California Employers: Do You Know When Your Furlough is a Discharge?

Posted by:

To employers, it may seem like California regulates nearly everything about employment relations. Yet, surprisingly, statutes and courts in California never answered the question of when a temporary layoff becomes a “discharge” of furloughed employees. That is, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did so recently in Hartstein v. Hyatt Corporation, 82 F.4th 825. The implications of this new ruling for California employers and employees are considerable.

Under the new ruling, any temporary layoff or furlough of employees without a specific return-to-work date within the employees’ regular pay period is considered a “discharge” under California Labor Code Section 201. That in turn triggers an immediate obligation for employers to pay all laid off employees all of the wages they have earned, including any pay owed for accrued vacation or Paid Time Off (“PTO”). Failure to pay in full all accrued wages, vacation and PTO when due runs the risk of substantial “waiting time penalties” under Labor Code Section 203. That can be a huge burden and risk for employers, as the Hartstein case demonstrated.

Hartstein arose during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses were forced to greatly reduce or cease business operations without knowing when they would be able to reopen. In March 2020 Hyatt, like many employers, furloughed thousands of employees and was unable to provide any specific return-to-work date. Hyatt advised employees that vacation and PTO would not accrue during the temporary layoff, and Hyatt offered to pay any accrued vacation to employees upon request. A month later, in June 2020, Hyatt sent a letter advising employees that the temporary layoff had become permanent and employees would be paid their accrued vacation and PTO as required by Labor Code Section § 201 when a “discharge” occurs.

Hyatt employee Karen Hartstein filed a class-action and Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit, arguing that a “discharge” had occurred with the indefinite temporary layoff in March 2020, and not when employees were permanently laid off in June 2020. The key question was whether a temporary layoff, lacking a specified return date, constituted a “discharge” under Labor Code Section 201, which had no definition of “discharge.” No previous published case had addressed the issue.

The Ninth Circuit turned to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) for guidance in its previously-issued Opinion and its Policies and Interpretations Manual. DLSE had indicated that, when an employee is laid off without a specified return date within the regular pay period, the employer must immediately give the employee a final paycheck that includes vested vacation pay. DLSE reasoned that this interpretation best aligned with the statute’s purpose of protecting workers and ensuring prompt payment of earned wages.

The Ninth Circuit characterized Hyatt’s actions as “understandable given the uncertainty during the early period of the pandemic,” but remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Hyatt’s failure to issue full final paychecks in March 2020 constituted a “willful” violation, which would expose Hyatt to waiting time penalties. That question remains open and will be watched closely by employment lawyers.

Hartstein v. Hyatt provides new guidance to California employers who may need to implement open-ended furloughs or temporary shutdowns. This decision has made clear that California employers who furlough or temporarily lay off employees without specifying a return-to-work date within the same pay period should immediately issue final paychecks that include each employee’s vested and unused vacation or PTO.

Hartstein v. Hyatt demonstrates again that employment law in California is constantly evolving, and outcomes may not be as predictable as employers would hope. California employers facing such issues are well-advised to consult with qualified employment counsel to stay up-to-date on these and other important employment issues. Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s attorneys can help advise employers in navigating these complex and evolving issues.

 

0

Are You Ready for the New California Employment Privacy Regulations?

Posted by:

 

You may recall that the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA) amendments (Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.100 et seq.) went into effect January 1, 2023, but enforcement was delayed until March 29, 2024. Employers with the requisite contacts with California consumers (which is defined in an extremely broad manner) will be required to provide employees with extensive privacy notices, respond to requests to exercise new data rights, limit uses and disclosures of HR data, and obtain contractual commitments from third-party recipients of personal information.

The CPRA amendments apply to any business with worldwide gross annual revenue of $25 million or more that collects personal information from any California consumer, which includes a service provider, an employee, a job applicant or an investor, for example.  All entities that share common branding will be subject to the CPRA requirements if even one of those entities meet the requisite standards.

Generally, when the employer is subject to CPRA, its employees (and service providers, job applicants, investors, etc.) have six data rights:
1. The Right to Delete
2. The Right to Correct
3. The Right to Know
4. The Right to Restrict the Use of Sensitive Personal Information
5. The Right to Opt-Out of the Sale or Sharing of their Personal Information
6. The Right to Not Be Retaliated for Exercising these Rights

Each of these general rights are subject to detailed requirements and exceptions that must be carefully considered and addressed by employers, who must give appropriate notification to employees.  Employers’ data subject to the CPRA includes only information collected on or after January 1, 2022.  Given the suspended enforcement, it is presently uncertain whether employers will be expected to be in compliance through a “look back” period that could apply as early as the enactment date of January 1, 2023, or whether employers will be given a pass on compliance until the enforcement stay expires on March 29, 2024. In any event, employers who may be subject to the amended CPRA would be well advised to start their compliance efforts as soon as possible, and should contact qualified counsel to guide their efforts.

