Summer Workplace Issues

Author: Beth P. Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor

With longer days, warmer temperatures and school vacations, the arrival of summer often presents unique issues for employers involving dress codes, social events, time off and protecting workers from the heat, among other things. It is critical for an employer to recognize the challenging issues summer may present and understand the best practices for handling these issues in order to make the workplace more productive and efficient as well as avoid any legal issues.

The following are key issues an employer should consider so that it can effectively manage its workforce during the summer months and minimize any potential liability.

1. Summer Dress Codes

A summer dress code is an inexpensive way to boost workplace morale and make employees feel more comfortable when the heat hits. It is essential for an employer to communicate the summer dress code policy to all employees and to train supervisors so that they know:

  • The employer's expectations;
  • When the policy is in effect;
  • What is considered acceptable workplace attire (e.g., golf shirts, khakis, sundresses); and
  • What is considered unacceptable workplace attire (e.g., beach cover ups, flip flops).

Further, an employer should emphasize the need to look professional and appropriate at all times depending on the type of workplace and the amount of interaction with clients, customers and third parties. In implementing and enforcing any dress code an employer should avoid policies that impose unequal burdens on men and women or other protected classes. Otherwise, an employer may face a discrimination lawsuit. Additionally, an employer may be required to provide reasonable accommodations based on religion, race, transgender status or other protected class status. The employer should not hesitate to follow up on violations, properly document them, provide warnings and impose discipline if needed.

2. Hygiene and Grooming

During the hot summer months, body odor and other hygiene issues often become more prevalent. It is important for an employer to address such issues as soon as they arise because they can affect productivity, health and safety and public image. A grooming policy will notify employees of the employer's expectations regarding hygiene at work and let employees and supervisors know that any hygiene issues should be handled in a sensitive manner, as employees may become uncomfortable or embarrassed. Further, an employer should keep in mind that poor hygiene and/or body odor may be related to a disability or a religious belief, and thus be prepared to provide reasonable accommodations.

Many employees' job duties and responsibilities may require them to spend a considerable amount of time working outside. In the summer, hot temperatures can cause employees to develop various heat-related issues including sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rash. It is important for an employer take the proper precautions to protect the health and safety of employees, as well as comply with the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). An employer who fails to take the appropriate measures to protect employees from the heat may face OSH Act fines and penalties, as well as claims for damages employees suffer while working. It is critical for an employer properly protect employees by educating them about the steps they can take to protect themselves, such as wearing sunscreen and drinking water. An employer should also provide breaks, set up worksites in the shade and shut down operations during extreme heat waves. Further, an employer should train all supervisors and managers to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness and respond quickly if employees are in distress.

4. Employer-Sponsored Events

While summer workplace parties or outings such as company picnics, barbecues or baseball games, may encourage workplace camaraderie, boost employee morale and show appreciation, they can also result in a host of legal issues. An employer can avoid wage and hour claims by employees claiming they should be compensated for attending the event by making attendance voluntary, holding events outside of working hours and avoiding discussion of work-related matters. Further, an employer should take the proper precautions when it comes to serving an alcohol and minimize the risk of any inappropriate behavior or harassment by limiting alcohol intake and having managers and supervisors be on the lookout for unprofessional workplace behavior. Further, an employer can reduce the risk of workers' compensation claims by having employees take proper safety measure and reminding managers and supervisors to look out for safety hazards. The employer and supervisors should carefully monitor employees who are drinking, prevent them from driving and consider providing safe transportation home.

5. Summer Interns

During the summer months, many industries hire interns to provide exposure and insight into the business and, potentially, help individuals prepare for future employment. However, many unpaid interns have filed lawsuits claiming they should be considered employees and thereby be accorded compensation and the proper workplace protections. Unpaid internships will not be appropriate in most workplaces. An employer that is considering unpaid internships should establish clear parameters by:

  • Setting a definite timeframe for the internship;
  • Ensuring that the internship emphasizes learning and a classroom/teaching environment and provides shadowing and mentorship opportunities;
  • Having interns sign an acknowledgement that the internship is unpaid;
  • Considering the provision of college credit for participation;
  • Making sure the employer does not benefit from the intern's work and making sure the intern does not displace regular employees;
  • Supervising interns closely and avoiding giving them too much autonomy;
  • Avoiding promising any jobs after the conclusion of the internship; and
  • Ensuring compliance with any federal, state or local laws regarding interns.

6. Telecommuting and Flexible Schedules

Summer can be a time when employees are more interested in telecommuting or flexible schedules to help them spend more time with family, watch children home from school, enjoy the summer weather and longer days and otherwise improve work-life balance. An employer may support employees by allowing them to work remotely and implementing flex-time policies. However, if an employer permits this, it should be sure to establish comprehensive policies and procedures. An employer should ensure that employees record the time actually spent working and outline the employer's guidelines and expectations regarding productivity and deadlines. An employer should know that it may still be liable for any unpaid wages or overtime for time spent working and thus should make sure to compensate employees properly based on time records.

7. Seasonal Hires

When hiring any seasonal workers or temporary workers to assist during the summer months, it is important for an employer to utilize the same hiring practices and background checks as the employer uses for all full-time workers. Further an employer should be sure to comply with all applicable discrimination, harassment and child labor laws.

8. Time Off and Summer Vacations

Summer may be a time when employees are more likely to take time off from work to enjoy vacations with families and friends or enjoy the beautiful weather and time away from the workplace Thus, an employer should make sure that its policies regarding vacation or Paid Time Off (PTO) are communicated to all employees and placed in an employee handbook. Further, such policies should be applied in uniform manner to prevent discrimination claims. An employer may require employees to notify it in advance of when they will be taking time off so that the employer can properly plan for any absences with respect to scheduling and coverage.