Category Archives: Benefits

My Christmas Wishes for Employers

It is that time of year when we are singing, “We wish you a Merry Christmas”. As an employment lawyer with 30 years of experience, I have some idea of what you as a business owner or manager are wishing this Christmas.

I know you work hard as a supervisor. Managing people every day isn’t an easy job, particularly if your employees do not have a willing attitude to try to be a good employee.

I hear from employers every day about the frustrations that you face as an employer. The average person who supervises employees spends at least 20% of her time just dealing with employee mistakes, complaints, emotions, negligence, etc., on top of trying to do all of her regular work.

So, for this Christmas, I have made a list of what I wish for you as a supervisor in terms of employees.

  • Employees who realize that the purpose of a business is to make a profit, and that requires that the employee actually be present to perform the work assigned. I recently had a matter involving an employee who was tardy repeatedly for things like a flat tire, a loose dog and “I forgot to set my alarm”, so that client meetings had to be cancelled and business was lost. I wish for you as a supervisor the employment of people who realize that these little issues chip away at a business’s profitability. Even a small company should provide a generous amount of vacation time, sick leave and holiday pay. But once an employee has used up his allotted paid time off, he needs to think seriously about getting back to work and being productive for you or the business may not be there to provide his paid vacation the next year.
  • Employees who can be trusted with the success of your business, as well as the company’s time, money, and equipment. Every year I see a number of business owners in the Panhandle lose significant amounts of money to employee embezzlement, lose equipment to employee negligence and lose profitability to employee laziness. Granted, the employer needs to have reasonable checks and balances in place to try to prevent these losses. But wouldn’t it be nice if all of your employees were the kind of people who had enough integrity to forego theft, enough caution to treat your property as theirs, and enough loyalty to go above and beyond the bare minimum effort.
  • Sober employees. Most business now drug-test when an employee is hired. This has resulted in a drop nationwide in pre-hire positive drug tests. But I still see injuries and damage done by substance-abusing employees after they have worked for the business for a while. My wish is that you don’t have to deal with those issues. You can help make my wish come true by actually requiring the occasional random drug and alcohol testing in your workplace, as well as testing immediately after any personal injury or property damage occurs at work that might have been caused by an impaired employee.
  • Employees who exercise verbal discretion. Employees who gossip, spread rumors, complain, speculate and backstab in an effort to make themselves look better simply don’t realize that respect is given to those who keep their negativity and rumor-mongering to themselves. It would be great if Santa could bring each of your employees the gift of discretion this year. As someone wise said, “Discretion is the ability to raise your eyebrow instead of your voice.”
  • Employees who appreciate feedback and even criticism because it makes them better at their job. I have often thought that the clearest sign of maturity in an employee is his ability to accept constructive criticism, or even better, to ask for it. So, I wish for you employees who know that wisdom comes from humility and accountability. You deserve those employees who are not afraid to find out if they made a mistake and to ask you the best course to avoid such mistakes in the future.
  • Employees who take pride in their work regardless of who gets the credit. “My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.” – Indira Ghandi. Enough said.

Such employees sound like a dream, like a Christmas wish, don’t they? But you probably know that the best way to cultivate such employees is to lead from the top down. You must be the type of leader whose character, work ethic, sobriety, discretion and integrity are unquestionable if that is the type employee you want to employ.

As I have said before in my blog posts: “You will get the employees you deserve if you are quick-tempered, unfair, dishonest, prejudiced, undependable, selfish or disloyal to your employees. Your values, good or bad, will set the standard for everyone you supervise.”

 

         

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

How Should Employers Respond to 2016 Election?

Employers are facing a time of uncertainty in the workplace as a result of last week’s election. Does an employer still have to worry about compliance with the revised overtime rules? Do you still have to complete the Affordable Care Act tax forms due in January? What about paid maternity leave—must an employer provide salary for six weeks to new mothers? There will certainly be upheaval in the workplace because of the significant change in the governing philosophy to come in January.

