HR Elements March 2014
Ideas and Information for Human Resources Professionals

Dress Code: Religion and Grooming

As the workforce has become more diverse, and many people have differing religions, clothing restrictions, and appearance beliefs, it's crucial for employers to accommodate these without discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued a new publication addressing workplace responsibilities regarding religious dress and grooming under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Let's take a look at discrimination based on religion. According to an article published in SHRM: Society for Human Resource Management magazine: In fiscal year 2013, the EEOC received 3,721 charges alleging religious discrimination -- a number that has more than doubled since FY 1997, when 1,709 charges were filed.

If an employer is covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, then the employer must allow employees to follow their religious beliefs, including appearance and grooming practices, unless it causes an undue hardship on the business.

A few examples of an undue hardship would be if the accommodation for religious beliefs:

  • Is unreasonably costly
  • Compromises safety, security, or health
  • Decreases efficiency or productivity
  • Infringes on the rights of other employees
  • Requires other employees to do more than their fair share of hazardous and/or burdensome work

There are many examples of how an employer must reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs or practices. A few of these include the following:

  • Adjustments to the work schedule for religious observances
  • Allowing the employee to wear head coverings or other religious dress
  • Allowing the employee to wear certain hairstyles or facial hair
  • Finding an alternate, acceptable apparel if there is a prohibition against wearing certain garments

It's important to keep in mind that Title VII applies not only to "traditional," religions or practices that are normally recognized, but it also applies to new and uncommon beliefs that may not even be part of a formal organization. As long as the belief is "sincerely held" by the individual, then the employer must accommodate him or her.

Furthermore, a business cannot discriminate because its customer base may not like a particular employee. This includes assigning that employee to a position that does not come into contact with customers such as a backroom job.

An employer, however, should not have to guess if an exception to its rules needs to be made for an employee. That is, when an employee needs a dress or grooming accommodation for religious reasons, it's imperative that he or she notify the employer. If additional information is needed by the employer, it is perfectly acceptable to engage in a dialogue to discuss the request. Something to consider is that once an exception is made to an individual based on religion, an employer does not need to make the same exception to all its employees. The employer may still enforce its dress code and grooming rules and regulations on the other employees who do not share the same religious exemption.

The bottom line in all of this is that we, as a nation, are a very diverse culture and employers must recognize, embrace, and accommodate this diversity in order to get the most out of their employees in terms of productivity and workplace satisfaction. The benefits to both employer and employee far outweigh any minor inconvenience and will prove to be more valuable and advantageous in the long run.


Social Media & Healthy Relations

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, etc.) is commonplace in today's workplace culture. These so-called "wired employees" use cutting-edge technology as tools to help them do more while staying connected to their friends, family, and coworkers.

A great way for employers to leverage that connectivity with social media is to encourage these wired employees to better manage their health and well-being through healthy activities and harmonious integration of what they're already doing with social media on a daily basis. Virtual trainers and mobile apps that track diet and exercise are a great way to not only get started, but maintain a healthy lifestyle.

In an article in Employee Benefit News, according to the National Institutes of Health, users who have a weight-loss coach are 214% more likely to lose weight than those without. However, when you consider the cost of a personal trainer, this is often out of reach for the employee and is not financially reasonable for the employer to fund for its workforce.

Rather than using a traditional trainer, an alternative someone could use would be a website specifically geared toward diet, exercise, and health coaching. Another solution would be to use a mobile app that tracks progress and integrates that with the user's social media of choice. For example, if a person just ran five miles, then that would be posted to their Facebook account. Their friends would see this and send congratulations and encouragement to run farther. It may even motivate their social media contacts to take up running themselves or to join their friend and exercise together toward a common goal.

Often, it's this tiny nudge that enables people to change their life for the better. While some people may feel they're healthy enough, or they don't want to change, there are others who wish they could change their lives, but don't know where to start. For these people, the social media interaction is perfect and employers can provide examples of websites, apps, and other online tools to get them started on the path to living healthier.

It's this social support aspect that is so enticing and effective. The outdated axiom of joining business colleagues at a bar after work is being replaced with joining them at the gym or nearby running/biking trail. A person's social media contacts further provide support by sharing links to healthy recipes, tips on ways to get the most out of exercising, challenging them to participate in a local competition, or posting the schedule of the latest yoga class. This type of interaction keeps people focused on their goal(s) and makes their new healthy lifestyle a two-way street as they can do the same for their friends and colleagues who are just getting started.

Best of all is that it doesn't appear as though the employee is being pushed by their employer to live a healthier lifestyle. Once the nudge is provided via social media tools, the employee's own contacts take over the interaction and the employee becomes proactive in his or her approach to improving their own health. This way, everything is friendly, fun, not overly medical, and overall achievable and sustainable.


Take Your Time Off

With apologies to 1960s American surf rock group Ronny & The Daytonas: Little PTO, you're really lookin' fine! If employers think that employees who take all their time off are less dedicated and, therefore, less productive, they couldn't be more wrong.

