that require treatment at least twice a year, and conditions that incapacitate the affected person for more than three consecutive days. 

Many states (New Jersey is one example) have their own versions of the FMLA. Some cover the same categories of leave as the FMLA but others do not. For example, New Jersey's Family Leave Act (FLA) does not cover leave for one's own illness or medical condition. However, a qualified employee working for a covered employer is entitled to take the greater of the benefits granted either by the FMLA or their state law. In some instances, the employee can enjoy the benefits of BOTH leaves, which would give the employee additional time off than would be permitted by either the FMLA or the state law by itself.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

At-will Employment: Does it Apply to You?

It may seem unfair, but an employer can fire an “at-will” employee at any time, without good cause – or even without any cause at all. It is a bitter pill, and one that many American workers must swallow. Under the law, you are generally deemed to be employed at-will, unless you can prove otherwise.

Workers who are employed at-will can be fired for no reason, but they cannot be fired for a bad reason. Some reasons are illegal under federal or state law, exceptions to the general doctrine of at-will employment. For example, you cannot be fired for complaining about discrimination, harassment, or safety violations in the workplace, or for complaining about illegal activity. The majority of employers are subject to anti-discrimination laws and cannot fire you based on certain characteristics, such as gender, race or religion. Similarly, you cannot be fired because you have exercised a legal right, such as taking time off for family and medical leave, military service, jury duty, or voting in an election.

Many employers take steps to ensure that the at-will nature of the employment is clearly established and agreed-to by all parties. This is typically spelled out in employment applications and contracts, employee policy and procedure manuals, and may be described as “at-will employment” or simply contain statements that you can be terminated at any time “without cause” or “for any reason.”

Still others have implemented written policies that protect their employees against being fired without good cause, and specify the reasons for which an employee can be terminated. If your employer has adopted such a policy, you are entitled to those protections.  Likewise, if you have signed an employment contract guaranteeing you job security, your employment is not at-will and you are entitled to the protections contained in the written agreement.

Should you sign an at-will employment agreement? Courts have generally held that an employee can be terminated, or not hired, for refusing or failing to sign an at-will employment agreement. While you are not technically required to sign the agreement, if you want to get hired or keep your job, it may be in your best interest to sign the agreement.

Nevertheless, if the at-will agreement contradicts what your employer previously promised you, you may want to think twice about signing on the dotted line. If you relied on the employer’s promises of job security when you accepted the position, you should consult an attorney before signing an at-will agreement. Courts will presume the signed at-will agreement controls your employment, regardless of any prior statements to the contrary.

Just because you sign the at-will agreement does not mean your employer will use it to fire you without cause. There is little to be gained in terminating a productive employee, and most employers will attempt to work with you to resolve any issues. Ultimately, the best way to avoid the perils of at-will employment is to be an outstanding employee. Delivering exceptional job performance is good for the company’s bottom line – and your own.  


Monday, February 16, 2015

Employee Handbooks: Important Provisions

An employee handbook is an instrument that is widely used by employers to communicate their expectations and policies to employees.  There are many reasons to develop and distribute an employee handbook.  These written documents enable employers to clearly outline what is expected from employees and what employees can expect from the employer.  In the event of a dispute with an employee or when a claim is made with a government agency, the handbook can be invaluable in protecting employer’s position. 

When drafting an employee handbook, certain information should be included. This includes:

Wages, Salaries and Other Compensation

An employee handbook should cover how and when employees will be paid.  It should also note how time worked it to be recorded, what taxes will be taken out and explain overtime policies.

Schedules

This document should also cover daily schedules.  It should note hours to be worked, breaks, attendance, lateness, how to request time off and whether employees are entitled to paid time off and when.

Benefits

An employee handbook can also be used to give employees information about benefits. It should cover what benefits are offered and how employees can qualify for them.

Employee Conduct

This manual should also be used to let your employees know how they are expected to act while at work.  It should also detail the dress code, if one exists.  You might also want to include guidelines for behavior in common situations.

Disciplinary Matters

An employee handbook should always include a section on employee discipline in the event that an employee should violate company rules or guidelines.  This section should detail any disciplinary system that is in place, and, if one is not in place, explain that matters will be handled on a case by case basis.

Safety Concerns

Your employee handbook should also cover how to respond to any and all foreseeable safety concerns.  These might include safety issues relating to work conditions, employee disputes and inclement weather.

