Friday, May 29, 2009

Tip of the Day: Submit your ideas for fixing the retirement system

Do you have an idea of what a universal, secure, and adequate retirement system should look like? Retirement USA wants to hear from you!

The organization is accepting proposals from us regular folks on how to revamp retirement to make sure everyone has happy and secure golden years. There are a few caveats -- proposals have to align with Retirement USA's principles, but they're things I think we all can agree on for the most part: plans that are universal, secure, portable and provide adequate retirement income.

So put your ideas out there!

Yay or Nay: Is the employer-sponsored system worth saving?

Although President Obama has called the employer-based health care system "an accident of history that works," a recent New York Times opinion piece by Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt says the system makes employers "pickpockets, so to speak, who take a chunk of the employee’s total compensation and buy with it whatever fringe benefits they 'give' their employees."

While I'm sure you don't wholly agree or disagree with either the president or Reinhardt, what are your thoughts? Should the employer-based system stand, or do you think it needs dismantling?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Tip of the Day: Prepare for a health care battle

As summer approaches, so does the official start of a duel over health care reform. A host of proposals from Republicans and Democrats are on the table, and Sen. Charles Grassley acknowledged to reporters earlier this spring, "This is the toughest issue we have ever taken on -- every part has got a chance of blowing up."

One of the stickiest points of contention is whether or not reform should incorporate a public plan option. To keep with all the "duel" imagery, Les Masterson of Health Plan Insider writes that CDHPs and HSAs should prepare to "do battle" with a public plan.

As Masterson notes, some 8 million Americans are covered by HSA-eligible plans with enrollment steadily growing. He cites two recent surveys touting the accounts and writes:

"These two studies were released at the same time that the health care reform debate rages in DC. That's not a coincidence. Private health plans are rightfully viewing portions of health care reform as a direct assault on their business.

HSAs, the poster boys for creating better health care consumers and lowering health care costs under the Bush administration, are not seen by most Democrats as a solution—but rather a problem that prices the poor out of quality health care."

So pros, since employers increasingly are turning to HSAs to lower cost, you should get your war paint ready if you don't want to see HSAs decline. Or, perhaps you're content to see employees enroll in the public plan. What are your thoughts? Comment and let me know.

News You Can Use: Another day, another delay

If there's one thing the government does well, it's make things take longer. The Department of Labor announced on Thursday a second extension for public comment on final regulations that would permit 401(k) and other retirement plan fiduciaries to provide more advice to plan participants under the Pension Protection Act of 2006. The new deadline is Nov. 18, 2009.

Employers have long awaited better guidance on what forms of investment advice the government wants to permit, or encourage. The comment period was previously extended to allow the Obama administration sufficient time to examine the legal and policy issues present in the regulation, according to a White House memo.

On Jan. 21, 2009, DOL released a final rule administering the provision of investment advice under the ERISA's prohibited transaction provisions. Subsequently, Labor officials drew out the applicability and effective dates of the final regulation from March 23 to May 22.

No word yet on what will be accomplished during the second extension other than changing of seasons.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Tip of the Day: Hit all the right target dates next month

Mark your calendars, pros; there's some don't-miss action going on at Capitol Hill next month regarding target-date funds.

The first date to put in your Outlook is June 18, when the Department of Labor and Securities and Exchange Commission will hold a joint one-day hearing on the issues (read: abysmal '08 performance) surrounding target-date funds.

According to a press release from the agencies, the hearing will "examine the need for additional guidance given the importance of these investments to the retirement savings of investors." By "importance," they mean the large number of participants with savings in these funds. (Last year, 53% of 401(k) plans use target-dates as the default option.)

The hearing will cover topics like "portfolio composition, risk, and disclosure," according to DOL's website. Not very specific, is it? That's why the second don't-miss date is June 10 -- the day the agencies say they'll release the hearing agenda.

The last date to mark is June 5. That's the deadline for written requests to testify at the hearing. Make your voice heard! Send requests to, or to Office of Regulations and Interpretations, Employee Benefits Security Administration, 200 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D. C. 20210.

