With the end of summer quickly approaching, this Friday’s Five (and next week’s post as well) covers broad topics employers should review periodically.  Today’s post covers five questions a company operating in California should be asking on a routine basis:

1. Has the company reviewed and updated the employee handbook and related policies?

As discussed in last weeks Friday’s Five about the new court decision on vacation pay in Minnick v. Automotive Creations, an employer’s policies are critical in defending claims.  Vague or out dated policies can create huge amounts of liability for employers. California’s requirements change throughout the year, and it is important that employers have a good relationship with employment counsel so that they are routinely communicating and reviewing the need to update policies based on new case law and legislation.

2. Does your company train supervisors and employees on its handbook and other policies, and does the company standby what it tells employees in these policies?

Legally drafted policies only get your company half of the way there.  Companies need to train managers and supervisors about what the policies mean and how they need to be implemented day-to-day.  Furthermore, the company needs to follow-through with what it tells supervisors, managers, and employees.  For examples, if the company maintains an open door policy, but none of the employees are utilizing the open door policy there could be a problem.  One solution is for the company to start pro-actively having open door sessions with employees to discuss their experience at the company (my post next week will discuss what should be asked during these open door sessions).

3. Has the company conducted a review of a local county and city laws that apply?

State, county and city laws regulating minimum wage and paid sick leave are numerous and California employers need to ensure they have closely reviewed they are complying with these requirements.  As Carl’s Jr. is finding out, noncompliance can have steep penalties.

4. When was the last time the company conducted an internal wage and hour audit internally? When was the last time an external lawyer or other professional reviewed wage and hour practices?

Many companies establish policies or simply continuing using policies from the past that have never been reviewed internally or externally by a lawyer or other professional.  I’ve published an HR audit list that covers a few of the essential areas that must be reviewed to lower a company’s legal exposure in California.

5. Is there an open line of communication with the employer’s payroll company and have specific wage and hour compliance issues been discussed?

The information that must be listed on employee’s pay stub is detailed, but easy to comply with.  A model pay stub published by the State Division of Labor Standards Enforcement can be found here (but note this only lists the state requirements – any other local county or city requirement will also apply).  The model pay stubs does not list paid sick leave, which employers must also remember to list on the employee’s pay stub or other writing provided to employees when they are paid.

Many payroll companies do not review the accuracy of the information listed on the pay stubs they generate, and this burden falls on the employer.  In addition to the California Labor Code requirements of the information that must be listed on pay stubs, the local requirements for reporting the amount of paid sick time available to employees must also be provided.  Employers need to proactively review and discuss these requirements with their payroll companies.

Today’s Friday’s Five is a short video about five employment law considerations employers should review at the end of 2015.  As mentioned in the video, I will be conducting a webinar on December 2, 2015 for employers to understand and comply with new employment laws taking effect in 2016.  I will also discuss new case law developments from 2015 including paid sick leave and enforceability of arbitration agreements and class action waivers.  There will also be a discussion about businesses’ obligations under Proposition 65 postings at their establishments.

Registration and more information is here (http://elr.io/vtzyt2016).  Hope you can join us for the webinar.

Are you tired of employmSacramentoent lawyers’ obnoxious headlines asking if you are sick over California’s paid sick leave law yet?  I’ll spare you the play on words and get to some of the major amendments to California’s paid sick leave law, which took effect immediately upon the Governor’s signature of AB 304 on July 13, 2015.  Therefore, the amendments apply to employers going forward.  For today’s Friday’s Five, here is a summary of five of the major amendments employers should note:

1.      Employers may now use a different accrual method other than one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked.

In order to simplify the math for employers, the law was amended to provide that an employer may use an alternative accrual method as long as it is (1) on a regular basis, and (2) the employee has no less than 24 hours or three days paid sick leave or paid time off by the 120th calendar day of employment, or each calendar year, or in each 12-month period.

