New Legislation to Promote Equal Pay and Suppress Discrimination

Contributed by Richard Cherpak

         The issue over whether a potential employer’s interview questions regarding an applicant’s previous salary should be banned has sparked an intriguing debate that will impact the legal and business landscape. These laws will not just impact pay equity, but will also effect the number of claims for gender discrimination, age discrimination, and discrimination based on race or national origin.

            Massachusetts, Philadelphia and New York City have all recently passed laws prohibiting employers from asking questions regarding job applicant’s current or previous salary. The ban is expected to come into effect in Massachusetts in the summer of 2018. The statutes are being implemented to encourage equal pay by making employers configure salary numbers based on job requirements and market salary rates for the position being hired instead of the applicant’s past or current salary. Back in early April, the New York City Council approved New York City public advocate Letitia Jame’s bill that prohibits private and public employers from asking job applicants about their past and current salary during the interview process. The bill, which was signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio back on May 4, also prohibits employers from factoring in an applicant’s previous and current salaries when determining what salary they are going to offer. Legislation of this nature has been met with much controversy in Philadelphia. Earlier this month, the city of Philadelphia announced that it would wait to enforce the legislation until a federal judge decided on a petition to block the legislation from the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia.

            Significantly for employers, in New York City, there are going to be severe penalties for violating the ban. If the city feels that the employer violated the ban in a malicious and willful manner, she or he may be held liable in fines of up to $250,000.

            Although the penalties for violating the ban are severe, there are a few exceptions to the law. One such exception allows for applicants and potential employees to use their own discretion in deciding whether or not to share their salary history. Accordingly, once employers receive this information from the applicant voluntarily, they may lawfully take it into consideration when offering a salary number.

            The potential benefits of implementing such a ban include that it may create more transparency between employers, employees and prospective employees when negotiating offers and raises, which in turn, may ease any tensions over lack of compensation that an employee may feel. By forcing employers to take more of an objective market-based approach when they are deciding what salary figure they are going to offer to an applicant, it becomes less likely that an applicant will claim unequal pay, or gender or racial discrimination. Using a market based approach allows employers to look at the standard market rate for what an employee of a similar position and skill level at another company makes while still providing the employer with some discretion what actual salary their prospective employee should earn based on their own individual skill set and experience.

            Although there is a strong argument for implementing this law, there is also a compelling argument against it. One argument currently being made by the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, which is representing around 600,000 businesses, is that implementing such a ban would violate free speech rights of employers and make it more difficult for companies to recruit top talent. The lawsuit in Philadelphia says that employers’ use of wage history information is a valuable tool in assessing whether they can or cannot afford to hire a particular candidate. They further contend that it is used to help businesses figure out an appropriate salary for a particular job. Another potential downfall of implementing such a ban is that it could expose businesses to major lawsuits opening the flood gates for a overwhelming stream of litigation. Say for example that a company leaves a question on their application regarding salary information, this could lead an applicant to file suit against the company. Additionally, there may be confusion and debate over the interpretation of a salary based question on an application because a question that the employer has regarding one’s salary expectations may be misconstrued by a potential employee or applicant to be a question regarding one’s salary history.

            According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, implementation of legislation of this nature is likely to expand across the country and continue as this year alone, 21 other states and Washington D.C. have proposed laws that would forbid questions regarding salary history. These states include: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington.

2d Circuit Court Issues Blueprint for Avoiding Misclassification; Business Owners Classifying Workers as Independent Contractors

The United States Court of Appeals for the 2d Circuit recently issued a decision that could potentially save certain business owners both money and stress. The 2d Circuit, which encompasses the states of New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, in a recently decided case (Saleem v. Corporate Transportation Group, Ltd.) provided guidelines for employers as to whether their workers are employees or independent contracts. The issue of classification of workers as an employee or independent contractor is significant. For example, an independent contractor is exempt from minimum wage and overtime requirements. Further, such a classification can have significant tax consequences for a business. The above-referenced case clarifies longstanding issues regarding classification workers as employees or independent contractors. The hope is that the by issuing said guidelines, the Court will help employers avoid troublesome allegations of misclassification.