Yay or Nay: Is swearing at work okay?

Two surveys find differing opinions on whether it's okay to swear at the workplace, and I want to get your thoughts, pros.

According to a poll by SurePayroll, 80% of respondents believe that even seemingly innocent swearing on the job can be interpreted the wrong way and have negative consequences, even though 40% admit to swearing themselves at least occasionally and 11% actually think swearing can boost employee morale.

Another study from researchers at the University of East Anglia (in Norwich, England) finds that embracing your inner Blago can "reflect solidarity and enhance group cohesiveness, or as a psychological phenomenon to release stress," according to study director Yehuda Baruch.

The study also discovers younger workers are more tolerant of profanity, and that women swear more than you might expect of the fairer sex and execs are less profane than the rank-and-file.

So, is swearing at work okay -- yay or nay?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tip of the Day: Raise the roof (on HSA limits)

The Internal Revenue Service recently released a notice outlining 2010 minimums and maximums for health savings accounts plans and high-deductible health plans.

For calendar year 2010, the annual HSA contribution limit for an individual with self-only HDHP coverage is $3,050, up $50 from 2009. For an individual with family coverage under a HDHP, the new limit is $6,150, up $200 from 2009.

The 2010 minimum on HDHP deductibles, for self-only HDHP coverage, jumped to $1,200 (up $50 from 2009), and $2,400 (up $100 from 2009) for family coverage. The 2010 maximum on HDHP out-of-pocket expense increased to $5,950 (up $150 from 2009) for self-only HDHP coverage and $11,900 ($300 from 2009) for family HDHP coverage.

Related EBN coverage:
What's in it for me?
Offering answers to 'What's happening to my health plan?'

Overheard @: 'We had a $3 billion investment loss'

If the recession drags on, it will be a red-hot summer for the PBGC -- emphasis on "red."

In a report from, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. reports that the agency’s underfunded liabilities for its single-employer insurance program hit an all-time high of $33.5 billion, surpassing the former record of $24 billion in 2004.

“The reason that our deficit grew is not because of investment losses, rather because of more plan terminations coming through the agency since the last fiscal year,” Constance Markakis, senior attorney advisor in the legislative and regulatory department at PBGC, said late last week. “We had a $3 billion investment loss on our $63 billion assets portfolio. Also, 70% of our assets are invested in fixed-income.”

Still, the recession and the stock market decline means more defined benefit plans are substantially underfunded, thus seeking distressed terminations. “The $33.5 billion includes both actual terminations and probable terminations, which are terminations that we predict will occur within the next year,” explained Markakis.

PBGC insures the pensions of about 33.8 million workers and retirees in about 28,000 private-sector DB plans under its single-employer insurance program and 10.1 million participants under its multiemployer program in about 1,500 plans, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Tip of the Day: Wait! You forgot your 401(k)!

When an employee leaves, I know you must have your offboarding procedures: take their security card, give them a COBRA application, perhaps conduct an exit interview. But somewhere in those procedures, I beg of you to remind them to take their 401(k)s with them.

New research from Charles Schwab shows 43% of assets held by 401(k) participants who left their jobs in the first quarter of 2008 had not been moved a year later.

And no, there's nothing terribly wrong with that, but participants should be encouraged to be active and engaged about what they do with those savings. “We urge people to educate themselves on their options when they leave a job, especially if they expect to be out of work without access to a savings plan at a new job,” says Rene Kim, Charles Schwab senior vice president.

“In many cases, rolling an old 401(k) into an IRA can be a strategic move, because it is tax free, there is no penalty, and an IRA provides more investment choices,” Kim continues. “A rollover IRA can also keep retirement savings more top of mind. People who leave money in a previous employer’s 401(k) plan often forget the money is even there, which can result in asset allocations falling way off balance based on an individual’s savings objectives and risk tolerance.”

And while rolling savings into a new employer's plan also is a good move, Kim (and every other retirement expert on the planet0 strongly warns against cashing out.

