Why You Should Be Benchmarking (and How Hierl Can Help)

As an employer, you have more than likely heard the term ‘benchmarking’ thrown around. It is becoming a critical tool in the development of competitive benefits programs, often helping drive down costs. At Hierl, we are strong advocates for benchmarking. Why? We believe good business decisions can only be made with accurate, meaningful information. Benchmarking is a fantastic way for us – and you – to measure where you stand in all aspects of your benefits against your industry’s standards and competitors. That’s why, in this installment of CenterStage, we interviewed our Executive Vice President, Scott Smeaton.

From an Employer's Eyes - The 3 Scenarios

“When we meet with a business that has not done benchmarking, we are sure to complete that process for them, showing them where they stand in their marketplace,” explained Scott. He emphasized that there are three scenarios that can happen once great advisors, such as those at Hierl, step in and get those results for the employer:

(1)The employer sees that everything around them has changed, they haven’t kept up with the times, and they’ve left money on the table.

(2)The employer is having a difficult time attracting and retaining key employees. With benchmarking, they can view where they should enhance their benefits to be more competitive in their marketplace.

With unemployment as low as it is, many businesses we meet with come from a third, different mindset:

(3) They want to look at their benefits from a total reward or total compensation strategy, where the benefits and the costs of providing benefits become part of a larger picture – time off, vacation, wages, etc.

These three approaches to benefits strategy are why, at Hierl, we strive to blend any and all concerns into a benefits plan strategically designed to get our clients where they need to be to compete for labor. “With a recent client of ours, they were specific about wanting their plans to be in the top 25% of all the plans out there – from a plan design perspective and from a premium cost-share perspective. Using benchmark, we were able to illustrate to this client what they needed to do to accomplish that goal specific to their industry and geographic location,” Scott explained. Benchmark is a powerful tool that can be in any employer’s toolbox, if only you partner with someone like Hierl.

He continued, “When we do our clients’ benchmarks, we take the results further than simply a generic comparison against their competitors. We look at our clients’ specific plan designs, analyzing their deductibles, their coinsurance, their out-of-pocket maximums, their prescription drug copays, and other specifics, as well as how much of the premium the employees must pay out of their paycheck to have coverage. We break down each into five competitive areas: national, regional, state, industry, and employers of similar size.”

Addressing Employers’ Fear of Cost

Some employers may not want to see the results because their current offering isn’t competitive, and it would cost money to adjust their programs to be closer to market. If getting closer to market to compete for labor is their goal, we work with them to create a three- to five-year plan to get there, making incremental adjustments each year. Another common finding is that employers are paying more of the premium than their competitors. Some acknowledge that’s what they want to be doing; others appreciate the information and adjust their cost share so they can reallocate those premium dollars to other benefits, wages, or expenses. This can be an eye-opener, and they likely would not have realized the difference without doing a benchmark test.

Another benefit of benchmarking is how we use the information to educate and engage employees, helping them understand the effort their employer is making to be competitive in the market and how fortunate they are to have the benefits they do compared to others. We use the data during employee meetings to drive the point home. The response is often amazing. We’ve had employees go to their employers and thank them after the employee meetings admitting that they didn’t realize how competitive their benefits are. This also highlights that their employer cares about its employees’ needs and wishes with their benefits, helping the employer retain their key talent.

Partner with Advisors that Listen

If your benefits program isn’t up-to-par – or you’re not even sure where it stands against others in your marketplace – then benchmarking is something you should seriously consider. Even more so, partner with advisors that will want to improve employee perception of your benefits as much as you do. Everyone at Hierl is extremely passionate about helping employers – large or small – identify what it takes to build a successful employee benefits program. To do that, we use the data and listen to the direction the employer wants to go, while also keeping in mind what the employees are looking for. Something we offer to our clients is to survey not only their company through benchmark but to also survey their employees, regarding how they feel and engage with their benefits. Every other year, we go in and do this test with our clients’ employees to ensure the benefits plans we design for our clients are fully comprehensive and hitting every mark. We’re not your traditional broker. We bring tools and resources to the conversation that make a difference. We’re driven to educate and improve both the employer and employee experience, driving down the overall cost of benefits at the same time.

To learn more about Hierl’s services or to begin your benchmark process, please contact our Executive Vice President, Scott Smeaton, at 920.921.5921 or ssmeaton@hierl.com.


5 reasons to offer a student loan repayment benefit in 2019

By the first quarter of 2018, 44 million Americans owed $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. According to the Federal Reserve, this debt surpassed both credit card and auto loan debt. Read on to learn five reasons businesses should offer a student loan repayment benefit in 2019.


With human resources managers across the country working to finalize their 2019 benefits packages this month, many are asking themselves: How can we add more value for our talent and help the company grow? For many employers, the answer is helping employees manage their student loan debt.

