Update: Department of Labor Issues New Rule on Overtime Pay

The Department of Labor issued a final rule in September of 2019 that could allow an additional 1.3 million more American workers to become eligible to receive overtime pay. This new rule becomes effective on January 1, 2020.

One key focus of the new rule is to update the earning thresholds that exempt certain professional, executive and administrative employees from the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) minimum wage and overtime pay guidelines. The new rule is also designed to allow employers to count portions of some bonuses and commissions toward meeting the required salary level.

These adjustments are being made to recognize the increase in employee earnings that have occurred since these salary thresholds were last reviewed in 2004.

Earning levels and other specific issues addressed by the new DOL rule

  • Changes are being made to the “standard salary level.” At present, the enforced earning level is $455 per week – and that’s being raised to $684 per week (or $35,568 for an entire year);
  • There’s an increase in the total annual compensation requirements for workers categorized as “highly compensated employees.” The current enforced level of $100,000 a year is now being raised to $107,432 annually;
  • Employers can now count nondiscretionary incentive payments, bonuses and commissions paid at least once annually. These sums can now be added to help satisfy as much as 10% of what’s now known as the standard salary level – recognizing how pay practices are evolving;
  • Salary levels have now been revised for specific groups of workers. These include people who labor in U. S. territories – or individuals employed by the motion picture industry.

Some of the many earlier overtime pay guidelines that still apply

  • Unlimited overtime hours.  The FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act) still allows exempt employees age 16 and older to work an unlimited number of overtime hours during any one workweek;
  • Timely payment of overtime. Employers must pay for all hours worked, including overtime, on each regular pay day;
  • When overtime pay is required. Once a non-exempt worker has put in at least 40 hours during any one calendar workweek (which can begin on any day of the week), the overtime pay rate applies.

If you have any questions about how the new DOL overtime pay rule may affect your workforce, please give one of our Murray Lobb attorneys a call. We’re also available to provide legal advice on many other important topics – and can draft any contracts or other documents you may need.

Properly Handling Background Record Checks of Potential Employees

All companies must proceed cautiously while trying to create safe, productive and pleasant work environments. The best approach is to develop standard procedures for running background checks and investigations for all applicants who will be handling similar tasks — without regard to any discriminatory traits or characteristics.

First and foremost, you must obtain each job applicant’s written permission to run checks on their job and educational records, criminal background history and financial credit status. Should any of the information you obtain make you no longer wish to consider a specific job applicant, you must inform that person about each report’s negative findings – since all potential employees have the right to refute and correct such data.

Always be sure to also treat all applicants with equal respect and remind them that you’re simply trying to learn all you can about your top applicants. And be sure to state in writing that providing false information can cause individuals to be immediately dropped from further consideration – or be fired in the future when such misinformation is discovered.

Here’s additional information about the types of errors that can appear in background checks, how you might allow job candidates to respond to negative findings — and tips on exercising special caution when sensitive data appears on either sex offender registries or terror watch lists.

Types of negative information & errors that may be uncovered during background checks

Hopefully, most of your searches will just reveal that your applicants have provided their correct names, full address histories, all job information for recent years, accurate Social Security numbers and other basic data. However, chances are that at least some of your potential employees will need to explain about one or more of the following findings.

  • Past arrests or conviction records. Always pay close attention to the types of behavior or crimes involved, when the events occurred and how (if true) that history might affect your work environment. If you still wish to hire a person with some type of negative arrest or conviction, remember that you have a legal duty to create a safe work environment for all your employees. Also, bear in mind that future claims of negligent hiring could prove very costly to your company.
  • Fraudulent or grossly misleading information about the applicant’s academic background or work history. As noted above, make sure that all your application forms clearly indicate that providing false information on such forms (or on a resume) can be immediate grounds for dismissing an applicant from further consideration. Should you believe that any applicant may have simply made a typographical or innocent error on the forms, always allow the person to provide corrected information. Just be sure to respond to the discovery of such false information in the same manner for every applicant;
  • Misleading or inaccurate driving record information. If you’re hiring someone to deliver packages or goods for you – or drive others around on your company’s behalf, you better make sure they have an excellent driving record.
  • A very poor credit score, a bankruptcy or other signs of major financial problems. Always be sensitive and careful when asking applicants to explain this type of information;
  • The person’s name turns up on a sex offender registry or a terrorist watch list. Given the number of people who are burdened with very common names, always reveal what you’ve learned to the individual in a calm manner, preferably with at least one other human resources staff member present. If you still want to hire a person whose name was on one of these lists, always first speak with your Houston employment law attorney.

