Labor Relations Update

Employer’s Representation Petition Not Barred By Existence of Signed Contract, Divided NLRB Rules

As we have noted at times, the human element in labor relations makes for interesting situations.  One of the more interesting issues is the timeliness of representation petitions, which, despite the existence of clear rules, can still be disrupted by human action.

A union, an employee or an employer can all file a representation petition with the NLRB.  The union’s petition is called an “RC” petition, the employee’s (when filing they usually are seeking to end union representation) an “RD” petition, and the employer’s petition is styled an “RM” petition.

In order to be valid, the representation petition must be filed during what is deemed to be an open period where a question concerning the representation of employees can be decided.  The NLRA and NLRB case law contain bars to the filing of a petition,– essentially blackout periods,–during which the filing would not be timely and would result in the dismissal of the petition.  One bar is the “election bar” which, according to Section 9(e)(2) of the NLRA prevents an election from being “conducted…in any bargaining unit or any subdivision within which, in the preceding twelve-month period, a valid election shall have been held.”  Under the election bar, a newly organized union gets a year to negotiate a contract before its status can be challenged.  If the union loses the election, the employer is spared the disruption of an election campaign for twelve months.

To make matters more confusing, there is a one-year certification rule, which bars the filing of a petition for one-year following the date of certification of a union, which usually occurs some days after the election.

Another bar is the “contract bar” which, generally, states that no petition may be filed during the existence of a valid collective bargaining agreement.  The Board evaluates the existence of a contract in fairly practical terms.  There must, for example, be an actual contract that can be ascertained from existing writings.  It wouldn’t do to accept oral assertions in this regard; the issue is simply too important.  The contract also must be signed by both parties.  If a signed contract exists, then a number of other rules apply to the different parties.  For instance, a valid contract may only bar an employee petition for a period of three years.  The rules are different for employer petitions and a valid contract bars the employer from filing a petition for its entire term.

What happens if there is a signed, valid contract but the “effective dates” of the contract are set in the future?  Would a representation petition filed after the signatures but before the effective dates be timely?

Recently, a divided NLRB (Ring, Kaplan and Emmanuel) voted that a petition filed before the effective dates of a collective bargaining agreement regardless of whether that agreement had been signed does not bar an RM petition.

In Silvan Industries, 367 NLRB No. 28 (October 26, 2018) the Board was confronted “with a sequence of events that apparently has never happened before, at least so far as published decisions disclose.”

Newly Organized Employer Bargains With Union For One Year

The employer operates a manufacturing facility and a union was successful in a representation election.  The dates of events are important to the discussion of what happened next:

  • October 16, 2015 – the union was certified.  A new election could not occur before one year from this date.
  • October 13, 2016 – the parties reach a tentative agreement.  This date, falling a few days before the end of the year of certification is important.  It is very common for parties to reach an agreement at or near the end of the first year of bargaining because the union knows that after the anniversary date it is vulnerable to a new election (or withdrawal of recognition by the employer).
  • October 15, 2016 – the employees ratify the agreement.  The parties agree to meet on October 25, 2016 to execute the contract.
  • October 25, 2016 – an employee presents the employer with a petition in which employees expressed opposition to continued representation.  The employer now had good faith, objective evidence that the union’s majority status was in doubt. Without the existence of the collective bargaining agreement, the employer would have been privileged to withdraw recognition.
    • The employer files an RM petition.
    • Shortly after filing an RM petition, the employer signed the collective bargaining agreement.

The collective bargaining agreement, unusually, had effective dates in the future- from November 7, 2016 to November 3, 2019.

Regional Director Dismisses Petition as Untimely, Employer Appeals

The Regional Director dismissed the RM petition without a hearing, finding that the employer was precluded from challenging the status of the union citing case law holding that an employer may not withdraw recognition once a valid collective bargaining agreement has been reached.  Auciello Iron Works, 317 NLRB 364 (1995), enfd. 60 F.3d 24 (1st Cir. 1995), affd. 517 U.S. 781 (1996).  In Auciello, the Board held that an employer was precluded from withdrawing recognition from the union upon acceptance of an offer by the union to form a collective bargaining agreement.

The employer appealed the dismissal of its petition to the NLRB.

Divided NLRB Reverses Regional Director, Holds Case Law Supports Timeliness of RM Petition

The Board majority noted first there were competing policy considerations at play in determining the timeliness of a representation petition.  The first is to promote stability in collective bargaining by prohibiting the challenge to representation during a valid collective bargaining agreement.  The Board noted that “[o]n the other hand, delay in resolving an otherwise-valid question concerning representation affects the Section 7 rights of employees who do not support continued union representation.”  The Board noted that it had over the years developed several “requirements” that must be met before a collective bargaining agreement can bar an election, including, that it be in writing, signed and specify an effective date on its face.

Analyzing the question before it, the Board reviewed the case law and concluded “time and time again that the period during which a collective-bargaining agreement bars an election runs from the its effective date.”  The Board noted that it often applies different standards to petitions filed by unions and employees to those filed by employers.  For example, the Board recognized that under the case law the employer in this case could not have lawfully withdrawn recognition but held that standard did not apply to the case.  The Board addressed Auciello, concluding that “the standard for determining whether an employer could lawfully withdraw recognition does not govern the case.”  This is because the Board’s ruling in Levitz Furniture Co. of the Pacific, 333 NLRB 717, 723 (1996) which held that an employer may file an RM petition in circumstances where it could not lawfully withdraw recognition. The Board held that its “contract-bar doctrine does not warrant dismissal of the petition because no contract was in effect when the petition was filed.”

The Board did not see this case as far-reaching in that it had “never happened before” and that “it is destined to occupy a deservedly obscure nook in the Board’s representation caselaw.”

Dissent Sees Instability With Rule

Member McFerran dissented noting that the rules regarding bars to an election are different for employers because they hold a great deal of power in bargaining.  McFerran noted that “were the Board to focus on the effective date of the contract (rather than the date of its formation) when applying the ‘contract bar’ doctrine in cases like this one, employers would have a strong incentive to seek delayed effective dates, a result just as contrary to the Act’s goal of encouraging collective-bargaining agreements (and their stabilizing effects) as a deliberate delay in reaching an agreement in the first place.”