The case involved a driver service and its workers. Corporate Transportation Group and its affiliate companies (CTG) run a black-car service in the New York City area. The Company requires its drivers to sign a contract that acknowledged they were “not an employee or agent” of the company “but merely a subscriber to the services offered” by CTG. The drivers filed a class action lawsuit against CTG seeking unpaid overtime pay pursuant to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and New York state wage and hour law.

In its decision, the Court established a three pronged analysis for determining whether a worker is an independent contractor or an employee. The Court initially noted that any independent contractor misclassification dispute arising under the FLSA must be examined under an “economic realities” test. The Court then listed the following three factors to be crucial to its decision:

  1. The Drivers Had Entrepreneurial Opportunities Not Available to Employees;
  2. The Drivers Made A Heavy Investment In Their Business and;
  3. The Drivers Maintained A High Level Of Flexibility.

The Court cautioned however, that its ruling was based on the fact-specific “totality of the circumstances” comprising the relationship between CTG and the drivers in this specific case. “In a different case, and with a different record, an entity that exercised similar control over clients, fees, and rules enforcement in ways analogous to CTG might well constitute an employer within the meaning of the FLSA.”

As a result it is clear that each case is to be determined on a case by case basis. Further, there is a lot of gray area as to how each of the above-referenced guidelines may be applied to difference business. Each case can turn on several variables. It is always best to consult an experienced employment attorney. If you have questions regarding employee or independent contractor classificication status, or are facing potential misclassification issues, call Gilbert Law Group today at 631.630.0100.

Recent Special Education Reimbursement Case

Under the IDEA, states receiving federal funds are required to “provide ‘all children with disabilities’ a free appropriate public education [FAPE].” A free appropriate public education consists of special education and related services tailored to meet the unique needs of a particular child, which are reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.  To ensure that qualifying children receive a FAPE, a school district must create an individualized education program (‘IEP’) for each such child. An IEP is “a written statement that sets out the child’s present educational performance, establishes annual and short-term objectives for improvements in that performance, and describes the specially designed instruction and services that will enable the child to meet those objectives,  and it “must be likely to produce progress, not regression, and must afford the student with an opportunity greater than mere trivial advancement.

In New York, Committees on Special Education (“CSEs”) are responsible for creating IEPs. They are “comprised of members appointed by the local school district’s board of education, and must include the student’s parent(s), a regular or special education teacher, a school board representative, a parent representative, and others. Parents who believe their child is not being provided a FAPE “may unilaterally enroll the child in a private school and seek tuition reimbursement from the school district.

Recently, a federal district court in New York ruled that a student’s father was entitled to reimbursement for his son’s private school tuition after a person at his son’s school said that the school was not appropriate for his son and suggested he seek an alternative placement. L.R. v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., No. 15CV1542-FBRML, 2016 WL 3390413 (E.D.N.Y. June 20, 2016). The district court credited the findings of the Independent Hearing Officer (“IHO”), which differed from the State Review Officer.  The IHO’s decision may be appealed to a State Review Officer (“SRO”). The SRO is the final arbiter of whether the state and the district have afforded the student a free  appropriate public education. Although the SRO is the final state administrative decision maker, the district court deferred to the IHO’s analysis because the SRO’s determinations were “insufficiently reasoned to merit deference.” This willingness to defer to the IHO is significant in that it it indicates that the Courts may look more closely at the SRO’s rationale. If the Court determines that the SRO does not adequately support its decision, it may more readily defer to the IHO.

EEOC: Employers, be Proactive vs. Workplace Harassment

Thirty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that workplace harassment was an actionable form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Several examples of common harassment and discrimination that take place in the workplace are sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, racial discrimination, and age discrimination (under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act or ADEA). Recently, the EEOC issued a report encouraging employers to be more proactive in preventing workplace harassment.

In January 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission created a Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace (“Select Task Force”). This Select Task Force spent  18 months examining the myriad and complex issues associated with harassment in the workplace. In June 2016, the Select Task Force  published its findings. The report calls for employers to “reboot” workplace harassment prevention methods. The report also outlines statistics, risks and administrative recommendations.

The study encourages employers to assess their workplaces for the risks associated with harassment, survey employees. Further, the report urges employers to hold accountable managers and supervisors for preventing and reacting to grievances while also actively promoting diversity.

