Human Resources Issues in Local Government: Yesterday's Headlines Remain Today's "Hot Topics"

By McDowell, Amy M.; Leavitt, William M. | Public Personnel Management, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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Human Resources Issues in Local Government: Yesterday's Headlines Remain Today's "Hot Topics"


McDowell, Amy M., Leavitt, William M., Public Personnel Management


Introduction

An analysis of "hot topics" in human resources must necessarily begin by identifying which issues are "hot." The authors of this article suggest that one of the most informative methods to identify the human resources issues that occupy an organization's time and efforts is to ask the experts directly. In many local governments, there are at least three groups or organizational units that share responsibility for human resources functions: managers and supervisors, human resources professionals, and attorneys. The first group, managers and supervisors, are the key players responsible for carrying out human resources responsibilities on a daily basis, such as performance appraisal and discipline. Human resources professionals, typically housed within a centralized human resources department, have formal authority to conduct and oversee many human resources functions, such as employee testing, job audits and compensation programs. The third group, attorneys, have a wide range of responsibilities to ensure that human resources policies and decisions pass legal muster. To successfully tackle human resources issues, these three categories of individuals must work together as a team, each contributing their own personal expertise to address complex, rapidly changing concerns in the workplace.

This article specifically addresses some of the legal concerns and issues, i.e., the "hot topics," that constitute the primary workload of attorneys that practice local government employment law. The typical duties of these attorneys are wide-ranging in nature. A sampling of responsibilities for such an attorney often includes the following types of activities:

* Presenting the employer's case in a grievance panel hearing for an employee who is appealing disciplinary action taken in accordance with the employer's workplace policies;

* Reviewing standards for criminal background checks for applicants for public employment;

* Drafting the employer's position in response to a charge brought before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission;

* Auditing employer pay practices to ensure compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act; and

* Preparing training sessions for managers and supervisors on recently revised employer policies due to federal and state law amendments.

In the employ of counties, cities and towns, these attorneys must be prepared to address all sorts of matters that arise within the sizeable field of employment law. They are charged with advising their employers on a host of situations that arise in the public sector workplace. As subject matter experts, they are responsible for possessing and imparting knowledge of numerous federal, state and local employment laws and regulations. They may serve in multiple roles; as litigator, advisor or counselor, depending on the skills necessary to resolve the situation at hand. One measure of the importance of the employment law attorney is a look at litigation statistics; at this time, employment law litigation represents an increasing percentage of the docket in trial courts in the United States. (1)

There is no question that the quantity and complexity of federal and state laws impacting the work of local government human resources departments has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Examples of laws and regulations impacting human resources functions include: the Age Discrimination in Employment Act; the Americans with Disabilities Act; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"); the Fair Labor Standards Act; the Family and Medical Leave Act; and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, among others. It would be foolhardy for managers, supervisors, and human resources department personnel to set out through the minefield of employment laws and regulations without the competent guidance of attorneys who regularly practice in this area of law.

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