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Legal Use of Marijuana in New York – Know Your Workplace Rights

On March 31, 2021, Governor Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act [“MRTA”] into law. The MRTA legalizes the recreational use of marijuana in New York for individuals over the age of 21 and expands New York’s existing medical marijuana program. While the law takes effect immediately, the sale of recreational marijuana is not expected to become legal for at least a year from the enactment date while the state works to create a regulatory framework for the cannabis industry.  

 This blog post will discuss how the use of marijuana, whether for a medical or recreational purpose, may impact your workplace rights. As a warning to all, it is important to understand that the recently passed legislation does not give one free license to show up for work under the influence of marijuana. In fact, some workplaces can still impose discipline if an employee tests positive even if s/he was not under the influence while at work. It must be understood that if you are under the influence of marijuana at work you are subject to discipline, up to and including termination.  If you test positive and your employer is subject to safety regulations, your employer may impose similar discipline, even if you were not under the influence while at work. 

 Medical Marijuana Use 

New York’s Compassionate Care Act [“CCA”] allows for, and regulates, the cultivation, distribution, prescription, and use of marijuana for medical purposes. The CCA allows approved organizations, such as hospitals and community health centers, to dispense medical marijuana to patients who have been certified by their health care provider and who have registered with the state Department of Health. Although federal criminal law forbids the possession, distribution, sale, or use of marijuana, thanks to the CCA, in New York the United States Department of Justice does not currently enforce criminal law provisions against individuals and entities engaged in the cultivation, transportation, delivery, prescription, or use of medical marijuana in accordance with state law.1  

 The CCA states that “certified patients” have a “disability” for the purposes of state antidiscrimination law. N.Y. Pub. Health L. §§ 3360(3), 3369(2). As a result, under New York State Human Rights Law, employers may not discriminate against an employee or job applicant based on lawful use of medical marijuana. N.Y. Exec. L. §§ 292(21), 296(1)(a). While under New York’s CCA, people with serious medical conditions may legally use marijuana in the manner prescribed by a registered care provider who is licensed to dispense, it is important to understand that this does NOT mean that a certified medical marijuana patient can show up for work under the influence or use medical marijuana in a manner that violates workplace rules. In addition, the CCA specifically exempts employers from doing “any act that would put the [employer] in violation of federal law or cause it to lose a federal contract or funding.” This means your employer may be exempt from following the CCA if subject to federal regulation, such as Department of Transportation rules.    

Here are a few examples of how New York’s Human Rights Law and the CCA may, or may not, protect your rights if you are a certified medical marijuana patient.   

I’m a certified user of medical marijuana and, while I was not under the influence of marijuana at work, I tested positive after a random drug test. Can I get fired?   

It depends. As a certified medical marijuana patient, you are “disabled” under New York law and, therefore, are a member of a protected class. As such, before imposing discipline, your employer must engage in a good faith interactive process to assess your needs and determine if there is a way to accommodate your use of medical marijuana that does not impose an undue hardship on the employer. If you work in a safety sensitive position, in a job subject to federal regulation, and/or your use of medical marijuana poses a direct threat to yourself, co-workers, or customers, your employer may have grounds to terminate even if you were not under the influence of marijuana while at work.  

I am a certified medical marijuana patient and report to work under the influence of marijuana or use marijuana during my shift. Can I get fired? 

Yes. In fact, a New York employer is free to fire, discipline, or take other adverse action against an employee who uses marijuana at work or shows up to work under the influence of marijuana—even if you need it to treat a medical condition. The understanding is that marijuana use to address your underlying health condition must occur when you are off the clock and at intervals that allows you to be at work when you are not under the influence. 

I am a certified medical marijuana patient with a conditional offer of employment. I tested positive for marijuana and synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols (THC) during the pre-hire drug test. After explaining that I am a certified medical marijuana patient, my employer withdrew the offer on the spot. Is this legal?  

It depends. Once your prospective employer is on notice that you are a certified medical marijuana patient, the law requires the employer to engage in a good faith interactive process to assess your needs and determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that will allow you to perform the essential functions of your job as a medical marijuana patient.  An employer is obligated to participate in an interactive process even if the employer is subject to federal regulations that prohibit hiring or retaining employees that test positive for scheduled substances.  If there is a way to accommodate your use of medical marijuana that does not impose an undue hardship on the employer, or create a direct threat to yourself, co-workers, or customers, you should not be denied the job.  If you feel the sole reason you were not hired is due to your status as a medical marijuana patient, you may want to contact an attorney to discuss your rights.   

If you are applying for a job in New York City on or after May 10, 2020, you will benefit from a local law amending the New York City Human Rights Law to prohibit pre-employment testing for marijuana and synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols (THC). See N.Y. Pub. Health L. §§ 3302(21), 3306(d)(21). This prohibition on marijuana testing in the hiring process, however, does not apply if you are seeking employment in a safety sensitive position, such as law enforcement, elder care, or medical services.  

