In a ruling involving a sports bar whose owners shorted their workers on state withholding taxes – leaving them cursing and stuck with unanticipated bills – the National Labor Relations Board moved to protect workers' Facebook discussions and posts.
It also ordered the bar to restore the two workers it fired to their jobs. And it told employers they could not promulgate and enforce overly broad policies regulating what their workers say on the workers' own Facebook accounts.
At issue in the case, involving the Triple Play Sports Bar in
, and workers Jillian Sanzone and
Vincent Spinella, is whether workers' comments on Facebook are “protected
concerted activity” under labor law. The three-member NLRB panel ruled they
are. Watertown, Conn.
The case is important because workers increasingly use Facebook and other social media to communicate about working conditions, as well as to organize. If employers can censor Facebook, blogs and the like, and retaliate against workers for their comments, then workers' rights are chilled, the NLRB panel decided.
In this case, Sanzone, Spinella and other workers found out almost four years ago the bar shorted the withholding, when they wound up with big state tax liabilities. They raised the issue with management, but also on the social medium. They were, understandably, upset.
Former worker Jamie LaFrance started the dialogue on his Facebook page in January 2011, saying that as a result of Triple Play's withholding errors, he owed hundreds of dollars in state taxes. “I owe too. Such an asshole,” Sanzone replied.
Spinella “liked” LaFrance’s update. “Maybe someone should do the owners of Triple Play a favor and buy it from them. They can’t even do the tax paperwork correctly!!! Now I OWE money...Wtf!!!!” he said. Later posts were similar. All the workers are non-union.
The postings leaked to management. Owner Ralph DelBuono called Sanzone and Spinella into his office, gave them “a complete and unwelcome surprise” by revealing knowledge of the postings, and fired them. He also told Spinella the bar might pursue him legally.
The agency's administrative law judge found the workers engaged in “protected concerted activity” by discussing worksite problems on Facebook, that threatening legal action breaks labor law and that the employee handbook's ban on comments about the bar on social media was too broad.
The Triple Play Sports Bar said that “when Internet blogging, chat room discussions, e-mail, text messages, or other forms of communication extend to...inappropriate discussions about the company, management, and/or co-workers, the employee may be violating the law and is subject to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
The NLRB ordered the bar to rehire the two with backpay – including taxes – to withdraw the legal threat and other discipline and to remove the handbook sections restricting Facebook activity.
> The article above was written by Mark Gruenberg of the Press Associates Union News Service. It is reprinted from the WorkdayMinnesota website.