- NLRB Gives Employees the Right to Use Company Email for Protected Communications
- February 25, 2015
- Law Firm: Preti Flaherty Beliveau Pachios LLP - Portland Office
- Breaking new ground, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that employees have the right to use company email during non-working time to communicate about the terms and conditions of their employment. The Board’s decision in Purple Communications, Inc., 361 NLRB No. 126 (Dec. 11, 2014), overturns its 2007 decision in Register Guard, which held that employees generally do not have a right to use company email for communications protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.
At issue in Purple Communications was an electronic communications policy that prohibited employees from using their employer’s email system except for “business purposes.” The employees worked as interpreters at various call centers and used company-provided email accounts in the course of their work. The union representing the employees claimed that the business-only email policy was unlawful on its face because it interfered with the employees’ ability to engage in union organizing efforts.
Reversing its holding in Register Guard, the Board found that it had struck the wrong balance in that decision between the rights of employees to engage in Section 7 communications and the property rights of employers in their electronic communications systems. Striking a new balance, the Board held in Purple Communications that employees who have been given access to a company email system have a presumptive right to use the system to communicate about the terms and conditions of their employment during non-working time. According the Board, a company may rebut the presumption and justify a total ban on non-work email by showing that “special circumstances” make the ban necessary to maintain production or discipline. However, absent these special circumstances, employers may impose uniform controls over their systems only to the extent that the controls are needed to maintain production and discipline.
The Board’s decision in Purple Communications leaves a number of questions unanswered, including what showing will be required to demonstrate “special circumstances” justifying a total ban on non-work email use. In addition, because the decision is limited to employee use of company email systems, questions remain as to what restrictions may be permissible concerning the use of other electronic communications systems. What is clear, however, is that with the decision in Purple Communications, the Board is taking very seriously its responsibility to adapt the NLRA to what it has described as the “changing patterns of industrial life.”