The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an interim final rule and request for comments regarding procedures for handling employee whistleblower complaints under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Section 1558. This part of the ACA added a new Section 18c to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which protects employees from retaliation for exercising certain rights under the ACA, including (1) receiving a federal tax credit or subsidy to purchase insurance through the employer or a future health insurance exchange, (2) reporting a violation of consumer protection rules under the ACA (which, for instance, prohibit denial of health coverage based on preexisting conditions and lifetime limits on coverage), and (3) assisting or participating in a proceeding under Section 1558.
The interim final rule states the time frames and procedures for bringing a whistleblower complaint under Section 18c and covers the investigation, hearing, and appeals processes. An employee has 180 days from the date of the alleged retaliation to bring a whistleblower complaint to the Secretary of Labor. Where a violation is found, remedies can include reinstatement, compensatory damages, back pay, and reasonable costs and expenses (including attorneys’ fees). If the employee brought the complaint in bad faith, an employer may recover up to $1,000 in reasonable attorneys’ fees.
The bar for an employee bringing such a complaint is relatively low, and the bar for an employer defending against the complaint is relatively high. The employee must only have a subjective, good-faith, reasonable belief that the conduct alleged in the complaint violates the whistleblower protections; the employee need not prove that the conduct was an actual violation of law. The conduct complained of must only be a contributing factor in an adverse employment decision for the employee to make his or her case. The employer must then demonstrate through clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same adverse action without the protected activity.
Each party has 20 days after filing the complaint to submit a position statement and supporting documents, and can also request a meeting to present its position to OSHA. OSHA has 60 days from the filing of the complaint to investigate and issue written findings and, if a violation is found, a preliminary order providing relief to the employee. There is a process to challenge and appeal OSHA’s written findings and order. There is also a process for an employee to file a complaint in federal court either within 90 days after the employee receives OSHA’s findings, or if no final agency order is issued within 210 days of the filing of the complaint.
For more information, see the DOL fact sheet, which describes how to file a complaint. If you have comments on this interim final rule, they must be submitted within 60 days of the rule’s publication in the Federal Register (Feb. 27, 2013). Comments may be submitted electronically at the eRulemaking portal.
Last week, we reported that several senators had introduced new amendments to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") to make it easier for plaintiffs in age discrimination cases to prove their claims. U.S. Senators aren't the only ones busy refining federal age discrimination laws - on March 30, 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) published its final rule on the “reasonable factors other than age” (RFOA) defense under the ADEA. Acting in response to two U.S. Supreme Court cases, Smith v. City of Jackson in 2005 and Meacham v. Knolls Atomic Power Laboratories in 2008, the rule bring the EEOC regulations in line with Supreme Court precedent and clarifies the scope of the RFOA defense.
In Smith, the Supreme Court held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the ADEA. The Court further held that a practice having a disparate impact on older workers need only be justified by “reasonable” factors other than age; an employer need not satisfy the more rigorous “business necessity” defense applicable to Title VII claims. In Meacham, the Court held that the employer bears the burden of production and persuasion on the RFOA defense.
The regulation points out that the EEOC believes that “reasonable” factors other than age reflects a higher standard than a simple “rational basis” standard. According to the EEOC, equating the RFOA defense with a rational-basis standard would improperly conflate ADEA disparate-treatment and disparate-impact standards of proof: “If an employer attempting to establish the RFOA defense were only required to show that it had acted rationally, then the employer would merely be required to show that it had not engaged in intentional age discrimination.”
The rule provides a non-exhaustive list of factors to be considered in determining whether an employment practice is based on RFOA:
- The extent to which the factor is related to the employer’s stated business purpose;
- The extent to which the employer defined the factor accurately and applied the factor fairly and accurately, including the extent to which managers and supervisors were given guidance or training bout how to apply the factor and avoid discrimination;
- The extent to which the employer limited supervisors’ discretion to assess employees subjectively, particularly where the criteria that the supervisors were asked to evaluate are known to be subject to negative age-based stereotypes;
- The extent to which the employer assessed the adverse impact of its employment practice on older workers; and
- The degree of the harm to individuals within the protected age group, in terms of both the extent of injury and the numbers of persons adversely affected, and the extent to which the employer took steps to reduce the harm, in light of the burden of undertaking such steps.
