Employees Deserve a Workplace Free of Politics, Discrimination & Harassment

Most Americans are aware that many people now publicly share strong political opinions that can hurt or insult others. While we each can decide how to handle this problem in our private lives, employers face far greater challenges. Their need and right to create a highly productive and politically neutral workplace must be carefully balanced against legitimate free speech concerns, applicable state laws and the governing provisions of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act).

Carefully developing a company policy that protects the legal rights of all concerned takes considerable planning and input from experts. Should errors be made and employees sue their employers claiming a hostile work environment has developed, the courts will have to weigh the presented evidence and decide if any damages are owed.

Balancing the right to control worker productivity with First Amendment rights

Since employee free speech rights in most workplace settings are not absolute, political neutrality must be maintained and enforced in a highly consistent manner. Simple complaint procedures must be created and employees at all levels properly disciplined when actionable abuse has occurred. Courts may have to decide whether an office atmosphere became so severe that aggrieved employees not only had the right to sue – but should be awarded financial damages.

Here’s an overview of the key topics you must address in an office policy that seeks to maintain a workplace free of harassment and discrimination based on political views. Company owners should speak with their Houston employment law attorneys about how they can create this type of policy — while still paying proper legal respect to the rights of all parties concerned.

Key points to cover in an office policy designed to limit conflicts over political speech

  • Public and private employers. Your policy must clearly reflect whether your employees are working for a private employer or some type of public or government entity;
  • Abide by the NLRA. You must make it clear that any limitations you place on “political discussions” in the workplace are in full keeping with the language and intentions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). After all, there are instances both during and after work hours when some employees may have a legally protected right to discuss certain aspects of their jobs with their co-workers;
  • All employees must be covered by the policy. Indicate that all supervisory personnel will also be required to greatly limit their own discussions or expression of questionable free speech topics related to politics;
  • Provide time for discussion of the policy. This might occur during all future new employee orientation programs – or when privately meeting with each new worker in your human resource manager’s office. It would be wise to consider having each current or new employee sign a form indicating they’ve been given a chance to read over the policy and ask questions about it. Be prepared to explain that the wearing of certain types of political buttons and T-shirts at work will not be allowed;
  • Make it clear that you will respect employee needs for time to vote. You can encourage workers who won’t have time to stand in lines before or after their work hours to tell you in advance of their needs (if certain positions must be covered in their absence). However, you should try and remain as flexible as possible regarding this type of request;
  • Indicate your awareness that some employees may choose to run for public office. Should this occur, privately ask any such employee to avoid discussing a run for any non-union office during work time. However, you should acknowledge your full awareness of the person’s right to pursue this type of activity on their own time;
  • Consider revamping your overall policy against workplace harassment and discrimination. You might want to ask your lawyer to either redraft this type of policy or carefully add new provisions to it that clearly forbid workplace harassment, discrimination or retaliation based on any worker’s real (or imagined) political affiliations. This approach might help you avoid the false impression that you are attempting to place a “chill” on employee free speech rights – when you’re simply trying to extend new protections you believe are owed to all workers.

While this list is not intended to be comprehensive, it should provide you with a better idea of how important it is for you and your entire workforce to have a policy in place that addresses these crucial topics. We all deserve to work in an office that’s as politically neutral as possible so we can do our best work.

Our Murray Lobb attorneys are available to help you draft policies like this one — or any of the many contracts and other documents you need to daily run your business. We’re also available to provide legal advice on many general business, employment law or estate planning topics.

CARES Act – Government Economic Relief Package for Businesses

Last week the United States Government passed what is known as the CARES Act to provide economic relief to businesses (including sole proprietorships!) impacted by COVID-19.  There are a few different avenues and programs to receive help under the CARES Act, one of which is the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  The Paycheck Protection Program is specifically designed to help small businesses keep their workforce employed. Visit SBA.gov/Coronavirus for more information on the Paycheck Protection Program and the other available avenues and programs for assistance.

The new PPP loan program will be available retroactive from Feb. 15, 2020, so employers can rehire their recently laid-off employees through June 30, 2020. 

 Loan Terms & Conditions

  • Eligible businesses: All businesses, including non-profits, Veterans organizations, Tribal concerns, sole proprietorships, self-employed individuals, and independent contractors, with 500 or fewer employees, or no greater than the number of employees set by the SBA as the size standard for certain industries.
  • Eligible Purposes: payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.
  • Maximum loan amount up to $10 million
  • Loan forgiveness if proceeds used for payroll costs and other designated business operating expenses eligible purposes in the 8 weeks following the date of loan origination (due to likely high subscription, it is anticipated that not more than 25% of the forgiven amount may be for non-payroll costs)
  • All loans under this program will have the following identical features:
    • Interest rate of 0.5%
    • Maturity of 2 years
    • First payment deferred for six months
    • 100% guarantee by SBA
    • No collateral
    • No personal guarantees
    • No borrower or lender fees payable to SBA

Murray | Lobb has contacts with multiple lending institutions who are already approved SBA lending processors and can help you navigate the process.  Give us a call at 281-488-0630 or email sgriffin@murray-lobb.com and we will be happy to provide you with these contacts.

