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EEOC Wellness Regulations Survive AARP Challenge
01/04/2017
By: Jason Lacey

A federal court in Washington, D.C. has declined to issue an order that would have halted implementation of the EEOC’s wellness plan regulations under the ADA and GINA. The regulations had been challenged by AARP on the grounds that they failed to adequately protect workers’ rights. However, the court concluded there was no risk of "irreparable harm" to workers in allowing the regulations to remain on the books. This means the regulations remain in force and will apply as scheduled. 

The EEOC’s regulations are generally applicable to wellness programs beginning with the 2017 plan year. The regulations limit the incentives that employers may offer in connection with a wellness program that involves a medical examination or disability-related inquiry. Most wellness programs that involve a health risk assessment or biometric screening are covered. The incentive cannot exceed 30% of the cost of employee-only coverage under the related health plan -- or twice that amount in the case of plans that offer incentives to both employees and their spouses.The regulations also impose notice and confidentiality requirements, in addition to limiting the amount of incentives.

The EEOC’s rules apply in addition to other wellness plan rules under HIPAA and the ACA, with sometimes inconsistent results. For example:

  • Under the HIPAA and ACA regulations, there is no limit on the amount of the incentive that can be offered in a “participation only” wellness program involving completion of a health risk assessment and biometric screening, but the same wellness program generally is subject to      Continue Reading...
 
A New Frontier -- Breastfeeding
05/23/2016
By: Donald Berner

Earlier this month, four breastfeeding airline pilots filed EEOC complaints against Frontier Airlines for refusing to accommodate their need to express breast milk by way of pumping.  The charges allege Frontier did not provide any accommodation to allow the employees to pump regularly and disciplined one employee for engaging in pumping activity aboard an airplane.  

The EEOC's position on the subject is clear and spelled out in its Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues dated June 25, 2015: "An employee must have the same freedom to address such lactation-related needs that she and her co-workers would have to address other similarly limiting medical conditions."  

These filings serve as a good reminder to employers that the EEOC reads the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to include reasonable accommodation obligations similar to those in the ADA. Various state laws, including one in Kansas, also provide certain protections for breastfeeding and/or expressing breast milk. Employers should carefully consider any request made by an employee to allow for this type of activity.  In addition, not only do employers need to consider Title VII, the Affordable Care Act amended the FLSA to require employers to provide break time and private locations for pumping activity.  

It will be interesting to see how Frontier Airlines responds to these charges.  Stay tuned.   

 

   

 
EEOC Issues Final Wellness Regulations
05/21/2016
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has issued final regulations under the ADA and GINA that address the extent to which employers may use incentives to encourage employees and their spouses to participate in wellness programs that involve disability-related inquiries or medical examinations. Although the regulations allow limited incentives, there are a number of conditions and restrictions. And there are some important differences between the EEOC's rules and other rules governing wellness programs, such as guidance under HIPAA and the ACA. Here are the highlights.

What Wellness Plans Are Covered?

These regulations apply to any wellness plan that involves a disability-related inquiry or medical examination. This will include most wellness plans that require completion of a health risk assessment or biometric screening. It also includes tobacco-related wellness plans that involve any type of medical test to screen for the presence of nicotine, but it does not include tobacco-related programs that merely ask an employee to certify whether they use tobacco (and do not require any other medical examinations).

In an important change from the proposed regulations, the final regulations apply to a wellness program without regard to whether the program is offered in connection with a group health plan. For example, an employer that offers a cash reward to employees for completing a health risk assessment or biometric screening may be subject to the limitations under the final regulations.

What Limits Apply to Wellness Incentives?

For a wellness plan covered by these regulations, the incentive offered to any employee may not exceed 30% of the full cost      Continue Reading...

 
Wellness Program Survives ADA Challenge
01/15/2016
By: Jason Lacey

In a closely watched case, a federal judge in Wisconsin has denied the EEOC’s challenge to a wellness program maintained by Flambeau, Inc. The EEOC had sued the employer, alleging the wellness program violated the ADA.

