COVID-19 Relief Bill Extends Unemployment Benefits, PPP and More

COVID-19 employee benefits

The $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill, passed by Congress and signed into law on Dec. 27, includes a number of provisions that affect employers and their workers in terms of paid sick leave and Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act provisions.

The legislation also boosts unemployment benefits to out-of-work Americans, as well as reopening and expanding the Paycheck Protection Program that was introduced in March as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Paid sick leave and family medical leave

The new law has not extended the obligation for employers to provide paid emergency paid sick leave and expanded family and medical leave beyond Dec. 31, 2020, instead making it voluntary after that date.

From Jan. 1, employers can continue receiving tax credits if they provide emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) and emergency family medical leave (EFML) to employees for COVID-19-related purposes through March 31. Here are the caveats:

  • Tax credits will be available for leave granted to employees who did not already exhaust 80 hours of EPSL and 12 weeks of EFML. For example, if a worker who was entitled to 80 hours of EPSL last year used 50 of those hours, they’d have 30 hours left to use between Jan. 1 and March 31 this year.
  • Employers must protect the jobs of any employee that is granted EPSL and EFML.

Other provisions

The legislation extends some CARES Act unemployment programs:

Unemployment benefits ― The new law extends the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) program supplement from December 26, 2020 to March 14. However, instead of receiving $600 a week under the original program, benefits will be $300 per week.

Gig worker unemployment benefits ― The law also extends the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, which covers independent contractors and gig workers who would usually not be eligible for unemployment insurance payments.

This program (originally created by the CARES Act) is also extended to March 14, and then a three-week phase-out period begins and will run until April 5. The law increases the number of weeks independent contractors are eligible for these benefits to 50 from the original 39.

Extra weeks for those whose benefits ran out ― The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program, which provides additional weeks of unemployment insurance benefits to individuals who use up all of their state unemployment benefits, will be extended until March 14.

The law also increases the number of benefit weeks to 24, from 13 under the original version of the program. After March 14, this program will be phased out over three weeks until April 5.

More money ― Taxpayers with annual incomes below $75,000 will receive a $600 check, plus another $600 per dependent child. Payments are phased out for people with incomes in excess of $75,000.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) part II ― The law also sets aside $284 billion for forgivable loans to struggling businesses as part of a second PPP. Companies that receive funds will have to use the money on payroll and other specific expenses if they want the loan to be forgiven.

Depending on the loan, employers will have either eight or 24 weeks after receiving the loan to spend it on approved expenses.

But PPP part 2 does have some additional prerequisites that differ from the original. It lowers the employee threshold for businesses to 300 employees or fewer (down from 500). Additionally, the maximum loan is now $2 million, compared to $10 million under the original PPP.

Qualifying expenses are also different in this version, which means any business thinking about applying needs to read all the fine print.

 

As Health Deductibles Rise, Employees More Likely to File Workers’ Comp Claims: Study

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Sometimes, injured employees are afraid to file a workers’ comp claim after being injured at work because they fear the specter of retaliation by their employer.

Experts suspect that up to 10% of workplace injuries are never reported because the workers choose to have the injuries covered by their employer-sponsored health plans. Most employers may not be aware of the full extent of their workplace injuries because of this phenomenon.

But, that could change as workers are saddled with higher deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses, according to a new study.

A number of past studies have found that if the costs to workers for having their personal health insurance cover a workplace injury is less than the “cost” to them of filing a workers’ comp claim, they will opt to have their health insurance cover it instead.

Here’s what studies have found over the years:

  • A 1996 study found that workers without health insurance have an incentive to claim their medical issues are work-related even if they are not, so that workers’ compensation insurance will pay for care. The study also found that if the injury occurs at work, health insurance may deter workers from filing for workers’ comp if they feel there is a cost to filing a claim.
  • A 2007 study found that a genuine workers’ comp claim can be “costly” to file for a worker if:
    • The employer dissuades workers from filing workers’ comp claims because they fear the claims will increase their premiums.
    • The injured worker does not want to deal with the paperwork for a workers’ comp claim.
    • The individual feels there is a stigma associated with filing for workers’ comp.
  • A 2003 study of Michigan workers and their physicians found that 70% of injured workers did not file for workers’ comp, and that 36% of the non-reporting injured workers cited having health insurance as a reason they did not.

