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Don't open employees' personal mail

If you know that a letter or package sent to an employee at work is personal (not business related), don't open it. A recent court ruling shows that you may be opening up a legal mess along with the letter.

Case in point: After Greg Roth was fired, he talked to a lawyer to see if he should file a lawsuit. The lawyer sent Roth a package containing handwritten accounts of the firing, plus a discussion of the legal aspects. By mistake, the package was mailed to Roth's former employer. A supervisor at the company opened the package, showed it to company officials and placed it in his personnel file.

Roth sued, charging invasion of privacy and won a $500,000 jury award. (Roth v. Farner-Bocken Co., S.D., No. 2003-SD-80)

Employees must be paid for 'donning and doffing'

Courts have ruled that employees should be paid for time spent in the workplace putting on and taking off required work clothes and equipment (so-called "donning and doffing"). But they don't need to be paid for the short time spent waiting to pick up or drop off their required work clothes and equipment.

Case in point: A food processing plant successfully defeated a lawsuit from a group of employees who argued that they should be paid for time spent waiting in line to pick up and drop off work clothes in the company's cage bins. (Tum v. Barber Foods Inc., No. 02-1739, 1st Cir.)

Don't punish employees for comparing pay

If you ever see employees discussing their differing wage levels, don't retaliate against them. Why? Courts have said that it's illegal to punish employees for comparing or discussing their pay.

Case in point: A marketing director at a California nursing home was fired for publicly discussing her department's bonus system with a co-worker, something the company didn't want her to do. She sued and a court sided with her, citing a state law that forbids discipline against an employee "who discloses the amount of his or her wages." Such a "no-pay-talk" policy would also likely violate the National Labor Relations Act. (Grant-Burton v. Covenant Care Inc., No. B151342, CA 2/1)

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