On December 11, 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (Board) issued a 3-2 decision (with Board Members Philip Miscimarra and Harry Johnson dissenting) in Purple Communications, Inc., holding that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s e-mail system during non-working time to communicate regarding union organizing and to engage in other protected concerted activities under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (Act). The Board’s decision overruled its 2007 decision in Register Guard.
Purple Communications’ electronic communications policy provided that its electronic communications systems and equipment were "to facilitate Company business" and that "all such equipment and access should be used for business purposes only." The policy also prohibited employees from using its systems and equipment to engage "in activities on behalf of organizations or persons with no professional or business affiliation with the Company" and to send "uninvited e-mail of a personal nature." There was no dispute that, under the Board’s 2007 Register Guard decision, the policy was perfectly lawful as written.
In the fall of 2012, the Communications Workers of America (Union) filed petitions to represent employees at seven of Purple Communications’ facilities. After an election was held, the Union filed objections to the results of the election at two facilities and an unfair labor practice charge, alleging (among other things) that the electronic communications policy interfered with the employees’ Section 7 rights.
The Administrative Law Judge, relying on the Board’s 2007 Register Guard decision, found the electronic communications policy to be lawful. The Board majority, however, found that the Register Guard decision improperly placed too much weight on the property rights of employers in their own e-mail systems and too little weight on the Section 7 right of employees to communicate in the workplace about their terms and conditions of employment. The Board majority also believed that the Register Guard decision failed to recognize the importance of e-mail as a means by which employees engage in protected communications. Therefore, the Board majority overruled its Register Guard decision and held that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s e-mail system during non-working time to engage in communications protected by Section 7 of the Act.
The Board made clear in its decision that this presumption applies only to employees who have been granted access to the employer’s e-mail system in the course of their work and does not require an employer to provide access to its e-mail system to employees who do not otherwise need it. In addition, the Board held that an employer may rebut the presumption and justify a total ban on non-business use of its e-mail system by demonstrating that "special circumstances make the ban necessary to maintain production or discipline." Virtually no guidance is provided in the decision regarding what those "special circumstances" might be, but the Board majority stated that "we anticipate that it will be the rare case where special circumstances justify a total ban on non-work e-mail use by employees." The Board remanded the case back to the Administrative Law Judge for a determination of whether Purple Communications could successfully rebut the presumption and justify the scope of its prohibition on the personal use of e-mail.
The restriction that employees may use their employer’s e-mail system for Section 7 purposes only during non-working time raises a significant question: can an employer monitor employee use of its e-mail systems during working time to ensure compliance with this restriction and discipline employees who are found to have engaged in Section 7 activity through e-mail during working time, without risking potential liability for unlawful surveillance or discrimination based on union activities? According to the Board’s decision, an employer may continue to notify employees that they should have no expectation of privacy in their use of the employer’s e-mail system and may continue to monitor the use of its e-mail system for legitimate business purposes. However, the Board stated that this monitoring is lawful only if "the employer does nothing out of the ordinary." For example, the Board’s decision leaves open the possibility that an employer’s increased monitoring during a union organizing campaign or an employer’s particular focus on employees who are known union activists could result in potential liability under Sections 8(a)(1) or 8(a)(3) of the Act.
Members Miscimarra and Johnson both wrote strong dissenting opinions. In the view of the dissenters, an employer’s interests in controlling the use of its own electronic communications system should prevail over employees’ interests in using that system for union organizing activities, especially in light of the availability of other electronic communications networks such as employees’ own personal e-mail and social media sites.
Many employers’ electronic communications policies already permit employees to engage in some limited personal use of their e-mail systems as long as that personal use does not interfere with the employee’s work duties or the work duties of other employees. This type of policy may very well be lawful even under the Board’s Purple Communications decision, because, on its face, it likely would not be interpreted to prohibit Section 7 protected activity during non-working time. At this point, however, if your electronic communications policy contains a blanket prohibition on the use of your e-mail system for personal reasons, you may want to consider potential revisions to your policy.