Category Archives: Employee Benefits

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021: What’s in it for Employers?

*Save the Date! Complimentary webcast on March 23rd at noon CST: American Rescue Plan: What Employers Must Know Now

Contributed by Rebecca Bush and Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, March 11, 2021

Almost one year after the enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”), and with the second extension of pandemic unemployment assistance about to expire for millions of workers on March 14, 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (the “Act”) was signed into law by President Biden on Thursday afternoon, March 11, 2021. 

The estimated cost of the Act is $1.9 Trillion, with $1,400 Recovery Rebate checks for each qualifying individual, the extension of supplemental unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021, as well as billions in new or additional relief for various industries, such as education, transportation and infrastructure, aviation/airlines, health care, shuttered venues, restaurants, and state and local governments.

Several provisions of the Act are potentially available for employers of various sizes across all industries. Some key non-industry specific provisions are set forth below.

Premium Assistance for Cobra Continuation Coverage for Individuals and Their Families

Remember the COBRA Subsidy implemented years ago where individuals had 85% of their premiums covered? The Act invokes similar assistance for individuals. However, this time the amount covered for individuals is set at 100%. It generally applies to premiums due related to coverage periods from April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021. Employers will be required to notify employees about the availability of the premium assistance and the expiration date. The Secretary of Labor is required to produce model notices, with the initial model notice of availability to be provided within 30 days of the Act’s enactment. The 100% premium subsidy will be reimbursed to employers through their quarterly payroll tax returns.

Extension of Employee Retention Credit

The Employee Retention Credit was recently extended and amended as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 (enacted during the last week of December 2020). The Act further extends the availability of the credit for wages paid through December 31, 2021.  As a reminder, we explained the prior expansion to the Employee Retention Credit previously.

Extension of Tax Credits ONLY for Paid Leave under the FFCRA

In the last round of stimulus legislation, the tax credit for paid leave under the Families First Coronavirus and Response Act (“FFCRA”) was extended through March 30, 2021.  However, the extension was not mandatory and maximum leave allowances were not reset, meaning an individual that had already exhausted available amounts in 2020 was not entitled to further time off regardless of whether an employer continued to make the leave available on a voluntary basis. We previously explained the extension in a recent blog post.

Employers that are contemplating, or already, providing paid time off for employees to obtain the vaccine, now potentially have assistance funding that leave. The American Rescue Plan extends the availability of the tax credits for paid sick or family leave through September 30, 2021, and the maximum amount of tax credits that an employer can claim for each employee will reset on April 1, 2021.  This reset allows an employee who exhausts the maximum leave through March 31, 2021 to be able to utilize additional FFCRA leave on April 1, 2021 through September 30, 2021, provided the employer continues to voluntarily allow the use of FFRCA leave. In addition, two new permitted reasons for paid sick leave are added where: (1) an “…employee is seeking or awaiting the results of a diagnostic test, for, or a medical diagnosis of, COVID 19 and such employee has been exposed to COVID-19 or the employee’s employer has requested such test or diagnosis;” and (2) “the employee is obtaining immunization related to COVID-19 or recovery from any injury, disability, illness, or condition related to such immunization…”  

Optional Expansion of Limits under Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account Plans

Employers that offer dependent care flexible spending account plans may increase the maximum deferrals under the plan to slightly more than double the normal deferral limit. This is for the 2021 plan year only. This translates to a maximum deferral for a married couple in the amount of $10,500 and $5,250 for an individual.

For further information, register to attend SmithAmundsen’s complimentary webcast on March 23rd at noon CST: American Rescue Plan: What Employers Must Know Now

COVID-19 Extension of Group Welfare Plan Benefit Deadlines Clarified Bringing Potential Relief for Employers

Contributed by Rebecca Dobbs Bush, March 9, 2021

hand holding megaphone – benefits

In a previous blog article, we alerted readers to the extension of deadlines related to COBRA, Special Enrollment, Plan Disclosures and more. The prior Joint Notice from the DOL and IRS provided suspension of all deadlines until 60 days after the expiration of the National Emergency, referred to as the “Outbreak Period.”

