Fired Facebook commenters ordered back to work

Five people who lost their jobs after posting complaints on Facebook about their employer can now return to work and receive back pay, an administrative law judge has ordered.

Don Reisinger
Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
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Five people who were fired from their jobs after posting complaints on Facebook about working conditions will now be able to return their positions, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal organization that safeguards employee rights, announced yesterday.

Last week, administrative law Judge Arthur Amchan ruled on the case between the five employees and their former employer, Hispanics United of Buffalo. According to the information included in the judge's decision, the five employees last year took to Facebook to discuss their issues with other employees, as well as how much work they take on. Soon after, the five employees were terminated for the comments made on the social network.

In his ruling, Amchan argued that the company was "looking for an excuse to reduce its workforce and seized upon the Facebook posts as an excuse for doing so." Because of that assertion, Amchan ordered all five employees back to work, and required that they receive all back pay (plus interest) since their termination.

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The issue illustrates the difficulty in determining what can and cannot be said on social networks. Generally, companies can fire employees if they have exceedingly off-color things to say about their employers or if they engage in harassment towards other employees. However, if the things they say are protected under the National Labor Relations Act, they have a defense.

In this latest case, the NLRB pointed out that "a conversation among co-workers about their terms and conditions of employment" is protected under the act, paving the way for Amchan to rule the way he did.

Amchan's ruling marks the first time an administrative law judge has made a determination on the firing of employees because of his or her use of Facebook. However, the NLRB said in a statement yesterday that it has seen an uptick in the "number of charges related to social media in the past year."

Last year, for example, an employee was fired from Connecticut medical-services company American Medical Response after allegedly posting negative comments about a supervisor on Facebook. The case was settled earlier this year, though financial terms of that deal were not disclosed.