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man stretching at desk

For decades, employers enjoyed very wide latitude in disciplining and firing employees for attendance problems, even if the absenteeism was the result of illness or injury. That latitude has been significantly altered since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Let’s explore how some of the policy implications of the civil rights law play out in the workplace. Don’t forget the ADA applies to nonprofit employers too, and non-compliance is not an option!

ADA Coverage

The ADA protects only “qualified individuals with a disability.” Disabilities as defined under the ADA can mean either physical or mental impairment that substantially limit one or more major life activities. It can also mean an individual who has a record of such an impairment or is regarded as having such an impairment.

 

group of people in line

A qualified individual must be able to perform essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodation. What’s a reasonable accommodation? It may include the following (but is certainly not limited to):

  • Making existing employee facilities readily accessible for use by persons with disabilities
  • Modifications to work schedule
  • Job restructuring
  • Appropriate reassignment to a vacant position
  • Acquiring/modifying equipment or devices
  • Adjusting/modifying examinations, training materials, or policies
  • Providing qualified readers or interpreters

Tension Between ADA and Absenteeism

It can be difficult when an employee is absent for a health reason, and co-workers must pick up the slack, or the work simply goes unfinished. But, the employer risks violating the ADA if the company terminates or disciplines such an employee without first considering whether the employee is a “qualified individual with a disability.” If the answer is yes, the employee does fall under the ADA umbrella, then the employer must consider whether they can reasonably accommodate the employee. An employer is required to make a reasonable accommodation to the known disability of a qualified employee, if it would not impose an “undue hardship” on the employer’s operation. Yet another term that sounds ambiguous at its face, undue hardship is defined as an action requiring significant expense or difficulty with regard to things like the structure of its operation, employer’s size, financial resources, and nature of the industry.

Employers are NOT required to make an accommodation if it would mean lowering quality or production standards. (They’re also not required to provide personal items for use, like hearing aids.)

Of course, not all persons with a disability will need the same kinds of accommodation. Some examples relating to absenteeism include:

  • Abe was diagnosed with cancer and will be absent as he undergoes chemotherapy.
  • Betty has a chronic medical impairment in the form of diabetes and will need to attend related medical appointments in regular intervals.
  • Charlie deals with major depressive disorder, and a recent exacerbation of symptoms means he’ll need time to recuperate.
  • Diana will also need time to recover from surgery for her chronic back condition.

Practice Pointers

To control attendance problems without violating the ADA, you should:

  • Evaluate each situation (that is, whether the employee is qualified, disabled, or whether you can provide a reasonable accommodation) on a case-by-case basis while acting as consistently as possible with past practice and in accordance with your attendance policy;
  • Have a written attendance policy that emphasizes the necessity of good attendance, but also provides you with flexibility that you might need to accommodate a qualified individual with a disability;
  • Maintain accurate records of all absences, including a separate and confidential file for any medical certifications or medical information relating to an employee’s absences;
  • Be aware of the interplay between business/nonprofit policies and state and federal laws; and
  • Call your attorney when you have questions about your duties under the ADA. The saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is smart to keep in mind!

Smart Employers Seek Advice

Again, nonprofit employers, remember the ADA applies to you too! The ADA can be a complex law, and it can get even trickier when trying to accommodate appropriately for absenteeism, while balancing business/nonprofit operations. Know you don’t have to navigate it alone. Questions? In need of counsel? Don’t hesitate to contact me.

There are several provisions that just about all employee handbooks should include. Let’s simply cover the top five. There are certainly numerous other important provisions to include in an employee handbook, but these five are critical and provide important protections for employers (both nonprofit and for-profit).

The employee handbook should make it clear it is NOT a contract. The employee handbook needs a “disclaimer.”

Under Iowa law it’s critically important to point out that the employee handbook is just that–a handbook–and not an employment contract. And, the employee handbook should not make any promises about continued employment. Consider using language similar to this:

I understand and agree that nothing in the Employee Handbook creates, or is intended to create, a promise or representation of continued employment and that employment at [Nonprofit/Company] is employment at will, which may be terminated at the will of either [Nonprofit/Company] or myself. Furthermore, I acknowledge that this handbook is neither a contract of employment nor a legal document.

The employee handbook should make clear it trumps other, older policies and provisions. The employee handbook needs a “superseding” provision.

The employee handbook should make clear that it includes the most up-to-date guidance on company policies. Wording like this may be helpful:

This handbook and the policies and procedures contained herein supersede any and all prior practices, oral, or written representations, or statements regarding the terms and conditions of my employment with [Nonprofit/Company]. By distributing this handbook, [Nonprofit/Company] expressly revokes any and all previous policies and procedures that are inconsistent with those contained herein.

The employee handbook should make clear it is subject to change. It needs “wiggle room” language.

Paperwork on table

The policies in the handbook may well be subject to change. Of course, new issues arise, and you may need to make revisions. Consider using something like the following:

I understand that, except for employment-at-will status, any and all policies and practices may be changed at any time by [Nonprofit/Company], and [Nonprofit/Company] reserves the right to change my hours, wages, and working conditions at any time. All such changes will be communicated through official notices, and I understand that revised information may supersede, modify, or eliminate existing policies.

