Massachusetts Legislature Passes Noncompetition Statute that Brings an Array of New Rules to the Employment Arena

It took years and came down to the last minutes of the current session, but the Massachusetts Legislature finally passed a noncompetition law on July 31, 2018. If signed by Gov. Charlie Baker, as it presumably will be, the statute will take effect on October 1 and will bring a number of major changes to this rather complex area of employment law.

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Massachusetts Legislature finally passed a noncompetition law on July 31. If signed by Governor Baker, a number of major changes to this area of employment law will be affected.

Of note is the requirement that non-compete forms be presented to new employees at least 10 days prior to the start of work. When an employer asks existing workers to sign noncompetition agreements, it must provide them something of value – a pay raise, e.g., or perhaps a promotion. Enforceable agreements must be in writing and signed by both parties, a seemingly simple requirement that is often unsatisfied under current noncompetition practice. The parties’ contract must state expressly that a worker has a right to consult with counsel before signing. It must also provide for pay during the noncompetition period equal to at least 50% of the worker’s average annual salary during the prior two years. For workers who are entitled to overtime under federal law, non-competes are unenforceable. Neither can they be used for students engaged in short-term employment, workers under 18, and, notably, anyone who is laid off or fired without cause.

While these requirements apply to employees and independent contractors alike, they have nothing to do with other forms of restrictive covenants that are commonly used in the Commonwealth and almost always bundled together with noncompetition agreements. The law applies only to contracts that ban employees from competing with their former employers. That leaves employers free to create agreements that might ban workers from soliciting their employees or customers and, of course, from disclosing confidential data. As to this latter issue, the noncompetition statute also includes enactment of a form of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, which protects a company’s trade secrets from misappropriation. The new law will not apply to noncompetition agreements signed before it takes effect in October, saving employers and the courts the trouble of figuring out what to do with existing agreements.

Supreme Court Upholds Employers’ Uses of Arbitration Clauses to Block Class Action Lawsuits

Arbitration Clauses

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The U.S. Supreme Court has again deflected a challenge to the use in employment agreements of dispute resolution clauses that mandate arbitration and generally bar class action lawsuits. The May 21, 2018 decision was a close call for employers: a 5-4 decision with the conservative majority carrying the day. Nonetheless, this represents a major victory in their battle against expensive lawsuits that pose extraordinary financial risks.

In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, the Supreme Court dealt with challenges to class action restrictions in arbitration clauses based on the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protect workers’ rights to collective activities. The NLRA guarantees employees the right to unionize and sets up an enforcement scheme under the National Labor Relations Board. After it altered its prior interpretation and held in 2012 that class actions could not be barred by arbitration clauses, challenges were filed based on a conflict between the NLRA and the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), which provides for the enforcement of mandatory arbitration agreements. In the face of a strong dissent, the Court concluded that the NLRA cannot override the FAA because Congress did not provide for it to do so.

The use of mandatory arbitration clauses that bar class action lawsuits is growing in the Commonwealth. They provide potentially huge benefits by precluding the extreme risks presented by suits involving tens, hundreds or even thousands of employees. It is now common for larger employers who could face class actions by virtue of their sizes to mandate resolution of disputes by individual arbitration, and a growing number of small companies seeks the cost and time advantages arbitration can provide. To be sure, employers who use mandatory arbitration agreements must take care not to trample on employee rights and thereby invalidate their contracts, a result that remains possible under current law. Arbitration clauses are enforced only if they are reasonable and are contained in valid contracts between employees and employers.

Vigilance on Sexual Behaviors is an Essential Tool for Employers

If there’s one thing we’re learning as claims of sexual impropriety continue to grab headlines in workplaces across the country, it’s that employers often don’t effectively address sexual harassment issues until it’s too late. There’s never been much doubt that mistakes in this arena can cost a lot of money. Enter the needs for effective policies surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace and thorough training of managers. How, after all, can employers prevent damaging sexual harassment allegations if their key employees don’t know the signs of trouble and how to deal with them?

One of the big causes of sexual harassment problems in the workplace is a failure to understand that victims of sexual harassment often don’t want to complain and, when they do, frequently give only limited information. There are a variety of reasons for this ranging from fear of retaliation to a hope that bad behaviors will end on their own to a desire to get along with co-workers. When employers don’t realize this, they tend to overlook issues that might be portrayed as less significant than they really are and miss opportunities to resolve sexual harassment before it becomes a costly lawsuit. To avoid that error, employers need to institute zero tolerance policies for sexual behaviors at work and, when even a hint of it comes to their attention, investigate quickly. You never know what you might find.

