HR Management & Compliance

Montana House Passes Bills That May Cause Criminal Penalties, Disastrous Results for Employers

By Jeanne M. Bender

Two bills that are progressing through the Montana Legislature would impose significant restrictions on employers’ staffing response to emergencies and their ability to manage unemployment compensation eligibility for recent hires.

Montana law currently limits the workday in certain occupations and for certain employers (e.g., mining, smelting, school districts, and state and municipal governments) to eight hours. However, employers may circumvent the restriction by obtaining prior agreement with the employee or, in cases of emergency, when life or property is in imminent danger. House Bill (HB) 300 would eliminate the emergency provision, thereby making it a crime for both the employee and employer to work more than eight hours in a day to deal with the emergency unless they had previously agreed to the extended schedule.

HB 179 is intended to limit employee eligibility for unemployment compensation if the employee is terminated within 30 days of being hired. However, a confusing provision in the bill would also limit employers’ right to establish a probationary period in excess of 30 days.

Under existing law, employers are free to establish any probationary period they deem appropriate to the job, and if no period is set, a six-month period is presumed. However, HB 179 states that “the probationary period of employment is determined by the employer, but may not exceed 30 calendar days from the date the worker begins work for the employer.” This language would, at best, make employers’ right to establish a probationary period in excess of 30 days questionable and, at worst, limit their right to do so. The language in the bill will clearly result in confusion and possible litigation.

Both bills have passed in the House of Representatives and now move forward for consideration by the Senate Business, Labor, and Economic Affairs Committee on March 15, 2011.

Jeanne M. Bender is an editor of Montana Employment Law Letter and a partner with Holland & Hart LLP in Billings.

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