Severance Deals Get Hotel Bel-Air Nailed By NLRB For Labor Law Violations
A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that nails Hotel Bel-Air (Hotel) for offering severance packages to unionized workers highlights one of a range of potentially costly missteps that businesses conducting reductions in force or other re-engineering risk if they fail to properly understand and manage legal requirements when designing and implementing the change.
Since labor and other workforce-related risks are long-standing, some businesses, their leaders and consultants may be tempted to assume that prior experience means these are handled. The fact specific nature of the risks and changing rules and enforcement, however, makes it critical not to be over-confident. Legal and operational mismanagement of these risks can disrupt achievement of the purpose of the change and add significant added cost and exposure for the business and its management. Proper use of qualified legal counsel as part of the process is important both to help identify and properly manage risk and to leverage attorney-client privilege to help shield sensitive communications in the planning and implementation of these activities from discovery.
Employer’s Obligations To Negotiate & Deal With Union
Once a union is recognized as the certified representative of employees in a workplace, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) generally prohibits the employer from unilaterally changing term and conditions of employment or from going around the union to bargain directly with employees over layoffs, the effects of layoffs and other material terms and conditions of employment. As part of this responsibility, the NLRA and other federal and state laws generally require that employers provide notification to the union of planned reductions in force, plant closings or other operational changes that might impact the workforce and bargain in good faith with the union before conducting layoffs, or offering or making in work rules, compensation, severance or other benefits or other terms or conditions of employment.
In general, an employer’s duty to bargain with a union generally also continues to apply when the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the employer expires unless and until the parties reach agreement or impasse. While negotiations continue, the employer’s obligation to refrain from making unilateral changes generally encompasses a duty to refrain from implementation unless and until an overall impasse has been reached on bargaining for the agreement as a whole. See Pleasantview Nursing Home, 335 NLRB 96 (2001) citing Bottom Line Enterprises, 302 NLRB 373 (1991). The NLRB considers negotiations to be in progress, and will not find a genuine impasse to exist, until the parties are warranted in assuming that further bargaining would be “futile” or that there is “no realistic possibility that continuation of discussion . . . would be fruitful.” Saint-Gobain Abrasives, Inc., 343 NLRB 542 556 (2004).
Because the existence of impasse is a factual determination that depends on a variety of factors, including the contemporaneous understanding of the parties as to the state of negotiations, the good faith of the parties, the importance of the disputed issues, the parties’ bargaining history, and the length of their negotiations, Taft Broadcasting Co., 163 NLRB 475, 478 (1967), parties to the negotiation often do not necessarily agree when they have reached impasse. As the September 28 decision by the NLRB against the Hotel shows, employers that act unilaterally based on an overly optimistic determination of impasse suffer significant financial and other operational and legal risks for engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of Section 8 of the NLRA.
NLRB Nails Hotel Bel-Air For Failing To Bargain, Offering Severance Around Union
In its September 28, 2012 Bel-Air Hotel Decision, the NLRB ruled the Hotel engaged in unfair labor practices in violation of the NLRA when it offered severance packages to laid off workers in return for the workers’ waiver of recall rights without bargaining to impasse with the union representing its workers, UNITE HERE Local 11 (Union), about the effects of the temporary shutdown.
The NLRB also ruled the Hotel engaged in unlawful direct dealing by contacting the employees about severance packages without going through the Union even though the Hotel’s contract with the union had expired when the Hotel contacted the laid off union employees to offer severance in return for waivers. As a result, the NLRB ordered the Hotel to rescind the waiver and release forms signed by the Union members and to meet and bargain with the Union on these terms.
Bel-Air Hotel Decision Background
The NLRB order against the Hotel resulted from unfair labor practice charges that the Union filed against the Hotel after the Hotel offered severance packages directly to workers in exchange for the workers’ waiver of their recall rights while the workers were laid off during the Hotel’s temporary closure for renovations in 2009.
