These days, just about everyone is walking around with a device that can take pictures, videos, and audio recordings of anything at any time. In the workplace, this means employees can record conversations and events that take place at work. In most states, employees can record conversations they are having – including conversations with supervisors and co-workers – without disclosing that they are doing so. It can be done in secret, without breaking the law.
Many employers aren’t comfortable with the idea of employees making recordings or taking videos and pictures inside their facilities. They may have concerns about privacy or confidentiality. Or they may just not like the idea of this going on at work. Some employers have responded by instituting policies that prohibit such activities, and that provide for disciplinary action to be taken against employees who engage in them.
Are such policies legal? You may be tempted to respond, “Why wouldn’t they be? Doesn’t any property owner have the right to dictate what activities are allowed on his or her property?”
It’s not that simple when it comes to places of employment. This is because of a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act, or “NLRA”. This act guarantees the right of employees to engage in “concerted activity” for their mutual welfare or benefit. The National Labor Relations Board, which enforces the NLRA, has ruled that a blanket policy prohibiting ALL recording of workplace activities is illegal, because at least SOME such recordings might be part of a “concerted activity” that is protected by the NLRA.
For instance, if an employee wanted to take a picture of a message posted by the employer on a bulletin board, to share with her co-workers for the purpose of convincing them they needed to unionize, that could be considered protected activity under the NLRA. A broad policy that prohibited ANY picture taking on the employer’s property could therefore break the law, because it would prevent this kind of “concerted activity” by employees.
Prohibition of SOME kinds of recordings at work is fine. But employers need to be careful not to go too far. Be sure to consult with qualified employment counsel if you have questions about this area.

As with many other states, Ohio now permits its citizens to consume marijuana legally if it is validly prescribed by a physician for a medical condition. The question arises as to whether this has any implications for employment. Are employees who use medically prescribed marijuana protected from discharge for their marijuana usage? Are employers still permitted to have and enforce a “drug-free workplace” policy if it prohibits the consumption of legal, medically prescribed marijuana?

The legislation establishing Ohio’s medical marijuana law expressly protects employers in several ways. Employers are not required to permit or accommodate an employee’s use, possession, or distribution of medical marijuana. They may refuse to hire an individual due to his or her use, possession, or distribution of medical marijuana, and may discharge or otherwise discipline an existing employee for such use, possession, or distribution.

Employers may also establish or maintain a formal drug-free workplace program. And an employer may still discharge an employee for “just cause” if the employee uses medical marijuana in violation of the employer’s drug-free workplace policy. Moreover, the employee will be ineligible for unemployment compensation if the termination resulted from a violation of the employer’s drug-free workplace policy.

The administrator of workers’ compensation may still grant rebates and discounts on premium rates to employers that participate in a drug-free workplace program, and an employer maintains the right to defend against workers’ compensation claims where use of medical marijuana contributes to or results in injury.

Employers and employees should be aware, however, that the usage of medically prescribed marijuana can intersect with federal and state laws that prohibit disability discrimination, and that require employers to reasonably accommodate employee disabilities. If an employee uses medically prescribed marijuana as a result of having a disability, an employer considering an adverse employment action against such an employee must make it clear that the action is based on the employee’s marijuana usage, and not on the underlying disability that led to that usage.

This can be a very tricky area for employers and employees to navigate. If you have questions about a particular situation, or need help in crafting an appropriate employment policy, it is important to seek the guidance of a qualified employment attorney. And be careful out there!

Can an employer make deductions from employee wages?

On the face it, the answer seems obvious: Of course! Employers make deductions from employee wages on a routine basis. Common examples that come to mind are for federal and state tax withholdings, or for court-ordered garnishments. Sometimes, employees authorize other deductions, such as for insurance or union dues. All of these examples share a common trait: They exist for the benefit of the employee or a third party.

But what about when an employer unilaterally docks an employee’s wages for items that benefit the employer, such as for a uniform, a background check, or for damage to employer property caused by an employee?

Generally, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the law governing wages on a federal level, permits unilateral deductions that benefit the employer provided that those deductions do not reduce the employee’s wages below the minimum wage. This rule applies to both overtime non-exempt and exempt salaried employees, and employers who routinely reduce the wages of salary exempt employees below the federal requirement of $455 per week run the risk of losing the exemption.