0

AB51, California’s Law Against Mandatory Employee Arbitration Agreements, is Invalidated

Posted by:

California employers – especially those that required employees to sign arbitration agreements – have reason to celebrate. On February 15, 2023, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chamber of Commerce v. Bonta, (Case No. 20-15291) 2023 WL 2013326 (9th Cir. Feb. 15, 2023), ruled that AB 51, a California law effectively prohibiting and criminalizing mandatory arbitration provisions in employment agreements, is invalid because it is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

This development was not unexpected, as the U.S. Supreme Court has rendered a series of decisions supporting arbitration and striking down state laws prohibiting arbitration clauses in employment contracts as violations of the FAA. Yet despite this precedent, the California legislature has tried time and time again to enact anti-arbitration laws that creatively seek to avoid FAA preemption. AB 51 was the most recent attempt to circumvent the FAA.

AB 51 added California Labor Code Section 432.6, which prohibited employers from: (1) requiring employees to waive, as a condition of employment, the right to litigate certain claims in court; and (2) retaliating against applicants for employment or employees based on their refusal to waive such rights. Id. at (a) & (b). These two prohibitions by themselves would almost surely be preempted by the FAA but the California legislature sought to avoid that result by adding § 432.6(f), providing that nothing “in this section is intended to invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the [FAA].” To give the statute teeth, AB 51 also amended other codes to impose civil and criminal liability on an employer who violates Labor Code Section 432.6. Together, these provisions had the strange effect of imposing criminal and civil liability on employers who enter into arbitration agreements that are valid and enforceable.

The Chamber of Commerce of the United States filed a lawsuit seeking to declare that AB 51 was preempted by the FAA. In 2020, the trial court granted temporary injunctions against enforcement of AB51, because the court found that the Chamber of Commerce was likely to succeed in establishing that AB51 is preempted by the FAA. For that reason, employers did not feel the brunt of AB51 while the challenge made its way through appellate court.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (after some unusual twists, including a published decision that was later withdrawn by the Court) ultimately agreed with the trial court. The Ninth Circuit held that although AB 51 does not expressly prevent the formation of employment contracts containing an arbitration provision, it clearly disfavors the formation of arbitration agreements by placing civil and criminal liability on employers who require employees to sign arbitration agreements. That kind of penalty is an exception to generally applicable law that allows employers to require agreements, such as confidentiality agreements, as a condition of employment. The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has held that “state rules that burden the formation of arbitration agreements stand as an obstacle to the FAA.” Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S.Ct. 1421, 1423 (2017). In addressing AB 51’s strange mechanism of imposing liability for the formation of valid contracts, the Court held that that “[a] state rule interferes with arbitration if it discriminates against arbitration on its face or if it covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements.” Id. The Court held that “[b]ecause the FAA’s purpose is to further Congress’s policy of encouraging arbitration, and AB 51 stands as an obstacle to that purpose, AB 51 is preempted.” Id., at *10.

California employers should welcome this decision. The decision clarifies that businesses have broader freedom to contract as they see fit, and that it is permissible, even in California, to require employees to sign mandatory arbitration provisions as a condition of employment. The overall perception is that arbitration results in faster, less expensive resolution of employee-employer disputes, and keeps employment disputes out of California courts. Still, there are other schools of thought that believe that employment arbitrations can be more expensive for employers than the courts because private arbitrators often charge high hourly rates, the fees and costs of the arbitration must be advanced by employers, and dispositive motion victories (for example, a successful motion to dismiss a frivolous claim) are less common in arbitration. As well, even if arbitration is enforceable some employees may file their claims in court in the hope that the employer fails to take action to enforce arbitration.

Moreover, there are important limitations on employment arbitration agreements in California. In Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 24 Cal.4th 83 (2000), the California Supreme Court held that employer-employee arbitration agreements may be “unconscionable” and unenforceable if they do not include provisions for: (1) a neutral arbitrator; (2) all remedies allowed under statutes; (3) adequate discovery procedures; (4) a written and well-reasoned arbitration decision; and (5) the employer’s payment of all costs unique to the arbitration process itself.

