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Big Jump Predicted for Group Health Plans in 2018

By | Affordable Care Act, Benefits & Insurance, Employment News | No Comments

Group health plan costs will nearly double the increase businesses experienced in 2017, according to surveys conducted by varied business advocacy groups. Plan costs are expected to rise 4.3 percent, even after plan changes and other measures to reduce costs. Without changes, the rise would be closer to 6 percent.

That figure is far below the rises business owners experienced around the turn of the millennium, when they rose as much as 14 percent in one year, but they will still have an impact. The increase will likely be felt across the board, and small and midsized business owners (SMBs), many of which already feel priced out of the market, will feel the pinch even more. On the upside, with the ACA repeal not going through (and with little chance it will, at this point), SMBs of 25 employees or fewer will still be eligible for a tax credit to offset insurance costs.

To address the increase, many large employers predict they will enact cost control strategies, such as how health care is delivered and paid for, per an annual survey by the National Business Group on Health. These adjustments will be in addition to pursuing traditional cost-control methods, such as cost sharing and plan design changes. As a result, many companies may offer their personnel a broader range of health care services, including telemedicine (remote doctor consultations via Internet, for example,) and onsite health centers during open enrollment.

Small Businesses Take a Hit, but Options Remain

As with a lot of big business cost-cutting initiatives, many SMBs will have a harder time adjusting for the increase. They often lack the resources and/or time to pursue many of the more original cost-saving measures for counteracting premium increases, unless they work collectively with other businesses locally or through small business associations or outsourced benefits firms.

Telehealth, which has been or will be adopted by 96 percent of large employers, is one creative option that is easily accessible to SMBs. It reduces costs and complexity not only for inquiries and preventive care but also for diagnoses of common medical problems, post-treatment check-ins, chronic care follow up, and authorization for prescription refills.

Plan Creativity Helps, Too

Employers are also getting inventive with coverage in their efforts to control both their costs (70 percent of total) and their employees (30 percent), per the Large Employers’ 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey. For 2018, per the survey, 90 percent of large employers will offer at least Consumer Directed Health Plan (CDHP). 40 percent say it will be their only plan option. The most common CDHP approach is a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) paired with a Health Savings Account.

SMBs will continue to have access to the ACA’s Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP). SHOP provides SMBs with year-round access to health plans, and it allows employers to offer multiple plans as well as decide how much of the premiums they wish to pay. For more about SHOP, click here.)

“Employers are recognizing that traditional cost control techniques alone aren’t able to reduce costs to the point where they are no longer a drain on the bottom line,” said Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health, in a prepared statement. ” We expect them to increasingly focus on value purchasing opportunities within the delivery system and improving the experience for health care consumers. Finding solutions to the growing challenge of skyrocketing specialty pharmacy costs will also remain a top priority.”

*The Large Employers’ 2018 Health Care Strategy and Plan Design Survey was conducted between May and June 2017. A total of 148 large employers participated in the survey. Collectively, respondents represent a wide range of industry sectors and offer coverage to more than 15 million employees and their dependents. Two-thirds of respondents belong to the Fortune 500 and/or the Global Fortune 500, and 42 belong to the Fortune 100.

Employee Benefits—Managing Them for Everyone

By | Benefits & Insurance, Best Practices, Employee Retention, Hiring, Sick Leave | No Comments

Employee benefits have become increasingly complicated for business owners as they struggle to address them for very different generations of workers. Baby boomers may want time off for elder care, while millennials may want extra paid vacation or flex time.

Compounding the issue, workers have become increasingly willing to turn down a job offer—or even leave one company for another—to acquire the benefits package they desire. Organizations can address these concerns without negatively affecting the firm. All it takes is a little ingenuity and flexibility.

