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For many people, the holiday season means decking the halls, singing loud so all can hear, watching comforting movies, enjoying quality time with family and friends, and fa-la-la-la-la-ing.

For many employers, however, the season can cause significant headaches unrelated to excessive eggnog consumption. Rather than getting caught on the naughty list, smart employers use the season — often a slow period, business-wise — as a chance to check their policies twice. Employers who take a proactive approach to ensuring their policies are up to date, rather than waiting until a problem arises, often save themselves time and money.

Employers should consider these five issues during the holidays to make sure they are prepared — just in case Santa leaves a lump of coal in the form of an employee complaint or lawsuit in their stocking:

1. Office Holiday Parties

Office holiday parties, especially those where alcohol is served, are fraught with legal risks. For example, an inebriated employee may get involved in a car accident after the party or may engage in inappropriate behavior during the party. In the first scenario, an injured third party may sue the employer for negligence, arguing the company breached its legal duties by over-serving the employee and then allowing them to drive afterward. In the second scenario, an employer that fails to prevent or remedy inappropriate conduct may be accused of encouraging unlawful harassment or discrimination.

To guard against liability arising from the first scenario, employers should consider limiting the amount people are allowed to drink (e.g, via a ticketed drink system), hosting the party at an off-site location, making attendance voluntary, holding the party outside of work hours, and providing designated taxi cabs or shuttle buses for rides home.

To guard against liability arising from the second scenario, employers should remind employees about the company’s anti-discrimination policies and reporting procedures prior to the holiday party. Employers should also immediately investigate and resolve any complaints that are lodged following a holiday party.

2. Pay During Office Closures as a Result of Inclement Weather

Companies that are forced to close an office due to inclement weather face the question of how to count that time for wage and hour purposes.

Generally, non-exempt employees are not entitled to pay for time during which the office is closed and they are not performing work tasks. Exempt employees, however, are entitled to payment for a day during which the office is closed as long as they worked at any other time during the workweek. These general rules may be subject to state-specific “report-in” or “call-in” laws that further qualify or limit what time is compensable as the result of an inclement weather office closure.

The best practice is to adopt a written policy that complies with federal, state, and local laws so that there is no confusion and a lawful practice is consistently applied.

3. Medical Leave and Vacation Time

It is common for employees to schedule medical procedures during the holiday season because the pace of work is generally slower during holidays and doing so allows the employee to combine medical leave with vacation time. Therefore, employers should review their written policies and be prepared to provide guidance on how the company treats time away from work related to medical leave.

4. Slip-and-Fall Workers’ Compensation Claims

Wintery weather can lead to slip-and-fall accidents in the parking lots or sidewalks adjacent to the company’s office. Generally, injuries suffered while going to or leaving work are not considered “work-related” and therefore are not compensable. However, employees who work off site or outside can face a higher risk of injury during the cold weather.

Nonetheless, employers should be prepared for the risk of an increased number of workers’ compensation claims being filed during the holiday season. They should take reasonable steps to make sure the sidewalks and parking lots surrounding the office are properly shoveled and salted. Further, employers should remind employees who work off site and/or outdoors to comply with the company’s safety policies.

5. Religious Accommodations

Employees are entitled to a reasonable accommodation for religious practices, and employers are required to engage in an interactive process with employees regarding possible accommodations. Failing to engage in the interactive process can result in legal liability. Therefore, employers must thoughtfully review accommodation requests that arise during the holiday season.

Casey Murray is a partner at Spencer Fane LLP. Brian Peterson is an associate at Spencer Fane LLP.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.



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