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.

Minimizing Chances of Violence When Terminating Difficult Employees

Although some angry former employees who’ve been fired have tried to physically harm or kill their former employers and co-workers, there are constructive steps you can take to greatly lower the chances of any workplace violence. After all, most workers don’t suddenly begin doing poor work or behaving rudely to others. There is usually an extended time period when a person’s work starts to deteriorate.

If you’ll conscientiously conduct regular employee job evaluations that put each worker on notice of any deficits in their productivity or demeanor, being let go should rarely come as a surprise (unless there’s been a sudden, violent outburst or you’ve recently discovered illegal activity).

Here’s some specific advice about how your company or office manager should interact with employees once you’ve decided to fire them.

Workplace practices that may help a dismissed employee cope better when terminated

  • Privately inform the employee that you need to meet with him/her in your office.

No one likes to be embarrassed in front of others, so be discreet. Plan to have at least one other management employee present to witness the event. Once you start this meeting, be sure to briefly reference the other person present and then immediately tell the worker being fired that this is a permanent decision that’s been made after great consideration of all the relevant facts. (These words can help prevent an anguished exchange during which the employee may beg to stay on the job – or even unwisely threaten those s/he blames for the firing.)

Give serious thought to creating a folder with all the materials the employee will need inside of it. Then, tell the employee you’d like to go over the different forms, possibly including any severance agreement that your company may need signed and dated in your presence. If you employ 20 or more employees, be sure to include adequate information about how the employee can apply for (and most likely) receive health insurance through the COBRA program. (COBRA stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation law.) And be sure to check with your Houston employment law attorney to see if Texas requires that you provide the person with any other health insurance information.

Remember to always speak in a calm and pleasant tone, even if the employee becomes a bit agitated or excited. Consider always having a company (or building) security guard on hand in the outer office, just in case an upset employee becomes unruly.

Be willing to stop and answer questions. After all, most people have many questions they need to ask at such an upsetting time in their life — even if they “should have known” this event was likely. Carefully explain exactly when a final check will be cut and explain how you will deliver the funds to the person being dismissed.

  • Obtain all remaining property that must be returned. When providing the employee with notice of the meeting, you should always give the individual a clear list of all proprietary equipment, keys and other materials that you expect to have returned to you in good condition. If the person has been entrusted with extremely important security codes, you might want to note that those are always changed when any employee leaves the company.

If any major piece of equipment is not returned, be prepared to discuss a reduction in the final sum of money owed to the person – unless you failed to state that policy in your employee handbook. If no prior notice was provided, you should speak to your attorney about the wisdom of deducting any amount of money from that final paycheck or payment of benefits owed.

In addition to all company vehicles, be sure to collect all ID badges, security parking tags not currently affixed to vehicles, beepers, cell phones and confidential company publications.

Finally, you should calmly allow the employee to express some moderate anger about the decision. Sit quietly – and at most, simply restate that the decision is final. By listening to the person, you’re affirming them to some extent, and that’s important to having the individual leave in a calmer state of mind.

Unless the employee becomes verbally abusive (not just angry or a little flippant), ask them to be prepared to leave with all their belongings right after the meeting. (Of course, you should have already conducted a thorough investigation of any reported wrongdoings by the employee – and given that person a chance to explain his/her side of any alleged wrongdoing.)

Note: Always be sure that the person has time to collect his/her belongings and remind them to check the employee lunchroom or any locker that may have been assigned. It’s also wise to state that you will not be discussing the dismissal further with any of the departing employee’s co-workers. As for references, try to state (if true), that your company normally only provides confirmation of employment dates, without further comments or explanations. (Be sure that’s already set forth in your employee handbook). If the person has remained calm, brief goodbyes to co-workers should also be allowed.

  • One other key point: always be specific during the dismissal process. Employees being let go really want to know why their work wasn’t satisfactory. Since people often feel completely out of control of their lives when they’re being fired – specific feedback helps them feel empowered and like they can bounce back with a new job. It can help to have copies of all recent job performance evaluations handy when meeting with any employee who is leaving.

If you liked the person but found their work unacceptable, you’re always free to tell them that you wish them well and hope they can find another position more in keeping with their most highly developed talents;

  • Decide in advance whether your company believes it should ever allow someone being fired to “resign” their position instead. This helps some people feel less angry and like they have retained some degree of self-respect. Of course, if you do choose to allow this approach, you should remind the departing employee (in writing) that s/he might still be legally viewed as having been fired.