McFerran knocked the Board majority even further:

Instead of engaging in a careful analysis of policy and precedent, the majority retreats into empty formalism: because the collective-bargaining agreement had not gone into effect, the contract-bar doctrine does not apply.  But why this should be the case, the majority fails to explain in any persuasive way.  Policy and precedent actually dictate a different result:  ?When an employer enters into a collective-bargaining agreement with a union, even an agreement with a delayed effective date, it should not be permitted immediately to undermine the agreement, by challenging the union’s majority status.

Takeaways

This is truly an unusual situation.  We are not told why the parties set the effective date of the agreement in the future.  One can think of a few innocuous reasons why the dates were set in the future:  the employer didn’t want to negotiate the next agreement until a period of time that was less busy for its operations, the parties agreed to align the effective dates with upcoming pay increases, etc.    There is no indication that the employer knew about the employee’s efforts to shed the union, and requested the effective dates be pushed off.  The union certainly didn’t complain about it either through this proceeding or by filing an unfair labor practice.

Member McFerran noted that the effective dates were only two weeks away from signing.  But even a single day in representation bar situation can make a difference.  That two week period is the difference between the employees getting a say in union representation now or three years from now.  The desires of employees are often lost when the Board discusses the policy of stability in labor relations. Although not part of this case, the Board’s blocking policy, which allows the blocking of a decertification or representation petition based on the mere allegation that unfair labor practices have been committed, often frustrates any chance for an election for years.

NLRB Finds Employer Effectively Repudiated Unlawful Handbook Rule…and RecusalGate Continues

The Board issued an interesting decision discussing an employer’s successful efforts to repudiate unlawful conduct, which we’ll get to in a minute.  In our last post, we discussed a simmering dispute over the circumstances which an NLRB member must recuse himself or herself.  This issue, we’ll call it Recusalgate,  has taken an interesting turn.  In ADI Worldlink, LLC, 367 NLRB No. 10 (October 2, 2018), the Board, as it often does, delegated the matter to a three member panel.  However, in a footnote, the Board noted that “Chairman Ring, who is recused, is a member of the panel but took no part in the consideration of this case on the merits.”  Member Emanuel also recused himself but took no part in the case.  This does beg an interesting question: if there are only four members on the NLRB at present time, and two have to recuse themselves, does the Board have a quorum to act?  This won’t be the end of this discussion.

Back to labor law.  In TBC Corporation and TBC Retail Group, Inc., 367 NLRB No. 18 (October 15, 2018), the Board (apparently without any recusals), issued a decision discussing the circumstances under which an employer that has violated the Act may successfully repudiate such conduct, effectively erasing the misdeed, as well as unfair labor practice liability.

Background

The employer operates a chain of automotive and tire retail stores.  The employer, as part of its handbook, issued a no-solicitation rule that, among other things, prohibited employees from soliciting “in our buildings, on our property, during work hours, unless that solicitation is approved in advance by” human resources.  This no-solicitation rule was overly broad, and therefore unlawful, because it prohibited solicitation on property “during work hours” which has been interpreted to include times which employees are not working, such as breaks and meal times.  The rule also was overbroad because it prohibited solicitation on “property” which includes non-work areas such as break rooms and employee parking lots.  Finally, the rule was unlawful because solicitation required prior approval of human resources.

The employer also maintained an arbitration clause, which required employees to waive the right to bring collective or class actions.

An employee filed a charge with the NLRB which alleged that the employer’s arbitration and no-solicitation policies were unlawful.

Employer Takes Steps to Repudiate Unlawful No-Solicitation Rule

Within a few weeks after the employee filed his unfair labor practice charge, and well before there was any official finding by the NLRB, the employer took steps to repudiate the no-solicitation rule.  It did so by distributing and posting a notice to employees at all its stores in several states which said:

FEDERAL LAW GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO:
Form, join, or assist a union:
Choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf:
Act together with other employees for your benefit and protection: and
Choose not to engage in any of these protected activities.

WE WILL NOT do anything that interferes with these rights.
Specifically:
WE WILL NOT promulgate or maintain Written Work rules prohibiting you from:
1) Soliciting in our buildings, on our property, or during work hours.  We will continue to have a work rule that prohibits you from soliciting during an employee’s working time or with another employee during that employee’s working time.  “Working time” does not include such time as breaks, lunch, or rest periods, or before and after work.

WE HAVE rescinded and given no effect to the rules described above.  WE HAVE posted the revised Written Work Rules in the Associate Handbook.  Also, Human Resources Policy 406 contains a more detailed description of the Company’s no-solicitation and no-distribution policy, and remains in effect.

Human resources managers of the employer confirmed that the notices had been posted in each of the retail stores.

ALJ Finds Repudiation Ineffective

The ALJ found that the employer’s attempted repudiation was ineffective for two reasons.  First, the Judge ruled that the employer “did not adequately explain the reasons” for replacing the unlawful rule with the new no-solicitation policy.  Second, the ALJ ruled that the employer “continued engaging in unfair labor practices after the repudiation” by its maintenance of the arbitration policy.

Board Reverses Unfair Labor Practice Findings and Dismisses Complaint

The Board concluded there was no violation and dismissed the complaint.  The Board first addressed the arbitration policy issue.  Consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent decision holding that arbitration provisions that prohibit class or collective actions are not in conflict with the NLRA, the Board dismissed that allegation.

Turning to the repudiation, the Board noted that the law in this area is well established.  Under the Board’s decision in Passavant Memorial Area Hospital, 237 NLRB 138 (1978), an employer may repudiate an unfair labor practice if it is “timely, unambiguous, specific in nature to the coercive conduct, and free from other proscribed illegal conduct.”  Applying this standard, the Board concluded the repudiation had been effective because it was timely (done within a month after the filing of the charge), and because the employer “posted notices that were functionally equivalent to the notices posted by” Respondents pursuant to formal unfair labor practice proceedings.  In other words, the employer’s notice essentially mirrored that of an official NLRB Notice to Employees by its reference of employee rights, and its specific highlight of what it would not do, and the actions it was taking (such as informing employees a new policy had been issued).  The Board found that there was no requirement that an employer “explain why they are repudiating an unlawful act” which was one basis for the ALJ’s ruling.