2.      If an employer pays out accrued paid time off to an employee at time of termination, the employer does not have to reinstate the previously accrued and unused paid sick days.

The law requires that if an employee separates from employment, but is rehired within one year, the previously accrued and unused paid sick leave must be reinstated.  This amendment clarifies that if the employer pays the accrued but unused sick leave out at the time of separation (which is not required under the sick leave law), then the employee is not entitled to reinstatement of the paid sick leave that was already paid out to them earlier.

3.      If an employer provides unlimited paid sick leave or unlimited paid time off to an employee, the employer meets its reporting requirements on the employee’s pay stub by indicating “unlimited” on the wage statement. 

4.      Employers have different options for calculating the amount of pay owed to employees while taking sick leave.

The amendment clarifies that the employer can use any of the following calculations when determining how much to pay employees while on paid sick leave:

a) For non-exempt employees, the regular rate of pay can be calculated in the same manner as the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes in the workweek.  This is a new option for employers provided under the amendment.

b) For non-exempt employees, the regular rate of pay can be calculated by dividing the employee’s total wages, not including overtime premium pay, by the employee’s total hours worked in the full pay periods of the prior 90 days of employment.  This method was permitted for employers to use under the original law.

c) For exempt employees, employers can calculate paid sick leave in the same manner as the employer calculates wages for other forms of paid leave time.

5.      Employers are not required to inquire into or record the purpose of why the employee uses paid leave.

Employers have many other record keeping requirements under the new law, but now it is clear that they are not required to maintain the reasons why employees used the sick leave.  The original requirement created under the paid sick leave law, and unchanged by these amendments, requires employers to document and keep records of the hours worked and paid sick days accrued and used by an employee for at least three years. Employees (as well as the Labor Commissioner) have the right to access these records. Failure to keep the required records creates a presumption against the employer that the employee is entitled to the maximum number of hours provided for under the law.

Photo: Franco Folini

I’ll be posting some short clips of a recent presentation I conducted on complying with California’s paid sick leave law.  In this first video, I discuss some general rules California employers need to consider to comply with the July 1, 2015 deadline to offer paid sick leave to employees.  Topics include:

  • how to calculate pay rates for employees with fluctuating pay
  • impact of services charges on the employee’s regular rate of pay
  • the 90 day waiting period before employees can use the paid leave
  • required notices employers must use
  • key deadlines to comply with the law

Please subscribe to the California Employment Law Report Youtube channel here.

You may recall from your college business law class of the “American rule” regarding attorney’s fees: generally in the United States each side is responsible to their own attorney’s fees, and unlike other countries, the loser does not have to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. Employers can basically ignore this general rule in employment litigation under California law. I debated about writing this article because once a lawsuit is filed, employers don’t have any control over what claims and damages the plaintiff will assert, so why would employers need to understand when they have exposure to a current or former employee’s attorney’s fees in litigation? However, employers need to understand the underlying liability of potential claims, the motivations behind those claims, and the major part of many employment law claims can be attorney’s fees. And as shown below, the California legislature has used the award of attorney’s fees to shift the risk in many actions against employers, and it is a concept that employers need to understand to address liability and litigation strategies. Here are five California employment related statutes that can expose employers to a plaintiff’s attorney’s fees:

1. Minimum wage/unpaid overtime claims. Labor Code section 1194, provides attorneys fees for plaintiffs who recover damages for minimum wage or overtime violations:

Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action … reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.

2. Unsuccessful appeal of Labor Commissioner Claim. In order to discourage appeals from Labor Commissioner rulings, California Labor Code section 98.2(c) requires the court “shall” awards costs and reasonably attorney’s fees to the other party. This section permits the employee to obtain fees on an unsuccessful appeal by the employer, or to the employer who prevails on an unsuccessful appeal by employee. The catch for employers however, is that Labor Code section 98.2(c) provides that the employee is “successful” and therefore entitled to attorney’s fees “if the court awards an amount greater than zero.” Yes, even if the employee receives $1, they are successful in the appeal, and are entitled to their attorney’s fees. Therefore, employers have a huge disincentive in appealing Labor Commissioner rulings.