Over the years, student loan debt has reached an astronomical sum. As of 2008, college tuition fees rose by 439% from 1982. And by the first quarter of 2018, 44 million Americans owed a total of $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, exceeding both credit card debt and auto loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve. Not only is this an extreme amount of debt, but has also taken an enormous emotional toll, with more than half of college-educated adults (54%) surveyed by Laurel Road in 2018 feeling that they will never make enough money to reach their financial goals.

Fast forward to today, and borrowers are seeking creative ways to tackle their debt and save more. Recently, in a private ruling, the IRS granted Abbott Laboratories, a national healthcare company, the option to contribute to employee 401(k) plans based on the employee’s student loan payments. Other companies — from corporate behemoths to busy startups — have partnered with student loan refinancing companies to offer employees refinancing options that can help them save, often at no cost to the company.

With Americans quitting their jobs at the fastest rate since 2001, keeping employees happy is imperative. And part of keeping millennials happy is to provide practical benefits, not just the fun perks. Employees are looking to foster meaningful relationships with their employers — so looping in student loan repayment benefits can pay off for both the employer and the employee.

So what’s to gain? Here are some of the top reasons employers should consider incorporating student loan repayment benefits into their 2019 benefits package.

1. Recruit, retain and stand out

In a competitive talent landscape, student loan debt relief is a modern benefit that any company can offer to incentivize the younger generation to join their team. In a recent survey conducted by Laurel Road, we found that 58% of millennials would trade an additional vacation day for student loan repayment assistance, showing how valuable meaningful benefits are to this generation. This benefit can be a deciding factor for talent, and a way for employers to attract top-performing talent by offering to support their financial futures.

2. It’s flexible and free

As an employer, you have options to create a student loan program that works for your team’s needs and the company’s bottom line. A lot of this comes from choosing the right lending or refinancing partner that can provide savings to employees. Lenders can offer companies the option to contribute or not and work to tailor the program to the specific needs and interests of the company’s workforce — with some options coming in at no cost to the employer.

3. Eliminate the student loan vs. retirement conflict

Employees with student debt often feel deeply conflicted about whether or not to save for retirement first or pay off their student loan debt. A recent study from Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research found that college graduates with student debt accumulate 50% less retirement wealth in their 401(k) by age 30 than those without. Employees shouldn’t have to choose between contributing to retirement and paying off their student loan debt, as both are necessary to financial health. The student loan relief benefit allows employees to make a dent in both, reducing financial stress.

4. Help employees save

One of the reasons why the student loan benefit is attractive for employees is the significant savings it can lead to. If refinancing is an option, employees have the potential to save thousands of dollars over the life of their loan through a lower loan interest rate and lower monthly payments.

In the long run, the cumulative savings can add up to several thousand dollars or more. Employers should keep in mind that the savings amount will change depending on the financing company you choose to work with. Many can offer employer customers exclusive rates, which leads to even greater savings.

5. Boost morale and productivity

According to another benefits company, 31% of employees surveyed say their money concerns affect their work. Meanwhile, 74% of people feel stress daily about their student loan debt and spend time at work thinking about it, impacting their overall productivity in the workplace. So in addition to the hard savings employees are earning through these programs, they are also rewarded with the soft benefits of reduced stress and anxiety at work.

With student loan debt reaching record highs in recent years, employers have recognized that there’s a crucial need to provide employees with options to help them pay down their student loan debt. And when options like refinancing come at no cost to them, this benefit will likely become more popular. In the future, we can expect more employers to pave the way for student loan repayment programs. Will you be one of the trailblazers?

SOURCE: Schaefer, A. (28 September 2018) "5 reasons to offer a student loan repayment benefit in 2019" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/5-reasons-to-offer-a-student-loan-repayment-benefit-in-2019?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001

U.S. Unemployment Drops to Lowest Rate in 50 Years

The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 3.7 percent in September, the lowest it’s been in 50 years. Read this blog post to learn how this is affecting the U.S. labor market.


Unemployment in the U.S. fell to 3.7 percent in September—the lowest since 1969, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The low jobless rate, down from 3.9 percent in August, is further evidence of a strong economy—employers added 134,000 new jobs in September, extending the longest continuous jobs expansion on record at 96 months. The continued gains run counter to economists' expectations for a significant slowdown in hiring as the labor market tightens. Through the first nine months of the year, employers added an average of 211,000 workers to payrolls each month, well outpacing 2017's average monthly growth of 182,000.

"This morning's jobs report marked a new milestone for the U.S. economy," said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor. "With good news in most economic indicators today, it's likely the economy will continue its march forward through the remainder of 2018."

Cathy Barrera, chief economist at online employment marketplace ZipRecruiter, pointed out that the jobless rate ticked down for all education levels. "Anecdotal evidence has suggested that employers have experienced labor shortages for entry-level positions, and the decline in unemployment for these groups reflects that," she said. "More of those joining or rejoining the labor force are moving directly into jobs, reflecting the high demand for workers."

