Just before the end of the legislative session, Public Act 17-118: An Act Concerning Pregnant Women in the Workplace, passed and is expected to be signed by the Governor.  Effective October 1st, this Bill amends Connecticut’s existing Pregnancy Discrimination Statute, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60 by expanding the employment protections provided to pregnant women and requiring employers to provide a reasonable workplace accommodations unless the employer demonstrates that the accommodation would be an undue hardship. The bill also prohibits employers from (1) limiting, segregating, or classifying an employee in a way that would deprive her of employment opportunities due to her pregnancy or (2) forcing a pregnant employee or applicant to accept a reasonable accommodation if she does not need one. It also eliminates certain employment protection provisions related to transfers to temporary positions for pregnant workers. Continue Reading Legislature Expands Pregnancy Protections, Malloy Set To Sign

A pharmacist was terminated after he claimed he was unable to administer vaccinations to customers.  Christopher Stevens sued Rite Aid for discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other state non-discrimination laws.  The jury awarded him $2.6 million, including $900,000 in non-economic damages.

By way of background, Rite Aid revised the job description for its pharmacists to require an immunization certification and made administering vaccinations an essential function of the job. Stevens, who suffers from trypanophobia (fear of needles), claimed he was disabled under the ADA and requested a reasonable accommodation excusing him from giving injections.  Rite Aid determined that Stevens was not disabled under the ADA, and therefore, it was not required to offer him reasonable accommodation. Instead, Rite Aid informed Stevens that if he did not comply with the vaccination requirement, he would be terminated. Stevens was thereafter discharged for refusing to perform an essential function of his job. For full text of decision click here. Continue Reading 2d Circuit Court of Appeals reverses $2.6 million jury verdict in disability discrimination case

What is an Oxford comma? The Oxford comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: for example, “lions, and tigers, and bears… (oh my)”.  While use of the Oxford comma has long been the subject of debate, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston has determined its absence was critical in resolving the appeal in favor of a group of truck drivers in a class action suit in Maine.  The drivers sued the company, Oakhurst Dairy, claiming the company had improperly denied them several years of overtime pay. The company claimed the drivers were exempt from overtime under state statute.  The District Court agreed with the company and granted its motion for summary judgment.  The drivers appealed to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals.

The sole issue on appeal hinged on whether the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution of” foods referred to a single activity involving packing or two separate activities – packing for shipment and packing for distribution.  The statute in question excluded from overtime “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” Continue Reading The importance of punctuation: Missing Oxford comma benefits drivers in overtime case

A recent judgment awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages (including emotional distress) resulting from an employer’s inaction against a customer who for more than a year engaged in a pattern of harassment including inappropriately touching the employee and stalking.

In EEOC v. Costco, the EEOC proved that Costco failed to take steps to protect an employee from a customer who engaged in a pattern of harassing behavior.  The EEOC noted that as evidence of Costco’s inaction, it took them more than a year to even ban the customer despite the employees’ repeated protestations.  Because of Costco’s inaction, the employee was left with no choice but to go to the police and obtain an order of protection against the customer on her own.

Based on the company’s inaction, the EEOC argued Costco created a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   As the EEOC Lead Trial Attorney noted: “An employer should not wait until an employee is so fearful that she resorts to seeking a restraining order before intervening against a customer.  Employers should work diligently to ensure that all of its employees have a safe, harassment-free workplace.”

This case is a reminder that under Title VII employers needs to have plans in place to handle complaints by employees against customers, vendors, contractors or even friends of employees.  If an employee complains of harassment from a third-party, the manager or supervisor must treat the complaint as they would any other harassment complaint on the worksite.  This includes promptly investigating the issue and correcting the problem if the complaint can be sustained.  Training for supervisors to address and respond to these matters is also essential to ensure the employer does not run afoul of Title VII or similar state anti-discrimination laws.

