The 10 Most Pressing Employment Law Issues in 2011 - and What To Do About Them

March 3, 2011

By: John M. Bagyi

As challenging as 2010 was, 2011 promises to be even more challenging for employers trying to remain in compliance in an ever-changing legal and regulatory environment. While coming into full compliance may seem daunting, addressing the ten concerns discussed below will be a meaningful step in that direction.

1.  Meal Periods. New York State requires employers to provide employees who work shifts in excess of six hours a meal period of not less than 30 minutes. Penalties for noncompliance start at $1,000 per offense and increase with each offense. In addition, if an employer automatically deducts meal periods from working time and such deductions do not accurately reflect the meal periods taken, the employer may not be paying employees for all time worked – resulting in far greater legal exposure.

What To Do: Employers should develop and enforce a meal period policy, requiring employees to take their meal periods (which cannot be waived). Employers should also require employees to leave their work area and prohibit employees from performing any work during meal periods. If employees’ meal periods are frequently interrupted, they should be paid for the entire meal period. Employers should also maintain accurate records demonstrating that they are complying with meal period obligations. Employers who automatically deduct for meal periods should have a policy notifying employees of this practice, a mechanism for employees to report when they have worked during a meal period, and should require employees and their supervisors to certify the accuracy of time records. Employers should also train supervisors on the legal obligations associated with meal periods.

2.  Exempt Status. With Fair Labor Standards Act litigation outpacing discrimination suits, and New York’s recently enacted Wage Theft Prevention Act taking effect in April 2011, overtime compliance is essential.

What To Do: Before classifying a position as exempt, employers must insure the duties test, salary basis test and salary level test are satisfied. Because many employers give little thought to exempt classifications, employers should review all positions currently classified as exempt and insure these tests are satisfied. If an employer discovers it has misclassified a position as exempt, legal counsel should be sought.

3.  Other Wage and Hour Concerns. Employers must also be mindful of limits on deductions from wages (e.g., overpayment of wages, debts to the employer), the need to pay nonexempt employees for all hours worked, including those worked remotely (e.g., via Blackberry or other mobile device), and the proper way to calculate regular rate of pay for overtime purposes.

What To Do: Employers should review their wage and hour practices and work with legal counsel to develop appropriate guidance on each of these subjects.

4.  Misclassification of Workers. The United States Department of Labor has identified combating employee misclassification as a priority in 2011 and with a recent study finding 1 in 10 private sector New York employers having not properly classified workers, the potential exposure is clear. Misclassification of an employee as an independent contractor carries with it a broad range of liability, including: unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, social security, tax withholding, temporary disability, and minimum wage and overtime.

What To Do: Employers should review their relationship with any worker identified as an independent contractor. In doing so, particular attention should be paid to whether the individual is in the business of providing these services, the duties performed, the control exercised over the work performed, the method of payment, and how payments are reported. These relationships should be memorialized in a written agreement (while understanding that labeling an individual an independent contractor does not end the analysis) that has been reviewed by counsel and accurately reflects the relationship between the parties.

5.  Reasonable Accommodations/Leaves. With the recently adopted Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA) and employers still working toward complying with the last round of regulatory changes to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), reasonable accommodations and leaves will remain a focal point in 2011.

What To Do: Covered employers should review their FMLA policy and forms and, if necessary, update them. Employers should also adopt a policy detailing the reasonable accommodation obligation and the procedure for requesting accommodation, and insure supervisors can identify accommodation requests. Finally, employers must be aware that an employee requiring leave for a medical condition may not be limited to the 12-week FMLA entitlement given the availability of leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and New York Human Rights Law.

6.  Caregiver Discrimination. As women now outnumber men in the U.S. workforce and mothers of young children are twice as likely to be employed as their counterparts 30 years ago, caregiver discrimination has gained greater attention and, in 2010, was described as an issue that would be “front and center” for the EEOC.

What To Do: Employers should educate supervisory personnel on what constitutes caregiver discrimination and insure those involved in the hiring process know what can and cannot be asked about caregiving responsibilities. In addition, parental/caregiving leave policies should be reviewed to ensure they do not discriminate on the basis of gender.

7.  Harassment. While harassment has been a long standing concern for employers, recent statistics demonstrate that workplace harassment is evolving - with more than 50% of harassment claims based on a protected status other than gender (e.g., disability, race, national origin) and sexual harassment charges filed by men increasing significantly.

What To Do: Employers should review their harassment policy to ensure it covers to all forms of harassment, describes/provides examples of what constitutes harassment, references conduct outside the work environment (including on social media), provides multiple avenues of complaint (directing victim to someone other than the harasser), presents an overview of the complaint procedure, and insures that the parties will be notified of the outcome of investigations. Employers should also train all those identified as avenues of complaint, as well as supervisors and managers, and should consider training all personnel.

8.  Retaliation. With EEOC charges alleging retaliation increasing 45% from 2006 to 2009 and retaliation now tied with race as the most common form of discrimination alleged, concerns related to retaliation are self-evident.

What To Do: Employers should develop or review their policy on retaliation and insure it accurately reflects recent legal developments and provides a complaint mechanism. Employers should educate supervisors on what constitutes retaliation and, when a complaint of harassment or discrimination or other violation of law is received, employers should address retaliation concerns with the source of the complaint, the person about whom the complaint was made, and any witnesses. Employers should also show sensitivity to the timing of adverse actions in relation to employee complaints and involve human resources and/or legal counsel in decisions impacting employees who recently engaged in protected activity.

9.  Employee Relations. While the Employee Free Choice Act (“EFCA”) appears to be dead, the underlying goal of EFCA – to increase unionization of the private sector workforce - will be advanced through National Labor Relations Board decisions and regulatory action. These potential changes -- commonly referred to as “EFCA 2.0” -- include narrowing the National Labor Relation Act’s definition of supervisor, expanding the protection of employee use of employer provided e-mail to solicit support for unionization, accelerating the speed of union elections, expand union access to employer property, and banning “captive audience” employee meetings.

What To Do: Given the likelihood at least some of these changes will be implemented, employers should pro-actively take steps to assess and, if necessary, improve employee relations. Employers should confirm that their supervisors satisfy the NLRA’s definition of supervisor (and are therefore excluded from NLRA protection and cannot unionize), educate supervisory personnel on the importance of open communication and positive employee relations and give supervisors the tools to succeed in this area. Employers should also take steps to address employee concerns that might otherwise lead to widespread employee dissatisfaction.

10.  Technology-Related Issues. With technology evolving at an unprecedented pace and social media use expanding rapidly, technology-related concerns are vast and problematic. While not every technology-related concern can be anticipated, let alone avoided, there are common sense steps employers can take to limit potential exposure.

What To Do: Employers should adopt, and distribute a policy concerning the use of the employer’s technological resources, and obtain employee consent to accessing, intercepting and monitoring of their use thereof. Employers should also adopting a policy addressing social media use, both at and outside work, and ensure that social media concerns are addressed in other non-technology policies (e.g., workplace harassment, references). Finally, employers should determine if and how they will use social media in the hiring process and put policies and procedures in place to ensure hiring managers do not inadvertently gain access to applicants’ protected status (e.g. age, national origin) in the process.

A version of this post was previously published in the Saratoga Business Journal.