ARPA: What Employers Need to Know

On March 10, 2021 Congress passed the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021, which was signedImage inspiring hope for 2021 and the coronavirus relief offered with American Rescue Plan Act ARPA into law on March 11th. The ARPA attempts to address and help mitigate some of the far-reaching financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to those provisions, the ARPA contains provisions that are of special interest to employers and employees

 

The ARPA Nitty Gritty

  • COBRA Subsidy - A 100% premium subsidy is provided, funded through employer tax credits. 
  • FFCRA Leave - Employer tax credits have been extended through September 30, 2021.
  • FFCRA Leave - Inclusion of testing and immunization as qualifying reasons for FFCRA leave.
  • FFCRA Tax Credits - Definition of employee earnings eligible have been expanded.
  • Unemployment - The $300 weekly increase has been extended and expanded.
  • ACA - Exchange insurance subsidies are increased. 
  • DCAP - Contribution limits have been increased.
  • Employee Retention Tax Credit - Extended and expanded eligibility for some businesses. 

 

Let's Break It Down

 

COBRA Subsidy

What is it?

COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986) allows employees who would lose employer-sponsored health insurance because of job loss (or reduction in working hours) to continue that insurance for 18 months. However, the employer can require the employee that elects COBRA coverage to pay the entire cost of the premium oftentimes creating a necessary, but an unexpected financial burden for the employee. 

 

ARPA Provisions

  • 100% subsidy of COBRA premiums from April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021, for employees and their family members who lost health insurance due to involuntary termination or reduction in hours of their employment
  • Allows employees who declined COBRA coverage, or elected it and dropped it, to elect subsidized COBRA
  • Does not apply to employees who voluntarily terminated their employment or who qualify for another group health plan

 

Who Pays For It?

The subsidy is funded through the federal government through a refundable payroll tax credit. 

 

Action Steps

  • New employee notice requirements for plan administrators will be issued by the US Department of Labor
  • Employees may elect subsidized COBRA starting April 1, 2021, through 60 days after receiving notice of the benefit

 

FFCRA Leave

What is it?

FFCRA (Families First Coronavirus Response Act) was passed in March 2020 and provided a tax credit for employers to fund two types of paid employee leave required by the law. These leave requirements expired in December 2020, but for employers that chose to continue providing FFCRA leave voluntarily, the tax credit was extended through March 2021.

 

ARPA Provisions

  • Extends tax credit through September 30, 2021
  • Adds a provision to include employee time off related to COVID-19 testing and immunization
  • Increases the amount of wages eligible for the family leave credit from $10,000 to $12,000 per employee
  • Provides an additional 10 days of voluntary emergency paid sick leave for employees beginning April 1, 2021

 

Unemployment

What is it?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment provisions were expanded under the previous administration to include three new federal unemployment programs. These programs were scheduled to end no later than April 2021. 

  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA): Provided weekly benefits to independent contractors, self-employed individuals, and other workers that typically would not be eligible for unemployment benefits
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC): Provides weekly benefits to individuals who have exhausted their eligibility for all other unemployment benefits
  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation: Provides an additional $300 weekly payment to individuals already receiving PUA, PEUC, or regular unemployment benefits

 

ARPA Provisions

  • Previously established provisions that were set to expire have been extended through September 6, 2021
  • Changes how unemployment benefits are taxed, exempting the first $10,200 from federal income tax for each spouse in households with under $150,000 in adjusted gross income.

 

ACA

What is it?

The ACA (Affordable Care Act) established health insurance exchanges for the purchase of individual health insurance coverage, as well as premium tax credits. These tax credits are not available to individuals with income at or above 400% of the federal poverty level. 

 

ARPA Provisions

  • Temporarily eliminates the income cap on subsidies for a period of two years
  • Limits the total amount a household is required to pay for health coverage through the Exchanges to 8.5% of household income
  • Increases federal subsidy amounts available for lower-income individuals, in some cases eliminating premium costs entirely
  • Increases federal funding intended to encourage states to expand Medicaid programs (if they previously had not done so)
  • All provisions are temporary and will expire in two years

 

DCAP

What is it?

A DCAP (Dependent Care Assistance Plan), also sometimes referred to as a dependent care flexible spending account (FSA), is an employee benefit plan that helps employees pay for the care of a qualifying dependent, such as a child or elder, as defined by Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations.

 

ARPA Provisions

  • Increases annual contribution limit from $5,000 to $10,500 ($2,500 to $5,250 for married filing separately) for tax years beginning after December 31, 2020 and before January 1, 2022
  • Employers meeting requirements can retroactively amend plans to incorporate the increase

 

Action Steps

  • Employers with DCAPs can retroactively amend plans, if
    • The amendment is adopted by the last day of the plan year in which it is effective; and
    • The plan operates consistently with the terms of the amendment until it is adopted.
  • It is recommended that you speak with your benefits advisor to ensure plans meet the requirements and stay in compliance

 

Employee Retention Tax Credit

What is it?

The Employee Retention Tax Credit was originally enacted with the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act. The credit was tended to encourage employers to retain employees on their payroll who were unable to work due to COVID-19 related reasons. This credit was set to expire in June of 2021.

