Is Colorado a right to work state under Colorado labor law?

Labor law and employment law suffer a lot of confusion because there are a number of terms and phrases with specific legal meaning but are often misunderstood by employees and employers to have a different meaning. As a result, employees in Colorado and other states often misunderstand their employee rights and employer often misunderstand their duties in the workplace. “Right to work” is one of the least understood terms within labor and employment law. It is commonly confused with “at-will employment” and misunderstood within the proper context. Colorado is not a right to work state under its labor laws but understanding what that term means is as important as knowing the answer to that question. Today’s post will try to clarify what “right to work” means under Colorado labor law.

What does “right to work” mean under labor and employment law?

“Right to work” developed a meaning under labor law to mean those states that prohibit employers and unions representing their employees from requiring employees to join the union as a condition of employment. The term is not a legal term, rather it is a propaganda term adopted by anti-union advocates much in the same way pro-choice/pro-life take up respective positive messaging on their positions on abortion. Nevertheless, right to work is just as cemented in labor law language as having a particular meaning.

Union security agreements generally require that employees within the bargained unit must be union members or must pay a partial dues payment to the union for representation without membership. Proponents of union security agreements understood that requiring union membership would strengthen the financial and human support behind the union. It would also ensure greater labor peace between workers and employers by avoiding fights (sometimes violent) over whether to keep the workplace unionized. Opponents recognized that if unions could not ensure all workers in a bargained unit supported the union financially or personally that the unions would have fewer resources to agitate into other workplaces. It would create a free rider problem and erode voluntary membership. (This issue is discussed further in the recent post discussing the Janus decision by the Supreme Court.)

Brief history of right to work laws

Early labor law in this country left open the opportunity for employers and unions to bargain over these security agreements but anti-union lobbyists in the early twentieth century lobbied for laws to prohibit them. During the New Deal Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA and also referred to as the Wagner Act) authorized union security agreements. The NLRA authorized employers to enter into four arrangements:

  • Closed shop: Employees must be a member of the union as a condition of employment. If the employee fails to maintain membership (such as not paying dues) then the employer must terminate the employee.
  • Union shop: Like a closed shop but the employer may hire non-union employees but as a consition of employment the non-members must become union members within a set period of time.
  • Agency shop: Employees do not have to be union members but non-members pay agency fees which are partial dues to cover the cost of representing non-members in the bargained unit. The union represents both union member and non-members in the bargained unit for the purpose of the bargained agreement.
  • Open shop: Employees do not have to be union members and the employer cannot fire employees for choosing to join or not join a union.

In 1947 anti-union lobbyists prevailed with the passage of the Labor Management Relations Act over President Truman’s veto which severely limited these arrangements. The LMRA bans closed shops entirely. It amended the NLRA to allow union shops and agency shops subject to state laws which may ban one or both. State laws banning union shops or agency shops are right to work laws. Currently twenty-eight states have right to work laws (but not Colorado).

What is the difference between right to work and at-will employment in Colorado?

Right to work and at-will employment deal with two different issues under labor and employment law. They are commonly confused–partially because they sound similar–but have importantly different meaning.

As we’ve already discussed, right to work laws deal with prohibiting employers and unions from agreeing how to organize their workplace.

At-will employment is an employment condition in which the employment relationship exists as long as both employee and employer want it to continue. Either employer or employee may terminate employment for any reason not prohibited by law (such as unlawful forms of employment discrimination). You can be an at-will employee in a right to work state (such as Texas) or a state that allows union shops or agency shops. In Colorado employees are by default at-will employees unless hired under a collective bargaining agreement or an individual employment contract.

Right to work and at-will employment intersect as issues when an employee works under a collective bargaining agreement. When an employee works under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) the employment relationship is no longer at-will. It is a contractual relationship governed by the CBA and labor law. The CBA typically includes conditions and procedures for disciplining and terminating an employee. It may also set requirements for employees to give notice or agree not to work for competitors for a period of time.

The standard for termination, at least from the employer, is a just cause standard, rather than at-will. An employer can only fire an employee within the confines of the CBA and must provide the employee an opportunity to be heard and oppose the termination. Often a CBA will establish an arbitration or other hearing procedure for this purpose. An employee cannot be fired for any other reason or without “industrial due process”.

Because Colorado is not a right to work state, an employee may be hired immediately into a collective bargaining agreement and not suffer at-will employment. If the employee is not within a bargained unit then the employee is an at-will employee (or has an individual employment contract) regardless of the state’s union shop laws.

Why should Colorado employees care about right to work or at-will employment?

There are several reasons why Colorado employees might care about the unionization laws in Colorado. An obvious reason is for workers seeking employment in a union shop or workers not in a union shop considering unionization and what requirements they may want the union to impose on employment. Colorado’s state labor law includes unique functions for unionization that must be considered before a unionization campaign begins.

Another important reason relates to when an employee is terminated from employment. Much of the confusion around right to work and at-will employment is why an employer may lawfully fire an employee and when that employee might have a wrongful termination claim. An at-will employee can pursue wrongful termination claims when the employer violates a state or federal employment law prohibiting termination for the employer’s particular motivation. (But unemployment benefits may take a broader approach.) Employees covered under an employment contract or CBA may have contractual remedies for a termination that violates the agreement or because the way the employer terminated the employee violates the procedural requirements of the agreement. If you believe you have a wrongful termination claim then you should contact a Denver employment lawyer right away.

