4 Steps to a Pet-Friendly Workplace

According to research from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, employees who bring their dogs to work experience lower stress levels. Read this blog post from UBA for four steps to creating a pet-friendly workplace.


If your team is waving goodbye to doggy day-care and the days of leaving furry friends at home, congratulations! The trend of bringing dogs to work started soon after what is widely considered the most influential research on dog-friendly offices, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Among the many benefits, research uncovered that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels, as well as facilitated conversation and better socializing during their 9-to-5 schedules. Dogs are a great conversation starter, acting as somewhat of a “social lubricant” that allows natural discussion to flow between colleagues who otherwise wouldn’t interact. Dogs can also help enhance trust and collaboration between coworkers, according to a study from Central Michigan University.

Allowing four-legged friends into your office might have unintended positive consequences for employers as well as employees. Science shows us that dog lovers experience higher levels of oxytocin, the “feel-good” hormone, and that even spending brief periods of time with dogs can increase a sense of well-being for the owners and their pet-loving coworkers. These feel-good hormones can lead to higher levels of neurological productivity, meaning better work for less time spent.

If you haven’t already adopted a dog-friendly office policy, try these steps below and get smiling! Watch your recruiting, retention, and overall office mood skyrocket.

Steps to becoming a dog-friendly office:

  1. Make sure your building approves. Some office buildings have restrictions that prevent pets from visiting if they aren’t a registered emotional support animal. Building management should be able to answer this question for you, as well as help with any red tape or paperwork for getting a pet-friendly workplace approved.
  2. Take a quick survey of the team. It’s important to make sure everyone on your team is comfortable with dogs in the office. Sending out a quick survey via Google Forms or SurveyMonkey can help you gauge whether there are allergies, fears, or just general apprehensions about pets in the office.
  3. Make sure the guidelines are clear. To ease any stress, make sure the expectation is clear that, in order to bring a furry friend, they must be friendly (to other dogs and humans) and have all their vaccinations. To ensure that all dogs are suited for the work environment, you can get your dog certified with the AKC Canine Good Citizen CertificationIt’s not a bad idea to additionally request dog owners to bring their own baby gate or crate, so that their dog can be contained in one area if needed.
  4. Start small. If you aren’t ready to adopt a dogs-anytime policy, try rolling out just one day a week, maybe on Fridays. If things are going well, you can expand to a greater amount of time and less restrictions.

SOURCE: Olson, B. (24 October 2019) "4 Steps to a Pet-Friendly Workplace" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from http://blog.ubabenefits.com/4-steps-to-a-pet-friendly-workplace


Strategies to promote emotional well-being in the workplace

Fifty-eight percent of employers are offering wellness programs, according to data from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, one in five adults experiences some form of mental illness during the year. Read this blog post to learn more about how to promote emotional well-being at work.


Employers are taking a greater interest in their employees’ well-being by promoting emotional wellness at work.

Wellness programs are offered by 58% of employers, according to data from the Society for Human Resource Management. There are mutual benefits to be reaped by the employer and employees when an organization looks to support its workers’ emotional wellness.

About 90% of employees perform better when they address mental health, but only 41% feel comfortable bringing it up during a check-in, according to data from 15Five, a software company that specializes in gathering employee feedback.

One in five American adults experience some form of mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. Additionally, one in every 25 adults is living with a serious mental health condition such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or long-term recurrent major depression.

Employees are demanding better mental health benefits from their employers and some of them are listening. In September, coffee giant Starbucks announced that it is taking steps to improve its employees’ mental health with a new long-term initiative that includes an enhanced employee assistance program and mental health training for store managers.

See Also: 5 reasons employers should offer student loan repayment benefits

Only 25% of U.S.-based managers, across a variety of industries, have been trained to refer employees to mental health resources, according to SHRM. Employers including PNC and Ocean Spray are also investing in benefits to address mental health.

By investing in emotional and mental wellness benefits, employers are creating a human-centric workforce that drives retention, productivity and engagement, says Heidi Collins, vice president of people operations at 15Five. A key part in achieving this to create a culture that normalizes conversations about mental health.

Collins spoke with Employee Benefit News about how organizations can provide management with stronger training and more open check-ins that enable them to build trusting relationships with their employees to promote productivity.

How is 15Five creating a culture that is more understanding of employees’ mental health needs?

In so many different practices with our employees, both in our manager and direct report programs, but also as a company as a whole. We are normalizing emotions and emotional wellness in the workplace. What it all has, to begin with, is the strategy behind it and your company’s values. It can’t just be a program that HR is sponsoring and promoting but that’s not really attached to the overall company values.

How can an employer create a more mental-health and wellness-focused workplace?

