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Tackling Trump Tensions: LI Firms Try to Keep the Workplace Peaceful

Newsday Special By Cara S. Trager

Long Island companies were far from immune to the political discourse that divided families and cooled friendships during the presidential campaign. But in the aftermath of the election, disagreements in the workplace over President Donald Trump’s statements and policies, most recently regarding immigration, have not only persisted but, in some cases, have intensified, with conference rooms, employee cafeterias and office cubicles sometimes turning into politically fraught battlegrounds.

Political discussions are deteriorating into heated exchanges, workers are leveling snide remarks at those with different opinions, and, on occasion, like-minded workers are reveling in their common political leanings and excluding those who don’t share them, according to experts specializing in workforce issues.

“People are acting out their feelings, and that could potentially lead to violence,” said Sima Ali, a Huntington attorney who specializes in workplace law.

Long Island companies are addressing the politically charged atmosphere with a wide range of strategies, including using humor to diffuse arguments, specifying unacceptable behavior in revised employee handbooks and disciplining workers when their debates turn threatening or violate anti-harassment, anti-bullying or anti-discrimination policies.

“Work is not the place to put up your banners and bring your political views, but by the same token, you can’t prevent water cooler talk,” said Sal Ferro, president and CEO of Alure Home Improvements and Alure Designs in East Meadow. “So it’s imperative to bring an atmosphere of respect first and foremost.”

Ferro, who has more than 120 employees, tries to lighten political debates between workers not only by jokingly remarking, “Let’s talk about the Giants or the dysfunction of the Knicks,” but by stepping into the fray to “take the middle ground.” Recently when a conversation about the president’s deportation plans grew “intense,” Ferro said he enumerated the issue’s pros and cons, a strategy that lets workers see that they agree more than they disagree.

Christine Ippolito, the founder and principal of Deer Park-based Compass Workforce Solutions, said her firm was recently tapped to help a company where political differences had descended into near-violence.

Before the election, she said, her client had failed to take any action when snacks in the break room were labeled “For Trump supporters only.”

“No one complained,” said Ippolito, so the company viewed the episode as “a one-time thing that wasn’t happening again.”

That laissez-faire stance ended after the presidential election when two otherwise friendly workers — one an American-born citizen, the other a naturalized citizen — were reading the newspaper together and the American-born worker told his immigrant colleague that he and his countrymen would be sent back to their homeland, according to Ippolito.

The naturalized citizen maintained that as a U.S. citizen, he would not be deported, but when the American-born worker countered that “the law had changed” and that he and his compatriots would be returning to their native land, the naturalized citizen responded with the threat of physical violence, Ippolito said.

Overseeing the investigation into the episode, she determined that the naturalized citizen had crossed the line with his violent threat while the American-born worker said that he didn’t know his comments were inappropriate, since no one had ever told him what he couldn’t say in the workplace. As a result, Ippolito advised her client to establish policies and procedures regarding unlawful workplace harassment, discrimination and bullying.

All the political talk isn’t only fueling tempers. Productivity is also suffering, according to a post-election online survey of 500 fulltime workers, which was conducted by Wakefield Research for BetterWorks, a Redwood City, California, maker of performance management software.

Since the election, more than a quarter of the respondents said they are less productive, and nearly three-quarters discuss politics during the day with colleagues. While 22 percent spend two hours a day talking or reading about politics, more than a quarter of the millennial respondents said they spend more than four hours a day on such activities.

Among all participants, 30 percent said their coworkers spend more time talking about politics than discussing their work, and nearly half have witnessed a political conversation turn into an argument.

An employee at a Nassau County health care agency said that while her colleagues don’t let their political differences interfere with their professional responsibilities, she feels “outnumbered” as a Trump supporter. The worker, who did not want her name or the name of the agency disclosed because she was concerned about exacerbating an uncomfortable situation, described her coworkers’ behavior towards her as “covertly isolating.”

