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10 answers to your HR questions
Test your knowledge of human resources and tweak your procedures to keep out of the doghouse.
Nothing trips up your ability to practice great medicine like a citation from the labor board. State and federal labor departments don't always do a great job of educating employers about the laws or informing them of changes. In addition, it's hard to know when state laws supersede federal laws and vice versa.
Let's face it: A practicing veterinarian just doesn't have time to read up on all the rules of human resources. But you have even less time to deal with the aftermath when you step in a labor act pitfall. Here's a recap of the most commonly asked questions, plus what you need to know to keep yourself in the clinic—and out of trouble with the labor board.
1. Do all states follow the same wage and hour laws?
The answer is yes and no. While all states must, at minimum, adhere to the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act regarding pay, minimum wages, and overtime, individual states may create laws that are more restrictive than the federal standards. Employers must follow whichever laws are the most restrictive. (See HR Web resources to find a list of Web sites that list your state's guidelines.)
2. Must I provide breaks to hourly employees?
The Fair Labor Standards Act doesn't require an employer to provide a meal break, and most states don't require rest or lunch breaks either. That said, some states have very specific requirements for rest and lunch breaks. For example, Colorado requires an uninterrupted meal break of at least 30 (unpaid) minutes if the employee's work shift exceeds five consecutive hours of work. Check your specific state laws at www.dol.gov/whd/state/state.htm.
3. Can I keep employees from discussing wages with each other?
In short, no. I know many hospital manuals state that employees can't discuss wages with others, and it's a sore point for many practice owners. But the federal government, through the National Labor Relations Act, protects employees' rights to discuss their wages and working conditions. An employee may not discuss another employee's wages but may disclose and discuss his or her own. Furthermore, employers may not require an employee to sign a confidentiality agreement or require employees to refrain from discussing wages, and you can't discharge or discipline an employee for disclosing his or her wages.
Several states, including California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, and Michigan, have their own employment laws that protect employees and ensure their right to discuss their own wages with other employees.
4. If my employee procedures manual states that the hospital won't pay unauthorized overtime, do I have to pay it anyway?
Yes! If an employee works overtime, whether authorized or not, those hours must be paid at 1.5 times the employee's regular hourly pay. You may initiate disciplinary action against the employee for not following the policy, but you still must pay up. And remember, overtime is probably the single biggest issue that puts employers in the labor board doghouse.
5. Are any hours an employee works over 40 in a week considered overtime?
Yes. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, 40 hours in a week is the maximum an hourly, non-exempt employee can work; beyond that, you must pay 1.5 times the hourly rate. You do have the discretion to start your work week on any day you'd like, but it must be a consistent, defined seven-day period.
Several states have established their own standards. For example, California regulations calculate overtime as anything over an eight-hour day, unless the veterinary practice has received authorization by the state to create an alternative workweek.
6. Can employees see their personal file at any time?
It depends on where you live. Most states allow employees to have at least limited access to their files if they express a legitimate business need. You can restrict access by requiring an employee to make a request in writing, pay a reasonable fee for copies, or view the file only in the presence of the person in charge of the files. You can also limit how frequently an employee accesses the file in one year and restrict or deny former employees access to their files. The most common documents an employee is allowed to copy are those they've signed. But most employees don't have the right to access records relating to investigations.
7. Must I offer maternity leave?
An employer with fewer than 50 employees does not fall under the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). And even if you do fall under FMLA guidelines, you don't have to provide three months of leave (although most practices do). But you must provide leave based on the medical needs of the woman, and each individual case is different. Again, keep in mind that many states have laws requiring employers with fewer than 50 employees to provide some kind of leave.
And don't forget: If you provide family leave for women, you must be gender-neutral and also provide leave for men to care for their children or family members.
8. How do I handle holiday pay?
Variations on this question include: "Am I required to pay holiday pay on days when the hospital is closed but an employee works?" And "Do I have to pay overtime for those hours?" The short answer is no. Holiday pay is a benefit, not a requirement. The federal government and state governments generally don't regulate how a business pays or does not pay benefits. You'll need to pay the regular hourly wage, and overtime if the employee has worked more than 40 hours (or more than eight in a day in California), but there's no requirement to pay overtime if the hours worked are regular hours.
9. Are at-will employees' jobs protected as long as they follow hospital policies?
In most states, employment is at will. That means an employer can fire an employee at any time for no reason or any reason, and an employee may leave employment at any time for no reason or any reason. The exceptions are discriminatory terminations, such as those based on age, race, sex, national origin, or disability. Also, if an employee is under a contract, you can't fire him or her without following the procedures outlined in that contract.
Even so, it's best to document all employee actions and check with legal counsel in your state. I personally recommend that, even in at-will states, employers use a three-step disciplinary process consisting of a verbal warning, a written warning, and then termination.
10. Do I have to pay employees for vacation hours when they leave the practice?
Vacation pay is a benefit and is not protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Most state labor laws allow employers to create their own policies regarding benefits as long as they're clear and followed consistently.
Human resources issues are a moving target. The rules and regulations seem to change all the time, and it's sometimes hard to keep up with them. Check your state-specific regulations from time to time. This way you'll stay out of the labor board dog house—and in the practice doing what you love!
Mark Opperman, CVPM, is Veterinary Economics' Hospital Management Editor and owner of VMC Inc., a veterinary consulting firm based in Evergreen, Colo.