We do automated weekly check-ins between managers and their direct reports. We have a recognition feature called High5, so that people throughout the organization can highlight their peers, express gratitude and also highlight someone for how they may have impacted their day or a project that went really well. There’s a recognition feature, there’s a review feature, there’s a weekly check-in feature. In the weekly check in we have a poll rating and every week we ask our employees: on a scale of one to five, how did you feel at work this week? So we build into our product the practice of managers checking in with their employees about their feelings and about their emotional and mental well-being. We attempt to create enough psychological safety, trust and openness to vulnerability that employees feel comfortable that if they are having a two out of five weeks, it can be okay to share that with a manager and be able to back it up with the reason why. So for example, an employee might say: This week was a two out of five for me because three projects blew up in our faces and at home my kid is sick and I didn’t get any sleep. The employee can just lay it all out there.

How can employers and employees become more comfortable normalizing the conversation around mental health?

It has to be very intentional, deliberate and explicit. It’s the kind of stuff employers may talk about or advertise or promote on their employer branding website...it should be very clear that promoting emotional well-being and mental wellness is part of the employer’s culture and something they value. The executive team and all of the leadership needs to be totally brought into that and that’s challenging because there are many people out there in the world who aren’t comfortable yet with talking about or bringing up those kinds of things at work. That’s the big challenge we’re facing right now, yet so many employees are coming to expect [support for mental health issues].

Is there a generational disconnect when it comes to promoting emotional wellness in the workplace?

I would say that those of us who don’t have our heads stuck in the sand, we get it. We realize that there’s a reason this mindset of addressing employees’ mental health is so popular. It’s because it’s way more effective. This is how we want to work. I’m generation X and I have a lot of friends who work in big corporate environments who still think you leave your emotions at the door. But I would say those of us who want to have a more progressive approach are so on board with it. HR professionals and potential employees who follow those old school ways, they won’t even get hired at a company like ours and I bet a lot of our customer’s companies. That’s because we know that doesn’t work anymore.

See Also: What is Perfectionism, and Is It Affecting Your Work Life?

What specifically has 15Five done to promote this initiative among its employees?

It all starts from our hiring process and what we communicate about our values and what it’s like to work at 15Five. Not only are we assessing candidates on their skills, but we’re also assessing them on their willingness to go to that very vulnerable place in their day to day with their manager or direct report. We have question in our interviews that ask “would you be comfortable talking about emotions at work?” and “if you were a two out of five on the emotion poll for the week, would you be able to share that with your manager and how would you go about doing that?” We will ask questions to make sure candidates we are bringing in are okay with this way of doing things. If somebody is going into a manager position internally, we have just implemented a manager assessment interview to make sure this person really has the skills to be a 15Five manager. A manager in our eyes is not just a taskmaster or somebody who approves your time off. They need to be employees’ coach, cheerleader and champion and they need to be comfortable supporting employees when things aren’t going well. It’s almost like having the skill set of a therapist.

SOURCE: Shiavo, A. (23 October 2019) "Strategies to promote emotional well-being in the workplace" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/strategies-to-promote-emotional-well-being-in-the-workplace


What will Workplace Wellness Look Like in 2020?

The U.S. workplace wellness industry is expected to rapidly evolve in 2020. Targeted wellness and wellness exchanges are just two of the expected changes for 2020. Read this blog post to learn more about what wellness will look like in 2020.


As we look toward 2020, all indicators point towards a rapid evolution of the U.S. workplace wellness industry characterized by innovative solutions for managing health care costs that serve the increasing need for proactive ownership of well-being. However, are advances in related disciplines being leveraged optimally, cohesively and creatively to provide for maximum benefit to both the employee and employer?

The corporate model of wellness programs ranges from education programs, to a more evolved model of on-site fitness facilities, incentive programs and HR driven wellness initiatives as part of an overall health and benefits offering. The 2014 SHRM Survey of Strategic Benefits - Wellness Initiatives shows that 76 percent of all surveyed companies had some form of wellness programs/resources. Among those companies two-thirds offered some form of incentive or reward program.

The results of these types of programs have already demonstrated the positive impact of a collaborative responsibility partnership between employer and employee in implementing a wellness approach and the reduction of medical costs.

Several key performance indicators have been used for evaluation, including reductions in monthly medical cost spend, hospital admissions and employee absenteeism. According to SHRM, of the 30 percent who conducted a cost analysis of their wellness programs, 93 percent noted their programs were somewhat or very effective in cutting costs.

This certainly demonstrates a return on investment (ROI) to the employer. In addition, the positive qualitative effect on the organizational culture cannot be understated, with direct impact on talent and team spirit as well as other variables that are incremental to the quantitative benefits measured.

This is particularly important given that variables such as an increasingly aging workforce (by 2020, the number of Americans in the 55 to 64 age group will have grown by 73 percent since 2000), an increase in predominant disease states (by 2030, 40.5 percent of the US population is expected to have some form of cardiovascular disease) and rapidly changing regulations added to the equation, employers are evaluating best and "next" practices to determine if these programs are truly optimized to realize their full potential of impact.

