By Andrew H. Perellis, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: In another business-friendly move, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently updated its Justice Manual to clarify that it “should not treat a party’s noncompliance with a guidance document as itself a violation of applicable statutes or regulations [or to] establish a violation by reference to statutes and regulations.”

We had blogged in early 2018 regarding Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand’s memorandum “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents In Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases.” (Brand Memo), which indicated that the Department would no longer prosecute cases based solely on violations of various agencies’ “guidance documents”. Now DOJ has taken it a step further by adding a section to its Justice Manual (Manual) titled: “Limitation on Use of Guidance Documents in Litigation..” The new section was effective in December 2018.

Under the updated Manual, DOJ (which effectively acts as “outside counsel” to departments and agencies including the DOL, EPA, OSHA, ATF and DEA, among others, in cases exceeding certain penalty thresholds and other criteria) may no longer prosecute cases against alleged violators unless the violations are of properly promulgated (through “notice and comment” rulemaking) regulatory requirements, not agency guidance documents or policies.

The Brand Memo itself was a follow-up to an earlier memo issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 16, 2017 (Sessions Memo), which instituted a new policy that prohibits the Department of Justice from using its civil enforcement authority to convert agency guidance documents into binding rules. The Sessions Memo “prevent[ed] the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations. In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies had blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents.”

Under the DOJ’s new policy, DOJ civil litigators are “prohibited from using guidance documents—or noncompliance with guidance documents—to establish violations of law in affirmative civil enforcement actions.” The Brand Memo also indicates that “the [Sessions Memo]. . . prohibits the Department from using its guidance documents to coerce regulated parties into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or lawful regulation.” Finally, the Brand Memo confirms that the DOJ “…should not treat a party’s noncompliance with an agency guidance document as presumptively or conclusively establishing that the party violated the applicable statute or regulation.”

While the Brand Memo applied only to affirmative civil enforcement actions brought by the DOJ, we see the updated Manual, Sessions Memo and the Brand Memo as welcome relief from arbitrary use of guidance by departments and agencies such as the DOL, OSHA, or EPA in enforcement proceedings of regulated industry.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team or the Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Mark A. Lies, II,  Brent I. ClarkAdam R. Young, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has just issued a Standard Interpretation clarifying the Obama-era guidance that prohibited incentive programs and circumscribed post-incident drug testing; “Clarification of OSHA’s Position on Workplace Safety Incentive Programs and Post-Incident Drug Testing Under 29 C.F.R. §1904.35(b)(1)(iv).”

We previously blogged about OSHA’s 2016 retaliation regulation and associated guidance, which had explained examples of post-accident drug-testing and safety incentive as instances of unlawful retaliation.  OSHA’s 2016 retaliation rule left employers uncertain about what programs were permissible and whether they would face citations for long-standing safety programs aimed at encouraging safe behaviors and reducing injury rates.

  1. OSHA’s Revised Perspective is Apparent in the New Standard Interpretation

OSHA’s new Standard Interpretation intends to “to clarify the Department’s position that [the rule] does not prohibit workplace safety incentive programs or post-incident drug testing. The Department believes that many employers who implement safety incentive programs and/or conduct post-incident drug testing do so to promote workplace safety and health.” The Interpretation explains that “evidence that the employer consistently enforces legitimate work rules (whether or not an injury or illness is reported) would demonstrate that the employer is serious about creating a culture of safety, not just the appearance of reducing rates.”

Post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be considered retaliatory and unlawful only where they seek “to penalize an employee for reporting a work-related injury or illness rather than for the legitimate purpose of promoting workplace safety and health.” Properly formulated and lawful post-incident drug testing policies and safety incentive programs will be permitted and will not result in OSHA citations.

  1. OSHA Permits Consistent Post-Incident Drug Testing Policies

For years, OSHA’s position on post-incident drug testing confounded employers, and employers faced complicated questions in the hours following workplace safety incidents. The Standard Interpretation clarifies that “most instances of workplace drug testing are permissible,” including:

  • “Random drug testing”;
  • “Drug testing unrelated to the reporting of a work-related injury or illness”;
  • “Drug testing under a state workers’ compensation law”;
  • “Drug testing under other federal law, such as a U.S. Department of Transportation rule”; and
  • “Drug testing to evaluate the root cause of a workplace incident that harmed or could have harmed employees.  If the employer chooses to use drug testing to investigate the incident, the employer should test all employees whose conduct could have contributed to the incident, not just employees who reported injuries.”

