As COVID-19 Spreads, Beware of EPL Risks

As businesses of all sizes strive to protect their employees and preserve cash flow during the coronavirus pandemic, likely the last thing on most of their minds is employment practices liability (EPL) exposures. But EPL risks are higher during pandemics and other periods when employers are more likely to furlough, lay off or ask employees to work from home.

Despite federal legislation aimed at relieving financial burdens on workers and their employers, many businesses face difficult choices – and more complicated record keeping.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which takes effect April 1, permits workers to take paid public health emergency leave to care for themselves or their children through the end of 2020. The law requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for employees who cannot work due to the closure of their children’s school or child-care provider during the public health emergency. The law generally requires employers to restore the employee to his or her former job after leave, unless the employer has 25 or fewer workers, or the position no longer exists due to economic conditions resulting from the public health emergency (source 12).

Several EPL risks for businesses can arise from the current coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. These include:

Wage-and-hour issues. Employers should carefully track employees’ working time, especially in work-from- home arrangements, as well as during a furlough. Work hours are common tipping points for eligibility under an employer’s employee benefits plan.

“A lot of employment issues arise from COVID-19. Frequent questions I get from employers concern furloughs, layoffs, and working from home,” said Kunal Shah, Of Counsel at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker LLP in Dallas. “If a business temporarily closes its doors, or significantly reduces its staff and hours, how do we navigate employee compensation and benefits? Insureds need to be mindful that furloughs, if not handled properly, can lead to significant wage-and-hour claims.”

If an employer requires employees to take unpaid leave through furlough, problems can arise if employees are asked to spend even a little bit of that time working, Shah cautioned. “An employer can furlough an exempt employee, but if the employee does one second of work, he or she is entitled to full pay for the entire pay period under the Fair Labor Standards Act,” he said.

“Employers need to be mindful of local and state ordinances, too. Employees of businesses that are deemed non- essential should not be working if they are under a shelter-in-place order,” Shah said.

Hours spent working matter, to workers and their employers. “Benefit plans may no longer provide benefits if hours fall below a certain threshold,” Shah explained. “For example, if a full-time employee goes below a certain hours minimum required for benefits under their group health plan, he or she may trigger coverage under COBRA,” or the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, a federal law that allows workers to obtain group health insurance temporarily, usually for up to 18 months.

“The reverse can also happen, where an employee works more hours than agreed upon, thus making him or her eligible for certain benefits otherwise not agreed to. For these reasons, timekeeping and logging hours are important steps for every employer, especially in a working-from-home arrangement,” Shah advised. Relying on employees to track their own time can be risky. “Asking employees to report their hours daily, even in an e-mail, is a good way to document work time if an employer lacks a logging system for remote workers,” Shah suggested.

“Also, employees who are on unpaid leave or working less hours due to furlough can still apply for unemployment benefits. An employer must be mindful of these sorts of situations to avoid wage-and-hour claims,” Shah advised.

Wrongful termination. Reductions in force (RIFs) are an unfortunate fact during economic downturns, such as the one that is occurring due to COVID-19. RIFs often lead to wrongful termination claims, and potentially even class-action lawsuits.

Because the coronavirus so far poses greater health risks to people over age 65, people with obesity and underlying uncontrolled health conditions such as diabetes or liver disease, and pregnant women, employers must proceed carefully with terminations. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention offers information resources to help business and employers slow the spread of COVID-19 (source).

It might seem logical to some employers to lay off workers at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but that is problematic and could invite lawsuits alleging discrimination and wrongful termination.

Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) issues. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces anti- discrimination laws, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. With the stress and anxiety over COVID-19, employees with disabilities might make more requests for reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Employers should consider any accommodation requests during the pandemic in the same manner in which they otherwise would. The EEOC also has published guidance for employers on COVID-19 (source).

The ADA allows employers to seek certain information about employees’ health and disabilities, insofar as such information is job-related and consistent with “business necessity,” but employers must remain aware of their obligations to apply it consistently and keep information confidential.

“Because we are dealing with a pandemic, it is now OK for employers to take employees’ temperatures or send an employee home if he or she is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, but any information an employer collects about an employee’s health must be treated as a confidential medical record,” Shah said. “During a pandemic like COVID-19, employees exhibiting symptoms consistent with the virus post a direct threat under the ADA, warranting an employer’s questions out of business necessity. Employers should remember that all other aspects of the ADA remain in effect. There is still the potential for retaliation claims under the ADA and other laws.”

Third-party discrimination. Another form of EPL exposure is third-party discrimination. Such claims may come from customers or others. For example, refusal of service or preferential treatment could be construed as third-party discrimination.

“Businesses all over the United States have been mandated to practice social distancing and not put their employees or customers in jeopardy. Businesses can’t prevent claims, but they may have lots of meritorious defenses,” Shah said.

