4 benefits of positive recognition to boost employee engagement

As both employers and employees are facing difficult times both in their work-life and home life due to the circumstances that the coronavirus pandemic has brought into the world, it's important that the negativity does not take place of the positivity needed. Positivity is powerful and can play a critical role in the workplace. Read this blog post for four benefits of positive recognition.


With all that’s happening, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the negativity in the world. Our emotional state is important at work. Positive emotions transform our minds and increase our ability to bounce back from hard times.

The power of positivity should not be overlooked, and recognition plays a critical role in generating these emotions in a modern workplace. Open acknowledgement and expressed appreciation for employees’ contributions can go a long way.

Improve employee retention
The first benefit of positive employee recognition is improving employee retention. In fact, according to industry analyst Josh Bersin, companies that build a recognition-rich culture actually have a 31% lower voluntary turnover rate.

Gallup research on recognition also shows that employees who don’t feel recognized at work are twice as likely to quit within a year. In today’s current environment where many organizations are driving more productivity with fewer employees, leaders need to ensure that they’re not forgetting to focus on employee retention. You’d be hard-pressed to find an organization that isn’t concerned about retaining top talent right now; top performers will find new opportunities even when they’re hesitant to move.

Creating a workplace where people want to stay isn’t just beneficial for employees; it’s also good for the bottom line. Turnover cost can be difficult to compute, but I challenge you to consider the costs of recruiting, onboarding, training, and the lost institutional knowledge that comes with poor retention.

Increase employee engagement
The second benefit that is particularly important right now is increased employee engagement. Our own research showed that 84% of highly engaged employees were recognized the last time they went above and beyond at work compared with only 25% of actively disengaged employees. We also found that while 71% of highly engaged organizations recognize employees for a job well done, only 41% of less-engaged organizations did so.

Positive recognition is powerful and has a clear tie to engagement. Yet, many organizations still do not adequately measure engagement. When was the last time you measured engagement with your own team? How much opportunity is there to improve through recognition?

Boost employee morale
The third benefit of positive recognition is boosted morale. I already mentioned the transformative effect of positivity, but the simple act of thanking people can make a tremendous difference. When employees were asked about their experience at work,70% said that motivation and morale would improve “massively”with managers saying thank you more.

How did you feel last time you were recognized?

Positivity has an important impact on employees, but it also pays literal dividends to companies that have figured out how to encourage it. Research from author Shawn Achor shows that happiness raises sales by 37% and productivity by 31%. Consider ways you can encourage your team to recognize each other more often.

Leverage peer recognition
It turns out that peer recognition massively outperforms top-down recognition. Peer recognition occurs when individuals give and receive recognition from their peers, managers, and direct reports.

Being recognized by colleagues is incredibly powerful for employees, especially when it’s done publicly. Peer recognition is 36% more likely to have a positive impact on financial results than manager-only recognition, according to SHRM. Managers can’t see every positive action that occurs, so think about how to encourage everyone to participate in recognition of great work across the entire organization.

SOURCE: Crawford-Marks, R. (14 September 2020) "4 benefits of positive recognition to boost employee engagement" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/4-benefits-of-positive-recognition-to-boost-employee-engagement


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What employers are missing in their workforce data

If employers don't analyze their data thoroughly, they may be missing valuable information that could save their establishment of many costs. Read this blog post to learn more.


Employers are missing out on valuable healthcare information and cost-saving opportunities if they don’t analyze their data thoroughly, panelists at the annual Disability Management Employer Coalition digital conference said.

According to professionals from an insurance company in Portland, Ore., many employers have access to three types of data: healthcare, absence and productivity. HR departments are typically tasked with collecting and analyzing this data, but rarely do they use all three together. But maximizing these findings can help employers better inform their benefit decisions, the panelists said.

“Most employers want to know how much they’re spending on healthcare, but they can learn so much more than that,” said Case Escher, managing partner of the insurance company in Portland, “Very few [employers] use it to explore how health of the workforce is affecting productivity.”

“By comparing health data and absence, you can see if a health condition is causing an employee to miss more work than usual,” said Brycie Repphun, account executive at the insurance company in Portland. “You can use this information to help better inform that person about the services available to them to help them be successful at work.”

Employers can also use their productivity data to help determine if individual employees, or an entire team, are struggling, Escher said. Since productivity is measured differently at every company, and in various positions, employers have to exercise their own judgement about how to interpret it, he said.

“Obviously, if it’s a sales position, and one of your top performers is out because of medical issues, or another personal reason, the productivity of that team is going to suffer,” Escher said. “And if that person is going to be out for a while, the data will likely show that the rest of the team is getting burned out faster to compensate for being understaffed.”

Since the majority of the nonessential workforce is working from home due to the pandemic, Repphun recommends that employers start looking at their data to see how employees are coping.

“Health conditions can definitely impact work performance, but we’re finding that this is happening because of the current work from home situation,” Repphun said. “People aren’t working in ideal conditions, and many have children learning at home as well.”