Accordingly, employers may lawfully implement, random drug testing programs, DOT drug testing programs, drug testing programs under a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and post-incident (also “post-accident”) drug-testing programs. Post-incident drug testing should be conducted consistently on any employee whose conduct may have contributed to the accident, and not merely the employee who was injured in an accident. For example, if a forklift operator collides with a pedestrian and injures the pedestrian, both the operator and pedestrian should be drug tested. OSHA reiterates that employers may not use a post-injury drug testing program, which the Agency views as retaliatory and also exposes employers to worker’s compensation retaliation tort claims.

3.         OSHA Permits Safety Incentive Programs

The Standard Interpretation reverses course on the 2016 retaliation regulation’s prohibition of safety programs. With limited adjustments, OSHA now permits employers to bring back reporting-based safety programs, which the Standard Interpretation lauds as an “important tool to promote workplace safety and health.” The Standard Interpretation permits a program which offers a prize or bonus at the end of an injury-free month. OSHA’s new position thus permits employers to bring back cash bonuses or the much-maligned monthly pizza party. The Standard Interpretation also permits programs that evaluate managers based on their work unit’s lack of injuries.

However, to lawfully implement such a safety program, the employer must implement “adequate precautions” to ensure that employees feel free to report an injury or illness and are not discouraged from reporting. According to OSHA, a mere statement that employees are encouraged to report and will not face retaliation is insufficient. Employers need to undertake their choice of additional “adequate precautions,” such as:

  • “An incentive program that rewards employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace;”
  • “A training program for all employees to reinforce reporting rights and responsibilities and emphasizes the employer’s non-retaliation policy;” or
  • “A mechanism for accurately evaluating employees’ willingness to report injuries and illnesses.”

The Standard Interpretation thus permits and encourages safety incentive programs that reward employees for identifying unsafe conditions in the workplace. A second precaution, a brief training on reporting illnesses and injuries, would be simple for employers to conduct and add to onboarding for new hires. The “mechanism for accurately evaluating employees willingness to report” could be a regularly scheduled, random questionnaire on employee willingness to report injuries and illnesses. Accordingly, if employers adopt these low-burden precautionary measures, they may bring back or now adopt safety programs that are popular and effective at reducing workplace injury rates.

For related information on drug testing requirements, we had blogged on the recent Department of Transportation (DOT) final rule amending its drug testing program for DOT-regulated employers.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation TeamLabor & Employment, or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

 

By Annette Tyman, Lawrence Z. Lorber, and Michael L. Childers

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”) is closing the summer by issuing two new enforcement directives. The first, Directive 2018-03, clarifies the OFCCP’s enforcement of religious non-discrimination in light of recent court decisions and executive orders. The second, Directive 2018-04, creates focused reviews for Executive Order 11246 (“EO 11246”), Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 503”), and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act (“VEVRAA”). These two directives come just a week after the OFCCP released its much anticipated publication outlining what federal contractors can expect from the agency.

“What Contractors Can Expect”

On August 2nd, the OFCCP published the “What Contractors Can Expect” guidance which lays out the agency’s enforcement plans and echoes the message of transparency that the OFCCP announced when the new leadership took over and that Acting OFCCP Director Craig Leen recently reiterated to the contractor community during his opening address at the 2018 National Industry Liaison Group. In it the OFCCP assures contractors that they can expect:

  • Access to Accurate Compliance Assistance Material;
  • Timely Responses to Compliance Assistance Questions;
  • Opportunities to Provide Meaningful Feedback and Collaborate;
  • Professional Conduct by OFCCP’s Compliance Staff;
  • Neutral Scheduling of Compliance Evaluations;
  • Reasonable Opportunity to Discuss Compliance Evaluation Concerns;
  • Timely and Efficient Progress of Compliance Evaluations; and
  • Confidentiality

These expectations are consistent with the message of collaboration that the OFCCP has promised under the current administration. References to the neutral scheduling of compliance reviews and the opportunity to discuss concerns contained in the guidance echo previous actions taken by the agency in 2018.

The agency followed up on August 10th by issuing two new directives.

Directive 2018-03: Executive Order 11246 § 204(c), religious exemption

Directive 2018-03 clarifies the agency’s position on religious non-discrimination under EO 11246 in light of recent cases involving the relationship between federal regulation and the Free Exercise Clause, including Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In its press release, the OFCCP noted that this Directive also serves to align the agency’s enforcement actions with recent executive orders issued by the White House protecting religious freedom and the ability of faith-based and community organizations to compete fairly for government contracts and grants. The Directive instructs OFCCP staff to take these policies into consideration when providing compliance assistance, processing complaints, and reviewing compliance with EO 11246.