Before the Hotel offered the severance package directly to the laid off workers, the Hotel and the Union bargained for nine months about the terms of a separation agreement and recall rights for employees who would lose their jobs during a planned 2-year shutdown of the facility for renovation. In April, 2010, the Hotel gave the Union what it said was the “last, best, and final offer” on severance pay for unit employees laid off during the temporary renovation closure. While the Union and the Hotel did talk after the Hotel made this final offer. Unfortunately, the parties did not reach an agreement before their existing collective bargaining agreement expired or before the Hotel shut down the facility for renovation. After the shutdown, the Union and the Hotel stopped formal negotiations but had some “off the record” informal communications until June. With no resolution by the end of June, the Hotel moved forward unilaterally to offer severance directly to the laid off employees as outlined in its final offer.
Although the facility was closed and the employees already laid off when the Hotel’s contract with the Union expired, the Union claimed the Hotel remained obligated to negotiate with the Union. The Union said a flurry of “off-the-record” discussions between the Hotel and the Union leading up to and after the termination showed the parties had not reached impasse. The Union also separately charged that the Hotel violated the NLRA by going around the Union to directly contact employees to offer severance payments in exchange for waiving their right to return to their jobs when the Hotel reopened after renovation.
In response to unfair labor practices charges filed by the Union, Hotel management among other things argued that the Union no longer represented the employees when it offered severance and because the parties’ contract had expired and the parties were at impasse when the Hotel made the offer.
- Union Remained Representative Despite Layoff & Temporary Facilities Shutdown
The NLRB found “meritless” the Hotel’s effort to rely upon the NLRB’s decision in Sterling Processing Corp., 291 NLRB 208 (1988) to support the Hotel’s claim that it had no duty to bargain or extend the severance offers through the Union because it made the unilateral severance offer when the facility was closed and the employees were already laid off.
In Sterling, the NLRB found the employer’s unilateral modification of preclosure wages and working conditions did not violate Section 8(a)(5) of the NLRA because when the employer acted unilaterally, there were no employees for the union to represent because when the employer took its unilateral action, the employer already had permanently closed the facility and terminated all employees with no reasonable expectation of reemployment.
The NLRB ruled that the circumstances when the Hotel acted were distinguishable from Sterling because the unit employees on layoff from the Hotel retained a reasonable expectation of recall from layoff since the Hotel’s closure was only temporary and the Hotel had only laid off, and not yet discharged the employees when it made the unilateral severance offers. According to the NLRB, the terms of the severance offer evidenced the existence of an expectation of recall because under the terms of that offer, employees who accepted a severance payment waived their recall rights. See, Rockwood Energy & Mineral Corp., 299 NLRB 1136, 1139 fn. 11 (1990), enfd. 942 F.2d 169 (3d Cir. 1991)(finding that lengthy suspension of production did not relieve employer of its bargaining obligation where laid off employees had “some expectation of recall,” and distinguishing Sterling).
- No Impasse Because Of Informal “Off The Record” Communications
The Hotel also separately and unsuccessfully argued that its direct offer of severance benefits to laid off employees was not an unfair labor practice because the parties had bargained to impasse before the offer was made. In response to the Union’s claim that a series of “off-the-record” exchanges between the Union and Hotel after the contract expired reflected a continuation of bargaining, the Hotel argued that an impasse existed because the Union was not engaged in good faith negotiations and there was not any possibility that the informal discussions between the Union and the Hotel would result in any fruitful change in the parties positions.
In an effort to support its position, the Hotel management argued that the Union’s negotiation behavior with other Los Angeles hotels showed the Union had a practice of “artificially extend[ing] negotiations in bad faith” that supported the Hotel’s claim that continued negotiation would be futile. The NLRB rejected this argument too. It said evidence that the Union did not bargain in good faith to string out negotiations when negotiating with other businesses as part of a campaign to coerce all hotels city wide to agree to a standard contract had no probative relevance for purposes of determining if the Hotel and the Union had bargained to impasse in their negotiations and did not prove bad faith by the Union for purposes of its negotiation with the Hotel.
Having rejected these and other Hotel arguments and evidence of impasse, the NLRB ruled that the evidence indicated that the parties continued communications had narrowed their differences before and after the Hotel made its last final offer on April 9. Given this progress, the NLRB ruled that parties’ participation in informal off the record discussions well into June were sufficient to show the existence of some possibility that continued negotiations might result in a fruitful change in the parties position sufficient to obligate the Hotel to continue to bargain with the Union.
