Background and Introduction

Employees in Europe and much of the rest of the world have enjoyed generous vacation time mandated by law for many years. In fact, 147 nations mandate vacation of some sort. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world without a minimum annual leave law. Even China mandates three weeks off. Canada mandates two weeks for all employees and three weeks for those with five years or more with the employer.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American today annually works a full month (160 hours) more than in 1976. Job-related stress costs American business $344 billion a year in absenteeism, lost productivity and health costs. Indeed, some 75% of visits to primary care physicians come from stress-induced problems.

Not surprisingly, the Pew Research Center reports that more free time is a number one priority for middle class Americans with 68% listing it as a high priority.

In 2008, only 52% of American workers took a vacation of a week or longer, and only 14% took two weeks or more of vacation time.

Men who do not take regular vacations are 32% more likely to die of heart attacks and 21% more likely to die early of all causes, while women who do not take regular vacations have a 50% greater risk of heart attack and they are twice as likely to be depressed as those who take regular vacations.

The foregoing is excerpted from the data contained in the proposed Paid Vacation Act of 2008 recently introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Grayson of Florida. I might add that there is data suggesting that European workers are more productive per hour worked (Americans are more productive per person because we work many more hours). I have long hypothesized that there might be a connection between more time off and higher productivity, not to mention better health.

Paid Vacation Act of 2009

The Paid Vacation Act of 2009 (HR 2564) would mandate one workweek of paid vacation during each 12 month period for employers with 100 or more employees beginning on the date of enactment. The provision would be added to the Fair Labor Standards Act as an amendment.

Beginning three years after the date of enactment, employees of employers with 50 or more employees would be entiteld to one workweek of paid vacation during each 12-month period. Employees of employers with 100 or more employees would be entitled to two weeks.

Employees would be obligated to give 30 days’ notice prior to taking vacation. Employees would be eligible if they had worked for at least 12 months for the employer and worked at least 1250 hours.

The time could not be accrued and rolled over.

The Significance of the Proposed Act

Although I do not have data in hand yet as to the number of employees in the United States whose employers provide paid vacation, my recent study of paid time off and sick leave in general suggests that a substantial majority of employers do provide such paid time off. Persons least likely to have paid vacation are those at the bottom of the wage and socio-economic scale.

Although this bill would increase cost for some employers, in theory it might reduce health care and other costs. Of course, whether the United States is willing to join its other industrialized colleagues in mandating time off remains to be seen. One way or another, though, 2009 is shaping up to be a very interesting year in the world of labor and employment law.

September 1, 2008

To be eligible for the subsidy, an employee must be involuntarily terminated between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009. An employee involuntarily terminated before September 1, 2008, is not eligible for the subsidy, even if the employee’s COBRA coverage did not start until after September 1.

Example

An employee was laid off on June 15, 2008, but received severance pay, including health insurance benefits, through December 31, 2008. The employee is not eligible for the subsidy in March 2009. It is the date of involuntary termination that controls–in this case June 15, 2008.

February 17, 2009

This is the date the ARRA became law. Persons eligible for COBRA after September 1, 2008 and prior to February 17, 2008, who do not have it (even if they had it and dropped it), may elect COBRA during an extended enrollment period.

March 1, 2009

The first day of subsidy for most persons who had COBRA continuation coverage in effect on February 17, 2009.

December 31, 2009

This is the last day that an employee can be involuntarily terminated and still be eligible for the COBRA subsidy, unless the subsidy is extended by Congress.

September 30, 2010

The COBRA subsidy runs for nine months only, unless Congress extends the period of subsidy. Consequently, an employee who was involuntarily terminated on December 31, 2009 would be eligible for the COBRA subsidy through September 30, 2010.

Example

On December 15, 2009, an employee is involuntarily terminated and elects COBRA coverage that day. She will receive the subsidy for 9 months, until the earlier of August 15, 2010, or until she becomes eligible for other group health plan coverage or Medicare.

On May 18, the Healthy Families Act was introduced in the House of Representatives. The bill would require employers with 15 or more employees to provide workers with paid sick leave.

The proposed statute, which had been introduced in the previous Congress in 2007, would require employers to provide workers with up to seven days of paid sick leave annually on an accrued basis. Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Under the proposed statute workers would earn one hour of paid sick leave for every 30 hours worked to a maximum of seven days (56 hours) per year. Employers would be permitted to allow employees to accrue more than 56 hours but would not be required to do so.

The statute would require that workers begin accruing leave on their first day of employment. A worker could begin using accrued leave after completing 60 days of employment. Accrued but unused leave would carry over from one year to the next to a maximum of 56 hours, unless the employer allowed greater accumulation.

Employees would be allowed to use leave for their own illness or to care for sick parents or children. In addition, leave could be used to visit a physician or other health care provider for preventive care. Further, leave could be used for absence which resulted from “domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking,” in order to obtain medical care, to obtain services from a victim services organization, or to participate in related legal proceedings.

The proposed legislation would allow employers to require that employees provide certification by their doctor if they are absent for more than three consecutive days.

According to Representative DeLauro of Connecticut, the bill’s sponsor, almost half of all U.S. private sector workers have no paid sick leave. Among the lowest quartile of wage earners, 79% have no leave.

A recent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research comparing laws and policies related to sick leave in 22 different countries, notes that the United States and Japan are the only countries of the 22 examined that do not provide any short-term paid sick leave to workers. All of the countries, except for the United States, provide long-term paid sick leave to workers with serious illnesses.

