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With politics becoming more polarizing, employers may be wondering how much political talk among employees they should allow. Such discussions may distract workers from completing tasks, as well as create or increase tension or discord between coworkers. Moreover, many issues discussed during campaigning involve topics that are protected under various statutes.
The First Amendment freedom-of-speech protections apply only to government action. Unless there is relevant state law, private employers are typically free to restrict political speech at work, as well as to hire, fire or make employment decisions because of an individual’s political views (although not recommended). Before taking any actions to restrict employee’s political speech, be sure to check state and local law.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects the rights of employees to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” These protections also may extend to employee speech regarding the terms and conditions of employment.
Employers are typically permitted to prohibit employees from campaigning or distributing political materials while at work on work hours. Such non-solicitation policies should be enforced consistently for political and non-political purposes.
Employers are free to enforce reasonable dress codes in the workplace. Such dress codes may prohibit employees from wearing badges, buttons and clothing with political messaging. Again, badges or buttons showcasing union messages are typically protected under the NLRA.
Use of Employer’s Equipment
Generally, employees do not have the right to use company equipment, such as printing materials, copy machines and bulletin boards, for nonwork purposes, including political campaigning. Employers may have a right to also limit employees’ use of work on computers and email for political purposes; however, the National Labor Relations Board has previously found that employees typically have a right to access work email systems to engage in protected activity under the NLRA.
Employer Influence on Voting Activity
In the District of Columbia, employers may not threaten or intimidate employees from signing any initiative, referendum or recall petition or to vote for or against or abstain from voting on any initiative, referendum or recall. Employers are also prohibited from paying or offering to pay employees for registering to vote or for voting.
In Maryland, influencing an individual’s voting activity through intimidation or bribery is prohibited. Employers are forbidden from exhibiting in the workplace any threat intended to influence the political opinions or actions of employees during the 90 days prior to an election. Additionally, employers may not include in “compensation materials” any statements to influence the political opinions or actions of employees.
In Virginia, the use of threats or bribery to influence how individuals vote is prohibited. Additionally, political action committees may not use funds obtained through actual or threat of physical force, job discrimination or financial reprisals or required as a condition of employment.
Voting Leave Laws
In Maryland, employers are required to allow employees to take two hours of paid leave to vote, so long as the employee does not have two hours of continuous off-duty time while the polls are open. Employers may require employees to show proof that they voted.
Likewise, in the District of Columbia, employers are required to allow at least two hours of paid leave to vote in person as long as the person would have been scheduled to work during the time leave is requested. Employers can require the employee to request the leave a reasonable time in advance and specify the hours in which employees can take the leave.
Virginia does not have any laws requiring an employer to provide employees either paid or unpaid leave to vote. However, if an employee is serving as an election official then the employer cannot require them to use sick time or vacation time to cover their absence from work.
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