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The HR Specialist: Michigan Employment Law

Poor communications with employees isn’t just bad for business. It also creates a work environment that’s ripe for legal trouble. Stay out of the courtroom by taking time to explain your actions and make the workplace seem rational to employees. Here’s how.

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A jury recently awarded a fired employee more than $10 million in punitive damages for age discrimination after what may seem like fairly insignificant ageist talk. Although the court has said the award should be lowered, the employee will still collect more than $6 million in compensatory damages.

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Employers that use an employee’s long-ago military service against him may be liable under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. USERRA isn’t just for those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Poor attitudes among managers and supervisors can infect the rest of an organization, and courts are becoming more aware of the adverse effects of such so-called “poisoned wells.” As the following case shows, when higher-ups in the organizational hierarchy display signs of discrimination, those lower down may act on those signs.

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If your organization uses progressive discipline to enforce your attendance policy, caution supervisors against making exceptions for some employees unless it’s clear the absence shouldn’t have been counted against them (for example, the absence was an FMLA-related reason or part of an approved ADA accommodation).

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When Stephen Alasin returned from duty in Iraq, he expected to go back to his former job at Ecolab. When the company failed to rehire him, he filed a complaint … Ecolab agreed to enter into a settlement agreement that will pay Alasin $88,000 in back pay and $30,000 in damages.

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The Michigan Court of Appeals has decided Wayne County Community College violated state law when it eliminated the traditional Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan from the list of plans available to college employees.

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The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has given the go-ahead to a RICO lawsuit brought by six truckers against their employer. Traditionally, prosecutors use RICO to combat organized crime. But the truckers allege their employer, Cassens Transport Co., conspired with its claims adjuster and doctors to illegally deny them workers’ compensation benefits.

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Back in days of yore when Delphi was set free from General Motors, it kept a promise GM had made to salaried white-collar workers: They would have free life and health insurance for the rest of their days. Then the now-bankrupt Delphi moved to discontinue the promised benefits …

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If you haven’t heard anything lately from a former employee who griped about discrimination, don’t breathe easy yet. Michigan employees have up to three years to bring claims under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act.

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Employers, beware: More employees are suing over so-called association discrimination, claiming their friendships or other relationships with black employees have resulted in discrimination against them, in addition to their acquaintances. Recently, the 6th Circuit came up with guidelines for when employees can sue based on their relationships with black employees.

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The Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth is one step closer to implementing workplace ergonomic standards that will apply to most businesses in the state. Most Michigan employers should plan now to comply. Only agriculture, construction, mining and domestic workers would be exempt from the new rules.

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Because employees have to meet tight deadlines for most employment discrimination claims, employers should be ready to prove exactly when they notified employees about a pending termination. With an exact date at your fingertips, you can easily get a case dismissed …

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Employees who’ve been fired have little to lose—and they’re quite likely to see a lawyer about possible litigation. Right off the bat, you can expect that attorney to check whether the employer conducted a real investigation before making the termination decision.

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Patrick Morrissey worked for Steelcase Inc., which provided him with two cell phones, one for business and another for personal use. Both billing statements were sent to his boss, Brent Golembieski, because Steelcase paid both bills …

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In its 1998 collective-bargaining agreement, Caterpillar promised to provide retiree health benefits to its workers at no cost to them. By 2005, Caterpillar recognized it could no longer provide the health benefits without the retirees chipping in. When labor and management sat down at the table to hammer out a new agreement, retiree health costs was one of the sticking points …

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If you work for an educational institution whose students provide services while learning, prepare to change your payroll systems. Depending how a court rules, you may have to end the practice of paying student stipends as a way of avoiding collection and payment of Social Security and other payroll taxes.

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When it comes to discharging employees for alleged dishonesty, here’s some sound advice for managers and supervisors: Don’t discuss why the employee was terminated with anyone who doesn’t need to know. Keep the information private to avoid a possible defamation lawsuit.

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Health care is rapidly becoming one of Michigan’s largest and most stable employment sectors. Health care employers are subject to many additional employment regulations than employers in other industries. That fact was driven home by a recent regulatory change implemented by HHS, providing a new level of protection to employees who work for health care providers—the so-called conscientious objector rule.

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New FMLA regulations went into effect in January. Now is an excellent time to offer everyone in management a refresher course in what the FMLA requires. If managers remain ignorant of the new rules—or the old ones still in place—you increase the risk that an employee will charge them with willful violations.

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