Escher said self-funded employers are better positioned to make use of their workforce data because they don’t have to go through multiple third-party providers to access all of it. But other employers can still benefit from the information if they’re willing to put in the time and effort to retrieve the reports. While employers can certainly survey their workforce to gauge how working remotely is affecting their productivity, Escher and Repphun said they can get a clear answer by looking at all three data points.

“There’s an indisputable link between health and productivity,” Escher said. “As an employer, you can take this information and use it to make smart decisions to help your employees continue to be successful.”

SOURCE: Webster, K. (31 August 2020) "What employers are missing in their workforce data" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/what-employers-are-missing-in-their-workforce-data


Personalization helps meet the needs of multiple generations in the workplace

In many workplace organizations, there has been an increase in age demographics. As many generations are beginning to work together, it's necessary for organizations to cater to all generations while catering to their different needs, wants, and styles. Read this blog post to learn more.


Changing demographics are creating more age diversity in the workplace, and this 5-generation age range means employers are increasingly faced with catering to different priorities and communication styles with benefits.

When it comes to health and wellbeing, employees between the ages of 55 and 64 prioritize benefits related to physical health, while younger employees care more about social and mental health, according to a study from Optum.

“The one-size-fits-all approach to communication, benefits and services needs to evolve,” says Seth Serxner, chief health officer at Optum. “The challenges a 35-year-old woman with young kids has is very different from a boomer or an empty nester who are dealing with other issues, so the life circumstances are very different.”

Instead, employers should look towards implementing a personalized communication strategy, or even hyper-personalization of benefits related to life cycles, Serxner says.

“If you think about saving in a health savings account, for example, we like to really target these different groups,” he says. “Once we do that, we see a tremendous increase in contributions and the overall savings averages.”

Wil Lewis, a diversity and inclusion executive and head of global disability strategy at Bank of America, says that since the company functions in several different countries, it emphasizes diversity of experience, culture and generations.

“One of the things that we've done as an organization is focused on how to integrate the wisdom that comes from past experiences and be sure that we leverage some of their ideas and make decisions for the future,” Lewis says.

Bank of America is one of over 1,000 employers who have signed the AARP Employer Pledge Program, a nationwide group of employers that stand with AARP in affirming the value of experienced workers and are committed to developing diverse organizations. They have pledged to promote equal opportunity for all workers, regardless of age.

Bank of America also has an intergenerational employee network, with chapters across the U.S. and other countries. The network has, among other things, created mentoring programs where employees in different generations can come together and learn from each other in person or virtually.

“It's actually one of our fastest growing employee networks inside the company,” Lewis says. “We’re really trying to drive connectivity and opportunity for them to learn from one another.”

The company aims to have a broad and comprehensive benefit range that touches on all individual generations, says Ebony Thomas, a global human resources executive at Bank of America.

“We are really thinking about where employees are in their life cycle, and tailoring services, learning, training or benefits to that life cycle,” she says. “It's really thinking ‘are we inclusive of everyone in the organization, in different stages and points in their lives?’ and how a benefit impacts them.”

The Optum data also discovered differences in financial service needs among generations. Younger generations are more concerned about debt, student tuition and how to start saving, whereas older generations may be more interested in things like buying a house, family health or retirement, says Optum’s Serxner.

Technology is another area of great discrepancy among the workplace age gap. Serxner says understanding how millennials or younger generations think about text messaging versus older generations can help employers rethink how they’re utilizing technology and what impact it has.

“There can be mental and behavioral impacts from using technology,” he says. “Employees can start to feel isolated, lonely or left out, based on the way an organization might cater to only one group, or might have a bias toward one kind of technology, whereas some people really feel it's critical to be face-to-face or on the phone.”

It’s critical employers learn and understand the makeup of their workforce, and tailor their communication strategy to their needs, Serxner says. Employers can drive up engagement and participation in their benefit offerings.

“I work with one digital company communications company that’s more than 70% millennial, and all of their outreach, benefits and promotions are phone based,” Serxner says. “I have other older energy and utility companies where they still do big pool meetings, and hand out brochures and packages, where they have individuals explaining the benefits. So the employers tend to have a sense of who their populations are, and tailor their approaches accordingly.”

SOURCE: Nedlund, E. (08 May 2020) "Personalization helps meet the needs of multiple generations in the workplace" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/personalization-helps-meet-the-needs-of-multiple-generations-in-the-workplace


3 steps to optimize intern onboarding and training

Internships are often used to help students form a decision of where they may want to continue their career, or what field they may want to pursue. Read this blog post to learn three steps on optimizing interns and their training.


HR leaders face myriad challenges in crafting a positive candidate experience and establishing a strong culture across organizations, and there's an added twist when it comes to internship programs: this must be achieved in an exceptionally short amount of time.

