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What the New Massachusetts Equal Pay Act Will Do to Address the Wage Gap, What It Means for Women, and How Women Can Use This Law in Their Favor

Posted on: March 30th, 2018 by admin

 

 

At First Glance

On July 23, 2016, the Massachusetts Legislature passed the Act to Establish Pay Equity (the “Equal Pay Act”), M.G.L. c.149, Section 105A, which is to take effect on July 1, 2018..

While the terms “equal” and “pay equity” come up frequently in discussions of the Equal Pay Act, the new law will not mandate that wages between women and their male coworkers be equal. However, it will increase transparency concerning wages, and make remedies available to women who are paid less than their male coworkers for “comparable work.”

The Equal Pay Act forces employers to evaluate their pay practices to ensure there is no discrimination in wages or salary on the basis of gender alone.  Further, the law provides employees with the freedom to discuss wages and salary amongst themselves, giving female employees more access to information about how their pay rates compare with those of male employees doing “comparable work.”

What is “Comparable Work”?

Employees who do “comparable work” are not simply employees with identical job titles or job descriptions.  Under the Equal Pay Act, two employees are said to perform “comparable work” if their jobs “require[s] substantially similar skill, effort and responsibility and [are] performed under similar working conditions.”

What Employers CANNOT Do under the Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act states:  “No employer shall discriminate in any way on the basis of gender in the payment of wages, or pay any person in its employ a salary or wage rate less than the rates paid to its employees of a different gender for comparable work.” The Act also makes clear that if an employer is violating the Equal Pay Act by, for instance, paying female employees $20 per hour and male employees $22 per hour for comparable work, the employer may not lower everyone’s wages to $19 per hour just to become compliant with the law.

What Employers CAN Do under the Equal Pay Act

There are still six instances in which employers can legally pay different wages and/or salaries to people doing comparable work. Employers are NOT considered to be in violation of the Equal Pay Act if differences in pay are based on:

  1. Seniority with the employer, as long as seniority is not reduced by any time an employee spends on leave for a pregnancy-related condition or on parental, family or medical leave;
  2. A merit system;
  3. Certain productivity benchmarks;
  4. Differences in the geographic locations where the jobs are performed;
  5. Differences in employees’ education, training, or experience, if “reasonably related to the particular job in question”; or
  6. Differences in regularly required, necessary travel.

The Impact of the Equal Pay Act: Before the Job and on the Job

Before you get a job, an employer cannot request your wage or salary history from you or from your current or former employer, nor can an employer require that your prior wage or salary history meet certain criteria. But if you volunteer such information to an employer that is considering hiring you, the employer may:

  1. Confirm your prior wages, or permit you to confirm prior wages or salary; or
  2. Seek or confirm your wage or salary history after an offer of employment with compensation has been negotiated and made to you, the prospective employee.

Once you start work and are on the job, an employer cannot require that, to keep your job, you refrain from asking other employees about their wages or from sharing information about your own wages.

Importantly, an employer cannot fire or otherwise retaliate against you if you challenge anything the employer does that is in violation of the Equal Pay Act; mention an intention to complain about such conduct; participate in any investigation or proceeding concerning a violation of the Equal Pay Act; disclose your own wages or salary; or discuss other employees’ wages or salaries with them.

What Do You Do If Your Employer Is Violating the Equal Pay Act?

You may take legal action against your employer for any violation of the Equal Pay Act. Such an action must be taken within three years after the date of the alleged violation.

What Are the Possible Results of Taking Legal Action Against Your Employer for an Equal Pay Act Violation?

If your employer is found to have violated the Equal Pay Act, the employer may be required to compensate you for unpaid wages, plus an equal amount of liquidated damages (an amount of damages that is calculable by the Court). In addition to any judgment obtained, you would be entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs in connection with your action, to be paid by the employer.

Employment Agreements and Lack of Intent to Discriminate are NOT Defenses.

If you are a female employee receiving less pay than a male colleague for comparable work (and none of the exceptions described above apply), this is a violation of the Equal Pay Act even if your employer insists it didn’t mean to discriminate; whether the employer meant to or not is irrelevant under the law. Furthermore, even if you signed a contract when you were hired agreeing to a wage that was less than what the Act legally entitled you to, your employer cannot use the agreement as a way to avoid legal responsibility for the violation. Similarly, if you were paid less at a previous job than the Equal Pay Act now entitles you to, this cannot be used by your current employer as a justification for illegally underpaying you.

