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May 2018 Archives

$7.9 M lawsuit award worth employers' attention

There's a common saying that, in business, if you're not growing, you're dying. Some dispute the truth of the saying. Other's stand as hard and fast believers. Wherever you happen to fall, there is one thing that most everyone likely can agree upon - that success doesn't happen without dedicated employees.

We think most would also agree that dedication is not a one-way street. Employers have a stake in pursuing practices that encourage employees to deliver their best. If employers wonder what practices to follow, a good place to start is to understand human resource regulation compliance. The law, as complicated as it can be, serves as a good benchmark.

Cautionary tale

What prompts these observations is a story making headlines. It didn't happen in Pennsylvania, but considering that the company involved has outlets all over the country, including in and around Pittsburgh, it is worth taking notice.

At issue was a claim of wrongful termination by a former manager of a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant. According to reports on her case, she was noted for being loyal and hardworking when in 2015, she was fired for allegedly stealing $626 from the store's safe. She denied the accusation, but attorneys for the company said they had video evidence as proof.

Here's where things go sideways. In the course of challenging the accusations, the former manager asked to see the video evidence, only to be told that it had been destroyed. During her wrongful termination suit, her attorney presented evidence to support his argument that his client was making $70,000 a year and was on track for promotion to a position paying $100,000, suggesting she had no motive.

Additional evidence included that the woman's firing came about a month after she had filed a workers' compensation claim for an injured wrist. Her attorney said she continued to work for weeks more and was fired after she took medical leave.

A jury returned a verdict against Chipotle and ordered the company to pay the woman more than $7.9 million in damages. And, facing the prospect of possible punitive damages of up to $71 million, Chipotle and the woman's attorney reached a confidential settlement.

The woman's attorney says the message of the case to businesses is, "That you need to treat your employees fairly and honestly."

Medical marijuana: Employer rights and obligations on testing

A recent news headline might have caught your eye. It reads, "More businesses are mellowing out over hiring pot smokers." The thrust of the item by The Associated Press is that employers across the country, desperate to fill jobs, are beginning to ease drug testing policies by eliminating marijuana from the list of suspect substances checked for in prospective new hires.

Experts cited in the article say the move reflects the fact that it's more difficult today to find qualified candidates for a growing number of open positions and that marijuana tests only make matters worse. One attorney is quoted as saying, "I have heard from lots of clients things like, 'I can't staff the third shift and test for marijuana.'" Even the current administration's labor secretary has suggested employers "step back" on drug testing.

It seems clear that the easing of restrictions on marijuana use in recent years is contributing to this situation. Nearly 10 states now regulate but allow recreational marijuana use. Another 29, including Pennsylvania, allow marijuana to treat medical conditions.

The fast-changing landscape on marijuana certainly means legacy employers and entrepreneurs seeking to start new businesses are facing unique legal challenges. Major issues to address can include such things as:

  • Drafting employment policies that meet your needs while protecting employee privacy
  • Identifying and managing background check and screening methods that pass legal muster
  • Finding ways to mitigate hiring risks while avoiding potential discrimination liability

Such matters have serious implications not just in employment, but across the entire spectrum of business operations. For the sake of current success and the achievement of long-term goals, be confident in your legal positions by consulting skilled employment law attorneys.

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707 Grant St., Suite 2646
Pittsburgh, PA 15219
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