Sue Ostrowski

Many business owners are so consumed with reaching the financial goals of their company that their personal and family financial goals get overlooked. But neglecting the personal side of your finances is a big mistake, says Tony Brant, a financial advisor with Skylight Financial Group.

“Your business world and your personal world are intertwined; so treat them that way,” says Brant. “You need to plan to grow your life just like you plan to grow your business and build financial flexibility throughout both your business and your personal life. And that means having available to you a number of financial reservoirs to provide for yourself and your family.”

Smart Business spoke with Brant about how to accomplish your personal financial goals while growing your business.

What is the first step to accomplishing your personal and family financial goals while growing your business?

The first step is for business owners to acknowledge and accept that their business and their family life are closely related. Oftentimes, they behave as though they are separate. At some point, every business owner will admit that to keep the business going and growing, they’ve made business decisions that have affected their personal life, sometimes even placing their family at risk.

You need to continually integrate the planning that you’re already doing on the business side with what’s important to you on the personal side. Look at what you’re doing from a business planning perspective; identify the goals, objectives, people, capital and markets that will contribute to the likelihood of the success for your business and model your personal planning after this format.

Establish a specific planning objective. If you are on track to grow your business’s sales by 10 percent this year, also consider growing your personal savings by 10 percent. Set parallel goals. After all that you’ve done to grow your business, ask yourself what you are doing for yourself and your family.

How do you begin planning?

Identify and articulate the vision you have for yourself and your family in the future by asking what matters to you; what do you want to happen, and what don’t you want to happen. Many business owners have a vision of financial security that includes a secure retirement, education for their children, freedom to pursue personal interests, enjoying a quality lifestyle, concerns over family members in need, and health care later in life. These things do not happen by themselves, and must be planned for accordingly.

At the most basic level, all business owners should incorporate a protection plan in their personal life, as well as their business life. Such a plan includes three major components. First is the protection of your income earning ability. Ask yourself, ‘What happens if I suddenly become disabled; even temporarily?’ Next, develop a sound cash reserve, both personally and financially, to deal with an unexpected financial crisis.

And lastly, ask yourself, ‘What would happen if I were to die prematurely?’ Are you prepared for such an unexpected event?

How do you address those components?

To help protect a portion of your income in the event that you become unable to work due to injury or disability, you should have a solid disability income insurance policy in place to provide a benefit — a policy that you own personally and is portable and can travel from business venture to business venture. This is something that would complement, not replace, any group benefits that may already be in place through the business. Talk to your advisor about ways to build up reserves to deal with a financial crisis.

Life insurance can be a good vehicle to address the possibility of premature death. You can’t predict if you’re going to need insurance later in life for personal or estate planning needs, so you need to start building it now. That way, you can ensure that you have an adequate amount of life insurance to provide your business partners with liquidity to keep the business going successfully and provide for your family members.

How can a business owner find an advisor to help accomplish both business and personal financial goals?

Look for someone to quarterback the process that has the ability to collaborate with other professionals in the legal and tax arena to help you work through the process and keep you on track. A good business advisor should also be a good personal advisor, someone who will involve other family members in the process.

Find someone you like and trust, because you will build a strong personal relationship with this advisor. This professional will help you think about how to create solutions to overcome roadblocks and create opportunity to have the flexibility necessary for accomplishing your personal and business goals.

Treat your personal planning like planning for your business. Delegate management to your trusted advisors who will keep you accountable to the goals that you’ve established.

What are the consequences of failing to plan?

The biggest consequence of failing to plan properly is the loss of time. As a business owner you have enough to deal with on your plate as it is. If a plan is not in place to handle life’s unexpected events, time will be hard to come by amidst the challenge of coping with such events. Time is one of your biggest allies. By being consistent and planning on a regular basis, events or issues that arise become minor bumps in the road, rather than a major derailment.

This is why it’s so important to build in financial flexibility; because you never know what may be down the road.

Anthony Brant is a financial advisor specializing in closely held business planning with Skylight Financial Group. Reach him at (216) 592-7352 or abrant@finsvcs.com. Anthony Brant is a registered representative of and offers securities, investment advisory and financial planning service through MML Investors Services, Inc. Member SIPC. Supervisory Office: 1660 W. 2nd St. Ste 850. Cleveland, OH 44113. 216-681-5680. CRN201210-141091

When an employee gets injured on the job, managing the prescription drugs related to the medial treatment of a workers’ compensation claim can be a complicated task for insurance payers. That’s where a pharmacy benefit management company (PBM) can help coordinate the prescription medication benefit between the insurance payer, the injured worker and the pharmacy in the most efficient manner, says Daryl Corr, president of Healthesystems.

