"unvaccinated
Uncategorized

Employers Mull Higher Health Plan Cost-Sharing for Unvaccinated Staff

Some employers are considering a new incentive for their workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19: Charging them higher health insurance premiums if they don’t.

A recent brief from consulting firm Mercer reported that employers are looking at surcharging the health insurance premiums for employees who refuse vaccination for reasons other than disability or sincere religious belief. Many employers apply similar surcharges for employees who use tobacco.

The news comes as the Delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has sent infection rates soaring, with reports indicating that most new cases are occurring in people who have not been inoculated.

Employers may choose this option for a simple reason: The large costs of hospital stays and treatments for COVID-19 patients. When health plans incur large claim costs, they must either accept lower profits or make up the difference by spreading the costs among plan participants. Charging higher premiums penalizes vaccinated and unvaccinated employees alike.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said that it is permissible for employers to require workers to be vaccinated. However, many employers have been hesitant to take that step, fearing negative employee reactions, waves of resignations and bad publicity.

Freedom of choice

Surcharging insurance premiums for unvaccinated workers may be an appealing alternative for some employers. Rather than ordering employees to get vaccinated, they would leave them free to choose.

Those who would rather bear higher costs as a consequence of refusing a vaccine would be free to make that choice. In turn, vaccinated employees would not have to subsidize the health care costs of colleagues who make riskier decisions.

A Mercer spokesperson has estimated that any surcharges would be in the range of $500 to $1,300 per year.

Extra costs like that might induce reluctant workers to get the shots. If unvaccinated employees decide to get vaccinated in order to avoid a surcharge, the workplace should be safer and more productive. Absenteeism due to illness can negatively impact productivity.

The takeaway

Employers need to consider the following before implementing surcharges:

  • The EEOC has provided guidelines for employers wishing to offer vaccine incentives. Employers should stay within those guidelines.
  • Are the incentives necessary? They might not be in areas or workplaces where vaccination rates are already high.
  • The line between “encouraging” and “coercing” employees to get vaccinated is not well-defined. Employers should avoid imposing surcharges that could be viewed as coercive.
  • Some employees have pre-existing health conditions that make the vaccinations unsafe. Others seriously practice religions that forbid their use. Federal law requires employers to accommodate these workers.
"ACA"/
Uncategorized

HHS Proposes Higher Cost-Sharing Limits for 2022

The Department of Health and Human Services has proposed cost-sharing limits that would apply to all Affordable Care Act-compliant health insurance policies for the 2022 policy year.

The ACA imposes annual out-of-pocket maximums on the amount that an enrollee in a non-grandfathered health plan, including self-insured and group health plans, must pay for essential health benefits through cost-sharing.

This means that health plans are not allowed to require their enrollees to pay more than the maximum in a given year for health services. 

The proposed 2022 out-of-pocket maximums are $9,100 for self-only coverage and $18,200 for family coverage. This represents an approximate 6.4% increase over 2021 limits. For 2021, the out-of-pocket maximums are $8,550 and $17,100, respectively.

Penalties to rise

Applicable large employers (ALEs) — employers with 50 or more full-time or full-time-equivalent workers who are required to offer their employees health insurance under the ACA — can face large penalties known as “shared responsibility” assessments if they have at least one full-time employee who enrolls in public marketplace coverage and receives a premium tax credit. There are two types of infractions with different penalty amounts:

The “play or pay” penalty — This can be levied when an ALE fails to offer minimum essential coverage to at least 95% of its full-time employees and their dependent children during a month, and at least one of its full-time employees receives a premium tax credit through a public marketplace.

The per-employee penalty will rise to $2,880 in 2022 from the current $2,700.

The “play and pay” penalty — An ALE can be hit by this penalty if it offers minimum essential coverage to at least 95% of its full-time employees but a full-time employee receives a premium tax credit because: (1) the employer-offered coverage is unaffordable or fails to provide minimum value, or (2) the employee was not offered employer-sponsored coverage.

For 2022, the maximum annual assessment for each full-time employee receiving a premium tax credit will be an estimated $4,320, up from the current $4,060.

