Business Extra: Human resources in 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 9:52AM

With the DOW expected to hit 20,000 this year, there is a great deal of optimism from businesses for 2017. Some of the challenges that they faced last year are even more of a reality today – labor shortages, social media issues and workplace violence. The increase in OSHA fines could have a significant impact in 2017 and workplace planning is even more critical than it was last year.

Increase in OSHA fines. The maximum OSHA penalties have not increased since 1990. The recent 78 percent increases are a result of the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act Improvements Act passed by Congress last year, which directs agencies to adjust their penalties for inflation each year. Effective Aug. 1, 2016, the maximum penalty for serious violations went from $7,000 to $12,471. The maximum penalty for willful or repeat violations increased from $70,000 to $124,709. What does this mean for the small employer? If you have been cited by OSHA in the past, you want to be certain that you have fully addressed the issues. If your company receives a second visit from OSHA and they find repeat violations, you can face horrendous fines.

What do you do if OSHA shows up at your door? By all means, let them in. Politely ask to see their identification. Be prepared to produce your last five years of OSHA 300 logs and 300A forms. If you have a forklift, be prepared to produce forklift inspection checklists and certified employees. If your employees work with chemicals in any way, shape, or form, be prepared to produce annual training records on your Hazard Communication Program and any other safety programs that are required by your industry. If you have any employees (full or part-time), make sure you have Workers’ Compensation insurance in case they get hurt on the job. If you don’t, the fines will begin. Do you have the most recent posters? Last month, one of my clients proudly showed me the laminated poster that he had just received from his payroll company. Three of the posters had already expired (the three Federal posters that changed in 2016).

Workforce planning. It is always a struggle to balance the hours of work needed to produce the desired result, whether it is a product or a service. In manufacturing, we used to compare the cost and amount of overtime needed to meet production demands with the cost of bringing on and training up additional employees. If you have employees and more than one position in your organization, do you post all open positions, letting employees have the opportunity to advance through the ranks? Are you providing the training (both internal and external) that your employees need to succeed in their current positions, as well as positions that are another step up on your food chain? Do you offer cross-training opportunities? Do you have succession planning in place for your key positions? Do you have a three- to five-year plan with your workforce requirements defined? If you don’t have a system to “home grow” the industry-specific skills that you need, you are not utilizing your most important resource, your employees. If you don’t have employees who wish to move up through your organization, how are you going to fill those vacancies? In November 2015, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate was 3.2 percent; it was 2.5 percent in November 2016. It’s going to continue to go lower, making it more and more difficult to hire good employees. If appropriate workforce planning isn’t done, businesses will be unable to meet their clients’ demands. As part of your upcoming planning, consider how to incorporate the requirements of Senate Bill 416.

This recent New Hampshire law “prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee who requests a flexible work schedule.” Although the law does not require the employer to accommodate a flexible work schedule, it prohibits the employer from taking any negative employment action again an employee who makes the request.

The Legislature has not defined what constitutes a “request” for a “flexible work schedule” and doesn’t clearly define what constitutes “retaliation.” So what should businesses do? Listen to your employees. If an employee asks you to adjust his/her work schedule so he/she can get the kids off to school or so he/she can be home to get them off the bus, engage in a discussion. Talk about the pros and cons of the request. What would the costs be to the company? What about the cost to the morale of the other employees? If you have to say no, then so be it. Document very carefully your reasons for denying the request and keep excellent records on that employee’s future performance and employment actions.

However, consider whether your organization can embrace the concept of workplace flexibility. Remember, the request could also come from someone who is at the other end of the employment cycle. Employees who are nearing retirement don’t necessarily want to stop working the day they turn 62 or 65. Many of them would like to ease into retirement by working half days for a period of time or go from 5 days down to 4 days and then down to 3 days. The more you are able to accommodate these valuable employees and those on the other end of the employment cycle (those young parents), the more you are able to provide all of your employees with a work/life balance that they will cherish.

Paula Mathews, president of HR Compliance 101, has more than 30 years of experience, including 14 years as a Human Resource Manager for a major corporate division with 260 employees.