Alth19-ryan-trump-mcconnell-w710-h473ough Mr. Trump is already backing off of some of his campaign rhetoric, there are some workplace issues that you as an employer will be affected by:

  • Immigration compliance should be your top concern under this new administration. As an employer, you must be certain that you are correctly completing an I-9 form on every new employee and assuring that you are only hiring applicants who are eligible to work in the United States.
    • A new I-9 form was released today, so you will need to start using that new form dated November 14, 2016, immediately with your new hires. The old 2013 form you have been using may not be used after January 21, 2017. You do not have to recertify your current employees just because they were hired when a different I-9 version was in use.
    • Trump has said that he wants all employers to use E-Verify, the internet verification program used by federal contractors to verify I-9 information provided by a new hire against records from Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. E-Verify sounds much easier in theory than it has proven to be in practice. Get ready for significant paperwork and several new steps whenever you receive a tentative non-confirmation letter from E-Verify on a new hire.
    • Remember that it is illegal to discriminate against an applicant on the basis of national origin or ethnicity. As an employer, you cannot have blanket hiring prohibitions against any group. You must individually check the employment eligibility of each person to whom you offer a job.
  • The new overtime law, which requires employers to pay at least $47,476 in salary to employees whom the employer wants to exempt from the overtime requirements, goes into effect in two weeks on December 1, 2016. That means that you as an employer need to comply with that law now without regard to how it may change down the road.
    • A change to the overtime law is not included in the new administration’s first 100-day plans and Mr. Trump only addressed it one time on the campaign trail. Changing the overtime regulation does not seem to be a top priority, but the possible changes that have been mentioned are an elimination of the automatic increases now scheduled every three years and a small business and/or nonprofit exception to the overtime rule.
    • The final overtime regulation took more two years to become effective after President Obama proposed it. Even if a change to it were fast-tracked, I think that you will have to comply with the current regulation at least until the end of 2017.
    • And even if the new rule is changed next year, are you really going to decrease the salaries of your management employees after they saw the increase this year? If you would consider a decrease as a possibility in the future, then think about putting your salaried employees on hourly pay and overtime pay immediately (by December 1) instead of giving them salary whiplash when this regulation changes down the road.
  • The Affordable Care Act is going to change significantly. How it will change, we don’t know, except that Mr. Trump has promised that it will be “replaced”, not just repealed. If that is the case, employers will still have to deal with healthcare headaches. They will just be new headaches rather than the ones we have learned to cope with over the last six years. For now, as an employer, you must continue to comply with the ACA, including sending out the Form 1095-C after the first of the year.
  • Trump has proposed six-week paid maternity leave. Never before has the federal government required a private employer to provide any paid leave, unless the company was a federal contractor. The Family and Medical Leave Act only requires unpaid leave.
    • This would be a radical departure from Republican policies in the past, which have always frowned on mandates to employers to pay people not to work. There is no indication yet that the U.S. Congress would go along with Mr. Trump’s proposal.
    • Meanwhile, employers should be more concerned right now about complying with the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in effect since 1978, but which has grown more teeth in the last couple of years thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Young v. UPS and stricter enforcement by the EEOC.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remains the law and no administration would dare push for its revision, or the revision of later laws that prevented discrimination on the basis of age or disability. That means that as an employer (if you have 15 or more employees), you must continue to keep your workplace free from discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, disability, etc.
    • There were 3500 charges of religious discrimination filed in 2015 with the EEOC. That number has risen 44% in the last 10 years. Employers must be extra vigilant that some of the tenor and tone of the election rhetoric doesn’t lead to any hateful actions in their workplace against, for example, a Muslim employee.
    • Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is not prohibited by the actual language of Title VII and it seems unlikely that the new administration would champion gay rights in the workplace. There is also no state law in Texas preventing such discrimination, although most of the larger cities in Texas have local ordinances. But employers need to know that the EEOC has targeted employers who are allowing discrimination against LGBT employees and there are several court rulings that back up the EEOC’s position that “sex” as a protected class includes sexual orientation, so all employers should continue to protect their LGBT employees from harassment and unfair treatment.

