Over the next two and a half weeks, we, as Americans, will participate in one of the hallmarks of our great country’s success and vision. We will elect one of the leaders of the free world without violence, without bloodshed, without guns, without coups, and without fear. As we all complain about the survey calls, the yard signs, the ads on our television and radio, the Facebook posts of our friends, and the debates that preempt our favorite primetime television shows (I’m certainly unhappy to be missing Castle this coming Monday thanks to the debate), we should take a moment and marvel that for over two centuries, our country has transitioned power again and again without violence. How fortunate are we to live in a country where the potential of a new leader doesn’t bring soldiers to our streets or fear for our children’s safety?
However, this time of year, especially every four years, creates several issues for employers. I will address some of the most frequent questions here.
Do I need to allow my employees time off of work to vote? If so, does it have to be paid?
No federal law requires time off of work to vote. Such rights are controlled by state law. Approximately 35 of the 50 states provide some type of “voter leave” that requires employers to allow employees time off on election day to vote. In some instances, the employee is only entitled to the leave if his scheduled shift does not allow enough time to vote either before or after the workday. In other states, from two to four hours of time away from work is required to allow employees time to vote. Some of these laws require that the time be paid, others do not. If you have employees in multiple states, you should determine the exact requirements of the states in which you have workers.
North Carolina remains in the minority of states that have no voter leave law. Thus, as an employer, you are not required to give employees any time off on election day to vote and if you choose to do so, such time off does not have to be paid. Employers may not, however, intentionally interfere with an employee’s right to vote and doing so is against the public policy of North Carolina. Arguably with the advent of early voting in North Carolina, an employer’s ability to interfere with an employee’s ability to cast a vote is all but nonexistent. Early voting is available in North Carolina for three Saturdays and several weekdays prior to election day. Despite early voting, employers in North Carolina who have employees who are scheduled to work on election day such that the employees would not be able to get to the polls either before or after their shifts, may consider allowing some time for those employees to vote. (Note that in North Carolina anyone in line to vote at the close of the poll will be allowed to vote, so employees need only be able to get to their polling location and in line by the time of the close of the polls to be able to vote.)
Can I encourage my employees to vote for any particular candidate?
No law prohibits employers from expressing their preference for particular candidates through signs, bumper stickers on their cars, or expressing their views. However, any attempt by an employer to coerce employees to agree to vote for a particular candidate or to support a particular candidate financially should be avoided. Such efforts could be seen as interfering with the employee’s right to vote and/or raise concerns regarding violations of federal election laws. Further, you should consider what effect your dissemination of your political preference will have on employee morale. Also, if you work for a company with a particular tax status, such as a non-profit corporation, your actions are even more restricted. Bottom line, I suggest that employers should refrain from using their position as an employer to exert more influence on their workforce than they would exert on the general public through the display of a yard sign or car magnet.
Should I prohibit any discussion of politics at work?
Practically speaking, prohibiting workplace discussions on particular subjects is always difficult. If you receive complaints from your workers that such discussions are interfering with their working environment, you should treat the complaint as you would any other complaint related to working conditions. Investigate the complaint and, if appropriate, take action that protects the working environment for all of your employees. A note of particular caution here: Given the overly aggressive nature of the current National Labor Relations Board, the protections offered by the National Labor Relations Act to employees regarding their ability to discuss working conditions, and the ties between some political parties/candidates and Unions, you should consult with your labor attorney prior to making any blanket statements prohibiting political discussion in your workplace.
Can I discipline employees who bring a political disagreement into the work place?
How many folks have you “unfriended” on Facebook this political season? I’ll admit to hiding a few. No doubt in today’s social media world, your employees are more likely to know one another’s political stance and are likely to be discussing it more than ever before. As a result, disagreements are also more likely. Just as you always have the right to investigate and attempt to alleviate behaviors that are negatively affecting your employees’ working conditions, you may discipline employees who bring their disagreements in to the workplace in such a way that affects your working environment. Employees may not be disruptive, insubordinate, or break any other of your workplace rules as a result of a political disagreement. Treat them as you would anyone else who breaks your rules.
How can I support my employees’ right to vote without disrupting my workplace?
As you likely gathered above, in this attorney’s humble opinion, the right to vote is a sacred one. I’ll support your right to go vote against the candidate of your choice any time. I also know that a lot of my clients feel the same way. While as discussed above, employers should be careful when encouraging employees to vote for a particular candidate, employers should not be concerned about encouraging employees to exercise their right to vote. Here are some ideas for supporting your employees’ right to vote without causing significant disruption to your workplace:
- Offer employees a flyer with early voting poll places and times around your workplace;
- Offer employees an extra 30 minutes at lunch one day in the next two weeks if they want to go vote early (you can do this by department, last name or the whole company);
- Work with employees who are scheduled to work long shifts on election day who request time to vote;
- Allow employees to use PTO or sick time on election day if they need to do so to go vote;
- Send an email to employees with information regarding one-stop early voting and voter registration (registration is still available in North Carolina if you vote early);
- Encourage your management team to go vote and wear their “I voted” stickers;
- Allow employees to go vote in groups and encourage their peers.
Happy Election Season! Only a couple of weeks and our telephones, tvs, radios, and Facebook will return to normal; and, we will have again participated in one of the cherished acts that makes us Americans.
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