Massachusetts Equal Pay Act: An Overview of the Attorney General Guidance

By Martha J. Zackin

On March 1, 2018, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office published guidance on the amendments to the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA), as described below.

By way of background, the amendments, signed into law in 2016 and effective July 1, 2018, seeks to ensure that men and women are paid equal wages for comparable work. In sum, MEPA broadens the definition of comparable work, describes the limited circumstances in which variations in pay may be permissible, and prohibits employers from restricting discussions of wages or from seeking salary history from applicants.  Importantly, MEPA provides employers with an affirmative defense against pay disparities if they have completed a good faith self-evaluation of its pay practices and can show that they have made reasonable progress towards remedying pay differentials.

The Guidance, titled “An Act to Establish Pay Equity: Overview and Frequently Asked Questions,” seek to provide employers with clarification around key issues including: Read more

EEOC Publishes Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017-2021

By Martha J. Zackin

EEOC recently published its Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for Fiscal Years 2017-2021, in which it outlines the areas in which it intends to focus its strategic litigation and enforcement activities in the coming years.  Not surprisingly, the EEOC indicates that it intends to expend significant resources on understanding and protecting temporary employees and members of the gig workforce.

As described in the SEP, EEOC’s substantive priorities for Fiscal Years 2017-2021 are: Read more

EEOC Issues Resource Document on Leave of Absences under the ADA

On May 9, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a new Resource Document that advocates the use employer-provided leaves of absence as accommodation for an employee’s disability.  According to the press release announcing the publication of the document, titled Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act, this new resource attempts to address the “troubling trend” that is the “prevalence of employer policies that deny or unlawfully restrict the use of leave as a reasonable accommodation.” Claiming that the Resource Document creates no new agency policy, the EEOC describes the document as simply “one in a series of EEOC Resource Documents” that “consolidates existing guidance on ADA and leave into one place.”

The Resource Document covers six main topics, giving specific examples for each. These topics, and one example provided for each, are:

  1. Equal Access to Leave Under an Employer’s Leave Policy. Here, the EEOC simply asserts that “employees with disabilities must be provided with access to leave on the same basis as all other similarly-situated employees.” Given that this has been the law of the land for many years, it is likely that the EEOC included this statement in its Resource Document to demonstrate that it is not creating new agency policy, but simply consolidating existing guidance into one place.

Example: An employer permits employees to use paid annual leave for any purpose and does not require that they explain how they intend to use it. An employee with a disability requests one day of annual leave and mentions to her supervisor that she is using it to have repairs made to her wheelchair. Even though he has never denied other employees annual leave based on their reason for using it, the supervisor responds, “That’s what sick leave is for,” and requires her to designate the time off as sick leave. This violates the ADA, since the employer has denied the employee’s use of annual leave due to her disability.

  1. Granting Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation. The EEOC describes its policy as requiring employers “to change the way things are customarily done” (emphasis in the original). To that end, an employer must consider providing unpaid leave to an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation, when the employer does not offer leave as an employee benefit, when the employee is not eligible for leave under the employer’s policy, or when the employee has exhausted his or her available leave. The practical effect of this principle is to extend FMLA leave, or to provide FMLA leave to employees who are not eligible for such leave.

Example: An employer’s leave policy does not cover employees until they have worked for six months. An employee who has worked for only three months requires four weeks of leave for treatment for a disability. Although the employee is ineligible for leave under the employer’s leave policy, the employer must provide unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation unless it can show that providing the unpaid leave would cause undue hardship.

  1. Leave and the Interactive Process Generally. According to the Resource Document, “[w]hen an employee requests leave, or additional leave, for a medical condition, the employer must treat the request as one for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA” (emphasis added). If the request for leave cannot be addressed under an employer’s existing leave program, the FMLA or similar state or local law, or the state workers’ compensation program, the employer must engage in the “interactive process,” to obtain relevant information to determine whether the employee has a condition that is a disability under the ADA, and to determine the feasibility of providing the leave as a reasonable accommodation.

ExampleAn employee with a disability is granted three months of leave by an employer. Near the end of the three month leave, the employee requests an additional 30 days of leave. In this situation, the employer can request information from the employee or the employee’s health care provider about the need for the 30 additional days and the likelihood that the employee will be able to return to work, with or without reasonable accommodation, if the extension is granted.

  1. Maximum Leave Policies. Many employers have maximum leave policies that provide for automatic or administrative termination for all employees who exceed the maximum amount of leave. The Resource Document makes clear that although such policies are not per se unlawful, employers must consider modifying maximum leave policies to grant leave beyond the maximum allowed as a reasonable accommodation for disability-related absences. In other words, employers must make a case-by-case assessment of an employee’s situation and need for leave before terminating the employee in accordance with a maximum leave policy.

