By Elizabeth Hartsel
An employee handbook is one of the most important things that labor lawyers advise companies to have and update regularly. The reasons for this are simple: employee handbooks not only formalize guidelines, expectations, and terms of employment, but, more importantly, they can also help provide a layer of protection against employee claims and lawsuits.
A complete and detailed employee handbook, reviewed and signed by the employee, establishes that the company and the employee are aware of the legal rights and obligations of the employee and the company. Additionally, should the company ever face a claim or legal action from an employee, the manual also serves as a helpful legal defense by demonstrating that the company strives to operate in compliance with all laws. relevant federal, state and local authorities.
Writing your employee handbook
Understandably, crafting an employee handbook from scratch can seem like an overwhelming task. An experienced labor lawyer can help you create a comprehensive manual that covers the most basic policies. If you decide to go it alone, here is a list of essential topics to cover:
- Compensation and benefits policies
- Paid or unpaid vacation, sick and leave policies
- Dress code
- Occupational Safety and Security Policies
- Non-disclosure agreements and declarations of conflicts of interest
- Internet Usage Policies
- How to File or Report a Workplace Complaint
- Employment equality, disability and anti-discrimination policies
- Workers Compensation Policies
Once your manual is in place, it’s not about “set it and forget it”. Instead, you’ll want to review it annually, ideally in partnership with your employment lawyer, and make any necessary updates to the employee handbook. These may include changes in company policies or in local, state or federal laws and regulations.
Some timely employee handbook updates that I advise my clients to consider in 2022 include:
Some states have recently implemented rulings that if an employer grants paid time off, any accrued, unpaid time off is considered earned wages and must be paid at the end of the employment relationship. It is important to note that these rulings would apply to employers regardless of where their business is headquartered. In the age of remote work, this is an important distinction.
Do now: Check with a labor attorney to make sure your policy complies with your state’s laws.
Covid-19 and sick leave policies
The Covid-19 pandemic has created an ever-changing patchwork of federal and state policies and acts related to paid sick leave provisions and related to federal and state government declarations of public health emergencies.
For example, in some states, employers must supplement paid sick leave until four weeks after the end or official suspension of the federally declared public health emergency. Currently, the US government has extended the nationwide COVID-19 public health emergency through April 16, 2022, unless renewed.
Do now: Consult with an employment lawyer to determine the specific Covid-19 sick leave requirements that apply to your company and make appropriate updates to the employee handbook.
Respect LGBTQ rights
Norms in the workplace related to gender identity and sexual orientation have changed significantly in recent years, as highlighted by a recent landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court which declared that it was illegal for employers to discriminate against LGBTQ employees.
Do now: Your employee handbook should clearly identify and strictly prohibit missteps in the workplace that are not only offensive to LGBTQ employees, but may also expose the company to discrimination, harassment, or work environment grievances. hostile. Include gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation among the list of protected categories in your employee handbook.
Review all policies (dress code, holidays, email signatures, gender-segregated spaces, etc.) to confirm they are LGBTQ-inclusive. The Human Rights Campaign Foundation provides an extremely useful and comprehensive toolkit to help employers in this effort.
Paid family leave
Although the United States has not implemented a federal paid vacation law, some states are doing it on their own. For example, starting January 1, 2024, Colorado’s Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) law will require employers to provide 12 weeks of leave, with an option of an additional four weeks for birth mothers with complications. .
Notably, the leave is not limited to parents of new babies – employees can use the benefits for other reasons, such as recovering from or treating an illness, caring for a family member or other approved circumstances.
Do now: I advise employers to get ahead of the paid family leave trend and consider mirroring a policy similar to Colorado’s as soon as possible. It should be noted that employers should ensure that their policy is fair to male employees living in same-sex relationships by offering paternity leave in addition to maternity leave. Paid family leave policies should also treat adoptive and biological parents equally.
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Policies on remote work, workplace safety and vaccines/masks
The preponderance of employees now working remotely for all or part of the work week, combined with the requirements for vaccines and masks for in-person work, shows how much Covid-19 has changed the workplace.
Do now: Clearly outline remote work policies in the employee handbook, including all parameters regarding eligibility, office hours and expectations, and use of company-provided equipment. Include vaccination, Covid-19 mask and testing, and quarantine policies in the manual.
The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released guidance for employers on mitigating and preventing the spread of Covid-19 in the workplace. Consult an employment law attorney if you are unclear about federal, state, and local mandates regarding vaccines and masks to avoid potential employee discrimination or legal action.
Employers might be surprised to learn that company dress codes and grooming policies could lead to various lawsuits regarding discrimination and stereotyping. For example, a dress code that prohibits certain types of ethnic clothing, such as traditional African or Indian attire, but otherwise allows casual dress would treat some employees less favorably because of their national origin. Additionally, some state laws explicitly protect certain hairstyles, such as braids, locs, and cornrows, that are commonly or historically associated with the breed.
Do now: Review your dress code to make sure it doesn’t discriminate against gender, race, or national origin. For example, it should not prohibit certain hairstyles commonly or historically associated with race. And employers must be willing to change their dress codes or allow an exception if religious accommodation is requested.
Updates to the employee handbook must be continuous
Employee handbooks should be living, breathing documents that keep employees informed of the latest policies and expectations. When in doubt, seek the advice of an experienced labor lawyer to help you identify blind spots and ensure your manual helps limit the company’s potential legal and financial exposure.
About the Author
liz hartsel of Fortis Law Partners provides advice to individuals and businesses of all sizes, from family businesses to multinational corporations. She regularly advises CBD, construction and technology companies, as well as individuals and companies in a wide range of other sectors. She has served as counsel in bench and jury trials in Colorado and New York, arbitrations and administrative hearings.
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