Military tax benefits bill signed into law

Military reservists are now able to cash out health care flexible spending accounts and may withdraw funds from 401(k) or other contribution plans without penalty.

On June 17, 2008, President Bush signed the Heroes Earnings Assistance and Relief Tax Act of 2008 (H.R. 6081), permitting active duty reservists to make penalty-free withdrawals from retirement plans, when called to serve at least six months. It also allows any differential military pay to be included in the calculation of wages for retirement plan purposes and allows employers to report the differential military pay on the W-2.

The law also modifies the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) for the purposes of triggering the payment of qualified plan benefits, and allows recipients of military death benefit gratuities to roll over the amounts received, tax-free, to a Roth IRA or a Coverdell education savings account.

The modifications also allow reservists called to active duty for at least 180 days to withdraw any remaining balances in their health care flexible spending accounts. Before this law, most employees called to duty would forfeit any remaining money in their health care accounts.

Tracking the I-9 changes

The I-9 saga continues, with this information just in...

The DHS has issued a new version of the I-9 with a new expiration date. However older versions with earlier expiration dates are still valid as long as they have a revision date of 6/5/07 or later.

On Thursday, we first reported on this change. The USCIS site had indicated a mandatory change effectively immediately, then dropped part of that mandate after business hours yesterday. Today, further changes have been made to the site, but still no official statement has been issued.

We are following the changes on the government's sites, talking with agency officials and watching for official press releases or Federal Register postings. We will continue to track all sources until an official press statement is released, and will bring you all the latest information as we receive it.

Protect employees from dangerous summer heat

As outdoor temperatures continue to rise this summer, so does the risk of heat-related illness and death. Employees who work outdoors must deal with environmental factors that may cause serious danger including working in direct sunlight, high temperatures and humidity, physical exertion and lack of sufficient water intake.

Overexposure to heat can cause heat cramps, rashes, heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Symptoms of heat exposure include confusion, irrational behavior, loss of consciousness, dry skin and abnormally high body temperature. Simple actions like drinking cool water, reducing physical exertion, wearing appropriate clothing and taking regular rest breaks in a cool area can lessen the dangerous effects of working in hot summer temperatures.

To help combat heat-related illness and injuries, OSHA has published two fact sheets: Protecting Workers from the Effects of Heat and Working Outdoors in Warm Climates. Both fact sheets can be downloaded from the OSHA site and offer tips on how to protect employees from the dangers associated with the outdoors and summer heat.

Update to I-9 form effective immediately

Breaking news and a revised message!

Yesterday, the Federal government announced a revision to the standard I-9 form effective immediately. The old form, which was to expire on 06/30/08 had been replaced by a new revision. Now it appears that there may be some modifications on the way.

Initially, the USCIS website stated that the old form would no longer be accepted as of 6/16/08, even though it was not expected to expire until the end of the month. Today there is an apparent reversal on that site which may indicate that the old form is valid through its initial expiration date, or that both the old and new forms will be valid for some period of time.

We will keep you posted as changes appear in the Federal Register.

At this point, there are no substantive changes to the form. Only the dates of revision and expiration have been updated, so employers do not need to alter current procedures for gathering applicant information, retaining forms, or verifying documentation.

Given the expiration date of 06/30/08 on the old forms, businesses and agencies Should use the most up to date forms. As always, current and valid versions will be available from GNeil in both hard copy and downloadable formats.

Disabilities rights bill on the move

On June 18, the House Judiciary Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee approved a bill that would amend the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA Amendments Act (H.R. 3195) will amend the ADA by clarifying the definition of what constitutes a disability and overturns several U.S. Supreme Court decisions that critics regarded as unfairly limiting ADA protections.

The bill represents a compromise between employer and disability groups and has broad bipartisan support in the House. Since becoming law in 1990, several Supreme Court decisions have reduced the numbers of protected workers under the ADA.

The bill is expected to move to the full House for a vote next week where it will likely pass by a large margin.

In related news, the Bush administration released new ADA rules in the June 17,2008 edition of the Federal Register. The new ADA rules would rewrite federal accessibility standards of the ADA and affect all state and local agencies and millions of businesses open to the public.

The proposals would provide a newer version of the Department of Justice’s ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The DOJ is taking comments on the proposals at until August 18,2008. The DOJ will issue a finalized notice at the end of the comment period.

Until the new standards established in the final notice take effect, the DOJ advises businesses to follow existing ADA standards. Please stay tuned to G.Neil’s HR Forum for updates on the status of all pending ADA legislation.

Hold effective business meetings with more audience chatter

Research has shown that speakers retain 90% of what they share. Listeners hang onto only 5% of what the speaker said. “When speakers talk they fire up multiple intelligences, garner ‘aha’ moments, and retain most of what they teach," according to Brain Based Business.