NLRB Order Carries Heavy Cost for Bel-Air Hotel
Complying the NLRB’s orders to remedy the breach will be painful and expensive for the Hotel, particularly since by the time the order was issued, the renovation was substantially completed.
To fulfill the requirements of the Order, the Hotel must, among other things:
- Bargain with the Union as the recognized and exclusive collective-bargaining representative of the employees about the effects on bargaining unit employees of the temporary shutdown of the hotel for renovation and, if an understanding is reached, embody the understanding in a signed collective bargaining agreement;
- Not deal directly with bargaining unit employees about severance, waiver and release or other terms or arrangements relating to the impact of the temporary shutdown on the bargaining unit employees
- Rescind the waiver and release agreements signed by individual bargaining unit employees which included the waiver of rehire rights; and
- Post a NLRB-mandated written notice in the workplace for 60 consecutive days in conspicuous places.
This means that the Hotel will have to work through issues about how to find positions for employees, if any, who originally agreed to waive their rehire rights who now wish to be rehired, as well as engage in expensive bargaining and the implementation of the terms of any resulting collective bargaining agreement.
Union Duties One of Many Potential HR RIF & Deal Traps
The NLRB’s prounion ruling is unsurprising. Since the Obama Administration took office, its NLRB appointments, rule changes and other activism are intended to and are promoting the strength and efforts of labor. See e.g. Labor Risks Rising For Employers Despite NLRB Loss Of Arizona Secret Ballot Challenge : HR Article by Ms. Cynthia Marcotte Stamer .
Collective bargaining responsibilities like those that resulted in the NLRB order against the Hotel are only one of many potential labor, human resources and benefits-related traps that businesses need to negotiate carefully when planning and executing layoffs or other workforce restructurings in connection with cost or other restructurings, business transactions or other activities impacting the workforce.
Some examples of other issues and risks that businesses involved in changes impacting their workforce also may need to manage include but are not limited to the need to manage discrimination, federal and state leave, whistleblower and retaliation, and other general employment-related legal risks and responsibilities; to give Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN) or state law required plant closing or other notifications to workers, unions, government officials, vendors, customers, lenders or other creditors, insurers or others; to disclose, review, modify or terminate contracts, employee benefit plan documents, communications and other materials; to modify fiduciary, officer, board or other assignments and other related insurance, indemnification, bonding and related arrangements; to comply with employee benefit and compensation related plan document, fiduciary responsibility, discrimination, communication, benefit funding or distribution, reporting and disclosure and other Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Internal Revenue Code, securities and other laws and regulations; privacy, trade secret, and other data integration, confidentiality, and information security and management concerns; Sarbanes-Oxley and other securities, accounting or related requirements; system and data integration; and many others.
Because improper handling of these or other responsibilities in connection with these responsibilities can significantly undermine the businesses’ ability to realize the financial and operational goals behind the action, as well as expose the business to potentially costly liability, businesses anticipating or conducting reductions in the force or other activities that will impact their workforce should seek advice and help from qualified legal counsel experienced with these concerns early to mitigate these concerns.
If you have any questions or need help with these or other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.
About The Author
Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to achieve their business and operational objectives and manage legal, operational and other risks. Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, with more than 25 years human resource and employee benefits experience, Ms. Stamer helps businesses manage their people-related risks and the performance of their internal and external workforce though appropriate human resources, employee benefit, worker’s compensation, insurance, outsourcing and risk management strategies domestically and internationally. Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker, who regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefit, human resources, internal controls and other related risk management matters. Her writings frequently are published by the American Bar Association (ABA), Aspen Publishers, Bureau of National Affairs, the American Health Lawyers Association, SHRM, World At Work, Government Institutes, Inc., Atlantic Information Services, Employee Benefit News, and many others. For a listing of some of these publications and programs, see here. Her insights on human resources risk management matters also have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications. Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit and Other Compensation Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and the Legislative Chair of the Dallas Human Resources Management Association Government Affairs Committee, she also serves in leadership positions in many human resources, corporate compliance, and other professional and civic organizations. For more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer, information about workshops and other training, selected publications and other human resources related information, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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