 

ARPA Provisions

  • Extends the credit through the end of 2021
  • Expands eligibility to some small startups that began operating after February 15, 2020. Qualifying businesses will be eligible for a maximum credit of up to $50,000 per quarter even if they do not experience an eligible decline in gross receipts or a full or partial suspension
  • Creates a new provision for 'severely financially distressed' employers which beginning in the third quarter of 2021 allows employers of any size to count all wages toward the $10,000 cap.

Pandemic drives business support for paid leave, study finds

new study has found strong support from U.S businesses for a national paid leave policy after months of navigating the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing recession.

Researchers found that 75% of U.S. companies and U.K.-based companies with U.S. operations said they support a government leave plan to help cope with future public health and economic crises. So far during the COVID-19 outbreak, 1 in 5 U.S. workers have taken a leave of some kind.

More than 40 companies of various sizes were surveyed in the study conducted by the nonprofit groups Promundo and Paid Leave for the U.S., which promote gender equity and paid leave policies, respectively.

The U.S. is alone among 41 industrialized countries in not guaranteeing paid sick or parental leave, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. President Joe Biden has introduced a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill featuring temporary paid leave amid signs that support is on the rise on Capitol Hill and in corporate America for paid leave legislation.

“We’re beginning to see is a real demand for a permanent public policy solution,” said Annie Sartor, senior director of business partnerships at Paid Leave for the U.S.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed at the onset of the pandemic included two weeks of paid sick leave and as much as 10 weeks of paid family or medical leave for employers with fewer than 500 employees. It expired in December.

Biden’s current proposal includes provisions for as much as 14 weeks of paid sick, family and medical leave and a significant expansion of eligibility. The plan could reach as many as 106 million more Americans than the last emergency bill, expanding coverage to workers at companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Biden’s rescue plan is “a first step” toward permanent legislation, said Michelle McGrain, director of congressional relations at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

“The lack of paid leave in this country was a huge crisis,” she said. “That crisis has continued throughout the pandemic and will continue to exist if big, structural changes are not engaged.”

Almost 45% of companies said more than half of the employees who took leave were women, who often bear the brunt of household and care-giving responsibilities.

Gary Barker, chief executive officer and founder of Promundo, said companies with leave programs cut their job losses, especially for women. In December, women accounted for all of the net jobs lost in the U.S., with 156,000, while men gained 16,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“It points to the importance of making leave normal for women and men, and for us to achieve the equality in salaries that women deserve,” Barker said.

Barker said companies in nations with mandatory leave have built a workplace culture that doesn’t penalize taking time-off.

“Workers worry about taking it,” particularly in the U.S., Barker said. “European countries, because they’ve been doing this for a very long time, you’re not considered a slacker because you take leave.”

SOURCE: Gardner, A. (26 January 2021) "Pandemic drives business support for paid leave, study finds" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/articles/pandemic-drives-business-support-for-paid-leave-study-finds


How the latest stimulus bill impacts student loan benefits

With passage of the COVID-19 stimulus bill in December, Congress granted a five-year extension to a temporary provision of the CARES Act that allows employers to contribute up to $5,250 annually toward each employee's student debt on a tax-free basis.

This tax exemption was set to expire on December 31, 2020. Congress has now extended that deadline through December 31, 2025. The legislation allows employers to help pay down their employees’ student loan debt without employer contributions being taxed, similar to a 401(k) match.

By utilizing this benefit, both employers and employees avoid federal payroll and income taxes on employer payments to principal or interest on a qualified education loan, which is defined as a student loan in the name of the employee and used for their education. Federal, private and refinanced student loans are all eligible for pre-tax employer contributions. This tax exemption, however, does not apply to education loans for an employee’s spouse, children, or other dependents.

Addressing student debt at work has been a burgeoning trend in employee benefits in recent years. Even prior to this tax exemption, the number of employers offering student loan repayment benefits doubled from 4% to 8% of U.S. employers between 2018 and 2019. Providing student loan assistance has rapidly gained traction as an employee benefit because it’s often a win-win for employers and employees.

Some 47 million Americans collectively owe $1.7 trillion in student debt and that figure is not slowing down. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over $1 trillion dollars in new student loan debt will be added by 2028. With 70% of college students graduating and beginning their careers with an average of $40,000 in debt that will take 22 years to pay off, employers have begun to recognize the social cost and impact such an astronomical level of debt has on recruiting, retention, and employee productivity.

By the age of 30, employees with student debt hold less than half the retirement savings of their peers without student loans. Student loan borrowers have delayed homeownership, getting married and having children because of their debt. Stress over how to repay student loans causes 65% of borrowers to report losing sleep at night and 1 out of 8 divorces are attributable to student debt.

When one takes that into consideration, it should not be surprising that many job seekers are drawn to employers that offer to help pay down their student loans. When young adult job seekers were asked “What percentage of your benefit compensation money would you allocate for student loan debt repayment versus an alternative benefit?” In all cases, respondents chose more money going toward student loan repayment, ahead of all other benefits, including 401(k) match, health insurance, and paid time off.

