Labor and Workforce Development Agency

Seyfarth Synopsis: Recent California legislation, including laws banning questions about salary history and criminal convictions, has bought new interview jitters for employers. These new laws, along with the Fair Employment and Housing Act’s prohibitions against questions going to an applicant’s protected status, confirms the point that there is such a thing as a “bad interview question.” In this ever-changing legal landscape, it is important for California employers to know what they can and cannot ask candidates in a job interview.

Although Michael Scott’s fictional character in The Office would have us believe there is no such thing as a “bad question,” that expression holds less true in California today than ever. California’s legislative updates in the last year have made job interviews more perilous than ever for the unwary employer.

The Legislature has recently introduced prohibitions on salary history and criminal conviction questions for certain employers. What is more, the FEHA prohibits questions like Michael Scott’s zinger, “Why are you the way that you are?”—a question that could go to various protected statuses, such as race, national origin, sex, nationality, and gender.

While such restrictions seem straightforward, implementing them is not always a no-brainer. Indeed, according to one survey, one in five hiring managers admitted that they have asked a question in a job interview only to find out later that it was illegal to ask.

So if you are looking to recruit for a temporary role, or hiring to fill the next coveted regional manager role at Dunder Mifflin, certain interview questions can have you breaking a sweat in California in 2019:

  1. Have You Ever Been Convicted of a Crime?

What used to be a common check-the-box question on employment applications is now illegal to ask before the employment offer stage. In late 2017, California joined several states in introducing “ban the box” laws to reduce barriers to applicants in the pre-hiring stage. Under AB 1008, California employers with more than five employees now must not

  • include on any job application questions that seek the disclosure of an applicant’s conviction history,
  • ask about or consider the conviction history of an applicant until he/she has received a conditional offer, or
  • consider, distribute, or disseminate information related to specified prior arrests, diversions, and convictions when conducting a conviction history background check.
  • San Francisco’s version of the “ban the box” legislation provides even greater protections to job candidates and includes stiff penalties for violations.
  1. How Much Do You Currently Make?

With the passage of AB 168, effective January 1, 2018, California employers must not ask job applicants for “salary history information” or rely on that information in deciding whether to offer a job and how much to pay. But if the applicant voluntarily discloses salary history, the employer may consider or rely on that information in setting salary so long as prior salary is not the only factor justifying any disparity in pay.

Under recent legislation clarifying the scope of AB 168, employers can ask about an applicant’s salary expectations for the position.

  1. Where Are You From?

The innocent icebreaker questions, “Where were you born?” or “Where are you from?” or “How long have you lived in the U.S.?” can land employers in hot water. Such questions, though seemingly offhanded, can be interpreted as questions about the applicant’s national origin.

Also, California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency has made it clear that the state’s labor protections apply to all employees—regardless of their immigration status. Thus, you should stay clear of questions about a candidate’s citizenship (unless U.S. citizenship is a legal job requirement). You can, however, ask whether the applicant has a legal right to work in the United States, so long as you do not do so on a discriminatory basis.

  1. When Did You Graduate High School?

Questions about a candidate’s age are prohibited under both California’s FEHA and the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Thus, employers should stay away from questions that could reveal a candidate’s age, like “What year did you graduate high school?”

You may ask a candidate’s age, however, if the job has a minimum age requirement, for example, if it involves serving alcohol.

  1. Are You Married?

Any questions related to parenthood or marital status are off limits. Prohibited questions include whether an applicant is married, pregnant, or plans to be in the future. Even the innocuous question, “What does your spouse do?” should be avoided as it could be seen as a round-about way of getting to the candidate’s marital status. It’s perfectly OK, though, to ask such questions after the candidate has been hired.

Workplace Solutions:

You may find yourself at an interview in the predicament Michael Scott describes best, “Sometimes I’ll start a sentence and I don’t even know where it’s going. I just hope I find it along the way.” Often people develop an easy rapport at an interview, making it hard to “unsay” questions—even illegal ones. Take note of the following guidelines to ace that next interview so you can indeed be the “World’s Best Boss.”

  • Read the fact sheet developed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which offers guidance on questions employers can ask applicants.
  • To the extent feasible, prepare questions in advance, to help avoid drifting off into forbidden territory.
  • Train job interviewers and HR personnel on what interview questions are illegal and improper.

