Senate passes bill to combat opioid epidemic

Recently, the Senate passed a bill to help battle the opioid crisis. This bill is designed to battle opioid and other prescription drug misuse within the United States. Read this blog post to learn more.


Both parties got behind a bill designed to fight the misuse of opioids and other addictive medications, with a sole Republican voting against it as it passed in the Senate.

See also: Employers take steps to address opioid crisis

As reported by the Associated Press, Utah Republican Mike Lee was the sole dissenting voice as the bill was passed 99-1.

According to the reports, the legislation’s reach is broad, with provisions for deeper scrutiny of arriving international mail that could contain illegal drugs; money for the National Institutes of Health research on nonaddictive painkillers; paving the way for pharmaceutical companies to conduct research on alternatives; approval for the Food and Drug Administration to require drug manufacturers to provide opioids and similar drugs in smaller quantities and packages; and provides federal grants for treatment centers, emergency worker training and prevention research.

See also: The days of employers ignoring the opioid crisis are over

It also would push physicians to discuss pain management alternatives with Medicare patients, something that could have an effect on Department of Health and Human Services data indicating that a third of Medicare Part D prescription plan users in 2017 were prescribed opioids.

“I recognize these provisions are just a start, but we are losing 116 lives every day. And we need to save as many as we can—as soon as we can,” Sen. Gary Peters (D., Mich.) told the Senate.


Funding for the provisions of the measure will have to come from separate spending bills, and for the bill to become law, it will have to be reconciled with legislation that passed the House back in June. Despite the high level of tension between Democrats and Republicans at present, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Senate aides are optimistic the measures can be reconciled and passed by the end of the year.” Still, opioid use is definitely a bipartisan issue, hitting red and blue states alike, with preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that in 2017 U.S. overdose deaths from all drugs set a record and ballooned to more than 72,000.

SOURCE: Satter, M. (18 September 2018) "Senate passes bill to combat opioid epidemic" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/09/18/senate-passes-bill-to-combat-opioid-epidemic/


30 employee handbook do’s and don’ts from the NLRB

Recently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a list of rules to help employers comply with the National Labor Relations Act. Read this blog post to learn more.


To help employers craft handbooks that don’t violate the National Labor Relations Act, the National Labor Relations Board has issued a compilation of rules it has found to be illegal — and rewritten them to illustrate how they can comply with the law.

It was issued as a memorandum by NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. to “help employers to review their handbooks and other rules, and conform them, if necessary, to ensure they are lawful.”

Specifically, the memorandum points out employer policies found to violate and conform to Section 7 of the NLRA.

The main area of concern

Section 7 mandates that employees be allowed to participate in “concerted activity” to help improve the terms and conditions of their work.

The NLRB has made it abundantly clear recently that it’s on the lookout for rules that:

  • explicitly restrict protected concerted activity, and/or
  • could be construed to restrict protected Section 7 activity.

One thing the memorandum makes very clear: extremely subtle variations in language could be the difference between having a legal policy in the NLRB’s eyes and having one that’s viewed as violating the NLRA.

What to say, what not to say

Here are many of the dos and don’ts highlighted by the memorandum, separated by topic:

Rules regarding confidentiality

  • Illegal: “Do not discuss ‘customer or employee information’ outside of work, including ‘phone numbers [and] addresses.'” The NLRB said, in addition to the overbroad reference to “employee information,” the blanket ban on discussing employee contact info, without regard for how employees obtain that info, is facially illegal.
  • Illegal: “Never publish or disclose [the Employer’s] or another’s confidential or other proprietary information. Never publish or report on conversations that are meant to be private or internal to [the Employer].” The NLRB said a broad reference to “another’s” information, without clarification, would reasonably be interpreted to include other employees’ wages and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Illegal: Prohibiting employees from “[d]isclosing … details about the [Employer].” The NLRB said this is a broad restriction that failed to clarify that it doesn’t restrict Section 7 activity.
  • Legal: “No unauthorized disclosure of ‘business “secrets” or other confidential information.'”
  • Legal: “Misuse or unauthorized disclosure of confidential information not otherwise available to persons or firms outside [Employer] is cause for disciplinary action, including termination.”
  • Legal: “Do not disclose confidential financial data, or other non-public proprietary company information. Do not share confidential information regarding business partners, vendors or customers.”

The NLRB said the last three rules above were legal because: “1) they do not reference information regarding employees or employee terms and conditions of employment, 2) although they use the general term “confidential,” they do not define it in an overbroad manner, and 3) they do not otherwise contain language that would reasonably be construed to prohibit Section 7 communications.”

Rules regarding conduct toward the company and supervisors

  • Illegal: “[B]e respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.”
  • Illegal: “Do ‘not make fun of, denigrate, or defame your co-workers, customers, franchisees, suppliers, the Company, or our competitors.'”
  • Illegal: “Be respectful of others and the Company.”
  • Illegal: “No ‘[d]efamatory, libelous, slanderous or discriminatory comments about [the Company], its customers and/or competitors, its employees or management.'”

The NLRB said the rules above were unlawfully overbroad because: “employees reasonably would construe them to ban protected criticism or protests regarding their supervisors, management, or the employer in general.”

  • Illegal: “Disrespectful conduct or insubordination, including, but not limited to, refusing to follow orders from a supervisor or a designated representative.”
  • Illegal: “‘Chronic resistance to proper work-related orders or discipline, even though not overt insubordination’ will result in discipline.”

The NLRB said the rules above, while banning “insubordination,” also ban “conduct that does not rise to the level of insubordination, which reasonably would be understood as including protected concerted activity.”

  • Illegal: “Refrain from any action that would harm persons or property or cause damage to the Company’s business or reputation.”
  • Illegal: “[I]t is important that employees practice caution and discretion when posting content [on social media] that could affect [the Employer’s] business operation or reputation.”
  • Illegal: “Do not make ‘[s]tatements “that damage the company or the company’s reputation or that disrupt or damage the company’s business relationships.”‘”
  • Illegal: “Never engage in behavior that would undermine the reputation of [the Employer], your peers or yourself.”

