Archives: Employment Discrimination

yoga-1159968Employers (hopefully) know that you can’t fire someone based on a legally protected personal characteristic, like race, sex, religion, age or disability (among many other things). But apparently, being “too cute” is not one of them!

In this case, Edwards v. Nicolai, a yoga instructor, Dilek Edwards, worked at a chiropractic and wellness clinic owned by Charles Nicolai and his wife, Stephanie Adams. (Ms. Adams, by the way, is the first openly lesbian Playboy Playmate (Miss November 1992), as reported by the U.K.’s Daily Mail. Isn’t that intriguing?) According to Ms. Edwards, her relationship with Dr. Nicolai was strictly professional. At one point, however, he told Ms. Edwards that his wife might become jealous of her because she was “too cute.” Ms. Edwards only met Ms. Adams once, at the office, and the meeting was cordial. Continue Reading Fired for Being “Too Cute”

That’s an eye-catcher of a title, isn’t it? As reported by the New York Times, Babeland, an adult toy store, became the first sex shop to become unionized. Workers at three New York City locations voted to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, one of the country’s largest retail unions.vienna-2-1552451

Why did they choose to unionize? There were several typical reasons – wanting more transparency around hiring, promotions and discipline, as well as better ways of addressing workplace disputes and grievances.

But there were some other, less typical reasons. One is the customers. I’m sure you aren’t surprised to hear that Babeland’s customers can be, well, difficult. Some of them seem to believe that it’s ok to sexually harass sex shop workers. The workers want management to provide better training and support in dealing with these folks. Continue Reading Sex Shop Workers Unionize

male-709687_640This week, the EEOC issued a Fact Sheet regarding Bathroom Access Rights for Transgender Employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the EEOC has stated prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  Title VII applies to all federal, state, and local government agencies in their capacity as employers, and to all private employers with 15 or more employees.

In siding with other federal government agencies that have released similar guidance (OSHA, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Department of Education), the EEOC stated that an employer should allow an employee to use the bathroom that corresponds with the employee’s gender identity. Continue Reading The EEOC’s Fact Sheet on Transgender Access to Bathrooms

The Maryland 2016 legislative session endedshadow-dollar-sign-1239535 on Monday.  A friend of mine mentioned that she heard the General Assembly passed an equal pay law in Maryland. But guess what? There is already an Equal Pay for Equal Work law in Maryland – it’s been in place for almost 25 years!! The current law already prohibits employers from discriminating against employees of one sex who work in the “same establishment” and perform work of comparable character or work in the same operation, in the same business, or of the same type by paying a lesser wage than an employee of another sex.

The equal pay bill mentioned, House Bill 1003, expands the prohibitions on discriminatory pay practices. It also adds an entirely new pay transparency provision. Specifically: Continue Reading “New” Equal Pay Bill for Maryland

Last week, I heard about a British company, Coexist, that is planning to develop a “period policy” to provide menstrual leave to its female employees. As a female employment attorney, I’m a strong believer in equal rights for women, but this notion struck me as so very … odd. Initially, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but intuitively it just seemed like a bad idea to me.

So I did a little research, and it turns out that menstrual leave is actually a legal right in certain Asian countries. In 1947, Japan was the first to pass a menstrual leave law. Since then, Indonesia, the Philippines, South Korea and, most recently in 2013, Taiwan, have also enacted such laws. The laws vary as to whether the leave is paid, half-paid, or unpaid, and how much time off may be taken (e.g. as needed each month, X days per month, X days per year). These laws, however, have proven to be controversial, and their effectiveness has been questioned.red-dot

Many argue that the laws perpetuate stereotypes of women as the weaker sex. Some male rights activists (yes, they exist) argue that these laws discriminate against men. One commentator, Tim Worstall at Forbes.com, noted that a new type of paid leave will increase employer costs – and the fact that the paid leave is only available to female employees will likely exacerbate the gender pay gap. Many employers in those countries ignore the laws. And, frankly, it seems that most women are afraid to come forward to ask for menstrual leave, for various reasons – embarrassment, not wanting to burden fellow employees, fear of discrimination or retaliation, etc.

Continue Reading Menstrual Leave – Really?

