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FAQ

Whistle Blower Laws

I was fired when I confronted my manager about my belief that the company was doing something illegal. What recourse do I have?

An employer cannot fire or retaliate against an employee for reporting the employer’s wrongdoing, or for confronting the employer or testifying against the employer in an administrative or court proceeding. Whistleblowers (those who report the wrongdoing) may receive compensation such as double back pay, special damages, and legal fees. However, time limits apply to take legal action against an employer who has retaliated. Depending on applicable federal or state law, in some cases, the time limit can only be 30 days from the date of the employer’s offense. It is important that the wronged employer seeks the advice of counsel as soon as possible after he or she has experienced employer retaliation.

For more information, see the following blog articles: Whistleblower Laws, In a Nutshell; Whistleblower Protection Act; and The False Claims Act and Qui Tam Actions.

I heard that I could receive a reward for reporting fraud against the government. Is this true?

Subject to applicable law, anyone, including private citizens, can sue on the government’s behalf and potentially be rewarded with a significant portion of the government’s recovery. False Claims Act laws have been enacted to enable persons (not only employees of the wrongdoer) to bring qui tam lawsuits in court on behalf of the state or federal government for actions amounting to fraud against the government. These laws exist at federal and state levels and provide reporting venues and protections for whistleblowers or “relators.”

For more information, see the blog article: The False Claims Act and Qui Tam Actions.

I own a small business that contracts with the federal government, and I have an employee who is threatening me with “whistleblowing” to the government because I am not providing him with “reasonable accommodations” under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Can the employer do that? Are small businesses required to comply with the ADA?

An employee can report illegal acts committed by his or her employer. Such an employee or “whistleblower” must have a “reasonable belief” that what he or she will disclose is truly a violation of law, rule, or regulation, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or pose a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety. An employee must be careful to not report unfounded violations.

Many anti-discrimination federal laws apply to employers with specific numbers of employees, including some small businesses. For example, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to employers with 15 or more employees. Other federal laws are triggered at different numbers of employees. You must also make sure to check applicable state and local law regulating your business.

For more information, see the blog articles: Whistleblower Laws In a Nutshell; Whistleblower Protection Act; and Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Disability.

What is a Major Issue on the Employee Side of Workplace Law?

We are seeing retaliation and whistleblower issues more and more frequently.
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Medicare and Medicaid Fraud

I work at a doctor’s office providing medical billing services. One of the doctors asked me to enter a Medicare code for a procedure that I think was not the exact one administered to the patient, based on the patient’s medical record. Is this fraud? Should I report it?

It may be fraud, but this evaluation must be made based on the facts of the situation. Knowingly billing for services other than the service actually provided is fraud. Doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, laboratories, pharmacies, goods providers, home-based health care agencies who receive Medicare and Medicaid funds, as well as those who receive funds from government health insurance programs (such as Affordable Care Act and military programs like TRICARE), billing companies, among others, are deemed to be government contractors subject to the federal False Claims Act and other applicable fraud laws. This includes fraud committed on the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

Regarding reporting, a “whistleblower” must have a “reasonable belief” that what he or she will disclose is truly a violation before reporting it. Consulting with knowledgeable legal counsel may help in making this determination.

For more information about this subject, see the Medicare and Medicaid Fraud and The False Claims Act and Qui Tam Actions blog articles.

Employment

I just got fired from my job without prior notice and was escorted out. Can my employer do this? Shouldn’t I receive severance pay? I thought Florida was a “Right to Work State” and I could not be fired without cause.

In Florida, subject to some limitations, an employment relationship can be terminated “at will.” This means that an employer can fire the employee, or the employee can walk away from the job, whenever they wish, for any reason or no reason at all. This applies unless there is a valid employment contract, specifying a definite term of employment or limiting the reasons for termination.

Florida law does not require an employer to provide severance pay upon employee termination unless this is specified under an employment contract or collective bargaining agreement.

The common law doctrine of employment-at-will is sometimes confused with the term “right to work.” While “at will” refers to the right to terminate the employment relationship, “right to work” refers to the right of a person to work without being compelled to become a member of a labor union.

For more information, see the blog articles: Employment-at-Will and Wrongful Termination in Florida; and Employment Severance Agreements.

Background Checks

When I applied for a job, I was asked to give permission so that the employer could check my credit, criminal background, medical records, and run a drug test. Can they do that?

An employer can perform background checks of job applicants and employees under certain conditions. The access to (and use of) a job applicant’s background information is regulated by federal and state laws. Employers must secure the individual’s (applicant or employee) written permission prior to obtaining a background check for employment purposes. In most cases, employers may access and use information only if it is relevant to the job, and although they may use the information to make a hiring decision, they may not illegally discriminate based on the information obtained. Florida state law limits the use of arrest and conviction records by employers for making employment decisions.

In addition, under federal and state law, employers may not request applicant or employee medical records and may inquire solely about the applicant’s ability to perform specific job duties. In Florida, an employer may not use HIV/AIDS as a basis for employment decisions (unless there is a legitimate occupational qualification). Florida law also prohibits mandatory sickle-cell trait testing as a requirement for employment, and it also bans employment discrimination on the basis of a person having sickle-cell trait.