In this era of Swine Flu concerns, there is some data suggesting that paid sick leave helps to reduce the spread of contagious illness.

One major employer concern is the abuse of sick leave. Large employers lose about $850,000 annually from unscheduled sick and other personal days. However, San Francisco, which enacted mandatory sick leave in 2007, reports no negative impact on business compared to businesses in surrounding communities.

One of the provisions of the stimulus bill known as the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 is the COBRA subsidy. The statute provides a federal subsidy for COBRA premium for employees involuntarily terminated from their employment, The new law was signed on February 1, 2009. It became effective for most employers with 20 or more employees on March 1, 2009. (Employees in states with Mini-COBRA statutes covering employers with fewer than 20 employees may also be eligible for the subsidy.)

The new law has three major components:

  1. The federal government will pay 65% of the COBRA premium for eligible individuals who were involuntarily terminated between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009.

  2. Persons who were terminated after September 1, 2008 but who did not elect COBRA coverage or elected it and then dropped it (perhaps for financial reasons) now will have an opportunity to elect COBRA and pay only 35% of the premium.

  3. Employers have the option to offer coverage other than that which the employee had immediately prior to termination. (This is contrary to the longstanding COBRA provisiions which give the employee the right only to continue what the employee already has.)

The subsidy is available to “assistance eligible individuals” (“Eligible Individual”). The subsidy is available to any “Assistance Eligible Individual” (“Eligible Individual”). An Individual is eligible if:

  1. S/he Is a “qualified beneficiary” (an employee, spouse, or dependent);

  2. The qualifying event was the “involuntary termination of employment” between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009;
  3. The Individual is eligible for COBRA continuation coverage (or comparable State Mini-COBRA coverage) at any time during that 16 month period; and

  4. The Individual elects the COBRA coverage.

Client Question: How will the ARRA affect groups under 20 employees covered by the State Mini-COBRA plan?
AnswerUnder Title III of the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), “assistance eligible” employees are entitled to a 65% subsidy for COBRA premiums for up to nine months. An assistance eligible employee is one who is (1) eligible for COBRA coverage, (2) elects such coverage, and (3) was involuntarily terminated from employment at any time on or between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009.

The Act defines “COBRA continuation coverage” as “coverage provided pursuant to [COBRA] or under a State program that provides comparable continuation coverage.” (emphasis added) It does not include coverage provided through a health flexible spending arrangement under a Section 125 cafeteria plan

Subsequent government publications have confirmed that that the extended COBRA benefits and subsidies under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 does in fact cover employers with fewer than 20 employees who are subject to a State program that provides coverage comparable to COBRA.

 

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed by President Obama on February 17, provides that the federal government will pay 65% of COBRA premiums for eligible COBRA participants who lose their jobs between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2009. Employers have been awaiting the model notice from the Department of Labor to be  issued to eligible COBRA participants. The Model Notice (in alternative formats), has now been issued. The following is the formal announcement, which contains links to the notices..
COBRA Continuation Coverage Assistance Under The American Recovery And Reinvestment Act Of 2009
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) provides for premium reductions and additional election opportunities for health benefits under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985, commonly called COBRA. Eligible individuals pay only 35 percent of their COBRA premiums and the remaining 65 percent is reimbursed to the coverage provider through a tax credit. The premium reduction applies to periods of health coverage beginning on or after February 17, 2009 and lasts for up to nine months for those eligible for COBRA during the period beginning September 1, 2008 and ending December 31, 2009 due to an involuntary termination of employment that occurred during that period.
Individuals who request the premium reduction from their group health plan, but are denied may appeal to the Department. The Department is developing a process for reviewing denials and an official application form that must be used to file an appeal that will be available shortly.
NOTICES 
ARRA mandates that plans notify certain current and former participants and beneficiaries about the premium reduction.
The Department created model notices to help plans and individuals comply with these requirements. Each model notice is designed for a particular group of qualified beneficiaries and contains information to help satisfy ARRA’s notice provisions.
Plans subject to the Federal COBRA provisions must send the General Notice to all qualified beneficiaries, not just covered employees, who experienced a qualifying event at any time from September 1, 2008 through December 31, 2009, regardless of the type of qualifying event. This full version includes information on the premium reduction as well as information required in a COBRA election notice.
 The abbreviated version of the General Notice includes the same information as the full version regarding the availability of the premium reduction and other rights under ARRA, but does not include the COBRA coverage election information. It may be sent in lieu of the full version to individuals who experienced a qualifying event during on or after September 1, 2008, have already elected COBRA coverage, and still have it. 
Insurance issuers that provide group health insurance coverage must send the Alternative Notice to persons who became eligible for continuation coverage under a State law. Continuation coverage requirements vary among States, and issuers should modify this model notice as necessary to conform it to the applicable State law. Issuers may also find the model Alternative Notice or the abbreviated model General Notice appropriate for use in certain situations. 
Plans subject to the Federal COBRA provisions must send the Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods to any assistance eligible individual (or any individual who would be an assistance eligible individual if a COBRA continuation election were in effect) who:
1. Had a qualifying event at any time from September 1, 2008 through February 16, 2009; and
2. Either did not elect COBRA continuation coverage, or who elected it but subsequently discontinued COBRA.
This notice includes information on ARRA’s additional election opportunity, as well as premium reduction information. This notice must be provided by April 18, 2009.