But I'm in HR - What Do You Mean I Can Go to Jail?

01 July 2019 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog
Author(s): John S. Lord Jr

Wage and hour laws.  Child labor laws.  OSHA laws.  Immigration laws.  When employers do not comply with these types of employment laws, civil charges and lawsuits are not the only thing that can happen.  In what may come as an unwelcome surprise to employers, and to Human Resources in particular, these laws have criminal penalties embedded in them too.

For example, willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) – the federal wage and hour law that also contains certain child labor provisions – may be prosecuted criminally, with violators subject to potential fines of up to $10,000.  Various states also have their own wage and hour laws, and many of them include criminal sanctions.

Although the Department of Justice and administrative agencies enforce laws like the FLSA less or more vigorously, depending on who is president, a case from 2013, during the Obama administration, is instructive.  In that FLSA matter, a company and its owner, plant manager, and office manager were all convicted of various felony counts.  The facts were extreme, including that the employer had a history of FLSA violations, submitted false payment evidence to the Department of Labor during its investigation, demanded kickbacks from workers while continuing to fail to pay overtime, and kept a second set of time records hidden from investigators.  These facts resulted in criminal convictions for the company and three of its management individuals.

The Department of Justice also enforces certain immigration laws that carry potential criminal penalties for employers.  These laws are especially noteworthy in today’s atmosphere of heightened immigration enforcement.  Employers who unlawfully employ persons who are not authorized to work in the United States could be subject to criminal prosecution.  Federal and state OSHA laws also contain criminal in addition to civil penalty provisions.

We know that Human Resources professionals can sometimes have a hard time convincing other leaders in an organization to listen to their suggestions.  It can be very frustrating, for example, when HR knows that certain employment policies need to be revised or certain payment methods may not comply with legal requirements, and yet other members of the management team will not make the changes.

One way HR can help guide managers who need to make decisions about certain employment policies – and to get their attention – is to point out that not only can failure to follow certain laws result in expensive civil lawsuits; but sometimes they can also result in criminal prosecution.  Though rare, these prosecutions and convictions do happen – something clearly all HR and all managers want to avoid.  

Are you likely to go to jail as an HR professional under these laws?  Not likely.  Nonetheless, HR professionals should be aware of the possibilities and be prepared to discuss them when educating management.

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