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Applying for Pandemic Expanded Unemployment Insurance

This week the State of Washington was able to expand its unemployment insurance program to cover individuals who were not previously covered, including:

  • Self-employed and independent contractors
  • Sick or caring for a family member
  • Lost work, or are a part-time worker

Because we serve so many small businesses, I wanted to make sure everyone has the information they need in order to apply, or to pass along to employees, friends, or family.

Not sure whether you qualify for unemployment insurance? Find out using the State’s Expanded Unemployment Insurance Eligibility Checker.

Prepare Yourself, or Prepare for a Headache

First of all, make sure to read all of the resources before you begin your application.  If you mess up your application and need to change it, you have to call the help desk, which is almost impossible right now.  ESD reports that their website is experiencing over 500,000 users per hour.  In an updated report today they asked for people to exercise patience, and said that the money will not run out, and payments will be retroactive.


Your steps:
First, watch this tutorial.  Seriously, this nine-minute tutorial will save you hours of time trying to get through to the help desk if you mess up even a tiny part of your application. 

Next, consider attending a webinar.  They are offering one this week on Thursday and one on Friday.  They don’t have any scheduled for next week. 

If you didn’t qualify for normal unemployment insurance but qualify under one of the expanded reasons, you have to apply the normal way, get denied, and then go back and apply for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.  Links to instructions for each are here:

Have you or your employees had an experience with the Washington State Employment Security Department that would be helpful for others? If so, please share in the comments section.

Employers – Are You Ready for 80 More Hours of Paid Sick Leave Beginning April 1?

In order to support employees who may be out with illness or other issues related to COVID-19, there is a new federal law effective April 1, 2020 that will require businesses to pay 80 hours of extra sick time, and an additional 10 weeks in certain circumstances.  Here’s what you need to know and how to prepare.

If you prefer to get your information in video format, you can join us on April 1, 2020 at 1:00pm pacific for a live webinar to help you understand and implement this program. You can register here for the live event or to view the recording.

Families First Coronavirus Response Act at a Glance

This new law is called the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA).  The FFCRA was signed into law by President Trump on March 18, 2020 in order to address the financial burden that many Americans are facing due to Covid-19.

The first thing to note is that this law was written over a period of about one week.  For that reason, there’s not a lot of clarification, and there are A LOT of unknowns as to how to interpret it.  The Department of Labor has come out with a few clarifications as of this writing on March 27, 2020, but there are still questions.  We are expecting more clarification this week and next, and we will update the post as we know more.

My goals today are:

  1. To give you an overview of the pieces of the law that are relevant to employers;
  2. To give you the information you need to take your next steps in putting this into place;
  3. To give you links to the correct places to get more information.

THE GENERAL DETAILS

Why:  The goal of this new law is to provide paid sick leave to employees who need it for Covid-19-related reasons.

Who:  This affects all employers in the United States who have fewer than 500 employees.  There are some exceptions for businesses under 50 employees, but I will get into that more later.                                                                                                      

When:  This will go into effect on April 1, 2020.

What:  There are three pieces of the FFCRA that are immediately relevant to employers: 

1) Emergency Paid Sick Leave – Employers with under 500 employees will be given tax credits so they can provide up to 80 hours of sick leave to full-time employees, pro-rated for part-time employees. There are six specified allowable reasons that an employee could use this sick leave – I will elaborate more on this below.  Employers with active employees (i.e. not already laid off) will be required to provide these 80 hours.  Employees are eligible on day one of employment.

2) Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act – Employers with under 500 employees will be given tax credits so they can provide up to 12 weeks of leave (only ten of which are paid leave).  There is one allowable reason an employee might qualify for this paid leave: if they are unable to work (or telework) because the employee is caring for their child (18 years or younger) because the school is closed or the childcare provider is unavailable due to a public health emergency.  Employers with active employees (i.e. not already laid off) will be required to provide these 12 weeks.  An eligible employee is anyone that has been on the employer’s payroll for 30 calendar days.