Well, regardless of your political leanings, it’s definitely been an interesting political season. I have witnessed several heated political discussions among my acquaintances, and even in my family (let’s just say that my crazy teenagers don’t share my political views). Although physical violence has not yet been involved, there has been some nasty name-calling. And these conversations can and do occur in the workplace. So what can a private employer do about political discussions in the workplace?

There are no federal laws applicable to private employers that protect employees on the basis of their political affiliation.  (Public employers, however, may be subject to such laws). As far as state laws, only a few – such as California, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia – have enacted laws that prohibit discrimination by private employers against an employee based on political affiliation. Some cities and counties may have local ordinances that also provide such protections. In those jurisdictions, employers cannot take any adverse employment action against an employee simply because he supports a particular political party.

Regardless of whether political affiliation protections exist, however, a private employer can prohibit political discussions in the workplace. “But what about the First Amendment right to free speech?” some may ask. The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from limiting citizens’ free speech rights – but it doesn’t apply to private employers! So employees do not have a right to free speech in a private workplace, and the employer can choose to restrict speech on any topic – including politics.

Of course there are caveats. At least two states – South Carolina and Connecticut – protect freedom of expression. But even there, employers can prohibit political speech if it is disruptive. Of course the employer needs to ensure that it is being consistent in enforcing any speech prohibitions, as political discussions can sometimes implicate other protected characteristics – like race, gender and religion.

In addition, the National Labor Relations Act, which applies to both unionized and non-unionized workplaces, protects employees’ rights to engage in discussions about the terms and conditions of employment. So if the political discussion involves which  political candidate may be better with regard to wages or benefits, for example, that specific discussion may be protected under the NLRA.

So bottom line – employers can generally prohibit political discussions in the workplace – but if you do so, make sure you’re being consistent and careful!

 

Equal pay has become a hot topic on both the state and federal levels. As a woman who is a management-side employment attorney, I sometimes find myself puzzled as to how this topic came to be such a hot button issue, especially since there are already many laws on the books that address equal pay.

On the federal level, we have the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). For federal contractors, there are Executive Orders 11246 (affirmative action for women and minorities), 13665 (pay transparency), 13673 (fair pay and safe workplaces), and a Presidential Memorandum on equal pay, all of which are enforced by the Office of Contract Compliance Programs. In Maryland, we have the Maryland Civil Rights Act (the equivalent of Title VII) and the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act. All of these are designed to address and enforce equal pay, regardless of sex or other protected characteristics.

However, just last month, on the 7th anniversary of the signing of his very first law while in office (the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), President Obama announced that the EEOC was issuing a new rule that would change the EEO-1 reporting requirements for employers with 100 or more employees and for government contractors with more than 50 employees and more than $50,000 in federal contracts or subcontracts. Under the proposed rule, these employers would need to report aggregated data on pay and hours worked by pay bands. A summary of the proposed rule can be found here.

Here in Maryland, there are currently a number of bills pending in the Maryland General Assembly that either amend the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act (to the detriment of employers by either instituting treble damages or other fines and penalties) or create an entirely new Equal Pay Commission, both of which seek to impose more reporting requirements on employers.

While I understand and support the underlying principles of the proposed legislation and regulations, issues arise in instituting these reporting obligations on employers. In addition to the effort and time required for collecting and reporting the data, such reported data does not fully capture the non-discriminatory differences between two individuals. A true assessment of equivalent jobs and the people in those jobs requires a thoughtful and detailed analysis of a multitude factors, including – but certainly not limited to – the following:

  • Performance;
  • Skills;
  • Responsibilities;
  • Seniority;
  • Job knowledge;
  • Industry knowledge;
  • Certifications or licenses;
  • Prior experience;
  • Level of education;
  • Negotiation of starting salary;
  • Salary at prior jobs;
  • The choices individuals make with respect to child rearing or other responsibilities (e.g. choosing to work part time, or not to work overtime, or flexible careers with less earning potential);
  • Market competitiveness;
  • Geographic location.

This nuanced and individual-specific analysis isn’t readily apparent from cold, limited data. I am apprehensive that mandatory reporting will only create more issues for employers when any of these established or potential enforcement agencies come knocking on employers’ doors seeking explanations for what appears to be facially discriminatory – but is not, in fact.