“Unless there is a dire and immediate financial need, cashing out a 401(k) is almost always a bad idea,” Kim says. “Cashing out eliminates the power of compounding savings, and people generally find it very hard to get back on track once they begin tapping retirement savings for shorter term needs.”

Overheard @: HSA enrollees have no regrets

As more employers switch to CDHPs and HSAs to fight the good fight against health care costs, they have greater reassurance that the plans will be well-received by employees, as two new surveys show HSA participants have few regrets about switching to the plans.

In an online survey by OptumHealth, 82% are content with their accounts and 74% would recommend an HSA to a friend. The online survey involved 500 HSA owners and was conducted in February and March.

Further, countering the charge from opponents that HSAs are only for the healthy and wealthy, America’s Health Insurance Plan reports that almost half (49%) of HSA holders live in neighborhoods with median incomes under $50,000, according to 2000 Census data.

AHIP also finds about 8 million Americans are covered by an HSA-eligible insurance plan. The study also reveals that HSA owners are forward thinkers when it comes to financial and physical well-being. For instance, 64% have asked about generic options for medication and 47% have queried their physicians about charges.

HSA accountholders also believe that people need to become more engaged in their health care, with 83% of respondents agreeing that consumers should research and comparison shop their health care options as they would for a new television set. Additionally, 72% said that individuals should be responsible for helping to manage their health care costs.

Related EBN coverage:
Readers sound off on March editorial [on HSAs]
CDHPs praised, ROI panned

Thursday, May 21, 2009

News You Can Use: Republicans reveal health care reform proposal

Us EBNers don't believe in duplicating efforts, so rather than rehash the new Republican-led health care proposal here, I'll just link you to the writeup from Benefits Explained, the blog from EBN sister title Employee Benefit Adviser.

The key buzzterms you'll want to note, though, are: tax credits, health insurance exchanges and no mandates. And no, you didn't miss anything; the plan does seem to remove employers' tax exemption for providing health benefits. Let the debate begin!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tip of the Day: Mandating health risk assessments is an ADA no-no

Some employers have taken the bold step in recent years to mandate employees to participate in health risk assessments to obtain group health insurance. However, a new informal letter from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that such a requirement is one bold step forward but two legal steps back, writing that the mandate is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In part, the letter reads: "Although the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has not taken a formal position on this issue, this office believes the policy you described would violate provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act that require disability-related questions or medical examinations of employees to be job-related and consistent with business necessity."

I understand the EEOC's position, but in this economy, if every dollar in health savings isn't "business necessity," I don't know what is. What do you think, pros? Comment and let me know.

Click here to read the full text of the EEOC's letter.

News You Can Use: SCOTUS rules against crediting maternity leave in pension calculations

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that women who took maternity leave before the enactment of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 don’t have a legal claim in requiring employers to apply that leave on pension accruals.

In AT&T Corp. v. Hulteen, the Supreme Court had to decide whether the telecommunication giant was correct in refusing to calculate pregnancy leave incurred prior to 1979 in determining pension benefits.

In 1968, Hulteen took pregnancy disability leave for eight months. However, when she retired in 1994, she realized her pension checks were reduced because the eight months were not calculated as service time toward her pension benefits.

By a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court overturned a lower-court decision stating that AT&T had violated the PDA by treating pregnancy-related disability leave differently from other disability leaves.

Although PDA requires employers to accord women who take pregnancy leave the same benefit as employees who take other types of temporary disability leave, AT&T argued, in part, that the court could no longer rely on previous case laws on retroactive principles because of a recent Supreme Court decision that limits applying federal statutes retroactively.

The majority of justices agreed. “Congress provided for the PDA to take effect on the date of enactment, except in its application to certain benefit programs, as to which effectiveness was held back 180 days,” Justice David Souter wrote.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented: “Congress did not provide a remedy for pregnancy-based discrimination already experienced before PDA became effective,” Ginsburg wrote. “I am persuaded by the Act’s text and legislative history, however, that Congress intended no continuing reduction of women’s compensation, pension benefits included, attributable to their placement on pregnancy leave.”

