The financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and containment efforts has many businesses flailing to reconfigure their staffing and other business models even as Congress is preparing to impose paid COVID related leave mandate on employers with less than 500 employees. With the sharp falloff in business threatening their current liquidity and operations, many business leaders understandably feel pressure to substantially reduce their workforces or make other radical changes in business operations to stem their business’ resulting COVID-19 created financial crisis. When choosing and implementing their options, however, business leaders should carefully weigh all of their options and use care when designing and implementing their workforce and other business adjustments strategically to best position their businesses to survive the current crisis without triggering unanticipated employment, employee benefit, compensation or other liabilities as well as to best position their organizations and its leaders to retain the trust and respect their business will need to regain the customer, vendor, workforce and other business respect and loyalty their business will need to recover once the crisis has past.
Many business owners and leaders understandably feel the COVID-driven economic downturn forces them to act quickly to implement workforce reductions, close plants, or shut down all or portions of their business operations. Where a distressed business contemplates a plant closing, mass layoff or other substantial change, however, the business and its leaders need to fully understand the various financial and legal effects and costs of the proposed workforce and other business changes and act strategically to manage their resulting obligations and obligations. Businesses owners and leaders dealing with these issues are invited to check out the COVID-19 Workforce Change Planning & Implementation Process Flow tool and other resources available here.
While financial and other business exigencies unquestionably makes speedy action critical for many businesses, owners and management need to recognize that poorly chosen or improperly implemented strategies or actions raises significant risks that unanticipated costs and liabilities will undermine or wipe out anticipated benefits of the contemplated actions, undermine, the business future recovery opportunities, expose the business, its ownership and management to substantial liability and other risks.
While the current economic freefall may tempt many business leaders to see shutting down their operations or other mass layoffs as the best option for protecting their businesses, it is important to keep in mind that layoffs and other employment terminations as well as early terminations of other services contracts typically trigger legal and finanncial exposures. Businesses leaders need to recognize and account for these obligations and their financial and operational costs when weighing their options and plan to manage the obligations and costs and other liabilities when implementing the strategy chosen by their business. This can be particularly important where a realistic likelihood exists that the business may file for bankrutpcy protection and/or fail to meet certain of these obligations as some obligations may create personal liability for business owners or leaders if not fulfilled by the company.
When anticipating or executing potential employment terminations, businesses and their leaders should recognize and address properly the employment, unemployment, employee benefit, compensation and other responsibilities attendant to any employment termination. Whether planning to furlow workers for a short period or planning a longer term layoff or shutdown, businesses leaders must fully understand their probable fixed obligations including any accellerated or added liabilities and costs likely to be triggered by the workforce action. Accordingly businesses should prepare to handle the fallout from COVID-19 impacts to their workforce and other business operations by on their existing or contemplated voluntarily imposed and legally mandated employment, compensation, benefit, safety, contractual and other related obligations obligations.
While planning for workforce or other actions, businesses and leaders also should are urged to confirm the availability of their cash flow to meet current requirements to timely fund payroll and associated taxes, health, disability and defined benefit pension, and other costs where nonpayment or untimely payment carries substantial entity and/or personal exposure to penalties or other liabilities likely to survive bankruptcy or other restructuring. In the case of health and pension benefit liabilities, for instance, nonpayment of premiums and other required funding could carry fiduciary liability for business owners, board members and other management with responsibility or discretion over these programs and their funding. Accordingly, if a business anticipates any risk of inability to fund already accrued or impending funding obligations, management should contact experienced legal counsel for immediate assistance with addressing these potential risks.
Additionally, businesses and their leaders contemplating offering special leave to workers absent or furloughed during leave need to take into account and handle properly both applicable federal, state and local mandated benefits and other rights, the legal requirements for adopting and implementing paid or other voluntarily provided leave, the benefit benefit, recall and other rights of workers terminated, furloughed or absent due COVID-related illness or other events.
COVID-19 Related Since Leave Or Other Absences From Ongoing Workforce
Regardless of whether a business plans additional workforce changes, all businesses need to be prepared to deal with absences resulting from contractions or exposures of COVID-19 by employees or their families or other COVID-19 associated absences.
Employees taking voluntary or involuntary leave likely already are entitled to certain paid or unpaid leave and associated benefit, reinstatement and other rights under a hodgepodge of voluntarily established company policies and other federal, state and even local regulations. Beyond any existing accrued rights to paid or unpaid leave due an employee under voluntary company policies and/or federal, state or local mandates, businesses need to understand and be prepared to meet their obligations to provide continued health benefit coverage and reinstatement to benefits as mandated by the Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) for FMLA covered workers, health plan continuation coverage rights for employees experiencing reductions in hours triggering losses of health plan eligibility as required by the Consolidated Omnibusiness Budget Reconciliation Act (“COBRA”). These obligations are expected to be expanded later this week if the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act,” (H.R. 6201) passed by the House of Representatives last week passes the Senate and is signed into law by President Trump as expeted later this week as part of efforts to mitigate impacts of disruptions of the COVID-19 containment disruptions. While H.R. 6201 is expected to include tax credits for employers to help mitigate the financial effects of its paid leave mandates for covered employers, employers will want to understand and take into account these requirements and the potential tax credits when deciding what leave to offer beyond the mandated paid leave and properly plan for, anticipate costs of and integrate those obligations with their other leave obligations.
