Let’s Talk About Leave: The Changes and Complexities

Podcast: Line on Leave The complexity of leave ranges from managing the different types of leave to unraveling the stigma behind employees being worried to take leave. In this episode of The Line on Leave, we discuss how the pandemic’s impact on leave for employers and employees from The Hartford’s 2021 Future of Benefits study with Katie Dunnington, head of absence product management at The Hartford.
 
 
 
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Transcript

Laura Marzi: Hi everyone. I'm Laura Marzi and thank you for tuning into our latest Line On Leave Podcast from The Hartford. Today we're going to be discussing the findings of The Hartford's most recent Future of Benefits survey and particularly how it's affected employee leave. We've been tracking these trends for the past year and there are some very interesting insights. The pandemic has definitely changed the way employers and employees look at leave, not just now, but perhaps forever. So here with us today to discuss those trends and provide some context is The Hartford's Katie Dunnington, who heads up our Absence Product Management. Leave administration was already a complex juggling act for a lot of employers before COVID. It seems like you've got a unique vantage point since The Hartford is a leading Leave and Disability carrier. What kind of trends have you observed over the past year? Just kind of high level.
 
Katie Dunnington: Well even before the pandemic we were in seeing expansion of paid leave and clearly employees need paid leave. Over the years we've had disability as a bedrock benefit and that's really helped employees, but the need to expand paid leave availability to family leave, caregiver, bonding, parental leave was a trend that we're already seeing. And there were expansion and we saw a lot of states adding statutory Paid Family Medical Leave programs and employers were adjusting to that. I would say that the pandemic just put fuel, it was like adding gasoline to the fire, just huge acceleration of this trend towards paid leave.
 
Laura Marzi: It’s interesting, you call this perhaps the new normal, right? When you look back over the last year though, nothing seems normal. Before the pandemic, was looking at some data from the Department of Labor and it looks like from 2000 through 2019 on average 1.2 million people per month were absent from work. And during 2020, during the pandemic, absence doubled to a monthly average of nearly 2.5 million people. I’m wondering if you could think about those statistics and if you want to tell everybody some thoughts that you have around those?
 
Katie Dunnington: That's a rate of almost 18% absence during the year. That's huge. And employers work so hard to adjust to that. In fact, according to our Future of Benefits study, which we just recently completed, 75% of the employers that we studied have expanded their leave programs during the past year. 46% of them expanded medical programs, another about 40% expanded family programs, caregiver leave. So just seeing this huge expansion of leave programs as a result of the pandemic. And in a sense it's a little bit of a silver lining perhaps because I don't think that the programs will go away. And I think that it's really solidified the need for leave.
 
In addition to employers providing leave programs we saw a new federal programs such as the FFCRA, which is the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and that in particular was something that we as an industry, employers, carriers like The Hartford alike had to respond very quickly. In fact, we were able to update our systems to administer that program within 11 days. And it really showed us how important it is that we could quickly adjust to not just employer leave programs, but what we're seeing from the state and the federal perspective as well.
 
I think employers deserve a lot of credit. They have worked very, very hard to respond to their employees needs and these unique situations that frankly none of us have ever seen before. So I feel like it was a moment to stop and really think about what do employees need, how can employers support their employees through this pandemic, and make sure of course that they had the employees they needed to perform the jobs that they needed. So it's, as I said, it's really unprecedented in terms of the expansion that we're seeing. 75% of employers adding leave programs in a single year. I'm sure many in our audience have done the same.
 
Laura Marzi: Now The Hartford had to pivot too, right? Certainly happened overnight. And when you think about the technical implications, the compliance and legal implications of all this work, what comes to mind, especially in those early days in terms of working at a carrier and having to pivot?
 
Katie Dunnington: It was definitely an interesting time, having to understand quickly what is this new, for example FFCRA, and who does it apply to. For that it was mostly employers under 500 lives, which is obviously a lot of employers. And then what does the act provide? Sick leave? Leave? Does it count as FMLA? So working through all these details and quickly working to get information out to clients. So we were updating our website nearly daily, responding to a lot of questions that employers had, ensuring that we had our systems updated, communications for the employees were really important to respond quickly. And I'm proud of the support that we were able to provide to our customers. So I think that's really important that we were partnering with them and they were in it together.
 
Laura Marzi: Certainly a lot of complexity too when you think about the state leaves as well as the federal leaves and what can be accessed by employees. A lot of education is necessary there too, right?
 
Katie Dunnington: Yeah. States also were adjusting their, if they had a statutory leave program, such as New York, made a lot of changes. And part of what is so important is helping employees understand the leaves that are available to them. And I think that's part of the value that outsourcing administration to a carrier such as The Hartford helps because it's a single point of intake that we then make sure that the employee is getting all of the leave, all the benefits that they're entitled to and working to integrate that so that it's less confusing. Because frankly, it is very complex. A single source of benefits, single source of information to really help communicate and explain what's happening.
 
