The Employment Law Review: Puerto Rico

Introduction

Puerto Rico is a jurisdiction that is highly protective of employees' rights, which are liberally interpreted in their favour. From rights established in the Constitution of Puerto Rico, such as the right to privacy, to more than a dozen statutory leaves of absence and numerous categories protected from discrimination, employers doing business in Puerto Rico encounter a jurisdiction rich in employment legislation.

As an unincorporated territory of the United States, Puerto Rico's dual legal system is characterised by coexisting US federal laws and local legal provisions. Thus, Puerto Rico enjoys US constitutional, legal and regulatory protections, many of which extend to the employment context. A similar duality applies to Puerto Rico courts of law – claimants have access to Puerto Rico state courts of general jurisdiction and the US District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, a federal court of limited jurisdiction. US District Court decisions are subject to appeal before the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Massachusetts and subsequently to the US Supreme Court.

The Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources (PRDLHR) is responsible for the administration of public policy relating to labour and employment legislation, occupational safety, unemployment insurance benefits, re-employment services and human resources training. The divisions of the PRDLHR, with which employees commonly file administrative claims, include the Bureau of Employment Norms, the Office of Mediation and Adjudication and the Anti-Discrimination Unit. Under a work-sharing agreement, the latter is the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's state counterpart that handles discrimination complaints.

To further facilitate access to the judicial system, employees in Puerto Rico count on a special proceeding to file employment-related lawsuits in state courts pursuant to Act No. 2 of 17 October 1961, as amended. This statutory, summary proceeding provides for the expeditious handling of claims, and imposes strict requirements and severe consequences on employers.

Year in review

In 2020, the workplace was affected in almost every aspect by covid-19. Coping with the pandemic has required a wide array of legislation, regulations and executive orders from both the national and US governments, to address public health concerns as well as the economic repercussions resulting from lockdowns, operational shutdowns and other types of social distancing restrictions decreed. Additionally, several of the laws enacted during 2020 aimed to empower working mothers and make the work environment more equitable and free of discrimination and harassment.

A summary of developments in 2020 include the following:

  1. Act No. 9 of 3 January 2020, known as Working Women's Bill of Rights, compiles the rights women have in the public and private work sectors. It is an informative law that does not provide new substantive rights. It only requires public and private employers to visibly posts its provisions. It addresses, for example, the right to a severance payment in respect of wrongful termination of employment, maternity and adoption leave, breastfeeding or milk extraction periods, a work environment free of discrimination, domestic violence and sexual harassment.
  2. Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) of 18 March 2020, a US federal law effective as of 1 April 2020 and until 31 December 2020, and extending to Puerto Rico, required employers with fewer than 500 employees, among other things, to provide eligible employees with paid sick leave when the employee was unable to work or telework for a qualifying reason in the Act. The FFCRA incorporated into the US federal employment legal scheme a statutory paid sick leave, which provided up to 80 hours of paid sick leave to full-time and part-time employees who were unable to work or telework for one of six qualifying reasons. The FFCRA also added a new qualifying reason under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), applicable to full-time and part-time employees who had been on the payroll for at least 30 days. This expanded FMLA leave provided for paid leave for up to 12 weeks for employees who were unable to work or telework because of having to care for their child because the child's school or place of childcare was closed or the caregiver was unavailable, by reason of the covid-19 public health emergency. The first two weeks of the expanded FMLA leave were unpaid, but the employee could elect to use any accrued paid leave to cover this period. During the remaining 10 weeks, the employee was entitled to paid leave at a rate no less than two-thirds of his or her regular rate of pay, based on the number of hours that the employee would otherwise be regularly scheduled to work, up to US$200 per day or US$10,000 in total. The FFCRA allowed employers to claim tax credits with the US Internal Revenue Service for the payroll paid pursuant to the paid sick leave or the expanded FMLA leave (or both). On 27 December 2020, the US Congress extended the FFCRA's refundable tax credit until 31 March 2021 for those employers who choose to voluntarily grant paid sick leave or expanded FMLA leave to a qualifying employee who has not yet exhausted his or her FFCRA allotment.
  3. The Secretary of the US Department of Labor issued a Temporary Rule on 6 April 2020 to assist employers with the interpretation and administration of the FFCRA. The Temporary Rule addresses notice requirements for requesting leave under the FFCRA, paid leave entitlements and examples of qualifying reasons to benefit from the FFCRA, what constitutes being unable to work or telework, which employees are full-time or part-time, who are healthcare providers and emergency responders, as defined, exemptions available to businesses with fewer than 50 employees, record-keeping requirements, among other things.
  4. Act No. 37 of 9 April 2020 amended Act No. 180 of 27 July 1998 to allow non-exempt employees, during declarations of a state of emergency decreed by Puerto Rico's Governor or Secretary of Health, to use any accrued paid leave available to cover sickness absences of the employee because of the illness that provoked the state of emergency declaration. The Act also provides an additional paid sick leave entitlement of up to five days if the employee continues to suffer from the illness that provoked the state of emergency declaration.
  5. The Secretary of the PRDLHR issued Circular Letter 2020-03 (CL 20-03) on 1 May 2020, requiring employers to establish a covid-19 exposure control plan setting forth the health and safety rules, including, among other things, the level of risk to covid-19 exposure per occupational classification and the applicable personal protective equipment to be used, and precautions and preventive practices to be established when returning to the workplace. CL 20-03 also mandates training for employees on the plan and to self-certify with the PRDLHR prior to reopening a business.
  6. Act No. 55 of 1 June 2020 replaced Puerto Rico's Civil Code of 1930, with a new Civil Code, effective as of 29 November 2020. Salient amendments regarding employment matters in the new Civil Code include governing law presumption rules applicable to employment agreements when the parties have not chosen the applicable law, elimination of temporary work provisions and adoption of new provisions on an employer's vicarious liability.
  7. Act No. 56 of 1 June 2020 amended the Puerto Rico Workers' Accident Compensation Act to make covid-19 a compensable occupational illness under the locally mandated workers' accident compensation insurance policy. The Act also expands workers' compensation benefits to employees who are first responders and healthcare industry workers who contract covid-19 as a consequence or in the course of employment and other workers as it may be determined based on the circumstances.
  8. Act No. 58 of 20 June 2020 established a new Electoral Code which, in the relevant part, allows employers to open for business during regular or special business hours on an election day. Employees who, after the term for requesting voting in advance or by mail has expired, are scheduled to work on the election day and could not anticipate a conflict between work and voting schedules, are entitled to a maximum of two hours with pay for voting during working hours.
  9. Act No. 90 of 7 August 2020 prohibits a more generic type of workplace harassment, not necessarily associated with a category protected from discrimination or retaliation, as defined by law. Moreover, it requires private and public sector employers to implement measures to reduce or eliminate workplace harassment, including the establishment of a protocol to handle and address internal complaints. The Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), however, on 16 October 2020 requested the government to provide the analysis and supporting documentation on the full financial impact of Act 90-2020, as required by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA).2 Moreover, the FOMB advised that, if the government failed to comply with this requirement, the FOMB reserved the right to take any actions it considered necessary, such as preventing the enforcement or implementation of Act 90-2020, as allowed under PROMESA. At the moment, there is no additional information available regarding the status of the FOMB's request to the government or the effectiveness of Act 90-2020, which, based on the foregoing, may be questioned.
  10. Act No. 95 of 8 August 2020 amended Act No. 3 of 13 March 1942, which provides for paid maternity and adoption leave of absence to working mothers for up to eight weeks, to entitle working mothers who adopt children age six years and older for up to five weeks of paid leave. The five weeks with pay start as of the date the child is received by the family, which must be notified in writing by the employee.

