Unemployed – the Newest Protected Classification

Buried in the rush of the holiday season, on December 11, 2013 the City of Madison, Wisconsin amended its Equal Opportunities Ordinance to include “unemployment” as a classification protected from employment discrimination.   (A similar effort failed at the Federal level a couple of years ago).

In rather circular fashion, Madison’s Ordinance defines “unemployment” as “the status of not having a job or employmnt [sic], being available for work and seeking employment.”  Section 39.03(2)(oo).

Thus, companies with operations in Madison may not refuse to hire an individual simply because the person is unemployed.  Nor can they post advertisements (or job descriptions) that list as an eligibility requirement that the applicant be currently employed.  Employers are also prohibited from discriminating against unemployed applicants in terms and conditions of employment, so presumably they could not offer lower starting pay to unemployed applicants.

The Ordinance does throw employers a small bone.  It somewhat clarifies that unemployment “does not mean, nor is it unlawful discrimination to inquire into or to consider or act upon, the facts and circumstances leading to the the [sic] status or condition of unemployment.” (Yes, there are two typos in the Ordinance’s two sentence definition of “unemployment,” supporting the notion that this change was hastily made).

Beyond the typos, however, the problems with the Ordinance are numerous.  First, the Ordinance affords the temporary status of being unemployed the same legal protections as  immutable characteristics such as race, gender, national origin, and disability.

Second, (and perhaps incredibly), the status of “unemployment” is now the 27th “protected classification” under the Ordinance, joining other narrow protected classifications like “victim of domestic abuse.”  (What employer either refuses to hire or fires someone because of that?).  In short, employers in Madison face more legal compliance land mines.

Third, and most importantly, the Ordinance creates more questions than it answers, such as:

(1) Is an applicant who has been unemployed a mere one or two days at the time she applies for a job protected from discrimination?  Or does the applicant have to be unemployed for a period of several months? (It appears there is no minimum time limit).

(2)  Is an employer now, as a practical matter, prohibited from asking on its job application whether the applicant is currently employed, or for the name of the applicant’s current employer?   These routine employment application questions may result in the disclosure of information that the applicant is actually unemployed, thus putting the employer on notice, and giving the applicant a theory in which to file a discrimination claim if not hired.

(3) Does the Ordinance allow or prohibit employers from taking into consideration that an applicant had long periods of unemployment in the past, but is currently employed?  (It would seem to allow this).

(4)  Is an applicant who is currently employed at the time of application, but then becomes unemployed while the application is pending, considered “unemployed” and protected from discrimination under the Ordinance? (It would seem the individual would be  protected).

I have posed these and other questions to the City of Madison’s Department of Civil Rights Equal Opportunities Division, but have not received answers as of yet.  Stay tuned.

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter
:  @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws

Fight Club’s First Rule of HR – You DO NOT Talk About Your Lawyer

Remember the classic scene in the movie Fight Club?  Brad Pitt, founder of the “Club,” is talking to prospective pugilists about its rules.  He boldly declares the First Rule of Fight Club: “you do not talk about Fight Club.”  He then gives the Second Rule: “you DO NOT talk about Fight Club.”  Needless to say, everyone got the point – keep your mouth shut to avoid trouble.

In homage to Fight Club’s simple genius, I offer a modified version of this Rule for Human Resource Managers:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER.

You see, part of my job as a management side employment lawyer is preventative in nature:  I  consult with companies before they make a termination decision.  I do so in order to help them (hopefully) avoid lawsuits, and to put them in the best position to defeat any litigation that ensues.  Among other things, the client and I discuss the rationale(s) for the termination decision, the performance history of the employee, the existence (or lack thereof) of supporting documentation, whether the company is following its own disciplinary policies and/or practices, and the legal risks involved if the employee falls into a “protected” classification under discrimination laws.

These attorney-client discussions are treated under the law as “confidential” – they are protected from involuntary disclosure by the “attorney-client privilege.”  I cannot ethically disclose them.  Likewise, the company representative I am talking with cannot generally be forced to reveal them at deposition, in an interrogatory answer, or at trial.  This protection is critical, as it allows the client and I to engage in candid discussions of sensitive issues, without the fear of later disclosure.

Unfortunately, HR managers often violate my modified Rule. They say things like “we checked with our lawyer and he told us ….,” or “we will talk with our lawyer and get back to you”  in termination or disciplinary meetings with employees, or when discussing “reasonable accommodations” with them. To a degree it is understandable, as part of the normal  “give and take” of a conversation with an employee.

Moreover, on their face such remarks seem harmless.  But in reality, they are subtly dangerous.  Why? First and foremost, the client may have just waived the attorney-client privilege.  Remember, the privilege is for the client’s benefit.  But it can also be waived by the client. Any statement that references the content of a client’s prior conversation with their lawyer will likely be construed (or at least argued) as a “waiver” of the privilege.

If waived, the employee’s lawyer could ask the client probing questions about the details of that conversation, including all statements made before the decision to discipline, discharge or not accommodate.  This could result in the disclosure of comments that, even if not acted upon by the client, will be presented as evidence of a discriminatory or retaliatory intent, and/or at least an awareness of the potential for litigation.  Such statements will be trumpeted as “smoking guns” for the company’s “real” motivation behind its decision.

Second, such comments often “raise a flag” in an employee’s mind.  The employee thinks his situation has become “serious” –  for goodness sake, the company just told him/her that its lawyer has become involved!   With this knowledge, the employee usually does one of a couple of things: (a) he becomes very sensitive and files a “retaliation” claim for any adverse employment action taken against him, believing it was caused by his raising of a “legal” issue; or (b) goes out an immediately retains his own lawyer to advocate on his behalf; or (c) both.

None of these outcomes are positive for the company.  So apply the First Rule of HR:

YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT YOUR LAWYER

Mitchell W. Quick, Attorney/Partner
Michael Best & Friedrich LLP
Suite 3300
100 E. Wisconsin Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53202
414.225.2755 (direct)
414.277.0656 (fax)
mwquick@michaelbest.com
http://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchquick
Twitter: @HRGeniusBar
@wagelaws