Related EBN/ coverage:
AT&T ordered to credit pregnancy leave in calculating pensions
HR policy high on Washington agenda

Monday, May 18, 2009

Tip of the Day: Widen your wellness tent

In a report for, Associate Editor Lydell Bridgeford writes about a study from Rutgers University that finds 46% of highly educated and affluent workers report that their employer offers a wellness program, while only 25% of employees with a high school education or less say the same.

In addition, 45% of salaried workers say they have access to some type of healthy lifestyle program through their employer, compared to 35% of hourly workers, and 45% of employees with incomes of $70,000 or more noted they have wellness benefits, compared to 21% of those making $35,000 or less.

To be effective, wellness programs need to truly be for all. I'd encourage you to take another look at your wellness offering for hourly and lower-income employees to make sure the health-fair big top is big enough.

News You Can Use: Don't forget to submit your Benny noms!

Hey pros, there's only a couple weeks left to nominate yourself, a colleague or a client for the 2009 Benny Awards, presented by EBN and sponsor VSP. Click here for a full description of the award categories and information on the nomination process. Nominations close June 5.

I know the last year has been a tough one, so the judges and I are very much looking forward to being inspired by your stories of taking financial lemons and making lemonade for employees and their families. Good luck!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Overheard @: EBN's Contributing Editors take on benefits' 'biggest challenge'

In a special extended episode of EBN's podcast series "Five Minutes With ...", our eight featured columnists draw on their unique expertise to answer, “What is the most important challenge currently facing benefits professionals and how can they best meet that challenge?”

Click here to download the podcast, and click below to read more from and about EBN's columnists:

* Karrie Andes
* Nancy Bolton
* Jill Hudgins
* Jerry Kalish
* Betty Long
* Mark Nadler
* Frank Palmieri
* Michael Puck

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tip of the Day: Weighing the pros and cons of 401(k) loans, distributions

During the recession, more employees are taking tomorrow's savings to pay for today's needs -- taking 401(k) loans, hardship distributions or cashing out their plans altogether.

EBN legal eagle Frank Palmieri writes this month that while some employers seek to protect employees and only allow loans for limited purposes and others employers even restrict hardship distributions, it's important to understand the basic rules in making business decisions to allow or not allow such distributions. Click here to read his column.

Wish You Were Here: Dave Thomas Foundation names this year's Best Adoption-Friendly Workplaces

Particularly in these economic times, adoption benefits seem to be one offering that can help employers do well by doing good.

At a time when financial uncertainty could discourage some people from adopting a child, many employers are staying committed to providing adoption benefits to their workers. Such offerings could enable a family to proceed with adoption plans, and allow employers to provide or maintain a valued but inexpensive benefit, despite the cost-cutting environment.

“The economy has not affected the continued increase in the number of adoption benefit policies nationwide,” notes Rita Soronen, executive director of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. “It’s the one benefit employers can add without negatively impacting the bottom line. Even though [adoption benefits] are popular with employees, utilization rates are extremely low. Adoption benefits give companies an affordable opportunity to help their employees and impact the lives of children without families.”

The foundation recently rolled out its annual list of the Best Adoption-Friendly Workplaces. Click here to read EBN's report, written by Managing Editor -- and new adoptive mom! -- Leah Carlson Shepherd.

Related EBN coverage:
* Adoption benefits mature in the workplace
* Employers honored for best adoption benefits
* Helping fill out the family tree

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tip of the Day: 5-point plan to developing a total-comp plan

Employers today are facing some of their most difficult decisions when it comes to one of their most important asset: their employees, writes Elliot Dinkin in this month's EBN. Layoffs, salary and retirement plan freezes, pay cuts, health care benefit reductions - nothing is off the table in this recession as companies look to cut costs.

Clearly one who feels your pain, Dinkin outlines a five-point plan to developing a long-term total comp strategy to help you take a fist to the recession. For more on rethinking total comp, read this month's EBN cover story, "No stone unturned."

