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It has been previously discussed that President Biden announced an end to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE) and National Emergency (NE) periods on May 11, 2023, and the practical ramifications for employer group health plan sponsors as they administer COBRA, special enrollment, and other related deadlines tied to the end of the NE. As discussed, this action generally meant that all applicable deadlines were tolled until the end of the NE plus 60 days, or July 10, 2023, with all regular (non-extended) deadlines taking effect for applicable events occurring after that.
A Change in the National Emergency End Date
A new wrinkle recently added a potential complication to calculating these deadlines. President Biden signed H.R. Res. 7 into law on April 10, 2023, after Congress jointly introduced H.R. Res. 7 as a one-line action to end the NE, effective immediately. The consequence is that the applicable end of the transition relief is now June 9, 2023 (60 days following April 10, 2023) instead of July 10, 2023, as previously anticipated. The Department of Labor (DOL), however, has informally announced that despite the statutory end of the NE being 30 days earlier than expected, to avoid potential confusion and changes to administrative processes already in progress, the deadline of July 10, 2023, will remain the relevant date for COBRA, special enrollment, and other related deadlines under previous guidance. Prophetically, updated FAQs, released March 29, 2023, by the DOL, Department of Treasury, and Department of Health and Human Services (the Agencies), provide, “the relief generally continues until 60 days after the announced end of the COVID-19 National Emergency or another date announced by DOL, the Treasury Department, and the IRS (the “Outbreak Period”). [emphasis added]” Further clarification and formal guidance are still expected.
Updated DOL FAQ Guidance
Most employers rely on third-party vendors and consultants to help administer COBRA, special enrollments, claims, appeals, etc. All should be aware of the impact the end of the NE and PHE has on all applicable deadlines. The FAQs provide at Q/A-5 specific examples to help employers, consultants, and administrators apply the end of NE and PHE deadlines and different scenarios related to COBRA elections and payments before and after the end of the Outbreak Period, special enrollment events, Medicaid election changes, etc. The FAQs also make clear that employers are encouraged to consider extending these deadlines for the current plan year. Employers should discuss the impact of this guidance with their vendors and consultants to ensure all parties comply with the upcoming transitional periods.
The FAQs also confirm (at Q/A 1-4) the impact of the end of the PHE on COVID-19-related testing and diagnostic procedures, noting that as of the end of the PHE on May 11, 2023, group health plans are no longer required to provide certain COVID-19 related coverage at 100 percent under the plan, but can revert to previous cost-sharing and deductible limitations that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Note that President Biden’s recent action approving the end of the NE on April 10, 2023, has no impact on the previously communicated end to the PHE on May 11, 2023. Employers should review changes in coverage of COVID-19 testing and other related treatment or procedures with their insurance carriers, consultants, and advisors, including any notices that may be required in connection with those changes. The DOL confirmed that while encouraged to do so, employers do not have to provide any separate notification of any changes in current coverage limits before the PHE end date unless the employer had previously disclosed a different level of coverage in its current Summary of Benefits and Coverage (SBC) provided during the most recent open enrollment period.
COVID-19 Testing and Treatment Under High Deductible Health Plan/Health Savings Accounts
Q/A-8 of the FAQs provides interim clarification regarding the impact of the end of the PHE on high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) that are tied to health savings accounts (HSAs) and the ability to provide medical coverage for COVID-19 testing or treatment without requiring an employee to satisfy applicable HDHP deductibles for HSA contribution purposes. Even though IRS Notice 2020-15 provided relief from general deductible limitations under Code Section 223(c)(1) through the end of the PHE, the Agencies have determined this relief will remain in effect after the end of the PHE and until the IRS issues further guidance.
The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has issued guidance on the application of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to employees who telework from home or from another location away from the employer’s facility.