The sectors showing the strongest jobs gains in September include:

  • Professional and business services (54,000 new jobs).
  • Healthcare (26,000).
  • Transportation and warehousing (24,000).
  • Construction (23,000).
  • Manufacturing (18,000).

"Retail job losses—20,000 jobs—were widespread, and the leisure and hospitality sector lost 17,000 jobs, largely confined to restaurants," said Josh Wright, chief economist for recruitment software firm iCIMS, based in Holmdel, N.J.

"We can clearly point to a slowdown in retail trade for the dip in [overall] payroll numbers in September," said Martha Gimbel, research director for Indeed's Hiring Lab, the labor market research arm of the global job search engine. "Retail trade had a strong first half of the year but has slowed down in recent months. In addition, recent Hiring Lab research saw a slight dip in the number of holiday retail postings, suggesting that the sector may struggle in months to come."

Prior to September, employment in leisure and hospitality had been on a modest upward trend and the losses last month may reflect the impact of Hurricane Florence.

The Department of Labor said it's possible that employment in some industries was affected by Hurricane Florence which struck the Carolinas in September. Nearly 300,000 workers nationwide told the BLS that bad weather kept them away from their jobs last month.

"That's far below the level in September 2017 amid hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but significantly above the average of about 200,000 over the prior 13 years," Wright said. Upward revisions are likely, he added.

Wages Stubborn but Rising

In September, average hourly earnings for private-sector workers rose 8 cents to $27.24. Over the year, average hourly earnings have increased by 73 cents, or 2.8 percent.

"That's down slightly from the 2.9 percent pace last month, but consistent with a steady upward trend in wage growth we've seen as the job market tightens and more employers face labor shortages," Chamberlain said. "We expect to see that pace continue to rise throughout the holiday season, likely topping 3 percent within the next six months."

Glassdoor has recorded strong wage growth in tech-heavy metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles.

"If the true wage growth rate is at or below 2.8 percent year-over-year, it is disappointing that it is not growing faster," Barrera said. "Given how tight the labor market has been not only with overall unemployment below 4 percent, but particularly so at the entry level, we would expect wage growth to be higher. The labor turnover numbers suggest that mobility is lower than it historically has been in periods where unemployment is very low. This is one reason wages may not be rising as quickly as we'd expect."

Labor Force Participation Stalled?

The nation's labor force participation rate held at 62.7 percent.

"Looking at the labor flows data, the rate of movement of the civilian population into the labor force hasn't moved much in the last couple of years, however, more of those folks are moving directly into employment rather than into unemployment," Barrera said.

Wright noted that the number of new labor force entrants and reentrants going directly to unemployment was just 33,000. "This raises interesting questions—whenever we get a recession, how long will these reentrants and new entrants continue searching for jobs before leaving the labor force?" he asked.

The percentage of the population in their prime working years with a job also held around 79 percent, where it's been for about eight months, Gimbel said, adding that the measure suggests that the number of workers remaining to pull into the labor force may be exhausted.

"The share of the labor force working part-time but who wants a full-time job unfortunately ticked up," she said. "Any remaining slack in the economy may be concentrated in part-time workers who want more hours."

SOURCE: Maurer, R. (5 October 2018) "U.S. Unemployment Drops to Lowest Rate in 50 Years" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/us-unemployment-drops-lowest-50-years-bls-jobs.aspx/


Business meal deductions likely here to stay after new IRS guidelines

After much confusion following the IRS’s decision to end deductions for client entertainment, they are expected to release guidance regarding business meal deductions. Read this blog post to learn more.


Employers wondering whether they can still deduct business meals from their tax returns may soon be getting an answer from the Internal Revenue Service.

The agency is expected to release guidance saying that business meals will continue to be 50% deductible, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

The confusion over the deductibility of business meals stems from the IRS’s decision to end deductions for client entertainment, a move that was part of the government’s tax overhaul. Previously, the entertainment-related deduction was 50% of qualified expenses.

The elimination of deductions for client entertainment left many tax professionals wondering whether client meals might be considered entertainment and therefore no longer qualify for deductions.

The anticipated IRS guidance — which comes at the urging of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants and other groups — is expected to preserve the 50% deduction for the cost of meals with clients and elaborate on how the 50% meal write-off meshes with entertainment expenses, the Wall Street Journal said.

If a business owner or employee, for example, takes a client to a ballgame, the cost of the tickets is not deductible because the expense is for entertainment. Hots dogs and drinks purchased at the event, however, could still be 50% deductible, the IRS is expected to say, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The IRS, which did not respond to a request for comment, is not likely to change the normal requirements corporate executives must meet to take deductions for client meals.