Employment Discrimination/ Sexual Harassment

Employment discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace are real issues that can cost businesses a great deal of money.  By including your company’s firm stance on these matter and explaining that neither will be tolerated might help you avoid conflicts in the future. Employee handbooks differ greatly depending on business structure, size and even the industry in which it operates. Some manuals are just a few pages whereas others may be dozens.  In order to create a comprehensive employee handbook and ensure maximum protection for your business, you should consult with a business or employment law attorney to advise you on these matters.


Monday, February 9, 2015

Can My Employer Enforce a Covenant Not to Compete?

Many employers require their employees to sign agreements which contain covenants not to compete with the company.  The enforceability of these restrictive provisions varies from state-to-state and depends on a variety of factors. A former employee who violates an enforceable non-compete agreement may be ordered to cease competitive activity and pay damages to the former employer.  In other covenants, the restrictions may be deemed too restrictive and an undue restraint of trade.

A covenant not to compete is a promise by an employee that he or she will not compete with his or her employer for a specified period of time and/or within a particular geographic location. It may be contained within an employment agreement, or may be a separate contract. Agreements which prevent employees from competing with the employer while employed are enforceable in every jurisdiction. However, agreements which affect an employee’s conduct after employment termination are subject to stricter requirements regarding “reasonableness,” and are generally disallowed in some states, such as California which has enacted statutes against such agreements except in very narrow circumstances.

Even in states where such covenants are enforceable, courts generally disfavor them because they are anti-competitive. Nevertheless, such agreements will be enforced if the former employer can demonstrate the following:
 

  • The employee received consideration at the time the agreement was signed;
  • The agreement protects the employers legitimate business interest; and
  • The agreement is reasonable to protect the employer, but not unduly burdensome to the employee who has a right to make a living.

Consideration

Under the principles of contract law, all agreements must be supported by consideration in order to be enforceable. The employee signing the covenant not to compete must receive something of value in exchange for making the promise. If the agreement is signed prior to employment, the employment itself constitutes consideration. If, however, the agreement is signed after employment commences, the employee must receive something else of value in exchange for the agreement to be enforceable.

Legitimate Business Interest

Legitimate business interests can include protecting and preserving confidential information (trade secrets) and customer relationships. Most states recognize an employer’s right to prevent an employee from taking advantage of information acquired or relationships developed as a result of the employment arrangement, in order to later compete against the employer.

Reasonableness

Based on the circumstances, a covenant must be reasonably necessary. If the covenant is overly broad, or unduly burdensome on the employee, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement. Therefore, the covenant must be reasonable in both duration and scope. If a covenant is overly broad, the court may narrow its scope or duration and enforce it accordingly. But if a covenant is so broad that is clearly was designed to prevent lawful competition, as opposed to protecting legitimate business interests, the court may strike down the agreement in its entirety.

To enforce a covenant not to compete, the employer can file a court action seeking an injunction against the employee’s continued violations of the agreement. The company can also seek monetary damages to cover losses resulting from the employee’s breach.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Questions You Shouldn't Ask or Answer During an Interview

Job-seekers have to be ready to respond to any interview question asked of them, but not every question has to be answered. 

To ensure that employers do not discriminate against candidates based on age, gender, race, health and family arrangements, there are certain regulations which restrict the type of questions which are permissible during an interview. Below, we explore several topics that may be problematic and should not be asked of potential employees: 

Questionable Questions

Let’s take a look at a few topics that may be problematic. 

  • Age: Does anyone like to be asked their age unless just turning 21? Probably not. While an interviewer may ask whether a candidate is over the age of 18 or 21, he or she may not ask for a specific age.  
  • Nationality: An interviewer can ask whether a candidate is legally allowed to work in the U.S., but he or she can’t ask about the applicant’s nationality or status as a citizen. 
  • Religious beliefs: Same goes for questions that ask about religious beliefs. The interviewer may be in the right if he or she needs to know if the interviewee can work on certain holidays, but otherwise, this topic should be off limits.
  • Health: While in many states an interviewer cannot ask if a candidate smokes, he or she may inquire as to whether the applicant has ever violated any corporate policies on alcohol or tobacco. Furthermore, an employer may ask whether the person being interviewed uses illegal drugs, is able to lift a given weight, or can reach items at a specific height. They also can ask if the individual is capable of completing certain tasks associated with the job and if any reasonable accommodations might be needed.
  • Family status: Employers want to know about an applicant’s availability which may sound like a legitimate concern.   They cross the red line, however, when they try to determine if a candidate has children or plans to have children in the future. An interviewer also cannot ask about an applicant’s maiden name or marital status.
  • Criminal record: A prospective employer is allowed to ask the applicant whether or not he or she has ever been convicted of a crime that relates to the job, but may be restricted from asking whether the candidate has ever been arrested.
  • Military service: An interviewer cannot discriminate against a member of the National Guard or Reserves. He or she can, however, ask if a candidate will anticipate any extended time away from work. 

