Recent developments continue the trend of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) expanding its influence over labor disputes. First, the Board signed an agreement with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under which OSHA will refer time-barred complainants under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) to the Board. Second, as part of an unlawful termination ruling, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) struck down a Hooters franchise’s mandatory arbitration and nondisclosure agreements and nine employee handbook rules.

NLRB and OSHA Agree on Referral Procedure for Time-Barred OSH Act Complaints

On May 21, 2014, the Board released documents detailing a new agreement with OSHA. Under the agreement, signed on March 6, 2014, and already in operation, OSHA agreed to notify all complainants who have filed, or have attempted to file, a time-barred OSH Act whistleblower claim of their right to file an unfair labor practice charge with the Board.

Section 11(c) of the OSH Act – which prohibits employers from discriminating or taking retaliatory action against any employee that has filed a safety complaint with OSHA, has or is going to testify before OSHA, or has exercised any rights under OSH Act – has a 30-day statute of limitations. OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels testified before a Senate subcommittee in April that more than 200 complaints annually are not investigated because the statute of limitations has expired.

Under the new agreement between OSHA and the Board, OSHA has agreed to refer all complainants with untimely OSH Act retaliation claims to the Board. The two organizations believe that some whistleblower claims may also implicate the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which prohibits employer actions that restrain an employee’s ability to engage in “protected concerted activity.” Because the NLRA has a statute of limitations of six months, complainants with untimely OSH Act retaliation claims may still be able to pursue  a claim before the Board. OSHA agents have been provided with talking points for encouraging time- barred complainants to contact the Board, and administrative closure letters also advise screened-out complainants to contact the Board.

The referral agreement is the most recent example of the Board’s ongoing attempt to expand its influence. While not all time-barred OSH Act whistleblower claims will raise a claim under the NLRA, employers may see an increase in the number of unfair labor practice charges filed with the Board.

NLRB ALJ Continues Interventionist Trend in Invalidating Work Rules, Arbitration and Nondisclosure  Agreements

In another recent decision, a Board ALJ ruled that a Hooters franchise unlawfully fired a waitress who complained about an allegedly tainted bikini contest, while striking down the company’s mandatory arbitration and nondisclosure agreements and nine employee handbook rules. Hoot Winc, LLC & Ontario Wings, LLC d/b/a Hooters of Ontario Mills, S 31-CA- 104872, (NLRB Div. of Judges May 19, 2014).

In April 2013, a Hooters waitress was fired after complaining about an allegedly rigged employee swimsuit contest with cash prizes. The waitress was discharged for cursing at the winner, posting disparaging comments about coworkers and managers on social media outlets, and violating a number of work rules, including rules prohibiting insubordination and disrespectful conduct. Following a trial, an ALJ ruled that the waitress’s discharge was motivated by her protected concerted activity of complaining about the contest.

The ALJ went on to strike down Hooters’ mandatory arbitration agreement, numerous employee handbook rules, and a non-disclosure agreement, all of which were found to unlawfully restrict employees’ rights under the NLRA. The ALJ first applied the controversial D.R. Horton decision to invalidate Hooters’ mandatory arbitration agreement, finding that the agreement prohibited employees from filing class actions and that it may have appeared to employees as precluding the filing of unfair labor practice charges before the NLRB. While federal courts have repeatedly rejected the Board’s D.R. Horton decision, the ALJ stated that he was bound by the D.R. Horton decision unless and until it may be overturned by the Supreme Court.

The ALJ also struck down a number of employee handbook rules as overbroad, including policies prohibiting staff from discussing tips with other workers and guests, insubordination, unauthorized dispersal of sensitive company material, conduct affecting the company’s smooth operation, and disrespect to the company and its employees, which forbid employees from posting negative comments about the company and from posting any information regarding a coworker. The ALJ found these policies infringed on employees’ protected concerted activity under the NLRA by precluding statements made to coworkers, supervisors, and third parties about objectionable terms and conditions of employment.

The ALJ also invalidated the company’s confidential information and nondisclosure agreement, finding the agreement impermissibly prohibited the disclosure of any information pertaining to terms and conditions of employment such as job duties, payroll or accounting records and practices, personnel policies and practices, including all matters related to employee training, selection, discipline, and/or discharge.

As the Board continues its trend of aggressively pursuing unfair labor practice cases, employers are reminded to consider reviewing their policies and agreements to ensure compliance with current NLRB precedent.

The Board memo announcing the agreement with OSHA can be found here, and related supporting documents from OSHA can be found here, here, and here.

The text of the Hoot Winc decision can be found here.