Interestingly, the report also states that employers should be wary of “zero tolerance” anti-harassment policies that are used as a one-size fits all model. Rather, any discipline that might result from such policy violations should be proportionate to the offense.

Additionally, the report finds that employers should also consider including a social media policy that ties into their anti-harassment policies.  The downside to this however is that the National Labor Relations Board has released guidelines on drafting and updating social media policies. Some cases have held that such a policy may violate an employee’s right to engage in protected concerted activity.

In conclusion, the findings state that the name of the game is truly harassment prevention. This may prove challenging as labor and employment laws are not logical and often do not follow common sense. To this end, seeking experienced legal counsel is critical.

Should you have questions, or wish to seek counsel, call Gilbert Law Group today at (631)630-0100.

Uber Misclassification? Employee or Independent Contractor?

In July 2015, the Department of Labor issued guidelines regarding the “misclassification” of workers. It argued that any worker who is “economically dependent” on the employer should be considered an employee. A worker who is involved in a business independently however, on behalf of himself or herself should be regarded as an independent contractor. Multiple factors are considered in determining whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. This test is sometimes referred to as the “economic realities test.”

The classification of a worker as either an employee or independent contractor is significant for a company and its workers. The rationale behind such classification is that employees should be better protected and entitled to benefits as they are financially and professionally dependent on their employer. Independent contractors, however, are seen as having their own business and thus cannot claim several benefits from the business for which they are providing services including, but not limited to, minimum wage, overtime compensation, family and medical leave, unemployment insurance, and protections ensuring a safe workplace. As such, whether a business classifies its staff as employees or independent contractors will inevitably have major implications as it relates to overhead, payroll, profit margins, and taxes.

This classification again became newsworthy for Uber drivers when Uber, an on-demand car service, was confronted with the issue of whether its drivers should be considered independent contractors or employees. It is Uber’s longstanding practice of classifying its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees. Now the California Labor Commissioner, presented with this specific question, has opposed, in its interpretation of law, Uber’s basic and longstanding practice.

On September 16, 2014, an Uber driver named Barbara Ann Berwick filed a wage complaint with the California Labor Commissioner. Berwick sought, among other things, reimbursement for business expenses, such as gas and bridge tolls. Uber argued that since Berwick was not an employee, she could not be compensated for such expenses. In June 2015, the California Labor Commissioner argued in favor of the driver. It disagreed with Uber and awarded Berwick over $4,000 in business expenses and interest. In arriving at its decision, the Labor Commissioner applied the “economic realities” test adopted by the California Supreme Court in S. G. Borello& Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations. Variations of this “economic realities” test are applied throughout the country, including New York. Based on this multifactor test, the Labor Commissioner held that Berwick was in fact an employee. Uber lost the case but has appealed the Commissioner’s decision.

            If you have questions regarding the classification of employees, independent contractors, and the implications of either classification, or need advice regarding labor and employment law, please call Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

Contributed by Sakine Oezcan

New Developments of the Minimum Wage in New York State

Since 2009, the federal minimum wage has been at $7.25 per hour. Recently however, New York State has made significant changes regarding the minimum wage, increasing it from $8.75 to $9 per hour. Further, under the new law, the minimum wage at fast-food chains with at least 30 locations nationwide, will continue climb in incremental steps. Its initial increase occurred on December 31, 2015. It is also required that employers  post a Minimum Wage Information poster at their workplaces.

Moreover, the State has established a separate pay rate for fast-food workers in large chains. In response, restaurant owners have challenged the Department of Labor’s wage order, arguing it to be ‘arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law. At the time of this publication, the issue is pending before the court.

Bigger increases will be granted to tipped workers in New York. The hourly minimum wage will rise from $4.90, $5 or $5.65 to $7.50 an hour for tipped workers, such as waiters, depending on the type of establishment. State employees not working in New York city are seeing an increase to $9.75 while the minimum wage for workers in New York City is now $10.50. At fast-food chains with 30 or more restaurants nationally, workers’ wages will increase from $8.75 to $9.75. The chart below depicts the current minimum wage for the city, New York State as well as future scheduled increases.