The Board found that the repudiation did not occur in the context of other unfair labor practices because the only other allegation concerned the arbitration clause, which was lawful.

Takeaways

This is an interesting case because it demonstrates effective repudiation.  The defense of repudiation has been tried many times in NLRB litigation only to fall short because it does not meet the specific criteria set forth in Passavant.

By copying the form and content of an NLRB Notice to Employees, the employer effectively did everything that would have resulted from a finding of an unfair labor practice charge.  Indeed, arguably, the only difference between the employer’s notice and the official Board Notice is the letterhead.  Many employers don’t like to post these kinds of notices, and some have even run afoul of the Act by posting their own explanation next to the official Board Notice, but this is a reminder that one can save the expense of litigation by clearly and effectively communicating that a rule (or act by the employer) is not condoned.

 

NLRB Majority Decides 50-50 Balls In Employer Favor

The NLRB  has been in a period of dormancy.  When the make-up of the Board changed, a lot of people expected an onslaught of NLRB decisions reversing the reversals of precedent made by the agency in the last 8 years.  Except for a couple of brief periods, most notably in December when then-Chairman Miscimarra departed, there has been less activity than many thought would occur.  This is in part because there is uncertainty over when certain Board members (particularly Chairman Ring and Member Emanuel) have to recuse themselves from consideration of certain cases.  This recusal issue has led to sometimes sharp exchanges between the Chairman and certain members of the U.S. Senate.

The Board has issued a few decisions recently.  One case is worth discussing because it demonstrates how the view of certain allegations has changed with the new Board.  Specifically, it shows how closer cases (the 50-50 balls), cases that could go either way, may fall more towards the employer.  We have discussed how the current Board is likely to make changes in nuanced ways here.

In CPL (Linwood) LLC, 367 NLRB No. 14 (October 10, 2018), the Board was confronted with a hard fought election campaign where the employer was alleged, and ultimately found, to have committed numerous unfair labor practices in a prior decision.  The Board, however, dismissed a few unfair labor practice findings after a review of the record and the complaint allegations.

General Counsel Failed to Carry Burden in Past Practice Allegation

The complaint alleged the employer violated Section 8(a)(5) by “refusing to process” an employee’s request for a schedule change.  The employer had a procedure whereby an employee who wished to change work schedule could put in a written request to human resources.  In December 2014, an employee submitted such a request to the Director of Human Resources.  Sometime thereafter the union won the representation election and the parties entered into negotiations.  When the employee followed up on the request to change her schedule, the Director told her that the employer could “not make changes” because of the negotiations with the union.  This exchange formed the basis of the allegation.  After a trial, the ALJ found a violation, finding simply that based on these facts the employer had refused to process the grievance in violation of the Act.

On appeal, a two member Board majority (Ring and Emanuel) reversed this finding.  After citing the law on unilateral change of the status quo, the Board majority noted first that the “General Counsel bears the burden of establishing that the Respondent altered the status quo.”  The Board concluded that the ALJ defined the status quo as a procedure under which employees were allowed to make written request but beyond that there was no proof.  The Board found that the employee had made the written request for a schedule change as per the existing procedure.  In reviewing the ALJ’s decision the Board concluded that the fact the Director did not “approve [the employee’s] request immediately does not establish a change in the status quo when there is no evidence that the Respondent had always approved such requests in the past.”  Thus, the record did not show merely filing a request resulted in a schedule change, so there was no way to determine if the employer had actually altered a practice.  In this regard, the Board highlighted that the employee had acknowledged during her testimony that it was possible her request conflicted with another employee’s request.

The Board also found that there was no evidence the employer actually refused to process the request, which was what was alleged in the complaint.  Here, the Board noted the Director of Human Resources did not say that the employer “would not change [the employee’s] schedule” only that it could not do so because of negotiations.  The Board majority held that a “reasonable person would understand the Respondent was delaying the processing of her request rather than refusing to process it.”  The Board concluded this distinction was demonstrated by the fact the employee did not testify about how quickly the employer had processed requests in the past.

Employer’s Comment that it “Can’t Make Changes” Because of “Negotiations With the Union” Did Not Constitute an Independent Violation of Section 8(a)(1) of the Act

The ALJ found that the employer’s comment to the employee about the reason why the employer had yet to process the request for a schedule change violated the Act as a coercive statement.

The Board reversed this finding, holding that the statement was “in conformity with the Respondent’s statutory obligation to bargain with the Union over changes to employee schedules, which is a mandatory subject of bargaining.”  The Board majority held that it was lawful for the employer to communicate this statutory obligation to the employee.

ALJ’s Finding That Employer Failed to Notify Union of Discharges Violated Due Process

Current law holds that in a first-time contract situation, an employer must bargain with the union over discipline and discharge when there exists employer discretion over the action.  We have discussed this case, and its somewhat tortured history, here.  That decision law, however, applied only prospectively, and the ALJ and the Board found that any allegation regarding such duty to bargain must be dismissed.  The ALJ did find, however, that the employer violated the Act by failing to notify the union that it had discharged employees.

The employer appealed this finding on the ground that it was not pled in the complaint, nor was it fully and fairly litigated.  The Board reversed, and dismissed the allegation noting (and it is worth quoting at length here for all practitioners who have witnessed the morphing of an NLRB case into something different than that alleged in the complaint):

The complaint does not allege that the Respondent violated the Act by failing to provide post-implementation notice of the discipline.  Nor did the General Counsel seek to amend the complaint at the hearing to include this allegation.  Further, throughout this proceeding, the General Counsel exclusively focused on Respondent’s failure to provide pre-implementation notice, and he did not contend in his posthearing brief to the judge that Respondent’s failure to provide post-implementation notice was also unlawful.  Under these circumstances, we find that the Respondent did not have adequate notice that the judge would make findings of violations of the Act based on an unalleged failure to provide post-implementation notice.