Over the last 10 years some PBMs have identified new ways to bring this type of service delivery to the next level

“As a pharmacy benefit management company, Healthesystems has focused our attention on using the latest technology to process real time workers’ compensation prescription transactions directly with the pharmacy,” says Corr. “This real-time processing is a benefit to the payer, the patient and the pharmacy. The electronic adjudication process applies the appropriate pricing and clinical edits to make sure the right drug is being used for the right treatment and the pharmacy is notified within seconds.”

Smart Business spoke with Corr about how a PBM can help payers maintain greater control over inappropriate treatments, in light of current trends occurring in workers’ compensation pharmacy management.

What role does a PBM play when managing workers’ compensation pharmacy costs?

Pharmacy cost is one of the largest portions of medical spend associated with treating injured workers and the complexities involved in managing these claims is challenging for many payers. A PBM such as Healthesystems provides customers with a comprehensive program to reduce the total cost of prescription care and eliminates the manual claims administrative tasks such as paper billing and payment processes. Electronic information is provided to the pharmacy in real time, before the prescription drug is dispensed to the patient.

How are workers’ compensation benefits different than a group health benefits plan?

With group health benefits, enrolled participants usually rely on a benefit ID card containing pharmacy information such as co-pay amounts that are presented to the pharmacy at the point of sale. Usually in workers’ compensation, claimants do not receive an ID card for workers’ comp benefits until after an injury occurs. Workers’ compensation benefits are normally provided with no out-of-pocket expense by the claimant, unlike a group health plan where members must enroll and are responsible for medical and pharmacy co-pays. In addition, workers’ comp patients choose their pharmacy, unlike a group health benefit in which members can select from a predetermined network.

The challenge is to ensure the pharmacy has the appropriate information in order to provide an authorized prescription.

How does technology factor into service delivery?

Technology has allowed the claims process to become nearly paperless and can provide real-time transactions. Instead of having to wait hours or even days for paper transactions to be approved, the pharmacy claims process is now virtually instantaneous.

Employing the latest technology, PBM companies like Healthesystems are able to more efficiently manage a vast network of pharmacies (in the case of Healthesystems, over 62,000 participating retail pharmacies). There is also the capability to more efficiently manage all of the workers’ compensation-specific rules and regulations, which can vary from state to state. And because there is no standardization across states, meeting the various state requirements is a challenge; a PBM is a benefit to the insurance payer by staying up to date on the constantly changing rules and regulations.

In addition, incorporating proactive clinical services delivered by a highly trained staff of clinical pharmacists helps to ensure optimal outcomes are achieved for the injured worker, as well as reduce instances of fraud and abuse.

What are some of the latest trends affecting workers’ compensation?

One of the fastest growing challenges in managing drug costs has been the recent trend of repackaged drugs being dispensed directly from a doctor’s office. This process can result in inaccurate and overpriced medications. Repackaging occurs when a pharmaceutical product is removed from its original container and put into a new container with different quantities, a new repackaging company label, and a new price for the medication. These repackaged drugs are then dispensed directly from a doctor’s office, often at a much higher cost than at a retail pharmacy.

An effective PBM program is able to quickly and aggressively address troublesome and costly trends. Incorporating the right technology can help to identify repackaged medications and assure they are priced back to the original ingredients so an insurance payer is not over-billed. PBMs such as Healthesystems also curb fraud and abuse through an evidence-based, proactive clinical review process which provides feedback directly to prescribing physicians.

The right PBM can also help prevent workers’ compensation patients from doctor shopping, an all too common practice in which patients try to obtain prescriptions such as narcotics from several different physicians. Because all transactions are being electronically tracked, a PBM can inform its customers instantly when this type of activity occurs.

As long as we’re looking out for the patient first, really truly trying to get the right drug for the treatment to get the injured worker back to work, we’re doing our job.

Daryl Corr is president of Healthesystems. Contact Healthesystems at (800) 921-1880 or info@healthesystems.com. For more information about Healthesystems, visit www.healthesystems.com.

Your company may have the best policies and procedures in the world, but if your managers aren’t implementing them consistently across all departments, you could be opening yourself up to a lawsuit.

Having a handbook is not enough, says S.A. “Sam” Murray, CEO of ManagEase. You have to train your managers and meet with them regularly, both to ensure that everyone is on the same page and to hold them accountable.

“Managers tend to implement their own values,” Murray says. “They impose the ways they have always done things on their employees, which is usually not the same as what managers in other departments are doing and may not be what the business owner wants them to do. In this type of environment, when an employee is fired for some infraction, this person can easily claim that the practice was not fairly implemented across the company and that he or she was somehow discriminated against.”

