Seyfarth Synopsis: NLRB affirms ALJ’s ruling finding that a cocktail bar waitress was illegally fired for voicing workplace concerns during a staff meeting.

On April 26, 2018, in Parkview Lounge, LLC d/b/a Ascent Lounge, 366 NLRB No. 71, the National Labor Relations Board affirmed an NLRB administrative law judge’s ruling that found that a non-unionized employer violated the National Labor Relations Act by discharging a cocktail waitress in response to her engaging in protected concerted activity when she vocally discussed workplace concerns at a staff meeting.

The Facts

During an all-staff meeting on January 27, 2016, the cocktail waitress raised a number of concerns affecting employees at the employer’s facility, including concerns about the employer’s on-call scheduling system, its failure to provide certain workplace benefits, its recent decrease in the pay rate during parties, the cold temperature in the bar, and the uncomfortable uniforms imposed on servers. Other servers at the meeting nodded their heads in approval as the waitress voiced the various work issues.

After the meeting, the waitress sent an email to management in which she claimed that comments they had made to her were irresponsible, that it was her right to look for another job, and “I feel you’re personally holding a vendetta against me because I speak my mind on issues that affect us (the employees).” Just two days later, the employer’s operating owner fired the waitress, telling her she was being terminated because she did not get along with management.

The Board’s Ruling

In finding that the employer violated the Act in firing the waitress, the Board found that the employer had terminated the waitress in response to her raising group workplace concerns during the January 27th staff meeting. In reaching this conclusion, the Board observed that it was uncontested that the waitress was engaged in protected concerted activity when she voiced a number of group workplace concerns during the staff meeting, which were met by nods of approval from the assembled employees. The Board also found that the employer’s operating owner had knowledge of the waitress’s protected concerted activity when he made the decision to terminate her.

The Board further found that the employer held animus toward the waitress speaking out at the meeting, noting that the suspicious timing of the discharge (just two days after she engaged in protected concerted activity) was evidence of animus and that the employer’s proffered reason for her termination (her inability to work with management) was pretextual. In this regard, the Board observed that management had praised the waitress’s work performance just a week before her termination, and that the employer had listed performance issues as a reason for the waitress’s termination in its official report to the New York State Department of Labor. The Board ordered the employer to offer the waitress reinstatement to her former job or a substantially equivalent position and to make her whole for any loss of earnings or other benefits.

Employer Takeaways

The decision serves as a reminder that it is unlawful for both unionized and non-unionized employers to terminate employees for raising group workplace concerns. Because it is sometimes unclear whether an employee is raising group workplace concerns or purely personal gripes, when considering terminating any employees who have made complaints about their terms or conditions of employment, employers would be well-advised to consult labor counsel before proceeding with termination.