Q&A offers sneak peek at employment law update

Michelle Smith

Here’s a sneak peak at the upcoming Western Colorado Human Resource Association spring conference and employment law update by way of a series of questions and answers with Michael Santo, a partner in the  Bechtel & Santo law firm. Representatives of the Grand Junction firm, which specializes in employment law, will speak at the April 24 conference.

So will Michelle Walker, director of sales and product development for Rocky Mountain Heath Plans. Walker will discuss issues related to federal health care reform legislation.

Here’s my discussion with Santo:

How long has Bechtel & Santo been partnering with WCHRA in the employment law update? Answering for Bechtel and Santo is easy, as the firm has only been around since 2005. But as for the individual attorneys, I think Betty (Bechtel) started working with the group in the late 80s and I started working with the group when I got to town in 1994. 

How has employment law changed since you have been representing employers? For instance, has there been an increase in the kind of cases that are going to trial, the dollar amount of settlements, etc.? Certainly, simply because of inflation, settlement amounts have gone up. But I’d say that we’re seeing many more whistleblower claims and class actions. Also, we’re seeing more pro se complaints. I think the increase in these claims is due to the fact that there are so many more resources available to employees on the net than, at least, when I started. So, you’ll sometimes get situations where the employee knows the laws better than the employer, which is never a good thing. I’d also say we’re seeing less sex harassment claims than when I started. And we’re seeing fewer wage claims from employees. But we’re seeing more claims from the state and federal departments of labor on wage and independent contractor claims. Similar to the increase in whistleblower claims, we’re seeing more (Americans With Disabilities Act) claims because of the change to the act in 2009. 

What are the top three things that employers do (or don’t do) that leave them open to litigation? Tough question! I think employers tend to over-rely on their at-will rights. It’s still a viable concept in Colorado. It’s just not a particularly strong defense to discrimination claims. So, it’s important to thoroughly explain the basis for termination. I think employers could always benefit from reviewing their policies, wage classifications and contractor classifications. Finally, I’d say handling the “disability” claims on a day-to-day basis is always a concern. 

This year’s topics include the employment law update. Can you give us a teaser of what kinds of things will be covered? We’re certainly going to be covering the changes to the statutes, in particular the marijuana amendment, the possible expansion to the damages available against small employers and the state expansion to the (Family Medical Leave Act). With the amendments to the ADA now 3 years old, we’re finally able to get a sense on how courts are going to handle those changes. We also have a large section on what we’ve seen recently in whistleblower claims. We’ve also tweaked the program this year, especially in some of the traditional topic sections (e.g., ADA, Fair Labor Standards Act).  This year, we’re going to run those two discussions concurrently (two ADA discussions, two FLSA discussions) with one looking at the recent cases and the other looking at handling those issues on a day-to-day basis. I think this approach will work well in permitting employers to focus on what they’re looking for. 

The event format has changed from lecture to skits to roundtable. Why the change? Well, we’re still doing the lectures for most of the topics. But we are changing from a skit to a roundtable discussion. The idea behind this was to have it more directed by the attendees and less by the attorneys. It’s designed to give attendees a chance to literally ask any employment law question that they have. The thought on this was that so many of the questions don’t fit in a nice, neat little box of ADA or FMLA, etc. So, this allows attendees to ask any question that they may have. I’m envisioning that this section will turn into mini-seminars on numerous topics. We’re, of course, going to have a few questions ready to go to try and generate discussions should that be necessary. We also think that the roundtable discussion will permit attendees to provide advice, counsel, thoughts, etc. on the issues presented. 

What’s your favorite part of the event? Without hesitation, it’s the questions. That is, I like discussing what we’ve seen recently in cases and the new changes to the legislation. But the questions are really the time we can discuss with employers how those cases get applied to everyday situations and walk through finding appropriate steps to take. Plus, some of the best ideas that I’ve heard often come up during the seminars.

Why should an employer send a representative to this event? We would all like more time in our days.  And with all the reading materials out there, it’s really tough for even the most diligent HR representative to keep up on all the new cases and legislation. This event gives the HR professional the opportunity to hear many of the changes that we’ve seen come out and also those things that may come out. It’s just a great informational resource for the HR person to hear about the new cases and legislation and then discuss how those are applicable to (his or her) business.