Several years ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) raised employers’ eyebrows when it filed several lawsuits challenging the validity of employer-sponsored wellness programs. The EEOC contended that such programs violate the ADA and GINA due to terms that rewarded or punished employees and dependents based on their degree of participation in the wellness initiatives. Federal courts were largely unsympathetic to these challenges, noting provisions in other federal laws specifically endorsing the use of wellness programs as a way to improve employee health and help control plan expenses.
On January 1, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) new recordkeeping and reporting rule took effect. The main impact of this rule requires employers to electronically file annual injury and illness reports, which will be placed in a publicly accessible database. However, buried in the final rule’s explanation last year, OSHA questioned the ability of employers to conduct automatic post-accident drug or alcohol testing.
The policy seemed straightforward. A hospital required all employees to receive seasonal flu vaccinations based on its assessment of the dangers of influenza to patients with compromised immune systems. The hospital went further, providing an exemption from the policy for employees with medical or religious reasons for avoiding the vaccinations. Nevertheless, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that it had reached a $300,000 settlement with the hospital based on its claims that the vaccination policy violated the religious rights of six terminated employees under Title VII.
The EEOC claimed that in practice, the Pennsylvania hospital rejected religious claims for exemption from the flu vaccine, while routinely granting medical exemptions. The settlement specifically prohibits the hospital from requiring that employees seeking a religious exemption from the vaccinations provide notes from clergy certifying the religious basis for the objection. In general, Title VII prohibits employers from inquiring into the basis for or sincerity of the employee’s religious practices or beliefs.
The settlement does allow the hospital to continue denying vaccination exemption requests if it can prove undue hardship. This is a difficult standard, requiring the employer to demonstrate something close to certainty of harm in the event that the exemption is granted. In the hospital’s case, undue hardship could arise for example, with employees whose jobs requires regular and close contact with patients known to have compromised immune systems.
The EEOC’s position obviously provides employees who simply prefer not to get vaccinated an avenue to claim a questionable religious exemption to the requirement. Absent clear evidence that the employee does not hold a sincere religious belief supporting the accommodation request, the employer has little recourse other than to determine whether the accommodation presents the undue hardship allowed by the EEOC.
I vaguely recall the word “monopsony” from an introductory economics course, but to be honest, I could not remember what it means. The term monopsony is defined as, “a market condition where one or a small group of firms exercise such control over a particular product or service that they are able to pay lower prices for its inputs.” While a monopoly can result in higher consumer prices, a monopsony allows the controlling company to lower its costs of production by paying less than would be the case in a competitive marketplace.
Earlier this month, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors released an issues brief discussing the consequences of a labor market monopsony on wages and economic equality. The Council identified monopsony as a significant contributing factor behind slow wage growth in the U.S. in recent years. Absent a competitive labor market in some industries, employees lack the ability to increase their incomes by selling their services to a competitor.
In addition to market concentration, the issues bulletin notes recent cases of wage collusion among competitors in Silicon Valley and in the healthcare industry who allegedly agreed not to hire each other’s employees. The bulletin also cites non-competition agreements as a significant contributing factor toward market monopsony, noting that 18 percent, or 30 million U.S. employees are currently restricted from moving to competitors. Finally, the Council points out that the decline of organized labor, regulatory (i.e., licensing) restrictions and lack of healthcare portability also contribute to a lack of labor mobility.
The issues bulletin concludes by setting forth a list of proposed remedial steps such as increased antitrust enforcement efforts. More importantly for employers, in addition to the bulletin, the White House also released a set of “best practices and call-to-action” for states to implement specific policy reforms to “curb the use of unnecessary non-compete agreements.” Among other recommendations, the White House urges states to ban non-compete agreements for (1) workers under a certain salary threshold; (2) those who do not have access to trade secrets; (3) workers in public interest vocations; and (4) employees who have been terminated or laid off without cause.
Neither the issues bulletin or White House best practices guidelines have any force of law. However, they represent one of the first expressions of federal interest in controlling state law governed non-competes. In recent years, state courts and legislatures have become increasingly hostile to non-compete agreements they view as overbroad or unfair. If Democrats continue to hold the White House or regain control of Congress, these new policy documents could represent an indication of future federal legislative and regulatory intentions.
On September 2, 2016, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland (which sits in the Fourth Circuit, along with North Carolina and South Carolina) held that the EEOC can move forward in its case against a large Maryland healthcare provider for allegedly failing to promote a female employee allegedly because she had availed herself of maternity leave.
In the case, EEOC v. Dimesions Healthcare Sys., No. PX 15-2342 (D. Md. Sept. 2, 2016), upon being passed up for a promotion, the plaintiff met with her supervisor to discuss why she had not been awarded the position when she had more years of experience in the industry and working with the company than the male candidate who had been selected. In response to the plaintiff’s inquiries, the supervisor told the plaintiff that the selected candidate “had a management background. Plus you were on maternity leave for a while.” Highlighting the fact that the supervisor was the ultimate decision-maker and that this reference to the plaintiff’s maternity leave was made on the heels of the promotion decision, the court concluded that the comment could reasonably be viewed as direct evidence of discrimination. The court focused on the fact that the plaintiff had superior experience and qualifications compared to the selected male candidate in rejecting defendant’s argument that the comment was a single, isolated remark that should not be given much weight. Moreover, the court also considered remarks and personnel decisions the supervisor had made with regard to other pregnant employees to further support its conclusion that the statement could reasonably be viewed as direct evidence of a discriminatory bias.