3) Tax Credits for Employers – If you are required to provide paid leave under (1) or (2), then you will be eligible for a 100% payroll tax credit on the wages paid for leave.  You will be able to deduct this from the payroll taxes you would have paid at your normal payroll time.  If you aren’t paying enough in payroll taxes to cover your expenditure, the IRS will accept applications for reimbursement which you should receive within two weeks of applying.  Further clarification of this process will most likely be available on or shortly before April 1, 2020. 

THE SPECIFICS

That’s a lot of information to digest.  Put more simply, there are two paid leave programs, both of which you (the employer) will pay to the employee, and which will be immediately (or quickly) reimbursed to you by the IRS.

You can think of the paid leave programs chronologically:

The first thing an employee would qualify for is Emergency Paid Sick Leave.  The employee will qualify for this for the first two weeks they are out on leave.  It pays up to 80 hours and must be paid for the amount of time they would normally work in a week.  For example, if they are always scheduled for 30 hours per week, you would pay them up to 60 hours, total.

Emergency Paid Sick Leave – Qualifying Reasons

Qualifying reasons for this paid sick leave include:

    1) The employee is subject to a federal, state, or local quarantine or isolation order related to the coronavirus (Note: We don’t yet know whether this applies to a Stay at Home or Shelter in Place order.  We’re hoping to have DOL guidance very soon.)

    2) The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to coronavirus

    3) The employee is experiencing symptoms of coronavirus and seeking a medical diagnosis

    4) The employee is caring for an individual who is subject to an order described in (1) or has been advised as described in (2)

    5) The employee is caring for their minor child because the school is closed or the childcare provider is unavailable due to coronavirus

    6) The employee is experiencing a similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (this is a catch-all to account for future needs as events unfold)

Once an employee has reached the end of their qualification for Emergency Paid Sick Leave, they may be eligible for Emergency FMLA.  Again, the one-and-only reason that would qualify someone for this paid leave and that is if they are unable to work (or telework) because the employee is caring for their child (18 years or younger) because the school is closed or the childcare provider is unavailable due to a public health emergency.  An employee is eligible for this leave for 12 weeks total, but you do not start paying them for the leave until after 10 days.

With these two types of leave taken in chronological order, Emergency Paid Sick Leave and then Emergency FMLA, an employee could receive a total of 12 weeks of paid leave.

Employers under 50

As you may know, FMLA generally does not apply to employers with under 50 employees.  If you are a small employer with under 50 employees, you will remain exempt from the normal FMLA regulations.  This Emergency FMLA is the only piece of FMLA you will need to carry out.

According to guidance posted by the Department of Labor on March 25, 2020, “Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees may qualify for exemption from the requirement to provide leave due to school closings or child care unavailability if the leave requirements would jeopardize the viability of the business as a going concern.”  We don’t yet have clarification from the Department of Labor on how a business would go about applying for this exemption but will update you here when they publish instructions.

How to Calculate Payments

The Department of Labor has very clear instructions on how much you should pay your employees.  I won’t go too deeply into that here, as it is not the intent of this article.  Please visit the Department of Labor FFCRA Q&A (questions number five and six) for more information on how to calculate wages.  Note that although you may pay an employee as much as you want, there is a maximum that is eligible for reimbursement, which is explained in detail by the department of labor here, under the “Calculation of Pay” section. 

Posters

Beginning April 1, 2020, employers are required to post this new notice where your employees can see it.  If your employees are working remotely, you are allowed to send it via email, mail, or post it to a company intranet where they can see it.  If you need more guidance on how to post the notice, you can find it here.

Questions?

Let us know in the comments section how you are doing with these, and other changes you’ve been facing over the past few weeks.  If you would like help implementing this, or you have other questions, please contact us via the contact form on this website.  We look forward to hearing from you either way!

You can also join us for a live webinar on April 1, 2020 to help you understand and implement this program. You can register here for the live event or to view the recording.

This article is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice. Only your attorney can give you legal advice.

COVID-19 Layoffs: A How-To Guide for Employers in Washington State

This is definitely one of the sadder posts we’ve had to make. Three weeks ago we were all humming along as normal, and then — Boom! Massive layoffs were upon us, the magnitude of which we have never seen in the history of this country.

