Los Angeles County Requires Employers to Provide Paid Leave for Employees to Get Vaccinated

On May 18th, Los Angeles County passed an emergency ordinance requiring employers within unincorporated areas of the county to provide employees with up to 4 hours of paid leave (in addition to ordinary Paid Sick Leave and the state-wide Covid-19 Supplemental Paid Sick Leave (SPSL) which took effect in March, 2021.

This applies to all employers, regardless of size of workforce. Full-time employees are defined as either those designated by the employer as full-time, or who were scheduled to work on average at least 40 hours per week in the two weeks preceding the leave. Again, these employees are entitled to take up to 4 hours of paid leave for each vaccination injection.

Part-time employees are entitled to a prorated portion of additional paid leave for vaccination. For example, a part-time employee who worked 20 hours in the two weeks preceding the leave are entitled to just 2 hours of additional vaccination leave.

Additional details:

  • This leave is only available to employees who have fully exhausted all California Paid Sick Leave and SPSL;
  • Employers can request written verification of Covid-19 vaccination;
  • Employees receive their normal rate of pay for this leave, which may be calculated by using the employee’s highest average two-week pay from January 1 – May 18, 2021.
  • Covered employers must “conspicuously display” a written notice of this ordinance; and
  • Covered employers must maintain records demonstrating compliance with this ordinance for four (4) years; failure to provide these records creates a presumption of noncompliance.
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Sure You Can Require Employees to Arbitrate Claims, But Should You?

California currently permits employers to require workers to submit claims arising from their employment to binding arbitration. Excluded are workers’ compensation controversies or disputes relating to employee benefit plans; but most other disputes, including claims of discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wage-hour violations may be arbitrated, outside of court. Before taking the arbitration plunge, however, I urge my clients to give careful consideration to the following points before requiring their employees to submit to mandatory arbitration.

 

Pros of Mandatory Arbitration

Arbitrator, Not Jury, Decides the Case

The biggest advantage of arbitration for business defendants is the fact that both liability (i.e., whether you did anything wrong) and damages (what is the employee owed) are decided by a single (usually) arbitrator rather than a panel of jurors who are generally relative strangers to the legal process and who invariably bring their own experiences into the decision-making process. Some jurors have concealed bitterness toward institutions in general and employers in particular. They bring this into the deliberations and it injects uncertainty and risk for the employer defendant.

If the claim is submitted arbitration, the parties generally, though not always, agree upon an arbitrator. If the parties cannot agree, there are mechanisms available for the court or an Alternative Dispute Resolution provider to select the specific arbitrator. Any arbitrator I agree upon will be a retired judge with demonstrated expertise in employment law. I spend time researching potential arbitrators and this often includes informal input from other employment lawyers on their experience with the arbitrator.

Arbitrators are typically less likely to inject huge bias against the employer and can be skeptical of an employee’s claims, particularly if they strain credibility. If the arbitrator is a retired judge, he/she will have seen literally thousands of witnesses on the stand demonstrating various degrees of (dis)honesty and will have a much better handle on this than an average juror. Arbitrators are far less likely to award punitive damages and the damages award in general may be more carefully tailored to the facts of the case. Put another way: some jurors don’t know the value of a buck.

Confidentiality

As a general matter, employers tend to prefer not to air dirty laundry in public. Arbitration creates an avenue for private resolution of disputes without making the evidence or outcome public. Sealing testimony, documents or rulings in the civil court system is extraordinarily difficult if a case proceeds through trial to verdict or appeal.

Predictability

When a court schedules a case for trial, this almost always represents the court’s best estimate when it can try the case. It is never set in stone and, as a consequence, a trial can be continued multiple times resulting in duplicative last-minute preparation, increased cost and witness unavailability. Additionally, even when a trial commences, there are long hours where the parties and their attorneys sit in the hallway waiting for the court to attend to unrelated emergency matters, late jurors, late witnesses or other issues.

When an arbitration is scheduled, it is considered a firm date. Not to say that continuances never occur, but it is generally not for the convenience of the arbitrator. Judges are chiefly concerned with the welfare of the jurors; arbitrators are concerned about the convenience of the parties and lawyers, since they rely on lawyers for their reputation and repeat business. Additionally, arbitration hearings can be scheduled as long as the parties are comfortable, generally between 8 or 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. on successive days, which results in an overall shorter hearing than a trial with continuous interruptions.

Ability to Preclude Class Actions

It is legal to preclude arbitration of class actions. This can be a huge positive for large-scale employers, such as chain retailers, because it prevents employees from banding together and multiplying their claims under a single action. Lawyers interested in pursuing class-action lawsuits are far less interested in pursuing a single plaintiff lawsuit with the same allegations because the upside attorney fee potential is minimal. For most smaller employers, 100 employees or less, this is not as important since meaningful class actions are less common.

