National, local policies pose regulatory challenges for employers

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WASHINGTON, DC — Following a year that brought several changes to workplace policy, employers need to monitor both legislation passing through Capitol Hill as well as policies being written in City Hall.

That was the message from Diana Bardes, an attorney with Mooney, Green, Saindon, Murphy & Welch, who spoke Tuesday at the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans legislative summit. She said one challenging issue can be seen by employers writing a patchwork of paid sick leave policies to address a number of mandates.

For example, an Obama executive order mandating sick leave for federal contractor employees, once considered primed for reversal by the Trump administration, may be here to stay, Bardes said. “It doesn’t look like this is a priority for appeal,” she added.

More importantly, however, over the past five years there has been a growing trend of localities passing laws mandating paid sick leave, she said.

“And following on those cities that began to take these initiatives, a number of states have followed their lead,” she added, noting that this year Maryland, and Washington have enacted their own paid sick leave regulations. Rhode Island will enact its own regulation effective July 1, 2018.

While some states have been passing paid leave laws, other states have been banning localities from enacting such laws — particularly in the south and midwest, Bardes noted. “We’re seeing that divide where some states are moving forward and some are taking a step back,” she said.

Some typical characteristics of these laws, Bardes said, typically include an hour of paid leave for every 30 worked and typically require employers to permit workers to use sick leave for family care.

Harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment has also taken center stage in the national spotlight, and employers might be able to take some notes from the changes happening in Congress, Bardes said.

While its progress has been slow, a bill is moving along that will make changes to harassment claims on Capitol Hill, and have already been made effective in the House, she said. These changes include:

· Congress members are prohibited from having sexual relations with their staffers.
· A new office will be set up to provide House staffers with legal counsel and guidance as they navigate accusing powerful people of sexual harassment.
· Each House member must adopt internal office policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination.
· House lawmaker must certify they are not using their budgets to settle workplace harassment claims

In addition, staffers will no longer be required to have mandatory legal counseling before they accuse their bosses, nor do they have to sit through meditation or wait for a “cooling off period” to decide whether to accuse a lawmaker, Bardes said.

If companies out there have these 1-2-3 steps before they can do anything they should really reconsider that, she advised. “You’re putting a victim in the same room as [their alleged abuser] and discounting their accounts, and that’s bad.”

Further, something that really would have a bigger impact the private sector is a bill sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) called the Sunlight in the Workplace Harassment Act.

This law would require public companies to openly share relevant data on allegations and settlements regarding issues like sexual abuse in the workplace or discrimination based on race, age, sexual orientation or disability such as how much paid in settlements and the average length in time it took to resolve a complaint.

This provides two positive benefits, Bardes said. For one, it’ll give important information to potential employees on what they could be getting into. Additionally, it could shame companies in a sense to make sure they’re handling these situations properly; in other words, making sure CEOs and other company leaders are thinking about how they deal with harassment training and current policies.

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