Recreational Marijuana Use 

The MRTA amended the New York Labor Law provision that prohibits employers from refusing to “hire, employ or license, or to discharge from employment or otherwise discriminate against an individual” for engaging in legal recreational activities outside of work. N.Y. Lab. L. §201-d(2).  As amended, the provision now provides that the recreational use or consumption of marijuana outside of work hours, off an employer’s premises, and without use of the employer’s equipment or other property, constitutes lawful recreational activity.  

As a practical matter, the MRTA’s amendment of the Labor Law limits an employer’s ability to discipline employees for their recreational use of marijuana but, be forewarned, there are still employment related limits imposed on an employee’s right to partake and exceptions to the law that allow an employer to impose discipline. Consider the following:   

  • Nothing in the law “is intended to limit the authority of…employers to enact and enforce policies pertaining to cannabis in the workplace” or “exempt anyone from any requirement of federal law.” In other words, employees still must adhere to workplace drug policies. Also, under federal law, marijuana use is still illegal. The CCA’s protection from criminal prosecution for use of medical marijuana does not extend to recreational use.   
  • “Work hours” means all work time, “including paid and unpaid breaks and meal periods” and “all time the employee is actually engaged in work.” N.Y. Lab. L §201-d(c).  As such, an employee is subject to discipline for marijuana use during break time or a rest period during the workday, even if not on the clock.
  • Employers retain their ability to discipline an employee who is “impaired” by marijuana while on the job. The MRTA defines the term “impaired” as when an “employee manifests specific articulable symptoms while working that decrease or lessen the employee’s performance of the duties or tasks of the employee’s job position, or such specific articulable symptoms interfere with an employer’s obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace, free from recognized hazards, as required by state and federal occupational safety and health law.”  However, the MRTA does not define “specific articulable symptoms,” and until the state releases interpretive guidance, employers are likely to define the term broadly. 
  • An employer does not violate N.Y. Lab. L. §201-d if its response to an employee’s recreational use of marijuana: 1) is required by state or federal law; or 2) if failing to do so would leave the employer in violation of federal law or lead to the loss of a federal contract or funding. 

If you have questions about your workplace rights surrounding the legal use of marijuana, you should consider consulting an attorney.   

Part 2: Working For Tips At A Bar Or Restaurant In New York? Know Your Rights Under the New York State Hospitality Industry Wage Order

This is the second installment of a series of blog posts aimed at helping hospitality workers understand their rights under the Hospitality Industry Wage Order [“HIWO”], a complex group of multifaceted provisions that establish a wide variety of wage and hour rules for the hospitality industry.  This blog post will explain when a hospitality worker is entitled to receive extra compensation for maintaining a uniform.

Under HIWO, employers are generally required to pay “uniform maintenance pay” to help compensate an employee for the cost of maintaining a required uniform. 12 NYCRR §146-1.7. The weekly payment for uniform maintenance varies depending on where your workplace is located in the state, the number of hours you work each week, and in some localities, the number of employees on the payroll. For example, if you work in a restaurant in Syracuse, NY, your weekly uniform maintenance pay in 2021 will range from $7.45/week to $15.55/week, depending on the number of hours you work during the week. If you work at a restaurant in Manhattan with 11 or more employees, your weekly uniform maintenance pay in 2021 ranges from $8.90/week to $18.65/week, depending on the number of hours you work during the week.

There are exceptions to the general rule described above. So, before you demand compensation for maintaining your uniform, make sure your employer’s practice does not fall under one of these exceptions.

First, if your employer regularly launders your uniform free of charge, has an adequate supply of clean, properly fitting uniforms at the ready, and individually informs you in writing of the above, BUT you choose not to take advantage of this, you forfeit your right to receive uniform maintenance pay.

Second, your employer is not required to pay uniform maintenance pay when the required uniform is made of “wash and wear” material that can be laundered along with your own garments, provided you are given (at no cost to you) a sufficient number of uniforms consistent with the average number of days you work each week.

So, how many uniforms does an employer have to provide to avoid its uniform maintenance obligation?

This very question was explored by the court in Gregory v. Stewart’s Shops Corp., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89576 (NDNY 2016). In this case, a hospitality industry employer’s policy of providing two or three uniforms to full-time employees was challenged by employees who claimed the HIWO required an employer to provide a number of “wash and wear” uniforms equal to the number of days per week an employee regularly worked. The employer argued that a sufficient number of uniforms did not require them to provide one uniform for each day of the week the employee generally worked. The court ruled in favor of the employer, reasoning that the authors of the HIWO had a chance to draft a bright-line rule such as one uniform for each day of the week the employee generally works, and they did not.  Therefore, the subjective standard of a “sufficient number” is the rule.

