As an HR professional, you’re pretty much expected to be an expert in, well, everything. In a single day, you might go from recruiting connoisseur to conflict diffusor to employee benefits onboard-er to workplace safety foreman…
One area HR expertise that might surprise most people, is that of legislative expert. It’s crucial for someone to keep the organization compliant with all the laws and legislation governing employment and employee benefits. Federal, state and local laws and regulations change frequently. Most often, it falls on HR to not only research and understand new laws, but also to plan and implement the changes necessary once they come into effect. Only then can both the organizations and employees receive the benefits and protections they’re entitled to.
In this article, we go over some recent laws that will affect employment and employee benefits, including SECURE Act 2.0 federal law and the pay transparency laws cropping up in many states.
Legislation 101 for HR Professionals
In my opinion, Schoolhouse Rock is still the best way to understand how laws are created in the U.S. For ease of reference (and for a little refresher), here’s a few things all HR professionals should know about the legislative process.
The Long Path From Bill to Law in the Federal Government
Introduction, Review, Debate, Voting – After a bill is introduced, a committee gets feedback from people who will be affected by the bill and makes changes. Then it will go the Senate or House of Representatives to be debated, changed and finally voted on.
During this process, bills are likely to change drastically. It’s still a good idea to stay aware of the many bills coming and going through Capitol Hill at any given time. For one thing, this is the time when you can make your opinions heard by contacting your representatives. For another thing, doing so is a great way to keep a pulse on public sentiment about important issues, whether or not those specific bills pass or not.
One Way to Pass, Many Ways to Fail – If both the Senate and the House of Representatives vote yes on the same version of the bill, it is sent to the President to be signed into law. However, that is a big if. Less than 10% of bills become public laws.
The rest die at one of many points along the way. Bills don’t even need to be voted down or vetoed in order to die. For example, every time a term starts with new representatives take their seats, all outstanding bills automatically expire. To continue on, someone has to sponsor the bill anew and start the whole process over again.
Once a law is official, its specifics are locked in and it’s time for employers to start changing rules and processes to bring your organization into compliance. While there’s no need to act until a law is official, knowing what’s coming down the pipeline can help prevent you from being blindsided by new laws in the future.
State and Local Laws
State and local laws follow much the same process of debate, changes, voting, etc. However, it happens on a smaller scale and, most likely, under a limited timeline. In Utah, for example, bills can be introduced all year, but voting only happens during a 45-day legislative session each year. Several states only meet every other year. You’ll want to look up your state’s session dates to stay informed.
New Laws Needing Immediate Attention
Secure Act 2.0
SECURE in the Secure Act 2.0 stands for Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement, and it was signed into law on Dec. 29, 2022. This law builds on the SECURE Act that was passed two years prior, bringing even more changes to retirement savings laws. The purpose for both is to help encourage and incentivize more Americans to save (and save more money) for retirement.
The updated law introduces more flexibility to the way Americans are allowed to save for, and then use, their retirement. These changes should make it easier and more rewarding to save for retirement by giving people more options, bringing retirement options to more people and incentivizing participation.
The top 4 changes that employers need to know about because they affect the workplace are:
- Automatic enrollment. Beginning Jan. 1, 2024, employers who offer retirement plans will need to update their systems so that every new employee is automatically enrolled into a 401K or 403b. All default plans also need to automate contribution increases every year until contributions reach 10% of the employee’s pay. Employees can opt out, of course, but automatic enrollment is projected to raise participation, particularly among low-wage earners and minorities.
- Tax Incentives for Small Businesses. With as many as 70% of small businesses not offering retirement plans because of the cost, SECURE Act 2.0 seeks to help alleviate some of the high costs. Effective immediately, small businesses can write off many startup costs and employer match contributions as a tax credit.
- Retirement Contributions to Match Student Loan Repayment. Employers have long been able to pay into their employees’ 401Ks as a match to employee contributions. Now, employers can “match” student loan repayments instead, meaning when the employee pays toward student loans, the employer can “match” a contribution into the employee’s 401K. This is not a requirement, but instead is another option, giving more freedom in how employers can set up their benefits plan. Among Americans not saving for retirement, 26% said it is because their money has to go to student loan payments instead. Employers who offer the opportunity to pay off student loans and save for retirement at the same time (instead of having to choose one over the other) could be very attractive to the millions of job seekers with crippling student loan debt.
- Coverage for Long-Term, Part-Time Employees. Beginning in 2024, part timers who have worked at least 500 hours in two consecutive calendar years are eligible to participate in their employer’s retirement plan.
Pay Transparency Laws
Several states have already implanted their own pay transparency laws and many more are expected to follow suit in 2023. The goal is to arm employees with accurate information so they can negotiate equitable pay. Experts predict this will help close the wage gap that disproportionately disadvantages women and minorities.
Depending on the state and region, employers will be expected to:
- Publish a pay range in job postings and/or interviews (including for promotions and internal transfers)
- Disclose salary and wages to current employees upon request
- Prohibit asking applicants for wage histories
Many businesses are afraid of these pay transparency laws, some of them with good reason. Suddenly exposing long-standing wage discrepancies can decimate employee morale, as can failure to keep up with market rates. However, businesses are likely to see a lot of benefits in the long term. For example, establishing pay ranges for each position will help simplify salary negotiations and make budgeting for wages much easier to predict.
The Legalization of Marijuana
Even though some states have legalized the use of marijuana for medicinal and/or recreational use for several years now, many organizations are still struggling to find the right balance when it comes to enforcing workplace rules. It’s a challenge to create workplace policies that take into account safety and productivity and inclusivity.
Because it is still illegal at a federal level, businesses in many states are still allowed to test and enforce zero-tolerance policies. Other states have enacted laws that prohibit businesses from using drug-screening results in deciding whether or not to hire an applicant, or discipline an employee.
State laws and regulations are expected to change as rapidly as public sentiment about marijuana use is. HR professionals would be wise to stay up to date on the local laws and build their workplace regulations accordingly. All policies (and changes as necessary) should be clearly conveyed to employees.
Bills to Keep an Eye on
While it’s true not every bill will pass into law, there are several employment related bills that have passed in the House or the Senate. At the start of 2023, the following bills are effectively dead, but have already been reintroduced. With the support they’ve already garnered, it’s worth keeping an eye on them:
The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would strengthen the employee’s right to unionize and fight for fair wages and better working conditions.
The Paycheck Fairness Act has similar goals to the Pay Transparency laws going into effect. If passed, it would address wage discrimination, especially discrimination based on sex, and it would prohibit companies from collecting information about compensation from previous employers.
There is a long list of bills that have been introduced. These bills are in the earliest stages of the legislative process, meaning they’re likely to be heavily amended. If passed, the laws will probably look quite different from their current forms.
Change is Good For Employers Too
The goal of HR is to ensure employees have a safe, fair and equitable place to work. Ensuring your policies align with all the current laws and regulations is a big part of that.
Failing to comply in time not only opens your organization up to legal repercussions, it also can damage the company’s reputation. On the other hand, you can work within the framework of new laws to offer the most enticing benefits are more likely to recruit and retain talented individuals to their cause.
Which new laws (federal, state OR local) are you following most closely? Share your thoughts in the comments below!