At Goodly, we work with employers to help them offer student loan repayment as an employee benefit. Across the hundreds of clients we work with, employers typically contribute between $50 to $200 per month, with the median employer contribution being $100 per month toward the employee’s student debt.

Many Goodly clients fund student loan benefits by simply redirecting existing benefits budgets, often from tuition assistance programs. This is a fairly straightforward proposition when one considers that roughly half of employers already offer tuition assistance benefits that allow employees to go back to school. Yet, these programs often see abysmal utilization with less than 10% of eligible workers taking advantage of a tuition benefit on an annual basis.

The most common approach to employer-sponsored student loan repayment is to have employees continue making their regular student loan payments. Employer payments are then made on top of that to the principal of the student loan, similar to a 401(k) match. By taking this approach, we’ve found that the average student loan borrower on Goodly can pay off their student loans 25% to 30% faster than they otherwise would with the help of their employer.

SOURCE: Poulin, G. (20 January 2021) "How the latest stimulus bill impacts student loan benefits" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-the-latest-stimulus-bill-impacts-student-loan-benefits


Addicted: How employers are confronting the U.S. opioid crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 381,000 Americans, but the isolation and remote work environment caused by the rapidly spreading disease has exacerbated an already terrible opioid epidemic in the country.

In the 12 months prior to May 2020, the U.S. recorded 81,230 drug overdose deaths, an 18.2% increase over the previous 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC announced in December that overdose deaths had already accelerated in the months before the coronavirus came to the U.S., but sped up even more during the pandemic.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” says Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

One way to do that is to better educate the public about the opioid crisis, the nature of addiction and how employees and their families can seek help during times of crisis. Congress acknowledged the problem in its latest pandemic relief bill, including $4.25 billion for mental health services to address the recent surge in substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization founded to help people better understand the nature of addiction, created an educational platform for employers to teach their employees about addiction and the many resources available to them. The goal is to destigmatize addiction so that people who are being negatively affected by it can continue to work and get help for themselves and their families.

“The problem with addiction and COVID is that drugs and alcohol are used to self-medicate people, to temporarily make them feel better when they are not feeling great,” says Stephen D’Antonio, executive vice president of Shatterproof.

Add the fear and anxiety associated with the coronavirus, or the economic hardship associated with losing their job or having their hours cut, and “it’s almost a perfect storm,” he said.

Employers are the first to admit that employee opioid and alcohol addiction costs them a lot of money every year in the form of healthcare treatments and missed work. But, before COVID-19, employees didn’t have a lot of free time to do drugs or drink while at work. With remote work, they are even more isolated from society and nobody is around to see them drinking or taking drugs.

“Employers, as the decision makers of health plan design, have the unique ability to educate and build support systems for employees, particularly those at-risk,” said Cigna’s Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health. “This not only improves the health of employees, it improves the culture and overall wellbeing at the organization.”

Cigna offers many programs to help its clients and customers overcome and prevent opioid addiction, including comprehensive pain management and narcotics therapy management programs, pharmacy coverage oversight, and designated centers of excellence for substance use.

Ilyse Schuman, senior vice president of health policy for the American Benefits Council, said that the opioid crisis and mental health issues in general go hand in hand, and there is a general lack of access to qualified mental health providers and behavioral specialists in the United States.

“Our employer plan sponsor members are very concerned and very focused on addressing the mental health aspects of the pandemic too,” Schuman says. “If any good can come from this horrible, horrible pandemic and the fact that so many people have lost their lives and so many people are suffering in silence is to highlight the importance of really addressing the opioid crisis nationwide and the mental health crisis,” she said.

Telehealth has allowed benefit providers to expand access to services like behavioral and mental health during the pandemic. The digital platform removes some of the barriers that health professionals face regarding where and how they can practice medicine.

“Employers are at the cutting edge of innovative strategies. In respect to behavioral health, they realize the importance of taking the stigma away from it. They are figuring out how to bring it out of the closet to communicate the importance of availability, of access to support services for them,” Schuman says.

In 2019, the State of Minnesota worked with the Minnesota Business Partnership to develop an opioid toolkit for employers who were looking for additional resources to help their employees. In Minnesota, drug overdose deaths increased 31% during the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019, according to Sam Robertson, community overdose prevention coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health. Most of those deaths were attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl that are used in both prescription and illicit drugs.

The goal of the toolkit is to show people that substance use disorder is a preventable and treatable illness and to present it in a user-friendly way so that employers of any size and type could address substance use in the workplace.

Addressing the opioid crisis in the workplace “is good for business,” said Dana Farley, drug overdose prevention unit supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Health.

The state worked with Shatterproof to develop the content of its toolkit.

Shatterproof’s Just Five program gives employers five steps they can take to be part of the opioid epidemic response. Each lesson is just five minutes long and uses video, animation and expert testimony to encourage people to get professional help, get educated, get support from people going through the same thing and take care of themselves.

The program has been adopted by major employers like General Electric, JPMorgan Chase and McKinsey.