No Right of Appeal

As demonstrated below, this is either a pro or con depending on how the arbitration hearing is conducted and the award. However, there are extremely limited bases to seek review of an arbitrator’s ruling or award. This can cut off the right of an employee who is unsatisfied with the award to drag the process (and costs) on and on with one or more appeals.

Cons of Mandatory Arbitration

Cost

Arbitration is incredibly expensive for employers. This is primarily because, under California law, the employer must pay 100% of the arbitrator’s fee. To better understand this burden, consider a recent case in which I spent hours trying to hunt down a high quality, but reasonably-priced, arbitrator for an employment lawsuit involving discrimination and wage-hour claims. I could not find a retired judge below $700/hour and most were higher, with at least one charging $1,200/hour. For a 5-day arbitration hearing—which is not overly long if there are witnesses—my client was required to deposit approximately $50,000 three months before the arbitration hearing date. This is money that, regardless how well my client did at the hearing itself, it would never see again. Arbitrators cannot order a losing employee to pay any part of the arbitration fees to the employer. In my humble view, this cost can amount to denial of due process.

Study Suggests Employees Actually Do Better in Arbitration

Notwithstanding my suggestion that arbitrators tend to be more conservative than jurors, a 2019 study by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform found that employees actually do better in binding arbitration.

No Right of Appeal

If the arbitrator makes a ruling that is against the applicable law, and it harms the employer’s case, there is no way to challenge the ruling.

Inability to Control Admission of Certain Evidence

This factor may or may not be important. However, if there is a very bad piece of evidence for the employer, such as an email or a hearsay statement that would not, under proper application of the rules of evidence, be seen or heard by the trier of fact (i.e., the jury), it is effectively impossible to prevent the arbitrator from knowing about it, since he/she must know about it to decide whether it is admissible. If he/she excludes it as evidence, while he/she should not consider it, as a practical matter there is no way to “un-ring the bell.”

Loose Application of the Rules of Evidence

Some arbitrators do not rigidly apply the rules of evidence. This injects uncertainty into the hearing and outcome, which is not usually good for employers.

Conclusion

On balance, I believe arbitration is a fantastic way to resolve disputes rapidly, particularly for large-scale employers where cost is less of a factor, preventing class actions is a major concern or where confidentiality is important. For employers that do not strictly fit this description, however, I cannot recommend mandatory arbitration because even the smallest dispute is likely to cost tens of thousands of dollars in arbitrator’s fees. As a consequence, an employer can be forced to settle a defensible case because it will cost more to pay for the arbitration.

Employers wishing to further explore this question should contact their experienced employment law counsel or [email protected]

 

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No One You Know Should Be Sued For Disability Discrimination

Counseling clients to avoid exposure for disability discrimination can be a prickly business. Consider the following scenario.

Your client operates a small manufacturing concern. Every worker at the widget factory, from the owner to the janitor, takes lunch together at noon, every day. It has been that way every day since your client’s father opened the doors 45 years ago. This is because the factory operates as an assembly line, and it requires everyone’s simultaneous involvement.

One day, an employee, “Sam,” shares that he saw his doctor for vision problems and learned he has Type 2 Diabetes. Your client mutters some sympathetic words (not entirely sure about Diabetes or its different types), and the worker goes on to say that, owing to his Diabetes, he must eat more frequently. He wonders if, perhaps, he could break for lunch at 11 o’clock rather than noon.

Your client knows this is an absurd proposition, given the assembly line. Nonetheless, he says he’ll consider the request and they wander back to the factory floor. A week passes. Two. Sam continues to join everyone for lunch at noon. He does not raise the need to eat early again. However, his diabetic symptoms remind him daily that he needs to break and eat earlier. He gets shaky and light-headed. Not only is he physically uncomfortable, he is growing resentful. Each day that passes is a day closer to when he quits (or is “constructively terminated”) because he needs to eat earlier and your client has forgotten his request.

This describes an actionable case of “disability discrimination” or, at the very least a case of “failure to engage in the interactive process” (yes, that is a separate cause of action). What happens next is anyone’s guess, but it probably doesn’t end well for your client. If he had asked your advice, would you have known what to say? If not, read on.

Duties in this area are triggered when your client learns an employee has a “disability.” California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) defines disability to include a physical or mental disability, or medical condition. While “medical condition” encompasses a limited list of conditions, “physical disability” is read expansively, to include any condition that “limits a major life activity.”

While “mild” conditions, such as a common cold, non-migraine headaches and nonchronic gastrointestinal disorders do not meet the standard, the case law makes clear that FEHA has no durational requirement and even a passing condition may qualify. Employers tempted to define disability too narrowly must know that it has even been found to include uncorrected severe myopia (nearsightedness) and monocular vision.