At Powerfully Simple HR & Leadership, we have received a lot of calls this week asking what employers need to do to carry out the layoff process.

The hardships of COVID-19 may have a detrimental effect on your business and ultimately your employees.  If your business has been required to close its doors or if you are unable to sustain enough business to keep your employees on payroll, you may be considering laying off some, if not all your employees. 

The Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) recognizes a lack of demand or slowdown in your business, or a requirement to shut your doors due to the COVID-19 quarantine may lead to making this difficult decision. 

How to Perform Layoffs

Documenting this process is essential to ensuring your business is acting in good faith.  Here is what your documentation should include:

  1. State the reason for the layoff:  Did you have to shut your doors because your business was considered non-essential?  Alternately, is your business still open, but you seen a drop in business due to COVID-19, and can no longer retain your prior staffing level?  Be specific. 
  2. Document the procedures you used to determine who will be laid off.  Remember, it is never okay to choose to lay off one person over another due to any protected classes, including (but not limited to) age or disability.
  3. How much notice you will give your employees before the layoff?
    • Employers with 100 or more employees must provide a 60-day notice prior to business closures or layoffs under the WARN Act, Worker’s Adjustment and Retraining Notification.  The act includes an exception to the warning notice timeframe if employers believes their situation is the result of an economic crisis.  Employers are advised to seek legal counsel for help in interpreting this provision.  Further information on the WARN Act can be found here.
  4. Provide written documentation to each employee who is being laid off. Specify the date the layoff is effective, whether the layoff is permanent or temporary, the expected amount of time of the layoff (Washington State employees can be put on Standby for up to 12 weeks at the time of this writing), the reason for the layoff, and links to information that will help them apply for unemployment benefits.

It is important to note that employees laid off prior to the Family First Coronavirus Response Act effective date of April 1, 2020 may not eligible for the Unemployment Benefit under this Act.  Therefore, documentation outlining the timing of your layoff decision is very important.

Offer Compassion

The people we work with often feel like a second family to us. We share birthdays, celebrations, teamwork, and success. Because we see them everyday, our coworkers are often are the people who hear about our sorrows and troubles as well. Recognize that your employees are not only losing their income, but much of their social circle at the same time.

If your employees are on Standby, keep them in the loop by providing weekly updates as the situation changes. If you can, check in on your employees. As you hear of resources that become available, such as expanded unemployment benefits, let your employees know. All of these actions will go a long way toward helping your employees feel secure, and letting them know that you care.

Will Your Employees Be Eligible for Unemployment Insurance?

Eligibility:  Employees laid off due to COVID-19

Waiting Period:  The traditional one-week waiting period to be eligible has been waived. 

Standby Status:  Employees applying for Standby Status will not have to look for another job while collecting unemployment benefits for up to 12 weeks.  Affected employees should be referred to the Employment Security Department website.

An Unemployment Benefits Application Checklist is attached for your information and available to provide to your affected employees. 

Other Things to Consider

  1. How does a layoff affect the employee’s health benefits?  It is important that you talk to your health insurance broker prior to layoffs, and convey this information clearly to your staff.
  2. COBRA qualifications – If you have 20 or more employees, they are likely eligible to continue their health insurance coverage through the COBRA program.  Ask your health insurance broker whether you qualify.
  3. Retirement Plan Implications – Since your employees will not be receiving a paycheck, their normal deductions will pause.  Will you continue offering an employer match during this time?  Talk to your plan administrator about your options.

If you need help sorting out the various programs and how they might work together for your business, feel free to contact us using the contact form on this page.  We are happy to help you!

A special thank you to Michelle Helder, who wrote the majority of this article.

This article is meant for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice.  Only your attorney can give you legal advice. 

Get Ready for Washington State’s New Paid Family and Medical Leave Program

Are you ready for the new Washington State Paid Family and Medical Leave to go into effect on January 1, 2020?  If you are a Washington State-based employer and have even one employee, it’s time to get familiar with this new program.