In practical terms, this Directive may not impact the vast majority of interactions that occur between the agency and the contractor community, as it is directed to OFCCP staff. However, it does signal a change in the way that the agency reviews religious accommodations during compliance evaluations. It may also impact complaint investigations against certain employers which allege discrimination on the basis of religion or sexual orientation and gender identity. The Directive specifically notes that “[t]his Directive supersedes any previous guidance that does not reflect these legal developments, for example, the section in OFCCP’s Frequently Asked Questions: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity regarding “Religious Employers and Religious Exemption.” See https://www.dol.gov/ofccp/LGBT/LGBT_FAQs.html.”

Directive 2018-04: Focused reviews of contractor compliance with Executive Order 11246 (E.O.), as amended; Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 503), as amended; and Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA), as amended

While the impact of Directive 2018-03 appears to be fairly limited, Directive 2018-04 represents a major change in the way that the OFCCP enforces affirmative action and non-discrimination requirements, particularly under Section 503 and VEVRAA. The Directive calls for the agency to direct a portion of future scheduling lists to “focused reviews” of EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA. The Directive further notes that in these focused reviews, “OFCCP would go onsite and conduct a comprehensive review of the particular authority at issue.” The reviews would include “interviews with managers…as well as employees affected” by the particular regulation and also evaluations of “hiring and compensation data.” The Directive instructs the OFCCP staff to develop a standard protocol for conducting the focused reviews as well as staff training, contractor education and compliance assistance materials. This policy suggests that the agency will be increasing its focus on the enforcement of Section 503 and VEVRAA which have historically received less attention than EO 11246 during compliance reviews.

What This Means for Employers?

Neither the “What Contractors Can Expect” policy, nor the directive clarifying the religious exemption signal any significant change for contractors. The creation of the focused reviews, however, puts contractors on notice that the OFCCP will be scrutinizing policies and practices that relate to disability and protected veteran status much more closely. In anticipation of the first round of focused reviews, contractors should ensure that their current policies and practices comply with the 2014 updates to the Section 503 and VEVRAA regulations. Contractors should specifically focus on the following:

  • Implementing an audit and reporting system to measure the effectiveness of their affirmative action efforts and take any necessary remedial measures;
  • Documenting requests for accommodations;
  • Ensuring that an interactive process for requesting accommodations during the hiring process is in place;
  • Soliciting protected veteran and disability status from applicants and new hires;
  • Listing all job openings with state employment delivery services; and
  • Reviewing job descriptions and qualifications to ensure that they do not screen out protected veterans or individuals with disabilities.

Contractors should also remember that in connection with both current compliance reviews and the new focused reviews, they may be asked to provide their most recent VETS-4212 Report. The deadline for filing the 2018 VETS-4212 Report is fast approaching on September 30, 2018.

It is unclear how the introduction of the focused reviews may impact desk audit submissions or whether these reviews will necessitate additional analyses for hiring or compensation. We anticipate further announcements from the OFCCP given its promise to provide contractor education and compliance assistance materials. We will continue to monitor these changes and will alert you as more develops.

In the meantime, if you have questions about best practices for OFCCP compliance and audit defense, please contact a member of Seyfarth’s Organizational Strategy & Analytics Team or your Seyfarth relationship partner.

By Benjamin D. Briggs, Patrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis: OSHA has just reminded temporary staffing agencies and their clients (i.e., host employers) that they are jointly responsible for a temporary employee’s safety and health in two new guidance documents relating to respiratory protection, noise exposure, and hearing conservation. Temporary agencies and host employers that use their services should review this guidance in carrying out their shared responsibility for temporary worker safety.

Nearly two years after the last bulletin, OSHA has just released two new temporary worker bulletins relating to respiratory protection, noise exposure, and hearing conservation. See Temporary Worker Initiative (TWI) Bulletin No. 8 – Respiratory Protection, and Temporary Worker Initiative Bulletin No. 9 – Noise Exposure and hearing Conservation.

We have blogged previously about OSHA’s enforcement activities and guidance documents relating to temporary workers: “OSHA Releases Two More Temporary Worker Guidance Documents,” “New Guidance for ‘Recommended Practices’ to Protect Temporary Workers,” “OSHA Issues Memo to ‘Remind’ its Field Staff about Enforcement Policy on Temporary Workers,” and “OSHRC Reviews Employment Relationships.”