News You Can Use: Life insurance coverage eroding

The recession has nearly all employees and their families recasting how they separate "wants" and "needs." Apparently, more are taking life insurance out of the "need" category, and it's showing in sales of life coverage.

In a report in this month's EBN, Greystone Benefits’ Joe Vogt tells Senior Editor Robert Whiddon that workers aren’t reaching deeper into their pockets for voluntary life or other worksite offerings like they used to, even if they only cost a few dollars a month.

According to Vogt, “Where they would say, ‘Well, you know, $7 a week that’s not bad. I can afford $350 a year’ — they’re not doing that anymore.”

To read the full report, "Crumbling coverage," click here.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tip of the Day: Take the long view; invest in vision benefits

According to a new study released yesterday from VSP, vision benefits help save employers -- ka-ching! -- nearly $3 billion in health care costs each year, associated with the treatment of chronic diseases detectable via an eye examination.

Analyzing costs at five major corporations with a total 90,000 employees, VSP finds that early detection of diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol yielded such savings in the first year alone, directly related to health plan, disability and employee termination costs.

Specifically, companies save nearly $2,900 annually on disease management costs for each employee with diabetes, when the disease is detected early.

When the findings are applied to the past three years for each of the five VSP clients in the study, the results show that nearly 2,000 members received early treatment for diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension as a result of their annual eye exams. During that time, each of the five companies realized cost savings of at least $204,000 and as much as $968,000.

When the findings are applied to VSP’s entire membership of 55 million over one year, the results show that:
* Of the nearly 1.5 million people with diabetes, 20% received early treatment as a result of their eye exam.
* Of the close to 2.2 million people with hypertension, 30% received early treatment as a result of their eye exam.

Overheard @: Readers sound off on HSA editorial

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the response to my March editorial, "I regret enrolling in an HSA." For all the mail I've received since it was published — which ranged from congratulatory to condescending to critical — I am heartened by the vigorous debate regarding the future of our nation's health care system and that, if this response is any indication, benefits stakeholders will continue to be a powerful voice in that ongoing dialogue.

Thanks to all for writing. Click here to read a sampling of the mail I've received, edited for space and grammar.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tip(s) of the Day: Steps to measuring employee financial stress

Who needs just one tip when you could have 8?

In this month's EBN, new Contributing Editor Mark Nadler, an economist and professor at Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio, and president of financial stress reduction firmVincuro, outlines an eight-step plan to show HR executives how to measure the extent and cost of employee financial stress in their organization. Click here to read his column.

News You Can Use: Is Boston the new Toronto?

I know most of us are only accustomed to hearing reports of extended wait times to see physicians come from other nations, so findings revealing long (I mean loooong) wait times here in the U.S. may come as a shock to you.

In a recent report on, Associate Editor Lydell Bridgeford reveals that, according to a new survey, for some patients, seeing a medical specialist can mean waiting more than two months.

Merritt Hawkins and Associates, a physician search and consulting firm, conducted a survey of 1,162 medical offices to track the average time needed to schedule a doctor appointment in 15 large metropolitan areas. The firm focused on medical specialties, such as cardiology, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, orthopedic surgery and family practice.

For example, Boston had the longest average doctor appointment wait times: 70 days to see an obstetrician/gynecologist, 63 days to see a family physician, 54 days to see a dermatologist, 40 days to see an orthopedic surgeon, and 21 days to see a cardiologist.

Next on the list were Philadelphia and Los Angeles, with average doctor appointment wait times exceeding 45 days in some specialties, followed by Houston, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Minneapolis, Dallas, Miami, New York, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Detroit and Atlanta.

Overall, wait times tracked in the survey varied from one day to one year. “Due to the doctor shortage, finding an available physician can be challenging today, even in large urban areas where most doctors practice,” explains Mark Smith, president of Merritt Hawkins and Associates.

Smith believes if access to health care is expanded through a national reform plan, then seeing physicians in a timely manner would be even more problematic for many patients nationwide.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Tip of the Day: 3 tips on tech for the price of 1

Today only, I'm giving you the recession-special deal of three tips for the price of one (free)!