Back to the widget factory. Sam was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. A disability? Some would argue his condition affects the digestive, hemic and endocrine systems and, because eating is a “major life activity,” Type 2 Diabetes limits a major life activity and thus qualifies as a disability.
Assuming Sam has a disability, this knowledge triggered a duty by your client to “engage in the interactive process” in order to reasonably accommodate Sam if he could perform the essential function of his job with an accommodation.

What does the interactive process look like? It is a “discussion about an applicant’s or employee’s disability — the applicant or employee, health care provider and employer each share information about the nature of the disability and the limitations that may affect his or her ability to perform the essential job duties.”

The best practices for the interactive process include the following:

• Review the accommodation request;
• Obtain written medical release(s) or permission from the employee to obtain records and communicate with providers;
• Request the employee provide documentation from the his/her/their health care or rehabilitation professional regarding the nature of the impairment, its severity, the duration, the activities limited by the impairment(s) and the extent to which the impairment(s) limits the employee’s ability to perform the job’s essential duties/functions.

At the widget factory your client didn’t do any of this. This failure to engage in the process by itself supports an action and damages under FEHA.
Imagine if your client had engaged in the interactive process with Sam. They would have explored whether it was possible to “accommodate” Sam’s disability. The California Government Code and regulations provide guidance on reasonable accommodation. These include:

• Making facilities readily accessible to and usable by disabled individuals (e.g., providing accessible break rooms, restrooms or reserved parking places, etc.);
• Job restructuring;
• Offering modified work schedules;
• Reassigning to a vacant position;
• Acquiring or modifying equipment or devices;
• Adjusting or modifying examinations, training materials or policies;
• Providing qualified readers or interpreters;
• Allowing assistive animals on the worksite;
• Altering when and/or how an essential function is performed;
• Modifying supervisory methods;
• Providing additional training;
• Permitting an employee to work from home; and
• Providing paid or unpaid leave for treatment and recovery.

But, there are limits to this duty. FEHA does not obligate an employer to choose the best accommodation or the specific accommodation an employee or applicant seeks. They are not required to accommodate a worker’s medical marijuana use. Moreover, they are not required to provide an accommodation that causes the business to suffer “undue hardship,” defined as an action requiring “significant difficulty or expense” when considered in light of at least the following factors:

• Nature and cost of the accommodation weighed against tax credits, deductions or outside funding; and
• Nature, size and resources of business and accommodation’s impact on other employees.

At the widget factory, Sam’s desired accommodation was to break an hour earlier for lunch so that he would not feel shaky from a drop in blood sugar. On its face, this was not unreasonable, particularly given that a “shaky,” “light-headed” factory worker can endanger himself or others. Unfortunately, your client did not give this much thought. He clearly did not engage with Sam to explore potential (alternative) accommodations.

To be clear, it may be that your client cannot accommodate Sam. His proposal to allow him an early break might have proven unreasonable, given how the assembly line operates. If all possible accommodations would cause your client undue prejudice (applying the factors above), then it is unfortunate but Sam will need to find other work. Included in this equation is the principle that employers need not create a new position to accommodate a disabled applicant or employee. Thus, your client need not create a job for Sam in Accounting, where he can break early to eat without disrupting the assembly line. But the interactive process must be thorough and well-documented before this conclusion is reached without exposing your client to possible liability.

This law is nuanced. Unless your client has an experienced human resource professional, it might be a good idea to involve employment counsel, at least at the outset. The concepts and obligations may be unfamiliar, and the stakes are high. At least you can now rest easy knowing that you have some basic understanding of the risks in this area, and you can help your clients avoid disability discrimination liability. (This article originally appeared in the April, 2021 issue of the Santa Barbara Lawyer.)

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Calif. Governor Signs Employment Laws Related to COVID-19 Exposure

On September 17, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law two critical pieces of legislation. Assembly Bill (AB) 685, which imposes certain notification obligations on employers when one or more employees test positive for COVID-19, takes effect January 1, 2021. Senate Bill (SB) 1159 expands employees’ rights to workers’ compensation benefits and also imposes a significant new reporting deadline when an employee tests positive for COVID-19. SB 1159 takes effect immediately.

AB 685 Notice Requirements

Assembly Bill 685 imposes important notification requirements when employers discover that one or more employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19. More specifically, the new law sets forth the following notice requirements:

Within one (1) business day of a “potential exposure” based on a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a workplace, an employer must:

• Provide written notice to all employees, employers of subcontracted employees and employee representatives, including unions who were at the worksite within the infectious period who may have been exposed o COVID-19.