Under TWI Bulletin No. 8, OSHA notes that both the host employer and staffing agency are “jointly responsible to ensure workers wear appropriate respirators when required. While both the host and the staffing agency are responsible to ensure that the employee is properly protected in accordance with the standard, the employers may decide that a division of the responsibility may be appropriate. Neither the host nor the staffing agency can require workers to provide or pay for their own respiratory protection when it is required.”

Under TWI Bulletin No. 9, OSHA notes that both the host employer and staffing agency are jointly responsible for ensuring that “workers receive protection from hazardous noise levels when it is required under OSHA standards. Neither the host nor the staffing agency can require workers to provide or pay for their own hearing protection devices or require workers to purchase such devices as a condition of employment or placement. In addition, employees must be paid for the time spent receiving their audiograms, and the audiograms must be at no cost to the employee.”

Employer Takeaway

It is OSHA’s view that staffing agencies and host employers are jointly responsible for temporary workers’ safety and health. However, as the two newly published bulletin’s make clear, fulfilling the shared responsibility for temporary worker safety requires thoughtful coordination between staffing agencies and host employers. OSHA has previously acknowledged that a host employer may have more knowledge of the specific hazards associated with the host worksite, while the staffing agency has a more generalized safety responsibility to the employees. As a result, OSHA allows host employers and staffing agencies to divide training responsibilities based upon their respective knowledge of the hazards associated with the specific worksite. While host employers will typically have primary responsibility for training and communication regarding site specific hazards, staffing agencies must make reasonable inquiries to verify that the host employer is meeting these requirements.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) Team.

By Jeryl L. OlsonPatrick D. Joyce, and Craig B. Simonsen

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In another business-friendly move, the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) recently directed its Attorneys to not use its civil enforcement authority for violations based on agency guidance documents.

On January 25, 2018, Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand released an Department memo “Limiting Use of Agency Guidance Documents In Affirmative Civil Enforcement Cases.” (“Brand Memo”), directed to the Heads of Civil Litigating Components within the USDOJ directing that the Department no longer prosecute cases based solely on violations of various agencies’ “guidance documents”.

The USDOJ, (which effectively acts as “outside counsel” to departments and agencies including the DOL, EPA, OSHA, ATF and DEA, among others, in cases exceeding certain penalty thresholds and other criteria) may no longer prosecute cases against alleged violators unless the violations are of properly promulgated regulatory requirements, not agency guidance documents or policies. The practice of agencies, such as EPA, pursuing enforcement actions against companies who have failed to comply with “guidance” has long been a concern of the regulated community and their defense counsel; we frequently challenge and object to EPA’s efforts to enforce “guidance” that has not gone through public notice ad comment rulemaking. It is a relief that the USDOJ will no longer be a party to such enforcement cases.

The Brand Memo is a follow-up to an earlier memo issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on November 16, 2017 (“Guidance Policy” or “Sessions Memo”), which instituted a new policy that prohibits the Department of Justice from using its civil enforcement authority to convert agency guidance documents into binding rules. The Sessions Memo “prevents the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations. In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies had blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents.”

The Brand Memo states that “…consistent with our duty to uphold the rule of law with fair notice and due process, this policy helps restore the appropriate role of guidance documents and avoids rulemaking by enforcement.” “Although guidance documents can be helpful in educating the public about already existing law, they do not have the binding force or effect of law and should not be used as a substitute for rulemaking.”

Under the USDOJ’s new policy, USDOJ civil litigators are “prohibited from using guidance documents—or noncompliance with guidance documents—to establish violations of law in affirmative civil enforcement actions.”The Brand Memo also indicates that “the Guidance Policy . . . prohibits the Department from using its guidance documents to coerce regulated parties into taking any action or refraining from taking any action beyond what is required by the terms of the applicable statute or lawful regulation.” Finally, the Brand Memo confirms that the USDOJ “…should not treat a party’s noncompliance with an agency guidance document as presumptively or conclusively establishing that the party violated the applicable statute or regulation.”

While the Brand Memo applies only to future affirmative civil enforcement actions brought by the Department, as well as, “wherever practicable,” those matters pending as of January 25, 2018, we see the Guidance Policy and the Brand Memo as welcome relief from arbitrary use of guidance by departments and agencies such as the DOL, OSHA, or EPA in enforcement proceedings of regulated industry.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Seyfarth Labor & Employment Group, OSHA Compliance, Enforcement & Litigation Team, or the Environmental Compliance, Enforcement & Permitting Team.