Before a contingent offer is made, some pre-employment questions regarding illegal drugs and alcohol use are allowed, such as whether an applicant drinks alcohol or whether he or she is currently using drugs illegally. However, the employer may not ask a job applicant whether he or she is an alcoholic or drug abuser, or about their participation in a rehabilitation program.

For more information, see the blog articles: Employment Background Checks; Employment Criminal Background Checks; and Drugs and Alcohol in the Workplace.

Sexual Harassment

When I asked my manager for an increase in pay, he said he would consider it if I went on a date with him. I felt horrible. He keeps asking me out even though I have told him I am not interested and to stop asking. His boss does not do anything about it and actually thinks “it’s cute” that my manager “has a crush on me.” I am thinking about finding another job, as it is so uncomfortable for me to work under this constant pressure. What can I do to stop this behavior?

Sex discrimination in the workplace involves the unfavorable treatment a job applicant or employee because of his or her sex, his or her connection with an organization or group that is generally associated with people of a certain sex, or for their gender identity, transgender status or sexual orientation. Sex discrimination may arise in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and other employment setting or condition.
In addition, sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct that creates a work environment that is intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people. This conduct is illegal.
A victim of sex discrimination and/or sexual harassment has various legal remedies, including obtaining an injunction (to stop the wrongful conduct). Under federal law the victim may recover attorney’s fees, back pay, reinstatement or front pay, compensatory (e.g., emotional distress) and punitive damages. Liquidated damages, interest, and costs may also be available, depending on the claim.
For more information, see the Sex Discrimination in the Workplace; and Sexual Harassment in the Workplace blog articles.

Age Discrimination

I am 52 years old. I keep getting passed over for promotions. My boss told me that the company prefers “new blood,” and the “kids right out of college” have more energy and can work longer hours. I feel I am more qualified and have more experience. Isn’t this discrimination?

Age discrimination can occur through a discriminatory employment policy or practice. Under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), it is unlawful to discriminate against employees who are 40 years old or older because of their age with respect to any term, condition, or privilege of employment, including hiring, firing, promotion, layoff, compensation, benefits, job assignments, and training. ADEA applies to employers with 20 or more employees (including federal, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor organizations.)

Discussing the specific facts of your situation with legal counsel may help in making a determination of discriminatory conduct by your employer.

For more information, see the Age Discrimination in the Workplace blog article.

Disability Discrimination

I recently found out that I have a progressive condition that is causing partial blindness. I informed my employer about my condition. One week later, I was discharged from my job. Can my employer fire me because of my condition?

It depends on the nature of your job, whether the employer is subject to the anti-discrimination requirements imposed by law, and if so, whether providing accommodations for you does not cause the employer undue hardship.
Federal and state laws protect persons with known qualified disabilities by requiring employers to provide them with reasonable accommodations. These requirements usually apply to employers with 15 or more employees and are subject to undue hardship by the employer. Local ordinances may impose additional restrictions.
An employer provides a reasonable accommodation by facilitating, for example, special equipment, scheduling, or work assignments to aid the person in performing their job. The individual who receives the accommodation must still be qualified to perform the essential functions of the job and meet the normal performance requirements.
For more information, see the Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Disability blog article.

What are people’s biggest concerns when they come to you for a discrimination case?


Most people are concerned that they are making too much out of their issue when coming to our firm and that a lawsuit will draw even more attention to them.

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Pregnancy Discrimination

During a job interview, I was asked if I had any children or was planning to become pregnant any time soon. Is this allowed?

Questions during a pre-employment inquiry about an applicant’s pregnancy and medical history of pregnancy are generally viewed as “non job-related” and pose problems under the Title VII federal anti-discrimination law, unless the question is justified under a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ) and is essential to a particular position or occupation.

In addition, any employment questions or behavior displaying discrimination based on sex is prohibited under state and federal law.

For more information, see the Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Pregnancy, Sex Discrimination in the Workplace blog articles.

I believe I was denied a job assignment because I was pregnant. When I asked my manager, he told me that the job would be too demanding on me due to the effort required to complete the task, and that my being pregnant may jeopardize the project.  Can my employer legally refuse to give me the job assignment for this reason?

An employer may not discriminate on the basis of pregnancy unless it can prove the job is a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ) and the requirement is essential to a particular position or occupation.

Workplace discrimination on the basis of pregnancy involves treating a woman, whether a job applicant or an employee, unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth. Similar to other types of discrimination, pregnancy discrimination may arise in any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and other employment setting or condition.

For more information, see the Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Pregnancy blog article.

Work Breaks

I recently gave birth and need time to express milk at work, but my boss has told me I can only do this if I “get someone else” to replace me at the front desk while I express milk. When I asked him what would happen if I can’t find another employee to back me up while I am expressing milk, he told me that my job should be my priority and that I can leave if I don’t like it. Is this legal?

Nursing mothers have the right to express milk in the workplace as provided by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law establishing and regulating labor standards. The FLSA does not require covered employers to give breaks to employees for meals, rest, or to express milk. Florida law does not impose such a requirement, either.
However, many employers voluntarily provide breaks to employees as a matter of policy or contract, to rest, eat, and to enhance their overall working environment. Although employers may modify or revoke their break policies at any time, if they have them, they must apply them evenly to all employees.
Therefore, if an employer has a break policy in place, nursing mothers can use the provided breaks to express milk. If the employer does not have a break policy in place, the employer may deduct time taken by an employee for the purpose of expressing breast milk at work.
That said, courts have found discriminatory conduct when employers discharged workers for expressing milk in the workplace. The determination is made on a case-by-case basis and you should contact legal counsel to help assess if there has been discriminatory conduct by your employer, based on your specific situation.
For additional information, see the Nursing Mothers in the Workplace; and
Work Breaks blog articles.