The NLRB said the rules above “were unlawfully overbroad because they reasonably would be read to require employees to refrain from criticizing the employer in public.

  • Legal: “No ‘rudeness or unprofessional behavior toward a customer, or anyone in contact with’ the company.”
  • Legal: “Employees will not be discourteous or disrespectful to a customer or any member of the public while in the course and scope of [company] business.”

The NLRB said the rules above are legal because they wouldn’t lead an employee to believe they restrict criticism of the company.

  • Legal: “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervision, coworkers, customers and vendors.” The NLRB says employees would reasonably understand that this states the employer’s legitimate expectation that employees work together in an atmosphere of civility.
  • Legal: “Each employee is expected to abide by Company policies and to cooperate fully in any investigation that the Company may undertake.” The NLRB said this rule is legal because “employees would reasonably interpret it to apply to employer investigations of workplace misconduct rather than investigations of unfair labor practices or preparations for arbitration.”
  • Legal: “‘Being insubordinate, threatening, intimidating, disrespectful or assaulting a manager/supervisor, coworker, customer or vendor will result in’ discipline.” The NLRB said: “Although a ban on being  disrespectful’ to management, by itself, would ordinarily be found to unlawfully chill Section 7 criticism of the employer, the term here is contained in a larger provision that is clearly focused on serious misconduct, like insubordination, threats, and assault. Viewed in that context, we concluded that employees would not reasonably believe this rule to ban protected criticism.”

Rules regarding conduct between employees

  • Illegal: “‘[D]on’t pick fights’ online.”
  • Illegal: “Do not make ‘insulting, embarrassing, hurtful or abusive comments about other company employees online,’ and ‘avoid the use of offensive, derogatory, or prejudicial comments.'”
  • Illegal: “[S]how proper consideration for others’ privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory, such as politics and religion.”
  • Illegal: “Do not send ‘unwanted, offensive, or inappropriate’ e-mails.”

The NLRB said the rules above were unlawfully overbroad because employees would reasonably construe them to restrict protected discussions with their co-workers.

  • Legal: “[No] ‘Making inappropriate gestures, including visual staring.'”
  • Legal: “Any logos or graphics worn by employees ‘must not reflect any form of violent, discriminatory, abusive, offensive, demeaning, or otherwise unprofessional message.'”
  • Legal: “[No] ‘[T]hreatening, intimidating, coercing, or otherwise interfering with the job performance of fellow employees or visitors.'”
  • Legal: “No ‘harassment of employees, patients or facility visitors.'”
  • Legal: “No ‘use of racial slurs, derogatory comments, or insults.'”

The NLRB said the rules above were legal because: “when an employer’s professionalism rule simply requires employees to be respectful to customers or competitors, or directs employees not to engage in unprofessional conduct, and does not mention the company or its management, employees would not reasonably believe that such a rule prohibits Section 7-protected criticism of the company.

SOURCE: Schappel, C. (18 July 2018) "30 employee handbook do’s and don’ts from the NLRB" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://www.hrmorning.com/employee-handbook-dos-and-donts-from-the-nlrb/


Oct. 15 Deadline Nears for Medicare Part D Coverage Notices

Are you prepared for the Medicare Part D coverage notice deadline? Plan sponsors that offer prescription drug coverage must provide notices to Medicare-eligible individuals before October 15. Read on to learn more.


Plan sponsors that offer prescription drug coverage must provide notices of "creditable" or "non-creditable" coverage to Medicare-eligible individuals before each year's Medicare Part D annual enrollment period by Oct. 15.

Prescription drug coverage is creditable when it is at least actuarially equivalent to Medicare's standard Part D coverage and non-creditable when it does not provide, on average, as much coverage as Medicare's standard Part D plan.

The notice obligation is not limited to retirees and their dependents covered by the employers' plan, but also includes Medicare-eligible active employees and their dependents and Medicare-eligible COBRA participants and their dependents.

Background

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003 requires group health plan sponsors that provide prescription drug coverage to disclose annually to individuals eligible for Medicare Part D whether the plan's coverage is creditable or non-creditable.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has provided a Creditable Coverage Simplified Determination method that plan sponsors can use to determine if a plan provides creditable coverage.

Disclosure of whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable allows individuals to make informed decisions about whether to remain in their current prescription drug plan or enroll in Medicare Part D during the Part D annual enrollment period.

Individuals who do not enroll in Medicare Part D during their initial enrollment period, and who subsequently go at least 63 consecutive days without creditable coverage (e.g., because they dropped their creditable coverage or have non-creditable coverage) generally will pay higher premiums if they enroll in a Medicare drug plan at a later date.

Who Must Receive the Notice?

The notice must be provided to all Medicare-eligible individuals who are covered under, or eligible for, the sponsor's prescription drug plan, regardless of whether the plan pays primary or secondary to Medicare. Thus, the notice obligation is not limited to retirees and their dependents but also includes Medicare-eligible active employees and their dependents and Medicare-eligible COBRA participants and their dependents.

Notice Requirements

The Medicare Part D annual enrollment period runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. Each year, before the enrollment period begins (i.e., by Oct. 14), plan sponsors must notify Medicare-eligible individuals whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable or non-creditable. The Oct. 15 deadline applies to insured and self-funded plans, regardless of plan size, employer size or grandfathered status.

Part D eligible individuals must be given notices of the creditable or non-creditable status of their prescription drug coverage:

  • Before an individual's initial enrollment period for Part D.
  • Before the effective date of coverage for any Medicare-eligible individual who joins an employer plan.
  • Whenever prescription drug coverage ends or creditable coverage status changes.
  • Upon the individual's request.

According to CMS, the requirement to provide the notice prior to an individual's initial enrollment period will also be satisfied as long as the notice is provided to all plan participants each year before the beginning of the Medicare Part D annual enrollment period.

An EGWP exception

Employers that provide prescription drug coverage through a Medicare Part D Employer Group Waiver Plan (EGWP) are not required to provide the creditable coverage notice to individuals eligible for the EGWP.