Here is the take-a-way. If you work as a server five days a week your employer is not required to provide you with five “wash and wear” uniforms. Instead, your employer must provide you with a sufficient number of “wash and wear” uniforms, perhaps two or three.  If you are working five days a week and are provided with only one or two required “wash and wear” uniforms, you are likely entitled to uniform maintenance pay. If you are required to wear a uniform and you must pay for the uniform(s), you are also likely entitled to uniform maintenance pay because, technically, your employer has not furnished a sufficient number of uniforms. Finally, if your required uniform is not of the “wash and wear” variety, you are likely entitled to uniform maintenance pay, regardless of the number of uniforms provided and the number of days you work each week.

If your employer is subject to the HIWO and you suspect a compliance issue, you should contact an attorney or the New York State Department of Labor.

Five Things You Need To Know About Marital Status Discrimination In New York

 

Discrimination on the basis of an employee’s marital status is prohibited under Section 296 of the New York State Human Rights Law and under Section 8-107(a) of the New York City Administrative Code. However, “marital status discrimination” might not be what you think it is – and the definition is different depending on whether you are looking at the State statute or the New York City statute.

  1. Under New York State Law, Marital Status Discrimination Is Not…

The decision to be aware of here is Manhattan Pizza Hut, Inc. v. New York State Human Rights Appeal Board, 51 N.Y. 2d 506 (1980), which went like this: Notwithstanding an employer’s anti-nepotism rule, an employee had worked under the supervision of her husband for approximately four years. When a new manager took over, he terminated the wife’s employment pursuant to the anti-nepotism rule. The New York State Court of Appeals concluded that the employer’s action was not marital status discrimination. How is this possible? Because, reasoned the Court, marital status is a question of whether the employee is married, single, widowed, separated, or divorced. Marital status has nothing to do with whom the employee is married to. The employee in Manhattan Pizza Hut was not fired because she was married, but because she was married to her supervisor.

The Manhattan Pizza Hut logic has carried into situations where a company refused to hire an applicant because her husband was already employed there (Matter of Campbell Plastics v. New York State Human Rights Appeal Board, 81 A.D. 2d 1991 (3rd Dept. 1981)) and to a denial of health insurance to an employee who has comparable coverage under a spouse’s insurance benefit (Police Ass’n v. NYS PERB, 126 A.D. 2d 824 (3rd Dept. 1987)). A corrections officer who married an inmate was discharged, not because of her status as “married,” but because she broke a rule against having a relationship with an inmate. Vega v. Dept. of Correctional Services, 186 A.D. 2d 340 (3rd Dept. 1992). In Cramer v. Newburgh Molded Products, 228 A.D. 2d 541 (2d Dept. 1996) an allegation that a plaintiff was terminated “because she was married to Joseph Cramer” did not survive a motion to dismiss because the termination was based on her being married “to Joseph Cramer” rather than simply on her being married. In McGrath v. Nassau Health Care Corp. , 217 F. Supp. 2d 319 (EDNY 2002), an employee who was sexually harassed did not additionally have a marital status discrimination claim even though her harasser made comments to the effect that she would be “stupid” to marry her fiancé, refused to give her time off to plan her wedding, told her she should not be sleeping with her husband, and tried to dissuade her from going through with the marriage during the wedding.

  1. Marital Status Discrimination Might Be…

In Kipper v. Doron Precision Systems, 194 A.D. 2d 855 (3rd Dept. 1993), an employee’s marital discrimination suit survived dismissal[1] because there was evidence his supervisor told him he was chosen for layoff because he would not experience financial hardships as severe as his married co-workers. The Kipper plaintiff was not laid off because of his involvement or non-involvement with anyone in particular, but because the employer considered him less vulnerable to financial hardship because he was single.[2]

  1. Meanwhile, in New York City…

Contrary to State Law, New York City’s marital status discrimination prohibition is given a “broader meaning than simply married or not married.” Morse v. Fidessa Corp., 165 A.D. 3d 61 (1st Dept. 2018). In direct contrast to the State Court of Appeals’ analysis of State Human Rights Law, the First Department has concluded that the “plain meaning” of marital status includes who the person is married to. In Fidessa, the First Department rejected the Manhattan Pizza Hut definition of “marital status” and specifically found that, under New York City Code, it also encompasses who is married (or not married) to whom.