According to Watson Wyatt, reviewing your tech footprint and ID'ing ways to trim inefficiencies from your IT processes can cut costs and bood productivity -- two things everyone is going for these days.

“HR technology is ripe for review,” says Steve Hitzeman, senior leader in Watson Wyatt’s tech and administration solutions practice. “The goal is not only to find near-term efficiencies but also to ensure the organization is positioned for growth when economic conditions improve.”

Here are WW's three tips to recession-proofing your tech ops:

1. Optimize HR operational and service delivery effectiveness.
WW finds 61% of companies are looking to optimize their delivery model and vendors. Conducting a review of the current HR service delivery model — which includes a mix of HR technology, call centers and vendors — can result in dramatic cost savings.

Although many HR departments have adopted models to reduce administrative costs -- enabling HR to take on more strategic work -- the effort HR spends on administration has not changed significantly because most HR departments didn't follow through to effectively integrate different technologies.

2. Review and benchmark outsourced vendor contracts.
Many companies are not seeing the full effect of process efficiencies, cost savings or improved service they expected from their human resources outsourcing and related technology and service vendor contracts -- often have a patchwork of applications and service providers that aren’t fully integrated or optimized. WW estimates you can save between 10% and 20% once you reassess all of your vendor relationships.

3. Leverage Web 2.0 technologies to create a “consumer-grade” experience.
Leveraging Web 2.0 technologies — such as blogs, podcasts, wikis and shared teamsites — is key to managing today’s information overload and engaging employees. The generation currently entering the workforce has learned to communicate and collaborate using these tools and expects the same “consumer-grade” experience at work.

This can be achieved with corporate tools similar to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube available internally, significantly improving connectivity and employees’ experience of the company intranet.

“HR can take a page from the Internet playbook and benefit from the same tools that have driven the unexpected explosion in online productivity and innovation globally,” says Michael Rudnick, Watson Wyatt’s global intranet and portal leader.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Tip of the Day: 'Freak case' offers tips on how to conduct layoffs without litigation

A cover report in this month's EBN details the case of Claire Cole, whom the Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled should have received full disability benefits after she suffered a heart attack within an hour of learning she would be laid off due to budget cuts in March 2000.

Although the majority of legal experts in the labor and benefits field regarded the situation as a "freak case," as Alden Bianchi, of the Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. firm in Massachusetts puts it, experts do expect a rise in workplace litigation, concerning both termination and benefits, stemming from radial layoffs. Therefore, complying with the ever-changing legislative landscape is imperative if employers hope to make it through what promises to be challenging legal times.

Read the article for advice from our legal eagles on conducting layoffs without litigation.

News You Can Use: Employees favor cost-sharing carrots

New stats from the Employee Benefit Research Institute show that workers favor using lower-cost sharing as an incentive to individuals to improve or maintain their health. From their latest survey:

* 58% support lower cost sharing for patients who actively participate in a wellness program.
* 40% support lower cost sharing for patients who use treatments that have been scientifically proven to be effective for their medical condition.
* 34% support lower cost sharing for patients who choose high-performing health care providers. * 47% support lower cost sharing for patients who choose less invasive procedures to treat their medical conditions.

Not surprisingly, people who rate their health status as excellent or very good are more supportive of lowered cost sharing than those in not as good health, and opbese individuals and smokers in particular are less likely to support lowered cost sharing for engaged patients.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tip of the Day: Get to your 'fighting weight'

Employers are fighting the downward economy and upward health care costs by changing weight classes, so to speak. Instead of heavyweight, high-cost HMOs and PPOs, companies are slimming down to become middleweights, shifting costs to employees through consumer-driven plans, changing insurance carriers and/or bridging gaps in core offerings with mini-med and voluntary benefits.

Although employers months ago began trimming their bottom lines, making changes to salary, hiring, training and benefits budgets, as open enrollment season fast approaches, benefit managers must educate employees about how those changes will affect their benefits options for next year.

