Employment Compliance Checklist
Jeffrey L. Roth, JD
Every successful veterinary medical practice strives to achieve and maintain a high level of service to its clients, as well as provide the best, most efficient, care for its patients. Providing excellent service and patient care is primary to maintaining a financially viable practice. However, each practice is also a business, and other aspects of running a business also factor into the financial success of any practice.
This article will focus on suggestions for identifying and addressing employment law compliance issues and also identifying potential areas of improvement, that might help improve the bottom line of an otherwise successful practice.
Although veterinary medical practices are unique types of businesses, they are not unlike other service businesses when it comes to dealing with issues important to the practice including, employee orientation and training, employee turnover, hiring and maintaining competent and motivated employees, and creating a productive working environment free from the distractions of harassment and discrimination. However, unlike potentially larger businesses, most veterinary practices do not have the luxury of a dedicated human resource professional to address employment matters, and that task usually falls to the practice manager (whether in title, or in fact), the managing doctor, or the owner/doctor.
Potential Benefits of Review of Employment Practices
Regardless of who is responsible for human resource and employment issues at a practice, each practice should review its employment practices at least yearly. Reviewing employment practices can help the practice to:
-- ensure legal compliance
-- identify opportunities for improvement and areas of potential risk
-- help improve efficiency and productivity for both employees and customers
-- find cost reduction opportunities
-- improve employee communications and morale
-- provide a reality check in order to identify and correct shortfalls between what is intended, and what is actually delivered
Most Likely General Problem Areas
Most serious employment law problems originate in one of three or four stages of the employment relationship.
1. Hiring - Does the practice have a list of interview questions that are relevant to the jobs being offered, and limited to allowable inquiries relating to employee experience and qualifications, without inquiries that are either forbidden or irrelevant? Is the employment application limited to relevant information? Does it end with a statement where the employee indicates that the application is current and correct, and that if it is not, the employee may be subject to later discipline, including possible termination, due to any inaccuracies?Does the applicant give consent to check references, verify listed employment, do a criminal background check, and perform a pre-employment drug screen, if required?
2. Employee evaluation - Does the practice do regular employee performance reviews and set expectations with respect to level and quantity of work performed?Are such performance reviews actually substantive with discussions of strengths and weaknesses, with goal setting and measurements, or just a routine waste of time with little useable feedback? Are issues that relate to the employee’s performance documented and collected during the performance period for discussion at the performance review?If there is a policy regarding performance reviews, is it adhered to in a timely fashion, with all employees?
3. Employee Discipline and/or Termination - Are job duties and requirements, as well as appropriate on the job behavior, discussed or set out in policies or procedures? If there are published policies regarding behavior or discipline, does the practice follow them, and have these policies been distributed to employees so that they are aware of any requirements? Do employees know what is expected of them, so if they do not perform, documentation can be generated showing deviation from requirements or expectations? Is discipline promptly and uniformly enforced? Are the penalties for similar infractions relatively consistent? Has the employee been given due process and an opportunity to correct bad behavior? Has the employee been allowed to give his or her input regarding defense to any disciplinary action? Do employees know the handful of infractions that could cause their employment to be immediately terminated?
Every practice should do a yearly review of these areas, and related forms, documentation, and recordkeeping, especially where the practice has had historical problems in these areas.
Additional Likely Specific Problem Areas
1. Proper timekeeping -- Failure to keep track of employee attendance adversely impacts an employer’s ability to discipline employees who are constantly late, or are, for whatever reason, not present for scheduled work. In addition, not properly documenting when an employee begins and ends a work day could have serious ramifications with respect to claims relating to payment of minimum wage and overtime, as well as for hours worked. All hours worked must be recorded, and overtime pay for work in excess of 40 hours per work week must be paid, if worked, regardless of what a time sheet or timecard says. Timesheets that show hourly workers working exactly 40 hours per week every week are suspect in any Department of Labor audit, since employees often leave early or come in late. Also, timesheets regularly changed by management are equally suspect. Counting absences against an employee due to worker's compensation issues, an actual or perceived disability, or pregnancy, could generate additional employment claims.
2. Inadequate or improper recordkeeping -- Personnel files should include documentation regarding employee performance, including disciplinary warnings and performance evaluations. Such records should be accurate and detailed and not be vague or inconsistent. Failure to document employee issues and warn employees about poor performance is a prime reason why terminated employees often still receive unemployment compensation. Failure to complete or properly complete I-9 forms documenting an employee's identification and right to work can lead to serious penalties and fines. Not keeping separate medical files from general personnel files can also violate federal law, or cause complaints regarding privacy issues.
3. Misclassification of exempt and non-exempt jobs -- Doctors may be paid a salary, and are exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Larger veterinary practices with a dedicated veterinary practice manager might also characterize such a manager receiving an adequate salary as exempt from overtime requirements, if that person qualifies under one of the "white collar" exemptions under the FLSA. However, veterinary technicians are considered under the law to be nonexempt for the requirements of the FLSA, and must be paid overtime for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in one work week. Payment of a salary to such an employee that does not comply with these overtime requirements is not in compliance with the FLSA.
In sum, a little bit of time spent looking over these matters on a yearly basis can help a practice avoid employment law claims, or at least be better prepared to defend against a claim with no merit. In addition, for those who are interested in developing a better "in-house" competency with respect to human resources management, I would suggest becoming a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, http://www.shrm.org. At a cost of $180 per year, it can give a practice access to a wealth of information and many tools for managing employees. Regardless of how a practice manages its employees, it must have some basic competency in human resources management to understand and avoid employment related legal risks.