Hopped up on hoops and planning to get rich on the upcoming college basketball championship?

You may want to think again.

Employment specialists warn that as office pools get more lucrative, federal investigators begin to take notice.

Career information specialists Vault.com estimated that 57 percent of workers participate in "March Madness" office pools. The Society of Human Resource Management estimated that 30 percent of supervisors are aware that their workers are gambling in the office during the tourney.

Fisher & Phillips LLP, a Southern California employment and labor firm, estimates that U.S. firms lose $94 million in productivity each day, or $1.5 billion over 15 days.

"Throwing $10 or $20 into a pool is more for fun than anything else, but the law doesn't make a distinction between low-wage basketball pool betting and wagering thousands of dollars on a football game, which everyone knows is inappropriate," said Jeffrey Thurrell, a partner with Fisher & Phillips.

Thurrell said that most people forget they're gambling illegally, amid all the fun and games. Organizations can be fined, and participants can even receive jail time under the California Penal Code and the Professional and Amateur Sports Act. Pro sports betting circles have resulted in such penalties, but sanctions resulting from betting on college basketball are rare. But as pools get bigger and more competitive every year, the risk gets higher. Federal investigators could take note if the payoff reaches $1,000 and higher, not impossible at a large company, Thurrell said.

"If I were a small business owner, I don't know if I'd be the person who'd fire employees. But what I'd want to do is make sure I'm not sponsoring an event with a cash prize at the end, especially if there's any kind of buy-in," he said.

Thurrell said there are steps employers can take to protect themselves. First and foremost, do not participate in the pool and try to keep all other management personnel from participating. Also, show that you do not condone gambling on office grounds. For instance, insert a section in the employee handbook stating that gambling isn't allowed on the premises.

"That way you have it on paper and you can say, 'we didn't step in, but the employee should have known that we didn't allow this.'"

Firehouse, Workplace

Geragos & Geragos PC and Kabateck Brown Kellner LLP have moved their offices into an old firehouse in downtown L.A.'s financial district.


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