Use Prudent Process To Manage Workforce & Other Business Changes To Help Minimize Business & Management Liabilities & Protect Future Recovery

March 16, 2020

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.

Solutions Law Press, Inc. invites you receive future updates by registering on our Solutions Law Press, Inc. Website and participating and contributing to the discussions in our Solutions Law Press, Inc. LinkedIn SLP Health Care Risk Management & Operations GroupHR & Benefits Update Compliance Group, and/or Coalition for Responsible Health Care Policy.

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 or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at (214) 452-8297 or via e-mail here.

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NOTICE: These statements and materials are for general informational and purposes only. They do not establish an attorney-client relationship, are not legal advice or an offer or commitment to provide legal advice, and do not serve as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are urged to engage competent legal counsel for consultation and representation in light of the specific facts and circumstances presented in their unique circumstance at any particular time. No comment or statement in this publication is to be construed as legal advice or an admission. The author reserves the right to qualify or retract any of these statements at any time. Likewise, the content is not tailored to any particular situation and does not necessarily address all relevant issues. Because the law is rapidly evolving and rapidly evolving rules makes it highly likely that subsequent developments could impact the currency and completeness of this discussion. The author and Solutions Law Press, Inc. disclaim, and have no responsibility to provide any update or otherwise notify anyone any such change, limitation, or other condition that might affect the suitability of reliance upon these materials or information otherwise conveyed in connection with this program. Readers may not rely upon, are solely responsible for, and assume the risk and all liabilities resulting from their use of this publication.

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©2020 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.™ For information about republication, please contact the author directly. All other rights reserved.

Id & Manage Hidden Employee Benefit Exposures In Business Insolvency Or Other Transactions

June 5, 2013

The June 4, 2013 announcement of the Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) provides a timely reminder to businesses sponsoring employee benefit plans, their owners and management, plan fiduciaries, banks, administrative service providers and other plan vendors, employee benefit plan and bankruptcy trustees, corporate receivers, creditors, and others looking to expedite the windup of abandoned  401(k), profit-sharing and other individual account pension plans of the challenges that can result when employee benefit plan responsibilities are mishandled when companies fail or experience other significant events, as well as the availability of tools to help mitigate or prevent these challenges through responsible proactive action.

Hidden Employee Benefit Exposures For Unwary Abound For Parties In Business Insolvency Or Other Transactions

A complex maze of ERISA, tax and other rules make, administration and termination of employee benefit plans a complicated matter. When the company sponsoring a plan experiences a significant workforce or other restructuring, becomes distressed, goes bankrupt or liquidates, merges, sells assets or engages in other significant business transaction impacting the plans or its workforce, the rules, as well as the circumstances, can create a liability and operational quagmire for everyone from the sponsoring business, its management, buyers, vendors, plan fiduciaries, plan participants and beneficiaries, related entities, asset purchasers and others.  While tough economic times may tempt business leaders to cut corners, more than 3o years of litigation and enforcement precedent make clear that cutting corners on the assessment and handling of employee benefit and other workforce responsibilities amid business distress or in other business transactions or events presents risks for all parties involved.  See e.g., Tough Times Are No Excuse For ERISA Shortcuts;  Mishandling Employee Benefit Obligations Creates Big Liabilities For Distressed Businesses & Their Business LeadersWhile many business leaders and plan fiduciaries lack a strong understanding of these rules and their implications in times of business or benefit plan distress or other significant business transactions, even those experienced with these concerns need to use caution to understand and respond to the series of ongoing changes in these rules, regulations and precedent that impact on the handling of plan related responsibilities in these and other special situations. 

The Internal Revenue Code (Code) requires contains a maze of requirements that companies sponsoring pension, profit-sharing, health and other employee benefit plans, their plans, and plan administrators must follow when maintaining, administering, or terminating these plans including in many instances, special rules on the termination of the plans, distribution of assets, and the liabilities that attach to affiliated companies, successors, and assets resulting from transactions involving employee benefit plans or their sponsors.

