With Election Day just around the corner, private employers should carefully review state voting leave laws to ensure they are in compliance. Voting leave laws vary by state, and depend on where the employees are actually located. We have prepared a quick-reference summary of the voting leave laws in those jurisdictions that have them, which
FTC set to begin policing companies for alleged gig worker abuse
One of the priorities of the current administration is to police the alleged abuse of “gig workers,” particularly through the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now joining those agencies in the employee-protection business. The FTC recently announced it has initiated enforcement efforts to protect gig workers from alleged deception about pay, work hours, unfair contract terms, and anti-competitive practices.
According to the 17-page Policy Statement published by the FTC on September 15, 2022 (Statement), 16% of Americans report earning income through an online gig platform. Gig work has become commonplace in food delivery and transportation. As the FTC notes, gig work is expanding into healthcare, retail, and other sectors of the economy.
Three primary concerns for gig workers
The FTC’s Statement outlines three key concerns the FTC plans to address via the full weight of its legal and regulatory authority.
1. “Control without responsibility” – Most gig companies categorize gig workers as independent contractors instead of employees. “Yet in practice,” the FTC explains, “gig companies may tightly prescribe and control their workers’ tasks in ways that run counter to the promise of independence and an alternative to traditional jobs.” The FTC states that improperly classifying workers as independent contractors (instead of employees):
- Deprives workers of essential rights, like overtime pay, health and safety protections, and the right to organize;
- Burdens workers with undue risks such as unclear and unstable pay and requires they use their personal equipment (car, cell phone, etc.); and
- Forces workers to cover business expenses commonly paid for by employers (insurance, gas, maintenance, etc.).
2. “Diminished bargaining power” – Gig workers are not given information about when work will be available, where they will have to perform it, or how they will be evaluated. Because of their lack of bargaining power and decentralized work environment, the FTC believes workers have little leverage to demand transparency from gig companies. Due to what the FTC characterizes as a “power imbalance”:
- “[A]lgorithms may dictate core aspects of workers’ relationship with a” company’s platform, “leaving them with an invisible inscrutable boss.”
- Workers are often forced to sign take-it-or-leave-it agreements with liquidated damages clauses, arbitration clauses, and class-action waivers.
3. “Concentrated markets” – Markets populated by gig companies are often concentrated among just a handful of businesses, resulting in reduced choice for workers, customers, and businesses. The FTC believes the resulting loss in competition may incentivize gig companies to suppress wages below competitive rates, reduce job quality, and impose onerous terms and conditions on gig workers.…
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EEOC issues guidance on religious objections to COVID-19 vaccine mandates
As we discussed here, employers who have implemented mandatory vaccine policies – either by choice or by government mandate – have seen a significant uptick in religious accommodation requests. As a result, on October 25, 2021, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued guidance regarding employers’ obligations under federal anti-discrimination law when an employee…
Texas executive order restricts mandatory vaccination policies for employers
Most Texas employers are likely already familiar with Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-39 that prohibits state and local governments from requiring (1) individuals to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, or (2) documentation proving vaccine status (that is, “vaccine passports”) as a condition to receive any service or enter any place.
Building upon Executive Order GA-39, on October 11, 2021, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA-40 (the Texas EO), which prohibits private employers in Texas from requiring that employees receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Specifically, the Texas EO prohibits any Texas entity from “compel[ling] receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual, including an employee or a consumer, who objects to such vaccination for any reason of personal conscience, based on a religious belief, or for medical reasons, including prior recovery from COVID-19.” Texas entities that violate the Texas EO can be fined up to $1,000 (it is unclear whether the fine will be per violation). The Texas EO does not create any private cause of action, nor does it call for retroactive application.
The Texas EO creates three bases for employees to object to vaccination: (1) personal conscience; (2) religious belief; and (3) medical reasons. The Texas EO also specifically states that prior recovery from COVID-19 is a valid basis for an individual to object to a COVID-19 vaccine. The objections permitted under the Texas EO go far beyond the religious and medical exemptions to vaccine mandates under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, respectively. Moreover, the Texas EO does not contain an undue burden exception or mention any other grounds that would permit an employer to deny an employee’s objection to a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine that is made under the three bases in the Texas EO.…
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Help! We have had a major influx in religious accommodation requests from our mandatory vaccine policy
Mandatory vaccine policies became even more of a scorching hot topic after the Biden Administration announced its Path Out of the Pandemic initiative (which we previously wrote about here). Some employees may have a legitimate medical reason for refusing a COVID-19 vaccine (e.g., an allergy to vaccine components). But what about an employee claiming to have a religious objection to taking the vaccine? We have recently seen clients experiencing an influx in requests from employees seeking a religious accommodation to be exempt from the company’s mandatory vaccine policy. Below, we discuss some of the complex legal and practical issues employers should consider when navigating these unchartered waters.
Quick recap of the “religious exemption”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII), and similar state and local anti-discrimination laws, prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of religion. To comply with those laws, employers are generally required to accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” religious belief, observance or practice. A religious accommodation is an adjustment to the work environment that, once implemented, allows the employee to continue working while also complying with his or her religious beliefs. In guidance issued earlier this year, the EEOC stated “[t]he law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.” Even if the religious assertion seems irrational or is not the actual teaching of a recognized religious group or denomination, the relevant standard under Title VII is the sincerity of the individual’s belief.