Example: An employer is not covered by the FMLA, and its leave policy specifies that an employee is entitled to only four days of unscheduled leave per year. An employee with a disability informs her employer that her disability may cause periodic unplanned absences and that those absences might exceed four days a year. The employee has requested a reasonable accommodation, and the employer should engage with the employee in an interactive process to determine if her disability requires intermittent absences, the likely frequency of the unplanned absences, and if granting an exception to the unplanned absence policy would cause undue hardship.

  1. Return to Work and Reasonable Accommodation (Including Reassignment). The EEOC unequivocally states that an employer “will violate the ADA if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions” before returning to work. In other words, a “100% healed or recovered” policy is unlawful if the employee can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation. The EEOC also takes the position that if an employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job even with a reasonable accommodation, the employer must place the employee in a vacant position for which he or she is qualified without requiring the employee to compete with other applicants for the position.

Example: An employee with a disability requests and is granted two months of medical leave for her disability. Three days after returning to work she requests as reasonable accommodations for her disability an ergonomic chair, adjusted lighting in her office, and a part-time schedule for eight days. In response, the company requires the employee to continue on leave and informs her that she cannot return to work until she is able to work full-time with no restrictions or accommodations. The employer may not prohibit the employee from returning to work solely because she needs reasonable accommodations (though the employer may deny the requested accommodations if they cause an undue hardship). If the employee requires reasonable accommodations to enable her to perform the essential functions of her job and the accommodations requested (or effective alternatives) do not cause an undue hardship, the employer’s requirement violates the ADA.

  1. Undue Hardship. The EEOC reiterates that employers are not required to provide reasonable accommodation if to do so would cause “undue hardship.” Importantly, the EEOC clearly states that “indefinite leave – meaning that an employee cannot say whether or when she will be able to return to work at all – will constitute an undue hardship.” Otherwise, however, the EEOC offers no further clarity to what constitutes “undue hardship” beyond what has already been provided in previous guidance. As always, factors to be considered include the amount and/or length of leave required, the frequency of leave, the predictability of intermittent leave, and the impact on the employer’s operations and its ability to serve customers and clients in a timely manner.

Example: An employee has exhausted both his FMLA leave and the additional eight weeks of leave available under the employer’s leave program, but requires another four weeks of leave due to his disability. In determining whether an undue hardship exists, the employer may consider the impact of the 20 weeks of leave already granted and the additional impact on the employer’s operations in granting four more weeks of leave.

The concept of leave as a reasonable accommodation is not new. For many years, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that a leave of absence is a form of reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities act if necessitated by an employee’s disability, including leave that exceeds a company’s normal leave allowance. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the EEOC claims that the document creates no new agency policy, employers are on notice that the EEOC will scrutinize all refusals to grant an employee a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation. Beware.

Massachusetts: An Act to Establish Pay Equity

On January 28, the Massachusetts Senate passed S. 2119, titled “An Act to Establish Pay Equity” (the “Proposed Law”).   Touted by one of the Act’s co-sponsors as a way to “further close the wage gap between male and female workers in the Commonwealth,” the Proposed Law is claimed to ensure equal pay for comparable work by “establishing pay transparency and requiring fairness in hiring practices.” If enacted, the law virtually assures that there will be new litigation battles fought as employers defend against single plaintiff, class and collective actions asserting unlawful pay disparity. Beyond expensive litigation, another unfortunate consequence of the Proposed Law may be that many employers will assess and reassess whether it makes sense to continue to do business in Massachusetts.

Key provisions of the Proposed Law include:
•    Makes unlawful any disparity in the payment of wages (including benefits and other compensation) between different genders for “comparable work”, which is defined as work that is “substantially similar” in that it requires “substantially similar” skill, effort and responsibility, and is performed under “similar” working conditions. “Working conditions” is defined to include the “circumstances customarily taken into consideration in setting salary or wages, [such as] reasonable shift differentials, physical surroundings and hazards encountered by employees performing a job.” The Proposed Law provides no definition or further guidance as to what is meant by “substantially similar,” meaning that any such determination could only be made following an intensive and individualized factually inquiry in the context of litigated cases. Because of this, these cases will be extraordinarily expensive to defend.

