New issues and new rules, oh my! Here’s why you need to update your employee handbook

It’s August 2020 – do you know when you last updated your employee handbook? While “probably” not as important as knowing where your children are, reviewing your company’s employee handbook is a close second (kidding . . . kind of). Why? C-O-V-I-D. New concerns + new laws + new guidance + nervous (or testy) employees = new handbook policies! Regulations and guidelines seem to be changing daily, so if you haven’t updated your handbook since Valentine’s Day then you may want to keep reading. Here are some key areas we’re looking at:

Employee Health and Safety

Employees – and plaintiffs’ attorneys – are watching carefully to see what measures businesses are taking to keep their employees safe. And businesses are scrambling to implement measures to prevent the risk of spreading COVID in the workplace. So why not communicate those efforts to your employees via written policies? Not only does this put employees at ease by showing them that you take their health and safety seriously, but you’ll also be in a better position in the event that you get slapped with a lawsuit for “not doing enough.”

Not sure where to start? Here’s some help:

  • What specific measures are you taking to keep your employees safe? More frequent office cleaning? Employee screening? Providing PPE? Make that clear so that employees know that you’re going above and beyond.
  • What are your policies on social distancing and common areas in the workplace? Employees can’t comply with those policies – or be reprimanded for violating them – if they don’t know they exist.
  • Who’s in charge of employee safety? Do your employees know who they should contact if they have concerns? Similarly, do your employees know how they can report their concerns and what their rights are if they do so?
  • What’s your plan if someone gets sick? What can employees (including the sick employee) expect?

A robust policy puts employees’ minds at ease and mitigates significant risk. Sounds like a good idea to us.

Paid Sick Leave

Remember our first email about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA)? Under the FFCRA, employers with less than 500 employers are required to provide paid sick leave to employees who are, among other things, quarantined, caring for a sick family member, or caring for a child who isn’t in school or camp. States like New York and New Jersey also have their own paid leave laws. Think you won’t need to deal with this? Think again. With camps closed, and school schedules in limbo, employers are already dealing with an increasing number of requests for paid leave. If you refuse a justifiable request, you’re in some major legal trouble. Oh, and just the other day a federal judge for the Southern District of New York deemed four major components of the FFCRA unlawful. So, yea… we told you the rules are constantly changing.

Remote Work

It’s all the rage right now but it’s creating headaches for employers. Remember when people actually worked in an office together and managers were able to monitor their employees’ hours worked, scheduled breaks, and conduct. Now, employers lack much of that oversight. Employees are checking emails at all hours, signing in before breakfast, working through their lunch, staying signed in after dinner, and taking late night calls to accommodate everyone’s personal schedule. Sounds like a long workday to us and the perfect recipe for wage and hour claims. Friendly reminder: exempt employees must be paid their full salaries for any week in which they perform any work while non-exempt employees must be paid for all hours worked. This includes tasks like checking emails, taking a quick call, or setting up the boss’s Zoom account. Here are some suggestions to navigate these issues:

  • Have a written policy explaining how requests to work remotely will be addressed. Who can (and can’t) work from home? Why? What is required of remote employees?
  • What home-office expenses will employees be reimbursed for (if any)?
  • Require non-exempt employees to submit daily records of their time. This can also be done through hour-tracking software. Don’t get stuck having to pay for unauthorized overtime or, even worse, defending a lawsuit for failing to pay wages. Remember, the law requires employers to keep records of the total hours worked by their employees. Failing to do so could not only subject you to the wrath of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, but it will also make the defense of any such claim exponentially more difficult.
  • Instruct non-exempt employees to not work (including emails, calls, or Zooms) outside of their normal scheduled hours. Make sure to get this in writing.
  • Require written authorization for overtime and implement disciplinary measures for non-compliance.

A little work right now could avoid huge headaches (and fees) down the road

Employee Vacations

It’s summertime! Pandemic or not, employees will want to take time off and travel. Some may even want to go to Florida (why?!). Employers should have a written policy that discusses employee requests for vacation time, disclosure of their travel destination, and under what circumstances employers can deny their request to take that time off. Like all policies, just having this in writing isn’t enough. Make sure that you implement these practices in a legitimate and non-discriminatory manner. But really, what if your employee travels to a “hotspot” and then has to quarantine upon their return? Are they entitled to paid sick leave under the FFCRA? If you’re talking about New York, yes! New Jersey? Maybe – New Jersey issued an “advisory” that’s not technically an “order” to quarantine. But New Jersey employees can still use their state paid sick leave during the quarantine period. Like we said, this is not a drill – get that paid sick leave paperwork ready!

Sexual Harassment Training in New York (New Jersey – you’re next!)

We know that October 9th feels years away, but we’re quickly approaching the deadline for New York’s annual (and mandatory) sexual harassment training. With everything going in, it may be easy to “forget” about this – but the State and City won’t. Review your policies (which are required by the State) to ensure they’re up to date and schedule your training before the deadline. We’re providing training via Zoom and other similar platforms! For New Jersey employers, there’s a proposed bill that would require this training for all employers. While not yet law, we expect it will be soon. So, now you see why you need to dust off those handbooks? We thought so. As always, we’re here to help. If you have questions about these new updates, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re here to help.

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