By Bridget M. Maricich

Seyfarth Synopsis: Though only an informal guidance, this resource document reminds employers of the EEOC’s expansive interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable workplace accommodation. Employers should continue to meaningfully engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking workplace accommodations for a physical or mental disability and assiduously document those efforts.

Citing an increase in charges of discrimination based on mental health conditions during fiscal year 2016, the EEOC released a “resource document” on December 12, 2016, explaining “workplace rights” for individuals with mental health conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The resource document – Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights – is presented in a question and answer format intended for applicants and employees.  The informal guidance is a useful primer for understanding the EEOC’s expanding stance on employer obligations to provide reasonable workplace accommodations.

At first blush, the resource document is nothing new. In question 1, the EEOC reiterates that employers are prohibited from discriminating against applicants and employees because of a mental health condition.  The document also notes that employers do not have to hire or retain individuals who are unable to perform the essential functions of a job or who pose a direct threat. However, the Agency strongly caveats that employers must “rely on objective evidence,” “not myths or stereotypes,” that would indicate that an individual is unable to perform a job or poses a significant safety risk, even with a reasonable accommodation, before taking an adverse action against the individual.

Question 2 addresses the right of an applicant or employee to keep a mental health condition private. The EEOC notes that under the ADA, employers are only permitted to ask questions about the medical or health information of an applicant or employee when (1) an individual requests a hiring process or workplace accommodation; (2) when the employer requests medical information or testing post-offer, but pre-employment, provided everyone entering the same job category is subject to the same requirement; (3) when the employer is engaging in affirmative action for persons with disabilities; and (4) when there is “objective evidence” that the employee may not be able to do his or her job or poses a safety risk in the workplace because of his or her condition.

Questions 3 through 6 respond to hypothetical questions about when a reasonable accommodation may be required, how to request one, and the employer’s obligation to respond, even when no accommodation exists that permits an employee to fulfill the essential functions of a position. The EEOC’s responses here reveal the breadth of the Agency’s interpretation of the ever-vexing question of what constitutes a reasonable accommodation.  In the first instance, in response to Question 3, the EEOC, without using the word “disability,” states that an individual is entitled to a reasonable accommodation for “any mental health condition that would, if left untreated, ‘substantially limit’ your ability to concentrate, interact with others, communicate, eat, sleep, care for yourself, regulate your thoughts or emotions, or do any other ‘major life activity.’”   The EEOC notes that the mental health condition need not be either permanent or severe to constitute “substantially limiting” and that conditions like major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) should “easily qualify.”

The answer to Question 3 also provides broad, if imprecise, definition of reasonable accommodation, defining it as simply “some type of change in way things are normally done at work” and providing standard examples such as altered break and work schedules, quiet office space, changes in supervisory methods, along with some more controversial recommendations, such as choice of specific shift assignments and permission to work from home. And in Question 6, the Agency re-states the EEOC’s vague standard that an employee who is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her position, even with an accommodation, may be entitled to an indeterminate amount leave – independent of FMLA leave – that “will help you get to a point whether you can perform those functions.” The document also notes that failing leave, if an employee is “permanently” unable to perform his or her job, he or she may be entitled to job reassignment.  Importantly, the Agency does not caveat here that any request for reasonable accommodation must be fundamentally intended to facilitate the employee’s performance the essential functions of the job. Rather, the document implies that by virtue of having a mental health condition an individual or employee may be entitled to ask for some “change in the way things are normally done at work.”

Questions 4 and 5 fortunately return to well-worn ADA principles. The EEOC directs employees who need a reasonable accommodation to ask for one and encourages employees to do so before workplace difficulties arise because “an employer does not have to excuse poor job performance, even if it was caused by a medical condition or the side effects of medication.” The EEOC also notes that  employers are entitled to ask for health care provider documentation verifying the employee has a mental health condition and requires a workplace accommodation because of it.  The document provides the link to what it terms the “companion document” –The Mental Health Provider’s Role in a Client’s Request for a Reasonable Accommodation at Work .  The EEOC suggests that individuals provide the document to their health care providers when seeking medical documentation in relation to a request for a reasonable accommodation.  The document also reminds that if a reasonable accommodation, justified by relevant medical provider documentation, would help an employee do his or her job, the employer must implement it barring “significant difficulty or expense.”

