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Agencies Clarify How Employers Can Charge COVID-19 Vaccine Premium Incentives

On October 4, 2021, the US Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health and Human Services issued guidance regarding the application of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) wellness rules to vaccine-related premium surcharges and discounts, clarifying that employers may charge vaccine premium incentives if they adhere to the requirements of activity-only health-contingent programs.

Employers have grown more interested in exploring incentives designed to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates among employees. Some employers have announced plans to charge unvaccinated employees higher contributions for health coverage than vaccinated employees, while some have been considering other options, such as excluding coverage for COVID-related illnesses, charging higher cost-sharing for COVID-19-related illnesses and offering more generous plan options to employees who are vaccinated.

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Premium Surcharges for the Unvaccinated Are Lawful Within Limits

Many plan administrators expressed bewilderment at the Biden administration’s recent guidance to limit vaccine incentive or surcharge programs for unvaccinated plan participants. According to this SHRM article, which features insight from McDermott Partner Judith Wethall, any premium surcharges must comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act’s (HIPPA) nondiscrimination rules. HIPPA nondiscrimination rules allow for participatory and health-contingent permissible wellness programs.

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Companies Eye Financial Penalties for Unvaccinated Workers

As companies consider whether or not to introduce vaccine mandates for employees, there is interest among some employers to increase health care premiums or impose financial penalties on employees who refuse vaccination. One major airline, for example, recently announced that unvaccinated employees enrolled in the company’s health plan would see a $200 monthly surcharge. However, according to McDermott Partner Judith Wethall in The Hill, financial penalties for the unvaccinated are legally complicated, and vaccine mandates likely pose less regulatory issues for employers to impose.

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Can Employers Offer COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives for Employees?

Can employers offer incentives for employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine? In short, yes. Incentives may take many forms, such as a one-time bonus, a gift card or a few extra vacation hours. Employers can get creative.

According to McDermott’s Michelle S. Strowhiro, Judith Wethall and Ludia Kwon, there are two issues to consider when implementing a vaccine incentive program for purposes of complying with employment and benefits laws: the concepts of coercion and reasonable accommodation.

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COVID-19 Laws and Regulations: A Midyear Update

As employers navigate evolving COVID-19 state and federal rules, workplaces will have to stay vigilant about changes throughout the second half of 2021. These include changes to mask mandates, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Emergency Temporary Standard and the New York Health and Essential Rights (HERO) Act.

Recent US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance, for example, confirmed what employment lawyers had already been counseling businesses to do, according to McDermott partner Carole A. Spink in a recent Law360 article.

“The guidance was important because it did clarify that employers can provide incentives for voluntary programs. [There] was a big open question about, ‘Am I going to get into trouble because I’m trying to incentivize people to be vaccinated?'”

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Buyers’ Immunity Under Employment Law Is a Myth

There are three focal points in every successorship case: (1) notice to the purchaser; (2) continuity of the business; and (3) the ability of the seller to provide relief.

Reading the tripartite test for successor liability, it is enticing to conclude that a deal is safe. This is what the Greeks called hubris. Remember Oedipus, who also thought he could escape the prophecy of his fate? Even when it appears one of those factors ought to result in a buyer escaping successorship liability, any reading of those factors needs to be grounded in the case law because it sweeps more than a literal reading of those tripartite factors might suggest.

Even a quick look at the case law reveals the magnitude of the doctrine’s scope.

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Originally published by Law360, July 2019.




Making a Splash in the Global Employment Pool: The Challenge of Multiple Employment Laws

US businesses expanding abroad, and international businesses moving into the United States, can find the differences between employment laws both unexpected and costly.

Companies of all sizes are eager to expand their businesses, and their workforce, into new markets. US employers already know that operating in multiple states can feel like operating in different countries because of state- and locality-specific employment laws. But if operating in California versus Wyoming is comparing pools to puddles, then operating in the United States versus other countries is comparing puddles to oceans.

US-based companies looking to expand abroad, and foreign companies opening their first US locations, must proceed with caution before jumping in. One error can commit a business to employing its workforce until retirement, cost months and a small fortune to terminate the employment relationship, or keep it embroiled for years in class action litigation.

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Federal Appellate Court Finds That Title VII Bans Gender Identity Discrimination

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled on March 7, 2018, that workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The language of Title VII does not expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity. However, the US EEOC has taken a broad approach to enforcing Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination, arguing that it includes both gender identity and sexual orientation.

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Federal Appellate Court Finds That Title VII Bans Sexual Orientation Discrimination

On February 26, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (covering Connecticut, New York and Vermont) ruled that workplace discrimination on the basis sexual orientation violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

The language of Title VII does not expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, in 2015, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took the position that Title VII prohibits sexual orientation discrimination under the purview of prohibited sex discrimination. In 2016, the EEOC began filing sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits enforcing that position.

Circuit courts are divided on the question of whether claims of sexual orientation discrimination are viable under Title VII. In March of 2017, the Eleventh Circuit held that sexual orientation discrimination does not violate Title VII. The Seventh Circuit held the opposite the following month, and the Supreme Court declined to decide the split in December. With its en banc decision in Melissa Zarda et al. v. Altitude Express, dba Skydive Long Island, et al., the Second Circuit sided with the EEOC and the Seventh Circuit.

As a result of the decision, employers may see increased litigation in the area of sexual orientation discrimination. To protect against potential lawsuits, employers should consider updating their nondiscrimination policies to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, employers should perform sexual orientation harassment training for employees and managers.

The decision also raises potential concerns for employee benefit plans. Although the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA) generally preempts state laws that relate to employee benefit plans, ERISA does not preempt other federal laws, including Title VII. While certain spousal benefits and rights under qualified retirement plans are required by federal law to be extended to same-sex spouses, the same explicit mandates do not apply to welfare plans. Employers should consider whether any of their employee benefit plans discriminate against employees with same-sex spouses (e.g., excluding same-sex spouses from coverage under a self-funded medical plan). Such distinctions may be ripe for legal action as a result of the decision and the EEOC’s ongoing enforcement efforts.




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