Barring the firing of an employee for legally bringing a firearm to work and liability protection for franchisors highlight the employment law proposals on the Tennessee legislature’s agenda for this year.

In 2013, the Tennessee legislature passed a law often referred to as “guns-in-trunks.” The law allowed employees with handgun carry permits to bring their firearms onto company property, so long as the employee kept the gun locked inside the vehicle out of “ordinary observation.” In the wake of the law’s passage, questions arose about whether the law would abrogate Tennessee’s employment-at-will doctrine and prohibit employers from firing employees complying with the statute. Last September, Tennessee’s then Attorney General, Bob Cooper, opined that the new law “only decriminalizes” the carrying and storage of firearms in vehicles in certain circumstances and “has no impact on the employment relationship between an employer and an employee.”

Now the Tennessee legislature may clarify that employers cannot fire employees complying with the “guns-in-trunks” statute. So far two bills (HB0994/SB1058 and HB0202/SB0168) have been filed that create a cause of action against employers for discharging or taking an adverse employment action against an employee based on transportation or storage of a firearm or firearm ammunition in an employer’s parking lot consistent with the ‘guns-in-trunks’ law. The measures are still in committee and it is unclear whether either will become law at this point.

In addition to “guns-in-trunks,” the Tennessee General Assembly is seeking to combat the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board’s unprecedented move regarding franchisor liability. Last year, the NLRB’s general counsel filed complaints against McDonald’s franchisees and McDonald’s franchisor, arguing that the two were joint-employers. If joint-employers, then the franchisor would potentially have to defend itself for the conduct of the local franchisees and union formation would be facilitated, among other adverse effects for franchisors. The change, if accepted by the NLRB, would fundamentally transform the franchise business model.

In response, the Tennessee legislature will be considering a measure that would expressly state that employees of franchisees shall not be considered employees of franchisors for any purpose, unless pursuant to a voluntary agreement between the U.S. Department of Labor and the franchisee. It is questionable what effect the law would have, if any, in a case before the NLRB if the NLRB adopts the general counsel’s position. The law could affect other employment litigation in Tennessee state and federal courts concerning the joint-employer issue in the franchise context.

Other employment law changes up for consideration this year in Tennessee’s General Assembly – large and small – include:

  • The “Tennessee Pay Equality Act” prohibiting an employer from discriminating between employees on the basis of sex concerning their wages (HB0903/SB0864);
  • Reiterating that a local government entity shall not enter into a collective bargaining agreement with a union or employee association (HB0603/SB0123);
  • Adding sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to the list of protected classes under the Tennessee Human Rights Act and other anti-discrimination laws (HB0296/SB0371);
  • Prohibiting employers and higher education institutions from asking applicants about expunged criminal offenses, with potential penalties imposed by the Department of Labor for violators; (SB1138/HB0022); and
  • Requiring employers to provide four hours of paid or unpaid leave each year for parental school involvement (subject to meeting certain conditions) and creating a cause of action against employers for violations (HB0552/SB0662).

All of these bills are still in the Tennessee General Assembly’s committee system. It is unclear at this point whether any of them will become law by the time the Tennessee legislature adjourns this spring (expected to be in April or May). For a complete list of proposed employment law changes in Tennessee, please see the Tennessee General Assembly website, and stay tuned for further developments.