jury dutyWho, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: The Jurors Right to Reemployment Act and the Jury System Improvement Act of 1978 applies to all employers in Texas. These laws protect the employment status of those employees serving jury duty in either state or federal court.

Who is protected: All permanent employees serving jury duty are protected. Temporary or seasonal employees, those that work for a specific length of time or until a specific project is completed, are not protected.

What are they protected from: Not only are the employees protected from being fired, employers cannot threaten, intimidate or attempt to coerce employees to avoid jury duty.

Do I have to pay employees out on jury duty: Federal law does not require covered employers to pay employees for days that they do not work except as noted here:

  • Salaried Exempt Employees: If an employee works any part of a week (5 minutes would count) and misses the rest of the week for jury or witness duty, he must receive “regular wages” for the workweek, but if the employee misses a full week, no pay is due for that week. “Regular wages” means the standard salary for the week, but does not include performance bonuses or services performed on any day the employee would not have earned wages, such as a scheduled day off. See the Employer Handbook editions on Overtime and Exemptions from Overtime for more guidance on what “exempt” means.
  • Salaried and Hourly Non-exempt Employees: Employers do not have to pay the wages of non-exempt employees during jury service.
  • Temporary Employees: Employers are not required to pay temporary or seasonal workers for jury service. Further, the job protection provisions of the laws do not apply to these workers.

Employers can opt to have employees use paid vacation or other paid time off for jury duty leave as long as it is not contrary to any existing company policies or labor agreements (this includes salary exempt employees). That said, an employer may not terminate healthcare benefits during jury service leave.

Do I need a policy: It is a good idea to create a policy for employees called to jury duty, so that when the situation arises, expectations are clear for both the employer and the employee. A lot of issues and questions can arise on this subject – use of time off, when to report the summons, how is unpaid leave handled, what are employees to do if they are released early one day, etc.

Does jury service count towards overtime: No. The hours spent in jury service do not count toward overtime, just as other types of paid leave and paid holiday hours do not count toward overtime.

Do I get reimbursed if I pay for jury service: Yes, but not for the full wages. The government doesn’t have that kind of money or they would dole it out to the employee directly. Employers who pay the employee regular wages during jury duty are entitled to be paid the amount the employee was paid for jury duty – yippee an extra $6 a day!

Do employees have to give notice: There is no law that requires employees to give notice to the employer of jury service. For this reason it is important to have a policy instructing the employee to give notice as soon as possible. If they don’t, you can discipline or fire them for failing to give adequate notice and reasonable time for you to react.

What penalties is an employer subject to for a violation of jury duty? Criminally, an employer may be on the hook for a Class B Misdemeanor if it threatens, coerces, or terminates an employee over jury duty. In civil court, an employer may be liable for reinstatement and damages between one and five years compensation.

Common Situations:

Perception is reality: Bob is a salesman who has been with his company for five years. Over the past year his sales have decreased and he has been counseled several times, given two written warnings, and encouraged to increase his sales. Bob gets called for jury duty and is out of work for two weeks. When he returns, his employer, without a written reprimand, fires him, citing his low sales and lack of improvement. Although there may have been good reason for firing Bob before he left for jury duty, firing him so close to his absence may land you in hot water. An employee who serves jury duty is entitled to return to the same position as when he left. It would be better to wait to avoid the perception of impropriety and give Bob a claim that probably is unwarranted.

Supervisor gone awry: Jenna is one of Happy Dale’s most valued employees. She was summoned for jury duty and promptly notified her supervisor of the dates she would be required to be out of the office. In the weeks leading up to her service, her supervisor constantly makes negative comments to her about how she should lie and tell the court she is a racist to get out of jury duty. Jenna is then picked for a jury and is absent for three days. When she notifies her supervisor, he is furious and tells her that she has been assigned an important project that needs her immediate attention. When Jenna returns from jury service her supervisor fires her for failure to complete the project on time. Even if Happy Dale’s owners are totally ignorant, they can be liable. Supervisors and other employees should be counseled that jury duty is job-protected leave. Employers will face penalties for any intimidation, coercion or negative employment actions based on an employee’s jury service.

You lost your spot: Steve is a decent employee at Bob’s Account Temps. He is called for jury duty and gets stuck on the J.O. Simpson murder trial that goes on and on and on for months. In the interim Bob’s is forced to hire a temporary worker to cover Steve’s work. The temporary employee turns out to be exceptional and Bob (the owner in case you didn’t guess) hires the temp to replace Steve – permanently. Does the glove fit Bob? Unfortunately. Finding a better player does not warrant letting the employee go. That said, if Steve finishes jury duty and fails to call or return to work because he is working the interview circuit and writing a book about his experience, Bob may be in the clear. It is unfair that the employer does not have a right to know the employee’s intent, but the law allows the employee to count on the employer keeping his job open.