Though only informal guidance, this resource document reminds employers of the EEOC’s expansive interpretation of what constitutes a reasonable workplace accommodation.   What does that mean for employers? Employers should continue to meaningfully engage in the interactive process with any employees seeking workplace accommodations for a physical or mental disability and assiduously document those efforts.  In light of this guidance, however, employers should strongly consider seeking trusted legal counsel before denying a requested accommodation or taking adverse action against an employee who has or is seeking an accommodation.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney, or any member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By David J. Rowland

Seyfarth Synopsis: A divided panel of the Eighth Circuit recently decided that an employer may be required to assume or infer from the circumstances that an employee is seeking a reasonable accommodation – even when no affirmative request is made.

The courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have made clear for decades that an employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is not triggered until the employee seeking reasonable accommodation actually requests assistance.

To quote a recent case decided by the EEOC: “generally an individual with a disability must request a reasonable accommodation by letting the [employer] know the individual needs an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition” Adina P. v. Brennan, 2016 EEOPUB LEXIS 336 (EEOC 2016).  To be sure, no “magic words” have been required and no court would expect each employee to ask for a “reasonable accommodation” by those words, but, until now, courts have uniformly required that an employee at least indicate that she wants help or assistance because of a disability.

Earlier this month, though, a divided panel of the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals, lowered the bar substantially and held that a jury should determine whether an employee requested a reasonable accommodation by simply notifying her supervisor that she could not obtain a required CPR certification until after she completed physical therapy. See Kowitz v. Trinity Health, et al., Case No. 15-1584 (8th Cir. October 17, 2016). The employee never asked to be given extra time to complete the certification, nor to be transferred to another position that did not require CPR certification.  Still, the majority held that a reasonable jury could find that the employer “understood” the employee’s communications to be a request for accommodation. Id. at p. 9, n. 1.

The dissenting judge reiterated the point that virtually every employer would assume to be true: “an employee who wants additional assistance cannot ‘expect the employer to read her mind and know she secretly wanted a particular accommodation and then sue the employer for not providing it” Id. at p.12 (citation omitted).

Blurring a Bright Line

Thus, what was a bright line rule has been blurred, but, as usual, the particular facts of the case may have driven the majority to this hand-scratcher of a result.

The plaintiff was a respiratory therapist with cervical spinal stenosis, She had undergone surgery, and had returned to work on October 19, 2010 with the restriction of a reduced schedule until November 29, 2010 (yes, the dates may be important).   In the meantime, on November 19, 2010, her supervisor posted a memo directing all of the respiratory therapy department’s employees to provide updated copies of their basic life support (BSR) certifications by November 26 and added :”If you are not up to date you will need to submit a letter indicating why you are not up to date and the date you are scheduled to take the BSR class”.

On November 30, having already passed the written component of the BSR test, the employee wrote a letter to her supervisor indicating that she “will not to be able to do the physical part of the BSR” until cleared by her doctor, with whom she had an appointment on December 2 and also thanked the supervisor “for understanding [her] condition”. On December 2, the employee’s doctor opined that she could not take the physical portion of the BSR test until she had completed at least four additional months of therapy.  The employee left a voicemail with the supervisor that evening.  The very next day, December 3, she was terminated for failing to provide the certification.

This sequence of events (and perhaps the seemingly harsh and abrupt decision to terminate) lead the majority to conclude that the employee’s written notification of the need for clearance and her follow-up communication about needing four months of therapy “could readily have been understood to constitute a request for reasonable accommodation”. Id. at 9.

Bad facts often make for bad law, and many employers in the same circumstances would have taken the logical step of engaging the employee in an interactive dialogue. But, as the dissent rightly noted,  the idea that there can be such a thing as an implied or understood  request for accommodation generates “regrettable uncertainty” by “eliminating the requirement of a clear request for accommodation”.  Id. at 13.

Employers take heed: a request for reasonable accommodation may be implied by the circumstances in some instances.  As a result, it is more dangerous than ever to ignore the warning signs that an employee is seeking help.

For more information on this topic, please contact the author, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.

By Ashley K. Laken and Timothy F. Haley

Triancular_red_flagSeyfarth Synopsis: On October 20, the DOJ and the FTC jointly issued their Antitrust Guidance for HR Professionals, stating that DOJ intends to pursue employers criminally for alleged wage fixing and no-poaching agreements.  

On October 20, 2016, the DOJ and FTC jointly issued their “Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals.”  The Guidance explains how antitrust law applies to employee hiring and compensation practices.  The agencies also issued a “quick reference card” that lists a number of “antitrust red flags for employment practices.”

