Tag Archives: employment law

Why to Take a Positive View of Maternity Leaves

“We just hired her two months ago. Now she is telling us she is pregnant and will need three months off for the birth and for bonding with the child. Didn’t she have to tell us she was pregnant when we interviewed her? How are we supposed to run a business this way?” 

These sentiments of frustration are fairly common for employers in California, particularly those with fewer employees and less frequent encounters with maternity leaves of absence. Generally, these sentiments do not arise from hostility toward the employee or pregnancies in general, but rather from the difficulties the employer will face with staffing,  and the potential for increased  costs. These are real and legitimate concerns. Nevertheless, employers should consider taking a positive view of maternity leaves.

Taking a positive view begins with accepting that pregnant employees are protected by multiple laws. Disagreement with the laws should be directed toward the legislature, Congress and industry associations that lobby for employers. It should not be directed toward or communicated with employees. They did not create the laws, and raising disagreement or frustrations with them will only create bad evidence in pregnancy discrimination cases. 

Let’s look at some of the most basic rules.

Hiring

An employer cannot refuse to hire a woman because of her pregnancy or a pregnancy-related condition. Nor can an employer refuse to hire because co-workers, clients or customers have a negative view of a pregnant employee.

Pregnancy and Maternity Leave

An employer may not single out pregnancy-related conditions for special procedures to determine an employee's ability to work. Requiring a doctor's certification about the employee’s ability to work or the need for a leave of absence is permissible, but only if the employer requires similar certification for other kinds of medical issues and disabilities.

If an employee is temporarily unable to perform her job because of her pregnancy, the employer must treat her the same as any other temporarily disabled employee. The employee may also have the right to transfer to a different position. Pregnant employees must be permitted to work as long as they are able to perform their jobs.

As a general principle, employers must hold open a job for a pregnancy-related absence the same length of time jobs are held open for employees on sick or disability leave. But, even if the employer gives no time off for other leaves, a pregnant employee must be given as much as four months of leave while disabled by the pregnancy. Employers with 50 or more employees will also have to provide as much as 12 weeks of leave for bonding with the new child.

Health Insurance

Any health insurance provided by an employer must cover expenses for pregnancy-related conditions on the same basis as costs for other medical conditions. Employers must continue to pay for the health insurance during a pregnancy disability leave or mandated bonding leave on the same basis as though the employee were working.

Fringe Benefits

Pregnancy-related benefits cannot be limited to married employees. If an employer provides any benefits to workers on leave, the employer must provide the same benefits for those on leave for pregnancy-related conditions.

No Discrimination or Retaliation

It is unlawful to discriminate or retaliate against an employee for a pregnancy, for a leave of absence taken in relation to the pregnancy or for complaining about the employer’s policies or practices related to pregnancy.

These basic rules only scratch the surface of the details in the multiple and overlapping laws that apply to a pregnancy. Accordingly, it is often wise to get expert assistance when handling an employee pregnancy.  

It is also wise to carefully plan your communications related to the pregnancy. While poorly planned communication can create bad evidence, well-planned communications create positive energy and strengthen employee relations. 

Let’s take the example of an employer who is bothered because a new employee did not disclose that she was pregnant during the interview process. 

Taking a positive view requires the employer to understand that there are many legitimate reasons why an applicant might not tell. Fear of the employer’s reaction, desire to keep work and family matters separate and shame about an unwanted pregnancy are just a few. Wise employers can use this situation as an opportunity to set a positive tone, build openness and strengthen the relationship. It can start with a simple question asked in a friendly, non-threatening tone: “Is there a reason you did not tell us you were pregnant?” 

Where the conversation goes from there will vary. Here are a couple of possibilities:

Example 1: “I was concerned I would not get the job.” 

“That is understandable, but that’s not how we operate. In the future, we want you to feel comfortable that you can have open communications with us on this kind of thing or any matter. That’s the kind of employment relationship we want to have.”