In fact, workplace investigations of sexual harassment often uncover behaviors that were not explicitly raised by an initial complaint. On appropriate questioning, employees normally expand on how they feel and what they experienced. An investigation might reveal that behaviors are long-standing and practiced by a broader number of employees who are not aware of the dangers that sexual talk or acts present to their employers, even when those behaviors are ‘consensual’ or ‘don’t bother’ other employees. In many cases, sexual joking, e.g., is common at work, yet almost all employees are hesitant to complain to employers even when they are bothered by it. Almost all also have breaking points.

Employers are thus well advised to be sure they understand what goes on in their workplaces. All should review and ensure their sexual harassment policies are strong; make sure all employees get copies of the policy at least once a year; post notices regarding sexual harassment and its remedies; and train all managers, at least, about the basics of sexual harassment and how to spot its signs before things get out of control. Doing all this is not only prudent, it’s almost essential in light of recent sexual harassment stories and their impacts on victims’ understanding both that they are not alone and that protection is available for those who feel compelled to complain.

With the New Equal Pay Act Set to Take Effect on July 1, 2018, it’s Time for Employers to Evaluate their Wage Practices

The effective date of the new Massachusetts Equal Pay Act is fast approaching, and employers who have not yet begun to evaluate wage disparities between men and women need to start the process. Beginning July 1, 2018, the revised law will require that employees be paid equally for work involving similar skill, effort and responsibility. Analyzing existing wage disparities and making progress to address them will help shield employers from double the amounts of wage disparities and other penalties under the Equal Pay Act.

The new Equal Pay Act revises an existing law that, due to court interpretation, has been effectively useless to address wage disparities. It mandates that all workers be paid the same for “comparable” work regardless of gender and bars companies from ordering their employees not to talk about their pay. Courts evaluating Equal Pay Act claims will ignore job titles and focus on whether jobs require “substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility” and are “performed under similar working conditions.” Penalties under the Act are substantial and include the payment of employee legal fees, but can be abated or avoided completely by self-evaluation and concrete action in advance of July 1, 2018. Implementation of the law was delayed two years from its passage in July 2016 to provide employers time to address pay disparities.

Employers who haven’t yet done so should proceed quickly to determine whether wage inequity exists. Doing this with the assistance of counsel, either in-house or from outside the company, should permit the initial findings of an Equal Pay Act audit to be kept confidential. This makes sense given the existence of a federal law on equal pay that does not shield audits in the same way the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act does. Once an initial audit is completed, employers should decide with the advice of counsel how to address the results and whether more audit work is needed. Under the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, progress on abating unequal pay is required before the audit will be a useful defense to suit.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Recent Headlines about Sexual Harassment at Work is a Call to Action for Massachusetts Employers

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image credit: pixabay

The recent accusations of sexual harassment by powerful men against the women – and sometimes men – who work around them is suddenly shining a bright light on the issue. Shocking as some of the claims may be, the fact that sexual harassment in the workplace is a major problem in Massachusetts is no surprise. For employers, the central message from media reports about Harvey Weinstein and others is patent. Pay attention to what’s going in your board rooms, mail rooms, and everywhere in between lest you face the embarrassment and expense that sexual harassment claims deliver.

Indeed, there is no shortage of sexual harassment claims in Massachusetts. The Commonwealth has long made employers responsible for rooting out sexual behaviors at work and addressing them before they become sexual harassment. All employers of six or more must have a sexual harassment in the workplace policy that is distributed annually to their employees. The model policy includes a discussion of sexual behaviors, encouragement of internal complaints, a promise to investigate, and contact information for filing state and federal complaints. Massachusetts employers are automatically on the financial hook for sexual harassment perpetrated by managers and for behaviors by others if they don’t quickly and reasonably address them. Needless to say, the cost of even a single sexual harassment claim can be extreme. In addition to paying their own lawyers, employers face the prospect of large damages awards and orders they pay the legal fees of the employees who sue them for sexual harassment

There are several steps employers should take to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace issues. The first step is to set a workplace tone that does not tolerate sexual or other inappropriate behaviors. Employers can do this through strong policies, delivered through comprehensive employment manuals that managers can get behind in visible ways. Policies should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to assure compliance with new laws. Managers, at least, should be trained about sexual harassment in the workplace and instructed that setting a positive example and addressing inappropriate behaviors when they occur is a critical part of their jobs. Staff should be encouraged to bring issues of concern to management’s attention, and those concerns must be addressed promptly.