• Provide written notice to employees and/or their representatives regarding COVID-19-related benefits that employees may receive, including workers’ compensation benefits, COVID leave, paid sick leave and the employer’s anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies.

• Provide notice to employees regard the employer’s disinfection protocols and safety plan.

Written notice under the law may be made by personal delivery, text message and/or email, provided that it can be reasonably anticipated to be received within one (1) business day. It must also be in English and the language understood by the majority of employees.

AB 685 also requires employers who have a sufficient number of COVID-19 positive cases that meet the definition of a COVID-19 outbreak (as defined by the Cal. State Dept. of Health), to report certain information to the employer’s local health agency within forty-eight (48) hours of learning of the outbreak.

The requirements of AB 685 do not apply when the employee(s) who test positive for COVID-19 work remotely. Again, AB 685 takes effect January 1, 2021.

SB 1159 – Disputable Presumption

SB 1159 has two important components related to employees who test positive for COVID-19. First, it creates a “disputable presumption” that an illness or death resulting from COVID-19 arose out of and in the course and scope of employment for workers’ compensation purposes. This presumption covers cases in which the worker tested positive from July 6, 2020 through January 1, 2023. Thereafter, the presumption will no longer apply.

In order for the presumption to apply: (1) the positive test for COVID-19 must occur within 14 days after a day that the employee worked at the employer’s place of employment; (2) the day of work was on or after July 6, 2020; and (3) the positive test must have occurred during a period of an outbreak at the employee’s place of employment.

Important for this presumption, an “outbreak” exists if, within 14 days, one of the following occurs at the place of employment: (1) if the employer has <100 employees at a specific site, 4 employees test positive for COVID-19; (2) if the employer has >100 employees, 4% of the employees test positive for COVID-19; (3) a specific place of employment is ordered to close by a local public health department, the State Dept. of Public Health, Div. of Occupational Safety and Health or a school superintendent due to a risk of infection with COVID-19.

SB 1159 – Reporting Requirements

SB 1159 also creates new reporting requirements. When an employer knows or reasonably should know that an employee has tested positive for COVID-19, the employer must report that fact to its workers’ compensation claims administrator within three (3) business days, via email or fax.

The information to be reported includes: (1) that an employee has tested positive (no personally identifiable information regarding the employee, unless he/she asserts the infection is work-related or has filed a claim); (2) the date the employee tested positive; (3) the address of the specific place of work during the 14-day period preceding the positive test; and (4) the highest number of employees who reported to work at the employee’s specific place of employment in the 45-day period preceding the last day the employee worked at each specific place of employment.

What Employers Should Do Now

Employers should immediately become familiar with these new requirements. Employers with any questions about these new laws should contact their employment law professional.

The Law Offices of Alex Craigie helps employers throughout California prevent, address and resolve employment disputes in a logical and cost-effective manner. Reach us at (323) 652-9451, (805) 845-1752 or at [email protected]

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July 1st Minimum Wage Hikes in Several California Locales

Certain California cities and counties are increasing the minimum hourly wage for nonexempt employees effective July 1st! Please see the list below to determine if your business or California-situated employees are affected. Many regulations differentiate between businesses with 25 or fewer employees and those with 26 or more employees.

Location                          25 or fewer employees    26 or more employees

California statewide

(no change)                      $11.00                               $12.00

Los Angeles city              $13.25                               $14.25

Los Angeles county         $13.25                               $14.25

Malibu city                      $13.25                               $14.25

Pasadena city                   $13.25                               $14.25

San Diego (no change)    $12.00                               $12.00

San Francisco                  $15.59                               $15.59

Santa Monica                   $13.25                               $14.25

Palo Alto                          $15.00                               $15.00

What Employers Should Do

  • Make sure that, by July 1st, your nonexempt employees are paid at least the minimum wage applicable to your California city or county.
  • Make sure that any employees you classify as “exempt” are properly classified, based on the applicable state and federal criteria. If in doubt, consult with your qualified employment law counsel.
  • Be aware that, out-of-state employers with in-state employees must comply with California state, as well as any applicable county or city laws for those in-state employees.
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Cal Supreme Ct Announces New “Regular Rate” When Paying Overtime in Pay Periods in Which a Flat Bonus is Paid

On March 5, 2018, the California Supreme Court, in Alvarado v. Dart Container Corp., announced a new formula to determine an employee’s “regular rate” for overtime purposes when the worker received a flat bonus during the pay period. This post discusses this important new holding.

Background on Overtime Compensation and the “Regular Rate”

Most employers understand that, in California, employees are entitled to be paid overtime after working eight hours in any workday, 40 hours in any workweek, and on the seventh consecutive day of work in any workweek. The overtime rate is calculated at 1.5 times the employee’s “regular rate” after 8 hours and 2 times the “regular rate” after 12 hours on any workday or after the eighth hour on the seventh consecutive day in any workweek.

