Category Archives: benefits

FMLA Update Redefines ‘Spouse’

same sex marriageAnd the reverberations of the United States v. Windsor decision continue to be felt.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced yesterday that workers in legal, same-sex marriages—regardless of where they live—will now have the same rights as those in opposite-sex marriages to federal job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a spouse with a serious health condition.

The announcement comes not quite nine months after the DOL issued a proposed rule to change the FMLA’s definition of “spouse” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.

That June 2013 ruling, of course, struck down the Defense of Marriage Act’s provision interpreting “marriage” and “spouse” to be limited to opposite-sex marriage for the purposes of federal law.

According to the DOL, the rule change updates the FMLA regulatory definition of “spouse” such that an eligible employee in a legal same-sex marriage will be able to take FMLA leave for his or her spouse, regardless of what state the employee calls home. The previous regulatory definition of “spouse” didn’t extend to same-sex spouses if an employee resided in a state that did not recognize the employee’s same-sex marriage.

Under the new rule, eligibility for federal FMLA protections is based on the law of the place where the marriage was entered into, according to the DOL. This “place of celebration” provision allows all legally married couples, whether opposite-sex or same-sex, to have consistent federal family leave rights regardless of whether the state in which they currently reside recognizes such marriages.

We’ll see what this means for employers and HR. But yesterday’s announcement marks a step toward fulfilling the “basic promise of the FMLA,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez in announcing the updated rule.

That guarantee, he said, “is that no one should have to choose between the job and income they need, and caring for a loved one.

“With our action today, we extend that promise so that no matter who you love, you will receive the same rights and protections as everyone else,” added Perez. “All eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages, regardless of where they live, can now deal with a serious medical and family situation like all families—without the threat of job loss.”

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Shaking the Mental Health Stigma

mental healthJust a few short weeks from now, our March issue will see the light of day. In it, you’ll find the second installment of a three-part series on employee health.

This Carol Patton-penned feature looks at how more employers are “recognizing the destructive footprint of depression on their workforce and bottom line, and are taking direct aim at the illness.”

There’s no doubt that many companies have made great strides in identifying the signs and understanding the insidious impact of this illness, and are acting to help employees affected by depression as well as those dealing with other mental health issues.

But, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a ways to go.

The Disability Management Employer Coalition’s just-released 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey posed 42 online questions to 314 employers of various sizes between July and August of last year. The results suggest the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace still very much exists, to say the least.

For example, respondents were asked what level of, or change in, stigma associated with “having a psychological/psychiatric problem” they have witnessed in the last two years. (DMEC conducts its Behavioral Risk Survey on a biennial basis.)

Overall, 41.4 percent of respondents said the stigma remained the same, with 25.1 percent indicating that the stigma has actually decreased in that time.

Another 24.2 percent, however, said the stigma has increased since 2012. And, consider that just 7.6 percent reported feeling the same way two years ago.

Troubling as some of these figures are, the survey does show signs that management awareness and acceptance of behavioral health issues is growing, though. When asked how their upper management’s opinion regarding the need to review behavioral health issues has changed over the past two years, for instance, 36.8 percent of respondents replied, “yes, it has become more open” in that time. In 2012, 25 percent of respondents said the same.

In addition, 32.8 percent of survey participants said their organizations screen for underlying psychological or psychosocial issues, marking a slight, 3.2 percent increase from 2012.

In a statement detailing some of the survey’s findings, DMEC Executive Director Terri L. Rhodes described employers’ increased adoption of screening and other tools to identify and address mental health conditions as “heartening.”

But, she adds, “there is much more to be done to reduce the stigma still attached to these illnesses and create a consistently collaborative approach to treating them.”

(A full report on the 2014 Behavioral Risk Survey is available by contacting John Jordan at jjordan@principor.com or 202.595.9008.)

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Shoring Up Pension Plans

About two-thirds of companies that sponsor defined-benefit plans plan to take steps this year to protect their bottom lines from expected rises in premiums from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

That’s according to a new survey from Aon Hewitt, which queried 183 DB plan sponsors about their current and future plans. Twenty-two percent said they’re “very likely” to offer terminated vested participants a lump-sum window this year, while 19 percent plan to increase cash contributions to their plans to reduce PBGC premiums in the year ahead and 21 percent will consider purchasing annuities for some of their plan participants.

“A growing number of plan sponsors anticipate increasing pension plan costs due to recent changes to the Society of Actuaries longevity models and rising PBGC premiums,” said Aon Hewitt’s Ari Jacobs, its global retirement solutions leader.

President Obama has once again proposed giving the PBGC the power to raise premiums on single and multiemployer DB plans, a strategy that would raise a projected $19 billion over the next decade (Congress rejected the President’s previous proposal). This move is staunchly opposed by many in the business community, however — including the ERISA Industry Committee –  who say it would “create a direct conflict of interest.”

