Employees’ Voting Rights in Wisconsin

Employees’ Voting Rights in Wisconsin

With in-person national, state and local partisan voting set for Tuesday, November 3, 2020, it is timely for employees and employers to review Wisconsin law with respect to voting rights.

An employer must allow an employee to be absent from work to vote in a political election for up to three consecutive hours while the polls are open, if the employee requests such time off before the day of the election. However, the employer may decide the time of the workday for such an absence. The employee is not entitled to be paid for the time away from work but depending on workplace rules (check the employee handbook), the employee may substitute paid time off for time that is otherwise unpaid.

For this election, registered Wisconsin voters may request an absentee ballot. Due to the growing popularity of voting by absentee ballot, it may be that employers experience fewer requests by employees for leave to vote on the day of the election. An employer may request an employee who requests to leave to vote on election day to certify that he or she has not voted by absentee ballot.

An employer is prohibited from penalizing an employee who is absent from work to vote after making previous arrangements with the employer to vote.

May an employee take an unpaid leave of absence from work to work as an election official?

Wisconsin law requires every employer to grant an unpaid leave of absence to each employee who is appointed to serve as an election official, as long as the employee who is serving as an election official provides his or her employer with at least seven days’ notice. The leave is for the entire 24-hour period of each election day in which the employee serves in his or her official capacity as an election official. Upon the request of any employer, a municipal clerk must verify such appointment. In this instance, an employee who wishes to serve as an election official must notify the employer of such appointment no later than October 26, 2020.

Employers may not use threats of discharge, threats of compensation reduction, promise compensation increases to influence exercise of an employee’s voting rights, discriminate against employees who refuse to participate in employer communications about political matters, or display or otherwise circulate communications containing threats to reduce compensation or conduct layoffs depending upon election results.

Wisconsin employers may not discriminate against employees because of their use of lawful products. Use of lawful products may be broadly defined in certain circumstances to include such things as blogging software, Twitter, political signage and other products used to speak. Therefore, an employer needs to consider all Wisconsin laws before it acts with respect to an employee who is exercising his or her voting or speech rights.

Under Wisconsin’s constitution, there is a right to free speech: “Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right and no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press. . .” However, this right of free speech applies to state/governmental action, not action by a private employer. Jacobs v. Major, 139 Wis. 2d 492 (1987).

For any questions that an employer or an employee may have with respect to workplace rules that affect employees’ right to vote, contact your employment lawyer or human resources professional.

 

Wisconsin Employers Take Note:  EEOC Updates COVID-19 Guidance; Addresses Mental Illness Made Worse by the Pandemic

Wisconsin Employers Take Note: EEOC Updates COVID-19 Guidance; Addresses Mental Illness Made Worse by the Pandemic

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has updated its guidance, as of April 17, 2020, to assist employers in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the workplace.  See www.EEOC.gov

Ordinarily, an employer is prohibited by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from asking an employee who calls in sick about the specific symptoms he is experiencing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the EEOC states that employers may ask employees who call in sick if they are experiencing symptoms of the novel coronavirus. Employers must maintain all information about an employee’s illness as a confidential medical record.

In addition, the EEOC expressly recommends that employers refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state or local public health authorities about steps employers should take regarding COVID-19. Employers are advised to stay abreast of the most current information on maintaining workplace safety.

EEOC Addresses Mental Illness Made Worse by the Pandemic

The EEOC’s guidance includes consideration of an employee’s pre-existing mental illness or disorder that has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The issue is whether an employee with a pre-existing condition may now be entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In response, the EEOC advises that although many people feel significant stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, employees with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder, may have more difficulty handling the disruption to daily life that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, an employer should address the mental illness as it would any other accommodation request under the ADA. Specifically, the employer may ask questions to determine whether the condition is indeed a disability and discusses with the employee how the requested accommodation would assist him and enable him to keep working. The employer and the employee may also explore alternative accommodations that may effectively meet his needs. Medical documentation may be requested by the employer, if needed.

The bottom line for employers is to remember that although an employer may gather additional health-based information from its employees during a pandemic, the basic principles of non-discrimination and reasonable accommodation in the workplace continue to be mandatory principles under the law. For further information concerning specific situations, contact your Anderson O’Brien attorney.

 

The Workplace in the Middle of a Pandemic: What is a Wisconsin Employer to do?

The Workplace in the Middle of a Pandemic: What is a Wisconsin Employer to do?