In a nutshell, agreements (whether formal or informal) among employers to limit or fix the compensation paid to employees or to refrain from soliciting or hiring each other’s employees are per se violations of the antitrust laws.  Also, even if competitors don’t explicitly agree to limit or suppress compensation, the mere exchange of compensation information among employers may violate the antitrust laws if it has the effect of suppressing compensation.

The seriousness of this issue is underscored by the agencies’ statements in their press releases that the guidance is aimed at putting companies on notice that DOJ will proceed criminally against wage fixing and no-poaching agreements.  There also has been a significant uptick in recent years in class action litigation and enforcement activity challenging antitrust violations in the employment context.  In one exchange of wage information case in Detroit, a group of hospitals paid a total of $90 million to settle the case, and in one consolidated case involving allegations of agreements among employers not to poach each other’s employees, the defendants settled for a total of $435 million.

The evidence in many of these cases demonstrates that many HR professionals and other managers and executives do not realize that the antitrust laws apply in the employment marketplace just as they do in the commercial marketplace.  It is important that those HR professionals and other managers and executives who are involved in recruiting, hiring or the compensation process have a clear understanding of antitrust requirements as applied to those practices.

For more information on this topic, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Antitrust/Trade Regulation Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.

By Tracy M. Billows and Sara Eber Fowler

Seyfarth Synopsis: The EEOC recently issued “new” guidance for addressing leave as a reasonable accommodation. Employers must remember to consider unpaid leave as an accommodation, when appropriate, even if an employee would not otherwise be entitled to a leave of absence. 

Recently, the EEOC published “new” guidelines about the rights of employees seeking leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), “Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”  The publication is intended to guide employers about when and how leave must be granted “to promote voluntary compliance with the ADA.”  While essentially reiterating the EEOC’s long established positions on many facets of leave as an accommodation, the guidance specifically highlights several “trends” observed in recent ADA charges and discusses how the EEOC views such practices.

What’s on the EEOC’s radar?

  • Maximum leave policies — policies limiting the amount of leave an employee can take
  • “100 percent healed” policies — policies that do not allow employees to return to work if they have ongoing medical restrictions
  • Policies that do not consider reassignment as a potential accommodation

At its core, the guidance probably does not tell you anything you did not already know – ADA accommodations are incredibly fact-intensive and employers must engage in the interactive process, address an employee’s needs on a case-by-case basis, and unpaid leave as a possible accommodation.

You have also probably heard that, in the world of the ADA, some rules (aka, policies) are meant to be broken. But just in case the message has not quite sunk in, the EEOC makes their case quite clear: “the ADA’s reasonable accommodation obligation is to require employers to change the way things are customarily done to enable employees with disabilities to work.” The guidance also provides examples of how the EEOC views employers’ obligations under various scenarios.

So before you go pointing to Part IV, Section 2.6, subpart (b) of your Employee Handbook and denying an employee’s accommodation request, be sure to consider the following tips from the EEOC.

  • Unpaid Leave. Employers MUST consider unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, “if the employee requires it,” and so long as doing so does not create an undue hardship. The EEOC cautions that it does not matter if an employee already exhausted the leave available under company policy or the FMLA, or if the employee is not otherwise eligible for leave.  So, for example, if your leave policy only covers employees who work a minimum amount of hours per week or who have worked for a minimum duration, you still must consider whether unpaid leave is a reasonable accommodation, notwithstanding the employee’s ineligibility.  Per the EEOC, “[t]he ADA requires that employers make exceptions to their policies, including leave policies, in order to provide a reasonable accommodation.”
  • “Maximum leave policies” may be permissible, but employers must grant exceptions when necessary as an accommodation.  For instance, an employer who grants its employees five absences per year before being subjected to discipline may need to adjust its policy — as applied to absences for a disability — as a reasonable accommodation.
  • “100% healed policies” may easily run afoul of the ADA. Employers cannot prohibit employees from returning to work merely because they have ongoing medical restrictions.  In fact, the EEOC makes its position extremely clear: “An employer will violate the ADA if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions” before returning to work where the employee can perform her job with or without a reasonable accommodation, unless undue hardship or a direct threat would result.  In short, where employees seek to return from leave with ongoing medical restrictions, employers must engage in the interactive process and determine whether those restrictions can be accommodated.
  • Reassignment is a potential accommodation. The EEOC’s position is that, if reassignment is required, an employer must (1) place the employee in a vacant position for which he is qualified; and (2) cannot require that the employee compete with other applicants for the open position.  (Note: this does not include promotions or uniform seniority systems.)  This position is not new for the EEOC, but now, there is no mistaking its stance.
  • Undue hardship remains a defense to providing an accommodation. The EEOC lists several factors to consider in assessing whether an accommodation would result in an undue hardship, including (i) the amount and/or length of leave required; (ii) the frequency of the leave; (iii) whether there is any flexibility as to the days the leave is taken; (iv) whether the need for intermittent leave is predictable or unpredictable; (v) the impact of the employee’s absence on coworkers and whether specific job duties are being performed in an appropriate and timely manner; and (vi) the impact on a company’s operations and its ability to serve customers/clients (which also takes into consideration a company’s size).  Generally, the guidance is not clear on when these factors may result in an undue hardship.  But, the EEOC reiterated that indefinite leave — an inability to say when or if an employee will return to work at all — IS an undue hardship and is NOT a reasonable accommodation.

