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PPP Loan Tips for Texas Employers

So your Texas Panhandle company has received Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”) funds, hopefully, and now you are wondering how to use those funds to maximize your loan forgiveness.

Local banks moved very quickly to assure that more than $750 million of the stimulus funds will help small businesses in our area. We all have 8 weeks to spend these funds legally and wisely to hopefully avoid any repayment of these federal loans, effectively turning them into government grants.

In the end, all of us want to use the funds to keep our employees and our businesses going in these challenging times. But there is little guidance from the Small Business Administration on how to do that. As things stand today (things are changing rapidly, so check with your employment lawyer before you make any final decisions), here are the important tips for small Texas employers about spending your PPP money:

When do I spend this PPP money?

The actual CARES act says that you must spend your PPP funds in the 8-week “covered period” after “the origination date” of your loan. The SBA has decided that the 8 weeks starts running the day that your loan was funded. That means that the date that the loans hit your account is when the clock starts running. For example, if you received your funds on April 6, 2020, you have until June 1, 2020 to spend the money.

How do I spend this PPP money?

The SBA (not the actual statute) requires that 75% of your PPP funds be spent on “payroll costs.” The CARES act defines “payroll costs” this way:

  • Salary, wage, commission, or similar compensation;
  • Payment of cash tip or equivalent;
  • Payment for vacation, parental, family, medical, or sick leave;
  • Allowance for dismissal or separation;
  • Payment required for the provisions of group health care benefits, including insurance premiums;
  • Payment of any retirement benefits; or
  • Payment of state or local tax assessed on the compensation of employees.

The CARES act goes on to point out that the following items will not be considered “payroll costs”, meaning that you cannot claim any forgiveness for these amounts, so they should not be paid out of designated PPP funds:

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Webinar for Texas Employers on CARES and FFCRA

Today, Texas employment attorney Vicki Wilmarth and health insurance benefits expert, Josh Butler, presented a webinar entitled Texas Employer’s Guide to Coronavirus Legal Issues.

Even if you missed the webinar live, you can watch the free 1-hour presentation for an overview about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) (paid leave law) and Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (“CARES”) (stimulus bill) on your own time. https://youtu.be/BGJCnHOJp18

You can also view the slides from the webinar here.

COVID-19 Paid Leave Laws Affect Small Employers

Congress has passed and President Trump has signed a new law that requires small employers to provide paid leave to employees for two weeks of sick leave and as many as 10 weeks of leave to take care of kids whose schools have closed.

This Families First Coronavirus Response Act (“FFCRA”) goes into effect on April 1, 2020. It requires all employers with less than 500 employees, including very small employers and nonprofits, to pay employees whose absences are caused by the COVID-19 epidemic. The DOL has created a fact sheet and an FAQ to help employers understand these laws better.

Here are a few highlights of the FFCRA law:

Paid sick leave for two weeks is available to all full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal, and other kind of employee if the employee has to miss work for one of the following reasons:

  1. Employee is subject to government quarantine; or
  2. Employee has been advised by healthcare provider to self-quarantine; or
  3. Employee is experiencing symptoms and seeking a diagnosis; or
  4. Employee is caring for an individual subject to quarantine or self-quarantine as advised by healthcare provider; or
  5. Employee is caring for children under 18 because schools or “caregivers” are unavailable; or
  6. Employee is experiencing any other condition that is substantially similar to COVID-19, as specified in HHS regulations to come.

Paid Family and Medical Leave is available for up to 10 more weeks (after using up 2 weeks of unpaid time or 2 weeks of Emergency Paid Sick Leave as spelled out above) to all full-time, part-time, temporary, seasonal or other kind of employee if the employee has worked for the employer for at least 30 days and then has to miss work for this one reason:

  • The employee is unavailable to work or telework because the employee is caring for a child under the age of 18 because that child’s school or childcare facility is closed because of the coronavirus.

The paid sick leave has to be paid at the employees’ regular hourly rate (including commissions, tips and piece rates, but not overtime rates) if the employee is absent for reasons #1-3, above. The paid sick leave and the paid family and medical leave have to be paid at 2/3 of the employee’s regular hourly rate if the employee is absent for reasons #4-6, above. There are also daily and total caps on the amounts you have to pay the employees for these absences.

Employers with less than 50 employees are subject to these FFCRA paid leave laws, even though you have never before been required to comply with Family and Medical Leave Act or any paid leave law. There is a provision that the Secretary of Labor can exempt a business when giving the leave would “jeopardize the vitality of the business.” In other words, if granting this paid leave could make your company go out of business, and you can prove that in your financials, you might not have to provide this paid leave. You don’t have to get the Secretary of Labor’s permission for this exemption by filing anything, but you will have to be able to document the correctness of your decision after the fact.