What Should I Do:

Good: Encourage your employees to fulfill their civic responsibilities and ensure that the employee is allowed to take time off for service and allowed to return to the same job and the same responsibilities, benefits, etc. Counsel supervisors about the law and let them know that it is illegal to intimidate or coerce an employee not to serve on a jury.

Better: Create a written policy that clearly spells out what will happen when an employee is called for jury service. Cover when an employee is expected to work if not at jury duty, when the employee needs to notify you of jury service, the time you will pay for an employee to be out, if any, how to deal with Court issued compensation, and whether use of paid time off will be required.

Best: Good and Better get it done for this edition.

 

This month, our e-notification linked to the blog rather than the PDF of our Employer Handbook article.  Sorry.  If you are saving copies of the PDFs (hint, hint), please click here

 

Who, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: It is up to you. A business with two employees might benefit from an employee handbook. A business with 100 might function fine without one. There are no legal rules about when a handbook must be created.

Can I do it myself: Yes, certainly, but there are many pitfalls and many things to consider. Whatever an employer does, they must be careful to make policies that are consistent with their practices, and, of course, the law. Nothing is worse than downloading something off the internet that might follow the laws of another state and which is inconsistent with your goals and practices.

What policies should I include: That also is up to you, but I would consider these the most important:

  • Discrimination, Harassment, Disability, and EEO. The most legally significant issue a small business can address is the prohibition of discrimination among employees. Some of the discrimination laws don’t kick in until an employer has 15 or 20 employees, but at least one kicks in with just one employee. The policy needs to address both the prohibition and reporting.
  • Holidays, Vacation, Sick, or PTO. This issue is not as legally significant as it is practically important. The first couple of employees may be handled one way, but after a while, many businesses seem to struggle with consistency.
  • Family Medical Leave. This topic is only third because it doesn’t apply to a business with under 50 employees. Family medical leave is complicated to get right, and a written policy is the first step toward doing so.
  • Employee Dating. This is always a hot topic. I generally recommend employees not be permitted to fraternize and insist that supervisors, at least, not be permitted to date subordinates.
  • Employment At-will. If you employ people on an at-will basis (see the EH edition on this topic) it is important to confirm that nothing in the handbook creates a contract of employment for a period of time and that all employees are still at-will unless otherwise notified in writing.
  • Performance and Discipline. Consistency in these areas is important to protect against discrimination claims. Employers should lay out their disciplinary policy so there are no questions about the employer’s rights to terminate. I recommend leaving yourself the right to terminate for any issue if you feel it is important rather than using a regimented progressive policy.
  • Privacy. Make sure employees know that you can install video cameras, and search anywhere you like, including their desks, phones, and company email accounts.
  • Worker’s Comp. Whether you are a subscriber or not, consider addressing what employees need to do if they are injured on the job. You have legal obligations to report injuries within a certain period whether you are covered by the act or not.
  • Exceptions and Revisions. Always reserve the right to make changes without warning and clarify that there may be policies of the business which are not covered by the handbook – otherwise it would be as thick as a phone book.
  • Wage Deductions. Clarify in advance what deductions may be made from pay so the employees cannot cry foul. Examples include uniforms, damage to company property, theft, and repayment of loans.

What else should I address: Beyond these key topics the second tier policies are:

  • Military Leave. It is important to let employees know you follow the law regarding time off for deployment or for National Guard or Reserve duty.
  • Benefits. Provide an explanation of the types of benefits you offer employees including insurance and 401(k).
  • Bereavement. Let employees know what they can expect if they lose a relative. Who are they entitled to take time off for and what time do they get.
  • Jury Duty and Voting. Employees are legally granted the right to participate in both without losing their job. Define your policy and whether the employee’s time away from work for either is paid.
  • Accidents Involving Employees and Others. Cover what employees should do if they, a co-worker, or a third-party are injured in the workplace or while working.
  • Tracking Hours, Lunches, and Breaks. Let employees know when they are expected to be at work, when they get breaks, and how to keep track of their hours so that you stay out of overtime trouble.

Is a full handbook necessary: No. In fact, I imagine the first employee handbooks were collections of policies that someone decided to organize into a book. A business can get along with individual key policies set out in a way that all employees can find them.

