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President’s Path Out of the Pandemic Adds Hurdles for Employers

September 10 - Posted at 8:10 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

On September 9, 2021, the White House issued Path Out of the Pandemic: President Biden’s COVID-19 Action Plan (the Plan). The Plan outlines a six-pronged approach, portions of which will impose new obligations on employers across the country.

Most notably for employers, the first prong of the Plan, “Vaccinating the Unvaccinated,” includes:

  • Direction to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure that all employees are fully vaccinated or able to produce a negative COVID-19 test result on at least a weekly basis;
  • A new Executive Order that requires certain government contractors to comply with guidance, to be published later this month by the Safer Federal Workforce Task Force (Task Force Guidance or Guidance), which presumably will require that employees who work on or in connection with certain government contracts be vaccinated, regardless of whether they work on a federal site;
  • A statement that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) will be taking action to require COVID-19 vaccination for workers in most health care settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement as a condition of Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement (similar to what was previously announced by the President in August 2021 for nursing homes); and
  • Direction to OSHA to require covered employers to provide paid time off for employees to get vaccinated or recover from vaccination.

The Plan also calls on states to adopt vaccination requirements for all school employees as part of the effort to “keep schools safely open.”

The Plan indicates that the administration will increase the amount of COVID-19 testing by ramping up production of testing products, offering at-home rapid COVID-19 tests at cost through certain retailers, and expanding free testing at retail pharmacy sites, among other things.

While the Plan is far-reaching, there are still many unknowns. Employer obligations arising from OSHA’s ETS will be dictated by the timing and the specific ETS provisions and corresponding requirements. The only thing we know for certain about the forthcoming ETS is that employers will need to continue to adapt and be prepared to pivot if necessary.   It is also unclear how the new ETS will fit in with OSHA’s current COVID-19 Healthcare ETS, in 29 C.F.R. 1910 Subpart U, or impact OSHA’s current guidance for non-healthcare employers. Further, the 27 states with OSHA-approved State Plans, such as California, Washington, Oregon, and Virginia, will need to determine how to respond to the ETS, once it is issued, and if certain provisions require implementation alongside the state’s standards and regulations.

CMS also issued a press release urging Medicare and Medicaid-certified facilities to “make efforts now to get health care staff vaccinated.” However, the agency noted that it is still developing an Interim Final Rule with Comment Period that will be issued in October.

Employers who are impacted by the Plan, and who may be impacted by an ETS once issued, are advised to start thinking through how they will navigate many legal issues and operational challenges related to required vaccination and testing. These issues include policy requirements, workplace testing strategies, vaccination tracking and management, medical record collection and retention, and accommodations for religion, disability and pregnancy, as well as wage and hour implications, bargaining obligations for unionized workplaces, employee confidentiality and privacy issues. Further, employers should consider the logistical impact on federal contracts and how these obligations will interplay with other state or local mandates or restrictions on vaccinations.

Stay tuned as we dive into the Plan and corresponding guidance documents, as well as await further information from federal agencies responsible for complying with the Plan and its directives. 

New Guidance Delays Some Key CAA and Other Health Benefit Effective Dates

August 25 - Posted at 8:31 AM Tagged: , , , , , ,

New regulatory guidance from three federal agencies that enforce private-sector benefits laws will make employers’ daunting 2021 health benefit to-do lists slightly—but only slightly—more manageable heading into 2022.

Most importantly, the frequently asked questions (FAQ) guidance delays several of the most challenging 2021 and 2022 compliance requirements under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA) and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA): so-called “advanced explanations of benefits” (EOBs) providing good-faith estimates of the out-of-pocket costs for scheduled medical services; a “price comparison tool” to enable participants to compare cost-sharing amounts for specific network providers; extensive drug cost information that was to have been reported to the federal regulators in December 2021; and public pricing disclosures related to in-network rates, out-of-network allowed costs, and prescription drug prices.

The FAQ guidance, issued August 20, 2021, by the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of the Treasury, also provides some relief or useful clarifications related to other key 2021 health benefit compliance items for employers, including gag clauses, identification cards, continuity-of-care requirements, and provider directories.

The FAQ guidance neither delays nor provides other relief related to the new surprise medical billing requirements under the No Surprises Act, which was enacted as part of the CAA and is set to take effect January 1, 2022, or the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act “comparative analysis” required by the CAA, which is already in effect.

Here is a summary of the key employer takeaways in the new FAQ guidance.

