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So imagine that your biggest pothead friend from college has opened up a cannabis dispensary that sells weed for recreational use. Your old pal would be selling something that remains utterly unlawful under federal law, the recent and sweeping changes to state law notwithstanding. But two wrongs don’t make a right, according to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals:  if you’re going to sell something that federal law treats just like heroin, you’d at least better comply with federal wage and hour laws. Yes, cannabis sellers: thou shalt not rip off your employees for wages, even when they’re doing something illegal under federal law.

In its recent decision in Robert Kenney v. Helix TCS, Inc. (September 20, 2019), the Tenth Circuit affirmed the notion that an employer does not escape its responsibilities under federal law by virtue of its violations of other federal laws. Ergo:  a cannabis company cannot deem its employees exempt from the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) solely on the basis that their job functions violate the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”).


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The labor movement sent a powerful and potentially revolutionary signal to the tech industry this past week on September 24: contract employees of HCL Technologies, working under a renewable contract with Google, voted to unionize for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions. Nearly 80 contract HCL employees stationed in Google’s Pittsburgh office joined the United Steelworkers trade union, which represents more than 850,000 American employees across various industries. Significantly, this marked the first time contract tech workers have unionized in the United States in an industry that is almost entirely non-union.

The vote for union representation strikes at the heart of the business model used by companies like HCL, a multinational Indian IT services company. Although the HCL employees who have been contracted out to Pittsburgh work alongside Google employees in similar positions, they contend that they receive less favorable benefits and less compensation for their work than do those employed directly by Google. This is often the case for contract workers, who are heavily utilized in the technology industry thanks to the lower costs of employing them. But these same contract employees have historically been less inclined to unionize, fearing that their employers will respond by declining to renew their contracts when the time comes. Indeed, some HCL Technologies employees expressed this exact concern, recognizing the possibility that Google would decline to renew its contract with HCL as a result of Tuesday’s vote.


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In the first post-Epic Systems decision regarding arbitration agreements, the NLRB has underscored just how pro-arbitration courts and regulators have become. In Cordúa Restaurants, the Board put its stamp of approval on employers revising arbitration provisions even after employees file a claim. In doing so, employers can exercise more control as to how employees must bring their claims and—particularly, as in the case of Cordúa Restaurants, by limiting class and collective actions.

FACTS

In Cordúa Restaurants, employees, as a condition of their employment, had to sign arbitration agreements waiving “their right to file, participate or proceed in class or collective actions.” Despite this agreement, some employees still filed collective wage and hour actions in federal court. Additional employees began “opting-in” to these collective actions.

In response, the employer revised its arbitration agreement so that employees waived their right to opt-in to a collective action. The agreement was revised to say “I agree that I cannot file or opt-in to a collective action under this Agreement, unless agreed upon by me and the Company in writing.” Employees had to sign this new arbitration agreement as a condition of employment.


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Governor Cuomo signed the groundbreaking harassment legislation that we previously covered here on August 12, 2019. The law profoundly alters the landscape of harassment claims in New York and how employers should be prepared to handle them. Key provisions include eliminating the “severe or pervasive” standard for discriminatory and retaliatory harassment cases, prohibiting mandatory arbitration for all discrimination claims (not just sexual harassment), and banning non-disclosure agreements for all discrimination claims.

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As we reported on June 21, New York blew the lid off 30 years of sexual harassment and discrimination law by passing legislation that, among other things, bars mandatory arbitration of all claims of discrimination. That earthquake was followed by a substantial aftershock: according to a federal court, that provision of the state law doesn’t square with federal law, which specifically permits arbitration of these claims.

This latest monkey-wrench was thrown into the gears just last week by federal district court Judge Denise Cote when she held that New York’s arbitration law prohibiting arbitration of sexual harassment claims (effective as of July 2018 and reported on by this blog last year) is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), and is therefore invalid. This is the first case deciding the merits of this arbitration exclusion. And although Judge Cote didn’t formally rule on the more general, brand-new bar on arbitration of all discrimination claims (harassment or not), she observed in a footnote that the more general bar suffers from the same problem and is probably preempted by federal law, too.

This decision will likely result in a failure-to-launch of the arbitration prohibitions in this latest round of legislation. But for now, here’s the unsettling message for employers navigating the ever-shifting landscape of discrimination law obligations: the new provisions of New York law barring mandatory arbitration of all employment discrimination claims will be struck down, but for the time being, you can’t count on it.


