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Employment Law: Dentists Can't Afford to Ignore It

With everything loaded onto a dentist's plate, it's easy to neglect your regulatory responsibilities. While you may not face any immediate consequences, financial and legal consequences could be right around the corner. Continue below to see what attorney Ali Oromchian advises regarding employment law.
Jared Kaltwasser
PUBLISHED: Thursday, September 7, 2017

A timekeeping system will protect you and save time when it comes to running payroll.

 
Running a dental practice can sometimes feel like an obstacle course, full of unexpected challenges, both clinical and financial. So perhaps it’s no surprise that regulatory matters like employment law sometimes fall through the cracks.

Though it may seem like a minor issue, attorney Ali Oromchian says employment law is a minefield that dentists need to navigate carefully. Failure to do so can result in costly fines, lawsuits, and other legal headaches.

Oromchian is the founding attorney of Dental and Medical Counsel, PC, and co-founder and CEO of HR for Health, a web-based human resources solutions provider. He will discuss the “employment law minefield” during a session at the 2017 Dentsply Sirona World meeting, which takes place Sept. 14 to 16 in Las Vegas. Ahead of his talk, Oromchian shared some of his key insights with Dentist’s Money Digest.

DMD: What are some of the most common mistakes dentists make when it comes to navigating employment law?

AO: Inactivity. To be successful in navigating through the complex world of labor law, one must be proactive. Without this mindset, one can easily be inadvertently breaking labor laws. Keep in mind, there are also associated penalties for noncompliance, typically per occurrence. Consider you have been unknowingly breaking a labor law daily, and over many years, and with multiple employees. Now a somewhat small violation (and penalty) has manifested into a serious problem — and that’s only from the financial side. This is not considering that these violations could result in lawsuits and time spent dealing with past violations, as well as the effort it will now take to make retribution for all other staff affected. You can never forget, it is the responsibility of the employer to maintain compliance and stay on top of legal updates. If you are not proactive, you could end up paying for it.

Attitude. As a business owner, it is imperative that you maintain a level of professionalism and compassion. Even in the face of an employee for whom you may have personal contempt, you must never let your emotions play into your professional actions. When practice owners act with emotion, they tend to make critical missteps, neglecting much needed documentation and often times speaking with a tone of resentment. You would be surprised to know that many arbitrators evaluate situations not based on what was said, but on the attitudes and tone of how things were said. That is why it is important to always begin tough conversations with positive openers, to emphasize your efforts at working in good faith towards an employee’s success. I cannot tell you how many times an arbitration case is lost because a doctor or owner could not tone down their ego by simply speaking in a respectful and compassionate manner. Even when you may feel wronged, you must be the bigger the person and go about every situation in a calculated manner. A good rule of thumb, is to speak and document situations like the whole world is watching.
 
DMD: What employment law errors are dentists particularly prone to?

AO: Not having an up-to-date employee handbook! The employee handbook is the foundation for your company as it is a vital communication tool and an important piece of protection. Without the handbook, you aren’t protected if you were subject to claims and lawsuits. If the information is not valid, up-to-date, custom to the practice, or signed by employees, then the rules and policies essentially do not apply. Employees win every time whether it is right or wrong. An employee handbook is easy to update and customize, but be sure it’s done in a timely manner so that you are protected before a potential claim occurs. 

The other common error is trusting too much or not checking on details. For example, not using a time clock because you trust your employees or because it is easier to process payroll can be devastating to a practice. Rules and laws apply for breaks, lunches, and overtime, and if there is not a clock to verify when employees work, then there is no way to prove their actual hours worked. Protect yourself and save time when it comes to running payroll by using a timekeeping system.

DMD: What new regulations, if any, do dentists need to be aware of?

AO: Many city and states have implemented sick leave as a required benefit for all employees both part-time and full-time. Many doctors are unaware of legal changes, which leads to them misinterpreting details of minimum requirements and who is eligible. Most importantly, they are unaware of how to manage a team and what limitations they have if they deny sick leave or pay to an employee. There are penalties and other repercussions that can happen if not managed correctly. A professional who understands how to navigate these regulations is crucial to your practice staying compliant.

Hygiene pay is also another growing issue. Many practices have hygienists set up as independent contractors, and in most states, this is a misclassification of an employee. Misclassifying staff is another error dentists often make, because they get stuck in the “that’s what everyone else does” realm. Consequently, you have tax issues and usually owe employees back pay for unpaid overtime and penalties. Most employees in practices are nonexempt employees, meaning they are eligible to earn overtime and other benefits such as meal and rest breaks in certain states. The statute of limitations for incorrect pay and penalties can go back three or four years. Let's just say you go back three years, your employee worked four days a week and you owed them $100 per day for missed break and unpaid overtime violations. This would add up to $60,000 just in back pay, not to mention penalties, legal fees, or anything else thrown into the claim. 

DMD: Are we mostly talking about federal regulations, or do state and local regulations tend to vary significantly?

AO: Federal law is important and is part of the foundation, but it's just the start. State, city, and county laws have changed across the country, and there is no end in sight for future changes. Small practices with two employees and large multiple locations with 50+ employees are all seeing changes. Every type of practice has their own hurdles to jump and when not setup correctly, it leads to future problems that are expensive and can be detrimental to the practice. 
 
DMD: What advice can you give to a dentist or practice manager who wants to keep better tabs on employment law issues, but doesn't know where to start?

AO: The first step is asking for help. Figuring it out on your own is the most common error, which consequently can lead to more legal issues. There are companies that are available and specialize in helping dentists be proactive rather than reactive with employment laws. HR for Health is at Dentsply Sirona World, and they focus specifically on helping doctors and managers not only become compliant, but stay ahead of the ever-changing legal regulations. They also focus on improving employee performance and using technology to help streamline all of your team management and compliance needs. Be sure to stop by the HR for Health booth at booth #831 so our team can help you take the complexity out of compliance!
HR for Health will be at booth #831 at Dentsply Sirona World.

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