•    Provides that employers can pay wages (including benefits and other compensation) that are different for comparable work if based upon (1) a “bona fide” seniority system; (2) a “bona fide” merit system[1]; (3) a “bona fide” system that measures quantity or quality of production or sales; (4) the geographic location in which a job is performed; (5) education, training, or experience, to the extent such factors are “reasonably related” to the particular job in question and “consistent with business necessity;” or (6) travel, if travel is a regular and necessary condition of the job. While some of these factors can be objectively measured (e.g., sales production), none of these factors permit differentials based on real workplace differentials influenced by qualitative performance and market differentials. In an economy that is driven by industries such as biotechnology (pharma and device), high technology, education and health care, many of these “exceptions” will have no practical application. As with the definition of comparable work, the one certainty is that there will be time consuming and expensive litigation over what these terms actually mean and their application to specific circumstances.

•    The Proposed Law requires pay equity for all compensation and benefits – it expressly provides that it covers “wages, including benefits or other compensation. This presumably includes bonuses, stock options or other equity awards, or any other economic benefit. This will have enormous impact for employers that attract new employees and/or reward top performers with periodic equity awards.

•    Provides that an aggrieved employee can bring a lawsuit, whether on his or her own behalf or on behalf of others (i.e, as a class or collective action). If the individual or group prevails, the employer is automatically liable for twice the lost wages (framed as liquidated damages), benefits and other compensation (with lost wages, benefits and other compensation calculated as the difference between what was paid and what should have been paid), and attorneys’ fees. A prevailing employer gets nothing.

•    There is a three year statute of limitations.

While The Attorney General also may also bring suit on behalf of one or more employees, it is far more likely that the litigation will be brought by the industry of plaintiffs’ attorneys who stand to be paid their attorneys’ fees, either by settlement or if they prevail .
An employer may defend against a claim if, within three years prior to the commencement of such claim, it completed a self-evaluation of its pay practices (which practices include wages, benefits, and other compensation) and can demonstrate that reasonable progress has been made towards eliminating any gender-based compensation differentials that may have been found. Amazingly, however, an employer that conducts a self-audit and discovers that one or more employees are overpaid in relation to other employees cannot reduce employees’ wages, benefits or other compensation to come into compliance.

In addition, if the Proposed Law is enacted as drafted, employers will not be allowed to:

•    Prohibit employees from discussing their own or other employees’ wages (this is already protected by federal law, specifically the National Labor Relations Act and, for federal contractors and subcontractors, Executive Order 13665).
•    Screen job applicants based on their wage history, or requesting or requiring an applicant, as a condition of being interviewed or continuing to be considered for an offer, disclose prior wage history. As with all other aspects of the Proposed Law, “wages” includes benefits and other compensation. This will make it very difficult to determine how to make a competitive offer to an individual.
•    Seek the compensation history of any prospective employee from any current or former employer, unless an offer of employment has been made and the prospective employee so authorizes, in writing.
•    Retaliate in any way against an employee exercising his or her rights under the Proposed Law.

Many employers obviously are concerned about the impact that this Proposed Law will have on their businesses. By way of example only, employers are concerned about the ability to attract talent at market rates that may be different than individuals already employed, as well as the myriad other circumstances where the Proposed Law may impede business decisions and expose them to costly and uncertain litigation. As the Proposed Law has not been enacted, for those employers who are concerned about it, now would be the time to contact industry associations, legislative representatives and any others with political involvement to raise their concerns about the negative consequences of this legislation as presently drafted.
[1] A published Federal Jury Instructions provides that in order to establish a bona fide merit system, an employer must demonstrate a “structured process under which employees are systematically evaluated according to established standards that are designed to determine the relative merits of their performance”. Such a definition defies the reality that an individual’s performance is measured in multiple ways, many of which are not easily measured (e.g., enthusiasm, commitment to a job, level of effort, etc.).

EEOC Publishes Proposed Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation

By Emma L. Melton

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has released proposed Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues.  This proposed guidance provides insight as to how the EEOC interprets applicable law and hints at the areas that may receive increased focus going forward.

Existing federal employment laws prohibit employers from retaliating against applicants or employees for exercising rights protected by fair employment practice laws. This protected activity includes an employee’s opposition to a practice believed to be unlawful, such as complaining about discrimination or refusing an order believed to be discriminatory. It also includes participation in an employment discrimination proceeding, such as submitting a complaint, filing a charge of discrimination, or participating in an investigation of discrimination.

Retaliation claims may be brought under every law that the EEOC enforces, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Equal Pay Act, and others. The percentage of retaliation charges has increased significantly in recent years, constituting about 42% of charges filed with the EEOC in 2014, making it the most frequently alleged violation by complainants. Importantly, retaliation may be found even when the underlying claim of discrimination is ruled to be without merit. For example, if an employee files a complaint erroneously alleging sexual harassment in the workplace, but is fired because she filed the complaint, she could be successful in a claim of retaliation, despite the fact that no harassment occurred.

