Preventive HR Strategies to Minimize Post Holiday Celebration Legal Hangovers

November 30, 2009

As the 2009 Holiday Season moves into full swing, your company may want to take some common sense precautions to minimize the risk of waking up with a post-Holiday Season business liability hangover. The music, food, game playing, toasting with alcohol and other aspects of the celebratory atmosphere at holiday parties and in the workplace during the Holiday Season heighten the risk that certain employees or other business associates will engage in, or be subject to, risky or other inappropriate behavior that can create liability exposures or other business concerns for your business.

Discrimination & Sexual Harassment

Whether company-sponsored or not, holiday parties and other celebrations where employees celebrate with other employees or clients tend to fuel bad behavior by inviting fraternization, lowering inhibitions and obscuring the line between appropriate and inappropriate social and business behavior.

The relaxation of the environment heightens the risk that certain employees or clients will make unwelcome sexual advances, make sexually suggestive or other inappropriate statements, or engage in other actions that expose the business to sexual harassment or other employment discrimination liability. To minimize these exposures, businesses should take steps to communicate and reinforce company policies and expectations about sexual harassment, discrimination, fraternization and other conduct viewed as inappropriate by the company.  The company should caution employees that the company continues to expect employees and business partners to adhere to company rules against sexual harassment and other inappropriate discrimination at company sponsored and other gatherings involving other employees or business associates.  To enhance the effectiveness of these reminders, a company should consider providing specific guidance about specific holiday-associated activities that create heightened risks.  For instance, a business that anticipates its employees will participate in white elephant or other gift exchanges involving other employees or business associates may wish to specifically include a reminder to exercise care to avoid selecting a gift that may be sexually suggestive or otherwise offensive.  Businesses also may want to remind employees that the company does not expect or require that employees submit to unwelcome sexual or other inappropriate harassment when participating in parties or other social engagements with customers or other business partners. 

Businesses also should use care to manage other discrimination exposures in the planning of holiday festivities, gift exchanges, and other activities.  Exercise care to ensure that business connected holiday parties, communications, gifts and other December festivities reflect appropriate sensitivity to religious diversity.  Businesses also should be vigilant in watching for signs of inappropriate patterns of discrimination in the selection of employees invited to participate in company-connected social events as well as off-duty holiday gatherings sponsored by managers and supervisors.

Alcohol Consumption

The prevalence of alcohol consumption during the Holiday Season also can create a range of business concerns.  Most businesses recognize that accidents caused by alcohol intoxication at work or work-related functions create substantial liability exposures both to workers and any third parties injured by a drunken employee.  Businesses also may face “dram shop” claims from family members or other guests attending company sponsored functions injured or injure others after being allowed to over-imbibe.  To minimize these risks at company-sponsored events, many companies elect not to serve or limit the alcohol served to guests at company sponsored events.  To support the effectiveness of these efforts, many businesses also choose to prohibit or restrict the consumption of guest provided alcohol at company events.

Businesses concerned with these liability exposures should take steps to manage the potential risks that commonly arise when employees or clients consume alcohol at company sponsored events or while attending other business associated festivities. Businesses that elect to serve alcohol at company functions or anticipate that employees will attend other business functions where alcohol will be served need to consider the potential liability risks that may result if the alcohol impaired judgment of an employee or other guest causes him to injure himself or someone else.  Any company that expects that an employee might consume alcohol at a company sponsored or other business associated event should communicate clearly its expectation that employees not over-imbibe and abstain from driving under the influence.  Many businesses also find it beneficial to redistribute information about employee assistance programs (EAPs) along with this information.  You can find other tips for planning workplace parties to minimize alcohol related risks on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website here.

When addressing business related alcohol consumption, many businesses will want to consider not only alcohol consumption at business related events as well as potential costs that may arise from off-duty excess alcohol consumption. Whether resulting from on or off duty consumption, businesses are likely to incur significant health and disability related benefit costs if an employee is injured in an alcohol-related accident.  Furthermore, even when no injury results, productivity losses attributable to excess alcohol consumption, whether on or off duty, can prove expensive to business.  Accordingly, virtually all businesses can benefit from encouraging employees to be responsible when consuming alcohol in both business and non-business functions.