The issue requiring clarification arose due to the unanticipated length of the Outbreak Period.  Much like all of us, the IRS and DOL did not foresee an Outbreak Period continuing well over a year later.  As the one-year anniversary of the Outbreak Period approached, a conflict began to arise with ERISA section 518 and Code section 7508A(b). Those provisions generally provide that the Secretaries of Labor and the Treasury may prescribe extensions of only up to one-year when it relates to a Presidentially declared disaster. Accordingly, some plans were contemplating a complete disregard of further extensions based on the one-year limitation on the emergency rule-making process.  Anticipating this potential action by plan sponsors, the DOL (also on behalf of the IRS) issued Disaster Relief Notice 2021-01.

However, with Notice 2021-01, the intended “clarification” of the discrepancy has led to a much more administratively complicated process.  Now, plan sponsors and participants must apply the extension on an individual basis for each separate deadline versus the previously declared extension of all deadlines.  Notice 2021-01 confirms that individual deadlines are revised to the earlier of: (1) one year from the date of the original deadline, or (2) the end of the Outbreak Period (previously defined and which has yet to occur).

Several specific examples were provided in Notice 2021-01 to help illustrate the revised administration of plan deadlines:

  • If a qualified beneficiary would have been required to make a COBRA election by March 1, 2020, the Joint Notice delays that requirement until February 28, 2021 – which is the earlier of 1 year from March 1, 2020 or the end of the Outbreak Period (which remains ongoing).
  • If a qualified beneficiary would have been required to make a COBRA election by March 1, 2021, the election deadline is now delayed until the earlier of 1 year from that date (i.e., March 1, 2022) or the end of the Outbreak Period.
  • If a plan would have been required to furnish a notice or disclosure by March 1, 2020, the relief under the Notice would end with respect to that specific notice or disclosure on February 28, 2021.

Note that none of the examples provided allow for a deadline extension of more than 1 year.  For this reason, Notice 2021-01 provides much needed relief for employers that were trying to manage never-ending extensions for COBRA elections, payments, etc. And as additional relief for employers, the DOL specifically indicates that prior notices furnished without relying on the relief set forth in Notice 2021-01, do not need to be reissued.   

Within Notice 2021-01, the DOL also reminds plan sponsors that “The guiding principle for administering employee benefit plans is to act reasonably, prudently, and in the interest of the workers and their families who rely on their health, retirement, and other employee benefit plans for their physical and economic well-being.”  In keeping with this guiding principle, the DOL encourages plan sponsors to consider affirmatively sending notices to those participants that are now facing the end of the relief period advising them of such.  In other words, if you now have COBRA participants or others that will be suddenly subject to election or payment deadlines, it is best practice to provide them with some type of notice or communication to that effect.

Benefit Plan Deadlines Extended – COBRA, Special Enrollment, Plan Disclosures and More

Contributed by Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, May 11, 2020

hand holding megaphone – benefits

On April 29, 2020, the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Treasury Department issued guidance extending certain timeframes related to employee benefit plans due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The agencies acknowledge that plan sponsors, participants and beneficiaries may have difficulty meeting the standard timeframes due to the national emergency and the extensions are intended to help maintain group health plan coverage.

Relief for Participants and Beneficiaries

A joint final rule issued by the DOL and Treasury provides that all group health plans, disability plans, other employee welfare benefit plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) must disregard the period from March 1, 2020 until 60 days after the COVID-19 National Emergency ends (or such other date as the agencies announce), referred to as the “Outbreak Period,” in determining certain notice and payment deadlines.  

This includes:

  • The 60-day COBRA election period;
  • Due dates for making COBRA premium payments; 
  • The 30-day (or 60-day as applicable) HIPAA special enrollment period;
  • The 60-day period for participants to notify a plan of a COBRA qualifying event (e.g. divorce); and
  • The deadlines for filing a claim for benefits, an appeal, or a request for an external review of a denied claim.

The final rule provides examples of how these extensions work in practice, based on the assumption that the National Emergency ended on April 30, with the Outbreak Period ending on June 29 (60 days after the end of the National Emergency).

