As COVID-19 causes schools, bars, theaters and other organizations to temporarily close their doors, businesses are having to adapt fast. Here’s how the Novel Coronavirus pandemic is impacting employee benefits.

Health Insurance Changes

Health insurance companies are responding to the pandemic with new policies and waived out-of-pocket costs.

On March 11, the IRS announced that “high-deductible health plans (HDHPs) can pay for 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)-related testing and treatment, without jeopardizing their status. This also means that an individual with an HDHP that covers these costs may continue to contribute to a health savings account (HSA).”

According to America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), numerous health insurers have announced that they are waiving copays for COVID-19 testing. Some insurers are also waiving prior authorization requirements and prescription drug refill limits. More announcements may be coming, so check with your insurance provider for updates.

As people are being encouraged to stay home as much as possible, telemedicine is being promoted as a way for individuals to get care without getting exposed to COVID-19. Many health plans have embraced telemedicine in recent years, so these benefits are likely already available, although they may be underused.

Staying Home

Many workers have transitioned to working from home as a precautionary measure to stop the spread. The DOL says that employers may encourage or require employees to work remotely as an infection-control measure, although individuals cannot be singled out in a way that goes against EEO laws.

However, not all work can be done from home. Some states have ordered certain businesses – such as bars and gyms – to close, and suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 may force other organizations to close as well. Now many states are under strict stay-at-home orders as well, meaning only essential businesses are allowed to stay open.

Several businesses have announced that they will close while continuing to pay workers. According to Business Insider, at least 60 retailers have announced temporary closures, and most have said they will pay employees for lost shifts.

In some cases, paid leave may be required. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which will be effective through December 31, 2020, requires covered employers to provide paid family and medical leave for certain reasons related to COVID-19. Covered employers will be required to provide two weeks of paid leave for all employees and up to an additional 10 weeks of paid leave for qualifying employees.

Meanwhile, the DOL has announced new federal guidelines that allow states to amend their unemployment insurance rules in response to COVID-19. Under these guidelines, states can pay unemployment benefits if an employer temporarily closes due to COVID-10, a worker is quarantined or a worker leaves employment due to risk of exposure or to care for a family member. Check with your state to see how these guidelines are being implemented.


The CARES Act was signed into law on March 27. This is a huge piece of legislation that includes direct payments to individuals, forgivable small business loans, and expanded unemployment benefits, as well as other provisions.

The CARES Act also establishes an Employee Retention Credit. This is a refundable tax credit for employers, and it is equal to 50 percent of qualified wages paid by eligible employers to their employees. The tax credit applies to wages paid after March 12, 2020, and before January 1, 2021.

Staying Compliant

In February, the HHS Office for Civil Rights in Action issued a bulletin reminding health care providers, health plans and other covered entities that the HIPPA Privacy Rule still applies during the coronavirus outbreak.

The EEOC has clarified what employers are and are not allowed to do during a pandemic. “During a pandemic, ADA-covered employers may ask such employees if they are experiencing symptoms of the pandemic virus. For COVID-19, these include symptoms such as fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat. Employers must maintain all information about employee illness as a confidential medical record in compliance with the ADA.”

Many workers are losing hours or being laid off right now. If health insurance coverage is in jeopardy due to a loss of hours, talk to your health insurance provider to see what options are available. If coverage is terminated, employees may be eligible for COBRA continuation coverage. Businesses dealing with COVID-19 may struggle to meet regulatory requirements, such as issuing COBRA notices on time. However, barring new federal guidance, it’s important to keep up with all regular COBRA regulations.

This is still a developing situation. Employers should monitor local, state and federal developments for new information and requirements.