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2009 is ‘year of employee benefits’; more in the pipeline for 2010

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Employee benefits have been in the national spotlight right from the start of 2009. From the new FMLA and ADA rules that took effect in January to today’s white-hot health care debate, employers are dealing with important changes and “could-be” changes. Let's look back at the year in benefits and ahead to what could be coming later this year.

Among the benefits changes already in place this year:

New FMLA regulations. On Jan. 16, new FMLA regulations took effect that allow employees to take up to 26 weeks of FMLA leave to care for a family member injured during active-duty military service. Employees can also use 12 weeks of FMLA leave when a family member is called to active service.

Those regulations also tinkered with the definition of a “serious” FMLA illness, revised employer notice obligations and allowed employers to directly contact employees’ doctors with FMLA questions. Read more about the regulation changes at www.theHRSpecialist.com/newFMLArules.

Broader ADA definition of ‘disabled.’ The ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) that took effect on Jan. 1 applies a broader definition to the term “disability,” allowing more employees to earn job protection under the ADA (and forcing you to offer “reasonable accommodations” to more workers).

Courts are now more likely to side with employees who sue employers for ADA violations. Read more about those changes at www.theHRSpecialist.com/thenewADA.

COBRA subsidy. The economic stimulus law signed in February provides federal funding for employees who are involuntarily terminated to receive a 65% subsidy toward their COBRA continuing health coverage. Read the details of employers’ role at www.theHRSpecialist.com/stimulus.

Mental health parity law. Beginning with insurance plans that renew after Oct. 3, a new law requires employers to cover mental health service in their health care plans at a level on par with medical coverage.

WHAT’S NEW

Congress is considering several legislative initiatives that could require employers to provide additional benefits:

Paid leave. The so-called Healthy Families Act would require employers with 15 or more workers to provide at least seven days of paid sick leave annually per employee. It would guarantee at least one paid hour off for every 30 hours worked.

Another pending bill, the Family Leave Insurance Act, would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to those employees who are eligible for unpaid FMLA leave now. Employees earning less than $20,000 annually would gain complete pay replacement, while higher-paid workers would receive less. Employers with more than 20 workers would have to comply.

FMLA expansion. Pending legislation would allow eligible employees to take FMLA leave for their children or grandchildren’s school events and for their child’s routine doctor visits. The bill would also reduce the threshold for FMLA compliance to employers with 25 or more workers (down from 50).

Health care reform. Congress spent the summer debating various proposals to revamp the health insurance system in an effort to cover uninsured Americans. The impact on employers is becoming lost amid the hyperbole and shouting.

Essentially, most of the proposed bills would require certain employers to provide health insurance for employees or pay into a public fund that would in turn provide health insurance for those who lack it.

If, like many employers, you already provide health insurance benefits for employees, you may soon have additional options, such as the ability to buy coverage from a variety of plans.

Plus, many experts predict that health insurance costs could ease as more Americans gain coverage.

The bad news is that many of the proposals include penalties for employers that don’t provide a certain level of coverage. Some would fund the programs by taxing health benefits for those who receive coverage at work—at least for the most expensive plans.

One positive benefit of all the publicity surrounding health insurance reform: Employees now understand better the true cost of their health benefits. Those with good coverage now have greater appreciation for the benefit, which may show up in increased loyalty.

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