  • Electing COBRA – Individual A experiences a qualifying event for COBRA purposes as a result of a reduction of hours below the hours necessary to meet the group health plan’s eligibility requirements. Individual A is provided a COBRA election notice on April 1, 2020. The Outbreak Period is disregarded for purposes of determining Individual A’s COBRA election period. The last day of Individual A’s COBRA election period is 60 days after June 29, 2020, which would be August 28, 2020.
  • Special Enrollment – On March 31, 2020, Individual B gave birth and would like to enroll herself and the child into her employer’s plan; however, open enrollment does not begin until November 15. The Outbreak Period is disregarded for purposes of determining Individual B’s special enrollment period. Individual B may exercise her special enrollment rights for herself and her child into her employer’s plan until 30 days after June 29, 2020, which is July 29, 2020. 
  • COBRA Premium Payments – On March 1, 2020, Individual C was receiving COBRA continuation coverage under a group health plan. Monthly premium payments are due by the first of the month. Individual C made a timely February payment, but did not make the March payment or any subsequent payments during the Outbreak Period. As of July 1, Individual C has made no premium payments for March, April, May, or June. Does Individual C lose COBRA coverage, and if so for which month(s)? Under the terms of the COBRA statute, premium payments are timely if made within 30 days from the date they are first due. In calculating the 30-day period, however, the Outbreak Period is disregarded, and payments for March, April, May, and June are all deemed to be timely if they are made within 30 days after the end of the Outbreak Period. Accordingly, premium payments for four months (i.e., March, April, May, and June) are all due by July 29, 2020. Individual C is entitled to COBRA continuation coverage for these months if she timely makes payment. Individual C is eligible to receive coverage under the terms of the plan during this interim period even though some or all of Individual C’s premium payments may not be received until July 29, 2020.

Relief for Plan Sponsors

The joint final rule also states the Outbreak Period shall be disregarded when determining the date for providing a COBRA election notice. This provides additional time (if needed) for employers to notify qualified beneficiaries of their rights to elect COBRA continuation coverage.

Additionally, the DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) issued EBSA Disaster Relief Notice 2020-01 allowing additional time for plan sponsors to furnish benefit statements, annual funding notices, and other required notices and disclosures required under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The notice provides that an employee benefit plan will not violate ERISA for a failure to timely distribute a notice, disclosure, or document due during the Outbreak Period, as long as the plan and responsible fiduciary act in good faith and furnish the notice, disclosure, or document as soon as administratively practicable under the circumstances. This includes Summary Plan Descriptions, Summaries of Material Modifications, benefit determinations, annual funding notices, periodic benefit statements, summary annual reports, participant fee disclosures, QDIA notices, and blackout notices.

COVID-19 Webinar Series: The Latest Local, State and Federal Mandates Impacting the Workplace

Families First Coronavirus Response Act: What It Means For Employers

Contributed by SmithAmundsen’s COVID-19 Task Force (Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, Rebecca Dobbs Bush, Suzannah Overholt, and Jeff Risch), March 15, 2020

On March 14, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Bill 6201 (HR6201). The legislation seeks to protect private sector workers and government employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the legislation does not apply to any private sector employer with 500 or more employees. To be clear, the current legislation will regulate only those private sector employers who employ less than 500 employees. The Senate is expected to take up the bill early this week. The legislation would take effect within 15 days of enactment and expire on December 31, 2020.

HR6201 contains major changes to the FMLA as it seeks to provide job protected paid leave to any employee who has been on the job for at least 30 days – for up to 12 weeks – related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation also mandates up to 80-hours of paid sick leave for reasons related to COVID-19. It also provides $1 billion in additional funding to the Unemployment Insurance (UI) System and encourages states to relax UI eligibility requirements. Tax credits are provided to employers to help offset the financial cost of the paid leave.

Highlights of the legislation include:

PAID TIME OFF:

Emergency Paid Sick Leave – up to 80-hours for ALL employees working for a private employer with less than 500 employees or any public sector employer

HR6201 requires employers with fewer than 500 employees and all government employers to provide all employees up to 80-hours of paid sick leave, paid at the employee’s regular rate of pay in order to:

  1. self-quarantine if diagnosed with COVID-19;
  2. seek a diagnosis or care for symptoms of COVID-19; or
  3. comply with an order or recommendation by a public health official or health care provider to self-isolate due to exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19.

