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Is Discussing Politics In The Workplace Ever OK?

David Rook

Sex, politics, and religion. That was the list of topics I was taught when growing up to never discuss when we had guests over for dinner. Those were pretty much the ground rules Google set-out to establish last month when it issued new guidelines limiting employee discussion of politics in the workplace.

Google claimed their guidelines were intended to protect a “productive work environment” by corralling what has already become very heated water cooler talk in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Nevertheless, late last week the National Labor Relations Board ordered Google to stand down. In its ruling, it instructed Google to affirm employees’ rights to express their views, within the workplace environment, on political and workplace issues.

The settlement was born less out of Google’s issuance of new guidelines but rather as a result of recent complaints from conservative employees who claim they were fired due to their political views.

According to a recent New York Times article, accusations of political bias at major tech companies has become a powerful rallying cry among conservatives. This includes accusations by President Trump that engineers in Silicon Valley intentionally skewed the way their systems display content online to reflect liberal positions. For their part, major technology companies deny these accusations of bias.

To be fair, Google’s new guidelines didn’t forbid discussing politics at work, but they did require managers to address conversations that became disruptive. The updated guidelines were an attempt to dial back what has historically been the company’s wide open discourse. In addition to politics, Google also advised employees to avoid name-calling, including making blanket statements about groups or categories of people.

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Topics: Compliance, Company Culture, Risk Management, Employee Productivity

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HSA Contribution Limits; What To Watch-out For When Families Have Multiple Accounts

Jeff Griffin

An increasing number of married employees are obtaining health insurance coverage through their own plans rather than their working spouses’.

Regardless of whether this reflects sound economic strategy (depending on employer contributions), personal preference, or is the result of spousal carve-outs instituted by employers as a cost-mitigation strategy, having two working spouses each go on their own individual high-deductible health plans (HDHP) increases the chance of overfunding health savings accounts (HSAs). This is not unlike the situation some married couples find themselves in when they accidentally overfund their Dependent Care FSA by each accidentally maxing out their contributions through their individual employers.

HSA Contribution Limits for 2019

Unlike last year when the IRS adjusted HSA contribution limits multiple times during the year, the 2019 HSA contribution limits are set and fairly straightforward. They are as follows:

  • $3,500 self-only contribution limit
  • $7,000 family contribution limit
  • $1,000 catch-up limit for people age 55 and over

These represent a $50 increase for individuals and a $100 increase for families compared to last year’s numbers. The catch-up limit has remained unchanged. (All of these figures include both employer and employee contributions.)

When just one person is contributing to an HSA, these limits are easy to apply. A bank representative can explain the account to them and help them make contributions that don't exceed the applicable limit.

In situations that involve two spouses, however, staying within the contribution limit becomes a little more involved. 

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Topics: Compliance, HSAs, HDHPs

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Arizona’s New Mini-COBRA Requirements for Small Businesses (with Sample Notice & Side-by-Side Comparison Table)

Jeff Griffin

At the start of this calendar year, Arizona became the latest state to adopt a mini-COBRA law, which impacts small employers. The new law specifically applies to employer-sponsored medical plans issued or renewed on or after January 1, 2019. (Employers with plans that were issued or renewed prior to this date have a little more time to comply with the law.)

The law requires small employers – those that offer group health plans, including medical, dental and vision - to offer continuation coverage to eligible employees and qualified dependents who experience Qualifying Events that would typically result in a loss of coverage.

These events include such things as loss of employment (for reasons other than gross misconduct), divorce or separation from the covered employee, or death of the covered employee.

Employers impacted by this new legislation are those that have fewer than 20 employees for more than fifty percent of its typical business days during the prior calendar year.

Although the new mini-COBRA continuation coverage requirements are very similar to the Federal COBRA requirements that apply to larger employers, there are some key differences. We invite you to download our side-by-side comparison of COBRA and Arizona’s Mini-COBRA of how these requirements compare with one another.

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Topics: Compliance, COBRA, Arizona Regulations

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Leaves of Absence - Do Employers Need to Provide Health Insurance During These Times?

Jeff Griffin

Employees who take qualifying leaves of absence are provided multiple protections by way of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERRA), and many state laws.

The most well-known protection is the guarantee of the same or an equivalent job when employees return to work, but there are also other protections. For example, many of these laws stipulate employers’ obligations regarding health insurance during employees’ qualifying leaves of absence.

