Category Archives: employment law

Can I Get Fired For Filing Bankruptcy?

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Low and middle income people are the last people to benefit from any economic recovery. For many economic recovery means a return to work the opportunity to put their household finances in order with steady income provided by a job. Unfortunately unpaid debts often mean that employees get garnished  or even having to file bankruptcy.

Congress intended for bankruptcy to allow for people to get a fresh start so they prohibited discrimination based on bankruptcy and even let employees sue employers for such discrimination. But this law is not as strong as other laws prohibiting discrimination on factors such as race or sex for two reasons.

First of all, your status as a debtor in bankruptcy must by the sole cause of job loss. Discrimination is difficult enough to prove already under either a motivating factor or proximate cause standardsole cause is more exacting than even the difficult proximate cause standard. If your employer has any other legitimate reason to fire you besides your bankruptcy, then a court will likely find the termination was lawful. The only way for an employee to preserve any type of discrimination case is not to give the employee a reason to terminate them because of their poor performance , attendance or poor attitude. But even good employees can get fired legitimate reasons such as restructuring and economic reasons.

Secondly most courts do not believe that bankruptcy discrimination prohibits employers from failing to hire employees based on bankruptcy.

Title VII and most state anti-discrimination laws state that a failure to hire based on certain protected categories is unlawful activity.

Finally in any discrimination claim, the employer needs to be aware of your protected status. In a bankruptcy discrimination case this means that your employer had to have known about your bankruptcy status prior to firing you. Some employees get fired because  employer doesn’t want to deal with a garnishment.  Most people, me included, think that such an action is wrong or unfair. But unless your employer knows that garnishment is linked to your bankruptcy status, then firing you based on that garnishment is legal  – unless the garnishment is a cover or pre-text for another unlawful reason.

I would encourage anyone reading this post to contact their U.S. Senator or Congressperson and ask them to change the bankruptcy discrimination statute to mirror other federal anti-discrimination laws such as Title VII.

Do I Have a Wrongful Termination Claim?

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wrongful termination claimAssuming you do not have an employment contract, you can only claim wrongful termination if the firing was motivated by certain unlawful reasons. Unlawful reasons include discrimination based on sex or gender – this includes sexual harassment and pregnancy – as well as race, religion, nationality and disability. In certain places and in certain situations, sexual orientation discrimination can also be unlawful. Disability in this context will often mean any serious or chronic health condition you have. Disability discrimination can also mean that you are taking care of someone with a disability.

You also cannot be discriminated against by your employer for certain activities on the job. This is commonly referred to as retaliation. One of these activities is taking extended leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for your own or for a loved one’s medical condition. Other common protected activities include opposing unlawful discrimination; filing a safety complaint; filing a workers’ compensation complaint; complaining of pay practices; or complaining about other illegal activities. If you are a government employee, you might also have some claims based on constitutional law.

Essentially, not all terminations are unlawful. But if your situation fits into the categories described above, then be sure to contact an experienced employment attorney. In addition, it is wise to ask for advice about applying for unemployment, even if there’s not a wrongful termination case.

Has Online Filing Added to OSHA Whistleblower Backlog?

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OSHA’s recent decision to allow employees to file whistleblower cases online has led to a large increase in filings and has added more delay to claims that were already backlogged before online filing. According to OSHA investigators, this increase in filings hasn’t been met with a proportionate increase in staff. One investigator estimated it takes over 400 days for OSHA to conclude investigating claims.

The delay created by the backlog hurts investigations for many reasons. Witnesses become unavailable, and recollections of events change. Unscrupulous employers also can use the delay to hide or destroy documents and intimidate witnesses.

Of course, employees who feel they have been retaliated against oftentimes have the option of filing a state or local fair employment agency claim on the basis of retaliation. Employees might also have the option of filing for retaliatory discharge without filing a fair-employment claim, as is oftentimes the case if they are fired for filing workers’ compensation. However, this summer the U.S. Supreme Court likely made many types of retaliation cases more difficult to win with their decision in the Nasser case. The court ruled in Nasser that employees claiming retaliation cases under federal Title VII must prove that exercising their rights under Title VII was a “but for” cause of their termination.

But under whistleblower laws under OSHA – such as the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), which protects interstate truckers, and Dodd-Frank, which protects workers in the financial services industry – an employee must only show that their report of illegal conduct was a contributing factor to their termination.

Employees with a retaliation case should consult with an experienced employment attorney to determine the best forum for any wrongful-termination case.

I Got Fired for Refusing to Work on Christmas. Is that Legal?

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At-will employees are usually at the mercy of their employer. This is often painfully apparent during the holidays when employees are forced to work on Christmas. But since Christmas is a religious holiday, employees can invoke federal and state anti-discrimination laws under certain circumstances in order to celebrate Christmas. Here are the two steps to avoid being fired for celebrating Christmas:

  1. Your religious belief must be bona fide.
  2. Your employer must know about your religious belief.

However, you can still get fired for not working on Christmas if your employer can show that they had an undue burden in accommodating your request for time off to celebrate Christmas. Notice and accommodation go hand-in-hand. An employee will have a difficult time trying to show religious discrimination if they tell their boss on Dec. 23 that they can’t work their scheduled shift on Christmas Eve.

