More employers link premiums to wellness


More employers are following the lead of companies such as CVS Caremark, which recently made news by requiring its employees to receive health screenings that include measuring weight, cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure, or face a $50-per-month penalty on their health insurance premiums.

These measures are becoming increasingly common for businesses that are looking to combat the rising cost of health care. For instance, Compdata Surveys’ Benefits USA 2012/2013 survey found that 34 percent of U.S. employers that offer wellness programs either provide health insurance discounts for employees who participate in wellness programs or impose penalties on workers with risk factors who aren’t taking action—up from 25.4 percent in 2009.

The survey, which collected data from more than 4,500 U.S. benefit plans covering more than 13 million employees, further revealed that:

28 percent of employers made medical-premium contributions for employees who participate in wellness programs, up from 16.7 percent reported three years earlier. 

27.6 percent of employers make contributions to health savings accounts (HSAs) and health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) to reward workers for participating in wellness programs. Forty-two percent of employers offer gift cards.

Tobacco-cessation programs and flu shots/immunizations are wellness options at 62.7 percent and 90.9 percent of organizations surveyed, respectively.

The average premium increase on employer-sponsored preferred provider organization (PPO) plans has been between 9 percent and 11 percent each year since 2009, according to Compdata Surveys. The findings were reported in April 2013.

Shifting Employer Approach to Incentives

Similarly, HR consultancy Aon Hewitt recently surveyed nearly 800 large and midsize U.S. organizations, representing more than 7 million U.S. employees. The March 2013 survey report showed that 83 percent of employers offer their workers incentives for participating in wellness-improvement programs, including filling out a health-risk assessment and undergoing biometric screenings. 

The findings also revealed that:

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of employers offer monetary incentives of between $50 and $500.

Nearly one in five (18 percent) provide monetary incentives of more than $500.

Tying Incentives to Positive Results

A growing number of employers are linking incentives to sustainable actions and results, Aon Hewitt found. Among companies that offer incentives:

56 percent require employees to actively participate in health programs, comply with medications or take part in activities like health coaching.

24 percent offer incentives for progress toward or attainment of acceptable ranges for biometric measures such as blood pressure, body mass index, blood sugar and cholesterol.

The survey data indicate a potential shift in how employers are thinking about designing their incentive programs in the future:

58 percent of organizations plan to impose consequences on participants who do not take appropriate actions to improve their health. 

34 percent of employers are interested in tying incentives to program designs that require a continuing focus on health (for example, incentives for completing a progressive physical-activity program that builds up to the recommended cardiovascular physical activity of 150 minutes per week).

According to a separate, recent Aon Hewitt survey conducted in partnership with the National Business Group on Health and The Futures Co., of the workers who were offered a health-risk assessment and were given suggested actions based on their results, four out of five (86 percent) took some action. Further, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of those who received suggested actions reported that they made at least one lifestyle improvement. 

— Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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Toro recalls Z Master riding mowers


Toro announced a recall of its 2012 and 2013 Toro Z Master Commercial 2000 Series ZRT riding mowers.

The mower’s idler pulley can rub against its fuel tank, posing a fire hazard, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Toro has received six reports of incidents. No injuries have been reported.

The recall affects about 3,700 of the mowers in the U.S. and 60 in Canada (about 2,600 units were previously recalled in the U.S. and 30 in Canada in November 2012.) The products were sold at Toro dealers nationwide from January 2012 through April 2013 for between $7,700 and $8,700.


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Issuing final payments in the workplace

BY Wade W Herring II

Employers must execute many tasks when employees leave the company by choice or are terminated. One of the most important items to get right is final payments to departing employees.


Be big in small things

Some companies dock final paychecks for excess sick days, uniform violations or other inexpensive missing property. The late Malcolm Maclean, former mayor of Savannah and accomplished attorney, advised his clients and colleagues, “Be big in small things.” A company is best served if it avoids a penny-wise and pound-foolish reckoning with the departing employee.

When an employee leaves, the process should be as amicable as possible under the circumstances, and always professional. Good employees should depart on a positive note, since former workers serve as ambassadors for your organization and your brand. Satisfied “alumni” will continue to be friends with and referral sources for their ex-employers.

Even when an involuntary departure is triggered by a rule violation or performance problem, err on the side of graciousness and generosity. The goal is to minimize the risk of legal liability, not to provide the departing individual with another reason to file an administrative claim or lawsuit.


Federal law governing final payments

The last paycheck should include compensation for all time worked. Best practices discourage extraordinary deductions from final paychecks, while the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits such deductions from overtime pay. Additionally, nonexempt employees must be paid at least minimum wage for all regular hours worked.