The required notices may be provided in annual enrollment materials, separate mailings or electronically. Whether plan sponsors use the CMS model notices or other notices that meet prescribed standards, they must provide the required disclosures no later than Oct. 14, 2017.

Model notices that can be used to satisfy creditable/non-creditable coverage disclosure requirements are available in both English and Spanish on the CMS website.

Plan sponsors that choose not to use the model disclosure notices must provide notices that meet prescribed content standards. Notices of creditable/non-creditable coverage may be included in annual enrollment materials, sent in separate mailings or delivered electronically.

What if no prescription drug coverage is offered?

Because the notice informs individuals whether their prescription drug coverage is creditable or non-creditable, no notice is required when prescription drug coverage is not offered.

Plan sponsors may provide electronic notice to plan participants who have regular work-related computer access to the sponsor's electronic information system. However, plan sponsors that use this disclosure method must inform participants that they are responsible for providing notices to any Medicare-eligible dependents covered under the group health plan.

Electronic notice may also be provided to employees who do not have regular work-related computer access to the plan sponsor's electronic information system and to retirees or COBRA qualified beneficiaries, but only with a valid email address and their prior consent. Before individuals can effectively consent, they must be informed of the right to receive a paper copy, how to withdraw consent, how to update address information, and any hardware/software requirements to access and save the disclosure. In addition to emailing the notice to the individual, the sponsor must also post the notice (if not personalized) on its website.

Don't forget the disclosure to CMS

Plan sponsors that provide prescription drug coverage to Medicare-eligible individuals must also disclose to CMS annually whether the coverage is creditable or non-creditable. This disclosure must be made no more than 60 days after the beginning of each plan year—generally, by March 1. The CMS disclosure obligation applies to all plan sponsors that provide prescription drug coverage, even those that do not offer prescription drug coverage to retirees.

SOURCE: Chan, K.; Stover, R. (10 September 2018) "Oct. 15 Deadline Nears for Medicare Part D Coverage Notices" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/medicare-d-notice-deadline.aspx/


How to evaluate an applicant tracking system

How are you evaluating applicant tracking systems? Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are supposed to fix any inefficiencies in your recruiting process. Read this blog post to learn more.


Unemployment is at 3.9%, a 17-year low. Competition for talent is fierce, especially when you’re trying to hire sellers, mid-level managers, professional staff and skilled labor. When hiring gets this tough, inefficiencies in your recruiting process that could otherwise be ignored will become code red emergencies.

Applicant tracking systems (ATS) are supposed to fix those problems. Some do; many don’t. To tell the difference, HR professionals must do their research. Here are the three most important questions to ask before you invest in an ATS.

1. Will the ATS help or hurt my employment brand? If you’re not an employee at Google or Apple, you’ve probably daydreamed about having your own nap pod in Silicon Valley or being toted around in an automated car. You know the amazing benefits and the free-spirited culture at these organizations. That’s employment brand. Granted, not every organization can hope for Google-level brand awareness, but every company — for better or worse — has a brand of their own, made up of every interaction and detail of the recruiting and hiring process.

See also: What’s ahead for HR technology?

You should know that most ATS are made by software engineers, not recruiters. The downside there is that most systems don’t deliver a candidate experience designed to convey an impression of what it would be like to work for your company. If your ATS isn’t helping bolster your employment brand, it’s not working hard enough.

To ensure that candidates can get a feel for your company culture before they even submit an application, you’ll want to find an ATS that can offer fully-branded career pages that match your website. This means having the same colors, fonts, brand messaging and imaging will be crucial to your employment brand. And this is only the beginning. Your ideal ATS should allow you to integrate with major job boards and social media platforms (branding 101: Hang out with the cool kids), allow for one click application submission through mobile devices and keep the application process all in one browser No one wants their employment brand to be “clunky” and “unfriendly”.

2. Will the ATS help speed up the process or will it slow us down? Recruiters and hiring managers either love or hate their ATS. There’s not much middle ground. That’s because they often have to invent ingenious workarounds to use the system, which drives them crazy because it’s time wasted.

See also: LinkedIn voice messaging aims to connect HR with job seekers

When searching for the right ATS system, make sure that it can provide customizable email templates for hiring teams during the recruiting process. It’s important to remember that the system should allow you to send those emails in bulk to potential candidates. You need to be able to set reminders and schedule alerts for users to follow up with candidates or completed tasks. This ensures that you’re saving time and no candidate gets lost in the ether.

Know that dashboards are a great way to get a bird’s eye view on the recruiting process but they’re not the end all. Plenty of HCM providers will have flashy demos and dashboards that seem to work flawlessly, but after implementation you’ll be left with a clunky and glitchy product.

To avoid that outcome, ask these questions during your search: Can we see the step-by-step process for reviewing applications, approving candidates, and moving them through interviews? Look beyond the demo screens. You want to see how the system really works, step by step. Can we import and export candidate information? How are potential candidates scored?

3. Does the ATS offer compliance and reporting capabilities? This one’s a biggie. Recruiting and hiring compliance is complex, and so reporting and analytics is a must-have. You need to be able to drive recruiting and hiring decisions in real-time with powerful analytics rather than sloppy excel sheets and poorly filed assessment papers. An ATS will allow you to quickly view the metrics that matter to you, see where your best candidates are coming from, find bottlenecks and catch missed opportunities. With clear and easy to use reporting features that captures all pre-hire compliance data in one place, you’ll never have to worry about fines or tarnishing your reputation.

See also: 7 Ways Employers Can Support Older Workers And Job Seekers

Of course, there’s plenty more you could ask. Implementation, data security, mobile capabilities and ongoing service and support are all tires worth kicking. But this initial list of questions is a great place to start. Finding and hiring top talent requires lightning-fast action and decisions. When you’re shopping for an ATS, however, it pays to slow down long enough to get the facts.

SOURCE: Neese, Bill (12 September 2018) "How to evaluate an applicant tracking system" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-to-evaluate-an-applicant-tracking-system


The days of employers ignoring the opioid crisis are over

What do employers need to know to help their employees and help reduce the risk of the opioid crisis? The opioid crisis is affecting companies' productivity, medical claims, work injuries and their bottom line. Read this blog post to learn more.