“One of the big reasons people don’t seek help is they are worried about their employer finding out about their addiction,” D’Antonio says. This program helps get the message across that their employers stand behind them and want to get them the help they need.

SOURCE: Gladych, P. "Addicted: How employers are confronting the U.S. opioid crisis" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/addicted-how-employers-are-confronting-the-u-s-opioid-crisis


Why your employees need integrative wellness benefits

As employers look for innovative ways to support employee health and well-being during the pandemic, many have been relying on telehealth options and apps. But these alternatives are leaving employees with critical care gaps.

“Conventional care has left people to manage their own healthcare,” says Bill Gianoukos, CEO of Goodpath, a personalized care platform. “There’s been an uptick in telehealth services that do one of the components, but we’re providing a single solution that manages your entire care.”

“People are stitching solutions together, which leaves the patient to mimic what's currently broken in the conventional care system,” he says. “The employee is going out and picking and choosing solutions that may not be right.”

His platform, Goodpath, addresses musculoskeletal, sleep, digestive and behavioral health challenges through an integrated care plan. Clients work with a coach and also receive a box of products, like exercise bands and posture correctors.

“We believe in treating the whole person versus just going after the symptom,” Gianoukos says.

In a recent interview, Gianoukos discussed the health challenges facing employees as COVID persists, and why employers may be hesitant to launch integrative wellness programs.

How does integrative wellness differ from more conventional healthcare solutions?

The U.S. healthcare system is built around things that affect life expectancy, not chronic conditions that affect quality of life. Conventional care has left people to manage their own healthcare — everything from taking prescription medication, to going to see a specialist, to doing imaging, to physical therapy — you're just left on your own to manage your care.

When it comes to behavioral health, people don't necessarily understand how much behavioral wellness affects overall underlying conditions. [At Goodpath], you come to us with a condition and we will take you through that journey. We will manage your physical therapy and exercise. We will create programs for nutrition. We will create and administer behavioral health programs. We look at all of the multimodal approaches to an integrative care program versus a conventional single-point solution.

What are some of the benefits to this approach, from a productivity and cost-saving perspective?

For back pain alone, an integrative approach might save $11,000 in costs per employee per year. There are many productivity gains, not only from days lost in the office, but productivity lost because of inefficiencies. The average person suffering from a musculoskeletal issue sees 12 days of productivity loss a year. We also make a coach available to you. We believe that any program that actually has a human component has a much higher adherence rate than a standalone digital solution.

Building an integrative approach is very difficult. We see upwards of 12 different specialties represented, from physical therapy to a nutritionist, to a pharmacist, to primary care, to pain management experts. It's very difficult to go and build these complete integrative solutions. So I don't necessarily think you're going to see a lot of companies trying to do this.

What health challenges do you think will see the most need in 2021?

We’re focused on three of the largest conditions afflicting the U.S. population today: musculoskeletal, which can be considered as back pain, shoulder pain, knee pain; insomnia, which also includes fatigue; and then digestive issues like IBS. All of these have a large emotional and mental well-being component. We continuously look at improving and offering more solutions. For example, we’ve trained our coaches on good office ergonomics. Our goal is to keep on offering higher quality solutions for each one of the programs that we're dealing with.

[Some employees] need more urgent care than can be provided through digital therapy. So that’s when we work with employers to integrate with EAPs. We definitely believe that EAPs add a lot of value — we're solving slightly different problems, but overall we're trying to improve the health and the quality of life for all employees at these companies.

SOURCE: Place, A. (25 January 2021) "Why your employees need integrative wellness benefits" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/why-your-employees-need-integrative-wellness-benefits


What does work look like in 2021? Workplace experts share their predictions

No one could have anticipated the total upheaval to the workplace in 2020 — the transition to remote work, a new reliance on technology, persistent pressures on employee mental health and well-being, child care concerns — the year was a roller coaster of crisis management for organizations and HR leaders.

With the one-year mark since coronavirus engulfed the U.S. now here, employers and employees are starting 2021 with one question: What will work be like this year?

“We are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic. Companies are better able to plan and make decisions about what is going to happen in the next six to twelve months,” says Brie Reynolds, career development manager at FlexJobs, a remote job searching platform.

While the transition to remote work seemed challenging at the start of the pandemic, employers are feeling more confident about their business success in 2021. Forty-four percent of executives believe the economy will improve this year, according to a survey by the Employer Associations of America. That confidence is leading employers to make important business decisions regarding pay raises and hiring: 64% of employers plan to implement salary increases, and 26% plan to boost their recruiting efforts.

“The pandemic has forced companies to be agile and innovative during these uncertain times,” says Mark Adams, director of compliance for EAA, an advocacy group that helps employers stay compliant with labor laws. “While expenditures are being scrutinized now more than ever before, the need to invest strategically remains important as businesses seek to rebound in 2021 and make up for lost ground.”

Remote work is here to stay

At the start of the pandemic, employees struggled to meet the demands of the digital workplace without many of the resources and benefits of the in-person office. Almost one year later, there’s little doubt that remote work has changed the way we work forever.

“Companies made it through almost a full year of remote work with relatively few problems,” Reynolds says. “Most companies are reporting that remote work was successful, and employees want it to continue. Companies are ready to make the switch now that they’ve really had a chance to test it out.”

