Even as states relax restrictions and some people stop wearing masks, COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact on employers around the country. This is still a rapidly changing situation, and new announcements from the IRS and OSHA will impact worker safety standards and COBRA administration.
OSHA issues Emergency Temporary Standard
More than a year after the pandemic started, OSHA has issued an Emergency Temporary Standard to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19. The standard focuses on healthcare workers who interact with confirmed or suspected COVID patients, including workers in hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as emergency responders and home healthcare workers.
The standard includes the following requirements:
- Conducting a hazard assessment and writing a plan to mitigate the spread of the virus
- Providing PPE, including N95 respirators, to some employees
- Ensuring six feet of distance between workers if possible, or using barriers between employees
- Providing paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from the vaccine
- Having workers who have COVID or may be contagious work remotely or separated from other workers, or giving them paid time off
If people with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID are not expected to be present, vaccinated workers may be exempt from masking, distancing and barrier requirements.
The Emergency Temporary Standard only applies to healthcare workers. However, OSHA has also issued updated guidance for other industries. The changes include protection for unvaccinated and at-risk workers and information on encouraging COVID-19 vaccination.
Even without a formal standard, employers should take COVID safety seriously. SHRM says that OSHA has been targeting employers that retaliate against workers who raise COIVD concerns, and OSHA had received more than 5,000 whistleblower complaints as of April 11, 2021.
IRS Issues COBRA Premium Subsidy Guidance
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included a provision for fully subsidized COBRA premiums for workers and family members who lost coverage due to involuntary termination or reduction in hours.
The subsidy – which started on April 1, 2021 and continues through September 30, 2021 – has resulted in some confusion for employers. The IRS recently provided additional guidance in Notice 2021-31.
According to the document, to be considered an Assistance Eligible Individual, health coverage must have been terminated due to involuntary termination or a reduction in hours. Other events that can trigger COBRA coverage, such as divorce, do not trigger the COBRA subsidies.
However, individuals who have been furloughed may qualify for COBRA premium assistance. Additionally, involuntary termination may include resignation under certain circumstances. In answering a question about whether it could be considered involuntary termination if an employee quits over COVID safety concerns, the IRS says, “A termination of employment would be involuntary if the employee can demonstrate that the employer’s actions (or inactions) resulted in a material negative change in the employment relationship analogous to a constructive discharge.”
The same answer also states that it would normally not be considered involuntary termination if an employee quits because of an inability to find daycare, a family member’s illness or similar issues. However, this may not be true if the employee can show “the employer’s failure to either take a required action or provide a reasonable accommodation.”
Although the original qualifying event must be involuntary termination or a reduction in hours, the National Law Review points out that the notice also states that subsidies may be available for individuals whose 18-month COBRA coverage period was extended due to various reasons.
This IRS notice includes many details that may surprise employers. You can review Notice 2021-31 in its entirety.
Technology to Assist with ARPA
If you’re looking for software to support the COBRA requirements of this new legislation, contact us to learn more about T-COBRAWEB 2.0, which will soon include:
- A new ARPA Notification that can be sent to participants within the Event date-range of eligibility. This includes the Attestation form participants will send back
- New ARPA Event type to allow for a gap in coverage
- Updates to ongoing notices
- Updated Subsidy report
- End of Subsidy notice
We’re here to help with the most COBRA-focused and flexible software available.