Addressing requests for accommodation are challenging, particularly when they involve leaves of absence. And though these guidelines are not binding, they provide helpful tools when engaging in the interactive process and may help avoid landing on the EEOC’s radar.

For more information about this article, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team. [http://www.seyfarth.com/Absence-Management-and-Accommodations]

 

By Kevin A. Fritz and Craig B. Simonsen

iStock_000048141232_LargeWould your company’s employee handbook pass a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) social media review and investigation?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce highlighted some troubling notions in a report issued last week: “Theater of the Absurd: The NLRB Takes on the Employee Handbook” (Chamber Report). The Chamber Report notes that “through a series of decisions and official guidance, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has undertaken a campaign to outlaw heretofore uncontroversial rules found in employee handbooks and in employers’ social media policies—rules that employers maintain for a variety of legitimate business reasons.”  When it comes to protecting concerted activity, the NLRB has been anything but consistent in its application of the law and subsequent decisions.

In the realm of social media policies alone, the NLRB’s General Counsel’s Office issues Advice Memos that detail the results of “investigations in dozens of social media cases.” The Advice Memos claim to show many cases where “some provisions of employers’ social media policies were found to be overly-broad” and unlawful.  But the Chamber Report disputes the NLRB findings, noting that “unfortunately, in recent years the NLRB has changed. Rather than serving as an impartial referee, it has become dominated by a decidedly pro-union majority. These activist Board members have disregarded the overarching objectives of the NLRA and disrupted the careful balance that the Board has traditionally sought.”

And, more recently the NLRB’s General Counsel’s Office released its guidance memorandum to “help employers” draft compliant handbooks: “Report of the General Counsel Concerning Employer Rules,” GC-15-04 (March 18, 2015). The guidance sets out that the NLRB considers a policy or rule as unlawfully interfering with employees’ rights under the NLRA where an employee would “reasonably construe” the policy or rule to prohibit protected activity.” The Chamber Report indicates that the guidance “goes on to provide examples of lawful and unlawful employer policies. Unfortunately, many of the examples provided confuse matters even more given the similarities between that which is legal and that which allegedly is not.”

Our readers may appreciate the complexity through a real life example: Consider an NLRB decision where a technician had been warned by his employer three times over a five-month period for violating safety rules. The technician was finally fired after being seen on a ladder working without protective headwear, safety glasses or gloves. In November 2012, the NLRB found that the employer had a legitimate reason for firing the technician, dismissing his claim that he had been retaliated against for union activity (Dish Network Corp., N.L.R.B. A.L.J., No. 16-CA-62433 (11/14/12). The Chamber Report notes that while it didn’t take issue with the NLRB’s core finding in this case, it observed that the Board then went a step further, finding unlawful three provisions of the employer’s employee handbook that “had nothing to do with the underlying case.”  The motivation behind the NLRB’s decision is certainly concerning.

As an employer, it is not easy to maneuverer in this “legal” space.  From the NLRB finding that policies prohibiting “negative comments about fellow team members” to those which subject one to disciplinary action for “disclosure of proprietary information” as being illegal, employers are right to feel challenged and perhaps even intimidated by the rampage an sporadic nature the NLRB has taken. Employee handbooks are an important source for you to communicate your company’s policies and procedures. Given this current state of uncertainty and “decidedly pro-union majority,” be sure that your company materials are up-to-date and able to withstand a government inspector’s review.

Those with questions or concerns about any of these issues or topics are encouraged to reach out to the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Labor & Employee Relations, Social Media Practice Group, or Workplace Policies and Handbooks teams.