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Labor lawyers shepherd companies through regulatory headaches

Running a business by the letter of the law used to be common sense. Now it’s an obstacle course of labor and employment regulations that can trip up an innocent business owner in a fast way.

“That’s one reason our practice has grown from one (labor and employment attorney) to 16 in the last 20 years,” said Steve Rosenblatt, chairman of Jackson-based Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC.

The 50-year-old firm hired its first labor and employment attorney in the late 1970s and has been adding ever since. Butler Snow recently hired four new labor and employment lawyers in the Memphis office, bringing the count up to six there in that area of expertise. The new attorneys are Bart Sisk and David Jaqua, who will lead the Memphis group, and Jessica Neal and Todd Photopulos. Butler Snow has seven more labor and employment attorneys in Jackson and three on the Gulf Coast. Sisk, Jaqua and the others wade through what used to be “common-sensical” issues for business owners, said Rosenblatt, and try to keep client companies from stumbling over obscure regulations that could make them a target for a lawsuit.

Even laws that seem easy to comply with really aren’t, as one Mississippi employer discovered. This particular company offers benefits that go far beyond the unpaid leave required by the Family Medical Leave Act but the company was sued for not giving notice in the specific way set forth in Department of Labor regulations, said Jaqua, who has practiced labor law for 27 years.

Age, sex and race discrimination suits are a constant for businesses, especially in economically troubled times, but a few issues in particular keep labor and employment attorneys hopping these days. Sexual harassment, once such a hot issue, has cooled a bit, while Jaqua and Sisk see more and more wrongful discharge lawsuits, such as “whistleblower” cases where an employee claims he or she was fired for speaking up about corporate fraud. A nurse, for example, will claim her doctor’s office is committing Medicare fraud, and if she is suddenly fired, she may have a case.

Union activity is also on the rise, said Sisk, who is known for his representation of management in labor disputes throughout the nation and recently completed work on labor campaigns in Massachusetts and California. He works with company clients to try to stave off unions, but this is tough when union organizers put together “corporate campaigns” that can involve home visits to boards of directors, putting pressure on supplier companies and other tactics.

Butler Snow helps clients put together their own non-union campaigns to educate employees about why it is preferable to work in a non-union environment. Because Butler Snow attorneys have worked with companies across the country, they can give a fresh perspective to an employer who may not realize he is doing something to make his workers unhappy. If employees vote for a union anyway, attorneys help the company deal with problems in the aftermath.

Hot issues abound

Even ERISA cases dealing with health and pension plans — once a yawner for attorneys — have heated up thanks to a group of Microsoft employees who were treated as independent contractors and not receiving the benefits of full-time employees. They sued and won, and that spawned numerous lawsuits, said Jaqua.

With the addition of Sisk and Photopulos, Butler Snow can now handle immigration cases that were once outsourced. Immigrants are more and more appealing to industries like healthcare that are experiencing severe labor shortages, said Sisk. The firm helps clients locate and recruit workers abroad, then shepherds the employer through the paperwork maze to get these people eligible to move and work here. They also defend companies who employ immigrants when there are allegations that they are not complying with immigration laws.

The majority of Butler Snow’s work is in Mississippi and western Tennessee, although two Fortune 250 client companies require the firm to work cases all over the country. Beefing up its labor and employment practice enables Butler Snow to “help clients succeed in an economy where employees may be their most valuable and most vulnerable asset,” said Paula Ardelean, leader of Butler Snow’s labor and employment group.

Contact MBJ Staff Writer Kelly Russell Ingebretsen at kelly@msbusiness.com.

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