For the next iteration of workplace wellness, the lessons learned can be leveraged from the evolution of the traditional health benefit offering to a health exchange model or to the advances and learnings in personalized therapeutic medicine. The current opportunity requires a creative and innovative approach to health and wellness ownership. Coupling a predictive, proactive and fact-based wellness management approach with employee-owned and led wellness decisions can provide a powerful and personalized platform.

By maintaining this initiative in a structured and sustainable manner, employers are able to provide a more targeted approach of spending proactive wellness dollars for maximum ROI and decreasing the reactive spend on medical costs.

These personalized programs will enable companies to better track and monitor costs and ROI with the goal to have more than 30 percent of the companies properly monitoring cost efficiencies. This is further supported by the fact that 90 percent said they would increase their investment in wellness programs if they could quantify the ROI.

Targeted Wellness

Traditional medical treatment has evolved significantly from standard diagnostic evaluations to increased utilization of scientific advances, specifically in terms of personalized medicine. Medical decisions and treatments are tailored to an individual patient through a data-based approach to drive the efficiency and effectiveness of patient treatment.

Similarly, there is an opportunity for the employee - within the framework of privacy regulations - to leverage this fact-based approach to optimize the value derived from a wellness offering. Two-thirds of employers involved in wellness initiatives typically provide some type of defined contribution or incentive towards wellness (e.g., fitness rebate); however, an opportunity exists to focus this spend on the desired health outcomes. This would provide the maximum benefit to the employee from a well-being standpoint, as well as to the employer for its investment.

While the powerful combination of data analytics and segmentation analysis allows a human resources team to facilitate a fact-based decision-making approach to right-fit an organization with the right individual in the right role at the right time, an organization can effectively manage the time and money dedicated to workplace wellness by creating a tailored program based on the individual employee's current needs and critical influencing factors.

Wellness Exchanges

Employers have made the journey from self-funded managed health care to the growing trend of providing employees with a "shopping mall" of health insurance options, and on to formal health exchanges - gradually increasing the patient-centric involvement of employees in managing their own health care choices.

The value drivers for this organizational transition include increased price competition based on the marketplace model as well as cost savings influenced by employers not overbuying health care coverage for their employees. This is exemplified by the vast majority of participants switching to cheaper plans in their first year of choice coverage.

This undertaking by an organization is by no means a small effort, and it requires a good amount of diligence and change management - not only in creating the road map for the transformation journey, but also in properly structuring, executing and sustaining this approach. In a well-planned and structured implementation journey, the return on investment can be well recognized.

Similarly, a workplace wellness exchange can offer a suite of proactive health program choices designed to give the employee the responsibility to make an informed and impactful decision that is tailored to drive specific health outcomes.

A marketplace approach can also drive competitive offerings from wellness solution providers and encourage a spirit of innovative and cost-conscious platform options - further maximizing use of wellness dollars. This model will encourage individuals to leverage their own personal health ecosystem information (e.g., current state baseline, lifestyle, environmental factors and disease state predisposition) to choose a solution that may help reduce reactive health care dollars spent based on disease state prevention and risk factor reduction.

According to SHRM, year-over-year employee participation has remained flat. An innovative and personalized approach could help motivate and boost participation and would also continue to ensure that the individual employee's wellness responsibility is shared in partnership with the employer. This would require an independent review of the process, structure and plan design, specifically as it relates to patient privacy and the impact to the holistic benefits offering.

Regardless of a company's ability to track ROI, an overwhelming majority (72 percent) think their wellness initiatives are very or somewhat effective in reducing health care costs and 78 percent thought they improved the overall physical health of their employees.

As the impact of reactive medical claim costs on employers continues to increase due to a variety of influencers, proactive workplace wellness will likely evolve and become an inherent component of an organization's benefits offering.

This presents an opportunity to leverage recent learnings from other initiatives in the life sciences vertical to create an effective and efficient workplace wellness platform that is data-driven and tailored to the needs of the employee - providing a marketplace for choice and competition, and reinforcing the shared partnership responsibility between the employer and employee.

SOURCE: Pervaaz, V. (Accessed 01 November 2019) "What will Workplace Wellness Look Like in 2020?" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/article/workplace-wellness-in-2020


IRS updates rules on retirement plan hardship distributions

Updates to the hardship distribution regulations were recently finalized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The new regulations are intended to make the requirements more flexible and participant friendly. Read the following article to learn more about these updated regulations.


Employers who allow for hardship distributions from their 401(k) or 403(b) plans should be aware that the Internal Revenue Service recently finalized updates to the hardship distribution regulations to reflect legislative changes. The new rules make the hardship distribution requirements more flexible and participant-friendly.

