by Gregg Keizer
From Small Business Advisor, June 5, 2000
Not even Dirty Harry gets away with bending the rules. Not in the real world of small business, anyway.
About as shy as his cop character Harry Callahan, movie star and small businessman Clint Eastwood is fed up with parts of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). While in Washington earlier this month, Eastwood, who owns a hotel in Carmel, California, lobbied for changes in the ADA's enforcement procedures. "Sleazebag lawyers," Eastwood said, are bringing frivilous lawsuits against small businesses which don't comply quickly enough with the ADA. But even a "Go ahead, make my day" Eastwood has made no headway against the regulations.
Eastwood's just run into the small business quagmire of government regulations. While some rules were just meant to be broken, like 55 on the Interstate or that two carry-on bags deal at the airport, small business regulations need to be followed to the letter. Fail to toe the line and the government wields a big stick that can crush your small business.
Regulations and laws that pertain to small business are both legion in number and legendary in vagueness. Which apply to your company, which don't? How do you comply, and if you don't, what are the possible penalties? You'd like to know, right?
So would all small business owners. Getting the information, though, isn't always easy. So many federal agencies have their fingers in the small business regulatory pie that sorting them out can be tougher than recognizing someone from their high school yearbook photo. And the regulations themselves can read like Sanskrit.
To cut through the confusion, start with the Internet. Some of the information you need is online at sites sponsored by the Department of Labor and other federal bodies. Save yourself a phone call -- and maybe even a lawsuit -- by checking out the rules that apply.
Figure out what's what
The kingdom of small business regulations is the U.S. Department of Labor, the Cabinet-level organization that houses such agencies as the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the Employment Standards Administration (ESA). If you're hunting for rulings and regulations, this is the place to start. Fortunately, you can do that from the office, since the DoL has a well-stocked Web site.
First, head to the Small Business Handbook, an online rendering of the major statutes and regulations administered by the Department of Labor. The Handbook's designed for small business, and pays special attention to spelling out which regs apply to which businesses. This Handbook provides the best overview you'll get, and is written in decently clear language. You can either browse it online, or for a permanent copy, print the Handbook in three parts. You'll need Acrobat Reader installed on your machine to print. If the Handbook is too beefy for you -- all you want is the sketchy details -- check out the Major Statues of the U.S. Department of Labor page. All this does is mention the major laws and the agencies which administer those statues.
The next place to visit is the Small Business Compliance Assistance Information Inventory Matrix (whew!). That's a million-dollar title for what's essentially a clearinghouse of all the online documents which outline how to comply with various regulations. Want to know if your business must follow the Family and Medical Leave Act? You can search the online document collection from the Matrix, or browse by topic. The latter's your best bet, since the search engine sometimes comes up empty when it shouldn't. A search on "family leave," for instance, draws zip; you need to search with "family and medical leave" to pull up matching documents.
Put up the posters
Posters are an easily-overlooked part of regulatory compliance. Some of the statutes and regs enforced by the DoL require that businesses post notices in the workplace. These posters, generally informational, spell out everything from the minimum wage to the Equal Employment Opportunity Act.
These notices are available from the DoL Poster Page, which contains links to Acrobat Reader-formatted posters. You can print them out, tape multi-sheet posters together, and put them up in a prominent place. Not sure which apply to your business? Then go to the Workplace Poster Requirements for Small Business page. The table at the bottom of this page lists the posters, who must post each notice, and the penalty, if any, for not complying. You can get to the poster download sites from this table, too.
Get some help
If things are about as clear as mud and the stuff on the Web's been little help, you can steer towards some other resources for answers. Check out the Small Business Compliance Assistance page for phone numbers of the Office of Small Business Programs (the main referral office for small biz regulatory compliance), the SBA Ombudsman (where you can complain about DoL enforcement), and other DoL agencies. Those last phone numbers may come in handy if you want to query a local or regional office about how a law pertains to your situation (by law, the DoL must interpret statues to the facts you provide), but you don't know where that local or regional office is.
Or you can try one of the DoL's elaws Advisors, wizard-style walk-throughs which assemble information about a topic and in some cases, let you select from choices that describe your company's circumstances. The Family and Medical Leave Act Advisor, for example, asks if your business employs 50 or more people, among other questions, to decide if your firm is covered by that law. Deal with discrimination
Another federal agency all small business owners should be familiar with is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This is the arm of the government which monitors compliance with the laws and regulations prohibiting job discrimination, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The EEOC's Web site is a mess compared to the Department of Labor's. Not only does this site stock a less complete inventory of information, but its organization is shoddy to boot. The best places to begin are the Small Business Information page and the Quick Start -- Employers page. Both are pseudo-directories composed of links to other areas of the EEOC's site. There's little overlap, so you should browse through the links from both these pages.
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