Important Legal Tips for Communicating with Disabled Employees

Since everyone deserves to be treated with respect, employers must make sure that they’re communicating professionally and politely with all their disabled workers. Careless employers who speak callously with their disabled workers not only set a poor example for everyone else in the workplace – they also increase their chances of being sued for unlawful discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Here are some other important tips that can help you create a more pleasant work environment for everyone – that’s also fully compliant with the ADA.

Examples of workplace situations that may require special communication skills

  • When someone present in a meeting has a hearing disability. Should there be an employee present with a known hearing impairment, always remind everyone to speak one at a time – and never “over” one another. That will help everyone more easily follow the conversation and possibly take notes. Of course, never refer to the person by name who may need this simple accommodation.
  • Always speak directly to the disabled person. Even when someone has a sign language interpreter, always turn and speak to the disabled person – and not their helper or other companion – whenever possible.
  • Be honest with the disabled during regular workplace evaluations. This is important so they’ll have the chance to improve their performance – and request any new accommodations they may need. They deserve an honest appraisal like everyone else. This will also limit the chances of painful misunderstandings in the future. Be willing to give them concrete ideas for how they can improve the quality of their work.
  • Be prepared to shake the hand of a disabled person – even if this means shaking their left hand and not their right one. This is a simple gesture that communicates respect and equality. You don’t need to shake the person’s hand for an extended time period.
  • Always introduce yourself when speaking with someone who is sight impaired. Be sure to also identify everyone else who is present during the conversation.
  • Never pat anyone who is very short (or in a wheelchair) on the head or shoulder. This makes all adults – and even older teens – feel a bit demeaned. We all have a right to have our “personal body space” fully respected by others.
  • Should you decide to offer a disabled person your assistance – wait briefly to find out if they would like to accept it. For example, it’s possible you may want to help someone transfer from a wheelchair or walker to a nearby chair. However, be aware that many disabled people want to move about on their own as much as possible, to maintain their sense of independence.
  • Be sure you’re addressing the disabled person in the same manner as everyone else present. Far too often, well-meaning bosses or employers may refer to the new department head who’s disabled as “Johnny” – while calling everyone else in the room by his or her last name. Be consistent with how you refer to all who are present.
  • Don’t lean on, move, or play with a disabled person’s crutches, wheelchair or walker. You may think you’re just being lighthearted – but when you do this, you’re calling attention to the person’s disability when that person may simply want to blend in with everyone else. However, if you believe it’s a safety hazard to leave a wheelchair or other assistive device where the disabled person left it, always politely ask that person if you can move it to a different location to make it easier for everyone to walk in that area. Also, be sure to tell the disabled person that you’ll personally retrieve the device when the meeting or seminar is about to end. Finally, never lean on someone’s wheelchair for support – that often makes disabled people feel like you’re violating their personal body space – and that can make them feel very uncomfortable.
  • Be very respectful when listening to a disabled person talk who has a speech impediment. Never assume you’re helping them by suddenly announcing a “translation” or “clarification” of what was just said. Instead, if you think you and others were left a bit confused by what was stated, calmly wait until the person finishes talking and say something like, “So, if I understood you correctly, you’re asking or suggesting that we start handling this account differently in this manner” – repeating what you think you heard. If you misunderstood what was said, then give the person a chance to repeat what they said earlier – or allow them to present it to you in a different way.
  • If someone you need to speak with is in a wheelchair, respectfully pull up a chair so you can speak with that individual at eye level. This conveys both respect and equality.
  • Never assume that all hearing-impaired people can read lips. Should you need to gain the attention of a hearing-impaired person who is looking off in a different direction, very lightly tap the person on his/her shoulder to gain their attention (assuming you’re not interrupting another conversation). If you’re certain someone can lip read – stop eating, drinking or smoking – so it will be easier for that person to follow what you’re saying.
  • Try to interact naturally with the disabled. Should you accidentally say something like “Did you hear that there’s an extra meeting next week?” – only to realize you said that to someone who is hearing impaired, forgive yourself. You can then point to a flyer about the meeting or write the information down on a piece of paper and hand it to the disabled person.

Always remember to stay calm and polite, even if you’re finding it hard to communicate with the disabled worker – and realize that the situation may be far more frustrating for that individual. If you’ll be speaking with one or more disabled people during a meeting, try to let them know, in advance (through a medium they can easily access like email), that you’ll be supplying everyone with a complete summary of the meeting’s highlights in a follow-up email.