In addition to the Code’s rules, companies and other individuals that in name or in function have or exercise discretionary responsibility or authority over the maintenance, administration or funding of employee benefit plans regulated by ERISA also generally must meet ERISA’s high standards  for carrying out these duties based on their functional ability to exercise discretion over these matters, whether or not they have been named as fiduciaries formally. Under many circumstances these rules, or the handling of transactions can broaden the scope of responsibility or create exposures for a surprising range of parties dealing with the plan sponsor, related corporations or their stock, assets, benefit plans or workforce in corporate bankruptcies, mergers, asset or stock acquisitions, liquidations or other transactions.

Beyond these basic tax and fiduciary obligations, ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (Code) create additional responsibilities and liabilities for when dealing with defined benefit or other pension plans subject to ERISA’s minimum funding and plan termination rules that when violated trigger a plethora of funding and notification obligations, penalties, liens on assets, and other obligations that can create significant traps for unwary plan fiduciaries and administrators, the sponsoring corporation, its management, affiliates and successors, as well as creditors or purchasers of stock or assets and others dealing with them.

Despite these well-documented responsibilities and a well-established pattern of enforcement by the Department of Labor, Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, Internal Revenue Service and private plaintiffs, many businesses and business leaders fail to appropriately understand these and other basic responsibilities and liabilities associated with the establishment, administration, termination and windup of employee benefit plans and other details about how their or others mishandling of employee benefit plan related responsibilities can undermine business goals and create unanticipated liability exposures.

Frequently, companies sponsoring their employee benefit plans and their executives mistakenly assume that they can rely upon vendors and advisors to ensure that their programs are appropriately established. The establishment and maintenance of these arrangements with limited review or oversight by the sponsoring company or its management team can be risky.

In other instances, businesses and their leaders do not realize that ERISA’s functional definition to determine fiduciary status means that individuals participating in discretionary decisions about the employee benefit plan, as well as the plan sponsor, may bear liability under many commonly occurring situations if appropriate care is not exercised to protect participants or beneficiaries in these plans.

In yet other instances, purchasers, related entities, bankruptcy trustees and creditors or others don’t appreciate the way their own or others mishandling of employee benefit plan obligations or exposures can impact their transactions and associated risks.

Proactive Action Can Mitigate Exposures & Costs

For this reason, companies providing employee benefits and their management, service providers, and related entities and the businesses dealing with them need a clear understanding of the rules and responsibilities Federal law imposes on the funding, administration and termination of these programs, how these rules can impact their responsibilities and goals, and the steps necessary to avoid or mitigate exposures likely to result if they or others mishandle employee benefit plan related responsibilities or assets and how to avoid or mitigate these concerns.

The challenges of winding up an abandoned plan discussed in the EBSA news release yesterday highlights just one of these complications, the problem of dealing with abandoned plans.

When companies and their management abandon plans, they leave their plans, participants and beneficiaries, service providers and others in limbo, without the authority or funds to wind up the plans.  When employers abandon their individual account pension plans, custodians such as banks, insurers and mutual fund companies are left holding the assets of these abandoned plans but without the authority to terminate such plans and make benefit distributions even in response to participant demands. Service providers often find themselves in the legally awkward situation of having continuing plan responsibilities without necessary direction or compensation for performance.  Meanwhile, participants and beneficiaries can’t manage, access or often even get information about their funds until the situation resolves.  Dealing with these issues usually requires cumbersome, time-consuming and costly processes often requiring complex, lengthy, highly formalistic and expensive judicial and administrative procedures to resolve while fiduciary, tax and other liabilities mount.  Meanwhile, participants and beneficiaries often lose access to their accounts or benefits or even see plan value decline as plan assets that could go to benefits are diverted to cover administrative costs of winding up the plan.