3. Expense reimbursement claims Labor Code section 2802 provides that employers must pay for and reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence” of the employee’s job. Therefore, items like mileage reimbursement, even personal cell phone expenses, or other out-of-pocket expenditures employees make while performing their job must be reimbursed by the employer. Labor Code section 2802(c) provides that the employee is entitled to “attorney’s fees incurred by the employee enforcing the rights granted by this section.”

4. Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) claims Plaintiff’s counsel bringing a PAGA claim can seeks attorney’s fees under this statute as well. See Labor Code section 2699(g). Plaintiffs’ attorneys also claims fees under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which permits them to recover fees if the case “resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest” if certain requirements are satisfied.

5. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits harassment and discrimination in employment based on protected categories and/or retaliation for protesting illegal discrimination related to one of these categories. “In civil actions brought under [FEHA], the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party . . . reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.” (Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).) Under FEHA, the fee shifting provision goes both ways, to the plaintiff but also potentially the employer. Courts have discretion to award the defendant employer attorney’s fees and costs as the prevailing party in cases where plaintiff’s claim is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious. As a California court recently explained:

Despite its discretionary language, however, the statute applies only if the plaintiff’s lawsuit is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious. . . . ‘ “[M]eritless” is to be understood as meaning groundless or without foundation, rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case . . . .’

Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal.App4th 67 (2014).

You’ve set up a successful company and begin hiring employees. To be a successful operator in California, a company’s management needs to be familiar with the critical legal concepts in order to successfully navigate California’s complex employment laws. You never wanted to go to law school, but time to hit the, ahem, books (or the Internet).  Here are a five fundamental legal concepts that every employer should understand:

1. At-will employment. Under California law, it is presumed that all employment is terminable at-will. California Labor Code section 2922 provides: “An employment, having no specified term, may be terminated at the will of either party on notice to the other.” The at-will doctrine means that the employment relationship can be terminated by either party at any time, with or without cause, and with or without advanced notice. There are some major exceptions to this rule, see item #3 below for example, but generally California law recognizes that employers and employees may, at any time, and for any legal reason, terminate the employment relationship.

2. Meal and rest break obligations. Employers cannot employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of at least thirty minutes. This break may be waived if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, with the mutual consent of both the employer and employee. A second meal period of at least thirty minutes is required if an employee works more than ten hours per day, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours. The second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and employee only if the first meal period was not waived. Rest periods are based on the total hours worked daily and a full ten minute consecutive break must authorized and permitted for each four hour work period, or major fraction thereof. I’vewritten about these obligations before, and the DLSE’s website provides many details regardingmeal periods and rest breaks.

3. Protected categories. Under the at-will doctrine employers may decide to terminate an employee based on any reason, just as long as it is not an illegal reason. An illegal reason would be one based upon an employee’s protective category, such as their race, gender, national origin, disability, age, or sexual orientation for example. California law even protects employees who are perceived to be in a protected category, associated with someone who is in a protective category, or even a sympathizer of someone in a protected category. In addition, the DLSE provides that the following activities are also protected:

The engaging in or exercising of a right that is protected by law. Some examples of “protected activity” under the Labor Code include: 1. Filing or threatening to file a claim or complaint with the Labor Commissioner. 2. Taking time off from work to serve on a jury or appear as a witness in court. 3. Disclosing or discussing your wages. 4. Using or attempting to use sick leave to attend to the illness of a child, parent, spouse, domestic partner, or child of the domestic partner of the employee. 5. Engaging in political activity of your choice. 6. For complaining about safety or health conditions or practices.

