Network security and protection of confidential information are among the reasons many companies place limits on how and when employees may use company-provided email. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB or Board) has largely ignored if not outright rejected these legitimate concerns, finding that under certain circumstances, they are outweighed by employees’ right to use email as a means to engage in concerted activity protected by Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which includes union organizing. The NLRB’s March 24, 2017 decision in Purple Communications, Inc. reconfirmed the Board’s position, first announced in an earlier 2014 decision, that an employer that provides its employees with access to company email systems must presumptively allow employees to use those systems during non-work time to engage in NLRA-protected activity. Accordingly, under this standard, an employer who maintains a policy prohibiting employees from all use of company email during non-work time presumptively violates the NLRA.
It was precisely this type of non-work time email restriction that landed Purple Communications, Inc. in hot water with the NLRB. At the initial hearing in this case, an administrative law judge (ALJ) found that Purple’s total ban on non-work time use of company email did not violate the NLRA, relying on the NLRB’s decision from 2007 in Register Guard, which held that employees have no statutory right to use employer-provided email systems for Section 7 purposes, and thus allowed employers to prohibit non-work time use of company email systems, so long as the policy or practice did not discriminate against NLRA-protected activity. The parties on both sides in the Purple matter appealed the ALJ’s decision on this and other grounds, and the matter was taken up for consideration by the Board. After review of the record, a Board majority (in a three-to-two member decision) promulgated a new standard under the NLRA for employer regulation of its own email systems during non-work time (Purple I). The Board majority expressly overruled Register Guard, and held that under its new standard, employees are presumptively entitled to use their employers’ email systems during non-work time in order to engage in statutorily-protected communications. The Board announced that this presumption can only be overcome in rare cases where “special circumstances” exist to allow employers to maintain “production or discipline.” Notably, special circumstances cannot be established through the ordinary (yet entirely legitimate) concerns that affect all employers, such as those mentioned above concerning security or confidentiality of information. In its order setting forth this standard, the Board also remanded the matter back to the ALJ to enter an order consistent with the new standard. On remand, the ALJ predictably found Purple’s policy violated the NLRA under the Purple I standard. Purple once again appealed, asking the Board to reconsider the standard it announced in the Purple I decision.
On March 24, 2017, a majority of the three-member Board panel assigned to review the matter confirmed the standard announced in Purple I, without significant comment except to refer back to the original 2014 majority decision. Acting Board Chairman Philip Miscimarra dissented from the majority’s Purple II decision, as he did in Purple I, calling the standard it set forth “incorrect and unworkable,” and pointing out many of its practical flaws. Among them, Acting Chairman Miscimarra explained that the Purple standard fails to properly balance an employer’s right to control its technology resources, which are a significant expense to employers to maintain and secure, with employees’ NLRA rights. The dissent also pointed out that the decision limits employers’ ability to control work-time behavior, because an email sent by one employee during his or her non-work time often will be received and read by another employee during his or her own work time. In addition, the dissent noted the tension created by the majority’s decision between an employer’s legitimate right to monitor use of its technology, including email (allowing it to appropriately intercept improper communications, such as harassing or discriminatory communications for which it could be liable under other laws), with the NLRA’s prohibition of employer surveillance of NLRA protected activity. These and other concerns are likely now once again going through many employers’ minds when considering the Purple standard.
There is a silver lining for employers, at least for now. First, the Purple standard does not apply to employer regulation of email during working time, only non-work time. Second, the Purple standard only applies to employers who already grant employees access to company email systems in the course of their work; employers are not required to provide employees with email access they do not otherwise have. Third, the Purple decision only applies to company email, and not other forms of company technology. However, the latter restriction may only be temporary. Although the composition of the NLRB is expected to become more employer-friendly with the change in presidential administration, it is possible that the NLRB could use the same or similar reasoning from Purple to broaden the non-work time use requirement to other forms of company technology (cell phones and social network platforms, to name a couple).
Because of this, employers would be well-served to review their technology policies. Absent truly unique circumstances, employers generally should avoid policies that state a total ban on non-work time use of company-provided email. Bolstering other company policies, such as those that relate to confidentiality and time keeping, may help alleviate some of the problems meant to be addressed by a broad non-work time email ban. And, to avoid becoming the next name on a new NLRB standard, consider whether any non-work time use restrictions on other forms of technology might be overbroad under the reasoning in Purple.