Our team of attorneys has decades of experience in drafting harassment policies and training management on responding to complaints.  Providing these services is the first step in avoiding costly litigation and ensuring compliance with the various state and federal statutes.

This election, seven states and the District of Columbia passed expansive marijuana laws that permitted the recreational use of marijuana or cannabinoids.    This means that within these states and the District of Columbia people can openly smoke or ingest cannabis with no criminal repercussions.

While Connecticut has not embraced this libertine attitude toward marijuana use, Connecticut’s Palliative Use of Marijuana Statute (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21a-408 et seq.) permits the use of marijuana by qualifying patients to treat certain medical conditions.  This statute also prohibits an employer from refusing to hire, disciplining, or discharging an employee because of their status as a qualifying patient or primary caregiver.  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 21-408p(3).

However, this issue can be problematic for private employers who conduct reasonable suspicion or random drug tests pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51t et seq. or through a collective bargaining agreement for municipal employers.  It also raises questions about what an employer should do if an employee comes and/or returns to work under the influence of medical marijuana.

For starters: employers can still restrict employees from coming to work under the influence of drugs even if those drugs are medically required. Having a drug use policy that lays out what is prohibited as well as explaining what action will be taken for violations is imperative.  This policy should be provided to employees or posted in a highly visible area to put employees on notice.

In addition, drug testing may still be used especially if the business falls under federal regulations (which still prohibit the use of marijuana as a class 1 narcotic).  These businesses may employ CDL drivers; drivers whose occupation is considered “safety sensitive”; or who otherwise fall under the regulations of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.  In addition businesses who receive federal grants or who are considered a federal contractor may be required under the Federal Drug Free Workplace Act to have a policy that prohibits the “unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession or use of a controlled substance” as well language explaining what remedial action that will be taken for violations.  If a federal regulation does require drug testing, it is important to ensure your drug testing policy includes all required provisions of the regulation or else civil fines (and in some cases debarment from federal contracts) can ensue.

Because this issue is evolving, and medical marijuana may open the door to a number of other issues (including the Americans with Disabilities Act and the State and Federal Family and Medical Leave Act) it is best to speak with an attorney about drafting a drug use policy and/or a drug testing policy.  Our attorneys are well versed in this facet of the law and have decades of experience drafting drug use and testing policies as well as advising employers on best practices.

Election Day is rapidly approaching and voter turnout is expected to be particularly high.  While many states have laws providing time off for employees to vote, Connecticut is not one of them.  How should employers handle requests for time off to vote?

Polls in Connecticut are open from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m.  A voter only needs to be in line by the time the polls close in order to be permitted to vote.  In most cases, the hours should be sufficient to allow employees to vote either before or after work.

However, in some cases an employee will not have sufficient time to vote before or after work.  Many states are addressing these issues by allowing “early voting,” where voters can vote on days other than Election Day, reducing wait times and allowing more flexibility if time off is needed.  Early voting is not an option in Connecticut.  One option available to Connecticut voters is to register for an absentee ballot.  The deadline to request an absentee ballot is November 7, 2016.  Absentee voting is permitted for a variety of reasons, such as illness, service in the military, etc.  A voter can receive an absentee ballot because of his or her absence from the town in which he or she is registered to vote for all hours of voting on Election Day.  Employees working in the same town in which they vote would not be eligible for an absentee ballot on this basis, even if they are working a shift that covers all hours.

Many employers choose to provide flexibility for employees who need to come in late, leave early, or take an extended lunch break in order to vote.  However, this is not a legal requirement.  Non-exempt employees who take time off can be required to use paid time off or to take the time unpaid.  However, in the case of an exempt employee, partial day deductions from pay are not allowed in this circumstance, but can require an exempt employee to use paid time off to cover the partial absence.

