Ohio Employer's Law Blog | Daily Updates | “Revisiting the misnamed and misunderstood term "wage theft"” plus more

Revisiting the misnamed and misunderstood term "wage theft"

Yesterday, on his always excellent Connecticut Employment Law Blog, Dan Schwartz wrote a post entitled, “Wage Theft”: The Trendy Phrase That May Not Mean What You Think It Means. Dan wrote:

[T]he use of the phrase is being pushed to push various agendas — not as a result of any legal theory or real change in the law.… And it’s time to call it out; it’s a phrase that is both misleading and loaded.… Does that mean that the problem of employers failing to pay employees overtime should be ignored? Hardly. Employers who fail to follow the the myriad of wage and hour laws should be held accountable. And suffice to say that criminal activity by employers should continue to be enforced vigorously.… Quite simply: The use of a criminal term for a non-criminal act needs to stop.
Dan is 100 percent correct that the term “wage theft” is being misused and abused. The mainstream press and bloggers are using the term to cover any situation in which an employer is not paying required overtime, whether it’s an intentional withholding or an honest mistake. “Theft” connotes bad intent — yet most wage and hour mistakes are honest ones born out of a misunderstanding of the law, not a desire to cheat or steal from employees.

Dan was kind enough to cite to a post I wrote on the same topic almost a year ago, entitled, Taking issue with the term “wage theft”. Because Dan has shed new light on this important issue, I thought it makes sense to republish my earlier post.
Lately, I’ve read a lot of blogs that accuse employers of committing rampant wage theft (e.g., here, here, and here). 
I have a huge problem with the term “wage theft.” It suggests anintentional taking of wages by an employer. Are there employees are who paid less than the wage to which the law entitles them? Absolutely. Is this underpayment the result of some greedy robber baron twirling his handlebar mustache with one hand while lining his pockets with the sweat, tears, and dollars of his worker with the other? Absolutely not. 
Yes, we have a wage-and-hour problem in this country. Wage-and-hour non-compliance, however, is a sin of omission, not a sin of commission. Employer aren’t intentionally stealing; they just don’t know any better. 
And who can blame them? The law that governs the payment of minimum wage and overtime in the country, the Fair Labor Standards Act, is 70 years old. It shows every bit of its age. Over time it’s been amended again and again, with regulation upon regulation piled on. What we are left with is an anachronistic maze of rules and regulations in which one would need a Ph.D. in FLSA (if such a thing existed) just to make sense of it all. Since most employers are experts in running their businesses, but not necessarily experts in the ins and outs of the intricacies of the Fair Labor Standards Act, they are fighting a compliance battle they cannot hope to win. 
As a result, sometimes employees are underpaid. The solution, however, is not creating wage theft statutes that punish employers for unintentional wrongs they cannot hope to correct. Instead, legislators should focus their time and resources to finding a modern solution to a twisted, illogical, and outdated piece of legislation. 
In my most recent book, The Employer Bill of Rights: A Manager’s Guide to Workplace Law, I summarized this issue best: 
“Congress enacted the FLSA during the great depression to combat the sweatshops that had taken over our manufacturing sector. In the 70 plus years that have passed, it has evolved via a complex web of regulations and interpretations into an anachronistic maze of rules with which even the best-intentioned employer cannot hope to comply. I would bet any employer in this country a free wage-and-hour audit that i could find an FLSA violation in its pay practices. A regulatory scheme that is impossible to meet does not make sense to keep alive…. 
“I am all in favor of employees receiving a full day’s pay for a full day’s work. What employers and employees need, though, is a streamlined and modernized system to ensure that workers are paid a fair wage.”

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6th Circuit recognizes telecommuting as an ADA reasonable accommodation

In Core v. Champaign County Board of County Commissioners, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio opined that telecommuting (i.e., work-from-home) might be an ADA reasonable accommodation under the right circumstances, but that case did not present those circumstances. The Core court specifically noted that the 6th Circuit does not “allow disabled workers to work at home, where their productivity inevitably would be greatly reduced,” except “in the unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties at home.”

Yesterday, in EEOC v. Ford Motor Co., the 6th Circuit, for the first time, recognized that modern technology is making telecommuting a realistic reasonable accommodation option. The case involved an employee with Irritable Bowel Syndrome who could not drive to work or leave her desk without soiling herself. Ford declined her telecommuting request because it believed in its business judgment that her position—a buyer who acted as the intermediary between steel suppliers and stamping plants—required face-to-face interaction.

The 6th Circuit disagreed, in large part because Ford could not show that physical attendance at the place of employment was an essential function of her job.

When we first developed the principle that attendance is an essential requirement of most jobs, technology was such that the workplace and an employer’s brick-and-mortar location were synonymous. However, as technology has advanced in the intervening decades, and an ever-greater number of employers and employees utilize remote work arrangements, attendance at the workplace can no longer be assumed to mean attendance at the employer’s physical location. Instead, the law must respond to the advance of technology in the employment context, as it has in other areas of modern life, and recognize that the “workplace” is anywhere that an employee can perform her job duties. Thus, the vital question in this case is not whether “attendance” was an essential job function for a resale buyer, but whether physical presence at the Ford facilities was truly essential.…

[W]e are not rejecting the long line of precedent recognizing predictable attendance as an essential function of most jobs.… We are merely recognizing that, given the state of modern technology, it is no longer the case that jobs suitable for telecommuting are “extraordinary” or “unusual.” … [C]ommunications technology has advanced to the point that it is no longer an “unusual case where an employee can effectively perform all work-related duties from home.”

