Technology Employment Law

Technology Employment Law

Legal Insight for Technology, Media, and Telecommunications Employers

Immigration Update: Travel Ban and Other News for Employers

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The Immigration Law Group at Epstein Becker Green released a Special Immigration Alert that will be of interest to our readers.

Topics include:

  1. President Trump Issues Revised Executive Order on Travel
  2. USCIS Suspends Premium Processing for H-1B Petitions Starting April 3, 2017: All H-1B Petitions, Including H-1B Cap Petitions, Are Affected!
  3. Use of New Form I-9 Is Now Mandatory
  4. IRS Announces That Delinquent Taxpayers Face Revocation/Denial of U.S. Passports
  5. DHS Issues Two New Memos on Enforcement/Border Security

Read the full alert here.

Employers: How to Prepare for “A Day Without” Actions

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A new post on the Management Memo blog will be of interest to many of our readers in the tech industry: “‘A Day Without’ Actions – How Can Employers Prepare?” by our colleagues Steven M. Swirsky and Laura C. Monaco of Epstein Becker Green.

Following is an excerpt:

[T]he same groups that organized the January 21, 2017 Women’s March on Washington – an action participated in by millions of individuals across the county – has called for a “Day Without Women” to be held on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. Organizers are encouraging women to participate by taking the day off from paid and unpaid labor, and by wearing red – which the organizers note “may be a great act of defiance for some uniformed workers.”

Employers should be prepared to address any difficult questions that might arise in connection with the upcoming “Day Without Women” strike: Do I have to give my employees time off to participate in Day Without events? Can I still enforce the company dress code – or do I need to permit employees to wear red? Can I discipline an employee who is “no call, no show” to work that day? Am I required to approve requests for the day off by employees who want to participate? As we explained in our prior blog post, guidance from the National Labor Relations Board’s General Counsel suggests that an employer can rely on its “lawful and neutrally-applied work rules” to make decisions about granting requests for time off, enforcing its dress code, and disciplining employees for attendance rule violations. An employer’s response, however, to a given employee’s request for time off or for an exception to the dress code, may vary widely based upon the individual facts and circumstances of each case. …

Read the full post here.

Shifting Obligations for Employers with the Advancement of AI-driven Automation and the Rise of Independent Workers

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As I continue to follow developments regarding the future of work, I recently attended an event co-sponsored by Cornell/ILR’s Institute for Workplace Studies in NYC and the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) addressing MGI’s report last Fall entitled Independent Work: Choice, Necessity and the Gig Economy. The report examines the increasing numbers of self-employed, freelance and temporary workers in the U.S. and Europe which are currently estimated to comprise 30 percent of the working-age population and rising.  The report notes that many workers have chosen this autonomous path as their primary means of income, while others follow it to supplement income, and yet others have no other choice and would prefer a traditional job with fair wages and benefits.   Many factors have led to the return to this pre-industrial revolution independent worker model including the recession and the emergence of The Digital Age as workers are more mobile and have increasing access to new technologies which transform how work is performed and goods and services are bought and sold.

The independent model of work is not without its critics.  Not everyone is capable of managing themselves as an independent business.  Many fear that this model is more appropriate for highly-skilled workers who have special skills and can manage multiple engagements which they have cultivated and that are well paid.   For the majority of entry-level or non-specialized workers, however, this model may drive down wages and leave many others unemployed. Further, it is unclear how independent workers will be protected from pay disparities, discrimination, work injuries, unemployment and how they will obtain benefits for such needs as health care, retirement, or disability.  Many have argued that employers have moved toward retention of independent workers to avoid employment and benefits legal responsibilities and erode the traditional employer-employee relationship and benefits.