Since talking benefits talkers more than listeners, getting more people involved in the conversation can improve retention. Keep your audience awake and involved by turning the tables at your next business meeting - create speakers out of listeners.

Here are some simple tips to hold effective business meetings and boost listener retention:

Share the stage. Break up presentations so that others can take the stage and explain a few points for you. Multiple speakers will help break up the presentation and keep the audience’s attention.

Say something funny. Laughing lightens the mood in the room and fosters openness, allowing you to share more and connect with your audience. It’s also a great way to mix it up and surprise your audience with some humor during an otherwise boring meeting.

Keep the lights on and skip the slides. Sit a group of people in a dark room in the afternoon and you’re just asking for a nap or two. Keep the lights on and keep everyone awake and focused on you.

Encourage conversation. Rather than read through a long slide presentation, have a conversation with your meeting attendees. Talk about the issue and come up with some solutions together. Attendees will retain more information if they were actively involved in the meeting.

Rising health care costs motivate employee wellness programs

Employer health care costs are predicted to rise almost 10% in 2008 and another 10% in 2009, according to a study released this week by PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

The increase is due to two main factors:

  • A hospital building boom, as hospitals replace facilities and add more private rooms and centers for outpatient treatment.
  • An increase in the expenses those with insurance are paying for those without. The federal government underfunds public insurance programs and the number of people with private insurance continues to decrease.

Along with health care costs, the number of underinsured Americans continues to grow. The number of American adults who had inadequate health insurance to cover their medical expenses rose 60% from 2003 to 2007. In the U.S., there are currently more than 25 million people underinsured.

In response to increasing costs, more employers are focusing more on employee wellness programs as an attempt to improve overall company health.

Studies have shown that walking programs are the most effective way to get employees to exercise without hurting productivity, according to a presentation at the American College of Sports Medicine.

Here are some tips to create your own wellness program that employees will want to stick with:

Create small, attainable exercise goals. Wellness programs with achievable fitness goals are more effective in helping sedentary adults start and stick with fitness programs than those with more challenging fitness goals, according to the American College of Sports Medicine presentation.

Give employees pedometers. Pedometers are a low-cost, simple and non-invasive way for people to increase their awareness of their daily activity and improve their overall fitness level. Those who were given pedometers in the research study said they plan to continue wearing the device after the study was over.

Get everyone involved, including upper management. Get the executives in the office involved in the program and encourage them to lead by example. When employees know that upper management is on board, they may be more inclined to participate.

Make it fun. Create T-shirts and hand out water bottles to everyone who gets involved. Post fliers promoting each walking event and create some buzz around the office.

Maryland enacts Flexible Leave Law, more employers improving PTO

Maryland now joins the short list of states that require certain employers to allow employees to use accrued leave with pay to care for an ailing family member.

Maryland’s Flexible Leave Law, effective October 1, allows employees to use sick and vacation leave to help care for an ill immediate family member. It applies to employers with 15 or more employees that already provide paid leave. Employees who earn more than one type of leave with pay may elect the type and amount of leave they wish to use.

By adopting the Flexible Leave Law, Maryland joins California, Maine, Minnesota and Washington as the only states with this type of legislation in place.

Though they may not be forced to by law, more U.S. and Canadian employers are improving their paid time-off (PTO) benefit programs by making them more flexible and generous, according to a recent Culpepper Benefits Survey.

Some key findings from the survey:

  • 56% of companies use traditional PTO models with days allocated to specific categories (e.g., vacation, holiday, sick and personal leave).
  • 41% of companies have a PTO bank model with a pool of days, allowing employees to take time off for any reason.
  • 18% of companies allow employees to cash out unused vacation an PTO days.

Take a look at the tables on the Culpepper site for a more detailed breakdown of the survey results.

Are your employees sleeping enough?

More employees sleeping at work is visible evidence that they’re not getting enough sleep at home, but how many hours of sleep should everyone get each night?

As a quick follow up to last week’s post on tired employees, TIME recently revealed the latest numbers on how long we should be sleeping.

Ideal sleep time is between 6.5 and 7.5 hours each night.

Studies show that sleeping more or less than the ideal affects a person’s health and may even contribute to a shortened lifespan. Very short sleep and very long sleep are both associated with major illnesses such as depression, heart disease and obesity.

Scientists don’t know exactly why, but it seems that people who sleep from 6.5 to 7.5 hours a night live longer than those who sleep more or less than the desired amount.

Trend watch: Sleeping at work

Ever catch someone nodding off in a meeting or “resting their eyes” at their desk? Studies reveal that many people struggle to stay alert at work and it may be a growing problem.