Hardship distributions are in-service distributions from 401(k) or 403(b) plans that are available only to participants with an immediate and heavy financial need. Plans are not required to offer hardship distributions. But there are certain requirements if a plan does offer hardship distributions. Generally, a hardship distribution may be made to a participant only if the participant has an immediate and heavy financial need, and the distribution is necessary and not in excess of the amount needed (plus related taxes or penalties) to satisfy that financial need.

An administrator of a 401(k) or 403(b) plan can determine whether a participant satisfies these requirements based on all of the facts and circumstances, or the administrator may rely on certain tests that the IRS has established, called safe harbors.

Over the last fifteen years, Congress has changed the laws that apply to hardship distributions. The new rules align existing IRS regulations with Congress’s legislative changes. Some of the changes are mandatory and some are optional. The new rules make the following changes. The following changes are required.

Elimination of six-month suspension.

Employers may no longer impose a six-month suspension of employee elective deferrals following the receipt of a hardship distribution.

Required certification of financial need.

Employers must now require participants to certify in writing or by other electronic means that they do not have sufficient cash or liquid assets reasonably available, in order to satisfy the financial need and qualify for a hardship distribution.

There were also some optional changes made to hardship distributions.

Removal of the requirement to take a plan loan.

Employers have the option, but are not mandated, to eliminate the requirement that participants take a plan loan before qualifying for a hardship distribution. In order to qualify for a hardship distribution, participants are still required to first take all available distributions from all of the employer’s tax-qualified and nonqualified deferred compensation plans to satisfy the participant’s immediate and heavy financial need. The optional elimination of the plan loan requirement may first apply beginning January 1, 2019.

Expanded safe harbor expenses to qualify for hardship.

The new hardship distribution regulations expand the existing list of pre-approved expenses that are deemed to be an immediate and heavy financial need. Prior to the new regulations, the list included the following expenses:

  • Expenses for deductible medical care under Section 213(d) of the Internal Revenue Code;
  • Costs related to the purchase of a principal residence;
  • Payment of tuition and related expenses for a spouse, child, or dependent;
  • Payment of amounts to prevent eviction or foreclosure related to the participant’s principal residence;
  • Payments for burial or funeral expenses for a spouse, child, or dependent; and
  • Expenses for repair of damage to a principal residence that would qualify for a casualty loss deduction under Section 165 of the Internal Revenue Code.

The new regulations expand this list of permissible expenses by adding a participant’s primary beneficiary under the plan as a person for whom medical, tuition and burial expenses can be incurred. The new regulations also clarify that the immediate and heavy financial need for principal residence repair and casualty loss expenses is not affected by recent changes to Section 165 of the Internal Revenue Code, which allows for a deduction of such expenses only if the principal residence is located in a federally declared disaster zone. Finally, the new regulations add an additional permissible financial need to the list above for expenses incurred due to federally declared disasters.

New contribution sources for hardships.

The law and regulations provide that employers may now elect to allow participants to obtain hardship distributions from safe harbor contributions that employers use to satisfy nondiscrimination requirements, qualified nonelective elective contributions (QNECS), qualified matching contributions (QMACs) and earnings on elective deferral contributions. However, 403(b) plans are not permitted to make hardship distributions from earnings on elective deferrals, and QNECS and QMACs are distributable as hardship distributions only from 403(b) plans not held in a custodial account.

As this list indicates, the new regulations make substantial changes to the hardship distribution rules.

The deadline for adopting this amendment depends on the type of plan the employer maintains and when the employer elects to apply the changes. Plan sponsors should work with their document providers and legal counsel to determine the specific deadlines for making amendments.

SOURCE: Tavares, L. (01 November 2019) "IRS updates rules on retirement plan hardship distributions" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/irs-updates-rules-on-401k-403b-plan-hardship-distributions


Consider these 4 strategies to boost employee engagement

Strategic compensation and benefits packages are at the foundation of any high-performing culture. HR departments can boost employee engagement is by developing a holistic employee benefits package. Read this article for four strategies to help boost employee engagement.


The foundation of any high-performing culture is always a strategic compensation and benefits package. Employee engagement at any company requires the involvement of the HR department — and one way HR teams can boost engagement is by developing a holistic benefits package.

Creating a benefits plan that suits a diverse multi-generational staff is key to keeping staff engaged at every age and in every department. What were once non-traditional benefits are now becoming mainstream. For example, offering student loan repayment plans instead of 401(k) incentives to motivate younger staff, or voluntary benefit choices for employees with specific health issues.

Even the way an office is ergonomically designed can benefit employees. Adding a walking treadmill or offering a standing desk option helps foster productive work, which directly leads to greater employee satisfaction.