Do I need employees to sign that they read it: It is a good idea to have employees sign a document acknowledging receipt of the handbook and confirming they have read it. This will help in the event the employee makes a claim about something covered by the handbook.

Are paper copies necessary: I advise clients that an electronic copy handbook is preferred. Store the handbook on an intranet or send a copy out to every employee by email. Using an electronic handbook makes editing the handbook much easier – no need to print a whole new copy for everyone or send out an addendum.

What should I do:
Good: Create policies that are important until you feel a handbook is necessary. Cover the basics.

Better: Build an employee handbook that meets your needs and reflects your actual practices. A handbook that reflects your ideal workplace (as opposed to how you actually do business) may be more hurtful if you find yourself in a dispute with a former employee.

Best: All of the above and go beyond a basic acknowledgement of receipt. Have the employees confirm their agreement to searches of their space, drug testing, employment-at-will, patent rights, their worker’s compensation election, and wage deductions. It may also be a good document to use for getting an agreement for periodic driving record checks and release of liability for references.

Who, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: All employers who are subject to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which is virtually every employer.

What is the issue: Employers are required to count certain time spent traveling toward an employee’s hours worked each week unless the employee is exempt from overtime. (For more information on who is exempt from overtime, see the Exemptions edition). The problem is that not all time must be counted and the rules can be quite tricky.

Is the drive from home to work covered: Let’s start at the beginning of the day (and the end). Of course, most of you are thinking the commute to the office can’t possibly count.  Like many legal issues – it depends. In it’s simplest form, compensable travel time starts when work begins whether that is picking up food for the office or sitting in traffic on a conference call. If the Department of Labor (DOL) considers the travel “for the employee’s benefit” it does not count. If, on the other hand, the DOL considers the travel to be “for the employer’s benefit,” it does count. The Common Situations section will help you understand this point better.

What if the employee drives a company car: If the employee drives to a business location to pick up a company vehicle before heading out to the first job of the day, their time starts to count as soon as they get in the vehicle.  If the employee drives the company vehicle to and from home, and from home to work or business calls, the time is treated like a regular commute and does not count.  On the other hand, if the employee drives the vehicle to pick-up co-workers or materials on the way to work, the time counts as soon as the employee leaves home.

How is travel during the workday treated: Once an employee arrives “at work” (whether that be a jobsite, first call, or office) any additional travel during the day up to the end of the workday or last call of the day is counted.  This time is clearly for the employer’s benefit with the possible exception of driving to and from a meal break location.

Who gets paid for time in a carpool: Again, it depends.  If a group of employees decide on their own to carpool, the time does not count.  If the employees take their own vehicles to a common location to ride in a bus or other vehicle to a jobsite, the bus driver is on the clock, but the riders may not be.  If the riders are not obligated to use the company vehicle their ride time does not count.  There is some question about whether ride time counts if the employees are unable to drive directly to the ultimate destination themselves – perhaps to a construction site or factory.  Check with your employment counsel in that situation.

What about travel out-of-town: Out-of-town travel is generally broken down into two categories: “special” trips all in a day’s work and longer trips, usually overnight.  If an employer sends an employee out of their usual work area for a special one-day project, the company must pay for the travel to and from that site, less the employee’s usual commute.  If the employee travels to the airport to fly to another town, the flight time to and from the location counts, but the drive to the airport does not.

If an employee is sent out-of-town multiple days for work, travel time that is outside of their usual work time is counted.  Hence, an employee who usually works Monday – Friday, 8 to 5 will be paid for all time (including the drive to the airport since it is not a regular workday) on a Sunday to arrive for a Monday meeting. The employee will also count time in a plane or other mode of transportation returning to his home location.  Travel of this type can also be complicated.  Check with your employment counsel about more complicated situations such as an employee leaving early to visit friends in the destination location.

How is travel overseas treated: Overseas travel is complicated and beyond the scope of this edition. Check with your employment counsel about travel time of this type.

Does on-call or emergency travel change anything: Employees required to travel outside of their normal work hours to a location other than their primary work location must be paid travel time to and from the location.  Employees called in to their primary work location after hours are not paid for travel to the location.  It is an odd dichotomy, but those are the DOL’s rules.