Employer’s Statements that Union was “not a good union” and that “employees can get another union” Not Unlawful

The ALJ found that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) when, in the course of a conversation about decertification, the employee was told that the union was “not a good union” and that “employees can get another union.”  The basis for these findings was that the employer’s solicitation of an employee’s signature on a decertification petition, a statement which unquestionably was unlawful, occurred in the same conversation and therefore made the statements coercive.  The ALJ concluded these statements were unlawful because they occurred “in an overall context of coercion,” because of the unlawful solicitation of the employee’s signature on the decertification petition.

The Board reversed these rulings.  The Board scrutinized each part of the conversation, affirming some aspects were a violation of the law but reversing the findings on these statements.  After quoting Section 8(c) (the employer free speech provision of the Act), the Board noted that the “not a good union statement” was just an expression of opinion unaccompanied by threats or promises to employees about decertification.  In other words, there was no linkage between this opinion and the request that the employee sign the decertification petition.

As to the statement that employees “could get another union” the Board held this “conveyed only the truism that employees could select a different union shortly after the Union’s certification year expired.”

Takeaways

This case demonstrates a shift in how certain allegations are going to fall more the employer’s way in the coming months.  Clearly, the employer in this case had violated the law in myriad ways. It would have been easy to see any of the allegations discussed here as additional violations.  Instead, the Board showed a willingness to scrutinize the allegations in the complaint against the record.  During this analysis the Board concluded some allegations had not been proven (violation of a past practice) or were contrary to the law (failure to notify the union of discharges).  It is doubtful any of these dismissals altered the ultimate remedy of the case, but it does show a more careful analysis of the proof as it relates to the complaint and the applicable law.

The Board’s ruling on the past practice and due process rulings are notable because they show a greater willingness to hold the General Counsel accountable to what the General Counsel has pled in the complaint.  In the case of the alleged alteration of the past practice, there was not enough evidence in the record to conclude that a practice actually had been changed.  Thus, had a witness testified that requests for a change in schedule always received a response (rejecting or accepting) within a certain period of time, and that the employer did not so follow that timeline, then the outcome probably would have been different.

As to the allegation regarding the failure to notify the union of the discharges, the Board was not going to find a violation if the allegation had neither been pled or litigated at trial.  It seems ridiculous, but this does happen in Board litigation.

Finally, the Board’s review of the employer statements shows a more literal application of the Act’s freedom of speech provision in Section 8(c) and an unwillingness to paint every statement made in a conversation as “unlawful” simply because of its proximity in a conversation to an unlawful statement.

NLRB Announces Proposed Rule Changing Joint-Employer Standard

The National Labor Relations Board announced that it will publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking today, September 14, regarding its joint-employer standard.

The proposed rule will state that an employer may be considered a joint-employer of another employer’s employees only if it possesses and exercises substantial, direct and immediate control over the essential terms and conditions of employment in a manner that is not limited and routine.  Indirect influence and contractual reservations of authority will no longer be sufficient to establish a joint-employer relationship.  The new rule, if adopted, will restore Board law to the traditional standard for determining joint employer status under the NLRA.

This proposed rule would reverse the controversial Obama Board decision in Browning-Ferris, 362 NLRB No. 186 (2015), appeal pending.  Under the Browning-Ferris standard, two or more employers would be considered joint employers if they share or codetermine matters governing the essential terms and conditions of employment.  The inquiry focuses on whether the alleged joint employer had the potential to control aspects of the workplace, either directly or indirectly, regardless of whether the employer ever exercised that authority.  This standard was heavily criticized and was the subject of legislative correction that passed the House but was never considered by the Senate.

The NLRB press release states that the proposed rule reflects the Trump Board’s “majority initial view” that the intent of the National Labor Relations Act is “best supported by a joint-employer doctrine that does not draw third parties, who have not played an active role in deciding wages, benefits, or other essential terms and conditions of employment, into a collective-bargaining relationship for another employer’s employees.”

The Board previously attempted to reverse the Browning-Ferris joint-employer standard in Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156 (Dec. 14, 2017) (which we blogged about here).  The Board reversed and vacated Hy-Brand in February, 2018 based upon Member William Emanuel’s participation in the decision.  Prior to joining the Board, Member Emanuel was a partner at Littler Mendelson, which had represented one of the unsuccessful parties in Browning-Ferris.

The public may submit comments to the Board on the proposed rule for sixty days following its publication on September 14.

NLRB Rejects “Constructive Denial of Transfer” and “Threat” Theories of Unfair Labor Practice Liability

As we hurtle toward Labor Day, and the probable onslaught of decisions, and as NLRB Member Pearce’s tenure ends on August 27, the Board has been issuing a steady stream of cases.  Many of these appear to be garden variety type cases, with a smattering of cases now dismissing the theory of a class action waiver violation and some defaults.

Recently, the Board issued a pretty interesting case concerning an alleged threat to an employee, as well as a fairly novel theory where “constructive discharge” principles were applied to an alleged denial of a transfer between two jobs at an employer.

In Mercy Hospital, 366 NLRB No. 165 (August 20, 2018), a three member panel of the Board (Pearce, McFerran and Kaplan) addressed a number of allegations against a unionized medical center.  The Administrative Law Judge found numerous unfair labor practices, including that the employer had issued a threat to an employee and constructively denied the same employee a transfer to a different job.  On appeal, the Board reversed both of these findings.

Background

The employer runs a medical center providing clinical and acute care health services.  The Certified Nursing Assistances (CNAs) are represented by a union.  One CNA “often expressed work-related concerns to her supervisors in team huddle meetings and by email.”  In October 2014, the CNA received a performance review that praised her work but also stated she needed to improve “communication with supervisors, her acceptance of direction and constructive criticism.”

A few months later, in May 2015, during a team huddle meeting the CNA asked about new work assignments in a forthcoming mother-baby birthing center.  A manager later approached the CNA and told her that she should ask supervision directly about new assignments and not ask them in the huddle meetings.