Additionally, this paid sick leave entitlement must also be available – at two-thirds the employee’s regular rate of pay – for employees to care for a family member for such purposes or to care for a child (under 18 years of age) whose school has closed or paid child care provider is unavailable due to the coronavirus.

Full-time employees are entitled to 2 weeks (80 hours) of paid leave and part-time employees are entitled to the average number of hours that they work in a typical two-week period. Paid sick leave under HR6201 must be provided in addition to any paid time off provided under an employer’s existing policies and employers may not require employees exhaust existing accrued paid time off prior to using emergency paid sick leave. The bill ensures employees who work under a multiemployer collective agreement are also provided such benefits that meet the requirements of the Act.

EXPANDED COVERAGE FOR FMLA:

Paid Family and Medical Leave — up to 12 weeks for employees employed for 30 or more days by a private employer with less than 500 employees or any public sector employer

Employees of employers with fewer than 500 employees or government employers, who have been on the job for at least 30 calendar days, have the right to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to be used for any of the following reasons:

  • To comply with a requirement or recommendation by a public health official or health care provider that the presence of the employee in the workplace would jeopardize the health of others due to the employee’s exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus;
  • To care for a family member who is adhering to a requirement or recommendation by a public health official or health care provider to quarantine due to exposure to or symptoms of coronavirus; and
  • To care for a child (under 18 years of age) of an employee if the child’s school or place of care has been closed, or the child-care provider is unavailable, due to coronavirus

The first 2-weeks of time off for the above reasons are unpaid under the FMLA, but the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Law requires that an employee is paid during that time period, as described above.  After the first 2-weeks of leave under the FMLA, employees will be entitled to receive a benefit from their employers that will be no less than two-thirds (2/3rd) of the employee’s usual pay. The bill ensures employees who work under a multiemployer collective agreement and whose employers pay into a multiemployer plan are provided with leave.

Certain small employers can be exempt from this expanded FMLA coverage if they meet a “viability” exception.  While we can assume the general intent behind the exception, the precise mechanism and process for such an exception is subject to US DOL regulation yet to be published.

The Act also clarifies that individuals that are subject to a multiemployer collectively bargained agreement and whose employers pay into a multiemployer plan must be provided with leave and benefits on par with the benefits provided under the Act.

PAYROLL CREDIT FOR PAID LEAVE

HR6201 provides a refundable tax credit applied to the employer portion of the Social Security payroll tax equal to 100 percent of paid sick leave and family leave wages paid by an employer for each calendar quarter, subject to the following caps: Sick leave wages paid with respect to employees who must self-quarantine, obtain a diagnosis or care for symptoms, or comply with a self-isolation recommendation or order from a public health official or health care provider are capped at $511 per day for purposes of the payroll tax credit; Sick leave wages paid to employees caring for a family member or for a child whose school or place of care has been closed, are capped at $200 per day; and  Family leave wages under the expanded FMLA taken into account for each employee are capped at $200 per day and $10,000 for all calendar quarters.

If the credit exceeds the employer’s total Social Security payroll tax liability for any calendar quarter, the excess credit is refundable to the employer. Employers may elect to not have the credit apply. A similar refundable tax credit is available for self-employed individuals.

SmithAmundsen’s Labor & Employment COVID-19 Task Force is continuing to monitor all local, state and federal orders and legislative initiatives in these unprecedented times. Be assured that we will continue to provide updates where and when warranted. We will also be providing ongoing webinars on the subject to try and help employers operate as effectively and safely as possible. With that in mind, please do not hesitate to contact your SA relationship attorney in the days and weeks ahead for direct guidance. We are here 24/7.

IRS Updates 401(k) Hardship Distribution Rules – Are You Ready?

Contributed by Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, November 21, 2020

Document with 401(k) plan

On September 23, 2019 the IRS issued final regulations updating the rules governing hardship distributions from 401(k) and 403(b) plans. They are generally similar to the proposed regulations issued late last year and primarily reflect changes made by the 2018 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.