My employer is not paying me for my lunch hour even though I work answering phones while I eat. Is this legal?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the federal law establishing and regulating labor standards, does not require employers to provide meal or rest breaks, but it does require employees to be paid for “hours worked.” Under the FLSA, meal breaks are generally not considered compensable hours worked, as long as the employee is fully relieved from work for the purpose of eating a meal. Therefore, if a covered employee must work during a meal break, this time must be compensated.
For additional information, see the Work Breaks; and Hours Worked blog articles.

Harassment and Discrimination

I work as a cook in a restaurant and some of my co-workers often make fun of my Spanish accent. They nicknamed me “Mexico,” even though my name is Roberto, and I am from Colombia. They treat other Hispanic workers similarly, and sometimes they tell us to “go back to Mexico,” so that we can free jobs for the locals, even though we are U.S. Citizens. My boss has told me that I cannot speak Spanish with any of the other workers in the kitchen, even if it is during a personal conversation. When I complained about the way my co-workers treat me and the other Hispanic workers, my boss told me that if I keep complaining I will get fired, that there are many people waiting in line for my job. Is this legal?

Workplace discrimination on the basis of national origin occurs when a job applicant or an employee is treated unfavorably because he or she is from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, surname, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).
Many employers have implemented “English-Only” policies at work prohibiting employees to speak in a foreign language, even while on break or when speaking with each other about personal matters. However, subject to narrow exceptions, under federal law “English-Only” policies are presumed to be discriminatory on the basis of national origin.
Discrimination is often accompanied by workplace harassment. This conduct becomes illegal when it is based on a class protected by the law, such as race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 years old or older), disability, or genetic information. Harassment often occurs in combination with other types of illegal conduct, such as discrimination. Federal and Florida law offer protections against harassment and discrimination.

However, isolated incidents of harassment do not rise to the level of illegality unless they are extremely severe. The conduct must be offensive, be a condition of continued employment, or severe enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Also, the victim does not have to be the person harassed and can be anyone affected by the offensive conduct of the harasser, such as a witness of the behavior. In addition, an employer may not retaliate against an employee for reporting illegal or discriminatory conduct (such as discharging or mistreating the employee).
Remedies awarded for harassment and discrimination depends on the type of claim, the individual facts of the case, and how it is pursued. Consulting with legal counsel will provide a better assessment of your specific situation and help determine the best course of action in your case.
For additional information, see the Harassment in the Workplace; Speak English at Work! Language and Accent Discrimination; Employment Discrimination on the Basis of National Origin; and Damages in Discrimination Claims, blog articles.

I have worked as a clothing store associate with my employer for over a year. I have had no problems whatsoever until a new manager came in last week. She asked me to remove my hijab (headscarf) because “customers may think you are a terrorist and decide not to come in the store.” However, I explained to her that I wear it in observance of my religion, and that there have been no problems whatsoever during the time I have held my job. She said that I look too much like a terrorist with my dark skin color and my hijab, and that I can either remove it or leave. Is this legal?

Workplace religious discrimination occurs when a job applicant or an employee is treated unfavorably because he or she has a certain religious belief or because of personal characteristics associated with such belief (such as dress or grooming). This type of discrimination may occur in combination with other types of discrimination, such as race and national origin.

Subject to limited exceptions and undue hardship, federal and Florida law make it illegal for an employer with 15 or more employees to discriminate on the basis of religion, national origin, and race, among other factors. Employers are required to provide adjustments to the work environment to allow the employee to practice his or her religion, such as: flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments, lateral transfers, and exceptions to dress or grooming rules. Undue hardship is determined on a case-by-case basis. Consulting with an attorney will help evaluate your particular situation and help determine if your employer’s conduct is illegal.

For additional information, see the Employment Discrimination on the Basis of National Origin; Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Religion; and Employment Discrimination on the Basis of Race or Color blog articles.

Claims

I have a friend who sued her employer for discrimination and recovered almost $2M within 1 year of her lawsuit. I work for the same employer and we were discriminated in similar ways. Will I recover the same amount from my employment discrimination claim?

One of the most frequent questions presented to attorneys as part of an employment discrimination case evaluation is: “How much is my case worth?” The short answer is: “It depends.”
People are often target of attorney advertisements on television, social media, radio, and even billboards, sharing their multimillion-dollar success stories. Showcasing a high recovery may set prospective clients’ expectations for similar recoveries. But sometimes these stories may be misleading.
The reality is that each situation is different, and the recovery in every case hinges on distinct variables. Estimating damages in personal injury cases or medical malpractice is much different than estimating a recovery for an employment discrimination case. There is guidance based on judicial precedent and regulatory guidelines, but there is no crystal ball.
Aside from the unique facts of each case, employment discrimination damages are shaped by a diversity of factors. These include, but are not limited to, the alleged violations, the applicable federal, state, and local laws, how much time has passed since the discrimination occurred, the defenses presented by the employer, the behavior of both parties, and whether the suit is brought at an agency level or by individuals, among other factors.
You should contact knowledgeable employment legal counsel to assess your situation, determine the viability of your claim, and discuss recovery expectations.
For additional information, see the blog articles: Damages in Employment Discrimination Claims (Parts I and II); EEOC Claim Processing; and FCHR Claim Processing.

