Lame duck legislative sessions are often fraught with risk, as legislators who have been defeated or are retiring have a last chance to leave a “legacy” and the others have the maximum time before their next election. Often, more gets done in the lame duck sessions than in any comparable time period during the rest of the General Assembly’s term. In the 2018 post-election session of the General Assembly, the House Leadership controversy created even greater compression of official activity. However, two laws were passed that may help employers, at least in the long run.

HB 271 enacted Ohio Revised Code Section 4112.16 to provide that individuals claiming to be aggrieved by a violation of an accessibility standard can notify the person alleged to be responsible for the violation. If no notice is provided, the aggrieved party can file a civil action, but is precluded from receiving attorneys’ fees, unless the judge specifically orders them.  If the party provides the notice, he or she is not entitled to file an action until one of several things has occurred, including lack of response by the accused within 15 days; failure to make required changes within 60 days; and allegedly inadequate corrections. There are forms for the notice and procedures for resolving issues of compliance, so that the process of ensuring accessibility will be more focused upon making property accessible than upon “gotcha” cases where attorneys’ fee claims dominate any substantive relief.

SB 255 added a number of provisions to the Ohio Revised Code relating to occupational licensing. Many employers must deal with requirements that some of their employees be licensed to do their jobs. Many otherwise qualified individuals encounter barriers to their employment because past criminal records preclude their being eligible for licenses under current rules of the many Ohio licensing boards. SB 255 takes a welcome step of sunsetting all occupational licensing systems every 6 years, and allows licensing boards to review past convictions on a case-by-case basis as to whether the convictions should preclude licensing. To avoid being sunset, the licensing will need to go through a process of examination for need, consumer protection, fairness, market impact and so forth. The Common Sense Initiative is mandated to participate. Thus, over a period of time, the abundance of licensing requirements in Ohio should diminish. Of course, the temptation to add new requirements in response to constituent complaints about bad behavior can be irresistible. SB 255 also adds an entire licensing regimen for home inspectors, and requires real estate agents who recommend a home inspector to a client to provide a list of other inspectors. The law also adds “makeup artist” to the list of beauty salon workers who require state licensure. Overall, however, the bill is a giant step forward, and just a couple of small steps back.

Orange Safety SignsOn January 13, 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Recommended Practices for Anti-Retaliation Programs, which are intended to allow employees to raise safety issues arising in the workplace without fear of retaliation. The 12-page document sets forth recommendations that apply to private and public employees protected by the more than twenty (20) whistleblower laws enforced by OSHA.

Some of the key items recommended by OSHA for an effective anti-retaliation program are:

  1. Management leadership, commitment, and accountability.
  2. System for listening to and resolving employees’ safety and compliance concerns.
  3. System for receiving and responding to reports of retaliation.
  4. Anti-retaliation training for employees and managers.
  5. Program oversight.

Further discussion of these key items may be found in the Recommended Practices. Employers should review these recommendations and the discussion surrounding them, as we anticipate that OSHA will review the items as part of any investigation or inspection.

There is much in the OSHA Guidance that is common sense, but there are several items included that employers will want to consider. They are reflected in the following quotes from the Guidance (emphasis supplied):

Employer policies must not discourage employees from reporting concerns to a government agency, delay employee reports to government, or require employees to report concerns to the employer first.

[Employers should…] Eliminate or restructure formal and informal workplace incentives that may encourage or allow retaliation or discourage reporting. Examples of incentives that may discourage reporting or encourage retaliation include rewarding employee work units with prizes for low injury rates or directly linking supervisors’ bonuses to lower reported injury rates.

Ensure that any employment agreement or policy that requires employees to keep employer information confidential does not prohibit or discourage employees from reporting or taking the steps necessary to report information reasonably related to concerns about hazards or violations of the law to any government agency. Steps that may be necessary include conferring with legal counsel, union or other worker representatives, or with medical professionals regarding the employee’s concerns. Employers should not use confidentiality or non-disclosure agreements to penalize, through lawsuits or otherwise, employees who report suspected violations of the law or take steps necessary to make such reports.

If possible, make the anti-retaliation investigation completely independent from the corporation’s legal counsel, who is obligated to protect the employer’s interests. If the employer’s legal representative is involved in conducting the investigation, fully inform the whistleblower that the investigator represents the employer’s interests and that any attorney-client privilege will only extend to the employer.”

To the degree that OSHA applies this Guidance in connection with investigations of alleged retaliation, employers should have a record that they considered and, to the degree applicable to their circumstances, adopted recommendations from it.

