Last week workers across the United States participated in a national protest aimed at President Trump’s immigration policies. Organized by advocacy groups and promoted largely through social media, “A Day Without Immigrants” involved an organized effort to urge workers to stay home in protest of the new administration’s immigration policies and actions, including recent enforcement raids, the proposed border wall, and the high-profile Executive Order on immigration and refugees. Employers’ reactions have ranged from closing their businesses in support of the protests to terminating employees for not coming to work.
This likely is not the end of such protests. On March 8, organizers of last month’s Women’s March on Washington plan to hold “A Day Without a Woman” protest, asking women to stay home from work in support of various issues that impact women. Other less publicized protests by different groups are also planned.
Impacted employers that seek to enforce their attendance rules and other workplace policies must carefully consider potential legal issues when reacting to employees who miss work in support of these protests. For example, the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) protects both unionized and non-unionized workers who engage in protected concerted activity. Typically, this involves two or more workers acting together to improve or protest various terms and conditions of their employment, including protests related to pay, safety, hours of work, and other workplace issues. The discipline or discharge of employees who engage in protected concerted activity can result in charges of unfair labor practices before the National Labor Relations Board and potential liability. However, employee actions or protests that are purely political in nature, with no real connection to the workplace, are unlikely to qualify for protection under the NLRA.
The true objectives behind workers’ absences in supporting these causes can be unclear. The upcoming “A Day Without a Woman” protest identifies a number of diverse concerns, some of which arguably could relate to workplace issues, and some of which clearly do not. The organizers’ website poses the following questions in asking supporters to withhold their labor on March 8:
- Do businesses support our communities, or do they drain our communities?
- Do they strive for gender equity or do they support the policies and leaders that perpetuate oppression?
- Do they align with a sustainable environment or do they profit off destruction and steal the futures of our children?
Employers who choose to discipline or terminate employees who elect to miss work as part of these protests need to consider, on a case-by-case basis, whether an employee’s actions qualify as a protected protest related to workplace conditions, particularly when they can be linked to their own workplace, or are a more generalized expression of support for a political cause. Employees who explicitly tie their absences to issues in the workplace are far more likely to be protected under the NLRA.
Employers also must consider the potential applicability of both state and federal anti-discrimination laws, like Title VII, when reacting to employee absences. Both the “A Day Without Immigrants” and “A Day Without a Woman” protests potentially implicate protected classifications under the anti-discrimination laws – e.g., national origin and gender. Employers that choose to pursue discipline or termination may potentially face allegations of discrimination, either based upon assertions that the employer harbored animus towards a particular protected group (and its causes), and/or that the employer selectively enforced its policies to the detriment of the protected group. Employers should base any disciplinary or discharge actions on previously established and promulgated workplace policies, including attendance rules and no-call/no-show policies. Employers also should ensure that they have acted consistently with respect to past employee absences (like the parade in Cleveland after the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals). A prior, consistent history of discipline or discharge in similar situations will help protect against allegations of discrimination.