Shifting worker models are also caused by advances in automation and will accelerate with the transformations that will be ushered into the workplace with artificial intelligence, machines and robots that perform many current jobs and will perform jobs of the future.   In a December 2016 report from the Obama administration entitled Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, it was noted that while the industrial revolution led to the disruptions to the lives of many agricultural workers, the technological revolution has led, and will continue to lead, to disruptions for workers in all industries. This will also continue to impact the professions (e.g., financial services, education, journalism, sales, accounting, law and medicine).   The increased use of automation and the demand for highly-skilled workers and those capable of abstract thinking and creativity will result in the displacement of many workers who perform routine tasks and in lower-skilled jobs.  Further, it is only a matter of time before robots are built with the manual dexterity to perform physical labor jobs.  As society advances and deploys AI-driven automation, a re-thinking of worker models, our educational system and the social safety net is crucial.

With this confluence of events, it is imperative that swift policy action is taken to prepare for the transition that lies ahead and employers have an important role to play.   As we have seen with the passage of the Affordable Care Act and proposals for automatic payroll-IRAs managed by states or local governments, there have been movements afoot for several years calling for more government-run forms of benefits in the U.S. which lend themselves to portability without attachment to an employer, but these models are also controversial for numerous economic and political reasons and are under attack.  Policy makers  continue to put forth ideas to require employers and independent contractor agencies to contribute toward a system of portable benefits for independent workers which may include multiple employer programs, pooled associations, and various types of government funds. The shifting tides will also require individuals to be financially educated and to save in their own health, retirement, and other insurance type vehicles apart from any employer-provided benefits. Employers in all industries will need to contribute to these debates and should consider the following:

  • Develop a Workplace Transition Policy.  As employers manage multiple generations in the workforce from the traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation X, Millenials, and Generation Z, and  as society shifts to new models in the workplace, including use of AI-driven automation, impact on existing traditional-model workers should be carefully addressed.   Immediate issues to consider include proper management of employee reductions and retirements (including fair and reasonable severance and related benefits (including career transitioning and re-training assistance), incentives for transfer of knowledge between generations (which may require ongoing consulting arrangements or staggered retirements), guidance for younger generations managing older generations and/or cobot relationships (which may require leadership training or new models of management training which address the newly envisioned workplace), integration of flexible work arrangements and job sharing, and deployment of AI and workplace technologies (with commensurate training and accommodations for their use). Improper handling of these issues can implicate allegations of violations of various employment laws from age, gender and disability discrimination to interference with rights to certain employee benefits.
  • Pay a Fair and Competitive Wage.  The call for fair wages, including a rise in the federal minimum wage, is not new. As more of the economic burden will fall on individuals to not only afford to live but also to save for all of their needs including health care, retirement, and periods of unemployment without employer assistance, fair wage initiatives are imperative and provide one way for employers to contribute to the eroding social safety net for all workers.  If this can be combined with financial  wellness and literacy type programs, employers can play a significant role in assisting their workers understand and meet their financial needs.
  • Provide Employee and Independent Worker Benefits.  It is widely noted that the erosion of employer provided pensions has contributed to the retirement crisis. Further,  employer provided health care also continues to be under attack.  Employer sponsored programs that address retirement savings and health care benefits provide a crucial safety net for workers and should be maintained lest these needs fall on the government to provide in order to fill the void.  Policy makers are also evaluating ways to make these benefits more flexible and portable and these developments should be monitored.  Consideration should also be given to making these benefits available to independent workers, which would resolve many of the worker misclassification analyses as it relates to impermissible exclusions of eligible workers for plans.  Among the many other types of employer-provided benefits, additional benefits such as tuition reimbursement and student loan debt repayment programs will also assist workers to train for future job skills and ease burdens of existing debts.
  • Contribute to Pipeline Development of Workers.  Educational systems are in dire need of reform.  Employers should consider how to partner with high schools, colleges and universities for job training, internships, and research endeavors to prepare next generations for the future of work.  Thought should also be given to retooling the current workforce to obtain the skills needed for the marketplace.  Ensure that the pipeline of workers obtains the needed skills for future jobs.   
  • Carefully Deploy AI-driven Automation and New Technologies into the Workplace.  The increased use of machines, robots and AI in the workplace will lead to new legal questions concerning data privacy and security, workplace safety, and far ranging employment and labor issues as individuals are required to work with, or be displaced by, these tools.  Whether a worker is an employee, an independent contractor, or another yettobe determined classification, the co-working relationship between humans and machines has yet to be defined and will require thoughtful planning.