In late June 2015, the CNA received a “Level 1 conversation” regarding her attendance issues.  The Level 1 does not constitute official discipline, nor is it included in the employee’s personnel file.  It also cannot be used for further corrective action but lasts 6 months/  In October 2015, after the CNA continued to have attendance problems, this was elevated to a Level 2 conversation.

In October 2015, the CNA sought to transfer to a CNA position in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).  Under the terms of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement, the CNA was entitled to the position.  The CNA had a routine “meet and greet” with the head of the ICU.  Per the parties’ bargaining agreement a transfer could not be denied but the meeting allows the department manager and employee the opportunity to get to know one another.  The ICU manager told the CNA the workload in the ICU was “significant” and that the employees often had to “hustle” and work as a team.  The ICU manager stated she felt the CNA’s attendance issues were a concern.  The ICU manager also stated that the CNA’s current supervisor told her that the CNA was “inappropriate, rude and disrespectful” and was not a “team player.”  The CNA was upset and defended herself claiming past absences were covered by FMLA.  The ICU manager stated that she would continue to monitor the CNA and “utilize corrective action should any attendance or behavior problems persist.”

The employee declined the transfer, and subsequently transferred to another position in medical center’s operating room.

After trial, the ALJ found a number of violations. One such violation was that the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) when its manager told the CNA in May 2015 that she should not raise questions about job bids in a group context.  The ALJ also found that the conversation between the ICU manager and the CNA was unlawful because it related to the CNA’s past protected activities.  Further, the ALJ found that the ICU manager’s statement that she would monitor the CNA’s attendance and work behavior constituted a constructive denial of transfer where the CNA was given a Hobson’s Choice to discontinue her protected activities or face discipline.

Did the Meet and Greet Reasonably Tend to Coerce the Employee in the Exercise of Her Section 7 Rights?

The ALJ found that the CNA’s conduct during the huddle meetings was protected concerted activity, including when she expressed work related concerns and when she asked about new work assignments.  The ALJ found the employer violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act when the ICU manager told the CNA that her supervisor said the CNA was inappropriate and disrespectful and when the ICU manager informed the CNA her work would be monitored.

The Board majority (McFerran and Kaplan) reversed this finding.  The Board recited the relevant standard in evaluating statements as coercive:  “The relevant inquiry is an objective one:  whether the employer’s statements or actions would tend to coerce a reasonable employee and chill the exercise of the employee’s Section 7 rights.”  The Board then noted several reasons why this comment did not reasonably chill the CNA in exercise of her Section 7 rights.

First, there was no reason to believe the ICU manager had any knowledge of the protected activities of the CNA.  In this regard, the Board noted that the meet and greet where the alleged threat occurred was “4 or 5” months after the meeting where the CNA inquired about work assignments.  There was no evidence the ICU manager attended that prior meeting.  While the ALJ noted the CNA took an “active” role in raising work related concerns it was “difficult to infer that [the CNA’s current manager’s] broadly negative characterization of [the CNA’s] work performance” referred to the protected activity.

Second, the Board noted that a “reasonable employee in [the CNA’s position] would have recognized that there was ample reason unrelated to protected conduct for” a prospective manager to be concerned.  In this regard, the Board noted that for two years the CNA had been warned aobut “indulging in nonverbal expressions of impatience and displeasure at team huddle meetings, such as rolling her eyes, sitting with arms crossed and breathing heavily.”  The Board concluded that a reasonable employee in the CNA’s position would assume that the manager of the unit to which she intended to transfer would know of these issues.

The Board found it significant that the ICU manager said nothing about protected activities and that a reasonable manager would be concerned about the CNA’s performance.

Constructive Denial of a Transfer?  A Novel But Ultimately Unavailing Theory

The Board also reversed the ALJs finding that the CNA’s turning down the job based on the ICU manager’s remarks was an unfair labor practice.  The ALJ ruled that the ICU manager presented the CNA with a Hobson’s Choice of accepting the ICU position and facing discipline or declining the position “even though she was entitled to it as the most senior qualified applicant.”

The Board was careful to note that it was not deciding the viability of this theory (which means they didn’t think much of it) but concluded that the CNA was not presented with a Hobson’s choice.  The Board noted that under the theory of Hobson’s Choice constructive discharge “an employee’s voluntary quit will be considered a constructive discharge when an employer conditions an employee’s continued employment on the employee’s abandonment of his or her Section 7 rights and the employee quits rather than comply with the condition.”  Intercon I (Zercom), 333 NLRB 223, 223 fn. 4 (2001).  Under this theory there are two elements required to make out a violation of the Act:  conditioning continued employment on the abandonment of Section 7 rights, and a quit that results from the imposition of that condition.

The Board found that there was no evidence to support the first condition.  The Board reviewed the conversation in question and noted that the ICU managers stressed the workload was significant.  There was a natural transition to the CNA’s established attendance problems.  Finally, the managers noted the CNA had been counseled repeatedly for her behavior at work.  Further, the Board noted that under the Hobson’s Choice constructive discharge case the employee must be faced with a “clear and unequivocal choice” which simply was not present.

The ALJ had ruled that if the Hobson’s Choice theory failed there still would be a violation under the Board’s constructive discharge case law.  Under this case law, the standard is “First, the burdens on the employee must cause, and be intended to cause, a change in his [or her] working conditions so difficult or unpleasant as to force him [or her] to resign.  Second, it must be shown because of the employee’s union [or other protected concerted] activities.  Crystal Refining Co., 222 NLRB 1068, 1069 (1976).  Applying this standard, the Board said no violation could be found because the employer “imposed nothing on [the CNA].”  Rather, the employer merely gave the CNA a “realistic preview” of the challenges posed working in ICU, the significant workload in that unit, that employees working there have to “hustle”, and that the CNA would be expected to maintain a “certain standard of behavior and attendance.”