The final rule makes clear that the EEOC will take a very dim view of an employer’s RFOA defense where supervisors are given broad discretion to make subjective decisions. Accordingly, prudent employers will take steps to ensure that decisions are made consistent with business purpose, that supervisors are properly trained, and that supervisors exercise their discretion in a way that does not violate the ADEA.
For more information, visit EEOC’s Questions and Answers page. The rule will take effect on April 30, 2012.
The NLRB gave organized labor a meaningful gift just before the holidays by issuing a final rule adopting new election case procedures that will likely result in more and faster union elections, and probably also result in more employers having unionized workforces. The new rule becomes effective on April 30, 2012.
The New Year: Out With The Old Rules...
During union campaigns, the union and the employer may disagree (vigorously) about the proper size ("scope") of the proposed bargaining unit. Such disputes can include whether certain employees are "supervisory" employees and thus ineligible to vote, or whether different classifications of employees share enough of a "community of interest" to be included in the same bargaining unit, and covered by the same contract. How those disputes are resolved often determine the outcome of the election. Under the existing (er, now old) election rules, employers had the opportunity to litigate these types of bargaining unit scope issues before the election.
...In With The New
The NLRB's new rule essentially eliminates the employer's opportunity to litigate, prior to the election, any disputes over the scope of the bargaining unit proposed by the union. Under the rule, such issues will ordinarily be addressed only after the election takes place. Employers should be aware of how this "vote now, litigate later" rule could impact union elections.
Shorter Election Campaigns: Under the old rules, litigating bargaining unit scope issues usually delayed the election, giving employers additional time to discuss the pros and cons of unions with its workers before the vote. That additional campaign period is now lost, depriving employers of valuable time to counter an organizing campaign that may have started months before the union went to the NLRB seeking an election.
Greater Difficulty in Challenging The Union's Proposed Unit: Although employers may technically be able to litigate unit scope and voter eligibility issues after the NLRB conducts the election, in those cases where the vote results in a "yes" vote for the union (which under the old rules happened more than 60% of the time), employers will be in the difficult position of having to contest threshold legal issues after the employees have already "won" the right to representation. This procedure tilts the playing field in favor of unions.
Considered in the context of the NLRB's August 2011 decision in Specialty Healthcare, this rule means that the petitioning union will get a quick election in the unit of employees it has chosen to organize. Specialty Healthcare enables unions to organize small or "micro" units of employees (such as single classifications of employees or individual departments). The Board held that for an employer to add excluded employees to the union's proposed unit, it must demonstrate that the excluded employees share an "overwhelming community of interest" with the employees the union seeks to represent. In a dissenting opinion, NLRB Member Brian Hayes noted that this test makes it “virtually impossible” for the employer to prove the union's proposed unit is not proper. To make matters worse, now the Employer will ordinarily have to make that argument after the union has already "won."
Why Now? Election Year Politics, That's Why.
That the NLRB issued these new rules now probably had less to do with the holiday spirit than with an election of a different sort--the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and the related gridlock in the U.S. Congress. Up until last week, the Board had three members (out of a possible five) which, after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in New Process Steel, is the minimum required for the NLRB to decide cases and issue regulations. Last week was when President Obama's controversial recess appointment of Member Craig Becker ended. The NLRB may have wanted to enact the new rules before it was reduced to two members again, as that may be the last opportunity in an election year for the Obama Administration to do something substantial for organized labor, an important constituency. While nominations for the three NLRB Member vacancies are pending, the gridlocked Senate is not expected to act on those nominations any time soon. While the President could make another recess appointment to ensure a functioning, three-member NLRB, that risks (further) alienating Senate Republicans, all 47 of whom recently signed a letter urging the President not to fill NLRB vacancies using recess appointments. The next few weeks, before Congress reconvenes on January 23 from its holiday recess, could be very interesting for NLRB-watchers. Stay tuned...