Likewise, very recently, where a University rescinded its invitation to be part of a new institute following a professor’s divorce from another professor, the NYC marital discrimination suit survived summary judgment.[3] Karayiorgou v. Trustees of Columbia University, 2021 N.Y.  Slip. Op. 31044(U) (NY Co. January 14, 2021). Although factual issues of Karayiorgou remain to be determined, the Court noted strong evidence that the professor had been invited on the strength of her significant contributions to the scientific community, and that un-inviting her based on her ending her relationship with another professor not only constituted marital discrimination, but also smacked of gender bias in that the University’s arguments tried to downplay the plaintiff’s credentials and accomplishments.

  1. What About Other States?

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of employees,[4] federal discrimination law does not specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of marital status. A survey of the 50 states’ laws on marital discrimination is beyond the scope of this article, so as always we strongly encourage you to consult with a qualified employment attorney in your jurisdiction.

  1. Wait, am I protected or not?

Short answer: Employees in New York City have relatively strong protections against marital status discrimination. Employees in New York State have protections that have been significantly limited by decisional law. Protections in other states depend on state and local laws and regulations. Bottom line, if you believe you have been discriminated against due to your marital status, the first thing you should do is contact an employment lawyer in your jurisdiction to see what kind of protections you might have, and what if anything can be done to protect your rights.

[1] Surviving a motion to dismiss just means that the case isn’t thrown out of court. It doesn’t mean he won.

[2] Notice anything about the breakdown between plaintiffs’ genders in Item #1 versus Item #2? Don’t try to hang your legal hat on it, but it may say something about what these decisions are trying to accomplish.

[3] Like a motion to dismiss, surviving summary judgment just means that the case isn’t thrown out of court. It doesn’t mean she won.

[4] Employees in the Federal Civil Service do have some protections under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which includes marital status as a protected status.

Yes, Your Employer Has To Pay For Vaccination Time

 

On March 12 New York passed a law [link here] entitling New York workers to up to four hours of paid leave for COVID-19 vaccinations.  That is four hours per injection, which means if you get the Moderna or Pfizer injection, you get a total of two four-hour chunks of leave to get the shots.

Employers have to provide this leave in addition to other leave, which means they can’t make you use sick leave or New York State Paid Leave to cover your vaccine leave.

The leave must be paid at your regular rate.  Retaliation against employees who take vaccination leave is illegal.

The law amends New York Civil Service Law to add Section 159-c, which applies to public employees, and New York Labor Law to add 196-c, which applies to pretty much everyone else.

The law expires on December 31, 2022.

Get out there and get your “Fauci Ouchi!”

Seven Things LGBTQ Workers Need To Know About Protecting Title VII Rights

 

On June 15, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County, GA that Title VII protects LGBTQ employees from workplace discrimination.  Even in the midst of the pandemic shutdown and the murder of George Floyd, workers and workers’ rights activists took to the (virtual) streets in celebration. Social media was covered in rainbow flags and memes involving unicorns and RBG.  Bostock was a desperately-needed ray of sunshine that week.

 

It still is.

 

If you’re feeling like the magic is gone, it may be because Title VII rights are tough to assert—for workers in any protected class.  Here are some lessons from the trenches:

 

  1. Get a lawyer. A workers’ rights attorney can advise whether there’s something legally wrong in the workplace, what options you have for combatting it, and how much it will cost to combat.  While it’s possible you have the case of the century, more often an attorney is going to be helping you decide when to fight, when to walk away, and when to run… (cue Kenny Rogers…)

 

  1. Document like mad. Is your employer needlessly complicating a name change process?  Do your coworkers constantly misgender and dead-name?  Is health insurance paying for cancer-related mastectomies but not those for TGNC patients?  Are you being asked non-job related health questions?  Is someone obsessed with which bathroom you use?  Specific, real-time documentation is your talisman.  Write down dates, times, locations, witnesses, what happened, what was said, and the effect the incident had on you (e.g., high blood pressure, PTSD, shaky hands all afternoon, felt humiliated, etc.)  The more exactly you can remember the wording of any comments, the better.  Send this information to yourself on your personal email account (NOT your work account, please).  Your attorney will be grateful for this real-time documentation.

 

  1. Use the complaint process – with caution. This is where the advice of an attorney is indispensable.  Making an internal complaint is sometimes like painting a target on your own back.  But if you’re already wearing a target, making a complaint puts the employer on notice that it may be looking at some pretty gritty legal liability.  For some employers, that fear will spur them to make some positive changes.

 

  1. Use the complaint process – with precision. Get an attorney to review your complaint. (Don’t rely on a verbal complaint.  Just don’t.)  The words “My boss is acting inappropriately” do not have the same effect as “On September 1, 2020 at 11:45 am, Henry Frick followed me to the restroom and asked whether I was leaving the seat up or not. Joe Hill and Hattie Canty witnessed this incident. I felt sick to my stomach the rest of the afternoon. I consider this to be gender-based harassment.”  The words you use will have an enormous effect on the strength of your legal position.

