If your business has ever been sued for alleged violations of wage and hour laws, or if you’ve otherwise ever been a party to litigation involving discovery of any kind of employee records, then you know just how important it can be for most businesses to accurately create and maintain employee files.
In some circumstances, the kinds of records that should regularly be maintained in employee files can help employers establish or refute claims and/or defenses in the unfortunate event that they find themselves in a dispute with a state attorney general’s office, a federal regulator, or their current or former employees (or any combination of these parties). Such disputes can represent nightmare scenarios for the unprepared. If your business’s records retention practices and policies keep you awake at night, then read on.
Many readers are probably already aware that federal and state laws require employers to keep a variety of records on both current and former employees and furthermore, that these different recordkeeping requirements can apply for varying lengths of time. See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n, Record Keeping Requirements, https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/recordkeeping.cfm (last visited Jan. 1, 2019) (explaining some examples of federal recordkeeping requirements); see also, e.g., R.C. 4111.08, available at http://codes.ohio.gov/orc/4111.08v1 (Effective Date: July 1, 2000; April 4, 2007) (providing an example of an Ohio recordkeeping requirement).
Of course, depending on which statutes apply to the various records that an employer is required to keep, different recordkeeping requirements, including records retention periods, might apply. As a result, decisions on which records to keep, and how long to keep them, can frequently become sources of confusion. Employee recordkeeping requirements, and the potential consequences for failing to heed them, mean that effective and up-to-date records retention policies are a must for any business.
Wage and hour litigation is one of the most common circumstance wherein employee records are directly relevant to the parties’ claims and defenses. Thus, wage and hour recordkeeping requirements will be our main source of examples for this article, but we will try to include other examples as well. Keep in mind, however, that records contained in employee files can frequently be relevant in other situations such as, for example, where discrimination and/or wrongful termination are alleged, or where claims arise from a former employee’s alleged breach of a confidentiality, non-compete, or non-solicitation agreement.
The critical items to keep in mind when formulating a records retention policy are: which laws and regulations apply, the policy reasons given to justify the enactment of these laws and their underlying regulations, the identifiability of records to employees, and the formats in which records are generated and maintained.
Which laws apply?
Two federal statutes generally require employers to retain current and former employee records, including payroll records and biographical data. One statute is the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, 29 U.S.C. § 203, et seq. (“FLSA”). The FLSA provides, among other things, protections for workers’ rights to receive a minimum wage, as well as overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 hours in one workweek. The FLSA is administered by the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”).
The other federal statute is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, 29 U.S.C. § 621, et seq. (“ADEA”). One of the main, overarching purposes of the ADEA is to protect workers over the age of 40 from discrimination in hiring, firing, and compensation decisions. The ADEA is administered by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
Both the FLSA and the ADEA generally require records of terminated employees to be maintained for at least three years following the date of termination. However, both statutes (in addition to other federal and/or state laws that may apply) might also permit or require different records retention periods for other portions of a former employee’s file. For example, the ADEA requires private employers to retain “all personnel and employment records” about former employees for one year after the employee’s departure. See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm’n, Summary of Selected Recordkeeping Obligations in 29 CFR Part 1602, https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/recordkeeping_obligations.cfm (last visited Jan. 1, 2019). Examples of “personnel and employment records” include (but are not limited to): “[R]equests for reasonable accommodation, application forms submitted by applicants, and records dealing with hiring, promotion, demotion, transfer, lay-off or termination, rates of pay, compensation, tenure, selection for training or apprenticeship, or other terms of employment.” Id.
The policy justification most frequently given for requiring employers to maintain accurate employee records is for the protection of employees’ rights, including rights to fair compensation. Records may also be used for a variety of other reasons, including to ensure that employers follow child labor laws and regulations, for example. Furthermore, employers should also be prepared to respond to records requests from employees.
Notably, in some jurisdictions an employer’s failure to keep accurate records may in some circumstances give rise to an independent cause of action—including class and/or collective actions. For example, the Ohio Constitution requires employers to “maintain a record of the name, address, occupation, pay rate, hours worked for each day worked and each amount paid an employee for a period of not less than three years following the last date the employee was employed.” Ohio Const. art. II, § 34a, available at https://www.legislature.ohio.gov/laws/ohio-constitution/section?const=2.34a (adopted Nov. 7, 2006). Ohio employers are required to provide these records to employees or their representatives upon request. See id.
Furthermore, employers can be sued by the attorney general, by an employee, or by a group of former employees “for any violation of this section [34a of the Ohio Constitution] or any law or regulation implementing its provisions within three years of the violation or of when the violation ceased if it was of a continuing nature, or within one year after notification to the employee of final disposition by the state of a complaint for the same violation, whichever is later.” Id.; see also, e.g., Clark v. Shop24 Global, LLC, No. 2:12-cv-00802, 2014 WL 60071, at *3, n.2 (S.D. Ohio, Jan. 7, 2014); Craig v. Bridges Bros. Trucking LLC, No. 2:12-cv-954, 2013 WL 4010316, at *4 (S.D. Ohio, Aug. 6, 2013). In other words, Ohio employers may be sued for a failure to respond to an employee’s records request, and/or for the failure to maintain accurate records.
Identifiability of Records
To be of any use, records obviously must be reasonably identifiable to the employees to whom they relate. In practice, this requires employers to track certain biographical data and ensure that it is all easily attributable to the relevant employees. The DOL presently requires all employers covered by the FLSA to keep certain records for all covered, nonexempt workers including, for example:
• Employee's full name and social security number;
• address, including zip code;
• birth date, if younger than 19;
• sex and occupation;
• time and day of the week when the employee’s workweek begins, including the hours worked each day and the total hours worked each workweek;
• bases on which the employee’s wages are paid;
• regular hourly pay rate;
• total daily or weekly straight-time earnings;
• total overtime earnings for the workweek;
• all additions to or deductions from the employee’s wages;
• total wages paid each pay period; and
• date of payment and the pay period covered by the payment.
DOL, Recordkeeping & Reporting, https://www.dol.gov/general/topic/wages/wagesrecordkeeping (last visited Jan. 1, 2019); see also DOL, Fact Sheet #21: Recordkeeping Requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs21.pdf (rev. Jul. 2008).
While the DOL does not require records to be kept in any particular format, see id., employers should generally ensure that they have ready access to employee records, and they should also be mindful that current and former employees may have certain rights to request and/or view information contained in their employee files. Employers should also carefully consider keeping a redundant set of employee files backed-up in a central, secure location in order to mitigate any risk of tampering or theft of information maintained in employee files.
Should I contact an attorney?
If you have questions or concerns about state and/or federal recordkeeping requirements that may apply to your business, you should contact an attorney. If properly implemented, records retention policies may help reduce risks associated with wage and hour claims or other disputes. You should contact an attorney for additional information regarding this area of the law.
This article is for informational purposes only, and it is merely intended to provide a very general overview of a limited set of examples of some recordkeeping requirements that may apply to some employers. Nothing in this article is intended to create an attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice. You should not rely on anything in this article without first consulting with an attorney. If you have questions about your particular legal situation, you should contact an attorney.
Max Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (440) 571-7541. Max and the attorneys of The Gertsburg Law Firm can help you avoid the pain of lawsuits with CoverMySix, a one-stop legal audit for your business led by award-winning litigators and in-house counsel. Visit covermysix.com to learn more about how to protect your business, and check out the new pricing for CoverMySix for Small Companies and Startups.