Supreme Court overturns forty years of precedent to trash public union agency fees

At the end of June the Supreme Court dropped its expected ruling in Janus v. AFSCME which garnered minimal discussion in mainstream press despite likely having an enormous impact on our political system and many employees. Janus is in many ways a demonstration of the cumulative effect of the past twenty years of right wing politics in this county and its continued war on labor unions. Although the case mostly flew under the radar for most of the nation’s press, labor law observers have paid close attention and mostly uniformly predicted the Court’s conclusion. Let’s talk about the labor law issue involved and what impact the case will likely have for Colorado and its employees.

(I delayed writing about this case with the holiday but you can find earlier coverage on the topic here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Labor law and agency fees

The issue in Janus involves state laws requiring employees of a public employer (such as the City and County of Denver, or a Colorado school district) who are part of a bargained unit but not union members to pay partial fees for the benefits received from the union’s bargaining activity. Let’s break this down.

Union representation: right to work vs. closed shop laws

Under federal labor law, employees in covered employers can elect a union to represent the workforce as a unit to bargain over the conditions and benefits of employment. Labor law defines groups of employees eligible for representation by a single representative union as a bargained unit. These are employees who share work duties for which it makes sense to have a single representative. For example, all teachers in a school district might be a bargained unit or the machinists in a manufacturing shop might be a unit while the office staff is a separate unit. If the employees within the unit vote in favor of union representation then the union represents all employees within the unit–even if all employees do not voluntarily join the union.

States handle this aspect in a couple ways. In supposed “right to work” states employees do not have to join the union or pay union dues even if the union represents them and the employees receive all the benefits of the collective bargaining agreement struck by the union and employer. In “closed shop” states the employees within a bargained unit must be dues-paying members of the union. Although this can seem unfair, keep in mind that employees receive the benefits of the union’s bargaining of the CBA plus continued representation when issues arise under the agreement. The union has no choice under the NLRA but to represent all employees. So either state law requires the employees to pay for the benefits received from the union or the union eats the cost of helping its dues-paying members.

Right to work laws and agency fees

As a compromise solution in right to work states, unions can charge non-members within their bargained units agency fees. Agency fees are a reduced payment from full dues paid by non-union employees in the bargained unit to cover the costs incurred by the union for work performed on behalf of the non-members. Payment of agency fees means the union receives at least compensation for work performed but does not collect full dues that might also be used for other union purposes such as lobbying for employee-friendly laws or campaigning in representation elections in other bargaining units. These agency fees are at issue in Janus.

The Supreme Court first approved the use of agency fees in public employment in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education in 1977, which itself draws from case law twenty years earlier holding the same position under the Railway Labor Act. A series of cases since that time confirmed their constitutionality in light of the First Amendment. Writing in an opinion years later, Justice Alito questioned the constitutionality of the agency fees, signaling to right wing allies that it might be a good time to raise a new suit challenging them.

Enter Janus

Janus is an employee of a state agency in Illinois who worked in a bargained unit and paid agency fees under state law. With the backing of right-wing and anti-union groups, Janus filed suit to avoid payment of agency fees. The primary thrust of the lawsuit alleged the agency fees violated Janus’s First Amendment rights because the state law requiring agency fees is a government action requiring him to give money to a group that takes political action against his particular views. In other words, it is compelled speech. The lawsuit alleged that there is no way to really distinguish between how the union uses money collected from agency fees and union dues so he is forced by state law through his public employment to finance the union’s other political activities.

The lawsuit further alleged the agency fee issue is a matter of importance that rises to a First Amendment issue because the union’s bargaining is a matter of public importance. When unions bargain on behalf of public employees the union affects government decision-making and financing; therefore, the issue of agency fees is one of public concern and rises to the significance of speech protected by the First Amendment.

Supreme Court weighs in, overruling Abood

With a conservative majority, labor law observers expected the Supreme Court to overrule Abood and strike down agency fee laws, which is exactly what the Court did. The Janus majority opinion reads as a barely disguised criticism of public unions and sets up what is the beginning of a broader attack on unions under the First Amendment. The conservative majority on the bench have spent the past six years inching towards this position and finally get their win.

The majority casually overrules forty years of precedent with merely a handwaiving towards any concern about stare decisis. The bulk of Justice Alito’s majority opinion is spent making equally casual dismissals of Abood‘s reasoning and a union’s legal duty to represent non-members without payment of fair-share fees.

The bulk of the majority opinion relies on this chain of thinking:

  • The First Amendment protects an individual from compelled speech on behalf of ideas with which the individual disagrees;
  • Matters involving public employee compensation are budgetary issues and therefore significant enough that activity involving them implicate First Amendment protections;
  • Agency fees contribute to the union’s speech on those issues;
  • If the individual disagrees with the union’s position or tactics then the individual is compelled to support disagreeable political speech;
  • There is an “‘exacting’ standard” to analyze whether a law compelling speech violates the First Amendment;
  • Now casually dismiss all the reasons why agency fees might not violate the First Amendment.

