by Marti Cardi, Esq. - Senior Compliance Consultant and Legal Counsel,
May 15, 2020
Every time I think I can write about something other than COVID-19, along comes another new law, regulation, or interpretation that I want to share with you. The roundup seems to be getting smaller, but the rodeo ain’t over yet, pardner. Saddle up, ’cause here are the latest:
ERISA Extensions of Disability Filing Deadlines
There are new deadlines in town. The Employee Benefits Security Administration (Department of Labor) and the Internal Revenue Service (Department of the Treasury) have issued a rule providing beneficiaries of certain ERISA plans with extra time to meet filing deadlines. Extensions are in place with respect to disability plans for claimants to file an initial claim for benefits and to appeal an adverse benefit determination.
ERISA rules do not provide a specific minimum timeframe that must be allowed for an individual to file an initial claim for disability benefits. See 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1. Rather, the timeframe is set by the plan. Now, a plan’s deadline for initiating a claim must be extended by the “Outbreak Period” explained below.
For adverse benefit determinations, the regular ERISA rules provide that a disability benefits plan must allow at least 180 days to appeal. 29 C.F.R. § 2560.503-1(h). This period too is now extended by the Outbreak Period.
The President declared a national emergency on March 13, 2020. For purposes of the new ERISA rules, this National Emergency is deemed to have started on March 1, 2020. The “Outbreak Period” is the time from March 1, 2020, until 60 days after the announced end of the National Emergency or such other date announced by EBSA and the IRS in a future notice. Counting to identify the deadline for an initial claim or an appeal of an adverse benefits determination must “disregard” the Outbreak Period. In other words, the time for filing is tolled for the duration of the Outbreak Period.
Here are some examples. For purposes of these examples we need an announced end date of the National Emergency and we will use April 30, 2020. The Outbreak Period ends 60 days later, on June 29.
Example 1: Marie becomes disabled on March 15 and her employer’s disability plan allows her 30 days to file an initial claim for benefits, or until April 14 under the terms of the plan. However, since her disability occurred during the Outbreak Period, her 30 days to file a claim does not start until June 30. Marie has 30 days from that date, or until July 30, to file her claim.
Example 2: Donnie receives notification of an adverse benefit determination from his employer’s disability plan on January 28, 2020. The notification tells Donnie he has 180 days within which to file an appeal. However, the Outbreak Period is disregarded in calculating this 180 days. Donnie’s last day to file an appeal is 148 days after June 29 (180 minus the 32 days from January 28 to March 1), which is November 24, 2020.
This new rule applies retroactively. Because no time from March 1, 2020, through the end of the Outbreak Period counts toward a filing or appeal deadline, plan administrators will need to review any claim or appeal denials that occurred on or after March 1, and reverse any denial that is solely based on the claimant’s failure to meet the claim filing or appeal deadline.
What is Matrix doing? We are on top of this and ready to comply with the new deadlines. Specifically,
- Matrix is implementing the new deadlines immediately for clients
with self-funded ERISA disability plans
- We are updating our denial letters to reflect the new information about
the deadline to file an appeal
- We will conduct an audit of ERISA claim denials and appeals upheld
since March 1 for adverse determinations based on late filing and take
steps necessary to correct those determinations.
If you have any questions, please contact your Matrix or Reliance Standard account manager.
NOTE: The new ERISA rules also affect claims for life and health benefits, health plan enrollment, and post-employment continuation of health coverage (COBRA). The Final Rule and supporting materials are available here: Final Rule, FAQs, and EBSA explanation of extensions.
ADA Guidance – The EEOC Continues Its COVID-19 Updates
Every few days the EEOC adds some new questions to its Technical Assistance Questions and Answers regarding COVID-19 and the ADA. The latest set provide guidance regarding employees with medical conditions that the Centers for Disease Control have identified as “high risk” – meaning that an individual with one of these conditions is at higher than average risk of developing severe illness from COVID-19. The conditions include chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, compromised immune systems, severe obesity (body mass index [BMI] of 40 or higher), diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and liver disease. The EEOC addresses ADA issues and high-risk individuals in its new Questions G.3, G.4, and G.5. [Persons age 65 and older and those living in a nursing home or long-term care facility are also classified as high risk by the CDC but these are not ADA-protected disabilities.]
Individuals with high-risk medical conditions may request an accommodation to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19. As with all ADA requests, the employee does not need to mention the ADA or the word accommodation specifically, but merely has to make the employer aware that she needs a change in her work situation due to a medical condition. The employer may then ask questions or seek medical documentation to help decide if the individual has a disability and if there is a reasonable accommodation, barring undue hardship,that can be provided. Question G.3.
An employee with a high-risk disability who has never needed an accommodation may now need one as a result of the pandemic:
- Due to a changed work environment, location, equipment, schedule, etc., and/or
- To reduce the chance of exposure, if the employee is classified as high risk
Example: An employee with controlled diabetes normally functions at work without any accommodation, or with an accommodation not tied to COVID-19 (e.g., breaks for insulin monitoring and injections). Then, because the employee has a high risk disease, the employee requests an accommodation to reduce the risk of exposure, such as a separated work station or work from home.