This case is a reminder that comments—especially those made by decision-makers—can constitute direct evidence of discrimination under federal discrimination laws. When there is direct evidence of discrimination, it is easier for a court or jury to find an employer liable for unlawful discrimination. The court’s decision also demonstrates that circumstantial evidence cannot only be used under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas, but can also bolster alleged discriminatory comments under the direct evidence analysis. Furthermore, the court’s consideration of comments made about other employees highlights that remarks do not have to be about the employee or employment decision at issue to constitute direct evidence of a discriminatory bias.
Most importantly, the case underscores the importance of training employees in decision-making positions to refrain from voicing or considering unlawful factors when making employment decisions or otherwise.
On May 16, 2016, President Obama signed into law the Defend Trade Secrets Act of 2016 (DTSA). The new law takes immediate effect and will provide important new federal protections against unauthorized disclosure of proprietary and confidential business information. However, one provision of DTSA immediately affects employers and other parties using confidential information and non-disclosure agreements with employees and independent contractors.Read More
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued final regulations on Wednesday that place limits on financial incentives used in certain employer-sponsored wellness programs. The two rules issued under the ADA and GINA, essentially limit such incentives or penalties to 30 percent of the cost of employee-only group medical coverage. Wellness programs that require employee or spouse medical examinations, or disclosure of family medical history, cannot include financial terms that reward or punish employees beyond this level based on their participation decision.Read More
On June 25, 2015, the United States Supreme Court issued the much anticipated decision in King v. Burwell and concluded that the tax credits allowed to eligible taxpayers for premiums paid under a Marketplace health insurance plan are available irrespective of whether a taxpayer enrolled in a state-operated exchange or a federal exchange. By doing so, the Supreme Court rejected the challengers’ literal reading of the applicable provision in the Affordable Care Act (the “Act”), which provides that tax credits are allowed if enrollment occurs though “an Exchange established by the State.”
The Supreme Court expressly acknowledged that the tax credits are a key component of the Act and are meant to make health insurance affordable for households with incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty line. The Supreme Court also noted that the literal reading suggested by the challengers would render many provisions of the Act inapplicable. The Act would then be mostly ineffective in its attempt to require most individuals to obtain health insurance. The Court decided that the language at issue could not be read in isolation, but had to be interpreted in the context of the Act read in its totality. The Court stated that “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” It then concluded that tax credits are allowed to all eligible taxpayers, even if they enrolled through a federal exchange.
This decision constitutes the second rejection by the Supreme Court of a major challenge to the Affordable Care Act. It is a clear indication that employers should continue to take appropriate steps in their implementation of health care reform.
Over the past decade, many employers extended dependent coverage under their group medical insurance plans to employees’ domestic partners. For many employers, this change was made in order to allow gay employees to add their partners to the plan. Given that same-sex marriage was illegal in most states, this addition was the only practical way to allow such employees to add their domestic partners to the plan. In some situations, this was the only way that these domestic partners could obtain medical insurance coverage. Employers typically extended such coverage to same and opposite-sex partners.
Given the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision and subsequent judicial overturning of gay marriage bans in most states, employers may be rethinking whether their group plans should include coverage for unmarried domestic partners. In addition to the legalization of same-sex marriage, the Affordable Care Act provides coverage options for domestic partners to obtain health insurance outside of the employer’s plan.
Extending dependent coverage to domestic partners entails certain burdens. For employers, coverage is usually conditional upon the receipt and review of affidavits certifying the couples’ domestic partner status. For the employees, such coverage can involve complicated tax issues.
Employers whose original intent was not to provide coverage to all unmarried partners, but only as a necessary means to allow gay employees to add their partners to the plan, may want to reconsider this plan option. A more “traditional” plan that requires that dependents, whether same or opposite sex, be married spouses, may result in a return to a more simplified plan structure.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has made emerging issues in employment discrimination law one of its national enforcement priorities. Last week, the EEOC settled a lawsuit brought against a California seed and fertilizer provider, alleging that the employer required applicants to submit to pre-employment medical examinations that included solicitation of family medical histories.
Under the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, employers cannot require applicants or employees to disclose family medical histories as a condition of employment. The EEOC claimed that the defendant refused to hire at least one applicant after he revealed that family members had suffered from a medical condition. In addition to violating GINA, the EEOC alleged that the pre-employment examination was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the employer screened applicants based on medical conditions that were unrelated to the requirements of the job. The employer agreed to pay $187,500 and to adopt measures intended to prevent use of such medical examinations as a screening tool in its hiring.
Most employers and medical providers that conduct pre-employment examinations are aware of these requirements, and have deleted requests for family medical histories from their exams. In addition to complying with GINA, employers should periodically review their post-offer, pre-hire examination procedures to make sure that medical grounds used to exclude an applicant from employment are clearly and directly related to their essential job functions. If the exclusion is based on a possible ADA disability, the employer needs to fully explore available reasonable accommodations before making a final decision to reject the applicant.
Jonathan Crotty has been a successful counselor and problem solver for large and small employers in the Carolinas and beyond for over 20 years. He heads Parker Poe’s Employment and Benefits practice group and represents employers in all aspects of the employment relationship, from hiring to discharge.