"COVID-19
Uncategorized

EEOC Issues New COVID-19 Vaccination Guidelines for Employers

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has affirmed that employers can mandate COVID-19 vaccines for employees, subject to some limitations.

The EEOC’s updated guidance offers direction regarding employer-mandated vaccinations, accommodations for employees who cannot be vaccinated due to a disability or sincerely held religious belief, and certain implications of pre-vaccination medical screening questions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.

Asking a patient pre-screening questions is a routine part of a vaccination. These questions may constitute a “medical examination” as defined by the ADA. An employer must be able to show that the inquiries are “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and that an unvaccinated employee could pose a direct threat to the health of others in the workplace.

The guidance does make clear that administration of a COVID-19 vaccination to an employee itself does not constitute a medical examination for the purposes of the ADA.

Urging employees to get the vaccine voluntarily or requiring them to submit proof that a non-contracted third party (physician, pharmacist or public health center) administered it may be a better alternative with fewer legal complications.

Reasonable accommodations

Some employees may be unable to get the vaccine for health or disability reasons. Other employees may have sincere religious objections to getting inoculated. In both cases, employers must make reasonable accommodations for the employees. The law permits them to exclude these employees from the workplace only if no reasonable accommodation is possible.

Employers and employees might not agree on what “reasonable accommodation” means. For this reason, employers should consult with human resources experts and carry employment practices liability insurance. Expert advice will help avoid these kinds of conflicts, and the insurance will pay for legal defense and settlement of resulting employee lawsuits.

Requiring employees to get vaccinated will also have implications for the employer’s obligations under state workers’ compensation laws. On the positive side, a vaccinated workforce should reduce the employer’s exposure to claims that an employee got the virus on the job.

On the negative side, some employees may experience adverse side effects. Since the vaccine would be a job requirement, the employee could make a claim for workers’ comp benefits due to the adverse reaction. In addition, the employer may have to pay the worker for the time spent getting vaccinated and for the cost of the injection.

What you can do

Employers can protect themselves by following these guidelines:

  • Follow federal and local health guidelines for the vaccine.
  • Vary the requirements depending on work conditions and locations, such as requiring vaccines for those who regularly interact with the public but making them optional for remote workers.
  • Accommodate employees unable to get the vaccine or resistant to it, to the extent you reasonably can without endangering other employees or the public.
  • Apply the requirements consistently to all employees.

No one wants to catch or spread this virus. Employers can help halt the spread by thoughtfully addressing the issue of vaccinating employees.

"Affordable
Uncategorized

Trimming Hours to Avoid Employer Mandate Can Land You in Hot Water

Ever since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, critics of the law have said that employers would cut staff or reduce workers’ hours to avoid coming under the employer mandate requiring them to provide coverage for their staff.

But employers that decided to go that route could find themselves in a costly legal trap thanks to precedent-setting case that has been cited often by judges when confronted with challenges. 

Workers at Dave & Buster’s, a restaurant chain, in July 2015 filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York alleging that the national restaurant chain reduced their hours to keep them from attaining full-time status for the purpose of avoiding the requirement to offer them health coverage under the ACA’s employer mandate.

In February 2016, the federal judge in the case, in declining the employer’s motion to dismiss the case, cited its likely breach of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which prohibits employers from interfering with a worker’s right to benefits.

This case is significant because many other employers have implemented similar strategies striving to limit work hours for certain groups of employees for the purpose of avoiding penalties under the ACA.

Some background

The ACA’s employer mandate generally requires large employers (those with 50 or more full-time workers or full-time equivalent employees) to offer affordable and minimum value health coverage to their full-time employees (employees who regularly work an average at least 30 hours per week).

Employers are not generally required to offer coverage to employees working less than 30 hours per week on average.

Since the employer mandate took effect, many employers have been moving employees to part-time status to avoid triggering penalties under the employer mandate. 

Why the case is important

The Dave & Buster’s employees alleged that the company violated ERISA by cutting their hours. They cited Section 510 of ERISA, which prohibits employers from discriminating against any participant or beneficiary for exercising a right under ERISA or an ERISA benefit plan. 

