By: Kellie Olah, SPHR, SHRM-CP
Although it has always been challenging for many small business owners to keep up with evolving employment-related legislation, COVID-19 has made this situation even more problematic. Legislation is being rapidly passed, containing new and sometimes confusing information. It can be hard for your practice to keep up but it’s worth the effort because when you don’t have access to the most current information or you lag in compliance, this can lead to numerous problems. The consequences can be as serious as litigation against your practice.
As a general approach, it can be helpful to gather a list of trustworthy resources that you can regularly check. This includes reviewing the most current information on topics ranging from healthcare and injury/worker’s compensation to paid time off, unemployment, retirement, and much more. Once armed with the foundational knowledge you need, you can then determine which tasks you can handle within your practice and which ones require help from an expert, such as an employment attorney.
Employment Law Resources
At a federal level, the U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL) provides information on a comprehensive range of employment issues. As just one example, here is their resource page that helps employers and employees to address the impact of the coronavirus. The DOL also provides a newsletter, along with contact information for your state labor office so that you can stay up to date with state-level laws and pending legislation. Subscribe to receive email updates from both a federal and state level (for each state where you practice).
If you come across a legal term that is new to you, or one where you need clarification, the Cornell Legal Information Institute has provided a wiki-style legal dictionary and encyclopedia. You can also find human-resource-related legal advice at NOLO’s free employment law center. NOLO has been publishing legal guides since 1971 and has developed into a trusted website.
You can also glean helpful information from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) website, including free tools and information. This organization has a mission to empower people and workplaces by advancing human resource practices and maximizing human potential. If you find the free content provided by SHRM to be valuable, you can also consider becoming a paid member.
The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) is also a helpful resource, with a small business legal center that provides information to small business owners. Plus, NFIB monitors relevant legislation and advocates for small business interests in courts. You can also find state-related employment law news and, if you need more in-depth information about issues that are specific to your practice, you can become a paid member. With that membership, you can call the legal center to ask questions.
Another in-depth resource is HR-Business and Legal Resources. There, you can find state-specific information on a variety of employment topics. There is a reasonable amount of free content with more available for members. To see if the premium content would be valuable for your practice, you can sign up for a 14-day free trial.
What we’ve provided isn’t a comprehensive list of available resources, but they are some of the most commonly used and trusted ones. If you find another credible source that provides the employment law information you need, share it with the rest of your practice.
Once you’ve identified resources for your practice to use and you have signed up for newsletters, email alerts, and so forth, what’s next? These steps can include:
deciding who at your practice should monitor all the information that’s coming in; if you have a discrete human resource department, that answer may be easier than if multiple employees are wearing the HR hat
concluding which sites and resources end up being the most valuable to your practice; it can make sense to start out by receiving and reviewing information from a larger number of organizations and then focusing more on those that provide the targeted information you need
determining which message format works best for you; for example, your practice might find watching videos of employment law updates is the best use of everyone’s time
attending relevant online trainings; these may come with a cost, but they’re likely to be much less expensive than traveling to a location where trainings are being held—and, because of the COVID-19, online resources are more practical and becoming more prevalent
Although online trainings may not allow for the in-depth personal networking that can take place over, say, a weekend-long event at a training center, they’re more affordable; can fit within busy schedules (especially if you have access to the videos after a live event); and can be ideal for practices where in-person trainings aren’t often available nearby.
As you learn new information and as employment law evolves, it’s important to review your policies and procedures; update what’s needed; and share the revised information with your practice team.
When to Talk to an Employment Law Attorney
The ideal situation would be to have an employment law attorney on retainer— one you trust, and who understands the legal issues that veterinary practices often face, as well as your practice’s unique workplace culture. If that’s not possible, then the next best option is to choose an attorney with expertise that dovetails with your practice needs and consult with him or her when issues of significance arise, or you need clarification on areas of employment law.
Examples of when it can make sense to consult with an employment attorney include, but are not limited to, when:
firing an employee; ideally, you always run employee firings past your attorney, but especially if you believe an employee might sue the practice, perhaps because of an employment contract or because he or she is in a protected class
an employee files a complaint or sues your practice
creating a contract or agreement
creating or updating your employee manual
bringing in or buying out a practice partner
Choosing the Right Employment Attorney
If you don’t have one yet for your practice or you’re looking to switch attorneys, be clear about what you want the attorney to do. If you want him or her to regularly update you on employment law changes, for example, then that’s different than if you want someone available when you want to address a specific issue at your practice.
Consider asking other practices and small businesses for recommendations. Ask what they like about the attorney and if they’ve had any problems with their choice. You can read online reviews of recommended attorneys, but remember to take them with a grain of salt because it’s hard to find an attorney of substance with no unhappy clients. You can also use lawyer directories such as those available through the American Bar Association, and other similar websites.
Once you have a short list of candidates, interview each one. Many attorneys, but not all, offer a free initial consultation so you can get to know one another. This can help you make the right choice. You’ll want an experienced attorney who is well versed in the laws of your state, someone you feel comfortable with and who communicates well without reverting to jargon that can be confusing. By the end of your initial conversation, you should be able to determine if that individual has a personality that you would enjoy consulting with, and has the knowledge base to successfully assist you with managing your veterinary practice.