What could be ahead

The most recent study, by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI), found that injured employees are more likely to file workers’ compensation claims when they have high-deductible group health plans.

The study found that workers with a remaining group health insurance deductible that exceeds $550 are more likely to file workers’ comp claims than if the deductible were less. As more workers find themselves staring at higher health insurance deductibles, they will properly report their workers’ comp claims to their employers.

“In years past, workers may have chosen to have a work injury covered within their group health plan,” John Ruser, WCRI president and CEO, said in a statement. “But the increasing cost of deductibles may cause them to consider having the injury covered ─ where it potentially belongs ─ in the workers’ compensation system, where there are no deductibles or copayments for the medical care they receive.”

This is likely to add about 5% more claims into the system, the WCRI found.

What you can do

There are risks to both your employee and your organization if a worker does not report their workplace injury.

Urge your workers to report any workplace injuries so that you can have them properly treated. If a worker decides to not report the claim and they have their health insurance pay for it, problems can take root and cause major issues for you later:

  • Your insurer loses the chance to direct the initial treatment to an occupational health clinic that specializes in treating workers’ compensation injuries and coordinates with the employer’s return-to-work program.
  • A delay in seeking treatment may cause a deterioration in the employee’s condition that will impede their recovery time.
  • It impedes the insurance company’s ability to investigate a claim, determine compensability and identify claims fraud.

How Employers Can Fight the High Cost of Diabetes

Diabetes is a devastating illness – and not just for those with the disease. Employers are also shouldering massive and increasing direct and indirect costs due to diabetes.

Diabetes afflicts more than 11% of the adult population, including about 6.3% of full-time workers and 9.1% of part-time workers.

Adults with diabetes incur more than $8,480 in direct treatment costs, on average. Those who are insured spend even more.

A 2016 report from the Health Care Cost Institute estimated that insured workers with diabetes spend more than $16,000 on health care costs per year. Those without diabetes, on average, generate about $4,396 in medical costs per annum.

 

Indirect costs

Employers aren’t just paying more in direct health care costs and insurance premiums. They also pay via lost productivity.

On average, those with diabetes miss an extra week of work – 5.5 days – compared to other workers, according to Gallup estimates. All told, that adds up to 45 million missed workdays, and productivity costs to U.S. employers of $4 billion.

And for employers, these costs may represent just the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than 114 million adults in the U.S. – a third of the workforce – have undiagnosed diabetes or prediabetes.

 

What can employers do?

The CDC recommends that employers design wellness programs that specifically target improvements in the following areas:

  • Exercise and activity levels
  • Smoking
  • Hypertension
  • Blood cholesterol
  • High blood glucose
  • Weight/obesity

There also are a number of measures employers can take to help mitigate some of the costs to the organization.

  • Offer ongoing counseling with professional dieticians. Employees that regularly meet with dieticians who can help them set small, manageable goals for themselves, make significant and measureable health improvements, according to a 2016 study. The research found that they lost 5.5% of their body weight and reduced blood glucose levels.
  • Start a walking club. The American Diabetes Association’s Stop Diabetes @ Work program recommends that employers encourage company walking clubs to attend diabetes walk-a-thons like Step Out: Walk to Cure Diabetes, or host a Community Walk to Cure Diabetes.
    You can find resources, including posters, newsletter articles, training plans and walking guides, at diabetes.org.
  • Encourage self-assessment and screening. According to the CDC, 30% of people with diabetes aren’t even aware of it. Workplace screenings are easy and effective. Many employers provide incentives for workers to participate via reduced insurance copays, or even cash payments.

All screenings should be confidential and employers should not to penalize employees who have diabetes, as this could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

  • Encourage smokers to quit. Diabetics who smoke have far higher medical costs on average than non-smoking diabetics or non-diabetic smokers. Discouraging tobacco use can pay off in the long run.

With so much at stake, a robust workplace program to fight diabetes can generate a significant return on investment.

The American Diabetes Association estimates that preventing or delaying the onset of diabetes in just one prediabetic employee can generate more than $50,000 in direct and indirect cost savings over five years.