The EBSAs abandoned plan program is just one of many examples of tools that parties struggling with these issues can use to mitigate these challenges and exposures.  EBSA uses its abandoned plan program to facilitate a voluntary efficient process for winding up the affairs of abandoned individual account plans so that benefit distributions are made to participants and beneficiaries when this occurs.

The EBSA Abandoned Plan News Release  and the EBSA’s related response Response to ADP/JP Morgan published June 4, 2013 show an example of how EBSA used its abandoned plan program to give critical relief to JP Morgan Chase Bank NA and ADP Inc. to use to wind up certain abandoned plans without exhausting the 90-day waiting period that ordinarily applies before the termination of a retirement plan based on the best interest of participants pursuant to 29 CFR §2578.1.  By exercising its discretion to waive the 90-day notice period, the EBSA allowed JP Morgan Chase Bank NA and ADP Inc. to terminate immediately and wind up approximately 180 defined contribution pension plans abandoned due to corporate crises or neglect.

Requesting relief from the EBSA like that granted to JP Morgan Chase Bank NA and ADP Inc. in the announcement made yesterday is just one of various types of relief that legal counsel experienced with dealing with workforce and employee benefit plan challenges that can arise when companies or their plans become inadequately funded, bankrupt, or experience other significant transactions or events, can use to help debtors, and other plan sponsors, their management, affiliates, successors, buyers, plan fiduciaries, vendors, bankruptcy creditors and trustees.

Experienced counsel can help companies understand and negotiate the complex rules of the EBSA, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and the Internal Revenue Service governing dealings with these plans and where appropriate and available by taking advantage of relief or other options to mitigate these challenges.  Involving experienced counsel to explore and use these options early can help all parties get participants and beneficiaries their benefits while minimizing legal risks, time and expenses associated with the wind up of these troubled or abandoned plans.  Even where special dispensation is not available, the early involvement of experienced legal counsel as early as possible after the possibility that a business or its plans or assets will be impacted by underfunding, insolvency, a bankruptcy or liquidation, workforce reduction, sale, merger or other significant event can help plan and administer the steps necessary to handle cost effectively employee benefit related responsibilities and impacts.

For Help or More Information

If you need help with assessing or handing employee benefit or workforce challenges arising from business or employee benefit plan insolvency, stock or asset sales, mergers, bankruptcy or liquidation, reductions or other workforce changes or other significant business transactions or events, or other employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 25 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters including extensive experience handling workforce and employee benefit challenges arising from plan underfunding, company restructurings, workforce change,  insolvencies, bankruptcies, mergers, stock or asset acquisitions, or other significant business or plan transactions.

A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, and insurers, bankruptcy trustees and receivers, asset purchasers, creditors and others dealing with plans and their sponsors, and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals.  A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.  Her experience includes involvement in the planning, execution and resolution of workforce and employee benefit related details of a multitude of high and low profile restructurings, bankruptcies and other significant transactions throughout her more than 25 year career.

Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, the editor and publisher of Solutions Law Press HR & Benefits Update and other Solutions Law Press Publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations.   She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications.   You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.

Other Resources

If you found this update of interest, you also may be interested in reviewing some of the other updates and publications authored by Ms. Stamer available including:


©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C.  Nonexclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc.  All other rights reserved

NLRB’s Nailing of Bel Air Hotel Reminder RIFs, Other Reengineering & Transactions Impacting Workforce Requirement Proper Risk Management

October 5, 2012

Severance Deals Get Hotel Bel-Air Nailed By NLRB For Labor Law Violations

A National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that nails Hotel Bel-Air (Hotel) for offering severance packages to unionized workers highlights one of a range of potentially costly missteps that businesses conducting reductions in force or other re-engineering risk if they fail to properly understand and manage legal requirements when designing and implementing the change.

