In yet another instance illustrating the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB’s”) intent to prosecute violations of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) related to employee activity on social media sites, the NLRB’s Buffalo, NY regional office has issued a complaint against Hispanics United of Buffalo Inc. (HUB), a New York nonprofit agency. The complaint alleges that the employer fired five employees because they complained about working conditions on Facebook in violation of NLRA sections 8(a)(3) and 8(a)(1). Those provisions prohibit employers from taking or threatening adverse action against employees for engaging in so-called “concerted” activities protected by the NLRA. Firing or threatening employees with adverse action for voicing complaints or concerns over working conditions has been illegal for decades. But the NLRB has logically extended its reach to include email exchanges and, more recently, discussions and comments made using social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

According to the complaint, a HUB employee on Facebook named a co-worker who claimed that HUB employees failed to adequately assist its clients. This prompted Facebook rejoinders from other HUB employees who, in defending their job performances, criticized HUB’s working conditions, including workloads and staffing issues. HUB discharged five employee participants in this online forum on the basis that their comments illegally harassed the co-worker who made the “inadequacy” claim.

As noted, the NLRB asserts that the Facebook discussions were concerted activities under NLRA section 7 because they involved terms and conditions of employment such as job performances, workloads, and staffing levels. 

A hearing before an NLRB Administrative Law Judge is set for June 22, 2011, in Buffalo. We will track and report on this case as it progresses.

This matter is on the heels of two recent attempts by the NLRB to regulate employers’ reactions to employee use of social media to discuss workplace issues. The first concerned an NLRB complaint against American Medical Response, Inc., a Connecticut ambulance provider, for discharging an employee over her criticism of her supervisor on Facebook. In the second, the NLRB threatened a complaint against Thomson Reuters Corp. for its restrictive social media policy and for disciplining a reporter for a message she posted on Twitter. Both cases settled.

The lessons to be learned from the NLRB’s new and increased attention to social media activities are simple but crucially important. First, be ever-vigilant on what the NLRA permits and what it condemns. Second, “where” discussions and other protected actions occur makes no difference. Protected activities are protected if they are face-to-face, over the telephone, in a letter, in a fax, on TV, on the radio, in a news story, and “spoken” electronically, in emails or on social media sites. Put simply, the NLRA applies fully to the “cloud.” For this reason, take a thorough look at every policy to make sure that it recognizes and complies with the NLRA by balancing employer needs against the NLRA’s protections.