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.

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.

Connecticut employers must begin paying $9.60 per hour to their employees on January 1, 2016 as part of legislation designed to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2017.  For restaurant waitstaff who receive sufficient gratuities, the employer must pay $7.82 per hour under the new minimum wage, but the employee must still make at least $9.60 per hour including tips and employers must follow recordkeeping and reporting obligations related to the tip credit.

Employers must also update their workplace posters to ensure they reflect the new minimum wage.  The posters are available from the Connecticut Department of Labor at http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/gendocs/labor_posters.htm.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys can assist employers in adjusting to the new minimum wage requirements and ensuring compliance with all applicable labor and employment laws.

Wage violations are about to get more costly for Connecticut employers.  A new statute, effective October 1, 2015, requires courts to award double damages plus court costs and attorneys’ fees if an employer has failed to pay an employee’s wages (including minimum wage and overtime owed), accrued fringe benefits, or arbitration award.  The new law applies to all employers in the state.

Previously, Connecticut law allowed for double damages and attorneys’ fees only in cases involving bad faith, arbitrariness, or unreasonableness on the part of the employer.  Now the burden is shifted.  Double damages can be avoided only if an employer can establish it acted in good faith.  While good faith is not defined, under federal law it requires that the employer have reasonable grounds for believing the act or omission was not a violation of the law.  It can be difficult to establish “reasonable grounds” for such a belief and, at a minimum, the employer should be able to establish that it investigated its obligations under the law.  Consulting with experienced labor and employment counsel on your wage-and-hour practices is the best way to ensure compliance.

While most employers mean well when it comes to wage-and-hour laws, the intricacies can be extremely complicated.  Are you making payroll deductions lawfully?  Are you properly classifying your employees as exempt and non-exempt?  Employers should proactively assess their compliance with wage-and-hour laws to avoid costly audits and lawsuits.  An attorney can help you conduct a self-audit to evaluate your pay practices and correct errors before you become the subject of enforcement actions.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys can assist you in keeping up with employee pay requirements and addressing other labor and employment law compliance issues.

Connecticut lawmakers want to ensure that employees are free to discuss their wages with one another. A recently enacted law, Public Act No. 15-196, prohibits public and private employers from barring discussions about wages or penalizing employees for discussing wages. The new law, which goes into effect July 1, 2015, protects the rights of employees to discuss their own wages and the wages of co-workers who have voluntarily disclosed their wages. The law does not require the employer or any employee to disclose wages. Rather, it protects those employees who choose to discuss wages.

Notably, the new law creates a private right of action. This means that employees can sue for damages. The statute authorizes compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs, punitive damages, and other legal and equitable relief in the discretion of the court. There is a statute of limitations of two years.

In many ways, this prohibition is not new. The National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), which applies to virtually every private employer, already prohibits employers from penalizing employees for discussing the terms and conditions of employment, such as their pay. However, the NLRA defines “employee” to exclude many members of management, while the Connecticut law contains no such exclusion. By reaching all levels of management, the new law has the potential to affect “glass ceiling” issues, as women call for equal pay at the higher levels.

Since an employer could violate the new law by maintaining a pay secrecy policy, even if it is never enforced, employers should check their handbooks to ensure no such policy exists. In addition, managers should be trained to know that they cannot shut down conversations among employees about their pay.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys can efficiently draft or update your employee handbook to ensure you are in compliance with all applicable federal, state, and local laws.

The Appellate Court of Connecticut, in a long awaited decision, recently held in Tomick v. UPS, 157 Conn. App. 312 (Conn. App. Ct. 2015), that a plaintiff cannot recover punitive damages under Connecticut’s statute prohibiting discrimination in employment, the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (“CFEPA”).  The Court accordingly set aside the jury’s $500,000 award of punitive damages to the plaintiff, who claimed he was discriminated against because of his disability, among other claims.

Following the canons of statutory construction, the Court reasoned that punitive damages, an “extraordinary remedy”, may only be awarded if the statute expressly provides for them.  The relevant provision of CFEPA allows the court to award attorney’s fees and court costs, but not punitive damages in addition.  Other statutes, on the other hand, do expressly allow an award of punitive damages, for example, in cases of discriminatory credit practices with a cap and discriminatory housing practices.  In sum, if the Legislature had wanted to make punitive damages available to a plaintiff in the case of employment discrimination, it knew how to say so but did not.  Attorney’s fees and court costs remain available to prevailing plaintiffs.

The Tomick decision comes as a boon to employers, who have had to factor into their settlement strategies and litigation budgets the uncertainty of an enormous jury award of punitive damages.   In this very case, for instance, the jury’s $500,000 award in punitive damages was 5 times the damages otherwise awarded for the disability discrimination.  If the matter is appealed and the Supreme Court overturns the decision, an unsettled issue is whether the punitive damages should be set by the judge or the jury, the latter of which generally presents greater anxiety for defendant employers.

The Tomick case serves as a reminder to employers to review their own anti-discrimination policies.  Our firm provides guidance to employers in crafting such policies and conducts employee training on discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Connecticut employers must begin paying $9.15 per hour to their employees on January 1, 2015 as part of legislation designed to raise the state minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2017.  For restaurant waitstaff who receive sufficient gratuities, the employer must pay $5.78 per hour under the new minimum wage, but the employee must still make at least $9.15 per hour including tips and employers must follow recordkeeping and reporting obligations related to the tip credit.

Employers must also update their workplace posters to ensure they reflect the new minimum wage.  The posters are available from the Connecticut Department of Labor at http://www.ctdol.state.ct.us/gendocs/labor_posters.htm.

Our team of labor and employment attorneys can assist employers in adjusting to the new minimum wage requirements and ensuring compliance with all applicable labor and employment laws.