The Field Assistance Bulletin (FAB) 2023-1, released on February 9, 2023, is directed to agency officials responsible for enforcement and provides employers a glimpse into how the DOL applies existing law and regulations to common remote-work scenarios. FAB 2023-1 addresses FLSA regulations governing “hours worked,” rules related to break time and privacy for nursing employees, and FMLA eligibility factors.
In the FAB, the DOL reviews the rules governing compensability of work time, explaining that, regardless of work location, short breaks (typically, 20 minutes or less) generally are counted as compensable hours worked, whereas, longer breaks “during which an employee is completely relieved from duty, and which are long enough to enable [the employee] to use the time effectively for [their] own purposes[,] are not hours worked.” Examples of short breaks, whether at home or in the office, include when an employee takes a bathroom or coffee break or gets up to stretch their legs.
Longer rest breaks and periods of time, when employees are completely relieved from duty and able to use the time for their own purposes, are not considered work time. Just as would be the case when an employee is working in the office, if during remote work an employee’s 30-minute lunch break is interrupted by several work-related phone calls, that 30-minute period would be counted as hours worked. Conversely, if an employee working from home takes a three-hour break to pick up their child or to perform household chores, that time does not count as work time under the FLSA. In short, the FAB reiterates the telework guidance set forth by the DOL in a Q&A series published during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FAB emphasizes that, regardless of whether an employee performs duties at home, at the worksite, or at some other location, if the employer knows or has reason to believe that work is being performed, the time must be counted as hours worked. Importantly, the FAB notes that an employer may satisfy its obligation to exercise reasonable diligence to acquire knowledge regarding employees’ unscheduled hours of work by providing a reasonable reporting procedure for employees to use when they work non-scheduled time and paying employees for all hours worked. This guidance was addressed in greater detail in FAB 2020-5.
Guidelines for Nursing Employees
The FAB further clarifies that, under the FLSA, an employer’s obligation to provide employees “reasonable break time,” as well as an appropriate place to express breast milk, extends to employees who are teleworking or working at an off-site location. Just as an employer has an obligation to provide an “appropriate place” for an employee to express milk while working at a client site, the employer should ensure a teleworking employee has privacy from a “computer camera, security camera, or web conferencing platform” to express milk.
Employers are not required to pay employees for otherwise unpaid breaks simply because the employee is expressing breast milk during the break, but if an employee is working while pumping (or if the pumping occurs during an otherwise paid break), they must be paid for that time. For example, in most cases, if a remote employee attends a call or videoconference off camera while pumping, that employee would be considered on duty and must be paid for that time.
The recently enacted PUMP Act expanded existing employer obligations under the FLSA to cover exempt employees, as well as non-exempt employees. The DOL has published more guidance on breast milk pumping during work.
Eligibility Under FMLA
The DOL also addresses FMLA eligibility requirements for remote employees both in terms of hours worked (employee must work 1,250 hours in the previously 12 months) and the small worksite exception (employee must work at a worksite with at least 50 employees in a 75-mile radius).
As with the FLSA, it is important for employers to have a system to track their remote workers’ hours. With respect to hours worked, the FAB reiterates that the 1,250 hours determination for remote worker is based on compensable hours of work under FLSA principles.
With respect to the worksite size determination, the FMLA regulations explain that an employee’s personal residence is not a worksite. Instead, whether a remote employee is FMLA-eligible is based on the size of the worksite from which “they report to” or “their assignments are made.” If a remote employee reports into or receives assignments from a site with 50 or more employees working at that site (or reporting to or receiving assignments from that site) or within 75 miles, then that employee would meet that eligibility factor.
The DOL provided two examples of this rule:
Employers are reminded to review state and local wage and hour laws, paid and unpaid leave laws, and lactation accommodation laws. If you have any questions about applying the FLSA, the FMLA, or state and local laws to your remote workers or any other questions about remote work considerations, please reach out to any Jackson Lewis attorney.