Exempt employees’ final paycheck should not reflect extra deductions for discipline or property violations. If an employee’s last week is less than a full workweek, however, the FLSA allows organizations to prorate the final paycheck and cover only days worked.

Whether an employee is exempt or nonexempt, the FLSA does not require employers to immediately issue the final paycheck; rather, they may wait until the next regular payroll.


The import of state law

Usually, federal law pre-empts state law. Even so, with wage-hour law, when state law is more generous to employees, as a general rule, state law governs. Thus, some states require immediate payment. In California — one of the strictest states in the nation when it comes to final-payment rules — final checks must be given upon termination or within 72 hours if the worker resigned. If an employee has given more than 72 hours’ notice, the check must be presented immediately.

By contrast, employer-friendly states such as Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi have no laws regulating final payments when an individual is dismissed or quits. Accordingly, businesses in these states may wait until the next regular payroll after an employee’s separation to issue the final paycheck.

Violating state laws on final payments, even out of ignorance, can be costly for employers. In some states, if an employer fails to pay a departing worker within the legal time requirements, it may have to pay additional penalties and interest, along with any attorney fees and legal costs the employee incurred in seeking payment.


Vacation time and sick pay

The FLSA does not determine whether unused vacation time or sick leave should be included in the final paycheck. Once again, state law governs.

In some states, including California, accrued paid time off is considered part of earned compensation and must be included in a last payment. In other states, such as Georgia, company policy governs.

In states where an employer is able to set its own rules, an employee handbook is an ideal place to specify whether unused vacation time  or sick pay is earned and payable to exiting employees. Legalistic distinctions based on “for cause” terminations are ill-advised. Remember: The goal is to have the employee exit as gracefully as possible, not to create more causes for controversy.


Severance pay and release agreements

Severance — a payment in addition to what the employee is entitled to receive under the law and the company’s own policies, procedures and benefit plans — provides the departing individual with extra assistance upon leaving the company and allows the employer to obtain, in return, a release of claims (meaning an agreement not to sue the employer for more compensation).

For the release to be valid, severance pay must provide extra compensation or other in-kind considerations beyond what the employee would ordinarily receive. If the severance check is simply the final payment for time worked, it does not qualify as severance pay. Thus, final paychecks are typically issued before severance payments.

Before the 2008-09 Great Recession, a common severance formula was one week’s pay for every year of service — capped at 12 or 15 weeks of severance. Since the recession, however, employers have reduced severance to smaller amounts. As long as the severance is extra and not an entitlement, it can provide for a release of claims.

Like final paychecks, severance payments are subject to withholding for taxes. The rules about FICA are in dispute because of differing circuit court rulings.

To be clear, certain kinds of claims cannot be released, such as FLSA, workers’ compensation and unemployment benefits claims. A release cannot prohibit an employee from filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Nevertheless, a release can preclude the ex-employee from benefiting financially, even when a charge is filed. As a practical matter, a valid release extinguishes most federal, state and local claims.

The Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (OWBPA) governs the requirements of an effective release for age-discrimination claims. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act protects workers who are 40 and older. Special rules apply for group layoffs, but for an individual separation the release agreement must:

• Give the employee 21 days to decide whether to sign and seven days to revoke after signing.

• Advise the employee of the right to consult with an attorney.

Specify that released claims include age discrimination.

Even employees younger than 40 should be allowed time to review an offered severance-and-release agreement and to consult with an advisor. An organization that demands that the employee sign immediately probably does not have a valid release, but such insistence does not allow the employee to make a knowing and voluntary decision. In the eyes of the law, a demand to sign immediately is coercion.

When severance is offered and accepted, departing workers should not remain on the employer’s group health care plan, since, by definition, former employees do not meet the eligibility requirement of employment. Rather, exiting individuals should be offered COBRA coverage. Part of the severance may include payment of the COBRA premium or reimbursement for COBRA premiums for a certain period.

Parting may or may not be sweet sorrow, but separations can be stressful for everyone involved. Use checklists, plan ahead, and lose the emotion. Make the tough decisions, but execute the termination plan with professionalism and respect.

Wade W. Herring II is a partner in the Savannah, Ga., office of law firm HunterMaclean and the leader of the firm’s employment practice group.

©2013 SHRM. All rights reserved.

Have HR-related questions and concerns? Get access to essential forms, policies and guides, plus a live call center,, powered by HCN and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).  


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Who do you view as your biggest competitor?