"As much as Facebook is evaluating interns for their long-term potential as future employees, we know for certain that interns are also evaluating whether Facebook is where they want to launch their career," Oscar Perez, diversity recruitment and programs manager at Facebook, told HR Dive. "Interning allows college students to make more informed decisions about the type of company they want to work for and helps them crystallize a vision for the type of employee they want to be."

The intern experience trifecta

Multiple academics and learning experts echoed Perez's sentiments to HR Dive, generally suggesting that HR can find success with three steps: a short, formal onboarding; building in mechanisms for continuous skill-building; and a focus on the value of exposure to the business world.

Some formal onboarding

While some experts suggest that employee onboarding plans should cover at least a new hire's first 90 days, that's obviously not feasible for an internship that may last only 90 days.

"Something on the order of 10 to 15% is not unusual," Brooks Holtom, a management professor at Georgetown University told HR Dive. "Two or three days of up front training, and then maybe two hours a week on a Friday helps to increase both the capacity of the people but also the probability that they enjoy the work and they come back."

Still, an employer's onboarding for traditional employees may provide a roadmap, especially when it comes to the early days. This should include administrative tasks, introductions and acclimation to tasks.

"For all interns [at Facebook], the first day of their internship is spent in New Hire Orientation," Perez shared. "Where you get to hear from employees around the company on guiding principles that we anchor in as a company, critical logistical information that you'll need to navigate your time as an intern, [and] get an understanding of the other interns that will be your ‘home-base' community during your time at Facebook."

From there, interns meet their teams and learn more about the scope of their internship project, Perez continued. They also attend role-specific training on tools, expectations and critical concepts for both their role and beyond.

It may help to think about onboarding in three parts — pre-boarding, orientation and ramping up to productivity — according to Leslie Deutsch, director of learning solutions at TEKsystems. Deutsch previously shared a model for onboarding traditional employees; a similar, albeit more streamlined, structure can help when thinking about interns, she said.

"You want to give them exposure to your organization," Deutsch told HR Dive in a February interview, adding that it's important to make clear company values, mission and vision. Although, if interns are there to support a specific project or initiative, it may need to be more detailed, she said.

Pre-boarding can also be valuable, both as a way to engage the intern as a high-potential full-time candidate and to ensure they are learning as much about the company as they can before their first day. "I've seen pretty commonly [that] the onboarding and training actually starts before they even formally start the job. It's about building the relationship," Nicole Coomber, a professor of management at the University of Maryland, told HR Dive. "There are a lot of smaller interactions that happen before they come on board so that they have a lot of clarity on what they're actually doing when they get there."

Continuous, experiential training

Following formal onboarding, HR will want to focus on continuous learning, according to Holtom.

He noted that such efforts are good for building capacity and making sure that interns feel they are gaining from the experience. There are a lot of ways to deliver this kind of training, however, and it does not need to be formal or in-person; it can be worthwhile, for example, to make learning opportunities experiential.

"[Students] want to gain the experience that prepares them for the next professional opportunity and the chance to build relationships with other professionals in their field. That really sets apart a positive internship experience from a negative one," Rachel Loock, associate director of career services at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, told HR Dive.

For graduate school interns, experiential learning can be particularly valuable because they are already experienced professionals that may be making a career switch. They may need to get up to speed on certain software or business concepts to successfully make that switch.

"MBA internships are often used as a ‘bridge' to pivot from one industry or function to another,  Doreen Amorosa, associate dean of career services at the Georgetown McDonough School of Business, told HR Dive. "Successful internships allow MBA students to demonstrate newly acquired academic skills which enable those career transitions," she said.

SOURCE: Kidwai, A. (13 April 2020) "3 steps to optimize intern onboarding and training" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.hrdive.com/news/3-steps-to-optimize-intern-onboarding-and-training/576014/


Employees say ‘feeling stressed’ is top reason for lying about sick days

Many employees use their sick days for their physical and mental health when they feel as if they won't be at their peak to perform their job. With that being said, employees may also use sick days when they feel stressed. Read this blog post to learn more.


A third of employees have lied to their employer about their reasons for taking a sick day, with the most common reason being stress, according to a new report by international health benefits provider Aetna International.

As the world’s attention turns to the mental health impact of COVID-19, these confessions suggest that the stigma remains in workplaces.

“If employees have physical or mental health problems, then they're not going to be at their peak to be able to do their job,” says Dr. Hemal Desai, global medical director at Aetna International. “When people lie to take a day off, it really hides the problem, and when they are at work, presenteeism is a really big issue.”

The Employee Perceptions of Mental and Physical Health in the Workplace report explores the views of employees in regards to taking sick days, discussing health issues at work and the impact a mental health diagnosis can play in reducing their experiences of stigma.

Out of the employees surveyed in the U.K., the U.S., Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, those in the U.S. are the most likely to lie to their employer about their reason for taking a sick day. While “wanting a day off” was the second most frequently cited reason for lying, the most common reasons overall related to mental and emotional health, ranging from feeling stressed or down to not thinking their boss would understand.

