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By: Joyce M. Mocek
The National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) recently determined Mexican Radio Corp. (a restaurant company) violated the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA” or the “Act”) when it fired four (nonunion) employees after they sent emails complaining about their wages, work schedules, tip policy and work conditions.
The issues relating to the terminations began when a General Manager discussed with her employees new staffing and tip policies, and said “if you don’t like it, you can go.” The General Manager also allegedly made a statement about an employee who had been absent from work due to an illness, inquiring if she was “dead yet”. An employee resigned and sent an email to a group of coworkers complaining about the General Manager. Current employees responded with a “reply all” email to the group, sharing their concerns.
Management subsequently met with the employees individually and attempted to interview them. The employer then terminated the employees, providing different reasons for the terminations, including the emails used inappropriate language (profanity), refusal to be interviewed, and missing work. The employees filed an NLRB charge alleging retaliation. The ALJ issued a ruling holding the Company had violated section 8(a)(1) of the NLRA, which prohibits employers from interfering, restraining, or coercing employees in the exercise of their rights, by terminating the employees due to their participation in protected activity.
The Company filed exceptions to the ALJ’s decision, including objecting to its reach over nonunion employers. The Company argued the email(s) contained profanity, and thus lost protection under the Act. Under Atlantic Steel (a prior NLRB decision), in certain situations, an employer may terminate an employee for otherwise protected conduct if the behavior is “opprobrious” enough. The NLRB disagreed with the Company’s arguments, finding the amount of profanity in the emails was not enough to lose protection. The NLRB (affirming the ALJ’s decision in Mexican Radio Corp. and Rachel Nicotra, Case 02-CA-168989) determined the reasons for the terminations provided by the Company were pretextual, the true reason for the terminations were the employee’s participation in activity protected under the Act, and as such, the terminations violated the Act.
Employers should be mindful of this ruling and the continued reach of the NLRB over nonunion employers when considering employee workplace activities. This decision reinforces the need to ensure that Company handbooks and policies comply with guidelines relating to email and social media usage, and the need to carefully review and take appropriate action in each situation that may arise involving employee actions in violation of such policies.
If you have any questions or would like more information, pleases contact Joyce Mocek at firstname.lastname@example.org.