Productivity, medical claims, work injuries, and the company’s bottom line — what do these things all have in common? They are all being drastically affected by the effects of substance abuse. The opioid crisis that is running rampant across the United States is having an impact on employees at every level.

As an employer, what do you need to know to support your employees and reduce the risk of this national crisis?

First, you need to educate yourself on the facts. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day, more than 115 people in the U.S. die after overdosing on opioids. It is not just the deadly heroin/fentanyl combination that we have been hearing about in the news, sources of opioid addiction include prescription pain relievers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, oxymorphone, morphine, codeine, and other prescribed substances.

See also: Taking A Page From Pharma’s Playbook To Fight The Opioid Crisis

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates prescription opioid misuse in the U.S. cost $78.5 billion per year; affecting medical spend, productivity, and law enforcement supervision.

Substance abuse does not discriminate on any demographic, however if your business is construction, entertainment, recreation, or food service, the National Safety Council found your employees are twice as likelyas the national average to have substance abuse disorders.

Secondly, you need to take action. The most important thing an employer can do is to have a proactive plan in place to help your employees live a healthy lifestyle. It is easy to get in the habit of saying “that does not happen here,” but the reality is substance abuse can — and does — happen anywhere.

Solving the opioid crisis won’t happen overnight, but here are some steps to take to build a better relationship with your employees and quite possibly help someone overcome a substance abuse problem.

Train your staff. Explain what resources are available to help them help your employees. If you have an employee assistance program in place, leverage it, and have the information easily available so any employee can access the information at any time. This will help lower the fear barrier for employees who are not ready to ask someone they know for help. If you do not have the right resources in place today there are many programs available, and it is important that you adopt one that will fit your culture and help employees be high performers.

See also: Employers take steps to address opioid crisis

Show employees you care. Look for signs and symptoms that an employee might have a problem with substance abuse. Make sure supervisors, managers, and team leaders are aware of these signs and what actions they should take. Have an open door policy, and make sure your employees feel they can ask for assistance when they need it. It is important to know how to handle sensitive, often painful, discussions in a professional and action-oriented manner. It is essential that you have the right steps in place to ensure leadership is aligned with the organization’s strategy on how best to help your at-risk population.

Be transparent. Have clear policies in place that promote a drug-free workplace. Consider expanding your drug testing panel to include opioids.

Share the savings. Consider sharing the dollars a successful well-being program will save your organization’s bottom line through lower prescription drug costs and less lost productivity due to illness and time away from work.

See also: A look at how the opioid crisis has affected people with employer coverage

If your organization is struggling with how to successfully address the challenges of substance abuse and opioid addiction, seek out employee benefit consultants to help you develop a strategy for success. Like anyone with an addiction, there is no shame in asking for help.

SOURCE: Panning, C (7 September 2018) "The days of employers ignoring the opioid crisis are over" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/employers-cannot-ignoring-the-opioid-crisis?feed=00000152-a2fb-d118-ab57-b3ff6e310000


Checklist: Updating your employee handbook

Employee handbooks can be confusing to prepare and revise. Ensure you don't miss any information when preparing or revising your company's employee handbook with this simple checklist:


When you are preparing or revising an employee handbook, this checklist may be helpful.

Acknowledgment

  • Do employees sign a signature page, confirming they received the handbook?
  • On the signature page, do employees agree to follow the policies in the handbook?
  • Does the signature page state that this handbook replaces any previous versions?
  • On the signature page, do employees agree that they will be “at-will” employees?
  • Do employees agree that the employer may change its policies in the future?

Wage and hour issues

  • Does the employer confirm that it will pay employees for all hours worked?
  • Before employees work overtime, are they required to obtain a supervisor’s approval?
  • During unpaid breaks, are employees completely relieved of all duties? (For example, while a receptionist takes an unpaid lunch break, this person shouldn’t be required to greet visitors or answer phone calls.)
  • Are employees paid when they attend a business meeting during lunch?
  • Are employees paid for attending in-service trainings?
  • Are employees paid while they take short breaks?

Paid Time Off

  • Has the employer considered combining vacation time, sick time, and personal time into one “bucket” of paid time off?
  • Does the paid time off policy line up with the employer’s business objectives? (For example, does it provide incentives for employees to use paid time off during seasons when business is slower?)
  • Does the handbook say what will happen to paid time off when employment ends? (In Pennsylvania, employers are not required to pay terminated employees for the value of their paid time off. Some employers choose to do this, as an incentive for employees to give at least two weeks’ notice.)
  • If the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) applies to the employer, does the handbook inform employees of their rights?
  • Does the handbook list all types of leave that are available? (For example, does the employer offer bereavement leave? How about leave while an employee serves as a juror or witness? What about municipal laws that provide certain types of leave, such as paid sick leave?)

Reasonable accommodations

  • How should employees request a reasonable accommodation?
  • Does the employer permit employees with disabilities to bring service animals to work (Employers should avoid blanket policies that ban all animals.)
  • May employees deviate from grooming and uniform requirements for a religious reason, or a medical reason? (For example, an employee may have a religious reason to wear a headscarf, even if the employer has a blanket policy that would otherwise prohibit this.)

Discrimination and retaliation

  • Does the employer inform employees that they are protected against discrimination and retaliation?
  • Is there an accurate list of protected categories? (Confirm all locations where the employer does business. Some states or municipalities may provide employees with greater protection than federal law. Are there any categories, such as sexual orientation, that the employer should add?)
  • Do employees have a clear way to report discrimination and retaliation?
  • Is there more than one way to report discrimination and retaliation? (In other words, employees shouldn’t be required to make a report to the same person who they believe is committing acts of discrimination.)

Restrictive covenants/trade secrets

  • Are employees required to keep the employer’s information confidential?
  • Do employees confirm they are not subject to any restrictive covenants (such as non-compete agreements) that would limit their ability to work for the employer?
  • Are employees prohibited from giving the employer confidential information that belongs to a previous employer?

