Labor and Employment Issues

A recent California Court of Appeal decision upheld the state’s complex rules for compensating piece-rate employees.  In Nisei Farmers League v. California Labor & Workforce Dev. Agency, 2019 Cal.App. LEXIS 10 (Cal.Ct.App. Jan. 4, 2019), the Court held that the Labor Code’s requirement that piece-rate employees be separately compensated for “nonproductive time” was not unconstitutionally vague.  With California’s “productive vs. non-productive time” rubric firmly in place, employers must take great care to track and compensate piece-rate employees’ time, or face stiff penalties.

What Does “Piece-Rate” Mean, And Why Might An Employer Chose It?

Piece-rate compensation plans are very popular in some industries.  They can incentivize employee productivity, while giving an employer greater control over labor costs. Under a piece-rate compensation system, the worker is paid a fixed amount of money for each unit produced or action performed, regardless of the number of hours worked. Industries that pay employees on a piece-rate basis include:

Continuing its aggressive enforcement of California wage and hour laws, the Labor Commission issued wage theft citations of $1.9 million to Fullerton Pacific Interiors, Inc. for failing to pay minimum wage and overtime and failing to provide rest periods to 472 workers on 26 construction projects throughout Southern California.

Fullerton Pacific Interiors provided drywall work

A question left open in Stoel Rives’ recent Washington lien law treatise relates to the lien rights of employee benefit plans. The rights granted in RCW 60.04.011(4) (where benefit plans are included in the definition of “furnishing labor”) were called into question by two Washington Supreme Court decisions barring employee benefit plans from pursuing lien-like

OSHA compliance recently became harder and costlier, and may continue to do so, thanks to several developments at the federal and state level. (Click here for a prior post on OSHA reform.)

You may go to prison if you discipline or terminate an employee who might be worried about an unsafe working condition—even though your employee had not bothered to tell you about his concern. That is what the current version of the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 (H.R. 5663) provides.

The Byrd Act, not yet law, would prohibit firing or discriminating against an employee who refuses to perform the his duties if he “has a reasonable apprehension that performing such duties would result in serious injury to, or serious impairment of the health of, the employee or other employees.” Employers should wonder how they will know whether their employees have “reasonable apprehensions”—the Act does not require the employee to voice his apprehension for this provision to protect him from discrimination for failing to do his work. If the Act becomes law, an employer who fires an employee because that employee is not performing may find itself faced with a complaint.

The Byrd Act has not moved since July 29, 2010, when it was placed on the Union Calendar. Depending on the results of the recent elections, it may not move at all.

If your business has an effective noise protection program in place, that may not protect you from OSHA penalties.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently proposed adopting a new interpretation of the word “feasible” as it is used in certain sections of the General Industry and Construction Occupational Noise Exposure standards (sections 1910.95(b)(1) and 1926.52(b)).

Feasible, which currently means that a measure is both capable of being done and that the costs of implementing the measure are less than the cost of an effective hearing conservation program, would only mean capable of being done. If you have avoided certain measures because they were not economically feasible, and if OSHA determines that they were capable of being done, your program will not be in compliance.

For example, if your employees are exposed to a loud workplace but you require them to wear effective ear protection—and they do—this will not be good enough. If OSHA decides that redesigning your workplace with expensive sound-absorbing baffles is capable of being done, you have to do it. Even if it would be no more effective than your current program.

Instead of allowing a cost-benefit analysis, the Administration would consider administrative or engineering controls economically feasible when the cost of implementing those controls will “not threaten the employer’s ability to remain in business.” So, if OSHA decides those sound-absorbing baffles won’t threaten your ability to remain in business, they are economically feasible. Oddly, though the Administration argues that its proposal restores the “plain meaning” of feasible to its enforcement policies by eliminating cost-benefit analyses, it did not state how it derived its proposed economic viability standard from that plain meaning.

Contributor:  Louis A. Ferreira

Congress has proposed legislation that would amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to increase both civil and criminal penalties, expand coverage, and create new obligations for employers. Congress has not acted recently on the bill, named the “Protecting America’s Workers Act," but employers should expect action sometime in the new year.

 

Willful violations of OSHA that result in the death of a worker would be a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison, while willful violations resulting in serious bodily injury would be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Currently, the criminal penalty for a willful violations resulting in death is imprisonment for 1 year. There is no criminal penalty under the existing act for a serious bodily injury resulting from a willful violation. In addition, the maximum civil penalties in all OSHA violation categories would increase, and would be adjusted periodically according to the Consumer Price Index.

 

Oregon-OSHA administers its own regulations for most employers in the state but adopts standards and penalties at least as stringent as federal OSHA. In other words, if federal OSHA standards are changed, these impacts will be enforced in Oregon in short order. Employers should be concerned about the scope of these changes because like most legislation, the devil is in the details of how the law is changed. For instance, a willful violation of an OSHA standard does not necessarily require an intentional decision to violate the regulation. A willful violation is defined to exist where an employer or supervisor “recklessly” disregards the requirements of a regulation. Knowledge of the regulation is usually not required it the employer or supervisor should have known of the regulation or standard. 

 

Additionally, employers would be prohibited from

 

  • adopting or implementing policies or practices that discourage reporting work-related injuries or illnesses, or that discriminate or provide adverse action against any employee reporting such injury or illness; and
  • reducing wages or employee benefits while employees participate in or aid workplace inspections