Does your company provide email access to its employees? Are there restrictions on how and when email may be used? These issues are addressed in the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) December 11, 2014 decision in Purple Communications, Inc., which affects both non-union and union employers. In Purple Communications, the NLRB reversed its position and held that “employee use of email for statutorily protected communications on nonworking time must presumptively be permitted by employers who have chosen to give employees access to their email systems.” The employer can rebut this presumption by demonstrating that special circumstances necessitate a specific restriction to maintain production or discipline. Although this special circumstances justification could encompass a total ban on nonwork email use by employees, this would be a “rare case.”
The handbook provisions at issue in Purple Communications prohibited employees from using company email to engage “in activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with the company” or to send “uninvited email of a personal nature.” In reaching their decision, the NLRB reasoned that the ability of employees to communicate in the workplace is central to exercising their rights under the National Labor Relations Act, especially during an initial organizing campaign. Due to significant changes in technology, email is a critical means of communication which now serves as “the natural gathering place pervasively used for employee-to-employee conversations.”
This decision means that employees who have access to company email may use that email system during nonworking time in order to actively campaign on behalf of a union that is attempting to organize the company, even if such a position is contrary to the position of the company. The decision, however, does not require employers to provide email access to employees where employers have otherwise chosen not to grant any email access at all. Similarly, the decision does not require the company to provide access to the email system to third parties like a union. The decision also does not prevent employers from continuing to monitor employee use of company computer and email systems for legitimate management reasons. The NLRB specifically limited this decision to email without addressing other forms of electronic communications.
Employers who are concerned about running afoul of the Purple Communications decision should review their handbooks and any policies addressing employee use of company email systems. Employers should also review those classifications of employees to which they provide email access.