Advanced EOBs

Under the No Surprises Act, plans are required to provide good-faith estimates of expected provider charges for a specific scheduled service, along with good-faith estimates of the cost sharing that would apply to a participant, and the amount already incurred toward any financial responsibility limits. This was initially set to take effect January 1, 2022, but the guidance indicates that the agencies will defer enforcement until regulations are issued on these plan disclosures and the disclosures required by medical providers. (Question 6)

Price Comparison Tool and Public Price Disclosures

Under the No Surprises Act, plans are required to offer online tools and phone support to enable participants to compare cost-sharing amounts for specific network providers in a specific region. Separately, under the ACA, plans are required to offer three “machine-readable files” on a public website covering in-network rates, out-of-network allowable amounts, and prescription drug prices. Both the No Surprises Act and ACA requirements were set to take effect on January 1, 2022. The guidance delays the effective date of the No Surprises Act requirements to January 1, 2023, and the ACA in-network and out-of-network requirements to July 1, 2022. The ACA prescription drug requirement is delayed until the agencies issue regulations on the matter. (Questions 1-3)

Drug Cost Reporting

The CAA requires employer plans to report very detailed prescription drug cost information to the agencies, including the 50 most commonly covered drugs per plan, the 50 most expensive drugs per plan, and the total health spending for each plan broken out into specific categories. The initial reports were to be provided to the agencies by December 27, 2021, and then by June 1, 2022. The agencies will defer enforcement related to the 2021 and 2022 reports until they issue further guidance, though the agencies “strongly encourage plans” to get ready to report 2020 and 2021 plan year data no later than December 27, 2022. (Question 12)

Gag Clauses

Under the CAA, plans cannot enter into network or other agreements that would prevent them from making available provider-specific cost or quality-of-care information to providers or participants, electronically accessing de-identified claims and encounter information for each participant (consistent with privacy laws), or sharing either of those types of information with business associates. Plans have to attest to the agencies each year that they have no such clauses in their agreements. This requirement took effect on enactment of the CAA on December 27, 2020, and is not changed by the FAQ guidance. The agencies have indicated that additional guidance is forthcoming on how plans will attest to their compliance. (Question 7)

Insurance Cards

Under the No Surprises Act, plans have to update physical or electronic insurance cards to include network and out-of-network deductibles and out-of-pocket limits and consumer assistance contact information. This is set to take effect on January 1, 2022, a date unchanged by the FAQ guidance. The guidance does clarify, though, that the agencies will consider both data actually on the cards and data “made available through information that is provided on the ID card.” (Question 4)

Continuity of Care

Under the No Surprises Act, when a provider or network contract is terminated, plans have to take steps to protect hospitalized or other continuing care patients. This requirement will take effect on January 1, 2022. The guidance clarifies that the agencies intend to issue formal regulations on this requirement, but will not do so before the effective date. Until such regulations take effect, plans will be held to a good-faith compliance standard. (Question 10)

Provider Directories

Under the No Surprises Act, plans are required to take several steps to improve provider directories, such as updating them at least every 90 days, and more promptly notifying participants about whether a particular provider is in the network. These requirements will take effect on January 1, 2022, and the guidance does not change that. The agencies do indicate that they intend to issue formal regulations in the future, and may also have specific additional guidance on required disclosure of balance billing information. (Questions 8 and 9)

The Feds Are Coming, Is Your Business Ready? Part 4: Unions

June 28 - Posted at 10:31 AM Tagged: , ,

I understand that your first thought may be that this article has nothing to do with your business and you can skip it. 

Please read before you disregard.  Your employees will soon receive a union message!  You have a short amount of time to decide if that message comes from your organization or if you will wait and your employees will learn all they need to know about unions from the Federal Task Force, whose very existence is to encourage unionizing. 

I understand the desire to avoid the topic of unions as in my thirty years of working as an Employer Advocate, I’ve skimmed over union articles, and barely skimmed at that.  Unions have never been a real issue for most Florida employers, unless you are Disney or a public service entity/municipality.  Yes, we must work within the regulations and rules around Section 7 rights (protected concerted activity) of the National Labor Relations Act, but unions have never been a concern.  Nationally, there has been a steady decline in union activity as the rights of employees have continued to expand.  What is the threat now? Why does it matter to you?

Biden vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen” and he appears to be living up to that promise.  His first order of business, day one in office, was to fire (and replace) the sitting General Counsel of the NLRB, even though his term was set to expire November 2021. This is the first time in history a President has fired the sitting General Counsel! 

Biden nominated Marty Walsh to be our Secretary of Labor.  Mr. Walsh has been confirmed by the Senate and is now the first union member in nearly 50 years to run the Department of Labor. 

Biden’s most recent act to abide by the union promise was an Executive Order to create a task force to encourage worker organizing and collective bargaining.

VP Harris has been tapped to chair the Federal Task Force.  The task force has no more than 180 days from the Executive Order to submit recommendations for actions to promote worker organizing and to increase union density. 

Most business owners and HR professionals have no history in dealing with a partial workforce rebellion.  This could happen in individual companies or it could be a wider industry movement in a city or region.  Again, most of us have no history in dealing with unions or collective bargaining, so where do you start?  What are you supposed to do and how? 

You may wish to start with training your managers.  They typically have the pulse of your employees and will be the first to know if organizing starts and will likely be the ones your employees go to with questions.  Mostly importantly, they need to know how to report, monitor and legally respond to employees.  A manager saying “They will shut this company down, before allowing a union in” is not an appropriate response and could cause you much bigger legal problems. 