Since labor and other workforce-related risks are long-standing, some businesses, their leaders and consultants may be tempted to assume that prior experience means these are handled. The fact specific nature of the risks and changing rules and enforcement, however, makes it critical not to be over-confident. Legal and operational mismanagement of these risks can disrupt achievement of the purpose of the change and add significant added cost and exposure for the business and its management. Proper use of qualified legal counsel as part of the process is important both to help identify and properly manage risk and to leverage attorney-client privilege to help shield sensitive communications in the planning and implementation of these activities from discovery.

Employer’s Obligations To Negotiate & Deal With Union

Once a union is recognized as the certified representative of employees in a workplace, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) generally prohibits the employer from unilaterally changing term and conditions of employment or from going around the union to bargain directly with employees over layoffs, the effects of layoffs and other material terms and conditions of employment. As part of this responsibility, the NLRA and other federal and state laws generally require that employers provide notification to the union of planned reductions in force, plant closings or other operational changes that might impact the workforce and bargain in good faith with the union before conducting layoffs, or offering or making in work rules, compensation, severance or other benefits or other terms or conditions of employment.

In general, an employer’s duty to bargain with a union generally also continues to apply when the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the employer expires unless and until the parties reach agreement or impasse.  While negotiations continue, the employer’s obligation to refrain from making unilateral changes generally encompasses a duty to refrain from implementation unless and until an overall impasse has been reached on bargaining for the agreement as a whole. See Pleasantview Nursing Home, 335 NLRB 96 (2001) citing Bottom Line Enterprises, 302 NLRB 373 (1991). The NLRB considers negotiations to be in progress, and will not find a genuine impasse to exist, until the parties are warranted in assuming that further bargaining would be “futile” or that there is “no realistic possibility that continuation of discussion .  . . would be fruitful.” Saint-Gobain Abrasives, Inc., 343 NLRB 542 556 (2004).

Because the existence of impasse is a factual determination that depends on a variety of factors, including the contemporaneous understanding of the parties as to the state of negotiations, the good faith of the parties, the importance of the disputed issues, the parties’ bargaining history, and the length of their negotiations, Taft Broadcasting Co., 163 NLRB 475, 478 (1967), parties to the negotiation often do not necessarily agree when they have reached impasse.  As the September 28 decision by the NLRB against the Hotel shows, employers that act unilaterally based on an overly optimistic determination of impasse suffer significant financial and other operational and legal risks for engaging in unfair labor practices in violation of Section 8 of the NLRA. 

NLRB Nails Hotel Bel-Air For Failing To Bargain, Offering Severance Around Union

In its September 28, 2012 Bel-Air Hotel Decision, the NLRB ruled the Hotel engaged in unfair labor practices in violation of the NLRA when it offered severance packages to laid off workers in return for the workers’ waiver of recall rights without bargaining to impasse with the union representing its workers, UNITE HERE Local 11 (Union), about the effects of the temporary shutdown.  

The NLRB also ruled the Hotel engaged in unlawful direct dealing by contacting the employees about severance packages without going through the Union even though the Hotel’s contract with the union had expired when the Hotel contacted the laid off union employees to offer severance in return for waivers.  As a result, the NLRB ordered the Hotel to rescind the waiver and release forms signed by the Union members and to meet and bargain with the Union on these terms.

Bel-Air Hotel Decision Background

The NLRB order against the Hotel resulted from unfair labor practice charges that the Union filed against the Hotel after the Hotel offered severance packages directly to workers in exchange for the workers’ waiver of their recall rights while the workers were laid off during the Hotel’s temporary closure for renovations in 2009. 

Before the Hotel offered the severance package directly to the laid off workers, the Hotel and the Union bargained for nine months about the terms of a separation agreement and recall rights for employees who would lose their jobs during a planned 2-year shutdown of the facility for renovation.  In April, 2010, the Hotel gave the Union what it said was the “last, best, and final offer” on severance pay for unit employees laid off during the temporary renovation closure.  While the Union and the Hotel did talk after the Hotel made this final offer. Unfortunately, the parties did not reach an agreement before their existing collective bargaining agreement expired or before the Hotel shut down the facility for renovation.  After the shutdown, the Union and the Hotel stopped formal negotiations but had some “off the record” informal communications until June.  With no resolution by the end of June, the Hotel moved forward unilaterally to offer severance directly to the laid off employees as outlined in its final offer. 