The other thing I'm very proud of is that employees need the benefits, they need the leave, but they also have other needs. The Hartford is a national partner for the United Way and 211 is a service of resources and community information and community resources that is there to help people with a wide variety of needs. It could be things like food insecurity, transportation needs, legal issues, medical issues, that type of thing. We also want to do our part for our claimants and employees who have a need for benefits. So we have actually trained 2,100 of our claims professionals to be able to understand the program and when they sense a need, to refer employees that we're helping through the benefits process to the 211 service. And I just wanted to mention the 211 program because it is something that's available and employers can offer to their employees today. And it doesn't even have to be through The Hartford's, but we do have communication materials that can support you.
 
And we've also updated messaging, our website. We have flyers that we make available to employers as well with wallet cards that they can give their employees. So it's a confidential service. The employer doesn't need to know that the employee's accessed it. But we have found some tremendous stories and value of utilizing this program during the pandemic, but of course, as we know, even without the pandemic. Many employees live paycheck to paycheck, they struggle to have enough savings to cover a $400 emergency. And so the program can really help and provide a lifeline in terms of resources for community support. So we really believe in the program. We're very pleased to be a partner with 211 with United Way.
 
Laura Marzi: I'd love to shift back to some of the impacts of the expanding leave laws and go back to one statistic from the Future of Benefits survey that illustrates the fact that 31% of employees said they're worried about taking a leave and the kind of worry about what it means for workplace security for them personally. I was wondering if you could talk about that 31% and what an employer could do, maybe some tips to really address that stigma and maybe change the culture to be more open and inclusive around leave?
 
Katie Dunnington: There's been a lot of unanticipated consequences I think from the pandemic. As I mentioned, it's great that employers have really expanded their leave programs, but one of the things that we found in our Future of Benefits study was a third of employees were worried about taking leave. They felt either that there's a stigma or a negative perception if they take leave or they actually feared workplace repercussions such as being laid off, fired, passed over if they took the leave that is available to them. And this was particularly an issue for the younger workers, gen Z and millennials, younger millennials, where 50% of them were worried about workplace repercussions from taking leave. And that's compared to 16% of baby boomers. So at a time where they're young, early in their career, really trying to prove themselves, the need to take leave, even though it is more available, was questionable and they felt like there's somewhat of a stigma about taking the leave.
 
So one of the things that we really recommend is to not only provide the leave, obviously that's the first step if an employer is doing that, but to then encourage them, let them know it's okay to take that leave. Really communicate that the leave programs are there if you need them. Employers are going to feel the benefit of that by employees coming back refreshed, feeling like they can balance their work and family and they can take care of what they need to, and come back and bring their whole self back to the workplace. So I think that's a really important tip that I'd love everybody to take away is you communicate with your employees and let them know the programs are there to support you if you need them.
 
And so sometimes taking leave, while it seems like you're stepping back, can actually help the employee step forward. Maybe they just need a few days to help their child adjust to remote schooling, but taking that time can really pay dividends. So some things employers can do to help their employees is communicate the availability. Make it clear how you access the program, make it clear if that leave is job protected. So is that employee going to have some sort of job protection that may come through FMLA or some other state leave? But I think understanding that they're not going to be penalized for taking that. Then of course there may be other programs that the employer has that they're offering such as EAP programs. I mentioned the 211 service earlier, but I think for employers to really communicate that it's not just to check the box, but they really want employees to take the leave if they need it. If they need it.
 
Laura Marzi: I was wondering if you could comment on the challenges of the expanding leave programs and how those have created challenges specifically for employers? Thinking about that stat in particular.
 
Katie Dunnington: As I mentioned before there's been a great expansion of leave programs and we expect to see more. And while this is a great, great thing, 54% of the employers that we studied said that there's really no easy way for them to track and manage the programs. And while these programs are great, they're also kind of layering on top of each other. You have federal, you have state, company leave, FMLA, short-term disability, workers' comp, PTO, et cetera. I could go on. So the complexity of that is literally exponential to what we saw even 10 years ago. And so employers really are looking for help. And I think that's where turning to a carrier like The Hartford who can administer these programs. We're seeing more and more interest in that and more and more employers looking for help. And that can help them with tracking, obviously from a compliance perspective and monitoring, tracking the leaves, administering them, making sure that time is counted appropriately, communicating the benefits. So I think there's a lot of different reasons and advantages why an employer would want to maybe outsource to help with this complexity.
 