Smart Business spoke with Murray about how to clearly communicate your vision to your managers and how training can help you hold people accountable.

How do you make sure your vision is being clearly communicated to your managers?

A company leader needs to meet with department heads on a regular basis, preferably weekly, and vision needs to be a part of that meeting’s agenda. When vision is regularly discussed, managers become focused on how they’re implementing the vision of the company, the initiatives of the company, the immediate and long-term goals, and how they are working toward long-term sustainability. Meeting regularly assures that these vital topics are always top of mind.

How do you get managers to implement policy consistently across departments?

You need to train people. You can’t achieve consistency by just telling them or giving them a handbook; you need to have more comprehensive training on how to implement policy. Then you need to have training on how to correct employees who aren’t following policy, what actions should be taken and how to write a performance improvement plan.

Too many times, a company focuses on having managers oversee employees on whatever their job is. If employees are producing widgets, the manager is just checking to make sure that widgets are being produced.

Instead, managers really need to be trained on how to manage employees in a way that correctly implements policy. They need to be very well instructed on what appropriate behavior is, when to correct employees and what kind of climate you — as the business owner — are trying to achieve in the workplace to best manage your liability.

What would you say to business owners who say they can’t afford the time for training?

It doesn’t have to take much time. Every company should have an HR calendar, and on that calendar should be two or three manager training sessions. Just a few hour-long training sessions over the course of the year can really make a difference. Training with respect to policy implementation is critical and needs to be recurring; you can’t train someone once and expect that, five years later, they will still be following the instructions received in the past. Too many owners tell their managers something one time and think that everything will stay the same and they don’t have to reinforce the message periodically. They assume things are being done a certain way, and they don’t find out they are not until they are sued.

Business owners want to spend time doing what they’re good at, sales or product development, for example, and if they can get more wheels under their managers, it really unburdens the owners to spend time doing those things they do well. Having reasonable but modest training programs scheduled throughout the year can help keep those manager wheels greased.

What are the consequences of failing to train and consistently implementing policies?

Say, for example, one manager is writing up his employees for being five minutes late, but in another department, employees stroll in 20 minutes late and nothing is said. This kind of inconsistency causes resentment; rank-and-file employees tend to resist the supervisor who is following the letter of the law, and resent coworkers under other managers who are getting away with murder. They’ll sabotage that manager, gossip and waste time, stonewall requests from the other department. Sooner or later productivity declines and often customer service is impacted.

Employees often start keeping records of every conversation or decision the manager makes, thinking they’ve been treated unfairly and that they need to be prepared to sue if they get fired. It’s very damaging and consuming to all involved.

How can you ensure managers stay on the same page?

Weekly meetings are critical. Business owners trying to run in one direction make a huge mistake when they don’t realize that managers are running in another direction and, worse, feeling justified in doing so. The futility of this situation costs you money in ways you often can’t measure.

It’s not only communicating your vision — it’s coaching managers on how to implement it. Don’t just tell them customer retention is a priority; meet with them regularly, talk to them about their customers and their retention strategies, give them the tools to improve the necessary skills and provide a forum for them to discuss what they’re concerned about so you can guide them toward success.

Make it as easy as you can for managers to measure their department initiatives against the company’s initiatives. And at meetings, have them talk about what they’ve done that week that ties into your vision. They will learn from the responses of other managers, creating more alignment and more productive interaction within the company.

S.A. “Sam” Murray is CEO of ManagEase. Reach her at (714) 378-0880 or sam@managease.com.

As companies approach their open enrollment period, many are facing questions about the new rules under the health care reform act.

One of the biggest decisions they will initially need to make is whether they want their current plan to be grandfathered under the former rules, exempting them from some of the new mandates but locking them into the terms of their current plan, says Toni Pilzner, a member at McDonald Hopkins PLC.

“Employers should evaluate their plans and determine whether they want them to remain grandfathered,” says Pilzner. “It is a balancing act between the constraints of being grandfathered versus the cost of losing that status.”

Smart Business spoke with Pilzner about the benefits and pitfalls of retaining grandfathered status, and about how to determine which option is right for your company.

What does a company need to consider when determining whether it wants its group health plan to remain grandfathered?

If your plan remains grandfathered, you essentially must keep your coverage and your plan exactly as they were on March 23, 2010. You cannot change your insurance company or increase any of your co-insurance percentages. You are limited on how much you can increase co-pays and deductibles and in how much you can decrease the employer contribution and increase the employee contribution. Keeping a plan grandfathered may not make sense from a flexibility and financial management stance.