The workers alleged that by reducing employees’ hours to keep them below the 30-hour weekly average to qualify as a full-time employee, Dave & Buster’s interfered with the attainment of the affected employees’ right to be eligible for company health benefits.

Dave & Buster’s in October 2015 filed a motion to dismiss the case, but the Southern District of New York federal judge denied the motion in February 2016.

The law firm of McDermott Will & Emery in its blog highlighted the importance of the decision, stating, “The opinion focuses on ERISA Section 510 and holds that the plaintiff has a viable claim that reducing her work hours was done for the purpose of interfering with her right to benefits under the company health plan.

“Second, the opinion finds that the complaint successfully alleged the employer’s ‘unlawful purpose’ and intention to interfere with benefits, pointing to allegations that company representatives publicly stated that they were reducing the number of full-time employees to avoid ACA costs.” 

The law firm noted that the decision has given plaintiff’s attorneys a model for filing similar complaints when employers reduce hours to avoid their obligations under the ACA.

It also noted that if judges in other cases deny employers’ motions to dismiss cases, it will put the employer in a more difficult position because the employees’ attorneys will be able to take discovery and depositions, and to compel document production.

Any signs or proof of reducing hours to avoid their obligations under the ACA will make defending the case even more difficult, McDermott Will & Emery wrote.

If you have trimmed hours to avoid the employer mandate, or if you are contemplating doing so, it’s best that you first discuss these plans with your company lawyer.

"employee
Uncategorized

Changes for 2021 Summary of Benefits and Coverage

There are new Summary of Benefits and Coverage notice requirements for health plans starting with the 2021 coverage year.

The requirements, released by the Department of Labor, have new model templates, new instructions and new information that affects the coverage examples that are required to be in SBC documents that employers with group health plans must distribute to their employees.

Under the Affordable Care Act, all non-grandfathered health plans are required to provide enrollees and prospective applicants an SBC, which is essentially a synopsis of the plan’s coverage and benefits. It must be produced in a specific format, contain specific information, and be written in a way that is easily understood.

Here are the changes that were made to the SBC template for plans that started on or after Jan. 1:

Coverage example

The coverage examples that appear on the last page of the document have been modified to reflect changes in the cost of medical services that occur over time due to inflation and other factors:

  • “Managing Joe’s Type 2 diabetes” (diabetes example): The total amount of expenses incurred for “Joe” has decreased.
  • “Mia’s simple fracture” (fracture example): The total amount of expenses incurred by “Mia,” who visited the emergency room for a simple fracture, has increased.
  • “Peg is having a baby” (maternity example): The costs incurred during “Peg’s” hospital stay have been changed to remove separate newborn charges. The deductible line of the example should now match “your deductible amount” (if applicable).

Minimum essential coverage

Under the entry for minimum essential coverage, the template has been revised to reflect the elimination of the individual mandate penalty, which was repealed effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The entry now indicates that individuals eligible for certain types of minimum essential coverage may not be eligible for a premium tax credit under the ACA marketplace.

Uniform glossary

The uniform glossary has been updated to remove references to the individual mandate penalty.

What to do

If you offer group health plans to your employees, you are a plan sponsor and thus required to distribute SBCs to staff who are eligible for coverage during open enrollment. The SBC must also be given to new hires within 90 days of hiring for mid-year enrollment. 

If you don’t have your latest SBC, you can contact us or your health insurer. The insurer is obligated to provide all covered employers with updated SBCs after the Department of Labor and the Department of Health and Human Services release changes to templates.

"employee
Uncategorized

Employees Pick Perks and Benefits Over Pay Raises

Great perks and incentives packages can help attract top-notch talent, maintain employee morale and improve overall engagement and satisfaction with a company.

The coronavirus pandemic has made perks and benefits even more important, particularly in light of so many workers feeling burned out, stressed from working at home or feeling isolated due to closures and shelter-at-home orders.