Example 2: “I’m just private about my family things and did not think it was the company’s business.” 

“We understand and respect your desire for privacy. We are not going to try and become involved in your private affairs. On the other hand, your pregnancy is not entirely a private matter.  Because you will be taking time off from work, it has an impact on the company.  Communications and planning are important for the company. We want an employment relationship where you feel comfortable letting us know about family matters that directly affect the company because you know we are going to respect your privacy.”

Taking a positive view of pregnancies and maternity leaves may not be second nature for employers. The approach, however, will reduce the potential for the creation of bad evidence and increase the potential for high-quality employment relationships and the productivity and profit that result from them.

This article originally appeared in the Sacramento Business Journal.

Beware of Fee Shifting by Lawyers: The Hidden Danger of EPLI

Sometimes, it’s good to be a plaintiff’s attorney. Why? Fee shifting. You don’t need a big win in lawsuits where stat­utes allow the court to make the defendant pay the plaintiff’s legal fees. Even if the plaintiff only obtains a small award (as little as a dollar), a “win” entitles plaintiff’s counsel to submit fees to the defendant for reimbursement. It seems almost too good to be true! But that is what the law allows in most employment-related cases.

You might ask: What stops plaintiff’s counsel from submitting made-up or inflated fees for reimbursement? Nothing!

The plaintiff’s counsel submits the fee petition to the court, and the court is the only gatekeeper that decides the appropriateness of the request. In a perfect world, a court would review the fee petition carefully, scrutinizing counsel’s listed activities to make sure that those services were actually rendered and that the time billed to those activities was reasonable. But in the real world, courts usually only make reductions for entries or ac­tivities that are clearly duplicative, exorbitant or outrageous.

Based on these fee-shifting provisions, it is important to caution your clients that any employment claim, no matter how seemingly minor, can turn into a case that exhausts their insurance policy limits. For example, in a recent case in San Francisco (Kim Muniz v. United Parcel Service, Inc.), plaintiff Muniz had demanded $700,000 to settle her case. No settlement was reached, and the case went to trial. At trial, Muniz was only awarded $27,000. However, that award was soon followed by a $2 million fee petition by plaintiff’s counsel. The court reviewed the petition and reduced the fees submitted to approximately $700,000. Although the reduction was substantial, what was a minor victory for the plaintiff still resulted in a major victory for plaintiff’s attorneys.

When you add it all up, the bottom-line expenses for the employer in the Muniz matter would include the following: 1) plaintiff’s award of $27,000, 2) plaintiff’s counsel fee award of $700,000, and 3) estimated defense expenses at least equal to the plaintiff’s $700,000 fee and likely much more.

If your client had a $1 million employment practices liability policy, the policy would almost have been exhausted just by the client’s own defense expenses, leaving little to fund an award or the award of plaintiff’s attorney fees. Unless your client had other applicable insur­ance coverage, the client would have to dig into its own pocket.

What does this mean for your clients? It means that when clients seek insurance protection for employment-related lawsuits they should consider not only the potential award but also the possible fees for plaintiff’s attorneys if even $1 is awarded to the plaintiff. Even the smallest of victories for plaintiffs can still leave the employer holding the bag.

Buyers beware! Carefully consider your client’s EPLI coverage and ask yourself: Are their limits adequate? 

Skiing The Slippery Slope Of Employment Practices Liability In The Nonprofit Sector

One of your employees has been out on disability with a workers’ compensation injury and you have been getting great advice and service from your workers’ compensation carrier regarding managing the employee while out on leave. Ultimately, you are advised that it has been determined in the workers’ compensation case that the employee has reached maximum medical improvement (known as permanent and stationary in some states) and cannot return to her job due to a permanent disability. With regret, you terminate the employee since she is now receiving workers’ compensation vocational rehabilitation benefits and you have heard that workers’ compensation is the exclusive legal remedy for employees suffering workplace injuries.

