• Boss can’t outlaw salary discussions
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     | March 29,2013
     

    Lynda Teare had never heard of the National Labor Relations Board.

    But when the engineering firm Jones & Carter in Houston accused her of discussing salaries and fired her, she found her way to the federal agency quite by accident.

    Her husband was talking to the human resources manager at his own workplace and learned that federal labor law prohibits companies from imposing rules against the discussion of wages.

    Teare, who had worked as a training coordinator, filed a complaint against her former employer with the labor board and in the end, the firm had to write her a $107,000 check for back pay and offer Teare her job back.

    A representative of Jones & Carter said the firm would have no comment.

    Many companies figure it’s good business policy to squelch paycheck talk around the office. After all, when employees compare paychecks, the outcome is seldom good for the supervisors who have to contend with uncomfortable questions, bad morale and requests for raises.

    Such rules, however, violate federal labor law when they involve non-supervisory employees. And companies are finding out the hard way.

    “I see it all the time,” said Mark Oberti, an employment lawyer with Oberti Sullivan in Houston, referring to handbooks he’s reviewed containing policies that warn employees not to discuss their wages.

    It’s especially common among small and mid-size companies, said Oberti, who recommends to his management clients that they immediately remove the wage-talk prohibition.

    Some CEOs are still skeptical, said Oberti, recalling one who said, “What are you talking about? No one wants their employees exchanging salary information.”

    But Oberti sees signs the labor board is becoming more active, especially against non-union employers that have long labored under the impression the 1935 National Labor Relations Act doesn’t apply to them.

    Fact-specific cases

    Teare said she never discussed anyone’s salary, and at the labor board trial in front of an administrative law judge, company officials said she was fired for “harassing” other workers, according to the board.

    But the judge noted that company officials told state unemployment investigators that Teare was terminated for discussing salaries with her co-workers.

    Teare said the tape of her unemployment hearing was a key piece of evidence.

    Teare, who declined reinstatement, said she is grateful to the agency for fighting on her behalf.

    “We regularly see this kind of complaint, which stems from the employers’ lack of understanding of employee rights,” said Martha Kinard, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Fort Worth.

    But it’s not always about wages; companies also find themselves in trouble when they terminate employees who complain about their benefits, working conditions, health and safety or bad management.

    The National Labor Relations Act protects employees who get together to talk about problems or who speak up on behalf of their co-workers, said Kinard. But each case is fact-specific; violent threats in complaints about dirty bathrooms probably aren’t protected under the law.

    The rules also apply to social media, said Kinard. If you’re unhappy with new work rules and discuss them on Facebook with your co-workers, that probably is protected under the law. If the boss hands out pink slips in response, the boss eventually may be writing some back paychecks, too.

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