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How’s your form?

October 1, 2006 -  By

Many companies operate with a stack of forms that no one has reviewed for years. They’re outdated or copied from somewhere else, and so far have been good enough to get by. Could those forms spell serious trouble — a huge fine, bad publicity or legal problems — for your company? Are you omitting forms that are legally required?

Job applications are a good example. Eli Kantor, a Los Angeles lawyer representing employers in matters of labor and immigration law, says that many employers ask illegal questions on applications. The law allows up to $150,000 for violations in California. Most states have similar laws.

“A lot of companies do way too much paperwork. And then they don’t keep any of it up,” says Bruce Wilson, a partner with the Green Industry consulting firm Wilson-Oyler Group.

Wilson suggests checking periodically to make sure you’re using the latest forms. When he ran Environmental Care, Inc. (now the landscape maintenance division of ValleyCrest), he says, “We actually audited our own offices.”

Key forms

The key forms are job applications, time sheets, and those required by local, state and federal law. These include eligibility to work forms (I-9s), and, for companies that use pesticides and herbicides, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and pesticide applicator logs. Some states and localities may require additional licenses or paperwork.

The information below tells which forms you need, how to be sure you’re using the latest ones and where to find them online.

  • Employee applications. Check your application form for discriminatory questions. The law forbids asking marital status and race, for example, as well as most questions about mental and physical health.

A safe way to address fitness to work is to list the job requirements and ask, “Do you have any health problems that would prevent you from doing this job?” The Business Owners Toolkit (see sidebar on) has a sample job requirements checklist and job applications.

  • Physical exams. Companies that require applicants to take a physical exam after an offer of employment — the “post-offer physical” — and supply their own form, should be careful. Most occupational clinics have an appropriate form, but a standard doctor’s office exam is too comprehensive for employment physicals.

Some employees need the state Department of Transportation (DOT) form for a commercial driver’s license exam. Many doctors have them and they can be downloaded from the DOT Web site.

  • Eligibility to work (I-9 forms). Possibly the most important form for a landscape business today, the I-9 form verifies that an employee has the legal right to work in the United States. It must be completed for every employee, regardless of national origin and citizenship. Kantor has seen stepped-up enforcement recently. “As of April (2006), the government is cracking down really hard on employers who knowingly employ illegal aliens,” he says.
  • Time cards or logs. An employee can cause problems if an employer doesn’t maintain accurate time records, Kantor says. “The employee can say that he worked 12 hours or 14 hours. The employer has the burden to maintain these records.”

Wilson agrees that disputes over hours can be a big issue. “A complaint of not getting paid right starts an investigation. Most of the time the employer will lose the case.” He suggests that employers require employees to sign their time cards, especially if either party has made changes to the card.

  • Employee bonuses. Another common error is not documenting bonus plans, Wilson says. “Often an employee will leave the company then try to collect on a bonus,” he says.

It can be a real headache to prove the employee isn’t eligible. Bonus plans should be in writing and employers should detail when the plan takes effect, which employees are eligible and when it will be paid out.

  • Employee performance. Wilson also emphasizes the importance of documenting performance regularly. “Landscape companies don’t document poor performance well enough,” he says. “If you don’t have good documentation as to why you terminated an employee, they can build a case that you’re discriminating.”
  • Liens. If you need to file a lien against a non-paying customer, know your state lien laws; they vary wildly.

Some states allow you to simply file the lien. Others, such as North Dakota, require you to warn the delinquent customer with an “intent-to-lien” notice first. In contrast, Oregon mandates that you send every customer a notice that you have a “right-to-lien,” whether or not you ever intend to file one. In Indiana, you have a set time period from the start of the job to send a right-to-lien notice. If you don’t send one, you lose the right to file a lien later.

  • Pesticides and herbicides. Federal law requires that Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) be available to employees. MSDS detail the chemical properties of the substance, safe handling and emergency treatment in case of exposure. Suppliers are required to send MSDS with the initial shipment of any hazardous chemical and to send updated sheets with the next shipment after any change in the information.

In workplaces where employees could be exposed to hazardous chemicals, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates a written hazard communication plan. Such plans don’t have to be lengthy or complicated. If you’re not sure your MSDS are current or if you need a communication plan, see the sidebar on page 136 for where to find them online.

  • Contracts and invoices. The appearance of your contracts and invoices is important to your professional image. They should be current, crisp and businesslike. Names, addresses and phone numbers should be correct and legible. If you update prices, have new paperwork printed. Customers are not impressed when prices have been crossed out and replaced by higher, handwritten ones.

Contracts protect you by spelling out your responsibilities and limits. Again, know what your state law requires. State associations can be a real help here. Some states, such as Oregon, require written contracts for landscape installation. California requires contracts when the contract price exceeds $500. Idaho requires a several-part notice when the contract is over $2,000.

  • Advertising (or photos).Your brochures should look up-to-date and inviting. If you include photos, are they of your best work or of sites you were proud of ten years ago and have since surpassed?

Keeping forms updated isn’t just efficient, it’s a necessity to protect your business against lawsuits, government investigations and employee claims. The more efficient and professional your material appears, the more likely your customers will have confidence in the professionalism of your services.

Where to find the right form

State landscape professional associations are an excellent place to find state requirements and the forms to satisfy those requirements.

  • State landscape contractors associations:
    www.lcamddcva.org/resources/state.cfm|~www.lcamddcva.org/resources/state.cfm
  • State landscape and nursery associations:
    www.apld.com/resources/associations.asp|~www.apld.com/resources/associations.asp
  • The American Nursery & Landscape Association (hazard communication manual): www.anla.org|~www.anla.org/

Other sites for useful forms

  • Business Owners Toolkit (includes sample hazardous communication plans, employee applications and timesheets, disciplinary action forms and others): www.toolkit.cch.com/tools/tools.asp|~www.toolkit.cch.com/tools/tools.asp
  • What landscape contractors should know about I-9 forms:
    www.ilca.net/legislative.asp#Immigration|~www.ilca.net/legislative.asp#Immigration
  • DOT physicals for commercial drivers:
    www.fmcsa.dot.gov/documents/safetyprograms/Medical-Report.pdf|~www.fmcsa.dot.gov/documents/safetyprograms/Medical-Report.pdf
  • Material Data Safety Sheet database:
    www.msdssearch.com/Default.htm|~www.msdssearch.com/Default.htm
  • Lien laws for all 50 states:
    www.traditionsoftware.com/constlienbystate.php|~www.traditionsoftware.com/constlienbystate.php

 

— E.L. and J.A.

Ellen Lamel is a freelance writer in Pasadena, CA. Contact her at ellenlamel@earthlink.net.

Janet Aird is a freelance writer in Altadena, CA. Contact her at janet.aird@earthlink.net

LM Staff

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