Recently, retailer Staples surveyed 1,549 employees across the U.S. about their preferences for work perks, asking them to rate how various benefits affected their motivation and if they preferred perks over higher salaries ―and which benefits were most important to them when looking for work.

One of the major perks that employees have coveted in past surveys is the ability to work from home. Well, the coronavirus pandemic has suddenly thrust many workers into that position. But what other benefits and perks do workers look for in an employer?

Perks defined

Employee benefits and perks are a non-wage supplement to salaries and include, among other things:

  • Lifestyle/entertainment perks, such as Netflix/Spotify subscriptions, free coffee and snacks at work, or employee discounts. 
  • Continuing education perks, such as tuition reimbursement, student loan repayment, or financial support for receiving professional certifications.
  • Health and fitness benefits, such as gym membership reimbursements, on-site fitness facilities or nutrition classes.
  • Workplace flexibility perks, such as flexible hours, commuter benefits or the ability to work remotely on a regular basis.
  • Family-focused/childcare perks, such as daycare reimbursement or paid family leave.

What is the overall best way to improve employee morale?

  • Higher base salary (37% of respondents)
  • More workplace perks (22%)
  • Performance-based raises (21%)
  • Recognition from supervisors (9%)
  • Team-building initiatives (4%)
  • Requesting employee feedback (4%)
  • Spontaneous holidays (2%)

Must-have perks and benefits:

  • Flexible hours (40% of respondents)
  • Paid health insurance premiums (34%)
  • Paid family leave (29%)
  • Regular remote work (26%)
  • Financial assistance with professional certifications (26%)

Perks and benefits employees deem nice to have, but not essential:

  • Employee discounts (43% of respondents)
  • Free coffee and snacks (42%)
  • Streaming-TV subscriptions (42%)
  • Gym membership reimbursement (35%)
  • Onsite fitness classes (30%)
  • Company car, laptop or phone (30%)

The takeaway

If you are considering expanding your perks and benefits, to attract or retain staff or motivate workers, don’t forget the following before deciding:

  • Four out of five employees feel that workplace flexibility options are the most important employee perk category.
  • Perks that employees say are “must have” include flexible hours, paid insurance premiums, and paid family leave.
  • Because the Staples survey found that half of employees prefer higher salaries while the other half wants more perks, consider polling your workers before making a change.
  • 62% of employees would accept a lower salary in exchange for better workplace perks.
"lawsuits"/
Uncategorized

Protecting Your Firm from Employee Benefit Lawsuits

Employment practices and employee benefit-related lawsuits are on the rise – and employers have to be eternally vigilant when it comes to meeting their compliance obligations as plan sponsors.

Take the case of Visteon, a global automotive industry supplier, which outsourced its payroll and enrollment/disenrollment functions to outside plan administrators. 

But because of internal mistakes at the firms that Visteon outsourced these noncore HR functions to, some of its former employees who should have received COBRA eligibility notices after leaving the firm never received them. At first it was just a handful, but ultimately 741 co-workers signed on to a class-action lawsuit

Visteon argued in court that it was not its own mistakes that had caused the error, and that it had made a good-faith effort to hire outside experts to take over this function for them. Payroll and enrollment, after all, are not core competencies for an auto parts supplier, the company said, and it had been relying on the expertise of these other payroll companies to properly execute these functions and provide these notices.

The court didn’t buy Visteon’s argument. Rather, it held the company responsible in 2013 for poor internal tracking systems, negligence in overseeing its third party administrators, and failure to accept responsibility for its COBRA notification efforts.

That exposed them to the statutory penalty of $110 per worker per day for failure to provide notification.

In the end, for doing what tens of thousands of employers are doing nationwide – relying on third party administrators to handle payroll functions that are regulated under COBRA – Visteon was slapped with $1.8 million in penalties.

Employers are frequent lawsuit targets

As much as companies rely on their employees to generate profits, simply having them around and administering their benefit plans potentially exposes employers to significant possible liability.

According to a survey from insurer CNA, employment-related disputes are the fastest-growing category of civil lawsuits in America.