Common Situations:

Donut stop: Maggie stops for donuts on the way into work just to be nice to her co-workers.  Even though she made a stop for the benefit of her co-workers, her employer did not require it, so the time is not counted.  What if Maggie’s boss decides to reimburse her after she shows up with the donuts?  The stop was still of Maggie’s own volition, so it does not count.  Now, what if Maggie’s boss asks her to stop and pick up a case of coffee at the grocery store and Maggie still decides to buy the donuts for her co-workers?  Now it counts because Maggie is making a stop for her employer’s benefit.  How much of Maggie’s 45-minute commute counts, though?  That is up to Maggie.  If she stops at the grocery store five minutes from her house, 40 minutes count.  If she stops at the grocery store 5 minutes from the office, only five minutes count.  The same would be true if Maggie’s boss asked her to make the stop on the way home.

Hitching a ride: Sylvia lives 15 minutes from Maggie, just off Maggie’s regular route to work.  If Maggie stops to pick Sylvia up, does that count as work time?  It depends.  If Maggie’s boss asks her to pick Sylvia up, the time counts. If Maggie is just being a good co-worker, the time does not count.  Either way it doesn’t count for Sylvia.  Now, what if Sylvia completes a report for work that her boss has been waiting on during the ride?  This time, Sylvia must count the time.  Simply because she is not in the office and is using time that would otherwise be her commute, does not mean she loses the time.

Travel here, there and everywhere: Joe works for Cable Two as an installer.  He was given a fully equipped truck to drive each day.  For the company’s convenience, Joe is allowed to drive the truck home each night so he can go straight to his first call each day and from his last call home. You might think Joe’s day starts the moment he leaves the house. Not true. Because Joe is allowed to drive the vehicle home for his convenience, he does not start counting time until he arrives at his first call of the day and his time stops when he starts home from his last call every day.  The fact that Joe reports to different locations at the beginning of each day and drives home from a different location does not make the time count.  This is true even if the drive time is different each morning and evening.  There are situations where employees drive two to four hours for their first job each day and none of that time counts toward the employee’s hours for the week.  That said, it may be hard for the employer to keep employees under those circumstances.

Ride and work: Calvin rides from an assembly point each day on a bus into the plant where his construction company is performing an upgrade.  The ride is about 30 minutes each way. Initially, Calvin and his co-workers could listen to music or talk on their phones during the ride.  Over time, Calvin’s supervisor figured out he could save time when the employees arrive at the jobsite by using the ride to go over the day’s assignments.  Is the ride compensable?  Of course – it is used for the employer’s benefit.  It is not a novel circumstance for a situation like this to naturally arise.  The head office starts with an approach designed to comply with the law and someone with no understanding of the rules decides to be more efficient.  Oops.  Now you’ve got a problem.

What should I do:

Good: Analyze all the common situations for your business and determine the compensability of employees’ time.  Act on your determinations accordingly.  Plan travel away from home locations or overnight in advance to be sure that you handle it appropriately. There may not be time to get advice of counsel after the employee returns and before their paycheck is due.

Better: As you can tell from this edition, there are many situations in which you may find yourself. When in doubt, consult an attorney.

Who, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: All Texas employers are required to respond to garnishment requests. There is no minimum employee exception for child and spousal support.

What are my obligations before receiving an order to garnish: All employers are required to report hire date, name, address, and Social Security Number for new hires to the Texas Employee New Hire Operations Center of the Texas Attorney General’s Office within twenty days of the employee’s first day of work. Employers with employees in more than one state may report in each individual state or one state. If reporting in one state, however, employers must do so using the state’s electronic system and notify the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (“OCSE”) in writing.

Employers must also respond to requests from OCSE and the Texas Attorney General’s Child Support Division for information regarding the identity, location, position, compensation, income, and benefits of an employee to help that office determine child support obligations.

Employers may meet each of these obligations using the Child Support Division’s electronic filing system.

What types of support exist: Most employers associate state garnishments with child support only. As you can see from the title of this edition, however, spousal support may also be deducted. Additionally, deductions may be made for medical insurance support and child and spousal support which are past due or in arrears. There is a very specific order of priority among these types of support also. Currently due child support takes the highest priority followed by current spousal support, medical support, and child support in arrears. Spousal support in arrears then occupies the very last position.

How does withholding work: An employee may be required to pay up to 50% of his or her “disposable earnings” for support. Disposable earnings are those earnings above and beyond withholding required by law (state and federal taxes, Medicare, and Social Security, etc.) and exceeding union dues, non-discretionary retirement contributions, and contributions for health and disability insurance.