The COVID-19 Outbreak Period was declared effective on March 1, 2020. It had numerous impacts upon employee benefit plans, extending timelines with which plan participants and plan sponsors/employers had to perform certain benefit-related activities. On January 30, 2023, President Biden declared he would end the National Emergency effective May 11, 2023.
To recap, the declaration of the Outbreak Period impacted benefit plans in many ways by instructing ERISA plans and participants to disregard the Outbreak Period for:
However, it is important to note that ERISA contains language limiting timeline extensions to no more than one year. Thus for example, the normal 60-day timeframe for a an eligible Qualified Beneficiary to elect COBRA continuation coverage was extended by the Outbreak Period to one year plus 60 days.
With the declaration of the end of the National Emergency on May 11, 2023, the 60-day clock to end the Outbreak Period will start. This means that effective on July 10, 2023 (60 days after the end of the National Emergency) all of the pre-pandemic rules impacting the above items (and others) will go back to their normal timeframes.
Due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, employers will have the flexibility to remotely review employment documents for I-9 purposes in some circumstances until July 2023 — and they should keep using the current Form I-9 even though it was set to expire at the end of the month, according to two important announcements this week from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Here’s what you should know as we wait for additional DHS guidelines and prepare for anticipated changes.
Keep Using the Current Form I-9 — But Stay Tuned for Further Guidance
DHS notified employers that they should continue to use the current I-9 — which has an expiration date of October 31, 2022 — until further notice. So, stay tuned for additional information, as we will provide an update when DHS publishes its new Form I-9, associated instructions, and effective date.
Timely compliance will be critical, since failing to use the current version of Form I-9 can result in administrative penalties. You should be prepared to take immediate action and discard the current version when the new one goes into effect.
Relaxed Document Inspection Rules Remain in Play in Limited Circumstances
Due to continued safety precautions related to COVID-19, DHS announced that it will extend its updated I-9 flexibilities until July 31, 2023. Since early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, USCIS has allowed employers to remotely review — by Zoom, video chat, FaceTime, fax, or other electronic means — the identity and work-authorization documents that are necessary to complete employees’ I-9 forms during the hiring and reverification process. These “relaxed” rules have applied in the following situations:
Under these rules, employers must eventually inspect the relevant documents in person, but only if an employee stops working remotely and begins to report to the employer’s physical location on a regular, consistent, or predictable basis.
A Sign of Changes to Come?
This extension of the relaxed rules aligns with recent DHS efforts to kickstart the rulemaking process for a permanent protocol on remote document review. The latest extension of the relaxed document review rules is seen by some as more proof that DHS is dedicated to creating a permanent remote document examination rule. If implemented, the rule would allow employers to hire workers in far-flung locations, inspect their documents remotely, and eliminate the current requirement of in-person review by a company employee or authorized representative.
If you accepted expired forms of identification from new employees who completed their I-9 forms during the pandemic, your deadline for updating them with current proofs of identification is fast approaching. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced that it was winding down its temporary policy that had allowed for expired List B (proof of identification) documents to be used when completing I-9s because of COVID-related difficulties in renewing such I.D. documents. You have until July 31 to update your I-9 forms to get into compliance with the law. What do you need to know about this fast-approaching deadline?
How We Ended Up Where We Are
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security issued a number of temporary policies easing Form I-9 compliance. One of them was the COVID-19 Temporary Policy for List B Identity Documents.
Under this policy, employers were allowed to accept expired List B (proof of identification) documents. Many state and local agencies were under lockdown, so it was difficult – if not impossible – for individuals to renew expired documents such as drivers’ licenses, school I.D. cards, Native American tribal documents, and others.
The Department rescinded this temporary policy on May 1 and began again to require employers to accept only unexpired List B documents. USICS recently announced that employers who accepted expired List B documents prior to May 1, 2022, will have until July 31,2022 to update their Forms I-9.
What Should You Do?
Specifically, for employees hired between May 1, 2020 and April 30, 2022 who presented an expired List B document, you need to have them to present to you:
You do not need to update documents for affected employees who are no longer employed.
