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5 HR issues to review and keep on your radar

A medical office manager has a wide range of responsibilities, which can make it difficult to keep every potential staff-related issue top of mind. Nevertheless, there are five HR issues about which you should remain vigilant.

1 Discrimination

Here are various types of discrimination, as identified and defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Note: The law forbids discrimination when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, and any other term or condition of employment.

Age discrimination. Age discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) less favorably because of his age.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) only forbids age discrimination against people who are age 40 or older. It does not protect workers under the age of 40, although some states do have laws that protect younger workers from age discrimination.

Disability discrimination.Disability discrimination occurs when an employer or other entity covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as amended, or the Rehabilitation Act, as amended, treats a qualified individual with a disability who is an employee or applicant unfavorably because she has a disability.

Disability discrimination also occurs when a covered employer or other entity treats an applicant or employee less favorably because she has a history of a disability (such as cancer that is controlled or in remission) or because she is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if she does not have such an impairment).

The law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee or job applicant with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer (“undue hardship”).

The law also protects people from discrimination based on their relationship with a person with a disability (even if they do not themselves have a disability). For example, it is illegal to discriminate against an employee because her husband has a disability.

Equal pay/compensation discrimination.The Equal Pay Act (EPA) requires that men and women in the same workplace be given equal pay for equal work. The jobs need not be identical, but they must be substantially equal. Job content (not job titles) determines whether jobs are substantially equal. All forms of pay are covered by this law, including salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing and bonus plans, life insurance, vacation and holiday pay, cleaning or gasoline allowances, hotel accommodations, reimbursement for travel expenses, and benefits. If there is an inequality in wages between men and women, employers may not reduce the wages of either sex to equalize their pay.

An individual alleging a violation of the EPA may go directly to court and is not required to file an EEOC charge beforehand. The time limit for filing an EPA charge with the EEOC and the time limit for going to court are the same: within two years of the alleged unlawful compensation practice or, in the case of a willful violation, within three years. The filing of an EEOC charge under the EPA does not extend the time frame for going to court.

Genetic information discrimination.Under Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 (GINA), it is illegal to discriminate against employees or applicants because of genetic information. Title II of GINA prohibits the use of genetic information in making employment decisions, restricts employers and other entities covered by Title II (employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management training and apprenticeship programs – referred to as “covered entities”) from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information, and strictly limits the disclosure of genetic information.

The EEOC enforces Title II of GINA (dealing with genetic discrimination in employment). The Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and the Treasury have responsibility for issuing regulations for Title I of GINA, which addresses the use of genetic information in health insurance.

Genetic information includes information about an individual’s genetic tests and the genetic tests of an individual’s family members, as well as information about the manifestation of a disease or disorder in an individual’s family members (i.e., family medical history). Family medical history is included in the definition of genetic information because it is often used to determine whether someone has an increased risk of getting a disease, disorder, or condition in the future. Genetic information also includes an individual’s request for, or receipt of, genetic services, or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the individual or a family member of the individual, and the genetic information of a fetus carried by an individual or by a pregnant woman who is a family member of the individual and the genetic information of any embryo legally held by the individual or family member using an assisted reproductive technology.

The law forbids discrimination on the basis of genetic information when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoffs, training, fringe benefits, or any other term or condition of employment. An employer may never use genetic information to make an employment decision because genetic information is not relevant to an individual’s current ability to work.

Harassment. Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. Anti-discrimination laws also prohibit harassment against individuals in retaliation for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or lawsuit under these laws; or opposing employment practices that they reasonably believe discriminate against individuals, in violation of these laws.

Petty slights, annoyances, and isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will not rise to the level of illegality. To be unlawful, the conduct must create a work environment that would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people.

Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.

National origin discrimination.National origin discrimination involves treating people (applicants or employees) unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not).

National origin discrimination also can involve treating people unfavorably because they are married to (or associated with) a person of a certain national origin or because of their connection with an ethnic organization or group.

Pregnancy discrimination.Pregnancy discrimination involves treating a woman (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment, including hiring, firing, pay, job assignments, promotions, layoff, training, fringe benefits, such as leave and health insurance, and any other term or condition of employment.

Race/color discrimination.Race discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because he/she is of a certain race or because of personal characteristics associated with race (such as hair texture, skin color, or certain facial features). Color discrimination involves treating someone unfavorably because of skin color complexion.

Race/color discrimination also can involve treating someone unfavorably because the person is married to (or associated with) a person of a certain race or color or because of a person’s connection with a race-based organization or group, or an organization or group that is generally associated with people of a certain color.

Religious discrimination.Religious discrimination involves treating a person (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of his or her religious beliefs. The law protects not only people who belong to traditional, organized religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, but also others who have sincerely held religious, ethical or moral beliefs.

Religious discrimination can also involve treating someone differently because that person is married to (or associated with) an individual of a particular religion or because of his or her connection with a religious organization or group.

Sex-based discrimination.Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex.

Sex discrimination also can involve treating someone less favorably because of his or her connection with an organization or group that is generally associated with people of a certain sex.

Discrimination against an individual because that person is transgender is discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII. This is also known as gender identity discrimination.  In addition, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals may bring sex discrimination claims. These may include, for example, allegations of sexual harassment or other kinds of sex discrimination, such as adverse actions taken because of the person’s non-conformance with sex-stereotypes.