Workplace AccommodationOn Monday, December 12, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a resource document concerning workplace rights for individuals with mental health conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), entitled “Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.” This resource document is part of a series of resource documents issued by the EEOC explaining workplace rights for individuals with disabilities. Earlier in 2016 the EEOC released resource documents addressing the rights of employees with HIV infection and employees who are pregnant.

Through the document, the EEOC aims to educate employers, job applicants, and employees that mental health conditions are no different from physical health conditions under the ADA. Moreover, EEOC charge data shows that claims of workplace discrimination based on mental health conditions are on the rise, with preliminary 2016 data estimating 5,000 mental health discrimination charges within the fiscal year.

Individuals suffering from depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions are protected from workplace discrimination based on their mental health condition. Thus, employers must be prudent not to rely on stereotypes or jump to conclusions regarding mental health. However, employers are not required to hire or keep employees in jobs they cannot perform or employ individuals who pose a “direct threat” to safety.

The document explains that generally employees with a mental health condition are able to keep their condition private in the workplace. Employers are permitted to ask questions about mental health in only four situations:

  • When an employee with a mental health condition asks for a reasonable accommodation.
  • After the employer has made a job offer, but before employment begins, if everyone entering the same job category is asked the same questions, and the questions are job-related in some way.
  • When the employer is engaging in affirmative action for people with disabilities, in which case the employee may choose whether to respond.
  • On the job, when there is objective evidence that the employee may be unable to perform the job or that an employee may pose a safety risk because of his or her condition.

Moreover, employees with mental health conditions have a right to reasonable accommodations at work. The document provides some examples of acceptable reasonable accommodations for employees with mental health conditions:

  • Altered break and work schedules to work around therapy appointments.
  • Quiet office space or devices that create a less stressful work environment.
  • Changes in supervisory methods, such as written instructions instead of oral.
  • Specific shift assignments.
  • Permission to work from home.

Employers are not required to provide a reasonable accommodation unless an employee requests one. However, if a reasonable accommodation will enable the employee to fulfill his or her job responsibilities, employers are advised by the EEOC to provide one, unless the accommodation involves significant difficulty or expense. Employers may also choose between reasonable accommodations if more than one accommodation is feasible.

Given the complex issues with mental health issues and accommodations for individuals suffering with them, employers should act prudently and engage in the interactive process with affected employees. Experienced employment lawyers can be of great help in this effort.

family-getty-crop-600x338As the results of the November 2016 election confirmed, there is a growing push throughout the country to require employers to provide certain types of paid leave to their employees. To date, we have witnessed the imposition of paid leave requirements through ballot initiatives, legislation, and executive orders. The most popular forms of paid leave currently being discussed include paid sick leave and paid parental leave. Some of the recent paid leave initiatives also cover things such as time off for child care under certain circumstances and domestic violence or other similar situations.

In terms of paid sick leave, voters in two states—Arizona and Washington—approved ballot initiatives last month requiring employers to provide paid sick leave to employees who work within those states. Arizona and Washington now join five other states (California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, all of which currently require or soon will require employers to provide some type of paid sick leave to their employees. Several counties and municipalities throughout the country have also imposed such requirements on employers.

With respect to paid parental leave, as we previously noted, President-Elect Donald J. Trump has offered a proposal whereby employers will be required to provide their female employees with paid maternity leave. Male employees are not included in President-Elect Trump’s proposal. Should President-Elect Trump follow through on his proposal, it will be the first paid maternity leave mandated at the federal level for private employers. It will also follow similar requirements imposed, or promised to be imposed, in a handful of states (California, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington), the District of Columbia, and a few other major cities in the country (e.g., New York and San Francisco).

Notably, and consistent with the trends discussed above, Democrats introduced a bill in the Ohio legislature earlier this year that would have required employers to provide twelve weeks of paid family leave to Ohio employees. Although the bill did not garner much support in the Republican-dominated Ohio legislature, should Republicans at the federal level suddenly support President-Elect Trump’s paid leave proposal, or other similar proposals, there may be renewed interest amongst Republicans for similar legislation at the state level.

In summary, this year’s election should remind employers that paid leave requirements will likely be imposed upon them in the near future, if they are not already required to provide certain forms of paid leave to their employees now. With both political parties expressing support for paid leave requirements, future changes in this regard are highly probable.

The Ohio Supreme Court recently held that employees need not prove they were actually injured on the job to prevail in a retaliation claim.

