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2020 Iowa Employer Benefits Study and COVID-19

Given the local and worldwide circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we are all taking things “day-by-day” for at least the foreseeable future – both personally and professionally. The ‘predictable’ lives we had just a few short weeks ago, no longer resemble what we have today.

Because of the unprecedented uncertainty for all businesses in this ‘new’ economic climate, we have found (while pursuing the 2020 survey) the response level of Iowa employers has dropped significantly compared to last year at this time. Frankly, ALL organizations are going through massive business and personnel upheavals that will require a ‘reboot’ of their workplace practices – and for some, perhaps ensuring mere survival. In light of this, because we have an annual goal of surveying 1,000 organizations, it will be very difficult to successfully ‘invite’ Iowa employers to participate in this year’s survey. My desire is to be mindful of the key issues facing employers and to refrain from our survey activity.

Due to this development, and with regret, I must suspend this year’s survey. At some undetermined time in the future, we will pursue a revised survey using newer, perhaps more pertinent questions, to gauge the benefit practices of Iowa employers.

I look forward to that time!

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While at home the past few weeks, I read the best-selling book by Erik Larson, “The Splendid and the Vile.” This book describes the one-year period – 1940 to 1941 – when Germany was incessantly bombing Great Britain, more specifically London. Despite not having the military support of the United States at that given time, the grit and courage that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill demonstrated would fundamentally decide the fate of his country, and frankly, the entire world.

During that difficult period of austerity, Churchill’s actions and words provided the necessary inspiration for his country citizens to persevere. Two of Churchill’s inspiring quotes are most poignant for me. No matter how difficult the circumstances are for us in today’s world, we have hope to overcome these obstacles.

“Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.”

“It’s not enough that we do our best: sometimes we have to do what’s required.”

It is no wonder why Churchill is considered to be one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century.

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The Families First Coronavirus Response Act + A Churchillian Quote

Since my last blog on March 16, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, much has changed in the world, let alone Iowa. Listing the changes here would be futile, so I will not attempt to do so.

I will, however, share new federal legislation. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) that was signed into law on March 18, provides paid emergency family leave in limited circumstances, in addition to paid sick leave for people affected by COVID-19.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the relatively quick overview of the FFCRA includes the following:

  • The emergency paid-leave provision applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. However, there are some exceptions available for small organizations that employ health care workers. These provisions take effect April 2 and are set to expire on December 31.
  • As for Paid Family Leave, the legislation updates the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to provide employees with up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave when they cannot work – either onsite or remotely – because their minor son’s or daughter’s school or child care service is closed due to a public health emergency.
  • The first 10 days of leave can be unpaid. It appears, however, than an employee can opt to substitute accrued vacation, personal or sick leave during this time, but an employer may not require an employee to do so.
  • For the remaining 10 weeks, eligible employees must receive two-thirds of their regular rate of pay, which is capped at $200 a day – $10,000 total.
  • For Paid Sick Leave, many employers will have to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick-leave benefits if an employee:
    1. Has been ordered by the government to quarantine or isolate because of COVID-19.
    2. Has been advised by a healthcare provider to self-quarantine because of COVID-19.
    3. Has symptoms of COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis.
    4. Is caring for someone who is subject to a government quarantine or isolation order or has been advised by a healthcare provider to quarantine or self-isolate.
    5. Needs to care for a son or daughter whose school or child care service is closed due to COVID-19 precautions.
    6. Is experiencing substantially similar conditions as specified by the secretary of health and human services, in consultation with the secretaries of labor and treasury.
  • Paid Sick Leave must be paid at the employee’s regular rate-of-pay, or minimum wage, whichever is greater, for leaves taken for reasons 1-3 above.
  • Employees taking leave for reasons 4-6 may be compensated at two-thirds their regular pay rate, or minimum wage, whichever is greater.
  • Part-time employees are eligible to take the number of hours they would normally work during a two-week period.

It is important to note that employers cannot:

  • Require an employee to use other paid leave before using the paid sick time provided by this new legislation.
  • Require an employee to find a replacement to cover his or her scheduled work hours.
  • Retaliate against any employee who takes leave in accordance with the act.
  • Retaliate against an employee who files a complaint or participates in a proceeding related to the act – including a proceeding that seeks to enforce the act.

The Department of Labor issued guidance on this new law, which can be found here.

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Since our blog this past week, a handful of organizations responded to our invitation to share their workplace practices due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  A quick summary follows:

“As with others, CV-19 has wiped out a robust schedule of events and programs we had planned over the next 30 days. A small workplace of six employees, four were offered the option of working from home, with the other two “splitting time” in the office to cover business. Closed the office physically, but still working in it, and remotely. Our priorities in order are to: 1) Protect the staff’s well-being, 2) Protect our donor well-being (many being in the 65 and over category), and 3) Preserve the Foundation’s resources.” 

