Simple Firing Form Keeps Employer’s Story Straight

An employer should always carefully document the reasons for firing an employee. But your termination documentation doesn’t have to be complicated.

I’ve attached a one-page form that you as an employer can quickly fill out and place in the employee’s file whenever you have to terminate the employment of one of your workers. But just because the form is simple doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put some thought into the process.

Even though Texas is an “at will” employment state, it is wise to have good reasons for firing an employee. You need to stick to those reasons exactly when you complete the unemployment form from the Texas Workforce Commission, if you get a discrimination complaint from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and if you hear from the Department of Labor on a retaliation case.

Nothing looks more suspicious to a government investigator or to a jury than an employer’s termination story that changes over time. The all-important consistency of your answers begins with this document filled out on the day that the employee is terminated.

Clients are always asking me what they can do to prevent getting sued by an employee who was fired. Having good, nondiscriminatory reasons for the termination and documenting those reasons carefully are the first steps in preventing a lawsuit, or at least winning one.

Click here to download this simple firing form:

Termination Documentation Form 

Religious and National Origin Discrimination in Heated Political Times

It is easy for employers to lose sight of the obligation to protect all employees regardless of national origin or religion with all the heated political rhetoric we hear right now. But it is still against every federal and state civil rights law for an employer with 15 or more names on the payroll to allow any workplace harassment or discrimination on the basis of where someone is from, what language they speak or what religion they practice.

Since 2001, religious and national origin discrimination cases filed by Muslims and others of Middle Eastern ancestry have increased. Similarly, when illegal immigration is a hot topic, employees of Mexican heritage are often targeted for discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission now receives approximately 3000 charges each year about religious discrimination and 9000-10000 charges of national origin discrimination in the workplace.

In some circumstances, the discrimination is quite blatant.  In Huri v. Office of the Chief Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois (7th Cir. 2015), the Muslim plaintiff of Saudi Arabian origin alleged that her supervisor was a devout, vocal Christian who was unfriendly to her from the beginning. The supervisor allegedly referred to one of Huri’s colleagues as a “good churchgoing Christian” while calling Huri “evil”.  The supervisor reportedly also made a show of saying Christian prayers in the workplace while holding hands with employees other than Huri.

Any employer should be able to quickly recognize the legal and morale implications of such behavior and correct it. But other questions arise when well-meaning employers are confronted with an employee who may be from a culture or religion that the employer is unfamiliar with. That’s why in 2016 the EEOC released guidelines specifically about preventing discrimination against employees on the basis of national origin. These guidelines join the EEOC’s specific guidance on the workplace rights of employees who are perceived to be Muslim or Middle Eastern and the EEOC’s guidance on best practices to prevent religious discrimination in business settings.

What does an employer need to do to prevent or address any hostility in the company towards an employee on the basis of that employee’s national origin or religion? Continue reading Religious and National Origin Discrimination in Heated Political Times

White House Fails Basic “Firing 101”

Note: This is not a political post. President Donald Trump had the right and the authority to fire Acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates last night.

From an employment lawyer’s perspective, the White House’s written statement about Sally Yates’ firing is a textbook example of how I advise my employer clients not to behave. https://www.whitehouse.gov/…/statement-appointment-dana-boe…

“The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order designed to protect the citizens of the United States. . . . Ms. Yates is an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”

We employment lawyers encourage our business clients to leave a fired employee with his/her dignity. I would never suggest an employer use loaded words like “betrayed” and “weak” or to impugn a long-term, high-ranking employee’s integrity during a job termination meeting. It is ill-advised in most industries to burn bridges like this or to set your business up for a lawsuit by a scorned ex-employee.

Sometimes terminating an employee’s job is necessary. For advice on how to fire in a more beneficial way, read my blog post on firing without fear.

Requiring a “Full Recovery” May Violate Disability Law

Have you ever asked an employee for a doctor’s note confirming that the employee is “fully” recovered from an injury or illness as a condition to returning to work? If so, you may be violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).

I have often talked employers off the ledge of demanding that an employee present a “full release”. Ever since George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law in 1990, it has been risky to assume that an employee must return to “full” duty after surgery, a serious illness or an injury. The employer must try hard to put the disabled employee back to work, but job duties may have to be modified, reassigned or eliminated to reasonably accommodate the worker.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s guidance, “Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act”, released last year, states that an employer is in violation of the ADA “if it requires an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions—that is, be 100% healed or recovered—if the employee can perform her job with or without reasonable accommodation unless the employer can show providing the needed accommodations would cause an undue hardship.”

