On August 2, 2023, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) announced a long-anticipated decision called Stericyle that will affect how employers craft, apply and enforce workplace policies, regardless of whether a labor union represents their employees. As we anticipated several years ago, the Stericyle Board, with a majority of members nominated by President Joseph Biden, rejected the agency’s 2017 decision in The Boeing Company, in which it adopted a balancing test to evaluate facially neutral employer rules and handbook provisions. Under The Boeing Company test, the Board weighed the nature and extent of such rules’ potential impact on employee rights under the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) against employers’ legitimate justification(s) for the policies.
The majority opinion in Stericycle Inc. substantively revives the NLRB’s stance on workplace rules as established in the 2004 Lutheran Heritage decision. Under this new framework, the mere maintenance of any employer’s rule, policy, or handbook provision that has a “reasonable tendency to chill employees from exercising their Section 7 rights” may constitute an unfair labor practice in violation of the NLRA.
What’s Old is New (and “Improved”)
As in Lutheran Heritage, under the Stericycle standard, the NLRB General Counsel (GC) bears the burden of establishing that an employer rule or policy may tend to inhibit employees from exercising their protected Section 7 rights. Section 7 grants employees the right to engage in a broad range of activities for their mutual aid and protection concerning their terms and conditions of employment.
The perspective from which the Board will assess an employer rule goes further than it did per the Lutheran Heritage standard. Under Stericycle, the Board will interpret rules “from the perspective of an employee who is subject to the rule and economically dependent on the employer, and who also contemplates engaging in protected concerted activity.” This position is grounded in a view that employees are in a “vulnerable position” relative to their employers and that workplace rules must be “narrowly tailored” to advance “a legitimate and substantial business interest.”
The GC will satisfy this burden — and demonstrate that such rule is presumptively unlawful — by concluding that such an employee could “reasonably interpret” a rule to be coercive, such that Section 7 activity is, or could be, restricted, even if the rule could also reasonably be interpreted differently, and even if the employer did not intend for its rule to restrict any employee rights.
Defending Workplace Rules
Under the Stericycle standard, once the GC establishes that an employer’s rule has a “tendency” to suppress protected activity, the employer can rebut the presumption that its rule is unlawful by proving that it advances “legitimate and substantial business interests” that cannot be achieved with a more narrowly tailored rule. This, the Board asserts, is a critical part of working out the “proper adjustment between employee rights and employer interests.” Stericycle is an outright rejection of the Boeing Board’s position, which, the current Board contends, found “overly broad” employer rules “perfectly permissible.” The Board expressly calls on employers to craft narrowly tailored work rules and policies, assuring that the “new standard gives employers the necessary leeway to maintain rules of their own choosing to advance legitimate and substantial business interests,” so long as those rules are specific and “significantly minimize, if not altogether eliminate, their coercive potential.”
Retroactive Applicability and Immediate Action Steps
The decision expressly provides that it applies retroactively, arguing that, for one thing, Boeing and its subsequent clarifications are only a few years old and thus not well-established, and that the “new” standard is a better means of advancing the NLRA’s purpose. Thus, any pending cases in which an employer policy is deemed facially unlawful will result in a remedy requiring rescission of the rule, which employers may substitute with something more narrowly tailored, if possible.
In light of this change in the law, employers should immediately review their handbooks and workplace policies for compliance with the Stericycle standard. Such a review should consider workplace rules from the “the perspective of an employee who is subject to the rule and economically dependent on the employer, and who also contemplates engaging in protected concerted activity.” Moreover, as we’ve previously explained, the Board and GC have taken an expansive view of who is covered by the NLRA, ostensibly including almost all private sector non-supervisory workers in the country, whether or not employees are organized or represented by a union, as well as misclassified contract workers whom the Board and the GC contend are jointly employed by the employer benefiting from the contract workers’ services. Thus, nearly all U.S. employers, including those not (yet) involved with unions, should be considering their workplace policies and whether they could be construed as “chilling” and thus presumptively unlawful.
- Senior Counsel
- Board of Directors / Member of the Firm