Member Pearce Dissents

Member Pearce dissented to the Board’s rulings on the threat and constructive denial of transfer.  In his opinion he stressed that “[the CNA] to the displeasure of management–was a vocal advocate concerning employees’ terms and conditions of employment.”  As to the threat, Member Pearce stated that a reasonable employee would find the ICU manager’s comments chilling of protected activity:  “Rather than simply describe the CNA job already awarded [the CNA], [the ICU manager] invoked [the current manager] (who had coerceivly prohibited [the CNA] from engaging in protected concerted activity] and repeated his comments that [the CNA] was inappropriate, rude, disrespectful and not a team player.”  Further, that the ICU manager would “closely monitor” the CNA’s behavior and “go right to discipline” essentially forced the CNA to decline the position to which she was entitled for fear of suffering adverse consequences for her protected activity.

Takeaways

This is an interesting case because of the thorough analysis of the alleged coercive statements against the facts.  In other cases, the NLRB has had a tendency, if not an outright habit, of conflating seemingly unrelated events with little or no analysis.  Thus, in the past, protected activity engaged in by an employee can often serve as a shield and a sword for all future employment actions.  In this case, the Board majority looked at the timing of the ICU manager’s comments in relation to the prior protected activity (and unfair labor practice) that occurred and found that the time elapsed did not support a finding that the comments related back.  The Board majority also looked at the circumstances of the prior protected activity and found little, if any, nexus between that and the ICU manager’s conversation.

The importance of thorough and timely documentation of the employee’s work issues helped the defense.  The employer had documented both the behavioral and attendance issues of the CNA, neither of which was challenged as unlawful.  The CNA’s rude behavior was part of a performance evaluation that praised the work of the employee but also noted, as with all good performance evaluations, that the employee had deficiencies she needed to correct.  It was logical that such deficiencies would be of concern to a new manager.

The theories of Hobson’s choice constructive discharge and constructive discharge were a stretch, if only because the CNA had not resigned and remained employed and even transferred to a different operating unit.  Constructive discharge cases are extremely hard to prove and stretching the theory to include a “denial of transfer” would make it even more difficult.

Concluding the 2016 Persuader Rule Changes “Exceeded Authority” of the LMRDA, DOL Rescinds Them

The Department of Labor fully rescinded the 2016 changes made to the Persuader Rules.  The DOL concluded that the 2016 rule changes “exceeded the authority of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA)” because they “impinged on attorney-client privilege.  The action rescinding the rule was announced in a July 17, 2018 News Release .  In announcing the change back to the prior rule, Deputy Assistant Secretary Nathan Mehrens remarked, “By rescinding this Rule, the Department stands up for the rights of Americans to ask a question of their attorney without mandated disclosure to the government.”  This action is the conclusion of the DOL’s year-long effort to rescind the rule changes, which the agency started last year.

The 2016 rule changes never went into effect and had been enjoined by a federal district court almost immediately upon promulgation.

Arbitration Class Waivers, Past Practice (not established) and Skirmishing Over Information Requests All Part of Recent NLRB Action

Since December 2017, when the Board issued a number of decisions which restored precedent that had been changed in the last few years, (discussed here, here, here, and here), not much of note has been happening at the Board.  Indeed, there was not a full complement at the Board until April when Chairman Ring was confirmed.

Two upcoming events may see some additional activity at the NLRB.  First, Board Member Pearce’s term expires in a few weeks on August 27.  This will leave the Board with four members.  It is fair to assume a number of decisions may issue in the coming weeks as Pearce completes his term.  No word on a replacement for Pearce.  Second, the NLRB’s fiscal year ends on September 30, 2018, and the preceding days up to and including that date usually see numerous decisions issue as the Board attempts to maintain its productivity statistics.

In the meantime, the NLRB recently issued a number of decisions that fall in the category of “business as usual,” following existing precedent but with some interesting nuggets of information.

NLRB No Longer Pursues Class Action Waivers as Unlawful

Contrary to the vast majority of handbook cases, where the NLRB just finds a policy to be unlawful regardless of whether employees read it or if it was enforced, the Board’s banning of class action waivers had real consequences.   In May 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no such violation of the NLRA.  Consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the NLRB has started to dismiss existing cases where the Administrative Law Judge found a violation.  See, for example, Kellog Brown & Root LLC, 363 NLRB No. 153 (August 2, 2018).

Employer Violated the Act by Refusing to Provide Union with Names of Witnesses To Sexual Harassment

In American Medical Response West, 366 NLRB No. 146 (July 31, 2018), the Board found an employer violated Section 8(a)(5) of the Act by refusing to provide the names of witnesses it had interviewed in connection with a complaint of sexual harassment lodged against a bargaining unit member.  After an investigation, the employer discharged the accused employee.  The union requested information related to the employer’s investigation.  The employer provided redacted witness interview notes but refused to provide the names.  The union filed a charge and the ALJ concluded that the employer violated the Act.

On appeal, the NLRB noted that the provision of witness names has been the law for at least forty years, citing Transport of New Jersey, 233 NLRB 694-695 (1977).  What makes the case interesting, however, is that the employer had asserted a need to maintain confidentiality in the early stages of the investigation.  This assertion constituted the employer’s defense.  The NLRB rejected this defensem noting that the employer  had “presented no evidence or argument to the Board to explain why its confidentiality interests should prevail over the Union’s need for information.”  This conclusion was reached despite the employer having provided testimony that during the investigation the witnesses expressed concern of harassment or retaliation by the union.

The Board noted further that “even assuming the Respondent had demonstrated its confidentiality interests in protecting witness names outweighed the Union’s need for the information, it nonetheless violated” the Act by “failing to seek an accommodation.”

The content of information requests is rarely the issue and that is what makes an outright refusal to provide relevant information nearly indefensible.  Of the few defenses that do exist, an employer cannot simply raise the defense and not provide the information.  The employer can avoid liability by working to reach an accommodation with the union.

A Past Practice Must be Supported By Evidence Before the Board Will Enforce it.

One of the more misunderstood concepts in labor law is “past practice.” A true past practice is something that is essentially an implicit agreement between the union and the employer on how certain things are done.  Changing a past practice without bargaining with the union violates the Act.  The NLRB recently rejected an assertion that past practice can be based on the perception of the union even when such belief is supported  by an errant employer statement.