Laura Marzi: Probably even more acute when you're thinking about all of the states that are passing leave laws and the complexity that comes with that, right?
 
Katie Dunnington: Yeah. Even well before the pandemic, I would say really starting with New York when they passed the new Paid Family Leave Law in 2016, we're seeing states expanding their programs to include medical leave as well as family leave. And there were a lot of states, number of states, California, New York, New Jersey, et cetera that had prior medical leave programs that they have now expanded to include family leave. And then we're seeing new states coming online. It feels like literally one every year. So New York went live in 2018. Then Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave just went live January of 2021. Our home state of Connecticut, where The Hartford's located, has a new Paid Family Medical Leave program that is coming online January of 2022. Then we have Oregon after that. Colorado after that. I didn't even mention Washington in there. So literally state after state is expanding. And many of these states do offer a private option so that the employer can choose to opt out of the state program and go with maybe a carrier that's providing disability and other leave programs. And that really gives the option and ability then to integrate that program and have much more of a I think a seamless experience for the employee and to really support them and make sure they're getting all the benefits, but they're also integrating those programs.
 
Laura Marzi: When you think about all that integration though and you think about employers that have employees in multiple states, it's got to create some disparities, right, for some employees that are working in states that don't have the PFML programs?
 
Katie Dunnington: Yeah. With the expansion of the state PFML programs, those apply to employees that work in that state. And obviously many of our larger employers certainly are multi-state employers. And it is really creating some disparities where employees in those states with a statutory PFML programs have access to leave and benefits and paid leave that employees in other states do not. For example, if you're an employer that has employees in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, then Pennsylvania doesn't have a state program. Those employees working in Pennsylvania won't have access to those benefits. And so employers are working very hard to respond to that, expanding things like parental leave. So we're seeing a big push in expansion of parental leave, starting to see more family and caregiver leaves. And so employers are working really hard to give more equal benefits across, paid leave benefits, to their employees regardless of what state they work in.
 
And one of the ways that we can help with that is to, as we call integrate, short-term disability, a good example, there might be medical leave coming from a specific state, but if the employer offers short-term disability to all their employees and then the short-term disability kind of accounts for or offsets the statutory medical leave, then the employees are whole, they all have equal benefits, and we as a carrier can help administer that for them. So we're seeing more and more interest in those types of approaches where there's a company leave or short- term disability that is in addition to, but accounting for the state leaves. And I think that's a really good approach to get more equalized benefits to the employee across their workforce.
 
Laura Marzi: So final thought, if you were going to give a few pieces of advice to the folks that are listening to you today in thinking about how they need to plan for leave going '21 into '22, what's your top three pieces of advice?
 
Katie Dunnington: First and foremost is communicate. Make sure your policies are clear, make sure that employees understand them. The second would be compliance. Make sure that you have the monitoring in place and that you are really dedicating frankly, you're going to need to dedicate some resources to that even if you are outsourcing to ensure that the pieces that you are responsible for as an employer are being addressed. And probably the third thing that I would recommend is look at this holistically, right? Because I think the need for leave is also very much dependent upon things like supporting maybe the women in your workforce, trying to be as I think inclusive as possible in your leave programs. Encourage not just women to take leave, but men to take leave. I think there is still a little bit of a stigma associated with men taking the leave that's available to them. But the more that this is equally seen as I think a shared responsibility and a shared ability to take that leave will really help the workforce.
 
 There's a lot you can do, but if you just kind of keep it simple I think communicate, compliance, and look at this holistically with a lens on diversity and inclusion. Hopefully we come out of the pandemic and it's the new normal. I think that there are some really positive things in what was otherwise a very dark year that we can take forward. And sometimes through times of great crisis I think things emerge that are really, really change the landscape. And I think that is very much true with the pandemic and paid leave. So it's been an amazing year to be in absence and to look at leave and just see how far we've come frankly in a year. So kudos to employers for really responding to employee's needs.
 
Laura Marzi: Thank you for tuning in. You've just heard excerpts from the recent HR Executive Health and Benefits Leadership Conference which featured Katie Dunnington, Head of The Hartford's Absence Product Management. If you like what you hear, please subscribe to our podcast and share it with your colleagues. You can also learn more about The Hartford's Future of Benefits at our Employer Insights page which is located on thehartford.com. You can also visit us at thehartford.com/pfml for more information and resources to help you manage absence in the workplace. Until next time, please be well and stay safe everyone.
 
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This informational material is subject to change as The Hartford continues to receive guidance from states and municipalities. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to an employer’s business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute The Hartford’s undertaking on a company’s behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that an employer’s business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Employers seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors; and employees should continue to consult their employers’ Human Resources or other employment benefits department for guidance on the application of any law, rule, or regulation.
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