Seventy percent of employees would like to continue to work remotely part of the time post-COVID, according to Glassdoor. Not only has remote work boosted productivity for some groups, the trend has offered employees an opportunity for better work-life balance and the freedom to live and work away from expensive corporate hubs, like Silicon Valley and cities such as New York and Los Angeles.

“If you're able to open yourself up to remote work, you can get more diversity in your workforce in terms of people's experience and their backgrounds,” Reynolds says. “That’s becoming increasingly important for employers to pay attention to.”

While organizations like Facebook and Slack have announced their employees can work remotely indefinitely, they’ve also suggested they’d make potential pay cuts for employees living in areas with a lower cost of living. Twenty-six percent of employers plan to base compensation on location, according to Willis Towers Watson. But 62% percent of employees would be willing to take a paycut if it allowed them to work from home, according to a survey from software companies GoTo and LogMeIn.

Thirty-five percent of workplaces do not have a firm plan for fully reopening their office, while 16% hope to reopen during Q1, according to a survey by The Conference Board. Hanging in the balance is the ability to have protective policies in place so that the workplace population feels safe, says Gary Pearce, chief risk architect at Aclaimant, a workplace safety and risk management platform.

“Protection is a must, not a nice to have,” Pearce says. “If you can't demonstrate that you're protecting your own people, you're not going to be able to keep employees.”

Workplace safety and vaccination protocol

With two vaccines currently on the market, a return to pre-COVID life is becoming easier to imagine. But ensuring that employees get the vaccine before returning to the workplace is the newest workplace debate confronting employers.

Just half of employees believe their employer should require a COVID-19 vaccine before allowing employees to return to work, according to Eagle Hill Consulting. Gen Z employees were the most on-board with a vaccine mandate, with 62% supporting a requirement, compared with 50% of Millennials and 46% of Generation X and baby boomer employees.

“If you're going to have that requirement, you have to have all the administrative processes in place. How do you verify as an employer that somebody went and got it? What documentation will suffice?” Pearce says. “I think the best case is when it doesn't have to come down to a mandate, but rather people are persuaded by having been given the best information, that this is the right thing to do to protect their family and to protect their fellow workers.”

Other safety precautions like frequent testing, social distancing and mask wearing will become a new way of life back at the office. The Conference Board found that 82% of employers plan to purchase safety equipment like masks, cleaning supplies and contactless entry devices, and 80% will enforce policies like limiting the number of employees allowed in the workplace at a time.

“You can't lose those safety protocols,” says Judi Korzec, CEO and founder of VaxAtlas, a vaccine management company. “It's going to take time to get to that point where you say, ‘Enough [employees] are vaccinated.’ If you're vaccinated, you don't need the test, but you need one or the other to keep your population safe.”

Implementing programs that incorporate consistent COVID testing and other safety precautions will be critical to establishing trust with employees after a year of mixed messages and ever-changing protocols, Korzec says.

“Employers are trying to do the very best they can and get their businesses back and follow the rules, but those change very quickly. It was so hard to keep up with and there probably was a little bit of lost trust there,” Korzec says. “The more tools and communication and orderly processes employers bring to the table, they’ll regain [employee] trust, because everyone wants their life back.”

Continued reliance on technology

Despite the challenges of COVID, employees have an overall positive attitude toward their employers and the way they’ve been supported during the pandemic. Seventy-eight percent of employees say their employer has handled the challenges of the pandemic appropriately, according to McKinsey. More than a quarter of employers have boosted employee benefits since the start of the pandemic, research by Fidelity Investments found.

Employers have looked seriously at ways to better support their workplace population, often turning to technology to fill in the gaps. Virtual nutrition programs, online access to therapy and holistic mental health care, virtual parental support groups and other programs will continue to be a critical component to help employees balance the demands of their work and home lives.

“When organizations systematically show that they care for their employees, they get better results,” says Laura Hamill, an organization psychologist at Limeade, an employee experience software company. “I think that something that is front and center to everybody in HR right now is the well-being of our employees and there have been a lot of impressive ways that organizations are emphasizing that.”

Employers must be empathetic to the challenges their employees have continued to face during this crisis, Hamill says. An ability to share openly can be key to building a more loyal and resilient workforce during COVID and beyond.

“It's time to have a radical change in how we think about work. In order for real change to happen, you have to be able to envision it first. You have to be able to say, ‘I could see how caring for people and being more human at work could happen in my company,’” Hamill says. “This global pandemic has forced us to see that when you treat people like human beings, when you care about them, it's just better for the employees — and it's better for your business.”

SOURCE: Place, A. (25 January 2020) "What does work look like in 2021? Workplace experts share their predictions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/workplace-trends-for-2021


Managers and employees have different attitudes about their COVID workplace

Managers and employees have always had different attitudes about work, and the COVID pandemic has widened that gap even furthur. This divided workforce means most managers believe in the support their company provides, while fewer employees think their employer genuinely cares about them.