However, be sure you avoid making any promises about the receipt of unemployment benefits when someone chooses to resign. To protect yourself, it’s probably best to tell the person (in writing) that they will need to check with the Texas Workforce Commission about such benefits, noting that all dismissals are usually handled on a case-by-case basis.

  • Formal outplacement services. While these are most frequently used by large corporations when laying off groups of employees, it’s wise to check on all the services that they provide. However, if you’re a smaller company or a solo office with a relatively small group of employees this probably won’t be practical. If nothing else, try to include a form in the “separation” or dismissal packet that provides the address of the nearest Texas Workforce Commission office, its website address, and the phone number for that office. People will usually be calmer if they have an idea about how they can immediately begin looking for a new job;
  • Provide clear information about what you’ll be including in the employee’s final paycheck. In Texas, an employer normally has six days to provide the departing employee with his/her final paycheck. However, if someone insists that they’re quitting the job, you can wait to issue their final paycheck at the time of the next scheduled payday.  See Texas Code Annotated, Labor, Section 61.014.

If you fail to pay a fired employee on time, you might be required to pay that person damages – and possibly even a penalty to the employee and the state.

And remember that in most states, you’re usually required to pay the employee for any accrued vacation time.

Gray areas can easily occur during dismissals

A bit too often, people get very angry when being fired. In some cases, they will storm off during your meeting, claiming that you can’t fire them – because they’re quitting. While you do not have to put up with rude or antagonistic behavior, you might want to calmly note that being fired might be the better option, if they prefer to sit and think about it for a few minutes.

However, you have no duty to try and counsel the person on this issue. Just be aware that when any employee says s/he is walking off the job, the law may not treat that person as fired – causing the individual to lose access to unemployment benefits.

If the departing employee really tried hard to do good work for many years and may just no longer be able to keep up with new job technologies, your company always has the option of covering the fee so that individual can go to a local personnel agency and receive one formal placement in a new position.

Final tips for carefully handling employee dismissals

  • As the Texas Workforce Commission notes, try to avoid dismissing or firing any employee “during the heat of the moment.” All future interactions will go much more smoothly if there are clear reasons for firing a person that have been documented over time – even though Texas doesn’t require warnings for at-will employees. Just try whenever possible, to treat anyone you wish to fire with dignity.
  • Make sure all your actions are backed by clearly stated company policies and procedures. The last thing any company needs is to be sued by an angry former employee who can reference an employee handbook that clearly indicates that you failed to properly handle his/her dismissal.
  • Be sure you always responded to all legitimate complaints made by the person you’re about to fire. The Texas Workforce Commission is often sympathetic to people seeking unemployment benefits who can document that certain workplace problems – that were formally reported and negatively impacted the person’s performance – were never properly addressed.
  • Try to only fire people early in the morning or late in the day – when few other workers are still present. And be sensitive enough to not provoke someone by firing them on their birthday or the day before a major holiday.
  • Check ahead of time with your accountant to be sure the employee doesn’t owe the company for any loan made against future paychecks.
  • While it was suggested above that you may rarely want to try and help a worker meet with a personnel agency, keep in mind many workers may try to abuse that privilege.
  • Never allow any employee who was just dismissed to log back into the company computer system. Irate people with moderate skills can easily wreak havoc on your database or other sensitive files.
  • Always have each staff person present during the termination meeting prepare a memo documenting what took place. This information can prove very useful later if your company is sued for wrongful termination.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you need to ask any questions about specific issues involved with terminating an employee. We can also help you (re)draft your employee handbooks so that all procedures involved with firing employees are set forth clearly.

Inter Vivos Gifts: Transferring Property or Wealth While You’re Still Alive

Stated simply, inter vivos gifts are those given by a donor to a beneficiary during the donor’s lifetime. Many families and individuals enjoy passing property or wealth on to loved ones, friends or charities in this manner. The term “inter vivos” is a Latin one that can be translated as “between living people.”

One of the chief reasons a donor makes this kind of gift is to help a beneficiary avoid paying unnecessary probate taxes after the donor passes away. Another motivation is to give the donor the personal pleasure of seeing the beneficiary enjoy the gift or funds. While other reasons may exist, those are among the most common ones.

The following material reviews some key legal terms you’ll want to know while working with your Houston estate planning attorney. There’s also a list of key factors required for a valid transfer of an inter vivos gift.