While federal law may permit deductions from employee wages, applicable state laws can and often do restrict the ability of employers to make deductions that benefit the employer.  Ohio law prohibits employers from reducing the wages of employees for tools, damaged machinery, and uniforms absent written agreement with the employee. Going further than Ohio, Kentucky prohibits employers from deducting wages for things like breakage or property damage even when the employee authorizes the deduction. And of course, in both Ohio and Kentucky, employers should be wary of making deductions that reduce an employee’s wage to below the minimum wage.

The legality of deductions from employee wages is fact specific. Both employers and employees should be wary of wage deductions, as overzealous deductions could prove costly for pocketbooks and bottom lines.

In general, unemployment compensation is intended to provide relief for employees who involuntarily lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Ordinarily, therefore, employees who leave their jobs of their own accord do not receive unemployment benefits. But is there ever a circumstance when an employee can get unemployment after quitting or resigning?

The answer is yes. The law provides that if an employee quits “with just cause,” he or she can qualify for unemployment compensation benefits. What constitutes “just cause” for quitting one’s job? There are several ways in which this can occur.

First, there is the situation where an employee resigns because he or she is about to be discharged. The law provides that an employee who submits a resignation in lieu of being discharged is not disqualified from receiving benefits simply by virtue of the fact that he or she technically “resigned” his or her employment. An employee who is essentially told, “Resign or you will be fired,” can still get unemployment after resigning.

Secondly, if an employee’s terms or conditions of employment are made intolerable, that can constitute “just cause” for quitting. A good example of this is if an employee is forced to work in an atmosphere of pervasive sexual harassment that the employer refuses or fails to correct. In order to get unemployment in these circumstances, the employee will normally have to show that he or she first reported the intolerable working conditions, and gave the employer a fair opportunity to correct them.

Thirdly, if the employer makes significant changes to the employee’s compensation, or to key aspects of the employee’s job, and if those changes are disadvantageous to the employee, this can give the employee “just cause” to resign, and thus qualify him or her to receive unemployment after doing so. Some examples of this would be if an employee receives a demotion, or experiences a significant cut in pay, or if the employer imposes a significant travel requirement in the job that the employee previously did not have.

Like so much else in the law, the question of whether or not an employee can receive unemployment compensation when they resign is not always clear, cut and dried. Both employers and employees can benefit from having good legal counsel when confronted by these issues.

Social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn are commonly used by employees to provide updates about their professional careers and business activities. When posting about such things, most people probably don’t think about whether they might be breaching a contract they made with a previous employer. They should.

There have recently been several cases filed by former employers against ex-employees, alleging that the employees have violated a non-competition agreement or non-solicitation agreement through their social media posts. In one such case, filed in Minnesota, an employee who had left her employer to work for a competitor filed a post on LinkedIn about her new job, inviting people in her social network to contact her for a “quote,” telling them that her new company was the “best,” and inviting them to “connect” with her. The court held that this “post” was really a sales pitch on the employee’s part, and that it violated the terms of a non-solicitation agreement she had with her previous employer.

In another case, an employee was sued by his former employer for sending a LinkedIn invite to his former co-workers to join his network. Anyone who accepted the invite would see a job posting for the employee’s new employer. His former employer considered this to be a “solicitation” by the former employee of its current employees, in violation of a clause in  the employee’s non-solicitation agreement. Here, the court found that the employee had not violated his agreement, ruling that the post was simply a “status update” rather than a “solicitation,” despite the link to the job posting.

These cases illustrate that merely accepting or sending a friend request on Facebook, or updating a LinkedIn profile, will not violate a non-compete or non-solicitation agreement. However. social media posts aimed at a specific population, or focused on former colleagues or customers, may be actionable. Former employees bound by non-compete or non-solicitation agreements should be very careful when using social media platforms, especially if they intend to engage in promotional activity. Anything more than a mere status update or generic invitation to join a social media group may get the employee in serious legal trouble.

Therefore, employees who have signed non-compete or non-solicitation agreements should understand the scope and reach of those agreements before engaging their social media network. And employers seeking to enforce their contractual rights should be mindful of activity their ex-employees may be engaged in on social media.

Stephen E. Imm, Labor and Employment Attorney

The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is the Federal law that requires most employers to pay at least the “minimum wage” to their employees, and to pay employees 1 1/2 times their “regular” rate of pay (called “overtime pay”) when they work more than 40 hours a week.

