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January 2015 
Workplace Hot Topics for 2015
 
By Claudia St. John, SPHR
 
 
Each new year brings with it new business opportunities and challenges.  As you start making plans for 2015, you should consider several employment regulation issues that could impact your workplace.

Obamacare – By now most everyone knows the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is being implemented in 2015 for companies with 100 or more employees.  These companies will have to provide and pay a portion of health insurance coverage for their qualifying employees or, alternatively, pay a penalty (“play-or-pay”).  Companies of this size will also have to provide new reports and information to the government.  While companies with 50 to 99 employees will not have to meet the “play-or-pay” mandate until 2016, they too will have to submit certain reports.  Now is the time to make sure that you are meeting whatever mandates are required of your company.

Ban the Box – Another hot button topic involves “Ban the Box” laws, which have already been enacted in 30 states and cities – and more are likely to enact them in the near future.  These laws restrict companies from asking applicants about their criminal background on the initial employment application and, in some cases, until even further into the hiring process.  If you operate in multiple states and cities, you must have a valid employment application and hiring process in place that either adheres to the strictest standards for all locations or has location-specific elements to comply with Ban the Box where it needs to.

Cyber Security – Smart businesses protect customer data and financial information with various security measures.  But are you also investing in protecting your employee information and HRIS systems properly?  Your systems hold valuable personal information on your employees such as Social Security numbers, medical information and previous addresses, all of which hackers could target.  You should be emphasizing the protection of your employee information every bit as much as you do for your customer data.
FLSA Exemption Revisions – There have been discussions behind revising the standards needed to classify an employee as exempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  While originally planned for November 2014, the new revisions are now expected to take effect in early 2015, which will leave little time between release and enforcement.  While no one is certain of the exact changes, most expect a drastic increase to the $455-per-week salary threshold (some experts expect it to almost double) so as to provide more separation between the increasing minimum wage rates and the salaries expected for exempt-level employees. Other possible changes are to the exemption criteria, such as a new requirement that a majority of an exempt employee’s time must be spent doing exempt work.  These changes are expected to dramatically impact middle-manager positions such as retail and restaurant managers.  When these new rules are finally announced, you should be prepared to re-evaluate your employees as there is no discussion of a safe-harbor clause for those who have employees whose classification would change.

Immigration – President Obama’s recent executive order regarding the immigration status of millions of currently undocumented immigrants will have several impacts.  Not only will there be new acceptable documentation forms and expiration dates for employment authorization (I-9 documentation), but, since an estimated 5 million workers will no longer be illegal, the USCIS and ICE will be able to enhance their focus on the workers who will remain illegal and the companies who employ them.  That said, you must continue to be extra careful in verifying (and re-verifying if necessary) employment authorization for all employees.

Minimum Wage – Minimum wage rates are increasing across the country as well for federal employees and contractor employees.  As of December 31st and January 1st, 20 states and cities will implement a new higher minimum wage rate, and more jurisdictions are likely to join this trend throughout 2015.  You must be aware of and comply with all new rates and make sure you display the current posters and provide corrected wage notices, if applicable.
NLRB Rulings – Recent NLRB rulings impact all companies regardless of union status in the workplace.  The NLRB ruled that company harassment, discrimination and retaliation reporting procedures may not be overly restrictive and must allow employees the option to report a witnessed incident and still be protected.  Another ruling addressed blanket employment-at-will statements and determined that company policy must leave open the option for at least someone in management (such as the company president) to enter into an agreement removing employment-at-will status.  You should make sure your policies properly reflect these new interpretations.

NLRB on Social Media – While you can control some aspects of what your employees post on social media, the NLRB has ruled that you cannot control everything.  You can mandate that employees follow your company policies, thereby restricting employees from using social media during work hours, and from posting confidential information on customers, trade secrets, etc.  You can also restrict them from posting information representing the company and/or from posting anything that is harassing or discriminatory toward co-workers, managers, peers or customers.  However, in many instances, you cannot control employees from posting personal experiences or opinions about the company whether they are true or false – this, the NLRB says, is often protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act.  You need to make sure you are properly monitoring social media sites and addressing issues as you find them, but you cannot discipline employees for what they have a right to do.

Your best line of defense for these and all potential legal issues is to stay up-to-date with changing employment laws, consult HR professionals as needed, and be sure your employee handbook and employment practices are always up-to-date, compliant and reflect what your company actually does.

Claudia St. John is president of Affinity HR Group, LLC, IIABNY’s affiliated human resources partner.  Affinity HR Group specializes in providing human resources assistance to associations such as IIABNY and their member companies.  To learn more, visit www.affinityHRgroup.com.