If your plan is not grandfathered, the plan will have to provide first-dollar coverage for preventive benefits and your plan has to pay emergency care both in and out of network at the same level, and cannot require pre-authorization for emergency care. But, you have the freedom to change your insurance company, your coinsurance percentages and your co-pays and deductibles. Thus, it may pay to give up your plan’s grandfathered status for the financial flexibility.

What are the consequences of losing grandfathered status?

If you have a fully insured plan, the plan becomes subject to nondiscrimination rules. If your plan loses its grandfathered status, you must offer coverage to a broader range of employees, not just to your highly compensated employees. Your plan also becomes subject to more of the new mandates, such as having to provide first-dollar coverage for preventive benefits.

Realistically, I do not see any plans remaining grandfathered after 2014. And companies may end up providing the additional mandated benefits in their plans, whether they want to or not, because insurance companies have already indicated that they are putting all of the mandated benefits in all policies.

How will the new rules impact employer costs?

If you choose for your plan to not remain grandfathered, the additional mandates will likely increase your costs. If your plan does remain grandfathered, there may not be much impact in the first year. In the second and third year, however, the inability to increase employee contributions or deductibles will begin to increase your costs.

If you have a stated percentage of the premium that employees contribute, say 10 percent, that stays in place. If the premium goes up $100, the employee picks up $10 and the employer picks up $90. You cannot shift any additional costs to employees. It will catch up with you, and those additional costs will get fairly severe.

In addition, there is nothing in the reform bill that limits how much insurers can charge in premiums. If your plan remains grandfathered, the insurer knows you cannot leave because your plan will lose its grandfathered status, so in theory it can charge whatever it wants. Thus, keeping your plan grandfathered could lock you into a structure that is probably unworkable. Employers need flexibility to change elements in their health plan structure in response to competitive pressures and the economic situation.

Companies should shop around to see if they can get a lower rate on their group health insurance. Their plans will lose their grandfathered status if they change insurance companies, but the employers could still come out ahead if the cost for providing the additional mandated benefits is less than the increase in cost for their plans to remain grandfathered.

Also, some companies are already looking ahead to 2014, when the penalties for not offering insurance are scheduled to come into play, and realizing that paying the penalty will cost less than they are paying for benefits now. With a penalty of $2,000 per year, per employee at companies with more than 50 full-time-equivalent employees, it may be cheaper for them to just walk away from providing health coverage.

What should employers be doing now to prepare for the upcoming changes?

Most companies with calendar-year plans are in open enrollment planning now and should be looking at the changes they are going to make as of January 1, 2011. You need to be aware that, should you choose to walk away from grandfathered status, there are additional new benefits that you must begin providing as of that date.

If your plan is fully insured, you also need to consider the nondiscrimination requirements and balance the cost impact of giving up the ability to offer coverage to a limited group of employees against the cost of remaining grandfathered.

The changes are forcing companies to review their benefits structure on an ongoing basis, take a closer look at their benefits structure and do a lot more analysis of the benefits they provide. To do that, employers need the expert help of an actuary or broker to help them compare the costs of maintaining their plan’s grandfathered status versus the net cost of adding additional new mandates as offset with any increases in co-pays and deductibles and employee contributions. There will be a lot of balancing going on.

Toni Pilzner is a member at McDonald Hopkins PLC. Reach her at apilzner@mcdonaldhopkins.com or (248) 220-1341.

Compensation planning and decisions remain challenging management tasks in many businesses, even large ones. Money is tighter than ever and there is plenty of opportunity for faulty plans to emerge guided by business owners’ lack of attention to, or comfort with, the process. Contrary to popular thinking, fairness doesn’t require us to treat every employee the same. In fact, provided we are non-discriminatory in our decisions, employees are often happier and more productive when they are not treated the same way in matters of compensation.

Smart Business spoke with Peggy Pargoff of ManagEase about how to reward your best employees and why you shouldn’t treat all employees the same.

How should employers address compensation?

It is a best practice to assess compensation and performance at least annually. Ask yourself: How important is compensation in our industry or area? Are we competitive within our market? Are we successful in hiring and retaining good performers? What does this mean with regard to compensation planning?

Participating in an industry salary survey or acquiring local pay data can be important to making good decisions. Creating salary ranges for positions and re-evaluating these over time also helps ensure a good program stays in place. Ensuring that employees who started 10 years ago are not disadvantaged in pay over current hires brought in at higher starting pay is also crucial to fair compensation.

While compensation technically includes benefits and non-cash reward programs, the amount of cash a person receives is still usually paramount. Non-cash rewards like regular company-sponsored lunches or generous sick time programs build morale and can positively impact retention, but don’t pay the employees’ bills.