COVID-19 also known as the corona virus has inundated the normalcy of everyday existence like a worldwide flash flood. Currently, the flood waters are predicted to rise before they recede. More will be attempted by government to keep the flood at bay, as shown by Governor Evers’ “Safer at Home” Order signed on March 24, 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually subside. But for now, it is threatening to overwhelm a significant portion of our national, state and local economies. Social distancing to a six-foot minimum is relatively easy compared to the challenges facing employers in responding quickly and effectively to keep the workplace safe for all employees in this pandemic.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is issuing guidance to employers with respect to how best to keep the workplace safe at this time of the pandemic. See, for example, www.osha.gov. That guidance tracks well with the general duty clause under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act.) With the CDC guidance and OSH Act in mind, questions arise such as how do employment laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) meant to protect an individual worker’s rights from discrimination and retaliation, affect the decisions that the responsible employer must make in balancing safety versus individual employee interests? May the responsible employer, in the urgency of a pandemic, take steps that it ordinarily would not take such as taking the temperature of an employee who does not show signs of COVID-19 or requiring an employee to self-quarantine if he or she has recently traveled to an area known to be experiencing so-called “community spread” to protect the workplace?

In addressing the many issues that must be considered by employers trying to manage their business effectively, it is important to note that the ADA has not been repealed. Employers must remain mindful of the rights of employees to be free from disability discrimination (or the perception of a disability), the requirement for reasonable accommodations and the limitations on medical examinations and inquiries, under the relevant rules and regulations of the ADA. In ordinary times, when there is not a direct threat to the workplace posed by a pandemic, this means to limit the inquiries that an employer makes about the health status of any individual employee.

However, in instances where a health pandemic and a national emergency have been declared, an employer that acts reasonably in making health-related inquiries in the interest of overall workplace safety will almost certainly be afforded more latitude under applicable employment laws, even when aggressively engaging in health-related inquiries of its workforce or requires an employee to leave the workplace due to suspected COVID-19 exposure than it would under ordinary circumstances. In other words, the balance between protecting individual employee rights and overall workplace safety has shifted in favor of workplace safety. The name of the game for the prudent, lawful employer is to achieve workplace safety in a manner that is reasonable and consistent with federal and state health experts. Of course, what is reasonable may vary significantly from business to business. For example, a business that does not require travel may not have the same need to ask its employees about disease-related symptoms as a business that ordinarily has employees that travel throughout the country.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces the ADA, has recently confirmed that employers should follow the guidance of the CDC. The EEOC issued new guidance on March 19, 2020 that specifically states that while the ADA continues to apply in times of a pandemic, the law should not “prevent employers from following the guidelines and suggestions made by the Center for Disease Control” or the guidance of state or local authorities. See, for example, www.eeoc.gov. This means that employers may, in some circumstances, take the temperature of their employers. But caution is warranted for many reasons, including the fact that a person with COVID-19 disease may not have a fever, according to the CDC.

The Wisconsin government entity that addresses statewide health issues is the Department of Health Services (DHS). It has a robust website that offers helpful guidance to employers and others about COVID-19. It is found at www.dhs.gov.

The EEOC’s updated pandemic guidance is speaking clearly to employers. Prudent employers are advised as follows:

  1. Keep your workplaces safe and stay within the bounds of applicable law, follow the guidance of the CDC and state and local health officials.
  2. Remember to keep specific health information on individual employees separate and confidential.
  3. Make inquiries about the health of your workers, but do so reasonably and without hysteria by following the guidance of the health experts.
  4. Educate your employees about the information available through the CDC and the Wisconsin DHS.
  5. Remind employees often of effective measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Finally, the responsible employer with fewer than 500 employees is advised to review and follow, if applicable, the new mandated sick leave and emergency FMLA benefits to be provided to most employees under the recently passed Families First Corona virus Response Act. The prudent employer will want to compare those mandated benefits with the benefits that the employer may already provide to its employees as part of its paid time off or sick leave benefits. The Families First legislation will become effective no later than April 2, 2020.

For the foreseeable future, the employment law landscape will be deluged by the COVID-19 pandemic. The prudent employer will stay alert to guidance put forth by the CDC, the Wisconsin DHS, and the U.S. Department of Labor. Contact your Anderson O’Brien lawyer with any questions that you have concerning keeping your business afloat with a minimum of legal risk.

 

Keeping Confidentiality, Whose Email Server Are You Using When Emailing Your Lawyer?

Keeping Confidentiality, Whose Email Server Are You Using When Emailing Your Lawyer?

One of the most significant benefits of seeking advice from your lawyer are the ethical rules that generally require that the communications with your lawyer are confidential.  This means that, except in some limited circumstances, information that a business or individual client conveys to the business’s or the individual’s attorney remains confidential.  One such exception to this general rule is if an employee uses the employer’s email domain to communicate with employee’s lawyer.  Confidentiality may be lost in that instance.

