Category Archives: Attendence

Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

As an employer, you should be committed to a drug-free and alcohol-free work environment that protects both your employees, your customers and the general public.

Drug testing your employees is an important component of that safety commitment. However, while many employers test before hiring an applicant, nearly two-thirds of employers never conduct a drug or alcohol test on current employees, according to a Society for Human Resources study in 2011.

When employers do test current employees for drugs, employees test positive about 4.2% of the time, according to the latest numbers from the annual Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. That number is creeping up and is at its highest level since 2004.

Even if you are a small employer with only 25 employees, that still means that one of your current employees could test positive for drugs right now. What if that one person is the delivery driver, the heavy machinery operator, the EMT, the security guard or any other safety sensitive employee working for you? Are you willing to take a chance with the safety of your other employees and your customers?

That only 4.2% of employees test positive for drugs or alcohol is actually a little low considering how many people are actually addicted to those substances. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2016 estimated that 8% of all Texans have a substance abuse disorder, with three-quarters of those Texans addicted to alcohol. The rest are hooked on marijuana, meth, heroin, cocaine and prescription opioids, in that order.

As a Texas employer, you don’t have to allow employees to be impaired at work. Continue reading Why Drug Test Your Current Employees?

Simple Hiring Checklist for Texas Employers

hiring-signHiring in Texas can be done in a very efficient and effective manner that reduces your chances of violating employment laws if you follow this simple hiring checklist. While large employers may need to add many more steps, I have found in 25+ years of law practice that many small employers aren’t even doing these simple steps, but should be:

 

  • Is one well-trained centralized manager with human resources experience doing the hiring instead of a group of supervisors who might ask the wrong questions?
  • Do you have a job description of the job for which you are hiring so you know the job-related qualifications?
  • Did you carefully word your job advertising so as not to discriminate?
  • If you require that an application be completed, is your application form up to date and without legal pitfalls?
  • Does the interview focus only on job-related qualifications and not personal information?
  • Do you stay away from open-ended questions like “Tell me about yourself”, which could elicit all kinds of information from the applicant that could be considered the basis of a discrimination claim?
  • Is the interviewer using an outline so that each applicant is asked the same questions and you can compare apples to apples rather than relying on the interviewer’s conversation skills and “gut reaction”?
  • Do not ask questions in the interview about the following topics. If this seems like a whole bunch of rules to remember, try focusing on this one rule: If your question isn’t related to how the applicant could perform the job duties, don’t ask it.
    • Race or color (photographs should not be requested)
    • Gender or marital status or sexual orientation
    • Whether applicant has young children, what his/her daycare arrangements are, or other family questions.
    • Age, including date of birth or when the applicant graduated from high school
    • Religion, including “Where do you go to church?” and “What do you do with your Sundays?”
    • Union membership or affiliation
    • Criminal arrests or convictions (you can run a background check if you decide to actually offer the job, but you must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act in obtaining the background check)
    • National origin or ethnicity (don’t ask about an applicant’s birthplace, accent, parentage, ancestry).
    • Citizenship (only inquire into an applicant’s eligibility to work in the United States, not their citizenship).
    • Education beyond what is necessary for the job (inflated educational requirements can have a chilling effect on minority applicants; therefore only ask educational questions that are relevant to the actual job responsibilities).
    • What clubs and organizations do you belong to? What causes do you support? (this could reveal illnesses, religious beliefs, family issues, marital status, race and other grounds on which you could be accused of discriminating).
    • Are you pregnant? Are you planning on having kids? (pregnancy and/or gender discrimination).
    • Have you ever declared bankruptcy? (discrimination under the Bankruptcy Act).
    • Is English your first language? Do you know that we have an English-only policy? (national origin discrimination)
    • Do you have elderly parents or an illness in the family that would take you away from work? (disability discrimination).
  • Do not ask the following questions in an interview that could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act:
    • Whether an applicant needs a reasonable accommodation to perform the job, unless the disability is apparent or the applicant voluntarily divulges it.
    • Details of an applicant’s worker’s compensation history.
    • Whether the applicant can perform “major life activities,” such as standing, lifting and walking.
    • Whether the applicant has any physical or mental impairments.
    • Whether the applicant is taking prescription medication or any other lawful drugs.
    • If the applicant has used illegal drugs in the past or has ever been addicted to drugs.
    • Whether the applicant has participated in an alcohol or drug rehabilitation program.
    • How frequently the applicant consumes alcoholic beverages.
  • Certain questions are permissible under the ADA:
    • Whether an applicant can perform the essential functions of the job.
    • How the applicant will perform the essential functions of the job, if all applicants are asked this question.
    • Whether an applicant needs reasonable accommodation for the hiring process.
    • Whether an applicant can meet the employer’s attendance requirements.
    • Whether an applicant has ever been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drug if driving is an essential duty of the job.
    • Whether an applicant is a current illegal drug user (drug testing the successful applicant after a conditional offer of the job is the best way to handle this).