What if there are multiple withholding orders: This is the messiest part of handling child support. Employees are sometimes subject to withholding orders from different states, which require employers to divide the disposable earnings up between the various orders. There are very specific rules for applying these payments. Disposable income must be applied to the total current support for each order equally first and then equally to arrears support. Seek the advice of employment counsel or the Child Support Division to be sure these payments are correctly made.

What about withholding for severance or bonus payments: Employees receiving a lump sum payment in excess of $500 as a bonus or other payout, may be required to contribute up to 50% of the disposable earnings portion of the payment to support in arrears. Employers are required to contact the Child Support Division to determine what portion of the payment must be sent in for support. Similarly, employees receiving a lump sum for severance at the end of employment must make an appropriate disposable earnings contribution to regular support equal to the number of paychecks the sum would represent. For example, a severance payment of $10,000 for an employee who usually earns $2,000 per month would require deductions for five months of regular support contributions.

How do I make payment: Employers must send the payment on the pay date on which money is withheld. Employers with more than 50 employees must remit payment electronically. Employers submitting paper checks for multiple employees must submit the proper processing form dividing all of the amounts for each employee so that the state may properly apply the payments.

How does support for medical insurance work: Employers may be ordered to place the dependent of an employee on the business’ medical insurance even if the employee is not participating in the plan. Employers will receive a National Medical Support Notice from either the OCSE or the Child Support Division requesting that a dependent be added to a plan. Employers must complete the forms attached and return them to the requesting agency within 40 days of receipt. This will let the agency know whether the request has been met or if there is a reason it cannot be met – such as the employee’s ineligibility for coverage. Employers should then deduct the premiums from the employee’s pay to the extent the plan requires deduction according to the regular withholding rules. Should the plan lapse, the employer must let the requesting agency know within 15 days.

What if the employee leaves: Employers must report the separation of an employee subject to a child support order to the Child Support Division and\or the OCSE within seven days of the date of separation.

Common Situations:

Woman on a mission: Sadie is the owner of a taxi company in Tyler and the single parent of a beautiful daughter. Sadie has zero tolerance for ex-husbands or ex-wives who shirk their responsibility and believes that people who have child support garnishments are just above snails in the food chain. Sadie refuses to hire anyone with a child support order and finds an excuse to release all employees who become subject to a child support order while working for her. Is Sadie on a taxi ride to the big house? Well, not the big house, but Sadie is subject to a lawsuit by each and every employee she has refused to hire or let go for this reason. It is illegal to discriminate against an employee based on child support status.

I didn’t hear you: Kevin operates Medieval Armory manufacturing replica armor for collectors all over the world. Kevin isn’t a paperwork kind of guy. He ignores all requests to deduct money from his employees’ wages and never reports new hires. What consequences does he face, if any? Let’s just say the State of Texas does not like to be ignored. Kevin may be penalized $25 per new hire he has neglected to report, but failing to withhold is the mother lode. Kevin is subject to a $200 fine per pay period and becomes liable to the person who was not paid support for the amount owed, plus all attorney fees to collect it from Kevin. Kevin better have some really, really, rich collectors.

Turn off the spigot – Now: Cal has been waiting for this day for the last six months. His son has turned 18 and Cal is ready for the child support payments to end. Cal strides into the Human Resources office showing a copy of his son’s driver’s license and demands that the payments cease. Cal is planning to buy a new truck and this money will put him over the top to get it. Can Cal head to the dealership this week? Not with his child support money. HR tells Cal that it needs an order from the Child Support Division to let him off the hook. Cal runs home and brings back his divorce decree showing that child support ends at 18 for his son. All better? No. Employers are not lawyers or judges. They are not required to interpret court orders or rely upon common perception about when child support ends (which can be age 25 in some cases). Cal’s employer should wait for an order from the Child Support Division. If Cal has a refund coming, he can get it from them.

What should I do:

Good: Provide notice of new hires, comply with all withholding orders, and provide notice of separation when employees leave. Don’t forget to deduct up to $10 per month as an administrative fee for handling support deductions (but not medical insurance).

Good gets it done this month. Because each of the obligations above is mandatory, there is no room for employers to take a “Better” or “Best” approach.

Who, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: You guessed it . . . any employer who chooses to pay a bonus to employees.

What counts as a bonus: There are a lot of ways to describe a bonus. For our purposes, a bonus includes any discretionary or non-discretionary payment or “compensation” to an employee outside of their regular hourly, salary, commission, or piece rate pay. A bonus then includes any prize or award to an employee in addition to traditional “bonus” payments.