But many employers do not have a strong grasp of the formula involved in determining an employee’s “regular rate” used to calculate her overtime premium pay. Many improperly assume it is simply the worker’s base hourly rate. However, when calculating the “regular rate,” employers must also consider “remuneration” for work performed, with specific payments excluded—such as reimbursed expenses, reporting-time premiums, vacation or holiday pay, or discretionary bonuses—divided in any pay period by the total number of hours actually worked.

The following example, drawn from a guide provided by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) is instructive:

For example, if an employee works 32 hours at $12.00 per hour and 10 hours during the same workweek at $10.50 per hour, the weighted average (and thus the regular rate for that workweek) is $11.64. This amount is calculated by adding the employee’s $489 straight-time pay for the workweek ((32 hours x $12.00/hour) + (10 hours x $10.50/hour) = $489) and dividing it by the 42 hours the employee worked ($489 / 42 hours =$11.64 per hour regular rate). The overtime premium of $5.82 (half the regular rate) is added to the employee’s wages for each one and a half overtime hour worked, and an additional overtime premium of $11.64 is added to hourly wages for each hour of double time earned.

Against this background, we discuss the California Supreme Court’s holding in Alvarado v. Dart Container Corp.regarding how to calculate an employee’s “regular rate” when she has received a flat rate bonus during the pay period. 

The AlvaradoCase and the Flat Rate Bonus

The plaintiff, Hector Alvarado, worked in the warehouse of Dart Container Corporation. To incentivize employees to work on weekends, Dart offered a $15 attendance bonus when any employee worked a full shift on a weekend day. The $15 “flat rate” bonus was paid regardless whether the employee worked any overtime hours. Alvarado sued Dart, claiming it had used an improper formula to calculate his “regular rate” for overtime in those pay periods in which he received at least one $15 attendance bonus.

Dart moved for summary judgment, which was granted and affirmed on appeal. However, after considering the formula Dart applied, as well as the formula set forth in the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) Manual, the California Supreme Court reversed, and embraced the following calculation methodology:

  1. Calculate the overtime compensation attributable only to an employee’s hourly wages by multiplying the employee’s hourly rate by 1.5 and by the number of overtime hours worked.
  2. Calculate the overtime premium attributable only to the employee’s bonus by dividing the bonus amount by the total non-overtime hours worked and multiplying that value by 1.5.
  3. Multiply the bonus overtime premium by total overtime hours worked and pay that amount in addition to the amount in step 1 as total overtime compensation.

This formula differs from the method used by Dart solely in that Dart divided the bonus amount by the total hours worked—both overtime and non-overtime. While this difference appears trivial, a failure to apply the proper formula will support a claim or lawsuit for unpaid wages. To make matters worse, the Supreme Court, acknowledging the “liberal construction” of California’s labor laws, held the new formula would be applied retroactively, as well as going forward.

What Should Employers Do

Employers who provide any type of nondiscretionary “flat rate” bonus, should immediately review and ensure their overtime “regular rate” calculation methodology is consistent with the new formula announced by the Alvarado v. Dart Container Corp. court. Given the complexity of this area of employment law, employers should consider working with their employment counsel in revising policies and methodology.

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The Importance of Severance and Release When Terminating Employees

Employers often find it difficult to justify, practically or emotionally, paying severance to an employee being terminated for cause. After all, employers ask, why compensate and reward a worker who broke the rules? It may be easier when the separation is a layoff, yet even under these circumstances, the company’s financial condition may constrain its ability to offer money to a separating employee, getting nothing but goodwill in return.

This Employment Law Bulletin briefly discusses severance and its primary justification: obtaining a release of any future employment law-based claims. We explain why best practices dictate employers set emotions aside in order to secure the protection provided by a release in exchange for a severance payment. We also discuss important issues related to the drafting and implementation of an enforceable severance agreement.

Why Offer Severance

There are sundry reasons an employer may want to offer severance to a separating employee: to reward a worker for years of loyalty; to cushion the blow of an unexpected layoff; to maintain goodwill in the community; or to preserve standing as a competitive, quality employer in the industry.

These are all sound reasons. They explain why employers might consider offering severance in many instances. But the single best reason why employers should offer severance to every terminated employee (i.e., one who is not leaving by her own volition) is the protection that a severance payment, combined with a well-drafted severance agreement, provides against a future claim or lawsuit.

Let’s begin by defining “severance.” In order to support a binding agreement in which the employee waives any claims, the severance must be compensation to which the employee wasn’t already entitled by virtue of her employment. Many employers we work with are surprised to learn that severance does not need to equal several months’ or even several weeks’ pay. This can be a particularly helpful point when considering offering severance to an employee terminated for lying or theft. The investment can be minimal. The peace purchased for merely a few hundred dollars (or less!) is always well worth the investment.

