Democracy on the Front Lines
City Administrator’s Blog
March 9, 2006
It’s hard to get excited about employment law. It is a highly regulated field, with scores of state and federal laws outlining how we can treat employees, from hiring to firing. It is minefield of acronyms, from FMLA to HIPAA to COBRA to NLRA, each with specific guidelines on notification, training, and compliance. It is enough to give me a headache.
Luckily, that’s why we have employment lawyers. Yesterday, I attended an annual seminar sponsored by the City’s employment law firm, The Lowenbaum Partnership. The firm has attorneys that specialize in the various aspects of employment law, including labor negotiations, benefits, litigation, and contract administration. We have used them for all of these issues: Michael Lowenbaum handles our union contract negotiations and members of his firm have litigated employment cases for us, filed reports to the Illinois Labor Relations Board, and helped write our personnel manual.
The seminar was an update on current issues in employment law. In particular, they described how technology is creating legal issues for employers. Computers are increasingly prevalent in the workplace, which brings interesting challenges in employment law. The Internet, e-mail, and instant messaging are three areas that can be abused by employees. If they are done on City-owned equipment, then the employer has the right to regulate how much computers are used for personal purposes. Cell phones also can be abused, particularly if camera phones are taken to inappropriate places. As with most innovations, what can make you more efficient also provides new opportunities for abuse.
Compliance is another sticky issue. We are required to comply with numerous state and federal laws that involves considerable paperwork and training. Moreover, the rules change regularly depending on recent court cases and regulatory updates. Employees want to be treated fairly and they want to be protected from inappropriate behavior (be it sexual harassment, age discrimination or whatever). On the other side, employers have a right to expect productivity from employees during work hours and should be able to discipline poor performance. Donna Brockmeyer, our Human Resources Coordinator, does a magnificent job sorting through all of our requirements and maintaining compliance.
While employment law may be dull, you ignore it at your peril. Providing a safe and equitable workplace is essential and lawsuits are expensive (whether you win or not). With so many regulations and so much paperwork, however, you have to wonder whether it is even possible to be in compliance with everything all of the time.