The National Labor Relations Board recently issued the first decision by a Board Administrative Law Judge involving employee use of social media, finding parallels between postings on Facebook and gripes around the proverbial “water cooler.”
In Hispanics United of Buffalo, Inc., Administrative Law Judge Arthur J. Amchan noted the employer conceded that it would have fired the five employees in question if their activity had taken place around the water cooler.
“Thus, the only substantive issue in this case …. is whether by their postings on Facebook, the five employees engaged in activity protected by the Act. I conclude that their Facebook communications with each other, in reaction to a co-worker’s criticisms of the manner in which HUB employees performed their jobs, are protected.”
On September 6, 2011, Judge Amchan ordered the fired employees reinstated with back pay.
Here’s the scenario:
Lydia Cruz-Moore, an employee of HUB, a non-profit organization that provides social services to the poor in Buffalo, NY, was repeatedly critical of the level of service provided by her co-workers, whom she accused of slacking off. She threatened to complain to the program director.
One of her co-workers initiated a Facebook discussion asking for responses to Cruz-Moore’s criticism. Five employees joined in the discussion, and in the process made sarcastic and derogatory comments about Cruz-Moore and the expectations of HUB’s clientele.
Cruz-Moore sent a text message to HUB’s Executive Director Lourdes Iglesias saying the Facebook posts constituted “cyber-bullying.” Iglesias summarily fired the five employees involved in the Facebook discussion on the grounds that their comments violated HUB’s “zero-tolerance” harassment policy. She also told the fired employees that their comments caused Cruz-Moore to suffer a heart attack.
Amchan completely discounts Iglesias’ stated reasons for the terminations, finding that HUB was seeking to downsize and “seized upon the Facebook posts as an excuse for doing so.”
He concluded the Facebook discussion was concerted protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act because the discussion involved the terms and conditions of employment, specifically, job performance and staffing levels. He rejected as irrelevant the argument that the Facebook postings were not protected because persons other than HUB employees may have seem them.
Amchan also notes the Facebook posts were not made at work or during working hours and were not critical of HUB. He said HUB failed to establish for the record that Cruz-Moore had a heart attack or that there was any relationship between her health conditions and the Facebook posts. Also, he said, HUB failed to show that the employees violated any specific policies or rules.
Amchan said the fired employees “were taking a first step towards taking group action to defend themselves against the accusations they could reasonably believe Cruz-Moore was going to make to management.”
By discharging all of the employees on the same day, Amchan said, “Respondent prevented them by taking any further group action vis-à-vis Cruz-Moore’s criticisms. Moreover, the fact that Respondent lumped (them) together in terminating them, establishes that Respondent viewed the five as a group and that their activity was concerted”
The case, which is numbered 3-CA-2787, is the first involving Facebook to have resulted in an ALJ decision following a hearing. Hispanics United has the right to appeal the decision to the Board in Washington.
This NLRB has broad jurisdiction to enforce the NLRA, which covers both union and non-union employers, and both for-profit and non-profit employers in some cases.