What is the cost of flat compensation?

First and foremost is the loss of your best employees and salespeople. When compensation is flat, those employees who are at the top of their game and have good skills will look for better paying jobs. In fact, competitors often seek to steal top performers during down market cycles when small raises can cause good people to jump ship. Those employees with marginal skills and no ambition hang on to their jobs with even greater tenacity because they know they can’t compete for a new job. This can cause a downward spiral in overall employee quality.

The second impact involves a subset of employees who seek to increase their ‘compensation’ by exploiting regulatory claims, filing unwarranted workers’ comp claims, embezzling or stealing products or customers.

The third impact involves the costs of recruitment and training, loss of experience and expertise, or customer relationships, which can be far more than providing modest compensation increases to your good people.

How can an employer determine who deserves raises?

The practice of giving cost of living adjustments (COLAs) across the board should be gone, but is not. Business owners who may be uncomfortable with compensation discussions often fall back on giving everyone a 2 percent raise, thinking they are being fair. A 2 percent raise does not make a discernible difference in pay for most employees. And COLA strategies favor the weakest and worst performing employees over the high performers and discourage great performance.

Unfortunately, compensation decisions are often not kept confidential and it’s prudent to assume your decisions will become known. This underscores the need for objective legitimacy in the decision-making process. Set quantitative benchmarks and standards for performance whenever possible and communicate to employees which soft skills are valued. This makes it clear what contributions will be rewarded. If your managers are making compensation decisions, ensure they are using the same criteria. Should employees learn that you have provided raises only to the highest producers or best contributors, the fairness of your decisions can mitigate disappointment in their own exclusion. At the least, you will send a powerful message that your rewards system has integrity.

How can employers manage the ‘no-raise’ message for the best possible outcome?

When business performance prohibits raises, it’s important to get out in front of this decision with the proper messaging. You might say, ‘Profits are down 15 percent, and we have to defer raise reviews until January. I wish we could make another decision at this time, but we cannot.’ This message should not be communicated via memos, e-mails or water cooler gossip. Frank discussion with employees, individually or in groups, shows respect for their need to plan their lives and financial matters. If you have a large business, taking time to ensure all managers communicate this message consistently is crucial. If you need to delay raises again, give employees a new date when your decision will be reviewed. Avoid creating confusion and uncertainty to prevent having employees share their frustrations with customers or vendors.

This process is often not just a one-time activity. Consider providing some simplified information on what’s being done to reverse declines and return to normal operations in order to enhance morale and productivity during difficult periods. Regular updates help people see light at the end of the tunnel.

How can employers create money for raises?

One approach is to eliminate one or two positions held by low performers and use their compensation (or part of it) to provide raises to the better performers. Often good people will gladly shoulder more work for higher pay. Redesigning territories so the retained sales people can achieve higher commissions may also be a reasonable alternative to continuing pay for all sales people, including the underperformers. In many companies employees see this as a fair solution because it acknowledges that some employees are contributing and some are not.

Peggy Pargoff, PHR, is senior vice president at ManagEase. Reach her at ppargoff@managease.com or (714) 378-0880.

With the recently passed health care reform legislation come many changes in employers’ health insurance plans. And that has left employers looking for answers as many of the new mandates go into effect with plan years starting after Sept. 23.

Smart Business spoke with Dale R. Vlasek and John M. Wirtshafter, attorneys at McDonald Hopkins LLC, about the new mandates and how they will affect employers.

Who is grandfathered in under the new health care reform law?

Any health plans that were in place on March 23, 2010, are grandfathered. A plan can stay grandfathered as long as the employer does not implement any changes that cause it to lose such status. Unfortunately, many changes will result in the loss of grandfathered status — for example, changing insurance policies or insurance carriers, eliminating or significantly reducing benefits to diagnose or treat particular conditions, raising co-payments, lowering limits, or raising deductibles or costs of coverage beyond specifically permitted amounts.

Some of the mandated changes are applicable to all plans. However, a grandfathered plan is not subject to a number of the new mandated benefits. Thus, when deciding whether to stay grandfathered, you need to determine whether the expense of staying with your present coverage, as amended for the mandates that are applicable to grandfathered plans, and limiting changes to the permitted changes is economically more beneficial than simply applying all of the mandated changes. This same analysis needs to be applied to all of the different health plans sponsored by the employer.

For the next couple of years, we expect a number of companies will choose to keep their plans grandfathered. But it will be difficult to maintain that status for more than a couple of years. The restrictions on the changes that can be made are so significant that most plans will eventually end up losing that status. In addition, it will be easier for insurance companies to simply incorporate the mandated changes into their policies rather than individually tailor their policies to keep a plan grandfathered.