Letting a boss know well ahead of time about the need for leave on Christmas or any other religious holiday is the best thing an employee can do in order to practice their religious beliefs while maintaining their employment.

What Both Sides Miss in the ‘Duck Dynasty’ Debate

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Duck DynastyComments made by “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson, in an interview with GQ magazine, have set off a social media and cable news firestorm about the role of free speech in the employee-employer relationship. But neither side in the Duck Commander debate is telling the complete story. In short, while private employees do not have First Amendment protections in the workplace, Title VII provides some protections for religious belief and practice in the workplace.

Duck Commander detractors are correct to point out that the First Amendment does not apply to private employers* like A&E Networks and that employers are free to fire employees at will.* But what the largely urban, progressive and educated Duck Commander detractors largely fail to realize is that religion is a protected class under federal anti-discrimination law.

Conservative, evangelical Duck Commander supporters also fail to realize that federal anti-discrimination laws protect them as well. In the case of Ollis v. HearthStone Homes, an evangelical Christian successfully sued his employer for discrimination and retaliation for firing him in retaliation for failing to participate in “New Age” religious practices. The Ollis decision gives a good guide on what constitutes religious discrimination:

To establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination, a plaintiff must show he (1) has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement, (2) informed the employer of such conflict, and (3) suffered an adverse employment action. If the plaintiff establishes these elements, the burden shifts to the employer to offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Thereafter, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show the reason offered by the employer is pretextual.

Assuming that Robertson was an employee, it might be difficult to argue that his religious beliefs conflicted with an employment requirement. Even if he could make that argument, his employer could argue that how he expressed his comments about gays could be legitimate reason for termination. Finally, regardless of Robertson’s comments about gays, his comments about race relations in the South could likely provide any employer with a legitimate reason for termination.

 

*Robertson is likely not an employee of A&E Networks and likely has an a contract with A&E so Title VII is probably not applicable in this case

NEOC Awards Whistleblower Client Misclassified as Independent Contractor

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justiceI was happy to have the chance to represent Theron Chapman in his whistleblower claim against his former employer, Midwest Demolition. While the Lincoln Journal Star headline of “Man chased from job by manager with stun gun awarded back pay” is catchy, the real story here is that an employee who was fired for complaining of legitimately being misclassified as an independent contractor won some measure of justice from the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission.

Mr. Chapman had a legitimate grievance about being misclassified as an independent contractor. Nebraska law explicitly prohibits the type of misclassification that he questioned. In 2010, State Sen. Steve Lathrop, who authored the legislation outlawing misclassification in Nebraska, said in his bill’s statement of intent, as quoted in Truckinginfo: the web site of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, that:

“When a contractor misclassifies an employee, the employee is ineligible for unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits, loses labor-law protections and does not receive employer-provided health insurance. Misclassification creates an unfair advantage to unscrupulous contractors who are able to outbid law-abiding employers who must take into account the payment of taxes and insurance premiums when bidding for jobs. The State’s loss in revenue negatively affects the funding of essential programs such as unemployment benefits.”

The deeper story here is that people on the margins of the workforce can sometimes vindicate their rights in the workplace. My client was hired through a job lottery at the People’s City Mission, a homeless shelter, here in Lincoln. People in his situation are vulnerable to abuse in the workplace. Not every instance of bad behavior by management is legally actionable, but that is true from the executive suite to low-wage workers like my client. But fair-employment laws can protect people who are being abused in the workplace and do sometimes provided protections to the people who need them the most.

Six Tips for Safe and Fair Holiday Employment

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This time of year, many people get holiday jobs to earn extra money. That means some people will get injured at work and run into other difficulties working holiday jobs. Here are six tips on how to deal with the workplace challenges arising from holiday jobs. These tips for safe and fair employment apply just as well to any second job, not just a holiday job.