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Clichés like “seismic shift” and “paradigm change” do not begin to describe just how profoundly the New York legislature changed the standards for harassment claims in a bill passed June 19. HR professionals and employers beware: the sexual harassment foundation you have known for 30 years—and upon which all your in-house training, HR policies, and legal and HR instincts are built—has just been neatly demolished. Here’s why:

A Critical Bit of History

Boring history lesson now ensues (but will make you sound smart when you tell your HR and management colleagues about it):

Everybody knows that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the basic model for all state employment discrimination statutes—makes it unlawful to discriminate against employees on the basis of a number of protected characteristics, including “sex.” In 1964, and for a couple of decades after that, “discrimination” meant the big employment decisions: you couldn’t refuse to hire, fail to promote, or fire somebody because she was, say, a woman, or black, or a Baptist. Under the original conception of Title VII, those were the tangible, serious “adverse employment actions” that violated the law—that is, anything that involved getting a job, losing a job, getting promoted or paid on that job, etc. The big stuff only.


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Ah, summer: less-demanding schedules, lighter workloads, and a more relaxed work wardrobe. In keeping with the professional reputation of lawyers as killjoys, however, we recommend that HR professionals act more like Aesop’s ants—using the summer to prepare for fall—than the grasshopper, who was so busy partying that he failed to prepare at all. So listen, Grasshopper: savvy HR leaders know to use their summer downtime to set themselves up for success when we all go “back to school.”

Here are seven suggestions of what New York HR professionals can get ahead of over the summer:

1. Coordinate Sexual Harassment Prevention Training – Under New York State law, all employers must provide annual sexual harassment prevention training that satisfies the State’s training requirements by October 9, 2019 (NYC has its own requirements, as we describe here). An employer can satisfy these requirements by either adopting the State’s model training documents or by providing live or interactive online/video training which meets or exceeds the State’s minimum standards. With a mid-fall deadline quickly approaching, summer is the perfect time to think about, and possibly complete, your workforce’s first annual training.


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Ah, summer: less-demanding schedules, lighter workloads, and a more relaxed work wardrobe. In keeping with the professional reputation of lawyers as killjoys, however, we recommend that HR professionals act more like Aesop’s ants—using the summer to prepare for fall—than the grasshopper, who was so busy partying that he failed to prepare at all. So listen, Grasshopper: savvy HR leaders know to use their summer downtime to set themselves up for success when we all go “back to school.”

Here are seven suggestions of what New York HR professionals can get ahead of over the summer:

1. Coordinate Sexual Harassment Prevention Training – Under New York State law, all employers must provide annual sexual harassment prevention training that satisfies the State’s training requirements by October 9, 2019 (NYC has its own requirements, as we describe here). An employer can satisfy these requirements by either adopting the State’s model training documents or by providing live or interactive online/video training which meets or exceeds the State’s minimum standards. With a mid-fall deadline quickly approaching, summer is the perfect time to think about, and possibly complete, your workforce’s first annual training.


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On Monday May 6, 2019, a Florida federal judge denied a strip club’s bid for sanctions against an exotic dancer and her lawyer who filed a so-called “cookie-cutter” Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuit, depriving the strip club of the chance to recoup.

The next day, on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, a Texas state jury awarded a plaintiff $80 million – of which $75,000,000 was in punitive damages – to a truck driver who fell asleep and crashed behind the wheel, when his supervisors forced him to alter his log book and drive without the required amount of rest.

What could these two cases possibly have in common? Both impart the same basic lesson: adherence to good record-keeping practices can save employers money.


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If you’re waiting for a reversal of the trend at the Supreme Court to limit employers’ ability to insist on arbitration instead of litigation, or of the trend limiting class claims, keep waiting.

The Supreme Court continues to limit the ability of employees to pursue class arbitration against their employers. The latest salvo—the Court’s decision in Lamps Plus, Inc. v. Varela—comes on the heels of last year’s Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which found that class action waivers in individual arbitration agreements between employers and employees are enforceable. Taking the next natural step in limiting class actions, Lamps Plus now requires arbitration agreements to specifically permit class claims; if an arbitration agreement leaves the issue unaddressed, no class claim is available at all.


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