 

  1. Don’t let other employees turn you into “Queer Google.” You are there to do a job.  Your coworkers’ non-work related curiosity, even if it is well-intentioned, will interfere with your productivity and get you into trouble.  It is not your job to educate your cis colleagues.  If they are asking invasive or impertinent questions, it’s worth a conversation with your attorney to decide how to handle it in a way that ensures your Title VII rights are protected.

 

  1. Don’t quit – unless your attorney, doctor, spouse, or career coach says to. If you quit, you may cut off your ability to recover monetary losses. Courts don’t like speculative damages in the first place, and it’s hard to argue you had any expectation of continued earnings if you were the one who cut off your own earnings by quitting. But if the job is affecting your health, relationships, or career – or if your attorney says you can’t fix the problem—you may need to consider your big picture priorities.

 

  1. Don’t rely on lists you read on the internet. Speak with an attorney.  You deserve the peace of mind that comes with understanding your new legal rights at work.

 

 

Ask A Worker’s Rights Attorney!

Law Books

The Satter Ruhlen Law Firm presents:

 

Ask A Worker’s Rights Attorney!

A webinar for workers.

Thursday, March 11, 2021 at 6:00 pm

 

Do you work in New York?  Do you have a question about your workplace rights?  This is your chance to ask an attorney about it.  One lawyer, six participants, eight minutes per participant (we’ll have a timer!)  Quick answers to your questions about wage and hour violations, discrimination, harassment, whistleblowing, unionizing, non-compete clauses, and other questions like “can they really do that to me?”

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

Space is limited, so sign up soon!*

Participants will receive a 10% discount on a one-hour consultation with the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm.

Please note that this webinar is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. Participation in the webinar does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship. If you would like a dedicated one-hour consultation with us, please contact the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/). We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

*Registrations will be screened for employees’ protection.

 

Experiencing Workplace Discrimination? Take Action Sooner Than Later to Preserve Your Rights

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

As the saying goes, time waits for no one. This includes individuals who have experienced discrimination in the workplace.

Under the New York State Human Rights Law [“NYSHRL”], it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate based on an individual’s age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, sex, disability, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, marital status, or status as a victim of domestic violence. Your right to bring a discrimination claim against your employer for a violation of the NYSHRL is subject to time limits known as statutes of limitations. If you file your complaint after the expiration of the limitations period, you will likely find your claim will not be heard.

A discrimination complaint under the NYSHRL must be filed with the Division of Human Rights within one year of the last act of discrimination (or three years for gender-based discrimination). Alternatively, an employee can file suit directly in the New York State Supreme Court within three years from the last act of discrimination based on any status protected by NYSHRL. Be aware that the limitations period to bring an employment claim under Federal anti-discrimination law is significantly shorter. If you want to preserve your rights under Federal law, the charge of employment discrimination must be filed with the Federal Equal Opportunity Commission within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place. The 180 calendar day filing deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency where you work enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis. This is the case for New Yorkers.

If you think you have waited too long to initiate an action against your employer, you may catch a break thanks to one of Governor Cuomo’s COVID-19 Disaster Emergency measures. Back on March 20, 2020, Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.8, tolled the statute of limitations contained in the CPLR and other “procedural law of the state” for the commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding. That order was extended monthly until Executive Order 202.67, dated October 5, 2020 affirmatively stated that there will be no more extensions after November 3, 2020. These Executive Orders may afford you additional time to bring your claim for employment discrimination.

If you believe you are a victim of employment discrimination and are contemplating legal action but have questions about whether your claim is time-barred, contact a lawyer to discuss your options.

The COVID-19 Vaccination and Your Workplace. Know Your Rights!

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights. 

As COVID-19 vaccines become available, you may find your employer encouraging, or mandating, vaccination to slow the spread of the virus and to keep yourself, co-workers, customers, and the general public, healthy. Below are some scenarios that might come up and an explanation of your rights should you face one of these situations.

Can my employer ask for proof that I have received the COVID-19 vaccine?

Yes. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [“EEOC”] guidance, your employer can ask for proof that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Simply requesting proof of a COVID-19 vaccine is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, as such, is not a disability-related inquiry that would trigger Americans with Disabilities Act [“ADA”] (42 USC §12101, et seq.) protections. This means your employer is free to ask if you have been vaccinated and ask for documentation of this. Should your employer ask for proof that you have received the COVID-19 vaccine, make sure you don’t accidentally turn over any additional personal health information. If your employer presses you for information about why you have not received the vaccination and your response requires sharing information about your disability, it may be time to consult an attorney to discuss your rights.

Can my employer demand that I receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment?