4. The difference between exempt and non-exempt. Employers need to understand which positions are legally entitled to overtime and other protections of the Labor Code, and the position that are “exempt” from these requirements. Here is a list of common exemptions under California law. It is important to note that employers and employees cannot simply make the determination and agree to be exempt on their own (the right to overtime cannot be waived, see non-waivable rights below). The employer has the burden of establishing that the employee meets all of the required elements of a particular exemption in order for the employee to be legally classified as exempt. 5. Understanding that certain Labor Code provisions cannot be waived by employees. Employees cannot waive their rights to certain protections offered by the California Labor Code. For example, employees cannot waive their rights to minimum wage, overtime, expense reimbursements for out of pocket expenses incurred for business purposes, right to participate in PAGA representative actions, and the right to receive non-disputed wages. You can read more about these rights here. So before a decision is made because the employee willingly agrees to the terms, or may even ask for certain employment terms, employers need to be sure that the employee can actually agree to those terms under the law. Photo courtesy of Janet Lindenmuth

1. CEOs and founders need to be involved in the hiring process. This is simply something too important for a company to leave to other people.  Sam Altman, of Y Combinator, wrote:

The vast majority of founders don’t spend nearly enough time hiring. After you figure out your vision and get product-market fit, you should probably be spending between a third and a half of your time hiring. It sounds crazy, and there will always be a ton of other work, but it’s the highest-leverage thing you can do, and great companies always, always have great people. You can’t outsource this—you need to be spending time identifying people, getting potential candidates to want to work at your company, and meeting every person that comes to interview. Keith Rabois believes the CEO/founders should interview every candidate until the company is at least 500 employees.

Founders interviewing employee number 1 to 500 sets to tone for the company in many ways in addition to the value mentioned by Sam. First, meeting all new hires illustrates that the employees are valued. Second, it shows that the founders are approachable and should the employee have any complaints they could discuss the issues with the founders. Granted once the company passes the 50 employee mark, it becomes more difficult to have a personal relationship with everyone in the company, but at least the founders are meeting everyone working at the company. This proves to the employees that they are valued. Usually the company’s open door policy states that if the employee has any complaints, they are free to discuss it with their supervisor, and if appropriate their concerns can be escalated to the founders/CEO. Meeting with employee during the hiring process can give teeth to the open door policy, and promote the practice of speaking with the founders if any employees have concerns about work.

2. Try working with the applicant first. I don’t care how many interviews someone has conducted, no one can determine if an applicant will be a good fit in a company over an interview at lunch. No matter how good you believe your interview questions are at finding out the applicant’s true values, work ethic, and knowledge base, anyone with an internet can study-up on how to handle almost any type of interview scenario and look amazing during the interview. How does a company get past this problem? Sam Altman again has some great advice and recommends hiring the applicant as an independent contractor and giving her a day or two of work on a noncritical project. I recommend that companies may take it one step further, and depending on the circumstances, it may even be appropriate to hire the applicant as an employee with the idea that they are to only work on one short project during the nights or weekends. There is nothing in the law that prevents a company from hiring employees for a day or two to see how they would work, that is the idea behind at-will employment.

3. Don’t assume all workers are the same in under the law. Not everyone hired can be classified as independent contractors or exempt employees.  These legal terms have very specific tests that must be met, and failure to properly classify workers could expose the company to large penalties. If everyone in a company is classified as an independent contractor or an exempt employee, more likely than not, there is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the company needs to evaluate its HR function more carefully.

4. Develop an employee handbook. All new hires should be given a handbook that sets out the company’s practices and procedures. Handbooks are not legally required in California, but there are required policies that companies must have depending on their size. A handbook is the perfect way to communicate the required policies to all new hires in a consistent and documented manner.

5. Have a new hire packet. The legal documents required to be provided to a new employee is becoming very detailed. Companies should standardize a new hire packet that meets all legal requirements.