Employers face risk from the potential of lawsuits employees may bring for alleged failure to fulfill their fiduciary duties as sponsors of retirement plans under ERISA, for example, or for accidental or unauthorized leaks of personally identifiable information, which carries significant penalties under HIPAA.

Sponsors of defined contribution pension plans, such as 401(k)s, are particularly frequent targets of lawsuits for various fiduciary failures, errors or omissions.

Protecting your firm from legal action

So how can employers protect themselves against the potential costs of employee benefit-related litigation? You should:

  • Carefully monitor your plan third party administrators. Insist that they document their own compliance practices to you. Don’t take their word for it.
  • Reconcile your own lists of recently departed employees with your payroll company’s COBRA notifications.
  • Understand that your commercial general liability insurance policy usually will not cover you against liability arising from improper administration of employee benefit plans, ERISA, COBRA, USERRA, wage and hour laws, Title VII related lawsuits, and the like.
  • Consider employment practices liability insurance. This coverage will often protect against lawsuits like this and cover legal expenses, and even judgments.
  • Conduct regular reviews with advisers of investments in pension and 401(k) plans. Investments should be reviewed at least annually – and quarterly is not unusual.
  • Ensure that fees paid to 401(k) and other plan administrators are not excessive. You don’t have to go with the cheapest provider (that can be trouble, too). But if you do choose a higher-fee vendor, document why you made that decision so that you can show your reasoning in court and defend your decision-making as sound and prudent.
  • Invest in data security and HR compliance expertise.
"back
Uncategorized

How to Open Shop and Bring Staff Back to Work

If your business is preparing to open due to a relaxation of shelter-at-home orders, you should proceed with caution and make sure you have safeguards in place to protect your workers, as well as customers if they are entering your premises.

How can you take that first step back to a semblance of normalcy?

Here are some recommendations from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health and other sources that can apply to any municipality anywhere in the country. The advice mainly applies to establishments that will have customers, but most of the recommendations are relevant across a wide swath of sectors.

Measures to protect employees

  • If someone can continue working from home, let them do so.
  • Tell employees not to come to work if sick.
  • If any employee tests positive for, or has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, you should:

– Ask that they isolate themselves at home, and

– Ask all employees who have come in contact with that colleague to immediately self-quarantine at home.

  • Check employees for symptoms or a fever before they enter the workspace. This must include a check-in concerning cough, shortness of breath or fever and any other symptoms the employee may be experiencing.
    These checks can be done remotely or in person upon the employee’s arrival. A temperature check should be done at the worksite, if feasible.
  • Offer at no cost to your employees cloth face coverings if they are going to have contact with the public during their shift. If they are disposable, masks should be thrown away at the end of every shift. If they are reusable, they should be washed after every shift in hot water.
  • Instruct employees not to touch the exterior of their mask when removing and handling it.
  • Disinfect break rooms, restrooms and other common areas frequently.
  • Place hand sanitizer in strategic locations.
  • Allow employees to take frequent breaks to wash their hands.

Signage

Place signs at each public entrance of your facility to inform all employees and customers that they should:

  • Avoid entering the facility if they have a cough or fever.
  • Maintain a minimum 6-foot distance from one another.
  • Wear a mask for their own protection, as well as for the safety of others.

Controlling crowds, lines

Limit the number of customers in the store at any one time, to allow customers and employees to easily maintain at least 6-foot distance from one another at all practicable times.

Post an employee at the door to ensure the maximum number of customers in the facility is not exceeded. If people are queueing up, mark the ground outside the store to ensure proper social distancing.

If you have a restaurant, encourage people not to crowd and wait outside. Set up a system to alert people by cellphone when they are next.

Spacing between employees

  • Require employees to work at least 6 feet apart. You may need to reorganize your office or workstations to ensure proper spacing.
  • In jobs where workers are on their feet, you can mark spots on the floor where they should stand to ensure social distancing between your staff.
  • Social distancing in break rooms and supply areas (such as device charging stations and packaging supplies) may be addressed temporarily by spacing out tables, chairs and microwaves.
  • Another option is to use partitions made of plexiglass so workers can communicate and make eye contact.
  • In addition, you may want to abandon the popular open workspace concept and revert to using cubicles, which gained popularity in the 1980s and 1990s as a way to increase productivity by putting barriers between office workers. Having that divider will make your staff feel safer and can offer some protection.
  • Reconfigure furniture placement in offices, public seating areas and other non-warehouse or production areas to support physical distancing.

