Protected Concerted Activity in the Era of COVID-19: What Employers Need to Know

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By Kathleen J. Jennings (kjj@wimlaw.com)

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is one of the federal agencies that many employers do not have on their radar. The NLRB is most closely associated with union organizing efforts and collective bargaining agreements between unions and companies. In 2020, only 10.8 percent of wage and salary workers in the US were members of unions (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), so the vast majority of companies may think that the NLRB will not bother with them. And they would be wrong.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 5, 1935, is the federal statute administered and enforced by the NLRB. Most employees in the private sector are covered by the NLRA. The NLRA guarantees the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity. It’s the “other protected concerted activity” that even non-union employers need to be aware of.

Basically, the NLRA gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union. If employees are fired, suspended, or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, they can file a complaint with the NLRB. The NLRB has the power to investigate and take action to make an aggrieved employee whole for any losses due to the employer’s violation of the NLRA (think lost wages and benefits for a terminated employee).

The type of conduct that falls under the definition of “protected concerted activity” is very broad. To be protected conduct, employee conduct must be both “concerted” and for “mutual aid and protection.” But individual conduct or speech can be considered “concerted;” it is well-established that concerted activity includes statements by a lone employee addressing coworkers that seek to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action or, or statements directed to management communicating a truly group complaint.

Bottom line: if employees are talking about anything related to work, it’s probably protected by the NLRA. For example, any workplace rule that prohibits employees from discussing their rates of pay with one another violates the NLRA.

A practical example of what constitutes “protected concerted activity” in the era of COVID-19 was recently addressed by the NLRB in an Advice Memorandum. An employee of a company that sells replacement windows posted a message about COVID-19 precautions on a group work chat maintained by the employer on a third-party messaging application and accessed from personal equipment: “[i]n the last three weeks, our case count has spiked in parallel timing with the last Phase of reopening.” This started a discussion among other employees offering their opinions about the effectiveness of COVID precautions.

The employee was removed from the group chat, then reinstated to the chat with the admonition that he not post anything about COVID-19. The employee eventually refused to report to work on the ground that “the imminent threat to safety caused by the recent spike in area COVID-19 cases, the Employer’s inaction in mitigating the threat, and the inability to discuss these dangers with coworkers prohibited him from performing his job in good faith.” On these facts, the NLRB concluded that the Employer had violated the NLRA by removing the employee from the group chat, making statements that restrained the employee from communicating about his work-related concerns, and constructively discharging the employee. Going forward, the NLRB will issue a complaint against the Employer, and a hearing will be conducted to determine whether the employee is entitled to reinstatement to his job and backpay.

The Takeaway: Many employees have very strong opinions about all things COVID, and they are eager to share them with others. Employers may wish to limit such discussions so that they do not interfere with work. However, when those discussions touch on workplace issues, such as workplace mitigation procedures, workplace vaccination policies, or workplace safety, employers need to tread very lightly or risk an NLRB complaint (or even worse, an OSHA citation for retaliating against an employee who complains about workplace safety issues).

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

Copyright 2021 Kathleen Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.

Let’s Talk About Employee Speech in the Workplace

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How much control can an employer exercise over employee speech in the workplace?

As an initial matter, let’s talk about the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment protects speech against interference by the government; it does not protect speech against interference by a private employer. So employees of private employers cannot properly invoke their “first amendment rights” against any employer restrictions on their speech.

Private employers do need to be aware that Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits interference with employee protected concerted activity, which includes workplace discussions about terms and conditions of employment (which is pretty broad, if you think about it). This would include employee conversations with one another about their wages, supervisors or work environment. In fact, if your Employee Handbook provides that employees cannot discuss their wages or salaries with other employees, that provision arguably violates Section 7 and may need to be removed.

These days, Section 7 may protect group chatter or actions about how the company is dealing with COVID-19 cases, such as the refusal by a group of employees to work in an area they believe is not properly sanitized, or the refusal by a group of employees to work near another employee who displays symptoms of COVID-19 infection.

If you thought that the National Labor Relations Act applied only to unionized workplaces, you thought wrong. Coverage under the NLRA is very broad and is based upon the dollar amounts of goods and services in interstate commerce, and different standards apply to different industries. It does not apply to independent contractors–but you’d better make sure that your independent contractors are properly classified under the most recent applicable standard. [Board law is a moving target that can change depending upon the political makeup of the Board members and Office of the General Counsel]. It is best to check with qualified labor and employment counsel to determine if the NLRA applies to your business and employees.

Other federal laws may protect employee speech about workplace safety or discrimination. However, knowingly false or malicious complaints about safety violations or discrimination may bit necessarily be protected.

So what kind of workplace speech can a private employer control? The kinds of things that have no place in the workplace, such as profanity, discriminatory slurs, or fighting words. Prohibiting talk about politics may be trickier–if employees are talking about how a politician or candidate may affect their work, job, or pay, it may be protected by Section 7.

Nevertheless, an employer can–and should–have a work rule that requires employees to talk with one another in a respectful way. In addition, it should have an effective open door policy or complaint procedure that employees can utilize if they have complaints about anything. As a practical matter, it is in a company’s interest to encourage employees to bring all complaints to the attention of the company rather than to a third party, such as a government agency or union organizer. And in the case of complaints about discriminatory slurs or harassment, such a procedure, if effective, can provide a defense against potential legal liability.

Kathleen J. Jennings is an attorney licensed to practice law in Georgia and New York. She graduated from Cornell University, College of Arts & Sciences, with distinction and New York University School of Law. She is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. and defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters. She can be contacted at kjj@wimlaw.com.

©2020 Kathleen J. Jennings

The materials available at this blog site are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. Use of and access to this Web site or any of the e-mail links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship between Kathleen J. Jennings and the user or browser. The opinions expressed at or through this site are the opinions of the individual author.