Seventy-seven percent of managers feel like their employer genuinely cares about their overall well-being, compared to only 55% of employees, according to a recent survey from Limeade, an employee engagement platform. Similarly, 78% of managers feel as though their employer has engaged in initiatives or offered services to support employee well-being since the start of COVID, compared to 66% of employees.

“This pandemic has not only added to stressors in our life, it’s also taken away some resources we’ve all relied on, like spending time with loved ones, building relationships with coworkers, and getting to explore the world around us,” says Reetu Sandhu, senior manager of the Limeade Institute. “You can see this in the drop that both groups report for their well-being.”

Pre-pandemic, 96% of managers and 86% of employees said that they had favorable well-being levels, Limeade found. However, since the start of the pandemic, those figures have plummeted to 73% of managers and 59% of employees reporting positive well-being.

In a recent one-on-one interview, Sandhu shared what these discrepancies mean for employers and how companies can work to close the gap between employee and manager attitudes in the workplace.

How has the pandemic increased the disparity between managers and employees in the way they view their employers?
The pandemic has emphasized factors that have always been there. Consider power dynamics, for example. Managers are in a position of power that grants them additional permission to prioritize their well-being. This was evident in the findings too — 83% of managers felt comfortable asking for a day off to support their own well-being compared to just 68% of employees. If employees didn’t feel adequately empowered, supported and even expected to prioritize their well-being before the pandemic, they’re only going to continue to fall behind during the pandemic.

Why does this discrepancy exist in the first place?
Organizations haven’t always recognized their role in employee well-being. Unfortunately, companies are only now facing the reality that factors such as power dynamics and organizational norms can have significant impacts on employees. Now, in the face of a pandemic, organizations are scrambling to find the answer. But we can’t expect it to just happen — we need to really consider the employee perspective. Our study revealed that 70.8% of managers feel that since the outbreak of COVID-19, their one-on-ones with their direct reports have focused more on discussing their well-being at work. Only 33.6% of employees actually feel like that is the case.

This disconnect highlights that managers may not be equipped with the resources to lead these conversations, or perhaps there is a gap in trust present in these relationships for genuine conversations about well-being to occur. This isn’t to say that managers do not care. We found that 84% of managers said they feel at least “somewhat” responsible for whether their direct reports experience burnout or not. Instead, it highlights that organizations are missing the mark in enabling both managers and employees to feel supported, cared for and safe to communicate honestly and openly about their experiences.

What can employers do to make all employees feel supported and cared for?
When employers invest in giving managers support, this pays out in dividends, as managers are then enabled to support their employees. Managers can think creatively about demonstrating care to their employees. This can include sending them a gift or a pick-me-up, asking intentional questions about how they or their families are doing, scheduling time for team connection and bonding where work is not an agenda item. Managers can declare a team well-being day, or celebrate the work that is being accomplished despite the tough times we are in. These seemingly small moments of care make an incredible impact on people.

It is very important that people feel as though they can speak openly about their work experience with HR and their managers. Managers, leaders and even peers need to establish trust within organizations and ensure that open communication is welcomed and not tied to any negative consequences. Then, and only then, will employees feel the safety and support they need.

Authentic care is the most impactful resource an employer can offer. Only when these efforts are genuine, will organizations see the direct benefits these offerings and open conversations have in supporting employee well-being. As a manager, don’t just say you want your team to prioritize their well-being — hold them to it just as you would their performance. This communicates that you take it seriously and want to support in a serious way.

SOURCE: Schiavo, A. (28 December 2020) "Managers and employees have different attitudes about their COVID workplace" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/managers-and-employees-have-different-attitudes-about-their-covid-workplace


6 ways technology changed the workplace in 2020

Without technology, working remotely during a global pandemic wouldn’t have been possible. But it also helped employers overcome unforeseen obstacles created by this new reality.

To help maintain social distancing, 42% of the U.S. workforce has been working from home, according to a study conducted by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. While working remotely has helped quell the spread of COVID, it’s caused new challenges for the workforce: balancing work while caring for children or the elderly, deteriorating mental health, lack of opportunities to network — the list goes on.

Despite the promising news of vaccines pointing to changes in 2021, remote work is here to stay. Employers including Dropbox and Wikimedia Foundation have all announced options for employees to work from home permanently, and Wells Fargo and Apple have extended remote work until the summer.

 Professional training and coaching:

BetterUp, a mobile-based professional coaching platform, is teaming up with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, in its first partnership with government agencies to provide their employees with personalized professional coaching.

In the coming months, the FAA and NASA will roll out BetterUp’s professional coaching to supervisors and executives. At the individual level, employees will gain unlimited access to one-on-one professional coaching, accessible via any computer or smartphone. Employees will have access to a digital library that includes thousands of resources designed to reinforce coaching session topics.

“Our evidence-based coaching approach has been linked to significant behavioral gains in areas such as resilience, strategic planning, stress reduction, and the ability to lead teams,” says Alexi Robichaux, CEO and co-founder of BetterUp. “Our goal with NASA and the FAA is to serve as a tool that will enable employees to better thrive as individuals and inspire others as leaders.”