Justice Kagan’s dissent dismantles the house of cards constructed by the majority to explain why Abood must be overruled; but its strength lies in attacking why claiming state budgets are federal constitutional issues is a ridiculous standard. Justice Kagan correctly points out that if public employment budget issues elevate agency fees to First Amendment protections then the same would have to be true for any other public employment budget issue. Any time an employee or group of employees raise compensation or workplace issues and suffer criticism or discipline (real or perceived) the employees could launch First Amendment lawsuits which will cause financial harm to states and interfere with their ability to act as employers–inconsistent with decades of other Supreme Court precedent.

Or–what will inevitably happen–the reactionary majority will carve out a union-only rule that only attacks unions.

The political impact of Janus

It’s hard to consider Janus anything more than a political favor to conservative political forces. The majority asserts one reason why the agency fee issue is of political importance is that states and cities are experiencing budgetary shortfalls for which public employee benefits are a significant issue. Although true, the vulnerability of public employees to budgetary issues is one reason why public employees and their unions have become important to protecting their own jobs. The drive to undermine public employee benefits and wages has led to greater growth in the importance and activity of public unions.

The divide between political forces seeking to cut public employee compensation and public unions is blatantly partisan. One only needs to look at the standoff only a few years ago between Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the state teacher’s union for the most visible example. By drawing funding away from the unions the Supreme Court majority puts its thumb on the scales for their political allies.

The reach of Janus is not just political for public unions. Diminishing the power and visibility of public unions will have the same effect on private employer unions. It will diminish resources available for other union fights like raising minimum wage and protecting employee benefits. Disabling public unions will allow politicians to cut state agency employment which in turn will make regulatory enforcement of important laws less effective. It will also allow them to cut public employee pay and benefits which in turn will lower compensation across all employers. In short, this is bad for employees everywhere.

Janus is another step forward for the reactionary Court majority which uses the First Amendment as a tool to rollback democratic forces in the country. The majority took its first big step with Citizens United–equating money with speech–and extends that forward here with Janus. We will likely continue to see the Supreme Court use the First Amendment as a tool to dismantle public accountability in the political system and further dismantle opposition to right wing political forces.

The effect on unions from Janus

The larger effect for unions is equally as obvious. Public unions in states with agency fee laws will lose out on not just immediate funding from the agency fees. The absence of any fees to receive the benefits of representation without paying a fair share for it will entice free riding and further reduce the union’s dues-paying membership. As a result, the ability for unions to successfully represent and lobby for working people will decline.

Although this suit deals directly with public union issues, the majority’s First Amendment analysis is so broad that it calls into question significant private employer issues under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) involving the federal law’s requirement for employees to pay agency fees under the same premise. The majority is, at least, signaling to private employers and their allies to take a shot at whittling away at private unions as well.

Observers on both sides of the issue have asserted unions will have to work harder to be accountable to their members and do a better job pitching why employees in bargained units why their should join the union. Although true, this is hardly a solution to the political and labor scale-tipping provided by the Supreme Court. Unions certainly could do a better job in many instances but in practice this does not happen and in a union-hostile environment it’s not always easy to sway people to pay dues when they can get many of the benefits for free. We certainly see that in right to work states where union membership is low. Moreover, the Janus decision sets up decades of undermining unions which will hardly be met by more persuasion in the workplace.

 

 

Wrongful termination attorneys in Colorado

Are paid 15 minute breaks required by law under Colorado labor law?

Colorado employees seek out the answer to this question with high frequency for good reason. Colorado is one of the states that has a labor and employment law that requires many employees to receive a paid break at work and gives employees legal remedies when employers refuse to provide legally required paid breaks. In this post we will discuss some of the legal issues around Colorado’s paid break law and when you might need to talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado if you do not receive paid breaks required by law. Before getting into those details, let’s get to a brief answer under Colorado law about paid 15 minute breaks. Under Colorado law, nonexempt employees are entitled to paid 10 minute breaks every four hours of work but not entitled to 15 minute paid breaks. Employee break laws involve both federal and state law so let’s take a look at how each affects employee rights to unpaid and paid breaks.

Federal law on paid breaks for employees

Federal law does not require paid breaks for employees but establishes minimum standards for whether breaks are paid or unpaid when they occur. The federal employment law that applies to most employees on the subject of breaks is the Fair Labor Standards Act. FLSA sets minimum wage conditions for covered, nonexempt employees in all states. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employees are not generally entitled to break periods at all. If, however, an employee receives a break period of less than twenty minutes then the employee must be paid for that break time. 

An important caveat under the FLSA applies to mothers who need break time to express milk. The PPACA created a specific break rule in this situation. The PPACA amended the FLSA under 29 U.S.C. section 207(r)(1) to require reasonable break time for mothers to express milk. This rule applies if:

  • The mother gave birth within the past year;
  • Is covered by the overtime protections of the FLSA;
  • The employer employees 50 or more employees; and
  • The employer cannot claim undue hardship to provide the required break time.

Under the FLSA amendment the break period for expressing milk does not have to be paid; however, if the employer provides breaks under twenty minutes and that break time is used for expressing milk then it must be paid like any other paid break under FLSA.

Federal law provides for a wide range of unpaid break or rest periods to employees under different circumstances. These include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covered leave;
  • Leave as an accommodation for a disability;
  • Required rest for transportation workers; and
  • Pregnancy leave under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act.