The recent 2017 Society for Human Resource Management study on Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement offers insight into this situation. We’ve hit some of the high points, below, but you can read the entire report, here. The survey found:

  • The most valued components of a benefits program address employee quality of life: health care, leave and flexibility. Not only were these benefits important; they also displayed the greatest gap between importance and level of satisfaction with current corporate policies and attitudes.
  • Financial advice benefits are on the rise, going from 28 percent in 2014 to 49 percent in 2017.
  • Over the past four years, spousal and domestic partner benefits have increased:
    • 95 percent provide health care coverage for opposite-sex spouses.
    • 85 percent provide coverage for same-sex spouses.
    • Just over one-half provide coverage for domestic partners, regardless of whether they are the same or opposite sex.
  • Nearly one-third of organizations increased their overall benefits offerings in the past 12 months, with health (22 percent) and wellness (24 percent) benefits topping the list.

Benefits Don’t Have to Break the Bank

Owners of small and midsized businesses reading this survey may wonder how they can compete for top talent with large corporations and their fancy benefits packages. With a little imagination, smaller firms can thrive in their hiring and retention efforts, compared to larger competition. Here’s how:

  • Foster a caring, “family” environment, with frequent employee gatherings, recognition of personal needs and other approaches that are difficult for larger companies to manage.
  • Be flexible—if a worker wants four weeks of vacation, for example, let him or her have it, but reduce compensation accordingly.
  • Offer perks that build employee loyalty but don’t break the bank. Flexible work hours, part-time telecommuting and casual dress codes, where appropriate, don’t cost the firm a penny yet deliver substantial value in terms of employee appreciation.

Reasonable Accommodation—Maintain A Paper Trail, and Don’t Assume Anything

By | Best Practices, Risk Management & Safety, Workplace Injuries | No Comments

One of the most complex issues for employers is the definition of reasonable accommodation. Per the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, reasonable accommodation is “any change to a job, the work environment, or the way things are usually done that allows an individual with a disability to apply for a job, perform job functions, or enjoy equal access to benefits available to other individuals in the workplace.”

Evaluating disabled job candidates equitably is difficult enough, but the process can be especially hazardous when a previously healthy worker is injured and, upon return to work, can no longer perform all their prior job functions.

Per federal law, company leaders must make a reasonable effort to accommodate those limitations, and the process must be both thorough and well documented. Only after they have determined that there is no job modification that the worker can perform with his or her limitations can they terminate the worker’s employment. To avoid a negative decision that is potentially actionable, decision makers must follow specific guidelines, and consider input from a variety of sources, before making that determination.

Medical Evaluation Is Mandatory

When an employee is injured, on or off the job, the employer must require the individual to be examined by a physician to determine “fitness for duty” before allowing them to resume work. (Not doing this can cause additional problems. We’ll discuss this issue in a later article.) In some cases, the physician may determine that the worker can only resume work with limitations, such as avoiding certain activities.

A Documentation-Based Evaluation

One of the primary reference sources for reasonable accommodation should be the job description. All companies should include “essential functions” in their job descriptions—activities that workers must be able to perform in order to do their jobs. Without a list of essential functions, it can be nearly impossible for an employer to prove that inability for a worker to perform a certain activity makes them unfit for duty.

An Interactive Process

Additionally, organizations must interactively include the worker in the process of identifying a possible accommodation. As a recent court case proves, failure to do so can be very expensive. In Vetter v. Iowa, Iowa Ct. App., No. 16-0208, an Iowa appeals court awarded more than $900,000 to John Vetter, an employee with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), after the DNR determined it could not accommodate Vetter’s medical limitations without  “undue hardship.” The primary rationale for the decision was that the DNR failed to give Vetter the chance to have input in the process.

The key takeaway for employers is that requirements such as medical examinations, lists of essential functions and interactive discussions with injured workers about their post-injury outcomes may seem burdensome, but the alternative is for employers to assume considerable, unnecessary risk.

Make Technology Work for You

By | Benefits & Insurance, Best Practices, Employee Engagement, Technology in the Workplace, Uncategorized | No Comments

In our last article, we offered strategies for managing personal technology use at work. Employee use (or abuse) of technology in the workplace, while detrimental, is not the only concern for business leaders. Firms must also help workers better manage their time using technology for valid business purposes, both inside and outside the office. Here’s a bit more practical advice.