If one or more workers are sight-impaired and read Braille, let them know that you’ll get a copy of the meeting notes to them in that format (if you have that capability) within one to two business days. Also, tell them that you’ll be happy to answer any questions they may have prior to their receiving their copy of that summary. Finally, whenever possible, use such terms as “hearing impaired” instead of deaf – and “sight impaired” in the place of blind.

Please feel free to get in touch with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with any guidance you may need when relating to your disabled employees. We’re also available to provide you with legal advice concerning many other general business, estate planning or employment law topics. And we can draft a wide variety of legal documents on your behalf or help you revise an outdated employee handbook.

Ways to Avoid Defamation When Disciplining Employees

Every employer has the right to create a pleasant and productive workplace. Yet this goal can be elusive when a worker acts unethically or behaves poorly toward others. If the behavior was grossly unethical or offensive and the person was an “at-will” employee, you can usually fire him on the spot. However, some misconduct claims must be thoroughly investigated.

General principles to bear in mind when disciplining employees

If immediate firing isn’t appropriate, you must handle all investigatory matters in a private manner. You should also only inform those with a formal “need to know” regarding specific information you are learning. Always make sure to act in a non-discriminatory manner. You can never let anyone go in a way that violates their civil rights or unjustly defames them.

Here are some suggested steps your business should take while resolving problems with difficult employees.

Responsible ways to discipline workers

  1. Create a written policy that states how your office will interact with employees who are accused of wrongful behavior. While you should be consistent in taking certain steps, you must clearly state that your office always reserves the right to immediately fire at-will employees when circumstances justify such actions. When an exempt employee is involved, try to provide warnings and always listen to their side of the story. It’s a good idea to place this policy in an employee handbook and to reference it upon first hiring all employees – and during all periodic work evaluations;
  2. Investigate all accusations, especially when immediate firing isn’t necessary. Be sure to handle all interviews in a private setting, stressing the confidential nature of the process. If there is written or documented proof of wrongdoing, obtain copies of the materials;
  3. Create a separate investigation file for the accused employee. You should also create notes in the person’s regular personnel file – making sure only a small number of employees can review either folder. In very rare circumstances, it may be necessary to hire an outside group to handle the investigation for you. Your Houston employment law attorney can fully explain when hiring outside investigators may be necessary;
  4. Create a clear plan for each employee’s disciplinary investigation. Avoid making accusations or labeling someone as a “thief.” Let the person know that you are investigating the claims. When meeting with the individual, always take notes and have at least one other staff member present as a witness. You may want to ask the employee to sign a statement, indicating awareness of the investigation.  In order to get an employee to sign a form, you may need to note in it that his/her signature does not constitute any admission regarding wrongful behavior – only that the person knows certain claims are being investigated. Be sure to listen carefully to any defense claims the employee may offer – but do not let any meeting become confrontational. If tempers flare, note that you will reschedule the appointment for a later time;
  5. Do not publicize the investigation. Only share limited information about it with those who have a “need to know” regarding it;
  6. Once a decision is reached regarding discipline, advise the employee. Make sure your decision is based on fully objective and reasonable grounds – and note them in your files. Document what you’ve decided to do in the regular personnel file – and reference the separate investigative file where all detailed notes are kept. Do not allow anyone access to the main investigative file who doesn’t have a right to see it. Be sure to keep all investigative files for a lengthy time period in case future lawsuits are brought against your company;
  7. If you decide to terminate an employee, do so in an orderly fashion. Allow the person to gather together all personal possessions before leaving the building in a private fashion. If the fired employee was fired due to dishonesty – or any violent or inappropriate behavior – you may want security to escort the person off the premises. To protect the fired employee’s privacy concerns (and to avoid defamatory actions), you may want the exit to occur when few other employees are present;
  8. Do not share details about any firing with other employees. Unless there was documented criminal activity that all personnel may need to know about, you have a duty to maintain privacy regarding the exact reasons why you chose to fire an employee.

Always remember that you cannot discipline an employee for taking lawful advantage of any state or federal right. This can include taking time off under the Family Medical Leave Act after you’ve approved the temporary departure – or taking a military or pregnancy disability leave.