Significant cases

i Ex-convict status not a category protected from discrimination

In Garib v. Hospital Auxilio Mutuo de Puerto Rico, Inc. et als,3 the Puerto Rico Supreme Court held that an individual's prior criminal conviction does not entitle him to protection from discrimination under the categories of origin or social condition. The Supreme Court determined that the denial of medical privileges by a hospital based on the applicant's ex-convict status does not constitute the type of discrimination based on social status proscribed by the Constitution and general anti-discrimination statute.

ii Attorney's fees in employment cases

In Berkan, et als v. Mead Johnson Nutrition Puerto Rico, Inc,4 the Puerto Rico Supreme Court held that clauses in extrajudicial separation agreements between employers and employees, in which an employee's right to receive attorney's fees is waived, are null and void, addressing public policy issues that now affect negotiated separations of employment and related settlement agreements.

iii Requirements for cause of action under Act 80 for constructive or tacit dismissal

In León v. Rivera,5 the Puerto Rico Supreme Court addressed issues on the sufficiency of the allegations of the plaintiff-employee's complaint in unjust dismissal cases holding that the employee has the burden of clearly asserting the elements of a constructive discharge claim, provided by Act 80 (known as the Unjust Dismissal Act).

iv Enforceability of non-disclosure agreements

In TLS Management and Marketing Services, LLC v. Rodríguez-Toledo, et al,6 the First Circuit for the US Court of Appeals found that certain non-disclosure agreements were overly broad to be enforceable under Puerto Rico law and established certain requirements that non-disclosure agreements must meet to be valid and enforceable. The First Circuit Court established that overly broad non-disclosure agreements raise the same policy concerns about restraining competition as non-compete clauses.

Basics of entering into an employment relationship

i Employment relationship

Employment rights can stem from an employee handbook, employment offer, collective bargaining agreement or employment contract. In general, executing an employment contract is not required to establish an employment relationship in Puerto Rico because employment agreements can be binding regardless of whether they are in writing. Under certain circumstances, it may be advisable and practical to execute a written employment agreement that establishes the terms and conditions of employment, such as base salary, benefits, responsibilities and job expectations, to name a few. Although the Labour Transformation and Flexibility Act (LTFA) increased flexibility, which reduced the need to have employment agreements in writing, there are still certain specific, employment-related obligations that can only be validly established through a written agreement. The following are some examples of agreements that still need to be executed in writing:

  1. agreements with non-exempt employees to reduce the statutory meal break, to fragment the use of vacation leave, to use non-working days as part of a vacation period, to partially liquidate and pay accumulated and unused annual leave in excess of 10 days, and to accumulate annual leave in excess of one year;
  2. non-compete agreements and some other restrictive covenants; and
  3. voluntary agreements with non-exempt employees to establish alternative, weekly work schedules to fulfil a 40-hour week in no more than 10 consecutive working hours per day, without incurring daily overtime liability.