An Oxford Economics study conducted for the U.S. Travel Association suggests that employers should encourage their workers to take all their paid time off (PTO) in order to gain higher productivity, stronger workplace morale, greater employee retention, and even significant health benefits. By taking time off, most employees returned to work feeling refreshed, having less stress, and were ready to focus on the job at hand.

Based on that study, the United States is one of the few industrialized countries that does not guarantee by law PTO for employees. However, PTO is still a key part of benefits packages offered by employers to attract high quality employees.

According to the study, Americans forfeited an average of 3.2 PTO days in 2013. There appears to be a disconnect between what managers believe and what workers perceive.

While some employees indicated that their employer neither encouraged nor discouraged leave, almost one in five managers considered workers less dedicated if they took all of their time off. Unfortunately for about 40% of employees, they said their heavy workload prevented them from taking all their PTO. The study highlighted some of the reasons for not taking time off:

  • There's too much work to do
  • I'm accumulating PTO for the future
  • I can get cash for my PTO days
  • I don't need the PTO days
  • I can't afford to travel
  • I enjoy my job
  • PTO is hard to schedule
  • My company needs me
  • Work would pile up
  • I would make less money
  • Taking PTO would affect my performance
  • It's discouraged by my employer
  • It would put my job at risk

Despite the plethora of reasons employees said prevented them from taking time off, the fact is that unused PTO hurts the economy in several ways. For one, employees who amass PTO create financial liability for employers and governments when they leave their position and have to "cash out" that stockpile. Another way, the study found, was that by not taking time off, employees did not travel. This non-conversion of PTO into travel or leisure time resulted in billions of dollars lost in tourism spending and tax revenue, thus hurting the economies of cities and businesses that depend on it.

PTO is one of the most expensive elements of a compensation package employers can offer. However, while PTO is costly to the employer, and clearly there is a loss of productivity while the employee is away from work, the results in the study indicate that net productivity, after taking into account the downtime of leave, is still positive.

So when it comes to earned time off, employees and employers alike should agree that it's best to go ahead and use it. Achieving that goal most likely will require meaningful changes in attitudes and perceptions in the workplace along with more effective dialog between managers and employees. However, by doing this, it would help both groups to better understand the benefits.


The Rise of Four-Tier Drug Plans and Prescription Copays

By: Carol Taylor
Employee Benefit Advisor
D&S Agency, A UBA Partner Firm

Remember when you used to pay a $15 copay for prescription drugs and that was the end of the story? Those days are quickly disappearing and in their place is a complex four-tiered prescription drug plan, with copays becoming less of an option for many.

The fourth tier pays for biotechnology or the highest cost drugs. This plan design enables employers to pass along the cost of the most expensive drugs to employees by segmenting these drugs into another category with significantly higher copays.

With some of these drugs ranging from $1,200 to $20,000 per month (the cost of some cancer drugs), it is very costly for the plans, which in turn affects their premium rates. As a result, we are seeing more and more employers, small and large, raising copays substantially on fourth-tier drugs.

According to the 2013 UBA Health Plan Survey special pharmacy report, the number of employers offering four-tier drug plans increased 11.5% from 2012 to 2013, with 27.9% of employers now using this pharmacy plan design element. The median pharmacy retail copays for fourth-tier drugs increased by 25% from $80 in 2012 to $100 in 2013. Additionally, many are charging between 10% and 30% of the cost of tier four drugs.

We've seen this for quite some time with self-funded plans, but we expect it will become more popular among small and large employers with group health insurance. Employees of large employers in particular face significantly higher copay on tier four drugs.

For example, the tier four median copay for small employers (less than 100 employees) was $52, on average, between $45 to $60 for mid-size employers (100-499), and between $80 to $100 for large employers (500+).

There are a number of factors that would cause larger groups to have higher copays for brand/specialty prescription drugs: Small group markets are pooled by ratings areas, but larger groups are rated more independently. They have much more incentive, then,  to raise copays, especially for items that will cause rate increases.

Another strategy to control health care costs is to require that the major medical deductible be met before prescription copays kick in. It used to be that all drugs were applied to the deductible, then coinsurance on major medical. Now, quite a few carriers, particularly on high-deductible health plans (HDHPs), require a deductible, then copays. We're also seeing small group and mid-market employers place generic brands before the deductible, but brand names after.

In 2015, as employers are forced to come into compliance with health care reform, this might shift since the prescription copays and deductibles, etc. must all track to the out-of-pocket maximum.

The ultimate goal of shifting more cost to employees is to drive behavior -- to create better health care consumers. Employers want their employees to price shop prescription drugs the way they would a blender, or a car, and by making them face more cost up front, they're providing plenty of incentive to do so. The truth is, there's no reason to buy a sinus infection drug at CVS for $295 when you can get the same one at "big-box" retailers like Costco and Wal-Mart for $100. If, however, you're prescribed a brand new cancer drug, you certainly have fewer options and tougher decisions to make.

Download a copy of the special UBA Pharmacy Report, or the 2013 UBA Health Plan Survey Executive Summary. Customized benchmarking reports are available from a UBA Partner Firm.

