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Ringing Out the Old

By Amy B. Royal, Esq.

Most of us are happy to leave 2020 behind.

It was a year wrought with struggles both at home and in the workplace. Many companies faced closures, near-closures, reduced capacities, and reduced business all because of the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Companies were also hit with several new, COVID-related laws, such as paid emergency leaves of absence, furthering the burdens they were facing during an already-difficult time.

It isn’t surprising that we are ready to ring in and embrace this new year. And, with the new year here, v is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practices. With that said, the new year provides an opportunity to proactively take a look at your company’s current employment-law practices to ensure compliance with the myriad evolving employment laws affecting your company.

 

Paid Family and Medical Leave and Minimum Wage

Two noteworthy laws take effect in Massachusetts this January: the Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law and the revised minimum-wage law.

PFML law takes effect in the Bay State this January. While employer obligations under PFML commenced on Oct. 1, 2019, as of Jan. 1, 2021, employees can begin to apply for and receive paid leave for most medical and family leaves of absence. The remaining leave provisions will take effect on July 1, 2021. Under PFML, employees can take paid leaves for their own serious health condition, to bond with a newborn child, to bond with a child after adoption or foster-care placement, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or to manage family affairs when a family member is on active duty in the armed forces.

All private Massachusetts employers are covered under the law regardless of their size. Leave entitlements range from 12 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the type of leave needed, and employees can take leave intermittently, if medically necessary, for medical leave for an employee’s own serious health condition or take family leave to care for a covered service member or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Amy B. Royal

Amy B. Royal

“With the new year here, it is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practice.”

Intermittent leave cannot be used to bond with a child. PFML and federal FMLA run concurrently. The same is true for the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Employees can choose to use but may not be required to use other forms of paid time off. PFML provides job protection and restoration rights akin to the federal FMLA. Employers are required to restore employees who take leave to their previous position, or to an equivalent position, with the same status, pay, benefits, length-of-service credit, and seniority as of the date of leave.

On Jan. 1, 2021, the Massachusetts minimum wage increased from $12.75 to $13.50 per hour. The service rate also increased from $4.95 to $5.55 per hour. Premium pay for Sunday retailer workers decreased. The next step in our minimum-wage rise is to $15 per hou, slated to take effect in 2023.

 

Proactive Employment Steps

The new year can serve as a good reminder and placeholder for reviewing and auditing your employment practices. Doing so will enable you to be strategic about that piece of your business and move toward creating a detailed and updated personnel plan going forward.

A good plan starts with an annual review of employment policies and manuals, written job descriptions, and employee-training programs to ensure that your company is compliant with state and federal laws and that your employees are properly trained in your processes and procedures.

Well-crafted employment policies are important because they communicate expectations to employees and help insulate your company from certain legal liabilities. When crafting employment policies, know that certain ones are legally required, while others are good business practice. Depending on your company’s size, required employment policies may include anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, parental leave, paid family and medical leave, and sick time. The implementation of other policies may be a good idea, such as codes of conduct, discipline and termination, workplace safety, off-duty conduct and the use of social media, drug and alcohol use and testing, use of cell phones, and use of company computer equipment and other electronic resources.

Written job descriptions are also a good practice. While not legally mandated, they can be a good tool to assess and evaluate prospective and current employees and also can reduce your company’s exposure to certain lawsuits. Accurate job descriptions that set forth the essential functions of a position can minimize liability when your company is faced with either internal requests for accommodations or external disability claims. Providing an accurate job description to an employee’s medical provider can also help determine whether an employee can perform their job with or without an accommodation or qualify for a leave of absence.

Another good business practice is employee training. Training managers and supervisors is especially important. Indeed, such trainings can help them understand company policies and their roles and responsibilities under these policies. Particularly important trainings for managers include anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, employee disabilities and recognizing requests for reasonable accommodations, and effective employee discipline and documentation.

Many employment issues that eventually evolve into litigation stem from actions or inactions of managers or supervisors. Employers should regularly conduct trainings to give these key employees the knowledge and skills required to enable them to properly handle situations as they arise.

The cost of defending expensive litigation far exceeds the investment in taking proactive, preventive steps to reduce the risk of litigation. Therefore, employers should consider conducting an internal audit at the beginning of each and every new year.

 

Amy B. Royal, Esq. is a litigation attorney who specializes in labor and employment law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

The calendar no longer says 2020.

And that’s a really good thing. Over the past 10 months or so, those four numbers became synonymous with pandemic, challenge, uncertainty, and more challenge. Turning the calendar over helps psychologically, but it doesn’t change the equation. Not yet, anyway.

In fact, as the experts interviewed for our Economic Outlook section indicated, while there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, there is still quite a bit of tunnel to get through. If this is the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), the end is still a ways off.

And, in some ways, there’s a good chance things will actually get worse before they get better, because, as some experts noted, the relief that many companies received through stimulus initiatives will not be there, or there to the same extent, like they were in 2020. So many businesses will be facing a reality check, and a scary one at that.

But if 2021 looks daunting in many respects, we can look back at 2020, not for painful memories, or only painful memories, but also for inspiration.

Indeed, as we’ve written on several occasions, the best thing about 2020, from our respective, was the manner in which the business community responded to a crisis truly without precedent. Going back to the middle of last March, we wrote about how business owners in this region had been through a lot over the past few decades — recessions, including a ‘great’ one; a tornado; the sudden quiet after 9/11; Springfield’s fiscal meltdown; and so much more. We wrote that this pandemic would be unlike any of those and would test the mettle of this region in ways we could not have imagined.

We were right about that, but we were also right when we said this region was up for the fight. It was, and it is, and a look back at 2020 proves this.

Yes, some businesses have been lost, mostly in the retail and hospitality sectors, and the losses have not been insignificant. Meanwhile, a number of mainstay businesses have been battered and bloodied — MGM Springfield, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Symphony, the Thunderbirds, Union Station, UMass Amherst and all the colleges and universities, every restaurant and performance venue in the region … the list goes on.

But they are still standing, and, in the meantime, a large army of small businesses have responded with imagination, perseverance, and the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined the region for more than 250 years.

We’re told many of these stories over the past nine months, and they have been inspirational. Businesses that found themselves struggling, through no fault of their own, discovered ways to pivot, find new revenue streams, and, in some rare cases, actually expand and grow their businesses.

If there was any bright spot to 2020 — and there were not many — watching this collective display of courage and determination was it.

And now that the calendar has turned to 2021, nothing has really changed. The operating environment is as challenging as ever, and even moreso for most hospitality businesses, now that winter has set in.

The next few months may be the most difficult yet, but we are confident that those same qualities that helped businesses ride out 2020 will enable them to continue the ride — until the day when ‘normal’ returns and the predicted pent-up demand will provide a much-needed lift to ventures across all sectors.

As the new year begins, the light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways off. But at least we can see it.

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