The FLSA does not require employers to provide unpaid rest periods for lunches but if an employer provides a rest period greater than twenty minutes then it is not required to pay for that time so long as the employee is truly relieved of all work on behalf of the employer.

Colorado labor and employment laws on paid breaks

Colorado law specifically requires paid and unpaid break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. Colorado has other state laws that require unpaid break periods for particular purposes like family leave or as an accommodation for a disability; but let’s focus on how Colorado law expands on the FLSA for both paid and unpaid break periods under the normal work day.

Like federal law, Colorado labor laws protect break periods for employees covered by the state wage law. If you are exempt from this law then state law does not require employers to provide typical break or lunch periods. Most employees are covered by Colorado wage law under the Colorado Wage Act, found in Title 8 of the Colorado Revised Statutes.

The rules for typical breaks under Colorado law arise under Colorado Minimum Wage Order 34 and require:

  • A paid 10 minute break in the middle of each four hour work period as practical as possible to place the break in the middle of the four hour work period;
  • An unpaid 30 minute break or lunch when the work schedule exceeds five consecutive hours, if practical;
    • If not practical then the employer must allow the employee an opportunity to each a meal of choice on the clock whether provided by the employer or employee.

An employer can require the employee to stay on work premises during the paid ten minute break but not during the longer unpaid lunch period.

Colorado employment law

Putting federal and Colorado paid break laws together

Note that the Colorado Wage Act and the current Minimum Wage Order do not require paid 15 minute break periods although fifteen minutes is the standard break period for many employers. If an employer provides a fifteen minute break period then it must be paid for covered employees under the FLSA; but the employer only has to provide a ten minute period for covered employees under the Colorado Wage Act. Putting the two together for an employee covered by both federal and state minimum wage laws:

  • The employer must provide a paid 10 minute break every four hours;
  • The employer may extend the break period to 15 minutes;
  • If the employer extends the break period to 15 minutes then it must be a paid 15 minute break.

If you work under an individual employment contract or a collective bargaining agreement, the contract or agreement may provide additional requirements for rest periods.

Remedies against a Colorado employer for violating paid break requirements

Although federal and Colorado wage laws overlap and work together to establish minimum paid break rules, the remedies under each law are unique to the requirements of the respective law.

Federal law

Federal law only requires employers to pay for breaks of twenty minutes or less so when employees take these breaks they must count as compensable time in the day worked. The employee’s break time must count within the work hours and receive minimum wage and overtime pay for all compensable work time within the work week. An employer who fails to count compensable breaks within the workweek is liable for unpaid minimum wage and overtime pay (as appropriate).

Colorado law

Colorado law is more expansive in its protections because breaks are required for nonexempt employees. If the employee receives the required ten minute breaks but the employer does not include the breaks within compensable time then the employer is liable to the employee for unpaid wages and overtime pay (as appropriate) for the ten minute breaks. Here, federal and Colorado law is similar.

However, if the employee does not receive the breaks then the employee can pursue the employer for claims related to this violation of the Minimum Wage Order. Employees may not have tremendous claims if the employer only does not provide the required paid ten minute breaks but an employee could nevertheless pursue a claim for the violation. If the employer takes disciplinary action against an employee who demands due paid breaks then the employee may have a stronger claim against the employer for the effects of the disciplinary action. Employees have successfully sued for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy when employers terminate employees in retaliation for demanding the legally required break periods.

Talk to an employment lawyer in Colorado about your employee break rights

If you believe you are not receiving required break periods or not being properly paid for your breaks then you should talk to a Denver employment lawyer right away. Wage-based claims carry a statute of limitations period that applies to each pay period so delay working on your potential claims may limit your right to recover due wages. An employment lawyer can help assess your situation and whether you have claims to pursue against your employer. Recall that some employees are exempt from the break rules under federal and Colorado law. Demanding breaks not required by law or by an employment contract could result in losing your job with recourse. An employment lawyer can help assess whether you are entitled to breaks and what next steps may be available to you.

Denver employment lawyer

EEOC says #MeToo not causing more sexual harassment claims to agency

This week the EEOC reconvened its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic stated in public comments that the agency has not seen a rise in EEOC complaints or charges of discrimination as a result of the #MeToo movement. This might come as a surprise to many, given the publicity given to sexual harassment claims and lawsuits (such as this one against former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and complaints against Colorado lawmakers). However, in looking at the bigger picture of sexual harassment complaints in the workplace this is far less surprising.

What the EEOC tells us about the impact of #MeToo on sexual harassment complaints

The EEOC Chair disclosed that there has not been a recent increase in complaints of sexual harassment to the agency; however, there has been an increase in website traffic to EEOC resources on sexual harassment. This suggests there is a greater awareness of sexual harassment issues in the workplace but those issues are not funneling up to the anti-discrimination agency. Chairwoman Lipnic also points out that in her conversations with HR professionals and employment lawyers, there is an uptick in sexual harassment complaints to employers. Those complaints find internal resolution from the employer so pursuing external complaints to the EEOC is less often necessary.

The BLR HR blog sought out comments from employer-side employment lawyers on these comments. The lawyers acknowledged there has been more activity but employers are taking steps to improve training and procedures to deal internally with complaints of sexual harassment. They claim employers are motivated by the publicity of the #MeToo movement so there is at least some positive impact across employers even if it is less visible.

