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Google Settles With Employee Who Said He Was Fired Over Activism

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(Bloomberg) -- Google has settled with a software engineer who the U.S. labor board alleged was fired for his workplace activism, one of five employees the government recently accused the company of terminating for exercising their legally protected rights.

The private settlement between the Alphabet Inc. unit and fired employee Laurence Berland was approved in July by the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, according to agency records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. The terms weren’t disclosed. Google, which has denied wrongdoing, and Berland’s attorney, Laurie Burgess, declined to comment on the settlement.

The NLRB is still prosecuting other allegations against Google, including that employees were fired for protesting against the company’s relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and for creating a pop-up message informing co-workers of their labor rights. A San Francisco-based agency judge is hearing testimony on those claims at a trial, now in its third week.

In a complaint issued last year, the labor board’s regional director wrote that Google tried “to discourage employees from engaging in” legally protected activism by firing workers including Berland, who was retaliated against for accessing documents and calendars that the company had made available to staff. The company issued a statement at the time saying that it honors employees’ workplace rights but punished those “who abused their privileged access to internal systems, such as our security tools or colleagues’ calendars.”

In testimony last week at the labor board trial, Berland said that he signed up for updates on changes to certain colleagues’ calendars in an effort to ascertain what role an anti-union consulting firm was playing in the company’s censorship of internal criticism. Berland, who was called as a witness regarding some of the other allegations against the company, said that when he was questioned by Google prior to being fired, “I told them that I accessed the calendars because I was concerned that our rights were being violated.”

Berland and the other employees were fired in late 2019.

Private settlements like Berland’s are most often used when a company and a fired employee strike a deal in which the worker will get back pay but won’t get their job back, said University of Wyoming law professor Michael Duff, a former labor board attorney. Absent a settlement, the labor board can order an employee to be reinstated with back pay, but has no authority to impose punitive damages, and appeals can drag on for years. “The ultimate prevention in response to things like this is worker organizing, not any kind of legal process,” Berland said last year.

The witnesses slated to testify at the ongoing trial include Google Chief Legal Officer Kent Walker. Judge Eleanor Laws, who is hearing the case, ordered Walker to submit to questioning from the fired workers’ attorney. In an order, Laws cited messages Walker sent employees emphasizing some of the Google policies at issue in the firings, and a blog post published under his name that told employees the company had placed employees on leave for conduct including sharing confidential documents “outside the scope of their job,” and “causing a lot of stress” by “tracking a wide range of individual calendars” of co-workers.

Burgess argued that Walker “played a critical role in determining and publicly announcing” that the workers “purportedly violated company policy.” In a sworn statement submitted as part of Google’s unsuccessful efforts to prevent his questioning, Walker wrote that the blog post was actually “authored by others,” and he just approved it.

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