Businesses also may want to review their existing health and other benefit programs, liability insurance coverage and employment policies to determine to ensure that they adequately protect and promote the company’s risk management objectives.  Many health and disability plans incorporate special provisions affecting injuries arising from inappropriate alcohol use as well as mental health and alcohol and drug treatment programs.  Similarly, many businesses increasingly qualify for special discounts on automobile and general liability policies based upon representations that the business has in effect certain alcohol and drug use policies.  Businesses can experience unfortunate surprises if they don’t anticipate the implications of these provisions on their health benefit programs or liability insurance coverage. Reviewing these policies now to become familiar with any of these requirements and conditions also can be invaluable in helping a business to respond effectively if an employee or guest is injured in an alcohol-related accident during the Holiday Season.

Concerned employers may want to listen in on the “Plan Safe Office Parties this Holiday Season” seminar that the National Safety  Council plans to host on December 9, 2009 from 10:30 a.m. -11:30 a.m. Central Time. For more information or to register call (800) 621-7619 or see here.

Gift Giving & Gratuities

The exchange of gifts during the Holiday Season also can raise various concerns. As a starting point, businesses generally need to confirm that any applicable tax implications arising from the giving or receiving of gifts are appropriately characterized and reported in accordance with applicable tax and other laws.  Government contractors, health industry organizations, government officials and other entities also frequently may be required to comply with specific statutory, regulatory, contractual or ethical requirements affecting the giving or receiving of gifts or other preferences.  In addition to these externally imposed legal mandates, many businesses also voluntarily have established conflict of interest, gift giving or other policies to minimize the risk that employee loyalty or judgment will be comprised by gifts offered or received from business partners or other outsiders.   Businesses concerned about these and other issues may want to review the adequacy of current business policies affecting gifting and adopt and communicate any necessary refinements to these policies.  To promote compliance, businesses also should consider communicating reminders about these policies to employees and business associates during the Holiday Season. Even a simple e-mail reminder to employees that the company expects them to be familiar with and comply with these policies can help promote compliance and provide helpful evidence in the event that an employee engages in an unauthorized violation of these rules.

Performance, Attendance & Time Off

Businesses also commonly face a range of attendance and productivity concerns during December.  The winter cold and flu season and other post-celebration illnesses, vacations, and winter weather inevitably combine to fuel a rise in absenteeism in December. Managing staffing needs around the legitimate requests for excused time off by employees presents real challenges for many businesses.  Further complications can arise when dealing with employees suspected of mischaracterizing the reason for their absence or otherwise gaming the company’s time off policies.  Meanwhile, performance and productivity concerns also become more prevalent as workers allow holiday shopping, personal holiday preparations, and other personal distractions to distract their performance.  Businesses concerned with these challenges ideally will have in place well-designed policies concerning attendance, time off and productivity that comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and other laws. Businesses should exercise care when addressing productivity and attendance concerns to investigate and document adequately their investigation before imposing discipline. Businesses also should ensure that their policies are appropriately and even-handedly administered.  They also should exercise care to follow company policies, to maintain time records for non-exempt workers, to avoid inappropriately docking exempt worker pay, and to provide all required notifications and other legally mandated rights to employees taking medical, military or other legally protected leaves. In the event it becomes necessary to terminate an employee during December, careful documentation can help the business to defend this decision.  Furthermore, businesses should be careful to ensure that all required COBRA notifications, certificates of creditable coverage, pension and profit-sharing notice and distribution forms, and other required employment and employee benefit processes are timely fulfilled.

