A New York restaurant owner recently got a taste for the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), and discovered that it can be quite bitter for employers. The case, which can be viewed by clicking here, is a lesson to employers that firing critical employees can put them in hot water.
One of the restaurant’s employees quit and sent her boss, along with some of her co-workers, an email discussing how the restaurant had become a terrible place to work, with her boss mistreating her and her co-workers. Several of the disgruntled employee’s co-workers replied to the email expressing their support and agreement. Management then fired these employees, calling their conduct “deeply insubordinate.”
The fired employees sued their employer, claiming that they had been fired for engaging in concerted activities protected by the NLRA. The NLRA makes it illegal for employers to fire employees for bringing grievances about the workplace or their working conditions to their employer’s attention. It also makes it illegal for employers to prohibit employees from unionizing or discussing unionization.
The judge presiding over the case ruled that the firing of the employees violated the NLRA because the employees were engaging in criticism of their employer through an ongoing dialogue. He held that the email was not intended to harm the business, nor was it a disrespectful act of insubordination. He held that it did not harm the employer in any way, but merely critiqued the employer’s management style.
The judge ordered the employer to restore the fired employees to their previous positions, and to reimburse them for their lost earnings, their job-search and interim-employment expenses, and to remove any reprimands from their employee files.
The lesson for employers is to not automatically discipline employees for making complaints, as this may be a violation of the NLRA. Only if the complaints are harmful to the business or constitute clear insubordination will they provide an employer with a legally-justifiable cause to fire an employee. The line between complaints protected by the NLRA and those which are not is a fine one that is often quite dependent upon the particular facts of a case. Employers may want to consider contacting an attorney for advice on dealing with a particular employee complaint.