Yes. According to EEOC guidance, when your employer mandates vaccination for protection against contracting COVID-19, administration of the vaccine is not a medical exam, nor does it seek information about your current health status or impairments. The EEOC’s interpretation allows your employer to demand that you receive the vaccine as a condition of employment. However, if your employer mandates COVID-19 vaccination, you have the right to request a reasonable accommodation if you either cannot, or will not, be vaccinated for medical reasons or sincerely held religious beliefs. If you cannot receive the vaccination and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely can’t come up with a reasonable accommodation, the likely result is termination.

Do I have ADA protection if my employer administers the COVID-19 vaccine ? 

Yes. The pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about your disability. According to EEOC guidance, when these questions are asked by your employer (this might happen in the healthcare context), they meet the ADA definition of a “disability-related” inquiry, and, as a result, you are entitled to ADA protection. The ADA requires that the disability-related screening questions be “job related and consistent with business necessity.” If you are concerned that your employer’s mandatory vaccination program does not meet this threshold, contact an attorney for advice.

Can I get fired if my employer requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment, and I refuse to do so because of my disability?

You should not be summarily fired for refusing to get vaccinated because of your disability. Instead, your employer should determine if you, as an unvaccinated employee, pose a “direct threat” to the health and safety of yourself or others, and whether the threat can be eliminated or reduced by a reasonable accommodation. If your disability prevents you from being vaccinated and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, you may be terminated.

To assess the risk of having you at the workplace unvaccinated, your employer must conduct an individualized assessment to determine whether your presence in the workplace creates a direct threat to yourself or others. According to EEOC guidance, a conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that you, as an unvaccinated individual, will expose others to the virus at the worksite. If the individualized assessment results in a finding of direct threat, your employer should include you in an interactive process to determine if there is a reasonable accommodation that would allow you to continue to work.

As advised by the EEOC, your employer may lawfully exclude you from the physical workplace, but you should not be summarily fired, otherwise disciplined, or suffer retaliation for refusing the vaccination. Instead, your employer should evaluate whether an accommodation, such a teleworking, is an option. If there is no accommodation available, your employer should determine if you are eligible to take leave under federal, state, or local leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, or under the employer’s leave-of-absence policies.

Can I be fired if my employer requires a COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of employment and I am unwilling to get vaccinated because of my religious beliefs?

You should not be summarily fired if you refuse to get vaccinated based on your religious beliefs. If your religious beliefs prevent you from getting vaccinated, and you request an accommodation, keep in mind that your employer does not have to provide the specific accommodation that you request. Also, if your employer genuinely cannot come up with a reasonable accommodation, the likely result is termination.  

It is important to notify your employer that your religious beliefs prevent you from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Given the breadth of the EEOC’s definition of religion, your employer is unlikely to question the nature of your beliefs, however, take note that your religious belief, practice, or observance that prevents you from receiving the vaccine must be sincere.

Once your employer is on notice, you must be provided a reasonable accommodation that allows you to continue work without receiving the vaccination unless the accommodation poses an undue hardship on your employer. Courts have defined “undue hardship” in this context as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. The determination of whether an accommodation is reasonable often turns on the nature of your job and your employer’s business. Depending on your job duties, your employer might allow you to continue to work wearing additional PPE or have you reassigned to an available position that limits interaction with others, including remote work.

If there is no reasonable accommodation that would allow you, as an unvaccinated employee, to continue your job it would be lawful for the employer to exclude you from the workplace. If there is no accommodation available, your employer should determine if you are eligible to take leave under federal, state, or local leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act, or under the employer’s leave-of-absence policies.

Getting “RIF’d” During COVID-19

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights. 

The pandemic has closed a lot of doors.  Currently about 12.6 million people are unemployed in the U.S.  Everyone who is still employed dreads getting the infamous Reduction In Force [“RIF”] or “pink slip.”  Here’s what the Employer owes you under Federal and State WARN Acts if you get “RIF’d”:

The Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act [“WARN”] (23 U.S.C. §2101 et seq.), generally, requires Employers with 100 or more full-time Employees to provide written notice to affected Employees, the State, and your Union president at least 60 days prior to a plant closing or mass layoff.  Penalties for violations can include back pay and benefits for each Employee up to 60 days, as well as civil penalties. The deadline to file a lawsuit varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (for more specificity, call a qualified labor and employment attorney in your jurisdiction!)

Now the bad news: Temps and strikers do not get WARN protection. A plant closing must involve at least 50 Workers at a single site, or a closing plus a layoff that, combined, affects 50 or more Workers.  A mass layoff involves either 500 or more Workers at a single site during a 30-day period, or layoffs of 50-499 Workers at a single site if the layoffs affect at least 33% of the Workers at that site.  A temporary layoff can trigger WARN obligations if it exceeds 6 months. A 50% or more reduction in hours for 50 or more Workers may also require an Employer to provide WARN notice.