Businesses that have goods and services to sell will need individuals to buy them.  If independent work becomes more of a necessity than a choice, the social and economic consequences can be dire.  As businesses gain from the increased profitability that is promised by the use of AI-driven automation, impending tax reform, and shifting worker models, it is imperative for employers to contribute to the policy debates and find ways to contribute to the economic security of the individual workers.

Uber Presents a Cautionary Tale for Human Resources Departments

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A recent blog post by Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, and the author of two books regarding software engineering, has once again drawn national attention to the issue of the underrepresentation of women in the technology industry. Her story has received extensive media coverage, and Uber has retained former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Ms. Fowler’s allegations. Further, the allegations appear to have reinvigorated the #DeleteUber social media campaign.

Ms. Fowler’s account describes a plethora of employment law issues, in particular the risks employers face when employees lose confidence in management and HR as partners to combat workplace harassment and discrimination and take it upon themselves to police antidiscrimination compliance issues.

To summarize the allegations, shortly after joining Uber, Ms. Fowler alleges she was sexually harassed by her manager and reported the incident to HR. She found HR’s response inadequate, alleging that rather than address her concerns, HR defended the alleged harasser’s conduct saying that it was the “man’s first offense” that it was “probably just an innocent mistake” and that because he was a “high performer” they “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him.” Ms. Fowler also alleges that she was given the option to switch teams, and that she risked being subject to retaliation if she chose not to switch. The alleged incident appears to have destroyed Ms. Fowler’s confidence in her employer’s commitment to protecting women from discrimination. She explains in her blog post that “[e]very time something ridiculous happened, every time a sexist email was sent, I’d sent a short report to HR just to keep a record going.” Ms. Fowler explains that the last straw leading to her resignation was a dispute over alleged iniquities in which employees received company branded merchandise.

As a best practices matter, employers are well-served from having employees who have been educated as to how to identify and report incidents of improper behavior. However, employees committed to carrying on unauthorized personal investigations can be problematic. By appropriately handling an employee’s first credible complaint, employers have an opportunity to build trust and allow the employee who raised the complaint to continue focusing on his or her job duties. On the other hand, if employees perceive that the investigations are not conducted appropriately, there is a risk they will take the task upon themselves. This distracts employees from their actual job functions and risks creating a more confrontational and acrimonious workplace atmosphere. Employees actively searching for evidence of workplace discrimination may interpret legitimate constructive criticism as retaliation and file further complaints to that effect. This increases the litigation risk associated with taking adverse employment actions against such employees. In short, employees who decide to conduct unauthorized investigations will likely be difficult to manage and expensive to terminate.

Employers can take steps to avoid this situation by both (1) maintaining appropriate workplace policies; and (2) adequately investigating credible complaints that these policies have been violated. These investigations must not only effectively discover the truth, they need to be viewed as fair and credible by employees. Key components of a credible investigation are:

  • Assign an objective fact-finder to lead the investigation: best practice is to assign someone to investigate who will not come in with preconceptions about the persons involved. For example, retaining outside counsel or assigning a HR representative ordinarily assigned to a different business unit demonstrates that the investigation is being undertaken with an open mind.
  • Conduct formal witness interviews: make it clear to employees that they are being asked questions in connection to a formal investigation, rather than casual or informal information gathering.
  • Provide updates regarding the progress of the investigation through a single point person: there should be a single point person the complaining employee can contact who is knowledgeable about the status of the investigation. Avoid a situation where the complaining employee feels the need to investigate the status of the investigation.
  • Proceed with reasonable speed: by conducting an expeditious investigation, employers demonstrate that they care about employee concerns and can be trusted to handle the investigation. The complaining employee should not feel responsible for prompting HR to move forward.
  • Conclude the investigation with a close-out meeting: (1) apprise the complaining employee that the investigation has been concluded and whether disciplinary action has been taken; (2) advise as to what if any steps the employer is taking to prevent improper conduct in the future; and (3) regardless of the final outcome of the investigation, reiterate the employer’s commitment to its policies prohibiting retaliation. Employers should avoid equivocating or offering excuses for misconduct or otherwise suggesting that any disciplinary actions taken as a result of the investigation reflect factors other than the gravity of the misconduct such as an employee’s status as a high performer or the employee’s large book of business.