The proposed guidance does little to change current law.  It does, however, update prior guidance published in 1998.  After defining retaliation and outlining the three elements of a retaliation claim, the guidance provides an updated overview of relevant case law. The guidance also expands on the examples of retaliation given in the 1998 publication, and provides examples of both lawful employer action and unlawful retaliation. In addition to updating these sections, the proposed guidance includes a new section with five “best practices” for employers to implement to minimize the likelihood of retaliation violations.  These best practices are:

  • Designing and implementing written employer policies that include clear examples of both legal and illegal behavior and a reporting mechanism for potential or perceived retaliation;
  • Providing training on anti-retaliation policies for all employees;
  • Providing support for managers and supervisors to improve responses to complaints of retaliation;
  • Implementing a follow-up procedure to check in with employees after a complaint has been filed; and
  • Designating an individual to review proposed adverse employment decisions before action is taken.

The EEOC is requesting public input during the 30-day comment period ending February 24.  The proposed guidance may be viewed here.

Form I-9 Compliance: New Guidance Issued

By Martha J. Zackin

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires employers to verify the work authorization of employees using the Form I-9.   Some employers choose to conduct periodic internal audits of their Forms I-9, to ensure compliance.  Concerned that improperly conducted internal audits could “create barriers to employment for work-authorized individuals,” the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division together published new Guidance for Employers Conducting Internal Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 Audits.

The guidance, developed by DOJ and ICE with input from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, seeks to provide employers with, among other things:

  •  information regarding the scope and  purpose of audits;
  • considerations before conducting internal audits;
  • details regarding how to correct errors, omissions or other deficiencies found on Forms I-9 and how to cure deficiencies related to E-Verify queries; and
  • guidance regarding the anti-discrimination mandate.

For further information, the DOJ’s press release announcing the guidance may be found here.

Nothing in the law or this guidance requires employers to self-audit I-9 compliance.  Those employers who choose to do so, however, should look to the guidance to help structure and implement self-audits in a manner consistent with the employer sanctions and anti-discrimination provisions of the INA.

Updated FMLA Forms Are Now Available

By Alexandra D. Thaler

The DOL has (finally) updated its FMLA forms, and made them available on its website, here (see “Forms” section toward the bottom of the page).

In addition to revising the expiration date to May 31, 2018, the forms also now include references to the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).  Most significantly, the Certification of Health Care Provider forms now instruct providers not to disclose information about genetic testing, genetic services, or “the manifestation of disease or disorder in the employee’s family members,” as those terms are defined by regulation. Read more

Supreme Court Backs EEOC in Religious Accommodation Case

By Martha J. Zackin

In a much anticipated decision, the United States Supreme Court today held that Abercrombie & Fitch violated the prohibition against religious discrimination, as set forth in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, by refusing to hire a Muslim applicant who wore a headscarf (a hijab) during a job interview.  In so holding, the Court rejected Abercrombie & Fitch’s argument that an employer cannot be liable for discrimination unless it can be shown that the employer had actual knowledge of the applicant’s need for a religious accommodation.  Instead, the Court stated, an employer violates Title VII if its actions are motivated by a desire to avoid accommodating a religious practice even if the employer is not certain that an accommodation will be needed.  Importantly, the Court left for another day the question whether an employer may be liable under Title VII if it has neither knowledge nor suspicion that an applicant or employee may require a religious accommodation.

Read more

Supreme Court Rules on Pregnancy Accommodations

By Martha J. Zackin

Early this week, the United States Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decision in Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., finding that UPS may have engaged in pregnancy discrimination by refusing to accommodate an employee’s pregnancy-related lifting restrictions by transferring her to a light duty position.  In so holding, the Supreme Court applied the same legal standard to pregnancy discrimination cases as applies to cases based other categories protected under Title VII (race, sex, religion, ethnicity, and the like).  Specifically, the Court applied the burden-shifting analysis articulated in McDonnell Douglas v. Green and its progeny, pursuant to which the plaintiff first must establish that the facts alleged are adequate to support her claim.  Thereafter, the employer is given the opportunity to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action, which reason the plaintiff must show is merely a pretext for discrimination before she may proceed to trial. Read more

Massachusetts Extends Parental Leave Rights to Employees Regardless of Gender

By Sasha Thaler

Since 1972, the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (M.G.L. c. 149 s. 105D) has provided eight weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to full-time female employees who meet certain eligibility requirements, on the occasion of the birth and, more recently, the adoption of a child.  One of former Governor Deval Patrick’s last official acts was to sign into law a revision of the MMLA that extends those rights and job protections to men, beginning on April 7, 2015.

The new Parental Leave Law retains many of the key provisions of the MMLA familiar to most Massachusetts employers: Read more