This is a complex equation, and getting it right is challenging. We have hard, candid conversations with employers surrounding what enjoyable, relevant work means. From there, we can establish the purpose behind engagement, creating goals and strategies that offer recognition, growth and the opportunity to voice ideas.

Employees want holistic support for their overall health and wellbeing. Employers are expanding their view of employee benefits to include many more aspects of health and wellbeing — from work environment, convenience services and onsite facilities, to attendance and leave policies, flexible work arrangements and organizational discounts.

What do employers gain from these benefits? A healthy, adaptable and engaged workforce prepared for the future of work and ready to drive business success.

What we know works

The key to engaging employees with benefits is to apply a strategic design thinking methodology, a planning method that starts with an understanding of an organization’s specific needs.

One size fits one, not all. In the past, efforts were made to make one program work for everyone, but every staff member in the workforce now expects answers for their individual needs, concerns and health risks. Offering flexible benefits or voluntary coverage is a powerful tool — and can help employers gain a productivity boost with a healthier, more engaged workforce.

Align benefits with the whole person. Benefits should align with all aspects of employees’ lives in order to truly support health, wellbeing and work-life balance. This includes the social systems they are part of, their passions, their work habits and personal life events. Nutrition advice, health literacy training and support for personal interests are all possibilities for boosting engagement, physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

Look at the data. Organizations have access to more health data than ever before — and technology makes it easier to analyze — but few employers are fully leveraging this information to design benefits that engage their employees. By analyzing and correlating demographic, health and employee-provided data from varied sources employers can identify which benefit programs workers truly value — and which deliver value.

Use both new and traditional channels to communicate. Organizations must actively market benefits to employees using engaging, relevant and timely communications. Companies can also communicate through technology.

When staff have access to benefits that best support their individual health and wellbeing, organizations will benefit.

SOURCE: Rider, S. (30 October 2019) "Consider these 4 strategies to boost employee engagement" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/4-strategies-to-boost-employee-engagement-with-benefits


Compliance Recap - October 2019

October was a relatively quiet month in the employee benefits world.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas vacated portions of the current rule implementing Section 1557 that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and pregnancy termination. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed a district court’s preliminary injunction of final rules regarding contraceptive coverage exemptions.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) released the latest version of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Security Risk Assessment Tool. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) updated its webpage that has general information about the CP233J notice. The Treasury released its 2019-2020 Priority Guidance Plan.

UBA Updates

UBA released one new advisor: Health Reimbursement Arrangements Comparison Chart

UBA updated or revised existing guidance:

District Court Vacates Parts of ACA Section 1557 Nondiscrimination Rule

As background, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) Section 1557 provides that individuals shall not be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any health program or activity which receives federal financial assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. The current rule applies to any program administered by HHS or any health program or activity administered by an entity established under Title I of the ACA. These applicable entities are “covered entities” and include a broad array of providers, employers, and facilities. On May 13, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a final rule (current rule) implementing Section 1557, which took effect on July 18, 2016.

On October 15, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (District Court) vacated portions of the current rule implementing Section 1557 that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity and pregnancy termination. The District Court remanded the vacated portions of the current rule to HHS for revision. While those portions of the current rule have been vacated, covered entities subject to Section 1557 may still face private lawsuits for discrimination based on gender identity and pregnancy termination.

Employers who are subject to Section 1557 should stay informed on this litigation because it is anticipated that the District Court’s ruling will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Please see our UBA Advisors “Update on Nondiscrimination Regulations Relating to Sex, Gender, Age, and More” and “Update on Nondiscrimination Regulations Relating to Sex, Gender, Age, and More – for Health Care Providers” for more information.

Court of Appeals Affirms Preliminary Injunction of Contraceptive Coverage Exemptions Final Rule

As background, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires that non-grandfathered group health plans and health insurance issuers offering non-grandfathered group or individual health insurance coverage provide coverage of certain specified preventive services, including contraceptive services, without cost sharing. The Treasury, Department of Labor (DOL), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (collectively, the Departments) released two final rules on November 7, 2018, regarding contraceptive coverage exemptions based on religious beliefs and moral beliefs. These rules finalize the Departments’ interim final rules that were published on October 13, 2017.

On January 13, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (California Court) granted a preliminary injunction that prohibits the final rules’ implementation and enforcement against California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. On October 22, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed the California Court’s preliminary injunction that prohibits the two final rules’ implementation and enforcement against the thirteen plaintiff states and the District of Columbia.

Read more about the status of the final rules.

OCR and ONC Release HHS Security Risk Assessment Tool Version 3.1

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) have released version 3.1 of the HHS Security Risk Assessment (SRA) Tool. The tool is designed to help small- to medium-sized health care organizations perform risk assessments regarding potential malware, ransomware, and other cyberattacks.