Phishing Scam Targets Human Resources and Payroll Departments

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Human Resources and Payroll should advise employees in their departments to be on the lookout for the latest tax season phishing scam designed to steal employees’ tax related information and social security numbers. Given the regular frequency of these types of attacks, employers should be taking appropriate steps to safeguard employee Personally Identifiable Information (“PII”).  At a minimum, Human Resources should have in place written policies regarding the handling of employee PII and provide training designed to protect employee PII against a data breach.  Because Human Resources works with employee PII on an everyday basis, it may be the best equipped to secure sensitive personnel information against the type of fraudulent scheme highlighted in the recent IRS alert.

On February 2, 2017, the IRS issued an urgent alert to employers regarding a phishing scheme intended to steal employees’ tax related information to commit identify theft and tax fraud. The IRS reports that the scam involves spoofing an email to make it appear as if it is coming from an organization’s executive.  The email is sent to an employee in the Human Resources or Payroll departments, requesting a list of employees and their Forms W-2.  The IRS reports that the phony email may also request the names and social security numbers of employees with their addresses and dates of birth.  Since the email is disguised to be from an internal email address, should the HR or Payroll employee respond with the information it will actually be sent out of the organization to a cybercriminal.  The phishing scam is presently targeting healthcare organizations, shipping companies, school districts, restaurants, and temporary staffing agencies.

What preventative steps can be taken to guard against these attacks? Human Resources should ensure that policies and procedures are in place requiring that the sending of employees’ confidential tax related information by email only be done with 100% confidence that the intended recipient is within the organization and has requested the information. Indeed, the IRS advises that employers consider adopting written policies that govern the electronic distribution of confidential employee Form W-2s and tax related information.  One simple protective measure may be that a phone call confirmation is required before hitting the send button.  As a general matter, employers should have in place comprehensive written policies and procedures that govern the electronic sending, receiving and storage of confidential personnel related PII and provide workforce training to protect against data breaches and fraudulent schemes.  In addition to procedures verifying that the recipient of sensitive PII is actually within the organization, employers may also want to consider technologies providing for use of encryption when sending personnel related PII by email.  The maxim that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is in full effect here since a well thought out strategy is the best defense.

D.C. Mayor Signs Ban on Most Employment Credit Inquiries

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Our colleagues Brian W. Steinbach and Judah L. Rosenblatt, at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Heath Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “Mayor Signs District of Columbia Ban on Most Employment Credit Inquiries.”

Following is an excerpt:

On February 15, 2017, Mayor Muriel Bowser signed the “Fair Credit in Employment Amendment Act of 2016” (“Act”) (D.C. Act A21-0673) previously passed by the D.C. Council. The Act amends the Human Rights Act of 1977 to add “credit information” as a trait protected from discrimination and makes it a discriminatory practice for most employers to directly or indirectly require, request, suggest, or cause an employee (prospective or current) to submit credit information, or use, accept, refer to, or inquire into an employee’s credit information. …

Read the full post here.

Plan Sponsors Can Draw Guidance (and Comfort) from New DOL FAQs

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Our colleague Sharon L. Lippett, a Member of the Firm at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Financial Services Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “New DOL FAQs Provide Additional Guidance (and Comfort) for Plan Sponsors.”

Following is an excerpt:

Based on recent guidance from the Department of Labor (the “DOL”), many sponsors of employee benefit plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (“ERISA Plans”) should have additional comfort regarding the impact of the conflict of interest rule released by the DOL in April 2016 (the “Rule”) on their plans. Even though it is widely expected that the Trump administration will delay implementation of the Rule, in mid-January 2017, the DOL released its “Conflict of Interest FAQs (Part II – Rule)”, which addresses topics relevant to ERISA Plan sponsors. As explained below, these FAQs indicate that the Rule, as currently designed, should not require a large number of significant changes in the administration of most ERISA Plans. …

Read the full post here.

