Drivers on popular transportation blogs such as overdriveonline.com are sounding off on upcoming changes to their insurance under the Affordable Care Act (the "ACA"). While recent news coverage of the ACA has focused on enrollment issues with healthcare.gov in advance of 2014's individual mandate, it is not too soon for large employers, including transportation companies, to begin thinking about their responsibilities under the employer mandate of the ACA. Although the effective date of the employer mandate has been delayed until January 1, 2015, notification requirements have already gone into effect, and drivers are generally appreciative of communications regarding their benefits in this time of uncertainty, even if the news is that the worker's contribution may have to increase.
As part of the employer mandate, starting in 2015 applicable large employers, defined by the ACA as those employing 50 or more full time equivalent employees (oftentimes still small businesses in laymen's terms), must offer minimum essential coverage that is affordable and meets minimum value requirements. If the employer fails to offer this qualifying coverage and any one of its full time employees, defined by the ACA as working 30 or more hours per week or 130 hours per month, receives subsidized insurance through the exchange or marketplace, the employer may be liable for significant penalties.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury recommended in its July 2, 2013 announcement of the mandate delay that employers should treat 2014 as a transition period during which they should familiarize themselves with reporting requirements and maintain or expand health coverage for their employees. Although most employers would like to be able to expand their current health insurance offering, it is not always possible given economic realities. Employers have very difficult choices to make in the upcoming year and a critical cost-benefit approach will be vital, being mindful of the associated regulatory risks. Many employers will find themselves deciding between three options.
Option 1: Maintaining minimum essential coverage for all full-time employees
Many large employers will choose to continue to offer plans to all of their employees, making small adjustments in areas that are not grandfathered. Other employers may choose to develop a two tier system in which two types of plans are offered: a basic health plan that meets the affordability and minimum value requirements, and a higher premium plan that will offer greater benefits and low deductibles. So long as this higher premium plan is offered to all employees, the employer will have complied with both the employer mandate and the applicable nondiscrimination rules. As a benefits advisor stated earlier this year during a Truckload Carriers Association webinar, "Drivers don't want to understand the rules under the ACA, nor do they want to shop around for insurance. As an employer, you can make it easier on your drivers by offering a plan that they'll see withdrawn from their paycheck." If an employer can afford it, offering benefits is the best way to attract and retain the most reliable drivers.
Option 2: Maintaining minimum essential coverage for essential employees
Many other employers are currently analyzing their workforce to identify essential employees and begin to transition less essential employees to part-time status. This reduces the employer's overall number of full time employees with the hope of also reducing their liability but this approach is not without risk, especially with respect to claims that an employer's benefit plans discriminate in favor of or against certain individuals. Still other employers are utilizing staffing agencies to a greater extent and even changing their corporate structure to reduce their liability under the employer mandate. These approaches may run afoul of proposed rules and the Internal Revenue Service is keeping a watchful eye on "abusive" employer practices.
Under the employer mandate, proper classification of workers as employed or as independent contractors is critical. There is a slight margin of error built into the regulations to give some flexibility to large employers in making good faith determinations but misclassification of workers is one of several traps out there for the uninitiated. Given the steep penalties involved, it is critical for employers to seek counsel regarding the multifactor tests involved in determining common law employees. Control over the worker is a significant test but it is not always definitive. A recent tax court opinion actually held that a worker could be both an employee and an independent contractor with respect to the same party at the same time for certain purposes.
Option 3: Dropping coverage altogether
Finally, many employers, after weighing the pros and cons, are deciding to discontinue offering employer-sponsored health insurance altogether, accepting the employer penalties as a cost of doing business. In many cases, this approach can have a large economic cost, and virtually all employers will be seen as insensitive to employee needs. However, many employers feel that the burden being placed on them to provide subsidies for employee health insurance is simply becoming too great.
The federal government does not offer a "one size fits all" solution for employers that are facing these difficult decisions. This is even more true for the special circumstances surrounding the dynamic transportation workforce. A thoughtful, comprehensive review of benefit plan structures and options, together with an economic analysis of the potential penalties and workforce turnover resulting from those options, should be considered as we approach January 1, 2015. Over the next few months, we will be looking at the changes the ACA will create for truckers, especially independent contractor fleets. We expect to see yet another front for misclassification litigation. Also, what will occupational accident look like going forward? There are certainly a lot issues that need to fall into place going forward. Stay tuned!
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