In deciding whether to allow time off to vote, employers should consider operational needs, employee morale issues, collective bargaining agreements (including past practices), and the anticipated time employees will need at the polls.  Employers should also remember that employees may spend a great deal of time talking about the election and that political speech in the workplace is generally protected in Connecticut.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys can assist you in all aspects of labor-management relations in the public and private sectors.

Effective July 1, 2016, local or regional boards of education, governing councils of state or local charter schools and inter-district magnet school operators (collectively “BOEs”), are going to have to follow new requirements for hiring education personnel.  The state legislature recently enacted Public Act 16-67 (“the Act”) in response to a new provision in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”). The new ESSA provision, entitled “Prohibition on Aiding and Abetting Sexual Abuse”, is aimed at preventing school employees who have engaged in sexual misconduct with students from being passed from one school district to another, by requiring states, state educational agencies and local school districts that receive federal funding to establish laws, regulations and policies that prevent employment of school personnel where there is reason to believe that person has previously engaged in sexual misconduct with a student or minor.

Who is impacted by the new requirements?

The Act has broad application and seeks to identify potential predators earlier in the hiring process. Significantly, the Act applies to applicants, rather than those offered employment, and prohibits the employment of any applicant who fails to meet the new requirements.  The Act makes no distinction between certified and non-certified personnel, but instead applies to all “applicants for a position, including any position which is contracted for, if such applicant would have direct student contact”.  “Direct student contact” is not defined by the Act, but positions with direct student contact would include teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, behavioral therapists, coaches, food service workers, custodians, clerical/administrative support staff in the schools, and school nurses.  There are specific provisions for temporary positions (less than 90 days), substitute teachers and contractors, but even applicants for these positions must comply with the requirements for criminal and employment background checks.  Student employees remain excluded from the requirement of a criminal background check under Conn. Gen. Stat. §10-221d.

What is required under the Act?

The Act imposes significant changes on existing laws regarding hiring of education personnel, specifically impacting Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 10-221d (criminal and child abuse registry background checks), 10-222c (hiring policy) and 10-145 (substitute teachers). Continue Reading Public Act 16-67: New Hiring Requirements for Board of Education Personnel

Election season is here and the evidence can be viewed all around an employer’s campus: from bumper stickers on the cars in the parking lots; buttons festooned to employees; even screen savers on company computers; now more than ever broadcasting your support is easy.  However, with that support may come problems for the workplace.

Connecticut’s free-speech statute Conn. Gen. Stat. §31-51q protects an employee (acting in his or her private citizen capacity and not as an agent of the employer) from discharge or discipline for engaging in speech that would be protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution or Sections 3, 4 or 14 of the Connecticut State Constitution.  This includes what is called “political speech.”  Stated differently, an employee who voices support (such as campaigns for or speaks positively/negatively about a particular candidate) may not suffer any reprisal from the employer merely because the employer disagrees with that particular political philosophy.  This includes discipline (demotions, write-ups, suspensions etc.) and discharge based on that speech.

However, much like other issues concerning free speech rights, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q tapers the rights of employees from engaging in speech that “substantially and materially interferes with the employee’s bona fide job performance or the working relationship between the employee and the employer.”  Thus, while an employee may show support toward a particular candidate, that support cannot disrupt the business operations of the employer.  In other words, if the conduct of the employee is consuming so much of his or her working time; leading to political fights with other employees; and/or resulting in substandard work product or harm to business relationships, discipline is appropriate.

Given the nuances of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 31-51q and free speech laws in particular, it is always a good idea to consult with an attorney well versed in free speech rights in the workplace.  Our attorneys have handled these issues for both public and private employers and are familiar with this changing area of the law.

On January 1, 2017, Connecticut will “ban the box” for private employers, as well as public employers.  “Ban the box” laws prohibit employers from asking questions about criminal background on employment applications, with some exceptions.  Such laws are becoming increasingly common in states and municipalities throughout the United States.