IRS Updates CP233J Notice Webpage

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) updated its webpage titled “Understanding Your CP233J Notice.” The CP233J notice notifies employers of changes to the amount of the employer shared responsibility payment due to the IRS. The IRS webpage has general information about the notice including what the notice is, what an employer needs to do when it receives the notice, and answers to common questions.

The Treasury Releases 2019-2020 Priority Guidance Plan

The Treasury released its 2019-2020 Priority Guidance Plan (Priority Guidance Plan) that sets forth guidance priorities for the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) during the twelve-month period from July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020. The Priority Guidance Plan lists several priorities, including guidance under Section 125 on health flexible spending accounts (HFSAs), guidance on contributions to and benefits from paid family and medical leave programs, and guidance on the Cadillac tax.

Question of the Month

Q: Has the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released the 2020 health flexible spending account (health FSA) contribution limit (also known as the employee deferral limit) or the 1094 / 1095 reporting forms for 2019?

A: No. The IRS has not released the 2020 health FSA contribution limit and has not released the 1094 / 1095 reporting forms for 2019. The IRS has not indicated when it plans to release either the health FSA contribution limit or the 1094 / 1095 reporting forms. At a recent conference, IRS staff (in their unofficial capacity) said that the 1094 / 1095 reporting forms have been delayed, in part, because the IRS is considering whether to change the forms to reflect the fact that the individual mandate’s penalty is $0 as of 2019.

11/1/2019


DOL proposes rule on digital 401(k) disclosures

The Department of Labor (DOL) proposed a rule recently that is meant to encourage employers to issue retirement plan disclosures electronically. This rule would allow plan sponsors of 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans to default participants with a valid email address to receive plan disclosures electronically. Read the following blog post to learn more.


The Department of Labor proposed a rule Tuesday that's meant to encourage more employers to issue retirement plan disclosures electronically to plan participants.

The rule would allow sponsors of 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans to default participants with valid email addresses into receiving all their retirement plan disclosures — such as fee disclosure statements and summary plan descriptions — digitally instead of on paper, as has been the traditional route.

Participants can opt-out of e-delivery if they prefer paper notices. The proposed rule covers the roughly 700,000 retirement plans subject to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

"DOL rules have largely relied on a paper default," said Will Hansen, chief government affairs officer for the American Retirement Association. "Everything had to be paper, unless they opted into electronic default. This rule is changing the current standing."

Proponents of digital delivery believe it will save employers money and increase participants' retirement savings. The DOL also believes digital delivery will increase the effectiveness of the disclosures.

Plan sponsors are responsible for the costs associated with furnishing participant notices, and many small and large plans pass those costs on to plan participants, Mr. Hansen said. The DOL estimates its proposal will save retirement plans $2.4 billion over the next 10 years through the reduction of materials, printing and mailing costs for paper disclosures.

Opponents of digital delivery maintain that paper delivery should remain the default option. They have noted that participants are more likely to receive and open disclosures if they come by mail, and claim that print is a more readable medium for financial disclosures that helps participants better retain the information.

"We are reviewing the proposal carefully and look forward to providing comments to the Department of Labor, but we already know that in a world of information overload, many people prefer to get important financial information delivered on paper, not electronically," said Cristina Martin Firvida, vice president of financial security and consumer affairs at AARP. "The reality is missed emails, misplaced passwords and difficulties reading complex information on a screen mean that most people do not visit their retirement plan website on a regular basis."

President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order on August 2018 calling on the federal government to strengthen U.S. retirement security. In that order, Mr. Trump directed the Labor secretary to examine how the agency could improve the effectiveness of plan notices and disclosures and reduce their cost.

The DOL proposal, called Default Electronic Disclosure by Employee Pension Benefit Plans under ERISA, is structured as a safe harbor, which offers legal protections to employers that follow the guidelines laid out in the rule.

Retirement plans would satisfy their obligation by making the disclosure information available online and sending participants and beneficiaries a notice of internet availability of the disclosures. That notice must be sent each time a plan disclosure is posted to the website.

A digital default can't occur without first notifying participants by paper that disclosures will be sent electronically to the participant's email address.

The 30-day comment period on the proposal starts Wednesday. In addition, the DOL issued a request for information on other measures it could take to improve the effectiveness of ERISA disclosures.

SOURCE: Lacurci, G. (22 October 2019) "DOL proposes rule on digital 401(k) disclosures" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.investmentnews.com/article/20191022/FREE/191029985/dol-proposes-rule-on-digital-401-k-disclosures


‘Lifestyle’ choice: An emerging benefit could attract and retain employees

Are you competitive in the employee benefits marketplace? An emerging perk, lifestyle spending accounts (LSA), are one way employers can stay competitive. An LSA is an account that is funded solely by an employer. Employees can use the funds to purchase goods or services as long as they fall into specific categories set by the employer. Read this blog post to learn more about this emerging benefit.