Under normal circumstances, the New York State WARN Act [“NY WARN”] adds an additional 30 days to the notice requirement for some Employers, for a total required notice of 90 days. New York Labor Law §§ 860 et seq.  NY Warn applies to businesses with only 50 or more full time Workers.  Under NY Warn, the Employer must provide notice not only for plant closings and mass layoffs, but also if the plant is relocating, or if 25 or more Workers experience a 50% reduction in hours.

But on April 17, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed Executive Order No. 202.19, relaxing some of those requirements for Employers who initially laid off Employees (and complied with WARN the first time) and then hired them back after receiving Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.  If Employers institute another round of layoffs after receiving PPP funding, they only have to provide notice “as soon as practicable.” 

On November 11, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed an amendment to the NY WARN that additionally requires Employers to provide notice to chief officials of local government and school districts, and to every locality that provides police, fire prevention, EMS or ambulance, or other emergency services to the job site. 

What about furloughs?  Furloughs involve reduced hours or days for a finite amount of time.  So whether a furlough triggers Federal or NYS WARN depends on its duration, how many Employees are affected, and how many hours are reduced.  Under WARN, if a furlough originally intended to last three months is extended to seven months due to unforeseeable circumstances, the Employer has to give notice when it realizes it needs to extend the duration. Employers aren’t supposed to be able to play games with the timing and extent of their layoffs to avoid WARN obligations.  It’s complicated, but there’s an “aggregation” rule that is supposed to stop Employers from gaming the system by implementing staggered layoffs.

Even if your layoff fits the above circumstances, there are some reasons the Employer may not be required to provide you notice:  the notice period can be shortened or bypassed under three exceptions:  the “faltering company” exception, the “unforeseeable business circumstance” exception, and the “natural disaster” exception. 

The “faltering company” exception is available when advance notice to Employees would interfere with the company’s ability to obtain new capital or business that could help the company avoid a shutdown or layoff. 20 CFR §§639.9(a)(3)-(4). The Employer has to have a reasonable, good faith belief that the notice would interfere with, for example, its ability to secure a loan. 

The “unforeseeable business circumstances” exception occurs when a “sudden, dramatic, and unexpected action or condition outside of the Employer’s control” causes a layoff or closure.  20 CFR §639.9(b)(1). For example, the unexpected cancellation of a lucrative contract could be an unforeseeable business circumstance.  The unforeseeability is defined as “reasonable business judgment” at the time of the occurrence—not by a court looking at the situation in retrospect. An Employer is required to give as much notice as practicable when there is an “unforeseeable business circumstance” layoff.

The “natural disaster” exception applies if a layoff is directly caused by a natural disaster. 20 CFR §693.9(c). For example, if a tornado destroys a manufacturing plant, resulting in the Workers there being laid off, the exception applies. But if a tornado leaves the plant standing and wipes out a lot of other businesses, causing an economic downturn, the “natural disaster” exception does not apply because the tornado is not the direct cause of the lack of work. 

A Florida court recently pondered whether the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an unforeseeable circumstance, natural disaster, or special financial circumstance that would excuse an Employer from providing notice. In Benson et al. v. Enterprise, et al., the court concluded that COVID-19 might be a natural disaster, but that the layoff in question was not a direct result of the pandemic. 6:20-cv-00891 (MD Fla. Jan. 4, 2021). Thus, the Employer could not resort to the “natural disaster” exception. But the parties are still litigating –further discovery is required to determine whether the pandemic is an “unforeseeable business circumstance.” So, could a state ordering all businesses to close for three months constitute an unforeseeable business circumstance?  You can bet your hat Employers will argue it does.

Bottom line, Federal and State WARN acts are designed to give you a little safety net in the event of an extended layoff or plant closing.  It won’t make you rich, but it may help you get through the winter. If you think you’ve been RIFfed without proper notification, call a qualified labor and employment attorney in your jurisdiction to learn more about your rights.

Returning To Work During COVID-19

Please note that the information contained in this post is for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. This blog post does not create or imply an attorney-client relationship.  If you would like to discuss your particular circumstances with us, please set up a consultation by contacting the Satter Ruhlen Law Firm at 315-471-0405 or through our website (https://www.satterlaw.com/contact-us/).  We look forward to walking you through your workplace rights.