Cleaning and circulation

A recent research study that analyzed superspreading events showed that closed environments with minimal ventilation strongly contributed to a characteristically high number of secondary infections.

If you have fans or air conditioning units blowing, take steps to minimize air from fans blowing from one worker directly at another. Also consider opening windows to improve circulation.

Also important are:

  • Disinfecting frequently touched surfaces in workspaces, as well as doorknobs, buttons and controls. More frequent cleaning and disinfection may be required based on level of use.
  • Providing workers and customers with tissues and trash receptacles.
  • Employees who are cleaning and disinfecting should wear disposable gloves.
  • Cleaning surfaces using soap and water, then using disinfectant.
  • Sanitizing any other personal protective equipment such as hardhats after every shift.
"paid
Healthcare

New Law Requires COVID-19 Paid Sick Leave, FMLA Benefits

Legislation signed into law by President Trump will extend sick leave benefits for workers who are sickened by the coronavirus, as well as provide for additional weeks of time off under the Family Medical Leave Act so they can be guaranteed of being able to return to their jobs afterwards.

Public and private employers alike need to pay extra attention to the added paid sick leave and FMLA provisions of this new law. Both sections apply to employers with fewer than 500 employees.

Paid sick leave

Employees are entitled to two weeks (80 hours) of paid sick time for coronavirus-related issues. Eligible workers will receive their regular pay, up to $511 per day and $5,110 total. Those caring for someone subject to quarantine due to COVID-19, and parents of kids who can’t go to school or daycare, will receive two-thirds of their regular pay, up to $200 daily with a $2,000 cap.

The emergency sick leave benefit can be used immediately, regardless of how long the worker has been employed with you. It can be used when they cannot work or telecommute for any one of the following reasons:

  • The employee is subject to a government quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19;
  • The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to COVID-19;
  • The employee has symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • The employee is caring for an individual subject to quarantine due to COVID-19;
  • The employee needs to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed or whose childcare provider is unavailable due to coronavirus.

The law does not require certification of order by the government or a health care provider. But employers can require reasonable notice procedures, such as not announcing in the middle of a shift that they take COVID-19 sick leave. But they cannot require the employee to find a replacement worker to cover the shifts they will miss. Employers must post the law’s requirements “in conspicuous places.”

Employers are not allowed to discipline a worker who takes this sick or FMLA leave for coronavirus purposes and, if an employer refuses to provide the leave, they can be ordered to pay both back pay and statutory damages that are equal to the back pay the employee is owed.

This law provides payroll tax credits to offset all costs of providing these paid leaves.

FMLA

The FMLA portion of the law provides for 10 additional weeks of FMLA leave, but only for those who must stay at home to care for a child whose school is closed or their childcare provider is unavailable due to COVID-19-related issues.

These 10 weeks will be paid at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay, up to $200 per day with a cap of $10,000. They will also receive 12 weeks of leave with job protection, though employers of health care or emergency care providers can exclude such employees.

The employee would likely use up their two weeks of paid sick leave before applying for FMLA benefits, which unlike traditional FMLA (which is unpaid), are paid leaves after the first 10 days under the new law. 

Employees who have been working for more than 30 days are eligible, and the employer can require them to provide reasonable notice that they are taking leave.

A final word

This law only applies to employers with fewer than 500 workers, so it leaves uncovered those people who work for larger companies.

Also, employers need to make financial plans, as the credit cannot be claimed until after the employer pays their payroll taxes.

A bigger issue is that the law requires that workers be paid the sick leave even if they are not sick, but have been ordered to self-isolate. In states that have ordered workers to self-isolate, such as California, employers could be faced with an avalanche of paid sick leave claims all at once.

This law sunsets on Dec. 31, 2020.

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