Employers seeking new ways to stay competitive in the employee benefits marketplace might consider an emerging perk, lifestyle spending accounts, whose aim is to broaden employee access range of health and happiness-oriented goods and services.

There’s really no limit to the types of things LSAs can fund, but that endless range of choices can make it difficult for employers to get started.

But first, the basics: An LSA account is funded solely by the employer (and which is taxable as income to employees. The employee can use the funds to purchase goods or services, as long as they fall into the categories of the employer’s choosing. Think investments in physical and mental well-being, environmentally friendly goods or childcare.

The accounts are popular on the West Coast and in Canada. and is gaining traction throughout other parts of the U.S.

Employers can choose to fund a wide range of options, depending on what they think will appeal most to their workforce. For instance, while some carriers reimburse employees for gym memberships, employers can supplement a healthy physical lifestyle by adding workout studios to the options menu; personal or small-group training; workout equipment such as weights, a stationary bike or a treadmill; workout clothes; or nutrition counseling.

And while mental well-being is a new benefits focus of many employers, health plans typically only cover a limited number of counseling sessions. Employers can supplement this benefit by providing funds for therapy or counseling sessions.

Some employers are also using LSAs to help employees with child-related expenses, starting at the very beginning with help with fertility treatments, progressing to doulas and midwives and on to baby gear and then childcare.

But back to the too-much-choice dilemma. To figure out what to fund, start by identifying gaps in your current benefit offering. For example, offering funds toward gym and studio memberships is an obvious place to start if you don’t already have a program in place. Consider what types of employees you want to recruit and retain, and think about what sort of behaviors you want to influence. LSAs can be offered to an entire workforce, or different fund amounts can be offered to different classes of employees.

Other issues to consider: how will you deliver the funds and what happens when an employee leaves or is terminated. These are minor details, but they could leave you with headaches if you don’t address them prior to rollout.

LSAs are typically managed by a TPA that will adjudicate claims and approve purchase reimbursements, removing the hassle of managing a program for large employers.

For employers hoping to encourage employees toward certain healthy behaviors and sweeten benefits packages, LSAs can help round out offerings and act as another recruitment and retention tool.

SOURCE: O'Connor, P. (25 October 2019) "‘Lifestyle’ choice: An emerging benefit could attract and retain employees" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/lifestyle-benefits-for-attraction-and-retention


Employers can help employees catch some Z's with new wellness benefit

According to a study in the Journal of Sleep Research, about 45 percent of the world's population has chronic sleep issues. Employers are starting to offer employee benefits that are focused on a long-ignored but crucial aspect of employee health - sleep. Read this blog post to learn more about this new wellness benefit.


Employers are taking a greater interest in employees’ emotional and physical well-being by offering specialized programs focused on mental health, weight loss, financial health, and now one long-ignored yet crucial aspect of health — sleep.

Beddr, a sleep health technology company, has launched a comprehensive, personalized solution to identify and treat the root causes of chronic sleep issues, though a voluntary benefits platform. The program leverages clinical data captured from Beddr’s app that uses an optical sensor and accelerometer to measure blood oxygen levels, stopped breathing events, heart rate, sleep position and time in bed.

About 45% of the world’s population has chronic sleep issues, according to a study in the Journal of Sleep Research. Poor sleep costs U.S. employers an estimated $411 billion each year, according to a report from Rand.

Employees using the Beddr benefit will have access to an expert-led sleep coaching program and a nationwide network of sleep physicians to provide targeted treatment options to help employees improve their sleep health. The program has the potential to save an employer up to $5,700 per employee, per year in productivity improvements, lower healthcare costs and decrease accident rates, Beddr says.

“Sleep is the foundation to every employee’s mental and physical health. High quality sleep has been shown to both reduce healthcare costs as well as improve productivity, but most employers haven’t found a comprehensive program that addresses the primary root causes of sleep issues and that benefits their entire workforce,” says Michael Kisch, CEO of Beddr. “We have seen a dramatic increase among our users relative to the overall population in their understanding of their sleep health and how their choices impact their overall sleep quality.”

Beddr partners with benefits teams to design a customized program specific to each employer and their employees. The company developed a screening process that makes it easy for an employer to engage their employee base, while providing Beddr the ability to identify employees who are a good match for the program.

In some cases, the company heavily subsidizes the cost of the benefit to employees, while in others it is the full responsibility of the employee. In the latter instance, the company negotiates a discount that is passed on to all participating employees. That discounted price is less than what an employee would pay to purchase the program directly from Beddr.

