TV choices at work may not be pro­tected

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Johnny C. Tay­lor Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

Johnny C. Tay­lor Jr., a hu­man-re­sources ex­pert, is tack­ling your ques­tions as part of a se­ries for USA TO­DAY. Tay­lor is pres­i­dent and CEO of the So­ci­ety for Hu­man Re­source Man­age­ment, the world’s largest HR pro­fes­sional so­ci­ety. The ques­tions are sub­mit­ted by read­ers, and Tay­lor’s an­swers below have been edited for length and clar­ity.

Ques­tion: Why would a worker get writ­ten up for chang­ing the break­room TV chan­nel to Fox News when it’s OK to change the chan­nel to CNN? – Robin

Johnny C. Tay­lor Jr.: Free-speech rights are guar­an­teed un­der the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, but the Con­sti­tu­tion doesn’t ap­ply to pri­vate em­ploy­ment.

Em­ploy­ers gen­er­ally have the au­thor­ity to con­trol how em­ploy­ees ex­press them­selves on the job and are al­lowed to dis­ci­pline and even ter­mi­nate em­ploy­ees who act un­pro­fes­sion­ally or cre­ate dis­tur­bances – and this in­cludes po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion.

Let me ex­plain fur­ther. Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, there is no right to free speech in pri­vate work­places, and po­lit­i­cal party af­fil­i­a­tion and po­lit­i­cal speech are gen­er­ally not pro­tected at work.

For ex­am­ple, it is per­mit­ted for any em­ployer or su­per­vi­sor who fa­vors CNN over Fox News be­cause of po­lit­i­cal rea­sons to dis­ci­pline a co-worker for turn­ing on Fox in the break­room, es­pe­cially if the broad­cast is caus­ing or could cause a dis­tur­bance.

Some state laws pro­tect what em­ploy­ees say or how they ex­press them­selves in the of­fice, based on their use of fed­eral or state con­sti­tu­tional freespeech rights.

But watch­ing a ca­ble broad­cast on break time might not be pro­tected un­der state law if an em­ployee wasn’t then ex­press­ing opin­ions on the broad­cast or am­pli­fy­ing the point of view to in­flu­ence co-work­ers.

If your em­ployer is in the pri­vate sec­tor and not a gov­ern­ment work­place, the com­pany’s bias and judg­ment in dis­ci­plin­ing em­ploy­ees with dif­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal opin­ions is al­lowed.

In other words, the free speech pro­tec­tions of the Con­sti­tu­tion and state law likely stop at the em­ployer’s front door.

In the in­ter­est of peace and har­mony in these con­tentious times, per­haps the em­ployer should tune the TV to ESPN or HGTV. Then again, maybe the com­pany should un­plug the break­room TV and en­cour­age em­ploy­ees to truly take a break.

Q: Can a com­pany charge dif­fer­ent health ben­e­fit rates to dif­fer­ent em­ploy­ees for the ex­act same cov­er­age? – Brad

Tay­lor: For em­ployer-sponsored health plans, the an­swer is yes – and no. Com­pa­nies can charge dif­fer­ent rates, or pre­mi­ums, through a tiered sys­tem that bases em­ploy­ees’ con­tri­bu­tions on their pay.

In other words, those mak­ing lower wages pay less, and higher-earn­ers pay more.

But com­pa­nies can­not dis­crim­i­nate in fa­vor of highly paid em­ploy­ees, nor can they set ar­bi­trary rates. And they cer­tainly can’t set rates based on an em­ployee’s health.

Although com­pa­nies can charge dif­fer­ent pre­mi­ums, most choose not to do so. Ac­cord­ing to HR con­sul­tancy Aon He­witt, just 21 per­cent of em­ploy­ers set health-in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums based on em­ployee pay.

Com­pa­nies with a slid­ing scale based on in­come usu­ally do so out of a sense of fair­ness. As health in­sur­ance gets more ex­pen­sive and em­ploy­ees ab­sorb more out-of-pocket costs, some em­ploy­ers worry that lower-paid work­ers will bear an un­due bur­den or will go with­out health in­sur­ance.

Tiers are cre­ated as com­pa­nies com­mit to try­ing to pro­vide all their em­ploy­ees – at all pay lev­els – af­ford­able health-care ben­e­fits.

Keep in mind that health in­sur­ance rates at small em­ploy­ers – those with fewer than 50 em­ploy­ees – of­ten are based on the ages of the em­ployee and their cov­ered de­pen­dents.

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