Recent incidents include a coworker, half in jest, directing “liberals to the left” at a conference table, and another colleague, after huddling with a group to discuss going together to a women’s march, caustically saying to her, “We know you’re not going to march.”

Noting that political disputes are a common workplace issue, John Porta, principal in the Melville office of Jackson Lewis, a national law firm representing management in the area of workplace law, said that “private employers can choose to curtail freedom of speech, including political discourse” by “taking the position that certain comments violate the employer’s anti-harassment policies.” He cautioned, however, that such a curb shouldn’t restrict employees from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment, which are activities protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

Before the election, Porta said, an anti-harassment policy enabled one of his clients, a Long Island retail operation, to discipline workers with verbal and written warnings after their informal conversation about candidate Trump’s plans for a wall between Mexico and the United States had escalated into their repeating “Build the wall” on “more than one occasion.”

The firm’s Latin American employees reported the situation to human resources. The workers had mistakenly assumed that their comments were protected by their Constitutional right of freedom of speech, said Porta. In addition to the disciplinary actions, Porta advised the client to conduct an anti-harassment seminar to ensure that workers would not be made to feel uncomfortable again about “what’s going on in the political realm.”

Other companies are implementing new policies before political differences get out of hand. Jon Cooper, the president of the Westbury-based, 180-employee Spectronics Corp. and a former Democratic Suffolk County legislator, said his firm’s family-like environment has helped in fostering a respectful atmosphere, yet its revised employee handbook will include new prohibitions against wearing political clothing or displaying political materials, such as buttons and banners. “It makes sense going forward to head off possible issues down the road,” said Cooper.

Read the whole article here: http://www.newsday.com/business/tackling-trump-tensions-li-firms-try-to-keep-the-workplace-peaceful-1.13241612

West Islip Resident Receives Long Island Power Women in Business Award

West Islip Patch, December 21, 2016 by Priscila Korb – West Islip resident Christine Ippolito, principle and founder of Compass Workforce Solutions, recently received the Long Island Power Women in Business Award from Star Network and Schneps Communications.

Ippolito was given the award at the Power Women in Business Awards and Networking event which took place on December 1 in Great Neck.

The Power Women program recognizes influential women in businesses in Nassau and Suffolk Counties whose achievements and participation help to make a difference in the communities where they live and work.

Ippolito was selected for the award to honor her outstanding leadership abilities in business and her contributions to the local community.

She has a passion for helping small businesses based in Long Island, New York City and Northern New Jersey succeed and has built a strong reputation as an expert and leading voice in the area of Human Resources.

Ippolito has served clients in a leadership capacity for 25 years in multiple industries and environments within Fortune 250, venture capital and equity-backed companies, as well as privately held and family-owned businesses.

She also recently received recognition from other organizations for her leadership ability and HR expertise, including Smart CEO magazine’s 2016 Brava Award for top female executive on Long Island and Long Island Business News’ “Top 50 Most Influential Women on Long Island“ in 2015.

Prior to founding Compass Workforce Solutions, she worked for 10 years as the top human resources executive at several high growth companies within the higher education, Internet and technology industries.

Ippolito is an active member of a number of organizations, including SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) and its Long Island Chapter, the Women Presidents Organization – Long Island Chapter, the Accountant’s Resource Group – Long Island Chapter and the Hauppauge Industrial Association (HIA) where she also serves as Co-Chair of the Healthcare Committee.

When not managing her business, she also finds the time to participate in events and competitions for charity, including Wounded Warrior bike rides and the 10th Annual Long Island Fight for Charity where she served as a volunteer boxer and raised close to $10,000 for the Long Island Community Chest based in Syosset.

Ippolito earned her Master of Management in Human Resource Management & Organizational Development from North Park University, Chicago, IL and her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin in Menomonie.

She also was accepted into and graduated from the Goldman Sachs Small Business Scholarship Program in 2015.