It is predictable that the same labor groups that supported AB 51 will continue to try to develop alternative measures to restrict employment arbitration agreements. Employers are well-advised to consult with well-qualified employment attorneys to stay on the right side of the rapidly changing laws. The attorneys at the Conkle firm stay abreast of developments and are well equipped to help your business navigate all aspects of wage & hour, discrimination, class actions, Private Attorney General (PAGA) claims and employment law, including the intersection of employment arbitration and litigation. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have many years of experience drafting arbitration provisions in conformance with California law and handling employment disputes—whether in arbitration or litigation.

Amanda Washton and Alec Pressly

0

Fire Your Employee for His Noxious Memo? Not So Fast.

Posted by:

Is an employer free to fire an employee who circulates to co-employees a memo expressing ideas that are noxious to the employer’s efforts to avoid prohibited discrimination?  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer can be, “No.”

A good example is the recent event in which Google fired James Damore, an engineer, for circulating a memo, or “manifesto,” explaining a basis for gender bias among computer engineers.  His memo, entitled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” purported to be a personal response to what he viewed as the shaming and silence of those in his field who have differing views about gender in the workplace, and whose views are inconsistent with Google’s “dominant ideology.”  In the memo, Damore provided what he called “biological” explanations for why there is a gender gap in technology, such as: women are more neurotic and thus tend to pick less stressful jobs; women are more “directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas;” and men have a higher drive for status.  Damore posted this screed to Google’s internal messaging board.  It was a message to his co-workers, and hostile to his employer’s position.

As Damore acknowledged, engineering at Google requires collaboration and teamwork.  Damore’s statement put Google’s management in a difficult place – how can Damore continue to work on any team that involves women? Further, Google’s employee review process emphasizes peer reviews, particularly by high-level engineers such as Damore.  Damore’s expressed biases could cause questions as to the fairness of his reviews, and his position as a supervisor could be argued to create a hostile work environment for the female minority with whom he works.  It is not surprising, then, that Google employees reacted by demanding Damore be disciplined or terminated.  Google agreed, and Damore was terminated.

But Damore seems to have anticipated that reaction, and took steps to protect his own interests.  As quoted by the New York Times, Damore included in his memo an unusually lawyerly statement:  “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does.”  After the termination, Damore submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming that Google’s upper management was “misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints,” and reminding Google that it is “illegal to retaliate” against an NLRB charge.

Was Google’s action defensible?  The National Labor Relations Act Sections 7 & 8(a)(1) (29 U.S.C. Section 157 & 158(a)(1)) makes unlawful violating employees’ rights to engage in “protected concerted activities.” “Concerted activities” are broadly defined to include “the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection….” Most often, “concerted activities” are associated with union activity, but the NLRB protects activity that is not specifically union oriented.  This can include communicating with coworkers regarding wages and working conditions, and expressing preferences for political candidates who support favorable labor issues such as higher wages for hourly workers.  In doing so, employees are permitted to use company bulletin boards, both electronic and physical, and company email, on non-working time.

The effect of this protection is that, if Damore challenges his termination, he will likely argue that Google’s decision to terminate him curtailed his rights to discuss his political beliefs and to engage like-minded employees about his view that the hiring and promotions practices at Google are unfair to men.

Because Damore works in California, there are additional considerations under state law.  California Labor Code §1101 provides that “No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy: (a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office; or (b) Controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.”  While this may not control an adverse employment decision by an employer against a single individual, once coworkers learn that an employee was fired based on his speech or political activities, those coworkers may perceive that action as a threat or policy.  As the Supreme Court has recognized, employees’ economic dependence on the employer can reasonably lead them to pick up even subtle signals when their jobs are at stake.  NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., 395 U.S. 575, 617 (1969).  Here, Damore’s like-minded coworkers could interpret his firing as a threat to their employment should they express views similar to his.

The unfortunate upshot for Google is that Damore’s termination seems like a retaliation claim ripe for filing.  Though many may personally disagree with Damore’s views on gender in the workplace, and he may have absolutely no factual or evidentiary basis for his position, he could argue in an action against Google that he was attempting to organize a group of like-minded workers to oppose what he believes are Google’s gender biases or an unfair reverse discrimination policy. His “manifesto” appears to structured for this very argument.

It is ironic that the policies of the NLRB and California Labor Code, which protect political organization and prohibit retaliation, are what may ultimately force Google to suffer legal liability for Damore’s termination for expressing disagreement with Google’s anti-discrimination policies.

As these events demonstrate, the application of employment law and policies in real world situations can be challenging.  Protection of one worthwhile policy can seemingly conflict with others, and well-meaning employers can find themselves having to make very difficult choices.  Employers should consult counsel experienced in the sometimes complex issues that can arise in many different employment circumstances.

0