Some of the changes in the final regulations are mandatory, requiring employers to take action by January 1, 2020.

  1. Eliminates of the 6-month contribution suspension requirement

Beginning January 1, 2020, 401(k) and 403(b) plans will no longer be able to suspend contributions following a hardship distribution. Plans are required to eliminate the suspension period that barred participants who take a hardship distribution from making new contributions to the plan for 6 or more months.

2. Eliminates the plan loan requirement

The new rule removes the requirement that participants take a loan from the plan before taking a hardship withdrawal. Unlike the elimination of the 6-month suspension period, this change is optional. Plans may continue to require participants take a plan loan before being eligible for a hardship withdrawal.

3. Expands contribution sources available for hardship distributions

The final rule permits (but does not require) a 401(k) plan sponsor to allow hardship distributions of elective deferrals, QNECs, QMACs, and all earnings thereon. Previously, employees could only withdraw elective deferrals (and not earnings).  Earnings on 403(b) contributions and certain 403(b) plan QNECs and QMACs remain ineligible for hardship withdrawals.

4. Provides disaster relief

To take a hardship withdrawal, employees currently must show an immediate and heavy financial need that involves one or more of the following: (1) purchase of a primary residence; (2) expenses to repair damage or to make improvements to a primary residence; (3) preventing eviction or foreclosure from a primary residence; (4) post-secondary education expenses for the upcoming 12 months for participants, spouses and children; (5) funeral expenses;  and (6) medical expenses not covered by insurance.

The final rule adds a seventh safe harbor category for expenses resulting from a federally declared disaster.

5. Eases hardship verification requirements

Under current rules, plan administrators must take into account “all relevant facts and circumstances” to determine if a hardship withdrawal is necessary. The new rule requires only that a distribution not exceed the amount of the employee’s need (including taxes), that the employee first obtains any other distributions available under the plan, and that the employee represents that he or she has insufficient cash or liquid assets “reasonably available” to satisfy the financial need.

Employee representations can be made over the phone, if the call is recorded, or can be made in writing or by e-mail. A plan administrator may rely on an employee’s representation unless the plan administrator has actual knowledge to the contrary. Plans are required to apply this standard starting in 2020.

Plan Amendments Required

401(k) plans that permit hardship distributions will need to be amended to reflect the new rules by December 31, 2021, but operational changes must comply with the new rule beginning January 1, 2020.

Gig Workers: An Evolving Trend or a Class Action Waiting to Happen?

Contributed by Rebecca Dobbs Bush, June 4, 2019

The workplace is changing: Millennials, Generation Z-ers, and Baby Boomers looking to supplement their retirement income. These individuals are more interested in autonomy and avoiding bad managers, office politics and lengthy, non-productive staff meetings. Plus, the tax-savvy individual knows the economic advantage of having access to traditional business deductions through a Schedule C, rather than being limited to the standard deduction or itemizing as a W-2 employee would be.

Business concept. Isolated on white

More and more businesses also seem to be interested in the advantages of a gig workforce, also called freelancers, subcontractors, contingent workforce, and more. After all, it allows a business to gain access to skills and talent without having to commit to hiring an individual as a full-time employee. According to Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends study, more than 40% of workers in the U.S. are employed in “alternative work arrangements.” These arrangements include contingent, part-time, or gig work.

So, is it a win-win for all involved? The problem is that current employment laws are simply not evolving at the pace required to keep up with this modern-day independent contractor. With this, a minefield is created for the unwary business. 

Under the Obama administration, the DOL had issued broad guidance suggesting that gig workers were likely to be considered “employees.” That guidance was rescinded with the change in administration. Then, on April 29, 2019, the DOL issued an atypical, 10-page opinion letter on the subject. The opinion letter lays out a detailed analysis of all the relevant factors for independent contractor status and then comes to the conclusion that the gig workers at issue are not employees.

For now, if your business is participating in the trend of the gig worker, you want to make sure the relevant factors are met. Those factors and the analysis change depending on which law the issue is being examined under. Some of the more common factors are: control, permanency of the relationship, integrality to business operations, ability to sustain a profit or loss, accountability for operating expenses, etc. In other words, is the individual truly operating as a stand-alone business? 

