Friday's Five: Five ways employers can receive requests for employees' personnel and wage records

Employers can receive requests for employment records of current and former employees though different ways. It is important for employers to first carefully review the request to understand what is being requested. It is important to understand who is making the request? Is the request only seeking a personnel file? Is the request only seeking payroll records? It is possible that a third party, such as a governmental agency or a party in litigation is seeking employment records for an employee. In this case, it is important for the employer to understand its obligations in protecting the privacy interest of the employee in connection with the rights of third parties to obtain these records.

The following are five ways that employers may have to provide copies of employment records or make employment records available for inspection.

1. Request under Labor Code Section 432, which provides employees with a right to receive a copy of any signed document upon request by the employee.

2. Request under Labor Code section 1198.5, which provides for the right of current and former employees to inspect and receive a copy of personnel records.

A few guidelines regarding requests under section 1198.5:

  • Employers must comply no later than 30 days from when the request is received.
  • If employee asks for copy of file, employer may charge actual costs of coping to employee.
  • Employers may take reasonable steps to ensure identity of the current or former employee.
  • Employers may redact the names of any nonsupervisory employees contained in the personnel file.
  • Employees have no right to inspection under this section if lawsuit has already been initiated.
  • Failure to comply with this section can result in a $750 penalty.

3. Request under Labor Code section 226(b), which allows current and former employees to inspect or copy records pertaining to their employment.

A few guidelines regarding requests under section 226(b):

  • Employers can take reasonable steps to ensure the identity of a current or former employees, and that they are actually making the request.
  • Actual costs of reproduction may be charged by the employer.
  • Employers must comply within 21 days of request.
  • Failure to comply with this section can result in a $750 penalty.

4. Public agencies, such as the Department of Labor or California Labor Commissioner, have the right to inspect records and workplaces under limited circumstances.

For example, under the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Department of Labor (DOL) has certain permissions to investigate and gather date about wages, hours worked, and other working conditions at workplaces. The FLSA also provides the DOL limited permission to enter employers’ premises, review records, and even potentially question employees about employment practices. Upon receiving a request from any public agency, such as the DOL or the California Labor Commissioner, an employer should immediately review what obligations and rights it has in responding to the request.

5. Requests for records through subpoenas.

Employers can also receive subpoenas from third parties seeking employment records. The “custodian of records” is responsible for responding to the requests and producing employment records in certain circumstances. California law requires that a request for a personnel file include a “Notice to Consumer” notifying the employee that such records are being sought, and providing the individual an opportunity to object to the disclosure of the information. If the employee or former employee has not been notified, or objects to the production of the requested records, the employer should not produce the information requested unless and until a court orders otherwise, or the affected employee agrees to the production. If the subpoena seeks the disclosure of confidential or proprietary information, you should contact an attorney to see if the company has an obligation to move to quash the subpoena or seek an appropriate protective order to preserve the confidentiality of the information sought.

Employers should not produce requested documents before they are due and without being satisfied that the proper subpoena procedures and notice requirements, if applicable, have been met. Employers do have a duty to maintain the privacy rights of current and former employees.

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Friday's Five: Five items to understand about employee personnel files under California law

1. Current and former employees have the right to inspect or copy personnel files.
Under Labor Code section 1198.5 employees have the right to inspect or receive copies of personnel files and records relating to the employee’s performance or grievance concerning the employee. Employers are legally required to maintain personnel files for at least three years after the employee stops working for the employer. However, since the statute of limitations for wage and hour claims can extend back four years, many employers keep the files at least four years.