This law is not retroactive, meaning you don’t have to pay for leave taken before April 1, 2020, if it wasn’t your company policy to pay employee absences.

However, you also can’t make employees apply your paid time off policy before using this emergency paid sick leave or family leave. It is the employee’s choice alone on how to coordinate their PTO and these paid leave laws.

The good news for employers is that the employer gets a tax credit on payroll taxes for 100% of these amounts paid to employees for emergency sick leave and paid Family and Medical Leave. On the next Form 941 that will be due by July 31, 2020, the IRS will add a line for the employer to take the tax credit. If the amount you paid out to your employees for these paid leave laws exceeds the payroll taxes that you owe, then you are supposed to be able to get a refund from the IRS within 2 weeks after filing your Form 941.

We are still waiting for the Secretary of Labor to provide more guidance through regulations. He should also be providing us with notices, posters and other explanations to give to your employees.

There are also other employment laws that a company has to consider in this crisis, which are summarized here.

Texas Employer’s Legal Guide to COVID-19 Issues

Note: Some of these laws are changing rapidly as the federal government responds to the crisis. For example, paid sick leave and paid family leave are required of small employers beginning April 1, 2020. That’s why some of the information below has been deleted. Be sure to call an employment lawyer for the latest information and advice.

As COVID-19 dominates the headlines, Texas employers still have businesses to run and employees to supervise. The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease “COVID-19”, is creating all kinds of questions for these businesses, and most of those are best answered by medical and governmental resources.

But there are also employment law issues arising that a Texas employer may wrestle with. I wouldn’t even think about giving medical advice, but 32 years of practicing law has given me some insight that you may find helpful about the legal issues you are facing with your employees.

While there are some companies that can and should practice social isolation and allow employees to work from home, many businesses require employees to show up to perform work—think grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, retail, medical offices, hospitals, construction, feedlots, landscapers, agriculture, trucking companies, banks, childcare facilities, etc.

In those businesses, employers must walk the tightrope between compassion for those who are sick and the reality of needing your employees to be present in the workplace. There may also be tension between wanting to pay your employees even while they are absent and a possible huge decrease in your revenue during this time.

So there are no easy answers, but here are the laws you need to consider and discuss with your human resources professionals and your employment attorney BEFORE you take any action involving your employees:

Continue reading Texas Employer’s Legal Guide to COVID-19 Issues

Hiring Focused on Character

I often hear the general perception by business owners and managers that employees under the age of 30 have a lousy work ethic or other character deficiencies. They complain about entry-level employees who aren’t interested in paying their dues and are convinced they are entitled to move into the corner office on the day they are hired. I also hear about inappropriate dress, lack of loyalty and attendance woes among young people. But I know many “kids” under 30 (my 26-year-old son among them) who are incredibly motivated, hard-working, smart and willing to pay their dues.

Throughout my 32 years of practicing employment law full-time, I’ve also heard lots of similar stereotypical complaints about women in the workplace (“they can’t get along with other women—it’s always a cat fight” or “they just quit when they have children”). And sometimes, I have unfortunately been privy to pure misogyny, racism, ageism, and other bigotry when discussing problem employees.

I have a radical observation from more than 30 years of practicing employment law: Character is not generational, racial or gender-specific. I’ve worked with some terrific young employees and some terrible older ones, some unbelievably hard-working women and some slacker men, some brilliant minorities and some completely ignorant WASPs. The real debate is not about an employee’s age, race, gender or any other data point over which the employee has no control, but the employee’s individual character. So I encourage employers to focus on character more and stereotypes less (actually, not at all).

As an employer, I know you want to fill any open position with an employee who will exhibit responsibility, honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm, flexibility, initiative, dependability, civility, judgment and a distinct sense of right and wrong, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, age, or other protected characteristic.

You won’t find nearly as many business books that focus on character instead of generational conflict or the “downfalls” of diversity. The subject of character often sounds old-fashioned and faintly religious.

But all of us have reluctantly dealt with people with poorly-developed values: gossips, drama queens, whiners, liars, cheats, etc. There is no reason to have those kinds of people working for you and it is not illegal to refuse to hire them. But you have to be able to spot poor character in your hiring process to avoid bringing this poison into your workplace.