Legal terms often used when conveying wealth or property as inter vivos gifts 

  • Donor/grantor. Both these terms are used to describe the person making the inter vivos gift;
  • Beneficiary. The party designated as the recipient of the funds or property;
  • Settlor.  This term is often just used to refer to someone who creates a trust;
  • Advancement. When making a formal inter vivos gift, you should tell your lawyer if you want to treat a gift as an “advancement” against future gifts you’ve already designated for a beneficiary in your estate plan. That will mean that the value of the current gift will reduce the size or value of your later bequest to the specific beneficiary.  You can also just state that you do not want your current, inter vivos gift treated as an advancement against what you’ve designated for a person or group in your estate plan; 
  • Capital gains taxes. Keep in mind the tax consequences that can occur if you currently give someone an inter vivos gift like stock shares. For example, if you give someone an inter vivos gift of stock shares that originally cost you less than $3,000 – but are now worth over $10,000 — your beneficiary will likely have to pay a capital gains tax on that gift. To prevent this burden from being passed on to a beneficiary, you may just want to give the person cash to buy stock shares — or anything else they prefer;
  • Gift taxes. At present, every beneficiary who receives an inter vivos gift worth more than $15,000 must pay a gift tax on the amount to the IRS. Therefore, most people who give these gifts keep them under $15,000 for each recipient. You’ll need to ask your attorney what the limits are on the size of the inter vivos gifts that spouses may want to give each other.

Choosing to create a trust when transferring wealth as an inter vivos gift

Some grantors may not want to make direct cash or property gifts. Instead, they make want to make this type of gift by creating either a revocable or irrevocable trust. As may now be clear, these types of trusts take effect while the settlor is still alive. In contrast, testamentary trusts don’t take effect until the settlor dies.

Here’s additional information about both revocable and irrevocable inter vivos trusts.

  • The revocable inter vivos trust. This can go into effect (or become operative) during the settlor’s own lifetime. This type of trust can also be referred to as a living trust – one that is drafted so that it won’t have to go through the probate process;
  • The irrevocable inter vivos trust. This type of conveyance is designed to go into effect while the settlor is still alive. However, it cannot be revoked after the settlor has finalized it. People normally use this type of trust to help reduce the beneficiary’s potential tax debt.

Key information about making inter vivos gifts to minors

Since minors cannot receive large gifts of money or property directly, inter vivos gifts made to them require the use of a trust. A party must be named as the guardian of the trust to manage its contents (under court supervision) on behalf of the child – until s/he reaches the age of majority.

Conditions that must be met for a valid inter vivos gift to be made

  • The donor must have capacity. As a donor, you must be at least 18 years old when you make this type of gift;
  • The donor must have the proper intent. This requirement usually means that the donor intends for the gift to be transferred during his/her lifetime;
  • Receipt of the gift by the beneficiary. You must arrange a reliable form of delivery to the beneficiary. This means the donor/grantor (or settlor) will then no longer have control over the funds or other property;
  • Acceptance. The beneficiary must accept the gift. While most of us would readily accept an inter vivos from someone else – that’s not going to be true of everyone. In some cases, high taxes might be due on the gift — or the recipient may simply not want to accept any gift from the grantor or settlor.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys with any questions you may have about making legal gifts to others for current delivery – or to be received later as part of your personal estate plan.

Understanding the Purpose and Benefits of HB 4390

Texas and many other states have recently been passing new data breach protection laws to be sure that consumers receive timely notification after their most sensitive personal information has likely been breached or stolen. In June of 2019, HB 4390 was signed by Governor Greg Abbott. It became effective on January 1, 2020.

What HB 4390 is designed to accomplish – in general terms

Known as the Texas Privacy Protection Act, this legislation amends pertinent portions of the Texas Identity Theft Enforcement and Protection Act (“TITEPA”) set forth in the Texas Business & Commerce Code. In addition, the Texas Privacy Protection Act creates the Texas Privacy Protection Advisory Council that’s currently studying the data privacy laws of other states and countries.

HB 4390 requires this council to report its findings to the legislature by September 1, 2020 – so more comprehensive consumer privacy legislation can be considered during the next session of the Texas Legislature, beginning in January 2021.

New notification duties after suspected data breaches in the future

Now that the Texas Privacy Protection Act has gone into effect, the following new rules must be obeyed by all companies doing business in the state.

