Header graphic for print

The People Business Blog

Practical Strategies for Managing Labor, Employment and Benefits Issues


IRS Announces Deadline to Amend Retirement Plans for Same-Sex Benefits

Posted in Benefits

On April 4, 2014, the Internal Revenue Service (the “Service”) published Notice 2014-19, in which it describes amendments required to be made to retirement plans qualified under Section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (the “Code”) to reflect the application of the decision in United States v. Windsor and the subsequent holdings of Revenue Ruling 2013-17. Recall, prior to the Windsor decision, the term “spouse” (or similar terms) for Federal tax purposes referred only to a person of the opposite sex.  As a result, same-sex spouses were not recognized for purposes of the Code – including, for purposes of qualified retirement plans.  Following the Windsor decision and subsequent IRS guidance, however, the term “spouse” (or similar terms) includes same-sex individuals who have validly entered into a marriage in a state that recognizes such marriage even if the married couple is domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriage (e.g. such as Texas).

In Notice 2014-19, the IRS reiterated the requirement explained in Revenue Ruling 2013-17 that qualified retirement plans recognize same-sex marriage as of June 26, 2013; however, the sponsor is permitted to limit this application until September 16, 2013 to married same-sex couples who reside in a state that recognizes the marriage.  As of September 16, 2013, all qualified retirement plans must recognize same-sex spouses, even if the couple resides in a state that does not recognize the marriage.  The Service indicated that sponsors are permitted to recognize same-sex marriage for any or all purposes prior to June 26, 2013, but cautions that such an amendment to a single employer defined benefit plan could affect the sponsor’s funding obligations under the plan.

Notwithstanding the required application of the Windsor decision in 2013, the Service has provided an extended deadline to amend plan documents to reflect this operation.  Specifically, sponsors have until the later of the otherwise applicable deadline for required amendments (i.e. tax return filing deadline for the sponsor) or December 31, 2014.  For governmental plans, this deadline is further extended to the close of the first regular legislative session of the legislative body with the authority to amend the plan that ends after December 31, 2014.

Note, however, an amendment may not be required in all cases.  For example, if the plan document refers generally to the term “spouse” as defined under the Code, no amendment would be necessary.  On the other hand, if the plan document defined “spouse” as an individual of the opposite sex (or with respect to similar restrictions) or if the sponsor has recognized same-sex marriages for any period prior to June 26, 2013, a plan amendment is required to be adopted by the applicable deadline.  This is a good time to review your plan documents to determine if an amendment is, in fact, required to be adopted this year.

NLRB’s Decision Allowing Northwestern University Football Players to Unionize May Have Significant, and Perhaps Unintended, Consequences

Posted in NLRB

On March 26, 2014, Region 13 of the National Labor Relations Board (Chicago) held that Northwestern University football players are employees of the university and have the right to unionize.  Relying on the broad common law definition of “employee,” the NLRB ruled that football players that receive scholarships are employees because of the university’s right to control the players, the significant time the players devote to football, and the fact that they receive “compensation” in the form of scholarships.  Northwestern University has already stated that it intends to appeal this decision to the Seventh Circuit.  If the decision is affirmed, not only will the players have the right to unionize, but collegiate athletic programs will likely be the next target of the NLRB’s aggressive attacks on employer workplace rules.

Technically, this decision impacts only Northwestern University football players, but it has the potential to have significant consequences for collegiate sports.  First, this creates a precedent on which other student athletes at private universities could rely in their efforts to unionize.  In addition, the NLRB’s broad definition of “employee” (if applied by other government agencies or courts) could raise a number of significant questions, some of which include:

  • Will the NLRB’s determination that scholarships are “compensation” impact the IRS’s analysis of whether scholarships are subject to FICA, social security, Medicare and other taxes? And if so, will those withholding obligations apply in prior years that are still open resulting in universities having a springing liability for failure to withhold and remit those taxes?
  • Can an athlete’s on-the-field injury be a basis for a workers’ compensation claim?
  • Will athletes that are cut from the team be eligible for unemployment benefits?
  • Will athletes who do not receive scholarships or who receive more limited scholarship funds have a claim under the Fair Labor Standards Act or state wage and hour laws for unpaid wages failure to comply with minimum wage laws?
  • Will athletes be entitled to participate in employee benefit plans if they are employees of the university?