They must discuss business with the client before, during and after the meal, and the meal must not be “lavish or extravagant,” the Wall Street Journal said.

SOURCE: Correia, M. (28 September 2018) "Business meal deductions likely here to stay after new IRS guidelines" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/business-meal-deductions-likely-here-to-stay-after-new-irs-guidelines?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001


Are you ready for self-funding? Three tools to help you decide

Switching to a self-funded plan can seem like a daunting prospect to many HR directors, but there are also many significant benefits to switching. Read on for three tools to help you decide if you’re ready to switch.


When your health plan is fully insured, it’s easy for your finance department to budget for the cost — you just pass on the health insurer’s annual renewal premium amount to them and that becomes the annual budget number. But you and your broker may have come to suspect that you are leaving money on the table by continuing on a fully insured basis, and you may want to test the self-funded waters.

By now, you may already know there are significant benefits to self-funding, but actually making the switch is a scary prospect for HR directors.

Before you can transition to a self-funded plan, you need to be financially stable and willing to take a bit of a risk. As a safeguard, you also need to familiarize yourself with the two forms of stop-loss insurance. One caps the impact on any one covered member’s claims (individual or specific stop loss), and the other caps your total annual claim liability (aggregate stop loss). Your broker can guide you on which stop loss levels and which stop-loss coverage periods are right for your population when transitioning from fully insured to self-funding.

Beyond these stop-loss safeguards, size will dictate how you pay. If you have fewer than 100 covered employees, you may be able to pay the same amount monthly, just as you do with your fully insured premium. This monthly payment equals projected claims plus an aggregate margin, a monthly administration fee and the stop loss charge. This eliminates unpredictable monthly payments for a small self-funded group.

However, for larger groups of over 100 employees, moving to self-funding will mean paying claims as they are processed (which means uneven claim payments), plus stop loss and administration.

To help you determine if you’re ready for self-funding, you may want to analyze your plan in a few different ways.

1. Look back: A look back analysis is just what it sounds like — a view of how your plan would have performed over the last couple years had you been self-funded, compared to how it did perform under a fully insured model. This should be an easy enough task for your broker to take on, especially if they have sought out self-funded quotes from claim administrators and stop-loss carriers on your behalf. In addition, they should know what your actual claims costs were. The result is that you’ll know whether you would have saved money or not.

2. Look forward: You may already know what your upcoming fully insured renewal looks like. But even if you don’t have hard numbers yet, you can work with your broker to determine a strong estimate of what your proposed premiums will be. Then, your broker should get a self-funded quote, which includes the expected and maximum claims, plus the administrative fees and stop-loss premiums. This is your expected self-funded costs for the upcoming policy period. Compare that estimate to your fully insured renewal costs. (Make sure the self-funded costs are on the same “incurred claims with runout” basis that the fully insured costs would be, for a fair apples-to-apples comparison.)
3. Probability. While the “look forward” analysis compares your fully insured costs to your expected self-funded costs, it is based on “expected” claims. The risky part of self-funding is that your actual claims will not ultimately materialize exactly as expected. There are some more sophisticated tools that combine group-specific data (such as your claims history, demographics and the proposed fixed costs) with a fairly large actuarial database to come up with thousands of possible outcomes.

By charting all of these outcomes, you can produce likelihood percentages of where your actual claims will come in at — versus the “expected” level, and versus the fully insured renewal rate. Not all brokers have this tool on hand, and as a result, there may be a cost associated with producing one. The output from this tool may appeal to your colleagues in the finance department.

Other considerations

During your analysis, you may want to set your self-funded policy year liability based on incurred claims (plus fixed costs), even though your actual paid claims within that policy year may be less due to the lag between when provider services occur and when you actually fund them. The lag is a cash-flow advantage but it does not represent a reduced claim liability.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the cost of high claimants, an important part of planning if you choose the self-funding route. Will your past high claimants continue into your renewal period? Are you aware of new high claimants on the horizon? Stop-loss carriers generally insure only “unknown risks,” not “known risks.” If a plan member has an expensive chronic condition, such as kidney failure, a stop loss carrier may “laser” that individual and set a higher individual stop-loss threshold. It’s important that you know what’s excluded and factor in any uncovered catastrophic claimants into your analysis.

In the end, it may turn out that self-funding is not a good fit, or possibly that this year is just not the year for it. But whether it is, or it isn’t, it is comforting to know that you’ve done your due diligence and have documentation supporting the decision you’ve reached.

SOURCE: DePaola, Raymond (5 October 2018) "Are you ready for self-funding? Three tools to help you decide" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/ready-for-self-funding-three-tools-to-help-you-decide


How employers can support employees during cancer treatment

The number of cancer survivors in the United States has grown to 15.5 million and is expected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. Read on to learn how employers can support their employees during their cancer treatment.


