While the year is still young, here are 15 resolutions that employers may want to make:
Make sure your “independent contractors” are really independent contractors. “Independent contractors” are under scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, state and local agencies, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and union organizers. A misclassification can cost you back taxes, back pay (including overtime), and back benefits, as well as penalties and interest.
- Review your email policies. The NLRB recently found that employees generally have a right to use employer email systems during non-working time in support of union organizing and concerted activity. The Board’s decision means that many employer email use policies, as currently drafted, would probably be found to violate the National Labor Relations Act if an unfair labor practice charge were filed or a union tried to organize employees and argued that the employer’s email policy interfered with the organizing efforts. In light of the new “quickie election” rule that the NLRB issued last month, both union and non-union employers would be well advised to review their email policies and revise as needed. (The “quickie election” rule is scheduled to take effect on April 14, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other employer groups, including the Society for Human Resources Management, filed suit on Monday seeking to block the rule.)
- Review your policies on social media, confidentiality, and “courtesy.” The NLRB is going after garden-variety employer policies, taking the position that the policies interfere with and have a chilling effect on employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity. Among the commonplace policies under attack are those requiring that information about the company or employees be kept confidential; policies requiring that employees treat each other with courtesy, respect, and civility; and even some policies requiring that employees not disclose confidential and proprietary information. As with the email policies, a non-compliant policy could result in an unfair labor practice charge or the setting aside of an employer victory in a union election.
- Review your severance agreements. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken the position that certain standard provisions in employee separation agreements unlawfully interfere with employee rights to bring or cooperate in the investigation of discrimination charges before the EEOC, and has filed suit against some employers using agreements with terms that the EEOC doesn’t like. One of the lawsuits has already been dismissed, but the court in that case did not make a ruling as to whether the EEOC’s position had merit. Even if you decide to take your chances with your current agreement, it’s not a bad idea to consider toning down provisions that you know the EEOC will find objectionable.
- Review your leave policies and their administration. It’s not just the Family and Medical Leave Act anymore, although that’s enough in itself. You’ve probably seen that a number of states – most recently, Massachusetts – have enacted paid sick leave laws. Do your leave policies comply with the laws of the all the jurisdictions where you operate? And what do you do when an employee reaches the end of a sick leave or disability leave period? If you automatically terminate, then you could be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as state or local disability rights laws.
- Audit your wage-hour compliance. Unintentional overtime and wage-hour law violations have a new name in many quarters: “wage theft.” Federal and state agencies and plaintiff’s lawyers, sometimes encouraged by labor unions and their affiliate groups, are saying “show me the money” and finding it. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor has said that it will attempt to narrow the white-collar exemptions this year. (Although the DOL says the changes will not be drastic, they are expected to be drastic.) Among other things, a good wage-hour audit will include ensuring that lower-wage employees are getting at least the applicable minimum wage; that employees are not being required or “pressured” to work off the clock, or “winked at” when they do so; that the employees classified as “exempt” really are; and that any “independent contractors” really are (see also Resolution No. 1). Be sure that the review includes compliance with applicable state and local minimum wage laws, too. Many states now have a higher minimum wage than the Fair Labor Standards Act rate.
- Update your EEO/no-harassment policies, and get that training done! In just the past year, the EEOC has taken the position that pregnancy and related conditions (including lactation) must be reasonably accommodated. The EEOC and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which enforces the affirmative action laws that apply to federal contractors, both agree that “gender identity” is a protected category and that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity violates Title VII. Do your policies reflect this? Do your employees know the new rules? Do victims of harassment and discrimination know that they have recourse?
- Review your use of criminal background and credit information in hiring decisions. Many state and local laws prohibit employers from asking about criminal history on employment applications, and the EEOC has taken an aggressive position on the use of criminal or credit information in making employment decisions. You can still get this information, but are you getting it properly? If you find that an individual has a criminal or credit problem, are you making the required “individualized analysis” that takes into account, among other things, the nature of the conviction, the years that have passed, and the particular position for which the individual is applying? Did you grab some “canned” rules from a website, or are your rules customized to fit your industry, your workforce, and the people you serve?
- If you’re a federal contractor, make sure you are up to date on all of the OFCCP’s new requirements. For example, the new requirement that you prohibit discrimination or harassment based on gender identity. The new minimum wage (applicable to some, but not all, federal contractors). The new scheduling letter and itemized listing. The proposed rule prohibiting employers from requiring that employees avoid discussing their pay. The rule requiring employers to “air their dirty linen” by disclosing certain violations of federal labor and employment laws. The new rule on disability discrimination/accommodation and veterans. (“Perform compensation analysis” is another good resolution if you haven’t done one lately.)
- Make sure you’re in compliance with the new injury and illness reporting requirements under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which took effect on January 1. We reported on this new rule back in September.
- Are your non-competes enforceable? And are you using them judiciously? Laws on the enforceability of non-compete agreements vary from state to state. If your agreements have not been reviewed in a while, this would be a good time to have them reviewed to ensure that they’ll do you any good if you need them. You may also need to review your territorial or customer restrictions to ensure that they are serving your current business needs, as opposed to the needs you had 10 years ago. It’s also a good idea to take into account how your non-competes are being used, even if they are generally in compliance with the law. A national sandwich chain recently had a public relations nightmare after it came to light that some restaurants were requiring hourly, minimum wage delivery employees to sign non-competes.
- Keep on monitoring the “legal pot” issue. A patchwork of state and local laws is developing that permits medical or recreational use of marijuana. Right now, it’s still all right under federal law for employers to ban marijuana use, even in states where it’s legal, because use of marijuana violates federal law. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t run afoul of state law. This issue is developing quickly, so keep watching, and be ready to make appropriate adjustments to your substance abuse policy depending on what happens.
- Make sure you’re ready for the Affordable Care Act. Review your current compliance with your benefits counsel and consultants. If you have collective bargaining agreements coming up for re-negotiation or renewal, consider building in some sort of “flexibility mechanism” to deal with the huge uncertainty that the ACA is generating. As examples of the moving target that the ACA has become, the Supreme Court agreed in November to hear a case challenging the subsidies to states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges. (A decision is expected this summer.) And just this week, the Republicans in Congress introduced two bills designed to mitigate parts of the employer mandate.
- Review your contracts with staffing services and true independent contractors. This is a good time to examine your contracts with staffing providers and genuine independent contractors to be as certain as possible that you have properly allocated risks and responsibilities, including insurance obligations, indemnification rights and obligations, compliance with wage and hour and other recordkeeping obligations, employee supervision, employee safety, discrimination or other required training, benefits compliance, anti-discrimination compliance, and recordkeeping obligations and procedures. (If you aren’t sure whether your “independent contractors” are true independent contractors, then go back to Resolution Nos. 1 and 6.)
- Review your alternative dispute resolution policy, or consider adopting one. If you already have an arbitration agreement, is it drafted, published, and executed through agreements with employees in a manner to be enforced by a court? The NLRB still refuses to recognize arbitration agreements that eliminate the possibility of class or collective arbitration, but the Board’s position has been rejected in three federal circuits. The courts generally favor arbitration agreements, so if you do not have one, it might be worth consideration. For employers with collective bargaining agreements, consider whether you should negotiate to obtain grievance and arbitration provisions that would help to meet the NLRB’s new standard for post-arbitration deferral.
Courtesy of David Phippen, Esq. Metro Washington D.C. Office of Constangy, Brooks & Smith, LLP