Consider this example:  If Emily, an employee, wants to communicate with her lawyer about her employer, ACME, Inc., regarding her concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace, she ordinarily may do so with every confidence that the communication will not lose its confidential nature.  However, one way that the private, confidential nature of Emily’s communication to her lawyer may be lost is if she and/or her lawyer uses the ACME email domain/server to communicate.  This is particularly true in instances where the employer has made it clear in its handbook that employees have no expectation of privacy in communications made over the company’s email server.

If an employee uses an employer’s email domain to communicate with his or her lawyer, there is a significant risk that the communications may lose the protection of confidentiality.  This was the case in a recent Florida case, where the court said that the information sent between client and attorney over the employer’s email domain and server was not protected by rules of confidentiality and the attorney client privilege.

As such, an employee is well-advised to use an email domain other than one that is provided by the employer when communicating with their lawyer.  The employer is well-advised to specify as part of its policies in its employee handbook that employees should not expect privacy or confidentiality for matters that are shared over the employer’s email domain.  In other words, employers should consider drafting a well-written policy that there is no expectation of privacy if the employee uses the employer’s server or email domain for personal purposes.  Finally, although it may be inconvenient, a person or business that communicates with an attorney should take care to use a method of communication that maintains confidentiality, one of the greatest benefits of seeking legal advice from an attorney.

 

“Homophobic Taunts Not on the Menu:” According to the EEOC

“Homophobic Taunts Not on the Menu:” According to the EEOC

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace because of sex.  Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees.  By contrast, the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.  The WFEA applies to employers with one or more employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) is the federal agency that is empowered to investigate allegations of discrimination under Title VII.  The EEOC recently sued El Tio Tex-Mex Grille, a restaurant in Gainsville, Virginia, with intentionally allowing harassment of one of its employees based on sex.

The EEOC alleged that El Tio employees, including servers and kitchen staff, routinely subjected a gay male server to unwelcome harassing and offensive behavior that included the use of homophobic epithets and taunts about his sexuality.  The same employees similarly harassed the server’s straight friend, a busser, based on their friendship.  The server and the busser reported the harassment to El Tio’s management several times, but management allegedly ignored their complaints, failed to take reasonable measures to curb the harassment, and neglected to implement any anti-harassment policies or training. The harassment continued, according to the EEOC.

As a settlement, El Tio has agreed to pay Forty Thousand Dollars ($40,000.00) and provide specific and extensive training to its employees for a three-year period following the settlement, with monitoring by the EEOC.

For Wisconsin employers, state law forbids harassment based on an employee’s gender, as well as his or her sexual orientation. Consequently, Wisconsin employers are well advised to maintain a workplace that is free from homophobic taunts or similar verbal or physical harassing activity, lest the employer become the subject of a complaint filed with the EEOC or the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division. Employers should not ignore complaints. Every employer should have an up-to-date anti-harassment policy as part of its employee handbook.  The U.S. Supreme Court has held that such a policy may be a partial or complete defense to a complaint of sex harassment in certain instances.  For more information concerning compliance with state and federal workplace laws, consult with your employment attorney.

 

Best Practices for Using Volunteers in Your Wisconsin Non-Profit.

Best Practices for Using Volunteers in Your Wisconsin Non-Profit.

The great majority of work performed by non-profits comes from unpaid volunteers. While volunteers can be vital to helping a non-profit reach its goals, their presence raises certain risks that leaders of non-profit organizations should be aware of to craft effective policies for their recruitment, management and retention.

The typical non-profit organization in Wisconsin is simultaneously subject to two sets of laws. The entity is organized under state law, specifically Chapter 181 of the Wisconsin Statutes, titled “Nonstock Corporations.” However, an organization’s tax-free status is controlled by federal law, specifically Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, which generally requires the organization be operated for the sole purpose of pursuing one of several listed causes recognized as deserving tax-free treatment. The many requirements of these laws are beyond the scope of this article, but they affect certain aspects of volunteer management practices.

Recruitment:

Before you can manage your volunteers, you must recruit them. Consider how potential volunteers are screened and appropriate policies are put in place. A bad fit can be more trouble than they are worth, and someone with bad intent or ulterior motives can be disastrous both to the organization and to the cause it is trying to help. Outside of the damage an ill-intended individual can cause directly, bad press from being associated with that person can do lasting damage to an organization’s reputation.

The screening process can be as simple as an application form and/or interview asking relevant questions. A more thorough screening may also include background checks. The extent of the screening process should be commensurate to the level of trust that will be placed in that person. Volunteers entrusted with responsibility over expensive goods which can be stolen or vulnerable people who can be abused should be screened with extra caution. These concerns must be balanced with making volunteering as simple and easy as possible, so volunteers do not lose interest when faced with a daunting application process.