How much time do I have to file an employment discrimination claim, and how long will it take for my employment discrimination claim to process?

This depends on the nature of the claim and whether you (the claimant) decide to file it at a federal and/or state level, among other factors. For example, generally, a Florida claimant must file his or her state claim within 365 calendar days after the discrimination took place. However, claimants wishing to also file at a federal level must submit their claims within 300 calendar days of the discrimination event. (The time limit to file a whistleblower claim for employer retaliation in Florida is 60 days.) The Florida Commission for Human Relations (FCHR), the state agency enforcing anti-discrimination laws, then has 180 days to investigate the claim. If the agency finds “reasonable cause” to believe that discrimination exists, it will notify the claimant. At this point, the claimant may bring a civil action for damages, request an administrative hearing, or request mediation. This process can take months and even years, depending on the dynamic of the claim processing.
Some federal claims require a “Notice of Right to Sue” from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prior to proceeding in court. For example, claimants who file a charge under Title VII (discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin) or under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) must have a Notice of Right To Sue from the EEOC before they can file a lawsuit in federal court. The EEOC generally takes about 180 days to resolve a charge, but if the case is complex or involves multiple charges, it may take longer.

For additional information, see the blog articles: EEOC Claim Processing, and FCHR Claim Processing.

Title VII Violations

What is Title VII and what is a violation of Title VII?

Title XII protects employees from actions taken by employers because of their race, age, national origin, or gender.
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Data Security

I heard on the news that my employer’s computer systems were hacked, and that my employment records, including my social security number and health information, may have been compromised. What legal recourse do I have against my employer for their carelessness?

In the electronic age, flawed or inexistent company policies, intentional third-party data attacks, and human error can lead to data breaches resulting in significant information and reputational losses for employers and employees alike. Employers are required to comply with various federal and state laws when collecting and managing job applicant and employee information obtained throughout the course of employment. This includes information gathered from background checks, drug, alcohol and health screenings, as well as information residing in employer computers, phones, and other information systems. Businesses are also responsible for the proper collection, security and privacy of data gathered from customers and other parties, including children.

The different federal and state laws impose penalties for non-compliance, which could overlap, depending on the nature of the violation. Some provide private causes of action while others do not. At a federal level, for example, a violation of the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) for the mishandling of background check information provides for a private recovery including costs, attorney’s fees, and punitive damages. Criminal sanctions may also be imposed under certain conditions. In addition, penalties may be imposed under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA) for the company’s negligent compromise of health information.

At a state level, for example, the Florida Information Protection Act (FIPA) penalizes an employer’s failure to provide adequate notice of a data breach to its employees and others whose information has been compromised. Failure to provide adequate notice of a data breach also violates the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA) and this triggers civil penalties that may accrue for every day the employer has failed to notify the affected party. Although FIPA does not provide for private redress, FDUTPA states that any aggrieved person may bring an action for appropriate relief, which may include actual damages, attorney’s fees, and costs.

Consulting with legal counsel may provide you with a specific assessment of options in your particular case.

For more information, see the Data Privacy and Security in the Workplace blog article.

I am a small business owner, and I suspect one my employees is using the work computer and email for personal purposes. When I asked for access to his work computer and email, he refused and requested to see the company’s policy on computer use and employee privacy. We do not have such a policy. What are my options?

Besides preserving data integrity and privacy, employers must be concerned with the improper use of their information systems by employees. This practice leads not only to economic loss, but also to heightened liability. For example, cyberloafing (employee personal use of their workplace Internet), accessing online pornography, shopping, gambling, transmitting personal emails or messages, and the use of social media via the employer’s information technology infrastructure (and sometimes even the employee’s own device) could impose liability on employers and compromise the health of the business.

In partnership with legal counsel, employers should establish sound workplace data protection and privacy policies and communicate these to employees. Such policies will enable the employers and their employees to efficiently and legally balance the competing interests of privacy, information protection, and a technology-driven environment. Once the policies are established, they should be enforced evenly with all employees.

For additional information, see the blog article: Data Privacy and Security in the Workplace.

Yesterday my manager asked me for my social media passwords. I heard that they are also asking the same from new job applicants. Is this legal?

At least eighteen states have passed laws banning employers from requesting the social media logins and passwords of employees and job applicants, but the attempts to pass similar laws in Florida have failed to date. At the time of this writing, Florida employers can request job applicants and employees to provide username and password information to their social media accounts. However, under current federal and state law, employers may not use the information obtained from these accounts to discriminate against applicants or employees on the basis of protected factors, such as disabilities, race or color, gender, national origin, religion, age, or genetic information. In addition, the federal bankruptcy law bans an employer from discriminating against an individual based on bankruptcy.

For additional information, see the blog article: Employment and Social Media (Part 1): Can my employer request my personal social media user name and password?

A co-worker of mine is also my Facebook friend, and he told me that my boss asked him yesterday to give him access to my Facebook posts via his account, and he did. I am not “Facebook friends” with my boss. Is this legal?