The wellness program required employees to complete a health risk assessment and a biometric screening, but employees completing the program didn't just receive a premium reduction or other financial incentive. They were required to complete the program as a condition to obtaining coverage under the employer’s group health plan. Employees that chose not to participate in the wellness program were not allowed to enroll in the employer's health plan. 

The EEOC alleged that the wellness program violated the ADA’s prohibition against involuntary medical examinations and disability-related inquires. Although employees were not required to participate in the wellness program, the EEOC viewed the penalty for nonparticipation (loss of access to the group health plan) as too coercive, effectively making the wellness program an involuntary program. 

But the court side-stepped the question of voluntariness and concluded that a safe harbor under the ADA (which allows for bona fide underwriting activities) applied to the wellness program. Thus, the program did not violate the ADA without regard to whether it was voluntary. 

The court's decision to apply the ADA's underwriting safe harbor is consistent with a 2012 federal appeals court decision (Seff v. Broward County), but the EEOC has indicated it strongly agrees with that interpretation of the ADA. So we might expect further sparring between the EEOC and employers who choose      Continue Reading...

 
Leave as an ADA Accommodation: How Much is Enough
11/16/2015
By: Donald Berner

Consider this fact pattern:  An employee has a back problem that stretches out over a long period of time.  At some point, the back problem becomes severe enough the employee goes out on FMLA leave.  During the twelve weeks of FMLA leave, the employee ends up scheduling a surgery.  The surgery takes place near the end of the twelve week FMLA period and the employee has a set of lifting restrictions that don't allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the position.  Under those facts, there is no way the employee can return to work at the conclusion of the FMLA leave.  Now what?

Employers face fact patterns like this one on a fairly regular basis.  A reasonable accommodation under the ADA might be to provide the employee with additional leave beyond the protected twelve-week FMLA absence.  These cases are usually fact-specific and can be tricky to resolve.  

A federal court in Wisconsin recently decided a case with this set of basic facts.  In the case, the employee requested another two to three months of additional leave to allow for recovery from the surgery.  The employer denied the request for the additional leave and ended the employment relationship.  As you might expect, the employee brought an ADA claim against the employer.  In what might be a surprise for employers, the court ruled in favor of the employer.  The court focused on the fact the employee had not been able to perform the job duties for the three months during the FMLA leave and that the anticipated two to three additional months was too long for the employee to be away from work.

Keep in      Continue Reading...

 
Federal Legislation Would Clarify Wellness Plan Treatment Under ADA and GINA
03/16/2015
By: Jason Lacey

Federal legislation has been introduced that would clarify the treatment of employer wellness plans under the ADA and GINA. It is styled as the "Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act." Under the act, any wellness plan that meets the requirements imposed by regulations issued under HIPAA and the ACA would not be treated as violating the ADA or Title I or Title II of GINA solely because the plan provides a reward. 

The legislation would respond to confusion over the EEOC's position on how employer obligations under the ADA and GINA intersect with the HIPAA and ACA rules that allow providing a reward (or penalty) to employees who participate in a "health-contingent" wellness program. Although the EEOC has never taken a formal regulatory position on the issue, it has sued several employers over their wellness programs, including at least one program that appeared to satisfy the requirements under HIPAA and the ACA (see prior articles here, here, and here). 

The EEOC is said to be working on a set of regulations to address this issue that may be near release. Employers will want to keep an eye on both these legislative and regulatory developments, as they could have an important (and hopefully helpful) impact on wellness plan design.

A copy of Senate Bill 620, the Preserving Employee Wellness Programs Act, is here

 
EEOC Challenges Another Wellness Plan Under the ADA
10/06/2014
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has announced (here) the filing of another lawsuit challenging an employer’s wellness plan on the basis that it violates the ADA. Like a similar case filed in August (see coverage here), the EEOC alleges that the employer’s plan fails under the ADA because it is not a voluntary program.