Aside from the significant effort and resulting headaches associated with compiling and reporting the data, another major concern stems from what will happen with this data after it is submitted. The EEOC says that it will use the data to assess complaints of discrimination, focus agency investigations, and identify pay disparities, as well as encourage companies to engage in self-assessment and correction. But questions still remain as to what the EEOC’s evaluation of this data will truly look like. Will it take into account differences in geographic locations, such as cities versus rural areas? Northeast v. Midwest? What about industry distinctions, or non-profit v. for profit institutions? Company size?

And frankly, the data being sought is very similar to what was required by the Equal Opportunity Survey, which was used by the OFCCP from 2000-2005 to collect personnel data, including compensation information, from federal contractors. The EO Survey was abandoned in 2006, after an independent consulting group found that it was ineffective in identifying systemic discrimination!

I am also concerned about the security of this data. We all know that the government isn’t immune from being hacked, so how will the data be submitted in a secure fashion? What will be the fate of this data after it is submitted? Will competitors learn of your wage rates and then attempt to lure away your best employees with an offer of higher pay?

It’s not that I am against equal pay. Indeed, as a woman, that would be just plain ridiculous (of course I want to be paid the same as my equally situated counterparts!). Similarly, I support equal pay for minorities. The point I’m making as a management-side employment attorney is that there are already laws and agencies in place to address equal pay issues. Enacting more laws (with more obligations on employers) and creating even more governmental agencies tasked with investigating discrimination in pay (to no actual effect!), when there are already agencies that do that, is redundant and unnecessarily burdensome on employers.

Mark of the BeastBack around Halloween, we offered you a seasonally appropriate and cautionary tale about accommodating an employee’s religious concerns. As we discussed in that blog about the case of EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., the employee refused to use a biometric hand scanner because he was afraid it would reveal or imprint the mark of the beast. Because the mark of the beast is supposed to appear on the right hand, the company told him to use his left hand, but the employee believed that using either hand was a problem. The company refused to permit him to record his time manually or to report it to his supervisor, and the employee chose to retire under protest. The EEOC brought suit against the company on his behalf for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs and constructive discharge (i.e. the employee was forced to quit), and the employee was awarded over a half-million dollars in damages- a death knell to the employer’s arguments!

Like a zombie, the employer has returned from the grave to ask the court to throw out the judgment on various grounds. The court’s reaction to the employer’s arguments provide some additional lessons for employers generally. Continue Reading Return of the Beast: Religious Accommodation Redux

On January 29, 2016, President Obama announced a series of actions intended to close the gender pay equity gap, including proposed revisions to the EEO-1 form that would require the submission of detailed pay information.

As President Obama stated in his press conference, and as set forth in a White House Fact Sheet, “New Steps to Advance Equal Pay on the Seventh Anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission today issued a proposed rule to expand the information collected on the EEO-1 form. The EEO-1 form must be submitted annually in September by (1) employers with more than 100 employees and (2) government contractors with more than 50 employees and more than $50,000 in federal contracts or subcontracts. It requires employers to provide information regarding the race, ethnicity, sex, and job category of their workforce. The proposed revision would add the requirement to provide aggregated data on pay and hours worked, broken down into pay bands by the same race, ethnicity, and sex categories. According to the EEOC’s press release on the EEO-1 revisions, the EEOC and the OFCCP will use the submitted data to analyze pay disparities across industries and occupations, and facilitate federal antidiscrimination actions. In addition, EEOC will publish aggregated data that employers can use in their own voluntary compliance efforts. Continue Reading President Obama Radically Expands EEO-1 Reporting Requirements

According to the federal district court in Mendillo v. The Prudential Ins. Co. of America, the answer is “yes.” But I struggle with this decision, because I think it ties an employer’s hands and undercuts the employer’s right to demand medical information under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In this case, a call center employee was pretty seriously injured in a car accident.  There were some performance issues that pre-dated her car accident, and they continued after her return to work. About four months later, the employee’s responsibilities were changed so that her off-line work was taken away and she did telephone work full-time. She told her supervisor that the full-time telephone work would exacerbate her back pain, since she was able to get up and stretch  when she was doing off-line work. In fact, her back pain did worsen with the full-time telephone work, which caused her doctor to order that she cut back on her hours. In addition, her performance took an immediate and significant turn for the worse. She was able to improve her performance, but it fluctuated over the next year, finally resulting in her termination. She then sued, alleging a number of claims including that the company failed to accommodate her in violation of the ADA. Continue Reading Must Employers Accept An Employee’s Stated Disability Without Question?