In the U.S., about 40% of people reported a mental health diagnosis, but less than half of adults receive treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The fear of stigma around these mental health challenges is an issue employees must address, Dr. Desai says.

“Employees don't feel that taking sick leave for mental health problems is something that will either be accepted or considered as good practice by their employers,” Dr. Desai says. “It’s important employers address this hidden problem, because it will ultimately drive better productivity and wellbeing of their workforce.”

Creating a culture of acceptance, especially from a company’s leadership team, is a first step employers can take to easing the stigma of speaking up.

“Employers can do a lot to try and foster more transparency and reduce stigma. Making that parity between mental and physical health will create much more transparency and build trust within an organization, especially if there’s an open culture, particularly by senior leaders, where you can talk about mental health issues,” he says.

Employers also need to ensure employees are aware of and are using mental health resources and benefits, Dr. Desai says. A large majority of companies offer mental health benefits through an EAP, but utilization rates for these services are typically below 10%, according to SHRM. Boosting usage is key to supporting employee wellbeing.

“Employers need to be working with health and benefits providers, because the providers will have a lot of support tools that can help employees,” he says. “Making sure that that support is there from the employers is really key, so that you can drive a really happy and healthy workforce that can be productive, which is particularly important during this COVID-19 situation.”

SOURCE: Nedlund, E. (11 June 2020) "Employees say ‘feeling stressed’ is top reason for lying about sick days" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/employees-say-feeling-stressed-is-top-reason-for-lying-about-sick-days


Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of helping employees maintain physical, mental and financial health, making this year's open enrollment period a critical time for employers to think about the benefits they're providing and to communicate the value of these offerings to employees.

"This is not a typical year," said Hope Manion, senior vice president for Fidelity Investments' workplace consulting division. "We cannot simply default our benefits like we may have done in previous years."

She advises employers to encourage employees to spend more time during this year's enrollment period reviewing their benefits, learning about all of their offerings and asking questions. "Given that so many have experienced financial and health crises this year, now is the time to ensure they don't overlook benefits that could impact their future health and financial well-being," she noted.

Employees Rush Through Enrollment

Nearly three-quarters of employees—73 percent—spend less than an hour, and 41 percent invest less than 30 minutes, reviewing their benefits at enrollment time, according to a March study of 1,200 U.S. consumers on behalf of life and accident insurer Colonial Life. Because the pandemic has changed the way millions of workers live and work, simply rushing through their annual benefits enrollment won't do this year.

"If this year has taught us anything, it's the importance of our health and the value in taking every opportunity to protect it," said Richard Shaffer, senior vice president of field and market development at Colonial Life. "As we head into enrollment season this fall, workers across the country need to take time to ensure they're protecting their families, finances and futures against unexpected events."

Surprisingly, those who are the least confident in their knowledge of the benefits available to them are most likely to rush through the enrollment process. Nearly 90 percent of employees who reported not understanding their benefits "at all" said they plan to spend less than an hour on enrollment this year.

"Especially in today's environment, offering benefits isn't enough," Shaffer said. "To make the investment pay off, employers must ensure employees take the time to understand, value and participate in the benefits enrollment process."

Showcasing How Benefits Are Vital

A new Fidelity report, Uncovering the Real Value of the Benefits You Offer, shows that employees are often unaware of their benefits options and frequently don't take advantage of them. The findings are from a survey of nearly 9,500 participants in Fidelity-administered benefit plans.

For instance, only 61 percent of employees could report whether telemedicine was offered to them. "In this case, if you are offering a benefit low in awareness, you may need to go back to basics and increase promotional efforts that emphasize availability, what it is, and how to use it," the report points out.

Health saving accounts (HSAs) are a different story. While 92 percent of employees surveyed knew whether an HSA was available, many chose not to opt for a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), which is a requirement to contribute to an HSA. However, 89 percent of account-holders who used an HSA reported that it had a positive effect on their lives. "In this case, awareness about availability isn't the issue, but employees may not understand the value a benefit brings," the report stated.

Approaching Open Enrollment

Fidelity's Manion suggested that open enrollment communications encourage employees to consider the following when selecting benefits for the year ahead:

  • Health insurance. Consider your finances, family health status, and preferred health care providers and hospitals when choosing health care coverage. Review deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. To take advantage of an HSA, enroll in an HDHP.
  • HSAs and flexible spending accounts (FSAs). Take the time to learn how each of these accounts can be used, reviewing eligibility guidelines and updates to coverage, including services like telemedicine and over-the-counter medications.
  • Retirement savings. Consider increasing your 401(k) retirement savings plan contribution if the company reduced or suspended its match as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other benefits may not require an employee to enroll and so are often overlooked despite their value, Manion noted. Be sure to highlight information regarding:

  • Telemedicine. Among Fidelity clients, 76 percent saw an increase in telemedicine use since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This benefit will continue to be important, and employees should understand how it works.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs). As the pandemic caused many people to experience anxiety, mental health and counseling services, such as those offered through an EAP, saw a 39 percent increase in use. This is a benefit that is impactful to employees' overall well-being when offered.
  • Wellness programs. Wellness programs are much appreciated when used, but 30 percent of employees surveyed did not know whether their employer offered them.