Last week I attended a webinar presented by the Washington Employment Security Department (ESD) to learn more about the program.  I’d like to pass some info along to my Washington State employers who may be wondering how it will affect them.  

I’m writing this as an FAQ in order to help you pick out the pieces that are most relevant to your business.  It should be noted that they are still in the rule-making process, and expect to be doing so until mid-December.  That means that things aren’t crystal clear yet.  Here’s what we know so far:

What is Washington Paid Family and Medical Leave?

This is a program that will allow employees to take up to 12 paid weeks off in a year (or up to 18 in certain circumstances) if they themselves are sick, if they are caring for a sick family member, if they are preparing for a military deployment or spending R&R with a deployed military member, for either parent to bond with a new child (through birth, adoption, or foster placement).

How does an employee qualify for the program?

In order to qualify for the program, the employee must have worked 820 hours in the previous year. It is possible that the 820 hours were not all worked for the same employer.

Do employees have to take all of their eligible PFML at once?

Photo by Ana Tablas on Unsplash

No.  Employees can take their leave one day at a time if they want.  There must be a minimum of eight concurrent hours used in one week, and in the case of a new child they must use the leave within one year of the birth or placement.  For example, a person with cancer could take off one day per week for eight weeks in order to receive chemotherapy treatment.  A new mother could take off eight weeks, and then decide to take only one day a week off for the next 20 weeks after that.  Or new parents can decide that one parent will take off the first 12 weeks of a child’s life, and the other parent will take the following 12 weeks off, in order to provide the most parental coverage possible to the new baby.    If your employee welcomed a new baby, adoption, or foster placement in 2019, they are still eligible for PFML from January 1, 2020 until the first anniversary of the event.

Do I have to pay for this?

PFML is paid out to employees by the state.  It’s funded similarly to unemployment – you pay in a little, and the State provides benefits directly to the employee if she or he applies and qualifies.  If you have under 50 employees, you are not required to pay into the fund at all.

Do I have to hold their job open while they are gone?

Maybe, depending on your circumstances. 

No — If you have fewer than 50 employees.  You are required to give the employee notice if you do not intend to hold their job.

Yes, if:

  • You have 50 or more employees, and
  • The employee has worked for you for at least one year, and
  • The employee has worked for you 20 weeks or more in the last year, and
  • The employee has worked for you at least 1250 hours in the last year, and
  • The employee maintains regular contact with you throughout their leave.

Do I have to manage this program in any way?

Minimally.  Employees apply for the financial benefit through the State, just like unemployment.  Also just like unemployment, the State will decide how much benefit they will receive, and the State will monitor them each week while on leave to make sure they still qualify. 

Your requirements:

  • Quarterly reporting of hours worked and wages.  This reporting began in 2019.  If you were unaware of this, you should begin reporting here
  • Collect and pay employee (and employer, if required) portions of premiums.
  • Give notice to employees that this program is available.  According to ESD, there will be a required workplace poster that you will find here once it’s available later this year.
  • If an employee applies for the program, you will be notified and asked to verify that the employee gave you appropriate notice.

Do employees have to tell me before they go on leave?

Yes.  Employees are required to give you at least 30-days notice, when possible.  For example, if an employee schedules a surgery, they should tell you at least 30 days prior, or if less than 30 days, as soon as they know.  If the situation is illness or emergency, they are permitted to tell you as soon as possible.

Can I require employees to use my sick leave or PTO program before taking PFLA?

No.  In fact, employees will now be able to take PFLA in addition to your leave benefits. 

If I have 50 or more employees, does this run concurrently with FMLA?

The ESD representative was very vague and unsure on this topic.  I would expect more clarification to come out soon.  What I can say for sure is that the definition of family is broader under PFML than under FMLA, including in-laws, grandparents, and step-parents.

How much of the employee’s salary will be covered by PFML?

There is apparently a formula for this, but it will likely be about 70%.

Can I “top off” my employees so they can receive their full salary while on leave?

The State is still in the rule-making process around this question, but the current answer is yes.  Stay tuned for more information in December and January. 

Is there any assistance for my business while my employee is on leave?