An Employer’s Line of Defense: The “Self-Evaluation”

An employer who is found to have violated the Equal Pay Act has a potentially valid defense if it can show (a) that it has conducted a “Self Evaluation” of its own pay practices within three years of the violation, and (b) that it has made “reasonable progress… towards eliminating the wage differentials based on gender for comparable work in accordance with that evaluation.” While the Attorney General may, in the future, establish specific requirements for the detail and scope of an employer’s Self Evaluation, there are no such requirements in the current version of the Equal Pay Act. It is up to the judge or other arbiter evaluating a case to determine whether the employer’s evaluation was sufficient.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.

$1.2M Bennett & Belfort Verdict Receives National Attention

Posted on: February 8th, 2018 by admin

ReservoirThe January 18, 2018, Richard DaPrato v Massachusetts Water Resources Authority $1,235,000 jury verdict has generated national media attention.  Mr. DaPrato sued the MWRA for firing him because he took medical leave for foot surgery and planned future leave.  He sued the MWRA in Suffolk Superior Court based on claims for discrimination and retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA (29 U.S.C. sec. 2601 et seq.)), The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and under the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act, M.G.L. c. 151B.

2013-david-b-photo-150x150Mr. DaPrato was represented in the litigation by Bennett & Belfort partner David E. Belfort  and senior associate Andrew S. McIlvaine .   They co-counseled with attorney Robert S. Mantell of Powers, Jodoin, Margolis & Mantell LLP of Boston.  After 7.5 days of trial and a second day of deliberations the 14 person jury found that Mr. DaPrato was deliberately retaliated against for taking medical leave for surgery and seeking future leave.  The jury’s award is broken down as follows:

$    19,777.00 Lost Back Pay

$  300,000.00  Lost Front Pay

$  200,000.00 Emotional Distress

$  715,385.00  Punitive Damages

$1,235,162.00 Total Jury Award

 

The final judgment has not yet been issued, but is expected to include pre-judgment interest, liquidated damages under the FMLA and attorneys’ fees as permitted by state and federal law.

EMPLOYER ALERT: NEW PREGNANT WORKER LAW STARTS APRIL 1ST

Posted on: January 25th, 2018 by admin

pregnant women

On April 1, 2018, An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, (“PWFA”) goes into effect.  All employers in Massachusetts should be aware of this law.  The PWFA extends the protections of Massachusetts anti-discrimination law (Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 151B) to pregnant workers within the Commonwealth, and grants additional safeguards for pregnant workers seeking workplace accommodations relating to their pregnancy. The PWFA specifically extends coverage for pregnancy, and related conditions, including lactation.

Essentially, the PWFA applies the reasonable accommodation standards that are used in disability cases to pregnancy, and requires employers to engage in an interactive process and to provide employees reasonable accommodations, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer. The PWFA includes a non-exhaustive list of specific accommodations that may be available to pregnant employees, including:

(1)   Time off to recover from childbirth (with or without pay);

(2)   More frequent or longer breaks (with or without pay);

(3)   Temporary transfer to a less strenuous/hazardous position;

(4)   Job restructuring;

(5)   Light duty;

(6)   Private non-bathroom space for expressing breast milk;

(7)   Assistance with manual labor; or

(8)   Modified work schedules.

The PWFA requires the need to engage in an interactive process, which is essentially a dialogue between the employee and employer concerning possible accommodations that may be available.

The PWFA also makes it illegal for an employer to: (1) retaliate against pregnant workers who seek accommodations, (2) refuse to hire an individual who may need an accommodation  relating to pregnancy or the need to express breast milk; (3) require a pregnant or lactating employee to accept an accommodation that does not enable them to perform the essential functions of their job; (4) require a pregnant or lactating employee to take a leave of absence, when other accommodations may be available; and (5) refuse to hire an individual because of her pregnancy ore related condition.

Importantly, all employers covered by the act are required to provide written notification to existing employees of their rights under the PWFA on or before April 1, 2018, and new employees at the start of their employment.

As with other violations of Chapter 151B, employers who fail to comply with the provisions set forth in the PWFA may be liable for back pay, front pay, emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.

 

 

Bennett & Belfort secures $1,235,000 Jury Verdict v MWRA

Posted on: January 18th, 2018 by admin

2013-david-b-photo-150x150A Suffolk County jury today awarded $1,235,000 to Richard DaPrato against the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). In reaching today’s verdict, the jury concluded that the MWRA deliberately retaliated against Mr. DaPrato  after 11 years of unblemished service by firing him for taking medical leave for surgery, and for requesting future leave.