Background. The wellness plan at issue in this case sounds fairly typical. Employees apparently were asked to submit to a biometric screening and complete a health risk assessment. So far, so good. But employees who declined to participate in the wellness plan are said to have had their health plan coverage canceled or to have been required to pay 100% of the cost of coverage under the employer's health plan. By comparison, employees who participated in the wellness plan were only required to pay 25% of the cost of coverage under the employer's health plan.

Something Doesn’t Add Up. The facts as stated by the EEOC aren’t totally consistent. First they say health-plan coverage was canceled when employees declined to participate in the wellness plan. Then they say higher health-plan costs were shifted to employees who declined to participate in the wellness plan. It can’t be both - at least not for the same employees. So we may not have a clear picture of the plan in question at this point.

Voluntariness. But whatever the facts may be, we can see that the EEOC is clearly focused on voluntariness. According to the press release: “Having to choose between complying with      Continue Reading...

 
EEOC Files ADA Lawsuit Over Employer Wellness Plan
09/05/2014
By: Jason Lacey

The EEOC has filed a lawsuit against a Wisconsin employer, alleging that the employer's wellness plan violates the ADA. According to the EEOC's press release (here), this is the first lawsuit by the EEOC directly challenging a wellness program under the ADA.

Background. Although wellness plans are increasingly common, they raise a complex array of legal issues. Regulations addressing compliance with the HIPAA nondiscrimination requirements are well-developed now. But there is virtually no guidance addressing the manner in which the ADA applies to wellness plans. In particular, the ADA prohibits employers from requiring employees to undergo involuntary medical examinations, unless those examinations are clearly job-related, and it has never been clear where the line is on "voluntariness."

Bad Facts. Unfortunately, the facts of this case are bad enough that it may not provide much meaningful guidance. The EEOC's lawsuit alleges that the employer in this case required employees to participate in its wellness program (including what sounds like a fairly typical health questionnaire and biometric screening) and penalized those who refused by requiring them to pay 100% of the cost of coverage under the employer's health plan, plus a $50/month surcharge. Additionally, there is an allegation that the employer then terminated an employee for declining to participate in the wellness program.

Results Not Typical. All of these facts, if true, go well beyond what most typical employer wellness programs require or impose and would seem to be a fairly clear violation of the ADA's voluntariness requirement. So it's not clear how much      Continue Reading...

 
EEOC Provides Informal Wellness Plan Guidance
04/01/2013
By: Jason Lacey

One of the murkier issues with wellness plans is the manner in which they intersect with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I discuss some of the background on the issue here. A recent EEOC letter (here) provides an "informal discussion" of how the ADA applies to a particular type of wellness plan.

The Plan. The wellness plan at issue waived the deductible under a health plan for participants with serious medical conditions (e.g., diabetes) who enrolled in a disease-management program. Although the wellness program did not expressly require participants to complete a health risk assessment, the EEOC assumed that participants needed to make some disclosure about their health status to their employer to become eligible for the plan, thereby implicating the ADA.

Voluntariness. The EEOC reiterated that, because a wellness plan involves an employer inquiry into an employee's medical condition, the wellness plan must be voluntary. A plan is voluntary so long as participation is not required and employees who choose not to participate are not penalized. The plan in this case did not penalize non-participants, but it did provide a reward (waiver of deductible) for participants. The EEOC would not take a position on whether the availability of a reward renders a plan involuntary. 

Reasonable Accommodation. The EEOC also noted that a wellness plan generally must provide a reasonable accommodation to individuals who are unable to meet the required outcomes or engage in required activities due to a disability. For example, if a plan requires a participant to comply with a recommended      Continue Reading...

 
Beware of Your Job Descriptions
03/28/2013
By: Donald Berner

Every so often we are given a gentle reminder to pay close attention to the job descriptions in place at our companies.

In a recent Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) case from Maryland, the employer failed to obtain summary judgment because of the essential functions listed in the employee's job description. This means the plaintiff gets to present his case to the jury.

The key issue revolved around whether having a commercial drivers license was an essential function of the supervisory position held by the plaintiff. The job description listed the commercial drivers license as a preference for the supervisor, as opposed to a required item in the basic driver job description. This small difference is what led to the employer ending up in what is now a pretty tough spot. 