In Consolidated Communications Holdings, Inc., 366 NLRB No. 152 (August 3, 2018), the Board was confronted with a situation where the union claimed a past practice concerning how health care premiums were calculated was violated when the employer did not reduce premiums.  In the parties’ successive collective bargaining agreements, there was provision for the amount the employees had to pay for healthcare, which was expressed in a percentage of total cost.  This is a common way of expressing healthcare in a collective bargaining agreement because it allows the amount employees pay to fluctuate based on the actual cost to the employer.  The agreements, however, were silent on how the premiums were calculated.

During bargaining for a successor agreement an employer representative stated that it looked like premiums for the next year would be going down because there were not many claims.  When the time came to adjust premiums, the rates were raised prompting the charge.  The union’s claim was that a practice existed where premium rates were based on the prior year’s claims.

The employer denied expressing that premiums would go down.  After evaluating credibility, the ALJ concluded that the statement had been made.  The ALJ noted, however, that such a statement did not necessarily establish that was the employer’s practice and evaluated the evidence.  The ALJ noted that while the General Counsel had several witnesses testify as to their belief that premiums were sent on a single factor, it was “highly likely that the GC’s witnesses are confusing a correlated factor (i.e., past year’s claims are loosely correlated with the next year’s premiums) with a single conclusive factor (i.e., past year’s claims always and solely determine next year’s premiums).”  Perhaps most important, the ALJ ruled that the GC’s position is compromised by the complete lack of any supporting documentary evidence.”  (emphasis in original).

In his analysis, the ALJ set forth the basic law regarding unilateral change and expressed how it applies in the past practice context as follows:

The Act bars employers from taking unilateral action on mandatory bargaining topics such as rates of pay, wages, hours of employment and other conditions of employment. . . .It is well-established that health benefits are mandatory bargaining topics. .  An employer’s regular and longstanding practices that are neither random nor intermittent become terms and conditions of employment even where such practices are not expressly set forth within a collective- bargaining agreement.

The ALJ noted that it was the burden of the party asserting the practice to establish that it existed and that in this case the General Counsel had failed to do so.  The Board adopted the decision on appeal.

One wonders how this case ever made it to trial, and then appeal, when it appears there was no actual evidence as to the practice.  Still, the decision is instructive in helping define the elusive term “past practice” and that even an employer’s statement that bears no relationship to reality cannot establish such a binding practice.

You’ve Got Mail: NLRB Requests Briefing on Standard for Employee Use of Employer Owned Electronic Communication Systems

In what could signify the beginning of the end for Purple Communications, Inc., 361 NLRB 1050 (2014) and guaranteed employee access to Employer computer systems for union organizing purposes, the NLRB issued a notice on August 1 inviting the filing of briefs on whether the Board should uphold, modify or overrule the decision.  Under Purple Communications (which we previously covered here), employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s e-mail system to engage in protected activity under Section 7 of the NLRA on nonworking time, unless the employer can demonstrate circumstances allowing it to restrict such use.  Overturning Purple Communications could return the Board to the standard under Register Guard, 351 NLRB 1110 (2007), which permitted employers to impose Section 7-neutral restrictions on an employee’s non-work use of their e-mail systems, even if those restrictions ultimately limited the employee’s use of the employer’s e-mail for communications involving protected activity.

The NLRB issued the notice in response to a 2016 ALJ decision finding that an employer’s computer usage policy did not comply with Purple Communications standard, because it prohibited employees from using their work e-mail for any nonbusiness purpose.  Board Members Pearce (who was in the Purple Communications majority) and McFerran dissented from the decision to solicit briefs.  Both dissenting Members contended that issuing the notice was inappropriate in light of the pending appeal of Purple Communications before the Ninth Circuit and their view that there has been no change in workplace trends or evidence showing that Purple Communications has created significant challenges for employers, employees, unions or the Board.

Perhaps in recognition that workplace communication technology has clearly expanded beyond e-mail, the notice welcomes briefing on what standard the Board should apply to other methods of employee communication on employer-owned equipment (e.g., instant messages, text messages, and social media postings). While the Board has limited its holdings in the area of computer usage to employer e-mail systems, this notice may indicate a move by the Board to apply a consistent standard to all forms of workplace communication platforms.

Employee’s Failed Attempt To Secure Union Representation Sufficient Notice of Weingarten Request, Divided NLRB Rules

One area of labor relations that continues to vex practitioners is the scope of the so-called Weingarten rights.  NLRB v. J. Weingarten Inc., 420 U.S. 251 (1975).  Some 43 years after the Supreme Court set forth the right that represented employees are entitled to union representation when facing an interview that could lead to discipline, there still exist areas that are vaguely defined.  For instance, we saw that an employer’s search of an employee’s vehicle is not a “disciplinary interview.”  We also have seen have also seen that a fellow employee is not a “union representative for purposes of Weingarten.

What words must an employee utter to put the employer on notice that he or she wishes union representation?  A divided NLRB recently addressed this issue and ruled that an employee’s remarks that he had previously contacted the union about a scheduled interview was sufficient to constitute a request for a Weingarten representative.  In Circus Circus, Inc., 366 NLRB No. 110 (June 15, 2018), the NLRB was asked to evaluate whether an employee’s indirect statement about calling for union representation was sufficient to put the employer on notice that he wished to have a union representative at a disciplinary meeting.

The Employee Attempts but Fails to Reach His Union Representative

The facts of the case are fairly straightforward.  The employer required all employees to be fitted with respirators as part of an OSHA requirement.  An employee refused due to stated medical reasons and the employer started disciplinary proceedings.  The employer suspended the employee pending investigation.  The employer scheduled a “due process” meeting to discuss the issue and potentially issue discipline to the employee.  In advance of the meeting the employee called his union three times but did not hear back.  Upon entering the meeting, the employee discovered that no union representative was present and stated to the employer representatives, “I called the Union three times [and] nobody showed up, I’m here without representation.”  The employer continued with the meeting and the employee ultimately was discharged.

The employee filed NLRB charges over the discharge and included an allegation that his Weingarten rights had been violated.

After a trial the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the employee’s “statement constitutes a request for representation [because] [s]ubsumed in the statement is a reasonably understood request to have someone present at the meeting.”

The employer appealed.