Timely Investigation & Notification

Businesses faced with allegations of discrimination, sexual harassment or other misconduct also should act promptly to investigate any concerns and if necessary, take appropriate corrective action.  Delay in investigation or redress of discrimination or other improprieties can increase the liability exposure of a business presented with a valid complaint and complicate the ability to defend charges that may arise against the business.  Additionally, delay also increases the likelihood that a complaining party will seek the assistance of governmental officials, plaintiff’s lawyers or others outside the corporation in the redress of his concern.

If a report of an accident, act of discrimination or sexual harassment or other liability related event arises, remember to consider as part of your response whether you need to report the event to any insurers or agencies.  Injuries occurring at company related functions often qualify as occupational injuries subject to worker’s compensation and occupational safety laws.  Likewise, automobile, employment practices liability, and general liability policies often require covered parties to notify the carrier promptly upon receipt of notice of an event or claim that may give rise to coverage, even though the carrier at that time may not be obligated to tender a defense or coverage at that time.

If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending these or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer or another Curran Tomko Tarski LLP attorney of your choice.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and a nationally recognized author and speaker, Ms. Stamer is experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, risk management  and internal controls matters. Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation, health and other employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment laws, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. She has counseled and represented employers on these and other workforce matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Examples of other recent updates you may have missed include:

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.


Employer H1N1 Virus Risk Management Requires Employer Care To Manage Virus Risks Without Violating Employment Discrimination or Other Laws

November 30, 2009

As the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continues cautioning Americans to expect a resurgence of the H1N1 virus, employers should continue to take prudent steps to defend their organization and their workers against a widespread H1N1 outbreak and the attendant lost time, health and disability costs, OSHA and other liability exposures and other personal and financial consequences likely to result from an outbreak. 

Employers wishing to deter the spread of the disease in their workplace should educate workers about these recommendations and consider taking steps to encourage workers to comply with these recommendations. When planning or taking steps to protect their workplaces from the H1N1 virus pandemic or other outbreaks of communicable diseases, however, employers must use care to avoid violating the Americans With Disabilities Act or other employment laws.

Preventing, Recognizing & Mitigating Risks of H1N1

Although the number of reported cases of H1N1 virus cases has declined in many states in recent weeks, CDC officials are warning American’s that the crisis is not over yet.  CDC officials last week warned Americans to expect H1N1 infection to rise as the holiday approaches and the winter progresses. With flu activity already higher than what is seen during the peak of many regular flu seasons and the H1NA virus accounting for almost all of the flu viruses identified so for this season,  Accordingly,  the CDC continues to encourage Americans to be alert for symptoms of H1N1 or other flu and to take other precautions including to get vaccinated.

Employers should continue to encourage workers and their families to take precautions to avoid catching the virus, to be on the watch for H1N1 virus or other flu infection and to respond appropriately if they, members of their families or others in the workplace exhibit these symptoms.   To help promote health habits within their workforce, many businesses may want to download and circulate to employees and families the free resources published by the CDC here.  Businesses and other concerned parties also can track governmental reports about the swine flu and other pandemic concerns at here.   

For those not already suffering from the virus and particularly for those at higher risk, the CDC continues to recommend vaccination. People recommended by the CDC to receive the vaccine as soon possible include:  health care workers; pregnant women; people ages 25 through 64 with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes; anyone from 6 months through 24 years of age; and people living with or caring for infants under 6 months old.  As the vaccine becomes available, many employers are encouraging workers and their families to get vaccinated by offering vaccination clinics at or near their worksites, arranging for health plan coverage for vaccinations with reduced or no co-payments or deductibles, and/or sharing information about government sponsored or other vaccination clinics. 

While the CDC says getting employees and their families to get a flu shot remains the best defense against a flu outbreak, it also says getting employees and family members to consistently practice good health habits like covering a cough and washing hands also is another important key to prevent the spread of germs and prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu.  Employers should encourage employees and their families to take the following steps: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too;
  • Stay home when you are sick to help prevent others from catching your illness;
  •  Cover your mouth and nose;
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick;
  • Clean your hands to protect yourself from germs;
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth;
  • Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth; and
  • Practice other good health habits.  Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.

