A new Georgia law has expanded the areas in which licensed gun owners may carry concealed weapons. On May 14, 2008, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed the “Business Security and Employee Privacy Act” into law. Guns may now lawfully be carried on public transportation, in restaurants that serve food and alcohol, and in parks and recreational areas. Of primary interest to employers, however, are the provisions of the Act that give employees the right to store a licensed firearm in a locked vehicle on an employer’s property.
The Act was heavily debated during the 2008 session of the Georgia General Assembly, largely because of its implications for employers. The law, informally dubbed the “parking lot bill,” generally prohibits all private and public employers from maintaining policies that permit the employer to search employees’ locked vehicles in employer-controlled parking lots or to search employees’ vehicles entering the employer’s property. The law also prohibits employers from conditioning employment on an agreement prohibiting an employee from entering the employer’s parking lot with a licensed firearm locked out of sight in the employee’s vehicle. Thus, the law effectively gives employees who are licensed gun owners the right to store firearms in a locked, privately owned vehicle on a private or public employer’s property. To fall within the protection of the Act, an employee must keep his or her licensed firearm locked out of sight in the vehicle’s trunk, glove compartment, or other enclosed compartment.
The Act provides several exceptions to its general provisions. Some employers, including most correctional institutions, facilities associated with electricity generation that are owned or operated by a public entity, U.S. Department of Defense contractors whose facilities are contiguous with military installations or are within one mile of an airport, natural gas and liquid petroleum transmission facilities, and water storage and supply facilities, are exempt from the employment-related provisions of the Act. Employers that provide employees with a secure parking area restricted from general public access (such as a fenced-in parking lot protected by a security gate) are also generally exempt from the Act’s employment-related provisions, but such employers are still restricted from searching vehicles upon entry to the secure parking area unless such searches are performed on a uniform and frequent basis. For any employer, searches of an employee’s vehicle are permitted when the vehicle is owned or leased by the employer, when law enforcement officers conduct the search pursuant to a valid search warrant or a valid warrantless search, when the employee consents to a search, or in “any situation in which a reasonable person would believe that accessing a locked vehicle of an employee is necessary to prevent an immediate threat to human health, life, or safety.” Employees on disciplinary action can be prohibited from bringing weapons on company property, and an employer may search the vehicle of such an employee to enforce the prohibition.
The Act also contains a broad provision preserving the right of private property owners and persons “in legal control of a property through a lease, a rental agreement, a contract, or any other agreement” to control access to such property. The Act does not make clear to what extent this provision may temper the general prohibitions applicable to employers when they are in legal control of property.
Further, the law contains an “immunity” provision intended to shield employers from any liability resulting from the storing of guns in vehicles on the employer’s property. It also provides that the law does not create any new duties of care or expand any existing duty of care on the part of property owners or employers.
The Act appears to create substantial new rights for employees in Georgia to bring licensed firearms onto employer-provided parking lots and to be free from employer-directed searches of their private vehicles on employer property, except in certain defined situations. These rights may be at odds with employers’ policies on workplace violence (which often prohibit weapons on company property), on workplace searches and inspections, and on substance abuse (which often contain provisions requiring searches of employee vehicles on company property). Employers in Georgia should review their personnel policies to determine if there are any potential conflicts with the new law. It should be noted that an Oklahoma law with provisions similar to those of the Georgia Act was recently struck down by a federal appellate court on the grounds that it was preempted by the Occupational Safety and Health Act because it limited the ability of employers to provide a safe workplace. The Georgia Act may be vulnerable to a similar challenge.