Mr. DaPrato was represented by David E. Belfort of Bennett & Belfort PC of Cambridge and Robert S. Mantel of Powers, Jodoin, Margolis & Mantell LLP of Boston. The jury strongly rejected the Authority’s argument that Mr. Daprato violated the public trust.  Instead, the jury found that the MWRA, a public entity, violated Mr. DaPrato’s rights to medical leave under both the Family Medical Leave Act and the Massachusetts Fair Employment Practices Act (M.G.L. 151B)

The Jury awarded Mr. Daprato $320,000 in lost pay damages, including his future pension losses, in addition to $200,000 in emotional distress damages.  The Jury issued punitive damages to deter future outrageous conduct by the MWRA in an amount of $715,000.

David Belfort said, “This decision affirms the rights of employees to request and take legally protected medical leave without being subjected to adverse action.”

The final judgment, which has not yet been entered, will also include pre-judgment interest and a petition for Mr. DaPrato’s attorneys’ fees is forthcoming.  (See Jury Verdict Slip Below)

DaPrato Verdict 1.18.18_Page_1DaPrato Verdict 1.18.18_Page_2

 

Partner, Eric LeBlanc, quoted in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Article Regarding an Employee’s Successful Post-Termination Claim of Workplace Retaliation

Posted on: January 11th, 2018 by admin

wwa_eric-117x150Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly sought commentary from Bennett & Belfort partner, Eric LeBlanc, in its article on a recent U.S. Bankruptcy Court decision concerning a contract worker’s claim against her former employer’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy estate for severance pay.  (“At-will worker can seek severance against bankruptcy estate: Company’s failure to offer benefits deemed retaliatory,” Mass. Lawyers Weekly, December 21, 2017.)  Dr. Christine Briggs, while an at-will employee of Genesys Research Institute, Inc., was one of a number of workers who filed whistleblower complaints against the company for alleged misuse of restricted funds.  Although an employer is not required to offer severance pay when laying off an at-will employee, Dr. Briggs discovered that when Genesys terminated at-will employees in a series of layoffs prior to filing for bankruptcy, it had systematically offered severance to those who had not lodged whistleblower complaints but failed to offer severance to those who had made complaints.  In the case, In Re: Genesys Research Institute, Inc., Justice Joan Feeney concluded that the employer’s conduct was retaliatory, and thus Dr. Briggs, although an at-will employee, was entitled to claim severance pay.

Attorney LeBlanc remarked that the Judge’s decision is significant because the court sustained a claim concerning an employer’s retaliatory conduct that occurred after the employee’s termination.  “There are mitigating factors in this case because it was a bankruptcy decision with a different burden-shifting, and the trustee made limited attempts to refute the claim,” Attorney LeBlanc told Lawyers Weekly. “But it could still be applicable in assisting plaintiffs in getting over an initial hurdle regarding a potential retaliatory action that occurs post-termination… Put more simply, you can use post-termination employer behavior to potentially prove either discrimination or retaliatory animus.”

From a common-sense, layperson’s perspective, it goes without saying that retaliation and discrimination by any person or entity against another can post-date the technical termination of the relationship between perpetrator and victim.  The case law in this regard is, however, a work in progress.

BENNETT AND BELFORT, P.C. PARTNER, TODD BENNETT, QUOTED IN THE BOSTON BUSINESS JOURNAL

Posted on: December 8th, 2017 by admin


tb-124x150Bennett and Belfort, P.C. partner, Todd Bennett, was quoted in the November 29, 2017 Boston Business Journal article entitled, “Biotech’s #MeToo Moment.” https://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2017/11/29/biotech-s-metoo-moment-lawyers-say-bias-harassment.html.  The article is about the recent uptick in claims of sexual harassment and gender discrimination being brought by female employees in the biotech industry.  Attorney Bennett stated that in his experience, there remains an “inaccurate stereotype among leadership, which is predominantly male, that women lack the scientific acumen to either perform the necessary functions of their jobs or to be promoted to a leadership role,” which is oftentimes used as a “pretext for the failure to promote or hire.”

In light of the current publicity concerning widespread sexual harassment by prominent and powerful figures in the entertainment and media industries, we believe that more and more women are realizing not only that it is permissible and personally empowering to  speak out when subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination at their jobs, but that these complaints may very well give others the courage to come forward and may prevent future employees from suffering the severe emotional distress caused by such unacceptable and unlawful behavior.

