Small and mid-sized businesses sometimes struggle to instill “best practices” for people management because they do not have a personnel manager on their payroll. Owners of smaller businesses, including some fuel oil dealers, often just add the task of people management to their own responsibilities, said Laurie Glaude, a human resources consultant who specializes in helping small and mid-sized businesses comply with state and federal labor regulations.
“What happens is the owners of these small businesses have to balance all of these jobs and, by the way, execute their mission in order to make money,” Glaude said. The risk is that some personnel matter will fall through the cracks and the company will unwittingly violate a labor regulation. In many cases, smaller employers can be exposed to the same degree of liability as larger companies, Glaude said, meaning they could be subject to penalties that include being ordered to pay back wages and fines.
“They can be costly,” Glaude said of the penalties.
In broad terms, labor regulations are designed to deal with discrimination, insurance, wages and worker safety, with nuances in each state, said Glaude, who owns Aurora Business Solutions, Laconia, N.H., and consults regularly with business owners in that state and in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont.
If hiring a human resources manager isn’t feasible or practical, owners of smaller businesses can take other steps to comply with labor regulations, Glaude said. For instance, owners can turn to regulators as a source of advice and guidance. While some operators are reluctant to approach their state Department of Labor (DOL), thinking they might draw unwanted scrutiny, Glaude advised, “Look at the DOL as a resource to help you be compliant. It’s a great way to keep abreast of what’s changing because things change constantly.”
The website of a state Department of Labor can be a source of valuable information about regulations and regulatory changes, Glaude said. The New Hampshire Department of Labor website, for example, features text advising employees of their rights, which can be printed out and posted, as required, in the workplace.
“Part of being an employer is making sure that you’ve done your job as far as notifying your employees what their rights are and that’s where posting requirements come in,” Glaude said.
A “top ten” list of violations posted on the New Hampshire department’s website serves as a useful reference for business owners in that state – and as an eye-opener, unfortunately, for some.
The website says the list is provided “as a service to employers in order to assist with education and compliance in the future. It is a quick reference to the most common violations reported on the New Hampshire Department of Labor Inspector’s reports.”
Glaude said she discussed the list (see box) in a presentation at the annual meeting of the Oil Heat Council of New Hampshire, in September. Her aim was to give some guidance on what the New Hampshire department looks for in determining whether a company is complying with state laws.
New Hampshire’s department has been active in “auditing” – inspecting companies for labor law violations, Glaude said.
One pitfall for employers is maintaining accurate payroll records. “Organizations are responsible to have a time-keeping system that records all hours worked,” Glaude said. Part of the challenge for fuel oil companies stems from the fact that drivers are on the road, which can complicate the keeping of records, Glaude noted.
Failing to pay wages for breaks that are less than 20 minutes is another requirement that tends to trip up many employers. A typical example is when an employee clocks out for lunch, then is called back early because a customer needs them. “If that break is less than 20 minutes the employer is responsible to compensate the employee for that,” Glaude said.
Deductions from wages are another potential trouble spot. New Hampshire has specific guidelines on what employers’ can and cannot deduct from payroll, but many employers are unfamiliar with them, Glaude said.
“In New Hampshire employers are required to give written notice at the time of hire to all employees with respect to their wages and fringe benefits,” Glaude said, and the employee must sign that written notice.
But that’s not the end of it. Written notice, again signed by the employee, is also required each time that there is a change, Glaude said. “So whether you take money away or you give money, you need to do that in writing, one payroll period in advance. I’m sure many [companies] overlook that one.”
Misclassification of workers as independent contractors is a chronic issue in many industries. Glaude said, “It keeps popping up at both the state level and the federal level as a common violation.” If a fuel oil dealer hires an independent contractor to deliver fuel oil, the employer must determine whether or not the contract terms meet the state and federal definitions of a true independent contractor, Glaude emphasized.
A department of labor can audit a company at any time, Glaude said.
“Companies can go forever and never be audited,” she said. If there is a complaint, count on a department of labor to do an audit, she said, but usually there is no predicting an audit. If a department is finding trends in a particular industry, it will sometimes do what’s called a “sweep audit” of companies in that industry, Glaude said.
“You don’t know if you’ll ever be audited,” Glaude said. That’s good reason to arrange an unofficial inspection by a human resources consultant or a labor attorney, she suggested. This review of people management practices by an objective person can help identify where corrections are needed, Glaude said.
“What you don’t know is what’s going to harm you the most,” Glaude said. “Understand what it is that you’re responsible for doing as an employer. Be informed.”
Top 10 New Hampshire Labor Law Violations
1. Failure to keep accurate record of all hours worked.
2. Failure to provide written notice to employees of their wage rate, pay period, pay day and a description of fringe benefits, including any changes.
3. Employing Illegal Aliens (not having proper documentation).
4. Failure to pay all wages due for hours worked, fringe benefits, breaks less than 20 minutes, etc.
5. Failure to pay 2 hours minimum pay at their regular rate of pay on a given day that an employee reports to work at the request of the employer.
6. Illegal employment of workers under 18 (not having proper paperwork, hours violations, or working in a hazardous environment).
7. Failure to pay minimum wage for all hours worked.
8. Illegal deductions from wages.
9. Failure to secure and maintain workers compensation coverage and misclassification of employees.
10. Failure to have a written safety plan, joint loss management committee and safety summary form filed biennially, as required.
Note: New Hampshire labor laws can be found at <i>www.labor.state.nh.us</i>