As a result of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, many American workers are experiencing disruptions on the job, including reduced hours and pay cuts. Others have been laid off indefinitely. In this time of national uncertainty, where can workers find answers about pay issues, health insurance, unemployment benefits, and their rights as employees?
Scott Perlmuter, who has extensive experience in employment law—especially employee benefits and wage and hour litigation—took some time to answer common questions about employment law as it relates to our national emergency.
Many employers are losing profit due to the “shelter in place” order, which closed all non-essential Ohio businesses until April 30. Can my employer cut my pay rate?
Oftentimes, the answer is yes. The exceptions to this rule are: (a) it’s done retroactively for work already performed, which is always impermissible, (b) where it takes employee under minimum wage, or (c) where the employee can claim they’ve got a contract with their employer at a certain pay rate—e.g. you’re in a union and a member of a collective bargaining agreement, or you’ve been lured from another position with a promise of a certain salary for a set period of time.
I was laid off from my job due to the Coronavirus crisis. Can I keep my health insurance?
Health plans for every employer that employs over 20 people can be continued despite voluntary or involuntary job loss, reduction in the hours worked, transition between jobs, death, and divorce. In these scenarios, the employee can apply for COBRA, which guarantees an employee can keep their health benefits for a certain time frame (usually 18 months) after job loss. You do not have to wait for the “open enrollment” period to apply for COBRA.
Employers are required to notify healthcare plans about employee terminations or hour reductions within 30 days of those events. Failure to do so can impact employees’ ability to access COBRA benefits.
The drawback to COBRA is that it’s often more expensive than other means of obtaining health insurance, including purchasing an individual plan on the marketplace. Be sure to research all of your options before applying.
What about employer-sponsored life insurance?
Life insurance provided as an employee benefit almost always contains a provision that the employee can convert their policy to an individual policy. The employee gets to keep the policy and takes over all premium payments. However, there is a very short window of opportunity to do this, and employees should make sure to ask their human resources or benefits contact about keeping their life insurance in writing as soon as they find out about employment or group coverage terminating.
What about employer-sponsored disability insurance?
Disability insurance provided as an employee benefit may contain a provision to convert the policy to an individual policy, but this is far less common than with life insurance coverage. To make sure that you’ve got all of the information you need, employees should make sure to ask their human resources or benefits contact in writing about keeping their disability insurance coverage as soon as they find out about employment or group coverage terminating.
My boss cut my hours at work. Am I eligible for unemployment benefits?
In many cases, yes. In the midst of this crisis, there’s a lot of misleading information about unemployment benefits floating around—for instance, some employees who have had their hours reduced are told that because they were not technically terminated, they are ineligible to receive unemployment benefits. This is oftentimes inaccurate. You can apply for unemployment compensation if you are “totally unemployed” or “partially unemployed.” A totally unemployed worker is one who is no longer being scheduled for any work hours or performing any services for an employer. A partially unemployed worker is one who has had their hours reduced or their work week shortened. If you are working fewer hours, you qualify as “partially unemployed.” However, keep in mind that employees making less $269 per week are not eligible for benefits in the state of Ohio.