Your lawyer can tell you how you should go about carefully determining a person’s correct identity and if it’s too risky to hire someone. It may even be necessary to contact the Department of Homeland Security if the person is listed on a terrorist watch list. (Do keep in mind that even the government knows that it can be very time-consuming to remove a name wrongfully added to a terrorist watch list);

It’s crucial to maintain a standard of fairness that applies to all applicants

Be sure your company’s hiring policies provide specific time limits on when applicants must provide you with corrected information after background checks turn up negative or disturbing information. Always apply that same standard to all applicants. If someone needs more time, you should only allow a one-time extension that applies equally to others.

How long must you keep all job application forms and background check information?

The EEOC (Equal Opportunity Commission), the Department of Labor and the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) each provide slightly different guidelines on how long certain records should be kept. Overall, it’s a good idea to keep a copy of all application materials and background information for about two years. Of course, if any job applicant or employee files a lawsuit against your company, that person’s records should be kept until all legal proceedings and appeals have come to an end.

Make sure all employee records are stored in a restricted area where only one or two senior human resource officials have access to them. Once it’s time to destroy the records, it’s wise to carefully shred, burn or pulverize the data so that the material can no longer be read.

Of course, some employers keep all resumes and job application forms in case they later have problems with an employee — or come across information that indicates that the background check failed to disclose fraudulent claims were contained in those documents. Some firms just scan all such data into secure databases.

Since credit background checks are governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), be sure you understand the terms of that legislation and how it impacts your specific workplace. Also, always keep in mind that the State of Texas also has laws and regulations that can impact how your company handles background checks and employee records. It’s always wise to periodically touch base with your lawyer to find out if any of these laws have recently changed.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the legal guidance you may need while hiring employees or simply running your business. We can also provide you with any contracts you may need — or review the contents of your current employee handbook.

The SBA Suggests 10 Key Steps for Starting a New Business

Once you’ve decided to start a new business, it can be tempting to simply moved forward with various tasks as they come to mind. While this may work for a few entrepreneurs, it’s always best to create an organized plan of action so you won’t waste time and cause problems for yourself that could easily have been avoided.

Fortunately, the SBA (Small Business Administration) provides excellent online materials that can help you plan the most useful way to start a new company – or expand the current reach of an existing one. Here’s a brief review of the ten important tasks that should normally be addressed first as you launch a new business.

The key steps for creating a solid foundation for your new business

  1. Decide where to locate your company. Prior to starting any market research, you’ll need to look at several cities to decide upon the best location for your business. This decision must be partly based on if you’ll be selling goods and services to your customers from a brick-and-mortar storefront or office – or if you’ll just be contacting potential customers on the phone or over the Internet. Be sure to select a location where many well-qualified job applicants live – as well as a city and state with reasonable business taxes;
  1. Develop a reliable market research plan. Once you’re certain about the goods or services your new business will sell, you must conduct market research to verify that there’s a definite need for what you’ll be selling in a specific location. This activity also involves identifying your potential customers and all known competitors; 
  2. Create a viable business plan. Most people starting a new business choose between a traditional business plan or a lean one for a basic start-up company. If you need to borrow money to finance your company, you’ll almost certainly have to provide a lender with a traditional business plan.

The traditional plan is normally very comprehensive – it describes your specific goods and services, provides a mission statement about what you seek to accomplish in the long run and names the initial team of professionals who will be running the company. It also states where the business will be located and how many employees you’ll need to hire. A traditional business plan should also describe the business structure you’ll be using, who will be handling specific tasks – and it should review your market analysis. Initial financial projections or earnings for the company should also be included.