Right now, there appear to be more questions than answers regarding this decision, so it is an issue that is worth monitoring.

A copy of the NLRB’s decision can be found at  http://mynlrb.nlrb.gov/link/document.aspx/09031d4581667b6f.


Texas Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Determined Unconstitutional

Posted in Benefits

The State of Texas is the latest jurisdiction under scrutiny for its ban on same-sex marriage.  On Wednesday, February 26, 2014, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled that the state law banning same-sex marriage results in a violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.  Notwithstanding the holding, however, the judge stayed the effect of his ruling to permit an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (located in New Orleans, Louisiana) and, possibly, to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Accordingly, there is no immediate effect of the ruling on the existing ban on same-sex marriages in Texas.

This ruling falls on the heels of similar challenges in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, Utah and Virginia following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor in June 2013.  Recall the Windsor court held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional and, thereby, required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage for purposes of a number of federal laws.

The effect for employee benefit plans, generally, is that a same-sex couple that is married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage will be treated as “married” for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.  Nonetheless, the Windsor decision does not require employers located in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage to provide health or other coverage to such couples.  This is not to say, however, that same-sex couples may be denied mandatory federal rights – e.g., spousal rights under a qualified retirement plan – or that the exclusion of same-sex coverage could not implicate other laws, such as nondiscrimination requirements applicable to health plans or rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  If, however, the Texas ban on same-sex marriage is ultimately determined to be unconstitutional, employers located in Texas will no longer be permitted to exclude same-sex couples from coverage under their employee benefit plans.



How Do I Correct Failure to Provide a Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan Notice? It Depends!

Posted in Benefits

In the “IRS Retirement News” published by the Internal Revenue Service (the “Service”) on February 24, 2014, the Service reminds us that the failure of a safe harbor 401(k) plan to provide an annual notice to participants constitutes a failure to operate the plan in accordance with its provisions.  In order to protect the qualified status of the plan, it is imperative that the plan sponsor take appropriate steps to correct this operational failure.  The method of correction, however, will depend on how the failure affects the participants.

The safe harbor 401(k) plan notice informs the eligible employees of their rights and obligations under the plan, including, if applicable, the fact that the plan sponsor intends to make a matching contribution with respect to salary deferral elections made under the plan.  Such notices are required to be sent within a reasonable period before the beginning of each plan year (generally, at least 30 days but no more than 90 days before such plan year) and, with respect to newly eligible employees, within the 90-day period ending on the date of such employee’s eligibility to participate in the plan.

With respect to a participant who has received a prior year’s safe harbor notice and, based on the facts and circumstances, is considered by the plan sponsor to be informed of the plan’s features, the failure to provide the notice may be treated as an administrative error that would be corrected by revising procedures to ensure that future notices are provided to employees in a timely manner.  On the contrary, if the missing notice results in an employee not being able to make elective deferrals to the plan (either because he was not informed about the plan, or informed about how to make deferrals to the plan), then the employer may need to make a corrective contribution that is similar to what might be required to correct an erroneous exclusion of an eligible employee under the Employee Plans Compliance Resolution System (Rev. Proc. 2013-4). That is, the employer must contribute 50% of the excluded employee’s missed deferral, which is calculated as the greater of 3% of compensation or the maximum deferral percentage for which the employer matches at a rate at least as favorable as 100% of the elective deferral made by the employee, plus 100% of the missed matching contribution (adjusted for earnings). Under no circumstance, however, can a plan sponsor correct this failure merely by “opting-out” of safe-harbor status (i.e. by satisfying the actual deferral percentage (ADP) and/or actual contribution percentage (ACP) tests for the plan year of the failure).