...well you didn't have to stay tuned for long! President Obama has announced three recess appointments to the NLRB. The appointees include two Democrats (Richard Griffin and Sharon Block) and one Republican (Terence Flynn), giving Democrats a 3-2 Board majority. The President’s decision to bypass the Senate confirmation process quickly drew the ire of Senate Republicans, but the President chose that fight over the alternative of allowing the NLRB to go through a prolonged period in which it was unable to issue decisions or adopt regulations. As a result of these appointments, we can expect more pro-labor decisions in 2012.
At long last the EEOC has issued its final regulations for the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act. In so doing, the EEOC has taken Congress’ words contained in the Act and declared (repeatedly) that the definition of “disability” is to be read very broadly and that employers should instead focus on whether discrimination has occurred or an accommodation is needed. As we've noted in our prior ADAAA coverage, we think that many more disability lawsuits will be filed and far fewer of them will be dismissed on summary judgment. As the EEOC sees it, “many more ADA claims will focus on the merits of the case.”
What Hasn’t Changed
Most of the terms used in the original ADA haven’t changed. The Final Regulations do not alter the definitions of “qualified,” “reasonable accommodation,” “direct threat,” and “undue hardship.” And there are still three ways to come within the scope of the statute: “Actual” disability; “record of” disability; and “perceived as” disabled. The “perceived as” category has some substantial changes, as discussed below.
What Has Changed
1. Mitigating measures can no longer be taken into account when determining whether a person is disabled. (Except, individuals with with regular vision correction such as eyeglasses or contact lenses are still considered in their mitigated state for purposes of determining whether they have a disability.) This means that if the employee’s condition is entirely treated (heart disease is kept under control by medication, for example), the employee’s “disability” is evaluated without consideration of the treatment. Of course, if a person’s condition is controlled entirely by medicine or an assistive device or some other measure, it may mean that no accommodation is needed.
2. A “regarded as” claimant need no longer prove that he or she is perceived as a “disabled” person (i.e., a person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity). Instead, a “regarded as” claimant need only show that the employer discriminated against him or her based on a belief that the employee (or applicant) had an impairment. However, if the employer can show that that the employee’s (or applicant’s) condition is actually just “transitory [i.e., lasting six months or less] and minor,” then the employee can’t be “regarded as” disabled. The six month time limit does not apply to evaluation of an actual disability or a record of a disability. And, in fact, the “rules of construction” contained in the Final Regulations specify that a disability may last less than six months.
3. The list of examples of “major life activities” is expanded and now includes “major bodily functions.” The rules make it clear that this is not a demanding standard. The major life activity need not be central to daily living, and it doesn’t have to severely or significantly limit the person’s ability. The final rule provides non-exhaustive lists of what constitutes a major life activity. Such activities include caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, sitting, reaching, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, interacting with others, working and performing major bodily functions. Bodily functions include the immune system, special sense organs and skin, normal cell growth, digestive, genitourinary, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, cardiovascular, endocrine, hemic, lymphatic, musculoskeletal, and reproductive functions.
4. Given the new lists, some conditions will almost always be deemed to substantially limit a major life activity. The ones mentioned in the Final Regulations are: Deafness, blindness, intellectual disability (formerly known as mental retardation), partial or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring use of a wheelchair, autism, cancer, cerebral palsy, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV infection, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia. Of these, perhaps the most troubling are autism and PTSD since both are ill-defined in the medical literature and exist on very broad spectrums of impairment.
5. The changed definition of “disability” applies to Title II of the ADA (State and local governments) and Title III (private places of public accommodation).