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 In This Edition


Employer Webinar Series for April

To help you stay on top of health care reform, UBA is sponsoring not one, but TWO employer webinars in April.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014
2:00 p.m. EDT / 11:00 a.m. PDT

Want to know what is happening in Washington, D.C., as it relates to the now four-year-old Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA)? While parts of the law have been implemented, major additional requirements are scheduled to take effect over the next several years. Significant regulations on the employer-shared responsibility and reporting requirements were issued earlier this year. Meanwhile, a number of bills have been introduced in Congress to modify, or even repeal, this law.

As CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters, Janet Trautwein has a unique perspective on what is happening with proposed legislation and both new and pending rules. Join us for this 90-minute webinar as Janet discusses what is happening in Washington, D.C., the possibilities of changes, some of the reasons behind the recent regulations, and what employers can expect over the coming months.

Janet Trautwein is Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Association of Health Underwriters (NAHU) in Arlington, Virginia. Her responsibilities include oversight of all NAHU activities and primary representation of the association to the media, government agencies and elected officials at all levels, the insurance industry, and the public.

The presentation slides will be posted on the UBA website the day before the webinar. Contact your UBA Partner Firm to register or to learn more about this webinar!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
2:00 p.m. EDT / 11:00 a.m. PDT

Counting employees under health care reform is not as easy as 1-2-3. The rules are quite complicated and, if not done correctly, can have serious repercussions for your business. The final employer-shared responsibility ("play or pay") regulations have been issued and beginning in 2015, larger employers will need to either offer health coverage that meets the requirements of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) or pay penalties. Although the requirement is not effective until 2015, employers need to be gathering data and making decisions now.

In this 90-minute intermediate-level webinar, we'll discuss in detail which employers are affected and what you must do to provide coverage that meets PPACA's requirements. We'll also detail the two methods employers can use to determine which employees need to be offered coverage, the recently issued reporting regulation, and how penalties will be calculated if the requirements aren't met. (This webinar builds on information provided in our March 11 webinar.)

To review the slides for that presentation, go to the UBA website. Scroll down to "Webinar Archive" and click on the appropriate link for the slides you want.

Randal M. Limbeck is a Shareholder in the Omaha office of Jackson Lewis P.C. He specializes in representation of clients in the areas of ERISA, employee benefits, and executive compensation. Mr. Limbeck has represented clients in a broad range of industries and size, with respect to design, document drafting, employee communications, litigation, and assistance in dealings with the IRS and Department of Labor.

The presentation slides will be posted on the UBA website the day before the webinar. Contact your UBA Partner Firm to register or to learn more about this webinar!


Based on an article in SHRM: Society For Human Resource Management magazine, the percentage of U.S. job seekers relocating for new positions has climbed to its highest level since 2009. The 2013 average relocation rate was 13.3%, compared with 2012's average of 9.8%, and in 2011 the quarterly relocation rate averaged just 7.6%. One of the biggest reasons for the increase in relocation is that the housing market has rebounded. During the height of the recession, along with the collapse of the housing market, relocating was not a possibility because many of the unemployed were stuck in houses that were "underwater" or below what was owed on the mortgage. As home buying rebounded, so did the ability for people to move. A report from the National Association of Realtors indicated that one in six metropolitan areas saw its housing market return to pre-recession conditions.

Now that everyone is focused on basketball, specifically the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, how does March madness translate into workplace madness? In an article in Employee Benefit News, they estimate that approximately 50 to 60 million Americans participate in brackets and pools. This is not surprising considering that President Barack Obama has a bracket and Quicken Loans is offering a $1 billion -- yes, with a capital B -- prize to anyone who completes the perfect bracket. In case you were wondering, the chances of doing that are 1 in 9.2 quintillion. As an employer, the questions are whether brackets and pools are legal, the loss of productivity with employees watching games, calling in sick, etc., and even the use of office supplies to create and print the brackets. If the company's bottom line is more important, then consider blocking access to streaming websites, reminding employees of acceptable computer use while at work, and threatening disciplinary action if necessary. If employee morale and motivation is paramount, then think about allowing employees to wear or display items related to their favorite team, designate certain times when employees can check scores, or go all out and set up a TV in the break room tuned to the NCAA tournament while providing free pizza and popcorn and allowing a short amount of time for employees to watch. This relatively inexpensive investment will possibly reduce the loss of short-term productivity while most likely increasing long-term gains in employee morale and company approval.

In a Reuters news story, people who are eager to step outside to exercise at the first sign of spring should be cautious. Fitness experts warn that running on the open road is more taxing than running on a treadmill, and mountain trails are bumpier than a spinning class. Even people who are extremely fit may need a brief "thawing" period to safely transition and adjust their bodies to exercising outdoors. Don't try to run or bike too many miles too soon and consider cross-training. That is, just because it's nice outside doesn't mean you should ignore the gym. There are many exercises you can do there that are less prone to causing injury and better for strength training. Diversity when working out is good to keep from getting bored with the same routine, but always be aware of what your body is trying to tell you. If you become uncomfortable or are straining too much, then ease up. As always, consult with your physician before undertaking any exercise or strenuous activity.

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