Help Workers Help Themselves: Many office workers report that the volume of business email and other communication has become overwhelming—and deeply distracting. For employees whose jobs are not centered around email, encourage them to establish “quiet” times—periods when they don’t read or respond to email and can get other work done.

Most email programs allow the user to set up rules for message delivery—including desktop alerts that can penetrate the silence if a message is truly urgent. The Society for Human Resource Management recently published an article with more tips for preventing technology-related distractions. You can review it, here.

Address Technology Outside the Workplace: Increasingly, workers find themselves conducting business after hours using their cell phones or personal computers. Many report a preference for this practice. It lets them make productive use of “downtime” (e.g. riding to and from work on the bus or train) and resolve issues when they arise rather than having to deal with them the next day.

Business owners should recognize this extra effort by personnel and reward them with compensation or other perks. As the National Law Review reports, in many cases, companies do not have a choice about how they compensate personnel for these activities. However, even when rewards are not required, providing them shows workers that the company appreciates their extra effort. It also reinforces the concept that personal and business activities are separate and should be managed as such.

Stop Technology from Disrupting Your Workplace

By | Best Practices, Policies and Procedures, Technology in the Workplace | No Comments

For the past several decades, experts have talked about the “disruptive” nature of technology to change, for the better, the way companies run their operations. However, with the use of digital technologies becoming as common in offices as desktop computers, these disruptions aren’t always positive.

To prevent technology from becoming a detriment to the work environment, shrewd business leaders can enact policies and procedures to manage the flow of information through their company.

Personal Technology Use in the Workplace

From social media posting to streaming videos, personal technology use at work has become so problematic that it’s overloading the networks of some firms. Corporate bandwidth consumed for personal use isn’t available to run cloud applications, exchange files with clients or support other legitimate business tasks. Furthermore, when workers access corporate networks with potentially insecure devices, they increase the chances of a cybersecurity breach.

Marathon has previously offered advice about personal device usage policies (read that article, here), so we won’t revisit that discussion, now. Following are a few added tips:

  • Include in company policies a notation that unauthorized use of corporate technology, such as network connections, is equivalent to stealing and can result in termination.
  • Set up a separate, slower “guest” network in public areas (e.g. lobbies; break rooms) for both employees and visitors to use—and establish rules for when personnel can use that network.
  • If workers are allowed to use personal devices on corporate networks, deploy mobile device management (MDM) technologies to ensure the devices don’t pose a threat to company security.

Why Don’t We Labor on Labor Day?

By | Benefits & Insurance, Employment News, News, Uncategorized | No Comments

Our news usually deals with business topics, but today, we thought it would be interesting to look at the history and origination of our beloved “end of summer” holiday: Labor Day. This day might better be called “Workers’ Day,” because that is who it celebrates—the American worker and the trade and labor groups that support them.

Encouraged by the labor movement, Labor Day’s first governmental recognition came through municipal ordinances passed in 1885 and 1886, followed by an Oregon state bill in 1887. On June 28, 1894, Congress made it a federal holiday and designated the first Monday in September as its official date. To learn more about Labor Day, read this summary from former Department of Labor Historian Linda Stinson. If you are still curious, you can view Stinson’s entire Q&A, here.

Q: What’s the history of Labor Day? How did it all begin?

A: The Labor Day holiday is interesting because it evolved over a period of years. In 19th century America, there was already a tradition of having parades, picnics and various other celebrations in support of labor issues, such as shorter hours or to rally strikers. But most historians emphasize one specific event in the development of today’s modern Labor Day. That pivotal event was the parade of unions and a massive picnic that took place in New York City on Sept. 5, 1882.

At that time, the labor movement was growing stronger. Many of the unions in New York prospered by joining together into one Central Labor Union made up of members from many local unions. On May 14, 1882, a proposal was made at the Central Labor Union meeting that all workers should join together for a “monster labor festival” in early September. A committee of five people was appointed to find a park for the celebration. They chose Wendel’s Elm Park at 92nd Street and 9th Avenue, the largest park in New York City at that time; the date was set for Tuesday, September 5. By June, they had sold 20,000 tickets with the proceeds going to each local union selling them. In August, the Central Labor Union passed a resolution “that the 5th of September be proclaimed a general holiday for the workingmen in this city.”