National Business Institute (NBI) Human Resource Law Seminar

Posted on: August 11th, 2017 by admin

 

wwa_eric-117x150
On July 12, 2017, Bennett & Belfort partner Eric R. LeBlanc spoke at the National Business Institute (NBI) Human Resource Law Seminar alongside Debra Dyleski‑Najjar, Julie A. Moore, Sarah E. Worley, Laurel M. Gilbert, Richard S. Loftus and Jeffrey S. Siegel.  Attorney LeBlanc and the other speakers shared their knowledge and perspectives on various aspects of human resource law, addressing such topics as “Updates in Employment Law;” “Discipline & Discharge- Necessary Documentation;” “Employee Handbooks & Policies;” “Wage & Benefits Issues;” “Investigating Complaints of Harassment & Other Misconduct;” and “Alternative Dispute Resolution in the Employment.”

Eric spoke about proper procedures to follow and pitfalls to avoid during all phases of the employer-employee relationship:  the hiring process, the period of employment, and the employee’s exit from employment, whether voluntary or involuntary.

Eric’s lecture touched on the following fundamentals:

A. Hiring:  How to craft a clear job description; what to look for, what to say and do, and what not to say and do how during selection and         vetting of candidates.

B. Policies and procedures:  Establishing unequivocal, written policies in the following areas and following them closely:

  1. Employment at Will
  2. Equal Opportunity
  3. Anti- Discrimination/Anti-Harassment/Reporting(including the process for investigating employee complaints of discrimination and harassment)
  4. Payment of Wages
  5. Conduct/Discipline

C. Performance:  Careful, contemporaneous documentation of employees’ job performance.

D. Termination:  Again, careful and contemporaneous documentation of the process as well as the presence of at least one witness to the employer-employee interactions.

Eric emphasized to seminar attendees that no matter how egregious an employee’s performance might be, compassion and respect are crucial elements of an employer’s stance at every point on the employment time line.

We are proud that Eric’s expertise in employment law was recognized by the National Business Institute, and pleased that he was able to contribute to employers’ understanding of practices beneficial to both sides of the employer-employee relationship.

Todd Bennett and Craig Levey Speak at the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Annual Labor & Employment Conference

Posted on: May 22nd, 2017 by admin

tb-124x150Levey Craig (2)

On May 12, 2017, Bennett & Belfort, P.C. attorneys Todd J. Bennett and Craig D. Levey presented at the Massachusetts Bar Association’s 38th Annual Labor & Employment Spring Conference held at the MBA’s offices in Boston.  

 Attorney Bennett was a panelist along the Honorable Robert B. Gordon of the Massachusetts Superior Court and David Kerrigan of Kenney & Sams, P.C.  Together they presented relevant case law and practical tips on key discovery issues in Employment Law litigation, including: (1) defendant’s financial information for purposes of punitive damages; (2) social media posts; (3) production of mental health records; (4) employer’s past claims of discrimination/harassment; and (5) internal investigation documents.

Attorney Levey, who co-chaired the Conference along with Jaimeson Porter of Kenney & Sams, P.C., moderated the aforementioned discovery panel and a discussion on the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act, which included panelists Genevieve Nadeau, Division Chief of the Civil Rights Division of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office and Margaret Paget of Kurker Paget.

The Conference’s keynote speaker was Representative Stephen Lynch (D–Mass.), a member of the United States House Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

COURT RULING OPENS DOOR TO COMMISSION PAYMENTS AFTER EMPLOYMENT ENDS

Posted on: May 15th, 2017 by admin

Massachusetts employees who earn sales commissions may have a right to recover those commissions even after the end of their employment despite company policies to the contrary, according to the recent 2017 case of Israel v. Voya Institutional Plan Services, LLC.

The Massachusetts Wage Act  applies when wages, including commissions generated by salespersons, are considered earned.  Sales commissions are considered earned when they are due and payable.  The figure that is due and payable must be ascertainable with specificity and definitely determined.  Special contracts, agreement terms, personnel policies and employment manuals that circumvent application of the Wage Act are unenforceable according to both the express language of the Wage Act and public policy.  An employee who is not timely paid earned wages may be entitled to sue for three times the amount of withheld wages, interest, plus mandatory recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees.  The Wage act is a powerful financial deterrent to prevent employers from improperly withholding earned wages and commissions.