Employers are advised to expressly reserve their right to interpret unclear clauses or language in any of their agreements.

ii Probationary periods

The law authorises the hiring of new employees for an indefinite term on a probationary basis. Employees properly classified as executives, professionals or administrators are subject to an automatic 12-month probationary period. All other employees are subject to a nine-month probationary period, unless a shorter period is agreed between the employee and the employer. Generally, during the probationary period, the employer may discharge, or terminate the contract of, an employee without cause and without responsibility for the severance payment established by Act 80. The termination cannot be for discriminatory reasons.

iii Establishing a presence

A foreign company may not hire employees in Puerto Rico without being officially registered with the Department of State of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Companies engaged in trade or business in Puerto Rico must register with the Department of State and having an employee may qualify as conducting trade or business. However, a company may hire an independent contractor and, depending on the nature and extent of the duties performed by the contractor, the entity may not need to register with the Department of State.

The concept of a permanent establishment is not defined by the Puerto Rico Internal Revenue Code of 2011, as amended. Thus, tax presence in Puerto Rico is determined by whether a business is engaged in trade or business, or case by case in connection to fixed or determinable annual or periodic income. Accordingly, a corporation engaged in trade or business in Puerto Rico is subject to the normal tax on corporations pursuant to the Puerto Rico Internal Revenue Code.

Since 26 January 2017, with the enactment of the LTFA, the rights and responsibilities of an employee from another jurisdiction who (1) is assigned to work in Puerto Rico for the benefit of another employer, (2) maintains an employment relationship with the employer outside Puerto Rico and (3) is assigned to work in Puerto Rico for no more than three consecutive years, will be interpreted in accordance with the provisions of the employment contract. Notwithstanding contract provisions, the employee will be subject to Puerto Rico laws concerning income tax, employment discrimination and work-related accidents. If the parties do not stipulate the applicable law, they will be subject to Puerto Rico legal provisions. Choice of law rules under the new Civil Code should also be considered.

Companies establishing a presence in Puerto Rico must also be aware that statutory benefits are vast and include those relating to wages and hours, as well as a statutory Christmas bonus; unemployment insurance; workers' accidents and non-occupational disability insurance compensation; leave of absence for maternity, adoption and breastfeeding, victims of domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment, assault, lewd behaviour or stalking; jury duty; renewal of a driving licence; participation in Olympic games and other world championships; appearance as a witness in criminal cases; military duty; occupational and non-occupational disability; family medical leave; car accidents; among other things.

Restrictive covenants

Non-compete clauses in employment contracts are valid in Puerto Rico and must comply with requirements established by the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico. There is no legislation controlling this type of agreement except that the LTFA expressly recognises employees' obligation not to compete with the employer's business activity unless it is otherwise provided by law or in an agreement with the employer. The requirements are that:

  1. non-compete clauses must relate to a legitimate interest of the employer, such as the protection of the business from the adverse effects of competition by a former employee. The prohibition cannot be extended beyond what is necessary to protect the former employer's legitimate interests;
  2. the prohibition shall not last for more than 12 months following the termination of employment;
  3. the object of the prohibition must be limited to activities similar to those performed for the employer;
  4. the non-compete agreement must specify the geographical boundaries within which the prohibition is to apply, limited to what is necessary to avoid competition. Alternatively, it should be limited to those customers the employee personally served for a reasonable period prior to the termination of employment or during a period immediately before the termination, and who were still customers of the employer when the employee's employment ended;
  5. the employee must receive adequate consideration in exchange for the prohibition; and
  6. as required by the Civil Code, the essential elements of consent, object and cause must be present, and the employer may not coerce or exert undue pressure on the employee to accept the non-compete obligation, which must be in a written agreement.

To the extent that non-disclosure agreements may limit an employee's freedom to compete, they should be evaluated under the above requirements. Furthermore, they may not (1) prohibit the employee from using the general knowledge or skills acquired during his or her tenure or training with the former employer, (2) prohibit the disclosure of information that is not confidential because it is public knowledge, nor (3) prohibit the disclosure of information properly provided to the employee by third-party sources.

Wages

i Working time

Wage and hour coverage in Puerto Rico for non-exempt employees is governed by the US Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as local laws. Non-exempt employees in Puerto Rico are entitled to more benefits than those provided by the FLSA, which include payment for:

  1. hours worked in excess of eight hours or daily overtime;
  2. hours worked in excess of 40 hours or weekly overtime (also recognised under US federal law);
  3. hours worked during the meal break (meal-break penalty);
  4. hours worked during the seventh consecutive day or day of rest;
  5. hours worked in excess of the maximum number of working hours fixed in a collective bargaining agreement;
  6. statutory entitlement to vacation leave under Act No. 180 of 27 July 1998 (Act 180); and
  7. statutory entitlement to sick leave and emergency sick leave under Act 180.

