Last week, thousands of employees throughout the county skipped work as part of “a day without immigrants” demonstration. The employees were protesting the Trump administration’s recent actions regarding immigration. The stated intent was to negatively impact the nation’s economy in an effort to highlight the contributions of immigrant labor. Restaurants were the primary target. Businesses from New York to San Francisco were forced to temporarily close as employees either failed to report to work or “walked out.” In many cases, the protesting employees included both immigrants and their co-workers.
Several employers embraced the protests and promised not to discipline the participating employees. However, many employers took the opposite approach. According to various media reports, hundreds of employees in a number of different cities were terminated after they refused to report to work. With reports that additional demonstrations are likely, employers should prepare for the possibility that one or more employees might choose to participate.
As an initial matter, an employer should communicate its expectations to its employees in advance of any demonstration. If possible, this communication should be documented by internal memo, email, or even text message. Employees should also be reminded of any applicable attendance policies.
While the refusal to report to work is a legitimate non-discriminatory basis to terminate an employee, an employer must be consistent in its response. An employer that terminates some employees, while excusing the absences of others, may face a claim of disparate treatment. Those employers with a unionized workforce should consult labor counsel with regard to any collectively bargained rights.
Finally, affected employers should prepare for media coverage and press inquiries. The demonstrations have already garnered international attention as the debate regarding the Trump administration’s immigration policies shows no signs of slowing down. Employers should clearly define who within its organization may respond to media inquiries and what information will be shared. Any comments made following an employee’s termination will almost certainly be used in any resulting legal action.