Working at Amazon: A Demanding Workplace or Just Normal?

August 25, 2015

By James B. Shrimp, Esq.

Many of you likely had the opportunity to review the New York Times expose on employment attitudes and conditions within Amazon. It makes a good summer beach read. The article paints a picture of aggressive and uncaring management, employer sanctioned back-biting among coworkers, long hours, few vacations and a lot of time away from family. White collar workers at other computer-based companies, such as Netflix, Facebook, Microsoft and Google are likely shocked. However, blue collar workers in America, that work one or two jobs, totaling 60+ hours per week away from their families and who don’t get the chance to take a vacation, are unmoved and not crying in their milk. The real question is whether there is anything abnormal or unlawful about what is going on at Amazon?

Working at Amazon: A Demanding Workplace or Just Normal?

Is it Abnormal?

Before deciding to never work for Amazon or purchase any products from Amazon, it makes sense to take a moment to look at the article from a distance. The Times states that it interviewed approximately 100 individuals for the article and there are about 20 individuals identified in the article that have had issues with management. Let’s presume for sake of argument that the individuals the Times spoke to represent one-half of one percent of those employees at Amazon that have issues with management – that would mean a total of 4,000 employees have issues with Amazon management. Amazon has a total of 180,000 employees. Therefore, the 4,000 disgruntled employees equal 2.2 percent of Amazon’s workforce. With that said, would anyone be surprised if a workforce of fifty had one disgruntled worker, or a workforce of 1,000 had 22 disgruntled workers?

Admittedly, my statistics are unscientific and of course everyone wants to work at a place where there is no discord. But if there is discord caused by unfair treatment the employee has the freedom to leave and find another job. Importantly, the Times article does not say these employees are underpaid, in fact, the article infers the opposite. The next question is whether Amazon’s conduct is lawful.

Is Amazon’s Conduct Unlawful?

The Times interviewed local employment lawyers in the Seattle area (where Amazon is headquartered) and those lawyers stated that for the most part what Amazon is doing may be unfair, but it is not unlawful. There were some circumstances within the article regarding the application of Family and Medical Leave and the management-sanctioned employee versus employee “rat-out” line that concern me as a lawyer that represents employers. However, there was nothing in these employees’ stories that made me conclude with certainty that something unlawful is occurring.

Employees may think it’s unfair, but there is nothing per se unlawful about requiring employees to work long hours and to judge those who don’t harshly. Employees may think it’s unfair, but there is nothing per se unlawful about requiring employees to log-in during vacation. Employees may think it’s unfair, but there is nothing per se unlawful about asking employees to report poor performance by coworkers (although in my opinion this is terrible for morale). Employees may think it’s unfair, but there is nothing per se unlawful about memorizing 14 leadership principals and punishing those who don’t. As long as Amazon is complying with wage and hour and discrimination statutes the employee must decide whether to stay at Amazon or leave.

Conclusions

The Times positioned its article on Amazon as whether Amazon’s experiment to push white collar workers to the brink will succeed or fail. The Times, however, fails to recognize that there are plenty of industries and employers that push white collar workers just as far as Amazon’s employees. Many doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers and IT professionals work 60 plus hours per week, are often away from family and have limited vacations. Amazon’s “experiment” is limited to a specific sector of the American economy.

Amazon is a quasi-technology and retail company. The real question for Amazon is whether, as a technology company, it can push its white collar workers when other technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft have much more employee-friendly workplaces. For example, Netflix recently announced that it will provide one year of paid maternity leave (although Netflix has received flak for not extending that benefit to those employees in its DVD division).

If Amazon’s poor treatment of employees is real and widespread, Amazon will begin having issues hiring new employees. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, recognizes this market force, and in a response to Amazon’s employees, Mr. Bezos stated that Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. Mr. Bezos urged employees who knew of “stories like those reported” in the Times to contact him directly.

For more information feel free to contact James B. Shrimp at (610) 275-0700 or by email at jshrimp@highswartz.com. Visit his attorney profile here.

Visit the firm’s Employment Law page here.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

An Employer’s Responsibility to Returning Military Veterans

August 21, 2015

By Richard C. Sokorai, Esq.

When an employee has to take a leave from his or her job because of a military deployment, the send-off can be very moving.  Sometimes the patriotic employer will even throw a thoughtful send-off party, express how the employee will be missed and assure the employee that his job will be there when the employee gets back.