  • HB 4390 has added a new deadline. Consumers must be timely notified when there’s been a definite or suspected data breach (of sensitive personal information). This notification must be made within 60 days of the date when the apparent breach was discovered.
  • As amended by HB 4390, the TITEPA requires businesses to provide notice of certain types of data breaches to the Attorney General of Texas. More specifically, notice is mandatory when a breach has compromised the data of 250 or more Texas residents. This notice to the AG’s Office must also cover the following topics.
  1. The nature and circumstances of the breach must be described – and information must be provided about how the compromised data has been used (if known);
  2. There must be a statement about the number of Texas residents who were affected by the breach and when notifications were sent out;
  3. The reporting party must describe any measures taken to address the consequences of the breach;
  4. The AG’s Office must also be told whether any additional, corrective measures (regarding the suspected breach) are planned in the future; and
  5. There must be a statement about whether any law enforcement agency is currently involved in investigating the reported breach.

At present, at least 17 other states have established similar timeframes for reporting data breaches, usually between 30 to 90 days after the breach was discovered.

The Texas Privacy Protection Act also created the TX Privacy Protection Advisory Council

As was briefly noted above, this council will be meeting regularly until it tenders its required report to the Texas legislature by early September 2020. It’s hard to know if the group’s recommendations will be very comprehensive since some legal experts are concerned that Texas is rather hesitant to pass the full panoply of data breach protections that may be necessary. Far stronger measures were rejected – when HB 4390 and another bill were first proposed in Texas.

Better protection for victims of data breaches will likely be affected by the views of those currently sitting on this council. Here’s a look at the membership of this group.

  • Three of those who are on the council are members of the current Texas House of Representatives;
  • Three others are Texas senators;
  • Nine seats on the council were reserved for representatives of a wide number of industries including: consumer banking, technology, internet, medical profession, retail and electronic transactions, telecommunications, cloud data storage and social medial platforms;
  • Just two members of the Texas Privacy Protection Advisory Council are either members of a nonprofit organization that regularly evaluates data privacy issues from the viewpoint of consumers – or are professors at a Texas law school (or other higher educational institution) who have had important work published regarding data privacy.

Hopefully, most Texans will be pleased with the legislation that will eventually be passed based on this group’s recommendations.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys if you have any additional questions about how this new legislation may affect your company either before or after you experience a data breach. We’re also available to address any of your other general business law needs — and we can readily draft the contracts and other legal documents you need to run your company each day.

Key Provisions of the FLSA Most Businesses Must Uphold

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law governing such employee issues as the minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor restrictions and record-keeping practices. It’s the duty of the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor to administer this law.

The FLSA benefits exempt and nonexempt employees somewhat differently. For example, exempt employees do not have a federally guaranteed right to overtime pay — and minimum wage provisions usually don’t apply to them. Company executives and “outside sales” employees are among those who often hold exempt positions. Human resource personnel must fully understand the different rights that apply to these distinct classifications.

Here’s some additional information on jobs not usually covered by overtime pay, the wages owed to nonexempt employees, laws designed to safeguard children and basic ways that the DOL enforces violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Workers or specific professions often exempt from overtime pay

  • Railroad and air carrier employees
  • Taxi drivers and some motor carrier workers
  • Those employed on American vessels at sea
  • Local delivery workers who are compensated under specific rate plans
  • News editors, announcers and chief engineers working for non-broadcasting stations
  • Farmworkers

Basic nonexempt employee wage rights

The current minimum wage in Texas is $7.25 an hour. However, waitstaff and other employees are governed by unique standards that are supposed to bring them up near (or equal to) the minimum wage. In addition to the wage rights set forth under the FLSA, state and municipal laws often provide somewhat higher minimum wages to nonexempt employees. Your Houston employment law attorney can update you on any recent changes in Texas law on this point.

Another important wage guarantee provided by the FLSA involves overtime pay. Nonexempt employees who work over 40 hours per week must be paid one and one-half times their regular pay rate for additional hours. Therefore, if a nonexempt employee normally earns $12 an hour – and is asked to work five extra hours one week – that employee must be paid $18 an hour for each of the additional five hours (in addition to the regular rate of pay for the 40 hours).

In some states, there are laws limiting how many hours a day a worker can be on duty. All employers must make sure they honor such provisions.

Federal job protections designed to benefit children

In most workplace settings, children must be age 16 or older to hold down a job – although they must be at least 18 years old to drive a motor vehicle for an employer – or to work in mining. However, exceptions have been made so that the FLSA does not apply to child actors, kids delivering newspapers or those making simple crafts at home.

Unfortunately, few restrictions protect children who’ve been hired as farm labor. Once a waiver has been obtained from the Department of Labor (DOL), a child as young as 10 or 11 can be hired to help with hand harvest labor.

