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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Just What is Obamacare?

Twice in my career I have worked for someone whom almost everyone at work was scared to death. In both experiences the same dynamic was present in the workplace: there was an inner circle around the boss who did as they pleased and blamed him for it.  If they wanted to see something happen, they just told their staff "he said so" and nobody dared ask him.  The unpopular boss, while maybe justifiably challenging, had no idea about half of what was done in his name.

Such is the case with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also commonly referred to as Healthcare Reform (HCR) and "Obamacare." 

During the election I heard tales of small businesses that were going to have to discontinue benefits or fire staff because of the onerous tenants of this legislation. When I would dig deeper 90% of the time that business had less than 50 employees and was exempt from the law. Obamacare has become that unpopular boss on which you can blame everything because the bill is so complex that few employees can or will read and understand it.

So what is it exactly?  What businesses are affected?  Here is a really high level overview of the major provisions of a really complex bill.

  • First of all, as I said above, the bill impacts "large employers" defined as those having 50 or more employees. When I use the term "employers" below it means those who must comply.
  • Effective March 1, 2012 it required employers to notify new hires of the presence insurance exchanges as well as the tax implications if they elect coverage through exchanges.
  • Effective September 23, 2012 it required employers to make Summary Plan Descriptions in plain language so laymen can understand them. Note: I have pushed for this with every health plan I've administered since the 90's and this is long overdue. People should understand their coverage.
  • Upon the next renewal period after September 23, 2012 it requires that employers give their employees 60 days notice before making significant changes to their health benefits.
  • Effective with the signing of the bill, it bars employers or insurers from retroactively cancelling insurance coverage unless the employee has engaged in fraud or intentional misrepresentation.
  • Effective with the signing of the bill insurance plans that require the employee to designate a primary provider (think HMO here) must allow the employee, not the plan or employer, to choose the provider.
  • For health plans renewing after August 1, 2012 it required that women's preventative health services be covered by the plan with no employee cost-sharing.
  • Effective January 1, 2013 it limited contributions to your FSA (not including any employer contribution) to $2,500. 
  • Effective January 1, 2014 it eliminates annual limits on medical benefits.  No longer will seriously ill patients go into bankruptcy because their insurance capped below their expenses.
  • Effective January 1, 2014 no health plan may impose a waiting period of longer than 90 days for those electing coverage.
  • Effective January 1, 2014 pre-existing condition exclusions will be banned regardless of age (they are already outlawed for children under 19).
These are the major provisions that affect most employees. There are additional provisions designed to make sure that health plans don't favor highly compensated employees, that impose limits on awards in wellness programs that grant awards to employees, and that impose fees on insurance companies to help finance research into treatment effectiveness.

Finally you may note that I have left out discussions on the individual mandate. That is because, like my friends with the businesses of less than 50 employees, if you are covered by a health plan you are not affected by the individual mandate, i.e. you already have insurance. 

I have been administering the health plans of my employers for about 20 years.  I have seen sickening abuses by insurance carriers and concluded that except for an active and professional HR department, which many companies don't have, employees are on their own and often helpless in matters of insurance.  The reforms above have been needed for decades.

HCR is an imperfect bill reflecting Congressional Democrats obsession with highly compensated employees getting a better deal than others.  It also falls short of the most needed remaining reform: abolish FSA accounts and their use-it-or-lose-it provisions and allow HSA accounts for everyone regardless of plan.  Still, it is a major step forward in protecting employees and their dependents for insurance company abuses.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Hiring Your Friends: The Biggest Mistake You Are Likely to Make

This may sound obvious, but the subtleties around this topic are hugely important.  When you hear of someone "hiring a buddy" the first thing that is likely to come to mind is the hiring of an incompetent crony.  While that is certainly a dumb thing to do, that is not the pitfall into which smart managers fall.  Hiring the completely competent friend with whom you have worked before, and know well, is where smart managers often fail.

Why?  Because such a person often does not compliment your own strengths and weaknesses. 

The problem is simple: with whom do we bond as friends?  Usually people who are very much like ourselves.  Conversely, who do you need as a trusted team member? Someone who is enough different from you that they fill in your own skill or attention gaps.  Regarding their own development, what do they need in a supervisor?  Someone who can show them what they don't know or help them develop where they are weak.

Not only is this not good for you as a manager, nor is it good for the friend you hire, it is bad for your current team. You and your newly hired friend have a history that your current team does not. They more often than not see the two of you as allies or worse yet a clique. 

For your own sake, and that of your friends, hire for what you need and help your friends find good opportunities through referrals.  Form your new team with its own dynamic.  This approach is best for everyone.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Stages of a Union Campaign

For years I have had to endure the eye rolls of managers when I would talk to them about policies and procedures to keep unions at bay. The "that will never happen here" argument never quite went away over the decades when union membership was in decline. While it is not making a huge comeback, the Obama administration's friendliness with big labor and rule changes at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) have made organizing easier than it has been in years. Big labor, to its credit, is also getting smarter in its recruitment of young ideologues as organizers and its use of social media.