If you choose to engage gig workers, make sure to avoid these common mistakes:

  • Do not treat the individuals as employees. Do not even use the word “hire.” Instead, you are “engaging” their services, or “contracting” with them. And, commit to the arrangement in writing.
  • Do not be tempted to offer them benefits. Putting them in your health plan or letting them participate in a 401(k) will jeopardize any argument that they are not otherwise an employee. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck….
  • Do not make them sign a non-compete agreement. A critical factor in most cases is whether the individual is free to take on work from others or whether they are completely dependent on your business for work. If the individual is subject to a non-compete agreement and effectively being prevented from working for others, you will not win on this factor.

Because of the amount of exposure involved with a misclassification lawsuit, it is worthwhile to have competent employment counsel review your situation and any independent contractor agreement or contracts that you are using to help you make sure it’s being handled in the best possible manner to strengthen the individual’s status as an independent contractor.

Save the Date! SmithAmundsen Complimentary Webinar on August 3rd — Employee Compensation and Benefits: Common Mistakes and Missed Opportunities

Employee pay and benefits plans can be one of the most significant expenses for an employer. Avoiding costly compliance mistakes and leveraging plans to effectively reward key employees is critical in today’s environment. Join Kelly Haab-Tallitsch and William Scogland on Thursday, August 3 at 12:00 PM CT for the latest installment of our Labor & Employment Quarterly Series as they discuss common mistakes and missed opportunities in designing and administering compensation and benefit programs. Specific topics include:

  • Additional qualified plan opportunities for highly compensated employees
  • Using equity or phantom equity to retain key personnel
  • Common 401(k) mistakes
  • Traps to avoid in a merger or acquisition
  • And more!

Register for the webinar here!

Cash-in-Lieu of Benefits May be Subject to Overtime

Contributed by Kelly Haab-Tallitsch, August 25, 2016

Compensation to employees who opt out of health insurance or other benefits, known as a “cash-in-lieu” program, can be an attractive option for both employers looking to manage skyrocketing health care costs and employees looking for a little extra cash. But a recent ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals highlights a significant risk to employers of such programs.

In Flores v. City of San Gabriel, 2016 WL 3090782 (June 2, 2016), the first case of its kind, the court held that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) cash payments made to an employee in lieu of benefits must be included in the employee’s regular rate of pay for the purpose of calculating overtime.

Health Insurance and MoneyThe employer in Flores, the City of San Gabriel, sponsored a flexible benefit plan that provided employees with a certain monetary allowance to purchase health insurance and other benefits. Employees who opted out of some or all of the benefits received a cash payment for the amount of their remaining allowance. The employer did not include these cash-in-lieu of benefits payments in the employees’ regular rates of pay when it calculated overtime. A group of employees sued, alleging that the exclusion of the cash-in-lieu payments from overtime calculations was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act and they had been underpaid for the overtime hours they worked.

The court in Flores agreed, ruling that the employer’s cash-in-lieu-of benefits payments were “compensation for services” (similar to other types of bonuses) that must be included in the regular rate of pay for overtime purposes. The court also held that the employer’s actions were a willful violation because it did not do enough to determine if it was complying with the law. As a result the employer was liable for double the amount of unpaid overtime compensation for the three year period before the complaint was filed.

Cash-in-lieu of benefits programs were already dealt a blow in late 2015 when Treasury Department guidance indicated that most cash-in-lieu payments will be included in the determination of a health plan’s “affordability” for purposes of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) employer mandate.

What Does This Mean for Employers?

The City of San Gabriel has asked the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decision, but until and unless the decision is actually overturned, employers operating in the Ninth Circuit should review their cash-in-lieu of benefit programs and payroll practices to ensure compliance with the FLSA.

The court’s ruling in Flores is a groundbreaking decision and it’s too early to tell whether courts outside of the Ninth Circuit will rule similarly. Employers outside of the Ninth Circuit who offer (or are considering) cash payments to employees who opt out of health benefits should consult with counsel to assess the impact of legal developments in this area.