So make sure you look at your job descriptions and carefully weigh the use of "preferred" versus "required."

 
Do You Know? Job Protection for Employees Who Experience Domestic Violence
10/31/2012
By: Boyd Byers

On October 12, the EEOC issued guidance titled “Questions and Answers: The Application of Title VII and the Americans with Disabilities Act to Applicants or Employees Who Experience Domestic or Dating Violence, Sexual Assault, or Stalking.” The guidance recognizes that federal EEO laws do not prohibit discrimination on these bases, per se, but explains how these laws may apply to such situations.  Examples include:

  • A manager fires a female employee after learning she was subjected to domestic violence because he fears the "potential drama battered women bring to the workplace.”
  • An employer refuses to allow an employee extra time off work for treatment of anxiety or depression resulting from domestic violence.       
But do you know that Kansas law specifically allows employees to take time off work to deal with the effects of domestic violence or sexual assault?  Kansas employers are required to allow employees time off from work:
  • To obtain restraining orders or other injunctive relief in domestic violence or sexual assault situations;
  • To seek medical attention for injuries caused by domestic violence or sexual assault; or
  • To obtain services from a domestic violence or sexual assault center shelter.

An employee should give the employer reasonable advance notice of the intention      Continue Reading...

 
Supreme Court Begins New Term
10/02/2012
By: Boyd Byers

Yesterday the Supreme Court officially opened its 2012-2013 term. The justices denied review of 304 cases, including 48 employment-related decisions. One of these cases is particularly significant for Kansas employers. 

In that case, the Court let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in favor of a Kansas school district. The appeals court had held that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act applies only to claims that employees did not receive equal pay for equal work, and that this does not encompass demotion claims, even if the demotion results in a pay cut. (The Ledbetter law, as you may recall, amended Title VII, the ADEA, and the ADA to provide that the time for filing a pay discrimination claim is triggered with each paycheck that reflects a past discriminatory compensation decision or practice.)  Accordingly, the Ledbetter Act did not excuse two school custodians’ failure to file a timely age discrimination claim within 300 days of learning of their demotions. The case is titled Almond v. Unified Sch. Dist. 501.
 
 
Court Rejects Challenge to Employer's Wellness Plan
09/08/2012
By: Jason Lacey

In a closely watched case, a federal appeals court in Atlanta has rejected a challenge to a wellness plan maintained by Broward County, Florida for its employees. The case was brought by a former employee, who claimed the wellness plan violated the ADA by improperly requiring employees to submit to medical examinations.

As background, the ADA generally prohibits employers from requiring employees to undergo medical examinations or otherwise inquire of employees whether they are disabled. But purely voluntary medical examinations are permitted (as are bona fide fitness-for-duty examinations), and the ADA expressly allows employers to establish, sponsor, observe, or administer the terms of a bona fide benefit plan when those terms are based on underwriting risks, classifying risks, or administering risks. This latter rule is sometimes referred to as an underwriting "safe harbor" under the ADA.

The wellness plan in this case was fairly typical. Employees participating in the plan were subject to a health-risk assessment and a biometric screening (a finger prick for cholesterol and glucose testing). Participation was not required, but employees who did not participate were charged an extra $20 per pay period for their health-insurance coverage.

The court concluded the plan qualified for the underwriting safe harbor under the ADA and so did not violate the ADA. The wellness program was deemed to be a "term" of a bona fide benefit plan (the employer's major-medical plan), even though there was no written document for the wellness program.

There is a well-worn axiom that bad facts make bad law. This      Continue Reading...

 
Leave as an ADA Accommodation
08/30/2012
By: Donald Berner

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court responsible for Kansas and other midwestern states) decided a case involving leave as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  In the case, the employer provided significant amounts of leave time for a disabled employee over a several-year period. After providing leave as an accommodation, the employer eventually discharged the employee because of the uncertainty surrounding her return to work. In its decision, the 10th Circuit confirmed that an employer is not required to provide an indefinite leave of absence as an accommodation under the ADA. In addition, the court referenced the reasonableness of a leave of absence, mentioning that a leave of four months is reasonable and that a leave of six months may not be reasonable. Employers can utilize these guideposts in assessing whether to provide an employee a leave of absence as an accommodation for a disability.  