With millions of employees still working at home, effective benefits communication is more challenging than ever, Colonial Life's Schaffer said. He advised business and HR leaders to "ensure they're providing opportunities for employees to learn basic information and ask questions, even in a virtual environment."

5 Questions to Kick-Start Open Enrollment Planning

For employees dealing with physical, emotional and economic setbacks due to the pandemic, "this will be the year to reevaluate insurance and financial safety nets, so keep this in mind as you communicate about medical plans, disability insurance, flexible spending accounts and other financial wellness benefits," blogged Megan Yost, vice president and engagement strategist at communications consultancy Segal Benz in San Francisco.

She advised open enrollment managers to ask themselves five questions:

  • What will make this year's open enrollment a success?
  • How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact my goals and outreach strategy?
  • What barriers could prevent my employees from taking action?
  • What might I need to do differently from last year?
  • Who do I need to include to help make open enrollment a success?

"Even if you don't have all your plan design changes finalized just yet, planning ahead can help make everything go more smoothly and minimize unnecessary stress," Yost observed. "Lay your foundation now—and fill in the details when you have them."

SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 August 2020) "Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/spotlight-benefits-value-during-open-enrollment.aspx


Strategies for making mental healthcare core to your organization

Mental health in the workplace has been a topic of discussion for a continuous-time, but due to the coronavirus and many rules and regulations beginning to rise, there has been a rise in mental health numbers these past few months. Read this blog post to learn more.


American workers’ mental health improved last month after hitting a three-year low, but overall remains poor, as people struggle with the physical, psychological and financial stressors of the pandemic.

According to HR technology company Morneau Shepell’s May Mental Health Index, which surveyed 5,000 U.S. employees, the overall mental health score for May was -6, up slightly from April’s score of -8, the lowest in the last three years. However, with negative scores indicating worse mental health, the results show that American sentiment remains low.

The rise in May is likely due to state decisions to begin a phased reopening of non-essential retail businesses and restaurants, as well as employers allowing workers to return to the physical workplace, says Paula Allen, the senior vice president of research, analytics and innovation at Morneau Shepell.

“People are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “But this is for sure not going to be linear. The possibility of a second wave of COVID is quite high.”

The coronavirus and its economic impact is not the only uncertainty that employees are facing. Protests demanding racial equality and justice for the victims of police brutality have erupted across the nation in response to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Thirty-percent of Americans experienced symptoms of anxiety last week, according to data from the CDC.

“It’s kind of like having the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement all at the same time,” Allen says. “It would be unusual if that doesn’t impact people’s mental health and well-being because you really are taking away a sense of predictability, a sense of certainty, a sense of safety, with all of these things happening at the same time.”

The coronavirus crisis has brought to light the necessity of promoting better mental health in the workplace. Seventy-eight percent of companies offer an EAP with mental health resources, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Ninety-three percent of companies have encouraged employees to take advantage of EAP resources like telehealth and virtual mental health programs in response to the pandemic, a recent Business Group on Health survey found. Morneau Shepell recommends that employers make mental health more visible in the organization and continue to provide support for employees.

“It works very well when an organization doesn’t look at mental health as a separate program or a separate project that they have a coordinator working on. It’s really built into their business culture as something that they see as valuable and they look for opportunities in every single way to help their employees,” Allen says.

With organizations feeling the effects of the economic downturn, 34% of companies in North America are considering or have implemented pay cuts, according to research from Korn Ferry.

The Morneau Shepell research shows, however, that this can actually be more detrimental to morale: Employees whose salaries were cut had lower mental health scores on the Mental Health Index than those who lost their jobs.

Those who experience a salary cut are put in “a position of limbo” as opposed to having “a clean break” from an employer, Allen says. While an organization may look at reducing an employee’s salary as a lesser evil when compared to terminating them outright, this can cause more anxiety than actually letting the employee go.

“The main thing is we’ve put people in a position of uncertainty, and that increases anxiety, ” she says. “It’s an important thing for organizations to pay attention to because often they will feel that it is a benevolent thing not to terminate someone but to keep them in a way that they can afford, which is to reduce salary. But the other side of the coin is recognizing that this does have a very real impact on people, and anything that those organizations can do to continue to make those people feel connected, to continue to make them feel valued and recognized, make sure that there’s outreach to them by managers, anything to balance the situation is what we would recommend.”

To improve mental health in the workplace, leaders should talk about the importance of good mental health and make employees aware of support services offered, such as an employee assistance program, Allen says.