In contrast, a lean start-up business plan may simply describe your goods and services, provide a statement about who will be running the company and state who you believe will be your most likely customers. It should also contain information about how you’ll initially finance the company and where it will be located;

  1. Make sure you have enough initial funding for the company. You and your business partners or advisors must determine how much money you’ll need to start your business. If you cannot raise this money among your business partners, then may have to try and obtain funds from venture capitalists or request a small business loan from a bank or through SBA resources. Other options include raising capital through crowdfunding or other online resources;
  2. Select the best business structure for your company. While many people run sole proprietorships if they’ll be handling all of the major company tasks themselves, others choose between forming such structures as partnerships, limited liability companies (LLCs) — or some type of corporation or cooperative;
  3. Decide upon the best name for your company. It’s a good idea to brainstorm with your partners or investors since you want to try and choose a name that clearly reflects the nature or “brand” of your business – as well as its spirit. Be aware that one of your first tasks will be to make sure the name you select is original and that it’s not already being used by anyone else;
  1. Be sure to register and protect your business name. After you’ve chosen the best name for your company, you’ll need to take steps to protect that name by properly registering it. Keep in mind that you may also need to register any trademark you’ll be using. Since additional ways of protecting your company name may also be required, you should always discuss this topic with your Houston business law attorney;
  2. You must request state and federal tax IDs. You will need to obtain an EIN (employer identification number) for many reasons. For example, you must have an EIN to open a bank account for your company and to pay taxes (among other tasks). Depending on the different states where your company will be operating, you may also need to obtain one or more state tax IDs;
  3. Obtain all required licenses and permits. Your specific type of business activity and where you’ll be working will determine the types of permits and licenses you must obtain, if any;
  4. Be sure to open one or more business accounts for your company. These most often include checking and savings accounts, credit card accounts and a merchant services account. Depending on the nature of your business and its initial size, you may be able to simply start with a checking account and then open other accounts as the need arises.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys for legal advice as you address any or all of the various steps named above while starting a new business. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients establish a wide variety of successful businesses in the past and are prepared to provide you will all the guidance you may need.

EEOC Guidelines: Training Employees About Workplace Discrimination

To create and maintain a professional work environment, employers must make sure everyone interacts in a respectful manner. The best way to promote respect is to provide proper employee training that carefully defines discriminatory behavior and clearly states what won’t be tolerated.

Newly hired employees should always be trained, even if this must be done individually. They must learn how to recognize forbidden forms of discrimination. Periodic retraining on sexual harassment and other common forms of discrimination should also be mandatory. If you don’t already have a hard copy or online employee handbook that clearly sets forth your workplace standards on discrimination, you can ask your Houston employment law attorney to help you draft one.

Here’s a review of the types of workplace discrimination and harassment that should be clearly forbidden in writing and during oral training sessions. After presenting information on these topics to all your employees, it’s best to also provide a bit more in-depth training to your supervisors and managers who will need to handle the discipline, complaints and investigations usually involved with reported acts of alleged discrimination.

What types of workplace discrimination are most common today?