What Severance Buys You

Provided the agreement is properly drafted, signed and otherwise enforceable, the severance payment purchases a promise by the separating employee that she will not bring any claim or lawsuit, in a court or with a government agency, arising out of the employment relationship. Our typical California severance agreement expressly protects against seventeen (17) separate common law causes of action, as well as claims that could potentially be brought under eighteen (18) separate state and federal statutory schemes and regulations.

In fact, the only employment-related claim that cannot be expressly released by way of a severance agreement is one for unpaid wages, which can include reimbursement of expenses, overtime and waiting time penalties. Perhaps most importantly, most reasonably competent lawyers will abandon a claim, regardless of its apparent merits, where a potential client has signed an enforceable severance agreement with the former employer. In this way, for an investment of as little as a few hundred dollars, an employer can avoid incurring attorney’s fees and costs fighting a spurious claim.

The Elements of an Enforceable Severance Agreement

We cannot overstate the importance of having a knowledgeable employment law attorney draft your severance agreement. A severance agreement is a contract. In addition to pitfalls common to every type of contract, there are crucial drafting considerations unique to a severance agreement. This is particularly true if the separating employee is over 40-years-old. An agreement waiving any claims under the Older Workers’ Benefit Protection Act (“OWBPA”) must meet eight (8) statutory requirements, including providing the separating worker a 21-45 day period within which to consider the Agreement before signing it. Even then, the employee has seven (7) days to revoke the agreement. If the employer pays the severance before the expiration of the 7-day period, and the employee revokes the agreement, she may keep the payment and the employer is without recourse to recoup the funds!

In addition to an explicit waiver of any claims that could be brought under federal, state, common law, county, city or local ordinances, a severance agreement can and should provide other protections. Among these, we recommend clauses requiring confidentiality of the severance and prohibiting future disparagement of the employer and its management. It is generally a good idea also to include a clause in which the employee agrees not to apply for employment at any future time; this protects against future claims of discrimination in hiring.

The employee should never be pressured to sign the severance agreement, or to sign it “right away,” as this can provide a duress defense which may undermine the effectiveness of the agreement. It is also a good idea to include a severability clause so that, if an issue arises, a court can later “sever” out any portions of the agreement that are unlawful, rather than rendering the entire agreement unenforceable. A merger clause is also advisable, to prevent a terminated employee from claiming additional terms that are not included on the agreement itself.

Conclusion

California employers should always consider offering a severance when terminating an employee, provided the employee signs a well-drafted severance agreement waiving any claims arising out of the employment relationship. The severance payment need not be sizeable. However, it is crucial that the agreement be drafted properly. Employers with lingering questions should not hesitate to contact their experienced employment law counsel.

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The State of California Law with Regard to Considering an Applicant’s Criminal History

Employers may be already aware of the significant movement afoot to eliminate the consideration of an applicant’s criminal history, both from job applications and the interview, until a conditional offer of employment has been made. Variously termed “Ban the Box” or “fair chance” laws, the goal is to “ensure a fairer decision-making process” because, it is believed, anything that makes it harder for ex-offenders to find a job makes it more likely they will re-offend.

In California, the state of the law in this area is very much in flux. The purpose of this Bulletin is to discuss the current state of the law, including a new set of regulations issued in January, and provide a preview of pending legislation that is reasonably likely to be signed into law.

The Current Law

Under the current California laws and regulations, it is unlawful for an employer to consider the following from an applicant’s background record when hiring:

  • An arrest or detention that did not result in a conviction
  • A referral or participation in a pre/post-trial diversion program
  • A conviction that has been sealed, judicially dismissed, expunged or statutorily eradicated
  • An arrest, detention, etc. while the applicant was subject to the jurisdiction of a juvenile court (i.e., under 18 years of age)
  • Any non-felony conviction for possession of marijuana that is more than 2 years old
  • Any criminal history if it will result in an adverse impact on individuals within a protected class (commonly termed disparate impact discrimination)

Before an employer can refuse to hire based on an applicant’s criminal history, it must provide the applicant notice of the disqualifying conviction and an opportunity to show that it is factually inaccurate. If shown to be inaccurate, the conviction cannot be relied upon.

There are exceptions to these prohibitions for certain classes of employers, including health care facilities, that are required by law to screen prospective employees or prohibit hiring of individuals with criminal records.

Additionally, the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles have enacted their own “Ban the Box”-type ordinances with more stringent requirements/limitations than those described above.