The unauthorized access to private social media information of an individual is protected under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which requires authorization prior to access and use of the information. In addition, an employer may not coerce an employee or job applicant into allowing access to their private social media information. An employer must secure lawful access or authorization to employee’s social media information, or they may risk hefty penalties, including prison.

However, under a particular set of facts similar to yours, a court found that an employer secured proper access to an employee’s social media account via a co-worker who granted permission to his supervisor to see the employee’s posts via the co-worker’s social media account.

As a matter of good practice, even when securing lawful access to their employees’ social media information, employers must refrain from acting adversely against employees for reasons having nothing to do with work, and especially, they may not discriminate against employees and job applicants based on factors that are protected by federal, state, and local laws.

For additional information, see the blog articles: Employment and Social Media (Parts 1-3)

Citizenship Discrimination

I am a permanent U.S. National with a work permit and recently applied for a job. During the job interview, I was asked if I was a U.S. Citizen. I said that I was not, but I provided my work permit. The interviewer looked it over, made a face suggesting he thought it was fake, and returned it to me. He then asked me to produce my “green card,” my passport, my birth certificate, and my driver’s license. I told him I did not have any of those documents with me, and he stopped the interview and said that they could not consider me for the job. Should I have produced all these documents during the interview?

No. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), as amended by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), no employer may ask applicants about their citizenship status before the applicant is offered a job. This includes the request of citizenship documentation. In addition, employers may not treat individuals differently based on citizenship or immigration status. Further, an employer may not exclusively hire U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents unless required to do so by law, regulation, or government contract.
IRCA also makes it illegal to require more or different documents than those legally acceptable for employment verification purposes; to refuse to honor the documents the employee offers if they are legally acceptable and appear genuine; and it prohibits intimidation, coercion, threats, or retaliation against those who file charges or otherwise cooperate with an investigation, proceeding, or hearing.
Protected persons under IRCA include U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, and the following classes of aliens with work authorization: permanent residents, refugees, and asylees.
In addition, employers cannot discriminate against job applicants, included undocumented job applicants, on the basis of protected civil rights factors.
You should consult with legal counsel to determine your options in your particular situation.

For additional information, see the blog article: Discrimination on the Basis of Immigration or Citizenship Status.

Non compete Agreements

I am a doctor who signed a non-compete agreement with a medical practice about three years ago. I have been offered a work-partnership opportunity about an hour away from my current employer. My employer told me that I couldn’t accept the new position because it would breach my current non-compete agreement. Is this true?

It depends on the terms of the agreement, among other factors. To protect their business and goodwill, employers can legally require employees to sign non-compete agreements. While the motivation behind this type of contract may seem reasonable, the terms of a non-compete agreement can be overreaching and may infringe on the employee’s right to earn a living once the employer-employee relationship comes to an end. This is one of the reasons why courts carefully scrutinize these contracts when they are at the center of a legal dispute.

Courts look at the law and the facts of each individual case to determine whether a non-compete agreement is reasonable in in time, area, and line of business. Typically, an agreement that is very broad will be held invalid. In Florida, any employment restraint 6 months or less in duration is presumed reasonable, and any restraint more than 2 years in duration is presumed unreasonable. For general contracts predicated on the protection of trade secrets, the timeframe increases.

In the medical profession, from a public policy perspective, the American Medical Association has openly expressed its opposition to non-compete agreements because of their effect in restricting competition, disrupting continuity of care, and potentially depriving the public of medical services. However, these agreements are still commonly required from doctors. Nevertheless, courts have invalidated them, for example, because a patient’s right to receive continued care from his physician outweighed a medical center’s business interest, or when medical patients are forced to travel excessive distances to receive care (i.e., the patients reside in a market segment far away from the employer.)

Consultation with legal counsel will provide a tailored assessment to your particular situation.

For additional information, see the blog article: Employee Non-Compete Agreements.

Independent Contractor

I fractured my hip after I tripped while working as a subcontractor on a three-month contract with a construction company to install drywall. When I requested to file a worker’s compensation claim with the company, they said that I was not covered because I was not an employee. Is this true?

The Florida Workers’ Compensation statute defines the term “employee” very broadly and may include independent contractors who work in the construction industry. An “employee” under the statute includes all subcontractors being paid by a construction contractor (unless they elected exemption under the statute) or who has otherwise secured the payment of compensation coverage for work performed by or as a subcontractor. Therefore, unless you elected to be exempted when you agreed to work for the company, it looks like you should be covered by their worker’s compensation policy. However, consultation with legal counsel will provide a proper assessment in your particular situation.

For more information, see the blog article: Independent Contractor or Employee? (Part 4): The Florida Workers’ Compensation Perspective.

I work for a company as a bookkeeper. When I started working for them, I did admin work, but then I received training in bookkeeping, which I have continued doing. I work full time from 9 am to 5 pm. They renewed my service contract on the 3rd month of work for another three months, and then again on the 6th month. It is coming to the 9th month of my working there, and they told me that they were planning to renew my contract again for another three months. When I asked them to pay their corresponding portion of my payroll taxes going forward and to provide me benefits like minimum wage and overtime, they refused and said that they would not do it because I was an independent contractor and not an employee. Can they do that?