Aside from the likely increase in the frequency of the occurence of these usual employment absence, termination, unemployment, compensation, and benefit liabilities and costs, businesses planning or contemplating some or all of their employees will termiinate employment due to long-term illnesses, employer layoffs or other COVID-related events need to anticipate and prepare to deal with other likely additional consequences. For instance:
- Illness and other absences generally trigger added potential exposure for discrimination, retaliation, privacy and other employment claims and risks if not properly recognized and managed;
- The selection and implementation of workers to be affected by furloughs, layoffs and other workforce actions should be conducted carefully to manage potential Relatively small declines in the size of a business’ workforce can trigger pricing changes or even termination rights for vendors providing coverage or services for group health or other insurance, stop-loss insurance coverage on self-insured health plans or other human resources, payroll, benefits or other related services or coverage;
- Changes in workforce size and compensation can affect whether an employer sponsored health, 401(k) or other savings or retirement plan or other benefit program fulfills applicable coverage, participation and nondiscrimination requirements resulting in tax consequences for the employer and in some instances, key or highly compensated employees, obigations for the business to make additional funding contributions, in the case of employers with health plans covered by Internal Revenue Code Section 4980H, mandatory contributions for health insurance exchange coverage for uncovered employees or other consequences.
- Reductions in hours or terminations of employment that reduce participation in 401(k) and other savings or retirement programs by 20 percent or more generally trigger obligations to fully vest and for retirement plans, accellerate funding of benefts of terminating workers under the “partial termination” rules applicable to those programs.
- Severance, paid or unpaid leave, and other arrangements voluntarily adopted in response to the COVID-19 disruptions or covered by other voluntarily adopted programs or practices need to be appropriately documented and administered in accordance with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) or other applicable federal law as well as properly integrated with other federal, state, and local leave or other mandates to manage unanticipated costs and avoid unanticipated fiduciary and financial liability for the business, its management or both.
- Financial disruptions that prevent a business from timely making required contributions to fund defined benefit or other pension plans insured by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation can trigger funding notice, excise tax penalty and other obligations for the employer and its fiduciaries.
- For certain employers, reductiions of all or a significant portion of a workforce companywide or at certain locations by a distressed or other business usually triggers a host of special obligations and attendant costs for businesses. Businesses anticipating these changes need to take into account the financial costs and legal obligations and expossures of proposed workforce or other actions and where applicable, make appropriate arrangements to comply or implement their workforce and other business restructurings to restructuring to minimize and meet these obligations.
Of course, For instance, layoffs and other reductions in force or closings by businesses often trigger a host of legal and financial obligations. at certain businesses or business locations often trigger obligations to provide advance notifications under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) or other statutes or contracts. Where these obligations are triggered, the business not only will need to arrange to provide required notitications but also needs to take into account their business’ likely financial exposure for payment of pay in lieu of notice or other costs and liability arising from the employment. WARN, business contemplating or implementing a plan closing, mass layoff or other reductions in force also should evaluate and make appropriate arrangements to address potential obligations under state plant closing laws, the ARRA Stimulus Bill Extension Rules amended and extended earlier this month and other requirements of COBRA, voluntary or contractually obligated termination pay or other severance obligations, employee benefit, unemployment, and other laws.
The COVID-19 Workforce Change Planning & Implementation Process Flow tool provides an overview of the type of process flow tthat business owners and leaders dealing with these issues may find useful to help guide their process for planning their business’ workforce management response to the unexpected business exigencies created by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
For More Information
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about this or other labor and employment developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Law and Labor and Employment Law and Health Care; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, and a Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, the American Bar Foundation and the Texas Bar Foundation, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 30 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services, construction, manufacturing, staffing and workforce and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns. As a part of this work, she has continuously and extensively worked with domestic and international employer and other management, employee benefit and other clients to assess, manage and defend joint employer and other worker classifications and practices under the FLSA and other federal and state laws including both advising and and assisting employers to minimize joint employer and other FLSA liability and defending a multitude of employers against joint employer and other FLSA and other worker classification liability. She also has been heavily involved in advocating for the Trump Administration’s restoration of more historical principles for determining and enforcing joint employer liability over the past several years.
Author of hundreds of highly regarded books, articles and other publications, Ms. Stamer also is widely recognized for her scholarship, coaching, legislative and regulatory advocacy, leadership and mentorship on wage and hour, worker classification and a diverse range of other labor and employment, employee benefits, health and safety, education, performance management, privacy and data security, leadership and governance, and other management concerns within the American Bar Association (ABA), the International Information Security Association, the Southwest Benefits Association, and a variety of other international, national and local professional, business and civic organizations including highly regarded works on worker reclassification and joint employment liability under the FLSA and other laws published by the Bureau of National Affairs and others. Examples of these involvements include her service as the ABA Intellectual Property Law Section Law Practice Management Committee; the ABA International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee Vice Chair-Policy; a Scribe for the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) Annual OCR Agency Meeting and a former JCEB Council Representative and Marketing Chair; Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits and Other Compensation Group and Vice Chair of its Law Practice Management Committee; Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group; former Vice President and Executive Director of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, past Southwest Benefits Association Board member; past Texas Association of Business State Board Member, BACPAC Committee Meeting, Regional and Dallas Chapter Chair; past Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits Committee Executive Committee; former SHRM Region IV Chair and National Consultants Forum Board Member; for WEB Network of Benefit Professionals National Board Member and Dallas Chapter Chair; former Dallas World Affairs Council Board Member; founding Board Member, past President and Patient Empowerment and Health Care Heroes founder for the Alliance for Health Care Excellence; former Gulf States TEGE Council Exempt Organizations Coordinator and Board member; past Board President of Richardson Development Center (now Warren Center) for Children Early Childhood Intervention Agency, past North Texas United Way Long Range Planning Committee Member, and past Board Member and Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, and involvement in a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For more information about Ms. Stamer or her health industry and other experience and involvements, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.
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