Labor law issues

  • If employees belong to a union, does the employer state that it doesn’t intend for the handbook to conflict with any collective bargaining agreement?
  • Does the employer have a content-neutral policy on soliciting and distributing materials in the workplace? (In general, if an employer wants to limit union-related communications, the employer must apply the same rules to solicitations which don’t involve a union.)
  • Does the handbook accurately reflect whether employees may wear union-related apparel, such as hats, buttons, T-shirts and lanyards?
  • Are employees permitted to discuss their wages with each other? (Some employers try to prohibit this, but the National Labor Relations Act entitles employees to discuss their wages with each other. This rule applies to all employers—whether or not they have a union.)

Other

  • If the employer has a progressive discipline policy, does the employer reserve the right to deviate from this policy?
  • Does the employer reserve the right to inspect company computers and email accounts?
  • Does the employer have a social media policy, or a medical marijuana policy?
  • If the employer has other policies, how do they fit together with the handbook? (Does it make sense to incorporate the policies into the handbook? Or, should the handbook clarify which other policies will remain in effect?)
  • Does the handbook contain any provisions that the employer is unlikely to enforce? (For example, does the handbook prohibit employees from using all social media? Does it prohibit employees from talking on the phone while driving?)

SOURCE: Lipkin, B (20 August 2018) "Checklist: Updating your employee handbook" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/08/20/is-your-employee-handbook-up-to-date-compare-it-wi/


3 questions to ask about paid leave programs

Paid time off policies are offered by employers for numerous reasons, employee wellness being one of them. Continue reading to learn about the 3 key questions to ask about these programs and their costs.


Employers provide paid time away from work policies for a variety of reasons: to attract and retain talent (responding to employee needs and changing demographics); to be compliant with local, state and federal laws (which are proliferating); and to support general employee well-being (recognizing that time away from work improves productivity and engagement).

While offering paid absence policies delivers value to both employees and the employers, employers recognize the need to balance the amount of available time with the organization’s ability to deliver its products and services.

To help employers balance paid time away drivers, here are three key questions to ask to get a handle on the costs and benefits of paid leave.

1. Do you have a complete picture of the costs associated with your employees’ time away from work?

A challenge for many employers is getting a handle on the cost of time away from work and the related benefits. If an employer cannot quantify the costs of absence, it may not be able to define management strategies or to engage leadership to adopt new initiatives, policies or practices related to paid and unpaid time away programs.

Ninety percent of employers participating in the 2017 Aon Absence Pulse Survey reported they hadn’t yet quantified the cost of absence, and 43 percent of participants identified defining the cost of absence as a top challenge and priority. Though intuitively managers and executives recognize there is an impact when employees are absent from work, particularly when an absence is unscheduled, they struggle to develop concrete and focused strategies to address absence utilization without the ability to measure the current cost and collectively the impact of new management initiatives.

Employers struggle to quantify the cost of absence in the context of productivity loss, including replacement worker costs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2017, employers’ cost of productivity loss associated with absenteeism was $225.8 billion, and 9.6 percent of compensation was spent on lost time benefits and overtime.

Employers are expanding their view of absence, recognizing that use of paid and unpaid time away programs are often associated with an employee’s health. As a result, combining data across health and absence programs allows an employer to recognize drivers of absence “work-related value” and define strategies to address not just how to manage the absence benefit, but to target engagement to improve well-being and the organization’s bottom-line.

As an example, musculoskeletal conditions are frequently associated with absence, which is not surprising when 11 percent of the workforce has back pain. It is noteworthy that of those with back pain, 34 percent are obese, 26 percent are hypertensive and 14 percent have mood disorders. The Integrated Benefits Institute reported in 2017 that back pain adds 2.5 days and $688 in wages to absence associated with this condition. It is this type of information pairing that provides employers with the insight to develop strategies to address comprehensive absence.

When absence and health costs are quantified, organizations quickly recognize the impact on the business’s bottom line. As the old saying goes, “we can only manage what we can measure.”

2. What is your talent strategy to improve work-life benefits, inclusive of time off to care for family?

The race for talent is on, and every industry recognizes the huge impact the changing workforce demographics currently has, and will continue to have. The current workforce incorporates five generations, though an Ernst and Young report from 2017 estimates that by 2025 millennials will make up 75 percent of the workforce. As a result, the work-life needs of millennials—and their perspectives around benefits—is driving change, including time away from work policies.

It is worth noting that, per a 2015 Ernst and Young survey, millennial households are two times more likely to have both spouses working. The Pew Research Center reported in 2013 that, among all workers, 47 percent of adults who have a parent 65 years or older are raising a minor child or supporting a grown child. Additionally, a 2016 report from the Center for Work Life Law at the University of California Hastings claimed that 50 percent of all employees expect to provide elder care in the next five years.

In response, employers are expanding paid time off programs for care of family members. The paid family leave continuum often begins with a paid parental policy providing time to bond with a new birth or adoption placement. An elder care policy may follow, and the culmination might be a family care policy covering events like those under the job-protected Family Medical Leave Act. An Aon SpecSelect Survey reported that 94 percent of employers offer some form of paid parental leave in 2017; this is a significant change from 2016 when 62 percent offered this benefit. Two weeks of 100 percent paid parental leave was the norm per Aon’s SpecSelect 2016 Survey, but we are finding that many employers are expanding these programs, offering between 4 to 12 weeks.

Offering paid leave programs on their own may meet immediate needs for both time and financial support, but may be incomplete to help the employee address the full spectrum of issues that could affect success at work. In combination with family care needs—even those associated with a happy event such as a birth—there may be other health, social or financial issues. Employers combining their paid leave programs with a broader well-being strategy deliver greater value, improve engagement and increase productivity.

3. If you’re a multi-state employer, how are you ensuring your sick and family leave policies are compliant across all relevant jurisdictions?

Paid leave is a hot legislative topic lately. Last December saw the enactment of a paid FMLA tax credit pilot program as part of the federal Tax Reform The paid sick leave law club now totals 42 states and myriad municipalities. Both Washington state and Washington, D.C. are ramping up to implement paid family leave laws in 2020, joining the four states and one city that already have some form of paid family or parental leave law.