Employers also should encourage workers and their families to be alert to possible signs of H1N1 or other flu symptoms and to respond appropriately to possible infection.  According to the CDC, all types of flu including H1NA typically include many common symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Coughing and/or sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Headaches and/or body aches
  • Chills
  • Fatigue

Patients suffering from H1N1 flu usually report these same symptoms, but the symptoms often are more severe. In addition to the above symptoms, a number of H1N1 flu cases reported vomiting and diarrhea.

CDC recommends individuals diagnosed with H1N1 flu should:

  • Stay home and avoid contact with others for at least 24 hours after a fever (100°F or 37.8°C) is gone without the use of fever reducing medicine except to get medical care or for other things that must be done that no one else can do;
  • Avoid close contact with others, especially those who might easily get the flu, such as people age 65 years and older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), pregnant women, young children, and infants;
  • Clean hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub often, especially after using tissues or coughing/sneezing into your hands;
  • Cover coughs and sneezes;
  • Wear a facemask when sharing common spaces with other household members to help prevent spreading the virus to others. This is especially important if other household members are at high risk for complications from influenza;
  • Drink clear fluids such as water, broth, sports drinks, or electrolyte beverages made for infants to prevent becoming dehydrated;
  • Get plenty of rest;
  • Follow doctor’s orders; and
  • Watch for signs for a need for immediate medical attention. Suffers should get medical attention right away if the sufferer has difficulty breathing or chest pain,  purple or blue discoloration of the lips, is vomiting and unable to keep liquids down, or shows signs of dehydration, such as feeling dizzy when standing or being unable to urinate.

In seeking to contain the spread of the virus within their workplace, employers also should be sensitive to workplace policies or practices that may pressure employees with a contagious disease to report to work despite an illness and consider whether the employer should adjust these policies temporarily or permanently in light of the ongoing pandemic.  For instance, financial pressures and the design and enforcement of policies regarding working from home and/or qualifying for paid or unpaid time off significantly impact the decisions employees make about whether to come to work when first experiencing symptoms of illness.  Employers of workers who travel extensively – may wish to delay or restrict travel for some period. 

Employers Must Employment Discrimination & Other Legal Compliance Risks

Many employers may want to evaluate and appropriately revise existing policies with an eye to better defending their workforce against a major outbreak.  Whether or not the disease afflicts any of its workers, businesses can anticipate the swine flu outbreak will impact their operations – either as a result of occurrences affecting their own or other businesses or from workflow disruptions resulting from safeguards that the business or other businesses implement to minimize swine flu risks for its workforce or its customers.  Many businesses also will want to prepare backup staffing and production strategies to prepare for disruptions likely to result if a significant outbreak occurs. 

Employers planning for or dealing with an H1N1 or other epidemic in their workplace should exercise care to avoid violating the nondiscrimination and medical records confidentiality provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), the Family & Medical Leave Act of 1990 (FMLA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and applicable state wage and hour laws, and other employment and privacy laws.

Improperly designed or administered medical inquiries, testing, vaccination mandates and other policies or practices intended to prevent the spread of disease may expose an employer to disability discrimination liability under the ADA or GINA.  For instance, the ADA generally prohibits an employer from making disability-related inquiries and requiring medical examinations of employees, except under limited circumstances permitted by the ADA. Likewise, improperly designed or communicated employer inquiries into family medical status which could be construed as inquiring about family medical history also may raise exposures under genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy mandates of GINA that took effect November 21, 2009.

During employment, the ADA prohibits employee disability-related inquiries or medical examinations unless they are job-related and consistent with business necessity. Generally, a disability-related inquiry or medical examination of an employee is job-related and consistent with business necessity when an employer has a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that:

  • An employee’s ability to perform essential job functions will be impaired by a medical condition; or
  • An employee will pose a direct threat due to a medical condition.