There is also a “youth minimum wage” that applies to children (age 20 and younger) that’s equal to $4.25 an hour; it can be paid for 90 consecutive days of work. This makes summer jobs for teenagers easier to come by – although the pay isn’t very high. However, employers cannot displace any older workers receiving the standard minimum wage to simply save money by hiring teenagers at that lower pay rate.

The DOL’s Wage and Hour Division is charged with enforcing the FLSA

A complaint can be filed against businesses that violate any FLSA employee rights. While willful violations can be prosecuted in a criminal court, less serious or unintentional mishandling of FLSA duties may only result in civil liability. For example, if your office hires employees below the age of 16, you might be required to pay a fine of up to $1,000 for each underage young person on your payroll. A civil court might also impose specific changes in the way you handle certain hiring and record-keeping practices to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Should the Wage and Hour Division decide that your company has failed to fully pay all that’s owed to specific workers, it can file suit against you to recover the unpaid sums of money — or obtain an injunction that will forbid any further violations of the FLSA.

If you’re uncertain whether your office is in full compliance with all FLSA regulations and all relevant Texas employment law statutes — please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can help you review all your current practices involving the payment of a minimum wage, proper classification of all workers, the handling of overtime assignments and any other duties covered by the FLSA. A periodic review of all these workplace standards can help your business avoid any fines or lawsuits.

Always Interact Carefully with Workers on FMLA Leave

For over 20 years, the Family Medical Leave Act has helped millions of qualified employees take time off from their jobs to address serious family or personal medical issues. While it’s important to provide critical job security at such times, employers still retain the right to make important business decisions – even when FMLA rights are being lawfully exercised.

Some of the most challenging administrative issues that come up with the FMLA involve disabled employees who are covered by ADA provisions — and those who have filed worker’s compensation claims. Yet any employee’s situation can prove problematic – especially when the person has used all the FMLA time allowed – and is now requesting even more time off due to continuing medical problems.

What follows is a brief overview of an employer’s responsibility to rehire employees on FMLA leave and events that might justify firing or laying off an employee on this type of leave. The article concludes with a look at how you should respond when an employee requests additional time off after using the full 12 weeks allowed under the FMLA in a calendar year.

Must you always allow employees on FMLA leave to return to their previous positions?

The FMLA requires employers to allow workers to return to their former positions (or jobs similar in duties and pay) upon exhausting all available leave time. If a business or office covered by the FMLA fails to do this, the employee asking to return can sue for sizeable damages. However, this employee right isn’t absolute — for reasons referenced below.

What if your office had already planned to lay off everyone in the absent employee’s unit?

Employees seeking to return from FMLA leave do not have any rights that are greater than what they would have had if they had not taken leave time. In other words, if your company had already been planning to lay off everyone in the same unit as the employee who is now on leave and asking to come back – that person doesn’t have an absolute right to return.

However, you should still move forward cautiously with laying off this individual, especially if your office had not already fully documented the impending layoff. It’s always best to first consult with your Houston employment law attorney before terminating any employee away on FMLA leave — or who has been absent due to any other medically-related issue.

What if you became aware of misconduct when an employee is away on FMLA leave?

If you have learned since the absent employee’s leave started that s/he committed some type of prior fraud or malfeasance against your company, you can terminate the employee for cause. Of course, you must have very clear proof of the fraud (or gross misconduct) before terminating the employee. In many instances, you’ll probably need to meet with the employee before letting them go so they can respond to the evidence you’ve uncovered.

It’s also possible that an employee might commit some type of fraud against your company while on FMLA leave. For example, the employee might fraudulently use company-issued credit cards for personal gain without permission — or share proprietary business information with a competitor. It’s always wise to ask your attorney to evaluate the grounds for termination before terminating any employee.

What should you do when an employee asks for more than 12 weeks of FMLA leave?

While the Family Medical Leave Act does not guarantee any qualified worker more than 12 weeks of time off during any 12-month period, you should never try to immediately fire someone who claims to be too ill to return. For example, when a disabled employee has taken the full amount of time off to address medical problems under the FMLA, you may have an obligation to provide that person with additional time off – if doing so might lawfully be considered a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. However, no employee is entitled to unlimited leave.

Likewise, an employee who has already filed a worker’s compensation claim may still be too injured to return. Always consult with your lawyer before trying to fire these employees – since state worker’s compensation laws and ADA provisions may dictate your next steps. Should any employee simply take additional leave beyond 12 weeks without discussing their needs with you, such behavior could subject them to termination. Employers are always entitled to ask how long a leave is being requested.