“Beddr was founded on the belief that the most important thing a person can do to improve their physical and mental health is to get consistent, high-quality sleep,” Kisch says. “We see employers as natural partners in fulfilling this mission because the goals of a company and its management are highly aligned with the goals of our program — to improve the health and productivity of employees. ”

SOURCE: Shiavo, A. (23 October 2019) "Employers can help employees catch some Z's with new wellness benefit" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/news/beddr-app-helps-employees-get-more-sleep


5 reasons employers should offer student loan repayment benefits

Currently, American families carry more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. Because of this, some employers are now adding student loan repayment benefits to their employer-sponsored benefits offering. Continue reading for five reasons why employers should add student loan repayment benefits to their benefit packages.


As every employer knows, benefits can be both expensive and difficult to manage. So then, what could possibly be the advantage of adding more expenses to the budget — especially ones that go beyond traditional benefits like health insurance and paid time off?

Candidates have options in the current job market, which allows them to be picky about where they choose to work. With employees in the driver’s seat, we’re seeing a workforce that is increasingly focused on companies that show they value their workforce.

One way some employers are doing this is by adding perks such as student loan repayment benefits. American families currently carry more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, the question of providing student loan assistance is not an “if,” but a “when.”

Will your company alone solve the country’s student loan debt crisis? No. But, ultimately, going beyond the standard of offering traditional benefits is a mark of your authenticity and genuine nature as an employer. An investment in student loan benefits demonstrates your investment in the financial wellness of your people.

Luckily, student loan repayment benefits are easy to implement and require very little maintenance once launched. Because this voluntary benefit doesn’t have to align with open enrollment, you can set the new standard for how employees should be treated immediately. Here are five reasons employers should already be offering student loan benefits.

1. Employees are actively seeking this benefit

The amount of student loan debt is staggering — currently, more than $600 billion more than the amount of credit card debt in the United States, according to LendingTree. Considering nearly everyone has a credit card and only some have student loan debt, it’s safe to say the path of higher education can have a negative financial impact for those relying on loans.

Most often, employers think the only way to help employees with their student loan debt is through contributions, but that’s not the case. Contributions aren’t a prerequisite for student loan benefits. As roughly 250,000 borrowers default on their loans each quarter, employees are actively seeking help in managing their student loan payments. With delinquency and default of student loans on the rise, you can still set employees on the right track with a student loan repayment benefit, even if you can’t afford the price tag of contributions.

2. You’ll be the employer of choice for top talent

With a low unemployment rate, the battle for the best talent is fierce. Student loan repayment assistance is a huge advantage when employees have a choice in which company to work for. Nearly three years ago, 86% of workers said they would commit to a company for five years if the employer helped pay back their student loans, according to the nonprofit American Student Loan Assistance. Yet, the Society for Human Resource Management reports only 8% of companies currently offer this type of benefit — which means those who do, may have an edge over the competition.

Today, the most successful companies don’t just focus on seeking out incredible candidates, they’re looking for ways to make the most desirable candidates come to them. Student loan assistance is a very differentiated offering — but it won’t be that way for long.

3. The benefit can help employees reach life milestones

Today, the millennial generation makes up a significant amount of the working population — but, as they’ve continued to enter the workforce over the last decade, millennials have held off on making major life purchases. Why? Because some of the most prominent markets in our economy, such as housing and higher education, have gotten drastically more expensive and salaries haven’t increased at a rate to match these rising costs.

However, if you think student loan debt is only an issue for younger generations, think again. All generations are making sacrifices because of student loan debt. In fact, 57% of Baby Boomers feel student loans are getting in the way of retirement.

Naturally, people with less debt have more money to spend in other areas. When companies help employees reduce their student loan debt, significant life milestones — like buying a house, starting a family, sending their children to college or saving for retirement — are more attainable.

4. Improved employee retention

The smartest companies aren’t just looking to attract the best talent, they’re looking to keep it. Turnover has a negative impact on business — both financially and culturally. The average cost of each employee departure is one-third of that worker’s annual earnings and, in 2020, roughly one in three workers will voluntarily quit their job.

Voluntary benefits like student loan repayment might seem like they will cost your business but, even just for the sake of keeping exceptional employees, they’re a worthy expense. Aiding employees in tackling some of their debt makes a significant difference in whether or not they want to continue working for you. Your workers are human beings. When they’re cared for in such a way, employees are more inclined to stay with a company where they’re valued.

5. Employees will be happier

Happiness is contagious. Happy employees are both more productive and have a positive impact on company culture, which absolutely makes a difference for your business. But, when more than half of people are regularly stressed due to financial issues, it has a personal and professional impact on employees.

Financial stress is one of the biggest burdens a person can face — and not something your employees can simply leave at the door. By offering student loan assistance, you’re not only eliminating some of the stress affecting your employees, but you’re also opening more financial doors for them and creating a company culture they’ll want to shout about from the rooftops.

SOURCE: Grewal, S (17 October 2019) "5 reasons employers should offer student loan repayment benefits" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/list/5-reasons-employers-should-help-with-student-loans