However, as time goes by, the employer’s situation may change.  Deployments can sometimes take longer than expected.  Perhaps the employer will experience a downturn in business or otherwise re-organize.  Perhaps the employer will find what was intended to be a temporary replacement for the deployed soldier, but after time due to performance or continuity, wants to keep that employee in lieu of the deployed soldier.  Patriotism aside, the employer has a business to run and these circumstances can create difficult situations upon the employee’s return from the deployment.  How is the employer to handle these difficult issues?

An Employer’s Responsibility to Returning Military Veterans
An Employer’s Responsibility to Returning Military Veterans

These situations are covered by Federal law, specifically, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA).  Under USERRA, employees that are called up for Reserves or National Guard duty are considered a protected class, and can’t be discriminated against based upon their military service or obligation.  There are also very strict requirements that cover the re-employment of these individuals.

So, as an employer, what are your responsibilities to that employee?

For the most part (there are exceptions not covered in this article), employers are required to re-employ workers who have been honorably discharged or who’ve satisfactorily completed their military service in the Reserves or National Guard, as long as the employee requests reinstatement in a timely manner.

Even if you have a new employee that replaced the deployed employee, one that you may like better or who you may think does a better job, you have an obligation to re-employ the returning soldier, even at the expense of terminating the replacement employee.

For employees that suffer a disabling injury while on active duty, the employer is required to reasonably accommodate the returning employee and allow him or her to perform the duties of the job they would have had had they not been called up. If that job doesn’t exist, the employer must make every reasonable effort to find a job the employee can perform that is the nearest approximation to the previous position.

If there was a reduction in force while the employee was deployed, or the job was merely temporary, and the employee would have lost their job even if they had not been deployed, the organization doesn’t have to rehire the employee.  But understand that this decision may be closely scrutinized.

It is also important to understand that when you rehire your employee, you must treat them as if they have never left.  This means that any promotions, seniority or raises that they would have received had they not been deployed, must be afforded to them upon their return.

Lastly, depending on the length of the call-up, the employee may also be exempted from Pennsylvania’s “at-will” employment doctrine, meaning they may enjoy a period of time following their deployment where they can only be discharged “for cause.”

There certain procedural and technical requirements that apply and which may modify or eliminate some or all of the above requirements.  Close consultation with your attorney prior to making any such employment decisions will offer you significant protection in navigating this legal minefield.

Most American citizens agree that those that serve in the military are vitally important to our way of life, and therefore should be protected for the sacrifice they make. Most American employers are patriotic and support their military employees, but also have competing interests, such as the protection of their business, their families and duties to shareholders. USSERA is the framework that ensures the employer makes such employment decisions with the appropriate balance.

For more information feel free to contact Rich Sokorai at (610) 275-0700 or by email at rsokorai@highswartz.com.

Visit the firm’s Employment Law page here.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

Suspension with Pay is Not Discrimination

August 18, 2015

By James B. Shrimp, Esq.

