Download your old tax returns directly from the IRS

Now you can download your individual tax returns from the last few years directly from the IRS. This might be very helpful for all sorts of reasons, including applying for certain small business loans.

To begin, go to

Your injury and illness records might have to be made public

OSHA has proposed a new rule that could require many businesses to submit their injury and illness records to the agency as often as quarterly. The new rule would also allow OSHA to post these records on its website for all the world to see.

Businesses are concerned about this rule for several reasons. One is that the added collection of injury and illness records could trigger an OSHA inspection. That’s true even if a reportable event wasn’t the company’s fault – if a serious injury were caused entirely by employee misconduct, for instance, it would still have to be reported to OSHA as an injury and could trigger extra scrutiny. [Read more…]

U.S. clarifies its position on using job applicants’ criminal history

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently clarified its position on when employers can reject job applicants based on their criminal records.

The EEOC is highly skeptical of companies that have a blanket ban on workers with criminal records, because it believes such a policy disproportionately discriminates against minorities.

However, it recognizes that a criminal background can legitimately disqualify workers for certain jobs.

According to the agency, it’s okay to take criminal history into account as long as it’s actually relevant to the position. This means that a company should “target” its background screening by considering (1) the nature of the job, (2) the seriousness of the crime, (3) the relevance of the type of crime, and (4) how long ago the crime occurred. [Read more…]

Workers’ wearable technology will create new headaches for business

Over the next few years, we’ll see the very rapid adoption of wearable technology – smartwatches, Google Glass, and other miniaturized connectivity devices.

It’s not hard to imagine how employees with these devices could create problems for businesses. Think of a service employee whose smartwatch displays inappropriate text messages or images, an accounting worker whose Google glasses capture salary data and automatically upload it to social media, or a home health aide whose smart bracelet updates the world on her location – even though the home addresses of her clients are supposed to be confidential.

It’s not too soon to think about updating your cellphone, social media, and other policies to take these new devices into account. [Read more…]

You must protect employees from sex harassment … by customers

Everyone knows that businesses can be sued for sex harassment if an employee or manager harasses another employee. But did you know that you can also be sued if the harasser doesn’t work for you – if the harasser is a customer, contractor, or other person connected to the business?

That might not seem fair, since you have no control over a customer’s actions. But you still have a duty to provide a way for employees to complain, to investigate accusations, and to take reasonable steps to stop any harassment to the extent possible.

In one recent case, a graduate student who worked as a manager for the Hofstra University football team sued the university, claiming she had been harassed by some of the football players. [Read more…]

Be careful about copyrighted images on websites, sales materials

Graphic designers often like to “borrow” photographs and other artwork in order to create websites, brochures, direct-mail solicitations and other materials. But it’s important to make sure that you have a legal right to the images and designs you’re using.

A company called Dream Communications found this out the hard way recently, when a designer used a photograph without permission in creating an online magazine about luxury homes in Hawaii. The owner of the image sued, claiming that it was entitled to almost $8,000 in licensing fees.

But Dream’s problems became a nightmare when a court added penalties under the federal copyright law. In the end, Dream was ordered to pay the owner $45,000 in damages, plus almost $7,000 in attorney fees and costs. [Read more…]

Businesses struggle to decide on e-cigarette rules

Most businesses ban smoking in the workplace, but what about the new electronic cigarettes? Should those be banned as well?

E-cigarettes convert a liquid, which may contain nicotine, into a vapor. Some companies want to encourage e-cigarettes as a way to help workers quit smoking – which can reduce absenteeism and health costs.

On the other hand, some businesses see e-cigarettes as simply a milder, but still harmful, version of regular cigarettes. And they say little research has been done on the effects on co-workers of inhaling secondhand vapors.

The law is still developing. Some 24 states currently ban regular cigarette smoking in the workplace, but only three also ban e-cigarettes (New Jersey, North Dakota and Utah). [Read more…]

Can you sue for a bad online review?

Online customer reviews have become a very important part of retail business. In one recent survey, two-thirds of shoppers said they consulted online customer reviews before buying. Of those, 90 percent said their buying decisions were influenced by positive reviews, and 86 percent were influenced by negative reviews.

A one-star increase in a restaurant’s Yelp rating led on average to a 5-9 percent increase in revenue, according to a recent Harvard Business School study. And a one-point increase in a hotel’s score on Travelocity and TripAdvisor allowed hotels to increase their rates by up to 11.2 percent, according to an analysis by Cornell University.

