Vail Valley businesses learn about employment law changes |

Vail Valley businesses learn about employment law changes

Scott N. Miller
Vail, CO, Colorado

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” With a new administration Washington D.C., there are changes ” possibly sweeping ones ” coming to federal employment law.

That’s why more than 50 business owners, managers and human resources people came to The Charter Thursday morning, where attorneys from Sherman and Howard ” a Denver law firm with an office in Vail ” went over current and potential changes.

“There’s a lot of information to take back,” Christie Lodge Human Resources Manager Bill Muttech said. “I need to get with my managers to talk about those upcoming changes.”

While the Obama Administration and a Congress firmly in Democratic hands is expected to bring new labor laws, the one Muttech is most concerned about was signed by former President George W. Bush.

Major changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect Jan. 1. Those changes have broadly expanded the definition of what a disability is, and how employers are supposed to accommodate people in the workplace.

“Under the old law, only a few people had disabilities,” attorney Emily Keimig said. “Under the new law, most people do.”

Congress passed the new law in reaction to a Supreme Court definition that many lawmakers considered too narrow, Keimig said.

Now, the law requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for anyone with an “impairment of any major life activities,” she said.

The old law limited disabilities to anything that prevented someone from working, seeing, breathing or lifting. The new law has been expanded to body functions including diseases of the immune and digestive system.

“It’s sad to say, but in this economy some people want to better themselves with lawsuits,” Muttech said. “This new law could encourage a lot of people to file lawsuits.”

The ‘free choice’ act

Evergreen Lodge general manger Karl Szybisty said what he heard about the proposed “Employee Free Choice Act” might do to his business.

Keimig said as proposed, the law would undo more than 70 years of existing labor law. The biggest changes would be in how representatives could bring a union to a business.

Under existing law, 30 percent of a business’s employees must sign a card asking for an election. That election, which includes a secret ballot, must be passed by 50 percent plus one vote of all those voting.

In its proposed form, organizers could bring a union to a business with just the signed cards of half a company’s employees.

Keimig said those cards are often signed by people illiterate in English who don’t know what they’re signing, or can be signed at “beer and brat” events at which plenty of beer is served.

“It could be devastating to our business,” Szybisty said.

Keimig said she expects something like the proposed bill to pass in watered-down form, but still wonders if the provisions that eliminate a secret ballot are constitutional.

Still, unions spent heavily to get Obama elected, and this bill is at the top of their legislative agenda, Keimig said.

Workplace safety

While the so-called “card check” bill may face a tougher go, a law amending federal workplace safety rules may pass almost as it was proposed last year, when it was co-sponsored by then-Sen. Barack Obama.

“This is going to completely alter the workplace safety landscape,” attorney Pat Miller said.

The proposed law would expand federal workplace protection to public employees and expand protection for “whistleblowers” who report their own companies for unsafe practices.

Miller said the proposed law would require employers to reinstate an employee who reported the company to the feds, along with paying back pay and attorney’s fees. All this would happen before any administrative hearings took place.

As proposed, the law would also expand unions’ rights to challenge any citations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“My belief is that OSHA will be less willing to settle anything in favor of an employer,” Miller said.

While those at the seminar were encouraged to write their representatives, the lawyers spoke as if most of the changes were coming, and coming in the next year or so.

“I’m still learning my job,” said Becky Crosbie, human resources manager for Alpine Party Rentals. “But we need to make sure we’re complying as much as possible with everything.”

Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 748-2930, or

What’s bubbling:

– Potential changes to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act. As proposed, the changes would make it easier for an employee to file a complaint, and harder for an employer to fight one

– Potential changes to union organizing at businesses and the way contracts between unions and employers

What’s here:

Big changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act that have dramatically expanded the definition of “disability”

Support Local Journalism