DATE NEW STATE WAGE NEW YORK CITY WAGE
Today $9.75 $10.50
January 1, 2017 $10.75 $12
January 1, 2018 $11.75 $13.50
January 1, 2019 $12.75 $15
January 1, 2020 $13.75 $15
January 1, 2021 $15 $15

Employers and business owners should fully understand these new laws and regulations, particularly whether they are in compliance. Failure to do so could lead to significant liability. Should you have questions or concerns regarding these developments to the minimum wage, or related matters, please call Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

Contributed by Sakine Oezcan, Esq.

Teacher Loses Employment Discrimination Case Against School District

What does employment discrimination mean and when is an individual entitled to bring a workplace discrimination claim? How does employment discrimination law apply to Education Law?

 Generally, under Federal and New York State Laws employment discrimination occurs when a person or a group of persons is treated unequally based on race, gender, age, disability, religion, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, veteran status, and political affiliation or beliefs, which has a negative affect on that individual. Therefore, job discrimination is prohibited and several Federal Acts have been enacted to support this objective, such as:

  1. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII),
  2. Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA),
  3. Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA),
  4. Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA),
  5. Civil Rights Act of 1991,
  6. Sections 501 and 505 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and
  7. Title II of the Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act of 2008 (GINA);

 In a recently issued verdict that was tried before the U. S. Eastern District of New York Court in Central Islip, a middle school employee lost a racial discrimination case against Malverne public school officials. A middle school mathematics teacher who was denied a promotion or reassignment initiated the suit. The teacher alleged the District discriminated against him due to his race. At the conclusion of the trial, an eight-member jury examined all the evidence and determined that the teacher had failed to establish the school district and/or its administrators had violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination. In reaching this conclusion, there are several requisite factors which must be considered. In light of these requirements, the federal jury unanimously came to the conclusion that the school’s decision in refusing to promote or reassign the teacher an additional class was not racially motivated and as a result there was no basis to grant the teacher damages.

 Where, however, a court finds that a person has been unlawfully discriminated at their workplace, the substantial remedies are available including, but not limited to, hiring, promotion, backpay, reinstatement, front pay, emotional distress damages, and reasonable accommodation.

 If you have questions or concerns regarding employment discrimination, or have any questions relating to workplace law, call Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

Contributed by Sakine Oezcan, Esq.

Can an employer enforce a restrictive covenant, non-compete agreement or confidentiality provision against an employee who has been laid off?

Can an employer enforce a restrictive covenant when the employee was terminated involuntary and without cause? Restrictive covenants are frequently utilized by employers to prevent an employee no longer with the company from negatively impacting the company. Restrictive covenants come in various forms some examples of which include, but are not limited to, covenants not to compete or non-compete agreements, confidentiality provisions, and non-solicitation agreements.

Both New York statutory and case law remain unclear on this issue. In Post v. Merrill, Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith which was decided in 1979, the Court of Appeals held that it would be unreasonable to enforce a restrictive agreement if the employee’s termination was involuntary. Therefore, the forfeiture of the accumulated pension benefits due to the employee’s breach of a non-compete agreement was not enforceable. Several courts have cited Post when denying the enforcement of restrictive covenants where an employee’s termination was involuntary.

Generally, New York Law is not very supportive of restrictive covenants. The rational is that it restricts an employee’s right to earn a living which is a person’s fundamental right. The fact is, however, that these types of agreements will be endured and are therefore enforceable, provided certain conditions are met. To determine whether a restrictive covenant is valid and enforceable, New York and the majority of jurisdictions use the reasonableness standard. The Court of Appeals used several factors to determine the circumstances under which a restrictive covenant is reasonable and therefore lawful. The Court considered, among other relevant factors, the legitimate interest of the employer versus whether there is an undue hardship on the employee.

            An exception to the reasonableness standard is the employee choice doctrine. The employee choice doctrine is based on the concept that where the employee’s termination is voluntary, he or she exercised discretion to accept the terms associated with his or her decision to separate from employment. Therefore, it is the employee’s choice to comply with the covenant and to receive the benefits or to violate the covenant and accordingly forfeit the benefits. In this context, the court must determine if the employee’s forfeiture of benefits is reasonable if there was an involuntary termination without cause. Furthermore, the New York Court of Appeals held that the employee choice doctrine is inapplicable where an employer deliberately creates an intolerable work environment that would effectively force a reasonable person to quit.