Pending Legislation

Assembly Bill 1008, introduced on February 16, 2017, proposes to add a section to California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which would create new statewide restrictions on employers’ ability to make pre-hire decisions based on an applicant’s criminal history.

Under the proposed new law, employers:

  • Cannot include on an application any question that seeks disclosure of the applicant’s criminal history
  • Cannot inquire or consider an applicant’s criminal history before the applicant receives a conditional offer of employment
  • Cannot consider an applicant’s conviction of a misdemeanor where no jail time is possible
  • Cannot consider infractions or misdemeanor convictions older than 3 years
  • Cannot consider felony convictions older than 7 years
  • Must undertake an individualized assessment to determine whether a conviction has a “direct and adverse relationship” with the specific duties of the job sought before the applicant can be denied employment based on a conviction

If the employer decides, following this individualized assessment, to deny employment it must provide written notice that:

  • Identifies the specific conviction relied upon to deny employment
  • Provides a copy of the conviction history report
  • Provides examples of mitigation or rehabilitation evidence that the employer would consider
  • Provides notice of the applicant’s right to respond within 10 days

The applicant may then offer information that challenges the accuracy of the conviction or provide mitigation/rehabilitation evidence. In its current form, the bill requires the employer to consider any mitigation/rehabilitation evidence the applicant offers.

If the applicant does not respond to the first written notice, or upon receipt of the applicant’s response the employer still decides against hiring the applicant, it must provide a second written notice that:

  • Notifies the applicant of its final decision
  • Describes any existing internal procedure under which the applicant can challenge the employer’s decision
  • Discusses whether the applicant could be eligible for other positions at the company
  • Identifies the earliest date when the applicant can reapply to the employer for a position
  • Notifies the application of its right to file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH)

What Should Employers Do?

California employers should ensure that their hiring practices fully comply with existing California laws, which must include consideration whether they are also governed by the separate ordinances for the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Additionally, employers should monitor the progress and outcome of Assembly Bill 1008, and appropriately adjust their practices if it passes. Employers with lingering questions should not hesitate to contact their experienced employment law counsel.

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What Legalizing Recreational Marijuana Means for California Employers

Among the major issues decided by California voters this past November was Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized recreational use of marijuana by adults. While our state has permitted limited marijuana possession and use for medical reasons for roughly 20 years, expanding legalization to recreational use could further compound what may already seem a murky area for California employers. This post aims to help employers understand the new law and offers guidance as to how to deal with challenges employers may face.

Understanding Proposition 64

Proposition 64 legalizes possession and recreational use of up to 28.5 grams of marijuana and up to 8 grams of concentrated marijuana for adults 21 years old and over. Adults are also permitted to grow up to six marijuana plants at home in a locked area that is not visible from a public place. The law also imposes a 15% excise tax on marijuana sales and establishes a regulatory framework for the sale of marijuana.

However, marijuana remains an illegal Schedule I substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Even under California law, smoking or ingesting marijuana in public will remain unlawful, as will smoking or ingesting marijuana in places where smoking tobacco also is prohibited. Similarly, driving under the influence of marijuana remains illegal.

Does Proposition 64 Limit an Employer’s Power to Prohibit Marijuana?

No. The new law expressly says that nothing in the statute should be construed to affect the “rights and obligations of public and private employers to maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace or require an employer to permit or accommodate the use, consumption, possession, transfer, display, transportation, sale, or growth of marijuana in the workplace, or affect the ability of employers to have policies prohibiting the use of marijuana by employees and prospective employees…”

Therefore, even with the passage of Proposition 64, employers may continue to prohibit use, possession and impairment at work. In fact, certain employers are required to maintain a “drug-free” workplace, and the new law does nothing to change this. These include employers contracting with the government or who engage in commercial transportation.

California employers may continue to conduct pre-employment drug testing of all applicants before hire and deny employment if the drug test comes back positive, even if the applicant was legally using marijuana under the state’s Compassionate Use Act.

What Should Employers Do in Light of Proposition 64?

California employers should review and update workplace policies to ensure they clearly state the company’s drug-free workplace policy. With the new law, this should include a specific prohibition of possession or use of marijuana, in any form, in the workplace. Employees should also be reminded that impairment on the job will not be tolerated, even if the impairment resulted from use of an otherwise legal substance (alcohol, marijuana) off site.

If an employer’s policies include pre-employment drug testing, applicants should be informed that they will also be tested for marijuana use.

We recommend the drug-free workplace policy be followed evenly. Making exceptions for one employee tends to undermine the effectiveness of a zero-tolerance policy and may also provide support for disparate treatment claims.

Conclusion

Employers with lingering questions concerning their policies with Proposition 64 should not hesitate to contact their experienced employment law counsel.