Act No. 379 of 15 May 1948 (Act 379), as amended by the LTFA, coexists with the FLSA and regulates hours and days of work, overtime compensation and a mandatory meal break for non-exempt employees. Administrators, executives, professionals, computer programmers and outside sales persons, as these terms are defined by Regulation No. 13 of the PRDLHR or US Federal Regulation No. 541, are some of the occupational classifications excluded from the application of Act 379, as well as other wage and hour provisions.

On 4 April 2018, the PRDLHR issued a regulation for the application of Act 379, which establishes the requirements regarding working hours, alternative weekly work itineraries, changes to the working day, and employers' obligation to maintain employment and payroll records and compensatory time agreements. It also sets the norms applicable to meal breaks, agreements to reduce them and compensation for working during meal breaks.

Under Act 379, non-exempt employees are entitled to a one-hour unpaid meal break. This break can start after the second consecutive hour of work and, to avoid a meal-break penalty, it must also be scheduled before the beginning of the sixth consecutive hour of work. If a non-exempt employee's working day consists of no more than six hours, the meal break may be waived. If the employee works for more than 10 hours per day, the employee is entitled to a second meal break. This second meal break may be waived when a working day does not exceed 12 hours, provided the first meal break was taken.

The meal break may be reduced to 30 minutes, and in some cases to 20 minutes, by means of a written stipulation. The agreement to reduce the meal break will be effective indefinitely and cannot be terminated unilaterally until one year after its effective date. In other words, before one year expires, both parties must consent to the termination and after one year expires, either the employer or the employee can terminate the agreement unilaterally to reduce the meal break.

According to Act 379, eight hours is the length of the regular working day in Puerto Rico, and 40 hours is a regular working week. In addition, pursuant to Act No. 289 of 9 April 1946, as amended (Act 289), non-exempt employees are entitled to one day of rest for each period of six consecutive days of work. Under Act 289, one day of rest is considered to comprise 24 consecutive hours. The LTFA repealed Act No. 1 of 1 December 1989, as amended (also known as the Closing Law) and work performed on Sundays in retail establishments is no longer considered overtime work subject to premium pay. However, worked performed in retail establishments on Good Friday and Easter Sunday will still be subject to premium pay.

ii Overtime

The minimum hourly rate is US$7.25 per hour. Through company policy, employers may establish limits to the overtime work they will allow employees to perform. Any work employees perform for the benefit of the employer, however, generally requires compensation even when unauthorised.

The LTFA established a new uniform overtime rate of pay for non-exempt employees hired after 26 January 2017. The rate, which is equal to the rate established by the FLSA, consists of one-and-a-half times the regular rate of pay for hours worked in excess of eight hours during any calendar day (daily overtime), hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a week (weekly overtime) and hours worked during the meal break, the day of rest, when a commercial establishment is required to remain closed to the public, or when provided by a collective bargaining agreement.

Non-exempt employees hired prior to the enactment of the LTFA maintain superior benefits to which they were already entitled, which may include overtime compensation at double their regular rate of pay, when applicable and depending on a variety of circumstances and the industry in which they work.

iii Alternative work schedules, compensatory time and modified working conditions

The LTFA now provides for three flexible-work arrangements for non-exempt employees. First, it permits voluntary, written agreements with non-exempt employees to establish alternative weekly work schedules to fulfil a 40-hour week in no more than 10 consecutive working hours per day, without incurring daily overtime liability. Work in excess of 10 hours per day will be considered overtime.

Second, the LTFA recognises the concept of compensatory time agreements. That is, the employer may grant a non-exempt employee's request to make up hours not worked in a week because of absences for personal reasons. These compensatory hours will not be considered overtime when they are worked in the same week of the absence and do not exceed 12 hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.

Third, the LTFA created an employee's right to request changes of schedule, working hours or work location. An employee is entitled to make the request if it is in writing, he or she works 30 hours or more per week, has worked for at least one year for the employer and has not made the same request in the six months since the employer's last response to such a request. There are other requirements applicable to the response the employer must provide. Employees are not automatically entitled to a change in work conditions just because they make the request. Priority must be given to employees who are head of a family who have legal or sole custody of their minor children.

Foreign workers

US federal law governs Puerto Rico immigration matters. There are no statutory provisions requiring employers to keep a register of foreign workers. The Federal Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), however, requires employers to complete Form I-9 to confirm that hired workers (citizens and non-citizens) are authorised to work in the United States. Through the verification process, hired workers must furnish, and their employer verify, documentation that confirms a worker's identity and authorisation for employment in the United States. Employers are required under the IRCA to retain Form I-9 for a designated period and make it available for inspection by authorised government officials. Employers must ensure that all foreign workers hired are admitted in the United States as permanent residents or under work-related non-immigrant visa classifications.

Although there are no limits on the number of foreign workers a company may have, there is a limit on the number of certain work visas issued by the US government each year. Non-immigrant workers hired for temporary employment in the United States under an employment-based visa category are restricted to the activity or reason for which their non-immigrant visa was issued. The length of stay in the United States will depend on the specific employment-based visa category under which the foreign worker was authorised for employment in the United States and whether the visa category permits extensions of stay.

