This is a challenging time to manage human resources at a veterinary practice. The legal landscape is ever-changing, and even innocent violations can have substantial consequences. Fortunately, it is never too late to put your HR house in order.
Here are 10 tips to help your practice avoid some common—and costly—HR hazards.
1. Compensatory Time
Rewarding extra time off to employees who work long hours—a practice known as providing compensatory time—sounds appealing. But if “comp time” is being used as a substitute for overtime pay, the custom is unlawful.
Under federal law, private veterinary practices must pay their hourly employees time-and-a-half for all hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. This overtime compensation must be a monetary payment that goes through payroll, not extra time off the next week.
2. Meal Breaks
Many states have laws requiring employers to provide meal breaks. While the required meal breaks typically may be unpaid, there is a catch. In some jurisdictions, if the employees are not relieved of all duties and free to leave the premises during their meal break, then the meal break must be paid.
Is your practice subject to such legal restrictions? If so, then requiring staff to remain on-site to answer phones or provide other assistance may give rise to costly claims for unpaid wages.
3. Final Pay
When an involuntary termination or resignation occurs, your practice may be subject to state laws addressing final pay. For example, final pay in Massachusetts must be paid on the date of discharge when the employee is “fired,” and in all cases, earned but unused vacation time must be paid as wages in the final paycheck.
Be sure to review your state’s rules, as even inadvertent violations can give rise to substantial liability.
4. Social Media
Is it OK to discipline or fire an employee for something she posts on social media? What if the post says something unkind about the practice owner or the way the clinic is run?
The National Labor Relations Board has reinstated employees who were discharged for such postings, ruling that the postings were within the employees’ workplace rights. This is a tricky area of the law, so it is advisable to implement a carefully drafted social-media policy and to review all alleged violations with counsel.
5. Data Security
If your practice stores personal information, such as employee or client names together with social security numbers, driver’s license numbers or credit or debit card numbers, then your practice may need to have a written information-security policy.
In the event of a data breach, the existence or absence of such a policy can have serious implications for the practice’s potential liability. In this era of electronic commerce and recordkeeping, compliance with data-security mandates should be a top priority.
6. Drugs and Alcohol
The presence of controlled substances on-site, along with the proliferation of medical and recreational marijuana laws, makes it essential for veterinary practices to have drug and alcohol policies. The policies should clearly set forth the discipline that may result from using or distributing prohibited substances at work, as well as when substance-abuse testing may be required.
Experienced employment counsel can help you craft policies appropriate for your practice.
7. Health Insurance Contributions
Many veterinary employers pay a portion of their employees’ health insurance premiums and deduct the employees’ contribution from payroll on a pretax basis. However, for this to be lawful, the practice must have a Section 125 plan, also known as a cafeteria plan, in place.
In addition, veterinary practices no longer are permitted to reimburse employees for premium payments made to individual health insurance plans. Veterinary practices should take prompt action to achieve compliance, as violations may result in tax penalties or an IRS audit.
Nothing is more sacred to practice owners than client lists, pricing strategy, financial reports and marketing plans. However, many veterinary practices lack confidentiality policies to protect this sensitive information. Others maintain such policies but fail to specify the full range of business records deemed confidential and proprietary.
A well-crafted confidentiality policy should make all employees aware of the scope of this obligation as well as the risks of unauthorized use or disclosure of your sensitive records.
9. Harassment Prevention
Claims of sexual and other harassment can be costly and stressful to defend.
Does your practice have a written policy providing appropriate access points for reporting allegations of harassment, requiring a prompt investigation, addressing confidentiality issues and specifying the range of appropriate remediation or discipline? Whether required by your state or not, all practices will benefit by having such a policy.
10. Employee Handbook
Your employment policies and practices should be memorialized in an employee handbook. This not only clarifies workplace issues for employees but also helps managers lawfully handle HR matters as they arise.
Be sure to have appropriate “at-will” disclaimers establishing that the handbook does not create contractual rights, as well as language giving the practice sole discretion over benefit offerings, discipline and other business judgments.
Do you have questions about labor, employment or business laws affecting your veterinary practice? Submit them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Selected questions may be answered in upcoming articles in Veterinary Practice News.
Todd A. Newman, Esq., works closely with veterinary practices as president and owner of a Salisbury, Mass., law firm (www.toddnewmanlaw.com). He specializes in business, employment, labor and litigation matters.
Originally published in the February 2017 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today!