2 Sexual harassment

The EEOC includes sexual harassment under the umbrella of discrimination, but because sexual harassment is such a complicated issue, Medical Office Manager has given it special attention.

“Sexual harassment continues to exist, and it’s going to be a major workplace issue for as long as people are people,” says Steve M. Cohen, president/partner of Labor Advisory Group Solutions and HR Solutions: On-Call.

Nevertheless, Cohen advises managers to act. “Issues relating to sexuality must be reduced and eliminated in the workplace,” he says.

The EEOC provides the following definition of sexual harassment.

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

Cohen points to the importance of understanding and responding to employee allegations of sexual harassment. “Sexual harassment is a big deal taken seriously by the federal Department of Labor and by any state commission on human rights. Ignoring such a charge is a formula for disaster,” he says.

Medical Office Manager has a customizable, model policy to help you manage sexual harassment. Click here to download.

3 Family leave

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to all companies with 50 or more employees, including medical practices.

The U.S. Department of Labor describes the act as follows.

FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Eligible employees are entitled to:

  • Twelve workweeks of leave in a 12-month period for:
    • the birth of a child and to care for the newborn child within one year of birth;
    • the placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care and to care for the newly placed child within one year of placement;
    • to care for the employee’s spouse, child, or parent who has a serious health condition;
    • a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job;
    • any qualifying exigency arising out of the fact that the employee’s spouse, son, daughter, or parent is a covered military member on “covered active duty;” or
  • Twenty-six workweeks of leave during a single 12-month period to care for a covered servicemember with a serious injury or illness if the eligible employee is the servicemember’s spouse, son, daughter, parent, or next of kin (military caregiver leave).

For additional information and clarification, read, “Some good explanations on the tough spots offices encounter with the FMLA.

4 Wage and hour regulations

The U.S. Department of Labor provides guidelines for adhering to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), as outlined in this overview.

The FLSA establishes minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and youth employment standards affecting employees in the private sector and in Federal, State, and local governments. Covered nonexempt workers are entitled to a minimum wage of not less than $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Overtime pay at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay is required after 40 hours of work in a workweek.

  • FLSA Minimum Wage: The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour effective July 24, 2009. Many states also have minimum wage laws. In cases where an employee is subject to both state and federal minimum wage laws, the employee is entitled to the higher minimum wage.
  • FLSA Overtime: Covered nonexempt employees must receive overtime pay for hours worked over 40 per workweek (any fixed and regularly recurring period of 168 hours — seven consecutive 24-hour periods) at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay. There is no limit on the number of hours employees 16 years or older may work in any workweek. The FLSA does not require overtime pay for work on weekends, holidays, or regular days of rest, unless overtime is worked on such days.
  • Hours Worked: Hours worked ordinarily include all the time during which an employee is required to be on the employer’s premises, on duty, or at a prescribed workplace.
  • Recordkeeping: Employers must display an official poster outlining the requirements of the FLSA. Employers must also keep employee time and pay records.
  • Child Labor: These provisions are designed to protect the educational opportunities of minors and prohibit their employment in jobs and under conditions detrimental to their health or well-being.

“Wage and hour violations can be expensive,” says attorney Joseph M. Sokolowski, who heads the wage and hour practice group of law firm Fredrikson & Byron, pointing out that an employee can win as much as three years’ back wages plus double damages plus attorney’s fees.

5 Health care benefits

Health insurance is a benefit medical practices frequently provide. But, as a result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as of Jan. 1, 2015, medical practices with the equivalent of 50 or more employees must offer health insurance or pay a penalty.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) details employee status and describes the Employer Shared Responsibilities provisions under the Affordable Care Act as follows.

For 2015 and after, employers employing at least a certain number of employees (generally 50 full-time employees or a combination of full-time and part-time employees that is equivalent to 50 full-time employees) will be subject to the Employer Shared Responsibility provisions under section 4980H of the Internal Revenue Code (added to the Code by the Affordable Care Act). As defined by the statute, a full-time employee is an individual employed on average at least 30 hours of service per week. An employer that meets the 50 full-time employee threshold is referred to as an applicable large employer.

Under the Employer Shared Responsibility provisions, if these employers do not offer affordable health coverage that provides a minimum level of coverage to their full-time employees (and their dependents), the employer may be subject to an Employer Shared Responsibility payment if at least one of its full-time employees receives a premium tax credit for purchasing individual coverage on one of the new Affordable Insurance Exchanges, also called a Health Insurance Marketplace (Marketplace).

Note: The Employer Shared Responsibility provisions generally are not effective until Jan. 1, 2015, meaning that no Employer Shared Responsibility payments will be assessed for 2014.

Meanwhile, employers with 25 or fewer employees that provide employees with health insurance are eligible for a tax credit, and the credit can make a difference to a small business like a medical practice. For more information, see, “What You Need to Know about the Small Business Health Care Tax Credit,” at IRS.gov.

Editor’s note: All information provided is current as of February 2015. However, federal and state changes are ongoing. It is recommended that you consult with an employment law attorney if you have any questions about these important HR issues.

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