Pregnant Workers will Enjoy Broad New Job Protections under Recently Signed Massachusetts Law

Massachusetts recently took another step to protect members of its workforce. Late in July, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which provides broad new rules for pregnant women. The law will take effect on April 1, 2018. Under it, employers must grant reasonable accommodations for pregnancies or any condition related to then, including “lactation, or the need to express breast milk” for children after they are born. Employers will be prohibited from the following:

  1. Taking adverse action against an employee who uses or requests a pregnancy accommodation;
  2. Refusing to reinstate an employee to her job after a reasonable accommodation period ends;
  3. Denying a pregnant employee workplace opportunities because of her pregnancy-related accommodation needs;
  4. Requiring an employee to accept pregnancy accommodations that are “unnecessary to enable the employee to perform the essential functions” of her job; or
  5. Knowingly refusing to hire a pregnant woman due to her pregnancy or a related condition, including her lactation needs.

Just as in other handicap accommodation situations, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act exempts employers from compliance when doing so will cause an undue hardship. It also requires employers to engage in an interactive process to determine whether and what sorts of accommodations may work for pregnant employees who require them. Among the accommodations the Act suggests are required in all but unusual circumstances are more frequent restroom, food and water breaks; seating adjustments; and limits on lifting 20 pounds or more.

Though the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act does not take effect until April 1, 2018, employers must notify their employees about it by January 1, 2018. A new policy should be created and placed in employee handbooks and distributed to existing employees and all new hires.

Employees may be Free to Speak their Minds, but Employers are Free to React

Free speech is not always free. That seemingly obvious point was apparently lost on Google employee James Damore, a man making headlines recently after he was fired for writing a memo that opined women are unsuited to work as engineers. Google’s efforts to promote them, he wrote, were unfair and divisive.

So, too, was Mr. Damore’s opinion. Not surprisingly, it rankled many inside Google, which reacted by terminating Mr. Damore’s employment on August 7. Mr. Damore, supported by the likes of Juilian Assange and other political conservatives, responded by threatening legal action. “As far as I know,” he reportedly wrote, “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does.”

There’s little question that Mr. Damore is correct. As far as he knows, he may say whatever he likes to whomever he chooses. What he doesn’t seem to know, however, is that those around him have rights, too. People who hear his views have a right to be offended. They may disassociate themselves from him if they choose. Google and other private employers have the right to decide who works for them. They are not restricted by free speech guarantees in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Like Mr. Damore, private employers have their own form of free speech rights, and it includes the right to say “you’re fired” to workers who, in their judgment, are disruptive, potentially damaging to their business, or in any other way unsuitable to remain employees.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Damore will actually file his lawsuit or how, if he does, what his legal theory might be. But he fears not, no doubt, as he garners support and job offers from those who agree with his missives about women and work. He’s now a hero of sorts at the likes of Breitbart News and reportedly has a job offer at Wikileaks. Good for Mr. Damore, if this is what he intended. If not, he has learned what he should have known all along. He is free to speak, and the world around him can react to what he says.

Employers Beware: Pay Wages on Time

If there’s one thing Massachusetts courts are making clear lately, it’s that employers better pay their employees what they earn, and they’d better do it on time. They are slapping those who don’t with triple damage awards, adding 12 percent interest, and ordering them to pay their employees’ legal fees. When the bill comes due, employers have good reason to question both their own judgment and that of the well-paid lawyers who advised them.

The Massachusetts Wage Act now says that triple damage awards to employees are mandatory. Workers who don’t get what’s owed to them on time also get their lawyer fees paid by the company. Courts are running hard on these points, showing little sympathy for employers, even those who make good faith errors, and interpreting gray areas in favor of employees. Employers need to understand this and get good legal advice before withholding disputed wages.

In a case I recently tried, Countrywide Home Loans was ordered to pay my client more than $130,000 after refusing to give him deferred bonuses and commissions that totaled about $30,000. In another case, a local attorney was ordered to pay $519,000 plus interest after he failed to pay a referral fee to another lawyer. In both of these cases, the law was read expansively to favor the plaintiff. The message to employers is clear: when in doubt, settle wage disputes or just pay what’s due to your employees. And, by the way, make sure the lawyer you rely on is well versed in this area of law.

Massachusetts employment lawyer Attorney Jack Merrill provides legal services to employees, employers and businesses throughout the Boston metro west and Worcester County region including Ashland, Dedham, Framingham, Franklin, Hopkinton, Maynard, Marlborough, Milford, Natick, Needham, Newton, Shrewsbury, Sudbury, Waltham, and Worcester, Massachusetts.