What is the difference between discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses: I’m glad you asked. It is one of the key dividing lines in payment of bonuses. If a bonus is discretionary, it does not count toward an employee’s overtime calculation and may not be owed to an employee regardless of that employee’s separation from the company. Non-discretionary bonuses on the other hand count toward overtime and an employer may be responsible for them even if an employee leaves. Of course, if the employee is exempt from overtime this distinction matters less (see the prior EH editions on Overtime and Exemptions from Overtime).

What is a discretionary bonus: You know what is, and is not, discretionary. Of course, what you think is discretionary and what the government thinks is discretionary may differ. To be discretionary in the eyes of the law:

• The employer must control whether a payment is granted

at all;

• The amount of the payment must be discretionary;

• Determining the amount and making payment must occur near the end of the period for which the bonus is granted; and

• The bonus must not be subject to a prior contract with the employee or a promise causing the employee to expect payment.

If the employer surrenders control over any of these items, the bonus will become non-discretionary.

How does this break down in layman’s terms: If you tell your employees that you plan to pay a bonus at a particular point in the future, but retain control over the amount, it becomes non-discretionary. If you tell the employees how much a bonus will be (or give them a way to calculate it), but don’t say when it will be granted, the bonus becomes non-discretionary. Examples of non-discretionary bonuses include payments for: attendance, retention to encourage working undesirable shifts, safety criteria met, meeting individual productivity criteria, the company meeting certain criteria, reporting fraud or criminal activity, recruiting bonus and bonuses that may have been discretionary in the past which have become expected through repetition of payment.

How does a non-discretionary bonus affect overtime: Employees who are not exempt from overtime must have all money for non-discretionary bonuses included to determine their overtime rate. To use a simple example, an employee paid a weekly safety bonus of $100.00 who works 50 hours at $15.00 would receive overtime of $92.50 with the safety bonus calculated instead of $75.00 based on just 1½ his or her hourly rate (See the EH edition on Overtime for more information about how this calculation works). Bonuses paid quarterly would then be spread over the employee’s pay for the entire quarter on a weekly basis and an additional overtime payment would be due for overtime weeks with the bonus.

What if the employee leaves before the bonus is due: For discretionary bonuses, the employee clearly will not be entitled to the bonus. For non-discretionary bonuses, the employee will be entitled to a pro-rata portion of the bonus unless the employee was terminated for good cause or the program providing the bonus specifically states that the employee must be present at the time the bonus is awarded to receive it.

What about prizes and awards: Prizes and awards are generally treated like non-discretionary bonuses which count toward overtime for non-exempt employees, unless: (1) the prize or award is not given for an employment purpose; or (2) the prize or award has no value. Prizes given for activity outside of work and working hours that are beyond the employee’s usual duty and different from what the employee regularly does will meet the exemption requirement. Otherwise, the value of the prize must be included in the employee’s overtime.

Common Situations:

Back in the saddle: Mary takes six weeks unpaid time away from Tom’s Tortilla Factory to care for her elderly mother. Mary’s time away is covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) (see the EH edition on the FMLA for more information). Mary arrives just in time for payment of the quarterly plant safety bonus to employees, but does not receive her bonus check. Upon inquiry, she is told by Tom that she does not qualify because she was out for a substantial portion of the quarter. Has Tom violated the law? Yes. Because the safety bonus is not tied to Mary’s productivity and relates to the overall safety of the plant, Mary is entitled to receive her check. Safety, attendance, and other bonuses related to the activity of all employees fall into this category. That said, Tom may pro-rate the check for the portion of the quarter for which Mary was present.

I’ll take that, please: Sadie’s Circuit Boards pays handsome bonuses to sales representatives who meet certain sales goals. Joel makes a huge sale to uPod Mobile Music, Inc. and receives a large bonus based on that sale. Months later uPod backs out of the agreement and Sadie appears at Joel’s desk with her hand out demanding repayment of the bonus Joel received on the sale. Can Sadie take this approach? It depends. If Sadie has included a claw-back provision in the bonus structure for sales representatives, it is possible she can recoup the money from Joel. Without such an agreement in writing, her demand will not stand up. Claw-back agreements are becoming more common in businesses and raise a large number of issues – especially for executives and officers. IRS Section 409A governing parachute programs and Sarbanes Oxley can come into play if repayment is permitted over time. Check with your employment counsel before implementing a claw-back provision.

