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Beware discipline following benefits complaint

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in Compensation and Benefits,Employment Law,Human Resources

Not every complaint about what might be construed as a benefit amounts to protected activity under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Recent case: Donald worked for years at a manufacturing company and got regular reprimands for workplace errors, including being away from his station. After the 2008 holiday season, he attended a staff meeting about morale, where Donald griped to managers that some employees had poor attitudes because they didn’t receive gift cards at the end of the year.

Afterward, he was reprimanded for disruptive behavior during the meeting. He continued to accrue reprimands for poor performance and was finally terminated a few months later.

Donald sued under ERISA, alleging retaliation for complaining about benefits.

But the court tossed out his case, concluding that Donald’s comments on the gift cards weren’t substantial enough to constitute ERISA-protected activity. It didn’t hurt the employer that it had plenty of good reasons for terminating Donald, including a long list of workplace mistakes and neglect of duty. (Shrable v. Eaton Cor­por­a­tion, No. 12-1404, 8th Cir., 2012)

Final note: This case raises two problems. First, even if complaining about the lack of gift cards isn’t protected activity under ERISA, it may be protected under other laws, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). That law prohibits retaliation against employees who speak out about working conditions. Complaining about gift cards might be covered.

Second, always check with your attorney before disciplining someone who has made work-related complaints. He or she can advise you how to handle discipline, likely by having you focus on the behavior sur­­round­­ing the complaint rather than the message’s content. A quiet complaint is different than an argumentative and belligerent one.

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