Employers Swamped by Good Intentions

Article excerpt

One of the hidden costs of regulation is the intellectual burden of keeping up with it. In many cases, finding out what the rules are can be more than a full-time job. Consider the area of employer-employee relations.

A few months ago, an odd travel brochure arrived in my mail. It wasn't printed in four colors, and it didn't invite me to Hawaii or Cancun. No, this brochure offered me Dullsville. Printed on gray paper in blue ink, it urged me to come to the Doubletree Riverside Hotel in Boise, Idaho, to attend an all-day seminar on wage-and-hour legislation. My first reaction was, who would ever go on such an unappealing excursion?

Then I realized that probably I should. I run a small business, and I'm thinking of taking on an employee. Reading this brochure about what's involved in hiring somebody gave me lots of second thoughts.

It turns out that there isn't just one law governing wages and hours, but three comprehensive federal acts, plus state laws, as well as all the judicial case law that has grown up over the past half-century. So the eight-hour seminar in Boise barely scratches the surface of this legal specialty. No employer can simply hire a worker on the assumption that if he is fair and reasonable the law will have no quarrel with his behavior. Decades of regulation have put common sense out of the picture, so that only the experts know what's right and wrong.

The seminar, with its 35 sections on different aspects of employment law, helps employers become experts. It tells them how to define "hours worked," how to define "regular rate of pay," and how to define and apply the different types of exemptions from the law. It explains how the law treats time spent on volunteer activities, travel, preparatory activities, on-call duty, sleeping, and going to workshops and conferences. The seminar also covers what the law requires about minimum wages, vacation pay, holiday pay, overtime, jury duty, lunch hours, and work breaks.

Even if you attend this $169 seminar, it doesn't mean you will avoid problems. Employment law is not a system for preventing disputes. It's a framework for provoking them, and all employers, even the most saintly, need to know how to navigate the sea of litigation. Hence, the seminar devotes an entire section to these hazards, including a "Stepby-step guide through the civil complaint process," a segment on "Defenses available to the employer," and another on "Practical strategies for handling wage/hour claims."

Regulating Snakes in the Workplace

And even if you become a master of all the wage-and-hour regulation, that would only be a beginning. …