Managing Change in New Employment Laws for Rhode Island Employers

Every Rhode Island employer is facing new challenges as to how they operate their businesses due to recent changes in employment laws. These new state laws have opened up a host of issues that need to be considered as part of their HR practices and policies. Some of the challenges include the expansion of TDI benefits, “ban the box” legislation and the new Marriage Equity law and the Supreme Court’s decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

William E. O’Gara, who is a Partner at Pannone Lopes Devereaux & West LLC and leads the firm’s Employment Law and Litigation Teams, has traveled across Rhode Island over the last several months as a guest speaker to business organizations sharing his knowledge gained over 20 years of helping business owners and their HR supervisors better manage these changes in the law and make good decisions.

We interviewed Attorney O’Gara to learn about what businesses should be aware of when considering the new laws and regulations for their employees.

Q. What is the first step business owners should take to prepare for new changes in employment law?

A. The first step is to have a clear understanding of the changes to the laws and not depend on news reports for the facts. For instance, perhaps the most incomplete news coverage relates to the expansion of TDI benefits.  Lost in the publicity is the fact that even small employers now have an obligation to allow employees to take up to four weeks leave if they are unable to work or if they need to care for a family member.  Unlike family medical leave laws that have a threshold of fifty employees, the new law contains no such limitation.  The impact may be significant on very small employers.  An additional fact lost in the press coverage is that this mandate may apply to even new hires.  Again, unlike family medical leave laws that require leave after a person has worked for at least a year, any employee eligible for TDI benefits can take the leave.  Employers have an obligation effective January 1, 2014 to provide a notice to employees regarding the law.

With respect to “ban to box,” this legislation is part of a larger effort across the country to make it easier for people with criminal records to find employment.  The legislation generally bars an employer from including a reference to criminal records on their application for employment.  Employers can still ask about criminal records during an interview.  In addition, employers subject to government requirements that preclude the hiring of persons with certain criminal records – for example, day care or nursing homes – can ask about those offenses on the application.  For employers, the task at hand is revising employment applications.

The recent change that may pose the least challenge for employers is maximized equitability.  The legislation and the demise of the Defense of Marriage Act, open the door to same-sex couples to marry and receive the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

Q. How important is it for a business owner to have an employee handbook?

A. There is a benefit for every employer to have a handbook.  At minimum, a handbook should detail what is expected of employees.  It should also reflect the nature of the organization if it is to be of value to the employer. I am not a fan of “one-size-fits-all” handbooks.  Small employers generally need a short and simple handbook.  Where I see problems is when a small employer with 10 employees attempts to use an employee handbook prepared for an employer with 100 employees. It makes no sense for the small employer and may end up creating issues in the long run.

Q. How can owners of small businesses, without the resources that large employers have, keep up with new laws and regulations?

A.  Small employers are sometimes between a rock and a hard place when it comes to compliance with employment laws.  They are required to comply, but lack the resources of an in-house HR professional.  My recommendation is to find a knowledgeable consultant that can provide practical advice and guidance.  The cost is fairly modest and the benefits are significant.  Another alternative is membership in an employers’ organization like the Employers Association of the NorthEast (EANE).  This is a very cost effective way to gain access to expertise and assistance in the HR area.

 William E. O’Gara was selected the 2013 Rhode Island “Lawyer of the Year” by Best Lawyers® in labor law-management. For more information about recent changes in the state’s employment laws or to schedule a workshop for your organization, call Attorney O’Gara at 401-855-2601 or email him at





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