Next, you will want to talk with your employees.  In our current environment, they need to be communicated with regularly, regardless of union activity.  It seems, we have spent most of the past year with social media, news outlets and the government focused on dividing the country and our citizens.  We’ve been divided by our race, gender, religion, political party, mask and/or COVID vaccine status, views on Second Amendment rights, sexual preference, or how you identify.  The media has provided you with a multitude of options to cause division in your community.  Wouldn’t it be nice if employees didn’t have to endure division at their place of employment? 

Communicating with employees to remind them that they do not need an intermediary to speak with their manager or the company owner is a must!  You want to stress that you have good open communication between managers and employees.  Remind employees that you offer competitive wages and benefits.  If any of this is not true, now is the time to fix it as it will be good for your company as a whole, even if the taskforce doesn’t target your industry.  Union organizers will use any real (or imagined) crack in your company’s framework to convince employees of how much better they would be with a union on their side.

You may also consider modernizing your policies in regard to your position on unions, while stressing your company’s open door policy as well as a no solicitation policy.   

Remember your people are the reason your company exists, and they need to be reminded and shown that they are valued and appreciated. 

Being proactive now is one of the keys to your success when it comes to preventing a union from walking through your front door.

Let us know if you would like any help with implementing a Union Avoidance management training program. With AAG on your side, we will help to ensure your team is prepared to answer employee questions.

The Feds Are Coming, Is Your Business Ready? Part 1: New DOL Outreach

June 08 - Posted at 8:31 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

The Department of Labor (DOL) has launched a new concentrated outreach initiative. For business owners, that means the DOL has promised to actively reach out via radio announcements, social media platforms and neighborhood posters informing employees of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

You may now be thinking “What does that have to do with me? I pay my employees to work”.  While this may be mostly true, often we (or our managers) inadvertently allow or encourage our employees to work off the clock.  Before your internal defenses kick into high gear, let me provide a few examples of how this could occur: 

  • Have you or one of your managers ever interrupted an employee during lunch to ask a “quick” work related question?
  • Do you auto deduct time for lunch each day?
  • Do your managers understand that if they need to reach out to employees before or after hours, even if it is a quick text or phone call, they should ensure the employee accounts for that time on their timesheet?
  • Do non-exempt employees have access to their work email on their personal phone?
  • How do you confirm time worked for remote employees is accurate?
  • Do you have a policy for your employees to report unauthorized or unapproved overtime?

Over the past year, business owners and managers have dedicated their time, energy and focus to keeping the essential business doors open or attempting to reopen and get employees back in the office.  To allow employees to safely return to work, you have had to operate/reopen your business within CDC guidelines, transition your business to accommodate a remote workforce, follow OSHA’s recommendations, keep up with Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Laws related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the interaction between the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA).  It is no wonder some of our focus on day-to-day compliance may have slipped. 

My company’s mission is to be The Employer Advocate.  Under the new administration, changes are happening at lightning speed and, as your advocate, we are here to help you navigate through changes as they occur.  Administrators Advisory Group (AAG) is a benefits brokerage that works with small to mid-size businesses, specializing in human resources compliance.  We work alongside your human resource team to keep you up to date with the latest workplace rules and regulations.

The Department of Labor (DOL) campaign is the first in our four-part series designed to let you know what changes have taken place that may affect your business. In the following weeks, we will cover changes regarding the Family First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) as amended under the CARES Act, changes occurring within OSHA, and a new federal taskforce created whose goal is to unionize your employees. 

While Wage & Hour rules have not changed, the informational outreach by the DOL has just begun.  The biggest change comes in the form of visibility and accessibility of the information, beginning with the revamp of their website.  The DOL has promised to proactively reach out to employees using radio public service announcements, national webinars, social media messages, and posters. 

Reminding employers and employees alike that employees must be paid for ALL hours worked is the center of this outreach!  Even if you don’t ask an employee to work overtime, even if it’s done remotely, and even if you aren’t aware (but should have been), the employee is entitled to be paid.

Wage & Hour rules can be one of the many landmines that employers have to navigate on a daily basis. With AAG on your side, we will help you ensure you are prepared in case the DOL shows up on your doorstep. Let us know if you have questions or would like to review some of your existing practices or policies.

 

Intro to New 4 Part Series of Myra’s Minutes

June 03 - Posted at 8:45 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , ,
Business owners and HR professionals alike say that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the changes, but as the Employer Advocate, we’re here to help. AAG has compiled a series of informative videos and articles to help your business navigate the upcoming changes.

Check out the intro to our newest 4 part series of Myra’s Minutes 
here!

IRS Answers to Your American Rescue Plan Act COBRA Subsidy Questions

May 21 - Posted at 8:24 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

In much-anticipated guidance, the Internal Revenue Service has offered its insight on the implementation of the COBRA temporary premium subsidy provisions of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) in Notice 2021-31.