Although the facility was closed and the employees already laid off when the Hotel’s contract with the Union expired, the Union claimed the Hotel remained obligated to negotiate with the Union.  The Union said a flurry of “off-the-record” discussions between the Hotel and the Union leading up to and after the termination showed the parties had not reached impasse. The Union also separately charged that the Hotel violated the NLRA by going around the Union to directly contact employees to offer severance payments in exchange for waiving their right to return to their jobs when the Hotel reopened after renovation.

In response to unfair labor practices charges filed by the Union, Hotel management among other things argued that the Union no longer represented the employees when it offered severance and because the parties’ contract had expired and the parties were at impasse when the Hotel made the offer.

  • Union Remained Representative Despite Layoff & Temporary Facilities Shutdown

The NLRB found “meritless” the Hotel’s effort to rely upon the NLRB’s decision in  Sterling Processing Corp., 291 NLRB 208 (1988) to support the Hotel’s claim that it had no duty to bargain or extend the severance offers through the Union because it made the unilateral severance offer when the facility was closed and the employees were already laid off.

In Sterling, the NLRB found the employer’s unilateral modification of preclosure wages and working conditions did not violate Section 8(a)(5) of the NLRA because when the employer acted unilaterally, there were no employees for the union to represent because when the employer took its unilateral action, the employer already had permanently closed the facility and terminated all employees with no reasonable expectation of reemployment.   

The NLRB ruled that the circumstances when the Hotel acted were distinguishable from Sterling because the unit employees on layoff from the Hotel retained a reasonable expectation of recall from layoff since the Hotel’s closure was only temporary and the Hotel had only laid off, and not yet discharged the employees when it made the unilateral severance offers.  According to the NLRB, the terms of the severance offer evidenced the existence of an expectation of recall because under the terms of that offer, employees who accepted a severance payment waived their recall rights.  See, Rockwood Energy & Mineral Corp., 299 NLRB 1136, 1139 fn. 11 (1990), enfd. 942 F.2d 169 (3d Cir. 1991)(finding that lengthy suspension of production did not relieve employer of its bargaining obligation where laid off employees had “some expectation of recall,” and distinguishing Sterling).

  • No Impasse Because Of Informal “Off The Record” Communications

The Hotel also separately and unsuccessfully argued that its direct offer of severance benefits to laid off employees was not an unfair labor practice because the parties had bargained to impasse before the offer was made. In response to the Union’s claim that a series of “off-the-record” exchanges between the Union and Hotel after the contract expired reflected a continuation of bargaining, the Hotel argued that an impasse existed because the Union was not engaged in good faith negotiations and there was not any possibility that the informal discussions between the Union and the Hotel would result in any fruitful change in the parties positions. 

In an effort to support its position, the Hotel management argued that the Union’s negotiation behavior with other Los Angeles hotels showed the Union had a practice of “artificially extend[ing] negotiations in bad faith” that supported the Hotel’s claim that continued negotiation would be futile. The NLRB rejected this argument too.  It said evidence that the Union did not bargain in good faith to string out negotiations when negotiating with other businesses as part of a campaign to coerce all hotels city wide to agree to a standard contract had no probative relevance for purposes of determining if the Hotel and the Union had bargained to impasse in their negotiations and did not prove bad faith by the Union for purposes of its negotiation with the Hotel.

Having rejected these and other Hotel arguments and evidence of impasse, the NLRB ruled that the evidence indicated that the parties continued communications had narrowed their differences before and after the Hotel made its last final offer on April 9.  Given this progress, the NLRB ruled that parties’ participation in informal off the record discussions well into June were sufficient to show the existence of some possibility that continued negotiations might result in a fruitful change in the parties position sufficient to obligate the Hotel to continue to bargain with the Union.

