Three big obstacles may trip up human resources professionals in 2018.
Businesses in central Ohio and beyond have much to think about this year when it comes to human resources.
Of particular interest are issues around immigration, harassment in the workplace and pay equity, all of which commanded national attention in 2017 and show no signs of leaving the spotlight anytime soon.
These challenges in labor and employment law—decades old but perhaps never carrying as much weight—promise to keep lawyers, benefits specialists and human resources professionals busy in 2018.
A year into the presidency of Donald Trump, it is clear immigration policies will continue to be of interest to employers.
While the administration's proposed “travel ban” on tourists and refugees has been controversial and hotly debated, policies around H-1B work visas are more likely to impact Columbus-area businesses and their attorneys and HR professionals.
The H-1B program, which allows companies to temporarily employ highly-skilled foreign workers, has been a reliable tool for companies looking to hire engineering and information technology expertise from India, for example.
But the administration is promoting its “Hire American” agenda by placing more scrutiny on visa holders entering the country.
Specific proposals to change the program have included raising the minimum-salary threshold for H-1B holders from $60,000, and prohibiting businesses from using foreign workers to replace those with citizenship.
Already US Citizenship and Immigration Services has begun challenging more H-1B applications, issuing “requests for further evidence” on 25 percent of applications between January and August last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. The typical rate is less than 20 percent, the publication reports.
“We're shocked to see denials coming back from the government on positions that have been approved previously for decades,” says Gus Shihab, founder of the Columbus-based immigration law firm Shihab & Associates Co., LPA. “It's going to trickle down to delayed products; it's going to trickle down to missed deadlines. It's going to lead to a lot of consequences down the road that I don't think this country should face.”
Shihab says he and his clients are bracing for ongoing challenges.
“I think this year you're going to have huge difficulty in (finding) badly needed foreign or international talent to fill in these jobs that are needed so the country can continue to be innovative,” Shihab says. “This administration believes we do have talent here in the US, but that's contrary to what my clients are telling me.”
In response, businesses should stay abreast of Citizenship and Immigration Services policy, as well as legislation moving through Congress. And Shihab recommends the formation of a coalition of companies relying on H-1B workers.
With uncertainty swirling, attorneys are emphasizing the need to have appropriate I-9 employment eligibility documentation for all workers.
“Our goal is to give clients an idea of what's to come—not necessarily that it will come true. Some things take planning,” says Janica Pierce Tucker, a partner in the Columbus office of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP specializing in employment and labor law. “I think businesses need to make sure to keep records up to date, make sure their individuals have the proper documentation.”
Nationally, the recent spate of sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile politicians and entertainers is causing business leaders to take a critical look within their own organizations.
Lawyers say central Ohio employers should use the national conversation as an opportunity to strengthen or implement new policies.
“Everyone has a heightened awareness to that sexual harassment issue,” says Anne Duprey, a senior associate in the Columbus office of Frost Brown Todd LLC and vice president of government affairs for the Human Resources Association of Central Ohio.
Duprey expects to see the discussion continue and the volume of complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to increase, noting harassment has been “more prevalent than everyone lets on.”
She recommends employers provide ongoing education and to have a process in place for handling complaints.
It is important to note that, according to the EEOC, harassment is a form of employment discrimination that can include not only unwelcome sexual advances but also offensive remarks about race, religion and more.
“Employers need to train, train, train,” says Tucker, who recommends reviewing anti-harassment policies at least annually. “And make sure you have a culture of anti-harassment.”
Attorneys suggest that, as with the ongoing legal conversation around immigration, employers monitor national news on the topic of harassment.
And businesses can learn from the founder-friendly—and investor-“unfriendly”— contract terms that made it nearly impossible for film producer Harvey Weinstein to be removed from power.
Disparity in pay along gender and ethnic lines remains a point of concern in employment and labor law.
Having a diverse and fairly paid workforce is something businesses can be proactive about, Tucker says, rather than wait for some sort of regulatory requirements.
“I believe it's on the radar for many companies,” she says. “I think Columbus companies have to make it part of their mission, part of their purpose. You're talking about different generations coming into the workforce—you have all kind of different dynamics that companies have to look for.”
The nonprofit Pew Research Center found that women earned 83 percent of what men earned in 2015, and the disparity was wider for Hispanic and African-American women.
Pew notes women are more likely to take breaks from their careers to care for their families—thus impacting long-term earnings—but the organization says some part of the pay gap may also be due to gender discrimination.
Last fall, the newly created Columbus Women's Commission unveiled a program, Columbus Commitment: Achieving Pay Equity, to reduce gender- and race-based gaps in pay.
“We hoped for 25 (companies),” says First Lady Shannon Ginther, who serves as chair of the commission, established by Mayor Andrew Ginther in February 2016. A group of more than 60 area companies have signed on to address the issue. “It's definitely a conversation this community is ready to have,” Ginther adds.
The Women's Commission wants even the region's smallest companies to join the fold.
“We will be partnering with other larger companies,” she says. “Into the new year we will be actually offering a best-practices learning collaborative—bring in HR folks, think about how you can start to change the story.”
Aiming to promote the overall economic well-being of women, the commission is going beyond pay equity to promote workforce development, childcare and housing.
As with the voluntary commitment to pay equity, Ginther expects advocacy rather than legislation will be the tool of choice.
“It's good for business,” she says. “When (companies) are making decisions about where to expand, they are coming into these communities (and asking), what are your policies?”
And it is an important time for employers to address any shortcomings. The heightened awareness of pay equity, as well as immigration and workplace harassment policy, are coming at a time when the labor market is at its tightest in a decade or more.
“One of the biggest complaints I hear is finding good quality talent to get in the door,” Duprey says. “If you want good employees ... think about your company's culture. Make your workplace a desirable one.”
Evan Weese is a freelance writer.