When updating List B documentation, you should enter the document’s:
Your representative should initial and date the change.
If the List B document was auto-extended by the issuing authority, making it unexpired when it was presented, no update is needed. For example, many states automatically extended the expiration date of certain drivers’ licenses due to COVID. Those documents would not need updating.
Remote I-9 Verification Remains in Place – For Now
This move by DHS does not affect its decision to extend its remote I-9 verification flexibility policy, which has been extended once again to October 31, 2022.
Under that temporary policy, if employees hired on or after April 1, 2021, work exclusively in a remote setting due to COVID-19-related precautions, they are temporarily exempt from the I-9’s physical inspection requirements until they undertake non-remote employment on a regular, consistent, or predictable basis, or the extension of the flexibilities related to such requirements is terminated by DHS, whichever is earlier.
With these constantly evolving rules, employers who have adjusted their document inspection protocols during the pandemic may be at a higher risk for expensive monetary fines, potentially running in the thousands of dollars. Now is a good time to review your I-9 files and process to ensure continued compliance.
You may recall the Seinfeld episode where Elaine Benes consumes a $29,000 piece of cake from the 1937 wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. A birthday cake from an office party in Kentucky may have that pricey wedding slice beat. If you haven’t heard already, a Kentucky jury just served an employer with a $450,000 bill associated with a surprise office birthday party gone awry. Does this massive legal loss spell the end of office birthday parties as we know them? Thankfully, no. Despite the media attention the April 15th verdict has garnered, it had less to do with the fact that the employer threw a surprise party than with how it handled the situation – and particularly the fallout. All kidding aside, this case has important reminders for employers about how you should handle disabilities in the workplace – and you can easily avoid a similar fate by following some commonsense steps.
The Worst Birthday Party Ever?
This case stemmed from a surprise birthday party thrown by Gravity Diagnostics LLC for lab worker Kevin Berling. According to his lawsuit, Berling suffered from an anxiety disorder and specifically asked his office manager not to celebrate his birthday party in the office. Coincidentally, the office manager was out of the office on Berling’s big day and his co-workers decided to plan him a surprise birthday celebration. When Berling caught wind of it, he alleged that he suffered a panic attack and spent his lunch period hiding out in his car.
But it’s what happened next that was particularly damning for the employer. According to Berling, his managers subsequently called him into a meeting and scolded and belittled him for his reaction. In fact, according to media reports, Berling said he was accused of “stealing his co-workers’ joy.
This in turn led him to suffer another panic attack where he used methods such as clenching his fists to deescalate the situation. According to the lawsuit, his behavior alarmed the employer, who feared Berling might respond violently. He says they asked him to immediately leave the property. He alleged that the company terminated him several days later.
Berling sued his ex-employer for disability discrimination and by the time the case went to the jury the only claim to decide was whether Gravity Diagnostics reasonably failed to reasonably accommodate his disability. After deliberating for merely one and one-half hours, the jury awarded Berling $450,000 – which consisted of $120,000 in lost wages and benefits, $30,000 in future lost earnings, and $300,000 for pain and suffering, mental anguish, embarrassment, humiliation, mortification, and loss of self-esteem. At some point in the near future, the court will tack on reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs, which could considerably increase the final tally that Gravity has to pony up to Berling.
All in all, that’s a costly payout for a birthday cake and some decorations.
What Can You Do to Avoid a Similar Fate?
What went so wrong with this seemingly joyous occasion? The alleged facts of the case offer some simple steps for employers to take to avoid a similar fate:
There was some dispute in this case about whether Berling had explicitly informed his employer about his anxiety order. Regardless of what happened here, it’s a good reminder to be attuned to your employees that may have disabilities and are seeking reasonable accommodations – even if not specifically couched in those terms.