One-third of people have fallen asleep or become sleepy at work in the past month, according to findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s annual “Sleep in America” poll.

The poll also found that Americans are working more and sleeping less. On average, people sleep six hours and 40 minutes and work for an average of nine hours and 28 minutes.

Sleeping or tiredness at work is accountable for $100 billion in lost productivity, health care costs and employee absences.

Our nation is highly sleep deprived, according to Rubin Naiman, a sleep specialist interviewed for a recent CNN article. He added that most people need at least seven to nine hours of sleep a night for optimal health.

Some companies are tackling the problem by installing “nap rooms” for employees. Just how some office design features can boost creativity, nap and break rooms can help recharge employees’ batteries. Napping can help increase your alertness, especially in the afternoon when concentration is low.

Maureen Lippe, founder of New York public relations agency Lippe Taylor, has three nap rooms for employees, one on each floor of the building. She has been known to take a nap in one of the “serenity rooms” from time to time. The room, filled with large sofas, blankets and comfortable chairs, makes it difficult not take a quick break.

If you’ve been catching more employees falling asleep at meetings or sneaking out to their car for a quick snooze, a “serenity room” may not be such a bad idea. Here’s to a happy Friday and happy napping!

Immigration compliance: President orders federal contractors to use E-Verify

On June 6, President Bush signed an executive order that requires all federal contractors to use the government-run E-Verify system to confirm the work eligibility of their employees.

Contractors who fail to use E-Verify risk losing their government contracts. There are currently more than 200,000 contractors working for the U.S. government.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed the electronic employment verification system, called E-Verify, which confirms the work eligibility status over the Internet. The system compares information electronically from the Form I-9 with the Social Security Administration’s database of more than 425 million records and with the DHS immigration database of noncitizens.

After the order is published, which is expected within days, a 60-day comment period will go into effect. Following the comment period, the DHS will write a final rule. The executive order is part of a larger DHS effort to crackdown on illegal employment violations.

Critics of the Order report that large portions of the business community are reluctant to use E-Verify, claiming that it is an unreliable tool. The HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, led by SHRM, criticizes E-Verify as “a system that doesn’t really work” and lacks the capacity to handle the 200,000 federal contractors now ordered to use it.

It is still unclear when the directive will go into full effect, so stay tuned to G.Neil’s HR Forum for continuing updates.

Work/life balance: Key to employee retention

Implementing flexible employee work schedules to foster a healthy work/life balance can be a nerve-wracking and seemingly unattainable goal to achieve. Through experimentation and a little trial and error, many companies have discovered how to retain employees by allowing flexible schedules.

“Inflexible work arrangements are a primary reason top talent leaves an organization.”

The top priority of most organizations is to attract top performers. After bringing them onboard, the real challenge is retaining those bright stars.

An article published last month out of Workforce Management looked at a few recent surveys indicating more employees are actively searching for better work/life benefits.

A 2005 Merrill Lynch survey showed that 16% of the baby boomer workforce was looking for part-time work, and 42% would only sign up for a job that allowed time off for leisure.

Another Pew Research Center survey from 2007 found that more than 50% of working mothers prefer part-time work, as a way to fulfill domestic responsibilities while also contributing to the family income.

Younger workers are also looking for companies that value work/life benefits. Unlike their older counterparts, Gen Y and the Millennials refuse to sacrifice family and leisure for their careers.

The article notes that implementing flexible work arrangements can be difficult, but it is possible. It may be as little as allowing time off for doctor appointments and school visits, or as much as telecommuting a few days out of the workweek.

The Workforce authors surveyed six firms to uncover how they are successfully applying flexible work arrangements.

Here are some of their key findings on the most important factors that contribute to the success of implementing flexible work arrangements at any company:

Alternative work arrangements must make sense for your organization. Not every position or company is suited for flexible schedules. It also depends on the individual, some personalities just can’t handle it. Be sure that flexible schedules will work for specific positions and people before implementing anything.

Remember that the goal of flexible work arrangements is employee retention. “If you want high levels of employee satisfaction, your organization needs to recognize the overlap between life and work.”

Keep communication lines open. “Successful implementation of flexible work arrangements takes a commitment to communication.” Commit to an open and honest line of communication with any flexible employee.

Ensure employees have the tools to succeed. Depending on the type of work, employees may need tools like laptops, cell phones or PDAs to stay in touch and do their jobs effectively. Managers and employees should set clear expectations of how and when an employee can be reached, and also allow for downtime.

Allow for an adjustment period. Self-management can be tough for some employees and may take time to learn. “It takes about three years to adjust for a flexible work arrangement. You need to learn what you should and should not be doing by going through it.”