Healthcare Reform Mandate Delayed (Again) for Some Employers

Posted in Benefits

On Monday, February 9, 2014, the Agencies issued regulations that provide additional guidance regarding the employer mandate (i.e. the “play or pay” penalty) under Healthcare Reform.  But, the most surprising aspect of the guidance was the delay on the implementation of the mandate for certain employers to provide health coverage to their full-time employees.

Under Healthcare Reform, applicable large employers (i.e. businesses that normally employ at least 50 full-time employees or full-time equivalents each year) are required to offer their full-time employees minimum essential coverage that satisfies certain criteria, or face a penalty if a full-time employee receives coverage from the Marketplace and is eligible for a subsidy for such coverage.  Initially, this mandate was supposed to go into effect as of the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2014.  In July, 2013, however, the Agencies issued a notice that delayed the implementation of the employer mandate until the first plan year that begins on or after January 1, 2015.  The purpose of that delay was to allow the government more time to finalize its guidance on the reporting requirements for applicable large employers.  No similar delay was provided to individuals.  As a result, individuals are generally required to have minimum essential coverage as of January 1, 2014 or pay a penalty.

According to the regulations issued yesterday, employers with less than 100 full-time employees and full-time equivalents will now have until the first plan year that begins on or after January 1, 2016 to comply with the employer mandate.  The purpose cited for this delay was to allow employers more time to transition to a 30-hour workweek (which is the threshold for an employee to be considered “full-time” for purposes of healthcare reform).  Notably, this transition relief is NOT automatic.

An employer that intends to rely on this transition relief will be required to certify to the Internal Revenue Service that it has not reduced the size of its workforce or the overall hours of service of its employees during the period commencing on February 9, 2014 and ending on December 31, 2014, other than for bona fide business purposes (such as a sale of a division or changes in the economy), and, further has not otherwise eliminated or materially reduced its health coverage during such period.  An employer that fails to satisfy these conditions will not be entitled to rely on this transition relief and, therefore, will be subject to the employer mandate as of the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2015.

In addition, employers with 100 or more full-time employees and full-time equivalents will have a phase-in period for compliance with the mandate.  The mandate for this group remains effective as of the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2015.  However, an employer in this group will be treated as complying with the mandate in the 2015 plan year if the employer covers at least 70% of its full-time employees (which, ironically, is a threshold that currently applies for determining whether a self-insured health plan is discriminatory under Section 105(h) of the Internal Revenue Code) and will be treated as complying with the mandate in the 2016 plan year and thereafter if the employer covers at least 95% of its full-time employees.  Recall, the “substantial compliance” threshold of 95% was provided for in regulations issued by the Agencies in early 2013 and is not new.

While the delay may be appreciated by those employers eligible to take advantage of it, it is limited in nature.  Employers with less than 100 full-time employees (and full-time equivalents) will need to weigh the advantages of making changes to their employee population and health coverage against the usefulness of the transition relief.  Interestingly, an employer in this group that fails to satisfy the conditions for transition relief will be entitled to rely on the reduced compliance standards that are otherwise provided for employers with larger employee populations (i.e. provide coverage to at least 70% of the full-time employee population in the 2015 plan year).


Welcomed Guidance on Wellness Programs

Posted in Benefits

On June 3, 2013, the Departments of Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services (Agencies) issued final regulations regarding nondiscriminatory wellness programs in group health coverage under the Affordable Care Act and applicable provisions of ERISA and the Code.  The final regulations specifically addressed the reasonable design of health-contingent wellness programs and the reasonable alternatives that must be offered in order to avoid prohibited discrimination. On January 9, 2014, the Agencies issued subregulatory guidance that addressed three (3) points discussed in the final regulations.