However, there is a long list of “exemptions” to the overtime requirements contained in the FLSA. In other words, various types of employees – such as outside salespeople, executives, and professionals, just to name a few – are exempt from the requirement that workers be paid overtime for working in excess of 40 hours in a week.

Since 1945, it had been the law that these “exemptions” to the overtime requirement were to be “narrowly construed.” This generally meant that workers were considered to be covered by the Federal overtime law unless it was very clear that they fell within one of the listed exemptions. Doubts about whether or not a particular type of worker fell within an “exemption” would be resolved in favor of the worker, rather than the employer – i.e. such workers would not be considered “exempt,” and would be entitled to overtime.

That 70-year old rule was abruptly changed earlier this month by the US Supreme Court, in a case called Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro. There, in a 5 to 4 decision, the Court threw out the “narrow construction” rule that had limited the applicability of exemptions to the overtime requirement. Courts are now instructed to interpret exemptions “fairly” instead of “narrowly.”

This decision will have literally enormous implications on overtime lawsuits. As a general matter, the ruling will make it more difficult for employees to prove that they fall into one of the exemptions provided by the FLSA, and thus more difficult to prove that they are owed overtime pay. In the final analysis, fewer workers than before are likely to be considered “exempt” from the overtime requirement, which could prove to be a major boon to employers.

If you have any questions about your rights or obligations under the FLSA, either as an employer or as an employee, it is critically important that you consult with a competent employment law attorney. This is an area in which it is extremely easy to make a costly mistake if you are not careful!

For more information, contact Stephen E. Imm at (513) 943-5678.

Ohio employment law attorney addresses the #MeToo movement and the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace next Tuesday, April 10 at 7 PM before Empower U at the Empower U studio at 225 Northland Blvd., Cincinnati, OH 45246.

Here is the Empower U summary of the course:

Harvey Weinstein . . . Al Franken . . . .Kevin Spacey . . . Aziz Ansari . . . .Louis CK . . . . Garrison Keillor . . . the #MeToo Movement . . . These stories and countless others like them have caused an enormous change in how sexual harassment is viewed in America, and how it is addressed by employers and employees. What can the rest of us learn from Hollywood’s Harassment Problem?
This course is literally as timely as today’s headlines! We will be discussing in detail the implications of the recent explosion in sexual harassment allegations against prominent celebrities, businessmen, politicians, and judges – yes, Judges. Attendees will learn what each of us can do to make sure that we and our companies are not in the news ourselves – six weeks, six months, or six years from now. Among the specific topics we will analyze and discuss are:

How can an employer best protect itself from sexual harassment claims in the Harvey Weinstein era?

What are the implications of the #MeToo movement for the modern workplace?

What is “sexual harassment”? What does that term actually mean in the law, as opposed to what it means in ordinary conversation?

When is a company or employer legally responsible or liable for sexual harassment committed by one of its employees?

How does the term “hostile work environment” relate to sexual harassment?

What differences exist between sexual harassment committed by a supervisor or manager, and harassment committed by a lower-level employee?

Can an employer be held legally responsible or liable for sexual harassment committed against one of its employees by an individual who is NOT an employee of the Company?

What written policies should an employer have in place regarding sexual harassment, and how should those policies be communicated to its employees?

What does a proper internal investigation of a sexual harassment complaint look like?

How is sexual harassment analyzed when the alleged harassment involves people of the same sex?

The course is free.  You can register through this link.  You can watch virtually by logging into this site after 6:50 PM.

Thanks for Steve Imm and to Empower U for bringing this important course.

Attorney Stephen E. Imm

Finney Law Firm attorney Stephen E. Imm will present to Cincinnati’s Empower U on April 10, 2018 on the topic:  “What Employers Can Learn From Hollywood’s Sexual Harassment Problem.”

The seminar will be presented at the EmpowerU studios at 225 Northland Blvd., Cincinnati, OH 45246 at 7 PM.

Empower U was founded by our firm client and friend Daniel Reginald of Frame USA to provide a full annual program of free education programs to empower citizens to understand and impact their communities.

They have invited experienced employment law attorney Stephen Imm to speak on April 10 on the hottest topic in America today: Sexual harassment in the workplace.  Steve Imm has more than 30 years of experience working on employment law issues and so the #MeToo movement is old hat to him.