Why internal complaints of sexual harassment prevent employees going to the EEOC

There are three main reasons why effective internal procedures for reporting sexual harassment within employers reduces the likelihood that the employees will seek an employment lawyer or file an EEOC charge of discrimination.

1. A change in the corporate culture to take sexual harassment complaints seriously reduces the likelihood that harassment occurs.

A key reason why sexual harassment remains an ongoing problem in the workplace is that the harasser feels he or she can get away with the offensive conduct without consequences. Too often harassers feel empowered to cause harm to other employees because they feel there is a lack of consequences for their actions. If a potential harassers feels employees are more likely to report harassment and the employer may treat the complaints more seriously then the risk to the potential harasser increases substantially.

2. Most harassed employees want the hostile work environment to end, not make waves.

Generally employees who suffer workplace harassment just want the harassment to end and to make sure it does not happen in the future. That is especially true when the harassed employee fears retaliation for reporting harassment. For most people, experiencing sexual harassment at work is an incredibly humiliating situation that they want to end with as little publicity as possible.

Many fear reporting harassment to the EEOC or the Colorado Civil Rights Division will make retaliation more likely but eventually may feel they have no choice when internal reporting procedures fail to cure the harassment. Improving internal procedures to receive and act upon reports of sexual harassment means fewer harassed employees need to take the next step of reporting externally to the EEOC.

3. Employees have to report internally as a first step in most cases.

In the late 1990s, federal courts decided employees should have to report unlawful harassment to the employer and give the employer an opportunity to cure the harassment in most situations. This is known as the Ellerth/Faragher affirmative defense. If employees fail to take advantage of an internal complaint procedure then an employer can raise a defense against the employee in an employment discrimination lawsuit that the employer would have stopped if the harassment if it only knew.

Employees experiencing harassment and seeking out employment lawyers are likely being directed to make internal reports as a first step due to this affirmative defense. As internal procedures improve–or employers at least take them more seriously–these employees are hopefully gaining more satisfaction from these internal procedures than in the past. If the internal procedures effectively end the harassment then the need for an external EEOC complaint decreases.

What should Colorado employees do with a sexual harassment complaint?

The good news is that right now there is a high probability that sexual harassment will be dealt with in a meaningful manner by your employer if you report it internally. Eventually employers will probably slide back towards their prior position of treating complaints less seriously but how long before that happens is unclear. Employees suffering harassment should nevertheless take advantage of their employers’ diligence while it lasts.

If you work in Colorado and suffer sexual harassment or other forms of harassment then you should talk to an employment lawyer near you right away. Your lawyer can advise you about:

  • Whether you need to make an internal complaint;
  • Who to deliver the internal complaint;
  • What to include in the complaint;
  • What your next steps will be in the event the internal complaint does not solve the problem; and
  • What additional steps you should take to document the harassment.

 

What happens during a consultation with a Denver employment lawyer?

The start of most attorney-client relationships is the consultation. A consultation is not a uniform act across all law firms; they don’t teach how to have a consultation in law school. It is not a special process. It is just an initial meeting between lawyer and prospective client. Law firms treat consultations differently depending upon their intake process for prospective clients and what areas of law they work. The basic role of a consultation for employment lawyers is to understand the client’s situation and see if the law firm can help the client solve his or her problems. Let’s talk in more detail about the role of a consultation and what you might expect during a consultation with a Denver employment lawyer.

The role of a consultation with an employment lawyer

If you have never hired a lawyer to help you with a legal problem then you might be unsure what exactly happens during a consultation. The purposes of a consultation generally include:

  1. Gathering information about the client and the client’s legal problem;
  2. Assessing the client’s credibility as a potential client and witness;
  3. Explaining the attorney’s ability to help solve the legal problem;
  4. The attorney assessing whether to take the potential client on as a client;
  5. The potential client assessing whether to hire the attorney;
  6. The attorney selling legal services to the client;
  7. (Hopefully) forming an attorney-client relationship.

Some law firms focus more on the information gathering and may investigate or consider the case in more detail before moving forward with forming a business relationship, while others focus more on forming the relationship and then collecting more information later. Many firms do a lot of both processes during a consultation.

Whether the potential client is an employer or employee can affect the direction of the consultation. A Colorado employer might need an employment lawyer to work on an immediate problem or want an employment law specialist on retainer. A lawyer consulting with an employer might need to assess the situation differently. Employees normally seek employment lawyers because there is an immediate situation, such as a termination or unpaid wages, and the lawyer needs to assess whether there is a claim to pursue right now or to help the client prepare in the event the situation worsens. These situations all require probing for different types of information and assessing different courses of action with the potential client.

What to expect in a consultation with a Denver employment lawyer

Law firms in Colorado treat consultations differently depending upon their business model and drive for new clients. Do not expect that consultations with lawyers will all be exactly the same. Remember that employment lawyers use consultations to assess potential clients and their cases, which means they are making business decisions about cases during consultations.

Often people believe a consultation with an attorney is an opportunity to solicit advise or have questions answered about employment law or other topics. This is generally not the case. Typically lawyers do not offer extensive legal advice during a consultation beyond assessing the case and what steps may need to occur for a case to become viable. Providing legal advice to a client is normally part of the attorney-client relationship that forms after both attorney and potential client decide to form a business relationship.