Once you think you have narrowed your choices down to the applicant that you would like to hire, you can make a job offer conditional upon the results of these items: Continue reading Simple Hiring Checklist for Texas Employers

Employers Need Solid Reasons for Firing

Discrimination cases filed by former employees against their companies are usually won or lost on one concept—pretext—meaning that the reason given by the employer for the firing appears to the jury as a cover-up or excuse for the real reason, which the plaintiff will strongly suggest is discrimination. If the employer’s reason for firing the employee doesn’t perfectly line up with the facts developed in discovery and at trial, the business has a good chance of losing the case to the disgruntled employee.

Let me give you an example. If you fired Mary for being tardy on five specific occasions, but your security camera tapes, your time clock records, her emails and the testimony of other employees show she was not late on all of the dates that you specified, Mary’s discrimination case just got a big boost because your reasons look like pretext for terminating Mary. Then the door is wide open to say that her termination from employment occurred because she is black, a woman, disabled or born in another country.

When presented with this contrary hard evidence about Mary’s tardiness, it is not going to convince the jury when you say, “Oops, I got the dates of her tardies wrong” even if that is what actually happened. There is little a defense attorney can do to help you with the jury at that point because your reasons for the termination just look like an excuse for something more sinister.

Juries are pretty savvy in sifting through an employer’s reasons. As the employer, you must assure that the reasons you fire an employee are specific, provable, clearly-stated, well-documented and stay consistent from the time you first discipline the employee to the time of trial. Any variation in your reasons will come off looking like pretext.

Here are some other things that employers do that usually will be perceived as pretext in front of a jury: Continue reading Employers Need Solid Reasons for Firing

HR Director Can Be Individually Liable for FMLA Violation

Most human resources professionals and managers think that working for a corporation gives them some protection from being sued themselves by former employees, but a federal appeals court recently held that an HR director can be individually liable for violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals made this decision in Graziadio v. Culinary Institute of America, No. 15-888-CV (2d Cir., Mar. 17, 2016).

The Second Circuit decided that the HR director who instigated the firing of an employee who was out on leave to care for her ailing sons could be sued in addition to the company who formerly employed the plaintiff. The FMLA provides that for purposes of being a defendant in a lawsuit, an “employer” includes “any person” who “acts, directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer” toward an employee. Therefore, a manager, supervisor, vice-president, HR director, leave administrator and other decision-making employees could be sued along with their company if the FMLA isn’t administered correctly.

The courts look at the “economic realities” of the situation, including whether the HR director had the power to hire and fire employees; supervise and control employee work schedules or conditions of employment; determine the rate and method of payment; and maintain employment records. Although a vice-president actually made the final firing decision in the Graziadio case, the evidence suggested that the HR director played an important role and the vice-president essentially just rubber-stamped the HR director’s recommendation of terminating the employee who was on leave.

These kinds of decisions are frightening to management employees who have to make hiring and firing decisions and those who have to administer the complex FMLA. However, this ruling should not come as a complete surprise to those of us who live and work in Texas, because the Fifth Circuit, which rules on federal cases in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, made a similar ruling ten years ago.

In addition, our Fifth Circuit court approaches the Fair Labor Standards Act (wage and hour) cases in the same manner. If the economic realities demonstrate that a supervisor was responsible for the misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor (meaning that the proper taxes weren’t paid, among other violations of employment laws) or the underpayment of minimum wages or overtime, then that supervisor may face a personal lawsuit by a former employee, along with the company being sued.

How can you as a manager or HR director protect yourself from a lawsuit that could endanger your personal assets? Continue reading HR Director Can Be Individually Liable for FMLA Violation

Texas Employers Need Snow Day Policy

Texas employers should have a policy to give employees advance warning of what to expect on a snow day, particularly in the Texas Panhandle, where we often have a couple of inclement weather days per year.

The easiest way to determine whether to keep your facility open or not is to follow your local school district’s decisions and let your staff find out through the media. That relieves you of having to communicate the decision to every employee. It is also helpful to your employees to be able to stay home with school-aged children who have no other place to go that day.

Texas and federal law do not specifically dictate when an employer must be open or closed during inclement weather, but they do dictate how compensation must be determined during those times.

Hourly employees do not have to be paid when they perform no work. Exempt employees, however, have to be paid their normal salaries when your facility is closed for weather reasons. On days when the company is open, but a salaried employee chooses not to travel because of road conditions near their house and therefore performs no work all day long, the exempt employee can be docked for that day or be required to use available paid time off.