Whole Foods was recently sued for not putting Yolanda Toolie back to work when she returned from a spinal fusion with a 10-pound lifting restriction. She says that Whole Foods made her stay on unpaid leave for almost six months until she was fully cleared by her doctor, instead of finding a way to accommodate her restricted ability. After a second surgery, she alleges that Whole Foods fired her because she wasn’t eligible for Family and Medical Leave (which she would have qualified for if she had been allowed to work after the first surgery without the requirement of a “full recovery”).

If these allegations have any merit, Whole Foods could have avoided this suit if it had gone through the reasonable accommodation process with Toolie, a deli clerk, and found a way to put her back to work despite her lifting restriction. Maybe someone else could have lifted the product boxes while she operated the slicer, for example, or maybe she could have transferred to the Whole Foods bakery, where the heaviest thing she would have lifted was a loaf of gluten-free organic brown rice bread.

Putting an employee on indefinite unpaid leave is the accommodation of last resort, since the employee will not receive a salary while not working. Instead of telling an employee to stay home until he is back to 100%, the following reasonable accommodation process should be followed: Continue reading Requiring a “Full Recovery” May Violate Disability Law

2017 New Year’s Resolutions for Employers

At the beginning of each year, I encourage my business clients to make some New Year’s resolutions to achieve better compliance with the myriad employment laws. Based on what many of my clients are telling me and what the courts and enforcement agencies have on their agendas, here are the employment matters that you could improve in 2017:

  • Immigration compliance: President-Elect Trump has promised strong enforcement of the immigration laws. Many of those enforcement efforts will affect employers, such as mandatory use of the E-Verify system to double-check the legal status of every new hire. Even before that requirement is put in to place, resolve to correctly complete the mandatory new I-9 form for every new hire. The best way to make sure the I-9 is correctly completed: consult the government-published Employer’s Guide to the I-9, particularly the color pictures that show you exactly what a valid permanent resident card, for example, looks like. Also, be prepared that some of your employees may lose their work eligibility under the new administration, including young people (known as the Dreamers) who became eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012.
  • Market rate on salaries: Texas’ unemployment rate was sitting at 4.6% at the end of November 2016. Amarillo’s rate was 3.0%. Economists consider 3% to be full employment, meaning you as an employer maybe finding it difficult to attract and keep the talent that you need. I am always surprised therefore when my clients don’t keep up with the market data on salaries. Resolve in 2016 to tap into the data available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics for your industry and your location to really analyze whether your salaries are sufficient. Employees will also be looking at Salary.com and Payscale.com, so you need to do the same.
  • Improve your PTO offering: I am amazed when I am drafting or revising my client’s employment handbooks how little paid time off many local employers offer. Many don’t give an employee any vacation, sick leave, personal days or other paid time off during the first year and then rarely allow more than five days per year after that. This will not attract top talent or create long-term loyal employees, I promise you. Particularly if you are hiring millennials or need an educated workforce, you need to up your game on PTO. My 22-year-old son was hired in 2015 by a consulting firm in Washington, D.C., right out of college (with a degree in economics and a master’s degree in business analytics) and offered three weeks of PTO that started accruing immediately. After one promotion, employees at his company get four weeks of PTO. I’m not arguing that every job merits that much PTO, but resolve in 2017 to at least consider that two weeks per year should be the minimum to improve your hiring, increase your retention, rejuvenate your employees every year and allow your employees to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life. As an employment lawyer, I know that most employee lawsuits arise after the worker leaves your employ. Keeping your staff reasonably happy and loyal by providing better PTO will provide you with other benefits too, but I like it because you will spend less time with me in court and instead we can just have lunch and talk about more pleasant topics.
  • Health Reimbursement Accounts: None of us know what the new administration will create to replace the Affordable Care Act, so I can’t give you much advice yet about your group health insurance offerings. However, employers with less than 50 employees who don’t offer group health insurance should resolve to consider using Health Reimbursement Accounts in 2017 because of the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act that sailed through Congress and the President’s signature in December. That act included permission for small employers to now use HRA’s to pay for qualified out-of-pocket medical expenses for their employees and to fund individual health insurance premiums. In other words, employers can use pretax dollars to help employees to purchase their own insurance on the open market while capping the employer’s contribution at a reasonable amount. There are, of course, many restrictions associated with this opportunity, but it is worth consideration by smaller employers in 2017.
  • Good Documentation: Every employment lawyer would like for you to add this to your resolution list each year. Memories fail and managers move on, so written documents are often an employer’s only evidence of the nondiscriminatory reasons that certain employment actions were taken. Understand and resolve that performance reviews, reasons for bonuses and merit increases, violations of policy, attendance problems, changes in job duties and disciplinary actions will be well-documented in 2017. I’ll help with any of kind of documentation, but I highly recommend that you get me involved whenever the documentation is of disability or religious accommodations, FMLA, harassment claims, overtime or other compensation problems, egregious policy violations, demotions, final warnings, layoffs and terminations.
  • Gratitude: Resolve that you will say “thank you” more often to your employees in 2017. Studies have repeatedly shown that this one action can enhance employee engagement and loyalty even more than raises and promotions. Gratitude can also make your workplace so much more enjoyable for all of your employees.