How can a company determine if it should retain its grandfathered status for now?

A company should seek outside help — whether it is a broker or an attorney who is familiar with the new rules. The benefit of staying grandfathered depends on the specific situation of the employer, plus the manner in which the company provides health benefits to its employees. For example, one of the new rules that is significant for smaller and middle-market companies is that non-grandfathered plans that are fully insured will be subject to the same nondiscrimination tests that were previously only applicable to self-insured medical plans. These nondiscrimination rules will prohibit the plan from discriminating in favor of the highly compensated employees, either in their eligibility to participate or in the benefits provided.

A number of companies currently have more favorable eligibility rules for their executives than they do for other rank and file employees or provide a fully-insured ‘wrap’ program to their executives that provides another layer of benefits above and beyond the benefits provided under the broad-based health insurance program. Under the new act, once the plan is no longer grandfathered, it will be subject to these new rules. If you fail the nondiscrimination rules, the employer is subject to an excise tax of $100 per person per day. Therefore, depending on your situation, you may very well want to remain grandfathered so that you are not subject to this nondiscrimination testing.

Before you give up your grandfathered status by changing your plan, you need to consider whether the price of complying with this rule and others is more costly than staying grandfathered and accepting the higher rates that may apply as a result of not being able to change insurance companies or products.

How else will these coverage changes affect employers?

All health plans must extend coverage to eligible adult children until they turn 26 (grandfathered plans can eliminate coverage if the child is eligible for a plan with his or her employer). Employers must implement the change for the first plan year starting after Sept. 23. Ohio law has been revised to extend coverage in some circumstances until the child attains age 28. Plans will need to open coverage up for children that had come off the insurance rolls because they no longer met the prior eligibility criteria.

How can a company begin to prepare for open enrollment?

Companies need to start talking with their brokers to determine how their rates will be impacted by the mandates that are going into effect for the coming year. They will need to compare the costs of maintaining their present policies, amended as required or as limited to stay grandfathered, to the costs of simply complying with all of the mandates. Until you decide whether to remain grandfathered, you need to ensure that you do not inadvertently make changes that will cause the plan to lose such status.

With the very limited changes you can make, will the cost of renewing your present policy work for you, or are you better off giving up your grandfathered status, which will allow you to make changes to your employees’ co-pay, the policy and other items?

How will these various changes impact collective bargaining?

Your health insurance plans that cover your union employees will be treated as grandfathered plans until the expiration of the present collective bargaining contract (assuming it was ratified before March 23, 2010). This is true even if you make changes permitted under the collective bargaining agreement that would have otherwise caused a regular plan to lose its grandfathered status. However, an employer going into union negotiation needs to be prepared to address the benefits of attempting to remain grandfathered and how those additional costs will be shared by the employer and the employees.

Dale R. Vlasek and John M. Wirtshafter are attorneys at McDonald Hopkins LLC. Reach Vlasek at (216) 348-5452 or dvlasek@mcdonaldhopkins.com. Reach Wirtshafter at (216) 348-5833 or jwirtshafter@mcdonaldhopkins.com.

A number of significant changes in employment law have already occurred under the Obama administration. Despite the difficulty, employers need to keep up on the changes and the rights they give employees, because failing to do so could result in a lawsuit, according to John Susany, chair of the litigation and employment group at Stark & Knoll Co., L.P.A.

“Once a lawsuit is filed by an employee, other people at your company can see themselves in the same shoes and start to think, ‘Maybe I should bring a claim, too,’” says Susany.

Smart Business spoke with Susany about the new state and federal laws, and what you can do to stay out of trouble.

What changes in employment law do employers need to be aware of?

This June, the administrator of the Department of Labor issued an interpretation of the Family Medical Leave Act that allows employees who are in same-sex relationships to take time off to care for their partner’s child.

Under the FMLA, people who work for a company with 50 or more employees are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a child — natural or adopted — or to care for a spouse or a child with serious health conditions. The new ruling says that an employee in a same-sex relationship can qualify for that same kind of leave to care for the child of a partner, even if there is no biological relationship between the employee and the partner’s child.

What else is new in federal employment law?

A new amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to offer ‘reasonable breaks’ for nursing mothers. An employer has to provide a private place that is shielded from view and free from intrusion. The law specifically excludes bathrooms as an appropriate place.

The law does not define what is ‘reasonable,’ but the employer cannot be the one scheduling break time. It’s the nursing mom who decides when she needs to take those breaks, which are permitted for up to one year after the birth of the child.