NLRB Order Carries Heavy Cost for Bel-Air Hotel

Complying the NLRB’s orders to remedy the breach will be painful and expensive for the Hotel, particularly since by the time the order was issued, the renovation was substantially completed. 

To fulfill the requirements of the Order, the Hotel must, among other things:

  • Bargain with the Union as the recognized and exclusive collective-bargaining representative of the employees about the effects on bargaining unit employees of the temporary shutdown of the hotel for renovation and, if an understanding is reached, embody the understanding in a signed collective bargaining agreement;
  • Not deal directly with bargaining unit employees about severance, waiver and release or other terms or arrangements relating to the impact of the temporary shutdown on the bargaining unit employees
  • Rescind the waiver and release agreements signed by individual bargaining unit employees which included the waiver of rehire rights; and
  • Post a NLRB-mandated written notice in the workplace for 60 consecutive days in conspicuous places.

This means that the Hotel will have to work through issues about how to find positions for employees, if any, who originally agreed to waive their rehire rights who now wish to be rehired, as well as engage in expensive bargaining and the implementation of the terms of any resulting collective bargaining agreement.

Union Duties One of Many Potential HR RIF & Deal Traps

The NLRB’s prounion ruling is unsurprising. Since the Obama Administration took office, its NLRB appointments, rule changes and other activism are intended to and are promoting the strength and efforts of labor.  See e.g. Labor Risks Rising For Employers Despite NLRB Loss Of Arizona Secret Ballot Challenge : HR Article by Ms. Cynthia Marcotte Stamer .

Collective bargaining responsibilities like those that resulted in the NLRB order against the Hotel are only one of many potential labor, human resources and benefits-related traps that businesses need to negotiate carefully when planning and executing layoffs or other workforce restructurings in connection with cost or other restructurings, business transactions or other activities impacting the workforce. 

Some examples of other issues and risks that businesses involved in changes impacting their workforce also may need to manage include but are not limited to the need to manage discrimination, federal and state leave, whistleblower and retaliation, and other general employment-related legal risks and responsibilities; to give Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act (WARN) or state law required plant closing or other notifications to workers, unions, government officials, vendors, customers, lenders or other creditors, insurers or others; to disclose, review,  modify or terminate contracts, employee benefit plan documents, communications and other materials; to modify fiduciary, officer, board or other assignments and other related insurance, indemnification, bonding and related arrangements; to comply with employee benefit and compensation related plan document, fiduciary responsibility, discrimination, communication, benefit funding or distribution, reporting and disclosure and other Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Internal Revenue Code, securities and other laws and regulations; privacy, trade secret, and other data integration, confidentiality, and information security and management concerns; Sarbanes-Oxley  and other securities, accounting or related requirements; system and data integration; and many others.

Because improper handling of these or other responsibilities in connection with these responsibilities can significantly undermine the businesses’ ability to realize the financial and operational goals behind the action, as well as expose the business to potentially costly liability, businesses anticipating or conducting reductions in the force or other activities that will impact their workforce should seek advice and help from qualified legal counsel experienced with these concerns early to mitigate these concerns.

If you have any questions or need help with these or other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

About The Author

Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to achieve their business and operational objectives and manage legal, operational and other risks. Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, with more than 25 years human resource and employee benefits experience, Ms. Stamer helps businesses manage their people-related risks and the performance of their internal and external workforce though appropriate human resources, employee benefit, worker’s compensation, insurance, outsourcing and risk management strategies domestically and internationally. Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker, who regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefit, human resources, internal controls and other related risk management matters.  Her writings frequently are published by the American Bar Association (ABA), Aspen Publishers, Bureau of National Affairs, the American Health Lawyers Association, SHRM, World At Work, Government Institutes, Inc., Atlantic Information Services, Employee Benefit News, and many others. For a listing of some of these publications and programs, see here. Her insights on human resources risk management matters also have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications. Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit and Other Compensation Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and the Legislative Chair of the Dallas Human Resources Management Association Government Affairs Committee, she also serves in leadership positions in many human resources, corporate compliance, and other professional and civic organizations. For more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer, information about workshops and other training, selected publications and other human resources related information, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mail to

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at including:

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©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.

