Staying current on employment law helps avoid liability

Many dentists dream of opening their own practices. And while they may have spent years refining their clinical skills, they are often less familiar with the business side of dentistry. This is especially true when it comes to employment law, an area of frequent claims against dental practice owners.

Dentists should heed particular caution to the rules and regulations surrounding meal and rest periods. In California, employers are required to provide a 30-minute unpaid, uninterrupted meal period for nonexempt employees working five or more hours. During this time, employees must be relieved of all duties. On-duty meal periods are not advisable. If an on-duty meal period is necessary, it must be counted as time worked and, subject to certain exceptions, an additional hour of premium pay is required.

Compensation for trainings, conferences, travel

The Dentists Insurance Company reports one of the most common questions posed by practice owners is whether employees should be paid for trainings held during meal periods (“lunch and learns”) or continuing education during regular working hours.

According to TDIC, if nonexempt employees are required to attend trainings or courses, whether over a meal period or otherwise, they must be compensated. Even if their presence isn’t mandatory, but they believe that failing to attend would cause them to be viewed unfavorably by their employer, they must be paid for their time. In addition, if participating in the training means employees work more than eight hours in a day or 40 in a week, they must be paid overtime.

Trainings or courses do not preclude employers from providing a 30-minute meal period to their employees. TDIC recommends employers provide this unpaid break prior to the mandatory meeting or training; otherwise, the employee must be paid an additional hour of pay for each meal period missed.

The same rules apply to licensed staff who are required by law to maintain licensure through continuing education. While the responsibility to maintain licensure rests with the employee, if employers require staff to attend a specific course, then the time in class is compensable.

For conferences, employers are required to compensate employees for their time attending specific sessions deemed mandatory — not necessarily for the entire conference. However, even if the employee isn’t required to attend, he or she should be compensated for the training time if any of the following apply: The course is directly related to the employee’s job; the training aids the employee in performing the job more effectively; or the employee would be led to believe his or her nonattendance would adversely affect working conditions or job security.

It is also important for practice owners to be aware that they must compensate employees for drive time to and from mandatory trainings or courses held off-site. For overnight events, compensation for travel time applies seven days a week and is calculated from the time the employee leaves home to the arrival at their final destination. As a result, the employee may end the workweek with overtime hours, which must be paid in accordance with overtime laws.

In some cases, employers can pay employees at training and travel rates that are lower than the normal rate of pay. But these rates must still be in compliance with labor laws and minimum wage requirements. They must also be established in advance and well-documented. However, if the training is considered mandatory by the employer, voluntary attendance is requested or implied, the training is directly related to the employee’s job or the training is held during a normal workday, TDIC recommends the employer provide compensation at the employee’s normal rate of pay.

Whether the employer pays for the cost of the trainings or courses is irrelevant. Employers must follow the guidelines above, regardless of who foots the bill.

One of the best ways for practice owners to protect themselves from liability is to establish clear policies regarding continuing education and to communicate these policies in their employee manual. Practice owners should also familiarize themselves with federal, state and local employment law, especially in regards to meal and rest periods, minimum wage and overtime. These laws are amended frequently, so it is essential that employers keep abreast of any changes to avoid employment-related claims.

For more information, please contact TDIC at tdicinsurance.com or the TDIC Risk Management Advice Line at 800.733.0633.

Related Items

Practice owners who have questions about dismissing a patient, giving a refund or terminating an employee are not alone. The Dentists Insurance Company reports these are the top three risk management issues facing dentists today. In fact, these issues make up the majority of calls received through the Risk Management Advice Line. Following are real-life calls and recommendations offered by TDIC RM analysts.

When practice owners develop their employee manuals, they should take care when establishing an introductory or probationary period policy. These policies can create misunderstandings for employees if the employer does not clearly communicate the purpose of the policy to the new employee, whether it is for performance evaluation or benefits eligibility.

As a best practice, all California practice owners or employers should know the applicable wage order for their business and employees along with the regulations contained in it. Dental practices typically fall under Wage Order 4 — specifically, Order No. 4-2001. The California Department of Industrial Relations updated Wage Order 4-2001 to reflect the 2017 and 2018 increases in the state minimum wage and also updated meal and lodging credit amounts.