Spanning more than 40 pages, the IRS-answered frequently asked questions (FAQs) finally resolve many issues relating to temporary premium assistance for COBRA continuation coverage left unanswered in the Department of Labor’s publication of model notices, election forms, and FAQs.

The practical implications of the guidance for employers are many. Significantly, employers must take action prior to May 31, 2021, to ensure compliance with some of the requirements under ARPA and related agency guidance.

Notice 2021-31 Topics

Notice 2021-31 provides comprehensive guidance on the ARPA subsidy and tax credit implementation issues (although it acknowledges there are many issues that still need to be addressed). Some of the key topics addressed include:

  • Clarifying that COBRA premium assistance is available for COBRA continuation coverage under vision-only plans, dental-only plans, and health reimbursement arrangements;
  • Describing the circumstances in which retiree coverage can be considered COBRA coverage and qualify for the subsidy and when non-COBRA retiree coverage will constitute other coverage for purposes of disqualifying an individual from the subsidy;
  • Defining what constitutes an “involuntary termination”;
  • Confirming that employers may rely on employee attestations regarding eligibility for premium assistance and record retention requirements;
  • Addressing the impact of employer-provided COBRA premium subsidies on the availability of the tax credit;
  • Providing instructions on how the ARPA COBRA premium subsidy notice and election rights are coordinated with the previously issued COVID-19 relief extending deadlines for certain actions; and
  • Addressing eligibility for the tax credit for church plans, small employer plans, and professional employer organization or other third-party payer arrangements.

Immediate Next Steps

For employers, there are some immediate takeaways:

  1. Review Your Lists of Potential Applicable Eligible Individuals (AEIs) Before May 31, 2021.

As expected, the IRS expansively defines an “involuntary termination.” For purposes of the ARPA COBRA subsidy, involuntary terminations include employee-initiated terminations due to good reason as a result of employer action (or inaction) resulting in a material adverse change in the employment relationship.

The guidance provides helpful COVID-19-specific examples. Employees participating in severance window programs meeting specified regulatory requirements could qualify. Voluntary employee terminations due to an involuntary material reduction in hours also could qualify. Further, voluntary terminations due to daycare challenges or concerns over workplace safety may constitute an involuntary termination, but only in the narrow circumstances in which the employer’s actions or inactions materially affected the employment relationship in an adverse way, analogous to a constructive discharge.

Employer action to terminate the employment relationship due to a disability also will constitute an involuntary termination, but only if there is a reasonable expectation before the termination the employee will return to work after the end of the illness or disability. This requires a specific analysis of the surrounding facts and circumstances. The guidance notes that a disabled employee alternatively may be eligible for the subsidy based on a reduction in hours if the reduction in hours causes a loss of coverage.

A number of the circumstances that meet the involuntary termination definition in the guidance may not be coded in payroll or HRIS systems as involuntary terminations. As employers have an affirmative obligation to reach out to employees who could be AEIs, employers will need to look behind the codes to understand the circumstances of the terminations.

Further, to identify all potential AEIs, employers may need to sweep involuntary terminations or reductions in hours occurring prior to the October 1, 2019, date referenced in the Department of Labor’s FAQs. The IRS makes clear that COBRA-qualified beneficiaries who qualified for extensions of COBRA coverage due to disability (up to 29 months), a second qualifying event (up to 36 months), or an extension under state mini-COBRA potentially can qualify for the subsidy if their coverage could have covered some part of the ARPA COBRA subsidy period (April 1, 2021–September 30, 2021).

An involuntary termination is not the only event that can make an employee potentially eligible for the subsidy. Employees who lose coverage due to a reduction in hours (regardless of the reason for the reduction) can be eligible for premium assistance as well. This can include employees who have been furloughed, experienced a voluntary or involuntary reduction of hours, or took a temporary leave of absence to facilitate home schooling during the pandemic or care for a child.

  1. Re-Evaluate Employee Exit Strategies, Severance Plans to Assess Eligibility for the Tax Credit

The IRS explains that, if an employer subsidizes COBRA premiums for similarly situated covered employees and qualified beneficiaries who are not AEIs, the employer may not be able to claim the full ARPA tax credit. In this case, the amount of the credit the employer can receive is the premium that would have been charged to the AEI in the absence of the premium assistance and does not include any amount of subsidy the employer would otherwise have provided. For example, if a severance plan covering all regular full-time employees provides that the employer will pay 100 percent of the COBRA premium for three months following separation, this employer could not take a tax credit for the subsidy provided during this three-month period.

Notice 2021-31 does not elaborate on this issue beyond providing specific examples involving a company severance plan. Thus, ambiguity remains as to whether this guidance would prohibit an employer from claiming a tax credit where an employer has agreed to provide a COBRA subsidy in a negotiated separation or settlement agreement and not pursuant to an existing severance plan or policy. Further IRS guidance on this point may be forthcoming. In light of this guidance, employers should re-evaluate their COBRA premium subsidy strategies.