The following is a breakdown of FMLA, USERRA, and some general state laws with regards to employer-provided health insurance coverage.

FMLA and Health Insurance

In order to meet the requirements for an FMLA-qualifying leave of absence, employees must meet four criteria:

  • Have completed 12 months of work for the employer (not necessarily consecutively)
  • Have completed 1,250 hours of work in those 12 months
  • Work at a location where there are at least 50 employees present or within 75 miles
  • Have a qualifying event

There are many qualifying events, ranging from the birth or adoption of a child, to serious health conditions, to providing for family members who have serious health conditions. Having a family member called to active military duty also qualifies (and extends FMLA benefits from 12 to 26 weeks).

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Topics: Compliance, Qualifying Life Events, FMLA, USERRA

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Nonprofits Get Tax Relief on Certain Employee Fringe Benefits

Jeff Griffin

Earlier this week, the IRS announced a reprieve to nonprofit organizations with regards to taxing fringe benefits. This comes as good news to those nonprofits concerned about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which President Trump signed into law in December of last year.

Due to overwhelming pressure placed on top Republican leaders from nonprofit organizations, as well as opposition from the Senate, requests were made to the Treasury Department to delay the implementation of the tax until 2019.

While the reprieve is specific to the 2018 tax year; it will remain in place until such time as when Congress changes the law.

Effects of the Reprieve 

The reprieve offers a financial break to nonprofit organizations specific to calculating the cost of their qualified transportation and commuting benefits. This financial break also extends to penalties that would otherwise be assessed in the event of under-calculating these expenses.

What the Law Includes

The new law includes a provision that imposes a 21 percent tax rate on certain fringe benefits for employees of nonprofit organizations, effective January 1, 2018. These benefits, under Internal Revenue Code sections 132(f) include:

  • Qualified transportation and commuting
    • Transit passes
    • Transportation in a commuter highway transportation vehicle between the employee’s home and workplace paid by the employer
  • Qualified parking
  • Onsite athletic facility

According to estimates from the nonpartisan congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, the new law, specific to disallowing transportation deductions, will save some $17.7 billion over a ten-year period, though these figures include both nonprofits and for-profit organizations.  Of course these figures will now have to be adjusted given this reprieve. 

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Topics: Compliance, Education, nonprofits

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2019 IRS Limits for Commonly Offered Employee Benefits

Jeff Griffin
The IRS recently finalized adjustments to 2019 limits on various tax-advantaged medical and dependent care spending accounts, retirement plans, and other inflation-adjusted employee benefits such as adoption assistance and qualified transportation benefits.
 
The 2.2 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index (PCI) for the 12 months ending this September was just enough to meet the thresholds required to extend these rate adjustments.
 
Despite some of these updates being issued nearly a month later than normal, these new financial caps still go into effect January 1, 2019. While some of the limits are unchanged, many have increased for 2019, affording employees the opportunity to contribute more money into their Health Spending Accounts (HSAs), Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs), and retirement plans, just to name a few.
 
In preparation for these 2019 plan year changes, employers should update their benefit plan designs for the new limits, ensure that their plan administration will be consistent with the new 2019 limits, and communicate the new benefit plan limits to their employees. 
 
Here is a convenient set of side-by-side comparison tables outlining the changes:
 
Tax-Advantaged Employee Benefits
HSA & HDHP Contribution Limits
The IRS has increased the 2019 annual HSA contribution limit for self-only HDHP coverage by $50, to $3,500, and by $100, to $7,000, for family HDHP coverage. HSA contributions can be made by the HSA account holder or any other person on their behalf, including an employer or family member.
 
 
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Topics: Compliance, Education, HSAs, Retirement Planning, Savings Plans, QSEHRA, HDHPs, FSAs

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Workforce Social Media Guidelines On & Off the Clock

David Rook

At this point, nearly every business, regardless of size, has a social media presence — as does nearly every single one of their employees. Like it or not, social media isn’t an option for your company anymore. It’s basically a must-have.

Customers not only expect you to have an easy-to-use website, but they want to see you on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and plenty of other platforms you probably wish you didn’t have to think about. Of course, this means you need to develop strong social media guidelines for your employees to follow, while they’re on and off the clock.