With online reviews becoming so important, it’s no wonder businesses get upset when customers post negative reviews, especially if the business thinks the black marks were undeserved.

But is there anything you can do about it legally? [Read more…]

Employee goes to work for competitor – despite contract

Michael Holton was the president of a cancer radiation services company. When he took his job, he signed an agreement saying that if he left, he wouldn’t disclose any confidential information or trade secrets to a competitor for at least a year.

After the company merged with another business, Holton was terminated. A month later he went to work for a competing firm. His original company went to court, saying he shouldn’t be allowed to work for the competitor.

The original company wasn’t able to prove that Holton had divulged any specific confidential information or trade secrets. But it said it should win the case anyway, because Holton would “inevitably” disclose such information as part of working as an executive at the new company. [Read more…]

Whistleblower claims are on the rise

The federal government is encouraging employees to blow the whistle on company wrongdoing by offering what can be enormous financial incentives.

The federal Dodd-Frank Act offers a “bounty” to employees of public companies who report fraud and other securities violations to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Whistleblowers whose tips lead to a successful enforcement action or court penalty of more than $1 million can now automatically collect up to 30% of the penalty. (Previously, such rewards were at the SEC’s discretion, and were limited to 10% of the penalty.)

The law also provides whistleblowers with more protection against retaliation by their employer, protecting them not only for reporting actual violations, but also for reporting things they reasonably believed were violations, even if it turns out there was no wrongdoing. [Read more…]

Employee could be fired for Facebook rant

Two employees of a Chicago community youth center engaged in an expletive-laden Facebook conversation that included complaints about how they were treated by their employer. The posts were not visible to the public; only the workers’ Facebook “friends” could see them. But someone took a screenshot and passed the conversation along to a supervisor, who fired them.

One of the workers challenged the firing, arguing that the pair were actually engaged in “concerted activity” related to improving the workplace, and therefore their actions were protected by the National Labor Relations Act. [Read more…]

Timekeeping shortcuts get companies in trouble

It’s perfectly normal for employers to find shortcuts that enable simpler, more efficient recordkeeping. That’s why if you’ve ever worked for an hourly wage, you’ve very likely had your work time rounded to the nearest quarter-hour. That’s acceptable under the law.

Nonetheless, certain recordkeeping shortcuts can get businesses in trouble if they leave workers less than fully compensated.

For example, Aramark – a huge provider of food services, facilities and uniforms – was accused by employees of underpaying them as a result of its policy of rounding punch-in and punch-out times to the nearest 15 minutes, while also disciplining workers for clocking in more than five minutes late. The workers said this combination of policies resulted in their being underpaid an average of 30 to 40 minutes per pay period.

Some 3,000 Aramark employees sued the company, and Aramark paid a significant sum to settle the case out of court. [Read more…]

‘Sex harassment’ doesn’t require sexual interest

The classic image of sexual harassment is a boss who makes passes at employees or tries to use his position to extract sexual favors. But it’s important to know that “sexual harassment” is really much broader than that, and can include any situation where workers are made to feel uncomfortable in a way that relates to their gender – even if the culprit isn’t trying to seduce the victim.

For instance, one recent case was brought by a member of a bridge maintenance crew in Louisiana who didn’t seem to fit his supervisor’s idea of what a “rough ironworker” should act like. The supervisor, who viewed the worker as effeminate, allegedly harassed him by doling out verbal abuse, engaging in taunting gestures of a sexual nature, and exposing himself to the worker. [Read more…]

Bullying in the workplace

When most people think of bullying, they think of a tough kid demanding a smaller boy’s lunch money or “mean girls” ostracizing a classmate in a school cafeteria.

But as a highly publicized situation recently involving the NFL’s Miami Dolphins suggests, bullying doesn’t always stop after high school graduation. It often continues into adulthood, including the workplace.

In the Dolphins’ case, one teammate allegedly tried to “toughen up” another player through a series of abusive text messages and threats of violence.

While that case generated a lot of publicity, the vast majority of workplace bullying incidents don’t show up in the news media. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real – survey after survey shows that a high percentage of Americans say they have experienced or witnessed workplace bullying over the course of their careers. [Read more…]

‘No-fault divorce’ doesn’t mean it’s okay to be at fault

Long ago, if a spouse wanted to end a bad marriage, he or she had to prove in court that the other spouse had engaged in some form of misconduct, such as adultery, cruelty, or abandonment.

Today, however, every state has some form of “no-fault” divorce, where a spouse can dissolve a marriage based on nothing more than “irreconcilable differences” between the couple.