So it comes as little surprise to me that I find myself fighting my first union organizing campaign in years.  A client in the upper Midwest has been petitioned and now I find myself enjoying the Great Lakes snow in February helping to defend them and prepare for a mid-March vote. 

Working with the management here I see how much understanding of unions and union organizing attempts has diminished during the years when the threat was so remote.  So for the sake of a new generation of managers here is a quick overview of what happens in a campaign.

Stage 1: Card Signing
Usually someone from the workforce who is disgruntled over some issue, large or small, calls the union and asks for their help.  Typically the unions, being businesses, won't commit their staff time or resources until then know if the local employees are serious.  They will supply the complainant, who at that point becomes an in-house organizer, with cards declaring that the undersigned wishes to be represented by the union for negotiating all terms and conditions of employment. The in-house organizer then goes around trying to convince co-workers to sign cards.

Stage 2: Petition
The NLRB will petition the employer to hold a union election if the union can present signed representation cards for at least 30% of the workforce.  That can be the whole workforce (a "wall to wall bargaining unit") or some subset like maintenance workers or nurses.  To win the union must have a simple majority (50% + 1 vote) so they will want to have 60% or more cards signed before they will commit their resources and petition the NLRB for a vote.

By the time you see a petition you have had activity for a long time.  This will usually involve home visits after hours and on weekends by in-house and paid union organizers.  They will have developed a list of your employees and their addresses and phone numbers developed by the in-house organizers or someone sympathetic to their cause in an office position such as payroll.

Stage 3: Campaign
Once the petition has been filed a date is set for the vote.  During this time the employer cannot make any promises of fix any problems or change any of the terms and conditions of employment.  It cannot threaten, intimidate, promise or spy on union activity, knows in HR circles as the TIPS rule. During this time it can interview employees as to their concerns so long as they don't cross the line into interrogation, put on presentations to its employees explaining their case against unionization, and individual supervisors can give their own opinions. 24 hours before the vote all campaigning has to stop.

The Vote
On election day an NLRB representative monitors a secret paper ballot where employees mark "yes" or "no" and place their votes in a ballot box.  If it has become more automated than that over the years I haven't heard about it but it is possible. The votes are counted and the side who has 50% +1 vote wins.

If the company wins the campaign is over.  If the union wins then contract negotiations start. That is a topic for another post.  Frankly I've never gotten that far; the three campaigns on which I've worked have all been wins for the company.  We'll see by mid-March if I am 4-0 or 3-1. As for the "it can't happen here" eyeroll, come up here and trudge through the snow with me and tell me that.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Get Out There In Person

From where does your reality come?

I mean, really, where do you get the information necessary to form your opinion of the world around you?

If you are like an alarming number of people you get it digitally from your laptop or TV in the form of media, main stream or social.  The problem is that so much of that is tainted: not part of a sinister plot like is often claimed, but filtered and edited for to serve a purpose. Where ever you get your information in too many cases you are not getting it from the real, physical world around you and that is a problem.

If you have read this blog before you know I get snarky and impatient with my fellow southerners about how they react to winter weather.  I have a recent weather example that illustrates my point about your reality.

A couple of weekends ago my wife was on her way from Nashville to Indianapolis during what was supposed to have been our most recent "Snowmageddon".  The local weather from Indianapolis to Nashville talked about how bad things were south of Louisville and best to stay off the roads.  I called my wife as she was driving and it was 44 and sunny between Bowling Green and Elizabethtown and the road was dry.  After my call two separate friends from Bowling Green called her to make sure she was okay: they are both single and live alone and were afraid to get out of the house "because things are so bad".  A few miles later a friend FROM LONG ISLAND called her to make sure that, surely, she wasn't on the road because New York weather talked about the black ice south of Louisville closing I-65.

Through all the calls, still sunny, 44 degrees with a dry road.  It was that way all the way to Indy except the temps were much colder.

That night we are watching the local Indianapolis weather and get another set of dire warnings.  It was 17 degrees and rain would move in tomorrow with the temps above freezing, but the kid behind the weather desk said, "When the rain hits this really cold ground and pavement we'll have instant black ice."  Of course the next day it was 36 and raining and absolutely no ice.  That was still worth two more calls from Kentucky to see if we were iced-in in Indiana and if she was going to make it back to Nashville.

Several of our friends and family did not get out of the house that weekend "because it was dangerous" and meanwhile we picked up furniture for the apartment, saw a movie, and explored the city.

News media sells advertising and the best way to get you to watch is to scare you.  Social media communicators so often have something to sell and need to grab your attention. Also, sometimes social media re tweets are just a big world-wide electronic form of the old "gossip" game you played in school, where bad information gets repeated and deteriorates in quality with each retelling.

Now forget the weather.  What about your life?  What about your perceptions of people who are different from you? What about places that you haven't been?  Books you haven't read or belief systems you haven't explored?  The best weather update and the best place to experience the world both start the same way; by turning off the laptop and the TV, putting your iPhone on silent, and walking out your own front door.