  1. In order to satisfy the reasonable design standard for any wellness program, the employer is required to provide an opportunity to obtain the award (or avoid the surcharge) at least once annually.  The agencies have confirmed that, with respect to a tobacco cessation wellness program, the requirement to provide an annual opportunity to receive the award does not mean that the plan is required to provide the award to a participant who is a tobacco user and who initially refused to participate in the tobacco cessation program (e.g. during the annual enrollment period).  Under such circumstances, the plan may, but is not required to, allow such individual to earn the reward in the event that he enrolls in the tobacco cessation program in the middle of the year.
  2. In order to satisfy the reasonable alternative standard for an outcomes based wellness program, the employer is required to accommodate the recommendations of the participant’s physician in providing an alternative standard to obtain the reward (or avoid the surcharge), where the initial standard is determined by the physician to be medically inappropriate for the participant.  However, the Agencies have indicated that this mandate does not mean that the plan is required to utilize the exact program suggested by the physician.  For example, if the physician recommends a weight loss program as an alternative to the initial standard(s) otherwise specified under the wellness program, the wellness program can approve that weight loss program or offer a different weight loss program to satisfy the alternative.
  3. The employer is required to provide notice of the availability of a reasonable alternative standard to the participants in the wellness program.  Sample language was included in the final regulations.  The Agencies confirmed that plans are permitted to modify this language to better fit the design of their programs, provided that the revised notice includes all of the required content described in the final regulations.

Agencies Share Guidance on Cost-Sharing

Posted in Benefits

Earlier this month, the Departments of Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services (Agencies) jointly issued additional guidance on the application of the cost-sharing limitations imposed under the Affordable Care Act.  It is helpful that the guidance was issued early enough in the year to allow plan sponsors an opportunity to review their alternatives in making design decisions for 2015.

Under the Affordable Care Act, non-grandfathered group health plans may not impose out-of-pocket (OOP) maximums in excess of prescribed limitations.  The annual limit applies to all non-grandfathered plans (whether small, large, insured or self-insured).  The applicable limits for 2014 are set forth in the table below.

Maximum   annual out-of-pocket $6,350   for self-only coverage$12,700   for family coverage

The Agencies previously issued guidance on how to apply the annual OOP limit where a plan utilizes more than one service provider (i.e. separate medical and prescription drug administrators) to administer benefits under the plan. That guidance generally provided that, for the first plan year beginning on or after January 1, 2014 only, a plan will satisfy the limitation if (a) the plan complies with the limitation with respect to its major medical coverage; and (b) to the extent that the plan includes an OOP maximum on coverage that does not consist solely of major medical coverage, that the OOP maximum for such benefit does not exceed the dollar limits set forth above.

Additional guidance issued by the Agencies on January 9, 2014 confirms that, with respect to plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2015, non-grandfathered group health plans must apply the OOP maximum to all essential health benefits (EHB) provided under the plan. Certain expenses, however, are not required to be counted toward the OOP maximum.

  • If the plan uses a network of providers, the expenses for out-of-network items and services need not be included.
  • The cost of items or services that do not constitute EHBs need not be included.  For a list of authorized plans to determine EHB for large insured plans and self-insured plans, see www.cms.gov/CCIIO/Resources/Files/Downloads/ehb-faq-508.pdf.
  • The costs for items or services not covered by the plan need not be included.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Agencies indicated that plans with separate service providers may apply separate OOP maximums to such benefits, provided that the aggregate OOP maximum applicable to all EHBs under the plan does not exceed the annual limitation then in effect.


Proposed Rules Expand Exceptions from Healthcare Reform

Posted in Benefits

On December 24, 2013, the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (collectively, the “Departments”) jointly issued proposed rules that would expand the scope of arrangements that would constitute “excepted benefits” under the portability rules enacted by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”). This is important not only for HIPAA portability purposes but because excepted benefits are exempt from the market reform and other requirements of healthcare reform, such as rules prohibiting annual and lifetime dollar limits on essential benefits and excessive waiting periods, and the requirement to cover certain preventive care with no cost sharing.

Specifically, the following changes have been proposed:

1.         The existing requirement that participants pay an additional premium or contribution for limited-scope vision or dental benefits to qualify as excepted benefits would be eliminated. Accordingly, as proposed, these changes would cause limited scope dental and vision benefits to be excepted as long as participants have the right to elect not to receive coverage for the benefits.

2.         An employee assistance plan will be an excepted benefit if the arrangement does not provide significant benefits in the nature of medical care or treatment. (The proposed rules do not provide guidance on what constitutes a “significant benefit”, so plan sponsors will be required to rely on a good faith interpretation of the law until final regulations are issued.)