2. The terms “personnel file” or “personnel records” are not defined in the Labor Code.
Without the terms “personnel records” or “personnel file” ever being defined, there is considerable ambiguity about what documents should be keep in an employee’s personnel file.
While not legally binding on employers, there is some guidance from the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement(“DLSE”) expressing the following view:

Categories of records that are generally considered to be "personnel records" are those that are used or have been used to determine an employee’s qualifications for promotion, additional compensation, or disciplinary action, including termination. The following are some examples of "personnel records" (this list is not all inclusive):

  1. Application for employment
  2. Payroll authorization form
  3. Notices of commendation, warning, discipline, and/or termination
  4. Notices of layoff, leave of absence, and vacation
  5. Notices of wage attachment or garnishment
  6. Education and training notices and records
  7. Performance appraisals/reviews
  8. Attendance records

Employers should also consider placing the following documents in personnel files:

  • Signed arbitration agreements
  • Sexual harassment compliance records for supervisors
  • Sign acknowledgements of policy by employee (for example, confidentiality/proprietary information agreements, meal and rest break acknowledgments, handbook acknowledgments)
  • Wage Theft Protection Act notice
  • If commissioned employee, written commission agreement signed by both the employer and employee beginning January 1, 2013.
  • Warnings and disciplinary action documents.
  • Performance reviews
  • Documents of any grievance concerning the employee
  • Documents pertaining to when the employee was hired
  • Records pertaining to last day of work and documenting reason for departure from employment

3. Personnel records must be made available not less than 30 days from date employer receives a written request to view the file.
The employer may charge the employee for the costs of copying the file, but the charge cannot exceed actual cost of reproduction.

4. Employers have the right to redact the names of any other nonsupervisory employee that are listed in the employee’s personnel file before making it available to the employee.

5. Employers may be subject to a $750 penalty for not making requested records available.
The penalty can be assessed by the Labor Commissioner, and the employee could also bring an action to compel production of his or her file and recover attorney’s fees.

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5 compliance issues California employers need to audit at least once a year

Your company has updated its employee handbook, but the work is not over in California. Here are a few reminders of additional steps employers should review after conducting a handbook update and on a periodic basis. Of course this list is not comprehensive, but it comprises of a few items that sometimes take a backseat to the employee handbook update.

1. Ensure wage notice statements are issued and are correct.

Labor Code section 2810.5 requires employers to provide written notice to employees about specific employment items. For example, the law requires that employers provide notice to employees of their rate(s) of pay, designated pay day, the employer’s intent to claim allowances (meal or lodging allowances) as part of the minimum wage, and the basis of wage payment (whether paying by hour, shift, day, week, piece, etc.), including any applicable rates for overtime. The notice must also contain the employer's "doing business as" names, and that it be provided at the time of hiring and within 7 days of a change if the change is not listed on the employee’s pay stub for the following pay period.  The recommended notice published by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement can be downloaded here.  Also the DLSE publishes frequently asked questions that address many issues regarding the notice here

2. Start Using New Form I-9 By May 7, 2013.

By May 7, 2013, employers will be required to use the new I-9 Form. The new Form I-9 can be downloaded from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website here. It would be a good time to review the “Handbook for Employers, Guidance for Completing Form I-9” published by the USCIS.

3. Place all commission agreements in writing.

Beginning January 1, 2013, when an employee is paid commissions, the employer must provide a written contract setting forth the method the commissions will be computed and paid. The written agreement must be signed by both the employer and employee. Commission wages are “compensation paid to any person for services rendered in the sale of such employer’s property or services and based proportionately upon the amount or value thereof.” Commissions do not include (1) short-term productivity bonuses, (2) temporary, variable incentive payment that increase, but do not decrease, payment under the written contract, and (3) bonus and profit-sharing plans, unless there has been an offer by the employer to pay a fixed percentage of sales or profits as compensation for work to be performed.

4. Conduct pay stub audit.

Under Labor Code 226, employers must keep copies of employees’ itemized pay statements for at least three years, at the site of employment or at a central location within the state of California. The law was amended, and as January 1, 2013 it clarifies that the term “copy” means either a duplicate of the statements provided to employees, or a computer generated record that shows all information required under Labor Code 226. In addition, the law sets a new deadline for employers to either provide a copy or permit the employee to inspect the personnel file within 30 days after the employer receives the request.