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The US Dept. of Labor Requires Two Revised Workplace Posters

The U.S. Department of Labor has issued regulations requiring employers to post two revised workplace posters. The regulations took effect August 1, 2016.

The first new poster, “Employee Rights Under The Fair Labor Standards Act” poster, contains new information about the rights of nursing mothers under the FLSA to take reasonable breaks to express milk for a period of one year following birth of their child. It also instructs them that their employer must provide a workplace location shielded from view and free from intrusion. The location may not be a bathroom.

The new FLSA poster also contains a new section about independent contractor misclassification, as well as information in the “tip credit” section that instructs employers of tipped employees who meet certain conditions that they may claim a partial wage credit based on tips received. The poster, available in 10 different languages, is available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/posters/flsa.htm.

The second revised poster is the “Employee Rights—Employee Polygraph Protection Act” poster. The only substantive change to this poster was the removal of a reference to the amount of possible penalties. The new poster also contains new contact information for the DOL. This poster, available in English and Spanish, is available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/posters/eppa.htm.

Finally, for employers with 50 or more employees, the Department of Labor previously released an updated Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) poster in April, 2016. Unlike the FLSA and Employee Polygraph Protection Act posters, the updated FMLA poster contains substantial revisions. This revised poster, available in English and Spanish, is available at: https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/posters/fmla.htm.

Conclusion

Employers with questions concerning workplace posters mandatory under federal and state laws should not hesitate to contact their experienced employment law counsel. We can assist.

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Minimum Wage Hike and Sick Leave Enhancements in Los Angeles & San Diego

The cities of Los Angeles and San Diego approved ordinances that will increase the minimum wage and mandatory Paid Sick Leave starting this month.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed an ordinance that increases the minimum wage of employees who work in the City of Los Angeles for at least two hours in a particular week. Employers with 26 or more employees will pay $10.50 per hour effective July 1, 2016. Employers with fewer than 26 employees will continue to pay the state minimum wage of $10.00 until July 1, 2017, when their applicable minimum wage will climb to $10.50.

Los Angeles employers must also provide Paid Sick Leave up to 48 hours per year, which can be provided in a “front load” method, or an accrual method, accruing 1 hour of PSL for every 30 hours worked. This is twice the annual PSL required under California state law. Additionally, Los Angeles employers must allow employees to carry over accrued, but unused, sick leave up to a limit of 72 hours. Unlike the statewide PSL law, the Los Angeles ordinance expressly allows employers to require reasonable documentation of an absence from work for which PSL will be used.

There are stiff fines for noncompliance, including a $500 fine for failing to post the required notice.

San Diego

On June 7th, voters in San Diego voted to increase the city’s minimum wage to $10.50 immediately upon certification of the election results by the San Diego City Clerk, which could occur anytime. The minimum wage will increase to $11.50 per hour effective January 1, 2017. Further increases, keyed to San Diego’s Consumer Price Index, will occur beginning Jan. 1, 2019.

The ordinance also requires employers to provide employees with one hour of Paid Sick Leave for every 30 hours worked within the city limits. While employers may limit an employee’s use of PSL to 40 hours per year, they may not cap sick leave accrual.

As with Los Angeles, there are stiff penalties for noncompliance. Employers who fail to comply may face a civil penalty of up to $1,000. Failure to comply with the notice requirement face a penalty of $100 per employee, up to $2,000.

What you should do: Employers with any employees in the cities of Los Angeles or San Diego should immediately ensure their pay practices, sick leave practices and posted notices comply with the new ordinances. Your employment law counsel can help.

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Updated FLSA Minimum Salary Requirement for White Collar Exemption

Most employees are entitled to receive overtime premium pay when they work beyond a certain number of hours in a day or week. Under both state and federal law, certain employees, because of their job duties and compensation, can be considered “exempt” from overtime. The most common exemptions are the so-called “White Collar” exemptions, for executive, administrative and professional employees.

On May 18, 2016, the US Department of Labor published its Final Rule updating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to increase the minimum compensation required for an employee to be properly classified under one of the White Collar exemptions. The Final Rule increases the minimum salary level from its present $455 per week ($23,660 annualized) to $913 per week ($47,476 annualized). Employers can count nondiscretionary bonuses and commissions toward up to 10% of this annual minimum.

Importantly, all of the other stringent “duties” requirements for an employee to be considered exempt remain unchanged. Finally, the Rule, which becomes effective December 1, 2016, provides for automatic increases in the salary levels every three years (beginning January 1, 2020).

What you should do: This is an excellent time to evaluate whether exempt employees are properly classified. This means, not only determining whether they will meet the increased salary requirements, but equally important is evaluating whether their job duties meet the specifications set forth under the FLSA (and California Wage Orders). We encourage you to involve your employment law counsel in this important analysis.

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