Finally, congratulations to Jim Oliver, Bud Cowan, and Tara Eberline of Foulston Siefkin's Overland Park office for their successful defense of the defendant in this particular case. To read the opinion in its entirety click here.  

 
EEOC Says High School Diploma Requirement May Violate ADA
04/09/2012
By: Boyd Byers

About a month from now high school seniors will be donning funny looking caps and gowns and parading across stages to receive their hard-earned diplomas.  But employers who require a high school diploma or GED as a condition of employment need to make sure this requirement is job-related and consistent with business necessity, and that it doesn't screen out individuals who cannot obtain a diploma because of a learning disability.         

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently published new guidance on whether an employer's requirement that a job applicant have a high school diploma may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The guidance is in response to an informal discussion letter issued by the EEOC last November that created significant commentary and conjecture. 

The guidance explains that requiring a high school diploma for a position is not illegal.  Employers may continue to have high school diploma requirements and, in the vast majority of cases, they will not have to make exceptions to them. However, according to the EEOC, if an applicant tells an employer she cannot meet this requirement because of a disability, an employer may have to allow her to demonstrate the ability to do the job in some other way. This may include considering work experience in the same or similar jobs, or allowing her to demonstrate performance of the job’s essential functions.

The guidance clarifies that the ADA only protects someone whose disability makes it impossible for him to get a diploma. It would not protect someone who simply decided not to get a high school diploma.  The employer can require      Continue Reading...

 
EEOC Issues Guidance to Employers about Disabled Veterans
03/05/2012
By: Boyd Byers

Three million veterans have returned from military service over the past decade, and another one million are expected to return to civilian life during the next five years because of the anticipated drawdown of operations in the Middle East.  In recent years, the percentage of veterans who report having service-connected disabilities has risen.  About twenty-five percent of recent veterans report having a service-connected disability, as compared to about thirteen percent of all veterans, according to the EEOC.                                                 

The EEOC recently released new guidance explaining how the 2008 changes to the Americans with Disabilities Act affect employment of veterans with disabilities.  One of the guides is for employers; the other is for veterans.  “Veterans and the Americans with Disabilities Act: A Guide for Employers” explains how protections for veterans with disabilities differ under the ADA and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), and how the ADA applies to recruiting, hiring, and accommodating veterans with disabilities.  You can link to this guidance by clicking here
 
Automatic Termination Policies May Equal Automatic Trouble
02/28/2012
By: Donald Berner

As most of you have probably followed, the ADA was amended a couple of years ago to expand the definintion of disability.  The EEOC issued regulations in the spring of 2011 designed to add some additional clarity regarding the ADA Amendments Act.  One of the items we flagged at that time was the EEOC's anticipated hostility towards employer policy materials containing an automatic termination provision for employees absent a specific length of time. 

As predicted, the EEOC has successfully brought actions against employers with policies of this nature.  Employers still utilizing a policy with automatic termination provisions would be wise to review and amend those policy materials in light of the EEOC's stance.  The key for employers is to make sure the policy provides for an interactive accommodation process to occur rather than a leave of absence length triggering an automatic outcome.  As long as an employer evaluates each employee situation on a case-by-case basis, the risk of an ADA violation drops dramatically (assuming the employer properly accounts for the ADA requirements).  Employers with an automatic termination trigger can expect that the EEOC is likely to deem any termination based on the trigger as a violation of the ADA.

 

 

 
Court Is Now In Session
10/03/2011
By: Boyd Byers

October is my favorite month of the year.  Warm, sunny days, followed by cool, crisp nights.  Colorful foliage.  Fall festivals.  College football.  Playoff baseball.  And, of course, the start of another U.S. Supreme Court session.