An individual may seek an immigration classification that permits him or her to live temporarily in the United States. The employer, or potential employer, must file a petition for non-immigrant worker before the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of the beneficiary worker under one of the employment-based visa categories. The most common non-immigrant visa categories are:

  1. H1B (workers in a speciality occupation);
  2. H2B (temporary non-agricultural workers);
  3. L1A (intra-company transferees in a managerial or executive position); and
  4. L1B (intra-company transferees in positions requiring specialist knowledge).

In general, Puerto Rico source income paid to a foreign worker will be subject to local income tax withholdings at source and taxes under the US Federal Insurance Contributions Act. Foreign workers are fully protected under local and federal employment laws, including discrimination based on citizenship or immigration status.

Global policies

The provisions of an employee handbook and other written norms, policies or benefits are considered part of the employment contract. Once these norms and policies are established, the employee and the employer are expected to honour them.

The rules of conduct and discipline must be reasonable and non-discriminatory in content and application. Depending on the circumstances, an employee's failure to comply with rules duly notified could constitute just cause for disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Consequently, employers usually include the rules of conduct in the employee handbook and provide a copy of the rules to employees.

Although not required in general, best practice is for employers to have and distribute written basic rules of conduct, policies and procedures, as they are important tools for managing potential risks relating to employment practices and to ensure compliance with the many statutory requirements applicable in Puerto Rico.

Notwithstanding the above, local and US laws require employers to have in place and disseminate written sexual harassment and anti-discrimination policies, including prohibited conduct and a mechanism to report and investigate complaints. Similarly, under local law, employers are required to have a domestic violence protocol and policies specifically addressing gender identity, sexual orientation discrimination and workplace harassment. Employers that perform drug testing are also required to establish a policy, rules of conduct and regulations compliant with Act No. 59 of 8 August 1997 (Act 59). Also, under Puerto Rico law, employers who conduct electronic surveillance in the workplace are required to have and distribute an electronic surveillance policy.

It is not legally required, but is recommended, that these policies be in Spanish and that employers maintain evidence of their notification to and signed receipt by employees.

Parental leave

Puerto Rico Act No. 3 of 13 March 1942 (Act 3) provides for maternity leave. Under Act 3, pregnant and adopting mothers of children five years of age or younger not registered in school (and some experiencing a miscarriage) are generally entitled to eight weeks of maternity leave paid by the employer (four weeks before the birth and four weeks afterwards, but typically subject to change depending on the employee's ability to work and medical certifications). Adopting mothers of children aged six years or older are generally entitled to five weeks of maternity leave from the date the minor child joins the family. If a pregnant employee suffers post-partum complications and is still unable to work after taking all the weeks of post-partum rest, she is entitled to additional unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks, provided that, before the expiry of the extended rest period, she provides the employer with a medical certificate confirming the facts. The employee is entitled to reinstatement at the conclusion of the original and the extended leaves of absence and double damages for violations of Act 3.

Act 3 prohibits discrimination in employment because of pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions. It makes it unlawful for an employer to dismiss, lay off, reduce the salary or affect other conditions of employment for the aforementioned reasons, or because of the diminished productivity or a decrease in the quality of work performed by an employee while pregnant. Puerto Rico Act No. 69 of 6 July 1985 also protects pregnant women from employment discrimination.

State law does not provide for paternity leave. However, the US Federal Family Medical Leave Act applies in Puerto Rico and entitles eligible employees (male and female) of covered employers to take 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons, including:

  • the birth of a child and the care of a newborn child during the first year;
  • the placement with an employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child for the first year of placement; and
  • to care for a child with a serious health condition.
  • Translation

    As an unincorporated territory of the United States, the official languages of Puerto Rico are Spanish and English. Spanish is the native tongue of the vast majority of Puerto Ricans. Although English is taught as part of the academic curriculum in schools, according to estimates, a low percentage of residents in Puerto Rico are able to speak, read and write English fluently.

    Notwithstanding this, there is no law that requires employers to maintain employment documents in Spanish or English. Nevertheless, many employers opt to prepare, distribute and maintain employment documents, such as employee handbooks, policies, procedures, contracts, admonishments and documents pertaining to employees' personnel records, in Spanish. This recommended practice reduces the risk of employees subsequently challenging their obligations, employers' expectations, disciplinary measures, rules of conduct, duties pursuant to policies, among other things, on grounds that they did not understand the contents of the documents.

    In the employment context in general, translations do not require a notarial certification or the use of a certified translator. The Puerto Rico court system permits the filing of documents in Spanish or English. Documents filed in cases before the US District Court for the District of Puerto Rico must be in English or translated by a certified translator to be relied on or by stipulation of the parties in lieu of the certified translation requirement.

    Employee representation

    Employees have a constitutional right to organise and bargain collectively through representatives. These rights are regulated through local and US federal laws.

    The principal law governing relations between unions and employers in the private sector is the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, as amended (NLRA). The NLRA created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as the statute's administering body. The NLRA guarantees the rights of employees to organise and to bargain collectively with their employers, and to engage in other protected concerted activities with or without a union, or to abstain from all such activity. The NLRB has jurisdiction over cases involving certain private sector employers whose businesses engage in activities affecting interstate commerce.