Elizabeth Weglarz Receives 2016 Millennial of the Year Award

Massapequa Observer, October 27, 2016 — Compass Workforce Solutions, LLC, the small business experts in Deer Park, New York, announces that Elizabeth Weglarz, an HR Generalist at the company, recently received the 2016 Millennial of the Year Award in the Professional Services category from Long Island Business News. The award was presented to bright and dynamic young professionals who are part of the Millennial generation and have made significant strides in business while contributing to the Long Island community. Weglarz, 22, resides in Massapequa, New York.

While attending graduate school on a full-time basis, Weglarz served as an HR Coordinator at Compass Workforce Solutions, often working 30 to 40 hours a week. Upon earning her MBA with a concentration in Human Resource Management from Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York, she was promoted to HR Generalist and assists the business partners with consulting as well as administering benefits, processing payroll, documenting HR policies and processes and engaging in all the stages of recruitment for clients. A member of SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), Weglarz also developed an internal format and protocol for position compensation benchmarking and serves as a mentor, training the company’s HR Coordinators.

As part of Weglarz’ master’s program she completed a project with the HorseAbility Center for Equine Facilitated Programs, a not-for-for profit organization located in Old Westbury, New York which provides equine therapy to children, adults and families with special needs to support the physical, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual well being of its participants. Specifically, she developed an employee orientation program to promote positive job performance at the Center. Weglarz also earned her bachelor’s degree in both Psychology and Sociology, with honors, from Stony Brook University.

“Millennials are known for being a more open-minded group that bring a new perspective to the workforce and crave involvement which are all qualities that Elizabeth possesses,” said Christine Ippolito, SPHR, SHRM-SCP and Principal of Compass Workforce Solutions. “No matter what the task, she always has a yearning to take on new challenges and motivates others to do the same. Additionally, she has created strong bonds with team members and has honed her communication, technology and networking skills. This, in turn, has helped her successfully take the lead on multiple projects at one time which is rare for someone her age.”

New Rule: Checking Email From Home Could Trigger OT

Newsday, September 11, 2016 by Jamie Herzlich — In today’s mobile environment more employees are doing work outside of the traditional workplace, often after hours. According to a survey last year by Staples Advantage, about a quarter of employees regularly work after the standard workday is done. Now, with millions more salaried employees becoming eligible for overtime pay under a new federal overtime rule that takes effect Dec. 1, employers should put policies in place that address mobile device use outside of the workplace.

“Mobile devices maximize the likelihood that an employer is going to have to pay overtime,” says Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute consulting firm in Ohio and author of “The ePolicy Toolkit” (Wiley; $150). Particularly since there will be more employees eligible for overtime pay who were previously exempt, she adds.

The new Labor Department rule raises the threshold under which most salaried employees must be paid overtime from $23,660 a year to $47,476 a year. So employers must accurately identify which employees would be eligible for overtime pay, advises Flynn, and “make sure no one’s misclassified.”

And if you don’t want to pay overtime, don’t issue smartphones to non-exempt employees; don’t allow supervisors or managers to assign overtime work after hours to those employees; and require employees to get written authorization from management for overtime work before it’s conducted off site, advises Flynn.

Also look at your time-keeping policies to make sure there’s a provision requiring hourly employees to report all time worked, including off-hour, off-site work, and an effective way to “clock in,” says Shannon Walpole, of counsel at Ferber Law in San Ramon, California. She has more tips at danvillelaw.com. Walpole says the Labor Department announced this spring an intent to request information from employers regarding the use of electronic devices by nonexempt employees outside the workplace. That request was expected this summer, but to her knowledge it hasn’t been made yet.

Spokesman Jason Surbey said regarding the purpose of the information gathering, “The department understands that digital technologies are changing the way many people work and is looking at how those technologies are affecting the workplace and assessing what they mean for American workers.”

The DOL doesn’t specifically address the use of mobile devices in regards to overtime and non-exempt employees, explains Scott Green, a partner in the labor group at Rivkin Radler in Uniondale. “It’s definitely a gray area,” he says, and not on the radar of a lot of people yet. “There’s so much low-hanging fruit in the wage-hour sphere in terms of liability, nobody has really looked here yet.”