On April 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued eagerly anticipated guidance on administering COBRA subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The guidance includes Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and various Model Notices and election forms implementing the COBRA Premium Assistance provisions under ARPA, while also announcing the launch of a page dedicated to COBRA Premium Subsidy guidance on its website.

Since ARPA was enacted, employers have been preparing to comply, albeit with many open questions.  ARPA requires that full COBRA premiums be subsidized for “Assistance Eligible Individuals” for periods of coverage between April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021.  While this guidance answers important questions on the administration of the subsidies, it does not address many other details on the minds of employers.  For example, this guidance does not cover important nuances such as what is an “involuntary termination” in order to qualify for subsidized coverage, how existing separation agreement commitments to subsidize COBRA should be viewed, or details on how the corresponding payroll tax credit will work.

The FAQs are largely directed to individuals and focus on how to obtain the subsidy and how subsidized coverage fits with other types of health coverage that may be available, including Marketplace, Medicaid, and individual plan coverage.   We hope that employer directed guidance will follow to fill in the gaps.

Employers will be happy to know that the FAQs confirm a few points that will impact administration.  First, eligibility for coverage under another group health plan, including that of a spouse’s employer, will disqualify the employee from the subsidy.  Employees must certify on election forms that they are not eligible for such coverage and will notify the employer if they subsequently become eligible for coverage (individual coverage, such as through the Marketplace or Medicaid, will not disqualify an otherwise eligible individual from subsidized COBRA).  Failure to do so will subject the individual to a tax penalty of $250, or if the failure is fraudulent, the greater of $250 or 110% of the premium subsidy.  The availability of other coverage (which the employer may not know about) does not impact the employer’s initial obligation to identify potential Assistance Eligible Individuals and provide the required notices and election forms.

Soon after enactment, there were also questions circling about whether ARPA applied to small employer plans not subject to COBRA, but rather state “mini-COBRA” laws.  The FAQs confirm that the subsidy also applies to any continuation coverage required under state mini-COBRA laws but also notes that ARPA does not change time periods for elections under State law.  Further guidance would be welcome on obligations related to small insured plans.  The FAQs also confirm that plans sponsored by State or local governments subject to similar continuation requirements under the Public Health Service Act are covered by the ARPA subsidies.

One area that has caused great confusion is how the right to retroactively elect COBRA coverage (to the date active coverage was lost) due to the DOL’s extended deadlines fits with this new election right.  While there is more to come on this, the DOL helpfully confirmed that these are two separate rights and thankfully, the FAQs note that the extended deadlines do not apply to the 60-day notice or election periods related to the ARPA subsidies.

The most significant part of the guidance (that we knew was coming but are still happy to see sooner rather than later) are the Model Notices and election materials.  The guidance package confirms that employers have until May 31, 2021, to provide the notices of the opportunity to elect subsidized coverage and individuals have 60 days following the date that notice is provided to elect subsidized coverage.  Individuals can begin subsidized coverage on the date of their election, or April 1, 2021, as long as the involuntary termination or reduction in hours supporting the election right occurred before April 1, 2021.  As previously noted, in no way do these timeframes extend the otherwise applicable 18-month COBRA period.

The Notices include an ARPA General Notice and COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice, to be provided to all individuals who will lose coverage due to any COBRA qualifying event between April 1 and September 30, 2021, and a separate Model COBRA Continuation Coverage Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods, to be provided to anyone who may be eligible for the subsidy due to involuntary termination or reduction in hours occurring before April 1, 2021 (i.e., generally involuntary terminations or reductions in hours occurring on or after October 1, 2019).

Plans will also have to provide individuals with a Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance 15-45 days before the expiration of the subsidy — essentially explaining that subsidies will soon expire, the ability to continue unsubsidized COBRA for any period remaining under the original 18-month coverage period and describing the coverage opportunities available through other avenues such as the Marketplace or Medicaid.  Employers are highly encouraged to use the DOL’s model notices without customization except where required to insert plan or employer specific information.

With the release of the model notices, employers and COBRA administrators now largely have the tools to administer this new election right.  The FAQs remind us that the DOL will ensure ARPA benefits are received by eligible individuals and employers will face an excise tax for failing to comply, which can be as much as $100 per qualified beneficiary (no more than $200 per family) for each day the employer is in violation for the COBRA rules.  Accordingly, employers will want to begin or continue conversations with COBRA administrators to ensure notices are timely provided to the right group of individuals.  

DOL Issues Guidance on Outbreak Period Extensions

March 01 - Posted at 1:41 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

The COVID-19 extensions that the DOL and IRS had issued last year as part of their “Joint Notice” were set to expire at midnight on February 28th.  For weeks, many have been asking the DOL and IRS for guidance on how to handle the statutorily-mandated expiration, and as a result of the lack of guidance, most plans, TPAs, insurers, and COBRA administrators had to make a judgment call as to how to proceed.

