Employees Staring Down Irma? 10 Ways to Help

Employee Benefits News examines legal developments that impact the employee benefits and executive compensation employers provide, including federal and state legislation, rules from federal...

By David B. Brandolph

Employers in Florida and other Southeastern states can do a lot to help workers deal with possible devastation from Hurricane Irma.

The following is a list of 10 key things employers’ benefits departments can do to help their workers during and after an emergency like Irma. The ideas come from Bloomberg BNA’s interviews with the National Business Group on Health, which has also released a survey on how employers are responding to Hurricane Harvey, and the Plan Sponsor Council of America.

Two Florida companies--Citrix Systems Inc. in Fort Lauderdale and WellCare Health Plans Inc. in Tampa--also provided ideas for this list.

Enhance 401(k) Flexibility

Review loan and hardship provisions and consider amending the plan after consulting with legal counsel and service providers. Some amendments to consider are:

1. Instituting loan provisions if they aren’t currently being offered. Otherwise, employees will be forced to take hardship withdrawals, if available.

2. Making loan provisions more flexible by expanding the number of loans available at one time and/or relaxing any cooling off periods that delay subsequent loans to those who have taken them in the past.

3. Letting employees apply for loans or hardship withdrawals, receive funds, and make loan repayments online. Employees may have relocated and lack access to their workplace.

4. Providing, in the case of employers that don’t permit hardship withdrawals, a temporary hardship withdrawal window to correspond to any expanded relief offered by the Internal Revenue Service or Congress. Such relief may include the temporary waiver of documentation requirements or the waiver of excise tax penalties for those under age 59 1/2.

Access to Health-Care Benefits

Health plan administrators also have flexibility to see that employees get the benefits they need and are entitled to. This could include:

5. Offering temporary relief from medical plan restrictions to permit the use of out-of network providers on the same basis as in-network providers or to equalize pharmacy benefit coverage for the use of generic and nongeneric medicines. Citrix Systems, for example, provides health-care advocates to assist employees locate in-network providers in new areas.

6. Communicating the availability of mental health benefits, online physician services, and other employee assistance program benefits, such as grief counseling.

7. Offering partnerships with medical providers in evacuation zones that provide free or low-cost care, as WellCare Health Plans does.

Emergency Cash and Other Benefits

Employers can provide a host of fringe benefits to help their employees cope. Some of these include:

8. Providing emergency cash or interest-free loans. These funds often supply relief of between $500 and $5,000. They may be funded wholly or partly by co-workers, with employers matching contributions or funding the entire amount.

9. Permitting employees to donate vacation leave to employees who can’t get to the office or allowing these benefits to be cashed in for contributions to charitable organizations that serve disaster areas.

10. Giving temporary housing, meal, and transportation benefits.

To contact the reporter on this story: David B. Brandolph in Washington at dbrandol@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Request Pension & Benefits Daily