By Michael Gentry - Labor & Employment Shareholder, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren
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In November, the New York Times put out an Opinion Interactive called, Where Should You Live. “Everyone’s moving to Texas,” it proclaimed. “Why?” I thought; it’s hot there (ok, it was not quite as cold here at the time as it is now). Try as I might, I could not get the Times’ quiz to validate my choice to live around Milwaukee. So, I investigated the article’s biases. And sure enough, it summed it up well: “Places are shaped by the people who live in them, and people are full of surprises that no algorithm can capture.” That’s right, I think. It’s Milwaukee’s people that make this an interesting place to live and work. As a midwestern transplant, it’s a place that I have been proud to call home since 2010. And, I’d argue, a good place to start and run a business.
Sometimes overshadowed by its neighbor to the south, and often underappreciated, Milwaukee is a cultural powerhouse. Summerfest. Harley Davidson. Annual cultural festivals celebrating Milwaukee’s diverse roots. The recently re-opened America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Likewise, the Bucks-in-six championship certainly did not diminish Milwaukee’s cultural standing nationally.
What’s more, Milwaukee has grit (an intangible quality not easily measured by algorithms). Our kind are more likely than most to endure the cold at Lambeau, or sit outside during winter when a pesky pandemic prevented indoor dining. And the cost of living in Milwaukee (and even in Milwaukee’s surrounding communities) is low when compared to most other metropolitan areas its size. So, Milwaukee’s workforce presents an attractive ROI for employers and Milwaukee should be an attractive option young professionals seeking to build their careers in a vibrant city where they can afford to live near downtown.
As an employment attorney, I have encountered quite a few characters in and around Milwaukee. It’s always the people involved in a deal or dispute that keep things interesting. But the last couple of years have provided an especially challenging context for building good, lasting relationships between employers and their employees. Employers have been put through the ringer —adapting to remote work, constantly shifting state/local/federal pandemic-related restrictions, rising prices (without necessarily increasing margins), hiring and training and retaining workers whom they scarcely if ever see in person while enduring the zeitgeist of the “Great Resignation.”
Each of these issues has presented its own set of legal questions: how do we build company culture when we’re never together? What changes do I need to make to my policies, contracts and offer letters to accommodate our reconfigured workforce? How can I keep my employees safe while still delivering the service that our customers expect? And how can I protect my customer relationships in a market where employees jump from job to job?
Many employers I have spoken to over the past couple of years feel like the ground has shifted such that they’re reluctant to plan for the future —like a builder who has weathered a bad storm. But, by embracing the new realities and refreshing certain employee practices, policies and agreements to rise to the occasion (like remote work practices and refreshed, enforceable contracts and policies) they can put their workforce, their people, in the best position to help their companies succeed. That’s true grit.