At first they were afraid that the celebration was going to be a failure. Many of the workers in the parade had to lose a day’s pay in order to participate. When the parade began only a handful of workers were in it, while hundreds of people stood on the sidewalk jeering at them. But then slowly they came – 200 workers and a band from the Jewelers’ Union showed up and joined the parade. Then came a group of bricklayers with another band. By the time they reached the park, it was estimated that there were 10,000 marchers in the parade in support of workers.

The park was decorated with flags of many nations. Everyone picnicked, drank beer and listened to speeches from the union leadership. In the evening, even more people came to the park to watch fireworks and dance. The newspapers of the day declared it a huge success and “a day of the people.”

After that major event in New York City, other localities began to pick up the idea for a fall festival of parades and picnics celebrating workers.

Family Leave Rules Are a Potential Landmine for Employers

By | FMLA, Pregnancy Leave, Sick Leave | No Comments

Even with record numbers of employers winning Family Medical Leave Act lawsuits, family-leave related issues remain complex and treacherous for most firms to navigate. The fact that Georgia has no state equivalent of the federal FMLA, and that firms of fewer than 50 are not subject to its requirements, doesn’t make compliance any easier. From pregnancies to off-the-job injuries, situations that temporarily remove a worker from his place of employment must be treated with care.

Communication Matters

In the case of Martin v. Tall Brown Dog, LLC, a recently hired business development employee, Jennifer Martin, became pregnant shortly after joining the firm. At the time, she advised her vice president (VP), then a month later asked how to plan for delivery since she was not yet eligible for leave under the FMLA. The next day, the company VP told her, “This is not going to work out.” Assuming she was being fired, the plaintiff cleaned out her desk and left the facility.

The VP told others that the meeting had been to discuss her performance and that he did not tell her she was fired. However, after the meeting, he sent the firm’s CEO an email that read, “I let Jennifer go today.”

Martin sued for pregnancy discrimination under Title VII and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan let the case move forward based upon the VP’s email to the CEO. Even without the email, the court noted, the short timespan between the plaintiff’s communication about pregnancy and her termination was enough to send the case to a jury trial.

An Opposite Outcome

Another case involving a negative action subsequent to leave had the opposite result, because the firm had clear, consistent (and prudent) policies, procedures and communications. Sotera Defense Solutions Inc. employed Gary Waag in a series of progressively more responsible positions until he severely injured his hand by falling off the roof of his home. Waag took FMLA for several months to recuperate, and in the interim, the defense contractor placed someone else in his position.

When Waag returned to work, he was moved to an equivalent position to the one he had prior to FMLA leave. However, two months later, Sotera experienced a drastic work decrease and engaged in layoffs. Waag was one of the first to be let go. Because the company could clearly prove that its need to reduce the workforce was legitimate, and there was no communication to contradict that assertion, the courts sided with Sotera.

The Trend Toward Workplace “Body Art” − What You Can Do

By | Best Practices, Employment Law, Hiring | No Comments

With Millennial workers (and many workers from other eras) increasingly adopting non-traditional body art (officially called body modifications), business owners are grappling with how to address this issue. Per a February 2016 Harris Poll, 47 percent of Millennials and 36 percent of Gen X respondents have at least one tattoo, and that percentage is only going to rise.

Tattoos and piercings may be fine for businesses that want to be perceived as “edgy,” but what about more traditional firms? Company owners who enact sound business policies and practices can ensure the level of body modifications fits their business environments.

Like most aspects of employee behavior, the key to controlling body modifications is through a well-written company policy, generally implemented as part of the dress code. There is no blanket federal or state law that covers body modifications, per se. However, body modifications, in some cases, have been deemed to be part of a religious practice. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers with 15 or more employees “must reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices unless doing so would impose an undue hardship on the employer.” Many states extend similar anti-discriminatory protections to employees of businesses with fewer than 15 workers.

Beginning with the interview or application, and continuing through onboarding, organizations must make their policies clear and give job seekers the opportunity to self-identify their body modifications − and any religious practices to which they relate.