Some employment lawyers may offer varying degrees of legal advice as part of assessing your situation and may be necessary to explain whether a case is worth pursuing. You should not be surprised if you contact a law firm seeking free legal advise or to provide you with explanations of employment law that the firm expects you to pay for their time to provide you legal counsel.

Denver employment lawyers

Should I have a paid or a free consultation with an employment lawyer?

Paying for a consultation is not indicative of whether the law firm or employment lawyer is qualified to assist you with your situation. Of course, everybody likes something for free and a free consultation is enticing. It is supposed to be. Law firms generally offer free consultations to entice people to schedule a consultation so the law firm can assess many potential clients and find good cases. By removing cost as a factor, it makes it more convenient for people to schedule a consultation because then the only cost involved to the potential client is time.

Free consultations generally arose from personal injury attorneys who practice in a highly competitive area of law in which a lot of money is often spent on marketing. Giving away a lawyer’s time to free consultations is not really free to the law firm because the lawyer could spend that time working on other cases or even taking paid consultations. The free consultation is a marketing cost to the firm. Due to the breadth of personal injury marketing people have often come to expect free consultations as a part of all legal counsel. This is not true. Most areas of law still use paid consultations. Employment law has become more competitive among law firms and part of that has driven free consultations into this area of law.

However, a paid consultation may be no different in terms of process or information provided. The law firm may charge for a consultation because it believes the potential client receives value in the assessment of the situation which definitely requires the lawyer’s skill and expertise. Law firms charging consultations may want to conserve their lawyers’ time to paid work (like most employers) or may want to limit their consultations to people willing to make an investment in their own case.

Whether you should pay for a consultation is not just a question of cost. You should also consider, among other factors, whether the law firm or its attorneys have the skills and expertise to help you with your situation. Looking at the larger picture, if you have a potential case worth thousands (or more), the initial cost of the consultation may be minimal compared to the overall potential recovery. Also consider that many labor and employment law claims allow plaintiffs to recover attorney’s fees which include the cost of the consultation.

 

FMLA lawyers in Colorado

Protected leave does not automatically prevent termination from your job

Employees around the country often misunderstand that protected leave from a job is not an automatic bar from an employer terminating the employee for other reasons. The role of protected leave for a family or medical reason is to protect an employee from termination due to the leave. Generally, employers can terminate, demote, promote, transfer, or otherwise change an employee’s job during or after a protected period of leave under federal or Colorado employment law so long as the motivation for the change is not the employee’s protected leave or the reason for the protected leave. (Assuming no other unlawful motivation exists.)

Employees facing termination or demotion while on a protected leave or immediately following a protection period of leave have good reason to be concerned that the employer’s motives are not pure. Often employers have unlawful motivations that create claims under federal or Colorado employment law for wrongful termination. It usually is not obvious whether the employer’s action is lawful. For this reason, if you are fired during or after a period of leave from your job then you should contact employment lawyers in Denver about potential claims.

Protected leave from your job in Colorado

Colorado employees may enjoy protected family or medical leave for a variety of reasons under state or federal employment law. These laws protect the right to return to work at the same or similar position after a protected period of leave. However, the right to return to work is not absolute under these laws. They only protect the employee’s right to return to work at the same or similar position as though the employee never took leave at all. To put it more precisely, these employment laws protect access to limited periods of leave of absence and prohibit employers from discriminating against employees for requesting, taking, or returning from protected leave.

Laws protecting employee right to leave of absence for family and medical issues include:

  • Family and Medical Leave Act: FMLA protects up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for care of the employee’s or certain family member’s serious medical condition, pregnancy, childbirth, or bonding with an adopted or foster child;
  • Colorado Family Care Act: Colorado FCA expands FMLA coverage for a broader range of family members;
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: Protects certain medical leave periods as a reasonable accommodation to a disability;
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act: PDA is a federal law requiring covered employers to allow pregnancy and childbirth-related leave under the employer’s short term disability leave policy, if it has one; and
  • Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act: Provides similar protection for a reasonable accommodation to a disability as well as pregnancy and childbirth-related leave under the employer’s short term disability leave policy.

The length of protected leave under these laws can vary considerably and in the case of long term medical conditions there may be concurrent protection under several laws, such as FMLA, ADA and the Colorado ADA. For this reason, if you find yourself dealing with any problems with family and medical leave in Colorado then you should find a local employment lawyer right away to advise you how to deal with these issues.

Why protected leave of absence laws in Colorado do not always protect you from termination

Protected leave employment laws are designed to protect access to leave of absence for medical and family reasons, not to prevent the employer from conducting other employment practices. It is a common myth that protected leave laws absolutely protect an employee from termination during or around the leave of absence. Employers can discharge or take other adverse employment acts during a protected leave period but risks the employee contacting an employment lawyer and pursing a claim that the employer’s termination or other detrimental act was motivated by the protected leave.