To hire better employees, first identify the character traits that are most important to you. Think back about what really disappointed or angered you about the personalities of unsuccessful employees in the past. Were they always tardy? Then dependability is very important to you. Did they steal company time by shopping on the internet on the company computer for hours a day? Then honesty and productivity are probably high on your list. Did your former employee pot-stir, pitting employees against one another? Then you are looking for someone who treats everyone with respect and doesn’t enjoy gossip.

Design an employment process that doesn’t just focus on job skills, but also zeroes in on the character traits that matter most to you. Ask open-ended questions about values in the interview, but don’t rely solely on your ability to judge character. No hour-long interview is going to tell you everything about an applicant’s character.

But you can find out some aspects of an applicant’s character if you ask about:

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Docking A Salaried Employee’s Pay is Tricky

Paying an exempt employee on salary means that employee receives the same amount of money each week regardless whether the employee works 35 hours or 45 hours. There are benefits for both you and the employee because you don’t have to calculate overtime and the employee doesn’t have to religiously track work hours.

Interestingly, employers ask me all the time about docking that weekly salary of an exempt employee. For some reason, if a salaried worker misses a half-day for a child’s school field trip or a distant relative’s funeral, suddenly employers want to dock the employee’s salary, possibly because the reason for missing work seems trivial. But that’s legally not how salaries work within the context of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

The FLSA requires that a salaried, exempt employee be paid a “fixed” weekly salary of at least $684 that cannot be docked regardless of the quantity or quality of work. One way to think about it is to tell yourself that a salaried, exempt employee earns her whole salary for the week by Monday morning at 8:05 a.m.

So if your marketing director is paid $1000 per week, she has to be paid $1000 even for the weeks when she goes home on two separate workdays after lunch because she is sick or when she recklessly spends $20,000 of the company’s funds on an unsuccessful marketing campaign. You cannot deduct from her pay just because she did not work the quantity of hours you expected or perform her job with the quality that you expected.

There are legal deductions you have to take from a salary when required by law (for example, income tax withholding, payroll taxes, child support) and legal deductions you can make for items that are authorized in writing by the employee (for example, health insurance premiums, retirement contributions, salary advance repayments).

But the FLSA is extremely strict when it comes to the employer deducting from an exempt employee’s salary for missed days or poor work.

Here are the absences and acts for which a Texas employer cannot dock a salaried, exempt employee:

Continue reading Docking A Salaried Employee’s Pay is Tricky

Can I Drug Test My Texas Employees for Marijuana?

As 2020 begins, many Texas employers are wondering if they can still drug test their employees for marijuana use. Several states have legalized recreational marijuana and most states allow medical marijuana. So what is a Texas employer to do?

After all, Texas sort of, kinda, decriminalized weed in the 2019 legislative session. When they legalized hemp because it is a drought-resistant agricultural crop, the Texas Legislature effectively said that cannabis with less than 0.3 percent concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gets you high, is “legal hemp”, while anything above that threshold is illegal marijuana.

However, making the determination of THC concentrations takes sophisticated equipment that the police departments and private testing labs don’t have yet. Many Texas police departments and district attorneys have announced they are not even bothering to prosecute possession of use of small amounts of marijuana. Therefore, it is, for all practical purposes, very difficult to determine if your employees are engaged in legal or illegal activities when it comes to weed.

In addition, the Texas Legislature expanded “compassionate use” (medical marijuana) in Texas, so that specialty doctors can prescribe medical marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, terminal cancer, autism, and many kinds of seizure disorders. Past state law only allowed those very few patients diagnosed with intractable epilepsy to be prescribed medical cannabis products, which in Texas may only contain low levels of THC. Now, many more of your employees may be legally prescribed medical marijuana and you have to worry about violating the Americans with Disabilities Act when testing for marijuana.

Finally, CBD oil, which is a hemp-derived product, is legal in Texas and is being sold on every street corner. Unfortunately, there is little regulation of CBD products, so they may contain surprise ingredients like THC. The Fort Worth Star Telegram recently reported on lawsuit filed by a CBD consumer against a CBD oil manufacturer because he lost his truck-driving job after testing positive for marijuana when he used CBD oil for his aching back.

So do you as a Texas employer still test for marijuana? Yes, legally you still can. Think of weed like alcohol. It is may be more legal than it was before, but it can still impair your employees’ job performance and judgment, so you are entitled to know if your employee is stoned.

Continue reading Can I Drug Test My Texas Employees for Marijuana?

Employer End of the Year Tasks: W-4 and Salary Minimum

Employers must address two important employment law issues before the end of 2019:

  1. Changing the exempt status of employees making a salary of less than $35,568 per year, and
  2. Adoption of the new W-4 form.