The other pitfall with inclement weather days occurs when employees work at home on a snow day. If you give your employees the ability to remotely access their computers, if you allow them to take work home, or if you expect them to check emails and return phone calls on a snow day, you will need to pay them for those work hours (non-exempt employees) or that whole day (exempt employees).

I suggest that every employer adopt some kind of inclement weather policy similar to this one: Continue reading Texas Employers Need Snow Day Policy

Painkiller Addiction is on the Rise with Employees

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 2 million people in the United States are addicted to prescription pain killers. One of those people might be your employee.

Opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin that are hydrocodone and oxycodone based are commonly prescribed to treat work-place injuries and other types of chronic pain. But these drugs are often over-prescribed and abused by patients and addiction is very common. In fact, in the last ten years, painkiller addiction rates have risen to epidemic proportions in the United States, the CDC said.

Injured or chronically ill workers who develop an addiction to painkillers represent a health and safety concern to themselves and to fellow workers. They can also create potential liability risks for you, the employer, and can lead to a less efficient and less productive workforce.

An obvious first-step in dealing with any kind of drug problem in the workplace is to be proactive and have a drug-testing policy in place that allows pre-employment testing, random drug testing, testing after workplace accidents and testing based on reasonable suspicion.

Then train your managers to look for the signs of substance abuse, particularly in employees who slack off at work, take unusual and frequent breaks, are no longer punctual, and who occasionally slur their speech or make unwarranted mistakes in their work.  While many employees may be able to manage their chronic pain responsibly and without abuse, you should be aware of the warning signs of abuse and educate your managers on them as well. These signs can include bloodshot eyes, sudden weight loss, a lack of grooming, poor attendance or other uncharacteristic behavior.

Before you take action against an impaired employee, you need to consider and weigh both the safety of your employees versus the risk of a lawsuit by the employee who is abusing drugs. The Family and Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act may apply to this situation, so don’t make any hasty decisions without legal advice.

Employers Refuse to Recognize Rocky Mountain High

Many of my Texas clients also have offices in Colorado. Since that state legalized the recreational use of marijuana in November, I’ve begun receiving questions from my clients with locations in Colorado about their workplace drug use and testing policies. They want to understand their rights in light of the legality of marijuana in that state.

Legalized marijuana should be no more difficult for employers to handle than alcohol. If an employee is drunk on the job, you as an employer have a right to test him and to fire him for reporting to work under the influence of alcohol. An employee who is high on marijuana at work presents the same issue. However, marijuana shows up on drug tests long after the body has processed and gotten rid of alcohol. In other words, an employer testing on Monday won’t know that the employee was drunk on Friday night.  But if the employee got stoned on Friday night, testing on Monday will reveal that fact. Employers are therefore concerned that they won’t be able to fire an employee who tests positive for marijuana use but can’t be proven to be high at work. This generates anxiety for safety-conscious businesses.

At this point in time in the Fall of 2012, marijuana is still illegal in the United States, and therefore in every state. Just because an employee isn’t in violation of Colorado state law by smoking weed, he is still in violation of federal law and can be in violation of the employer’s substance abuse policy if it is well-written. Therefore, as an employer, make sure your policy states that, along with being under the influence at work, the use, possession or sale of illegal drugs is prohibited, and illegal drugs should be defined as any drug that is illegal under municipal, state and/or federal laws.

The federal Department of Transportation announced in December 2012 that state legalization of recreational pot would not change the rules prohibiting marijuana use by employees in safety-sensitive positions such as truck drivers, pilots and school bus drivers. Therefore, explaining away a positive test for marijuana by saying it was used legally in Colorado will not be an acceptable excuse and will still subject truck drivers, for example, to suspension of driving duties. Employers can take the same approach by letting employees know that the employer’s safety requirements will not be affected by state laws legalizing marijuana and that employees will still be subject to discipline up to and including termination for any drug test that shows marijuana use.

DOL Encourages Employees To Track Their Hours

The United States Department of Labor, long an agency that advocates for employees to the chagrin of employers, continued that trend by just releasing its first free application for smart phones to help employees in claims against their employers.

The app, for iPhone, allows employees to track work hours, overtime and breaks, all in an effort to discredit the records kept by the employer in any kind of wage and hour dispute. In times past, the employer kept the time clock or time sheets and paid accordingly. Employees can now easily record what they believe their working hours were and sue for more compensation, including overtime.

The app allows employees to send a copy of their time sheets via email to their own private email accounts, so that they can easily keep a paper trail with which to confront their employers. The app also includes summaries of the wage and hour laws and contact information for the DOL for employees to report violations. Continue reading DOL Encourages Employees To Track Their Hours

Employer’s Liability for New Employees

Bob Smith started working for you four weeks ago. He has already missed two days of work, been tardy, left early one day and when he is at work, his production is mediocre. You have a 90-day probationary period in your employment policies and it is becoming clear to you that Bob is not going to make it through that probation. Can you fire this four-week employee without any unemployment or discrimination liability?