This reasonable belief “must be based on objective evidence obtained, or reasonably available to the employer, prior to making a disability-related inquiry or requiring a medical examination.”

Additionally, the ADA prohibits employers from making disability-related inquiries and conducting medical examinations of applicants before a conditional offer of employment is made.  It permits employers to make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations if all entering employees in the same job category are subject to the same inquiries and examinations.   All information about applicants or employees obtained through disability-related inquiries or medical examinations must be kept confidential. Information regarding the medical condition or history of an employee must be collected and maintained on separate forms and in separate medical files and be treated as a confidential medical record.  The EEOC Pandemic Preparedness In The Workplace and The Americans With Disabilities Act Guidance makes clear that employer inquiries and other H1N GINA’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” is likely to present a liability trap door for many unsuspecting employers H1N1 and other epidemic planning and response activities should be carefully crafted to avoid violating these proscriptions.

GINA’s inclusion of information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members” also could present a liability trap door for some employers designing pandemic or other workplace wellness, disease management or other programs.  GINA defines “genetic information” broadly as including not only information about genetic tests about an individual or his family member as well as information about the “manifestation of a disease or disorder in family members of such individual, GINA also specifies that any reference to genetic information concerning an individual or family member includes genetic information of a fetus carried by a pregnant woman and an embryo legally held by an individual or family member utilizing an assisted reproductive technology.  For more information about the new GINA genetic information employment discrimination rules, see here.

As part of their pandemic planning, employers also generally should review their existing wage and hour and leave of absence practices.  Employers should ensure that their existing or planned practices for providing paid or unpaid leave are designed to comply with the FLSA and other wage and hour and federal and state leave of absence laws. Employers also should review and update family and medical leave act and other sick leave policies, group health plan medical coverage continuation rules and notices and other associated policies and plans for compliance with existing regulatory requirements, which have been subject to a range of statutory and regulatory amendments in recent years.  If considering allowing or requiring employees to work from home, employers also need to implement appropriate safeguards to monitor and manage employee performance, to protect the employer’s ability to comply with applicable wage and hour, worker’s compensation, OSHA and other safety, privacy and other legal and operational requirements. 

Businesses, health care providers, schools, government agencies and others concerned about preparing to cope with pandemic or other infectious disease challenges also may want to review the publication “Planning for the Pandemic” authored by Curran Tomko Tarski LLP partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer available at hereFLU.gov is a one-stop resource with the latest updates on the H1N1 flu. An additional resource is CDC INFO, 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636), which offers services in English and Spanish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Schools, health care organizations, restaurants and other businesses whose operations involve significant interaction with the public also may need to take special precautions.  These and other businesses may want to consult the special resources posted  here

Cynthia Marcotte Stamer and other members of Curran Tomko and Tarski LLP are experienced with advising and assisting employers with these and other labor and employment, employee benefit, compensation, and internal controls matters. If your organization needs assistance with assessing, managing or defending these or other labor and employment, compensation or benefit practices, please contact the author of this article, Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Labor & Employment Practice Group Chair Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and Chair of the American Bar Association RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and a nationally recognized author and speaker, Ms. Stamer is experienced with assisting employers and others about compliance with federal and state equal employment opportunity, compensation, health and other employee benefit, workplace safety, and other labor and employment laws, as well as advising and defending employers and others against tax, employment discrimination and other labor and employment, and other related audits, investigations and litigation, charges, audits, claims and investigations by the IRS, Department of Labor and other federal and state regulators. Ms. Stamer has advised and represented employers on these and other labor and employment, compensation, health and other employee benefit and other personnel and staffing matters for more than 22 years. Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

Other Information & Resources

We hope that this information is useful to you. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile here or e-mailing this information here or registering to participate in the distribution of our Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update distributions here.  Examples of other recent updates you may have missed include:

For important information concerning this communication click here.   If you do not wish to receive these updates in the future, send an e-mail with the word “Remove” in the Subject here.

©2009 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. All rights reserved.