Thanks to more sensitive diagnostic testing, earlier diagnosis and new treatments, the number of cancer survivors in the U.S. has grown to 15.5 million, and that number is projected to increase to 20.3 million by 2026. In addition, about 1.7 million Americans are projected to be diagnosed with cancer this year. A large percentage of these cancer patients and survivors are still active members of the workforce and the numbers have the potential to increase even more as people remain in the workforce beyond age 65.

Some people with cancer choose to continue working during treatment. Reasons for continuing to work can be psychological as well as financial. For some, their job or career is a big part of the foundation of their identity. A survey conducted by the non-profit Cancer and Careers found that 48% of those surveyed said they continued to work during treatment because they wanted to keep their lives as normal as possible, and 38% said they worked so that they felt productive. Being in the workforce also provides a connection to a supportive social system for many people and boosts their self-esteem and quality of life.

There also are financial benefits to the employer when employees continue to work during cancer treatment. Turnover costs, including hiring temporary employees and training replacement employees, are high. The cost of turnover for employees who earn $50,000 per year or less (which is approximately 75% of U.S. workers) average 20% of salary. For senior and executive level employees, that cost can reach 213% of salary. In addition, it can be costly to lose the experience, expertise, contacts and customer relationships employees have built.

This raises the question for employers: How can I support employees who choose to work while undergoing cancer treatment? Providing that support can be complex as employers work to balance their legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities and Family and Medical Leave Acts with the privacy requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

When an employee chooses to share his or her diagnosis with a supervisor or HR representative, employers should view this disclosure as the beginning of a conversation with the employee taking the lead. (It’s up to the employee what information he or she wants to disclose about the diagnosis and treatment and with whom the information can be shared within the organization.) Here are four ways employers can support employees who are getting cancer treatment.

Help employees understand what benefits are available

The first step an employer should take is to refer the employee to the organization’s human resources manager (or someone who handles HR matters if the organization is smaller and does not have a human resources department) so that person can share information about all available benefits and pertinent policies. Provide details on:

  • Medical and prescription drug coverages, including deductibles, co-pays, precertification requirements, network healthcare providers and plan and lifetime maximums
  • Leave policies
  • Flexible scheduling and remote work options, if available
  • Employee assistance programs
  • Community resources and support groups

Offer professional guidance

Offering patient navigator or case management services can also be beneficial. Navigators and case managers can provide a range of services including:

  • Connecting employees with healthcare providers
  • Arranging second opinions
  • Providing evidence-based information on the type of cancer the employee has been diagnosed with and options for treatments
  • Help filing health insurance claims, reviewing medical bills and handling medical paperwork
  • Coordinating communication and medical records among members of the treatment team
  • Attending appointments with employees
  • Answering employee questions about treatments and managing side effects

Make accommodations

Workplace accommodations are another key pillar of support for employees working during cancer treatment. In addition to flexible scheduling, to accommodate medical appointments and help employees manage side effects like fatigue and nausea, and the option of working from home, workplace accommodations can include:

  • Temporary assignment to a less physically taxing job
  • Substituting video conferencing or online meetings for travel, which can be difficult for employees dealing with fatigue or a suppressed immune system, and can make it hard to attend needed medical appointments
  • Leave sharing for employees who have used all their paid time off and can’t afford to take unpaid leave. Some organizations offer leave banks or pools where employees can “deposit” or donate some of their vacation days for employees dealing with a serious illness to use.

Employees may continue to need accommodations after treatment ends if they face late side effects such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, numbness caused by nerve damage or heart or lung problems. Continuing job and schedule modifications can help mitigate the situation.

Ask for employee input

An often overlooked part of supporting employees who are working during cancer treatment is asking the employee what types of support he or she needs and prefers. Employees can share any medical restrictions related to their condition, what types of accommodations or equipment will help them do their job, and what schedule changes will allow them to attend needed appointments and recover from treatment. This should be an ongoing conversation because the employee’s needs are likely to change over the course of treatment and recovery.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (21 September 2018) "How employers can support employees during cancer treatment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/how-employers-can-support-employees-during-cancer-treatment?brief=00000152-14a5-d1cc-a5fa-7cff48fe0001


IRS updates required tax notice to address plan loan offsets

Recently, the IRS updated the model notice that must be sent out to all plan participants. This model notice modifies the prior model notices that were published four years ago in 2014. Continue reading to learn more.


The IRS has updated the model notice that is required to be provided to participants before they receive an “eligible rollover distribution” from a qualified 401(a) plan, a 403(b) tax-sheltered annuity, or a governmental 457(b) plan.

