Employment LawScene Alert: NLRB Decides that Workers Can Use Their Employers Email — Even for Union Organizing

On December 11, 2014, in Purple Communications, Inc., the NLRB overturned its 2007 Register Guard decision and held that employees have the right to use their employers’ email systems for nonbusiness purposes, including communicating about union organizing.  The NLRB emphasized the importance of email as a critical means of communication for employees, especially in today’s workplace culture, and noted that some personal use of an employer email system is common and often accepted by employers.  Because communication among employees is a foundation for the exercise of Section 7 rights, the NLRB held that employers who have chosen to give employees access to their email systems must now permit those employees to use those systems for statutorily protected communications on nonworking time.  Employers are permitted to monitor employees’ email use to ensure that it is being used properly.  Employers will not be engaged in unlawful surveillance of Section 7 activity unless they do something “out of the ordinary,” such as increasing monitoring during an organizational campaign or focusing monitoring effects on protected conduct or union activists.

In an attempt to balance the employees’ Section 7 rights to communication with the legitimate interests of employers, this decision only applies to workers who have already been given access to their employers’ email systems; employers are not required to provide access to employees.  Businesses may also be able to justify a complete ban on non-work use of email if they can point to special circumstances that make such a prohibition necessary to maintain production or discipline.  It will be the employer’s burden to show what the interest at issue is and demonstrate how that interest supports any email use restrictions the company has implemented.  The decision did not address email access by non-employees or any other type of electronic communication systems.

Employers should review their computer use and e-mail policies in light of this decision. Employers should determine which employees should or need to have access to their computer and e-mail systems and whether there is any business justification to impose a complete ban on non-work use of email.

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