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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.

Understanding Health Insurance 101

Health benefit claim formI’ll always remember my first day on the job at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa (now Wellmark BC/BS) in 1984. A relatively newly-minted college graduate, I was asked a fundamental question about health insurance – “What is a deductible?”

I’m somewhat ashamed to share with you that I was clueless. Until my employment at an insurance company, why would I even care what a deductible was? That day in 1984, I quickly learned about deductibles and other cost-sharing tools commonly found in health plans.

According to a 2013 article in the Journal of Health Economics, almost nine out of 10 Americans (86 percent), could not define all of the following terms on a multiple choice questionnaire:

  • Deductible
  • Copayment
  • Coinsurance
  • Out-of-pocket maximum

This is both important, and frankly, troubling. Here’s why…

In 2006, approximately one in 10 American employees had a health insurance deductible of $1,000 or more for single coverage. Today, almost half do. During this same year in Iowa, the average single deductible for an employer-sponsored health plan was $776. According to our 2015 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©, this average mushroomed by 114 percent to $1,662. The increase is quite simple: as health costs continue northward, so, too, will the premiums that employers and employees pay. To keep the premiums ‘reasonable,’ employers continue to shift cost-sharing arrangements – deductibles, copayments, coinsurance & out-of-pocket maximums – to employees and their family members.

Making informed decisions about purchasing healthcare is paramount in the post-Affordable Care Act (ACA) era. Teaching employees (and their family members) the A,B,C’s of their health plans is critical when choosing high-value care at affordable prices. This so-called ‘healthcare consumerism’ is supposed to push the mainstream delivery system into a more efficient, patient-centric ‘system’ of care. The building blocks to get there require Americans to fully understand what they must pay for the care they seek – and understand the terms in which they are asked to pay (e.g. deductibles, etc).

One key premise of the ACA was to have more Americans covered by some form of health insurance, whether it be through employers, Medicare, Medicaid or through individual plans, subsidized through marketplaces, such as a state or federally-qualified exchange. By doing so, Americans would seek care prudently and not access care through more expensive hospital emergency rooms.

Yet, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the number of emergency room visits continue to increase, with one in five Americans taking at least one annual trip to the hospital ER for urgent care purposes. In 2015 alone, about 131 million Americans visited emergency rooms, with 29 percent having private insurance, 25 percent with Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program policies, 18 percent had Medicare and 14 percent had no insurance.

Employers – Consider a Simple Health Terminology Pretest

Test QuizEmployers can do their part by educating their employees on terms and provisions offered through their health coverage policies. To begin, learn whether employees understand the four key payment concepts of health coverage (deductibles, copayments, coinsurance and out-of-pocket maximums). This can be done by simply surveying the workforce with a simple pretest.*

  1. Do you know what a Deductible is? (Yes or No)
  2. Which of the following best describes a Deductible?
    a. An amount deducted from your paycheck to pay for your insurance premium.
    b. The amount deducted (covered) out of your total yearly-medical expenses.
    c. The amount you pay before your insurance company pays benefits.
    d. The amount you pay before your health expenses are covered in full.
    e. I’m not sure.

Curious about additional questions to ask employees? I highly recommend reviewing the Journal of Health Economics article, “Consumers’ misunderstanding of health insurance.” By surveying your employees, perhaps you can follow-up with them via email or handouts and define each healthcare term, providing examples of how they are used within your particular health plan. Later, you may wish to perform a post test to determine improvement in comprehension of these particular terms. Something to consider…

Much like Orwell’s ‘1984,’ my education about deductibles came and went. How about you? It’s never too late to bring others up to speed on health insurance concepts.

To stay abreast of employee benefits and other tangential issues, we invite you to subscribe to this blog.

*Loewenstein, G., et al. Consumers’ misunderstanding of health insurance. Journal of Health Economics 32 (2013) 850-862.

The ‘Quintet’ of Healthy Living

Multi-TaskingQuick, try to name a few famous quintets (things that come in five.) Are you done? Quite possibly, you may have included the following: Olympic rings, Great Lakes, vowels (most of the time), points on a star, toes, The Jackson 5, The Dave Clark Five, among many others.

Now try to list five (relatively easy) things that you can do to remain healthy and prevent debilitating diseases.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these five healthy behaviors are the best assurances at preventing heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases:

  1. No smoking – Smoking is the main cause of preventable illness and leading cause of death in the U.S.
  2. Regular exercise – Allowing employees to engage in brief bouts of physical activity or lunch breaks to socialize with co-workers can have meaningful stress-reduction benefits.
  3. Drinking alcohol in moderation, or not at all – Enough said on this behavior.
  4. Maintaining a healthy weight – Over 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese, primarily due to consuming too few fruits and vegetables and too many carbs, added sugars and refined grains. Also, lack of physical activity impacts weight.
  5. Receiving at least seven hours of sleep per day/night – Between 50-to-70 million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, leading to increased rates of chronic diseases and cancer, increased mortality and reduced quality of life.

I know what you might be thinking. “This sounds so easy and most Americans are doing this. Tell me something I don’t already know!”

OK, I will.

Did you know that only 6.3 percent of the U.S. adult population report engaging ALL five optimal health-related behaviors? Yes, this information comes from a recent CDC study using 2013 data. Here’s the breakdown for each of the five healthy behaviors among U.S. adults:

Apparently, Americans find it difficult to multi-task when it comes to engaging in healthy behaviors. As a male, I would venture to guess that most of the 6.3 percent responders from this particular study were most likely females. My personal observation is that males, in general, are not inclined to multi-task.

Interestingly, engaging in four or five healthy behaviors was most prevalent in the Pacific and Rocky Mountain states. The least prevalent were in the southern states and along the Ohio River. The authors of this valuable study conclude that “Collaborative efforts in health care systems, communities, work sites, and schools can promote all 5 behaviors and produce population-wide changes, especially among the socioeconomically disadvantaged.”

A good idea would be to start with the ‘easiest’ behavior and begin mastering it before moving to another behavior. Incremental improvement is more realistic for many of us. As for this writer, chewing gum, texting and humming a tune at the same time can be challenging at any given moment. But the five behaviors listed above seem to be doable – especially for those of us who have impairments while multi-tasking minute-by-minute!

To stay abreast of employee benefits and other tangential issues, we invite you to subscribe to this blog.