Tag Archives: Federal Employment Law

Employers Must Use Revised I-9 Form Beginning September 18

The very important I-9 form, which verifies a new employee’s identity and eligibility to work in the United States, has been revised again. Employers must start using the revised form on September 18, 2017.

The revision, marked “07/17/17 N” and carrying an expiration date of 08/31/19, has to be completed only by new hires. You do not have to go back and get all of your current employees to recomplete an I-9 just because the form changed after their hire date.

Employers must complete an I-9 form on each new employee within 3 days of hiring. This process started in 1986 as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which prohibits employers from taking on a new employee without verifying the employee’s identification and eligibility to work legally in the United States.

The verification is done by reviewing the employee’s identification and employment eligibility documents, such as a passport, a permanent resident card, or a driver’s license and social security card, and completing the I-9 form. There is a very helpful employer’s guide available online that shows you what a valid document is supposed to look like. Doing your due diligence requires that you consult that guide each time you look at a new employee’s documents.

Because of the views of the current administration, employers can expect an increase in enforcement of immigration laws, including more frequent ICE audits of your I-9 compliance. There are expensive penalties if you as an employer cannot produce accurately completed I-9 forms for each of your current and former employees.

The minimum fine is $216 per error on an I-9 and the maximum is $2,156 per error (including current employees and former employees) for each paperwork violation. That means that a single I-9 form which has multiple errors could cause the employer to be responsible for multiple penalties per form. If ICE determines that the employer has failed to accurately complete I-9s on at least 50% of its employees, the maximum fine of $2,156 will be levied on the employer for each form.

You must keep an I-9 form on every active employee as long as the employee works for you. For a terminated employee, you must be able to produce an I-9 for three years after the hire date or one year after termination, whichever is later. To make it easier to remember, most employers wait to purge I-9 forms until three years after an employee’s termination.

Typically, when ICE appears for an I-9 audit, they will require that you produce I-9 forms for each current employee and any employee terminated in the last three years. You are given 72-hours’ notice to pull all of these forms together, which is why many employers store the I-9 forms together rather than in each employee’s individual file.

Preventing Racism and Incivility in Your Workplace

As a business owner or manager, you have the opportunity and the responsibility to combat racism and hatred in your workplace. Despite the bitterness of current political discourse and the appalling display of racism in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, or maybe because of it, everyone deserves to be able to go to work and feel accepted, valued and safe.

From a legal perspective, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the discrimination statutes of every state prohibit racism. Racist expressions in the workplace can lead to discrimination cases that are costly, both in terms of money and company goodwill. For example, a Dallas milling company settled with the EEOC in 2012 for $500,000 after 14 African-American employees alleged that their supervisors did nothing when the complainants faced racist graffiti and slurs by co-workers, including “KKK”, swastikas, Confederate flags, and “die, n—-r, die” as well as nooses displayed in the workplace.

This kind of discrimination can hijack the future of a company. Why would anybody with a conscience choose to work there ever again? Or do business with such a company once these actions were known? No amount of wise counsel from an employment lawyer like me can really defend, much less restore a company’s prosperity after these sorts of egregious actions are allowed to occur.

Employers trying to avoid discrimination lawsuits and to build a culture of decency can put into place anti-discrimination policies and training, can immediately investigate and take remedial action when racism is suspected or discovered, and can make advancement and better pay at the company dependent on an employee’s or manager’s embracing of equality.

But perhaps the most important way you can prevent discrimination at your company is by setting an example of what you expect from your employees. You are the yardstick by which your company is measured.

Christine Porath, a leading authority on decency in the workplace, says in her book that 25% of employees acknowledge that they acted uncivilly in the workplace because they saw their bosses acting that way.  As the boss, you need to have zero tolerance for incivility because it is like a gateway drug—incivility often becomes prejudice, harassment and discrimination. Getting away with one often leads to the others.

As a business owner or supervisor, you set the tone for your employees. Your words and actions determine if the workplace is respectful or hostile. You must tell your workers that bigotry is unacceptable and that you have a zero tolerance for stereotyping, name-calling, racial slurs, bullying and other abusive behaviors.

But more importantly, you personally must show your employees, not only by avoiding participating in these kinds of abuses, but also by making a special effort to “be the behavior you want to see” in your employees—respectful of all people, patient, empathetic, humble, transparent, honest and self-controlled.

Ending racism in the workplace is not just your legal responsibility—it is a moral one. Continue reading Preventing Racism and Incivility in Your Workplace

Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

A nursing mother in your workplace has certain employment rights that you as an employer must understand. Until the time that the child is one year old, Texas employers must provide the time and space for the mother to breastfeed the baby (if children are allowed at the workplace) or to express milk to be stored for later.

The federal compensation law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), was amended in 2010 to require employers to provide nursing mothers with “reasonable” break time to pump breast milk. Employers must realize that there is no one definition of what is “reasonable” that applies to every new mother.

The Department of Labor says in its Fact Sheet #73 regarding Break Time for Nursing Mothers, “employers are required to provide a reasonable amount of break time to express milk as frequently as needed by the nursing mother. The frequency of breaks needed to express milk, as well as the duration of each break, will likely vary.” Speaking from experience, nursing may take 10 minutes, 25 minutes, 40 minutes or even longer and isn’t standardized from mom to mom, day to day, or break to break.