Long-Awaited Accessibility Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment Are Released

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Our colleagues Joshua A. Stein and Frank C. Morris, Jr., at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Health Employment And Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the technology industry: “The U.S. Access-Board Releases Long-Awaited Final Accessible Medical Diagnostic Equipment Standards.”

Following is an excerpt:

As part of a flurry of activity in the final days of the Obama Administration, the U.S. the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) has finally announced the release of its Accessibility Standards for Medical Diagnostic Equipment (the “MDE Standards”). Published in the Federal Register on Monday, January 9, 2017, the MDE Standards are a set of design criteria intended to provide individuals with disabilities access to medical diagnostic equipment such as examination tables and chairs (including those used for dental or optical exams), weight scales, radiological equipment, mammography equipment and other equipment used by health professionals for diagnostic purposes. …

Read the full post here.

U.S. Access Board Releases Information and Communication Technology Standards and Guidelines

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Earlier this month, in the waning moments of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the “Access Board”) took the long-anticipated step of requiring websites of federal government agencies to comply with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 Levels A and AA.  (The Access Board was established in 1973 to develop and maintain standards for accessible design in the built environment, transit vehicles and systems, telecommunications equipment and electronic and information technology.)

On Thursday, January 5, 2017, the Access Board announced the release of the long anticipated “Information and Communication Technology (“ITC”) Standards and Guidelines,” which update and combine the previously separate requirements of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (requiring federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities) and Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934 (requiring telecommunication equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities), into one rule.  The ITC Standards and Guidelines (also referred to as the “508 Refresh”) were officially released by the Access Board on Monday, January 9, 2017 and published in the Federal Register on January 18, 2017.

This final rule includes the following noteworthy changes from the previously published Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”):

  • Provides a “Safe Harbor” provision;
  • Incorporates the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (“WCAG”) 2.0 Levels A and AA by reference;
  • Covers all types of public-facing content, as well as nine (9) categories of non-public-facing content that communicate agency official business; and
  • Extends the previously contemplated compliance dates.

Application

To Whom Do the ITC Standards and Guidelines Apply?

The Section 508-based ITC Standards apply only to Federal Agencies subject to Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 who develop, procure, maintain or use ITC and is intended to ensure Federal employees with disabilities have comparable access to, and use of, such information and data relative to other Federal employees unless doing so would impose an undue burden.

The Section 255-based guidelines apply to manufactures of telecommunication equipment and address the accessibility of newly released, upgraded, or substantially changed telecommunications equipment (as well as support documentation and services, including electronic documents and web-based product support) subject to Section 255 of the Communications Act of 1934.

Who Do the ITC Standards and Guidelines Not Apply To?

  • Private Businesses – including healthcare, retail, hospitality, financial services, etc.;
  • State and Local Government Agencies;
  • Public Schools;
  • Colleges; and
  • Non Profit Entities.

It should be noted, however, that when the DOJ publishes proposed website accessibility regulations applicable to the private sector, and consistent with the DOJ’s long standing position, website accessibility will very likely be defined as compliance with WCAG 2.0, levels A and AA, just as the Access Board has used these guidelines in the Section 508 Refresh.

Deadlines

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017 the Access Board held a briefing at their Washington, D.C. office to provide a top level overview of these new rules and to provide a public question and answer session.  During this meeting, the Access Board reinforced the following information:

  • The final rule was set to be “effective” 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  Therefore, as the final rule was published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, the “effective” date was set to be Sunday, March 19, 2017.  (It is worth noting on January 20, 2017, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus issued a memorandum from the White House to the heads of executive departments and agencies calling for a sixty (60) day postponement of the effective date of regulations that have been published in the Federal Registry but not yet taken effect.  Therefore, this date may yet be delayed.)
  • Notwithstanding that deadline:
    • Compliance with the Section 508-based Standards is not required until 12 months from the date of publication in the Federal Register.  Therefore, the anticipated date of compliance for the Section 508-based Standards will be Thursday, January 18, 2018; and
    • Compliance with the Section 255-based guidelines will not be required until the guidelines are adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

