Web resources for employment and labor law

Dec. 5, 2003
Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, executive editor, searches the Internet for labor law and related topics.

If it were easy, we wouldn't call it work. Yet, no fewer than five days each week, we trudge back to our personal salt mines to chip away at tasks, sometimes thankless ones, that require our undivided attention for no less than eight hours. Longer if your department is shorthanded, and today, whose isn't? There ought to be a law.

My friends out there in readerland, there are, indeed, many laws. This country is great at making them. But let's explore the laws affecting the old salt mine, and dive into the Web morass in search of zero-cost, non-commercial, registration-free resources providing practical information about this ever-changing field that affects every worker, regardless of rank. Remember, we search the Web so that you don't have to.

The overview

The Web site for The Legal Information Institute, a non-profit activity of Cornell Law School in Ithaca, N.Y., posts Law About, brief summaries of law topics that include links to primary sources, Internet resources and other useful references. As you would expect, labor law is included. Motivate your mouse to nibble on http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/topic2.html#employment%20law, and you'll be rewarded with Employment Law. Its eight topics include labor law, workplace safety and pensions. Item number five, Labor: an overview, is a good starting point for delving into the topic for the month.

Who ya' gonna call?

When something is seriously wrong, human nature takes over and we look for some form of redress. This may involve sounding the alarm. Surely it's noble and honorable to do so. But sometimes the best intentions can have unintended consequences. Jim Rapoza discusses one such case, which involves software designed to better protect customers, partner privacy and trade secrets by controlling access to company documents. Dispatch your mouse to try to fetch Whistle-Blowers at Risk, found at http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,3959,1200207,00.asp, to learn why those whistles we've been hearing are going to fall silent.

Then, when she analyzed whistleblowing for Forbes, Tatiana Serafin concluded that it has exactly the same effect on one's long-term career as hari-kiri. Her article, Lifting the lidWhistle-blowers as pariahs, is replete with examples of people who learned the lesson. If your mouse is the sort that doesn't make too many waves, it will find Serafin's material at http://www.forbes.com/home_europe/newswire/2003/08/15/rtr1059211.html.

"The Brazen Careerist," a column by New York-based writer Penelope Trunk, appears regularly on the Web site operated by Bankrate.com, North Palm Beach, Fla. Her February, 2003 column, Whippersnapper whistle-blowers beware, echoes the warning about the disemboweling effect sounding the alarm can have on a person trying to do the right thing. Since you can only get away with it once, Trunk argues, timing your whistle toot is critical. Honk on over to http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/career/20030224a1.asp to learn how to schedule the big event for maximum effect with, hopefully, minimal consequence.

As you'll note in nature, when a small bird decides to toot loudly, it generally does so from a safe, high perch, away from predators. Follow the common sense that birds exhibit by locating a safe roosting tooting spot that will protect you from the fray that will certainly ensue when you blow the whistle. A piece by William Sanjour, A Textbook For Whistle-Blowers, serves in that educative capacity. Tootle your way to Rachel's Environment & Health News, a publication of the Environmental Research Foundation, New Brunswick, N.J., which is found at http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?St=4. Then scroll down to #715.

Engineering ethics

If every child internalized a solid sense of the difference between right and wrong early in life and then played nicely afterward, we might not have the ethics problems we hear about today. But that's not how human nature operates. Consider conflicts of interest. They may be legal, but it's certainly embarrassing when they're dragged out into the harsh glare of the noonday sun on the front page of the local paper. As you might guess, Web resources address this issue, too.

The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science at CASE Western Reserve University offers resources for understanding and addressing ethically significant problems that could arise in a person's work life. The organization's Web site, http://onlineethics.org/, serves as a repository of ethics materials from many sources. The most relevant section, Engineering Practice, is accessible from the home page. Clicking on that item reveals a pull-down menu that links you to cases involving ethical issues, essays on a variety of ethics problems in engineering, educational resources for teaching engineering ethics, ethics problems submitted by visitors to the site and a section on engineering ethics in a corporate setting. This site offers plant professionals some serious reading.

Another organization that's concerned with ethics is the National Society of Professional Engineers, Alexandria, Va., the umbrella organization for licensed engineers in this country. Regulation by the state is required because engineers in private practice have an obligation to protect the life, health and property of the public who will come into contact with the engineer's work product. You certainly don't want the designer of a public building downtown to trade your long-term safety for a few shekels.