Santa Claus is coming to town: Nick has been working on the line at Tawny’s Toy Factory for more years than he can count. For as long as he can remember, Tawny gives the employees a “Christmas Bonus” that is not tied to productivity, but has truly come to be expected. Is the bonus subject to overtime? It may be discriminatory, but it is not subject to overtime. Even though the bonus has been given so long that it is no longer truly discretionary under the law, the Department of Labor has specifically excluded “Christmas Bonuses” and bonuses paid solely for longevity with a company from overtime calculations as long as the bonus is not so large as to be considered part of the employee’s regular compensation. That said, a bonus of this type tied in any way to productivity would be included in overtime so employers should be careful.

What should I do:

Good: Evaluate any bonus program you have and be sure to pay overtime on bonus amounts for non-discretionary bonuses.

Better: Follow the advice above, plus put non-discretionary bonus programs in writing to be sure everyone is clear on what the rules are and be certain to include a provision that employees must be employed at the time the bonus is awarded to receive it.

Best: In addition to the above, have all employees sign acknowledgements regarding all bonus programs. Be careful to avoid discretionary bonuses becoming non-discretionary by varying the award from year to year and the timing of such award.

Who, What, Why . . .

Who does it apply to: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) applies to virtually all employers with 20 or more employees in 20 or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding year. Be careful how you count, though. Businesses under 20 employees may be covered if they are connected to other businesses by interrelated operations, shared bank accounts, common record keeping, overlapping ownership, or centralized control of the human resources function.

Who is protected: Applicants and employees 40 and older. Interestingly, the ADEA does not care about those 39 or younger. Employers are free to prefer employees 40 and older over younger workers. Although age discrimination can still occur between employees over 40, an age difference of less than 10 years is usually not considered significant enough to warrant a remedy. The law also protects U.S. citizens working abroad for U.S. controlled companies in most circumstances. And, finally, if you have a contractor working for you who is mischaracterized (see the Independent Contractor v. Employee EH edition) they may be able to bring a claim.

Who is not protected: (1) True independent contractors, and (2) business executives over the age of 65 who have spent the last two years in a “policy making” position and are entitled to a non-forfeitable annual retirement benefit meeting certain criteria. The executive exception is very technical and is not intended for middle management. See your employment counsel about this exception.

What constitutes a violation: There are two kinds of violations – direct mistreatment and disparate impact. Direct mistreatment is straightforward. If an employer affirmatively mistreats an employee because of his or her age by failing to hire, firing, demoting, promoting younger employees, or any other type of significant slight someone might dream up, it can be actionable as age discrimination. Disparate impact is more subtle. If an employer creates a policy that is neutral or non-discriminatory on its face, that policy might have a consequence of negatively impacting older workers more significantly than others. For example, if an employer institutes a policy that employees who wear reading glasses must be let go, the policy itself does not seem discriminatory because it may affect older and younger people. That said, 90-some percent of people have to start wearing reading glasses by age 40. This facially neutral rule has a disparate impact against workers over 40 and may be actionable.

What if my employee violates without consent: Choose carefully who you place in charge. Employees placed in positions of authority with the power to control the circumstances of other employees are not personally liable. Their liability is placed with the employer even if the employee acts without authority. The same is true of independent contractors (whether properly characterized or not) placed in positions of authority over employees.

Are there circumstances where I can exclude older workers: There are some jobs that older workers simply cannot or should not do. This is recognized under the ADEA. If an employer has a Bona Fide Occupational Qualification (“BFOQ”) that requires workers above certain ages to be excluded, it will not violate the law. To have a BFOQ, the employer must demonstrate a factual basis that provides a basis to believe that all or substantially all older persons are unable to perform the job safely and efficiently. Employers must be careful with BFOQs. They are often challenged and rarely hold up unless there is strong evidence that all older workers can’t do the job.

Common Situations:

But I just got here: David just bought all of the assets of Hal’s Hot Links. To keep the business running smoothly, he bought the name and hired several of the employees Hal let go at the time of sale. A few weeks into his new business, David receives an EEOC charge of age discrimination for things that happened to an employee David hired that used to work for Hal. The employee complains of things that happened back when Hal had the business. Why is David involved? There is a concept of “successor liability” under the ADEA. If there is continuity of operations and workforce, notice to the new owner, and no chance for the employee to recover from Hal (who has run off to Aruba with his young girlfriend), David might have some responsibility. The rules here are complicated. Check with your employment counsel about these issues. The message here is to be careful when making an “assets only” purchase of another business. That might not be enough to protect you.