    Act No. 130 of 8 May 1945, as amended (Puerto Rico Labor Relations Act (Act 130)), establishes collective bargaining as a public policy. It is inspired by the NLRA and was enacted to promote collective bargaining principles, reduce certain labour disputes and to enhance economic productivity.

    Act 130 created the Puerto Rico Labor Relations Board (PRLRB), a quasi-judicial body of limited jurisdiction authorised to consider and adjudicate labour disputes. The scope of the PRLRB's authority includes determination and recognition of employees' representatives and appropriate units of workers for collective bargaining, investigation of controversies regarding representation, consideration of illicit labour practices and enforcement of mediation decisions.

    There is no fixed ratio of representatives to employees.

    Either the Puerto Rico Regional Office of the NLRB or the PRLRB oversees union representation elections. A labour organisation interested in becoming an exclusive representative of a group of employees must file a petition of investigation and representative certification before either body. After this petition is filed, the relevant Board initiates an investigation of the case and determines whether elections are warranted. Elections are only held for 'appropriate' bargaining units of employees. To form such a unit, employees must have common interests, that is, be subject to similar policies, and terms and conditions of employment and supervisors. Elections may be held by consent of the parties, by order of the president of the Board, or by the Board via a decision and order.

    Elections may be held by virtue of an agreement between the employer and the labour organisation. When the parties cannot agree on elections, the president of the Board may order a public hearing, or may order the parties to hold elections pending a public hearing. After the public hearing is held, the case is transferred to the Board so that it may resolve the issue between the parties.

    When elections are to be held, the Board requires employers to post a Notice of Petition for Elections in visible places, both within and outside the employer's business. This notice must include the name of the employer, the time and place of the elections, and a detailed description of the categories of eligible and non-eligible voters of each unit.

    When a labour organisation obtains the majority of votes in an election, it receives a representative certification and the union becomes the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit. As such, unionised employers must refrain from dealing directly with individual employees regarding terms and conditions of employment. The representative is given a status of immunity for 12 months following the elections. This means that no labour organisation may petition to represent the same group of employees for at least a year after elections are held.

    After the union is certified, the employer and the union have an obligation to meet at reasonable times to bargain collectively in good faith with a genuine objective to reach agreements regarding mandatory subjects such as wages, hours, vacation time, insurance, and safety practices. The employer and the union may also bargain with respect to other non-mandatory subjects relating to the terms and conditions of employment. Employers are prohibited from engaging in a wide range of unfair labour practices, such as retaliation against employees for organising or supporting a union, surveillance of union activity, offering benefits to employees in exchange for opposing union activity and questioning employees about their feelings towards union activity.

    In June 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that states and public sector unions may no longer extract agency fees from non-consenting employees.7 The First Amendment of the US Constitution is violated when money is taken from non-consenting employees for a public sector union; employees must choose to support the union before anything is taken from them. Accordingly, neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay. This change has the same effect in Puerto Rico.

    Data protection

    i Requirements for registration

    Puerto Rico does not have a formal data protection agency or government body responsible for supervising the collection, use and dissemination of employees' personal information gathered by a public or private corporation. The right to privacy, nonetheless, is recognised under the Constitution. Additionally, local and federal laws recognise the confidential nature of certain information gathered by businesses. Depending on the nature of the information, a higher or lesser degree of confidentiality and reasonableness is applicable to employment records and employees' private data.

    ii Cross-border data transfers

    Companies do not need to register for the purposes of a cross-border data transfer of an employee's personal information. To the extent that records and information transferred include employees' private data, a company must take necessary steps to protect it from indiscriminate or public disclosure. The applicable standard should be that of a prudent business person.

    iii Sensitive data

    Various federal and local employment laws specify the confidential information that employers must protect from public disclosure.

    The US federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, as amended, and their local counterparts, protect employees' genetic, medical and health-related information, and data in the employment context, or relating to disabilities or requests for accommodation (or both). This information must be kept in separate records. Enforcement guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the ADA, and applicable in Puerto Rico, concerning disability-related enquiries and medical examinations of employees, suggests that any medical information concerning employees' disabilities must be treated as confidential. Employers may share this type of information in limited circumstances with supervisors, safety personnel and government officials investigating compliance with the ADA.

    Additionally, Act No. 207 of 27 September 2006 and its regulation prohibit employers from using an employee's social security number for identification purposes and requires safeguards to protect it from undue disclosure. An employer may only transfer social security numbers electronically when there are sufficient safeguards to protect their confidentiality.

    Further, Puerto Rico's legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity requires employers to keep information of this nature confidential. A similar protection from disclosure is afforded to information gathered during an investigation to protect a domestic violence victim who is at risk in the workplace, or who is alleging discrimination. Employers must take reasonable measures to prevent disclosure of confidential information to persons who have no need to know the information. Employers must also maintain the confidentiality of any information in respect of special statutory leave taken to tend to situations relating to domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault, lewd acts or stalking in its grave modality.