OFCCP Sues Tech Giant Oracle Alleging Discrimination in Compensation and Hiring Practices and Failure to Produce Requested Records and Data

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The United States Department of Labor’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (“OFCCP”) on January 17, 2017, just days before the inauguration of President Donald Trump, filed a lawsuit against Oracle America, Inc. (“Oracle”), alleging discrimination in its compensation and hiring practices, and its refusal to produce requested records and data. See Complaint. The lawsuit, filed with the Office of Administrative Law Judges, stems from a compliance review initiated by the OFCCP on September 24, 2014 at Oracle’s Redwood Shores headquarters in California, housing 7,000 employees.

As a federal government contractor, subject to Executive Order 11246, the Rehabilitation Act and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act, Oracle is contractually obligated not to discriminate in employment on the basis of certain protected characteristics, which include race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability, and status as a protected veteran. In addition, Oracle is required to take affirmative action to ensure that applicants and employees are afforded employment opportunities without regard to these protected characteristics. As part of its contracts with the federal government, Oracle also agrees to allow the OFCCP to inspect its employment records to ensure the company’s compliance with its non-discrimination and affirmative action obligations.

The lawsuit seeks to redress violations of Executive Order 11246 stemming from the tech giant’s alleged “systemic compensation discrimination” against qualified women, Asians and African Americans employed in Information Technology, Product Development and Support positions (encompassing 80 job titles), and its “pattern and practice of hiring discrimination” against qualified White, Hispanic and African American applicants in favor of Asian applicants, namely Asian Indians, in the Professional Technical 1, Individual Contributor and the Product Development job groups (involving 69 job titles). The OFCCP specifically alleged that there were “gross disparities in pay” and “[statistically] significant overrepresentation” of Asians in the applicant pools and affected positions. In making its findings, the OFCCP indicated that Oracle refused to produce prior year compensation data and complete hiring data, and further refused to produce documentation demonstrating that it had performed “an in-depth review of its compensation practices” and that it had analyzed its applicant-hiring data for adverse impact.

Having found discrimination, the OFCCP issued a Notice of Violations, and three months later a Notice to Show Cause seeking an explanation for why the agency should not initiate enforcement proceedings. Seven months later, after conciliation efforts failed, the OFCCP instituted the instant action. While only Oracle and the OFCCP know what was discussed and debated in an attempt to bring about a resolution, clearly the OFCCP was not satisfied with Oracle’s explanations justifying the pay disparities and hiring practices, nor pleased with the company’s refusal to produce the additional compensation and hiring data requested. As a result, the OFCCP is seeking a decision finding that Oracle’s compensation and hiring practices violated Executive Order 11246, and an order permanently enjoining the company from failing and refusing to comply with its obligations, cancelling its federal government contracts, debarring it from entering into future contracts until remedying its prior noncompliance, and requiring it “to provide complete relief to the affected classes, including lost compensation, interest and all other benefits of employment resulting from Oracle’s discrimination.” Simply put, there are millions of dollars at stake.

Action Steps Employers Should Take Now

While it is still unclear what agenda the Trump Administration will expect the OFCCP to follow, so long as the status quo remains, federal government contractors should take heed. The OFCCP clearly intends to send a message with this and other lawsuits recently filed. Contractors should therefore be proactive to ensure that their compensation practices are not causing significant pay disparities that cannot be justified. They also need to ensure that their hiring practices are such that they are considering a diverse slate of candidates drawn from well-balanced recruiting pools and making hiring decisions without regard to gender, race and ethnicity. Both can be accomplished by contractors engaging counsel to conduct self-audits to ensure that they are in compliance and meeting all of their non-discrimination/affirmative action obligations as a federal government contractor. If such action is not taken, then they may face the same level of scrutiny and consequences as Oracle.

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