If an employee is expressing significant unease with an office social function, they may very well be signaling that they suffer from some form of disability such as an anxiety disorder. A request not to throw a party or to not participate in a similar workplace function could be construed by a court as a request for a reasonable accommodation if the employee ties such request to something that is health related. At a minimum, you should be aware that issues such as this could trigger your obligation to engage in an interactive process to discuss this issue further with your employees.
While many employees are excited about returning to the office, seeing co-workers again, and getting back into the swing of social interactions at work, you should be aware that this may not be the universal sentiment for all employees. In the post-pandemic world, many employees may still be cautious or even fearful about such social interactions – especially those who may be immunocompromised or live with vulnerable family members.
As much as you may want to promote employee engagement and interaction, you should realize we are in a new era. Some employees may simply choose to be more cautious while interacting with others. After the trauma of the last two years, in fact, some employees may find that this discomfort rises to the level of an anxiety disorder or similar disability.
You should train your employees – especially HR folks and front-line supervisors and managers – to be attentive to such issues. They should know the specific steps to take in response to requests for reasonable accommodations and handling potential disabilities. The outcome in this case may very well have been avoided had the employer provided good training to the office manager and other employees about how to respond in such situations. Leaving employees to navigate these issues on their own and figure things out “on the fly” is almost always a recipe for disaster.
Before taking any adverse action against a worker, you should consider working with appropriate staff to look into whether there have been performance issues, disabilities, or any mitigating circumstances before making a final decision to discipline an employee. This process should be well-documented and consistent across the board.
In this case, the company alleged that it was concerned about violent behavior by Berling and acted on its “zero tolerance” policy towards workplace violence in making the decision to discharge him.
Depending on the circumstances, removing an employee from the workplace may be the right call from a workplace violence prevention standpoint. If an employee makes a threat or commits an act of violence, termination may simply be the best course of action. When an employee has not made a direct threat but you have witnessed behavior that may suggest the employee could be violent, you may want to remove the employee from the workplace until you can more carefully evaluate what you observed and make an informed decision concerning continued employment. This would include following up by asking the right questions, investigating, and figuring out what was happening with the employee in the specific situation. In some cases, a “cooling off” period of paid leave might be worth considering to assess the situation further and determine the appropriate course of action – rather than immediately making the decision to terminate without having all the facts.
Cases such as this generate a lot of attention and buzz due to their novelty. The facts of this case may certainly be unique. But cases like this are a good reminder for all employers to take a step back and contemplate how you would have handled a similar situation, and what you would have done differently. Keeping the points above in mind may help you avoid a similar outcome and ending up with egg (or birthday cake) on your face.
This flexibility allows employers whose workforce is working remotely to defer the physical presence requirements associated with the Employment Eligibility Verification (Form I-9) and section 274A of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The policy initially applied only to employers and workplaces that were working entirely remotely. However, the policy was expanded to cover all employers who hire employees on or after April 1, 2021 to exclusively work remotely due to the employer’s COVID-19 policy. In these cases, the in-person inspection requirement relating to Form I-9 identity and employment eligibility documentation applies only to employees who physically report to work at a company location on any “regular, consistent, or predictable basis.”
The temporary guidance continues to provide the following:
Employers that have gathering bans or restrictions due to COVID-19 are not required to perform an in-person review of the employee’s identity and employment authorization documents. Instead, employers may inspect the employee’s “Section 2” I-9 documents remotely, using “video link, fax or email, etc.” Employers must obtain, inspect and retain copies of the documents within 3 business days, and provide written documentation of their remote onboarding and remote work policy on the employee’s Form I-9. Once normal operations resume, employers must conduct an in-person verification of any documents presented by employees who were onboarded remotely, within 3 days of a return to the work location.
Although DHS has signaled a willingness to permanently adopt remote document examination for I-9 eligibility verification, to date, no permanent changes have been made. Accordingly, employers are encouraged to begin, at their discretion, the in-person verification of identity and employment eligibility documentation for employees who were hired on or after March 20, 2020, and who presented such documents for remote inspection in reliance on the flexibilities first announced in March 2020.
