In what could prove to be a precedent-setting case on both sides of the Atlantic, the US National Labor Relations Board has accused a company of illegally firing an employee after she criticised her boss on Facebook.
The Board, a US federal agency, which oversees union elections and investigates claims of unfair labour practices, claimed that the American Medical Response ambulance service in Connecticut had illegally dismissed emergency medical technician Dawnmarie Souza for describing her supervisor in unflattering and vulgar terms. It had also denied her access to union representation during an investigatory review, it attested.
Lafe Soloman, the Board’s acting general counsel, told the New York Times: “This is a fairly straightforward case under the National Labor Relations Act – whether it takes place on Facebook or at the water cooler, it was employees talking jointly about working conditions – in this case about their supervisor – and they have a right to do that.”
The Act prohibits employers from punishing workers for discussing working conditions or union issues, which means that criticising their bosses on social media sites is “a protected concerted activity”, the Board argued.
The only difference between this and previous cases was that Souza made her criticisms on Facebook “on her own time and her own computer” and the “company’s rules were unlawfully broad” anyway, it claimed.
But American Medical Response attested that it dismissed ie Souza due to “multiple serious complaints about her behaviour” rather than because she used the social networking site to attack her boss.
However, she had violated a company policy, which bars staff from depicting the company “in any way” on any social media site in which they post pictures of themselves, it claimed. Personnel are also not allowed to make “disparaging” or “discriminatory” comments when discussing the company, their managers or co-workers.
Moreover, the company attested that “the offensive statements made against the co-workers were not concerted activity under federal law” and said that the Boards allegations were without merit.
Jackson Lewis, a lawyer representing the firm, told CNN: “This employee was terminated after the company received complaints on two separate incidents in 2009. All pointed to Souza’s rude and discourteous behaviour with patients.”
He added that she was not denied union representation, but had discussed the matter with her representative before submitting a response.
Souza, who was fired last December, is seeking to be reinstated in her job. An administrative law judge is scheduled to begin hearing the case on 25 January next year.