How are multi-state employers keeping up with this high-stakes evolving environment? The 2017 Pulse Survey saw 70 percent of employers report they are aware they have an employee who is subject to a paid sick leave law. Ten percent of respondents said they did not know if they had anyone subject to such a law. If knowledge is the first step in the process of compliance, deciding on a compliance strategy and then successfully implementing it are surely steps two and three.

With respect to paid sick leave, there are three major compliance options: comply on a jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction level, with as many as 42 different designs and no design more generous than it has to be; comply on a national level with one, most generous design, or meet somewhere in the middle, perhaps with one design for each state where a state- or local-level law is in place, or by grouping jurisdictions with similar designs together to strike a balance between being overly generous and being bogged down by dozens of administrative schemes.

Data analytics can be a key driver in designing a successful compliance strategy—compare your employee census to locations with paid sick leave laws. The ability to track and report on available leave is a requirement in all jurisdictions, and at this point, few if any third-party vendors are administering multi-state paid sick leave.

For paid family leave, the primary policy design issue is how an employer’s FMLA, maternity leave and short-term disability benefits will interact with the various paid family leave laws. So, while there may be fewer employer choices to be made with statutory paid family leave, clear employee communications will be critical to success.

Employers may tackle time away from work program issues individually to meet an immediate need, or collectively as a comprehensive strategy. Such a strategy would include data analytics across health and lost-time programs, absence policies that meet today’s needs for the employer and employee, health and wellness programs targeting modifiable health behaviors, and absence program administration that is aligned to operational goals. The expected outcome for time away from work programs isn’t about the programs themselves: it is about an engaged, productive workforce who delivers superior products/services. How do your programs stack up?

SOURCE:
VanderWerf, S and Arnedt, R (13 July 2018) "3 questions to ask about paid leave programs" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/07/05/3-questions-to-ask-about-paid-leave-programs/


HSA How-To

Health Savings Accounts can be tricky, employees have the control, employers and insurance companies are there to guide them in the right direction. Here is a how to helping guide to assist your customers to the right HSA plan.


If an employer wants to offer employees pretax payroll deferrals to their health savings accounts, the employer needs to first create a Section 125 plan or cafeteria plan that allows HSA deferrals.

A cafeteria plan is the only way for employers to offer employees a choice between taxable and nontaxable benefits, “without the choice causing the benefits to become taxable,” the IRS says. “A plan offering only a choice between taxable benefits is not a Section 125 plan.”

Here are five things to know about HSAs and Section 125 plans.

1. A Section 125 plan is just one of several ways for employers to help employees with funding their HSAs.

Employers offering HDHPs face the choice of whether and how to help their employees with the funding of the employees’ HSAs. The options include the following:

  • Option 1 – Employee after-tax contributions.Employers are not required to help with the employees’ HSAs and may choose not to. In this case, employees may open HSAs on their own and receive the tax deduction on their personal income tax return. This option allows for income tax savings, but not payroll taxes. A variation on this option is for employers to allow for post-tax payroll deferral (basically, direct deposit of payroll funds into an HSA without treating the deposit any differently than other payroll which may also be directly deposited into an employee’s personal checking account).

    This does not change the tax or legal situation, but it does provide convenience for employees and will likely increase HSA participation and satisfaction.

  • Option 2 – Employee pretax payroll deferral.Employers can help employees fund their HSAs by allowing for HSA contributions via payroll deferral. This is inexpensive and can be accomplished by adding a Section 125 cafeteria plan with HSA deferrals as an option. Employers benefit by not having to pay payroll taxes on the employees’ HSA contributions. Employees save payroll taxes as well. Plus, HSA contributions are not counted as income for federal, and in most cases, state income taxes. Setting up automatic payments generally simplifies and improves employee savings.
  • Option 3 – Employer-funded contributions.Employers may make contributions to their employees’ HSAs without a Section 125 plan if the contributions are made directly. The contributions must be “comparable,” basically made fairly (with a lot of rules to follow). This type of contribution is tax deductible by the employer and not taxable to the employee (not subject to payroll taxes or federal income taxes and in most cases, not subject to state income taxes either).
  • Option 4 – Employer and employee pretax funding.Employers can combine options 2 and 3, where the employer makes a contribution to the employees’ HSAs and the employer allows employees to participate in a Section 125 plan and enabling them to defer a portion of their pay pretax into an HSA. This is a preferred approach for a successful HDHP and HSA program, as it ensures that employees get some money into their HSA through the employer contribution and allows for the best tax treatment to allow for employees to contribute more on their own through payroll deferral.
  • Options for more tax savings.Some employers go beyond these options to increase tax savings even more. Although a number of strategies exist to increase tax savings, using a limited-purpose FSA (or HRA) is a common one. Generally, FSAs are not allowed with HSAs; however, an exception exists for limited-purpose FSAs. Limited-purpose FSAs are FSAs limited to payments for preventive care, vision and dental care. This provides more tax savings and employees use the FSA to pay for the limited-purpose expenses (dental and vision) and save the HSA for other qualified medical expenses.

HRAs can also be used creatively in connection with HSA programs. The HRA cannot be a general account for reimbursement of qualified medical expenses, but careful planning can allow for a limited-purpose HRA, a postdeductible HRA, or other special types of HRAs.

2. There are several benefits for an employer using a Section 125 plan combined with an HSA.

  • Employees can make HSA contributions through payroll deferral on a pretax basis.
  • Employees may pay for their share of insurance premiums on a pretax basis.
  • Employers and employees save payroll taxes (7.65 percent each on FICA and FUTA for contributions).
  • Employers avoid the “comparability” rules for HSA contributions although employers are subject to the Section 125 plan rules.

3. The employer is responsible for administering the Section 125 plan.

For payroll deferral into an HSA through a Section 125 plan, the employer must reduce the employees’ pay by the amount of the deferral and contribute that money directly into the employees’ HSA.

The employer may do this administration itself or it may use a payroll service or another type of third-party administrator. In any case, the cost of the Section 125 plan itself and the ongoing administration are generally small and offset, if not entirely eliminated, by employer savings through reduced payroll taxes.

