Masseuse Nichole Kucharek, 36, of Macungie, worked at Bear Creek Mountain Resort's spa. She and her coworkers wanted better training.

Three-time war vet James Kennedy, 37, of Upper Darby, served burritos at Chipotle's in Havertown, but $8.50 an hour wasn't enough. And feeling forced to skip rest breaks also wasn't popular.

Vanessa Viscuse of Philadelphia handled medical records for Mercer Bucks Cardiology, but she and others at the Newtown-based practice wondered why payroll couldn't be kept without errors.

Different people, different professions, different places.

What they have in common is that none was in a union, and all were fired - unfairly, the National Labor Relations Board charged - for talking over problems with coworkers, either in person or online.

The cases of the masseuse, the prep cook, and the administrator, which will be heard by administrative law judges in Philadelphia this summer, are part of a growing focus for the labor relations board.

The board, most often associated with resolving union-management disputes, has lately emphasized "protected concerted action," or the right under federal law of employees - union or not - to talk together about improving pay or conditions on the job.

The legal issues are the same whether the employees are chatting at the water cooler, "liking" each other's posts on Facebook, or tweeting about their issues on Twitter.

"Social media cases are growing," said Daniel Halvey, regional attorney for the NLRB in Philadelphia. "They used to be a sideshow to what was going on in terms of unionization. Now there are more and more of them."

Richard Schall, a lawyer in Moorestown, said the board's focus just helped him to quickly - and positively - settle a case on behalf of a nonunion casino employee who, with coworkers, was grousing about her schedule.

"The board has taken a much more pro-active stance, and is protecting employees in the nonunionized context," Schall said. "I'm sure this development is a result of President Obama having appointed recent members to the board. If there were a Republican administration, this would not be happening."

Jonathan Segal, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in employment law on the management side, agrees and noted that the NLRB's focus typically shifts with the party in power.

Not only are NLRB judges reviewing what happens to the workers, they are also passing judgment on their companies' employee handbooks.

Particularly scrutinized will be sections that instruct employees about what they can say about their companies and their policies. Judges will be looking to determine whether those policies forbid or discourage employees from talking to each other about working conditions.

Unlike discrimination cases, Schall said, which require a plaintiff's lawyer to determine the employer's mindset, these cases turn on what's written in black and white, the words in a handbook.

"This has given many a management lawyer a migraine, so I can't imagine what it does to a manager," Segal said.

He cited some migraine-inducing examples in a 30-page advice memorandum from the NLRB's general counsel, Richard F. Griffin Jr., that was issued this spring.

Handbook rules requiring employees to "be respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors" would be unlawful, while a rule forbidding "rudeness . . . toward a customer or anyone in contact with" the company, would be acceptable.

What's the difference?

Disputes over wages and working conditions might lead to disrespectful discussions with or about the boss, which, while not necessarily pleasant, are still protected under the law, Segal said. But being rude to customers could reasonably lead to being fired.

These issues will be part of the cases of the masseuse, the administrator, and the prep cook.

Masseuse Kucharek referred calls to the NLRB. Bear Creek manager Gabriella George declined to comment.

Being fired for talking over discrepancies in her payroll and different pay rates "was a shocking experience for me," Viscuse said, declining to elaborate further. "It was a real blow."

In her case, the practice had confidentiality policies involving patient, physician, and employee information. The part about employee information poses a problem, according to the initial charges in the case, because it might discourage workers such as Viscuse from discussing their pay and other work conditions. Officials at the practice officials were unavailable to comment.

When Kennedy worked at Chipotle, he became involved with workers seeking higher wages at fast-food restaurants.

In January, after a customer tweeted out thanks for a freebie at Chipotle's, Kennedy tweeted back, including the company's twitter name, "@ChipotleTweets, nothing is free, only cheap #labor. Crew members only make $8.50hr how much is that steak bowl really?"

Managers called him on the carpet and asked him to remove the tweet, which he did. Two weeks later, they fired him after he circulated a petition in the break room about workers' inability to take their breaks.

Kennedy said he had never seen the company's social media policy - which prohibited "disparaging, false . . . statements about . . . Chipotle, our employees, suppliers, customers."

The NLRB charges that by firing Kennedy, Chipotle, and its policy were "restraining and coercing employees."

Restaurant manager Jennifer Cruz referred calls to corporate headquarters, where spokesman Chris Arnold declined to comment.

What Kennedy took from the experience was that companies are reading what employees post. "No Tweet left behind," said Kennedy, who now works for an airline. "It's frightening what that means. None of my tweets were personal. It was all stuff about pay."

To him, social media "gives you a way to speak truth to power. Even if they ignore it, other people read it, and that's what matters," he said. "We're building a coalition through tweets and social media."

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