Feb. 7 (Bloomberg) -- The Connecticut ambulance company that fired an employee after she criticized her supervisor on Facebook agreed to settle a case brought by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board.
The NLRB announced the agreement today, resolving an Oct. 27 complaint against American Medical Response of Connecticut Inc. that said Dawnmarie Souza was illegally fired and denied union representation. The employee had posted comments on her Facebook Inc. Internet account.
Among the issues in the case was whether a worker has the right to criticize a boss on a site such as Facebook if co-workers add comments. The case was the first by the NLRB to assert that employers break the law by disciplining workers who post criticisms on social-networking websites.
“There’s a strong argument that social networks are like a public forum, an invitation to conversation,” said Marshall B. Babson, a lawyer who served on the NLRB during the Reagan administration. He is a partner with Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP in New York.
Under the settlement, American Medical Response will revise its “overly broad rules” to ensure that they don’t improperly restrict employees from discussing wages, hours and working conditions with co-workers and others while not at work, and that they wouldn’t discipline or discharge employees for engaging in such discussions, the NLRB said in a statement.
The company promised that employee requests for union representation when meeting with managers won’t be denied in the future, and that employees won’t be threatened with discipline for requesting union representation, according to the agency.
The NLRB, based in Washington, remedies labor disputes between companies and their employees or unions. The agreement ends the case without the board’s decision, which would have set a precedent on whether workers can discuss their workplace on social-media sites without repercussion. American Medical Response reached agreement with the Teamsters union in a deal negotiated by the NLRB’s Hartford office.
A board decision would have established the type of posts allowed, said Michael Eastman, executive director of labor-law policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, the largest business lobbying group in the nation.
“To what extent may an employer demand that its employees not disparage it in public?” Eastman said in an interview before the agreement. “Will all such employer policies be rendered obsolete when it comes to social media?”
American Medical Response said in November that the statements Souza made didn’t qualify as protected activity under federal law.
The company is a unit of Greenwood Village, Colorado-based Emergency Medical Services Corp., the largest U.S. operator of ambulance services and provider of emergency room doctors. EMS said in December it had begun considering “strategic alternatives” for the company.
The complaint said Souza in November 2009 was denied the right to seek union help before she responded to a supervisor’s questions about a customer complaint. She had posted disparaging remarks about a supervisor on her Facebook page from a home computer, according to the NLRB case.
Souza’s comments drew supportive responses from coworkers and spurred additional negative comments about the supervisor.
“The employee in question was discharged based on multiple, serious complaints about her behavior,” Doug Moore, a company spokesman, said in November.
American Medical Response’s policy of restricting Internet use was overly broad, according to the complaint by the Hartford, Connecticut, office of the NLRB.
The NLRB said the comments were a “protected, concerted activity” by an employee on behalf of others, said Doreen S. Davis, a partner in the labor and employment practice at Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP in Philadelphia. The comments added by co-workers are considered a conversation about working conditions that would be protected, she said.
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