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  • Erin Holliday

May the [Work]Force be with You: Key Terms and Benefits of an Employee Handbook

Employee handbooks aren’t just some Jedi-in-the-sky idea from a galaxy far far away. Employee handbooks are an important part of having a successful workplace. Whether you have two employees or 100, they are a way to communicate to your staff what is expected of them (proactively) and clearly outline specific policies and procedures for addressing concerns and resolving issues. We highly recommend them for all types of workplaces.

Below are a few things to include. Importantly, employee handbooks are one area we strongly advise you to work through with an attorney (either have them draft or review one you create). They’ll be able to help you create a book that addresses your state's (sometimes county’s and city’s) specific laws, including any employer disclosure requirements and consistency with local ordinances (for example, Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh each have one around paid sick leave), and more.

Note as well, you need to follow the state employment laws for every state where you have an employee, not just the one(s) where you are located. States often add more protections for employees than the federal labor laws require.

1. Employee Categorizations/Classifications

Employee categorization/classification is a big one. You need to include what constitutes full-time vs. part-time work at your business and what work constitutes “nonexempt” vs. “exempt” for purposes of overtime and minimum wage.

Employment “exemption” is set by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and state and federal wage and hour regulations and laws. Non-exempt employees are just that; they are not exempt from the FLSA’s laws around minimum wage and overtime. Exempt employees may be executive, professional, or outside sales staff who are exempt from minimum wage (rarer, but can be applicable based on industry) and overtime provisions (more common) of the FLSA because they meet very particular standards and criteria established by the law. This is an area where it’s definitely worth talking to a lawyer to help you understand how your staff fits into it all and what your legal obligations are (and that it is a common misconception that if you pay someone salary that automatically makes them exempt from overtime). You will also want to include in an offer letter or other communication to each employee you hire whether they are full or part-time and exempt or not exempt, as well as a detailed job description (Learn more about offer letters in our blog post all about ‘em).

2. At-Will Disclaimer

Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state, which means employers can fire employees with or without cause and with or without advanced notice (with some public policy exceptions). Again, employment law varies from state to state, and not all states are completely at-will or have the same specifics to Pennsylvania when it comes to employment. At-will employment status may be jeopardized with an employee contract, so it’s important to include a disclaimer that makes clear an employee handbook is not a contract and that nothing in the handbook shall be construed as such. These are simply the policies of your business.

3. Required Disclosures

Some federal and state laws require certain discrimination and employee rights disclosures to be in writing and provided to employees even if you have only one employee. Others come into effect as you hire more. It’s important to understand what is required and to what extent must be included for your specific business and location. These may include an Equal Employment Opportunity Statement; an anti-harassment policy, a religious or disability accommodation procedure; disclosures around an employee’s right to collective bargaining among other legally protected rights; procedures for addressing concerns related to any of these, and more. If possible and applicable, it’s a good practice to designate at least one person outside an employee's chain of command who can receive harassment complaints.

4. Benefits, Paid and Unpaid Time Off Details, and Other Perks

Identify the various benefits that your workplace provides, with what type of employee (part-time vs full-time) they are available to, and when these benefits go into effect (such as, is there an introductory period?). This may include certain healthcare (medical, dental, vision) and retirement plans (like 401(k)/403(b) or other retirement plans), or other opportunities some allocate (gym subsidy, continuing education or seminar reimbursement). Also, you can create a structure around how vacation, sick leave, personal days, bereavement, military or jury duty leave, or extended leaves of absence are allocated, accrued, etc. A reminder to be mindful of the state or county where your employees are located. Having these policies laid out helps avoid headaches for you as the business owner, makes sure you and your employees are on the same page, and helps avoid discrimination.

5. So much more!

There are [so] many other policies worth considering that just don’t fit into a single blog post. A few may include:

  • conflict resolution procedures and points of contact

  • time recording and record-keeping requirements;

  • a remote work and telecommuting policy;

  • a drug and alcohol testing policy (which may have specific legal consent requirements);

  • a social media/mobile phone policy (be mindful of federally protected speech and other employees’ speech rights);

  • the employer’s ability to change, update, remove or add to these policies and procedures;

  • confidentiality provisions;

  • and more!

Once you have your employee handbook, we recommend having all employees (and everyone you hire) sign an acknowledgment that they have received, reviewed, and understand the handbook and its terms.

Also a key reminder is that if you put something in your handbook, even though you may have at-will employees, if you don’t follow the policy, it could lead to employee claims. So make sure you include only policies you plan to follow, apply without discrimination, and use language like “up to and including termination” for disciplinary action so you give yourself flexibility.

Interested in learning more about employer responsibilities in Pennsylvania? Check out these helpful posts and resources:

May the Force be with you! (and your team!)

DISCLAIMER: This blog post is meant for informational purposes only and does not constitute specific legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should discuss their specific situation with an attorney.


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