Are You Sure You Want to Expand? Myriad State and Local Employment Laws Cause Numerous Headaches for Employers

Labor & Employment Newsletter

Client Alert


“Arizona’s New Paid Sick Leave Law Goes into Effect in July.” “San Francisco Passes ‘Lactation in the Workplace’ Ordinance.” Headlines such as these flood the email of human resources professionals and employment lawyers. As federal employment statutes remain largely unchanged, state and local governments have picked up the slack.

The difficulty for employers with operations in multiple locations is not simply that they must learn and ensure compliance with the substantive requirements of these new laws. Many of these laws also impose administrative requirements, such as requiring notices to be posted in the workplace, new employment policies to be drafted, and employee handbooks to be updated. The personnel manual a company spent dozens of hours and thousands of dollars to review and update can be made obsolete (or worse, unlawful) by the vote of a city council.

Some of the more common employment ordinances passed by state and local governments recently include the following.

State and local minimum wage requirements. The federal minimum wage, which is set at $7.25 per hour, has remained unchanged since 2009. More than half of states have passed laws setting the minimum wage for at least certain jobs above this amount. Moreover, numerous local governments have enacted minimum wage ordinances, with some ordinances establishing a minimum wage of more than twice the federal amount.

Paid sick leave. Each year, an increasing number of state and local governments enact paid sick leave laws. Most of these laws do not require more time off than private employers typically grant. However, they frequently require some or all of an employee’s unused time to carry over from year to year, and they may extend paid leave to circumstances beyond that covered by an employer’s policy. For example, Arizona’s new law, which went into effect July 1, requires employers to grant paid leave to eligible employees who request time off to take care of a spouse’s grandparent who is ill.

Accommodations in the workplace. An example of this type of ordinance is San Francisco’s recently passed Lactation in the Workplace Ordinance, which goes into effect January 1, 2018. California law requires employers to provide a “reasonable” amount of break time to accommodate nursing mothers and to provide them with a room in close proximity to their work area to express milk in private. The San Francisco ordinance goes beyond state law and requires that the lactation room be safe, clean, and free of toxic or hazardous materials; that it contain a surface to place a breast pump and other personal items; that it include a place to sit and access to electricity; and that it has access to a refrigerator and a sink. Further, the San Francisco ordinance requires every employer to maintain a written “lactation accommodation” policy that includes certain required elements. The policy must be distributed to employees upon hire, included in the employee handbook, and provided to any employee who inquires about or requests pregnancy or parental leave.

Given the rapidly-changing state of employment laws below the federal level, human resources professionals who work for employers with operations in multiple states (or even multiple cities) can feel like a hamster on a wheel, with no way to slow down. Although we cannot stop the passage of more state and local laws, we can offer four tips on how to deal with them.

1. Know the laws. Easier said than done, we know. However, the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rings true here. Large employers with a significant human resources staff may find it best to divide responsibilities by state so an individual employee becomes responsible for monitoring – and understanding – legal changes in certain states. Alternatively, employers can divide responsibilities by subject matter so individual employees become subject matter experts and bear responsibility for monitoring changes in state laws in their area of expertise.

2. Communicate legal changes to managers. It is not sufficient for the human resources department to know and understand the law. Employees frequently address questions first to their immediate supervisors, so it is important that employers communicate legal changes promptly and correctly to supervisors. Legal updates should be a mandatory agenda item for all supervisor and manager meetings.

3. Communicate legal changes to employees. Many questions can be avoided – and time saved – if employers effectively communicate legal changes to all employees. In addition to making legal updates an agenda item for manager and supervisor meetings, employers should ensure that important changes are communicated regularly to all employees. This practice not only increases efficiency by answering questions before they are asked but also conveys to employees that the company is professional, organized, and prepared. It also increases the likelihood employees will feel comfortable addressing questions and concerns directly to the company because they are confident they will receive accurate information in response.

4. Review policies and manuals often. Not long ago, companies were ahead of the curve if they reviewed their employee handbooks every two years. How quaint that seems now. At a minimum, a company should review its employee handbook and other personnel policies annually and perhaps even as frequently as every six months to make sure no state and local laws fall through the cracks.

As is true with most employment issues, developing a solid process to become aware of and implement state and local laws is the best way to manage the chaos that can be created by the influx of ever-changing requirements. The wheel may not slow down, but it can be easier for the hamster to stay on it.