Divided Board Concludes Employee’s Statement Was a Weingarten Request for Representation

On appeal, a two member majority (Pearce and McFerran) of the Board agreed with the Administrative Law Judge that the employee’s statement was tantamount to a request for representation noting:

Board law is clear that ‘[n]o magic or special words are required [to trigger a Weingarten request]…It is enough if the language used by the employee is reasonably calculated to apprise the [e]mployer that the employee is seeking such assistance.’  Houston Coca Cola Bottling Co., 265 NLRB 1488, 1497 (1982).

Chairman Ring dissented.  The Chairman noted that Weingarten rights arise only in situations “where the employee requests representation.”  The Chairman noted further:

As the majority’s discussion reveals, [the employee’s] efforts to secure a union representative were directed to the Union, not the Respondent.  To the latter, [the employee] said only that he had unsuccessfully tried to contact the union hall to obtain a representative and that he was attending the meeting without one.  He did not request an alternative representative, even though his shop steward worked right across the hallway.  Nor did he seek a delay so that a representative could be found.

Takeaways

This case is certainly open to debate and raises more questions than it answers.  For instance, why didn’t the union return the calls? Why did the employee not object to the continuation of the meeting?

On balance, if an employee mentions union representative at the beginning of a disciplinary interview but doesn’t expressly ask for one, it is probably best to clear up this issue before beginning the interview.  Such an inquiry could avoid litigation over this kind of issue.

 

NLRB General Counsel Issues Handbook on Handbook Rules

Following up on the NLRB’s decision in The Boeing Company, 365 NLRB No. 154 (Dec. 14, 2017), on June 6, NLRB General Counsel Peter Robb issued a new Guidance Memorandum (18-04) detailing how NLRB Regional Offices receiving claims of improper employment policies are to interpret employer workplace rules. As we reported this past December (here), in Boeing, the Board established a new (and much more employer-friendly) standard for the lawfulness of employee work rules. As discussed in detail below, the Memo gives examples of specific policies that are to be found lawful and directs Regional Offices to no longer interpret ambiguous rules against the drafter or generalized provisions as banning all activity that could conceivably be included within the rule.  Thus, Regional Offices will now look to whether a rule would be interpreted as prohibiting Section 7 activity, as opposed to whether it could conceivably be so interpreted.

In Boeing, the Board reassessed its standard for when the mere maintenance of a work rule violates Section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA. The Board established a new standard that focused on the balance between the rule’s negative impact on employees’ abilities to exercise their NLRA Section 7 rights, and the rule’s connection to an employer’s right to maintain discipline and productivity in the workplace. Going forward, work rules are to be categorized in three categories: (1) rules that are generally lawful to maintain; (2) rules warranting individualized scrutiny; and (3) rules that are plainly unlawful to maintain. The General Counsel’s Memo places a number of commonly found workplace policies into these three groupings.

Category 1 Rules are generally lawful either because the rule, when reasonably interpreted, does not prohibit or interfere with the exercise of rights guaranteed by the NLRA, or because the potential adverse impact on protected rights is outweighed by the business justifications associated with the rule. The examples provided in the Memo of the types of rules that fall into this category include:

  • Civility rules (such as “disparaging, or offensive language is prohibited”);
  • No-photography rules and no-recording rules;
  • Rules against insubordination, non-cooperation, or on-the-job conduct that adversely affects operations;
  • Disruptive behavior rules (such as “creating a disturbance on company premises or creating discord with clients or fellow employees is prohibited”);
  • Rules protecting confidential, proprietary, and customer information or documents;
  • Rules against defamation or misrepresentation;
  • Rules against using employer logos or intellectual property;
  • Rules requiring authorization to speak for the company; and
  • Rules banning disloyalty, nepotism, or self-enrichment.

Category 2 Rules are not obviously lawful or unlawful, and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the rule would interfere with rights guaranteed by the NLRA, and if so, whether any adverse impact on those rights is outweighed by legitimate justifications. General Counsel Robb identified the following examples of types of Category 2 Rules:

  • Broad conflict-of-interest rules that do not specifically target fraud and self-enrichment and do not restrict membership in, or voting for, a union;
  • Confidentiality rules broadly encompassing “employer business” or “employee information” (as opposed to confidentiality rules regarding customer or proprietary information, or confidentiality rules more specifically directed at employee wages, terms of employment, or working conditions);
  • Rules regarding disparagement or criticism of the employer (as opposed to civility rules regarding disparagement of employees);
  • Rules regulating use of the employer’s name (as opposed to rules regulating use of the employer’s logo/trademark);
  • Rules generally restricting speaking to the media or third parties (as opposed to rules restricting speaking to the media on the employer’s behalf);
  • Rules banning off-duty conduct that might harm the employer (as opposed to rules banning insubordinate or disruptive conduct at work, or rules specifically banning participation in outside organizations); and
  • Rules against making false or inaccurate statements (as opposed to rules against making defamatory statements).

Category 3 Rules are generally unlawful because they would prohibit or limit NLRA-protected conduct, and the adverse impact on the rights guaranteed by the NLRA outweighs any justifications associated with the rule. The examples provided in the Memo of the types of rules that fall into this category include:

  • Confidentiality rules specifically regarding wages, benefits, or working conditions; and
  • Rules against joining outside organizations or voting on matters concerning the employer.

Prior to Boeing, employers had been far more hesitant to prohibit employee conduct when crafting handbook rules for fear that those rules could be construed as possibly infringinon employees’ Section 7 rights.  NLRB GC Robb’s Guidance Memorandum provides helpful clarity, with a detailed analysis and specific examples, as to how certain types of workplace rules would fall within the three-category analysis espoused by the Board in Boeing.  The Memorandum is particularly enlightening to employers as it foreshadows the manner in which a NLRB Regional Office would prosecute a potential unfair labor practice charge brought by an employee or union. Significantly, GC Robb expressly stated that Regions will not interpret ambiguities in rules against the drafter – this certainly benefits employers in any proceeding.  We expect this guidance to lead to fewer charges brought against employers in this arena, but only if employers heed the GC’s advice when drafting their employee handbooks.

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