But – with 2 days to spare – DOL finally issued Disaster Relief Notice 2021-01  on February 26th.

Notice 2021-01 sets forth the DOL and IRS’ position that the COVID-19 extensions will continue past February 28th, and that all such extensions must be measured on a person-by-person basis – which was not clear from the prior guidance.  Plans, TPAs, insurers, and COBRA administrators may have to reconsider their administrative practices in light of this new direction.

Short Background

The original Joint Notice (85 Fed. Reg. 26351 (May 4, 2020) required that health and retirement plans toll a number of deadlines for individuals during the COVID-19 National Emergency, plus a 60-day period (the “Outbreak Period”) starting March 1, 2020.

But, as described in Footnote 4 of the Joint Notice, ERISA and the Code limit DOL and Treasury’s ability to toll deadlines to one year (“Tolling Period”).

The deadlines impacted in the Joint Notice are:

  • Deadline to elect COBRA;
  • Deadline to pay COBRA premiums;
  • Deadline to elect HIPAA special enrollment;
  • Deadlines to file claims, appeals, and requests for external review; and
  • Deadline for plan to provide COBRA election notice


When there has been disaster relief guidance in the past, these periods have not bumped up against the statutorily-imposed one-year limit, so this COVID-19 extension is new territory – hence all the requests for the agencies to issue guidance regarding the expiration date.

Disaster Relief Notice 2021-01

In this late-breaking Notice 2021-01, DOL says it coordinated with HHS and IRS, and the agencies are interpreting the Tolling Period to be read on a person-by-person basis.

Specifically, DOL says that the Tolling Period ends the earlier of:

  1. One year from the date the deadline would have begun running for that individual; or
  2. 60 days from the end of the National Emergency (which is still ongoing).

This means that each individual has his or her own Tolling Period!

For example, a COBRA Qualified Beneficiary (QB) has 60 days to elect COBRA, counted from the later of their loss of coverage or the date their COBRA election notice is provided.  Under the Joint Notice, a QB’s 60-day deadline was tolled as of March 1, 2020, until the end of the Outbreak Period (that is, until the end of the National Emergency + 60 days).

At the end of the Outbreak Period, the deadlines would start running again, and the QB would have their normal 60-day COBRA election period (or the balance of their election period if it started before March 1, 2020).

BUT – with the 1-year expiration, DOL’s new Notice 2021-01 says that the one-year period does not end on February 28, 2021 for all individuals, but rather each individual has his/her own one-year Tolling Period.

Examples:

  • If QB A’s election period started 2/1/20, her election deadline was tolled as of 3/1/20. Her one-year Tolling Period would end 2/28/21, so her election period would start 3/1/21, and she would have the balance of her 60-day election period.
  • If QB B’s election period started 3/1/20, her election deadline was tolled as of 3/1/20. Her one-year Tolling Period would end 2/28/21, so her 60-day election period would start 3/1/21.
  • If QB C’s election period started 6/1/20, her election deadline was tolled right away, as of 6/1/20. Her one-year Outbreak Period would end 5/31/21, so her 60-day Tolling period would start 6/1/21.
  • If QB D’s election period starts 4/1/21, her election deadline also will be tolled right away on 4/1/21, as long as we are still in the National Emergency. Her one-year Tolling Period would end 3/31/22, so her 60-day election period would start 4/1/22.

For all of these examples, the tolling would end earlier if the National Emergency ends.  In that case, the election period would end 60 days after the end of the National Emergency.

Reasonable Accommodation Requirement

Notice 2021-01 also says that DOL recognizes that enrollees may continue to encounter COVID issues, even after the one-year Tolling Period expiration.  DOL says that the “guiding principle” is for plans to act reasonably, prudently, and in the interest of the workers and their families.  DOL says that plan fiduciaries should make “reasonable accommodations to prevent the loss of or undue delay in payment of benefits . . . and should take steps to minimize the possibility of individuals losing benefits because of a failure to comply with pre-established time frames.”

Notice 2021-01 does not provide any direction regarding what would constitute a “reasonable accommodation.”  It sounds like plans may need a process to consider whether to continue to waive deadlines on a case-by-case basis, but without any guidance as to what parameters to apply.  And DOL suggests that failure to do so could be a fiduciary issue.


Notices

Regarding communicating these changes to enrollees, DOL says:

  • The plan administrator or fiduciary “should consider” affirmatively sending a notice regarding the end of the one-year relief period (presumably to each person based on her own customized extension period).
  • Plans “may need” to reissue or amend prior disclosures if they failed to provide accurate information regarding these new extension deadlines.
  • Plans “should consider” making enrollees aware of other coverage options, such as the Special Enrollment Period under the Health Insurance Marketplace.

DOL seems to be saying that plans may need to notify each individual when his or her one-year extension is about to be up and should include information about the Health Insurance Marketplace.  In addition, plans may need to update prior communications that did not anticipate this new DOL interpretation.

