Beginning in January 2020, the state of Texas increased the number of people who are considered “mandatory reporters” under Title IX. The mandatory reporters are tasked with immediately reporting Title IX related incidents like dating violence and stalking when they become aware of it. If a mandatory reporter fails to make this report, they are subject to criminal and employment penalties. When this law went into effect, it was looked at as a great step forward in universities combatting sexual violence on their campuses by tasking more people with reporting duties and having penalties for those who do not. Sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking have always been huge issues on college campuses, and it is only recently that the law has made a stride to try and close out loopholes in university reporting requirements. The flip side is that not reporting or being named in a Title IX complaint can have adverse consequences on a person’s employment. These adverse consequences are where Title IX and Title VII clash, and the fall-out can have damaging effects on both.
What does it really mean to be an “at will” employee in Texas? You’ve certainly heard of this term often. In the next few paragraphs, I will talk about what that term really means in the eyes of the law and how it impacts you, and I’ll also discuss the exceptions to at will employment.
The first thing you should know is that Texas is an “at will” employment state. At will employment simply means that your employer can fire you at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. That actually includes false, malicious, unfair, or unethical reasons, as long as those reasons aren’t illegal, or in violation of a contract (we’ll discuss below). At the same time, it also means that you, the employee, can quit your job at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. But what if your employer required you to give two weeks’ notice before you quit; does that mean you’re not an at will employee? In general, if your employer requires two weeks’ notice before you quit but reserves the right to fire you without notice, then your employment is likely still at will. This means if you quit without notice, you may be violating your employer’s policy, but not any law or contract.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is not a new phenomenon. It has always been an issue. In light of the #Metoo movement, employees nationwide are more willing to publicly condemn their harassers and hold employers accountable for their inaction. As Valentine’s Day approaches, this blog will highlight various examples of sexual harassment in the workplace, and explore behaviors that, while inappropriate, do not rise to the level of sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. EEOC guidelines define sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when:
- • Submission to such conduct is a term or condition of an individual’s employment.
- • Submission or rejection of the conduct is a basis for employment decisions.
- • Conduct of a sexual nature has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with work performance.
- • Conduct of a sexual nature creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
By all accounts, we can agree that the year 2020 was unconventional in every way. We were forced to live our lives in ways that many of us never imagined. And when we thought things were going to get better, it seems things only got worse. As we enter into the new year, it is our hope that our best days are ahead of us with the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine (“vaccine”).
No one knows how long it will be before everyone is vaccinated or even if the rushed vaccine will work. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, while Americans’ confidence in the vaccine is increasing, many groups remain hesitant about getting vaccinated. It is becoming clear that whether we want the vaccine or not, employers are going to have a critical role in the administration of the vaccine. This article discusses employees’ rights as it relates to employer-mandate vaccinations.
On December 16, 2020, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) published its guidance related to workplaces requiring the COVID-19 vaccine. This guidance helps us better understand what we can expect in the days and months ahead. Nevertheless, employers must not violate employment laws in mandating or administrating the vaccine.
For an employee in Texas there are very few protections because Texas is an at-will employment state. An employer can fire an employee for any reason or no reason, and it is protected under Texas state law. The only thing an employer cannot do is terminate someone or take an adverse action against them for an illegal reason where their motivation is based on an employee’s protected characteristic. On that backdrop, it would seem that an employee has no recourse against an employer who is treating employees poorly, but not illegally. However, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does more than protect unions, it also creates an avenue for employees to raise concerns about the terms and conditions of their employment. The NLRA was meant as a way for workers to advocate for themselves, which most of the time takes the form of creating a union, but the protection is not limited to union members. Section 7 (aptly named “Rights of Employees”) states that “employees shall have the right…to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This provision is given teeth by a later section which states that things like an employer’s interference with or restraint of these Section 7 rights is an unfair labor practice. The NLRA even created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which is an independent Federal agency that operates to enforce these provisions. Based on this history and structure, the NLRA gives employees a toolbox that can be used to approach an employer about their employment and have that activity protected by law.
Usually when your employer has done something illegal to you, it hits you directly in the pocketbook. For example, maybe your employer illegally denied you an earned bonus, failed to pay overtime you were owed, or fired you in retaliation for a protected complaint. Often that loss of income can put you as the employee in a precarious financial position. Unfortunately, you might have no choice but to declare bankruptcy.