Illinois Mandates Providing Leave to Grieving Parents

Contributed by Nick Kourvetaris, August 5, 2016

14465190 - business man leaving the seatOn Friday, July 29, 2016, Governor Rauner approved Public Act 99-0703, the Child Bereavement Leave Act (likely to be codified at 820 ILCS 154). Without a lot of fanfare or notice, this law became effective immediately upon signature. This law requires employers with 50 or more employees (those subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act) to provide two weeks (10 business days) of unpaid bereavement leave to employees so that they can:

(1) attend the funeral or alternative to a funeral of a child;

(2) make arrangements necessitated by the death of the child; or

(3) grieve the death of the child.

Under the Act, “child” includes a biological, adopted or foster child, a stepchild, a legal ward or a child of a person standing in loco parentis.

Of note, the law provides that:

  • Bereavement leave must be completed within 60 days after the date on which the employee receives notice of the death of the child.
  • An employee is required to provide the employer with at least 48 hours’ advance notice of the employee’s intention to take bereavement leave, unless providing such notice is not reasonable and practicable.
  • An employer has the right to request “reasonable” documentation to substantiate the request (e.g., a death certificate).
  • In the event of the death of more than one child in a 12-month period, an employee is entitled to a total of 6 weeks of bereavement leave during the 12- month period.

Fortunately, there is a short window for an employee to file a claim under this Act: 60 days to file a complaint with the Department of Labor or to file a civil action for any violation.  Similarly, an employee may also file a civil action against the employer to enforce the Act. Of course, public outcry to an employer failing to give leave to a grieving parent would likely far outweigh any fine issued by the Department of Labor: (I) up to $500 for a first offense; and (II) up to $1,000 for a second or subsequent offense.

The key takeaway here is that while there is no mandatory notice or posting requirement, employers must nevertheless be aware of this law’s existence should a request be made for such leave and also to prevent unnecessary lawsuits coupled with negative publicity of failing to abide by the law’s mandates. To this end, employers may want to consider drafting a short policy pertaining to this new mandated leave and incorporating it into their Employee Handbooks to alert employees and their supervisors of their responsibilities under company policy and the law.

Additional insights on this new law:

  1. Not only must the Employer be a covered “Employer” under the FMLA, but the Employee must be an “Eligible Employee” under the FMLA to take advantage of this new leave entitlement.
  2. Employee must provide 48 hours advance notice (unless not practicable/reasonable — and it will hardly ever be, realistically, practicable/reasonable).
  3. Employer may require documentation. We advise that the Employer first search online for information relating to the death. If the Employer cannot find anything, then documentation can be requested.
  4. Vacation or paid time off benefits during this unpaid leave of absence shall not be forced on the Employee —  rather, like IL’s VESSA law, electing to use PTO benefits is something the Employee ultimately must decide. NOTE: We usually explain in policies that such PTO will run concurrently with the leave unless the Employee contacts HR or some other contact internally to say otherwise.
  5. We believe the leave can and likely should run concurrently with the FMLA when possible — it’s just good practice. NOTE:  Like IL’s VESSA law, leave taken is NOT in addition to FMLA leave (so if someone uses 12 weeks of FMLA leave for the birth of a child and if the child dies, the Employee is no longer eligible to use the 2 weeks of leave under this new law. Of course, we know of no employer who would take adverse action against an employee who loses a child and needs time away for a week or two. We also know that an employee impacted here would likely have a solid case under the ADA (the emotional pain, anxiety and/or depression that follows in these cases is overwhelming). Also, if an employee uses 2 weeks of leave under this law and the employer did NOT administer FMLA leave concurrently for those 2 weeks, and that employee later adopts a child in the same 12 month time period, then the 12 weeks of leave under the FMLA would still be available.
  6. As with IL’s VESSA law, the employer should define the 12 month period.We advise this period to be defined similar to how the employer defines it under VESSA and the FMLA — a 12 month rolling look back period of time.
  7. There is no posting requirement (yet). We are sure we’ll see one shortly from the IL Department of Labor.
  8. Finally, the IL Department of Labor will be issuing guidance on this through regulations.