“This proposal continues to resurface each year, and policymakers appropriately have rejected it as an inappropriate and impractical expansion of government authority that would hurt plan participants and plan sponsors,” ERIC CEO Annette Guarisco Fildes said in a statement.

Although the PBGC is now on sturdier financial footing than in previous years — thanks in part to an improving economy — the agency still faces considerable deficits in its single-plan and multiemployer insurance plans. The annual report estimates that the multiemployer plan has a 90-percent chance of running out of money by 2025.

Late last year Congress passed the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act, which makes it easier for sponsors of plans that are at serious financial risk to reduce payments to retirees, with the intent of reducing the risk that the PBGC will need to take over the plan.

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Another City Tackles Paid Sick Days

The Philadelphia City Council today is debating a hot-button topic with potential HR ramifications that may reach far beyond the city’s limits: whether to enact a paid sick days bill into law.

If passed, the City of Brotherly Love will join San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York City, Jersey City, Newark and the state of Connecticut as municipalities with such laws on the books.

While the debate around such laws has been growing over the years, momentum for its passage increased after President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address, which called for cities to ensure paid sick days for millions of Americans. The president is also urging Congress to require companies to give workers up to seven days of paid sick leave a year.

According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, San Francisco became the first locality in the nation to guarantee access to earned paid sick days in 2006.

In 2008, the District of Columbia and Milwaukee passed paid sick days standards that included paid “safe” days for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. In 2011, the Connecticut legislature became the first in the nation to pass a statewide paid sick days law, and Seattle became the fourth city, with Portland, Ore., and New York City joining their ranks in 2013.

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For the Record Book?

In the name of fun—and, oh yes, employee wellness!—some 1,800 University of Washington faculty, staff and student employees assembled at Husky Stadium yesterday to take part in an umbrella dance with the hopes of earning a Guinness World Record. (Promotional video is embedded below.)

The participants performed their would-be record-breaking dance to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” with the goal of kicking off “a new year of community and wellness,” according to UW.

In case you’re wondering, the previous record for the world’s largest umbrella dance was set across the Pacific in Japan by 1,688 participants last August.

To break the record, dancers are required to perform a synchronized routine for five minutes. In preparation, these participants held six group dance rehearsals. In addition, dancers took part at UW campuses in Bothell and Tacoma.

You can check out the actual event here at the Seattle Times website.

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Starting the Ultimate Conversation

Last holiday season, I posted a piece on this blog about what employers should do when employees come to them with news that 465319021 -- difficult conversationthey are dying. It featured advice from Lynne Curry, president of Anchorage, Alaska-based The Growth Co., who stressed the importance — for employers, and HR and benefits professionals — of going over plans and benefits with any and all employees who come to them with such difficult information.

Recently, it seems, The Dow Chemical Co. took that discussion many steps further by partnering with a company called The Conversation Project. Founded by journalist Ellen Goodman, the project offers a step-by-step guide, called the Conversation Starter Kit, designed to carry managers, HR professionals, family members and loved ones through what I would call the ultimate conversation.

The idea to offer such a project and kit to her employees came to Dr. Cathy Baase, global director of health services at Midland, Mich.-based Dow, when she heard Goodman speak at a health conference about her own experiences as her mother’s caregiver and healthcare decision-maker for many years, and her resulting mission to change the way Americans talk about and deal with death.

As Goodman shared then, had she had conversations with her mother before dementia impaired her ability to share her desires, she might have felt more secure in making the decisions she faced.

Dr. Baase was driven by her own experiences as well, not only in seeing employees through this difficult time, but having engaged her own family to talk early, and often, about their mother’s chronic illness. She and her older sister, a nurse, were the forces behind the bi-weekly and sometimes weekly conference calls they would have with their two younger brothers, committed to staying on the same page about their mother’s care until she passed.

“Having these conversations actually made us closer as a family,” says Dr. Baase. “We knew how things were going and what to expect in the future, and we talked through everything until we came to an agreement. It did make things easier — although these things are never completely easy.”

With the help of The Conversation Project, Dow has begun a focused effort to educate employees and retirees about the merits of getting it all out in the open. Information about the project is now on the Dow internal website and has been distributed at retiree-health fairs.

The company also sponsored two webinars for its employees, retirees and staff, and its magazine, Dow Friends, which reaches more than 50,000 retirees in the United States and Canada, featured an article on the effort. It also shot a video recently for use in meetings and promotions, and plans are under way to hold role-playing events to help people break the ice and initiate these conversations at home.