But just because you no longer have to prove fault to get a divorce doesn’t mean that fault is irrelevant. Depending on the state and the circumstances, a spouse’s misconduct could result in losing child custody, paying the other spouse’s attorney fees, or a lopsided alimony or support award in the other spouse’s favor. [Read more…]

Child support sometimes counts as part of your income

Do child support payments you receive count as part of your income? The answer varies a great deal depending on the context, and it’s important to plan for this when you’re getting divorced.

For instance, when you’re calculating your federal income tax, child support payments do not count as income, which means you don’t have to pay tax on them.

On the other hand, if you’re buying a house and applying for a mortgage, a bank might consider child support to be income in deciding whether you’re qualified for a loan. Each lender is different, but some consider child support as a financial resource that’s available to you.

The bank might take into account how much child support you receive, how long you’ve been receiving it, and how long you expect to continue receiving it. It might also want to know if there’s a significant chance that your custody arrangements could change in the future. [Read more…]

Financial relief may be available while divorce is pending

Divorce can be expensive and take a long time to get through. It can also create significant financial burdens for spouses who were not the primary breadwinner, and who are now forced to manage a household by themselves.

In some cases, it may be possible to get a court to order the other spouse to make temporary support payments while the case is underway.

Such an order is often called a pendente lite order, and it has two purposes: to help a financially strapped spouse keep up with expenses while the case is ongoing, and to prevent the other spouse from gaining financial leverage in the divorce. [Read more…]

Who’s getting divorced these days? People over 50

The new face of divorce has gray hair.

While divorce rates overall have stabilized and even inched downward in recent years, the divorce rate among couples who are 50 or older doubled between 1990 and 2010, according to a study by Ohio’s Bowling Green State University.

What’s more, these so-called “gray divorces” now account for more than 28% of all marital splits – up from just 10% back in 1990.

The reasons for this trend are unclear, although some people have speculated that seniors are living longer and are more active than they used to be, and may be less willing to stick it out in a loveless marriage once their children are grown. Also, there’s been a significant increase in divorces that are initiated by older women, who may be more independent than in an earlier generation. [Read more…]

Divorcing spouses need to think about credit card debt

Most married couples have at least one joint credit card. And a great many couples don’t pay off their cards in full each month, so they have some credit card debt.

If you or someone you know is considering divorce, it’s important to think about what will happen with a joint credit card.

Although there are exceptions, in many cases the wisest move is to pay off the joint card if possible, cancel it, and open up your own personal credit card account.

Here’s why: In most states, if both spouses’ names are on the account, each spouse is fully legally liable for the entire amount of the debt. So canceling the joint card prevents your spouse from running up a lot of debt – either out of spite or for whatever other reason – for which you’ll then be legally on the hook. [Read more…]

Scams target seniors

Seniors are a favorite target of scam artists. According to one survey, seniors over the age of 60 have lost nearly $3 billion a year to financial fraud. Here are a few of the tactics used to bilk seniors of their money.

  • Advanced fee to claim winnings. The target victim is told he’s won something and just needs to send money to cover fees, insurance, or whatever to claim the prize.
  • Computer virus scam. The caller tells the senior that a virus has been detected on his/her computer. The victim is told to log into a website that lets the crook control the computer so the virus can be eliminated. But what happens is that the person’s personal information is stolen.

[Read more…]

Ask the right questions before you start a business

There are several questions you must answer before you even consider starting a new business. Unfortunately, some would-be-entrepreneurs spend more time planning their summer vacation than they do the start of a new business. Most of these businesses will fall into the three out of five start-ups that fail in the first five years. The statistics vary from industry to industry, but about 30% of new business start-ups close down in the first year of operation. Another 30% will fail in the four years that follow.

How can you increase the chances of a business’s survival? Here are a series of questions you should answer before launching a new business. Nothing can guarantee a new business will be a success, but being well armed with the right information can certainly help. [Read more…]

Taxes and disability issues: An overview

Do you live with a disability, or care for someone who does? If so, you may have disability-specific tax questions about income, deductions, and credits.

Here’s an overview.

■     Income. In general, all income is taxable on your federal tax return, unless specifically excluded. For instance, income you earn for services is typically taxable, even if you are disabled. Part of your social security disability benefits may also be taxable, depending on your total income (including tax-exempt interest). However, supplemental security income is not taxable.

Other nontaxable disability payments include VA benefits, workers’ compensation when work-related and received under a workers’ compensation act, and wage-loss benefits from no-fault car insurance policies. [Read more…]