Original article posted by CRC Group Wholesale & Specialty

COVID-19: Confirmed Cases & Deaths Per State

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The Kaiser Family Foundation has created an interactive map that illustrates the most current confirmed cases and deaths of COVID-19. For a breakdown by state, click here.

 

Pandemic Roiling D&O Marketplace

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow, the directors and officers of public and private organizations are facing risks on two fronts: the economic impacts of COVID-19 and litigation. Adding to the challenge is a hardening insurance marketplace.

D&O liability insurance was already undergoing a market correction before the pandemic, after years of poor results and growth in claims. The uncertainties that COVID-19 is bringing to all sectors of the economy will undoubtedly lead to further changes – not only in the form of higher rates, but also tighter terms and conditions, as well as additional exclusions.

These trends will make navigating a complex line of coverage even more challenging, but they are not unprecedented. D&O insurers similarly tightened their underwriting during the financial crisis in 2008, then eased coverage restrictions after the global recession ended.

Times of crisis historically make directors and officers more frequent targets of litigation, as plaintiffs scrutinize organizations’ decisions. Generally, D&O allegations tend to fall into three categories: disclosures, particularly for public companies; mismanagement, especially when companies post results or their share prices drop precipitously; and insolvency. Even when a lawsuit is found to have no merit, organizations still must defend it, and those expenses can quickly mount.

D&O LAWSUITS OVER COVID-19

The Securities and Exchange Commission has encouraged public companies to disclose the impact of the coronavirus on their operations and financial condition, even as the SEC notes the future impact is uncertain. But public statements can get companies into hot water, as recent litigation shows.

Several lawsuits naming organizations and their directors and officers have already been filed with allegations relating directly to the coronavirus pandemic.1 A sampling of lawsuits include class actions against:

  • Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. In March, plaintiffs filed a federal securities lawsuit alleging, among other things, that the cruise line made false and misleading statements about the impact of COVID-19 on the company’s operations and business prospects. The lawsuit also cited media reports of leaked internal memos directing the cruise line’s sales staff to lie about the coronavirus.2
  • Inovio Pharmaceuticals Inc. Also in March, plaintiffs filed a securities lawsuit alleging the biotechnology company made false and misleading statements that it had designed a vaccine for COVID-19 in three hours. A research firm called on the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate Inovio’s statement, suggesting it was “ludicrous and dangerous.”3

Article originally posted on CRC Group Wholesale & Specialty Group 

Businesses Can Defer Part of Their Payroll Tax Until Next Year

Employers are responsible for withholding Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes from their employees’ paychecks and paying these taxes along with the employer’s share to the IRS each month.  The Social Security tax is 12.4% total, with 6.2% withheld from the employee’s wages and the employer paying 6.2%.  The Medicare tax is 2.9%, with 1.45% withheld from the employee’s wages and the employer paying 1.45%.

As part of aid to businesses provided in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), employers can defer depositing the employer’s share of Social Security taxes until December 2021. For payroll periods starting March 27th through the end of this year, employers may defer their share of the Social Security tax (6.2%) and not deposit it with the IRS. Instead of depositing the usual amount of payroll tax, employers can simply hold back their portion of the Social Security tax each month and use it for other operating expenses.  *Please note this only applies to the employer’s portion of the Social Security tax.  Employers may not defer the employee’s part of the Social Security tax, and employers must still deposit both the employee’s and the employer’s portion of the Medicare tax each month.

Employers who decide to defer their part of the Social Security tax have until the end of next year to start depositing the amount they deferred. Half of the deferred payroll tax amount must be deposited with the IRS on December 31, 2021, with the other half due by December 31, 2022.

All employers may take advantage of this payroll tax deferral, including employers who have received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan.

For more information from the IRS about payroll tax deferral, please click here.

This payroll tax deferral is not the same as the payroll tax credits that employers may take for providing paid leave to employees or the employee retention credit. The IRS has detailed information about these credits here.

Article originally posted on FUBA.org.

 

New Law Provides Flexibility on PPP Loan Forgiveness

Under a new federal law effective June 5, 2020, the requirements for PPP loan forgiveness have been relaxed in favor of small businesses.

What is included in the bill?