We will send sign-up information as it becomes available.  Please plan on joining us for this free seminar.

The term “sexual harassment” is in constant use these days. Hardly a day goes by without a new story about a politician, celebrity, athlete, businessman, or even judge being accused of it. But what exactly does the term “sexual harassment” mean?

The term means something different in the law than it does in ordinary conversation. If we hear an employee made a sexually inappropriate comment in front of coworkers, or hear that he told a sexually explicit joke in the workplace, we are likely to say or think, “That’s sexual harassment.” And most people would understand what we mean, and would agree with our description.

But that’s not what the law means when analyzing a court case of “sexual harassment.”

Why the difference? And what is the legal definition of “sexual harassment?”

Basically, there are two types of sexual harassment under the law. One is called “quid pro quo.” This is a Latin phrase meaning “this for that.” In a quid pro quo case of harassment, the receipt of employment benefits (such as keeping one’s job, getting a promotion, etc.) is made to hinge on granting sexual favors. A classic case of quid pro quo sexual harassment would be an employee being fired because she wouldn’t go out with her boss. The conditioning of benefits in a quid pro quo case doesn’t have to be explicit. In fact, it rarely is. More often the “quid pro quo” is implied, rather than stated openly. Either way, it is completely illegal.

The other type of sexual harassment is called a “hostile work environment.” In this case, the employee is not pressured to give in to sexual advances in order to keep her job or obtain benefits, but rather is subject to a pattern of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. The behavior is usually sexual in nature, and has the effect of causing employees of a certain gender – usually women – to feel threatened, humiliated, or harassed at work. Examples include physical acts like unwanted touching, and non-physical behavior like lewd comments or “jokes,” and the display of sexuality explicit material.

A legal case for a “hostile work environment” requires that the offensive behavior be “severe or pervasive.” The occasional inappropriate joke or comment usually will not – by itself – be enough to create what the law considers a hostile work environment. But if it is happening every other day it can be a different story. And if the behavior crosses over into the physical – unwelcome touching or assault, for instance – or if the language used is physically threatening, a “hostile work environment” can be created by even a single act.

These lines – such as between what is “severe or pervasive” and what isn’t – can sometimes be difficult to see. Both employees and employers should reach out to qualified employment counsel to understand these issues and protect their rights. Now more than ever.

Let’s say a retail store is experiencing a high volume of theft. It suspects that some of its inventory loss may be due to employee theft. So it decides to start searching its employees when they leave the store. This is being done randomly, and is not necessarily based on individualized suspicion of particular employees. Can the employer do this? Is it legal? If so, exactly how far can an employer go in searching its employees?
There is a huge difference in this area of the law between government employers and private employers. Government employers are subject to the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. This means that a government employer normally may not search an employee, or his/her personal effects, without “probable cause” to believe the employee has done something wrong.
Private employers, however, are not bound by the fourth amendment. They therefore have a much freer hand when it comes to employee searches. Since the worksite is the property of the employer, it ordinarily has the right to inspect any part of that property – desks, lockers, computers, etc. – when it sees fit to do so. This is not an unlimited right, however. The employer cannot, of course, go into areas where its employees have a justifiable expectation of privacy, such as bathrooms.
But what about searching employees’ purses or bags or briefcases while the employees are on the employer’s property? This is a little trickier. If an employer has clearly informed its employees, in advance of any searches, that their personal belongings may be subject to search while they are on the employer’s premises, then it is likely that the employees do not have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” with respect to those articles when they are at work. Accordingly, under those circumstances the search of an employee’s personal effects typically will not violate the employee’s rights. Employers must clearly communicate, however, that they reserve the right to conduct these searches. This can be done in an employee handbook, or by clearly posted signs in the workplace, such as in a break room or other common areas.
If employees are not informed in advance that their personal effects may be searched while on the employer’s property, an employer’s search of such items as purses or briefcases might be considered illegal by a court.
Employers should keep in mind, however, that just because it can conduct a particular search doesn’t mean that it should. As a matter of good employee relations, employers should always be respectful of their employees, and should think carefully before subjecting them to searches that a reasonable person would consider unduly intrusive.
If you have questions or concerns about your rights in this area, whether as an employer or employee, be sure to consult competent legal counsel before taking any action or making any decisions.