 Telehealth:

Catapult Health launches new virtual program to improve access to preventive care
As the pandemic has triggered delays in both preventive and elective care, employers are turning to telehealth services to keep their workforce healthy and happy, and prevent the development of chronic disease.

Catapult Health, a provider of onsite and virtual preventive healthcare, has launched a new program called VirtualCheckup, through which employers can offer preventive care to their employees and family members anytime and anywhere.

“Over the past months, people are kicking the can on their chronic conditions,” says David Michel, CEO of Catapult Health. “Individuals that we're seeing now have not been to their doctors in several months. They've been scared to go. So we’re able to reach people where they are in this critical time and offer a solution that's very thorough and very simple for them to do.”

 Recruiting:

Gamifying training, onboarding can help boost engagement for Gen Z
As young workers get more technologically advanced and the workforce continues to embrace remote work, training and onboarding processes are vital for getting employees up to speed. But 38% of HR professionals say that remote onboarding is harder than in-person onboarding, and only 9% say that it is easier, according to a recent survey by the HR Certification Institute and MindEdge Learning.

With remote work here to stay for the foreseeable future, tech will play an increasingly large role, says Matt Fairhurst, CEO of Skedulo, a software and workforce management company.

“It’s about how to come up with and quickly implement really interesting technologies that help encourage the connectedness and engagement of employees,” Fairhurst says. “Not as a method of discipline, but simply as a way to lean into the expectations that remote workforces have — which is an incredible desire for engagement and connectivity across the organization.”

 Virtual mental health care:

With stress, anxiety and burnout on the rise, employers are seeking new ways to support workers struggling with poor mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lyra Health, a mental benefits provider, is adding the Calm app to their benefit offerings to help manage the added stress. Over 1.5 million employees will have access to the popular resiliency training app, as the new partnership expands mental health support to employees who may be resistant to more traditional modes of therapy.

“The urgency has never been greater than it is now to provide holistic mental health services,” says Joe Grasso, clinical director of partnerships at Lyra Health. “It's a way to support people who maybe aren't ready to engage in therapy but want to dip their toe into some kind of wellness support.”

 Workplace safety:

New tool tracks COVID-19 geographical risk to pinpoint when employees can return to work
As new COVID-19 hotspots continue to pop up across the country, employers may be hesitant or unsure of how to proceed with potential reopening plans.

Health Advocate, a provider of health advocacy, navigation, well-being and integrated benefits programs, has launched a return-to-work solution called Return Navigator to help employers understand the critical components of how and when to return.

“For organizations planning the transition back to the workplace, safety and health are top priorities. However, it is challenging to determine the right timing and approach to have employees return,” says Arthur Leibowitz, chief medical officer and founder at Health Advocate. “By combining these valuable tools, employers can make more informed decisions about developing and implementing their return-to-work strategy.”

SOURCE: Webster, K. (23 December 2020) "6 ways technology changed the workplace in 2020" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/6-ways-technology-changed-the-workplace-in-2020


Zoom meeting fatigue: How to maintain productivity in the grind of WFH

Let’s face it: like everything else COVID-19, many leaders, their team members and clients are a little sick of Zoom meetings. What started as a useful tool — with a little bit of novelty — has now become yet another reminder of the grind that is just one part of the coronavirus pandemic.

The somber reality for many is that working-from-home will remain a reality for at least another three-to-six months. The very real challenge for leaders in small and large companies alike is keeping our work teams and clients engaged in what seems like an endless remote working model.

While there are many perks to working remote (no one misses commuting), what is lost is the physical connection needed to foster relationships among team members and clients. We have all come to recognize that those in-person meetings or deskside chats really did bring something important to a productive workplace.

Plus, mental health professionals have found that a lack of physical connection with co-workers can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnectedness. These psychological stressors can negatively impact team performance or a client relationship.

It is critically important that leaders recognize and find creative ways to overcome the not-so-virtual burnout to engage effectively with colleagues and customers, while also remaining productive. Here are just a few ways to foster personal connections and maintain workplace energy that are essential keys to overall business success.

  • Recreate your standing videoconference. Still running off the same meeting agenda and structure that has been in place since last March and April? It’s time to retool the meeting and, literally, flip the agenda. Rotate meeting facilitators among team members. Incorporate some comic-relief like a video of the week or a rotating share of childhood photos or “hair fails.” Changes can bring a fresh mindset when serious work is discussed.
  • Schedule meetings that aren’t strictly about business. When we all worked in the office, we found time for breaks – whether that was the occasional pizza lunch, happy hour or just a conversation in the hall. So, schedule occasional meetings that have nothing to do with work, but instead focus on developing relationships and camaraderie by playing games such as Scattergories. Bring teams and customers together who share interests in movies, music, hobbies, outdoor activities or sports to compete for prizes – this can go a long way toward strengthening connections.
  • Bring back the deskside check-in. Not all meetings are created equal. While many organizations have successfully transitioned to virtual meetings, it has come at the expense of quick conversations in the kitchen or casual stopping by a client’s office. Bring this back with 10-minute one-on-one check-ins on a singular topic at least once a week. And don’t limit it to business matters only – the sky’s the limit on what you and a colleague can chat about!
  • Bring back the phone call. It can be easy to unconsciously power through the day with little-to-no personal contact other than emails or text messages. Engaged managers should set aside time daily and weekly to reach out and connect with teammates and clients with a simple phone call. They don’t have to be long – they should also sincerely ask this question: “how are you and how can I help?” This keeps the lines of communication open and demonstrates to team members and clients that their interests remain top of mind.
  • Set virtual “office hours.” Professors regularly hold office hours where students are able to stop by to ask questions about an upcoming exam or a specific assignment. Why can’t a similar concept apply to the workplace? Hosting regular “office hours,” where clients and team members know they can pop into a Zoom room or chat via phone, eliminates confusion and boosts overall engagement. It also helps brokers continue to build out their business pipeline, especially as open enrollment season comes to a close.