Additional behaviors to avoid when disciplining employees

  • Never jump to conclusions about any claim. Don’t allow yourself to be greatly swayed by reports made by one or two individuals. Be sure to speak with all key witnesses and interview the employee concerned – to hear his/her perspective on what happened;
  • Always be/remain reasonable and flexible. Don’t ever over-penalize an employee for a minor infraction. Also, if you’re having to fire a more senior, exempt employee, make sure you have fully documented all proven reasons (or “just cause”) as to why the employee must leave;
  • Seriously consider documenting verbal warnings. While this may not be necessary, it’s usually a wise move. One way you can document them is to send yourself an email, noting in general terms (using a computer at work) why you had to verbally discipline an employee on a specific date;
  • During regular employee evaluations, be sure to note any disciplinary actions taken and how they’ve been resolved. Always have the employee sign the evaluation, noting that the person recalls all that’s happened and how all situations have been resolved;
  • Avoid telling an employee after being disciplined that you’re sure the person is likely to have a bright, long future with the company. A court might later view this type of language as reasonable proof that you were creating a new employment contract, one providing some type of guaranteed or continuing employment – as opposed to the at-will status the employee once had; and
  • Don’t punish workers for trying to improve working conditions or wages during breaks or at other times when “off the clock.” Rights like these are normally protected under the federal National Labor Relations Act.

If you’re concerned about how to handle any employee discipline or firing issue, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can provide legal advice based on the specific circumstances that you relate to us — and help you decide when you may need to hire outside investigators to handle a specific claim. We can also draft professional language for describing your employee discipline policy in your employment handbook.

Probating the Texas Estate of a Missing Person

At first glance, it might seem impossible to probate the estate of someone who is missing and presumed dead. However, the Texas Estates Code provides for this very process under Title 2, Subtitle J, Chapter 454 entitled, “Administration of Estate of Person Presumed Dead.”

That chapter clearly states that a probate court has the required jurisdiction to determine the likelihood of a person’s death when specific steps are followed — even if the main evidence presented is entirely circumstantial. However, the Texas Estates Code was carefully drafted to prevent fraud by requiring a lengthy delay before the assets of these types of estates can be distributed.

What are the main steps usually taken to probate the estate of a missing person?

  • Request for letters testamentary. After the probate process has begun with the filing of a request for letters testamentary, the court-appointed personal representative must serve a citation on the person presumed dead in the manner required by the court. Since the person is missing, this often means publishing a notice of the proceeding in one or more print newspapers – and in any other manner dictated by the court;
  • Contacting the proper authorities. The personal representative must then formally contact the proper authorities about the estate owner’s missing status. Among others, law

enforcement officials and state welfare agencies should be notified – along with any others suggested by the court;

  • A professional investigative agency should be hired. This must be done in keeping with the provisions of  Section 454.003 of the Texas Estates Code (requiring efforts to locate the missing owner of the estate). During this process, the investigator may encounter potential heirs who may have crucial information that can help locate the missing person – or help determine where s/he was living shortly before death.

The investigator should create a report based on all research and interviews conducted and then present it to the court – documenting that the missing person cannot be located. The cost of this investigation is normally reimbursed by the estate, after the court has had time to review the requested fees.

How quickly can the estate be distributed?

Section 454.004 of the Texas Estates Code clearly states that this can only be done after three years have passed since the date on which the letters testamentary were issued by the court to the personal representative.

What personal liabilities can arise if the person presumed dead reappears after distribution?

If the missing person returns and presents conclusive evidence that s/he was alive at the time the

letters testamentary were granted, that individual has the legal right to regain control of the estate — whatever remains of the funds or property.

However, this person who was presumed dead – yet has now reappeared – cannot get his/her property back that was sold for value to a bona fide purchaser. Instead, this person only has the right to the proceeds or funds obtained for the sale of the property to the bona fide purchaser.

In addition, Section 454.052 states that the personal representative who handled all the legal sales transactions for the estate, not knowing that the missing person was actually alive, cannot be held liable for any financial losses suffered by that individual who has now returned. And any surety who issued a bond to that personal representative cannot be held liable for anything the personal representative did while complying with approved court-ordered activities.

Should you need help probating any estate, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients and can readily answer all your questions.

What Should Be Included in Your Employee Handbook?

Both large and small companies can benefit from providing their workers with employee handbooks. These texts help employers answer key questions and clearly document that the same standards and rules govern their interactions with everyone. After all, no one wants to work for an employer who grants special privileges or benefits to some workers and not to others.

Employee handbooks also let employers set forth all their behavioral standards and procedural rules in a manner that can help them limit future liabilities — should anyone ever try to sue them for wrongful termination or acting in a discriminatory manner.

Before reviewing some crucial sections that many businesses like to include in their employee manuals, here’s a quick look at some of the topics that most workers want to see addressed.