Scales of justice no copyright pixabay

Massachusetts Courts have not definitively ruled on whether policies that prohibit the payment of commissions after an employee’s separation are indeed special contracts that violate the Wage Act. The Israel case involved a sales representative who was compensated in part with commissions based on sales.  The employer, Voya Institutional Plan Services’ (“Voya”), maintained a commission plan that entitled certain employees to commissions roughly three months after the company received payment on a sale.  The plan also contained a provision indicating that an employee who resigned would not be entitled to commissions following resignation.

Israel resigned his employment in lieu of being terminated.  At the time of his resignation, he had roughly $30,000.00 in completed sales commissions in the pipeline – which had not been paid exclusively because of the delay between accrual and payment date.  The employer refused to pay the commissions on account of its resignation policy.

The court in Israel  ruled that Voya and Israel’s commissions contract could improperly avoid the Wage Act’s requirement that commissioned wages be timely paid once the commission sums were definitely determined.  Since the commissions had been definitely determined before the end of Israel’s employment, the commissions were due and payable regardless of the employer’s policies or those contract terms suggesting otherwise.  Voya’s adherence to its commission policy in order to deny payment of commissions to Israel was found to violate the Massachusetts Wage Act.

The Israel court determined that the Wage Act trumped an employer’s policy prohibiting the payment of post separation commissions.  As such, Massachusetts employers and commissioned employees must be attentive to the timely payment of definitely determined sales commissions even after separation in order to comply with the strict requirements of the Massachusetts Wage Act.  Should you have any questions on the developments regarding the Massachusetts Wage Act of or any other employment or civil rights matters, please feel free to contact Bennett & Belfort P.C.

 


 

WHEN IS THE DUTY TO ENGAGE IN THE INTERACTIVE PROCESS TRIGGERED?

Posted on: March 27th, 2017 by admin

In MCAD & Amanda LaPete v. Country Bank for Savings, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) awarded Complainant (Amanda LaPete), a woman who was terminated while on approved leave for post-partum depression, back pay plus $50,000.00 for emotional distress stemming from her employer’s disability discrimination.  Docket No. 10-SEM-02769 (Kaplan, J., February 5, 2017).

While employed by Respondent (Country Bank for Savings), Complainant was granted 17 weeks of leave to give birth, which comprised of accrued sick and vacation time, eight weeks of maternity leave (as permitted by M.G.L. c. 149, § 105D), and an additional four weeks pursuant to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

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Complainant suffered post-partum depression while on leave and notified Respondent of her disability.  She consistently provided Respondent with updates during her leave, including a timeframe for her return to work.  Notably, Complainant fully intended to return to work with Respondent, yet her health care provider suggested she take further time off due to persistent depression and anxiety.  Complainant requested an additional four weeks of leave, however, Respondent ignored her request and terminated her employment.

The Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, M.G.L. c.151B, prohibits discrimination by an employer based on disability.  To prove a case of disability discrimination for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, complainant must show: (1) that she is “handicapped”; (2) that she is a “qualified handicapped person” capable of performing the essential functions of her job; (3) that she needed a reasonable accommodation to perform her job; (4) that Respondent was aware of her handicap and the need for a reasonable accommodation; (5) that Respondent was aware, or could have been aware, of a means to accommodate her handicap; and (6) that Respondent failed to provide Complainant the reasonable accommodation.  Hall v. Laidlaw Transit, Inc., 25 MDLR 207, 213-214 (2004).

In Country Bank for Savings, the MCAD Hearing Officer ruled that Complainant established sufficient evidence to prove a prima facie case of disability discrimination for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation by demonstrating that she: 1. was handicapped for purposes of the statute; 2. was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job; 3. required a reasonable accommodation; and 4. adequately kept Respondent informed of her need for an accommodation while out on leave.  The MCAD also found that Complainant’s finite request for extended leave was a reasonable accommodation so that she could cope with her post-partum depression.

The MCAD found that Respondent’s termination of Complainant without engaging in an interactive dialogue about the request for extended leave was a violation of the employer’s duty under the statute.  Importantly, the Hearing Officer stressed in her decision that an employer is not shielded from liability simply by allowing an employee leave under the FMLA.  Rather, the employer has an affirmative responsibility to engage in the interactive process when the employee is preparing to return from leave.

Notably, there was no persuasive evidence that Complainant’s request for extended leave would cause the Respondent an undue burden on its operations or finances.

This decision highlights the requirement that employers understand the timing of when their obligation to engage in the interactive process is triggered.  Though a company’s obligation is clear when an employee explicitly requests an accommodation, employers must also engage in the interactive process when they have reason to believe an employee needs a reasonable accommodation absent a specific request citing to the statute.