It’s scary, or a relief, or a mixture of the two.  The workplace now has cleaning requirements, PPE requirements, screening requirements, and social distancing requirements.  You may have to take a test before you go in.  You may be on staggered shifts with your co-workers, working at the office on some days and at home on other days. There are rules about who can be in different parts of the workplace and under what circumstances.  There may be one-way hallways and closed breakrooms. The rules are changing every day, and it’s hard to know what you’re supposed to do and when.  Here are some frequently asked questions facing employees these days:

  • Can my employer require me to take a COVID-19 test before allowing me to return to work?
    • It depends on the type of test. 
      • Antibody tests: On June 18, 2020 the EEOC updated its guidance in response to new CDC guidance stating that antibody testing should not be used to make decisions about whether an employee should return to work. If an employer is insisting that you take an antibody test in order to determine whether you should be allowed to return to work, call an attorney.
      • Viral tests:  However, a viral test is still an acceptable return to work requirement, as it is job-related and consistent with business necessity.
      • Temperature checks:  An employer can require employees to have their temperature taken prior to entering a workplace.  However, if your employer insists on a particularly invasive temperature-taking method, call an attorney immediately. 
      • Written tests:  Many New York employers are required to have their employees certify that they are symptom free, COVID-free, and have not been in contact with a COVID case in the past 14 days.  This may be a paper you sign when you arrive at the workplace, or the employer may require you to fill out an online form before you even start your commute.  As long as these certifications only ask about your COVID-19 symptoms, whether you are COVID-19 positive, and whether you’ve been exposed, those certifications are allowed. If the employer is asking you other medical questions, call an attorney.
      • Watch this space.  The rules are changing almost weekly.  What was correct last week may not be correct this week.  When in doubt, call an attorney.
    • What’s the difference between an antibody test and a viral test?
      • Antibody tests involve blood work.  They show whether someone has previously had the virus. The EEOC considers an antibody test a “medical examination” under the ADA.  In light of the CDC’s guidance that state that antibody testing can produce false positives, the EEOC has deemed antibody tests as impermissible medical examinations or inquiries for current employees. 
      • Viral tests check the mucus to detect if a person is currently infected and contagious.  Viral tests can be achieved with swabs and are relatively non-invasive.
    • What about a new employer?
      • If you have a conditional offer of employment, the employer is allowed to send you for a medical evaluation to make sure you are fit to perform the essential functions of your job, as long as the employer requires all new employees to undergo testing.  Any medical exams are permitted between a conditional offer of employment and the employee’s start date. 
      • An employer may delay the start date or withdraw the job offer if there is medical evidence that you are currently positive for COVID-19.
  • Can my employer make me wear a face mask?
    • 99% of the time, yes.
    • If you have a disability that precludes you from wearing a face mask, you will need to request a reasonable accommodation, which involves your doctor providing medical documentation of your condition.
    • Be aware that COVID-19 is considered a “direct threat,” so if you have medical documentation showing that you cannot wear a face mask, and your job cannot be done remotely, the likely outcome is termination – not because of your disability, but because the employer can’t risk having you in the workplace without PPE.
  • What if a person in my home is at high risk of serious health problems due to COVID-19?
    • The employer is not required to accommodate you due to the health conditions of a person in your household.
    • If you cannot telework due to needing to care for a high-risk family member, you may be eligible for FMLA, EFMLEA, or New York Paid Family Leave.  Note that these protections require medical documentation showing that the person needs you to provide care – so if the concern is simply that you don’t want to expose a person who is capable of caring for themselves, you might not have much luck getting time off under these statutes.
  • What if I am recovering from COVID-19?
    • COVID-19 is considered a “serious health condition” for purposes of workplace law.  As such, you may have accommodation and leave rights under the ADA, FMLA, EFMLEA, New York State Human Rights Law, and/or New York State Paid Leave [not to be confused with NYS Paid Family Leave, which gives you time off to care for other people]. 
    • If you are recovering from COVID-19 and believe you are ready to return to work, or if you need some more time before you’re ready to return to work, your employer may need to get medical documentation from your health care provider.  The employer is allowed to get information that will enable it to determine whether you can perform the essential functions of your job, whether more leave is warranted, and what, if any, accommodations it might be able to offer you. 
    • If you are concerned about returning to the workplace due to an underlying condition that puts you especially at risk, then it’s appropriate to ask for a reasonable accommodation.  If your work can be done remotely, you may be able to get an accommodation that allows you to do telework.
    • If your job cannot be done remotely, it’s likely the only accommodation an employer can offer is more leave.  Do not ask for indefinite leave – an employer faced with a request for indefinite leave has an easy out for terminating your employment.  Make sure your leave request has a definite end date.  It is more difficult for an employer to deny a request for additional leave as an accommodation when there is a definite end date to the leave.

Reopening is a hopeful development for people who want to “get back to normal.” But, as continually repeated by the media, social media, experts, and politicians, there is no “normal” any more.  You may find yourself returning to a very different workplace than the one you left. The majority of employers are trying to create workplace rules that keep workers safe – but you don’t have to let yourself be exploited in the name of workplace safety.  The above guidance may help you navigate some common workplace pitfalls. When in doubt, call an attorney. 

Be safe.

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