5. Ensure all personnel records are maintained properly.

When reviewing which records should be maintained in an employee’s personnel file, it is important to keep in mind why an employer would ever have to produce a personnel file – to support its employment based decisions. Therefore, employers should typically maintain personnel files with the following documents: signed arbitration agreements, sexual harassment compliance records for supervisors, sign acknowledgements of policy by employee (for example, confidentiality/proprietary information agreements, meal and rest break acknowledgments, handbook acknowledgments), Wage Theft Protection Act notice, commission agreements signed by both the employer and employee, warnings and disciplinary action documents, performance reviews, documents of any grievance concerning the employee, documents pertaining to when the employee was hired, records pertaining to last day of work and documenting reason for departure from employment.

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Surprise - Employers Face New Employee Personnel Records Obligations in 2013, But The Term "Personnel Records" Is Not Defined

California employers face a law (AB 2674) taking effect on January 1, 2013 (click here for a list of other new employment laws effective in 2013), which changes their duties to maintain and provide personnel records to current and former employees.  The law amends Labor Code section 1198.5 pertaining to "personnel records".  When discussing this new law, I am getting the question of what documents should be included in an employee’s personnel file, and what exactly are "personnel records" under this Labor Code provision. To many employers' surprise, although the term “personnel file” or “personnel records” is used throughout the Labor Code, the term is never explicitly defined.

The Labor Code provides some guidance for employers by setting for what employees are not entitled to inspect. Labor Code section 1198.5, which provides the employee with certain rights regarding inspection of “personnel records”, does exclude certain records from this right to inspection. Under this section, employees do not have the right to inspect (1) records relating to the investigation of a possible criminal offense; (2) letters of reference; (3) ratings, reports, or records that were: obtained prior to the employee’s employment, prepared by identifiable examination committee members, or obtained in connection with a promotional examination.

Without the terms “personnel records” or “personnel file” ever being defined, there is considerable ambiguity about what documents should be keep in an employee’s personnel file.

While not legally binding on employers, there is some guidance from the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement’s (“DLSE”) website (caution: at the time of this writing, the DLSE has not updated its website to reflect the new changes in the law):

Categories of records that are generally considered to be "personnel records" are those that are used or have been used to determine an employee’s qualifications for promotion, additional compensation, or disciplinary action, including termination. The following are some examples of "personnel records" (this list is not all inclusive):

  1. Application for employment
  2. Payroll authorization form
  3. Notices of commendation, warning, discipline, and/or termination
  4. Notices of layoff, leave of absence, and vacation
  5. Notices of wage attachment or garnishment
  6. Education and training notices and records
  7. Performance appraisals/reviews
  8. Attendance records

It is important to keep in mind why an employer would ever have to produce a personnel file – to support its employment based decisions. Therefore, employers should typically maintain personnel files with the following documents:

  • Signed arbitration agreements
  • Sexual harassment compliance records for supervisors
  • Sign acknowledgements of policy by employee (for example, confidentiality/proprietary information agreements, meal and rest break acknowledgments, handbook acknowledgments)
  • Wage Theft Protection Act notice
  • If commissioned employee, written commission agreement signed by both the employer and employee beginning January 1, 2013.
  • Warnings and disciplinary action documents.
  • Performance reviews
  • Documents of any grievance concerning the employee
  • Documents pertaining to when the employee was hired
  • Records pertaining to last day of work and documenting reason for departure from employment

Employers typically should not keep the following information in an employee’s personal file:

  • Form I-9s
  • EEOC and DFEH charges of discrimination
  • Workers’ compensation information
  • Private medical information
  • Any information obtained prior to offering the employee a position

Given the ambiguity about the definition of personnel file, employers should take time to consider their operations and industry to develop a system ensures the same documents for each employee are maintained in their personnel files, and what other files need to be established for employees. Also, employers need to design and implement a personnel file retention policy that will maintain the critical documents that would be relevant should the need to defend an employment claim arise. It is important that this process be established in order to survive any potential change in management and/or the human resource functions in the company.

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