While the potential problems tied to administering the FMLA are almost limitless, the discussion provided above should provide you with some useful guidance.

If you need advice on properly administering the FMLA or interacting with employees who have requested any type of leave, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve been providing this type of legal advice for many years and can help you respond fairly to all employee management issues.

Is Your Business Honoring All Federally Protected Employee Rights?

Most personnel managers must work hard to keep up with all the federally guaranteed rights owed to employees and job applicants. And when small companies aren’t required to do the same, they should still try to offer all the legal rights referenced below since every office runs more smoothly when employees are treated with respect and granted as many rights as possible. Employers must also be sure they’re upholding all state employment laws that are often more favorable to employees.

Although many federal laws govern various employee rights, there are five specific ones that set the core standards involving discrimination — and provide fairness when addressing worker hours, wages and time off to handle urgent medical needs. All business supervisors and managers can benefit from reviewing the following brief summaries of Title VII, The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Basic employment standards established by Title VII

Businesses with 15 or more employees must abide by the full provisions of this law. While some might assume that employers with fewer than 15 employees can openly discriminate, lawyers frequently point out that other federal statutes (42 USC Sections 1981 and 1983) still protect ethnic and racial minorities against discrimination. These statutes govern the formation of contracts — and hiring employees always involves some type of oral or written contract.

Title VII strictly forbids all employers from discriminating against anyone regarding all

possible terms and conditions of employment. Therefore, employers cannot discriminate when handling any of the following activities.

  • Recruiting and hiring
  • Training and assigning work
  • Evaluating or measuring work performance
  • Disciplining
  • Promoting and transferring
  • Providing all promised benefits – including those owed after employment ends
  • Discharging

If your office has any questions about these standards, it’s best to contact your Houston employment law attorney to discuss your specific concerns in greater detail.

Employee rights guaranteed by the ADEA

While it may seem like a non-existent problem to younger workers, discrimination against older employees often incurs in many workplaces, especially when workers are nearing retirement when added benefits will likely vest. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act is designed to protect all employees age 40 and older when they work for an employer with at least 20 total employees.

All the basic employer activities listed above (regarding Title VII) must be applied fairly to older workers. Stated differently, the federal government forbids treating younger workers in a preferred manner over older workers who often have both strong skills and highly valuable years of experience.

Rights guaranteed under the ADA to the disabled

When a job applicant or hired employee can demonstrate his or her ability to handle all required job functions – without or without reasonable accommodations – discrimination is strictly forbidden. The ADA defines a disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits any of a person’s major life functions or activities.

Reasonable accommodations should be offered to help the disabled person fully perform all required tasks, unless such adjustments would result in a fundamental alteration or change in meeting the employer’s program needs.

While the ADA has helped many workers, there’s still a need for greater societal change since many employers who can see a job applicant’s disabilities will privately opt to only hire those who don’t appear to have any cognitive or mobility issues.

Rights provided by the FLSA to all employees

The federal government has used the Fair Labor Standards Act to establish basic standards governing worker hours, minimum rates of pay and the handling of overtime hours. However, state law can offer more favorable rights, including a higher minimum wage.

Individual employers often choose to designate workers as either at-will employees who can be dismissed without cause or contract employees who must be provided with just reasons for their dismissal. The U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) states that if a company is a covered “enterprise,” and its workers are not exempt (or contract employees), the company must comply with all the FLSA provisions. Since determining what constitutes an “enterprise” isn’t always straightforward, you may need the help of your employment law attorney to interpret this for you. However, the DOL states that even if a company doesn’t qualify as a covered enterprise, all of its employees may still be protected by the FLSA provisions if their assigned tasks meet “interstate commerce” requirements.

Worker privileges available under the Family Medical Leave Act

This legislation applies to private employers with 50 or more employees working within 75 miles of the employer’s main worksite. To qualify for the extended leave provided under the FMLA, workers must have been employed by the company for at least twelve (12) months prior to making a request — and meet other specific criteria set forth under the law. Employees are supposed to be reinstated to their past jobs (or very similar ones) upon returning.

The FMLA is often used by a worker to care for a very ill, immediate family member or when the covered employee is personally battling a serious medical condition. Great care must be exercised when any worker states that s/he is not yet physically able to return once the full amount of leave allowed has been used (to avoid running afoul of provisions of state disability laws and the ADA.)

If you have any questions regarding how your office should apply any state or federal laws to employee issues, please don’t hesitate to call one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We can also provide you with legal advice as to how some of these laws may have been recently modified by new Texas statutes.

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.