If you have any questions about this guidance or about illegal pre-hiring questions in California, feel free to contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Trump Administration’s hard line on immigration has concerned undocumented immigrants who want to raise wage claims. The LWDA recently reaffirmed a commitment to protect workers regardless of their immigration status.

California has noticed the Trump Administration’s immigration initiatives. Here, as elsewhere, California charts its own path. The state’s labor law enforcement officials worry that the immigration crackdown has panicked undocumented workers, causing them to withhold complaints against their employers, for fear of deportation. Indeed, some undocumented workers reportedly have declined to accept unpaid wages owed to them, and have refused to cooperate with government investigations. There have been reports of ICE agents showing up at California Labor Commissioner proceedings to remove undocumented workers who are appearing to prosecute their labor claims against their employers.

On May 1, 2017, the LWDA reaffirmed its commitment to worker protections regardless of their immigration status:

Just because the federal administration has changed, our laws and policies have not. … We will not tolerate the use of immigration status as a tool of retaliation against workers who are pursuing their rights under California law. … The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and its partner departments reiterate that we never ask for – nor do we collect – the immigration status of any worker who files a health and safety or wage theft claim with our offices. It has been longstanding state policy that our labor laws apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status, and that the immigration status of a worker is unnecessary information to enforcing our laws.

The full press release appears here.

Thus, regardless of what the Trump Administration does, the LWDA is making it clear that California’s labor protections apply to all employees – regardless of their immigration status – and that the LWDA will ensure that immigrant workers know that California workplace protections apply to them.

The LWDA’s statement reminds California employers that they can still be subject to liability, fines, and investigations for Labor Code violations no matter what the federal government does. Immigration status remains, in the view of the LWDA, irrelevant to the enforcement of California wage and hour laws. Thus, employers should not treat immigrant workers differently because of their status.

California wage and hour law can be difficult to navigate. If you would like to review your policies for compliance, you may contact one of Seyfarth Shaw’s attorneys for assistance.

Edited by Michael Wahlander.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Supreme Court, in Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, has agreed to address the legal standard for determining whether a worker classified as an independent contractor is really an employee. The Supreme Court’s opinion is expected to be significant for anyone thinking of using independent contractors in California.

The Future of Work: A Surging Demand for Independent Contractors

Recent years have seen tremendous growth in the sharing economy, aka, the “gig economy,” which reflects the technological ability to quickly summon goods or services through a smart phone. While the new economy has grown rapidly, the relevant legal standards have not. Yet business owners continue to invest heavily into business models that have created tens of thousands of flexible jobs for workers classified as independent contractors. In the absence of legislative guidance tailored to the realities of the new economy, California courts and administrative agencies have struggled to apply the law developed during an earlier age.

The new economy is a powerful fact of life. According to Seyfarth’s “Future of Work” Outlook Survey, 45% of respondents expect their company’s demand for independent contractors to grow in the next five years. Companies in the areas of information technology and telecommunications are among those most likely to experience these developments, as opposed to companies in the areas of real estate and consumer staples. (A deeper analysis of our survey’s findings appears here.)

These survey responses provide a valuable snapshot, but employers are likely to change their tune based on the regulatory environment and any significant judicial rulings narrowing the use of independent contractors.

One such potential ruling could come in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court. The California Supreme Court has agreed to review a Court of Appeal decision that stunned employers by expanding the definition of “employee.” That definition of employee arguably could encompass many individuals traditionally retained as independent contractors.

When determining whether workers were independent contractors, many companies previously considered how much control the company exerted over a worker and how much a worker economically depended on the company. This framework provided some consistency.

Taking a turn, the Court of Appeal in Dynamex adopted the Wage Order’s much-broader definition of “employ,” meaning “to engage, suffer or permit to work.” As a result, the Court of Appeal expanded the meaning of the term “employee,” arguably extending it to nearly every labor relationship a company would be likely to have with an individual. The potential ramifications of such a definition upon the future use of independent contractors cannot be overstated. Indeed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and California Chamber of Commerce have both warned that a decision to affirm the lower court’s expansive ruling “would effectively eliminate independent contractor status for any use in California.”