“Make mental health a very visible thing in the organization. Communication from senior leadership that speaks about the importance of mental health, that the organization cares about the employees’ mental health, and makes sure that people are aware of services that the organization might sponsor,” she says. “That strong voice is important to build awareness and to reduce stigma.”

Organizations must also train their managers on how to handle mental health issues in the workplace. Sometimes managers will notice a change in an employee’s behavior and be at a loss as to how to deal with it, Allen says.

“They might ignore it, they might let it get worse, they might try to step in and become a counselor when they’re not a counselor,” she says. “But if a manager handles that situation well, often it’s a good trigger point for the employee to get the kind of help that they need.”

SOURCE: Del Rowe, S. (12 June 2020) "Strategies for making mental healthcare core to your organization" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/news/strategies-for-making-mental-healthcare-core-to-your-organization


Actions on Payroll Taxes and Unemployment Benefits Promise Relief, Raise Questions

Due to the amount of job losses caused by the coronavirus, President Trump has signed a series of executive orders to provide financial relief. Read this blog post to learn more.


On Aug. 8, President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders and memorandums intended to provide financial relief to employees and those who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These declarations included a Memorandum on Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of the Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster, which directed the Treasury Department to defer collection of the employee portion of Social Security FICA taxes—part of required payroll tax withholding—from Sept. 1 through the end of 2020. The deferred taxes may have to be subsequently repaid unless Congress enacts legislation stating otherwise.

Trump cited his authority to postpone certain tax deadlines by reason of a presidentially declared disaster. Democrats, however, are expected to challenge that claim in court. Nevertheless, it is prudent for employers and payroll managers to stay aware of developments and prepare to move quickly if the directive and upcoming guidance are not blocked or superseded by enactment of a comprehensive relief bill.

Payroll tax relief, as outlined in the president's directive, would require employers to take steps to ensure compliance, including working with their payroll administrators to adjust their systems by Sept. 1. Employers would also need to explain to employees that while their take-home pay may go up in the short term, they may be required to repay these deferred taxes at a future date.

Details on employer requirements, however, would depend on Treasury Department guidance, expected to be issued shortly.

The other presidential actions authorized a weekly supplemental federal unemployment benefit of up to $400, reduced from the $600 weekly supplement that expired July 31; continued student loan payment relief; and called for measures to prevent residential evictions and foreclosures resulting from financial hardships due to COVID-19.

 

Reduced Unemployment Insurance Supplement

Republicans in Congress argued that the initial $600 federal supplemental payment disincentivized recipients from seeking jobs, since many were collecting more money unemployed than employed. Some wanted the program reduced to $200 per week, while Democrats argued the program should be renewed at the original $600 per week.

Questions were raised about funding for the $400 unemployment insurance boost, which would pull from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund to pay for a portion of the supplemental benefits while asking states to fund the remainder. Because states may not use the unemployment program to pay benefits unless they are authorized by Congress, they may have to set up a new system to pay their portion of the supplement.

Unemployment experts were also unsure about how funds will be distributed, who will qualify for benefits and how long the benefits will last, pending regulatory guidance.

FICA Taxes

Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes are collected together as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax. FICA tax rates are statutorily set and are not adjusted for inflation.

Social Security is financed by a 12.4 percent payroll tax on wages up to employees' taxable earnings cap—$137,700 for 2020—with half (6.2 percent) paid by workers and the other half paid by employers. There is no earnings cap on the Medicare portion of FICA, for which employers and employees separately pay a 1.45 percent wage tax.

The COVID-19-related payroll tax relief only applies to the Social Security portion of FICA.

The Payroll Tax Directive

Section 2302 of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, enacted in March and implemented through IRS Notice 2020-22 and a series of IRS FAQs, allows eligible employers to defer the deposit and payment of the employer's share of Social Security FICA taxes for the period beginning March 27, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020. The deferral also applies to 50 percent of the equivalent taxes incurred by self-employed persons. The deferred payments must subsequently be paid to the Treasury Department, with half due by Dec. 31, 2021, and the other half by Dec. 31, 2022.

The CARES Act provision and related guidance did not apply to employees' share of the Social Security tax.

Under the new presidential directive:

  • The secretary of the treasury is authorized to defer the withholding, deposit and payment to the Treasury of employees' portion of Social Security payroll taxes on applicable wages or compensation paid from Sept. 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020. This provision does not apply to the Medicare portion of FICA taxes.
  • The deferral is to be made available to employees whose earnings during any biweekly pay period is generally less than $4,000, calculated on a pretax basis, which would cover salaried employees earning $104,000 or less per year.
  • Social Security taxes for these employees will be deferred without any penalties, interest, additional amount or addition to the tax.
  • The secretary of the treasury is directed to issue guidance to implement the president's memorandum and to explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes deferred under the implementation of the memorandum.

Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, blogged that HR lawyers will have until Sept. 1 "to figure out the details." Because the policy terminates on Dec. 31, 2020, "President Trump, or President Biden, will be forced to decide whether to continue this program," he wrote.

