Labor Board Rules that Employees Have Right to Use Employer-Provided Email

On December 11, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) issued a decision finding that employees who are given access to an employer-provided email account have a right protected by federal labor law to use the employer’s e-mail system to engage in protected communications on non-working time. This 3-2 decision reverses a 2007 decision, and will require employers to seriously consider whether and to what extent they need to alter or amend their electronic communications and/or usage policies.

Register Guard Decision

In 2007, the Board issued a decision in Register-Guard, 351 NLRB 1110 (2007), which held that employees have no statutory right use their employer’s email systems for engaging in conduct protected by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”). Such activities include union organizing and other concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

Accordingly, employers had been able to promulgate and enforce policies that prohibited employees from using company-provided email systems for all non-work related activities, such as selling a car or soliciting donations. The fact that these blanket prohibitions included activities protected by the NLRA was of no consequence, provided that the employer did not enforce the policy in a way to target union or other activities protected by the NLRA.

Right to Use Company-Provided Email for Activities Protected by NLRA

In its decision in Purple Communications, 361 NLRB No. 126 (Dec. 11, 2014), the Board ruled that employees who have been given access to a company email system must presumptively be allowed to use the system during their non-working time for communications that are protected by the NLRA. In short, according to the NLRB, federal labor law prohibits employers from implementing or maintaining policies that prohibit all non-work related use of its email system.

Because the right is subject to a “presumption,” it may be possible for the employer to rebut the presumption in certain cases. According to the Board, “[a]n employer may rebut the presumption by demonstrating that special circumstances necessary to maintain production or discipline justify restricting its employees’ rights.” However, the Board made clear that it would be a “rare case” where an employer’s business interests would justify a total ban on non-work email use.

Another limiting aspect of the decision is that it only applies to “non-working time.” Therefore, employers can continue to prohibit use of its email systems for non-work related purposes during the employees’ working time. (However, employers are not permitted to discriminatorily enforce a prohibition against non-business use by selectively prohibiting email communications that constitute NLRA-protected discussions.) In addition, the Board made clear that its decision applies only to company email and not to other forms of electronic communication, such as employer-provided instant messaging services or social media.

Bottom Line

Although not unexpected, the Board’s decision represents a “sea change” for employee email use. According to the Board, employers can no longer maintain an electronic communications policy that generally prohibits all non-work related use of the employer’s e-mail system.

Employers with such policies should, with the assistance of counsel, consider whether and to what extent changes need to be made. Considerations include the following: (1) the possibility that the Board’s decision will be reversed on appeal, (2) the fact that maintaining an unlawful policy may be grounds for setting aside a union election, (3) the possibility that managers who are not expected to keep up with these legal nuances may independently authorize the termination of an employee in reliance upon a policy that the NLRB considers to be unlawful for engaging in NLRA-protected communications (which raises the stakes of an adverse outcome), and (4) the fact that the NLRB cannot force an employer to change its policy unless a charge is filed.

Employers with questions should feel free to contact any of Felhaber Larson’s experienced Labor Law attorneys. We will continue to monitor this issue as it develops.