Legal Primer

Employers need to be aware of the various laws, regulations and common duties that govern apprenticeship programs.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
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When implemented effectively, apprenticeship programs should benefit both employees and employers. For employees, apprenticeship programs provide workers in certain skilled trades with on-the-job training and, typically, higher wages.

For employers, such programs provide a source of trained and skilled workers, decrease employee turnover and reduce worker compensation costs (due to an emphasis on safety training). Apprenticeship programs have been implemented in diverse industries, such as construction, manufacturing, telecommunications, information technology and health care.

Sponsors have included employers, employer associations and joint labor-management organizations. Apprenticeship programs, however, are subject to various legal requirements. This article highlights some of those requirements.

Pursuant to the National Apprenticeship Act, the United States Department of Labor has promulgated regulations to establish labor standards for registered apprenticeship programs. To be eligible for registration with DOL or a recognized state agency, a program must satisfy many criteria, such as: (1) setting forth the program's terms and conditions in writing; (2) including an equal opportunity pledge that states the sponsor shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or sex, and the sponsor will take affirmative action to provide equal employment opportunity in the program; (3) establishing a progressively increasing schedule of wages; (4) providing safe and adequate equipment; and (5) entering into a written agreement with apprentices that states or incorporates by reference the program's standards. Sponsors with five or more apprentices also may be required to develop affirmative action plans, the details of which are set forth in DOL regulations.

Although the equal opportunity pledge required by DOL regulation does not include disability, employers should note that apprenticeship programs may be subject to the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled applicants and employees who are qualified to perform the essential functions of their positions, unless an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.

In addition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission promulgated a regulation that prohibits age discrimination in all apprenticeship programs, and that regulation was held enforceable by a federal appellate court last year. Similarly, state and local fair employment practices acts may apply to apprenticeship programs and those statutes may prohibit discrimination on the basis of characteristics not specified in federal law.

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In addition to complying with National Apprenticeship Act regulations and equal employment opportunity laws, employers and other sponsors must be aware of the multitude of other employment statutes and regulations, as well as common law duties, that govern the employment relationship. For example, sponsors of apprenticeship programs must comply with wage and hour laws. Additionally, prevailing wages may be required in connection with certain federal or state contracts. Furthermore, sponsors of apprenticeship programs are subject to various recordkeeping requirements.

In short, employers may stand to gain from apprenticeship programs, but, to do so, they must, among other things, be aware of the laws, regulations and common-law duties that govern such programs and the employment relationship.

Stephen Stern, a partner in Ross, Dixon & Bell, LLP's Washington, D.C. office, regularly advises employers on how to avoid liability by implementing and developing effective employment policies and practices and handle other day-to-day employment concerns. He has litigated and advised clients on a wide variety of employment-related issues, including allegations of discrimination, harassment, Family Medical Leave Act violations, wage and hour violations, breaches of noncompetition and other employment agreements, and misappropriation of trade secrets, among others.

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