A well-written, regularly updated, employee handbook is important for emergency service organizations. It can provide for a level of certainty in areas such as pay, benefits, and HR processes among other things. When things are spelled out, many disputes can be avoided. In addition, it can help with long-range financial planning and budgeting.
However, the handbook is only as good as the contents. This means that it must be regularly reviewed and updated. Therefore, a handbook can be a positive thing for an organization and its employees.
Conversely, a poorly drafted handbook can create an unintended employment relationship. In Pennsylvania, employees (who are not under a collective bargaining agreement) are generally considered "at will." In simple terms, it means both the employer and employee can terminate the employment without any reason (subject to specific limitations). An improperly drafted handbook could change the standard "at will" employment to a contractual employment, granting rights and obligations that may not have been intended by the employer or employee.
When does a handbook become more than a handbook? Generally, the handbook will create an enforceable employment contract if the handbook contains a "clear indication that the employer intended to overcome the at-will presumption." Bauer v. Pottsville Area Emergency Medical Services, 758 A.2d 1265, 1269 (Pa. Super. 2000). You must also look at whether a "reasonable person in the employee's position would interpret its provisions as evidencing the employer's intent to supplant the at-will rule and be bound legally by its representations in the handbook." Bauer at 1269.
In Bauer, the handbook in question specifically stated that Pottsville Area EMS was an "at will" employer, that "employment may be offered or denied any any time for any reason . . ." and stated that both parties "reserve the right to terminate employment at any time for any reason." Bauer at 1269. The PA Superior Court upheld the trial court's dismissal of the general contract claim brought by the employee.
However, the Court found there may be a limited contract based on a specific provision in the handbook that stated "Any employee scheduled for at least 36 hours per week for a period of 90 consecutive days will be treated as a full time employee." Bauer at 1269. Therefore, the Superior Court sent the case back to the trial court on that specific issue - essentially ruling that Bauer, the employee, may be entitled to full time benefits during the times he met the definition of a full-time employee. But, the court would not find that the provision put Bauer in the position of a contracted, full-time employee upon meeting the 36 hours/90 days requirement indefinitely.
The takeaway here for an emergency service organization is that a handbook must be carefully crafted in order to achieve the results intended for both the organization and its employees. Valocchi Law, LLC can assist your organization in drafting/reviewing handbooks, policies and procedures.