Paying Fair

A small employer trying to stay current with state and federal laws regarding wages can sometimes feel overwhelmed. However, taking a few steps to understand the laws and how they can apply to a green industry business owner can make all the difference in the world in staying compliant with the meaning of the law.

It might seem that mail arrives at the door almost weekly with an offer from a company that is selling posters to display the rules of how the wage law should be applied to employees. Although you should display a poster or notice of compensation laws in an area in which employees will have the chance to read them, take the time to make sure that you and your employees actually understand what these laws mean.

THE LETTER OF THE LAW

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The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) outlines the rules that you must operate by when compensating employees for the labor they provide. The FLSA sets the minimum wage and overtime payment rules that an employer operates under in the private sector. Basically, the FLSA says that an employer must pay a minimum wage of no less than $5.15 per hour for the first 40 hours of work in a week. Any hours of labor after the first 40 hours will be considered overtime and shall be paid at the rate of at least 1.5 times the minimum rate.

With the federal government having set the minimum standard for pay, several states have taken the action to have a higher standard of pay in their areas. Some states have a lower rate and others still have no minimum rate. In those states that have a lower rate than the federal minimum, the rates set by the FLSA will be the rate that you will use to pay employees.

The FLSA also instructs that you maintain payroll records and provide employees with statements explaining for what they were paid. Doing so is simply a good business practice.

Having employees sign their time sheets is also a good business practice. This way, you have a certified time sheet, which will be much more valuable as documentation, should compensation come into question.

Something that the FLSA does not require is that you pay extra for work taking place on the weekend (unless that labor results in more than 40 hours in a workweek). It also does not mandate that you offer vacation pay, holiday pay, sick pay or double-time pay. These are often negotiated by employees or offered by employers trying to attract and retain good employees.

EVEN HIGHER RATES?

Even though the federal government has set a minimum rate at which you must compensate employees, the local labor markets also will have an effect on that rate. Markets such as those on the East and West Coasts have a higher cost of living compared to markets in the middle part of the country, and will force up the wages you should offer to attract desirable employees.

One of the best ways to discover what other grounds maintenance providers in a certain region of the country are paying its employees is the local area chamber of commerce. Oftentimes, they will have that information available for businesses that are members or businesses that are looking to locate in their area. Of course, other good sources of information are grounds maintenance industry associations.

SEASONAL LABOR

In the lawn care industry, it's likely you'll have seasonal workers and need to comply with the Migrant and Season Agricultural Worker Protection Act, as well. With the practice in the industry to use labor that is more on a seasonal basis, these laborers could be classified as migrant and employers could be regulated by the MSPA.

The MSPA has some of the same regulations that are in FLSA. These regulations include paying owed wages to workers when they are due. However, you should also provide a migrant employee with written disclosure of the terms and conditions of employment in a language that the employee understands.

Compliance with all federal and state safety and health regulations also applies when using migrant workers. This includes ensuring that transportation is used properly and is insured, operated by a licensed operator and meets all transportation safety standards.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

If your company has 50 or more employees, you not only have to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act when it comes to compensating employees, but you also have to comply with the Family and Medical Leave Act.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires that a qualifying employer provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave or time off each year for the birth of a new child. FMLA leave also applies to employees needing time off for the care of a seriously ill child, spouse or parent as well as for the employee's own serious medical issues. Even the adoption of a child or foster child is a reason that an employee can ask for leave under the FMLA.

Under FMLA, you must maintain health benefits for an employee during a FMLA leave of absence. In fact, the employee's position or an equivalent position with comparable pay must also be maintained for the employee and offered when the leave has been completed.

KEEP IN THE KNOW

Having a good working knowledge of some of the labor and wage laws that apply to the green industry can keep you out of trouble as well as earn you the respect of your employees. If you're accused of not complying with wage laws, you could be forced to pay backwages, which can get costly.

If you have specific questions regarding how you pay employees, it's a good idea to contact the U.S. Department of Labor. If you're afraid you're already in violation, consult with an attorney who specializes in wage-hour law.

David Gaines is a freelance author who resides in Jonesburg, Mo.

CONTACT INFO

PLANET: (800) 395-2522; www.landcarenetwork.org.

PGMS: (800) 609-PGMS; www.pgms.org.

CHILD LABOR

An employee must be at least 16 years old to work in most non-farm jobs and at least 18 to work in non-farm jobs declared hazardous by the Secretary of Labor.

Youths 14 and 15 years old may work outside school hours in various non-manufacturing, non-mining, non-hazardous jobs under the following conditions:

No more than

  • 3 hours on a school day or 18 hours in a school week;
  • 8 hours on a non-school day or 40 hours in a non-school week.

Also, work may not begin before 7 a.m. or end after 7 p.m., except from June 1 through Labor Day, when evening hours are extended to 9 p.m. Different rules apply in agricultural employment.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

ENFORCING WAGE-LAW

The Department of Labor may recover back wages, either administratively or through court action, for the employees that have been underpaid in violation of the law. Violations may result in civil or criminal action.

Fines of up to $11,000 per violation may be assessed against employers who violate the child labor provisions of the law and up to $1,100 per violation against employers who willfully or repeatedly violate the minimum wage or overtime pay provisions. This law prohibits discriminating against or discharging workers who file a complaint or participate in any proceedings under the Act.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

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