Christine Ippolito, principal at Compass Workforce Solutions, a Deer Park HR consulting firm, says she’s been advising clients on the new overtime rules and how to address company emails and communications on personal smartphones and tablets after hours. Employees need to know what employer expectations are, and that if a manager sends out an email to a non-exempt employee after hours, he or she is not required to respond if the company isn’t willing to pay overtime, she notes. Companies need to stay on top of this “because the DOL is paying attention,” says Ippolito.

There are tools to help, such as an app at dol.gov that tracks hours worked and determine wages owed. If employees are violating policy regarding mobile device use and overtime, pay them and then discipline them, suggests Green. Unchecked, it can be, he says, “a potential source of liability for employers.”

Change Looms

Healthcare Costs

Many employers are bracing for higher health care costs in 2016, but a change in how the “small group” market is defined may mean even greater hikes.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the definition of a small group employer will expand as of Jan. 1 from firms with up to 50 employees to firms with up to 100 employees.

The change will push some 2,000 Long Island businesses with 50 to 99 employees into the new category, according to U.S. Census figures.

“These mid-sized employers will now be “community rated” by insurers, meaning their health insurance plans will be pooled together with those of other companies for premium rating purposes. Experts say small-group status will give companies less plan flexibility and doesn’t take into account factors such as employee age that might affect rates.

“It’s a pooled rate,” explains Mark Grisanti, vice president and senior benefits consultant at Corporate Synergies, a Mount Laurel, New Jersey, employee benefits consulting firm.

The rates are filed with the state and are the same for each employer in a given county that falls under the small-group threshold, he notes. Not considered under community rating are such factors as an individual company’s industry, average employee age or gender makeup, he explains.

So for example, firms with largely older employees could benefit, while firms with a younger workforce may not.

Pooled rates cut both ways. “I have clients on both sides,” says Grisanti, noting the small-group market generally offers reduced plan options and less robust provider networks than the large group market. “From what I’ve seen, most of my clients are going to see premium increases.”

Recent federal legislation gave states the option to keep the small-group threshold at less than 50, says Kathleen Brennan, president of 360 Insurance Services, a Bohemia corporate benefits consulting firm. But state officials have opted to accept the expanded definition, she notes.

Matt Anderson, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Financial- Services, which oversees the insurance industry, confirmed that: “Current state law requires the change to 100 for the threshold.”

“There’s definitely trepidation in the marketplace,” says Brennan, who spoke of the changes at a recent HIA-LI Health and Wellness Conference. Under small-group rules, firms also wouldn’t be able to self-insure, she notes.

Some opt to renew early.

To deal with the changes, some firms are renewing before their renewal dates, says Christine Ippolito, Principal at Compass Workforce Solutions, a Deer Park human resources consulting firm, and a moderator a the wellness conference.

“If my renewal is Jan. 1, I may do it Dec. 1,” she notes, adding many carriers are providing this flexibility. It buys firms another year before they’re lumped into the small-group market.

Not every employer will experience higher rates, she notes. “The issue with community rating is it can go either way,” she says. “Regardless of your group [makeup], everyone pays the same.”

For the 90-person law firm of Picciano & Scahill in Westbury, a Compass client, a switch to community rating will likely mean higher premiums in September come renewal, managing partner Frank Scahill says. “They don’t take into account the demographics of your firm,” he notes, adding 75 percent of his firm’s employees are younger than 50. “I think it’s going to cost mid-sized companies more.”

Other firms are looking into options including health savings accounts, health reimbursement arrangements and joining a larger Professional Employer Organization to take advantage of economies of scale, Grisanti says.

Fast Fact: 64% Percentage of workers at mid-sized firms that would experience premium increases of 18 percent as a result of expanding the “small group” category to businesses with up to 100 employees.

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