Enforcement

DOL says it acknowledges that there may be instances when plans or service providers themselves may not be able to fully and timely comply with pre-established timeframes and disclosure requirements.  DOL says that where fiduciaries have acted in “good faith and with reasonable diligence under the circumstances,” DOL’s approach to enforcement will be “marked by an emphasis on compliance assistance,” including grace periods or other relief.

DOL Revises COVID-19 Leave Regulations

September 14 - Posted at 1:37 PM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Employers of healthcare providers will soon be required to provide paid sick leave and partially paid family leave to a broader category of employees, and all employers subject to the law now have clarification on a number of other obligations, thanks to a revised set of regulations released by the Labor Department late Friday afternoon. After a federal court judge recently knocked down the agency’s first attempt to provide employers with practical direction in complying with the Families First Coronavirus Act (FFCRA), the Labor Department issued a second set of rules on September 11 that in some instances revise and in other instances clarify employer compliance duties. Here are the key changes and clarifications, which are slated to go into effect on September 16, that employers need to know about:

  1. The definition of workers deemed “health care providers” – whose employers may exclude them from coverage under the law – was narrowed to only include employees who are health care providers under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and those providing diagnostic services, preventive services, treatment services, or other services that are integrated with and necessary to the provision of patient care.
  2. The agency reaffirmed that leave can only be taken only if the employee has work available from which to take leave.
  3. Employees must still obtain their employer’s approval to take leave on an intermittent basis.
  4. Employees must give their employer information to support their need for leave as soon as practicable.
  5. The Labor Department revised the rules to correct an inconsistency regarding when an employee may be required to give notice of family and medical leave to their employer.
(more…)

How To Balance School Re-Openings And COVID-19 Workplace Leave: FAQs For Employers

August 28 - Posted at 11:00 AM Tagged: , , , , , , , , , ,

As the summer draws to a close, schools are announcing their re-opening plans, which vary widely across states and localities. Some schools plan to remain open several days a week and direct students to attend remotely the other days. Others will split classes into morning and afternoon sessions, allowing students attending in the morning to participate remotely at home for the rest of day and vice versa. Still others will require physical attendance at all times, while some will choose to operate entirely under a remote learning model.

In light of these different reopening plans, employers need to understand how the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) affects the leave rights of employees for each of these different types of school schedules. The below serves as a list of answers to frequently asked questions related to the issues you could face as schools begin to reopen.  

The Basics: FFCRA Leave Benefits For Working Parents

Under the FFCRA, eligible employees are entitled to Emergency Paid Sick Leave (EPSL) and/or expanded family and medical leave (EFML) if they are unable to work or telework because they need to care for their son or daughter if (a) the child’s school or place of care is closed, or (b) the child care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19-related reasons. The FFCRA regulations provide that an employee may take leave to care for their child only when the employee needs to, and actually is, caring for the child. The Department of Labor (DOL) has advised that “generally, an employee does not need to take such leave if another suitable individual — such as a co-parent, co-guardian, or the usual child care provider — is available to provide the care the employee’s child needs.”

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is a child’s school or place of care deemed “closed” for purposes of the FFCRA if it has moved to online instruction or to another model in which children are required to complete assignments at home?
Yes. If the physical location where an employee’s child received instruction or care is closed, the school or place of care is deemed “closed” for purposes of the EPSL and EFML. The DOL has instructed that this is true even if some or all instruction is being provided online or whether, through another format such as “distance learning,” the child is still expected or required to complete assignments. But this seemingly does not contemplate a hybrid model (discussed below) and likely pertains only to those circumstances where the child is not reporting to a physical location. Also note that in order to be eligible for FFCRA leave, employees must still certify that there is no other suitable person that can care for the child.

2. Is an employee entitled to FFCRA leave if they choose to keep the child at home or have the child homeschooled even though the child’s school is open?
No. The DOL has stated that employees do not need to take leave if their usual child care provider is available to provide care. But if the school is operating on a reduced capacity due to COVID-19, which then necessitates remote learning for the child, FFCRA leave could be available. See DOL guidance on summer camps

3. Would an employee qualify for FFCRA leave if their child’s school is open but the employee chooses remote learning based on a doctor’s recommendation due to the child’s vulnerability to COVID-19?
EFMLA is likely not available to the employee because the child’s school is not closed. The employee might be eligible for EPSL if they can demonstrate that they are taking leave to care for a person who has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19 (permitted reason #4 under EPSL). It is unclear however, whether a recommendation for remote learning is the same as a recommended self-quarantine for purposes of the FFCRA.

4. Will employees be eligible for FFCRA leave if a child’s school is operating on a hybrid model (whereby children are to alternate between physical attendance and remote learning)?
Likely yes. While this scenario is not specifically addressed in the statute or DOL guidance, one would argue that the child’s school is technically “closed” to that child on the days when the child is required to participate via remote learning. Thus, if the employee cannot work or telework during those days, they should qualify for FFCRA leave.