Another administrative element is the collection of Section 125/HSA payroll deferral election forms from employees. Employers that have offered Section 125 plans prior to introducing an HSA program are familiar with this process.

Unlike other Section 125 plan deferral elections, which only allow annual changes, the law allows for changes to the HSA deferral election as frequently as monthly.

Although frequent changes to the elections create a small administrative burden on the employer, the benefit to employees is significant. Employers are not required to offer changes more frequently than annually.

The full extent of the administrative rules for Section 125 plans is beyond the scope of this discussion.

4. Contributions to HSAs under Section 125 plans are subject to nondiscrimination rules.

A cafeteria plan must meet nondiscrimination rules. The rules are designed to ensure that the plan is not discriminatory in favor of highly compensated or key employees.

For example, contributions under a cafeteria plan to employee HSAs cannot be greater for higher-paid employees than they are for lower-paid employees. Contributions that favor lower-paid employees are not prohibited.

The cafeteria plan must not: (1) discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees as to the ability to participate (eligibility test), (2) discriminate in favor of HCEs as to contributions or benefits paid (contributions and benefits test), and (3) discriminate in favor of HCEs as measured through a concentration test that looks at the contributions made by key employees (key employee concentration test). Violations generally do not result in plan disqualification, but instead may cause the value of the benefit to become taxable for the highly compensated employees or key employees.

The nondiscrimination rules predate the creation of HSAs and how the rules apply to HSA contributions is an area where additional government guidance would be welcome.

5. An employer needs a Section 125 plan to allow for HSA contributions through payroll deferral.

Can an employer allow for HSA contributions through payroll deferral without a Section 125 plan? No, not if the goal is to save payroll taxes. Employers can offer HSA payroll deferral on an after-tax basis without concern over the comparability rules or the Section 125 plan rules. Amounts contributed under this method are treated as income to the employee and are deductible on the employee’s personal income tax return. The lack of any special tax treatment for this approach makes it unattractive for most employers and with just a small additional investment of money and time, a Section 125 plan could be added allowing for pretax deferrals.

Here is an example: Waving Flags, Inc. does not offer health insurance or a Section 125 plan to its employees. Waving Flags does provide direct deposit services to its employees that provide it with their personal checking account number and bank routing number. Maggie, an employee of Waving Flags, Inc., approaches the human resources person and asks to have her direct deposit split into two payment streams with $100 per month being directly deposited to her HSA and the balance of her pay being deposited into her personal checking account. She provides Waving Flags the appropriate account and routing numbers and signs the proper election forms.

Waving Flags is not subject to the Section 125 nondiscrimination rules for pretax payroll deferral, nor is Waving Flags subject to the HSA comparability rules. Waving Flags is simply paying Maggie by making a direct deposit into her HSA. The $1,200 Maggie elects to have directly deposited to her HSA in this manner will be reflected in Box 1 of her IRS Form W-2 from Waving Flags as ordinary income. She will be subject to payroll taxes on the amount. She can claim an HSA deduction on line 25 of her IRS Form 1040 when she files her tax return.

Maggie benefits from this approach by setting up an automatic contribution to her HSA, which often improves the commitment to savings. Most HSA custodians will offer a similar system that HSA owners can set up on their own by having their HSA custodian automatically draw a certain amount from a personal checking account at periodic intervals. Employer involvement is not necessary. Individuals with online banking tools available to them may be able to set it from their personal checking account as well to push money periodically to an HSA.

SOURCE:
Westerman, P (2 July 2018) "HSA How-To" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.benefitspro.com/2018/01/01/hsa-how-to/


How faking your feelings at work can be damaging

Putting up a fake smile on Monday morning is sometimes unavoidable. There could be consequences to carrying a heavy emotional labor load to get over the Monday Blues.


Imagine yourself 35,000 feet up, pushing a trolley down a narrow aisle surrounded by restless passengers. A toddler is blocking your path, his parents not immediately visible. A passenger is irritated that he can no longer pay cash for an in-flight meal, another is demanding to be allowed past to use the toilet. And your job is to meet all of their needs with the same show of friendly willingness.

For a cabin crew member, this is when emotional labour kicks in at work.

A term first coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, it’s the work we do to regulate our emotions to create “a publicly visible facial and bodily display within the workplace”.

Simply put, it is the effort that goes into expressing something we don’t genuinely feel. It can go both ways – expressing positivity we don’t feel or suppressing our negative emotions.

Unhelpful attitudes such as ‘I’m not good enough’ may lead to thinking patterns in the workplace such as ‘No-one else is working as hard as I seem to be’ or ‘I must do a perfect job’, and can initiate and maintain high levels of workplace anxiety -  Leonard

Hochschild’s initial research focused on the airline industry, but it’s not just in-flight staff keeping up appearances. In fact, experts say emotional labour is a feature of nearly all occupations in which we interact with people, whether we work in a customer-facing role or not. The chances are, wherever you work, you spend a fair portion of your working day doing it.

When research into emotional labour first began, it focused on the service industry with the underlying presumption that the more client or customer interaction you had, the more emotional labour was needed.

However, more recently psychologists have expanded their focus to other professions and found burnout can relate more closely to how employees manage their emotions during interactions, rather than the volume of interactions themselves.

Perhaps this morning you turned to a colleague to convey interest in what they said, or had to work hard not to rise to criticism. It may have been that biting your lip rather than expressing feeling hurt was particularly demanding of your inner resource.

But in some cases maintaining the façade can become too much, and the toll is cumulative. Mira W, who preferred not to give her last name, recently left a job with a top airline based in the Middle East because she felt her mental wellbeing was at stake.

In her last position, the “customer was king”, she says. “I once got called 'whore' because a passenger didn't respond when I asked if he wanted coffee. I’d asked him twice and then moved to the next person. I got a tirade of abuse from the man.”

“When I explained what happened to my senior, I was told I must have said or done something to warrant this response… I was then told I should go and apologise.”

“Sometimes I would have to actively choose my facial expression, for example during severe turbulence or an aborted landing,” she says. “Projecting a calm demeanour is essential to keep others calm. So that aspect didn't worry me. It was more the feeling that I had no voice when treated unfairly or extremely rudely.”