Extension of Unemployment Benefits Signed Into Law & Immediately Effective As Filibuster Ends

March 3, 2010

By Cynthia Marcotte Stamer

Effective yesterday, the Temporary Extension Act of 2010, H.R. 4691,extended unemployment benefits to April 5, 2010.  It also extended  and expanded the COBRA premium  subsidy requirements originally established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and plan sponsor penalties for noncompliance.

In recent days, H.R. 4691 drew great media attention when its enactment was delayed by a filibuster by Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning.  As media coverage of the Bunning filibuster focused almost exclusively on its unemployment benefit extension provisions, many U.S. employers and others are unaware of its provisions extending and expanding the COBRA premium subsidy mandates and authorizing higher pay for Medicare doctors and funding for federal highway programs. President Obama signed H.R. 4691 into law on March 2, 2010 just hours after Senator Bunning ended his highly publicized filibuster.

Unemployment Benefit Extensions

H.R. 4691’s unemployment insurance benefit provisions became immediately effective when signed by the President.  These provisions:

  • Extend the period during which individuals may file applications for Federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation (EUC) from the current end date of February 28, 2010 to April 5, 2010 and extend  the period during which individuals may claim and be paid EUC from July 31, 2010 to September 4, 2010.
  • Extend from the current end date of February 28, 2010 to April 5, 2010 the period during which individuals may qualify for the Federal Additional Compensation (FAC), the extra $25 weekly benefit amount on state and federal unemployment compensation, while also providing for weekly payment during the phase out period for weeks ending October 5, 2010 instead of August 31, 2010.
  • Extend the period during which 100% federal reimbursement for weeks of regular federal extended benefit payments to April 5, 2010, with the state option to continue the extended period from July 31, 2010 to September 4, 2010.

COBRA Premium Subsidy Extended & New Penalties Added

In addition to extending unemployment benefits, H.R. 4691 also extends and expands the availability of the temporary COBRA subsidy rules originally added to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985 (COBRA) medical coverage continuation requirements by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“AARA”) last February.  For details about these COBRA premium subsidy amendments, see here.  To minimize their COBRA rights under the amended COBRA premium subsidy rules, group health plans, their employer or union sponsors, administrators, insurers and service providers will need to act quickly to prepare and provider required updated notifications to assistance eligible individuals of these extended eligibility periods and their resulting rights, and otherwise update their plan documents, procedures, and COBRA notifications in light of these new rules. 

For Added Information or Assistance

If your organization need advice or assistance with these or other labor and employment, employee benefits, compensation or related matters, consider contacting Curran Tomko Tarski LLP Partner Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Stamer has extensive experience advising and representing management about labor and employment, employee benefits, compensation and other related management matters.  A nationally recognized author and lecturer, Ms. Stamer also speaks and writes extensively on these and other related matters. For additional information about Ms. Stamer and her experience or to access other publications by Ms. Stamer see here or contact Ms. Stamer directly.   For additional information about the experience and services of Ms. Stamer and other members of the Curran Tomko Tarksi LLP team, see here.

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Certain Workforce Reductions Trigger Plant Closing Notice & Other Obligations

January 6, 2010

While some businesses report improved business or hiring outlooks for 2010, many others are running out of time before the economic downturn and financing restrictions will force them to implement workforce reductions, close plants, or shut down all or portions of their business operations.  Where a distressed business contemplates a plant closing or mass layoff, the business and its leaders should consider its potential responsibilities under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN) and where applicable, make appropriate arrangements to comply or implement the restructuring to minimize or avoid triggering WARN obligations.

In addition to 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.  Read more.