Protected Concerted Activity in the Era of COVID-19: What Employers Need to Know

Written on .

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is one of the federal agencies that many employers do not have on their radar. The NLRB is most closely associated with union organizing efforts and collective bargaining agreements between unions and companies. In 2020, only 10.8 percent of wage and salary workers in the US were members of unions (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), so the vast majority of companies may think that the NLRB will not bother with them. And they would be wrong.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 5, 1935, is the federal statute administered and enforced by the NLRB. Most employees in the private sector are covered by the NLRA. The NLRA guarantees the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activity. It’s the “other protected concerted activity” that even non-union employers need to be aware of.

Basically, the NLRA gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions, with or without a union. If employees are fired, suspended, or otherwise penalized for taking part in protected group activity, they can file a complaint with the NLRB. The NLRB has the power to investigate and take action to make an aggrieved employee whole for any losses due to the employer’s violation of the NLRA (think lost wages and benefits for a terminated employee).

The type of conduct that falls under the definition of “protected concerted activity” is very broad. To be protected conduct, employee conduct must be both “concerted” and for “mutual aid and protection.” But individual conduct or speech can be considered “concerted;” it is well-established that concerted activity includes statements by a lone employee addressing coworkers that seek to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action or, or statements directed to management communicating a truly group complaint.

Bottom line: if employees are talking about anything related to work, it’s probably protected by the NLRA. For example, any workplace rule that prohibits employees from discussing their rates of pay with one another violates the NLRA.

A practical example of what constitutes “protected concerted activity” in the era of COVID-19 was recently addressed by the NLRB in an Advice Memorandum. An employee of a company that sells replacement windows posted a message about COVID-19 precautions on a group work chat maintained by the employer on a third-party messaging application and accessed from personal equipment: “[i]n the last three weeks, our case count has spiked in parallel timing with the last Phase of reopening.” This started a discussion among other employees offering their opinions about the effectiveness of COVID precautions.

The employee was removed from the group chat, then reinstated to the chat with the admonition that he not post anything about COVID-19. The employee eventually refused to report to work on the ground that “the imminent threat to safety caused by the recent spike in area COVID-19 cases, the Employer’s inaction in mitigating the threat, and the inability to discuss these dangers with coworkers prohibited him from performing his job in good faith.” On these facts, the NLRB concluded that the Employer had violated the NLRA by removing the employee from the group chat, making statements that restrained the employee from communicating about his work-related concerns, and constructively discharging the employee. Going forward, the NLRB will issue a complaint against the Employer, and a hearing will be conducted to determine whether the employee is entitled to reinstatement to his job and backpay.

The Takeaway: Many employees have very strong opinions about all things COVID, and they are eager to share them with others. Employers may wish to limit such discussions so that they do not interfere with work. However, when those discussions touch on workplace issues, such as workplace mitigation procedures, workplace vaccination policies, or workplace safety, employers need to tread very lightly or risk an NLRB complaint (or even worse, an OSHA citation for retaliating against an employee who complains about workplace safety issues).

Principal | Email:
Kathleen J. Jennings is a principal in the Atlanta office of Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider, & Stine, P.C. She defends employers in employment matters, such as sexual harassment, discrimination, Wage and Hour, OSHA, restrictive covenants, and other employment litigation and provides training and counseling to employers in employment matters.

Get Email Updates

Receive newsletters and alerts directly in your email inbox. Sign up below.

Recent Content

Women signing papers at a table indoors

Trump Regulation Requiring EEOC to Conciliate Rescinded

The current administration has moved rapidly to eliminate the Trump administrators, even during the terms of their employment, and to eli...
Port-au-Prince, Haiti - Outdoors, houses on the hillside

TDPP Extended for Six Countries

More than 400,000 citizens of six foreign countries who live and work in the U.S. under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) are able to stay...
a group of people protesting outdoors, with jackets in the cold

Issues Related to Safety and Work-related Issues, Pertaining to Walk-outs, Sit-ins, Protests, Etc

The current situation is an appropriate time to remind employers of their obligations under federal laws dealing with not only safety pro...
Covid Vaccine Clinic, Parking Sign, Outdoors

Biden Issues Executive Order Attempting to Require Covid Vaccination & Testing

In what many consider President Biden's most bold move regarding COVID-19, he issued an Executive Order on September 9, 2021 in an effort...
candles burning on a rack indoors in the dark

Dealing With Religious Objections to a COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement

In our discussions of rules mandating COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve mentioned the two possible exemptions to a vaccine requirement: disability...
yellow rubber gloves on hands reach high

Protected Concerted Activity in the Era of COVID-19: What Employers Need to Know

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is one of the federal agencies that many employers do not have on their radar. The NLRB is most...
  • Home
  • Articles
  • Protected Concerted Activity in the Era of COVID-19: What Employers Need to Know

Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine

3400 Peachtree Road, Ste 400 / Lenox Towers / Atlanta, GA 30326 /404.365.0900

Where Experience Counts

Thank you for visiting the firm's website. Please note that this website is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute an offer of representation or create an attorney-client relationship with the firm. The firm welcomes receipt of electronic mail but the act of sending electronic mail alone does not create an attorney-client relationship. You may reproduce materials available at this site for your own personal use and for non-commercial distribution. All copies must include the firm's copyright notice.

© 2020 Wimberly, Lawson, Steckel, Schneider & Stine P.C. | Site By JSM