Not so fast! If an employer has 15 or more employees, it is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or a state disability accommodation law with a different threshold for applicability. In this instance, even though you acted appropriately in terms of not discriminating based on a work-related injury in violation of workers’ compensation law, you have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to engage in the interactive process to determine if there is any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed the employee to return to work for you — perhaps in a different job. Failing to engage in the interactive process prior to terminating a disabled employee is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and would subject you to legal liability resulting from the termination.

Okay, so maybe you knew about that issue. But what about the other employment law moguls out there just waiting for you? Let’s explore some of the common — and maybe not so common — employment practices law issues that face nonprofits, how to guard against mistakes, what it can cost if you do err, and how insurance fits into the picture.

Timing Really Is Everything
Culled from the claims files of the Nonprofits’ Insurance Alliance of California (NIAC) and the Alliance of Nonprofits for Insurance (ANI), member companies in the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (NIA Group) that insures over 11,500 nonprofits around the country, here are just a few examples of seemingly appropriate terminations by 501(c)(3) nonprofits that failed to withstand scrutiny because of their timing.

  • A couple of disruptive employees whose paychecks had been withheld for failure to have reports done on time filed a complaint about not being paid and were then terminated. (Two strikes on this one!) First, most states prohibit withholding paychecks just for poor performance. Second, terminating these two employees after they complained resulted in valid claims under the state’s “whistleblower” laws.
  • A poorly performing employee complained of sexual harassment. A thorough investigation concluded no harassment had taken place. The employee was then terminated on performance grounds alone. Problem — no contemporaneous documentation of the alleged poor performance existed, so it appeared to the state administrative agency that the termination was a result of the harassment allegation because it followed closely behind the report of it.
  • A long-term employee of an elder daycare facility, who was a “mandatory reporter” under state law, filed a report with the state about inadequate staffing at the facility when an elderly client was left unattended and was found wandering around in traffic. She was terminated for not following “internal reporting procedures” (in this case a warning was the appropriate remedy, not immediate termination).

So What’s An Employer To Do?
Let’s start with the exposures under Employment Practices Liability (EPL) that give rise to liability claims. Both federal — and most state — laws proscribe the most commonly known unfair employment practices of wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination and ADA violations. Embedded in each of those categories, however, are some lesser known prohibitions and strict liabilities.

By now most everyone knows that in most jurisdictions you can’t terminate someone based on age, race, gender, or sexual preference. But what if a poor performing employee is the only one working for your nonprofit that’s in a protected category? Termination here may have the appearance of discrimination sufficient to subject you to administrative or civil exposure.

You know that sexual harassment is illegal and that procedures need to be in place to train supervisory and management personnel about its ins and outs. But what if you’re in a state that imposes strict liability on an employer, even if the employer didn’t know the harassment was occurring? Or what about a delivery person that’s been making inappropriate suggestions to your receptionist, or if the delivery person believes that one of your employees has been harassing him or her? That can get you into as much trouble as the typical case.

So, what to do? Defense of Employment Practices Liability claims starts with your agency having documented procedures in place that you and your counsel can use to demonstrate to an administrative agency or a court that you intended to be — and were — in compliance. This is best accomplished from the beginning with a robust personnel handbook that includes policy statements and procedures around at least 12 key subjects.

Twelve Components of a Model Personnel Handbook

Following are twelve components that we recommend all personnel handbooks contain:

  • Introductory Statements
  • Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment
  • Organization and Structure
  • Training and Orientation
  • Employee Classifications and Categories
  • Employment Policies, Including Wage and Hour Regulations
  • Benefits Disclaimer
  • Leaves of Absence and Time Off
  • Standards of Performance
  • Workplace Violence Prevention and Safety
  • Search and Inspection
  • Drug-Free Workplace

At a minimum, the handbook should include statements regarding at-will employment, probationary, introductory or benefit waiting periods, and examples of disciplinary offenses (always prefaced with “including, but not limited to” language). Always have employees sign a written acknowledgment that they have read and understand the policies, or you might as well not have created them in the first place.