6. The phrase “qualified individual with a disability” has disappeared and instead the Final Regulations refer to “individual with a disability” and “qualified individual” separately. Again, these changes are intended to focus the inquiry on whether discrimination has occurred, and away from whether the individual meets the definition of “disability.”
More Lawsuits to Follow
In our experience, the vast majority of employers do try to fully comply with the ADA. Unfortunately, the ADAAA and these new Final Regulations assume just the opposite; by removing practically any burden on the employee to show that he or she is disabled, Congress and the EEOC have clearly shifted the burden to employers.
For more ADAAA information, check out:
- Questions and Answers on the Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
- Questions and Answers for Small Businesses: The Final Rule Implementing the ADA Amendments Act of 2008
- Fact Sheet on the EEOC’s Final Regulations Implementing the ADAAA
The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries has filed several proposed rules pertaining to labor and employment law, and is inviting public comment. Click on the title of each to read the proposed rule:
- Religious worship, child support obligors, physical accommodations for eligible disabilities. The proposed rules would implement statutes:
- requiring employers to reasonably accommodate wearing of religious clothing and leave for religious practices (SB 786)
- making discrimination by employers against child support obligors an unlawful employment practice (ORS 25.424(3))
- requiring places of public accommodation to provide access to employee toilets for customers with eligible medical conditions (SB 277)
- requiring transient lodging of 175 or more units to provide lifts for individuals with disabilities (HB 3256).
- Compliance with the ADAAA, preferences for veterans, and discrimination on the basis of uniformed service. The proposed rules and amendments would implement:
- amendments to statutes providing for employment preference for veterans.
- amendments to disability discrimination statutes to conform them to the
federal Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (ADAAA) (SB 874)
- statutes prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of uniformed
service (HB 3256).
- amendments to statutes providing for employment preference for veterans.
- Home Health Agencies, Wage Security Fund. The proposed rule amendment would:
- implement HB 2595, enacted in 2009, which prohibits home health agencies and hospice programs from paying nurses providing home health or hospice services on a per-visit basis
- clarify conditions to be met in qualifying for payments from the Wage Security Fund and delete obsolete references in the agency’s insurance cancellation notification rules.
- Employment of Minors. The proposed rule amendment would:
- implement House Bill (HB) 2826 enacted in 2009, which removes the requirement that employers obtain a special permit before employing a minor under 16 years of age until 7 p.m. (9 p.m. between June 1 and Labor Day).
- conform current language in the rules to the provisions of HB 2826, which shifts authority for the issuance of agricultural overtime permits from the Wage and Hour Commission to the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries
- clarify that minors may not be employed to operate or assist in the operation of power-driven farm machinery unless the employer has obtained an employment certificate as required and the minor has received required training in the operation of such machinery.
- Rest and meal periods. The proposed rule amendment would address the provision of rest and meal periods to employees, including factors to be considered in determining when an employee is prevented from receiving regularly scheduled meal and rest periods.
- Prevailing Wage. The proposed rule amendments would make permanent the temporary rules currently in place regarding prevaling wage rates.
Click here for more information on BOLI's proposed rule changes, including information on how to make public comment and the deadlines for doing so.
Last week the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) filed with the Secretary of State a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on new regulations pertaining to certain employee leave laws. The proposed regulations are intended to reflect some recent amendments to federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) regulations and to clarify, edit and make housekeeping changes. The proposed rules would impact three Oregon leave statutes:
- The Oregon Family Leave Act (OFLA)
- The Oregon Military Family Leave Act (OMFLA)
- The Oregon Victims of Certain Crimes Leave Act (OVCCLA)
The public (that's you!) is invited to comment on the proposed rules no later than November 13, 2009. Send comments via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments via regular mail should be directed to: Stef Plebanek c/o BOLI CRD, 800 NE Oregon St. #1045, Portland OR 97232.
Once the regulations are finalized, the Stoel Rives World of Employment will provide coverage of any significant rule changes.