This applies to everyone, and if a company has a new mother, it has to react quickly. That means two things. You need to update your employment policies and you need to identify where you can create a private place.

However, the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers who have fewer than 50 employees to not comply if doing so will present an ‘undue hardship’ on the company in relation to ‘size, financial resources, and the nature or structure of the business.’ Should an employee sue, there would be a very specific factual inquiry on what you did and what you could have done under the circumstances.

But one thing is clear — you can’t put your head in the sand. You have to take affirmative action.

What changes have there been to Ohio law?

Effective July 2, Ohio employers with 50 employees or more are required to give two weeks of unpaid leave once each calendar year for the spouse, parent or custodian of a member of the armed services if that member is injured or is going to be deployed.

Under the Ohio Military Family Leave Act, the member of the military has to have been called up for active duty longer than 30 days or injured while serving in active duty, and the employee has to give 14 days notice of a deployment.

How has the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) changed under the Obama administration?

It has more money, and that means more resources to pursue claims. It has hired additional staff, additional investigators and attorneys, and it’s the job of those people to investigate and, if necessary, to prosecute claims against employers. That is resulting in increased scrutiny by the EEOC of companies.

Most investigations tend to arise from a complaint by an individual, but that individual complaint could be expanded to a class of people similarly situated or adversely affected by a company policy.

What steps can an employer take to protect itself from lawsuits?

An employer needs to have policies in place that are reviewed annually by an employment attorney. Go over the policies, talk about changes in the law — and not just the laws as they are written but about how they are implemented and applied.

It’s not enough just to have good policies; one of the most damning things that can happen in employment litigation is if a jury hears that the company didn’t follow its own policies.

Beyond having a handbook, your people have to work to know it, understand it and implement all its policies uniformly. And to do that, you need training. You need to practice and reaffirm what those policies are, and you need to understand them in the context of a changing workplace.

You really need to cultivate a partnership with external experts, such as employment lawyers, for policy reviews and management training seminars. And that is especially true right now. With the downturn in the economy, a lot of employers have neglected updating their policies and training, and that is dangerous.

Each person you lay off or fire or demote is a potential plaintiff. And if you haven’t been vigilant in your policies, in your training, or in educating your managers, each one of those people may have reason to sue you. A lawsuit may be based on a technicality, but it’s enough to get you into court and cause you to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending a claim that you shouldn’t have to defend.

John Susany is chair of the litigation and employment group at Stark & Knoll Co., L.P.A. Reach him at jsusany@stark-knoll.com or (330) 376-3300.

With the right technology, even a small business owner can begin to operate like a senior executive at a large corporation.

“Business owners don’t need more e-mail,” says Rich Cannon, industry development marketing manager for Microsoft. “What they do need is a better way to process it. The problem is, a business owner gets 200 e-mails a day, and there are three in there that will kill the business if they’re not processed. Then there are another 197 that if they get to, great, and if they don’t, it’s still OK.”

Smart Business spoke with Cannon about how the right technology can save you both time and money.

Why should a company have all of its technology streamlined?

E-mail is really the primary way that business owners deal with their customers and their vendors. And you can choose from among all kinds of free e-mail providers, but how are you going to process that e-mail?

You have all this information coming at you, but there are tools that every business can leverage to make it more productive and make its employees more productive. If someone asks you if you can do an appointment, the information is there, you have a task list that you can put it on, and all of that synchronizes with your mobile device.

Now if other people in your office are trying to book an appointment, they don’t have to call you. They can see your schedule and book a time that’s convenient for you, which reduces the number of e-mails and voice mails you’re going to get.

How can business owners get started coordinating their company’s technology?

Most businesses have e-mail of some sort, but one person may have one free service, while another has e-mail through his or her broadband server. So putting everyone on a common system is the place to start.

With the right provider, you’ll get help going through the conversion from whatever each individual was using before onto a system whereby everyone can see one another’s appointments. Once everyone is on a common system, the provider can also help you get your mobile device activated and connected into that system so that you can get everything that is on your desktop on your phone.

What are some mistakes business owners make when moving to a more centralized system?

First, they assume that not everyone in the company needs to be on it because not every job is computer-oriented. The fact is, everyone has to book appointments with someone else, and everyone has to send and receive messages. Everyone has tasks that he or she is doing, and everyone has a schedule. So the first mistake is setting it up for some employees but not for others.

The second mistake is thinking that it’s going to be a huge expense. Business owners think they’re getting a better deal by sticking with their free e-mail account, but that doesn’t offer the tools to process e-mail. Also, a lot of people buy an e-mail software program, and they pay as much for that copy as they would pay for a monthly service for a year. As a result, they don’t get the latest updates on the software, which really improve your productivity.