The law of supply and demand: The Springfield Police Department does a pretty good job of keeping its employee pay Age Discrimination rates separated by rank and department, but the nearby town of Highland Park has started paying new recruits what Springfield pays its sergeants. In need of new officers, but unable to raise the payroll of all of its officers, Springfield raises the pay for new recruits to match Highland Park. This angers several of Springfield’s sergeants who are all over 40. Many file claims against Springfield. Have they got a point? No. It is not a violation of the ADEA to pay workers what they are worth in the workplace. Springfield has to do something to compete. That said, Springfield better keep good records of its reasons and what is happening over in Highland Park to prove its position.

It’s time to retire, pops: Sarah’s Widget Works has finally run its competitor, Bill’s Big Bad Widgets, out of business. Several of Bill’s most talented employees have come by to apply for a job with Sarah. Sarah has a full complement of staff, but several are getting up into their 60s. Sarah calls in each 60+ employee and asks about their retirement plans. Each indicates they are thinking of working another 2 or 3 years. Sarah decides to offer an early retirement package to eligible employees over 55 to see if any of her older workers will choose to retire early. Has Sarah gone off the deep end? Not yet. It is not illegal to ask an employee about his or her retirement plans, but Sarah should be careful not to let the employees take it wrong. It also is not illegal to offer a neutral early retirement program to all eligible employees. If some of Sarah’s employees take it, she will have room to bring in Bill’s talent as long as she does not discriminate against Bill’s older workers.

Classified ads: Mikey runs the local motorcycle shop and needs someone to come in to do part-time stocking work. Hoping to help a kid at the local college, Mikey runs an ad in the school paper looking for a “college student” for help stocking shelves. While it seems harmless enough, has Mikey broken the law?

In an edition devoted to the ADEA, I suppose you’ll think so. You’re right. Mikey has committed two sins. First, he advertised for help only in the college newspaper. Employers have to draw their prospects from neutral environments open to all workers. Only the local college students read the school paper and while there may be some non-traditional older students, the ad is primarily aimed at young people. Second, Mikey asked for a college student. Employers must avoid terms like “college student”, “boy”, “girl”, “young”, “25 to 30”, and “recent college graduate”. These can violate the law. Of course, remembering that the ADEA does allow discrimination in favor of older workers, there is nothing wrong with advertising for a “retiree” or someone “50 to 60”.

What should I do:

Good: Count up your workers every six months to know if the law applies to you. Once you are over 20, institute an anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy for all protected groups (and including “older” workers over 40).

Better: In addition to developing a policy, control who is permitted to interview candidates to be sure they are aware of the concerns of age and other discrimination. Be conscientious about advertising positions to be sure all age groups are targeted and that words referring to young people are left out. If you let go an older worker you are concerned may make a claim, try to replace them with a worker of similar age to reduce the effectiveness of a possible claim.

Best: In addition to the items above, create job descriptions for each position. Use the job descriptions to prepare advertisements for positions, to ask objective interview questions, and to create a uniform and objective performance review system to avoid accidentally discriminating against someone.

Many of my clients put new-hires on a 90 day probationary period.  They do this either for their own convenience or because they mistakenly believe the law requires it.  The idea that it is “required” by a law is a myth.

Now that we have that out of the way, is there a reason one to still have one?  It is debatable.  The main reason that employers want to have a probationary period is to make themselves feel less guilty if the new-hire doesn’t fit or can’t do the job.  Texas is an at-will state.  From a purely logical standpoint, employers don’t need to feel guilty when then let any employee go regardless of their tenure.

The only legal reason to even consider one is that it might set better with a jury if you let someone go during the probationary period.  It might be easier for the jury to believe an employer’s explanation that the employee was not a good fit for the culture of the business or that the employee simply could not meet the tasks of the job.  At the same time, a jury should be able to appreciate that for a new employee within 90 days of employment even without the use of a probationary period.

Is there a downside to having a probationary period?  In my opinion, yes.  If an employee is told that they are on probation for 90 days, how will they feel after the 90 days is up?  I think they will feel like they have some sort of tenure – as if they can only be let go “for cause.”   To make matters worse, the employee is likely to act on their best behavior for the first 90 days and then show you how they really act!

At that point, a jury would be less likely to believe that the employee was not a good fit and that the employer may have acted with some type of bad motive if there were litigation.

If you do decide to have a probationary period.  Be very clear about what it means.  I would recommend putting the information in your employee handbook with a clear explanation that the 90 day period is probationary but that they can be let go for the same reasons or any other reason after the probationary period is over.  This may somewhat defeat the purpose of the probationary period, but it protects your business.