Effective for plan years beginning in 2015, the EAP must satisfy the following additional conditions:

  • Benefits under the EAP cannot be coordinated with benefits under another group health plan. In order to meet this standard, the Departments have proposed that the following conditions be met:
    • Participants in the group health plan must not be required to exhaust benefits under the EAP before an individual is eligible for benefits under the group health plan.
    • Eligibility for benefits under the EAP must not depend upon participation in another group health plan.
    • Benefits under the EAP must not be financed by another group health plan.
  • The EAP must not require employees to pay premiums or contributions for coverage.
  • The EAP must not require employees to pay any portion of the cost of services under the arrangement.

3.         “Wraparound” coverage would be considered an excepted benefit if it is used to provide additional coverage to individuals and families enrolled in non-grandfathered individual health insurance and for whom minimum value coverage under the employer’s group health plan is offered but unaffordable (i.e. the employee’s cost for single coverage under the employer’s plan exceeds 9.5 percent of the employee’s household income), provided the following additional requirements are met:

  • The employer that sponsors the wraparound coverage must also sponsor another group health plan that meets the 60% “minimum value” requirement and that is affordable for a majority of eligible employees (the “primary plan”). Only individuals eligible for the primary plan may be eligible for the wraparound coverage.
  • The total cost of the wraparound coverage must not exceed 15 percent of the primary plan cost of coverage (i.e. employer and employee contributions).
  • The wraparound plan must wrap around a non-grandfathered individual health insurance plan that does not consist solely of excepted benefits.
  • The wraparound plan covers benefits or providers not covered by the individual health insurance coverage, as follows:
    • The wraparound coverage must provide coverage for benefits that are not essential health benefits, or reimburse the cost of health care providers that are considered out-of-network under the individual health insurance coverage, or both. Note, the wraparound coverage may also provide benefits for participants’ otherwise applicable cost sharing under the individual health insurance policy.
    • The wraparound coverage must not provide benefits only under a coordination-of-benefits provision.
  • The wraparound plan must be nondiscriminatory.

These changes are generally effective for plan years starting in 2015. However, plan sponsors may rely on changes regarding limited scope dental and vision benefits and employee assistance plans through at least 2014.  As a result, plan sponsors will want to review their existing arrangements and determine whether any changes are necessary to ensure treatment as an excepted benefit under these rules.


Labor & Employment

N.D. of Texas – Attendance is an Essential Job Function

Posted in Labor & Employment

The Northern District of Texas has issued a fantastic opinion for employers concerning a recurring question under the ever evolving Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Specifically, whether attendance can be an essential job function.  This Court has answered that question in the affirmative. In Allen v Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Pantex, LLC (October 9, 2013, Robinson, M), the plaintiff employee was diagnosed with a disease that qualified as a disability under the ADA.  As the plaintiff’s condition steadily worsened over the years, she missed almost 200 days of work over the course of 14 months. Eventually, the plaintiff’s doctor certified that she would not return to work.

In granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s ADA claim, the Court concluded that consistent attendance at the plaintiff’s job was an essential function of it.  Because the plaintiff could not satisfy that essential function, the plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability and, therefore, the plaintiff’s ADA claim failed as a matter of law.  The employer convinced the Court of the essential nature of the plaintiff’s attendance at work by establishing four undisputed facts:

(i) the plaintiff was required to interact on a daily basis in person with customers and trainees;

(ii) the plaintiff was required to meet certain long-term deadlines that were jeopardized by her absences;

(iii)  the plaintiff was required to implement programs on a daily basis; and

(iv) the employer was forced to hire another employee to fill the plaintiff’s position during the period when the plaintiff was absent for almost 200 days.

In analyzing these facts, the Court also decided that indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation as a matter of law – another great ruling for all employers in Texas.

