Friday's Five: Five legal pitfalls startup companies cannot make

1. Classifying all employees as independent contractors
To qualify as an independent contractor, the employer has the burden of proof to establish that the worker is actually an independent contractor and not an employee. I’ve discussed the parameter of this “economic realities” test here.  In addition to owing unpaid minimum wages and potential unpaid overtime, the employer also faces steep penalties for misclassifying independent contractors.

2. Treating all employees as exempt employees and not paying overtime.
An employee cannot agree to work without being paid overtime unless they qualify as an exempt employee. To qualify as an exempt employee, generally, the employee must perform certain duties, and must be paid a certain threshold in wages (usually at least two times the equivalent pay of minimum wage based on a 40 hour week).  

3. Not having a handbook and written policies.
Even if startup companies have no money, the Labor Code still applies. They still have to pay more than minimum wage, provide and record meal and rest breaks, issue wage notices to new employees, and otherwise comply with California law. A handbook, new hire packet, and standardized set of written policies is a good place to start.

4. Not providing clear offer letter with at-will provisions and clear understanding of who owns social media accounts and passwords.
Companies should providing a writing setting forth the employee’s compensation, stock option rights, at-will status, as well as who owns the rights to social media accounts and the passwords to access the accounts. Much better to have this set out early in order to avoid costly litigation and disruption in your business later.

5. Not having the right employment law counsel.
Startup owners should have a relationship with an attorney that actually practices California employment law. Have an agreement with them that for basic quick questions there will be little if no charge. I often tell my clients that if it takes a quick phone call to review a decision about an employment issue, there will be no charge. Of course this has to be within reason, as your lawyer sells his or her time to make a living.  So to make this easier on your lawyer, do the work before you call, and just double check that the decision you have made, or the letter you drafted is good-to-go. Otherwise, calling your lawyer and asking him to draft the letter will take him time (usually more time that the client could have done it in) and will increase the cost of legal services.

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Five issues California employers should review before the minimum wage increases July 1, 2014

Come July 1, 2014, California’s minimum wage will increase from $8 per hour to $9 per hour for all workers. The minimum wage will increase again to $10 per hour on July 1, 2016. Other than starting to work with their payroll provider to ensure that all hours worked as of July 1 will be paid at the higher rate, here is a list of five other issues California employers should also review in preparation for the wage increase:

1. Review base salary for all exempt employees.
In order to qualify as an exempt employee, which is an employee who is not entitled to receive overtime for work performed over eight hours in one day or 40 hours in one week, the employee must be paid an equivalent of two times minimum wage. Before the minimum wage increase in July 2014, this amount is $33,280 annual salary. When the minimum wage increases to $9 per hour, this amount will increase to $37,440 annual salary, and when the minimum wage increases to $10 per hour, an exempt employee will need to be paid $41,600 annually.  I've discussed this issue in a short video previously, which can be viewed here.  

2. Review compliance with the Wage Theft Protection Act Notice.
Since 2012 every California employer has been required to provide written notices to employees regarding certain information about their jobs, including their wage rate. The good news is that employers will not have to re-issue new wage notices to employees as a result of the increase of minimum wage as long as the new minimum wage rate is shown on the pay stub (itemized wage statement) with the next payment of wages.

3. Review timekeeping system and policies.
With the higher minimum wage rate, there is more potential exposure from wage and hour lawsuits alleging off the clock work or unpaid minimum wage. Companies should remind employees of policies that prohibit off the clock work and about complaint procedures available should anyone ask the employee to work off the clock or the employee not receive all minimum wages.

4. Review classification of independent contractors.
A company that has independent contractors should review the classification to ensure that it can withstand scrutiny from a court, Department of Labor, Labor Commissioner, or the EDD. As employers already face large penalties for misclassifying independent contractors, the potential exposure for unpaid minimum wages as a result of a misclassification will also increase as discussed above.

5. Review wage agreements with employees.
Ensure that all agreements with the employees comply with the law. Under California law, employees cannot agree to work for less than the state minimum wage. This waiver cannot be done through a collective bargaining agreement. All agreements to do so are void under the law.

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Five legally required items often overlooked by California employers

Welcome to Friday's 5, a series of posts each Friday of lists of five items in various aspect of California employment law. I hope to keep it informative and interesting, and provide a checklist of sorts for California employers to review various practices and policies. Starting off, here is a list of five items not to be overlooked by California employers:

1. Wage Theft Protection Act Notices To Employees.
California’s Wage Theft Protection Act of 2011 has required every employer in California to provide written notices to employees beginning in January 1, 2012. The law is set forth in Labor Code section 2810.5, and requires private employers to provide all new non-exempt employees with a written notice that contains certain basic information about their employment. The law also requires employers to notify employees in writing of any changes to the information in the notice within seven calendar days of any changes, unless the changes are reflected on a timely wage statement that complies with Labor code Section 226. Employers do not need to notify employees of any changes if the change is provided in another writing required by law within seven days of the changes. The California Labor Commissioner has published a sample notice template that complies with the requirements of the law, which can be viewed here [PDF]. This is an easy form to complete for non-exempt employees, and should be a mandatory document in every employer’s new hire packet.