If an employer could never terminate an employee during or immediately after a protected leave period then it would lead to some unusual results:

  • Employees with legitimate disciplinary or performance issues could find a reason to seek FMLA leave or another protected leave to extend the job and force the employer to choose between firing the employee or enduring an expensive employment lawsuit.
  • Employers engaging a reduction in force would have to carve out any employees who are on, about to be on, or recently returned from protected leave from the RIF and target other employees who might be more productive or more senior, which could create other legal issues for the employer.
  • Unscrupulous employees looking for an easy payday could actually perform poorly enough to be on the cusp of a legitimate termination and then abuse protected leave laws to force the employer’s hand to fire them just to pursue a nuisance lawsuit.
  • A new wave of employment lawsuits would arise establishing rules about how much time must pass between protected leave and an unrelated termination which will make protected leave laws less specific and cost a significant figure for both employers and employees in litigation expenses.
  • Good employees who deserve to advance may be held back because the employer’s cost-benefit analysis favors keeping a poor performer with protected leave for fear of a related lawsuit.

This would be a losing proposition for employers and good employees while maybe helping bad employees.

When federal and Colorado protected leave laws prevent your employer from a wrongful termination

An employer generally cannot fire an employee because of the protected leave or protected leave request. That means an employer cannot:

  • Fire the employee in response to requesting or inquiring about taking leave protected by a federal or Colorado employment law;
  • Fire the employee for submitting a valid request for protected leave but insisting the leave request was invalid;
  • Terminate the employee while on protected leave for taking leave;
  • Discharge the employee while on protected leave for not performing material work during a leave period;
  • Terminate the employee after returning from protected leave for requesting or taking the leave of absence.

Colorado and federal employment laws generally prohibit employers from terminating an employee for the sole reason of requesting or taking protected leave or in addition to other legitimate reasons. Sometimes employers have lawful reasons to terminate an employee but are motivated to fire the employee for lawful reasons plus the unlawful reason that the employee requested or took leave protected by law. This is known as a mixed motive claim. In a mixed motive claim the employee’s ability to recover for damages is often limited if the employee cannot disprove that the alleged lawful reasons actually motivated the employer. However, the employee can generally still recover some damages for the employer’s unlawful motivation.

Knowing whether an employer wrongfully terminated an employee for taking a leave of absence

Wrongful termination claims involving leaves of absence can be difficult to pursue because the employer often will rely upon a defense that the discharge was based on a legitimate, unrelated business decision regardless of the truth to that defense. It may not be obvious whether the employer has a legitimate defense or whether the employee can recover a worthwhile sum based upon the facts. This is a good reason to work with an employment lawyer in Colorado to assess your case and help you pursue it.

An employee included in a layoff during a leave of absence is a common source of wrongful termination claims for FMLA and other protected leaves of absence. Employees on a protected leave generally can be a part of a reduction in force so long as the employee’s inclusion is not related to the protected leave. Often employers do not explain why employees become part of a RIF and even when they do there is no guarantee the employer’s explanation is true. Planning for RIFs usually begins months beforehand so it may be possible to compare the timeline of the leave request and inclusion on the RIF list.

Employees may be individually fired during a protected leave of absence outside of a RIF. In these cases the employer’s explanation for the termination normally involves a performance or disciplinary issue with the employee. In these cases the employer should have a documented history of progressive discipline unless the reason for termination is particularly egregious. It may be possible to compare how the employer treated similar employees without a protected leave of absence to see if the employer fired other employees with similar problems.

Hiring employment lawyers for wrongful termination claims in Denver, Colorado

Employment lawyers have experience dealing with these wrongful termination claims and know how to investigate and pursue these claims. In many cases the employment lawyer must assess the potential client’s claims based on access to minimal information and pursue additional documents and information through the discovery phase of litigation. Lawyers with experience dealing with wrongful termination claims under federal and Colorado employment law are best equipped to be able to assess claims early in the process to determine whether it may be worth pursuing to that point.

If you believe you were wrongfully terminated due to a protected leave request then you should find a local employment lawyer right away to discuss your claim. Some protected leave laws require employees to take certain steps within limited time periods to pursue their claims.

Salary history not a defense to sex discrimination under Equal Pay Act according to the Ninth Circuit

The Equal Pay Act is a federal law that prohibits pay discrimination on the basis of sex. Unlike Title VII and state anti-discrimination laws that prohibit sex discrimination in the workplace, the EPA only applies to compensation disparity between the sexes. The federal Ninth Circuit issued its decision in a case involving the Equal Pay Act surrounding the use of salary history as a deciding factor in salary and wage rates. The Ninth Circuit ruled in Rizo v. Yovino that the use of salary history does not justify pay disparity between men and women, overturning its own precedent. This broad rule has employer-side employment lawyers around the country in a tizzy.

The details on Rizo v. Yovino

We won’t spend too much time on the facts in this case because the Ninth Circuit staked out a position far beyond the facts of the case but it helps to understand a little about how they got here. Rizo is a teacher hired as a math consultant with the Fresno School District. The school district sets pay on a salary system that sets a consultant’s starting salary as the consultant’s prior salary plus five percent. (Then the salary steps up at set intervals.) Rizo, a woman, discovered the male consultants had higher starting salaries. The school district uniformly applied its salary system so the difference in pay between men and women all arose from the use of past salary as a starting point on the salary track. Rizo sued, alleging the pay disparity violated the Equal Pay Act.

