The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – Guidance for Businesses with Employees in the U.K.

On Friday 20th March, the U.K. Government announced various support measures for UK businesses.  One of these was the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (the “Scheme”), which it is hoped will reduce the risk that U.K. employers promptly dismiss employees in response to the Coronavirus outbreak.  Further guidance was published on 26th March, providing some much needed detail on various aspects of the Scheme, which is expected to be operational by the end of April.

Any employer in the U.K. can access the Scheme for assistance with salary payments to those employees that would otherwise have been at risk of dismissal for redundancy and who are described for the purposes of the Scheme as “furloughed workers” (a new concept in English law).  Some questions remain, but the key details of the Scheme are:

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U.K. Government Announces Self-Employment Income Support Scheme

Following its announcement on Friday 20th March to provide much-needed assistance to UK employers and employees in the short-term through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, and intense pressure to provide similar assistance to self-employed workers, the UK Government has released details of a similar scheme intended to support this group: the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (the “SEISS”).

The SEISS will support self-employed individuals (including consultants and members of partnerships) whose income has been negatively impacted by COVID-19, but is unlikely to apply to consultants who provide their services through a personal services company, given the criteria set out below.  Further, the Chancellor indicated that tax payable by the self-employed would, in future, need to be brought in line with that paid by employees.

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Ten Ways to Avoid Layoffs During the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the COVID-19 public health crisis continues, businesses are dealing with unprecedented disruptions to operations and workforce stability. Most employers undoubtedly want to assist their employees during this uncertain time, but they are struggling to balance the cost of maintaining their workforce with shrinking profits. The frequent result of such a balancing act is a mass layoff. While such a reduction in workforce may be inevitable, below are options that employers can consider to try to avoid that outcome. For all of these alternatives, employers should be careful to apply any changes consistently across the workforce to avoid claims of inequity or discrimination.

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German Labor Law Consequences of COVID-19

In view of the coronavirus crisis, employers are faced with numerous questions of employment law, ranging from the question of compulsory employment and possible release of employees in the event of illness or closure of the business, through remuneration issues in the event of a lack of childcare, to the currently extended options for receiving short-time work allowance in the event of absence of work. We prepared an alert describing the most important answers to these questions.  An English version is available here.

Arbeitgeber stehen angesichts der Coronaviruskrise vor zahlreichen arbeitsrechtlichen Fragestellungen, die von der Frage der Beschäftigungspflicht und möglichen Freistellungen von Arbeitnehmern im Krankheitsfall oder bei Schließung des Betriebes über Vergütungsfragen bei fehlender Kinderbetreuung bis hin zu den aktuell erweiterten Möglichkeiten zum Bezug von Kurzarbeitergeld bei Arbeitsausfall reichen. Nachfolgend sind die wichtigsten Antworten auf diese Fragen zusammengestellt.

Five Ways to Avoid Redundancies During The Coronavirus Crisis

  • The speed and severity of the current crisis means UK employers face very difficult and pressing decisions.
  • Some intermediate steps can be taken to preserve workforces for a period and avoid immediate redundancies.
  • Some form of individual or even collective consultation with employees or their representatives may be necessary. This can be used as an opportunity to seek creative, collaborative solutions to preserve jobs in the short-term.
  • We set out a checklist of potential measures below.

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Impact of New Coronavirus Mandatory Leave and Testing Legislation Largely Limited to Smaller Employers

Last night (Wednesday, March 18, 2020) the President signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act after it passed the Senate in the afternoon by a vote of 90-8.  The Act requires all private health plans to cover COVID-19 diagnostic testing—coverage that most insured and large self-insured health plans already are providing.  The Act also requires employers with fewer than 500 employees to provide up to ten weeks of paid FMLA leave and two weeks of paid sick leave to employees affected by COVID-19.  For small employers subject to these new leave mandates, the Act provides tax credits to help offset the cost of the mandates.  This means that the tax credits are not available to employers with 500 or more employees, even if they provide paid leave equal to or in excess of that required of smaller employers under the Act.  It is noteworthy that the Senate voted down amendments that would have expanded the bill’s paid FMLA leave or replaced the bill’s paid leave with state unemployment benefits.

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COVID-19 Emergency Declaration: Code § 139 Uncertain; Leave-Sharing Policies Permitted

On March 13, 2020, the President declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be an emergency under Section 501(b) of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the “Stafford Act”).  The decision to declare an emergency is addressed in a letter from the President to Administration officials in which he explained that his decision to issue an emergency declaration was “based on the fact that our entire country is now facing a significant public health emergency.”

Employers may be wondering whether this declaration provides an opportunity to offer “qualified disaster relief payments” under Internal Revenue Code § 139 to employees as a means of mitigating the pandemic’s effects.  It is not entirely clear.  Because the President declared an emergency—not a major disaster—it is not clear, until we get further guidance from the IRS that employers that they may rely on Code § 139 as a means of providing tax-free benefits to their employees.  Section 139 refers specifically to a declared disaster as do the regulations under section 165(i), which are cross-referenced in the section 139 rules.  Less formal IRS guidance in the form of revenue procedures have conflated the two types of declarations in the past, however, and the IRS has indicated that for purposes of section 165(i), “a disaster includes an event declared a major disaster or an emergency.”  However, in the interim, employers may still adopt other policies, such as leave-sharing, that will ease the pandemic’s toll on affected employees.

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Benefit Plan Record Retention – A Cautionary Tale from Louisiana

Consider a situation in which a former employee alleges that he or she did not receive a COBRA election notice. That’s the notice that must be provided to group health plan participants when they lose coverage as a result of certain events, including termination of employment, and that gives the participants information regarding their rights and obligations to elect COBRA continuation coverage. If a court finds that the employer failed to provide the notice, the court could (1) allow the employee to retroactively elect coverage after the election period otherwise would have ended, (2) award statutory penalties of up to $110 per day to the employee, or (3) provide other relief to the employee. There is also an excise tax for COBRA failures, including failure to provide a COBRA election notice, of $100 per day per failure. An employer must report the excise tax on Form 8928, and the statute of limitations generally would not start running unless and until the employer does so.

To prevail at the summary judgment stage and avoid a trial, some courts hold that the plan administrator has the burden of proving that the election notice was properly sent to the employee. So, what evidence does the plan administrator need to establish that the notice was sent? According to a recent decision, a declaration of the employer’s normal business practices may not be enough to win a motion for summary judgment.

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IRS Clears the Way for High Deductible Plans to Waive Cost Sharing for Coronavirus Testing

The Internal Revenue Service has issued guidance (Notice 2020-15) that allows sponsors of high deductible health plans (“HDHPs”) to reimburse up to the full cost of medical care services and items for testing and treatment of COVID-19 before plan participants meet the plan’s minimum statutory deductible.  Accordingly, participants in a HDHP that waives cost sharing or deductibles for medical expenses related to the testing and treatment of COVID-19 will continue to be eligible to receive favorable federal tax treatment for amounts contributed to their Health Savings Accounts.  The guidance also includes a reminder that any vaccination costs continue to be considered preventive care and can be reimbursed by HDHPs without cost sharing before the plan’s deductible is met.

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