Put all judgement aside. Working a flexible schedule is not “wrong” or a reflection of the employees dedication to the company. Flexible work arrangements should be considered “without judging the employee’s personal priorities.”

Success depends on employee satisfaction. According to one company surveyed, “for its company to succeed, their people need to succeed - not just at work, but in all areas of their lives.”

“Success takes time and experimentation,” especially when implementing a band new program involving flexible work arrangements. Managers must listen to their employees to determine what is working and what may need to be adjusted, until the program finds success.

Five ways Gen Y will change the corporate world

Generation Y is leaving their messy college apartments behind and are entering the corporate world. To this new generation of workers, the corporate system is as outdated as dial-up Internet and they have big plans to change the workplace for the better.

After watching their parents overwork themselves to the brink of exhaustion and older siblings struggle with Baby Boomer bosses, Gen Y is ready to take on the workplace and mold it into what they want from it.

How will they manage this seemingly enormous task? A recent post at Employee Evolution, written by a savvy Gen Yer, explains exactly how they’ll do it. Here are some of the most insightful ways they plan on taking on the business world:

1. Meetings will be productive and held only when absolutely necessary. “Efficiency is the name of the game with Gen Y.” Factors of an effective meeting: less than 30 minutes, everyone in the room gets on the same page and it encourages people to get work done.

2. A shorter work day where more is accomplished. Gen Y wants to get the most done in the least amount of time and then get out of the office. Work/life balance is a serious issue with this generation and they will stop at nothing to keep it in tact.

3. Administrative assistants return. Gen Y does not like to waste time addressing envelopes, filling out spreadsheets and filing papers. Give that task to someone else and let them do their job. Worried about the cost? Not Gen Y, they’ll pay the extra money to make it happen.

4. Traditional retirements will vanish. Gen Y does not want to waste their youth sitting behind a desk working themselves to death like past generations may have. They want to use this time to explore what life has to offer, not wait until they’re too old to enjoy it. They’ll figure out how to put away enough money in their 401(k)s while also making time for “mini-retirements.”

5. Say goodbye to performance reviews. Gen Y desires constant feedback and communication. Waiting for a semi-annual performance review just won’t cut it for this generation. Managers will have to learn how to provide constant and ongoing feedback to keep these employees happy.

Gen Y won’t be flipping the corporate world on its head all at once, but rather piece by piece. By the time they make it to upper management, Gen Y plans wants work to be a part of their lives, not something that gets in the way.

The impact of social media on corporate culture

In a recent post, Rob Paterson at the FASTforward Blog did a mini case study on how one company is successfully using the social networking tool Twitter in their corporate environment. It opens up new ideas of how strong the impact of social media on corporate culture will be, especially with more Gen Y and Millennial employees taking their place in the corporate world.

Zappos is an online shoe retailer that expects to bring in more than $1 billion this year. The company touts it’s success on superior customer service - promising free, four-day delivery, free returns and an outstanding call center where customers get through to a real person on the first try.

More than 300 Zappos employees use Twitter to let friends, colleagues and customers know what they’re doing at any given time in the day. This informal and immediate conversation benefits the company culture by keeping employees connected and promoting collaboration.

For those out there who missed the bandwagon - Twitter is an online, social networking tool where users update their status by answering one question (“What are you doing?”) in 140 characters or less. Tweets, as they’re called, can be made online or by text message for those employees on the go.

Take a quick look at Zappos’ Twitter page and you can find customers raving about the new boots that just arrived and the “Grt cust svc” they experienced. You’ll also find employees discussing treats outside the lunchroom and recent NPR features about the company.

Zappos also keeps a running “Inside Zappos Blog” to keep employees and customers updated on the happenings inside the company. Yesterday’s post, “Happy Birthday & Happy Graduation Young Squire,” is a congratulations to a young graphic designer for passing his New Hire Training test and his birthday, complete with a toilet-papered working area.

Other large companies, like T. Rowe Price and Best Buy have incorporated various Web 2.0 tools in their daily routines.

During each tax season, T. Rowe Price hires 1,500 workers who all go through an extensive training program. The trainers transferred the entire training program to a wiki where employees can add notes, comments and recommendations. The company estimates they save millions in wasted call time.

Best Buy created the Blue Shirt Nation (BSN), a secure and private social networking site for more than 100,000 of their employees. The company adopted the site as a way to engage employees to share new ideas that could improve the business. “In general, they talk about how to make Best Buy a better place. Improve on the things we don't do well, share the things that we do do well, talk about and express the culture that we have, talk about customers- both good and bad,” said founder and sponsor Gary Koelling.

Generation Y and the Millenials are making their way into the corporate world and bringing along all of their favorite social networking sites. Keeping these young employees engaged and connected is not tough ... if you’re using the right tools.

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