The new Connecticut legislation, known as Public Act 16-83, An Act Concerning Fair Chance Employment, defines “employer” as “any person engaged in business who has one or more employees, including the state or any political subdivision of the state.”  The law prohibits employers from inquiring about a prospective employee’s prior arrests, criminal charges, or convictions on an initial employment application.  There is an exception when the employer is required to do so by state or federal law.  However, it is not clear whether this exception will apply only when the employer is bound to inquire about criminal background on an initial application or if it will apply as long as the employer is required to ask at some point in the process.  A literal reading of the language implies the former.  There is also an exception when a security or fidelity bond or an equivalent bond is required for the position for which the prospective employee is seeking employment.

Notably, the legislation only bans employers from asking about criminal history on an initial employment application.  It does not prohibit asking altogether, nor does it require a conditional offer prior to asking.  Therefore, employers need to check their application forms to ensure they do not ask about criminal background (unless an exception applies), but may ask such questions at any later point in the application process.

Existing state law requires that an employment application form that contains any question concerning the criminal history of the applicant contain a notice, in clear and conspicuous language:

(1) That the applicant is not required to disclose the existence of any arrest, criminal charge or conviction, the records of which have been erased pursuant to section 46b-146, 54-76o or 54-142a,

(2) that criminal records subject to erasure pursuant to section 46b-146, 54-76o or 54-142a are records pertaining to a finding of delinquency or that a child was a member of a family with service needs, an adjudication as a youthful offender, a criminal charge that has been dismissed or nolled, a criminal charge for which the person has been found not guilty or a conviction for which the person received an absolute pardon, and

(3) that any person whose criminal records have been erased pursuant to section 46b-146, 54-76o or 54-142a shall be deemed to have never been arrested within the meaning of the general statutes with respect to the proceedings so erased and may so swear under oath.

Further, employers may not reject an applicant or terminate an employee based on erased records or because of a prior conviction for which the individual has received a provisional pardon or certificate of rehabilitation pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54-130a, or a certificate of rehabilitation pursuant to Conn. Gen. Stat. § 54-108f.

While the ban-the-box legislation does not allow an individual to sue an employer, a complaint may be filed with the state Department of Labor.

Employers should remain aware of other considerations relating to the role of prior convictions in the application process.  Employers in certain regulated industries, particularly where employees will work with children or finances, may have special requirements to inquire about criminal background.  Employers in all fields should ensure that they make carefully reasoned decisions about the relevance of prior convictions to the employment sought; failure to do so could give rise to discrimination charges based on race and national origin, even where a policy is applied evenhandedly.  Finally, before conducting a criminal background check, employers should ensure they are complying with notification requirements of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Due to the complexity of the law in this area, employers should consider having their applications and other onboarding materials reviewed by a labor and employment attorney.  Further, before taking adverse action (including refusing to hire an individual) based on a criminal conviction, it is advisable to seek counsel, as certain enumerated factors should be considered and documented.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys can assist employers in adjusting to the new criminal background inquiry restrictions and ensuring compliance with all applicable labor and employment laws.

In a decision that marks a clear departure from national case law, the Connecticut Supreme Court recently expanded the protection of employees who speak out against their employers.

In Trusz v. UBS Realty Investors the Connecticut Supreme Court rejected the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court as to the U.S. Constitution, ruling, in effect, that the state constitution affords Connecticut employees broader protection than federal law.  In a case called Garcetti v. Ceballos, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that employee statements made as part of their official duties were not protected.  In Trusz the Connecticut Supreme Court rejected that exception as to the Connecticut Constitution.

As such, even statements made by an employee as part of their official duties may be protected under Connecticut law assuming the other requirements for bringing a free speech claim are met, e.g. it must be a matter of public (not private) concern.  This means that as compared to other employers throughout the rest of the Country, a Connecticut employer has less latitude to discipline an employee who speaks out against their employer, even if the statements are associated with their regular job duties.  Connecticut employers seeking to discipline an employee for speaking out against them should think twice and consult with counsel before doing so.