    Furthermore, Act 59 requires employers who carry out drug tests on job applicants and employees in the private sector to treat the test results and related data as confidential. Also, to the extent that Form I-9 for employment eligibility contains personal information about employees, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service recommends that employers provide adequate safeguards to protect it.

    Finally, the privacy and security provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 apply to employers who are covered entities in Puerto Rico.

    iv Background checks

    Employers can perform background checks on job applicants and current employees, subject to legal parameters established in Act No. 150 of 8 October 2019 (Act 150). To the extent allowed by Act 150, employers must also comply with the US federal Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970 by notifying the applicant or employee of the possibility of using their background report for employment decisions, getting their written permission and certifying compliance to the reporting agency. If an employer takes an adverse employment action based on the individual's credit report or credit history, it shall provide a copy of the report to the job applicant or employee and a notice of rights with the contact information of the consumer reporting agency. Its Puerto Rico counterpart, the Credit Reporting Agencies Act, provides similar protections.

    Furthermore, employers may perform criminal background checks on employees and job applicants.

    Subject to limited exceptions, areas outside the scope of review include genetic, medical and disability-related information about job applicants or current employees. Considering other categories revealed in background checks, such as filing for bankruptcy, military service or discharge records, may expose employers to discrimination claims.

    Subject to limited exceptions, areas outside the scope of review include genetic, medical and disability-related information about job applicants or current employees. Considering other categories revealed in background checks, such as filing for bankruptcy, military service or discharge records, may also expose employers to discrimination claims.

    Discontinuing employment

    i Dismissals

    Act 80 (the Unjust Dismissal Act) regulates employment termination of employees hired for an indefinite term. Puerto Rico is not an 'employment at will' jurisdiction. Thus, an indefinite-term employee discharged without just cause is entitled to receive a statutory discharge indemnity (or severance payment) based on the length of service and a statutory formula. The LTFA amended Act 80 to implement the equivalent of a nine-month salary cap to the statutory formula, applicable to employees hired on or after the enactment of the Act on 26 January 2017. Employees hired prior to the LTFA retain their rights to receive a severance payment under the prior statutory formula.

    Act 80, as amended by the LTFA, defines just cause for dismissal of an employee as:

    1. engagement in a pattern of improper or disorderly conduct;
    2. failure to work efficiently, working belatedly and negligently, or in violation of quality and security standards of the product handled by the establishment;
    3. a lack of competence or inability to perform the reasonable requirements of the employer;
    4. being the subject of complaints received from clients;
    5. repeated violations of reasonable written rules established for the operation of the business, provided a written copy of the rules had been given to the employee;
    6. full, temporary or partial closure of the establishment's operations. If the employer has more than one office, factory, plant or branch, the full, temporary or partial closure of the operations of any of the establishments where the employee works will constitute just cause for termination, subject to additional considerations established by law;
    7. technological changes or reorganisations, including changes of style, design or the nature of the product made or handled by the establishment, and changes in the services rendered to the public; or
    8. reductions in employment made necessary owing to a drop in the volume of production, sales or profits, anticipated or prevalent at the time of the discharge or with the sole purpose of increasing competitiveness or productivity.

    Unless an employee engages in gross misconduct (e.g., physical violence, fraud or stealing under certain circumstances), a first offence or reasons unrelated to the proper and normal operation of the establishment shall not constitute just cause. Written progressive disciplinary or corrective actions are highly recommended and normally required. Generally, however, employers are not required to give written notice of dismissal to the employee in question or the government.

    Act 80 provides the exclusive remedy for indefinite-term employees whose employment is terminated without just cause but does not bar independent causes of action based on torts, violation of constitutional rights or arising from other legislation prohibiting discriminatory employment and retaliation. In those circumstances, employees may be entitled to job reinstatement and other remedies for damages. Categories protected from discrimination in Puerto Rico include: disability; sex; age; race; colour; marital status; political affiliation or political ideas; religious beliefs; national or social origin; social condition; pregnancy; genetic information; union affiliation; being, or being perceived as, a victim of domestic violence; stalking or sexual aggression; sexual orientation or gender identity; and veteran status. Local and US federal laws also prohibit retaliation.

    The LTFA expressly allows waivers of Act 80 rights and settlement of the severance payment once the termination of employment has occurred or the intention to terminate has been notified. The waiver must be made pursuant to a valid settlement transaction agreement that complies with legal requirements.

    ii Redundancies

    In essence, redundancies in Puerto Rico are regulated by Act 80 and local and federal anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation statutes. Redundancies have to respond to legitimate and non-discriminatory business reasons. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act has important provisions to protect employees over the age of 40 affected by different redundancy situations.

    Employers must also comply with Act 80 when there are group lay-offs because of any of the following:

    1. a full, temporary or partial closure of operations;
    2. technological or reorganisation changes;
    3. changes to the style, design or nature of products;
    4. changes in the services being rendered to the public by the employer; and
    5. necessary employment reductions because of reduced production, sales or profits, or with the purpose of increasing competitiveness or productivity.

    Because the above circumstances are considered just causes to terminate employment, no compensation or offers of alternative employment are required.