Photo by Aditya Romansa on Unsplash

Yes. If you are paying the employer portion through payroll, you may be eligible for a $1000 or $3000 grant to cover the costs of hiring a temporary worker. If you are a small business under 50 employees, remember that you are not required to pay the employer portion of the premium. ESD says that they will allow you to start paying your portion at the time of your grant application, with the stipulation that you will have to continue paying the employer share for the next three years.

Where can I find more information?

You can find more FAQ’s directly from the employment security department here.

How do you expect this new law to affect your business?  What concerns do you have?  I look forward to our discussion in the comments below!

As always, I want to remind you that I am not an attorney, and this article is for informational purposes only.  It’s a great idea to talk to your attorney about any new policies you are considering, because only she knows how the law affects your particular situation.

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How to Hire and Retain Good Employees

Good, well-trained employees aren’t exactly easy to come by these days.  At a recent business forum I attended, the speaker, who was an owner of a chain of local grocery stores in the Seattle area, commented that the skills they hired for in the past — i.e. experience with grocery stores or in food service –are no longer readily available.  Because the unemployment rate is currently so low, the grocery stores just aren’t getting the number of experienced applicants they once were.  Consequently, they’ve had to hire some employees who needed significant training.  Since they are putting so many resources into each individual employee’s training and development, they hope these employees will stay with the company for a long time.

As an employer or business owner, you want to be able to keep your turnover costs low and retain your good people.  In order to keep them, you know you need to make them happy.  But how do you hire and retain good employees?  What makes an employee want to stay with a company?  What makes employees happy?

The great news is that there are things you can do within your organization that will make it more likely that you will be able to retain your top talent.

  • Hire for fit – employees are more likely to be engaged and stay longer if they fit in with the current corporate culture.
  • Empower employees – People crave autonomy, so let them make decisions about how they do their work. Show them the end goal, and let them figure out how to get there themselves.  Support them when they ask for it.
  • Foster a culture of collaboration – Job satisfaction is higher when people feel a sense of inter-connectedness.
  • Support Employees’ Growth – People are more likely to stay with a company if there is a solid path that allows them to train and grow in responsibility and pay.
  • Pay and Benefits are Competitive – While it is a misconception that paying top dollar will lead to more satisfied employees, it is true that if you don’t pay competitively you will lose your staff to a company who does. Regularly analyze your compensation package in comparison with your competitors, and adjust as necessary.

I am happy to be writing a series of blog posts that will help you integrate these areas into your company or department.  Stay tuned!

Is Your Negative Attitude Affecting Your Business?

Have you ever seen someone walk into the office in a bad mood?  Especially if that person was your boss, you probably noticed how quickly the the energy of the office changed to match the bad mood.  An office environment that only moments prior had been sunny and efficient can quickly change to dark and stressful.

A recent commenter on this blog described how she had quit a job due to her boss’ bad attitude.  Her boss was the owner of the company, and his constant dissatisfaction with the state of everyone’s work permeated the office.  This attitude eventually trickled down to our commenter, and subsequently influenced the way she managed those working under her as well.  Because of this constant barrage of negativity, her work life eventually became too stressful and unsatisfying and she finally decided to leave the company.

This story really made me think about how the ways in which we lead affect everything else in our company, from personnel to profits.  A leader’s “vibe,” or the values she expresses in the workplace, trickle down to affect and permeate how everyone else in the company acts.  This eventually even affects the way employees act with your customers.  As leaders, we must carefully groom our own attitudes to make sure that the values we express are aligned with the values we want to portray to clients and to the public.

What qualities do you want the public to associate with your company?  Perhaps it is optimism, a can-do attitude, creativity, helpfulness, or friendliness?  These all start with you.  What you model, your staff will embody, and hence your company will become.