 

 

New Overtime Rule Changes Salary Basis Requirement

Do you pay any employee on a salary basis instead of paying them hourly and overtime? Of course you do, so you need to be very aware of the new final overtime rule issued by the U.S. Department of Labor on May 17, 2016.

You must pay your salaried employees at least $913 per week ($47,476 per year) beginning December 1, 2016, or you will be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (which you do not want to violate).

In the past, salaried employees had to be paid $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to qualify as an employee exempt from the FLSA’s requirement of paying overtime for every hour over 40 worked in any one workweek. That salary basis has doubled under the new regulations.

In addition to meeting this increased salary level, the salaried employee must 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 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.

This increase in the threshold salary required to consider an employee exempt could change the classification of many Panhandle-area retail managers and assistant managers, human resources directors, marketing professionals, bookkeeping employees, project managers, foremen, performers, and other employees who have not been earning overtime in the past.

Now those exempt employees will either get a raise to get them over the $913 per week threshold or they will have to be changed to nonexempt, hourly employees who earn overtime. Either way, it could mean an overall increase for the employee and higher payroll costs for the employer.   Continue reading New Overtime Rule Changes Salary Basis Requirement

How Texas Employers Should Respond to Marriage Decision

Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states has Texas employers scrambling for a correct response. Businesses need to consider employee benefits, leaves of absence and many other Texas workplace policies to address the change in the definition of spouse.

Unlike some changes in the law, this one will not wait for Texas employers to catch up. Travis County had already issued 54 licenses to same sex couples by noon today. The Austin American-Statesman reported that clerks in Dallas, Bexar, Tarrant, Midland, McLennan and El Paso counties also began issuing licenses to same-sex couples and judges have already started marrying same-sex couples today in Texas.

Here are some of the employment law considerations that businesses need to address immediately: Continue reading How Texas Employers Should Respond to Marriage Decision

Affordable Care Act is the Law

The United States Supreme Court confirmed today that the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) is the law and is here to stay. In deciding King v. Burwell, the Court for the second time upheld the health care law that was passed by Congress in 2010.

What does King v. Burwell mean for employers? Not much. As an employer, you just have to keep soldiering on to make the ACA work in your business, just as you have been doing for the last several years.

Of course, how big an issue the ACA is to you as an employer depends on the size of your workplace. To apply the ACA, you as the employer have to count your employees and determine how many “full-time equivalents” that you employ. Under the ACA, a full-time employee is one who is employed an average of at least 30 hours per week.

The Affordable Care Act’s mandate, requiring employers to provide health insurance to employees or face a penalty, does not apply to employers with less than the equivalent of 50 full-time employees. This is the small business exemption to the mandate and means that small businesses can choose whether to provide health insurance at all.

If you have between 50 and 99 full-time equivalent employees, you have been getting ready for the Affordable Care Act this year, since 2016 is the year that you are required to provide your full-time employees with affordable health insurance coverage or pay a potentially substantial penalty.  You are probably still working out the kinks in your system of counting hours, determining who is full-time, setting measurement periods. Next year you will be getting employees signed up and answering endless questions from your employees about their coverage.

If you have 100 or more full-time equivalent employees, then 2015 is the first year you have been required to  provide health insurance to your employees or pay a penalty. The penalty is imposed if at least one of your full-time employees receives a subsidy to purchase coverage in the individual Marketplace. So the subsidies that the Supreme Court upheld in King v. Burwell today will determine if you as an employer get penalized.

But at least you have a little margin for error this year if you employ 100 or more people. In 2015, you only have to offer coverage to at least 70 percent of full-time employees, rather than 95 percent which will begin in 2016.

There are other changes on the horizon for you as an employer in dealing with the ACA. Continue reading Affordable Care Act is the Law

Counting Consequences

One of the things I admire most about many of my clients in the Texas Panhandle is their entrepreneurial spirit. Many of them have created and nurtured several businesses to success. But there is a downside to owning many businesses: your employment headaches increase.