The classification of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor for the purposes of federal taxation and benefits depends on analysis based on specific criteria.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has laid out over 20 factors to assess the employer-employee relationship, and these are weighed in the context of the work relationship, the type of work performed, and other circumstances. A main focus under the IRS factors is the level of control the employer exercises over the worker.

A different analysis applies for the purpose of determining benefits enforced by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Unlike the factors used by the IRS, which center in large part around the control exerted by an employer over the worker, the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) uses an “economic realities” test to make this determination. Courts have applied these factors to describe independent contractors as “workers with economic independence, who operate a business of their own.” Workers who are “economically dependent” on the employer, regardless of skill level, are classified as employees under the FLSA.

For example, under the IRS factors, if the worker must comply with specific company instructions, this points to employee status. If the company trains the worker, this also points to employee status (particularly if the training is offered by another employee). Likewise, working full time for a continuous period of time on a set hourly schedule points to an employer-employee relationship. So does the fact that the worker provides services of a personal nature. Therefore, based on these factors alone, it looks like the IRS may consider you an employee and not an independent contractor for the purposes of taxation, and they may require your employer to pay their corresponding portion of your payroll taxes.

Similarly, the DOL will weigh specific factors, including the permanency of the relationship, required special skills, and whether the work is an integral part of the employer’s business, to determine whether a worker is an employee who must be covered under the FLSA and receive benefits such as minimum wage and overtime. Based on these factors alone, given your situation, it seems that the DOL may also regard you as an employee for the purposes of FLSA coverage.

However, each situation is evaluated on a case-by-case basis under all the factors and criteria established, and you should contact an employment attorney to make a formal assessment of your situation.

For additional information, see the blog articles: Independent Contractor or Employee? (Part 1): The FLSA Perspective, and Independent Contractor or Employee? (Part 2): The IRS Perspective.

Unemployment

I was discharged from work, and when I filed for unemployment I was told that I was not covered because I was not an employee. However, a co-worker of mine who is also a subcontractor qualified for worker’s compensation after a work-related injury. Why is that?

In Florida, the classification of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor for the purposes of qualifying for unemployment benefits or “Reemployment Assistance” is based on factors laid out by common law, as dictated by Chapter 443 F.S. These factors are weighed in the context of the industry, work relationship, the type of work performed, and other circumstances.

The Florida common law factors consider the level of control the employer exercises over the worker to make the determination of whether the worker is an “employee” who can qualify for unemployment insurance. The Florida common law factors are separate from those laid out under the Florida Worker’s Compensation Statute, which provides a broader definition of employee.

For more information, see the blog articles: Independent Contractor or Employee? (Part 3): The Florida Common Law Perspective; Independent Contractor or Employee? (Part 4): The Florida Workers’ Compensation Perspective; and Unemployment Benefits

Wage and Owners

I am a full-time computer tech working for a large U.S. transportation company. I have been working overtime for quite some time without receiving pay for additional time worked. However, my manager tells me that the company won’t pay for overtime because I am an “exempt” employee. Is this true? If not, how can I recover my unpaid wages?

Whether you are “exempt” or not depends on various factors laid-out by law. The overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) apply to employees working for covered “enterprises” and also covers individual employees whose work involves them in “interstate commerce,” as defined under the law. It looks like the FLSA may cover your company and you as an individual, because the nature of the transportation business and your computer-related work likely affect interstate commerce.

The FLSA minimum wage and overtime requirements apply differently to employees of covered enterprises, depending on whether they are classified as non-exempt or exempt. Under the FLSA, an employee is considered exempt if the employee is paid a salary (not paid on an hourly basis); the salary is at least $455 per week; and the employee performs the duties of an exempt employee as described by the FLSA, generally requiring higher learning and supervisory responsibility. In addition, an employee in certain computer-related occupations under the FLSA is exempt if paid either on a salary or fee basis of at least $455 per week, or on an hourly basis of at least $27.63 for each hour worked. This is calculated on a 40 hour-per-week basis.

Regarding filing a claim, Florida follows the FLSA standards for minimum wage and overtime claims. Claims may be submitted to the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security for an investigation. A claimant may also file a lawsuit in court to recover wages. All federal claims must be filed with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), which has regional offices across Florida. There are time limits for filing, and these are different for federal and state claims, from 2 to 5 years from the date of the violation (or its discovery by the employee), depending on the situation and the claim-filing venue. Therefore, it is advisable to contact an employment attorney as soon as possible to evaluate your particular situation and your potential unpaid wages claim.

For additional information, see the blog articles: Wage and Hour Claims; FLSA “Enterprise” and “Individual” Coverage; Exempt or Non-Exempt? and Overtime Pay

Minimum Wage

I work as a cook for a Florida family-owned restaurant, and I am one of three employees. I get paid hourly. I am getting paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour of work, but a co-worker told me that we should be getting paid more. Is this true?

It may be true. Subject to some exceptions, under the Florida Minimum Wage Act, employers must pay employees the hourly state minimum wage amount for all “hours worked” in Florida. For all other minimum wage provisions, Florida follows the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA minimum wage rules apply only to covered employers and covered employees who are non-exempt. Based on the nature of the business of your employer and your work, you are likely covered and non-exempt, which means you should get paid the required minimum wage under Florida law unless you fall under one of the exceptions. For example, new employees under 20 years old can be paid a “training wage” of $4.25 for the first 90 days of employment.