Next comes training and adherence. Regardless of size, every nonprofit needs to train its management personnel about the employment laws relevant to their jurisdiction and the policies and procedures the agency has adopted. Include here any state mandates such as sexual harassment training for supervisory personnel. Then, walk the talk! Follow those policies and procedures diligently — every day. Oh, and did you remember to include your board members in the training? They are at risk as much as the Executive Director because they are ultimately responsible for the agency’s overall management.

The Old “Ounce Of Prevention”
The last, and most overlooked, step in Employment Practices Liability claim prevention is checking in with experienced employment counsel before taking a significant personnel action. A poorly drafted employment offer letter can bind you for a lot more than you thought. So can the improperly announced new personnel policy or procedure — even if it’s meant to be a “positive” for employees.

More than anything else, however, is every Employment Practices Liability defense lawyer’s wish that you consult counsel before termination. There would be obvious questions about clear documentation of performance issues, protected classes of employees, and compliance with your own policies and procedures, but some circumstances might require some “drill down” inquiry. Suppose a health issue, disclosed or not, is involved. Is the employee perhaps entitled to an ADA accommodation? What about Family and Medical Leave Act entitlement, or workers’ compensation benefits?

Always, always, check with counsel experienced in employment law. Some are available on a pro bono basis — check with your local bar association. A number of Directors and Officers and Employment Practices Liability insurance carriers provide this service to their policyholders, although sometimes on a limited basis. So ask them if they do. If they don’t, ask them for a referral. At ANI-RRG and NIAC, we feel so strongly about the importance of our members getting good advice before they take an important employment action that we have three experienced labor law attorneys dedicated solely to providing preventative advice on this subject to our member-insureds.

And The New “Pound of Flesh”
If you haven’t heard or read about it, employment practices law is one of the latest and greatest fertile fields for aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys. It matters not that you are a charitable nonprofit (particularly if you have good insurance limits). Six-figure jury verdicts have become more frequent, particularly in metropolitan areas where the majority of the nonprofit sector does its work. Need convincing? Think about this data from ten recent years of our closed claim files:

  • One out of every 100 nonprofits (regardless of size) will have an EPL claim this year
  • 97% of all claims against directors’ and officers’ policies are in the EPL category
  • The average cost to defend when a claim has some merit is $29,000 and the average loss on those claims is $44,000 — a combined average of $73,000
  • 40% of EPL claims have some merit and when they do, one in ten will cost more than $100,000
  • When claims do not have merit, the average cost to defend is only $5,000, thanks to early intervention by our experienced employment defense counsel
  • The two largest claims cost $1 million and $400,000 respectively

Did You Say Something About Insurance?
Unless you have tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars just sitting around, you probably want to think about how your agency can protect itself in this vulnerable area and one other that directors and officers should be concerned about.

When Employment Practices Liability claims first came into vogue years ago, the insurance industry’s “knee jerk” reaction was to find a way to exclude the exposure. Smarter heads prevailed, fortunately, so that today EPL coverage is readily available. But like many things, it comes in different shapes and sizes, and not always where you think it is.

Let’s talk first about Employment Practices Liability as a stand-alone coverage. It’s available and commonly protects the nonprofit from damages claimed as a result of an adverse employment action. The defense component provides for payment of attorney fees and costs, and the indemnification component provides for payment of actual damages, if any. There are exclusions as discussed below.

It is more common, however, to find EPL coverage as either an attachment to, or embedded in, the nonprofit’s Directors and Officers (D&O) coverage. The components are generally the same as described above. Key issues to consider are detailed below, but look out for some tricky provisions such as the one that requires your consent before the carrier settles a claim, but makes you responsible for all the ongoing legal expenses if you don’t accept the carrier’s recommendation.