A Controversial Move

"By providing this tax relief, American families will have more cash on hand during these critical next few months," according to a White House statement.

White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow said that "we will take any steps possible to forgive this deferral," so employees will not be required to pay back the amounts deferred through Dec. 31, The Hill reported. However, doing so would require new legislation by Congress.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden charged that Trump would try to make the cuts permanent if re-elected and said doing so would "undermine the entire financial footing of Social Security."

Prepare to Adjust Systems and Notify Employees

For now, HR payroll managers should:

  • Discuss with their payroll administrators steps to adjust their payroll systems to exclude employees' share of FICA Social Security taxes beginning Sept. 1, pending the issuance of Treasury guidance.
  • Prepare to notify employees that possibly less of their pay will be subject to payroll withholding, although the reduction in payroll taxes may have to be paid back in the future.
  • Expect questions from employees who may be confused about current and future paycheck adjustments.

Employers' Questions Await Guidance

The president's executive memorandum "leaves open a number of questions and issues, some of which will likely be addressed by guidance from Treasury," according to a legal alert by Adam Cohen, Mary Monahan and Robert Neis, partners at law firm Eversheds Sutherland in Washington, D.C. Issues to be addressed, they said, include:

  • Whether the deferral is voluntary on the part of employers, and whether an employer may deposit and pay employees' deferred taxes at any time prior to the applicable due date.
  • Whether employers will be required to withhold all of the deferred amounts from the first paycheck on or after January 2021, or if there be an extended time for collection and deposit? "A lump sum repayment could cause significant financial hardship for some employees, particularly if it is required right after the holiday season," Cohen, Monahan and Neis noted.
  • What to do with respect to employees who terminate employment before Jan. 1, 2021. "To the extent the employee portion of [Social Security payroll taxes] was deferred, an employer may want to withhold it from paychecks prior to termination of employment, unless there is guidance permitting the employee to pay the deferred portion on their federal income tax return or by other means," the attorneys explained. "For lower-paid employees, this may eliminate one or more paychecks at the end of their tenure. In some situations, the employer may end up bearing the cost of the taxes as a practical matter."
  • Whether an employer can use the deferral with respect to some groups of qualifying employees, but not others, where that may be desirable for payroll administration or other reasons.
  • How overtime pay or other variable pay, such as commissions and bonuses, should be taken into account in calculating the $4,000 threshold. "It appears that base pay or wages may be the proper metric in most cases, but further elaboration by Treasury is needed," Cohen, Monahan and Neis said.

A Wait and See Approach

Melissa Ostrower and Robert Perry, principals in the New York City office of law firm Jackson Lewis, "recommend that employers continue to monitor applicable guidance, but not make any changes to their payroll withholding processes at this time."

They added, "We realize that changes to payroll systems require lead time, but given the uncertainty surrounding how the deferral will be implemented and whether it actually will become effective, we think this is the most prudent course at this time."

SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 August 2020) "Actions on Payroll Taxes and Unemployment Benefits Promise Relief, Raise Questions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/compensation/pages/actions-on-payroll-taxes-and-unemployment-benefits-promise-relief-raise-questions.aspx


Keeping Up with Professional Development During the Pandemic

As many state and local governments recommend and require social distancing, many professionals are looking at other ways to continue growing and developing. Read this blog post to learn more.


Many employees need to accumulate credits to keep their professional credentials, and they may look forward to large gatherings with their peers each year where they can learn about the latest developments in their industry. But the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way employees and businesses are approaching professional development, with many opting—at least for now—for online learning.

"We've seen a large shift in the manner in which these things are being done," said Melissa Peters, an attorney with Littler in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Since March 31, the U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to COVID-19. Within the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had urged residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to temporarily halt nonessential domestic travel and asked people everywhere in the country to carefully consider the risks before traveling.

"Some employers are going further and recommending that employees cancel or postpone all nonessential travel," observed Douglas Brayley, an attorney with Ropes & Gray in Boston.

The White House and many state and local governments have either recommended or required people to practice social distancing through April and even beyond—which is causing some business and professional associations to find creative alternatives to their in-person meetings.

Going Virtual

A webinar or videoconference may be a good alternative to an in-person meeting, Brayley said.

Elizabeth Wylie, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Denver, noted, "Many companies are bolstering their remote conferencing access to ensure it is adequate to meet the anticipated increase in needs in the coming weeks."

Kathleen Sullivan, chief human resources officer at law firm Clark Hill in Pittsburgh, said her firm is using webinars, videoconferencing and phone conferencing technologies. "Our goal is to continue to provide excellent client service while we ensure we are taking care of our employees," she said.

In response to limits on travel and social gatherings, some licensing bodies have eased up on their e-learning limits. For instance, the Indiana Supreme Court and other state high courts have temporarily waived distance-learning limitations for attorneys seeking continuing education credits.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has transformed its 2020 Talent Conference & Exposition to a virtual experience so attendees can stay current and earn professional development credits without leaving their homes.

