New ruling restores restaurants’ say on who can use their email

The decision from the NLRB reverses its policy that employees had the right to use their employers’ email to communicate with co-workers about nonwork matters, including unionization.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants and other employers no longer need to surrender their email systems to employees upon request, unless the denial only applies to unionization advocates, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced Tuesday. 

The ruling by the Board, the nation’s regulator of unionization activities, reverses the policy it set during the Obama administration. The NLRB ruled at that time that employees had a right to access their employer’s email system to air dissatisfaction with working conditions, pay and other aspects of their employment, or to make a pitch for organizing into a collective bargaining unit. The decision was based on a perceived right of employees to freely discuss job issues with co-workers without interference or retaliation from their bosses. It was seen by the business community as a prime example of the NLRB’s overreach in trying to protect unions and their organization efforts. 

“Employers have the right to control the use of their equipment, including their email and other IT systems, and they may lawfully exercise that right to restrict the uses to which those systems are put,” the NLRB said in announcing the reversal.

It did leave open the loophole of requiring access to an employer’s email system for nonwork-related discussions if that was the only way employees could communicate with one another. 

The decision is the latest reversal of an NLRB policy set under the Obama administration. The composition of the Board at that time was widely seen as pro-union and anti-employer. The board was reconstituted by President Trump. 

The most controversial of the NLRB’s decisions during President Obama’s tenure, the redefinition of most franchisors as joint employers of franchisees’ staffs, is expected to be reversed by a new ruling from the Board sometime this month.

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