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Unhappy at work? It’s your right, labor board says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Your employer can’t make you be happy at work.

emojisThat’s what the National Labor Relations Board ruled earlier this year in response to complaints by Albuquerque call center employees against T-Mobile.

The board ordered the mobile communication company to delete portions of its employee handbook that prohibits employees from making disparaging remarks about the company and details how employees should maintain a positive work environment.

The case was triggered by three formal complaints. Two complaints were filed by Albuquerque workers employed at the call center on Menaul; one was filed by South Carolina employees. The complaints were brought forward by the Communications Workers of America, which represents T-Mobile employees in several states and is attempting to unionize workers in Albuquerque.

T-Mobile declined to comment.

The complaints alleged that several passages in T-Mobile’s employee handbook have a chilling effect on Section 7 rights, part of a federal law that safeguards workers’ ability to unionize or otherwise protect one another.

The board took particular issue with a section of the handbook that broadly requires workers to “maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.”

The NLRB wrote in its decision, “We find that employees would reasonably construe the rule to restrict potentially controversial or contentious communications and discussions, including those protected by Section 7.”

In its April 29 ruling, the board also demanded T-Mobile remove several other passages in its handbook, including ones that forbade employees from making disparaging comments about the company or its customers, a section that prohibited employees from making video or audio recordings in the workplace, and one that forbade employees from distributing the handbook to outside parties.

T-Mobile argued in the case that reasonable employees would understand the provision as “intended to promote a civil and decent workplace.”

T-Mobile has filed a notice of appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Chris Holland, an attorney at Sutin, Thayer & Browne, which is not involved in the case, noted the ruling was in line with other rulings the NLRB has made in recent years.

“There’s been a lot of activity around Section 7, mostly involving employees saying disparaging things about their employers over social media,” said Holland. “For the most part, the board has been very pro-employee.”

Holland said he thought it was likely that a Section 7 case would make its way to the Supreme Court in the next few years.

The board’s ruling required T-Mobile to distribute updated handbook language within 14 days of the board’s decision. The company was also required to inform employees that unlawful rules had been rescinded.

But Kevin Elder, an employee at T-Mobile’s Menaul call center, said employees were neither given updated policies nor informed of the ruling.

“There’s been no communication and nothing has changed,” said Elder. “There’s still the sense that you have to maintain that positive work environment if you want to move up.”

Hae-Lin Choi, the senior campaign coordinator for T-Mobile at CWA, said the case and its aftermath demonstrate that the company is “ruling through a culture of fear.”

“Your employer can make you do your work, but they can’t force you to be happy while doing it,” said Choi. “That’s something a regime does.”