It is uncertain, however, whether a parent may take the leave consecutively or intermittently to coincide with the days and times the child is home remote learning. If the child’s school requires them to attend school daily (e.g., child attends school half of the day and spends the other half remote learning), leave is likely to be taken consecutively. If, on the other hand, the child’s schedule requires the child to physically attend school only on certain days of the week, leave is likely to be taken intermittently. Note that while the DOL regulations mandate employer consent for intermittent leave, a New York federal court recently struck out this requirement as unreasonable.

5. Would an employee qualify for FFCRA leave if the child’s school is open but the child’s before or after school program is closed?
Yes. The DOL defines a “place of care” as a physical location in which care is provided for the child. The physical location does not need to be solely dedicated to such care. Examples include day care facilities, preschools, before and after school care programs, schools, homes, summer camps, summer enrichment programs, and respite care programs.

6. Can an employer deny FFCRA leave to an employee who previously teleworked while the child’s school was closed but intends to request leave if the child’s school remains closed for the fall?
No. The DOL has made clear that simply because an employee has been teleworking despite having their children at home does not mean the employee is prevented from now taking leave to care for the child whose school is closed for a COVID-19-related reason.

7. Can more than one parent take paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave simultaneously to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed, or child care provider is unavailable, due to COVID-19 related reasons?
No. An employee may take EPSL or EFML leave to care for their child only when they need to, and actually are, caring for the child if they are unable to work or telework as a result of providing care. Generally, employees do not need to take such leave if a co-parent, co-guardian, or the usual child care provider is available to provide the care the child needs.

8. Can an employee take paid FFCRA leave to care for a child who is 18 years old or older?
It depends. EPSL and EFML leave may only be taken to care for an employee’s non-disabled child if they are under the age of 18. If the employee’s child is 18 years of age or older with a disability and cannot care for themselves due to that disability, the employee may take EPSL and EFML leave to care for the child if their school or place of care is closed or the child care provider is unavailable due to COVID-19-related reasons and the employee is unable to work or telework as a result. Additionally, EPSL is available to care for an individual who is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID-19 or has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19. If an employee has a need to care for a child age 18 or older who needs care for these circumstances, the employee may take EPSL if they are unable to work or telework as a result of providing care. But in no event may the employee’s total paid sick leave exceed two weeks.

9. Can an employee use EPSL for child care purposes if the employee already used up their 80 hours of EPSL for other permitted purposes?
No. The DOL regulations state that employees are entitled to only a one-time use of 80 hours of EPSL, regardless of the reason. However, if an employee has not exhausted their full EPSL allotment, they may use the remaining time for other permitted reasons.

10. If a new employee has used up their EPSL leave allotment while employed at their previous employer, are they entitled to another 80 hours of EPSL leave with the new employer?
No. The DOL regulations specify that any person is limited to a total of 80 hours of EPSL. An employee who has taken all such leave and then changes employers is not entitled to additional EPSL from their new employer. However, an employee who has taken some (but fewer than 80 hours of) EPSL and then changes employers is entitled to the remaining portion of such leave from their new employer, but only if the new employer is covered by the FFCRA.

11. Can employees use EFML leave if they have already exhausted all of their FMLA leave allotment for the benefit year?
No. An employee may only take a total of 12 workweeks for FMLA or EFMLA reasons during the employer’s designated benefit year.

12. Does EFML contain the same limitation contained in the FMLA that requires spouses who work for the same employer to share the 12 weeks of leave (instead of each getting 12 weeks)?
No. Under 29 CFR 201(b), spouses who work for the same employer can be required to share a combined 12 weeks of FMLA leave to bond with their new child or care for their own parent with a serious health condition. The EFMLA does not provide for the same carveout. But keep in mind that while both employees who work for the same employer would each be eligible for EFMLA leave, they would likely not be able to both take leave to care for their child since they have to certify that there is not alternative suitable caregiver. 

13. What supporting documents must employees provide to their employers for FFCRA purposes?
When requesting EPSL or EFML leave, employees must provide the following information to their employers, either orally or in writing:

  • Employee’s name;
  • The date(s) for which employee requests leave;
  • The reason for leave; and
  • A statement that the employee is unable to work because of a FFCRA qualifying reason.

If the employee requests leave because they are subject to a quarantine or isolation order or to care for an individual subject to such an order, they should additionally provide the name of the government entity that issued the order. If the employee requests leave to self-quarantine based on the advice of a health care provider or to care for an individual who is self-quarantining based on such advice, they should also provide the name of the health care provider who gave the advice.

If the employee requests leave to care for a child whose school or place of care is closed, or child care provider is unavailable, they must also provide:

  • The name of the child;
  • The name of the school, place of care, or child care provider that has closed or become unavailable; and
  • A statement that no other suitable person is available to care for the child.

Notably, a New York federal court recently held that supporting documentation may not be required as a precondition for FFCRA leave. Thus, employers should ensure documentation is not required to commence the leave under the FFCRA. Supporting documentation can be submitted after the leave has commenced.

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