If you have further questions regarding covenants not to compete, confidentiality, or other restrictive covenants, call Gilbert Law Group at 631.630.0100.

 Contributed by Sakine Oezcan

Department of Labor Issues New Worker Misclassification Guidelines: Whether a Worker is an Employee or Independent Contractor?

The Department of Labor (DOL) has issued new guidelines, Administrator’s Interpretation 2015-1 detailing its interpretation of the “economic realities” test as it relates to the misclassification of workers. The guidance expands on the six factors in the test, emphasizing that the main issue is whether the worker is “economically dependent on the employer or truly in business for him or herself.” The vague definition of “employ” found in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) combined with the totality of the circumstances considered in the test means that most workers are considered employees, the DOL commented. The expansive reading of what constitutes an employee will likely generate an increase not only in DOL oversight but worker lawsuits as well. The DOL has been cracking down on worker misclassification by issuing severe penalties on employer’s who label a worker as an independent contractor rather than an employee for the consequential tax benefits. So how does one determine whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor?

“In sum, most workers are employees under the FLSA’s broad definitions,” the DOL said. “The very broad definition of employment under the FLSA as ‘to suffer or permit to work’ and the Act’s intended expansive coverage for workers must be considered when applying the economic realities factors to determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. The factors should not be analyzed mechanically or in a vacuum, and no single factor, including control, should be over-emphasized. Instead, each factor should be considered in light of the ultimate determination of whether the worker is really in business for him or herself (and thus is an independent contractor) or is economically dependent on the employer (and thus its employee). The factors should be used as guides to answer that ultimate question of economic dependence.”

The six factor test is complex, and many times whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor can turn on several variables. For help navigating through issues related to worker misclassification and whether a worker is an employee or independent contractor, call Gilbert Law Group today at (631)630-0100.

Does Perception Equal Reality for Title VII Employment Discrimination?

One major difference between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that the ADA explicitly protects employees who are discriminated against because of an employer’s perception that they are disabled, although in reality they may not be. Title VII employment discrimination, on the other hand, does not recognize the concept of an employer discriminating against an employee based on that employer’s perception that an employee is a member of a protected class. Accordingly, a Title VII plaintiff historically has a higher burden of proof in establishing their prima facie case. Traditionally, although the same act of “discrimination” would not be the basis for an employment discrimination cause of action where the worker is not a member of a protected class, recent case law has demonstrated a trend towards expanding protections under Title VII to include an employer’s perception that an employee is a member of a protected class.

Two recent cases in particular are illustrative of this trend in employment discrimination. In Kallabat v. Michigan Bell Telephone Co., a federal judge ordered that a Michigan man’s case on perceived religious discrimination go forward. Mr. Basil Kallabat, a dark-skinned man of Iraqi descent, and a self-proclaimed non-Muslim, suffered an adverse employment action while working as a customer service representative. Even though a Title VII claim based on his color, gender, or national origin would be unimpeachable, Mr. Kallabat’s claim centered on an element of perceived religion. The plaintiff claimed that when he wore a hat backwards and a co-worker said it looked like a “topi” (a skullcap worn by Muslim men for religious reasons) and other workers starting laughing at Plaintiff as a result. Further, on another occasion, there was graffiti etched into the door of a bathroom stall of one of Defendant’s offices depicting two buildings similar to the Twin Towers with a plane hitting one of them and a caption that stated that the plaintiff is learning how to fly. After learning of the graffiti, the Area Manager said that Plaintiff was oversensitive, emotional, and unable to take the joke during a crew meeting. The Court denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, holding that a reasonable jury could find that the incidents are evidence of discrimination based on the perception that Plaintiff was a Muslim. Similarly, in Arsham v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, an Iranian engineer’s perceived Title VII claim survived summary judgment on the basis that her supervisor’s mistaken belief that she was Indian, and not Iranian, should not save the employer from Title VII liability.

With this potentially looming expansion of workplace religious employment discrimination protection, it is imperative that both management and employees know their respective rights as they relate to federal, state, and municipal ordinances. The Gilbert Law Group can help you navigate this fast changing legal arena.

 Schedule a consultation by calling (631) 630-0100.

 Contributed by Michael B. Engle