Employees often search for information about key standards and office procedures

  • Be sure to outline your behavioral standards, attendance rules, office attire and the level of respect required for all relationships. Most employees are eager to learn how you view tardiness and what you consider acceptable clothing. Likewise, new workers want to learn about your conduct standards — and if your office has a “zero tolerance” policy toward all forms of sexual harassment and discrimination;
  • Always provide clear information about pay grades, qualifications for receiving medical insurance, pay periods and all forms of employee benefits. Workers usually start to relax more once they’re told how often they’ll be paid and the exact size of their payroll deductions. Likewise, it’s important to tell employees when (and if) they may be considered qualified for healthcare insurance;
  • Always state how often employee evaluations are conducted and the best ways workers can try to position themselves for future raises and promotions;
  • Be sure to note any individual or family leave policy provisions that your company honors. Always have your Houston employment law attorney read over this information for you, to be sure it fully complies with all current federal, state and local laws; and
  • Describe your most crucial emergency and safety procedures. Always tell your workers how they should evacuate from the office during extreme weather events, fires and even possible shooting incidents. Each new worker should be shown the proper way to exit the building on their first day on the job – and be shown where fire extinguishers and first aid kits are kept.

While these are just a small sampling of the general topics most employees want to see covered, they should help remind you of many other important subjects that you should cover in your employee handbooks.

The following list is compromised of some of the most commonly used sections in employee handbooks.

Key headings or sections most employers include in their employee handbooks

  • A “Preface” section. You may want to provide a general history of the company here, along with information about the founding members of the business. You can also note who currently heads up various office branches. The company’s key values and goals for the future are also often stated here. If you like, you can also add a brief congratulations to each new employee for being hired;
  • Material explaining all basic pay arrangements, promotions and current employee benefits. You can describe any 401k or stock options in this section, as well as the various types of retirement benefits. Overtime pay policies should also be covered;
  • A section that describes “at-will” employment versus jobs offered under contract;
  • Standards for employee behavior. Be sure to address the need for regular attendance; rules governing personal cell phone use during the work day – and any restrictions on using work computers for private purposes. (Ask your attorney if you need to obtain written permission from all employees to monitor their computer usage);
  • Formal leave policies. In this section, you’ll need to list all paid office holidays, how employees should handle vacation and sick leave, personal days off, family medical leave and time off to honor current military service commitments;
  • Employee termination policies. Be sure to note that these can vary, depending on; if an employee is considered an “at-will” worker who can be dismissed rather informally or if the person was hired under a formal contract.
  • Confidentiality policies. Be sure to clearly state what information and trade secrets the company considers confidential and trade secret. Ideally, all employees would signed a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement.

Should you wish to review a large number of sections that different employers have included in their employee handbooks, consider reading 53 Key Sections of an Employee Handbook (and Other Helpful Tips).”

The Texas Workforce Commission also has a number of policies and a form of Employee Handbook available for free at https://twc.texas.gov/news/efte/table_of_contents-az.html. However, choosing the right sections for any employee handbook often requires a keen understanding of employment law and many complex human resources issues.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for help in drafting your new or updated employee handbook. We can provide you with the proper legal terminology required to meet your company’s unique needs.

Q & A: Job Accomodations Often Requested by Disabled Workers

Like most Americans, people living with chronic disabilities know that their best physical and mental health is often easiest to maintain when they’re doing meaningful work. Yet despite their strong work ethic – many of the disabled must still combat negative stereotypes that often don’t match the excellent work they do.

Fortunately, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) made it illegal for employers to discriminate against job applicants with known disabilities. The ADA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees and to all state and local government employers. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces all the provisions of the ADA.

Once employers become aware of the untapped talents and skills of the disabled, they still hesitate to hire people because they’re concerned about the “reasonable accommodations” they may need to make to help disabled workers function at their full capacity. However, most of the time, the special requests made by the disabled are relatively simple to handle.

Here’s a brief look at some of the questions employers often ask about properly honoring all the ADA’s provisions in the workplace.

Frequently asked questions concerning the Americans with Disabilities Act

Q:  What exactly constitutes a “disability” under this law?

A:  A job applicant’s disability is normally covered by the ADA if it involves a mental or physical impairment that substantially interferes with (or limits) an individual’s ability to handle a major activity like work.

Q:  Can my company require a job applicant to undergo a medical exam before extending a job offer?

A:  Generally, no. However, you can make a job offer that’s conditional, based on a satisfactory result of a post-offer medical exam (or inquiry) that’s required of all new employees entering in the same job category. Under certain circumstances, always best discussed in advance with your Houston employment law attorney, you can ask an applicant who has disclosed that s/he has a disability to either demonstrate the ability to perform the job’s required tasks – or at least describe how s/he will handle them due to the disability.

Q:  What constitutes a “reasonable accommodation?”

A:   Employers sometimes need to adjust or modify certain aspects of the job application process and how a job is performed so that a disabled person can readily enjoy the same rights and privileges extended to others without disabilities.

Q:  Do we have to grant preference to a disabled applicant over someone who is not disabled?

