With the end of 2015 in sight, now is a good time for employers to think about updating employment policies and practices for the upcoming year. Let's review some of the changes that occurred in 2015 to help you get ready for 2016.

PREGNANT WORKERS

Both the United States Supreme Court and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took action in 2015 to increase protections for pregnant women in the workplace. The EEOC issued a new Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues along with a question and answer document and fact sheet for small businesses. These documents remind employers that federal law prohibits employers from discriminating based on pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions. Pregnant women who are able to work must be permitted to work in the same conditions as other employees. When they are not able to work for medical reasons, they must be accorded the same rights, leave privileges and other benefits, as other workers who are disabled from working.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently underscored this point in the case of Young v United Parcel Service. Peggy Young worked at UPS. Her job required that she be able to lift 70 pounds. She became pregnant and her doctor instructed her not to lift more than 20 pounds. Pursuant to its written policy, UPS would not let her work because she could not lift 70 pounds. However, the UPS policy made exceptions for workers injured on the job. Ms. Young sued UPS for pregnancy discrimination. A lower court judge dismissed her case because the UPS policy as written was pregnancy-blind. The Supreme Court reversed the judge because -- even though the policy was pregnancy-blind -- Ms. Young had shown that UPS accommodated lots of non-pregnant workers and almost no pregnant workers. The Supreme Court ruled that the judge had made a mistake by dismissing Ms. Young's case. The lesson for employers: even a non-discriminatory written policy is not always a guaranteed defense to a discrimination lawsuit.

WAGE AND HOUR LAWS

In 2015, the Department of Labor (DOL) expressed concern that employers are increasingly misclassifying workers as independent contractors when they actually are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Independent contractors are not subject to the Act's wage and hour requirements. In July 2015, the DOL said that most workers classified by employers as independent contractors are employees under the Act. The DOL issued new guidance on whether a worker will be considered an employee or an independent contractor under the Act. The new guidance effectively broadens the scope of workers who the DOL will consider employees. The DOL is increasing its focus on the "economic realities" of the working relationship. Employers should review their classification of independent contractors in light of the new DOL guidance.

This year the DOL also issued a proposed amendment to the Act's "white collar" exemption test for executive, administrative and professional employees. The proposed change would raise the minimum annual salary required for an employee to be considered exempt from overtime or wage requirements from $23,660 to $50,440. Keep an eye out next year for a final rule change, which may require employers to change some employees' status from "exempt" to "non-exempt."

NEW FMLA FORMS

The DOL made updated Family and Medical Leave Act forms available for employers. The forms include new language regarding military-related leave and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

NEW GARNISHMENT LAWS

The State of Michigan adopted new rules for the garnishment of employee paychecks. The new rules apply to garnishments issued on or after September 30, 2015. The new rules are intended to make the garnishment procedure less expensive and easier for employers. The new rules also expand the number of ways that employers may recoup or reduce the amount the employer is forced to pay a creditor in the event the employer fails to properly comply with a garnishment request. Here is a link to a brief summary of the rule changes.

SAME SEX MARRIAGE

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 2015 decision in Obergefell v Hodges, which struck down same-sex marriage bans in 14 states, including Michigan. The decision means that same-sex married couples must be recognized in the same manner as opposite-sex married couples for all applicable purposes. Prior to the decision, Michigan employers arguably retained the discretion to define “spouse” as only an opposite-sex spouse for purposes of any spousal coverage under its welfare benefit plans. The Court’s decision will likely prohibit that practice with regard to insured benefit programs, and require employers that offer such spousal benefits to extend those benefits to both opposite-sex and same-sex spouses. An employer should review its human resources policies and welfare benefit plan documents to determine whether any changes are needed in order to comply with the Obergefell decision.

TIME TO AUDIT YOUR EMPLOYMENT POLICIES AND PRACTICES?

From time to time employers should take a step back and perform a global review of their employment policies and practices. By conducting such a review, not only can you make sure that you comply with the large number of employment-related laws, but you can also know that you are taking advantage of all of the legal protections from lawsuits available to employers. Foster Swift employment law attorneys can help you conduct such an audit.