By Laura Kushner
"If you think the work's not safe, go find another job."
"You want to take sick leave to stay home with your kid? Can't your wife do it?"
Supervisors sometimes make mistakes that result in employment lawsuits. The above quotes are prime examples of these types of mistakes. However, well-trained supervisors play critical roles in protecting the city and properly implementing employment laws. Do your city supervisors know their role in each of these areas?
State and federal laws prohibit discrimination against individuals based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, and other protected statuses. Supervisors must make sure they are not basing employment decisions on a protected status and are treating similarly situated employees similarly.
Supervisors also cannot deny opportunities to an individual or retaliate against someone because of a protected status. And they play an important role in avoiding sexual or other harassment on their teams.
Example: A public works employee approaches his supervisor about his religious requirement to pray five times per day. The supervisor’s role is to find a way to accommodate this religious practice, unless the practice causes significant difficulty or expense (an “undue hardship”).
State and federal laws such as the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provide job-protected leave for family and medical reasons. Supervisors need to be familiar with these laws so they know when to refer an employee to the city’s Administration/ Human Resources (HR) staff.
Employees don’t have to specifically request FMLA; they just have to ask for time off that is covered by the law. Therefore, supervisors must listen for requests that would meet the FMLA criteria, such as a reference to their own or a family member’s health condition.
Example: An employee in the Planning Department is having a medical procedure that will require five days off. She tells her supervisor not to fuss with all the paperwork; she’s just going to use her accrued sick leave. The supervisor should recognize this is likely covered by the FMLA, even if the employee uses sick leave, and report the upcoming absence to Administration/HR.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as state law, prohibits discrimination based on a disability that substantially limits a major life activity. The law also requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to an employee with a disability, unless doing so would cause undue hardship. An extended period of medical leave is often considered a reasonable accommodation.
Supervisors need to address employees’ requests for reasonable accommodations. They have an important role to play in discussing accommodations with employees and helping city administrators figure out which accommodations will work and which will not.
Example: A community service officer with a back injury may not be able to safely handle animal complaints. The supervisor’s input is critical in determining whether there is any special equipment or work-around that will allow him to continue to perform all the essential duties of his position.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy or a related condition. Women who are pregnant or have a related condition must be treated the same as other employees with similar limitations. For example, if the city has provided light duty for a male employee with a broken leg, it most likely will need to do so for a pregnant employee as well.
In Minnesota, employers are specifically required to accommodate pregnant employees who require more frequent restroom, food, and water breaks; special seating; and limits on lifting over 20 pounds. Supervisors must ensure these accommodations are allowed for pregnant employees.
Example: The city hall receptionist is pregnant. She needs more frequent restroom breaks, but it’s difficult for her to leave the desk unattended as city hall staff is small. The supervisor will need to figure out a system to allow the employee to take restroom breaks more frequently, as Minnesota law requires this accommodation.
Whistleblower laws provide protection for employees who register complaints about an employer who violates the law.
Example: A public works employee points out some safety issues in the public works garage. The supervisor’s role is to thank the employee, investigate whether he is correct, and rectify the violation, if any. In no case should the supervisor retaliate.
You can help keep your city out of legal trouble by making sure your city’s supervisors understand these employment laws.
Laura Kushner is human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1203.
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