A:  No. One of the clearest examples provided by one source refers to a job where the employees may need to type rather fast. If the disabled job applicant’s best typing score (after being provided with appropriate testing accommodations) is only 50 wpm and a non-disabled applicant can type 75 wpm, the employer is completely free to hire the faster typist. Again, this holds true if fast typing skills are crucial to the job;

Q:  Can you provide concrete examples of reasonable accommodations that employers might need to provide?

A:  Yes. A sample list follows.

  1. You may need to modify how someone takes a qualifying exam, completes a training program or handles limited aspects of the job once hired. For example, a person with limited use of his hands may require special software that lets him dictate most of his work instead of typing it;
  2. You may have to honor certain lifting limitations or a requirement that someone remain seated in a regular chair most of the day. Depending on the disabled person’s special needs, particularly if she’s suffering from a spinal cord injury, you may need to provide an ergonomically correct chair. Of course, employers can object to some requests, if they can prove that purchasing the required equipment would likely impose an undue hardship on them;
  3. It may be necessary to allow a disabled person to work from home. Some disabled people need to work in either extremely high- or low-light environments. Others may need to telecommute so they can readily take certain medications — or periodically change, adjust or empty various medical devices they must wear. Still other employees may need to lie down and periodically rest their bodies due to various spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries that make sitting upright for lengthy periods of time too compromising or painful.

Please note that regardless of whether the disabled employee works at home or in a company’s office, no employer is required to lower their standards for the quality of work being done – nor lower their overall production standards;

  1. It may help to change an employee’s work schedule. This can help the disabled person perform the required tasks at a time of day or night that may be much more conducive for doing his/her best work;
  2. You may need to make special scheduling adjustments to help an employee with a known psychiatric or mental health impairment. This might include excusing the person from working rotating shifts; allowing the individual to take extra time to rest during the lunch hour — and making sure the employee has a work schedule that allows for regular therapy appointments during the day;
  3. It may be necessary to provide a TTY (text telephone) system to a worker who has suffered a significant hearing loss that’s been formally recognized as a disability;
  4. You may need to authorize a short-term leave from the job. This type of disability request will always revolve around special circumstances. For example, if a worker and his/her doctor both believe that such a leave is necessary to help improve the person’s health and ability to work, this might be useful. However, employers are not required to bear undue hardships and disrupt overall workflow by leaving critical positions unfilled for lengthy periods of time.

As all this material indicates, meeting ADA standards is usually a straightforward process. Odds are, you’ll soon discover that hiring disabled employees is a smart move since they’re normally highly qualified and eager to succeed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can assist you as you try to conform with all the ADA’s provisions – while also creating a pleasant job atmosphere for all your employees.

7 Good Reasons for Starting a New Business in Houston

Although Hurricane Harvey took far too many lives and delivered devastating blows to Houston’s economy and infrastructure back in 2017, the city has since rebuilt much of what was lost and is once again helping many entrepreneurs start new companies.

Some outsiders unfamiliar with the Lone Star State’s “can-do” attitude are a bit surprised to hear this good news. After all, Hurricane Harvey flooded 165,000 homes in Harris County — and dumped more rain in the Houston area than any other storm in recorded U.S. history.

Yet despite the $80 billion or more in damages, Houston is busy thriving again. In fact, the city’s growing economy surely played a role in CNBC’s decision to name Texas the best state for business in 2018. The following list sets forth seven key advantages that are enticing various entrepreneurs to start their companies here.

Strong reasons why Houston is fully ready to help “grow” your new business

  1. The city is home to excellent business incubators and accelerators. They include the Houston Technology Center (HTC), once referred to by Forbes as one of “Ten Technology Incubators Changing the World.” In fact, Texas has ranked HTC as its largest technology business incubator and accelerator. Other incubators in the city include Station Houston and Fruition Technology Labs.

Back in 2015, our Texas Governor’s Office created a statewide list of business incubators that may also still prove helpful. Regardless of the type of product or service you’re trying to develop, you should be able to find an incubator in Houston that can help you creatively launch your business. Most of them offer unique resources – and can help you locate venture capitalists and others interested in investing in new companies.