Determining what a “sincerely held” religious belief means
Here is where it gets tricky. The EEOC and courts have interpreted “religious belief” very broadly under Title VII. An employee does not have to show they attend a place of worship, are a member of an organized religion, or even believe in a deity. Nor does an employee seeking a religious accommodation need to provide a note from their priest or spiritual advisor verifying that employee’s belief. According to the EEOC, a “religious belief” includes any “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” In its Compliance Manual, the EEOC warns employers should not be in the business of trying to decide whether a person holds a religious belief for the “proper” reasons. The inquiry should focus on the sincerity of the belief; not the motives or reasons for holding that belief in the first place.…
Continue Reading Help! We have had a major influx in religious accommodation requests from our mandatory vaccine policy
Vaccination requirements have arrived for all federal and many state employees and health care workers
Recently, we posted about President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan, “Path out of the Pandemic” (the Memo). To recap: the Memo instructs OSHA to develop and issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to require all employers with 100+ employees to ensure their workers are vaccinated against COVID-19 or to require them to submit to…
Overview of several new workplace laws Texas employers should know about following the recent legislative sessions
The Texas Legislature has been quite busy over the most recent regular and two specially-called legislative sessions. It adjourned its second specially-called legislative session on September 2, 2021. Additional bills may be enacted into law if and when Governor Greg Abbott calls a third special session. So far, Governor Abbott has signed into law several bills that may have flown under the radars of many Texas employers. Here’s a brief recap of several new laws that may impact Texas businesses and their workforce.
Expansive new sexual harassment protections
As we noted in prior posts (July 6, 2021 and September 2, 2021), Texas passed several new laws that increase legal protections against sexual harassment. The laws, which went into effect on September 1, 2021, expand liability for sexual harassment to companies with just one employee and to individual supervisors and coworkers. The legislation also lengthens the deadline from 180 days to 300 days for a claimant to file a charge alleging sexual harassment with the Texas Workforce Commission.
Liability shield for Texas businesses from most COVID-19 claims
As we noted in prior posts (July 15, 2021 and August 19, 2021), Texas – along with 18 other states – passed statutory liability protections for businesses against claims arising from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Pandemic Liability Protection Act (PLPA), which went into effect on June 14, 2021, grants retroactive liability protection for both small and large businesses for claims commenced on or after March 13, 2020. The PLPA does not provide Texas businesses an absolute immunity shield, and claims can still be brought for a pandemic-related injury or death if the business:
- Knowingly failed to warn of, or to fix, a condition it knew was likely to result in exposure, and the failure to warn or fix was the cause in fact of the exposure; or
- Knowingly failed or refused to comply with government standards, guidance or protocols that are intended to lower the likelihood of exposure to COVID-19, and the failure or refusal to comply was the cause in fact of the exposure.
As written, the PLPA’s liability shield will continue to protect businesses until Governor Abbott terminates the current COVID-19 pandemic disaster declaration. …
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FAQs on US employee privacy issues related to the COVID-19 vaccine
In addition to the issue of mandated COVID-19 vaccine policies, employers must also manage the related privacy risks. Below are some of the frequently asked questions surrounding the issues of employee privacy as it relates to the COVID-19 vaccine. We also have a downloadable version of our privacy FAQs.
Question: Does it matter what type of information the company asks employees to provide to confirm their vaccine status?
Answer: Absolutely. Asking employees to confirm yes/no information seeks different information than, for example, requesting a copy of the employee’s vaccination card or more detailed records (such as lab results confirming presence of antibodies from a medical provider). Companies should be mindful of what information they are requesting because the inquiry might trigger heightened data-privacy and document-retention requirements. Companies should request only the information they require to confirm the vaccination status of the employee and should not collect any other information that is not necessary for that purpose. Companies should also be mindful of the privacy, security and other legal requirements involved in communicating with employees about any requested exception to a mandatory vaccine program based on a medical condition. The interactive process would likely include asking employees disability-related questions—and potentially questions implicating genetic nondiscrimination and health-data privacy laws (such as GINA or HIPAA).
Question: Our company plans to require employees to provide proof of their vaccine status by emailing human resources a copy of their vaccine card. Does this present any data-privacy concerns?
Answer: There are several issues to consider. How secure is your company’s email system? Can employees access their work email on their phones? If so, are there password and other security measures in place to prevent unauthorized access to that information? What does HR plan to do with the information once it receives it? Will it be printed out and stored in a paper file? Does the company plan to insert that information into the employee’s personnel file and/or HR database? Who would have access to that information? If the company plans on storing the data electronically, does the company have sole possession, custody and control of the servers where the data will be stored? If so, the company may want to confirm where those servers are physically located, and whether any state or local laws of that jurisdiction impose additional data-privacy, data-security and breach-notification requirements.
It’s worth noting here that HIPAA does not typically apply to the relationship between an employer and its employees. That being said, employers should still follow best practices and remain sensitive to the fact that they requesting and maintaining potentially sensitive employee health data. Additionally, if an employer performs services that are regulated under HIPAA, employees could be due additional protections. In this set of circumstances, an employer could be maintaining different data sets about an employee – of which one is regulated under HIPAA, and the other is not.
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Practical steps to ensure compliance with Texas’ robust new sexual harassment laws
On July 6, 2021, we released a blog post on Texas’ new sexual harassment laws, which became effective September 1, 2021. These laws expand liability for sexual harassment to companies with at least one employee and to individual supervisors and coworkers. Our July 6 post discusses the details of the new laws; now that…
As of August 2021, 19 states enact COVID-19 related liability shields
On July 15, 2021, we released an article discussing the Texas liability shield for businesses against COVID-19 related claims. Texas, however, is not the only state to enact such a shield. We have drafted a brief summary of the 19 states that have enacted COVID-19 liability shields to date. For simplicity, we have summarized the…