 

After Hours Work Isn’t Banned, But Must Be Paid

Employers in the US aren’t banned from having employees check emails after hours like companies in France are, but after hours work can create significant overtime issues for American employers. As an employer, you must know the requirements for paying your hourly employees for their after hours work.

AP FRANCE EAVES DROPPING IN EUROPE I FRAhttp://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/01/04/heres-another-reason-move-france-no-after-work-emails/96148338/

New Employees Should Complete New I-9 Form

If you are hiring any employees, this is just a quick reminder that you need to start using the new I-9 form to confirm your new worker’s eligibility to be employed in the United States.

The new I-9 form was released on November 14, 2016 (look for that date on the form to verify that you are using the most recent one). You already can be using the new form, but it is mandatory that you are using that new form by January 22, 2017. My suggestion for making it easy on yourself is to begin using the new form today, or at least no later than January 1, 2017, so that you start the new year off right.

You do not have to update any of your completed I-9s on current employees with the new form. It is only mandatory that you start using the new I-9 with employees who are hired beginning in January 2017.

As you know, employers must assure an I-9 is completed on each new employee hired (citizen or otherwise) to document identity and authorization to legally work in the United States. The new employee must bring the proper forms of identification and work authorization so that you can complete the I-9 by the third business day of employment, or you can no longer employ that worker.

Mistakes happen on an incredibly frequent basis while filling out I-9 forms and employers get penalized substantially if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) audits an employer’s forms. Here is a guide to the most common mistakes and how to avoid them.

Another way to avoid mistakes on the I-9 form is Continue reading New Employees Should Complete New I-9 Form

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

Don’t Forget About the Duties Tests for Exempt Employees

While a federal judge in Texas last week set aside the requirement to pay exempt employees at least $47,476 per year, nothing has changed about the duties tests for exempt employees, and that is where many employers get into trouble. Under the old rules (which are new again), the Department of Labor was collecting $140 million per year for overtime violations.

So even though the judge’s injunction has relieved you as an employer from the obligation to pay yourcowmc8qf8a-crew-1r managers almost $50,000 per year, you still have to be vigilant that you are paying salaries only to those employees who actually are exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act based on the duties that they perform.

Determining that an employee is exempt from the overtime rules and can be paid on a salary without reference to the number of hours worked each week by that employee has always been a two-step process:

  1. The employee you have designated as a manager, professional or administrative worker must be paid at least $23,660 per year. This is the amount that was in effect before the new rule and the judge’s injunction, which returns us to the status quo of $23,660 per year ($455 per week). But unlike the new rule, bonuses cannot be used to get the exempt employee to that amount. So you have to pay the salary of $23, 660, and,
  2. The employee you are calling exempt must perform certain duties to legally be considered exempt. These duties tests have tripped employers up for years, long before the salary increase was even proposed. And now that the salary increase has been enjoined, your focus as an employer should be back on these duties tests to determine if you really can pay an employee as an exempt, salaried employee without worrying about overtime.

So, in addition to making at least $23,660 per year, your exempt employee must pass all of the duties tests for at least one of the following categories if you want to claim that you don’t have to pay overtime to that particular employee:

Executive Employees Duties Test:

  1. The employee’s primary duty (the most important duty and the one that takes up a significant amount of his/her time) must be the management of a customarily recognized department or subdivision (such as a stand-alone store). Management includes the hiring, training, scheduling, disciplining and supervising of employees and/or the planning and controlling of the budget, workflow, safety and compliance of a department; and
  2. The executive employee must customarily and regularly direct the work of at least two other full-time employees (not full-time equivalents), and
  3. The executive employee has the authority to hire and fire other employees, or at least the executive employee regularly makes recommendations that are relied on in the determination of an employee’s hiring, promotion, firing.

Learned Professional Duties Test: Continue reading Don’t Forget About the Duties Tests for Exempt Employees