“If we can help Dow employees be less stressed, more comforted and at peace,” says Dr. Baase, “then that leads to less distraction and a break from worry. … We have a history of confronting challenging problems that affect our society, and end-of-life care is an extension of that.”

Mega kudos to Dow, Dr. Baase and the project.

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Five Important Steps for Retirement

retirement reviewMercer has just released its annual “10 Steps DC Plan Sponsors Should Take” for the coming year, or things employers should do to ensure their defined-contribution plans are meeting the needs of plan participants while staying in compliance and taking advantage of recent innovations. Some of these recommendations include the usual about financial-wellness education, monitoring participants’ progress against their retirement goals, reviewing plan fees and checking up on providers to make sure they’re staying compliant.

Rather than list all 10 steps, I’ve focused on the five that address relatively new developments.

First, you should make sure your plan is responsive to participants’ retirement-security needs by studying the latest available options, such as services promoting Social Security optimization. You should also be prepared to “respond to favorable regulatory changes,” such as the increased guidance on the use of in-plan annuities.

Second, you should conduct an in-depth analysis of your current, or future, managed-account provider. Heightened scrutiny of such providers, including the Government Accountability Office’s recommendation to the DOL to conduct an in-depth review of managed-account providers, means you should be taking a close look at your processes for selecting and monitoring these providers.

Third, make sure the capital preservation option in your plan is still the most appropriate for plan participants. Capital preservation options such as money market and stable value options have an important place within the DC framework. Given the new fixed-income products that have arrived on the market within the last few years, along with the increased SEC regulations that will be placed on money market funds in 2016, now is a good time to review your plan’s offerings to determine whether they’re still meeting participants’ needs.

Fourth, think about what a disabled employee can do to keep current with his or her plan while out on leave.  As Mercer notes, when employees go out on disability, their DC plan contributions can take a hit. This causes a gap in participants’ retirement preparedness that, depending on their leave’s duration, they may never be able to fully close. However, new regulations that allow continued contributions during periods of disability could mean that such a gap is not inevitable.

And finally, # 5: keep an eye on liquidity. Last year saw major growth in liquid alternatives, says Mercer, such as diversified inflation and hedge funds. Exposure to options such as these is not new: Many target-date funds have some exposure to these options. Plan sponsors need to review how these liquid alternatives are defined, reviewed, implemented and monitored within the plan. Make sure these exposures are appropriate for plan participants based on what’s available on the market today, and determine whether or not additional exposure should be considered.

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Americans: Overworked Yet Positive

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll from Allstate and the National Journal is out and it contains some very good news for the nation’s employers. The poll of 1,000 employed Americans finds that the overwhelming majority think very highly of their employers, with 82 percent saying they believe their employer has a positive impact on their community and 87 percent saying they’d recommend their place of employment to others. Americans are also highly satisfied with their jobs: 93 percent said they’re satisfied and 54 percent said they’re very satisfied.

So here’s the less-positive news: Only 31 percent say they’re very satisfied with their pay. Just 43 percent are very satisfied with their job benefits, 45 percent with the amount of paid vacation and sick time offered and 38 percent with opportunities for advancement.

Finally, many Americans will be putting in time on the job that they’d rather be spending with their families this holiday season: Just under half (45 percent) say there’s “at least some chance” they will be working on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. More than half (55 percent) say it won’t be by their own choice. At least 25 percent of American workers will be required to work during at least one of these major holidays.

Working Americans’ personal time is increasingly impacting their personal time: 81 percent say they are required to be in contact outside of working hours, with 41 percent saying they’re required to be in contact frequently. More than half (56 percent) say they checked email or otherwise checked in with work during their last vacation.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Americans are looking for more flexibility and more personal time. If given the choice between jobs based on the balance between work and personal time, two in three (67 percent would choose “more flexibility and shorter hours … but less pay” while only one in four (26 percent) would choose “more pay … but less flexibility and longer hours.”

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Eliminating Silos in Health and Safety

Few of us need to be sold on the merits of greater collaboration. But if there were any doubts about what it’s able to bring to the areas of health and safety, Dr. Casey Chosewood put them to rest yesterday morning during his opening keynote speech at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference® in Las Vegas.

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Dr. Casey Chosewood, speaking at the National Workers’ Compensation and Disability Conference on Wednesday.

“Too many organizations today still have silos [that] are unconnected,” said Chosewood, chief medical officer and director of the Office for Total Worker Health Coordination and Research at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the Centers for Disease Control). “But that has to change. We have to put everything under one umbrella and take a more integrated approach.”

Remarkable things can happen when each of the components talk to one another, align their goals, understand the financial challenges of others and work on finding solutions, Chosewood told the packed room of attendees.

Of course, in the world of business, the elimination of silos, as a concept, comes up a lot. But it seems to be an especially powerful idea when it’s applied to safety and health.