Equal Pay Act and pay disparity

The Equal Pay Act was enacted in 1963 as an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit wage disparity between men and women. The statute requires employers to pay men and women equal pay for work of the same skill, effort, responsibility and work conditions unless one of four exceptions apply. The Equal Pay Act exceptions allowing wage disparity are:

  1. A seniority system;
  2. A merit system;
  3. A system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or
  4. A differential based on any other factor than sex.

The last exception is a catchall exception that allows for any other nondiscriminatory pay system. The Fresno School District argued, as many employer-side employment lawyers do in blogs discussing this case, that the exception applies because the system does not use sex as a factor.

Not so fast, said the Ninth Circuit.

The Ninth Circuit’s new rule on the Equal Pay Act

The Ninth Circuit looked at the statutory language and the legislative history behind the Equal Pay Act, deciding that if the purpose of the statute is to close the wage gap between men and women then it hardly makes sense to allow one employer to perpetuate a prior employer’s wage differential. The majority explained:

In light of the clear intent and purpose of the Equal Pay Act, it is … clear that we cannot construe the catchall exception as justifying setting employees’ starting salaries on the basis of their prior pay. At the time of the passage of the Act, an employee’s prior pay would have reflected a discriminatory marketplace that valued the equal work of one sex over the other. Congress simply could not have intended to allow employers to rely on these discriminatory wages as a justification for continuing to perpetuate wage differentials.

The majority continued to clarify that the catchall exception, as many circuits agree, requires the nondiscriminatory factors to be job-related (not just business-related). It held that prior salary is not within the catchall because it does not act as a reasonable proxy of an applicant’s or employee’s skills or expertise. The majority continues:

Prior salary does not fit within the catchall exception because it is not a legitimate measure of work experience, ability, performance, or any other job-related quality. It may bear a rough relationship to legitimate factors other than sex, such as training, education, ability, or experience, but the relationship is attenuated. More important, it may well operate to perpetuate the wage disparities prohibited under the Act. Rather than use a second-rate surrogate that likely masks continuing inequities, the employer must instead point directly to the underlying factors for which prior salary is a rough proxy, at best, if it is to prove its wage differential is justified under the catchall exception.

The Ninth Circuit therefore established a rule that prior salary is almost never an acceptable factor to establish a wage differential between the sexes.

[W]e now hold that prior salary alone or in combination with other factors cannot justify a wage differential. To hold otherwise—to allow employers to capitalize on the persistence of the wage gap and perpetuate that gap ad infinitum—would be contrary to the text and history of the Equal Pay Act, and would vitiate the very purpose for which the Act stands.

The court left the door cracked for some situations in which prior salary might be an appropriate factor but did not specify in great detail what they are.

Bottom line: As far as the Ninth Circuit is concerned employers should not establish policies that rely on past salary as a factor to set initial wages or salary.

The impact?

Employer-side employment lawyers dumped an avalanche of blog posts last week bemoaning the outcome of this case. (You can read some here, here, here, here, here and here.) The Ninth Circuit’s holding is definitely broad as all of these lawyers complain but breadth by itself is not a reason why the holding is wrong. Prior salary has nothing to do with an employee’s qualifications to perform a given job. Whether an applicant was paid more than another could be a reflection of performance but the employer has no way to confirm the extent performance affected pay rate over other factors such as cost of living differentials, a seniority system, labor market conditions, or sex discrimination. An employer who adopts an applicant’s prior salary implicitly adopts all of the reasons–good or bad–for the wage disparity.

I suspect this broad interpretation will make its way to the Supreme Court because it disagrees with several circuits and even the EEOC. Given the conservative majority on SCOTUS I find it improbable that the majority will rule against giving employers the opportunity to make business-friendly salary decisions. For now, at least, employers within the Ninth Circuit should talk to their employment lawyers about their employment policies under this decision.

The decision in Rizo is part of a set of cases brought across several federal circuits over the catchall exception. Circuits around the country have taken a less than liberal position towards employers but, unsurprisingly, the Ninth Circuit provides employees the greatest help. Ultimately I expect the Supreme Court will adopt a position closer to the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits that allow employers to consider past salary as a factor but not as a sole factor justifying a wage differential.

How this affects Colorado employees

Like other appellate decisions discussed here outside of the Tenth Circuit this case has no direct impact on our employees. Nevertheless, the way the Supreme Court handles the rule set out in this case could change Equal Pay Act analysis in this circuit and require employers to make changes to policies. Enterprising employment lawyers might take up similar cases and see if the Tenth Circuit in Denver wants to agree with its colleagues in San Francisco but it’s highly unlikely.

Here the Tenth Circuit rule is that prior salary cannot by itself justify a wage disparity but prior salary can be a factor in setting wage and salary for employees. The court here sets a high burden on the employer to prove it meets the catchall exception. Its summary judgment standard for employers requires the employer to prove the prior salary policy not only could justify the wage disparity but that it does justify it. If the Supreme Court hears an Equal Pay Act case on prior salary it may rule otherwise; but for now employees have some protection from sex discrimination passing from one employer to the next in Colorado.

As always, if you believe your Colorado employer discriminates in pay on the basis of sex then you should talk to an employment lawyer right away. Delaying talking to an employment lawyer can result in losing opportunities to recover for discriminatory pay systems because each paycheck carries its own statute of limitations.