Money, drugs, and marriage: The year in employment law

As 2014 comes to a close, a look back on the year reveals a provocative collection of employment law changes, with some interesting developments likely yet to come. It sounds like the plot for a summer blockbuster, but corporate managers should be ready to deal with the age-old themes of money, marriage, and drugs as the workplace is affected by adjustments to the minimum wage, developments in the redefinition of what constitutes a spouse, and the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

Minimum wage

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage, the federal rate didn’t budge from $7.25 per hour this year (although it was hiked to $10.10 for federal contractors).

However, the contentious federal debate didn’t stop states from raising their minimum wage rates. Twenty-three states plus the District of Columbia currently have higher minimum wage rates than the federal rate, with the District of Columbia leading the pack at $9.50 per hour.

For 2015, a total of 21 states will see an uptick in their minimum wages effective Jan. 1, but there will also be some midyear bumps. Some states automatically adjust their minimum wages annually based on changes to the Consumer Price Index, so employers should continue to be on the lookout for future increases.

Additionally, large individual employers, such as Ikea and Costco, took it upon themselves to increase their wages in 2014. If the unemployment rate continues to drop (it was 5.8% in November, down from 6.6% in January), some employers may find they need to increase wages to find the workers they want in 2015.

Same-sex marriage

In June, the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division (WHD) published proposed rules regarding the definition of a spouse under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

The current FMLA regulation uses a “state of domicile” definition of marriage, which means if a same-sex couple is legally married in one state but lives in another state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, the two are not considered spouses for purposes of FMLA spousal leave.

The WHD proposes redefining marriage, similar to the way the Internal Revenue Service does, as a “state of celebration.” Under this proposal, as long as the same-sex marriage is legal in the state or country in which it was performed, it will be seen as legal, regardless of where the couple lives.

The WHD received 77 comments and needs to review them all before publishing final rules. The Unified Agenda indicates that the final rule may be published as early as March 2015.



Marijuana, state laws, and drug policies

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized the possession of marijuana for medical use, and state laws in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska also allow individuals over 21 to possess limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

Possession and use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law, however, and the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies it as a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use, and a high potential for abuse.”

While employers in states where medical or recreational marijuana use is legal can still prohibit employees from using, possessing, or being under the influence of marijuana at work, the conflict with federal law can leave them feeling confused about enforcing workplace drug policies.

Since marijuana remains in the user’s system for an extended period of time, there is a question about what should happen when employees who are no longer under the influence still test positive for the drug. At least one court case in Colorado is looking to address this very issue, and employers will need to wait and see how it is resolved.

Kyra Kudick is an associate editor at J.J. Keller & Associates Inc. She specializes in employment law/HR issues such as employee relations, hiring and recruiting, and training and development. She is the author of J.J. Keller’s Employee Relations Essentials manual.

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