In a first-of-its-kind decision, a National Labor Relations Board judge has ruled a New York nonprofit must re-hire five employees who were fired after complaining about their jobs on Facebook.

Administrative Law Judge Arthur J. Amchan said the employees' off-hours griping about their working conditions was protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

It all began the morning of Saturday, October 9, 2010, when an employee of Hispanics United of Buffalo—a nonprofit that provides social services to low-income clients—posted a comment to Facebook: "[A co-worker] feels that we don't help our clients enough at HUB. I about had it! My fellow co-workers: how do u feel?"

At 10:19 a.m., five minutes after the first post post, another co-worker posted: "What the f... Try doing my job; I have five programs."
A flurry of posts followed, according to documents, with co-workers defending their job performance, but criticizing working conditions, including workload and staffing issues. Within days, the Buffalo director of Hispanics United fired five employees on the thread, claiming their comments constituted harassment of an employee named in the initial post. (The director did not fire her secretary, who also posted on the thread.)

One of the five fired took the complaint to the NLRB regional office, which called for a hearing based on the allegation that Hispanics United had been "interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of rights" guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act.

Judge Amchan ruled the employees were protected because theirs was a conversation among co-workers about the terms and conditions of employment, and that their conduct did not forfeit their protection under the law.

He ordered the nonprofit to reinstate the five employees and issue back pay because they were fired illegally. He further ordered Hispanics United to post a notice in Buffalo about employee rights under the Act.

Hispanics United has the right to appeal the decision to the National Labor Relations Board in Washington.

The case was the first regarding social media websites to be heard by the NLRB that didn't target the organization's social media policy itself. It also is the first social media case that involves a nonunionized workplace.