Unfortunately, the answer in Texas is “no”. As soon as Bob became your employee, he became your problem. This is one reason that the hiring process ought to be very demanding, including checks of all of his past employers, criminal records, drug screening, etc. to discover at least the most obvious problems before you put him on the payroll. But many past employers won’t tell you anything about Bob’s dependability, so it is not surprising that he got through the hiring hurdles.

So if you decide to fire him today, what kind of liability can you face as an employer? In Texas, you will probably be charged back for his unemployment benefits by seeing an increase in your unemployment tax rate on all of your employees for the next three years. That is a stiff price to pay. There is a chance you will get lucky and not get the charge back if Bob falls into a narrow category based on how much he worked before you hired him. The explanation for that can be found on the Texas Workforce Commission website (click here).

Assuming that you don’t get that lucky or you don’t want to count on luck, you can document Bob’s problems, give him a written warning and then fire him for misconduct as you would any longer-term employee so that you have a way to fight the unemployment claim. This will go better for you if your policy manual makes it clear that absenteeism during the probationary period is not allowed. There is nothing wrong with requiring your new employees to show up every day for the first three months. You would think that most new employees would want to do that just to prove themselves, but I am constantly amazed by the slackness that many new employees bring to the workplace.

What about discrimination? Surely you can’t be held liable for something that happens to a new employee in the first few weeks? Think again. The United States Sixth Circuit Court last year upheld a $1.2 million sexual harassment claim for an employee who had only worked for five weeks at the company. In her third week of employment, she complained to her trainer and supervisor about the comments, touching, whistles and lewd gestures she was receiving. The supervisor moved her, but unwisely said, “That’s just how they treat their women over there,” and requested that she not tell the human resources department.

After another two weeks without improvement, the new employee told the human resources manager about the problem. He promised to investigate, but didn’t, so she filed a charge with the EEOC and later, a lawsuit. The trial court and the appellate court found that the employer’s response to the employee’s sexual harassment complaints showed reckless indifference to the new employee’s federally protected rights, supporting not only a judgment against the employer, but also an award of punitive damages.

There are all kinds of problems with the supervisor and the human resources manager’s responses to the sexual harassment complaint that have been discussed in other entries on this blog, but suffice it to say here, the fact that the employee only worked five weeks did not insulate the employer from any liability in this case. Your responsibility as an employer to protect your employees from discrimination kicks in on their first day of work and continue throughout their employment.

What is the Maximum Leave an Employee Can Take?

Sears Roebuck & Co. recently settled with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a class-action lawsuit for $6.2 million, the largest monetary award for a single Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) suit in EEOC history.

The accusation against Sears was that the company discriminated against the disabled because it had an inflexible policy that allowed injured employees to take off of work for one year before they were automatically terminated for exhausting all leave. The EEOC said that this apparently neutral policy did not provide injured employees with reasonable accommodations in violation of their ADA rights.

With this suit, the EEOC is signaling an end to maximum leave policies. So if an employee has a serious health condition and uses all of his Family and Medical Leave but still cannot return to work, the employer now has to determine whether it would be a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to miss more work. This is the EEOC position even though the courts have held that regular attendance is an essential function of most jobs and that indefinite, open-ended leave requests are not reasonable.

Texas courts have long held that maximum leave policies, neutrally applied regardless of whether the employee suffered an on-the-job injury, had a heart attack or wants to extend her maternity leave, are valid in Texas. The EEOC is undercutting those holdings in an attempt to impose a different standard (or no standard at all). From the settlement with Sears, the EEOC apparently wants all employers to follow these steps when an employee has been on leave and is unable to return at the prearranged time:

  • The employer must notify the employee 45 days in advance of the date her leave expires.
  • The employer must engage in the interactive process with the absent employee to determine whether part-time work, modified duties or a move to another position  would reasonably accommodate the employee and allow him to return to work.
  • If none of the previous options work, then the employer should consider offering additional leave beyond what the policy calls for.

What this means to even a small employer (15 or more names on the payroll) is that there will be no bright-line cutoff to an employee’s leave. If the EEOC’s position prevails, employers will have to hold all jobs open indefinitely for an employee who must take time off for an injury or illness.

At this point, my only advice is to wait and see how the courts react to the EEOC’s position. The Sears suit was a pretrial settlement, so we don’t know how this unreasonable position of the EEOC will hold up in court.

In Texas, it is still the law that an employer can enforce a neutral leave of absence policy by automatically terminating an employee who has exceeded the maximum leave offered. Just be aware that that law could change at any time if courts begin to side with the EEOC.