During recruitment, take steps to ensure no improper biases or discrimination are applied to volunteer selection. Discrimination against protected classes is generally illegal, even for non-profits. Among the classes protected by anti-discrimination laws are: age, sex, religion, national origin, race, disability or genetic status. Many of these laws are written with the employment context in mind, but there is legal precedent for their application to unpaid volunteers in certain circumstances. Although the law is unclear in many cases, the safest route is to assume anti-discrimination laws will apply. Some types of organizations have limited exceptions to these rules. For example, religious organizations have a narrow window allowing discrimination on the basis of religion. Discrimination laws are complex and you should consult with an attorney if you believe a decision or practice could potentially expose the non-profit to legal action. Even if a form of discrimination is technically allowed under current law, an organization known to discriminate against certain groups may lose moral credibility, which can translate to reduced donations. Additionally, the non-profit risks losing out on federal funding or contracts.

Another concern with incoming volunteers is their classification within the organization itself. Non-profits in Wisconsin can either have members or not have members. If you are unsure whether a non-profit has members, the Articles of Incorporation filed with the State of Wisconsin will indicate the classification. If an organization has members, they may have voting and other rights to control the organization. If the non-profit is a member organization, be careful to be clear who is a member with these rights, and who is a volunteer.

Training and Supervision:

Once a non-profit has recruited volunteers, they must be trained and supervised to perform their duties. A volunteer orientation process promotes consistent training among volunteers and can ensure vital information is passed to everyone working on behalf of the organization. Key policies and procedures, as well as a mechanism for volunteers to get answers to any questions that may arise during the course of their duties, should be implemented and addressed. While certain training procedures should be uniform across all volunteers, job specific training should also be given based on the task the volunteer will be performing. Job duties may change over time, so updates and refresher training will likely be necessary, even for frequent volunteers.

In addition to initial training, a volunteer handbook can serve as a reference for important procedures and rules for volunteers. Detailed handbooks can also help protect the organization from liability should a volunteer do something against the organization’s policy. Some things a volunteer handbook should include are: non-discrimination and non-harassment policies, confidentiality rules, policies and permission statements for information and images of volunteers in promotional materials, policies for working with certain vulnerable groups, attendance, scheduling, conduct expectations and emergency procedures. This list is non-exhaustive and most non-profits will have unique policies to address their specific functions and organizational structure. It is important the handbook reflect current practices for the non-profit. Thus, it should be reviewed and updated regularly. Changes should be identified to existing volunteers so they are aware of the new expectations and they should be provided with the new handbook.

As discussed in the above “Recruitment” section, a non-profit should exercise care to avoid discrimination against or by volunteers. Monitor both supervisors and other volunteers for signs of discrimination or harassment. Harassment can include continuous jokes or jeers directed at a volunteer’s expense, or otherwise creating a hostile environment for them to perform their volunteer duties. Outside of legal concerns, not allowing such behavior can help keep volunteers eager to return and be productive in their duties.

Liability Protection:

When a volunteer makes a mistake, becomes injured, or otherwise takes action which gives rise to a legal claim, there are two major sources of protection for the organization and the volunteers themselves: state law and insurance.

In Wisconsin, a volunteer who provides services to a non-profit has limited liability under state statutes for damages arising from their acts as a volunteer, subject to certain exceptions including, but not limited to, violations of criminal law, willful misconduct if they are also an employee of the non-profit, or if the act was in their capacity as an officer or director of the organization.

Given the long list of exceptions, it is safest to procure insurance. Insurance also can help pay for the expenses of a volunteer who is injured while performing their volunteer duties. Many organizations purchase volunteer liability coverage to protect themselves and their volunteers from the costs of personal injury or property damages stemming from their volunteer duties. Auto insurance should also be considered if the volunteers will either be driving or riding in a vehicle as part of their volunteer duties. Wisconsin has minimum insurance requirements for all drivers, but these amounts are not nearly enough to cover expenses incurred in all but minor accidents.

Incentives:

By definition, volunteers should not expect payment in return for their services. Regardless, many non-profits desire to reward their loyal volunteers with some token of appreciation for their hard work. This can create issues with accidently classifying the volunteers as “employees,” or with the tax-exemption of the organization under federal law.

The tax-free status of an organization can be revoked if the organization is providing a “private” rather an “public” benefit. This can happen if monetary or other valuable rewards are given to volunteers. Likewise, the classification of a volunteer versus an employee is in part based on whether they receive anything in exchange for their work. Non-cash benefits to volunteers are allowed to a point, but beyond this hard to define threshold, problems can quickly accumulate. One thing is clear, avoid giving cash or gift cards to volunteers if the non-profit is looking for ways to reward its volunteers.

The laws regarding volunteering and Wisconsin non-profits can be complex and you should consult with an attorney if have questions about recruitment, training and supervision, liability protection and incentives for your non-profit.

 

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