On a recent 710 WOR “Mind Your Business” broadcast, Yitzchok Saftlas (YS) spoke with guest, Noted Attorney, Richard Solomon (RS).
YS: What should a business be looking out for in terms of wage and hour compliance?
RS: This is a big thing that businesses really need to focus on. The most important thing that a business can do is to make sure that they have the right payroll and HR people working for them. There are so many complicated laws about how you need to pay people, when you pay them, notices that need to be provided, the periodic times in which different categories of employees need to be paid, overtime, record keeping, and a ton of other issues related to this. And you'd be surprised how many business owners don't really know the law. They may use a payroll company, but the payroll company will sometimes just take the information over the phone without necessarily asking questions like, “did you do this? Was it done this way? Are you clocking this?” So, you’ve got to make sure that you know what rules apply to your business and your employees. The consequences for not doing it correctly are severe. There can be fines. There can be something called “liquidated damages,” which is a doubling of what you owe. There can be statutory legal fees. The biggest hammer is that employers are personally liable. And there's no squirming out of that personal liability through bankruptcy or anything like that. There are all kinds of rules about what you can and cannot do with payroll. For example, there are very few things that can be deducted from a paycheck. Let's say an employee broke something, and you said, “you’ve got to pay for that.” The employee says, “just take $50 out of my paycheck until it's paid for.” You can't do that. Even if the employee agrees, it’s not permissible. So, be careful to make sure you’re getting the best advice from your financial people, your tax people, your compliance people, and your HR department, because not knowing the rules and regulations can have major consequences.
YS: What are the advantages and disadvantages of remote work?
RS: Remote work presents opportunities and challenges. On one hand, the employees are happier when they're at home. On the other hand, how many times have you seen Zoom calls where the family pet rolls in and everyone gets distracted? People start to develop these bad work habits. There is a tremendous advantage of people being together, consulting each other in the hallway, or talking at the water cooler. Now, when that talk becomes about gossip and the latest sports news, it’s not such a big help. But a lot of times, when people are talking, they’ll say something like, “what do you think about changing this component? How would that work in your department? Would that speed things up?” That's lost in all the Zoom workspace, whereby everyone's just kind of working in isolation. I think business is more like a small wheel with spokes in the center, not just separate little individual pieces. It's a wheel that has to work together in order to move forward.
YS: What are some important things that businesses often overlook?
RS: One really important thing is to train your staff. You should have your own training in place. There should be performance reviews. There should be an after-action analysis of each year. Another one of the most important components of every business is who answers the phone. That person is the most important person in the office because they are the voice of your business. The person who answers the phone should be cheery and shouldn't turn calls into an interrogation with a barrage of questions. You should definitely avoid having one of those robots that asks a bunch of questions, only to have the caller have to repeat their answers again once they’re finally connected with a human. The person who answers your phone, or the person who opens the mail and decides what you're supposed to see, is such an important component of your business as it relates to the outside world and how information comes into your business. The pipeline into your business determines what gets processed while it's all inside. And if there's a disruption, or there’s too much filtration and barriers to getting the right information to the right person in a timely manner with a quick turnaround, then your business is not going to succeed. There are so many businesses that have terrible customer service. You wait on hold forever, continuously hearing “your call is very important to us,” and then you finally get dumped into some answering device that says, “we're all busy.” Another thing that I see all the time in businesses, is an over reliance on the internet. The internet is not an omniscient answering portal for all of humanity. You still need to talk to people. You need to get on the phone to talk to experts, or to ask your friends for advice. You need to run ideas by people. That's invaluable. It can prevent you from wasting time and resources in a direction that won't make any sense. Another thing is to make sure you have a backup for all of your key documents. That can be a fireproof safe, USB sticks, or even the Cloud, but you may want to also have things local, just in case there's a power failure. Always make sure there is a plan in place. Do you have a contingency plan? Do you have a crisis communications plan? Who do you call when something bad happens to the business and you need a spokesperson to get out there to get the word out as to what's going on and how you're dealing with it? To wait until the crisis happens is like waiting to go to the morgue to find out what the problem was, as opposed to going to urgent care and getting the fix when you need it.
YS: What is one of the biggest trends small claims courts have been facing recently?
RS: One trend that I see is that tax delinquency enforcement is way up. For example, the New York State Department of Finance has sent agents to people's businesses and homes, with a lot of tools at their disposal, to collect money from taxpayers who owe back taxes. One tool that the federal government uses is that they can revoke your passport under certain conditions. And New York State officials can revoke your driver's license. Now, these are harsh circumstances that you have to reach a certain threshold to incur, but I've now gotten several calls from different people who have said, “there's a New York State collection guy outside my business, and they gave me this paper.” That paper is a notice of tax delinquency, and it will have your case number, the agent on your case, and will say, “we're here to collect back taxes in the amount of X.” And they're getting much more aggressive with this. So, that’s a big trend right now, and I expect it’s going to continue.
YS: What should companies expect from the ongoing uptick in tickets and fines?
RS: The government is cash strapped, and they can only tax so much. So, the next form of revenue stream for the government is the imposition of fines through tickets and things like that. New York City, and I'm sure other places will follow this, made a rule that any citizen with a cell phone can go out there and film a truck or bus idling for three minutes or more, and submit that video to the Department of Environmental Protection for a contingency fee. And then, the Department of Environmental Protection will issue a summons against the truck or bus owner for what's called an “idling fine.” Now, there are exceptions for emergency vehicles and other specific kinds of vehicles, but there are fleets and fleets of truck businesses out there. Everything that goes in and out of New York City is by truck. And if the trucks are idling, the initial ticket is $350. And those fines increase successively. With each fine you receive, the ticket goes up. And for companies with fleets of drivers, the company owners are still responsible. I've seen businesses receive anywhere between $5,000-$10,000 worth of truck regulation tickets. These fines are not deductible as a business expense. So, that money just comes right out of the business. You’ve got to make sure that drivers are trained. And if you see someone filming, shut the engine off. That’s just one example of this emerging trend of enforcement that can cost you a fortune if you are not prepared for it.
YS: What are other compliance issues that business owners might not be aware of?
RS: One thing that has really emerged recently, and has been emerging for a long time, is the unlicensed business problem. There are many businesses out there that require a license. Being a lawyer, a notary, or a barber all require their own licenses. And there are lots of other businesses out there that require specific kinds of licenses. Let’s say you work in construction, and you don’t have the right kind of license. If you do a million dollars’ worth of work, and the person you’re dealing with decides they’re not going to pay you, they could turn and say, “well, you're not licensed.” You can try and say, “it doesn't matter, I did all this work and did a good job,” but the courts will not enforce pay for anyone that has not maintained the proper license. So, even if you did everything in good faith, and you had the right insurance, and you paid all your people, if you did not have the license, the courts will not do anything to help you get your money. They will slam the door shut and throw you right out. You have to know what licenses you need and how to maintain them.
YS: What are some final tips that you feel businesses should be mindful of?
RS: Invest in your brand. You are a brand. Everything about your business is a brand. You need to embody that brand. You need to be that brand. You need to wear a shirt with your logo on it. You need to have business cards. The rules haven't changed. It's still all about networking. Invest in yourself, invest in your education, invest in your business. Businesses do not run on autopilot. They require constant care and attention. You need to hire the right people, reach out to the right experts, get the right vendors, and all that stuff. No person will know your business like yourself, but you actually need other people to help you succeed and get to the next levels.