In the opener to EBN's three-part Open Enrollment Boot Camp series, Associate Editor Kathleen Koster gets open enrollment tips from communication experts, who generally recommend revisiting open enrollment offerings and policies six to nine months beforehand to ensure enough time to effectively communicate with employees.

News You Can Use: EBN partners with Aetna to launch new blog

EBN and Web 2.0 strike again! I'm happy to announce Employee Benefit News, sister pub Employee Benefit Adviser and corporate sponsor Aetna have partnered to launch By The Numbers --an electronic extension of the popular, long-running feature in our print publication -- a compilation of key data points around current conditions and trends in employee benefits.

Check it out, and of course feel free to comment or post new discussion ideas.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tip of the Day: During layoffs, remember FMLA compliance

Even though FMLA and making reductions in staff are complicated enough on their own, putting the two together can create an even bigger headache for employers. However, staying on top of FMLA compliance during layoffs is essential to preventing liability and lawsuits.

“The most important thing is going to be documentation,” says Tarun Metha, a labor and employment attorney with Bryan Cave LLP, told Associate Editor Kathleen Koster in a report for When employers consider layoffs, including workers who are on FMLA leave, they should make sure that they carefully review the files of workers out on FMLA leave.
“Ask yourself ‘if this went to a judge or jury, would it be convincing or does this look like an ad hoc compilation?’” Mehta explains.

“If it’s a large reduction in force, you sometimes let go employees who don’t have any performance problems. [In this case,] you’d want to document how you came to that number. You want to look at your statistics and make sure you’re not laying off everybody on FMLA leave or everybody of a certain age group,” says Mehta.

Discrimination on severance packages can also occur when dealing with workers on FMLA leave. Mehta recommends calculating the amount of severance on objective factors, such as seniority or the department’s performance. He also explains that employers should base the package on the past six months of performance, as those on leave will have less data to contribute. The decision should be pro-rated or should stem from a different calculation.

In addition, while employers can give a larger severance to an employee because he or she is on leave, they cannot do the reverse, Mehta notes. “You can, however, offer them less if this decision is based on documented merit, though few employers elect to do this, as it can be difficult to prove who is owed what in a larger layoff.”

Making measured decisions and documenting an employees’ progress before they go on leave is strongly advised to combat the severe risks associated with unlawfully firing an employee already on leave.

“[Right now] you see a combination of layoffs and desperation…and so the likelihood of increased litigation is almost guaranteed,” says Mehta. Finally, employers should also be familiar with state laws concerning FMLA leave as more often than not these regulations are stricter than the federal baseline.

Related EBN coverage:
House Dems introduce new paid-leave bill

Wish You Were Here: Bright Horizons offers help to employers affected by H1N1 and during other public health emergencies

Although H1N1 pandemic panic seems to be waning somewhat, the recent international outbreak is an important reminder to individuals and employers to stay vigilant and prepared for disasters, including a global pandemic.

To give companies a hand, Bright Horizons Family Solutions, provider of employer-sponsored child care and back-up care, has announced a new emergency child care solution to help employers and working families manage during times of public health emergencies, like those related to H1N1 (swine flu), when schools are closed and regular child care is not available due to possible health risks.

“We are offering this new program to provide employers with immediate access to a wide range of back-up solutions that solve their business challenges and support the best practices in preventive health measures,” says Bright Horizons CEO Dave Lissy. “In keeping with our core mission, this service provides children with excellent care, gives parents the peace-of-mind they need to be present and productive at work, and offers employers creative answers to real time business needs.”

Back-Up Care Advantage: Crisis Care Assist provides employees of Bright Horizons clients with access to a nationwide network of in-home child care providers and payment for care they arrange within their family or existing social network. Through the program, care is also available any time of day or night and for any duration necessary, which can be especially beneficial to hospital workers, for instance, who may have to work overnight shifts or extended hours due to high demands in the face of a national health emergency.