The bill, which passed with a bipartisan vote, makes the following amendments to the PPP to provide relief to borrowers:

  • Loan repayment terms—The bill extends the minimum loan term for unforgiven PPP loans from two years to five years.
  • Payroll costs vs. nonpayroll costs— For forgiveness eligibility, the bill reduces the portion of PPP funds that must be spent on payroll costs from 75% to 60%, and raises the nonpayroll cost limitation from 25% to 40%.
  • Covered period extension—The bill extends the covered period during which borrowers must spend the PPP funds to be eligible for forgiveness from eight weeks to 24 weeks from the date of origination of the loan.
  • Payroll tax deferment—The bill permits borrowers to defer payroll taxes without being penalized while still remaining eligible for loan forgiveness.
  • Extension of rehiring safe harbor—The bill extends the rehiring safe harbor by six months to provide borrowers with additional time to restore payroll levels or rehire employees without facing a reduction in the amount of forgiveness for which they are eligible. The original date was June 30, 2020, and the new date is Dec. 31, 2020.

In addition to the provisions above, the bill provides loan forgiveness eligibility exemptions for borrowers that are not able to rehire an employee or a replacement. There are also exemptions for loan forgiveness eligibility for borrowers that are not able to return to the same level of business due to complying with COVID-19-related orders or circumstances.

What’s next?

Borrowers should review the bill carefully and speak to their lender should they have any questions. In addition, borrowers should direct any questions regarding their PPP loan to their lender.

We will continue to monitor any additional developments regarding the PPP and deliver updates as necessary.

 

COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Resources

Due to the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, rules and regulations are constantly changing. You should be prepared to change your business practices if needed to maintain critical operations. Below are links to resources on how to keep your business, employees and customers safe.

Workers’ Compensation and COVID-19: What Employers Need to Know

The Covid-19 global pandemic changed how Americans work, seemingly overnight. As many offices transitioned their teams to remote work, others in industries deemed essential scrambled to procure PPE and prepare their workplaces for new socially distant norms. Now that non-essential workers are beginning to return to their workplaces, a common question for employers becomes, “What happens if an employee is exposed to Covid-19 on the job? Is this a workers’ compensation issue?”

That depends, says Paul Hughes, president of Orlando-based Libertate Insurance Services, which provides workers’ compensation coverage to professional employer organizations, including XMI.

Normally, a communicable disease that could be contracted during the ordinary course of life (like the cold or flu) is excluded from workers’ compensation coverage. But several states have already amended their workers’ compensation laws to include Covid-19 “presumption” clauses.

To date, 26 states have added presumptions to their workers’ compensation laws (Tennessee is not one of them).

To read the full article, please click here. This was originally published on XMI’s website.

California Workers’ Compensation Impact Projections – COVID19

As our clients continue to grow their businesses during the COVID19 pandemic, it has never become more important to select the right client company exposures to take risk on and those to lay off on guaranteed cost policies.  Having an underwriting strategy for risk selection and understanding of proper pricing as a result of COVID19 is an issue that needs to be focused on in this dynamic environment.

As with any projection, as time goes by, the future is understood with greater certainty.  As I continue to monitor the “risk load” attributable to COVID19 on a State by State basis, it made me think of one of my literary heroes and a famous quote of his:

“A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree or certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world suffers.”  – Bertrand Russell
Why?  Because we are still dealing with “evidence” on COVID19 that is uncertain.   How much we can warrant forecasted outcomes as a result is therefore uncertain.  Besides the fact we are dealing with a 1 in a 100 year pandemic with no script to work off from the past, the models forecasting number of events and costs are built off of social distancing and staying at home; these variables being complicated by the reopening of States on the rise and social demonstrations triggered by the Floyd case/police brutality.
That said, based on the evidence in California at present, the middle of the road estimate is the addition of $1.2B of system costs to the current system costs of $18.3B, or 7%.
The low end is 3.3% and high end 11%.  These costs emanate from the mid-range loss estimate of 31,100 COVID19 claims.  Please note that this projection is based off the Governor’s order of presumption only lasting through July 1, 2020.  Of these expected claims, it is anticipated the costs will be as follows:
Claim Type               %               Expected Costs per Claim
Mild                           82                          $2,100
Severe                      10                           $74,800
Critical                        3                           $191,100
Death                         5                            $280,500
While I found this projection on the surface to be light, Mr. Stypla and I than contemplated the facts that California was one of the first to close and has been very strict in “stay at home” protocols.  As a result, their fatalities per 100,000 people are far less than other populous states:
Cases/ Fatalities/ 100,000
California – 347/12/100,000
New York – 1,951/157/100,000
Texas – 270/6/100,000
Florida – 307/13/100,000
New Jersey – 1,855/139/100,000
Illinois – 1,020/48/100,000
Michigan – 651/60/100,000
Wisconsin – 366/11/100,000
Ohio – 335/21/100,000
Mass. – 1,507/108/100,000
As you can see, there is a wide range of events by State with California being on the lower end of the spectrum.  So the take away is based on evidence today, California appears to be outperforming against initial forecasts and the country as a whole.  Hopefully the numbers will stand, but to belabor it, these are very fluid forecasts based on evidence available as of today.