An employee’s Weingarten rights have limits, especially as to drug and alcohol testing, where time is often of the essence, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge has held. Fred Meyer Stores, Inc., No. 19-CA-206136 (July 2, 2018).

The National Labor Relations Board has long-recognized unionized employees’ right to have a union representative present for investigative meetings that may result in discipline (these “Weingarten rights” do not apply in non-union workplaces). In Fred Meyer Stores, Inc., a cashier was suspected of drinking alcohol on the job after two customers allegedly reported smelling alcohol on his breath. The employee was called in by management for a meeting and once the employee understood the nature of the meeting, he requested his Weingarten right to union representation. Weingarten rights were spelled out to the employee on a union-provided card, which included numbers for individual union representatives, plus a 24/7 “emergency” phone number printed in red. The employee called multiple union representatives, but could not reach one directly. He did not call the “emergency” line.

After about 20 minutes, management asked the employee to submit to a drug/alcohol test, which the employee refused to do without a union representative. The employee was advised that a union representative could attend if available, but the employee continued to refuse to take the test in light of his inability to reach a union representative.

The employee was suspended pending investigation, and his employment was ultimately terminated a few days later.

The Administrative Law Judge rejected the employee’s challenge to his termination on Weingarten grounds, recognizing that “alcohol testing is time sensitive.” The Judge also found the company’s actions reasonable in light of the employee’s failure to contact an available union representative through the union’s 24/7 emergency phone number.

In other contexts, the Board has found that an employer’s refusal to allow an employee accused of alcohol or drug abuse union representation violated the employee’s Weingarten rights. The Judge in Fred Meyer Stores distinguished those cases in rejecting the employee’s claim in this case.

Fred Meyer Stores reminds employers that unionized workers must be given a reasonable opportunity to seek and obtain union representation before requiring a drug or alcohol test. However, an employer need not wait indefinitely and risk losing the utility of a time-sensitive drug or alcohol test before testing an employee for suspected substance abuse.