Social media creates an obligation on the behalf of your company to have trusted, well-trained, and responsible staff representing your business online. It’s so easy for an employee to misspeak or get baited by an annoying internet troll. Social media also provides ample opportunity for your workforce to talk about your business when they’re off the clock. This can be a good thing, but it can also backfire if people believe your employees are speaking on the behalf of your company, even while on their personal pages.

While social media can be a frustrating venture for any business, it also creates an environment where you can interact on a more personal and immediate level with customers (both current and prospective). It expands the reach of your brand while increasing brand interactions.

Social media is here to stay. Because of this, many companies have developed social media guidelines  — both for staff members who work in the marketing and customer service departments (who will be speaking on the behalf of the company), as well as employees outside of those departments who simply engage in social media on a personal level. Social media guidelines don’t tell employees how to use social media in general, but rather describe how it’s appropriate to use social media when talking for, or about, the company. You can download some excellent sample policies here

Why Social Media Guidelines are Important


It’s safe to assume the vast majority of your employees are on social media. Some will be more active than others, but nearly everyone will have a presence on at least one channel — more than likely, multiple social platforms, with the most popular being Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for personal use and LinkedIn for professional networking.

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Topics: Compliance, Employee Communications, Corporate Communication, Culture, Social Media

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Alternative Health Plan Options For Small Employers: MEWAs and AHPs

Jeff Griffin

Employers have been struggling to find the best way to provide affordable health benefits to their workers for many years now. One promising option, especially for those with smaller workforces, is to offer insurance through multiple employer welfare arrangements (MEWAs) and association health plans (AHPs).

The idea behind MEWAs is to bundle small groups into a larger community, thereby spreading risk over a larger and more diverse pool of covered individuals. It’s the same principle large employers benefit from by way of lower insurance premiums.  

If your small business is looking for cheaper healthcare options, MEWAs and association health plans may be good options for you to investigate.

What is a MEWA?

MEWA stands for multiple employer welfare arrangement, but is also sometimes referred to as a multiple employer trust (MET). MEWAs allow small employers to essentially team up to create a larger pool of employees to capitalize on the economies of scale that larger employers enjoy. This could mean as few as two employers in the group, or as many as deemed necessary to form a large enough employee pool.

Each employer gets a say in plan design, as well as plan offerings. If one employer has an older population who prefers more traditional plans, they can request such for their workforce. If another employer has a younger workforce for whom high deductible health plans would be more appealing, they could request more consumer-driven healthcare options for their employees. With these groups banded together, the premium costs should be lower than if each employer tried to get insurance on their own.

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Topics: Employee Benefits, Compliance, Cost Containment, ACA, Legislation, Association Health Plans, MEWA

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How You Know it's Time to Fire Your Employee Benefits Broker

Jeff Griffin

Many companies stick with their employee benefits broker for years on end, not giving too much thought to whether a change is warranted. HR directors always have long to-do lists full of time-sensitive issues, so finding a new broker is typically the last thing on their minds — except maybe during contract renewal season if the news isn’t good (and it never seems to be with health insurance these days).

The issue here is that there is a point when it’s time to fire your broker, but recognizing it when the time comes is difficult because you have a million things on your mind and far more pressing matters at hand. There are some definite signs it’s time to find a new employee benefits broker and it’s important to keep an eye out for them. Here are some of the big ones.

They’re Not Helping You Contain Costs Year-Round

Employee benefits brokers should not only be reaching out when it comes time for your annual renewal. Top-notch benefits consultants are working with you year-round to make sure you’re taking every possible step to keep your benefits costs contained.

True cost containment strategy requires constant effort in the form of chronic condition identification and management, medication adherence, large-scale claim intervention, consistent execution of a sound wellness program, financial oversight, and diligent carrier reconciliations.

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Topics: Employee Benefits, Compliance, Education, Disruption, Strategy

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FMLA Guidelines for Employers: Rules and Regulations

Jeff Griffin

At some point or another, every human resources employee helps to facilitate a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). HR personnel can probably recite FMLA guidelines and regulations in their sleep, but the average employee is pretty much out of touch with what the law entitles them to, and quite often they don't realize what’s actually required of their employers.

FMLA rules are designed to protect both the employer and the employee. From an employee’s perspective, they’re able to take necessary medical leave without fear of losing their job. For employers, it helps them work toward the goal of true, equal opportunity employment for both men and women.

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Topics: Employee Benefits, Compliance, Company Culture, Paid Time Off (PTO)

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