Notice 2018-74, which was published on September 18, 2018, modifies the prior safe-harbor explanations (model notices) that were published in 2014. Like the 2014 guidance, the 2018 Notice — sometimes referred to as the “402(f) Notice” or “Special Tax Notice” — includes two separate “model” notices that are deemed to satisfy the requirements of Code Section 402(f): one for distributions that are not from a designated Roth account, and one for distributions from a designated Roth account. The 2018 Notice also includes an appendix that can be used to modify (rather than replace) existing safe-harbor 402(f) notices.

The model notices were updated to take into consideration certain legislation that has been enacted, and other IRS guidance that has been published, since 2014. They include:

  • changes related to qualified plan loan offsets under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017;
  • changes in the rules for phased retirement under the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (“MAP-21”);
  • changes in the exceptions to the 10% penalty for early distributions from governmental plans under the Defending Public Safety Employees’ Retirement Act; and
  • IRS guidance (in Revenue Procedure 2016-47) regarding a self-certification procedure for waivers of the 60-day rollover deadline.

The model notices also make some “clarifying” changes to the 2014 notices, including:

  • clarification that the 10% additional tax on early distributions applies only to amounts includible in income;
  • an explanation of how the rollover rules apply to governmental 457(b) plans that include designated Roth accounts;
  • clarification that certain exceptions to the 10% tax on early distributions do not apply to IRAs; and
  • recognizing that taxpayers affected by federally declared disasters and other events may have an extended deadline for making rollovers.

The updated model 402(f) notices should be particularly useful in communicating to participants the extension, under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, of the time to roll over a “qualified plan loan offset amount.”

Inside the plan load offset

By way of background, Notice 2018-74 reminds us that distribution of a “plan loan offset amount” is an eligible rollover distribution, and that a “plan loan offset” occurs when, under the plan terms governing a plan loan, the participant’s accrued benefit is reduced, or offset, in order to repay the loan. According to the Notice, this can occur when, for example, the terms of the plan loan require that, in the event of an employee’s termination of employment or request for a distribution, the loan is to be repaid immediately or treated as in default.

The Notice also indicates that a plan loan offset may occur when, under the terms of the plan loan, the loan is canceled, accelerated, or treated as if it were in default (for example, when the plan treats a loan as in default upon an employee’s termination of employment or within a specified period thereafter). The Notice also reminds us, however, that a plan loan offset cannot occur prior to a distributable event.

This is helpful guidance for distinguishing between a “deemed distribution” of a defaulted loan (a taxable event which is not eligible for rollover) and a “plan loan offset amount,” which is an eligible rollover distribution.

Generally, if a default occurs before the participant has a distributable event (such as termination of employment, or attainment of age 59½), and the default is not cured by the last day of the cure period, it must be treated as a “deemed distribution” and reported on Form 1099. Such defaulted amounts are not eligible for rollover.

However, if the default occurs at or after a distribution event, and the plan terms require that the participant’s account be offset to pay off the loan, then the reduction of the account may be treated as a plan loan offset, which is an eligible rollover distribution.

Notice 2018-74 (and the new model notices) also reflect that, prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, participants who incurred a “plan loan offset” only had 60 days to “roll” an equivalent amount of money to an IRA or another employer plan (to avoid the offset being treated as a taxable distribution). However, for plan loan offsets that occur after December 31, 2017, if the plan loan offset is a “qualified plan loan offset” (meaning it occurs in connection with termination of employment or termination of the plan), then the participant has significantly more time (until the extended due date of the participant’s tax return for the year of the offset) in which to roll an amount equal to the loan offset amount to an IRA or another employer plan.

SOURCE: Browning, R (4 October 2018) "IRS updates required tax notice to address plan loan offsets" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/opinion/irs-updates-required-tax-notice-to-address-plan-loan-offsets?brief=00000152-146e-d1cc-a5fa-7cff8fee0000


30 employee handbook do’s and don’ts from the NLRB

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently released a list of rules to help employers comply with the National Labor Relations Act. Read on to learn more.


To help employers craft handbooks that don’t violate the National Labor Relations Act, the National Labor Relations Board has issued a compilation of rules it has found to be illegal — and rewritten them to illustrate how they can comply with the law.

It was issued as a memorandum by NLRB General Counsel Richard F. Griffin, Jr. to “help employers to review their handbooks and other rules, and conform them, if necessary, to ensure they are lawful.”

Specifically, the memorandum points out employer policies found to violate and conform to Section 7 of the NLRA.

The main area of concern

Section 7 mandates that employees be allowed to participate in “concerted activity” to help improve the terms and conditions of their work.

The NLRB has made it abundantly clear recently that it’s on the lookout for rules that:

  • explicitly restrict protected concerted activity, and/or
  • could be construed to restrict protected Section 7 activity.

One thing the memorandum makes very clear: extremely subtle variations in language could be the difference between having a legal policy in the NLRB’s eyes and having one that’s viewed as violating the NLRA.