"We've been working with public health officials and collaborating with the conference venue and vendors to make an informed decision based on the latest science, local public health guidance, and our ability to provide the HR community with the best event and professional development experience you've come to expect from SHRM, in a safe environment," SHRM said on its website.

Should Employers Reimburse Nonrefundable Expenses?

"There is not a uniform practice in terms of [employers] reimbursing for canceled or postponed trips," said Mark Keenan, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg in Atlanta. He said organizations need to make such decisions based on:

  • The health and welfare of their employees.
  • Whether such trips can be rescheduled or postponed with limited incidental additional expense.
    "However," Keenan said, "most organizations would still reimburse such trips as an appropriate business expense, and therefore should reimburse nonrefundable costs as they would with any other itinerary change."

If the employer paid for the professional development and travel in the first place, any cancellation costs would generally be absorbed by the employer, said Susan Kline, an attorney with Faegre Drinker in Indianapolis. "If it's something the employee signed up for as a personal matter for a weekend or vacation, employers might treat it like any other vacation."

She noted that some states, such as California, require employers to reimburse reasonable business expenses.

Peters said employers are making difficult business decisions as they struggle with the economic impact of COVID-19. "There are legal aspects, but whether or not you want to reimburse people for professional development should be aligned with the company's philosophy and business needs."

The best practice for each business is highly dependent upon its business needs, industry and workforce, Wylie said, and is subject to change as the recommendations of public health agencies evolve.

Stay Updated

"The employer community seems to be very proactive in communicating updates on the coronavirus and the impact on their workforces," Keenan observed. For now, he said, the best practices are to not panic and to monitor the CDC's website.

"The situation is evolving rapidly," Sullivan said. "It is important to stay up-to-date with the current information."

SOURCE: Nagele-Piazza, L. (13 April 2020) "Keeping Up with Professional Development During the Pandemic" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/keeping-up-with-professional-development-during-the-pandemic.aspx


Judge strikes down parts of DOL's emergency paid leave regs


Dive Brief:

  • Several features of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)'s regulations implementing the paid-leave provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) exceeded the agency's authority under federal law, a federal judge has ruled (State of New York v. U.S. Department of Labor, et al., No. 20-CV-3020 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 3, 2020)).
  • Among the struck-down DOL regulations are: the final rule's work-availability requirement; its definition of "health care provider" for the purposes of excluding certain healthcare sector employees from emergency leave benefits; its requirement that an employee secure employer consent for intermittent FFCRA leave; and its requirement that documentation be provided by an employee before taking FFCRA leave.
  • The federal judge permitted the outright ban on intermittent leave for certain qualifying reasons — specifically, intermittent leave based on qualifying conditions that correspond with an increased risk of infection — as well as the substance of the final rule's documentation requirement to stand. The court, the judge said, "sees no reason that the remainder of the Rule cannot operate as promulgated in the absence of the invalid provisions."
Dive Insight:

The ruling is an important one for the nation's first-ever federal paid leave law for private-sector workers. New York originally filed the suit in April following the release of DOL's FFCRA implementation guidance earlier in the month. Shortly before the lawsuit's filing, Congressional Democrats criticized DOL's final rule in a letter to Secretary of Labor Eugene Scalia that said the agency's guidance either deviated from the FFCRA's statute or did not have a basis in it.

Asked about the letter, a DOL spokesperson told HR Dive in April that the agency took "quick action to implement paid sick leave and expanded paid family and medical leave provides necessary support for America's workforce in uncertain times."

The federal judge said in the ruling that DOL faced "considerable pressure" in promulgating its final rule. "This extraordinary crisis has required public and private entities alike to act decisively and swiftly in the face of massive uncertainty, and often with grave consequence," the judge noted. "But as much as this moment calls for flexibility and ingenuity, it also calls for renewed attention to the guardrails of our government. Here, DOL jumped the rail."

Management-side attorneys expect the ruling to be appealed, Bloomberg Law reported. The decision applies nationally, creates uncertainty for employers who experienced pandemic-related shutdowns or reductions in force and requires healthcare employers to "re-examine whether they must provide paid leave" to certain employees, Sami Assad, partner at FordHarrison LLP and chair of the firm's Home Healthcare Practice Group, wrote in an article.

The FFCRA applies to U.S. employers with fewer than 500 employees, but those with fewer than 50 employees may be exempt from two of the law's paid-leave requirements. An authorized officer of the business must use a three-prong test to determine whether the employer may claim an exemption. Also, the IRS has published guidance detailing how small businesses can receive 100% reimbursement for paid leave pursuant to the FFCRA.

SOURCE: Golden, R. (04 August 2020) "Judge strikes down parts of DOL's emergency paid leave regs" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.hrdive.com/news/new-york-judge-strikes-down-dol-emergency-paid-leave-reg/582856/