How Do Municipalities Affect Your Employee Handbook?

City Hall brass signMunicipalities are leading the way in expanding employee rights. So, if updating an employee handbook is not challenging enough, employers now find themselves trying to keep up with municipalities stretching their own legislating power to carve out rights and benefits for those residing or employed in their city.

What does that mean for employers? First and foremost, they must now not only decide whether a municipal law affects their workplace but also determine how it relates to federal and state law. Then, employers should review their employee handbook to determine how that particular municipal law affects longstanding policies and practices. Unfortunately for employers, the increasing trend of municipal activism touches on policies that impose a financial and practical burden on the employer.

Here are the top three municipal trends impacting employee handbooks:

1.       Leave Laws

Cities have long paved the way for requiring employers to provide leave rights to their employees. For instance, San Francisco required paid leave to its employees before California made it a state-wide mandate last year. Since then, New York City, Philadelphia and Seattle have followed to mandate sick leave.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) for employers, these sick leave laws are typically not one-size-fits all as the determination of an employer’s obligation to provide paid sick leave depends on the number of its employees. For example, in some municipalities such as New York City, only employers with five or more employees are required to provide paid sick leave while smaller ones must provide unpaid sick leave. While smaller employers may think they are off the hook from providing paid sick leave that may all change if they hire new employees.

One issue that an employer should keep in mind is determining which employees are eligible for leave. Most municipal leave laws require that employees work a certain number of hours within a particular location. For instance, employees need to work only 40 hours a week in a year in Philadelphia to qualify for paid sick leave while employees in Jersey City must work at least 80 hours in a year in Jersey City to receive paid sick leave.

The fact that the location of the hours worked plays a key factor in an employee’s eligibility to receive paid sick leave is something employers should consider when hiring new employees and making other employment-related decisions, such as allowing an employee to telecommute from a location that requires paid sick leave.

In addition to sick leave, municipalities are passing laws that provide employees leave for certain acceptable reasons. In Philadelphia, for example, an employer must provide either four or eight weeks of unpaid leave to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. And just this week, San Francisco became the first municipality in the nation to require employers to provide paid parental leave to its employees.

Considering the nuances of these municipal leave laws, employers face a daunting task in determining how these laws overlap with state requirements (if any) and federal (FMLA, if applicable) requirements and managing conflicting eligibility requirements.

2.       Reasonable Accommodations

As with federal and state reasonable accommodation laws, municipal laws also generally require an employer to provide such an accommodation unless doing so would create an undue hardship, e.g. significant difficulty or expense.

For instance, both New York City and Philadelphia require employers to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees who work in those cities and have needs related to pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions. As a result, if an employee presents herself to an employer with a need related to any of the above conditions, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation such as restroom breaks, periodic rest for those who stand for prolonged periods of time, and assistance with manual labor.

In addition to pregnancy accommodations, Philadelphia employers also must comply with a local ordinance requiring them to provide a lactation accommodation, or an employee’s need to express breast milk. Such reasonable accommodations include providing paid or unpaid break time to express milk and providing a private, sanitary space that is not a bathroom where an employee can express breast milk. This is another example of how employers in one city would be required to provide a certain benefit to employees by the mere location of their workplace and adjust their employee handbooks accordingly.

3.       Equal Employment Opportunity Laws

While most states have equal employment laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment against employees and applicants based on certain protected classes including race, color, sex and religion, many cities go further and protect additional classes of individuals.

Many of these laws include categories not protected under federal and state law (e.g., pregnant women and victims of domestic abuse) and/or may extend to smaller employers than those covered under the federal and state laws. For example, San Francisco prohibits employers from taking an adverse action against an employee based on their caregiver status while New York City not only prohibits discrimination based on caregiver status but unemployment status as well.

In recent years, cities also have been passing measures expanding protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals in instances where state law does not provide such protection. For instance, several municipalities have passed laws to allow transgender people to use public bathrooms designated for the sex with which they identify. However, as recent headlines clearly illustrate, some states, including North Carolina, which overruled a Charlotte bathroom ordinance, and Mississippi have responded with laws preventing cities from passing laws that ban discrimination against the LGBT community.

While these local “bathroom bills” may not have initially touched upon employer-employee relations, the actions of these states have blocked municipalities from providing protections to the LGBT community and will affect the employment rights and benefits afforded to LGBT individuals.

Employers, especially those with multiple locations in one state, should become familiar with municipal laws that could affect the workplace because, as shown above, an employer may find itself having to possibly prepare two different employee handbooks for neighboring workplaces based merely on the zip codes.

Does your organization need separate handbook policies for employees located in different municipalities? Let us know by leaving a comment below. 

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