If you provide coffee breaks or meal breaks during the day to other employees and pay them during that break (which the FLSA requires you to do if the break is less than 20 minutes), then you should allow your nursing mothers to use those breaks if convenient and be paid during those breaks just like any other employee.

Otherwise, nursing breaks do not have to be compensated, so you can require a nonexempt (hourly) employee to clock out during the break so that the nursing break isn’t paid. If that means that the employee has to stay longer each day to actually perform work for 40 hours per week, you as an employee can require that extra time. Or you can choose to pay the employee for only the hours worked, which may be less than 40 when lots of nursing breaks are taken.

The easiest way to address compensation is to have a written policy that states that all nursing breaks of 20 minutes or less are paid, but longer breaks are unpaid.

You also have a responsibility as an employer to provide a place for the nursing mother to breastfeed or express milk. That place cannot be a bathroom. The area must be private with a lock on the door or another way to assure that the public and/or coworkers won’t barge in while the employee is nursing or pumping. If you have more than one nursing mother employed at a time, it is common practice to have a sign up or reservation-type system for the room you designate for expressing milk.

The secluded place the employer provides must be functional for expressing milk, meaning it should at least be furnished with a comfortable chair. Many employers provide a small dorm-sized refrigerator and a Sharpee in the nursing area so that the expressed milk can be labelled and dated and kept cool until the new mother can take it home.

Texas allows employers who adopt a new mother-friendly written policy to advertise that it is a “mother-friendly” business. If that “carrot” approach doesn’t convince you, then the “stick” is that failure to provide adequate breaks and a secure place for nursing mothers means that not only will your business be violating the FLSA, but also the employee can bring a sex discrimination or sexual harassment action if you have at least 15 employees.

A federal court has also ruled that breastfeeding is a medical condition related to pregnancy and maternity, so you can also be sued under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. You must additionally prevent an employee from being retaliated against for exercising her rights as a nursing mother, i.e., you must assure that her supervisor doesn’t give her a poor evaluation or demote her because her nursing rights create some disruption in the office.

Small employers (less than 50) have one defense to these kinds of claims. Continue reading Workplaces Must Accommodate A Nursing Mother

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.

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

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

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.

 

 

Overtime Rules: Are You Ready?

Reminder: The Department of Labor’s final rules regarding the overtime exemption requirements go into effect December 1, 2016. So in the next month, you must get in compliance with these rules:

  • Salary increase for certain exemptions. The minimum salary requirement for administrative, professional, and executive exemptions dramatically increases from $455 per week ($23,660 annually) to $913 per week ($47,476 annually). If you aren’t paying salaried employees $47,476 per year by December 1, 2016, you will be exposing your business to risky Department of Labor investigations and employee lawsuits.
  • Increase for highly compensated employees. The minimum total compensation required for the highly compensated employee exemption increases from $100,000 per year to $134,004 per year, which must include at least $913 paid on a weekly salary basis.
  • A portion of certain bonuses count. Employers may use nondiscretionary bonuses (generally those announced or promised in advance), incentive payments, and commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the minimum salary requirement for the administrative, professional, and executive exemptions, as long as these forms of compensation are paid at least quarterly.
  • Automatic updates. Every three years, the DOL will adjust the minimum salary requirement, meaning you will need to review and adjust (if necessary) exempt employees’ salaries every three years as well.

 

Don’t wait until December; take steps NOW to prepare for the rule changes:

  • Ensure that your “exempt” employees are actually exempt. It takes more than the proper salary for an employee to be exempt. Call me for help with reviewing the primary duties your exempt employees actually perform to ensure they meet the DOL’s criteria for administrative, professional, and executive exemptions.
  • Compare the costs. If your exempt employees’ salaries fall below the new minimum, you will generally have to either: 1) raise their salaries to the new requirement; or 2) reclassify the affected employees as non-exempt and start following the overtime rules whenever they work more than 40 hours in a workweek. Review exempt employees’ salaries and their typical number of hours worked to determine which option is more cost-effective for your business.
  • Review your timekeeping policies. Get from me written policies and procedures for your business to ensure all non-exempt employees are accurately recording all time worked. I can provide training for employees on proper timekeeping practices and otherwise complying the compensation laws.

Overtime Salary Adjustments Could Violate Equal Pay Act

The new overtime rule is causing employers to rethink employee compensation, but I fear that one pitfall is being overlooked – an employer who pays a woman less than a man for performing the substantially the same duties could be violating the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Employers who can’t pay their salaried employees at or above the new white-collar exemption threshold of $47,476 may be forced to pay those same employees on an hourly basis and time and a half for all hours worked over 40 in any one workweek. Overtime scares employers because it is difficult to budget for and requires higher costs for each hour of productivity after the employee has worked 40 hours that week.

So in trying to juggle the new law and payroll costs, employers are reducing pay, overtime opportunities and benefits. That may be good business, but if the impact hits female employees more than male employees, we could see an increase in Equal Pay Act cases.

The Equal Pay Act requires that female employees be paid the same as their male counterparts with substantially similar job duties. “All forms of pay are covered by this law, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, cleaning or gasoline allowances, hotel accommodations, reimbursement for travel expenses, and benefits,” the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points out.

If a woman files a lawsuit against a company for paying her less than a man performing the same work, the employer must show that the male employee’s higher pay is based on a seniority system, a merit system, a productivity system or another factor other than gender. That sounds easier than it is. Continue reading Overtime Salary Adjustments Could Violate Equal Pay Act

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