  • Treating others differently due to their race, skin color, ethnic background or country of natural origin. No job applicant or employee should ever be treated unfairly due to any of these facts or traits. When investigating this type of claim, you may need to privately admonish and inform the wrongdoer that such behavior is legally forbidden and can lead to dismissal. (In egregious cases, immediate firing may be required.) Employers should keep detailed notes about all such complaints and formal reprimands. It’s wise to always have disciplined employees sign and date forms indicating that they’ve been warned that additional acts of discrimination may lead to dismissal. All employee files and complaints must be kept safely locked up and only accessed by a few managers;
  • Discrimination based upon a person’s sex including sexual harassment or current pregnancy status. All workers must learn to respect their coworkers, regardless of another employee’s sex. Stay open to questions and provide answers that are clearly supported by your company’s anti-discrimination policies;
  • Disability status. Regardless of whether someone was born with a physical disability or acquired one later in life, every effort must be made to help that person handle his/her job, unless doing so would place an undue burden on the employer. (Requests may often involve making facilities more accessible or changing an employee’s work schedule so it will interfere less with a medical disability);
  • Age. When workers are young, it’s hard for them to believe that age discrimination is real. However, as they grow older, they’ll start noticing how the most desirable promotions are often given to younger staff members – and not to older workers. And older workers often find themselves in the groups being laid off when a company claims it’s going through hard times. This type of discrimination is often self-defeating since older workers often: (1) have excellent problem-solving skills due to all their experience, (2) usually enjoy learning new skills and helping to train newcomers – and (3) often have the lowest rates of absenteeism due to their dedication to their employers;
  • Religion. Sadly, although most American adults know that one main reason this country was founded was to extend religious freedom to all citizens, too many people today treat coworkers with disrespect when they appear to follow faith practices different than their own;
  • Discrimination related to an employee’s genetic information (or family medical history). Both state and federal laws forbid this type of discrimination. One of the federal laws is named the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act (GINA). Title II of GINA specifically prohibits workplace discrimination based upon an employee’s genetic information. Employers must exercise great care when hiring the employees who must handle all company medical insurance and claim forms. These workers must understand that any knowledge they accidentally gain about an employee’s medical condition(s) or family history must be held in the strictest confidence.

Special training for company managers and supervisors

An additional, separate training should be periodically presented to these employees to be sure they fully understand how to handle every discrimination complaint they receive. After all, they will be playing a key role in investigating these complaints and making sure they handle their responsibilities in strict compliance with all state and federal laws.

Be sure that these higher-level employees have made the complaint process both easy and transparent for workers. It’s their job to remind employees that they will not be punished for coming forward with claims – or acting as witnesses for those who are filing claims.

In your special training program for these workers, be sure to also address the following topics.

  • Managers must understand that detailed, investigative notes must be kept. When an employee files a complaint based on alleged acts of discrimination or harassment, you need to obtain information about each time such acts were committed and get the names of all possible witnesses. Dates and times are crucial bits of information. If more than one person was involved in the illegal behavior, be sure to write down all names – and speak with each of these individuals separately;
  • All managers and supervisors need clear definitions of what can constitute a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled employee. It’s a good idea to review the content of your training with your attorney prior to making this type of presentation;
  • Retaliation. Inform higher-level employees that all forms of retaliation for reporting alleged acts of discrimination or harassment are strictly forbidden – and can result in liability for those involved;
  • Acceptable religious attire, hairstyles and practices. Explain to your managers what type of religious clothing is fully acceptable in the workplace. You should also tell them which hair or beard styles should be allowed, based upon an employee’s stated religious beliefs. When possible, managers should try to accommodate time off from work to attend special worship services – if doing so won’t cause an undue burden on co-workers or the company;
  • Sexual harassment. Supervisors and managers must be fully acquainted with all the types of language and behavior that can constitute sexual harassment. Remind them that offensive cartoons or signs related to sex should never be posted or circulated at work;
  • Privacy is crucial to all investigations. Remind all of those involved with investigating any claims of discrimination or harassment that they must never share any information they gain with non-investigative employees – or anyone outside of the company – since confidentiality is critical for everyone.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any questions about how you’ve drafted portions of your employee handbook, especially sections addressing discrimination and sexual harassment. We can provide you with useful advice and are always available to help should an employee file a claim with you or the EEOC alleging any form of workplace discrimination.

Handling Employee Requests for Religious Accomodations

Whether you’re running a large corporation or a small business, it can be challenging to properly reply to employee requests for religious accommodations. However, if you’ll listen carefully to what’s being asked and thoughtfully weigh all your options, you should be able to respond appropriately. As the employer, it’s your duty to strike the proper balance between honoring a legitimate request and prioritizing the most crucial needs of your business.

Here’s a brief overview of the key topics involved with honoring religion rights in the workplace after receiving employee accommodation requests.