Assess your Values

Here is an exercise designed to determine whether your own attitude at work aligns with the values you want your company to embody.  If you want your company to truly exemplify these qualities, you will need to start with yourself.  To begin, sit down at your computer or with some paper and a pen.  Write down the values you want the public and your customers to associate with your company.  These could be values such as honesty, integrity, creativity, positive attitude, or any other values that are relevant to your field.  List all the values you can think of.  Once you’ve exhausted your list, go through them one by one.  For each value ask yourself, “Does this value resonate with me personally?  Do I really believe in it?”  Then, being honest with yourself, ask “Are these the values I portray at work?”  It might be helpful to talk about this with a coworker who you truly trust to be honest with you.  Ask him or about the attitudes he sees you express in the workplace.  Do these match with your company’s stated values and the values you want to see in your staff?  If not, it’s time to work on matching your stated values with your true inner values.

Along with my partner, Dr. Susan Franklin, I’d like to invite you to explore this further through a free webinar that will address the alignment of leaders’ personal values with their organizations’ values.  We call it WHY Leadership, and it’s about leading from your place of purpose and your own personal “why.” click here to sign up for the webinar, which will take place on November 16, at 1:00pm, PST.

If you are lucky enough to live in the Puget Sound area of Washington State and would like to sign up for the in-person monthly meetup group, go to Why Leadership of Kitsap.

 

What is Company Culture?

I would not want to run into this lion out in the wild all by myself.  He appears to have pretty sharp teeth and a large mouth, and I can’t see his paws in this picture, but I’m willing to bet they’re giant and decorated with freshly-sharpened claws.  Most non-human animals, such as this lion, have fur or claws to protect themselves from the elements, to help them find food, and to find shelter.   As humans, we have only measly little fingernails, and we wouldn’t last long at all outside in our bare skin, either in the sun or in the snow.  So how do we protect ourselves from predators like lions, and find the food we need to survive?

matteo-vistocco-240766That’s what culture does for us.  Human culture is the mechanism that enables us to work together to solve problems.  Some problems we have faced as humans include how to find and grow food, how to shelter ourselves from the elements, and how to take care of our tiny, helpless offspring who are reliant on us not for months, but for years.  It also allows us to work together in other ways, such as in a business.

Culture extends to how we interact with and treat one another.  Cultural “norms” are the rules we have defined as necessary to interact with one another.  We don’t think about those norms as being anything out of the ordinary, because we are immersed in them every day.  For example, I am from an urban and industrial area in the rustbelt near Cleveland.  Where I come from the word “dinner” refers to the meal you eat around 6:00 at night.  My husband is from a farming community in the Midwest, and in his culture, the word “dinner” refers to the meal you eat at the midday, the meal I would normally call “lunch.”  Neither is right nor wrong, there is simply a cultural difference in the way meals are eaten, due to different nutritional needs at different times of the day.

In the workplace, each business or office has its own cultural norms.  These are the rules, sometimes written, sometimes unwritten, by which we agree to interact with each other.  Since we’ve already been talking about the midday meal, I’ll tell you about one office where I worked in which it was normal to eat lunch at your desk.  In fact, it wasn’t just normal, it was unofficially required.  Of course, it was illegal not to allow employees a break, and therefore not officially required by the employee handbook or the management.  However, I can tell you that if a person did choose to leave the office for lunch, everyone else would make snide comments when they returned, and the person would be punished in passive aggressive ways.  Likewise, in a different company where I worked it was normal and encouraged to leave the office each day for an hour at lunch.  The thought was that if people left, they would come back refreshed and ready for the afternoon.  The culture of those offices were much different, and what was considered normal in one would be considered very unusual and even discouraged in the other.  In this case, one of these office environments was abusive and controlling, and the other was open and creative.  I bet you can guess which one had higher turnover!

rawpixel-com-250087The way you manage your business and the people you choose to hire will create the culture of your business.  The culture of the business will in turn affect very important aspects of your growth and profitability, including your ability to hire and retain top talent.  Does your culture promote open dialogue between staff and management?  Does your culture promote leadership growth?   Does your culture support families?  Does your culture value the customer?  Often if you don’t set out to create these values, you may find yourself with a company whose culture does not actually support the values it claims to have.

In the comments section below, I invite you to share experiences from a company you have worked with who did either a really excellent job of building company culture, or from a company who did a particularly poor job.    What could they have done differently?