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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

NYC Council Eliminates "At Will" Employment for the Fast Food Industry

The New York City Council recently passed two (2) bills which, once enacted, will end "at will" employment (employees can be fired for any reason with or without cause) for employees in the NYC fast food industry. Rather, employers in the fast food industry may only lawfully terminate employees for "Just Cause" or for "Bona Fide Economic Reasons" as explained below:

1)  "Just Cause": New York City Council Bill,  Int. No. 1415-A  prohibits fast food industry employers in NYC from terminating an employee's employment, who has been employed longer than thirty (30) days, or reduce their weekly hours by more than 15% without "Just Cause" which is defined as: "failure to satisfactorily perform job duties or misconduct that is demonstrably and materially harmful to the fast food employer’s legitimate business interests." 

Factors used to determine whether an employee was terminated for Just Cause include: whether the employee violated the employer's policy, the employee's knowledge of the applicable rule/policy, training provided to the employee, whether an adequate investigation was conducted and whether progressive discipline was reasonably applied. Notably, absent egregious conduct by the employee, a termination will not considered to be for Just Cause unless the employer has a pre-established written policy on progressive discipline and can demonstrate that it is reasonable and was properly applied with respect to the terminated employee (employers may not rely upon discipline issued more than a year before the termination). Employers must provide the employee, within five (5) days of termination, with a written explanation of all the reasons for termination of employment.

2) "Bona Fide Economic Reasons"New York City Council Bill, Int. No. 1396-A permits fast food industry employers to terminate an employee or reduce their weekly hours by more than 15% for "Bona Fide Economic Reasons" which is defined as "the full or partial closing of operations or technological or organizational changes to the business in response to the reduction in volume of production, sales or profit." An employer's decision to terminate an employee based on Bona Fide Economic Reasons must be supported by the employer's business records. If the employer does possess a Bona Fide Economic Reason for terminating employees, employees must be terminated "in reverse order of seniority." In addition, an employer may not hire a new employee or increase a current employee's hours unless the employer first makes a reasonable effort to reinstate any employees terminated for economic reasons within the prior twelve (12) month period. 

Aggrieved employees may bring a civil action for discharges in violation of these bills or, after January 1, 2022, may bring an arbitration proceeding. Employers bare the burden of proving that the termination was for Just Cause or for Bona Fide Economic Reasons. If the employer fails to meet its burden, the employee may be reinstated, awarded backpay, reasonable attorneys fees and punitive damages. The employer may also be assessed civil penalties. 

It is imperative that fast food industry employers consult with counsel and create/modify applicable polices to ensure they are in compliance with these new bills prior to the effective date (180 days after enacted). 

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