Monday, February 16, 2015

PERB: Blanket Restrictions on Communications Interfere with Protected Rights

The Public Employment Relations Board's recent decision in Los Angeles Community College District (2014) PERB Decision No. 2404 held blanket restrictions on communications may interfere with employees' right to engage in concerted activity. This long awaited decision brings PERB alongside National Labor Relations Board precedent holding "blanket" instructions to employees to maintain confidentiality during a workplace investigation may interfere with protected activities if they are overbroad and the employer lacks a proper business justification.

In Los Angeles Community College District, a professor disagreed with the District reducing his work hours and salary. He made statements to students and handed out materials criticizing District administration. The District placed the professor on administrative leave pending a fitness for duty evaluation and issued the following admonishment: "You are hereby directed not to contact any members of the faculty, staff, or students."

PERB ruled the directive interfered with the professor's protected activities. PERB found the District's directive was overbroad and contained no qualifiers limiting its scope. Although the directive did not explicitly restrict protected rights, PERB found "the directive not to contact faculty, staff or students would reasonably be construed to prohibit the employee from participating in a variety of protected activities including discussing working conditions with his coworkers or union, or initiating a grievance." In addition, the District lacked a business justification for the directive.

This case law may have practical application to public safety professionals subject to personnel investigations because many agencies issue admonish them from communicating with coworkers during the investigation. Employee organizations should insist that internal affairs confidentiality directives are narrowly tailored, for example, limited to witnesses who have not been interviewed. Overbroad gag orders will likely give rise to an unfair labor practice.