Consequences of Misclassification

Making it more difficult to properly classify an independent contractor would only increase the risks of costly litigation. By now, readers should know that misclassifying California employees as contractors has dire consequences, including statutory penalties of $5,000 to $15,000 for each “willful” violation. Failing to properly classify workers can create liability for back wages, penalties, fines, and the assessment of back taxes. Additional exposure can also arise when misclassified workers, who would otherwise be entitled to employee benefits, have not received those benefits. California state agencies in search of employment-tax revenues have increased their enforcement efforts, including audits. In fact, the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency has agreed to jointly investigate independent contractor misclassification with the IRS, reflecting both agencies’ desire to increase enforcement.

California employers with operations in other states should also note that increased misclassification enforcement is not peculiar to the Golden State. In July 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division issued its Administrator’s Interpretation, concluding that “most workers are employees under the FLSA” in part due to the “expansive definition of ‘employ’ under the FLSA”; we previously observed this position to be an “unapologetic effort to restrict the use of independent contractors.” Today, it still remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration will redirect federal enforcement priorities away from independent contractor issues. But even if the federal government backs off of these issues, there is no indication that state governments and the ubiquitous plaintiffs’ bar will stop aggressively challenging independent-contractor classifications.

Scrutinize Your Existing Relationships with Independent Contractors

As always, employers should remain vigilant for new legal developments and should consult their employment counsel to scrutinize existing relationships with independent contractors.

Edited by Michael G. Cross.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On March 30, 2017, the California Fair Employment and Housing Council (“FEHC”) considered proposed regulations on transgender employees. The FEHC also discussed draft regulations on national origin discrimination in the workplace.

Transgender Identity. On March 30, 2017, the FEHC, convened in Sacramento for its second meeting of the year, voted unanimously to adopt proposed regulations on transgender identity and expression, which will go to the Office of Administrative Law for approval. We expect a final text in July. The FEHC first proposed these amended regulations in 2016, which we covered here.

Some highlights: the amended proposed regs would

  • prohibit employers from requiring applicants to disclose their sex, gender, gender identity or expression,
  • protect transitioning employees by expanding the definitions of gender identity and expression,
  • ensure that employees are addressed by their preferred name, gender, and pronoun, and
  • require employers to provide equal access to comparable, safe, and adequate bathrooms, locker rooms, and similar facilities.

Employers can familiarize themselves with the approved regulations now to anticipate questions that may arise in this context.

The FEHC heard public comment over a perceived conflict in bathroom signage required by the proposed regulations and pre-existing Cal-OSHA regulations. The proposed FEHC regulations, consistent with recently enacted legislation (discussed here), require that single-user bathrooms have gender-neutral signage. But the Cal-OSHA regulation, which predates both the FEHC regs and the recent legislation, calls for single-user bathrooms to be for a single gender. The conflict is one of perception only, as the Department of Industrial Relations has clarified that Cal-OSHA will not enforce its rule, and instead will follow the gender-neutral requirement found in the statute (and the proposed FEHC regs). We expect that other agencies may adopt the DIR’s approach, favoring transgender protections over conflicting pre-existing regulations.

Kevin Kish, Director of the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, confirmed the DFEH would consult with the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and Cal-OSHA to ensure consistency in the implementation and enforcement of the regulations.

National Origin Discrimination. The FEHC has also drafted proposed regulations regarding national origin discrimination in the workplace, following recommendations by Legal Aid at Work. The proposed regulations are still in their early stages; as yet, there has been no formal notice of the proposed regulations or a public hearing.

The proposed regulations largely track the EEOC’s new guidance on national origin, which we summarized in our Employment Law Lookout blog here. The draft FEHC regulations address these issues:

  • Defining national origin to include place of birth or ancestor’s place of birth, association or perceived association with a person of a national origin group or ethnicity, Native American Tribe, language, and accent.
  • Harassment and retaliation against undocumented workers.
  • Discrimination based on immigration status, accent, or English proficiency.
  • Workplace language restrictions.

Public comments have addressed the proposed provisions that would curb employer inquiry into an individual’s immigration status. The proposed regulations would permit such an inquiry only where clear and convincing evidence shows the inquiry is needed to comply with federal law. Based on further comment by Legal Aid at Work, we anticipate that further modifications may provide guidance on workplace language policies.

What’s Next? We expect to see more activity from the FEHC in the months ahead. The FEHC will likely revise its proposed regulations on national original discrimination before it issues formal notice of proposed action of the regulation. The FEHC also plans to expand its outreach efforts, seeking further comment from the public and civil rights groups to shape the FEHC’s future agenda. We will continue to monitor and report further developments.

Edited by Colleen Regan.