I’ve previously explained the new salary minimum for exempt (salaried) employees. In summary, for you to legally pay an employee on salary, that employee must perform exempt duties (such as running a division of the company, performing professional work such as a CPA, or performing non-profitable office duties requiring independent discretion and judgment, such as human resources, benefits coordinator, safety director, marketing director, and others, but not secretarial or bookkeeping) and make at least the new salary minimum per week of $684.00.

If an employee of yours does not meet both of these criteria (exempt duties + salary minimum), you must pay that employee by the hour and pay overtime if the employee works more than 40 hours in any one workweek. In other words, you must change the employee to a non-exempt status under the Fair Labor Standards Act and make that person an hourly employee.

There are a few exceptions to this new salary minimum rule: teachers, doctors, lawyers and outside salespersons are not subject to the salary minimum test. There are also some very  industry-specific, narrow exceptions for taxi drivers, truck drivers, fisherman and some other strange exemptions from overtime that don’t have salary minimums. But the vast majority of workers paid on salary are affected by the requirements of the exemptions.

If you are having any difficulty deciding whether to change an employee to hourly or determining if their duties meet the tests for executive, administrative or professional jobs, please call your employment lawyer immediately to get you into compliance for the January 1, 2020 effective date on the salary minimum rule.

The other big change you as an employer should be aware of is the new W-4 form that the government released on December 5, 2019. It is supposed to be easier to use for your employees.

Here are the things you need to know about this new W-4 as you start the new year:

  • You must use this new W-4 form for any employee you hire beginning on January 1, 2020 and thereafter.
  • Any employee who wants to adjust his/her withholding on January 1, 2020 or after must use the new W-4 to make that adjustment.
  • Current employees do not have to fill out a new W-4 if they don’t want to make any changes, but should consider filling out a new one if they faced an unexpected penalty of bill last year or will have a change in 2020 such as marital status, a new baby or a change in income.
  • Employees filling out the new W-4 must complete steps 1 and 5 on the new form, but may complete steps 2, 3, and/or 4 if applicable. So if you have a new employee fill out the W-4 after New Year’s Day, just check that steps 1 and 5 are complete.
  • Because it is an unfamiliar form and because it encourages people to use the IRS’s new online Tax Withholding Estimator, you should allow employees to take the new W-4 form home so they can have some time to understand and complete it.

DOL Finalizes New Salary Minimum

Update: This post from March 2019 has been updated as of September 24, 2019, because on that day the DOL issued the final salary minimum rule, which changed a couple of important items from what was proposed six months ago.

A new federal overtime rule that has been finalized by the U.S. Department of Labor will become effective on January 1, 2020, and employers need to start preparing now to get into compliance.

The final rule requires employers to pay a higher minimum salary to those employees who meet certain white-collar exemptions to the overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Right now, an employer can pay a salaried exempt employee as little as $455 per week ($23,606 annually) and still claim the exemption (and not pay that person overtime) as long as the employee is performing exempt duties, such as executive work or professional work.

On January 1, 2020, the final minimum salary threshold for exempt employees is going to increase to $684 per week ($35,568) annually)(the proposed rule was $5 per week less, so we thought that the annual number was going to be $35,308). That means that if you have any employee whom you are paying on salary in an amount less than $35,568 per year, you as an employer need to spend the rest of 2019 deciding if you will provide that employee with a raise or reclassify that employee as non-exempt and move him to an hourly rate and pay him overtime when he clocks more than 40 hours in any one workweek.

In addition to meeting this increased salary level to $35,568 per year, anyone you are paying on a salary must also actually perform the duties of an exempt employee (the white-collar exemptions: executive, a professional or an administrator). These duties tests are much more difficult to meet than most people think, so don’t just assume that all of your salaried employees are actually exempt. For example, not every “manager” is an “executive exempt employee”, who under the FLSA must have the power to hire and fire and must supervise at least 2 full-time employees, as well as being in charge of a recognizable store, division or branch of your business.

During the rest of 2019, you have time to audit your pay practices to know who you are paying on salary, review their actual job duties to assure that they actually qualify for one of the exemptions, and then confirm that those salaried employees are making at least $684 per week. As you are going through this process, remember that the Equal Pay Act also applies to your salary decisions and you must not violate it when trying to comply with the DOL’s new salary minimum.

