When All Your Questions are Burning Questions

For anyone working in human resources these days, the questions just keep coming. The answers will affect the lives of employees and their families and the ability of businesses to operate successfully, so it’s critical to get them right – while anticipating the new questions that will arise the next day, if not in the next hour.

That’s why we’re holding weekly webcasts as well as pushing out information on this blog and on dedicated webpages daily. As Mercer’s US leader for Health and Benefits, I introduced last week’s webcast and listened in as Mercer subject matter experts dished out timely, expert and actionable information. Dr. Lorna Friedman provided the latest and most relevant facts about the virus from a medical perspective. Simon Camaj, who leads our life, accident and disability practice, discussed the complex and evolving considerations around leave policies, and Susan Haberman, the head of Mercer’s US Career practice, shared survey results showing that most employers are using a “human first” philosophy to guide business decisions during these unprecedented times.

Fully half of the webcast was reserved for questions – and listeners submitted nearly 150! Of course, we couldn’t get to all of them on the webcast, but they served to reinforce, in real time, what issues are of most concern to employers. Here are three of the questions that came up most often. If we don’t have answers yet, you can be sure we’re working on them.

What should employers consider when they do not have the flexibility (or environment) to offer work from home?

Some of the toughest decisions employers face right now are around leave policies for employees who cannot work from home: whether to continue pay under an emergency leave policy, direct employees to paid time-off plans, or to focus on job and health coverage protection. This post lays out three leave scenarios that most employers will face, and this one is a deep dive into designing an emergency leave policy.  Meanwhile, guidance from state and federal agencies is evolving rapidly and will affect employer strategies. This week Congress passed and the President signed a multi-billion dollar emergency aid bill to assist Americans with the economic fallout from COVID-19. This post brings you up to date.

What should self-insured employers be planning for in terms of the impact on health care claims and budgets?

There will clearly be an impact – but how big will depend on many variables. Health plans are offering COVID-19 screening, testing and some treatment at no cost to participations, and most self-insured employers are opting in. On the other hand, we will likely see employees delaying elective surgeries and treatments, although it’s not clear for how long. Our actuaries have developed scenarios that employers can use to guide their thinking and actions around budgeting as the situation unfolds.

What’s happening with testing? Can we require employees who have been out sick to be tested before they return to work? Where would we even send them?

Employers have many questions about testing – we do, too. As of March 15, at least one state or local public health laboratory in all 50 states has successfully verified COVID-19 diagnostic tests and is offering testing, although availability is limited in many areas. Private lab testing entities, including LabCorp and Quest, in collaboration with the American Clinical Laboratory Association, expect to expand to 140,000 - 280,000 tests per week by April 1st. While this means testing will soon become much more accessible all over the country, at this time labs are only running the tests, not collecting specimens. Patients cannot go directly to a lab to be tested, and a physician/provider order is still necessary. Look for a post next week that will answer many more employer questions about testing and offer an FAQ to share with employees.  

Which brings me to my final thought. A theme on our webcast was the critical importance of communicating with employees frequently during this time. We at Mercer are fully working from home, and one of our office leaders has taken to sending a daily video message to staff. In stressing the importance of staying in touch with clients, he suggested we ask if the amount of communication is a) not enough, b) the right amount, c) or too little. Maybe that was a slip, but it helped to nail his point – there’s no such thing as too much communication from you to your employees right now!  

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