The employee handbook should make clear that employees are “at will.”

The employee handbook must be unambiguous about employees’ at will status:

Your employment is not for any specific time and may be terminated at will with or without cause and without prior notice by [Nonprofit/Company].

The employee handbook should contain an acknowledgment page.

Paper and computer

It is important the employee handbook includes an acknowledgment page that the employee signs and returns. The acknowledgment page should state that the employee understands it is his or her responsibility to read and follow the policies. The acknowledgment page should also be able to be separated from the handbook so that it can be signed by the employee and saved in the employee’s personnel file. Wording like this might be helpful:

I have received the handbook, and I understand that it is my responsibility to read and comply with the policies contained in this handbook and any revisions made to it.

________________________________________
Employee’s Signature

________________________________________
Employee’s Name (Print)

____________________
Date

TO BE PLACED IN EMPLOYEE’S PERSONNEL FILE


Does your employee handbook contain these five provisions? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you. Give me a call at 515-371-6077 or email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

man holding glasses talking about employment policies

Employment policies are vital to the well-being of your nonprofit. Such policies set workplace expectations, define work guidelines, reduce or eliminate confusion and misunderstanding, and provide steps for any necessary disciplinary action. Because every nonprofit organization is unique, your organization may well need a particular set of specific policies. However, the following are the general ones that benefit most all nonprofits.

Benefits of Employment Policies

An official set of employment policies provides many benefits for your nonprofit. For nonprofit employers, policies capture the values you wish to instill in your workforce, outline the standards of behavior you expect, and provide a clear guide for rights and responsibilities.

Instituting strong, fair, and unambiguous policies not only contributes to a happier workforce it can also improve employee retention. Further, employment law is vast, complicated, and can be tricky to navigate. Well-drafted employment policies can also help you avoid legal issues and costly mistakes.

Employee Handbook

Employee handbooks are not required by law, but having one is in the best interest of your nonprofit and those who work for you— even if you have just one employee! A good employee handbook effectively communicates the nonprofit’s policies and procedures and makes clear the rights and responsibilities of employees in your organization. Many disputes can be avoided by a clear, easy-to-read, and straightforward employee handbook.

Employment Agreement

Not to be confused with the handbook, an employment agreement sets the conditions, terms, and obligations between you as the employer and an employee. Employment agreements often include details regarding salary, benefits, paid time off, work schedule, mandatory mediation/arbitration, and defining the at-will employment relationship. Employment agreements need to be individualized to suit each employment relationship. It is considered a binding contract that should be administered in writing and signed by both employer and employee.

Formal Performance Review

Formal performance reviews are an assessment of an employee by a supervisor and the employee themselves. It’s a two-way, not a one-way discussion! The review should be based on jointly pre-determined goals and performance objectives. While often overlooked (and sometimes dreaded), performance reviews are of great value to nonprofit employers and their employees.

three people at table talking over computers

You should have in place a standardized form and consistent processes for conducting individual performance reviews of all employees. Evaluating the quality of an individual’s work, ability to meet goals, communication skills, adherence to your nonprofit’s mission, attendance, and dependability, among other criteria, is key to effective workforce management and to building trust with employees. You may also consider whether performance reviews for board members would be advantageous to the organization.

Employee Personnel File

A personnel file is a hard copy folder and/or digital file that contains information related to every new, existing, and former employee. Knowing what needs to be stored (and what should not) in a secure personnel file will help your nonprofit in promotion and termination decisions; provide a means of tracking vacations, training, and achievements; and is necessary to comply with regulations.

A personnel file should only contain items related to his or her job or employment status. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Application and resume
  • Signed acknowledgment page from the employee handbook
  • Pay information including time sheets, W-4s, and withholding forms

Just as important as having the right information in a personnel file, is to avoid placing the wrong documents in a personnel file. Some items that should not be in an employee’s personnel file include:

  • Medical information and accommodation requests
  • Whistleblower complaints
  • Court orders, such as garnishment or restraining orders

Independent Contractor Agreement

Self-employed, freelancer, consultant…people who provide goods or services to your nonprofit, but are not your employees, are considered independent contractors. Independent contractors differ from employees in that they control their financial and work-related relationships and pay their own self-employment, Social Security, and Medicare taxes.

When you hire an independent contractor, you should have a written and signed contract that clearly outlines the scope of work, rate/payment, severability, deliverables, and clearly identifies the person as an independent contractor. Also, you can minimize and avoid legal liability by placing the right provisions in an independent contractor agreement.

three employees talking at cafe table

Updating Employment Policies & Additional Policies You Need

If you already have some (or even all) of the above-listed employment policies in place, when were they last updated? Think about the many ways your organization has changed since they were written, including new employees you hired and existing employees whose roles have evolved.

Changes to state and federal laws may have rendered some elements of your employment policies incomplete or out of compliance. It may be high time to renew your commitment to a productive, happy workplace by revising employment policies.

