Employment 2012: The Year in Review

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Paid sick leave, medical marijuana and First Five top state business headlines

"/#buy_">fivebSeveral significant developments impacted employment law and other job-related issues this year. Connecticut companies became more liable for alleged sexual harassment incidents. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “First Five” initiative continued to subsidize "site//#generic_">generic companies that promised large-scale job creation. And in one of the more controversial changes, state lawmakers approved the use of medical marijuana, throwing companies into a quandary regarding how to interpret and "//#valium_generic">valium generic the new law.

“This legislation is about accomplishing one objective: providing relief to those with severe medical illnesses,” said Malloy shortly before signing the bill into law. At that time he also acknowledged lingering skepticism.

“I understand many of the concerns raised by opponents,” Malloy said in a release. “We don’t want Connecticut to follow the path pursued by some other states, which essentially would legalize marijuana for anyone willing to find the right doctor and get the right prescription. In my opinion, such efforts run counter to federal law. Under this proposal, however, the [state’s] Department of Consumer Protection will be able to carefully regulate and monitor the medicinal use of this drug in order to avoid the problems encountered in some other states.”

Although medical marijuana in Connecticut is supposed to be used for life-threatening and debilitating illnesses, it allows for workforce participation for those using it.

While some business leaders were at a loss for words about how they would address the law, others spoke out against it.

“The Connecticut State Medical Society continues to have concern about smoking marijuana for medicinal purposes,” stated Audrey Honig Geragosian, CSMS director of communications. “There is inadequate scientific evidence to suggest its benefits outweigh either concern for patient and public safety or the long-term health risks posed by ingestion through smoking.”

CSMS President Michael M. Krinsky, MD lamented the lack of guidelines. “We have no guidance whatsoever,” he said, adding that physicians should “wait and see how things are written” before making changes to their regular health-care procedures.

With the law’s passage, Connecticut became the 17th state to approve the use of marijuana for medical use.

 

Another law, one that became effective the first of the year, affects employers directly in their pocketbooks. That was the state mandate requiring many businesses to provide workers with paid sick leave.

While many companies had already provided paid sick leave, it hadn’t been mandated by state law. Now, for service-sector jobs in particular, it is. The law specifically includes service workers paid hourly wages such as food-service workers, registered nurses, LPNs, home health aides, dental hygienists, administrative assistants, waitstaff, barbers and hairdressers, and fast food workers, among others. However, small businesses with fewer than 50 employees are exempt, as are a number of categories of manufacturers.

Malloy called the law “good public policy” and said in a statement that it would release service workers from the burden of having to work when sick.

“Without paid sick leave, frontline service workers — people who serve us food, who care for our children, and who work in hospitals, for example — are forced to go to work sick to keep their jobs,” Malloy said in a statement prior to signing the bill into law last year. “That’s not a choice I’m comfortable having people make under my tenure, and I’m proud to sign this bill when it comes to my desk.”

A court decision also could have a palpable impact on business in the state, causing them to become more circumspect in how they deal with alleged workplace sexual harassment.

The state Supreme Court ruled in May that Birken Manufacturing Co. of Bloomfield must compensate a former employee more than $90,000 for failing to address and halt on-the-job, homophobic sexual harassment. The former employee claimed that he suffered mentally and physically because of ongoing, same-sex harassment because of his sexual orientation. He said he reported the situation to supervisors, but the harassment continued. The court sided with the complainant and determined that Birken fostered a hostile work environment due to its inaction.

“You’ve got to have a clear and unambiguous policy to specify that you forbid harassment,” explains Emanuel Psarakis, a Quinnipiac University School of Law faculty member, in assessing consequences of the decision. “You should have a policy and have a procedure for people making complaints. If you find harassment, you must engage in prompt, effective remedial action.”

 

The year also saw broadened legal activity that throws into question the benefit to businesses of intern labor. Last year two former Fox Searchlight Pictures interns — both graduates of Wesleyan University in Middletown — filed suit against the company after working on the Academy Award-winning film Black Swan. They claim that they deserved pay for the menial tasks they performed, which benefited the company.

Since filing the original lawsuit, the pair sought to expand it to include any and all interns who took part in the internship program at Fox Entertainment Group.

Another high-profile lawsuit makes similar claims that interns should be paid for the work they do. This one, filed in March, was against talk show host Charlie Rose and his production company. Coincidentally the plaintiff, like those in the Fox lawsuit, is a Wesleyan graduate.

And, in January, a former intern with Harper’s Bazaar magazine filed suit against its parent company, the Hearst Corp., arguing that she deserved pay for her work.

Many consider the law antithetical to the reasons businesses — especially small businesses — hire unpaid interns in the first place: to help with tasks they cannot afford to hire someone to do. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s guidelines for internship programs under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the intern must benefit from an internship. What’s more, the work given should be commensurate with training he/she would get in an educational setting, and it should not be of immediate benefit to the employer.

Jill Ferrall, assistant dean for career development at Quinnipiac University’s School of Business, has a suggestion for companies considering hiring unpaid interns — but it’s a solution many employers might not want to hear.

“I always encourage employers to provide some sort of pay, even if its minimum wage,” says Ferrall. She added the ultimately it could benefit the employer by enhancing the quality of an intern’s work.

“Human nature is that if you’re getting paid, even if it’s minimum wage, you’ve got a little more drive,” says Ferrall, “and the student makes [the internship] much more of a commitment.”

 

Permanent, long-term jobs were the focus of the governor’s “First Five” initiative, which accelerated this year. The latest count is nine companies that have taken advantage of the program through its original or extended version.

Funded through the state’s Department of Economic & Community Development (DECD), First Five is a Malloy administration creation that provides financial incentives to selected companies that promise to create at least 200 new full-time jobs in Connecticut during the course of two years, or 200 new jobs within five years and also invest $25 million in the state.

In October Malloy announced that cable operator Charter Communications Inc. would be the latest addition to the First Five group. The Fortune 500 company says plans to invest in excess of $10 million in the state and bring 200 jobs to the region, according to a press release from the governor’s office. In exchange, Charter will receive a $6.5 million loan, repayable over ten years at 2.0 percent. A deferral of principal payments will be effect for three years. The funds are expected to be used for tenant upgrades and to buy office equipment and furnishings at Charter’s 70,000-square-foot facility at 400 Atlantic Street in Stamford.

“Connecticut is competing at every opportunity to attract and retain good-paying jobs with good benefits, and strengthen our position in key industry sectors in the process,” said Malloy. “Charter’s decision to make Stamford its headquarters serves both of these objectives.

“Connecticut is quickly becoming a place where growth industries can thrive,” Malloy added. “Whether it’s bioscience, digital media or another emerging sector of the economy, the message that Connecticut is open for business is clearly taking hold.”

Other businesses participating in the First Five initiative are Cigna, establishing its headquarters in Bloomfield; ESPN, expanding its sports media complex in Bristol; NBC Sports Group, NBC Universal, Stamford; Alexion Pharmaceuticals, relocating its global headquarters from Cheshire to New Haven; CareCentrix, moving an expanded headquarters to Hartford; Sustainable Building Systems, establishing itself in North Haven; Deloitte, expanding operations in Stamford, Hartford and Wilton; and Bridgewater Associates, relocating to Stamford.


 

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