The service can be implemented within 48 hours for even large multi-site employers.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Tip of the Day: Before you conduct layoffs, read this

A new survey from Work+Life Fit, Inc. finds 94% of full-time employees are willing to save jobs by changing or reducing their schedule, or taking a pay cut.

In addition:
* 60% would take additional unpaid vacation days or furloughs.
* 48% would share their jobs with colleagues.
* 47% would take a cut in both pay and hours
* Just under a third would take a month or more unpaid sabbatical.

"Layoffs will always be a possibility. [However], it's not an all or nothing choice -- flexibility or layoffs," says Cali Williams Yost, CEO, Work+Life Fit, Inc. "Hopefully CEOs and others planning job cuts will learn that a 5% layoff can sometimes cost more than a 5% pay cut. All options need to be considered."

Wish You Were Here: Mars Drinks forms partnership to be cleaner and greener

It's rare that a company could combine two things I truly love -- coffee and promoting greener living -- but it seems Mars drinks has done it.

Mars Drinks, makers of single-serve beverages served in offices and law firms around the country, is partnering with TerraCycle to help decrease the amount of waste from its packaging. TerraCycle will take used FLAVIA fresh packs and turn them into high-quality office products such as pencil cases and notebooks — and compost coffee grounds once they’ve been brewed.

The TerraCycle partnership is the latest addition to “Thirsty for Change,” Mars Drinks’ sustainability platform that includes:
* Achieving Rainforest Alliance Certification for their 3 most popular beverages -- House Blend, Kona Blend and Breakfast Blend. This certification ensures that the coffee used in FLAVIA’s fresh packs comes from farms where forests are protected; rivers, soils and wildlife are conserved; and workers are treated with respect, paid decent wages, properly equipped and given access to education and medical care.
* Changes to the brewer, fresh packs, cups merchandiser and rail to be more green, including using recycled materials and consuming less energy.
* An innovative waste-to-energy program that turns used fresh packs into energy. If all used fresh packs were included in this program, enough energy would be generated to light up to 20,000 homes for a year.

Inspired? Click below for EBN coverage on going green:
* HR/benefits firm focuses on "green awareness" services
* Telework: A green solution for the 21st century's employee crisis

Friday, May 1, 2009

Tip of the Day: Revisit, revise your disaster preparedness/response plan

In light of the swine flu outbreak, it's a good idea for employers to review and perhaps update their disaster preparedness/response plans to specifically address what individual employees and your company as a whole will do in case of a pandemic.

I recently spoke with Aon Consulting's Ken Groh, who shared his advice for how HR/benefits pros -- generally the lead authors on such plans -- should shape/reshape their policies should the number and severity of swine flu cases worsen. Click here to download the podcast, and here to download Aon's resources and news updates on swine flu.

Of course, the best source for info and updates is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention swine flu Web site.

News You Can Use: Pick a card, any card

Okay, full disclosure: This data comes from a company that sells prepaid benefit cards, but still -- if you're looking to implement an HSA, HRA or FSA, a survey from Evolution Benefits shows that a benefit card could make all the difference.

Health care consumers report the availability of benefits cards positively influenced their decision to sign up for tax-favored accounts, including FSAs, HSAs or HRAs, Evolution finds. Benefit cards also made accounts easier to use and more effective.

The survey was created to gauge the effectiveness of three program components: cardholder communication; benefit card usage; and the benefits of having a card associated with a health care account. Evolution Benefits developed and conducted the survey, which was distributed to MasterCard cardholders at 10 employers in various industries.

Two-thirds of the nearly 900 respondents indicated that availability of the card influenced their decision to sign up for the benefit, while almost three-quarters said that having a card made using their account funds easier. The majority of consumers commented that they have encountered few – if any – problems and know exactly where the card can be used.

Card communication, in fact, was rated as good to excellent. As a result, 92% of the respondents said they knew where and how to use the card – and which items are eligible for pre-tax treatment based on IRS guidelines. In addition, 87% of respondents found it advantageous to have point of service substantiation.

Do you offer a benefits card? How well is it working for ya? Comment and let me know.