The intersection between employment law and bankruptcy law can be complex and unintuitive; a full explanation of it is beyond the scope of this article. However, bankruptcy can impose legal—not just financial—barriers on your ability to protect your rights as an employee. This article is meant to put employees on notice of some steps they can take in a bankruptcy situation, to reduce the chance of losing their ability to vindicate their rights and recoup their economic losses.
Dallas Lonestar works for the city of Palestine. Dallas Lonestar discovers that several city officials are misusing city funds. Dallas reports his discovery to the Palestine Police Department (“PPD”). The PPD notifies Palestine city officials of Dallas Lonestar’s report and begins investigating the claim. A few days later, Dallas Lonestar’s supervisor fires him. The city alleged Dallas Lonestar was fired because of poor performance. Dallas Lonestar was never reprimanded for performance related issues and had no reason to believe his performance was lacking. In fact, shortly before being fired, he was given a glowing performance rating. Hence, Dallas Lonestar believes he was fired because he filed a report with the PPD regarding city officials’ misuse of city funds. Dallas Lonestar is angry, without a job, and wants to sue the city of Palestine. What are his rights?
The Texas Whistleblower Act prohibits a state or local government entity from taking adverse personnel action against an employee “who in good faith reports a violation of law by the employing governmental entity or another public employee to an appropriate law enforcement authority.” The two most important considerations when determining whether a violation of the Texas Whistleblower Act occurred are: (1) whether you acted in “good faith” which means that you believed the conduct you reported was a violation of law and your belief was reasonable; and (2) whether you reported the violation to an appropriate law enforcement agency which is a government entity you believed is authorized to either enforce the laws or investigate or prosecute a violation of criminal law. For instance, an internal report of illegal activity to someone else within the public entity (supervisor/HR) is not typically a report made to an appropriate law enforcement authority.
“Hostile work environment” and “harassment” are probably two of the most common terms I hear in my everyday practice. Both terms are generally interchangeable under the law and mean the same thing. Workplace harassment takes different forms such as being subjected to yelling, bullying, intimidation, ridicule, belittlement, false accusations, and profanity. Because Texas is an at-will employment state, however, not every harassment is illegal. In fact, most forms of harassment are legal.
There are a few requirements for the harassment to be illegal. First, it must be discriminatory—meaning that it must be based on a protected characteristic, like race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. If the motive behind the harassment is something else that is not protected, like personal hatred or big egos, then the harassment, no matter how awful, is not illegal (with a very narrow exception discussed below).
One of the greatest benefits of our nation’s growth is the diversity that comes with growth. It is undisputable that more and more individuals are calling America home. As a result, the workplace is becoming more diverse and more employees are speaking other languages than English. According to the Center for Immigration Studies (“CIS”), more than 67.3 million residents in the United States now speak a language other English at home. CIS found that this number more than doubled since the 1990s. Texas ranks among the leading states that has a large share of residents speaking a foreign language at home. I expect these numbers to continue to increase exponentially in the decades to come.
The weather is getting colder and nationally, the United States is experiencing a new spike in COVID-19 cases. The country is trying to jump multiple hurdles all at the same time and one of them happens to be dealing with the new increase in people contracting the virus. Thankfully, the legislation that dealt with the first wave of the virus is still here to help supply leave due to sickness. The “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” or FFCRA provides relief to anyone who falls ill because of COVID-19 between now and December 31, 2020 when the Act expires. This short window of application may be extended or replaced by further legislation, but whether that will occur before the deadline passes is unclear. However, it is still worthwhile to examine what mechanisms are in place to deal with sick leave currently. One mechanism that Congress added as part of the FFCRA is the “Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act” or EPSLA. EPSLA gives paid sick leave to certain employees if they fall ill or are caring for someone who falls ill from COVID-19. To determine whether EPSLA covers you, we have to ask 4 main questions: 1) Are you an employee who EPSLA covers; 2) Is your employer required to give you paid sick leave under EPSLA; 3) How much leave can you take and what does that leave look like; and 4) What are your options if you think your employer is violating EPSLA. Each question will be addressed in turn.