Typical exclusions include fines, penalties and sanctions (these are uninsurable risks), back wages, multiplied damages and plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. Wage and hour claims are one of the biggest uncovered liabilities that a nonprofit faces. Properly classifying an employee as exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Standards Labor Act (or similar state laws) can be tricky business and sometimes requires extra sensory powers of hindsight. To be properly classified as exempt, an employee must make a threshold salary as defined by federal and state law and pass the duties test of either the professional, executive or administrative exemptions. While most insurance policies do not cover payment of back wages and penalties, a few at least provide some defense costs to cover wage and hour claims.

So what are the key EPL components of a good D&O policy? At a minimum, expect the following:

Adequate policy limits

  • $1 million is generally adequate for small to mid-size nonprofits. Larger agencies should consider higher limits or an umbrella policy.

Broad definition of who is an insured

  • Is the nonprofit agency itself insured in addition to its directors and officers?
  • What about prior directors and officers?
  • Committee members?
  • Employees and volunteers? (Volunteers don’t have all the federal or state immunities you may think.)

Broad coverage for employment practices liability

  • Either by endorsement or imbedded in the D&O policy itself

Duty to defend

  • Does it extend to administrative proceedings (where most EPL claims start) or just to suits in civil courts?

Advancing of defense costs

  • The carrier should pay for defense costs as incurred, not after the nonprofit has paid for them and is seeking reimbursement

Anything Else?
Make sure that you understand your policy before you need to use it. For example, be sure that you understand when you need to report facts that may result in employment practices liability. For example, you may decide not to report to the insurer an employee grievance filed with your Human Resources Department pertaining to the employee’s termination, perhaps thinking that a legal claim may not develop from it. Unbeknownst to you, your policy may require you to report potential claims, including grievances filed with your HR Department. By the time the terminated employee files a legal complaint with the district court, the reporting period has passed and your insurer may deny coverage.

Don’t be disappointed if your insurance carrier insists on using defense counsel of its own choosing. It has the right to do so and generally has developed over time a panel of attorneys experienced in employment law defense who understand the nonprofit sector better than most.

While not directly EPL-related, make sure your Directors & Officers policy also protects you for fiduciary liability claims such as failure to properly account for grant funds.

If unsure about the nature and extent of your Employment Practices Liability coverage, by all means consult with your insurance agent or broker. They are usually paid commissions when they place your coverage, and providing appropriate advice is part of what they are paid for — and a service you have a right to expect.

Happy skiing!

Social Media And The Insurance Implications

Most marketing and communication departments know all too well that social media and social networking sites are a treasure trove of opportunity for elevating your personal or corporate brand. Employees use social media for personal use, but also use it as a forum to talk about their boss, their company, their products, their problems and whatever else is on their mind. There are 200 plus social media sites in English alone, Facebook recently reached one billion users, and Twitter puts out more than 170 million tweets per day. That is a lot of free advertising!

However, what many businesses fail to remember is that, despite all of the positive aspects social media brings to a firm's marketing, communication, and sales efforts, it's also ripe with opportunity to damage their brand and cause a financial loss. While it's free marketing, it's also a lot of unedited content being published online that could be about your business, about your products, or attributed to you. Could a competitor feel that your employees are slandering their people or products? Could a competitor gain inside information about your organization? Could an employee divulge information that could get them fired? Could you or your employees inadvertently offend prospects and clients? In short, yes. As social media use continues to evolve and grow, it's important to consider this exposure to your organization.

Using Social Media To Generate Business Leads
All of this can be scary, but you can't ignore the great opportunities created by social media. Any organization not taking advantage of social media sites is signaling that it is not evolving with the times, and there is nothing close to matching the immediacy of broadcasting your news through social networking sites. A well-crafted social media strategy can generate a lot of interest in your product or services and drive traffic to your website where more specific information can be provided.