  1. Just because you have a “holiday job” doesn’t necessarily make you a seasonal employee: In some states, including my home state of Nebraska, employees can have their benefits reduced if they are a “seasonal employee.” However, even if you have a holiday job, your job may not be seasonal. In Nebraska, “seasonal employment” is defined as a job that is dependent on weather or can only be done during certain times of the year. For example, if you hurt your back working at an electronics store at your holiday job, that employment is not seasonal because you can work at an electronics or really most any retail store at any time of the year.
  2. You can’t be paid workers’ compensation for how your holiday or second job affects your regular job: If you are off work at your regular job because of an injury at your second job or holiday job, you are only paid income-replacement benefits for the income you lost at your holiday job or second job. For example in Nebraska, if you were hurt at your holiday/second job that pays $120 per week and you are unable to do your regular job that pays $600 per week, your only income benefit would be two-thirds of your second/holiday job, which would be $80. Employees should be extra cautious in second jobs or holiday jobs for just that reason. Employees should also consider applying for private disability plans if they plan on having a second job in order to account for the possibility of losing income due to an injury at their second job. In short, employees should do a thorough cost-benefit analysis before taking a holiday job or second job.
  3. Your permanent disability benefits could be better than your temporary benefits: In full-time employment, permanent and temporary disability benefits are generally fairly close. But with part-time employment, permanent disability benefits may be much higher than temporary benefits. In my state of Nebraska, temporary benefits are paid based on a typical work week. For example, if you are a part-timer working 12 hours a week at $10 per hour, your temporary disability pay would be $80 a week. However, in Nebraska and some other states, permanent disability is based on no less than a 40-hour week. So if you are a part-timer getting paid $10 per hour, your permanent disability rate would be $266.67 per month. This is good for employees, because serious injuries will usually have permanent effects that can permanently affect an employee’s ability to earn a living.
    If you are an injured part-time worker and your insurance company is trying to force you to take a settlement based on your part-time wage rate, you should consult with an attorney in your state.
  4. Your employer/insurer may be low-balling your wage rate: Say you get paid $8 an hour as a barista but you have an agreement to share tips, or you work in retail but you get store credit, or you teach exercise classes at a health club but you have an agreement that you get a free membership. In any of those scenarios, you could possibly use those benefits to increase your loss-of-income benefits.
  5. You are still protected by most fair-employment laws: Part-timers are still covered by most fair-employment laws. The most glaring exception is likely the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection for employees with a serious health condition, to care for a close family member with a serious health condition, or take care of a close family member who is affected by a military deployment. FMLA requires 1,250 hours worked in the last calendar year and 1 year of employment. That 1,250 hours a year translates to roughly 24 hours a week. Many people working second jobs don’t meet the eligibility standards for FMLA.
  6. Independent contractor, independent conschmacktor: Many holiday employees do fairly low-wage work that doesn’t require any specialized training or education. If this describes your holiday job or second job, then you are an employee, despite the fact that your company may have classified you as an independent contractor. Since you are an employee, you should be covered by workers’ compensation law. If you are misclassified as an independent contractor, you should look for other employment and consider reporting your unscrupulous employer to the United States Department of Labor or to your state’s department of labor.

Offered Severance? Questions for Hurt Workers to Ask

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Getting hurt at work and getting fired are two of the most stressful occurrences for an employee. Oftentimes, these stressors are combined when an injured worker receives a severance agreement. This article provides five questions an injured worker who gets a severance agreement should ask:

  1. Does signing a severance agreement settle your workers’ compensation claim? Connecticut courts recently ruled that a severance agreement does not release a workers compensation claim. However, Florida courts have held the opposite. My state of Nebraska generally does not allow workers’ comp claims to be released in severance agreements. Consult with a lawyer in your state to get a good answer. Most lawyers who do workers’ compensation work on a contingent fee basis are generally happy to spend a reasonable amount of time answering questions from injured workers faced with a severance agreement. Don’t let fear of cost deter you from contacting a lawyer.
  2. What does your state’s workers’ compensation act cover? Some workers’ compensation statutes, like Ohio and Texas, also cover retaliatory discharge cases. My state of Nebraska makes wrongful discharge a separate civil claim. The consequence of that for injured workers in Nebraska and other states with so-called “common law” retaliatory discharge causes of action: a severance agreement would close out that case along with most other claims under fair employment statutes like the ADA, FMLA and Title VII. If you are in a state where retaliatory discharge is covered under your workers’ comp statute, then that case may not be released in a severance agreement in a comp claim if your state doesn’t allow comp claims to be settled in severance agreements.
  3. What are your chances for receiving unemployment benefits?  Finding out your chances of receiving unemployment is critical – again, especially if you are forced to choose between severance and workers’ compensation. The key questions to ask for eligibility for unemployment are 1) whether you earned enough wages to be covered 2) whether you quit without good cause or were fired for misconduct and 3) whether you are able and available for work. Of course, if you have an ongoing workers’ compensation claim, the fourth question is how receiving unemployment would affect your workers’ compensation claim. If you chose to negotiate your severance agreement, either by yourself or with a lawyer, try to include a provision where the employer chooses not to oppose your application for unemployment benefits.
  4. Do you get benefits like vacation pay, even if you don’t sign a severance agreement? In some states, including my state of Nebraska, an employee should receive vacation pay or paid time off regardless of whether they sign a severance agreement or not. Again, if you live in a state where an employer can release a workers’ compensation claim through a severance agreement, your eligibility for vacation pay along with unemployment benefits should help you decide whether it make sense for you economically to pursue your workers’ compensation claim if you have to pick between severance and workers’ compensation. This also holds true for severance agreements in general if you an employer is asking to you to release a strong fair-employment claim for a low-ball severance amount.
  5. Did you contact a lawyer who is knowledgeable about workers’ compensation? This is a critical period and critical especially if you live in a state where comp claims can be released by severance agreements. An experienced workers’ comp lawyer can value your comp claim. Some ways to evaluate whether a workers’ compensation lawyer is knowledge is to check whether they are a member of the Workers’ Injury Law & Advocacy Group (WILG). Another is to see if you can search them on your state’s workers’ compensation court website or through free legal research services like FindLaw and Google Scholar. A knowledgeable workers’ compensation lawyer in your state should also be able questions 1-4.