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Attendance at the Holiday Party is Optional…. But We EXPECT you to be there!

Are you ready for the annual holiday party? In today’s multicultural, highly litigious workplace, some employers have chosen not to celebrate the holidays at the office at all. Trying to figure out how to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, and Bodhi Day in one event is reason enough to consider pulling the plug on holiday celebrations altogether. Still, it’s hard to break a habit and many businesses still revere the party as a time honored tradition to be upheld. Not all employees, however, may be eager to attend.

Holiday_PartyWhile employers don’t normally require their employees to attend a holiday party, many strongly encourage it, creating an expectation of attendance. If you’re one of those organizations, we suggest you reconsider the message on your holiday party invitation for two reasons. The first is related to liability and the second is related to wage and hour laws.

As an employer, your liability for something that happens at a holiday party is going to depend primarily on whether the party can be considered within the course and scope of employment. If employees are required or expected to attend, then it’s a safe bet that the party is within the course and scope of employment. If an employee is injured at your party it could be compensable under your workers’ compensation policy. If an employee hurts someone who is not an employee, you could be legally responsible for their negligence.

If there is no expectation of party attendance, then the party may not be in the course and scope of employment, which may relieve you of some of these liabilities as an employer (Of course, an employer can always be held liable for harm resulting from negligence).

No one expects to pay employees an hourly rate for attending a party, but if non-exempt employees are required or expected to attend then, by law, you should pay them for the hours they attended the party. If those party hours, on top of their normal work hours, put their weekly hours over 40, you could find yourself paying overtime for party attendance.

If there is no expectation of party attendance then you shouldn’t have to pay for the party time unless the employee performed actual work. Two months ago we posted about meal breaks, and the same concepts apply here.  If you have your staff working at the party to register party-goers, hand out name tags or table numbers, decorate or perform any other duties that you assign to them then, legally, they should be paid for their time.

So make your holiday party optional…the fun people will attend regardless and you will have two fewer headaches to worry about!

Merry Christmas everyone.

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