What to say, what not to say

Here are many of the dos and don’ts highlighted by the memorandum, separated by topic:

Rules regarding confidentiality

  • Illegal: “Do not discuss ‘customer or employee information’ outside of work, including ‘phone numbers [and] addresses.'” The NLRB said, in addition to the overbroad reference to “employee information,” the blanket ban on discussing employee contact info, without regard for how employees obtain that info, is facially illegal.
  • Illegal: “Never publish or disclose [the Employer’s] or another’s confidential or other proprietary information. Never publish or report on conversations that are meant to be private or internal to [the Employer].” The NLRB said a broad reference to “another’s” information, without clarification, would reasonably be interpreted to include other employees’ wages and other terms and conditions of employment.
  • Illegal: Prohibiting employees from “[d]isclosing … details about the [Employer].” The NLRB said this is a broad restriction that failed to clarify that it doesn’t restrict Section 7 activity.
  • Legal: “No unauthorized disclosure of ‘business “secrets” or other confidential information.'”
  • Legal: “Misuse or unauthorized disclosure of confidential information not otherwise available to persons or firms outside [Employer] is cause for disciplinary action, including termination.”
  • Legal: “Do not disclose confidential financial data, or other non-public proprietary company information. Do not share confidential information regarding business partners, vendors or customers.”

The NLRB said the last three rules above were legal because: “1) they do not reference information regarding employees or employee terms and conditions of employment, 2) although they use the general term “confidential,” they do not define it in an overbroad manner, and 3) they do not otherwise contain language that would reasonably be construed to prohibit Section 7 communications.”

Rules regarding conduct toward the company and supervisors

  • Illegal: “[B]e respectful to the company, other employees, customers, partners, and competitors.”
  • Illegal: “Do ‘not make fun of, denigrate, or defame your co-workers, customers, franchisees, suppliers, the Company, or our competitors.'”
  • Illegal: “Be respectful of others and the Company.”
  • Illegal: “No ‘[d]efamatory, libelous, slanderous or discriminatory comments about [the Company], its customers and/or competitors, its employees or management.'”

The NLRB said the rules above were unlawfully overbroad because: “employees reasonably would construe them to ban protected criticism or protests regarding their supervisors, management, or the employer in general.”

  • Illegal: “Disrespectful conduct or insubordination, including, but not limited to, refusing to follow orders from a supervisor or a designated representative.”
  • Illegal: “‘Chronic resistance to proper work-related orders or discipline, even though not overt insubordination’ will result in discipline.”

The NLRB said the rules above, while banning “insubordination,” also ban “conduct that does not rise to the level of insubordination, which reasonably would be understood as including protected concerted activity.”

  • Illegal: “Refrain from any action that would harm persons or property or cause damage to the Company’s business or reputation.”
  • Illegal: “[I]t is important that employees practice caution and discretion when posting content [on social media] that could affect [the Employer’s] business operation or reputation.”
  • Illegal: “Do not make ‘[s]tatements “that damage the company or the company’s reputation or that disrupt or damage the company’s business relationships.”‘”
  • Illegal: “Never engage in behavior that would undermine the reputation of [the Employer], your peers or yourself.”

The NLRB said the rules above “were unlawfully overbroad because they reasonably would be read to require employees to refrain from criticizing the employer in public.

  • Legal: “No ‘rudeness or unprofessional behavior toward a customer, or anyone in contact with’ the company.”
  • Legal: “Employees will not be discourteous or disrespectful to a customer or any member of the public while in the course and scope of [company] business.”

The NLRB said the rules above are legal because they wouldn’t lead an employee to believe they restrict criticism of the company.

  • Legal: “Each employee is expected to work in a cooperative manner with management/supervision, coworkers, customers and vendors.” The NLRB says employees would reasonably understand that this states the employer’s legitimate expectation that employees work together in an atmosphere of civility.
  • Legal: “Each employee is expected to abide by Company policies and to cooperate fully in any investigation that the Company may undertake.” The NLRB said this rule is legal because “employees would reasonably interpret it to apply to employer investigations of workplace misconduct rather than investigations of unfair labor practices or preparations for arbitration.”
  • Legal: “‘Being insubordinate, threatening, intimidating, disrespectful or assaulting a manager/supervisor, coworker, customer or vendor will result in’ discipline.” The NLRB said: “Although a ban on being  disrespectful’ to management, by itself, would ordinarily be found to unlawfully chill Section 7 criticism of the employer, the term here is contained in a larger provision that is clearly focused on serious misconduct, like insubordination, threats, and assault. Viewed in that context, we concluded that employees would not reasonably believe this rule to ban protected criticism.”