The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) calculates the Florida minimum wage annually based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), effective the first of January. The 2016 Florida minimum wage is $8.05 per hour, higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

You should contact an attorney to assess your particular situation and determine whether you have a claim for back pay.

For additional information, see the Minimum Wage blog article.

Child Labor, Interns and Volunteers

I am 16 years old and want to become a veterinarian. I requested part-time work for pay at a veterinarian’s office to work on Saturdays. I think this will also be a great learning experience for me. The vet agreed, but they want me to be an unpaid intern, instead. Also, they hold a charitable event yearly to raise funds for a pet shelter, and they have asked me to volunteer to help prepare it. However, this will have to be during the week and during school hours. Can I go ahead and intern and volunteer, as requested?

Since you are 16 years old, there are some restrictions to your working, interning and/or volunteering under the conditions you describe.

Regarding working at your age, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) fixes the minimum age for work during school hours, performing certain jobs after school, and places restraints on work considered hazardous. Florida’s Child Labor Law also restricts the employment of minors, sometimes more than federal law. Once a worker reaches the age of 18, child labor laws do not restrict their employment.

The FLSA does not limit the hours worked for minors who are at least 16 years old. However, Florida law provides restrictions. For example, when school is scheduled on the next day, minors 16 and 17 years of age may not work before 6:30 a.m. or after 11:00 p.m., or for more than eight hours per day. They may not be employed to work more than 30 hours per week when school is in session. In addition, they may not work during school hours (on any school day), except when they participate in a career education program. There is no hour limitation when school is out of session, such as summer, spring break, or winter break.

Regarding working as an unpaid intern, the short answer is that you could do it if you become a “trainee.” Often, employers offer unpaid internships, usually to students or trainees. However, there are restrictions as to when employers can offer unpaid internships. Under the FLSA, an internship can be unpaid only if the employer is a nonprofit organization, if the intern earns formal college credit on the job, or if the employer provides training and learning opportunities to the intern. There are some specific requirements for the “unpaid trainee exception,” among them that you cannot displace an existing employee, and that you are the primary beneficiary of the experience, not the employer.

Therefore, in your situation, if you are not working under hazardous conditions, you should be fine working for pay at the vet’s office on Saturdays and even after school hours during the week, as long as you do not work after 11 p.m. during days in which you have school the next day. Also, you could be unpaid if you carefully follow the trainee requirements. However, the charitable event preparation requiring your time during school days and hours probably does not qualify as a career education program (unless formally established as such). To be safe, you and the vet should consult with an employment lawyer and provide more details about the event before you take time off school to participate, even as a volunteer. If the event were scheduled during off time (e.g., spring break or summer) then you may participate.

For additional information, see the blog articles: Child Labor, Interns and Trainees, and Volunteers.

I work for a nonprofit organization that I love, and I am often asked to stay after hours to “volunteer” time beyond my job duties. I am never paid for this additional work, but often I feel I am compelled to “donate” this time. Is this legal?

The Florida Minimum Wage Act and the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), require employers to pay covered employees for all “hours worked.” Subject to some limitations, individuals who volunteer or donate their time to public agencies and nonprofit organizations are not considered employees of the organization and do not need to be paid for their work.

However, the FLSA restricts employees of a nonprofit organization from donating services that are the same as, similar, or related to their regular job duties in their employer organization. If an employer requires the employee to spend additional time on the premises after work to “volunteer,” the time spent is considered working time. But if the time is spent voluntarily in activities outside of the employee’s normal working hours, then this time is not considered hours worked.

You should consult with an employment attorney to provide additional details to determine if you should get paid for the extra time worked in your particular situation.

For more information, see the blog articles: FLSA Enterprise and Individual Coverage, Exempt or Non-Exempt? Employee Classification Under FLSA; Overtime Pay; Hours Worked and Volunteers.

Family Medical Leave Act

My spouse and I are finalizing the adoption of our 5-year-old son. When I requested time from my employer under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to travel to Africa to finalize the administrative details of the adoption, my employer denied it, stating that the FMLA does not apply to preliminary arrangements for adoptions, just when the adopted child arrives in the home. Is my employer correct?

No. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became effective in 1993 to help balance workplace demands with specific family and medical needs of the eligible employees of covered employers. Under the FMLA, an employee may request FMLA leave before the placement of a child for adoption in order to tend to administrative processing and legal counsel visits. Eligible employees may take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave in a 12-month period for one or more specific reasons. Eligible employees include those who have worked for an employer with 50 or more employees for at least 12 months and have provided at least 1,250 hours of service to the employer during the 12-month period immediately preceding the leave.

Consulting with an attorney will help determine your eligibility, and if you are eligible, the course of action you should take to enable your rights under the FMLA.

For additional information, see the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (Parts 1 and 2) blog articles.

My partner was diagnosed with leukemia and despite undergoing chemotherapy his condition is now terminal. He was told he has a month to live. I requested FMLA leave from my employer to spend the last days of my spouse’s life at home, caring for him. My employer denied it, stating that “the FMLA does not apply to gays.”