2. Written commission statements signed by both the employee and employer.
As of 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.

3. Pregnancy disability leave policy in employee handbook.
For employers with five or more employees, it is mandatory that they have a pregnancy disability leave (PDL) policy. Moreover, if the employer has an employee handbook, it is required to include information about pregnancy leave in the handbook. For more information about PDL under California law, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing provides a summary of basic requirements here.

4. Harassment prevention training for supervisors every two years.
Since 2005, California employers with more than 50 employees must provide two hours of sexual harassment prevention training to supervisors and managers within six months of hire or promotion, and every two years after that. Completion of the training should be documented in the supervisor’s personnel file.

5. California employers must pay visiting out-of-state workers according to California overtime rules.
In Sullivan v. Oracle the California Supreme Court has clarified that California's overtime rules apply to anyone performing work within the state, regardless of their state of residency or how long they may be working in California.

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New Laws Facing California Employers In 2013

There are some significant changes regarding California employers’ duties in 2013. This list is an overview of the major changes that employers should consider and be aware of at the beginning of 2013.  

Employers Cannot Ask Applicants Or Employees For Social Media Passwords – AB 1844
This law created Labor Code section 980, which is effective 1/1/2013. The law prohibits employers from asking employees or applicants for passwords to their social media accounts, accessing their accounts in the presence of the employer, or divulging any personal social media. There are two exceptions to this: (1) if the request is made to a current employee as part of an investigation of allegations of employee misconduct or violation of law, and the request is based upon a reasonable belief that the information is relevant, and (2) to devices issued by the employer.

Commission Agreements Must Be In Writing – AB 1396 and 2675
Beginning 1/1/2013, 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.

Breastfeeding is added to definition of “sex” under the Fair Employment and Housing Act - AB 2386
The new law clarifies that the definition of sex under the FEHA includes breastfeeding and any medical conditions relating to breastfeeding. This amendment makes breastfeeding and the related medical conditions, a protected activity and therefore employers cannot discriminate or retaliate against employees on this basis under California law. While the amendment is effective 1/1/13, the law states that the amendment simply is a statement of existing law, and therefore employers should treat this amendment as existing law immediately.

New Religious and Dress Standards – AB 1964
The new law clarifies that religious dress and grooming practices are protected under FEHA. The law explains that “religious dress practice” is “shall be construed broadly to include the wearing or carrying of religious clothing, head or face coverings, jewelry, artifacts, and any other item that is part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed.” The law continues in defining religious grooming as: “Religious grooming practice shall be construed broadly to include all forms of head, facial, and body hair that are part of the observance by an individual of his or her religious creed.” The law also states that it is not a reasonable accommodation it the action requires segregation of the individual from the public or other employees.

Changes in Calculating Employees’ Regular Rate of Pay – AB 2103
The new law revises Labor Code 515(d) to clarify that “payment of a fixed salary to a nonexempt employee shall be deemed to provide compensation only for the employee's regular, nonovertime hours, notwithstanding any private agreement to the contrary.” Therefore, overtime must be paid above any nonexempt employee’s agreed upon salary. This law was in response to the court opinion in Arechiga v. Dolores Press. The legislature history described the opinion in Arechiga as follows:

In the Arechiga case, a janitor and his employer agreed that payment of a fixed salary of $880 a week would provide compensation for 66 hours of work each week. The Court of Appeal held that this method of payment comported with California overtime law, and that no additional overtime compensation was owed. The Court rejected the employee's contention that existing Labor Code Section 515(d) prohibits any sort of agreement that would allow a fixed salary to serve as a non-exempt employee’s compensation for anything more than a 40 hour workweek.

New Penalties For Violations On Itemized Wages Statements – SB 1255
The new law provides that employees are deemed to have suffered injury for purposes of assessing penalties pursuant to Labor Code 226(a), if the employer fails to provide accurate and complete information. Furthermore, a violation occurs if the employee cannot easily determine from the wage statement alone the amount of the gross or net wages earned, the deductions the employer made from the gross wages to determine the net wages paid, the name and address of the employer or legal entity employing the employee, and the name and only the last 4 digits of the employee.

New Requirements On Retention And Inspection of Itemized Wage Statements and Personnel Files– AB 2674
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 new law, effective 1/1/13, 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. The employer and employee may only agree to extend this time period out to 35 days. The employer may also redact the names of any non-supervisory employees in the file. It is important to note, this requirement does not change the 21 day time period to produce or make available for inspection an employee’s itemized wage statements under Labor Code 226(c).

Itemized Wage Statements And Wage Theft Notices For Temporary Service Employers – AB 1744
This new law requires temporary service employers to provide wage statements that list the rate of pay and total hours worked for each temporary assignment. A “temporary service employer” is defined in Labor Code 201.3(a)(1) as a company that contracts with customers to supply workers to perform services for the customer. This is effective 7/1/2013. Furthermore, the law requires temporary services employer to provide Wage Theft Notices required under 2810.5 and include additional information regarding the name, the physical address of the main office, the mailing address if different from the physical address of the main office, and the telephone number of the legal entity for whom the employee will perform work, and any other information the Labor Commissioner deems material and necessary. This requirement is effective on 1/1/2013.

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