When an employer investigates potential wrongdoing by an employee, there are a number of potential landmines. One is the issue of how to treat the employee during the internal investigation; it’s possible the treatment of the employee could lead to liability under various employment discrimination statutes. In a decision last week, the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals provided clarity on one common aspect of that treatment: “suspension with pay.”In the case Jones v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority the court was asked to determine for the first time whether a suspension with pay can be considered discrimination under Title VII. The Third Court held that, absent unusual circumstances, a suspension with pay cannot support a discrimination or hostile environment claim. The Third Circuit did not decide whether a suspension with pay could support a retaliation claim.suspension with payThe details of this caseThe plaintiff in Jones began working as an administrative assistant with SEPTA in 2001. In 2010, Jones’ supervisor suspended her with full pay after discovering apparent fraud in her timesheets, and referred the investigation to SEPTA’s office of inspector general. Within days, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the supervisor alleging that the supervisor sexually harassed and retaliated against her. She had never filed any complainst against him before.After a nearly three month investigation, SEPTA’s office of inspector general concluded that the plaintiff had in fact submitted fraudulent timesheets. SEPTA suspended her without pay, and formally terminated her approximately two months later. In March 2011, the plaintiff filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and thereafter filed an action in Federal court.Here’s what employers need to considerSubstantive Discrimination – In order to establish a substantive discrimination claim, a plaintiff must prove that she suffered an “adverse employment action.” The Third Circuit has described an adverse employment action as “an action by an employer that is serious and tangible enough to alter an employee’s compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” Based on this definition and a review of decisions from other Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal, the Third Circuit held that “a paid suspension pending an investigation of an employee’s alleged wrongdoing does not fall under any of the forms of adverse action mentioned by Title VII’s substantive provision.” To circumvent this bright line rule, a plaintiff must prove that the suspension with pay is somehow “atypical.”In Jones, the Third Circuit held that there was nothing “atypical” about the plaintiff’s suspension with pay. Notably, the plaintiff’s suspension with pay lasted three months, and therefore it can be concluded that an extended period of suspension with pay does not create an atypical situation.Hostile Environment – In hostile environment cases, even if a plaintiff establishes severe and pervasive hostile conduct, the employer can defend against such a claim if the plaintiff suffered no “tangible employment action.” The Third Circuit held that the suspension with pay is not a tangible employment action, which is akin to adverse employment action, and therefore the plaintiff in Jones could not bring a hostile environment claim.What it means for employersThe Third Circuit has provided clarity for employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware on when, or if, to incorporate a suspension with pay into a progressive discipline policy. In Jones, the court declared that a suspension with pay cannot support a discrimination or hostile environment claim unless it is atypical. To avoid a finding of an atypical suspension with pay, I recommend that an employer specifically incorporate a suspension with pay into its progressive discipline policy and that suspension with pay be neutrally applied among protected classes.For more information feel free to contact James B. Shrimp at (610) 275-0700 or by email at jshrimp@highswartz.com. Visit his attorney profile here.Visit the firm’s Employment Law page here.The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.

The Catholic Prenup

August 17, 2015By Mary Cushing Doherty

The mere mention of the word “prenup” can incite a gasp and an inquisitive raise of the eyebrow. Requesting a prenuptial agreement is commonly viewed as planning for divorce before a marriage even begins.

But that is not the only  purpose of a prenup; rather, it can be  about creating understanding of each other’s finances. There is nothing wrong with couples discussing and documenting their financial plans. In fact, it would be foolish not to discuss it; entering the marriage with a clear understanding of each other’s financial goals, and of any bad habits, prevents surprises and possible disappointment down the road. Therefore, prenuptial agreements are not necessarily executed with an eye to an exit plan, but rather a marriage based on communication about finances to avoid problems.

Prenuptial Agreement
Prenuptial Agreement

When you consider parties who may raise an eyebrow at a prenup, the Catholic Church naturally comes to mind as they remain honorably committed to the union of marriage. However, the Church also recognizes the importance of smart marriage preparation, and it is possible – and may be wise – for Catholic couples to have a Catholic Prenup drafted by an attorney.

Wise pre-marriage planning should address how to pay off “separate debt”; clean up a poor credit history; preserve some separate money; and identify how to manage the couple’s pooled funds.  In fact, Catholic Pre-Cana classes, which are taught by married couples and attended by engaged couples, URGE couples to communicate about finances.

It is widely known that arguments about money are common in marriages. When couples meet at the end of the aisle they each may have brought with them varying levels of debt and financial responsibilities. Once those bank accounts combine, how much each spouse brings in and how much they spend, and what they spend it on, may become excruciatingly clear. Couples who don’t understand each other’s fiscal personality and haven’t discussed how to divvy up debts, bills and spending money are in for some tough conversations.

Where Pre-Cana classes can start the conversation around financial planning, a prenuptial agreement can document the decisions made without creating an expectation of divorce. The astute family lawyer can assess couples’ unique needs and concerns, including those that are religious, and take the right measures in creating pre-marital agreements. The agreements will be drafted without mentioning “divorce”, and not subject to disapproval by the Church.

This “Catholic Prenup” memorializes in writing a couple’s financial plans, addressing their liabilities and assets as they embark on their marriage commitment. A lack of communication can lead to heartache and too often a ruined marriage.  Preemptive measures like Pre-Cana classes, other counseling methods, and supporting documentation such as prenuptial agreements can help to strengthen unions, rather than set them up to fail.

To learn more, contact Mary Cushing Doherty at (610) 275-0700 or by email at mdoherty@highswartz.com. Visit her attorney profile here.

Visit the firm’s Family Law page here.

The information above is general: we recommend that you consult an attorney regarding your specific circumstances.  The content of this information is not meant to be considered as legal advice or a substitute for legal representation.