  1. Based upon foreign tonnage, Houston remains the biggest port in the country. Back in 2016, the port handled 68% of all the Gulf Coast’s container traffic. You can ship your goods just about anywhere in the world from this port;
  1. Forbes’ 2018 list of best employers included eight (8) based in Houston. If you start a company here and regularly network with other corporate leaders, you may easily get the chance to learn how these other highly successful businesses are managing to provide the best working environments for their employees;
  1. There’s plenty of highly desirable office space available for businesses of every size. Furthermore, it’s often easy to find “co-working spaces” that can readily meet the needs of smaller companies with limited budgets;
  1. Houston remains a business-friendly city with leading companies representing a wide swath of industries. Depending on which business incubator or accelerator you choose to join, there’s a strong chance you’ll have the chance to network with leaders in the fields of energy, healthcare, aerospace, nanotechnology and information technology – just to name a few;
  1. The cost of living is reasonable – and there are no state taxes in Texas. Many Houston entrepreneurs choose to live in affordable suburbs such as Webster, Stafford, Katy, Deer Park and Brenham. Statistics indicate that many thriving new businesses are also run in those same areas;
  1. Houston has a well-developed and diverse transportation system. METRORail, busses, freeway systems and other options provide reasonable means for everyone to live and work in this large metropolitan city. With careful planning, you should be able to get to meetings across town without delay on most days;

If you have any questions about a business that you’d like to start, please contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. It’s been our privilege to provide general business and legal advice to entrepreneurs creating new companies for many years. When you get in touch, we can also help you decide which type of business structure will best serve your needs.

Many People Start New Businesses After Age 50

A large percentage of Americans launch new companies and careers after turning fifty. In fact, the term “encore entrepreneurs” has been coined to describe this steady trend. In her book, “Your Life Calling: Reimagining the Rest of Your Life,” Jane Pauley profiles some rather amazing people who’ve transformed their “retirement years.” Many of them are now realizing personal dreams that are helping others both locally and in distant parts of the world.

In a recent New York Times article addressing this topic, one man in his early sixties said that he’s so happy with his new company (which creates educational and training videos) that he may never retire. Fortunately, many larger cities often have “incubators” designed to help people get new companies off the ground — and venture capitalists who are eager to consider funding start-ups with a strong likelihood of success.

Texas remains a great state for new businesses

Every year, many media outlets rank multiple Texas cities as great places to design and build new companies. Be sure to review our Texas governor’s office publication entitled “Texas Business Incubators.”

Once you’ve got a great idea for starting a business, consider scheduling an appointment with your experienced Houston business law attorney to obtain the valuable legal advice you’ll need.

Here are some additional facts and figures that can provide useful insights into some of the best fields to enter (and others to avoid) as you move forward with getting your new company up and running.

Facts and statistics about older Americans starting new companies & becoming self-employed

  • Fifty-one percent (51%) of new start-up business owners are between the ages of 50 and 88. In fact, those aged 35-49 only start about 33% of new companies — and those age 35 or younger only form about 16% of them. Fortunately, you don’t often need a lot of money to get a new company off the ground. Many older entrepreneurs start their companies with $2,000 or less.
  • The Dallas Morning News reports that during each month in 2017, roughly 400 out of every 100,000 Texans became entrepreneurs. A large percentage of those individuals were seniors. Many of their businesses were formed in Austin, Dallas and Houston.
  • About 80% of new Texas business entrepreneurs start their businesses based upon immediately available opportunities – rather than the simple need to find work.
  • Between the year 2000 and 2016, the number of self-employed New Yorkers rose by 63.7 percent. While the country’s economic downturn back around 2008 certainly influenced that trend, it clearly isn’t the sole or main force behind it.
  • About 69% of Americans start their businesses at home.
  • Roughly 42% of all new businesses are formed as S-corporations and 23% are LLCs. Of course, a very large number of small businesses are simply run by solo entrepreneurs.

Which types of new businesses tend to succeed the most often?

  • Those offering insurance, real estate or financial services. After four years, about 58% of these are usually still viable.  Businesses in the financial realm often offer tax preparation, bookkeeping or payroll services.
  • Companies renting or leasing automotive equipment.
  • Legal service businesses.
  • Medical, dental and other healthcare services.
  • Religious organizations.
  • Specific types of administrative or company management services.

Types of new businesses that frequently fail sooner than others

  • Stores selling beer, wine and liquor
  • Auto dealerships
  • Oil and gas extraction service companies
  • Grocery stores
  • Beverage manufacturers
  • Furniture stores
  • Companies selling lawn and garden equipment

After going over your business plans with trusted family members or friends, consider reading more about the different types of business structures you can choose from and what’s normally involved with starting a new Texas company.

Hopefully, you’ll decide to join the many other Texans who’ve discovered that running a business when you’re older can be a very gratifying experience – one that can add even greater purpose to your life.

Our law firm invites adults of every age to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for legal advice when either starting a new business – or simply needed help with one that’s already thriving.

Why It’s Often Wise to Moniter Employee Computer Usage

While all employees benefit from believing that their companies trust them, they must still accept the modern workplace reality that certain privacy interests must be carefully weighed against protecting valid business interests. Furthermore, employers have a need and a duty to make sure that all employees are putting in their fair share of time while completing assignments. No one should be allowed to waste valuable work time surfing the Internet or responding to personal emails while others are shouldering their proper tasks.