And yes, the DOL does measure the salary basis in weekly increments, so the employee must make at least $684 every week, not just averaged out over the year. The final rule does provide employers the ability to make up 10% of the salary basis test with non-discretionary bonuses and commissions. So, if you pay an executive, administrator or professional employee no less than $32,011.20 in yearly salary (divided by 52 weeks) and then the employee earns another $3,556.80 annually in non-discretionary bonuses and commissions (paid on at least a quarterly basis), you will not be in violation of the final rule.

If this proposal gives you a sense of déjà vu, that’s because we went through this process in 2016 when the DOL proposed an increase of the minimum salary for exempt employees of $913 per week ($47,476 annually). That rule was enjoined by a federal judge in East Texas just before it was to take effect and then died in the courts and under the new administration. No such messy reprieve is expected this time with this lower salary threshold, so businesses need to start talking now about properly paying their salaried employees in 2020.

Employer should also be aware that the “highly compensated employee” exemption under the final rule for 2020 has slightly increased. That exemption currently says that any employee making a salary of at least $100,000.00 per year is exempt as long as the employee is performing non-manual work and that employee performs at least one other exempt duty customarily and regularly. The final rule raises that salary threshold for highly-compensated employees to $107,432 per year (the proposed rule was to raise the highly-compensated employee salary minimum to $147,432, which was universally criticized and so reduced by $40,000).

Obviously, if you have to move an employee from exempt status to non-exempt status because of this salary minimum change, you should find a way to clearly communicate that this change is not a demotion, but simply a change in a governmental regulation. You’ll also need to train anyone moving from exempt status to non-exempt status on your timekeeping rules so that all time worked is properly recorded.

“Go Back” Comments Are Unlawful in Workplace

Telling a person in America to “go back to where you came from” has been considered racist and bigoted for decades in this country founded and built by immigrants, and if you as an employer allow this sentiment to ever be expressed at your business, you can expect a racial or national origin discrimination lawsuit to quickly follow.

Regardless of how the current occupant of the White House talks, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which actually investigates and prosecutes discrimination/harassment claims, has long told employers:

Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and created an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct includes insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, “Go back to where you came from,” whether made by supervisors or by co-workers.

Facts About Employment Rights of Immigrants Under Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The EEOC didn’t come up with this guidance on its own. It followed dozens of court opinions that examined cases in which an employee was harassed with statements like, “Go back to Africa” addressed to a black worker or “Go back to where you came from” addressed to an employee who appeared to the bigot to have been born somewhere other than America.

For example, our own conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a summary judgment appeal in EEOC v. WC&M Enterprises, Inc., 496 F.3d 396 (5th Cir. 2007) that an employee born in India (“Rafiq”), who happened to be Muslim, was entitled to prove he was harassed in a severe and pervasive way when his coworkers and managers said, “Why don’t you just go back where you came from”, started calling him “Taliban,” after September 11, and repeatedly referred to him as an Arab (he was Indian).

Rafiq was told, “This is America. That’s the way things work over here. This is not the Islamic country where you came from.” Rafiq’s supervisor even put in a written warning that Rafiq was “acting like a Muslim extremist” and said he could no longer work with Rafiq because of his “militant stance”. The Fifth Circuit found that a jury could “easily infer that [the coworkers’ and supervisor’s] actions were taken on account of Rafiq’s religion and national origin.”

One way the company tried to defend itself was by saying that it couldn’t have discriminated against Rafiq on the basis of national origin, since the workers were apparently too clueless to understand the difference between India and Saudi Arabia or whichever other Muslim country they mistakenly believed Rafiq was from. “The fact that the coworker ignorantly used the wrong derogatory ethnic remark toward the plaintiff is inconsequential.” LaRocca v. Precision Motorcars, Inc., 45 F. Supp.2d 762, 770 (D. Neb. 1999). The Fifth Circuit agreed and concluded in Rafiq’s case, “It is enough to show that the complainant was treated differently because of his or her foreign accent, appearance or physical characteristics.”

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has said, telling someone to “go back to where you came from” is “insensitive, ignorant and bigoted.” Williams v. CSX Transportation Co. Inc., 643 F.3d 502 (6th Cir. 2011). It is your responsibility as an employer to make sure that words to that effect aren’t uttered in your workplace, particularly, but not exclusively, if they are said by anyone in management. “The employer is presumed absolutely liable where harassment is perpetrated by the victim’s supervisor.” Nader v. The Brunalli Construction Co., 2009 WL 724597 (D. Conn. 2002).  

So how do you as an employer assure that this kind of discriminatory and harassing talk isn’t heard in your workplace?

Continue reading “Go Back” Comments Are Unlawful in Workplace