Like it or not, technology is changing our workplace by helping to evaporate walls. While telecommuting as a reasonable accommodation remains the exception, the line that separates exception from rule is shifting as technology makes work-at-home arrangements more feasible. If you want to be able to defend a workplace rule that employees work from work, and not from home, consider the following three-steps:

  • Prepare job descriptions that detail the need for time spent in the office. Distinguish one’s physical presence in the office against one’s working hours.
  • Document the cost of establishing and monitoring an effective telecommuting program.
  • If a disabled employee requests telecommuting as an accommodation, engage in a dialogue with that employee to agree upon the accommodation with which both sides can live (whether it’s telecommuting or something else).

photo credit: Jeremy Levine Design via photopin cc

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When an employee can’t return to work after an FMLA leave

The plaintiff in Demyanovich v. Cadon Plating & Coatings (6th Cir. Mar. 28, 2014) suffered from congestive heart failure. He returned from his latest FMLA leave in 2009 with a no-overtime medical restriction. The employer, however, ignored the restriction, kept assigning overtime hours, and denied an early-2010 FMLA request. Demyanovich’s doctor advised him to quit his job and apply for social security benefits. Shortly thereafter, the company terminated him for excessive absenteeism.

In the subsequent FMLA lawsuit, the employer claimed that Demyanovich could not prove him FMLA claim because he could not have returned to his job at the end of the 2010 FMLA leave, had it been granted. The court, however, disagreed:

Although there is ample evidence that Demyanovich might have had difficulty returning to work within twelve weeks of his February 23 request for FMLA leave, it is not indisputable that he would have been unable to do so. Dr. Mussani, Demyanovich’s primary physician, “advised [Demyanovich] to quit work” and seek Social Security benefits, but he did not draft any documentation stating that Demyanovich was categorically unable to continue working. We may not draw the inference, adverse to Demyanovich, that because Dr. Mussani had always cleared Demyanovich to return to work after past examinations, his advice to quit on this occasion demonstrates that Demyanovich was no longer capable of working.
According to the FMLA, employees who, at the end of the 12-week leave period, remain “unable to perform an essential function of the position because of a physical or mental condition … [have] no right to restoration to another position under the FMLA.” Thus, if Demyanovich truly could not have returned to work at the end of the FMLA leave, then he would not have a claim. In this case, the court concluded that the employer could not measure that inability prospectively, since Demyanovich presented no medical paperwork to that end.

What are the takeaway from this case?

  1. When dealing with medical issues under the FMLA, get it in writing. In this case, it appears that the employer was attempting to justify its decision based on information in learned after the fact—that Demyanovich’s doctor recommend that he quit and seek social security benefits based on a total inability to work. Had the company learned this information at the time of the termination from medical information provided by Demyanovich at that time, this case likely would have turned out differently.
  2. Don’t forget about the ADA. Just because an employee cannot return to work at the end of an exhausted FMLA leave does not mean you can always terminate the employee. Instead, you have an obligation under the ADA to explore, through the interactive process, reasonable accommodations such as temporary light duty or an unpaid leave of absence. Even if you are on solid legal ground to terminate under the FMLA, ignoring your obligations under the ADA will still buy you a lawsuit.

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Would you rather hire a liar or a criminal?

According to a recent survey conducted by background-screening company EmployeeScreenIQ, resume lies are more of a deal breaker for employers than past crimes.

Of the 600 HR professionals surveyed 45 percent said that they routinely ding candidates with a criminal history on their resume, while a whopping 90 percent refuse to hire some for whom a resume lie is discovered.

Two years ago, when the EEOC announced its Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records, I expressed reservations over regulatory guidance that limited the ability of employers to use criminal histories as a disqualifying factor for certain classes of jobs. I still believe that individuals with certain criminal histories should not hold certain jobs. For example, I remain steadfast that I cannot foresee a situation where a company would ever hire a convicted murdered or sex offender a delivery person.

I would never hire anyone who lies during the hiring process. The most important trait in hiring anyone for a job is honesty. If the bond of honest breaks down between employer and employee, the breakdown of the employment relationship will quickly follow. While not all criminal convictions depict an individual as dishonest, all resume lies do. The fact that this survey shows that double the number of employers refuse to hire candidates with resumes lies versus those who truthfully reveal past crimes does not surprise me in the least.

Readers, what say you? Would you rather hire a liar or a criminal? What is more troubling to you: the applicant who lies on a resume, or an applicant who discloses a criminal history on resume? Sound off in the comments, or on Twitter @jonhyman with the hashtag #liarorcriminal.

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WIRTW #317 (the “crash landing” edition)

Even though we are only in the third week of April, I am ready to declare that we have already seen the social-media #fail of 2014. From Fox News:

US Airways said it was investigating a pornographic tweet on Tuesday sent on its Twitter account in response to a customer complaint about a flight delay, which went viral on social media.

US Airways issued an apology on Monday immediately after deleting the tweeted photograph of a naked woman lying on a bed with a toy airplane between her legs, said Davien Anderson, spokesman for US Airways.

To be accurate, “between her legs” is a bit of an understatement.

Meanwhile, Jezebel reports, “It was an honest mistake. No one is getting fired.” Honest mistakes happen, both in the privacy of the workplace and in public on social media. The important lesson is how you handle it. Do you punish the employee? Or do you use the mistake as a teachable moment for all of your employees. In my experience, you get much more mileage from the latter.

Here’s the rest of what I read this week:


Social Media & Workplace Technology

HR & Employee Relations

Wage & Hour

Labor Relations

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