The work-from-home environment isn’t going away any time soon — in fact, it may not be until the second or third quarter of 2021 before a sense of normalcy reenters the corporate world. Until then, it’s important that brokers do everything they can to foster engagement with team members and clients. It is a number-one priority for any top-performing team and broker.

SOURCE: Word, J. (28 December 2020) "Zoom meeting fatigue: How to maintain productivity in the grind of WFH' (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/zoom-meeting-fatigue-how-to-maintain-productivity-in-the-grind-of-wfh


The top tool for retaining your working parent population

When Allison Whalen returned to her job following her first maternity leave in 2017, she felt “completely overwhelmed” by the lack of supportive resources available to guide her through the leave and return-to-work process.

“I ended up getting through that first three months back at work and I realized there were about 50 things that I wish someone had told me before I'd even been on leave,” says Whalen.

Whalen says she felt lost in understanding how much child care she would need before and after returning to the office, and felt left behind on her professional development.

After returning to work for a previous employer, Whalen knew something needed to change for working parents going out and coming back from leave. She started Parentaly a parental leave benefits company, in order to help employers streamline the process of getting new parents back to work.

Parentaly provides companies and workers with tools, coaching and resources that help working parents navigate the before and after of parental leave, without sacrificing their career and helping the organization retain its talent.

These benefits became even more critical during the pandemic. Whalen herself experienced her second maternity leave this summer, and having a plan for how she would navigate this time helped her stay productive. Remote work due to COVID was an added bonus for both her and her spouse, she says.

“My second maternity leave was a way better experience because I had made a plan that around six weeks postpartum, I wanted to start spending about two to four hours a week doing work,” Whalen says. “That was possible because [my husband] wasn’t commuting and he had breaks in between meetings where he could take a walk [with the baby]. We could plan because he was there.”

While the pandemic has been a huge challenge for working parents, more flexible work arrangements have actually been beneficial to their overall productivity. Thirty percent of the working parents reported an increase in productivity during the pandemic, according to research from Rutgers University. Overall, 94% of employers say that even with employees working remotely, productivity was the same as or higher than it was before the pandemic, according to Mercer, an HR and workplace benefits consulting firm.

But flexible scheduling is just one part of the puzzle for employers wanting to support working parents. Companies that invest in employees and their families with benefits prioritizing their unique challenges see 5.5 times more revenue growth thanks to greater innovation, higher talent retention and increased productivity, according to research by Great Places to Work and Maven Clinic, a health services provider that supports women and families with their fertility, maternity, and pediatrics needs.

“So much of this comes down to productivity,” Whalen says. “[It’s about] how parents teach themselves to improve their productivity and then how the culture of the organization supports that productivity.”

To keep employees engaged and committed to work while juggling their home responsibilities, paid parental leave is a key place to start when employers look to boost their benefits for working parents. Microsoft offered employee parents 12 weeks of paid time off in order to help them deal with COVID-related school closures. PwC also updated its child care benefits to help parents deal with working from home and virtual school.

While workplaces often focus on maternity leave benefits, it’s critical they provide holistic support for parents at every stage of life, says Kate Ryder, founder and CEO of Maven Clinic.

“The best companies really look at parenthood as a journey. It’s not just about the nine months of pregnancy,” she says. “It’s not just maternity, but it’s fertility, return to work coaching [and] finding backup child care.”

As employers look ahead toward 2021, it’s critical they continue leading with empathy and understanding for working parents.

“The experience of being a working parent during COVID has been intensely difficult and stressful,” Whalen says. “I am hopeful that this experience will result in some major improvements in the longer term for me, namely a reduction in volume and duration of work travel, increased flexibility to work from home, and improved child care benefits.”

Whalen plans to encourage every employer she works with to provide more paid leave and greater flexibility and support when it comes to re-onboarding working parents coming back from leave. These actions now will benefit companies in the long-run.

“COVID has highlighted the importance of focusing on productivity over activity and so we are doing a lot of work focusing on how to work smarter, not harder,” Whalen says. “The companies that will come out on top over the next one to two years are the ones that will continue to invest in developing and retaining top talent during and through this pandemic.”

SOURCE: Schiavo, A. (22 December 2020) "The top tool for retaining your working parent population" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/parental-leave-and-other-family-planning-benefits-will-be-a-key-investment-in-2021