For example, if you have one employee who works for two of your businesses, such as a receptionist at your main office, you might be paying that employee out of two business accounts and not realizing that you have overtime obligations to that employee. Your two businesses may be “joint employers” of this receptionist if there are common officers or directors of the companies and/or there are common insurance, pension or payroll systems. If so, you must take the hours that receptionist works at all of your businesses into account when determining whether that employee should be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours in any one workweek.

Another consequence of owning more than one business is that the number of employees working at all of your businesses may need to be combined when deciding whether you have to comply with various federal employment laws, such as Title VII (which goes into effect when you employ 15 employees), the Americans with Disabilities Act (which requires 15 employees), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (which requires 20 employees), the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires that you provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to your employees if you have 50 names on the payroll, or the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees provide health insurance to their employees beginning in 2015 or face substantial penalties.

The Department of Labor and the EEOC will apply an “integrated employer” test to determine whether separate but related businesses are deemed to be a single entity for counting the number of employees (names on the payroll) to determine whether you are liable for discrimination under Title VII, the ADA, the ADEA or the FMLA. This test looks at four factors: common management of the two companies, interrelation between the operations of the companies, central operation of labor relations and some degree of common ownership or financial control. If your companies are integrated, you need to count names on all of your payrolls to determine if you need to be complying with these federal laws.

The Affordable Care Act counts employees a little differently and combines related companies differently also. The ACA requires that related entities count employees as if they were employed by one business to determine if you employ at least 50 full-time equivalent employees (and remember that the definition of “full-time” under the ACA is 30 hours per week). If your related companies all together employ 50 FTEs or more, you will have to provide your employees with health insurance beginning in 2015 or be ready to pay the penalties imposed on employers who do not comply. The ACA combines into one employer related entities such as parents and their subsidiaries, brother/sister companies where the same five people or entities own the equity in two or more companies, and affiliated service groups such as law firms, accounting firms, civic organizations and temporary staffing companies that are linked by at least some ownership (the statute refers to a 10% threshold) and closely collaborate in the services they provide.

Accurately counting the number of employees you employ when you own more than one business can be much more complicated than it initially appears. But getting that accurate count is essential to operating your businesses legally.

ACA Standard Measurement Periods May Need to Be Set Now

If your business employs at least 50 full-time equivalent employees, you know that the Affordable Care Act will penalize you in 2015 if your business does not provide your full-time employees with affordable health insurance. But did you know that the determination of who is a full-time employee may need to start as early as November 1, 2013?

When deciding if an employee works full-time (30 hours per week), the ACA allows employers to set measurement periods during which you keep careful track of an employee’s hours of service (hours actually worked and hours of pay for vacation, sick leave, etc.) and then decide if that particular employee has actually averaged 30 hours per week over that measurement period.

For current employees whose hours fluctuate over and under the 30 per week criterion or whose hours fluctuate over the course of the measurement period (such as construction employees who may work 60 hours per week during the height of a building project and 10 or 20 hours per week when the project slows down), this standard measurement period can be between 3 and 12 months.

The standard measurement period is followed by an administrative period of no more than 3 months, during which the employer can make the calculation and offer the employee insurance if he/she is averaging 30 hours or more per week.

That administrative period is followed by a stability period of at least as long as the standard measurement period, during which the employee must be allowed to stay on health insurance even if he/she drops below the 30-hour per week standard.

Many employers are choosing a standard measurement period that lasts the maximum of 12 months. Then they will need at least a couple of months for their administrative period to make their calculation and get their employees enrolled. For employers who are on an insurance plan that renews with the calendar year, or for those who want to make sure they are completely in compliance with the Affordable Care Act before the employer penalties start in 2015, they would be well-advised to start their standard measurement period on November 1, 2013 and conclude it on October 31, 2014. The administrative period would then take all of November and December 2014. The result would be that all employees who are full-time would be measured and offered health insurance in time for a January 1, 2015 enrollment. The stability period would then run from November 1, 2014 to October 31, 2015, concurrently with the next standard measurement period.