The Department of Labor (DOL) has issued clear guidance that its FMLA protections apply to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) eligible employees. The DOL’s Final Rule issued on February 25, 2015 and effective on March 27, 2015, amended the regulatory definition of spouse under the FMLA so that eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages are also able to take FMLA leave. The FMLA’s definition of spouse expressly includes individuals who are in lawfully recognized same-sex and common law marriages and marriages that were entered into legally outside of the United States, if they could have been legally entered into in at least one state in the United States.
If you are otherwise eligible and your employer is covered, your employer needs to provide you with the requested FMLA leave. In addition, you may have a discrimination claim against your employer. You should discuss your situation with knowledgeable legal counsel to assess your claim.
For additional information, see the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) (Parts 1 and 2) blog articles.

Military Veterans Rights

I was deployed to Afghanistan a year ago and lost my sight due to an explosion in combat. I contacted my former employer to return to work last week, but they said that my position is no longer available due to the length of my absence. I asked if they could provide another job for me, and they said they could not because this would cause them an “undue hardship.” A former co-worker told me that he overheard the managers saying they just did not want to deal with my blindness and other potential issues I may have, like PTSD. What are my options?

A number of federal and state laws provide important job protections for veterans, particularly those who become disabled while in service. In addition to ensuring their reemployment upon returning from service, some afforded protections extend to affirmative action allowing the preferential hiring of veterans by covered employers. In addition, the law protects veterans against discriminatory practices in the workplace.
For example, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) requires employers to take reasonable efforts to help returning veterans to become qualified for the job they would have held but for their military service. Employers must also make reasonable efforts to accommodate veterans with disabilities, whether service-acquired or not, and if they are not qualified for the job due to a disability, the employer must make reasonable efforts (including providing training or retraining) to help them qualify for an equivalent job with equivalent seniority, status and pay.
In addition, under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is illegal for an employer to refuse to hire a veteran because he or she suffers from blindness, among other conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), deafness, blindness, partially or completely missing limbs, mobility impairments requiring the use of a wheelchair, major depressive disorder, among other disabilities, whether service-connected or not. Under the ADA, absent undue hardship, job applicants and employees with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations when applying for employment, while performing their jobs, and to enjoy equal benefits and privileges of employment.
Several other laws apply to protect veterans. It is best to consult an employment attorney to discuss your specific situation and determine available options.
For more information, see the blog article: Employment Rights of Military Veterans.

Gender/Sexual Orientation Discrimination

I started working a new job about three months ago, and a co-worker found out that I am transgender. She has complained to my manager that I should not use the female restroom because she feels uncomfortable, and I am being forced to use the male restroom, where other men constantly harass me. My co-workers also frequently laugh at me and–even though it is not my name–they call me “Bruce,” alluding to the former name of Caitlyn Jenner, the famous athlete who recently underwent a transgender transition. The harassment is overwhelming me. I have complained to my manager about the situation, but she told me to leave if I don’t like it there. What are my options?

Workplace discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation is among the most harmful forms of discrimination. It consists in the mistreatment of others based on false preconceived notions of gender stereotypes. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) workers affected by discrimination report having to change or leave their jobs to avoid mistreatment. Individuals who are victims of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity have legal recourse under federal law as a form of sex discrimination. This is so, even in states like Florida, where gender identity and sexual orientation are not explicitly protected.
A number of local governments throughout Florida ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and some others also ban discrimination based on gender identity. And even if state or local laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will still enforce the Title VII discrimination prohibitions against covered employers because contrary state law is not a defense to the violation of Title VII and other federal laws offering higher protection than state law.
Claims for employment discrimination and workplace harassment can arise for actions such as making offensive or derogatory remarks about a person’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

Therefore, you can leverage existing anti-discrimination laws to obtain an injunction and stop the workplace behavior from occurring and to seek redress for any injuries caused by the behavior, such as loss of income or opportunity as a result of the discrimination. You may be able to recover attorney’s fees, back pay, reinstatement or front pay, compensatory (e.g., emotional distress), and punitive damages. Liquidated damages, interest, and costs may also be available, depending on the claim. Injunctive relief is also available in cases of employer retaliation. Local ordinances may provide additional redress.

You should contact an employment attorney to discuss your particular situation and obtain a specific assessment based on additional detail in your case.

For more information, see the blog article: Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity (Transgender) and Sexual Orientation.

Unequal Pay

I just found out that my employer has been paying my co-worker almost 30% more than me. However, I am more qualified and have more education experience. I think it is because I am a woman. What are my options?

The Equal Pay Act (EPA) requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. Their positions do not need to be the same, but they must be substantially equal as measured by job description (not titles.) EPA applies to all forms of pay beyond salary, and it also extends to benefits, such as bonuses, life insurance, stock options, profit sharing, expense reimbursements, as well as paid leave, among other forms of compensation. In addition, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) also makes it illegal to discriminate based on sex in pay and benefits. Therefore, a victim of pay discrimination on the basis of gender may have both, a claim under EPA and a claim under Title VII.
In addition to gender, pay discrimination may also occur on the basis of other factors such as race, color, religion, national origin, age, or disability. This may bring in other applicable laws that prohibit compensation discrimination on the basis of protected factors.
You should consult employment legal counsel to discuss viable options in your specific situation.
For additional information, see the blog articles: Unequal Pay, and Discrimination on the Basis of Sex.

Hiring an Attorney

What should you Look for When Hiring an Employment Attorney?

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Burruezo & Burruezo has an extensive intake process to ensure that we are a good match for each client.
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