Do many employers regularly monitor computer and Internet usage?

At present, about 80% of large companies carefully monitor how their employees use workplace computers. They also routinely review all company website and social media postings and randomly review email exchanges and software downloads. Internet usage is also closely monitored. These practices can often help businesses avoid future lawsuits and financial losses.

Once your company decides to begin monitoring practices, you really should talk with your Houston business law attorney about all the legal concerns that can develop.

Before addressing other key issues involved with monitoring your employees, it will be helpful to note how many companies provide notice to their workers that their computer usage and Internet activities will soon be regularly reviewed.

When and how do employers bring up computer and Internet monitoring to employees?

  • At the time of hiring. You can make this a condition of accepting employment;
  • When all periodic performance evaluations are conducted. At the end of these sessions, you can produce a carefully worded document, asking for the employee’s written consent for monitoring their computer usage and business communications. It may be helpful to note how this can help protect some of their own interests — and limit the harassment that some employees might otherwise engage in if no such monitoring existed;
  • Include several paragraphs on the topic in your employee handbook. Always be sure that you later ask each new employee if they have any questions about this policy;
  • Place a warning above the company’s computer network sign-in page. This warning might reference the employee handbook – or the written consent form you should have already obtained from each employee;
  • Include a very clear and obvious “Notice” paragraph at the bottom of each outgoing email. This is an attempt to provide notice to third parties (such as non-business contacts who may include workers’ friends and family members who write to them at work – that any or all such emails are subject to monitoring and review).

Your signed consent forms should remind employees (along with the company employee handbook) that certain types of improper communications and usage of the Internet can result in disciplinary actions – and even firing.

As the following information indicates, your careful review of how employees are using their computers can prevent many serious workplace conflicts.

Harmful activities pursued by some using company computers, email and the Internet

  • Harassing behaviors. Making illegal and damaging statements in emails may constitute sexual, racial – or other forms of harassment;
  • Likewise, some types of email (or typed letters) may contain defamatory comments or illegal threats against others. No employee has the right to make serious threats against other employees or outside email recipients. These negative communications may simply imply that a specific person may lose his or her job if certain improper demands aren’t met;
  • Critical company information (like trade secrets and intellectual property) may be stolen and then shared with others;
  • Employees may download and then share copyrighted material or software, allowing others to make additional copies. This can also include the illegal download of porn materials — that are then sent off to others – or stored on your business databases;
  • Workers may accidentally share harmful email and general computer viruses while using their computers in unauthorized ways;
  • Employees may spend lengthy time periods surfing the net — unrelated to legitimate work assignments. Many companies wind up paying significant amounts of money each year for time that employees spent playing online games or enjoying other unauthorized Internet activities;
  • Some workers may maliciously sabotage company files and data for no apparent purpose;
  • Other employees may use their work computers and printers to complete tasks for their separate, private business needs.

Do employers have broad rights to monitor all employee activities at work?

Federal, state and even global laws can limit these rights. Also, most employers do not have the right to invade employee privacy by placing intrusive cameras or audio devices in restrooms or lunchrooms. However, they do have some specific rights to monitor how employees use equipment provided to them. And under certain circumstances, companies can even monitor how employees use their own personal computers while logged on to company networks and databases.

In general, any efforts you make to monitor employee communications must agree with the provisions of the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Fortunately, it does allow certain types of monitoring that fall within an acceptable “business purpose exception.” In other words, your monitoring efforts must have a direct tie to protecting a “legitimate business purpose.”

As already noted above, it’s crucial to discuss all these matters with your attorney to be sure your approach to computer monitoring will not subject your company to any employee or third-party privacy lawsuits.

What global, federal and Texas laws address all these various legal topics?

Keep in mind that companies regularly interacting with international clients or companies must be prepared to observe all the following types of governing laws.

  • The European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – and the laws passed by many of its members’ individual states;
  • The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)
  • The Stored Communications Act
  • Various federal wiretapping laws
  • Texas statutes and case law that your lawyer can review with you

Some general guidance is also available on the Texas Workforce Commission website.

Conclusion

Companies of every size must give all these issues considerable thought before buying any types of computer monitoring software. You’ll also need to decide which DLP (data loss prevention) solutions or strategies are most likely to meet your company’s unique needs. For example, do you want to prioritize software that helps with network traffic monitoring, keystroke logging, natural language processing – or other methods? You’ll also need to consider what types of data encryption practices may be useful to you.

Fortunately, there are many outside consultants who can help you carefully evaluate all the current computer monitoring software that’s available – so you can find the best products that fall within an affordable price range for your company.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can address your current questions about monitoring your employees’ business communications and usage of the Internet. We can also help you draft the types of privacy consent forms and other paperwork that can help you more proactively safeguard your company’s business interests.