Additionally, organizations should reconfirm policies for dress and appearance in a formal, written document that all new hires sign as a condition of employment. This approach levels the playing field and ensures all new hires are aware of potential repercussions if they expose body modifications in the workplace. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently published a helpful article on this topic that may provide additional insight on this topic.

Will a Higher Minimum Wage Result in Fewer Jobs—and Small Businesses?

By | Employment News, News | No Comments

Earlier this month, the governor of Missouri announced he was lowering the state’s minimum wage from $10 back to $7.70. The reason? He had heard from numerous small-business owners who said they couldn’t afford to pay the wage and stay in business. Although California and other states have committed to raise minimum wage to $15 an hour, small and midsized business (SMB) owners with limited resources appear to be struggling to meet higher wage requirements.

McDonald's KioskEven as SMB owners are asking for relief, some larger firms are implementing innovations that could reduce their dependence on workers. McDonald’s, for example, announced late last year that it was introducing automated ordering technologies, such as kiosks and mobile ordering. You may have noticed these kiosks in your local McDonald’s—I saw one while on vacation earlier this month.

At the time, Forbes reported the decision was made to counteract the minimum wage increase, given that kiosks could potentially reduce the required number of workers. While investing in automation is more expensive than a minimum wage worker initially, over time it more than pays for itself. (McDonald’s has since stated that it will move displaced workers to different positions, rather than reducing staff count.)

At the present, there is little to no consensus in the country regarding how minimum wage should be handled, except, perhaps, among the minimum wage workers who say it isn’t enough. The irony is that the minimum wage, which was introduced to stabilize a post-depression economy, was never intended to be the primary means of support for families over the long haul.

Even now, the percentage of workers earning minimum wage is 2.7 percent of the total working population—less than 10 percent of all hourly workers (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics; 2016 figures). Of this percentage, 74 percent work part time, 85 percent are unmarried, and approximately half are below the age of 25.

These statistics appear to support employers and business organizations who argue against minimum wage increases, citing negative impacts that outweigh the benefits. They may be right. The Congressional Budget Office predicted that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 could cost the economy 500,000 jobs, many of which might be lost due to the failure of small businesses in competitive, low-margin industries.

Given that SMBs constitute 99.7 percent of employer firms (per the Small Business Association), their health is important to the health of our economy. We at Marathon will be watching to see how states—and the current, pro-employer federal administration—will address the issue.

HR Professionals Who Step Over the Line: Are You Unwittingly “Practicing Law”?

By | Employment Law | No Comments

HR Professionals Who Step Over the LineMarathon has always counseled its clients that the best way to handle legal issues relating to employment-related activities is to work with a labor attorney. When HR professionals make judgment calls about, or engage in activities relating to, the legal aspects of a personnel issue, they run the risk of taking inappropriate action that could potentially put themselves and their employers in jeopardy.

Some of these activities can seem very rational. Consider, for example, the case of Bank of Fayetteville NA v. Dep’t of Workforce Services (2016). Here, the Arkansas Court of Appeals dismissed a bank’s appeal regarding a negative unemployment benefits determination because the executive vice president of the bank, who did not have a license to practice law, signed the appeal petition. Although the act may have been done unwittingly, the employee technically engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) has been arguing since at least 2002 to exclude common, reasonable HR activities from consideration as “unlawful practice of law.” Former SHRM president and CEO Susan Meisinger, J.D., SHRM-SCP, criticized the American Bar Association for its suggested definition, noting, “HR professionals represent employers before countless administrative bodies,…regularly represent employers in arbitration and mediation proceedings, and negotiate legal agreements, including offer letters, termination packages and independent contractor agreements.” The ABA withdrew its proposal from consideration, leaving the states to define the laws in ways that often do not favor HR professionals.

The unlawful practice of law, defined differently from state to state, can result in misdemeanors, criminal prosecution and the invalidation of any decisions or actions taken by the person who engaged in the activity, even if they did it unwittingly. We urge organizations to heed our advice and avoid any activities or decisions that in any other industry would be left to an attorney.