During her time with the airline, she encountered abuse and sexism – and was expected to smile through it. “I was constantly having to hide how I felt.

Over the years and particularly in her last role, handling the stress caused by suppressing her emotions became much harder. Small things seemed huge, she dreaded going to work and her anxiety escalated.

“I felt angry all the time and as if I might lose control and hit someone or just explode and throw something at the next passenger to call me a swear word or touch me. So, I quit,” she says.

She is now seeing a therapist to deal with the emotional fallout. She attributes some of the problems to isolation from family and a brutal travel schedule, but has no doubt that if she hadn’t had to suppress her emotions so much, she might still be in the industry.

Mira is not alone. Across the globe, employees in many professions are expected to embrace a work culture that requires the outward display of particular emotions – these can including ambition, aggression and a hunger for success.

The way we handle emotional labour can be categorised in two ways – surface acting and deep acting

A few years ago, the New York Times wrote a “lengthy piece about the “Amazon Way”,describing very specific and exacting behaviour the retail company required of its employees and the effects, both positive and negative, that this had on some of them. While some appeared to thrive in the environment, others struggled with constant pressure to show the correct corporate face.

“How we cope with high levels of emotional labour likely has its origins in childhood experience, which shapes the attitudes we develop about ourselves, others and the world,” says clinical and occupational psychologist Lucy Leonard.

“Unhelpful attitudes such as ‘I’m not good enough’ may lead to thinking patterns in the workplace such as ‘No-one else is working as hard as I seem to be’ or ‘I must do a perfect job”, and can initiate and maintain high levels of workplace anxiety,” says Leonard.

Workers are often expected to provide good service to people expressing anger or anxiety – and may have to do this while feeling frustrated, worried or offended themselves.

“This continuous regulation of their own emotional expression can result in a reduced sense of self-worth and feeling disconnected from others,” she says.

Hochschild suggests that the way we handle emotional labour can be categorised in two ways – surface acting and deep acting – and that the option we choose can affect the toll it takes on us.

Take the example of a particularly tough phone call. If you are surface acting you respond to the caller by altering your outward expression, saying the appropriate things, listening while keeping your actual feelings entirely intact. With deep acting you make a deliberate effort to change your real feelings to tap in to what the person is saying – you may not agree with the manner of it but appreciate the aim.

Both could be thought of as just being polite but the latter approach – trying to emotionally connect with another person’s point of view – is associated with a lower risk of burnout.

Jennifer George’s role as a liaison nurse with a psychiatric specialism in the Accident & Emergency department at Kings College London Hospital puts her at the sharp end of health care. Every day she must determine patients’ needs – do they genuinely need to be admitted, just want to be looked after for a while or are they seeking access to drugs?

“It’s important to me that I test my own initial assumptions,” she says. “As far as I can, I tap into the story and really listen. It’s my job but it also reduces the stress I take on.”

“Sometimes I’ll have an instinctive sense that the person is trying to deceive, or I can become bored with what they’re saying. But I can’t sit there and dismiss something as fabrication and I don’t want to.”

This process can be upsetting, she says. Sometimes she has to say no “in a very direct way”, and the environment can be noisy and threatening. “I stay as much as I can true to myself and my beliefs. Even though I need to be open to what both fellow professionals and would-be and genuine patient cases say to me, I will not say anything I don’t believe and that I don’t believe to be right. And that helps me,” she says.

When things get tough, she talks to colleagues to unload. “It’s the saying it out loud that allows me to test and validate my own reaction. I can then go back to the person concerned,” she says.

Ruth Hargrove, a former trial lawyer based in California, also faces tricky interactions in her work representing San Diego students pro bono in disciplinary matters. “Pretty much everyone you are dealing with in the system can make you labour emotionally,” she says.

One problem, says Hargrove, is that some lawyers will launch personal attacks based on any perceived weakness – gender, youth – rather than focusing on the actual issues of the case.

“I have dealt with it catastrophically in the past and let it eat at my self-esteem,” she says. “But when I do it right, I realise that I can separate myself out from it and see that [their attack] is evidence of their weakness.”

Rather than refuting specific, personal allegations, she simply sends back a one-line email saying she disagrees. “Not rising to things is huge,” she says. “It’s a disinclination to engage in the emotional battle that someone else wants you to engage in. I keep in sight the real work that needs to be done.”

Those who report regularly having to display emotions at work that conflict with their own feelings are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion

Hargrove also has to deal with the expectations of clients who believe – sometimes unrealistically – that if they have been wronged, justice will prevail. She understands their feelings, even as she has to set them straight.

“I empathise here, as a parent, with their thought that there should be a remedy, even when I know it’s not going to be achievable. It helps me that this feeling is also true to me.”

Remaining true to your feelings appears to be key – numerous studies show those who report regularly having to display emotions at work that conflict with their own feelings are more likely to experience emotional exhaustion.

Of course, everybody needs to be professional at work and handling difficult clients and colleagues is often just part of the job. But what’s clear is that putting yourself in their shoes and trying to understand their position is ultimately of greater benefit to your own well-being than voicing sentiments that, deep down, you don’t believe.

Leonard says there are steps individuals and organisations can take to prevent burnout. Limiting overtime, taking regular breaks and tackling conflict with colleagues through the right channels early on can help, she says, as can staying healthy and having a fulfilling life outside work. A “climate of authenticity” at work can be beneficial.

“Organizations which allow people to take a break from high levels of emotional regulation and acknowledge their true feelings with understanding and non-judgemental colleagues behind the scenes tend to fare better in the face of these demands,” she says.

Such a climate can also foster better empathy, she adds, by allowing workers to maintain emotional separation from those with whom they must interact.

Where it is possible, workers should be truly empathetic, be aware of the impact the interaction is having on them and try to communicate in an authentic way. This, she says, can “protect you from communicating in a disingenuous manner and then feeling exhausted by your efforts and resentful of having to fake it”.

SOURCE:
Levy, K (25 June 2018) "How faking your feelings at work can be damaging" [Web Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20180619-why-suppressing-anger-at-work-is-bad