The employer who faces this issue will need a written policy setting out the dates that the employer has chosen for its measurement periods with an explanation of how it works for the employees.

All Employers Required to Send ACA Notice By October 1, 2013

As an employer, you have a deadline quickly approaching. You are required to send a notice to all of your employees about the marketplace exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act. You can find the model notices at http://dol.gov/ebsa/healthreform. There is a model notice for those employers who provide group health insurance and a separate model notice for those employers who do not provide group health insurance. There are Spanish versions of both of those notices available on that same DOL website page.

This notice is required of all employers who are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act (overtime and minimum wage law), regardless of how many employees you have and regardless of whether you offer health insurance or not.

You must provide this notice to all of your employees, even those who are not eligible for your group health insurance and those who are not enrolled in your plan.

The deadline for providing this notice to your current employees is October 1, 2013. Anyone you hire after that time must receive the notice within 14 days of employment. You may provide the notices by mail, or you can use e-mail to notify those employees who regularly have access to a work e-mail address.

For those employers who offer health insurance, the Model Notice has a page three that asks about the specifics of your health insurance plan. It is optional as to whether you as an employer answer the questions asked on page three. Because of the uncertainties of the health insurance market right now and the probability that many of you will be offered a renewal in December 2013 that will change this information, I suggest that those of you who offer a group health plan do not answer any of the questions on page three of this notice at this time.

PPACA Pay or Play Penalties Delayed

You have probably heard the news by now that the Obama administration announced that it is delaying enforcement of one piece of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) for one year. The starting date for the mandate that employers with 50 or more full-time equivalent employees have to offer affordable health insurance to their employees beginning January 1, 2014 or face penalties of $2000-$3000 per employee has been delayed until January 1, 2015. This is a huge relief to many businesses, particularly restaurants, hotels, retail establishments and construction companies, who have not traditionally provided health insurance to all of their employees and were scrambling to try to figure out their strategy for complying with the law without the cost of the benefits putting them out of business. Employers still have to make those tough decisions, but will not do so in as big a rush as they were facing and hopefully will have more guidance in making those decisions.

However, every employer needs to understand that this delay in the pay or play penalties for employers and the reporting by employers of the details of the health coverage that they offer does not mean that many other parts of the PPACA aren’t going to be effective on January 1, 2014. For example, the individual mandate, requiring that every American have health insurance, has not been delayed. This means that every citizen has to have coverage in 2014, but many will not have any insurance offered through their employers on that date. Fortunately, the IRS penalty for a person who doesn’t have health insurance is only $95 for 2014 and won’t increase until after that.

PPACA provisions that are not going to be affected by the delay and will therefore need to be addressed in 2014 by employers who already provide health insurance include the 90-day limit on waiting period for benefits eligibility, the maximum deductibles of $2000 single/$4000 family on new plans and renewals, the “community ratings” guidelines, which require premiums not to be based on health status, but on age, geography and tobacco use (which will benefit older, sicker groups and hurt younger, healthier groups), the elimination of pre-existing conditions exclusions, the requirement to provide at no additional cost certain preventive care (including contraception), the summary of benefits and coverage disclosure rules that dictate how health plan benefits information has to be presented to participants, and the taxes on employers, including the $63/person fee for every participant in a health plan, the $2/person PCORI fee to fund research, and the premium tax of 2.54% for participants of fully-insured medical plans.

For those employers who do not provide health insurance yet to the majority of your workforce, you can take this time to shop around for better rates, to better structure your workforce as full-time or part-time, to set up better time-keeping systems to know how many hours each employee works each week, and to better train your human resources and benefits staff. However, you must understand that this delay should in no way stop your efforts to get ready for compliance with PPACA. It is breathing room, a break, but the work still needs to be done.