Also, be aware this memo discusses only employment policies. To work toward optimal IRS compliance, you should adopt the nine key policies and procedures which appear on IRS Form 990. Also, you should consider having documents in place relating to the organization’s ethics, grantors and grantees, endowment management, and legal training for board directors.

To discuss further, please don’t hesitate to contact me via email (gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com) or on my cell phone (515-371-6077). I’d be happy to speak more to the particulars of employment policies, with you at your convenience.

Girl holding scary pumpkin

Horrifying. Blood curdling. Hair raising.

These are just a few of the adjectives that can be used to describe six of the scariest things your nonprofit can do (or fail to do). As a lawyer who regularly works with nonprofits, trying to protect nonprofits and help them succeed in pursuing their mission, these six items literally haunt my nightmares.

  1. Failing to have an employee handbook with necessary policies.

Spine chilling!

Seriously? How can you NOT have an employee handbook? An employee handbook (even if you have but a single employee) makes clear the rights and responsibilities of both the employer and employee. So many disputes can be avoided by a clear, easy-to-read, and direct employee handbook. One of your best bets to fight off this spooky scenario is to get my free guide to developing a quality employee handbook!

  1. Merely copying a handbook off the Internet or “borrowing” it from another nonprofit.

Very eerie!

This is about as bad as not having a handbook at all! Just grabbing a random handbook and adopting it as your own makes as much sense as picking up a random hitchhiker on a foggy night. Others’ employee handbooks may have provisions you don’t need, or worse, ones you don’t want.

I once reviewed a handbook for small-but-sincere nonprofit that worked with the homeless. Several times in the handbook, quite specific medical terms came up—there was a HIPPA provision, there was talk about medical certifications, medical training, and proper handling of medical records. I realized, with a shock, this nonprofit had “borrowed” a handbook from a hospital.

How much faith or confidence will employees have in an employee handbook that’s filled with irrelevant stuff that clearly doesn’t apply to them at all? This is scary stuff, folks, very scary stuff.

Scary skeleton skull

  1. Failing to have an appropriate disclaimer in your nonprofit’s employee handbook

Truly frightening!

An employee handbook is just an employee handbook . . . or so you may think. But, what happens when it doesn’t have an appropriate “disclaimer?”

An employee handbook may constitute an employment contract! If you think about it, an employee handbook has all the elements of a contract—it’s written, it’s specific, it “promises” certain things will (or won’t) happen. It’s even “signed” by the nonprofit/company.

So, an employee handbook could actually be considered a unilateral employment contract unless the employer includes an appropriate disclaimer. Make sure you do so.

  1. Not having adequate job descriptions

Terrifying!

Job descriptions are so important – for the same or similar reasons that employee handbooks themselves are needed. Job descriptions lay out in writing what is required of employees.

Job descriptions are also helpful in relation to what is now-called the American with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA). Job descriptions demonstrate the “essential functions” (as opposed to non-essential) job functions of each position.

Also, strongly consider job descriptions for board members.

  1. Failing to have an acknowledgement page in your nonprofit’s employee handbook

Dreadful!

It is critically important your employee handbook include an acknowledgment page that the employee signs and returns. The acknowledgement page should state that the employee understands it is his or her responsibility to both read and follow the policies. The acknowledgement page should be able to be separated from the handbook, so that it can be signed by the employee and saved in the employee’s personnel file.

harvest moon

  1. Not making absolutely clear that your new employee handbook supersedes other, older policies

Ghastly!

Your nonprofit’s new employee handbook must make clear it trumps other, older policies and provisions. The employee handbook needs a “superseding” provision. This provision must state unambiguously this employee handbook is indeed the most up-to-date guidance on your nonprofit’s policies.

ghost in coffee mug

Wow, that was super scary!

After writing this post, I probably won’t sleep well tonight. But, if you follow these six pieces of advice you’ll rest easy knowing that you’re more likely avoid the nonprofit graveyard. If you’re facing these spooky scenarios don’t hesitate to reach out by phone (515-371-6077) or email to schedule a free consultation. You can also

red for hire sign

It may sound basic, obvious even, but if your nonprofit organization is hiring any employee or independent contractor, you NEED to have job descriptions for each role. And, not just basic job descriptions, but comprehensive overviews of the open position. Be it a position for chief executive officer, marketing manager, or programs director, the advice remains the same.

Job descriptions are in part a legal protection, and in part a primary means for announcing the open position to both internal and external stakeholders which is going to help you find or recruit the best candidates for the organization. If that’s not enough to convince you, consider these four major reasons:

  1. Job descriptions can be used as a basis for objective performance management. It provides both management and employees a shared understanding of the duties of the position.
  2. Job descriptions assist in making sure staff duties align with your organization’s overall mission and vision.
  3. When conducting interviews, job descriptions can, and should, inform the development of interview questions.
  4. Job descriptions can be the foundation of a compensation system that accurately reflects employees’ qualifications and responsibilities in the organization.

woman working on computer

I’m here to assist you and your organization on the legal aspects of nonprofit employment ranging from new hires, to employee handbook, to employment contracts. Don’t hesitate to contact me via email or phone (515-371-6077). We’ll schedule your free one-hour consultation and make a plan to set your organization up for success!