“In time, the proper execution of a focused social media strategy is an efficient means of staying in front of prospects. When the prospect has a business problem, your positioning as a credible, knowledgeable resource can help you get in the door and, hopefully, close the deal,” says Randy Stoloff, Director of Marketing and Social Media at AmWINS Group Benefits in Warwick, Rhode Island.

It is critical to have all content reviewed by someone within your organization that can be responsible for stopping improper content from being released. It's also important to review applicable insurance policies such as a website media policy or cyberliability policy to be sure social media activities are covered.

Using Social Media For Crisis Response
Imagine a time down the road when your best customers follow your social media feed and you need to get news out in a hurry about something that could cause your most prized customers harm. Assuming you have or hire qualified public relations professionals that can help you craft the proper way to phrase the announcement, you can get important news out immediately to show your concern for your customers and for transparency. Social media provides the most immediate way to communicate to your target audience. There are many insurance products currently available that assist with handling the public relations aspect of a crisis response. Having your social media presence established prior to a crisis will help you deal with the crisis in a targeted fashion.

Can Social Media Sites Be A Network Security Risk?
Besides the potential for hackers to use employee information on social media sites to figure out passwords, the sites can also be used to transmit computer viruses and other dangerous malware. As a result, many corporations block employee access to social networking sites. If the corporation has a cyberliability insurance policy in place, be sure it addresses security issues emanating from social media. The coverage may be limited to networks owned or controlled by the corporation.

Should I Address Social Media In My Employee Handbook?
This is a topic that requires legal counsel with experience in employment law as well as social media. It makes sense as a business owner to establish a guideline on what social media activities are permissible for employees, but it must be carefully worded. The National Labor Relations Board has published guidelines that may help. Most companies work very hard to establish a professional image and reputation. Employees often mistakenly think that commenting in social networking sites is somehow exempt from personal responsibility. The press is full of examples of disgruntled employees commenting on working conditions, complaining about their managers or coworkers, or commenting on confidential internal activities. Employees have been terminated for their conduct and they've sued for wrongful termination. You are likely to find coverage for the wrongful termination claims on your employment practices liability (EPL) insurance policy. Working with a professional is critical for navigating this minefield. You may not be able to avoid the litigation, but you can lay the groundwork for an effective defense.

Do I Need A Social Media Component In My Employment Contracts For My Executives?
Your top executives can also make mistakes using social media. Sensitive information can be leaked out accidentally by people who see the most sensitive information. Similar to non-executive employees, managers who have been terminated due to their social media activities have sued their employers for wrongful termination. Again, look to an EPL policy for coverage for that type of claim.

Should I Review The Social Media Content Posted By Job Applicants?
Many states have enacted laws barring employers from requesting full access to an applicant's social media profile. We have all heard stories about a prospective employer seeing improper pictures or comments by the applicant which influence the decision to hire or not hire them. Some employers have taken it one step further and requested login credentials from job applicants in order to see all the content they have posted. It seems like an obvious invasion of privacy, so laws are being written to protect the rights of job seekers. The claims that can arise from this scenario could have coverage apply under the “wrongful failure to hire” coverage on an employment practices policy, as well as an “invasion of privacy” policy as part of a cyberliability policy.

Scared Yet?
There are reasons to be concerned, but the opportunities need to be investigated with a proper foundation of preparation. It is also important to remember that there are insurance products available to help protect you after missteps. If you have an employment practices liability policy, you likely have some protection from wrongful termination claims and invasion of privacy claims brought by your employees. If you have an internet media or cyberliability policy, you could have remedies for allegations of libel, slander, defamation and invasion of privacy claims brought by other parties. A strong cyberliability policy will have protection from breach of security claims if hackers use social media to access your computer network for malicious purposes. It's possible that other insurance products can offer assistance as well. AmWINS represents multiple insurers with all of these insurance products and can help you select the proper coverage for you and your clients.