So do what you always do: engage in the interactive process with the employee to see if you can meet her needs. The EEOC suggests the following accommodations to help minimize the risk of exposure (Question G.5.):
- Additional or enhanced protective gowns, masks, gloves, or other gear
beyond what the employer may generally provide to employees returning
to its workplace
- Additional or enhanced protective measures, such as erecting barriers or
creating greater spacing between work areas
- Elimination or substitution of the employee’s “marginal” job functions
- Temporary modification of work schedules (if that decreases contact with
coworkers and/or the public when on duty or commuting) or
- Moving the location of where one performs work (for example, moving a
person to the end of a production line rather than in the middle of it if
that provides more social distancing).
The Job Accommodation Network (www.askjan.org) also may be able to assist in identifying possible accommodations. The EEOC encourages employers and employees to be creative and flexible. And employers, don’t worry about creating a “permanent” accommodation – the EEOC supports trial or temporary accommodations.
Finally, what about the employee who you know has a high-risk medical condition but doesn’t ask for an accommodation to reduce risk of exposure? Do you force the employee to stay home or accept other accommodations for his own good? Be careful there, cowboy. First, without a request for such an accommodation, you have no obligation to provide it. Second, that path requires an in-depth analysis to show that by working without appropriate accommodations, the employee poses a direct threat – a “significant risk of substantial harm” – to his own health. If you really want to follow this trail, read the EEOC’s Question G.4. for more guidance.
What is Matrix doing? Thanks to our already robust processes for managing ADA accommodations, Matrix has not had to make changes to provide our ADA clients with compliant accommodation services. However, our ADA Specialists have all been trained in the changing accommodation needs and analysis due to COVID-19. We’re here for you!
FFCRA – The DOL Adds More Questions & Answers
The latest set of Questions and Answers from the Department of Labor (#89-#93) includes a potpourri of topics. Here are the ones we find of greatest interest:
Employees from temporary agencies. Question #90 addresses how FFCRA paid leave rights apply to temporary workers when an employer (the “second employer”) has under 500 employees but the temporary agency has more than 500. In many temporary worker situations the second employer is a joint employer of the temp worker. In that case, in general, the second employer (under 500 employees) must provide the temporary worker with FFCRA rights and the temporary agency (more than 500 employees) must not interfere with the employee’s use of those rights to take leave of absence. But the determination of whether the second employer is a joint employer of the temp employee requires legal analysis of all the facts of the relationship. [Can you say, “Call my lawyer?”] And here’s an unanswered question: what do you pay the employee? The amount you pay through a temp agency probably includes the agency’s fee, so can you pay only what the employee actually pockets? And how do you handle tax and other withholding?
Wait, while you’ve got that lawyer on the line . . .
School closures – now and in the summer. Employers appear to be struggling with when an employee is entitled to the FFCRA emergency paid sick leave (EPSL) and/or expanded FMLA (EFML) due to a school or day care closure. Question #91 asks, What if my employee has been working at home for weeks with children present and now wants to take EPSL or EFML? Can I deny that? The DOL says, “not necessarily.” You need to ask questions about why the employee needs that leave now. Perhaps conditions at home have changed, or the employee is finding that he isn’t effective working with the kids at home 24/7. Or, the employee’s spouse has already used EPSL and EFML from her employer and now it is your employee’s turn. You can require that the employee to provide the information and documentation that is permitted under FFCRA and the IRS tax rules. You may also ask the employee to note any changed circumstances in his statement as part of explaining why the employee is unable to work, but the DOL warns, “you should exercise caution in doing so, lest it increase the likelihood that any decision denying leave based on that information is a prohibited act.” (I’m not really sure what that means but thought I would share the warning with you!)
And finally, the DOL answered my pending question about EFML and summertime! After a school closure due to COVID-19 and distance learning, your employee’s child’s school closes for summer vacation. Can your employee now take EPSL or EFMLA? Sorry, no. If the school closes for summer vacation or any other reasons not related to COVID-19, the benefits of FFCRA are not available. But, if the anticipated summer day care provider, summer camp,, etc., is closed or won’t open due to COVID-19, the employee may be able to use EPSL and/or EFML. Just have the employee follow the usual notice and documentation rules. (Question #93)
Also covered: FFCRA and casual domestic workers (Question #89) and permissible documentation for an employee taking leave to obtain testing (Question #92).
NY PFL – A new WCB Position on PFL for Child Quarantine
The new New York law providing paid quarantine/sick leave and related benefits has been a real challenge – a poorly written law rushed through with lots of unclear provisions and little high-level understanding of how it would work in reality. Recently the NY Workers Compensation Board, which administers the law, came out with a new interpretation of one of the benefits: a total flip-flop from its prior position. We previously summarized the law here and have kept that post up to date, including this change. But because the new interpretation affects employees of companies with 100 or more employees, we want to draw attention to it.
Under the law (as we thought it was written) employees of small companies (those with fewer than 100 employees) seeking paid sick leave (if any) provided by the law, could take NY Paid Family Leave for a new leave reason, to care for a child under an order of quarantine or isolation; but employees of large companies (those with 100 or more employees) did not have this entitlement. The WCB now says that was wrong, and employees of those larger companies can also take PFL for a child’s covered quarantine. If you thought riding that bucking bronco for the full 8 seconds was challenging, try your hand at trying to stay on top of the NY paid sick leave law! Yee haw!