  • A healthcare & social services organization shared the following:
    1. We have carefully assessed which administrative employees are able to telework and still provide essential business function support. These employees were engaged in telework effective March 16 (2020).
    2. For those administrative employees who are not able to provide essential business function support from home, they continue to work in one of our administrative locations, practicing strict social distancing, hygiene, and workplace cleanliness guidelines.
    3. All administrative locations have been closed to unscheduled guests.
    4. All team meetings have either been cancelled, postponed, or moved to a virtual environment.
    5. All non-essential travel has been cancelled through April 30.
    6. Visitor restrictions at our service locations have been put in place.
    7. Daytime services have been closed per governor’s order.
    8. Active task force groups have been implemented for problem solving and strategic action moving forward with all information funneled for review by our Executive Leadership Team.
    9. Regularly updated inward-facing and outward-facing communications have been put in place.
  • A few other organizations mentioned similar protocols to those mentioned above.

Because organizations are now a week or two into the changes being made due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and measures taken have been shared through local and national media, we will discontinue our invitation to share the practices of Iowa organizations. Thank you to each organization that shared their practices with us!

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This past week, my Mom (age 88) emailed her numerous grandchildren sharing her experiences growing up during the Great Depression and the hardships that she and others encountered. She ended her message with the following:

“Now we are faced with another crisis. You/we have tasted a good life and now you/we are experiencing some of the difficult times that we (my generation) have experienced many years ago. This is what life is all about, and by working together like a family, we too, shall conquer!”

Mom, Winston Churchill could not have framed our ‘new world’ any better than you have.

To each of you, be safe during this unprecedented and challenging time.

To stay abreast of employee benefits, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Employers and the Coronavirus Crisis

Given the escalating local and worldwide coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we are now inviting Iowa organizations to complete an unscientific ‘survey’ on this website. We hope to learn more about what precautions and business practices employers are taking to avert potential disruptions to the workplace. One example is mandating that a certain classification of employees work remotely. From this information, I will then periodically share personnel practices that have been implemented by Iowa organizations.

In just one day, I’ve been contacted by two friends and an Iowa business on what employers are currently doing to help alleviate the growing concern about this ‘epidemic.’ Because the COVID-19 is both fresh and fluid in our local communities as well as worldwide – so many decisions are being made on the fly as to how to handle and protect employees within the workplace.

Examples of National Employers

How are some key employers locally and around the U.S. responding to COVID-19? Employers have an obligation to notify their employees (and customers) who may have been in contact with a sick employee. Employers should encourage sick employees to stay home – using paid time off benefits or perhaps short-term disability coverage. If no leave is available, the employer may also choose to pay employees – even when they are not sick. This is one way to avoid exposure to COVID-19.

Walmart, effective March 10, began an emergency leave policy after an associate tested positive for the illness. Walmart will allow employees to stay home if they are unable to work or feel “uncomfortable” at work. According to a memo seen by Bloomberg News, employees will need to use regular paid time off options. If their workplace is placed under quarantine, Walmart will pay employees for up to two weeks, and this absence will not count against attendance.

If a Walmart employee is affected by this virus, in addition to receiving two weeks of pay, the retailer will pay “additional pay replacement” beyond the two weeks (if needed), up to 26 weeks for both full-time and part-time hourly associates.

Paid leave and workplace practices are front and center now for employers, and critical for retailers and restaurants. Paid sick leave is much less common for lower-wage employees who work in the leisure and hospitality sector. These employees typically interact with the public, such as in the restaurant industy.

Organizations like Twitter Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Amazon have instructed thousands of employees to work from home, if possible. Whereas Costco Wholesale said that corporate employees cannot work remotely unless there is concern about employees being at high risk. If this should happen, the employee could use vacation or sick time to stay at home.

Wells Fargo, the third largest bank in the U.S., indicated that 62,000 of its 259,000 employees worked from home on Monday, March 9. One employee in San Francisco tested positive for the virus and Wells Fargo learned of this diagnosis two days earlier. Other financial institutions are also taking precautions.

Google, in order to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19, has sent out a memo to employees across North America to work remotely. Just hours later, Google is extending this recommendation to include all workers in the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. will have many of its 3,300 employees in Des Moines begin working from home, beginning on Monday, March 16. The goal is to have half of its employees working at home at any given time.

An insightful SHRM piece, written by Stephen Miller, regarding employer health, wellness and leave benefits and COVID-19 can be found here.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC has a webpage that provides resources for businesses and employers when preparing for COVID-19. It provides a good beginning to address interim guidance for employers, in addition to cleaning and disinfection recommendations. Employers are advised by the CDC to “ensure that your sick leave policies are flexible and consistent with public health guidance and that employees are aware of these policies.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) just sent out a document that contains useful information on measures to keep workplaces, schools, homes and commercial establishments safe.

Summary

Within the span of writing this particular piece, new emails and updates about COVID-19 are coming in with a flurry. One might expect this will be the new normal for a while.

We live in a world that requires vigilance both at home and at work. Despite this evolving environment, remaining calm and gathering as much trustworthy information as possible is the best solution to navigate through this ‘season’ of the unknown.

Again, completing our informal online survey will allow us to share various organizations’ business practices and policies.  As a reminder, our official 2020 survey will be covering many components of paid time off and paid parental leave benefits.

To stay abreast of employee benefits, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.