Employment discrimination based on religion is forbidden by law

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based solely on religion. Upon first learning about this statute, most employers ask how the term “religion” is defined — and exactly when they must fully abide by this law. Stated succinctly, employers should try to make reasonable accommodations based on religious beliefs (and practices) whenever doing so will not place an “undue burden” on their businesses.

How does the EEOC define “religion?”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provides a very broad definition of “religion” that is not limited to just well-known faith groups such as Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus. The EEOC states that the employee’s beliefs can be new or uncommon – and separate from those espoused by any formal group or sect. The practice the employee wants to honor must be sincerely held and of a clear, religious nature – as opposed to a mere political, social or economic philosophy.

What are some of the most common types of requested religious accommodations?

  • Permission to attend special worship services during normal work hours;
  • A request by a female employee to wear a headscarf or “hijab” at work;
  • Permission for a male employee to wear his hair long – in keeping with religious beliefs. Some Jewish men also ask to wear “skull caps” or yarmulkes on special religious days;
  • Time off on specific “holy days” – or a day like Saturday or Sunday, in keeping with faith practices;
  • A flexible work schedule that allows for “breaks” during which specific types of prayers may be said;
  • A request to be exempted from specific job tasks, such as dispensing birth control pills or handling specific duties that help advance war efforts. (Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faith communities might make these types of requests);

While this list is not intended to be exhaustive, it should provide you with a better understanding of the types of accommodations employees may request.

How can employers determine if a request will cause an “undue hardship”?

After making sure you understand the specific nature of each request, you’ll have to decide if your business can still function smoothly if you grant the accommodation. Here are some questions you should be sure to ask yourself.

  • Will making the accommodation prove unduly expensive? For example, what should you do if an employee asks to take off work to attend a Good Friday church service? Will saying “Yes” leave a key job or position uncovered in the person’s absence? Do you have any other employees willing to cover for the individual needing to leave? If no one volunteers to help, can you afford to pay any overtime to a qualified employee (or an outside temp) to cover the position?
  • Is the request one that might violate your company’s legitimate health or safety rules? If so, can you find another way to work out the situation? For example, if a young man wants to wear his hair long in keeping with his stated religious beliefs – can you simply let him wear his hair tied in a ponytail during work hours — or keep it hidden under a work hat that you provide or consider acceptable?
  • Will it prove to be too disruptive to your regular office routine? Should you allow an atheist (or employees of different faiths) to wait and enter meetings normally started with Christian prayers after those prayers have concluded? It might be simpler to just pray with those of like mind at a different time on certain days. That way, you can probably avoid ostracizing those who have said that they don’t wish to take part in your specific prayer practices.
  • Is there a danger that granting one employee’s request to honor faith practices will lead to too many other, similar requests? The EEOC urges employers to consider all requests made very seriously — and to try and accommodate them whenever it’s reasonable. Few employees are likely to abuse this type of request. However, you might consider placing a statement in your employee handbook that all such requests must be made on a sincere basis — and that they’ll probably be granted if they don’t cause any great disruption in the company’s normal workflow – or provision of critical customer services.

All employers, managers and supervisors must avoid all forms of workplace retaliation

Unfortunately, there will always be a few biased supervisors or managers who may resent having to make any religious accommodations. Therefore, you must make sure that once any requests have been granted – the employees are not “punished” in any way.

For example, you cannot force all employees requesting permission to wear special religious clothing, hats or scarves to sit in a back office together where they’ll be less visible. That could be viewed as “retaliation” and make your company vulnerable to a lawsuit based on discrimination.

Conclusion

Be sure to treat every employee’s request for a religious accommodation with sincere respect. And always keep detailed notes in each employee’s file as to why you did or did not grant a request in case there are any later lawsuits. (For example, if you decide a request will prove to be too costly or place an “undue burden” on your business – make sure you can prove that with adequate facts and figures.)

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys with any questions you may have about making workplace accommodations based on religion (or disability). We can provide you with the legal guidance you’ll need to keep your business running smoothly.