President Obama just celebrated his first year in office and his Administration has been busy! Employers of all sizes are starting to see the effects of the Obama Administration’s workplace agenda; especially at the Department of Labor (DOL). The watchword for all employers in the wage/hour arena for 2010 is “compliance.” The DOL is slated to receive a substantial budget increase this year and it is going on a hiring spree to increase the number of investigators and enforcement personnel.

The DOL’s agenda includes increased audit and enforcement proceedings related to “off the clock” work and the misclassification of employees as “exempt” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In addition, the DOL (in cooperation with the IRS) will focus its audit and enforcement proceeding on employers who misclassify individuals as independent contractors. Now, more than ever, employers must have programs in place to ensure compliance with the myriad of wage/hour laws and regulations, and implement a clear strategy for handling government audits and enforcement actions. While the thought of conducting a comprehensive payroll practices compliance audit can be daunting, employers can efficiently conduct “spot” audits of particular areas where they may be vulnerable.

As an initial matter, employers should determine who will conduct the audits. Utilizing internal resources such as the Human Resources and/or Payroll Departments and/or the company’s General Counsel will help keep the costs down. However, using internal resources may not guarantee that the results will be protected by the attorney-client privilege should the company become involved in litigation regarding the subject matter of the audit. As such, employers may wish to seek assistance of outside counsel to conduct the audit and analyze the results.

The purpose of these “spot” audits is to: 1) identify areas of non-compliance; 2) identify policies, procedures and/or practices that can be improved; 3) develop a plan for improvement; and 4) implement the plan. The areas where most employers are vulnerable to government actions and employee claims in the wage/hour area are:

  • Overtime calculation and payment
  • Off the clock work
  • “Donning and doffing” issues
  • Classification of employees (exempt v. non-exempt)
  • Time keeping
  • Recordkeeping
  • Proper classification of independent contractors

In planning a “spot” audit, employers should determine: 1) the scope and depth of the audit; 2) what data needs to be collected; 3) what documents need to be reviewed; 4) which managers should be interviewed to obtain relevant information; and 5) whether the employees should be surveyed for relevant information. On a cautionary note, if the employer believes there may be too many “skeletons in the closet” that may be exposed in an audit, consideration should be given to retaining outside counsel to assist in the audit so that the process and the results can be protected by the attorney-client privilege.

Finally, employers must decide what to do with the results of the audit. Some things to consider are: 1) who will be apprised of the results and how (written or verbal); 2) will the person who conducted the audit make recommendations regarding problem areas; 3) what, if anything, is going to be done about any problems; 4) how should any changes be implemented (a “spin doctor” may be needed); and 5) how is the employer going to address employee questions and challenges.

In the short-term, the exercise of conducting internal audits may be viewed as a distraction from an employer’s business purpose. In the long run, however, getting the company’s “house in order” before a government agency knocks on the door will save time, attorneys’ fees and the intangible costs of being embroiled in administrative or civil litigation. Remember the old adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”