A few key takeaways from this decision. Don’t view the case as an absolute green light to conclude that attendance is always an essential function of all of your company’s positions.  While that very well may be the case, you should also perform a detailed, factual analysis, like the Court did here, concerning the actual essential functions of the positions in question.  Also, you should maintain job descriptions that identify each position’s essential functions.  If attendance is indeed an essential function to the positions in question, be sure to include, and describe, it as such in them.  Because it seems so obvious for most positions, employers often overlook including attendance as an essential function in their job descriptions. Be sure to also describe attendance as an essential function in your attendance policies where applicable.  You should also engage in good faith in the interactive process when your employees request an accommodation concerning their attendance.  And, keep in mind, that providing flex time and permitting some employees to work from home or telecommute may make it more difficult to establish for the rest of your employees that attendance is an essential job function in your workplace.

-Adam Dougherty, board cerified in employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, shareholder in Winstead’s employment law section

Labor & Employment

Another Pro-Employee Fifth Circuit Decision: Employee’s FMLA Claim Survives Summary Judgment

Posted in Labor & Employment, Uncategorized

In another pro-employee decision, like its ruling in the Feist case that I analyzed last week, the Fifth Circuit overturned another district court’s grant of summary judgment that dismissed the plaintiff-employee’s FMLA claims. http://hr.cch.com/ELD/IonChevron.pdf  Here, the plaintiff-employee told his supervisor that he needed time off from work to be with his son who was having a difficult time following the plaintiff’s separation from his wife. A few days later, the company suspended the plaintiff for five days due to performance problems and taking long lunch breaks. The plaintiff claimed he was taking the long lunch breaks to spend time with his son.  He also claimed that he had previously informed his supervisors of the reason for them.

On the day he was scheduled to return to work from his five-day suspension, the plaintiff obtained a note from his doctor excusing him from work due to the stress from his separation from his wife.  He also called in sick for the next two days for the same reason.  At that time, his supervisor typed in an email that the employee “is playing games with us” and was looking for a corrupt doctor to disingenuously approve his FMLA leave. When the plaintiff visited the company’s nurses to execute his FMLA paperwork, the nurses felt threatened by the plaintiff, who was removed from the premises by the company fearing a violent outburst.  A report from a coworker also arose at that time claiming that the plaintiff told him that he had faked his supposed “overstressed” condition in order to obtain FMLA leave. After finally completing his FMLA paperwork, the plaintiff was terminated for several reasons including insubordination.

In overturning the district court’s ruling, the Fifth Circuit found a fact issue on the plaintiff’s FMLA retaliation claim.   The Fifth Circuit based its ruling on four primary reasons.  First, in the company’s termination letter to the plaintiff, it stated that  “[y]ou haven’t returned to work since your suspension.”  The court believed that this statement showed that the plaintiff’s absences could have been part of the reasons for the company’s decision to terminate his employment.  Second, the court determined that his supervisor’s email, quoted above, created a fact issue regarding whether the Company intended to prevent the plaintiff from taking FMLA leave and/or punish him for doing so.  Third, the Fifth Circuit also focused on the temporal proximity between the supervisor’s email, and the employee’s co-worker’s report that he faked his condition, and the timing of the company’s decision to terminate him.  Fourth, with respect to the faking allegation, the Fifth Circuit determined that the company should have conducted an investigation into the report or sought a second opinion from a medical professional into the true nature of his condition.

Here, the Fifth Circuit had ample evidence before it to uphold the district court’s grant of summary judgment: a violent employee, a good-faith belief the employee faked his condition and insubordination.  Nevertheless, the Court gave the plaintiff another day to fight for the reasons mentioned above. This decision provides two key takeaways for employers facing similar situations.  First, employers should pay particular attention to (i) arguably biased statements made in writing or emails and (ii) similar statements that may be objectively misconstrued by the trier-of-fact.  Judges and juries tend to place particular emphasis on them.  Second, when terminating an employee shortly after a request for leave, employers should carefully investigate and consider any potentially problematic documents, witnesses and facts that may exist and/or be discovered should the employee file a lawsuit. In the now infamous words of Walter White, in situations involving employee terminations shortly after they make requests for medical leave, employers should tread lightly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1iePhwzh30