As 2019 comes to a close, you want to end it right, while also looking toward the promise of 2020. Below is a sampling of our blog posts from the past year most relevant to businesses, from how to throw a great (and liability-free) company holiday party to how to ensure compliance with the legal changes that will take effect after January 1st. You can skim through our advice below, or click on the links for more information. And best of luck in meeting your new year’s business and employment resolutions!
What better way to complete the year than to throw a party with your office? Maybe nothing, but it has to be done right! Company parties have been known to get out of hand and even degenerate into hotbeds of #MeToo infractions, leading many businesses in recent years to suspend their year-end parties altogether. But it is possible to have fun and keep your workforce safe at the same time. Setting company expectations beforehand, limiting the availability of alcohol, encouraging the use of rideshare services, and having a plan in place to respond to any potential problems are just some of the suggestions we highlight here for throwing an exciting bash without regrets!
Audit the Past Year
Use the last few weeks of the year to reflect on the past twelve months. What were your business’ greatest challenges, be they financial, employment-related, regulatory, or other? How well have your policies served you and your team? How suited is your management team to guiding the rest of your workforce? Ask yourself if you need further professional development or education to keep current with the changing landscape or your industry’s market. What have you learned about your industry, your team, and yourself this past year that can help you better manage your business? Be open to asking the input of your employees through anonymous online surveys or in an open forum. Accept their suggestions seriously, and be ready to make some necessary changes as you head into a new year.
KEY CHANGES OF THE PAST YEAR
Confidentiality and Arbitration
Under the Illinois Workplace Transparency Act, employers may not require employees to contractually agree to confidentiality clauses or to arbitrate disputes unless the employer extends a benefit beyond mere employment in exchange for such agreement. Employees, furthermore, cannot be barred from making good-faith reports of discrimination, harassment, or criminal conduct to an appropriate government agency or official. Read more about the Workplace Transparency Act here.
Illinois residents gained significant protections concerning personal social media accounts this past year through the Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act. Employers are now prohibited from demanding that candidates remove privacy controls from their social media accounts, show their accounts to an employer, or provide account passwords to an employer. To best ensure compliance with the Act, employers should follow our guidelines here, including steering clear of any questions related to social media during interviews.
Record-Keeping & Wage Changes
Amendments to the Illinois Minimum Wage Act that took effect in February 2019 strengthened the Act’s record-keeping provisions. An employer that fails to maintain employee records required by the Act can be subject to a penalty of $100 for each impacted employee.
The amendments also mandated that the minimum wage in Illinois reach $15 per hour by 2025 and strengthened penalties for failure to pay. Employees who are underpaid can recover three times the amount they were underpaid through a civil lawsuit, and may recover damages equivalent to 5% of the total amount they were underpaid for each month following underpayment. Read more about these changes here.
Employee Expense Reimbursements
An amendment to the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act that took effect at the beginning of 2019 explains the types of employee expenses that must be reimbursed by an employer and provides guidelines for how and when reimbursement should be effected. The Act also increases penalties for failure to reimburse by allowing for liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees. For more information, read our coverage here.
Pay History is Off the Table
The Illinois Equal Pay Act was amended this year to prohibit employers from screening applicants based on their pay history, requesting applicants to disclose their pay history, and seeking an applicant’s pay history from a current or former employer. Penalties for violators can be heavy. To ensure compliance, conduct a review of your job applications and hiring processes. Any questions related to compensation history should be removed from applications, and everyone involved in the hiring process should be trained on how to approach the topic of compensation during an interview. Read more about the pay history prohibition here.
Cannabis Changes in Illinois
Medical cannabis has been legal in Illinois for some time, and after the new year, recreational marijuana will be legal, too. These changes raise legitimate concerns for business owners. You might wonder how to balance your employees’ rights to privacy and to be free from unlawful discrimination with your right to formulate drug use policies for your workplace. Under the Illinois Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act, you generally cannot treat potential hires or current employees who use cannabis on their own time differently from non-cannabis users. That said, you may institute drug use policies that are uniformly applied, including drug-free workplaces. How such policies interface with medical cannabis disability accommodation claims is an area in which the law is still maturing. Read more about recreational marijuana in Illinois here.
Many employers got spooked this year after receiving “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration. These letters indicate discrepancies between an employee’s Social Security Number and/or name as it appears on a W2 Form and in the Social Security Administration’s records. Many employers terminated the employees in question, opening themselves up to various legal claims, instead of proceeding calmly and judiciously. Our guidelines for a prudent approach to addressing “no-match” letters can be found here.
POLICIES FOR THE NEW YEAR
Mandatory Sexual Harassment Training in Illinois
As of the first of the new year, all employers in Illinois will be required to provide sexual harassment training to their employees, regardless of the size of the workplace. The training requirement was ushered in by the Workplace Transparency Act. Such training will help protect employees from harassment at work, and prevent the oftentimes costly litigation that follows sexual harassment complaints. Read more about Illinois’ mandatory training here, and our tailored workplace training offerings here.
One of the most common complaints we receive from employees is poor treatment in the workplace, at the hands of co-workers or bosses. Even if antagonistic behavior isn’t technically illegal, it creates hostility in the workplace, and may eventually bleed into illegal territory. Moreover, tolerating jerks in your workplace can severely harm employee morale and hinder your business operations. Learn how to develop a “no jerk” policy through proper written guidelines and regular workplace training here.
Cultivating more openness around pay can improve employee satisfaction and productivity, keep workers from jumping ship for a competitor, and prevent potentially costly pay-related litigation. As mentioned above, you’ll want to review how compensation is handled in your recruitment processes. You might also consider conducting pay audits and ensuring that you have no hidden or “unofficial” policies that make employees fearful of discussing pay. The best approach is to be open with your team about how compensation is determined and what they can do to increase earnings, making clear that opportunities for pay increases are equally open to all who qualify. Read more about pay transparency guidelines here.
Our #MeToo mid-year check-in serves just as good a purpose at year’s end or right after the new year. Make sure that your business fosters a healthy workplace culture that avoids discrimination or harassment of any kind, as well as retaliation for good-faith reports of mistreatment. Conducting such a review is even more important in light of Illinois’ new mandatory training mentioned above. Read all our expert suggestions for your business’ #MeToo review here.
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How to Keep Up with It All
If modifications on the employment and business law landscape seem overwhelming, follow the advice we provide here for maintaining your awareness of legal changes. For example, consider subscribing to employment law and human resources e-newsletters. Many professional organizations publish weekly or monthly alerts delivered right to your e-mail inbox. As mentioned above, conducting an audit is a great way to take stock of legal changes and how they might impact your business. As always, if you need help, your best bet is to seek the expert counsel of an employment and business law attorney. The Prinz Law Firm is always ready to help!