Early in his talk, Chosewood took a few minutes to touch on the Ebola outbreak, which is also the subject of Carol Harnett’s Benefits Column posted earlier this week.

“I’m frequently asked if the CDC has a handle on the problem,” Chosewood said, “and that’s a fair question.”

As of today, he explained, there have been eight cases of Ebola in the United States, compared to 14,000 known cases in West Africa (a figure he believes is probably closer to between 20,000 and 28,000).

Chosewood said the CDC believes the risk of Ebola here in the United States remains very low, though he added that doesn’t negate the seriousness of the disease and the need to put “more resources on the ground in West Africa” to address it.

Returning to the focus of his talk, Chosewood said people would be mistaken were they to think they could separate work and home as far as health and well-being are concerned. “You can’t leave what happens at home on the kitchen table [just as] you can’t leave what happens at work on your desk. You shuttle them back and forth.”

Chosewood cited the example of a person who works in a factory who is exposed to lead and then brings it home to an unsuspecting child on the surface of his or her clothing. “Risks don’t just stay in one place,” he said.

During his talk, Chosewood also touched on the importance of changing the culture of the organization. Quoting Sir Michael Marmot (a professor at the University College London), he said it’s “unreasonable to expect people to change their behavior when the social, cultural and physical environments around them fully conspire against them.”

Chosewood shared a close-to-home illustration of the kinds of steps that can be taken.

When the CDC ran out of places to park and needed to build a new parking garage, Chosewood (then in charge of safety and health there) said he intentionally proposed picking a site that required workers to walk 15 minutes. While the move initially made him quite unpopular and existing employees complained about the distance, he said, new hires haven’t complained at all.

In addressing health and safety issues, he said, employers need to be willing to take “short-term heat” for “long-term gain.”

Chosewood said next on the Center’s to-do list will be to slow down the elevators so impatient workers will take the stairs. (I wasn’t sure if he was serious or kidding.)

According to Chosewood, there are three kinds of companies: bad, good and the best. Bad companies, he said, don’t do anything to keep their workers healthy and safe; good companies keep them protected from injury and illness; and the best do what’s needed to ensure their workers go home more healthy at the end of the day.

Employers that fall in this “best” category, he said, will enjoy more engagement, greater productivity and lower injury risk.

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The Pitfalls of Consumerism

Do you put as much thought into selecting your cellphone plan as you do for selecting which doctors and specialists to see for your medical plans?

This question was posed at the National Business Coalition on Health’s annual conference in Washington by Shawn Leavitt, senior vice president of global benefits at Comcast Corp., during his keynote address.

“More than half of all consumers say they’re dissatisfied with the cellphone plan they chose,” he said. “So, if people are having a hard time selecting a cellphone plan that’s right for them, then how do we expect them to make the right decisions with respect to their health plan and health providers?”

The subject of Leavitt’s presentation was that healthcare consumerism — high-deductible plans that put more of the onus for financing and managing healthcare on employees — will not work unless employees receive more expert direction and guidance to help them.

At Comcast, said Leavitt, HR has enlisted so-called “expert shoppers” to help employees with these crucial decisions. It’s coupled that with outreach to certain locations within its vast empire to focus on subsectors — such as call centers — where employees were making heavy use of emergency rooms (and driving up costs) to educate employees on alternatives such as urgent care centers.

“We understand that it’s hard to expect employees who are juggling multiple responsibilities to make the sort of far-sighted decisions we’d like them to make when they’re faced with something as immediate as a sick child,” said Leavitt.

Comcast is using its own marketing wizardry to help educate employees on making wiser healthcare choices, he said. “We have become very good at getting consumers to pay to watch bad movies and reality television shows,” said Leavitt. “We’re focused on bringing that same level of expertise to help our employees make good decisions on healthcare.”

The risks of consumerism were also highlighted by Dr. Mark Fendrick during a panel discussion on pharmacy drug benefits. One of the main questions the panel grappled with was whether it was right for plan sponsors to exclude certain medications from plan coverage.

“If you’re doing that just to save money, I don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Fendrick, director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Value-Based Insurance Design. “I think it’s OK if the drug has been proved to be ineffective or counterproductive or if cheaper generics of equivalent effectiveness are available. But do it for the right reasons.”

The trend of pushing more costs onto employees can end up doing more harm than good if it isn’t managed carefully, he said. “Raising deductibles and pushing more of the cost onto employees without giving them support necessary for needed treatment and medications will simply cause more of them to forgo what they need,” he said. “I’ve had patients tell me that until they exhaust their deductible, they’re not going to do many of the things I’ve told them they need to do to maintain their health. And that goes against what this whole idea of consumerism is supposed to be about.”

 

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