As most states lift their mask mandates, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Friday (2/25/22), that the agency has adopted new metrics for determining whether to recommend face coverings – a shift that will result in most Americans no longer being advised to wear masks in indoor public settings. By moving away from looking solely at the number of COVID-19 cases in a given area but instead taking into account local hospitalizations and hospital capacity, the updated metrics will create room for businesses and employers to revisit their own approaches to masking policies. What should you know about these changes before making a decision for your organization?
The CDC’s previous guidelines recommended that fully vaccinated individuals residing in communities of substantial or “high” transmission wear a mask in indoor public settings. Given that the standards solely examined the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases in a community, roughly 95% of counties in the United States met the definition of substantial or high transmission.
The metrics used to determine whether to recommend masks will now take a more holistic view of the risk COVID-19 to a community. The number of COVID-19 cases will still but considered, but hospitalizations and local hospital capacity will also be taken into account.
The CDC adopted “COVID-19 Community Levels” of “Low,” “Medium,” and “High” to help communities decide what recommendations and requirements to put in place. The CDC has provided a “COVID-19 County Check” tool to find the community level in a particular county and the prevention steps recommended for that county.
Given the highly transmissible but less severe nature of the omicron variant, masks will no longer be recommended for the vast majority of Americans, including those who remain unvaccinated.
The CDC’s new guidance provides important considerations for employers who have been considering rescinding their masking policies. Even though CDC guidance is not directly binding on employers, it is critically important. That’s because while OSHA has not yet expressly adopted the most recent CDC guidance, OSHA’s guidance repeatedly refers to CDC guidance.
Employers should review their local and state masking requirements and continue to comply with those requirements. For employers in areas where a mask mandate is no longer in place, they should review the CDC’s latest guidance and utilize the COVID-19 County Check tool to make an informed decision regarding their mask policy.
Employers who lift their mask mandate should make sure that employees who continue to voluntarily wear a mask do not face illegal mistreatment at the hands of supervisors or coworkers. Make sure your employees know that retaliation, discrimination, and harassment will not be tolerated, and include this prohibition in written policies distributed to all workers.
In fulfillment of President Biden’s promise to make at-home COVID tests more available for all of us, two significant action steps have now occurred:
All group health plans and insurance carriers must now cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 test kits, passing none of that cost to employees or individuals covered under the plan, and without requiring a medical diagnosis or prescription from a health care provider.
The CDC announced on December 27th that it is updating its quarantine and isolation guidance. For people with COVID-19, the isolation period was reduced from ten days to five days as long as the individual has no symptoms or their symptoms are resolving after five days. Importantly, the revised isolation guidance does not recommend an individual have a negative COVID-19 test before ending their isolation period after day 5.
For people who have been exposed through close contact with someone infected with COVID-19, whether an individual is recommended to quarantine is no longer dependent on vaccination status alone. Rather, whether quarantine is recommended now also depends on whether an individual has received a booster and how long it has been since an individual completed their vaccination series. For people who are unvaccinated or received their second mRNA dose (Pfizer or Moderna) more than 6 months ago or the J&J vaccine more than 2 months ago, and have not received a booster shot, the CDC now recommends quarantine for 5 days, followed by 5 days of masking. For people who have received their booster shot or who have recently completed their primary vaccine series, the CDC does not recommend such individuals quarantine following an exposure, but the CDC does recommend they wear a mask around others for 10 days.
The CDC also recommends that everyone who has been exposed to COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, be tested on day 5 following the exposure if possible. Finally, everyone who either has COVID-19 or was exposed to someone with COVID-19 should wear a well-fitted mask for a full 10 days.
Employers should review their COVID-19 policies and protocols, communicate any changes to their employees and be prepared to answer employees’ questions. Employers are reminded to consider states and local health authorities which may have different guidelines.