Rules regarding conduct between employees

  • Illegal: “‘[D]on’t pick fights’ online.”
  • Illegal: “Do not make ‘insulting, embarrassing, hurtful or abusive comments about other company employees online,’ and ‘avoid the use of offensive, derogatory, or prejudicial comments.'”
  • Illegal: “[S]how proper consideration for others’ privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory, such as politics and religion.”
  • Illegal: “Do not send ‘unwanted, offensive, or inappropriate’ e-mails.”

The NLRB said the rules above were unlawfully overbroad because employees would reasonably construe them to restrict protected discussions with their co-workers.

  • Legal: “[No] ‘Making inappropriate gestures, including visual staring.'”
  • Legal: “Any logos or graphics worn by employees ‘must not reflect any form of violent, discriminatory, abusive, offensive, demeaning, or otherwise unprofessional message.'”
  • Legal: “[No] ‘[T]hreatening, intimidating, coercing, or otherwise interfering with the job performance of fellow employees or visitors.'”
  • Legal: “No ‘harassment of employees, patients or facility visitors.'”
  • Legal: “No ‘use of racial slurs, derogatory comments, or insults.'”

The NLRB said the rules above were legal because: “when an employer’s professionalism rule simply requires employees to be respectful to customers or competitors, or directs employees not to engage in unprofessional conduct, and does not mention the company or its management, employees would not reasonably believe that such a rule prohibits Section 7-protected criticism of the company.

SOURCE: Schappel, C. (18 July 2018) "30 employee handbook do’s and don’ts from the NLRB" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://www.hrmorning.com/employee-handbook-dos-and-donts-from-the-nlrb/


5 Ways to Spot a Phishing Email

Has your organization been affected by phishing attacks? One of the most common types of online threats are phishing emails. Read this blog post to learn five ways to spot a phishing email.


A phishing attack is a form of social engineering by which cybercriminals attempt to trick individuals by creating and sending fake emails that appear to be from an authentic source, such as a business or colleague. The email might ask you to confirm personal account information such as a password or prompt you to open a malicious attachment that infects your computer with a virus or malware.

Phishing emails are one of the most common online threats, so it is important to be aware of the tell-tale signs and know what to do when you encounter them. Here are five ways to spot phishing attacks.

1. The email asks you to confirm personal information

Often an email will arrive in your inbox that looks very authentic. Whether this email matches the style used by your company or that of an external business such as a bank, hackers can go to painstaking lengths to ensure that it imitates the real thing. However, when this authentic-looking email makes requests that you wouldn’t normally expect, it’s often a strong giveaway that it’s not from a trusted source after all.

Keep an eye out for emails requesting you to confirm personal information that you would never usually provide, such as banking details or login credentials. Do not reply or click any links and if you think there’s a possibility that the email is genuine, you should search online and contact the organization directly  – do not use any communication method provided in the email.

2. The web and email addresses do not look genuine

It is often the case that a phishing email will come from an address that appears to be genuine. Criminals aim to trick recipients by including the name of a legitimate company within the structure of email and web addresses. If you only glance at these details they can look very real but if you take a moment to actually examine the email address you may find that it’s a bogus variation intended to appear authentic ‒ for example: @mail.airbnb.work as opposed to @Airbnb.com

Malicious links can also be concealed with the body of email text, often alongside genuine ones.  Before clicking on links, hover over and inspect each one first.

3. It’s poorly written

It is amazing how often you can spot a phishing email simply by the poor language used in the body of the message. Read the email and check for spelling and grammatical mistakes, as well as strange turns of phrase. Emails from legitimate companies will have been constructed by professional writers and exhaustively checked for spelling, grammar and legality errors. If you have received an unexpected email from a company, and it is riddled with mistakes, this can be a strong indicator it is actually a phish.

Interestingly, there is even the suggestion that scam emails are deliberately poorly written to ensure that they only trick the most gullible targets.

4. There’s a suspicious attachment

Alarm bells should be ringing if you receive an email from a company out of the blue that contains an attachment, especially if it relates to something unexpected. The attachment could contain a malicious URL or trojan, leading to the installation of a virus or malware on your PC or network. Even if you think an attachment is genuine, it’s good practice to always scan it first using antivirus software.

5. The message is designed to make you panic

It is common for phishing emails to instill panic in the recipient. The email may claim that your account may have been compromised and the only way to verify it is to enter your login details. Alternatively, the email might state that your account will be closed if you do not act immediately. Ensure that you take the time to really think about whether an email is asking something reasonable of you. If you’re unsure, contact the company through other methods.

Ultimately, being cautious with emails can’t hurt. Always remember this top STOP. THINK. CONNECT.™ tip:

When in doubt, throw it out: Links in emails, social media posts and online advertising are often how cybercriminals try to steal your personal information. Even if you know the source, if something looks suspicious, delete it.

SOURCE: James, M. (22 August 2018) "5 Ways to Spot a Phishing Email" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://staysafeonline.org/blog/5-ways-spot-phishing-emails/