Employers should already be aware that, under Ohio law, they may not discharge or take punitive action against an employee for filing a workers’ compensation claim after sustaining an injury at work. The Ohio Supreme Court recently issued a decision that will deter employers from disciplining even employees who file bogus workers’ compensation claims. In Onderko v. Sierra Lobo, Inc., Slip Opinion No. 2016-Ohio-5027, the Court held that a Plaintiff in a retaliatory discharge claim is not required to prove that he or she was injured on the job, but only that he or she was discharged for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

In the Onderko case, the employee had been denied workers’ compensation benefits because the Industrial Commission found that he was actually injured outside of work, not on the job. After his claim was denied, his employer terminated him for his deceptive attempt to get workers’ compensation benefits for a non-work-related injury. The employee then sued his employer for retaliatory discharge.

It was undisputed that the employee had been fired for filing the invalid workers’ compensation claim. The employer argued that, because the employee’s claim had been denied, the employee could not prevail in a retaliation claim as a matter of law. The Supreme Court disagreed, clarifying that a retaliation claim requires only that the employee prove that he was discharged for filing a workers’ compensation claim for a work-related injury and that proof that a work-related injury actually occurred is not necessary.

The dissent warned of the implication of the Court’s decision, stating:

A court should not construe the statute in a manner to encourage fraudulent claims for workers’ compensation benefits, and here, the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation determined that there was no workplace injury. The evidence therefore supports the trial court finding that Sierra Lobo, Inc., fired Onderko for filing a fraudulent claim.

The majority clarified that its holding does not suggest that a fraudulent or false claim for workers’ compensation may be pursued without penalty and that such conduct still may provide grounds for termination. The filing of a false claim is a crime in Ohio. Whether fraud is valid defense to a retaliation claim, however, was not specifically addressed by the Court. In this case, the employer certainly felt that the claim was deceptive.

Onderko is one of a series of cases that have broadened the strike zone for retaliation plaintiffs. The case instructs employers to use caution when disciplining or discharging an employee who has filed an unsuccessful workers’ compensation claim, even where the claim appears to be bogus. To take such adverse action, the employer must have a legitimate non-retaliatory reason unrelated to the employee’s exercise of his or her rights under the workers’ compensation statutes.

Employers in union settings know that they generally cannot make changes to their employees’ wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment without first negotiating to impasse with the union. The exception to this rule has historically been that the employers could make changes, as long as they could show that their labor contract had a management rights clause that allowed certain changes to be made without bargaining. A recent decision from the National Labor Relations Board, however, will make it more difficult for employers to show that a management rights clause actually allows these types of changes to be made without bargaining.

The NLRB’s recent decision (Graymont, PA, Inc. and Local Lodge D92, 364 NLRB No. 37) involved a situation that is common in unionized workplaces. The employer and the union had a collective bargaining agreement in place with a management rights clause which provided that the employer:

[R]etains the sole and exclusive rights to manage; to direct its employees; . . . to evaluate performance, . . . to discipline and discharge for just cause, to adopt and enforce rules and regulations and policies and procedures; [and] to set and establish standards of performance for employees…

The employer relied on this clause to announce changes to the work rules and the attendance and progressive discipline policies. The union objected to this move and requested a meeting with the employer. The union also requested that the employer provide information about the changes. The employer met with the union, but took the position that it was not required to bargain over the changes (due to the management rights clause). The employer also took the position that it was not required to respond in any way to the request for information. After a single meeting with the union, the employer implemented the revised policies.

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The new age of the smartphone has resurrected the Pokémon craze from the 1990s in a completely new version of the once popular handheld Gameboy Nintendo game. With the help of the smartphone’s GPS, Pokémon Go requires individuals to physically enter the real world to chase Pokémon located on the phone’s map. The game randomly places the miniature monsters around the world, and the user must physically track them down.

Positives: This new interactive platform encourages kids to move around in an effort to find the little alien monsters. People are walking miles to track them down. Since its release on July 6, Pokémon Go has quickly grown to become the biggest mobile game in U.S. history, according to SurveyMonkey. Nintendo added over $7 billion to its market value in a single week.

The Not So Good: The Pokémon are everywhere. As a result, individuals are traveling everywhere to catch them, including on to private property, into hospitals, and even in Simba’s den. We used to think texting and driving was dangerous; now you should be aware of individuals hunting and driving. Additionally, please refrain from the hunt while you are on the clock. Employers may now be less concerned about Candy Crush distractions, and more concerned about team hunts in the office.

Employers have to be concerned about the safety of potential hunting visitors and trespassers. For example, individuals have been known to catch critters in electrical substations. Hopefully Pikachu and Electrike (two electric harnessing Pokémon) can be found elsewhere.

In an effort to catch ‘em all, employees on the hunt lose attentiveness to their surroundings, which can lead to injuries. An obvious employer concern is lost productivity. One other issue is that Pokémon Go has access to the phone’s GPS and camera, creating a more than theoretical risk of security breaches.