Updating Employee Handbooks Must Address New Laws and Policies

employee handbook

The year 2020 brought many changes, especially for the hospitality industry. With the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations and the pent-up demand for travel, occupancy levels will likely continue to rise in 2021. While hotel owners and managers are focused on hiring new staff and adjusting their operations, they could also take a moment to update their employee handbooks. Just like hotel rooms, employee handbooks need periodic renovations to ensure they are compliant with new laws and provide the fair and consistent guidance that employees and applicants desire.

Some businesses use a form employee handbook or template policies found on the internet. Some businesses have robust policies, but only require new hires to sign a form acknowledging receipt of the policies and then fail to consult those policies when issues arise. These are missed opportunities. Putting some thoughtful effort into updating and enforcing employment policies will provide critical guidance for management, improve employee morale, and minimize potential legal liability.

COVID-19

Most hotels are (perhaps painstakingly) familiar with the Center for Disease Control’s guidance regarding COVID-19. The CDC has guidance specific to the hotel, resort, and lodging industry available at. However, many businesses are not yet familiar with new guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Under federal law enforced by OSHA, employers are legally responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace free from recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. Accordingly, hotels should ensure that their policies regarding vaccinations of employees, face coverings, and social distancing are consistent with OSHA guidance to avoid a potential investigation or penalty from OSHA.

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Work-From-Home and Medical Leave

While hotels have critical guest-facing staff that needs to be on property, they also likely have employees working in sales or administrative roles that can perform their duties while working remotely. Further, labor shortages have caused a competitive job market where many applicants have an expectation that working from home in some capacity will be an option for certain job positions. Therefore, hotels need up-to-date policies on remote work. These policies should address when remote work is permitted, how approval must be obtained, and whether the employee or hotel will pay for resources such as computer equipment and software licenses.

Additionally, hotels might need to allow an employee to work from home as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), assuming the employee can still perform his or her essential functions.

With reported cases of mental health issues (including depression and anxiety) increasing nationwide, requests for medical leave are expected to be high in 2021. Hotels should also double-check that their employee handbooks include detailed policies on providing time off of work for medical reasons that are consistent with the legal requirements.

Anti-Discrimination Policies

Finally, hotels should check that their employee handbooks include comprehensive anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Many anticipate that claims for race or gender discrimination will remain high in 2021. Any employee handbook should have a separate policy that prohibits discrimination and harassment and includes specific procedures for reporting and investigating allegations. Anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, when consistently enforced, are the first line of defense to those claims.

As hotels adjust their operations, staffing levels, and revenue projections for the second half of 2021, they should also take some time to update their employee handbooks to ensure they are legally compliant and prepared for when future issues arise.

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Roger Feicht is a shareholder attorney with the Gunster law firm in West Palm Beach, Florida. Roger regularly advises clients regarding employment law and litigation matters.