Acing the Interview Process

The interview process can be a stressful time for employers and employees alike, but it will be a smoother process if you have a basic understanding of what can and can’t be asked during these initial meetings. 

As a candidate being interviewed, remember that if you’re asked a question which you’re not comfortable answering, or you think may be illegal, be sure to keep a positive attitude and try not to focus on the negative and instead deliver an answer which showcases your ability to fulfill the requirements of the job. For example, you may be asked if you can have a babysitter in a moment’s notice if an unexpected work emergency pops up. In answering this question, you may be concerned that you will be divulging too much information about your family life and, like many mothers, you may fear that they may not hire you because of the responsibilities that come along with motherhood. Rather than answering the specific question about a babysitter, you may instead wish to say “I am very flexible and am able to travel or work late when the need arises.” This answer addresses the interviewer’s question while preserving your privacy and also keeps the conversation going in a positive direction-one which showcases why you are the best candidate for the job. 

As an employer looking to hire a new employee, it’s important that everyone in your organization from the receptionist to the hiring manager who might come in contact with the candidates have a basic understanding of what topics and questions are off limits. You might even consider having a list of approved questions and a list of questions which are prohibited, regardless of the position being filled. These procedures should be a matter of strict company policy and should be reviewed each year to ensure compliance with all discrimination laws. 


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Are Criminal Background Checks Legal?

Why hire a person with a criminal record when, surely, there are applicants out there with unblemished records? In reality, however, the issue of job applicant criminal background checks is a complicated one.


Read more . . .


Monday, August 13, 2012

Employers and Immigration Compliance: What You Need to Know

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers and requires employers to verify each worker’s identity and eligibility by completing the I-9 Form. An employer’s failure to complete the I-9 Form can result in criminal and civil penalties.

The INA also protects individuals from employment discrimination based upon national origin, citizenship or immigration status. The Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC) enforces the INA’s anti-discrimination provisions.  Victims of discrimination may file a complaint with the OSC to seek back pay, reinstatement and other remedies.

With so much at stake and so many potential pitfalls, it is important for all employers to familiarize themselves with the requirements and implement policies and procedures to ensure compliance.

Employers are prohibited from:

  • Discriminating on the basis of citizenship or immigration status, with respect to hiring, firing, recruitment or referral. This rule applies to employers of four or more employees.
  • Discriminating on the basis of national origin, with respect to hiring, firing, recruitment or referral. This rule applies to employers of between three and 15 employees. Employers may not extend different treatment to different individuals based on their birth place, country of origin, native language, ancestry or because they may look or sound “foreign.”
  • Requesting more or different documents to verify a worker’s employment eligibility. An employer may not request different or additional documents for determination of citizenship or national origin than those documents specified on the I-9 Form.  Furthermore, an employer is not permitted to reject genuine-looking documents.
  • Retaliating against an individual who files charges with the OSC, cooperates with an investigation or contests an action that may be considered discriminatory or in violation of the INA.

To improve compliance in your employment procedures, consider implementing the following practices:

  • Refrain from using discriminatory language in job postings, such as “green card only” or “U.S. citizen only,” unless it is required by law or by a government contract.
  • In completing the I-9 Form, do not request specific documents over other permitted documents. Each employee is permitted to present any document from the list of acceptable documents stated on the form.
  • Refrain from selectively verifying work eligibility for only certain employees based on their citizenship status or national origin; whatever your policy, make sure it is applied consistently to all employees.
  • Avoid the appearance of discriminatory practices by verifying employment eligibility only after you have made a hiring decision, and give the employee three days to provide the required documentation.
  • Do not immediately terminate an employee if you receive a “no match” letter from the Social Security Administration. While such a letter may mean the individual is not authorized to work in the United States, it is also possible that there is a discrepancy in the record due to a clerical error or legal name change.
  • If you suspect that an employee is not legally eligible to work in this country, notify the employee and request valid employment eligibility documents before terminating or suspending employment.

 

 


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