    Under a more flexible Act 80 after the enactment of the LTFA, if there is a group lay-off, an employer must determine who is to be discharged based on each worker's employment seniority within the affected occupational classification or their performance, efficiency or capacity. Certain rules apply to employers with multiple establishments. Act 80 also provides recall rights for six months following a group lay-off if the same or similar work is needed during that time.

    Puerto Rico has no law setting notice requirements for group lay-offs. The US Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, however, requires most employers with 100 or more employees to give notification of 60 calendar days before a plant closure or mass lay-offs. Notice must be given to employees, employees' representatives, the local chief elected official and the state dislocated worker unit.

    Transfer of business

    Act 80 specifies the protections granted to employees and the obligations of employers when going concern is transferred.

    Under Act 80, a former employer and seller is responsible for paying severance to employees who are not retained by the seller or hired by the buyer in the transfer of a business as a going concern. Act 80 mandates the buyer to retain from the purchase price an amount equivalent to the severance payments owed. If the seller does not pay severance, the buyer could then become liable towards discharged employees if deemed a 'successor employer'. A similar rule applies by virtue of case law to other employment-related liabilities towards discharged employees (e.g., unpaid wages or illegal acts or omissions by the former employer).

    If the buyer chooses to transfer and continue using the services of any of the seller's employees, it can also be considered a successor employer. If a transferred employee is later dismissed without just cause, the successor employer is responsible for the severance payment, as provided by Act 80. The total years of service of the employee under the former employer and the successor employer will be considered in calculating the payment.

    None of the foregoing legal doctrines will apply when a business completely ceases operations and all its employees are discharged (see Roldan v. M Cuebas).8

    Outlook

    Employment law has continued to evolve since the enactment of the LTFA in January 2017, a statute being targeted by legislators whose aim is to go back to increased benefits and protection of employees. Having overhauled Puerto Rico's employment statutory and regulatory scheme by amending or eliminating more than 12 labour statutes, the LTFA continues to dictate litigation strategies, motions practice, and compliance and preventive advice by employers' attorneys in an attempt to have a more employer-friendly application of the law. Yet, the covid-19 health crisis and the resulting plethora of regulatory changes, threats to the economic stability of employers, lay-offs, heightened complexities in human resources and leave of absence management, and unsolved problems relating to remote working and returning to work are the priority for the foreseeable future. A new era of employment-related litigation, beyond the now all-familiar LTFA issues, is already transforming employment law practice and is likely to continue in the long term.

    Back in 2017, it was thought that hurricanes Irma and Maria, which hit Puerto Rico within two weeks of each other, had brought about the greatest adverse effects on the workplace and labour litigation. Then came the earthquakes of early 2020 and the covid-19 pandemic less than a year later. We saw total shutdowns and lived in lockdowns in a manner and for a length of time never experienced in our lifetimes. Remote working, with all its employment-related legal considerations, was no longer a choice but an imposed need for survival. Now employers must adapt policies and practices to the new virtual and remote workplace. Having experienced the virtues and hurdles of this long-distance and somewhat impersonal working style during 2020, decisions need to be made in 2021 on whether to revert to office-based and physical operations, taking into consideration, now more than ever, people's fears of returning to work, health and safety concerns, vaccination policies, leaves of absence, care-giving responsibilities, and related anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity protections.

    We have continued to adapt and transform legal services because of these continued major natural and legislative events. This transformation, resilience and swift adaptation to change must continue in the long term as the country prepares for other significant events and situations, including:

  • a new Puerto Rico governor and elected officials as of January 2021;
  • a new administration in the United States under a Democrat President reverting to more employee-friendly public policies and legislation;
  • a struggling economy and a recovering infrastructure that continues to benefit from a generous economic influx from the private and international sectors, as well as the US federal government, in an effort to renovate and reconstruct the island;
  • an increased focus on data protection and privacy concerns and considerations as reliance on electronic devices at work continue to rise; and
  • growing movements in favour of equality, women's rights and protection from discrimination.
  • There is no doubt that preventive consulting to avoid a new line of litigation and workplace conflict as a result of covid-19 and its defence will now be at the forefront of legal workplace priorities. The significant changes in the law in 2020 and those expected to occur in 2021 continue to call for attention to revising and updating employee handbooks, workplace policies and practices, and management training within a new virtual and remote way of doing business in this transformed era of labour law.

    Footnotes

    1 Katherine González-Valentín and María Judith (Nani) Marchand-Sánchez are capital members, Patricia M Marvez-Valiente is a special counsel, Gregory J Figueroa-Rosario is a member and Gisela E Sánchez-Alemán and Nicole G Rodríguez-Velázquez are associates at Ferraiuoli LLC.

    2 Pursuant to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a US federal law, the government of Puerto Rico is required to deliver to the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico the text of each new legislative enactment along with a formal estimate prepared by an appropriate entity with the expertise in budgets and financial management of the impact, if any, that the law will have on expenditures and remedies. 48 U.S.C.A. § 2144(a).

    3 2020 TSPR 69.

    4 2020 TSPR 29.

    5 2020 TSPR 21.

    6 966 F.3d 46.

    7 Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2459.

    8 199 DPR 664 (2018).

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