In order to explain the law and answer questions employers have about implementing policies to comply with the requirement that all employers provide up to three paid sick leave days starting July 1, 2015, the Department of Industrial Relations is hosting a free webinar. It is taking place on April 8, 2015, from noon to 1 p.m.

Employers also have the opportunity to submit questions prior to the webinar to: AB1522@dir.ca.gov. I’ve embedded the DIR announcement below, or click here for additional information about how to attend.

AB1522 Webinar Announcement

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/259181496/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&show_recommendations=true

In addition, the DIR has published a Facts and Resources slide deck about the new law:

Paid Sick Leave Facts and Resources

https://www.scribd.com/embeds/259181519/content?start_page=1&view_mode=scroll&show_recommendations=true

These are good resources for employers to review to help understand some of the compliance issues that need to be addressed prior to July 1. It is already mid-March, and I recommend that all employers start addressing this issue now in order to be compliant by July 1. As I’ve written about before, there are many elements California employers need to address that take some time to implement, and before you know it July 1 will be here.

I just discovered How to Start a Startup, which is a series of videos published by Stanford University on YouTube with some outstanding speakers. The problem is that the class videos are so great, I have a hard time turning them off. Case in point, this week I watched Ben Horowitz’ lecture: How to ManageBen is a rap enthusiast, and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.  He offers excellent points and perfect examples about how managers have to analyze difficult requests from employees from many different perspectives. Definitely worth devoting the 50 minutes of your time to watch (embedded below). It is by far the best presentation on management I have ever listened to, and I’ve had my share of management classes (by the way, Ben’s book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a great read also).

In the lecture, Ben discusses the very difficult situation of addressing an employee’s request for a raise. Ben’s point is that the easy way out of the difficult managerial decision is to simply agree to the raise. This is the easy way out, everyone in the room is happy, the manager is liked by the employee, and the employee is obviously happy.

However, as Ben mentions, this can create other issues across the organization:

However, you knew there was going to be a however, you have to think about it from the point of view of the employee who did not ask for a raise. They may be doing a better job than the employee who did ask for the raise and in their mind they are going, “Ok, so I didn’t ask for a raise and I didn’t get a raise. They asked for a raise and they got a raise. What does that mean?" One, you’re not really evaluating people’s performance. You’re just going, whoever asks, gets. That means I either need to be the guy who asked for the raise, though that’s not how I feel. I do my work and I don’t necessarily want to ask for a raise. Or I just need to quit and go to a company that actually evaluates performance. You can really make the person who doesn’t get the raise feel pretty pissed about it. Don’t think that when someone is walking through your company doing the "Shmoney Dance," that other people aren’t going to notice.

Not familiar with the Shmoney Dance? Click here.

In addition to Ben’s point that CEOs or supervisors responsible to determining pay rates need to have and follow a formal review process for determining raises, it is important to note it would be bad management to ask an employee to keep their pay details confidential because doing so runs afoul of California law.

This leads me to point out five areas of employee compensation or off-work conduct that cannot be regulated by an employer under California law:

  1. Employers cannot prohibit employees from discussing or disclosing their wages, or for refusing to agree not to disclose their wages. Labor Code Sections 232(a) and (b).
  2. Employers cannot require that an employee refrain from disclosing information about the employer’s working conditions, or require an employee to sign an agreement that restricts the employee from discussing their working conditions. Labor Code Section 232.5.
  3. Employers may not refuse to hire, or demote, suspend, or discharge and employee for engaging in lawful conduct occurring during nonworking hours away from the employer’s premises. Labor Code Section 96(k).
  4. Employers cannot adopt any rule preventing an employee from engaging in political activity of the employee’s choice. Labor Code Sections 1101 and 1102.
  5. Employers cannot prevent employees from disclosing information to a government or law enforcement agency when the employee believes the information involves a violation of a state or federal statute or regulation, which would include laws enacted for the protection of corporate shareholders, investors, employees, and the general public. Labor Code Section 1102.5.