How common HR regulations can create liabilities for employers

J. Richard Hicks, CEO, HR1 Services Inc.

With a rising number of federal regulations, it is becoming increasingly difficult for business owners to remain compliant and easier for them to inadvertently run afoul of the laws, says J. Richard Hicks, CEO of HR1 Services Inc.

“You can find yourself with a lot of governmental fines and legal problems if you don’t dot your I’s and cross your T’s,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with Hicks about issues that could land you in trouble and how to take steps to avoid them.

How can wage issues cause problems for employers?  

Just because you pay people an annual salary doesn’t mean they aren’t viewed as hourly by the Department of Labor. So if you designate your receptionist as salaried, that does not mean that is an exempt position. And, if that person works 43 hours in a week, and is found to later be employed in a non-exempt position, he or she is due overtime.

Not paying that might work while that person is still an employee, but it’s often when employees leave that employers get in trouble. If the employee goes to the DOL and the employer is found to be noncompliant, it can be liable for back pay, penalties and interest.

How can a 401(k) plan get an employer in trouble?  

If you delay depositing funds within a certain window, you are opening yourself up to problems when the audit team from the DOL knocks on your door. For example, if there was a big upswing in the markets on the days you were late and your employees’ accounts could have increased, you have to make up that entire amount, plus penalties. In addition, the fiduciary responsibilities of 401(k)s lie with the employer. To be in compliance, you have to review the funds at least once a year to ensure that you offer a stable and diversified fund portfolio. Hiring a third-party fiduciary also poses a danger, as that doesn’t remove the responsibility of the employer. If you hire someone else to be the fiduciary, and that firm doesn’t perform, you, as the employer, are still on the hook.

How can a drug policy land an employer in hot water?  

Employers who want a drug-free workplace may do random testing, but you have to take a regimented approach. You need a third party who is at arm’s length from the business to administer it. Where employers slip up is that they randomly select a person for testing one quarter, then the same person is randomly selected the next quarter. So they throw that person back in the hat to test someone else. But it has to be truly random.

Those issues can buy you problems with the government and with litigators.

What do employers need to be aware of regarding benefits?  

You need to be consistent with your benefits. For example, say your labor force has a high turnover rate and you want to classify some employees as labor and some as management, in order to offer a more benefit-rich program to management. You can do that, as long as you are consistent on how you define those classifications. But if you have a cousin who is classified as labor and you grant him benefits, this can raise discrimination issues, which can be very expensive.

What other laws does an employer need to be aware of?  

Employers have to understand the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it’s an area they can really trip over. Be aware of protected classes and how they can impact your company.

The Family Medical Leave Act can also present problems, as disgruntled employees can find ways to exploit it. For example, district court rulings have determined that the employer is responsible for monitoring employee absentee rates and notifying them in writing if they are FMLA-eligible. The employer has a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that employees are aware of their rights.

If someone is missing two days of work every two weeks, they may be dealing with an illness, and you have to make them aware of FMLA. If you fail to do so and then let them go because they are missing so much work, they can say, ‘I was sick all that time and had no idea I was eligible for FMLA, so here’s my lawsuit.’

What steps can employers take to protect themselves?  

Employee handbooks are truly the first defense mechanism. You need to craft an employee handbook and live by those published rules. And you can’t ignore someone doing something wrong just because they’ve been there for 15 years. You need to address it, because that’s where you get into trouble.

Be very consistent in the way you handle disciplinary actions. Lay out the rules in the handbook, then follow them to the letter.

Some companies may be able to use generic forms for big ticket items, for example, ‘We don’t discriminate, we follow wage and hour laws,’ etc. But most need to craft a custom handbook that meets the specific needs of their business.

The other mistake companies often make is that they publish the handbook and then think they’re OK and never review it. But if there are changes, perhaps because of a new law, for example, a handbook must be updated in order for the employers to remain in compliance. A company may try to write an employee handbook itself, but I highly recommend getting an outside expert to help you get it right. If you set up your first line of defenses incorrectly, when you face litigation, your entire defense starts to unravel before your eyes.

J. RICHARD HICKS is CEO of HR1 Services Inc. Reach him at (800) 677-5085 or [email protected]

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