The Supreme Court reconvened today, the first Monday in October.  There are several employment-law-related cases on the docket.  Perhaps the most-anticipated case before the Justices is the legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act (health care reform law).  Another closely watched case will address whether Arizona’s tough immigration law is preempted by federal law.  The High Court will also decide whether the “ministerial exemption” to the ADA applies to a religious teacher at a church school, and whether states can be sued under the FMLA’s “self-care” provision for failing to provide employees with 12 weeks of unpaid leave for their own serious health condition.  Kansas Employment Law Blog will keep you up to date as these and other cases affecting employers are decided.     
 
 
Leave of Absence and the ADA Part II
03/29/2011
By: Donald Berner

As I wrote last week, the interaction of the ADA obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation and the employer's leave of absence policy can be tricky.  Beyond reviewing policies to make sure there are no ADA time bombs in your policy manual, it also makes sense to spend some time thinking about how to handle potential ADA issues and accommodations before the situation arises.  The key to the ADA accommodation process isn't necessarily the end outcome as much as it is the interactive process between the employer and the employee.  It is important that a trained HR person is involved with any employee situation where ADA issues could be involved.  In fact, it makes sense for an employer to assign all accommodation and return to work issues to a centralized HR person (or team) due to the potential complexity of the issues that may be involved.  This focal person (or team) will want to ensure a good interactive accommodation process is used in each of these cases.  As the employer works through the process with the employee, it is important to keep good notes of the options discussed.  These discussions may result in the identification of an accommodation that resolves any concerns or may result in being unable to find a reasonable accommodation.  Either way, the documentation of the interactive process, including any offered accommodation and the employee's response, will be valuable if the employee later claims the employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation.  

For more information on the ADA and various accommodation issues click here.

 
EEOC Issues Final ADAAA Regs
03/25/2011
By: Boyd Byers

The EEOC has finally issued its long-awaited regulations interpreting the ADA Amendments Act.  The final regulations are in today's Federal Register.  Here's the link (guaranteed to make your eyes glass over): 

http://www.federalregister.gov/articles/2011/03/25/2011-6056/regulations-to-implement-the-equal-employment-provisions-of-the-americans-with-disabilities-act-as#h-73

 
Leave of Absence and the ADA
03/24/2011
By: Donald Berner

As most of you know, the ADA was amended a couple years ago making it easier for individuals to qualify for protection due to the expanded definition of a disability.  One danger area for employers is dealing with individuals needing a leave of absence or additional leave as it relates to a situation that may be defined as a disability under the ADA.  This can arise after FMLA leave has been used and expires, or for those non-FMLA employers/situations at the end of a standard leave of absence.  It is at this juncture that employers sometimes find themselves in dangerous waters.  What should an employer do at the end of an approved leave of absence (FMLA or otherwise) when the employee isn't quite ready to return to work?  Does the employee have some expected return date that is just a few days or weeks away?  Is the return a bit more uncertain?  How employers resolve this issue can be the difference between smooth exit and an EEOC complaint/lawsuit.  While just how much leave is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA can be unclear, it is clear that accommodating an indefinite or uncertain return to work date is not required.    

In addition to having sometimes murky factual information, some employers have a leave policy with an automatic employment termination provision that triggers at a certain point.  For example, if an employee has been on leave for six months, his or her employment is automatically terminated.  The EEOC is focusing some negative attention on this type of leave of absence policy and taking the position that such a clause violates the ADA.  Given this scrutiny, it's probably a good idea to review your leave of absence      Continue Reading...

 
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Charlie?
03/11/2011
By: Boyd Byers

Yesterday I blogged about fanciful legal issues you might encounter if the newly unemployed Charlie Sheen were to show up at your doorstep with application in hand.  We were not the only employment lawyers thinking about Charlie.  Click here to read an article that examines Charlie's termination, his resulting lawsuit, and some lessons HR professionals can learn from this tumultuous Tinseltown tale. 

 


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Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
Boyd Byers Image
Boyd Byers, the General Employment Law Guy
Jason Lacey Image
Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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