California state agencies ‘can’ mandate returns to the office; fewer workers quitting

In this week's HR news round-up: Californian agencies can compel staff return to the office; fewer Americans are quitting their jobs; while female C-suite representation records first fall since 2005...

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May 9, 2024
This article is part of a series called The Most Interesting HR Stories of the Week.

Ruling says California state agencies can compel staff to go back to the office

California state agencies can compel employees to come to the office even if their union-negotiated contracts promise them the right to work from home, according to a labor arbitrator’s decision in a dispute between the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the union that represents state attorneys. The decision follows governor Gavin Newsom’s decree to call back tens of thousands of California state workers into the office, by adjusting the work-from-home policies the state adopted during the pandemic. Newsom has reportedly been wanting to save around $51 million, by terminating the telework stipends the state has continued to provide to many public employees since the pandemic. The attorneys union, which is known by the acronym CASE, challenged the order and pointed to language in its contract stating that employee telework requests “shall not be denied except for operational needs.” But according to arbitrator Katherine Thomson, executives have legitimate operational reasons to require attorneys to work in the office, including to improve communication. Responding to the decision, CASE President Timothy O’Connor said: “We’re still aggressively defending our members in the (return-to-office) mandate and continuing to use every strategy that’s available.”

Boeing employees may have falsified inspections

Beleaguered aircraft maker, Boeing, is facing fresh allegations over its safety and workplace culture, after it was revealed this week that federal air safety regulators were looking into allegations that several staff had falsely claimed vital safety tests had been completed when they hadn’t. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is looking into whether Boeing completed inspections to confirm adequate bonding and grounding where the wings of certain 787 Dreamliner planes join the fuselage. The investigation will also look at “whether company employees may have falsified aircraft records,” the US federal government agency added. This news comes just weeks after a Congressional investigation in April heard evidence about the safety culture and manufacturing standards at Boeing. Sam Salehpour, a quality engineer at the company, told members of a Senate subcommittee that Boeing was taking shortcuts to bolster production levels that could lead to jetliners breaking apart. He said of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner – which has more than 1,000 in use across airlines globally – that excessive force was used to jam together sections of fuselage. He claimed the extra force could compromise the carbon-composite material used for the plane’s frame. “They [Boeing] are putting out defective airplanes,” he concluded, while adding that he was threatened when he raised concerns about the issue.

Female C-suite representation falls for the first time in nearly 20 years

New data has revealed women hold 11.8% of 15,000 available roles in publicly traded US firms – a fall of 0.7 percentage points compared to last year, which is the first drop in representation since levels began being tracked in 2005. The data – from the S&P Global Total Market Index – also revealed growth in women’s representation for all senior positions dropped to less than 0.5% in 2023, compared to a 1.2% average in years previously. At the rate at which women are now currently progressing, S&P Global estimates US firms may not reach parity in the C-suite until 2072 – some six to seven years later than the firm initially estimated. Commenting on the data, Jackie Cook, Morningstar’s director of stewardship, product strategy, and development, said: “The ‘representation gap’ evident in the C-suite gets starts earlier on down the corporate ladder.” In fact, she referred to there being a “broken rung” that prevents women from progressing to manager-level positions. Separate research from S&P Global also shows less than one-third (29%) of women held revenue-generating management roles in 2023. Such roles, the firm wrote, “can be a stepping stone to the C-suite as they can provide experience in running businesses or making operational decisions.”

NLRB rules Apple ‘illegally’ interrogated staff

The National Labor Relations Board has found that IT giant, Apple, illegally questioned its pro-union World Trade Centre staff and illegally stopped workers from placing union flyers on a table in their break room. In coming to its judgement, the board effectively affirmed the decision of administrative law Judge Lauren Esposito, who ruled last year that Apple illegally stopped workers from placing union flyers on a table in the break room of the World Trade Center store, confiscated the flyers and interrogated staff over their “protected concerted activity.” The ruling is the board’s first decision against Apple, according to agency spokesperson Kayla Blado. The Communications Workers of America – the union behind the World Trade Center campaign – said Apple continues to interfere with “workers’ ability to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union.” CWA spokesperson Beth Allen said: “Time after time, when workers want to join a union, Apple has had an opportunity to live up to its stated values and failed.” On Monday, the NLRB ordered Apple to “cease and desist” from coercively interrogating workers and confiscating union flyers from the break room. They also told the company to post a notice telling employees that it will obey the law and informing workers of their rights. The ruling comes as Apple has faced a wave of organizing efforts over the past couple years. Other cases are still pending, including one in which an NLRB regional director has accused Apple of illegally excluding unionized workers from certain benefits.

US Justice Department takes Texas Department of Criminal Justice to court over employee discrimination

The US Justice Department is suing the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ ), for allegedly religiously discriminating against an employee – whose job was later terminated. The civil lawsuit alleges the employee, Franches Spears, was placed on leave without pay and later terminated after she refused to take off a head scarf being worn “in accordance with her Ifa religious beliefs and practices.” The complaint alleges that Spears began wearing a head scarf in September 2019. She did so for about a month without incident before being sent to the agency’s human resources office. There she was told the attire violated the TDCJ’s “business-casual uniform and grooming standards for non-uniformed employees.” In a statement, US assistant attorney general, Kristen Clarke, said: “Employers cannot require employees to forfeit their religious beliefs or improperly question the sincerity of those beliefs. This lawsuit is a reminder to all employers of their clear legal obligation to offer reasonable religious accommodations.” When Spears explained the Ifa religion to her superiors (one that has been practiced by Nigeria’s Yoruba communities for thousands of years), human resources employee Elizabeth Fisk reportedly said: “Basically you just pray to a rock,” according to the complaint. Spears was later told to fill out the agency’s Religious Accommodation Form but was warned that her application would possibly never be approved. The DOJ lawsuit seeks damages for pain and suffering and all lost wages and applicable interest.

Fewer Americans are quitting their jobs

In news that might help some employers breath a sigh of relief, data suggests Americans are deciding the risk of moving jobs is too great, and they are opting to stay put for the known financial stability and work-life balance their existing job brings. The survey, by software company Ringover, found two-fifths of respondents cited improved work-life balance (44%), interesting work (41%) and financial stability (38%) as their top reasons for staying with their current employer. A further 9% said they felt changing companies was too risky. Among employees who are more likely to look for a new job now than two to three years ago, two-fifths (40%) cited a lack of career progression as their main incentive, followed by looking for a new challenge (37%). Interestingly, some 35% of people said they would consider quitting because their company was asking them to work onsite more often. A fifth (20%) of employees aged 44 to 59 said they’d stay with their employer if there were opportunities for career progression, but two-thirds (65%) said they felt less ambitious than they did two years ago.

Labor market shows signs of cooling

After a succession of record gains in recent months comes data that suggests labor market might finally be cooling. Data reveals that just 175,000 jobs were added in April – considerably less than the 235,000 that had been predicted. It now means unemployment has inched up – to 3.9%, up a tenth of a percent. Particularly badly hit has been the normally robust leisure sector. The leisure and hospitality industry was one of the key employment drivers in 2022 and 2023, but the Department of Labor figures suggests it saw a net gain of only 5,000 jobs last month. As of April, there were an estimated 16.897 million leisure and hospitality workers versus 16.899 million in February 2020. Following this slowdown in new jobs, markets now expect the first interest cut to come in September, a change from recent bets on December. In brighter news though, the employment data did reveal that The employment rate of women in their prime working years just hit an all-time high in April. The labor force participation rate for women between the ages of 25 and 54 climbed 0.3 percentage points to 78% last month.

This article is part of a series called The Most Interesting HR Stories of the Week.