NSPE offers its members advice for resolving on-the-job ethics dilemmas in its NSPE Ethics in Employment Task Force Report, which you will find at http://www.nspe.org/ethics/eh1-report.asp. In addition, if you click on "Licensure, ethics and the law," on the left side of the page, you'll find far more resources than can be described in the space available to us here.

If there's ever a backlash against ethical lapses, I hope it happens as described by Ella Kallish, a syndicated columnist, in her article "Ethics in Corporate America." The piece relates our progress from the good old days in which one had a job for life to the present day when you're lucky if your town has any jobs available. Kallish argues that corporations will begin to use a higher level of ethics as a strategic advantage in the marketplace. I suspect that her scenario will play out only when bottom-line economics demand it. Nevertheless, read her article at http://www.wnbc.com/employment/770947/detail.html. And, by the way, if you don't like the smell of some of what's going on around you, consider exploring the links at the end of the piece.

A portal

Rare are the Web sites that pack an awful lot of material into a page. The Employment Law Information Network, Shavertown, Pa., is such a site. Although it was designed for lawyers and human resource professionals specializing in labor law and employee relations, any plant professional can access and make sense of the site's index of, and articles about, federal and state employment law. In addition, check out the sample policies, forms and contracts for HR professionals and search case law by state or by court. The only problem with http://www.elinfonet.com/ is that there's so much material there that the intellectually curious will have a hard time breaking free to get back to the work that actually results in winning the daily bread ration.

View from the top down

In most companies, the atmosphere on Mahogany Row may be rarified, but its denizens' compensation packages are quite dense and heavy. Effective executive recruitment and retention, after all, can make the difference between success and failure in the dog-eat-dog world of business. It stands to reason that hiring a good exec requires more than a completed job application, a reference check and a W-4 form.

Paul Hastings, a law firm based in southern California, covers executive employment agreements, compensation for directors and executives, ERISA litigation, stock options and using stock as compensation in a world quite different from that on the plant floor. If you want to see how the other half lives, command your browser to visit the company's Web site, http://www.xpay.net/, and click on "Executive Compensation" when the home page loads.

Intellectual property

Nobody can expect privacy with respect to any activities using employer-owned computers. That's why personal surfing on the Web should be done at home, using your own personal computer, as should moonlighting, posting resumes or engaging in other activities that really don't involve your employer. However, this general principle can present a problem for laptop-toting road warriors, who, by rights, ought to be toting two laptops to avoid potential problems.

This is only one of several intellectual property issues featured in White Paper: Employment Agreements Regarding Employee-owned Intellectual Property: Conflicts of Interest, Trade Secrets, Non-disclosure, Non-competition by John W. Boushka at High Productivity Publishing, Arlington, Va. He points out, though, that using your own computer for such activities can still invite problems that might be too big to handle. Nudge your mouse toward http://www.hppub.com/empint.htm, where you can read the full 5,700-word article.

The Lectric Law Library in Carson City, Nev. offers quite a bit of material related to labor and employment law on its Web site. Entering through http://www.lectlaw.com/temp.html gives you links to general materials, related laws and regulations. For example, the "general" section contains material about the distinction between contractors and employees, electronic privacy rights and lie-detector testing. The "law" section offers material on wage garnishment, labor standards for migrant and seasonal agriculture workers, the Davis-Bacon Act and how wage and hour laws apply to holidays. Employees would be interested in learning about rights under ADA, how to file an OSHA complaint, the basics of Workers' Comp laws and how to handle getting fired. Employers might be interested in immigration law compliance information, what employers should know about credit reports, OSHA's civil penalties policy and how to hire young workers at special minimum wages.


The United States National Labor Relations Board has been on the job since Roosevelt put it there during the Great Depression. This body has two functions: to conduct secret-ballot unionization elections and to investigate and remedy unfair labor practices. Its Web site offers much of value, but if someone has a beef, they should check out the links to manuals, forms and the rules and regulations. If nothing else, check out the 70-plus-page style manual, a document that must be followed when corresponding with the Board. It's found just behind the "Manuals" link. March over to http://www.nlrb.gov/ to see how some of our hired hands in Washington earn their daily bread.


Readers of this magazine know about the HR problems one can encounter in the trenches. Our column of that name has been appearing here since January, 1993. Each installment covers a labor issue that's addressed by a panel of distinguished experts in their respective fields. You can access the popular series from the home page of our Web site, www.plantservices.com.

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