Finally, they continue to maintain a server in the office. With the hardware and the upgrades and the software licenses, that server is costing the average company $1,000 per year per user, versus a far lower cost for an e-mail service. If you’re using an outside service, that company is taking care of the management of the service, the backup and turning mailboxes on and off. People in your office maintain control over the system, but you don’t have the expense of owning the infrastructure. It really is a better way.

How can using a centralized service save a business owner both time and money?

There are a few examples. Imagine that someone tells you his or her phone number has changed. You put it in your cell phone, but it doesn’t sync back to your e-mail or to your way of processing e-mail. The next time you switch phones, you lose the person’s phone number.

The second timesaver is all the calls you don’t have to take or make. If your assistant needs to set an appointment for you, if all your appointments are in a book somewhere or are in your head, that person wouldn’t be able to do his or her job. With a system in place, your assistant can view your schedule, put something on it, and it shows up on your phone, complete with the attachments you might need for the meeting. As a result, it reduces the number of phone calls and helps you keep everything in sync.

There are a lot of those little things that people have to think to do if a system isn’t doing it for them. And when you take all of that into account, it saves you about 20 percent of the time that you’re in front of your computer or using your mobile device in a week. If you have desk workers at your company, that could save them a day a week.

Rich Cannon is an industry development marketing manager for Microsoft. Reach him at rcannon@microsoft.com or (770) 843-2126. For more information, visit www.business.comcast.com. Microsoft Communication Services offered by Comcast featuring Microsoft Outlook 2007.

Keeping your employees safe and productive while they’re traveling requires a series of sound decisions, starting well before the trip even begins.

Having a plan in place to deal with the unexpected and making employees aware of it takes some of the worry out of travel and can be a lifesaver should travel be interrupted, as it was for thousands in Europe recently as a result of a volcanic eruption in Iceland.

“With a plan, employees know what to do, who to call and how to handle a particular situation,” says Kathleen France, director of international reservations and services at Professional Travel Inc. “And if they’re not sure how to handle it, they at least know where they can go to get answers.”

Smart Business spoke with France about how partnering with a professional travel agency and developing a plan can help prepare your employees to deal with any situation they may encounter while traveling.

Is there an increased focus on being prepared for disruptions to travel?

After 9/11, when employers were frantic to account for all of their employees, everyone started to think about these things and be more proactive about them, but then the concerns moved to the back burner. But with the Iceland volcano causing the largest transportation disruption since World War II, the focus is back on travel disruption. Companies haven’t been able to get a hold of employees, some employees were traveling with very low credit card limits, they were being delayed day after day, and many employers that had no plans in place were scrambling to try to make adjustments.

But those with a plan in place had a much easier time, as they had a partner who could facilitate communication, get credit card limits raised, help employers wire money or direct stranded travelers to take the appropriate actions to stay safe and productive until they were able to return home.

How can working with an agency help a company develop a plan to protect its traveling employees?

An agency can help you begin to think about things you may not have considered. Do you have enough insurance? Do you have medical insurance that covers you no matter where you are? Are you self-insured for car rental? Does your credit card have enough credit available should you be stranded somewhere for an extended time? Does your cell phone work in another country? Does your computer? These are all things that a lot of people just don’t think about.

An agency can also help employers develop a strict travel policy that mandates that all bookings — cars, hotel and air — are made through a central location. Doing so ensures that all travel information relating to all your employees is in one place, providing a central clearinghouse for both employers and employees in case of the unexpected.

How can having a plan in place benefit you should your employees run into unforeseen circumstances overseas?

Companies with a plan in place will clearly be in a better position to support their travelers through any crisis situation. Having a plan makes travelers feel more secure in that, should something happen, they know they’ve got support and they know where to turn for it. For travelers, knowing they are not alone can go a long way toward relieving the stress in a crisis, and with 24-7 service available, employees have access to information when they need it.

Having a plan also allows employers to respond more quickly, because they are acting according to the plan, not reacting to the situation.

Companies that do not have policies may find themselves at a loss regarding whether a traveler was on a particular flight or in a certain location when a crisis occurs. They may also be left scrambling if an employee is injured and doesn’t know where to turn, or if the employee is stranded without necessary medication. By working with an agency, a company gets a partner that has seen it all and can provide solutions and options that an employer might not be aware of.

How can companies communicate travel information to employees?

Consider having a travel portal, which can keep travelers updated on important information while an event is happening. A portal can house not only alerts and emergency procedures but also insurance information on what to do if the employee becomes sick or injured in a foreign country and what to do if a passport or credit cards are lost or stolen. Having these step-by-step procedures at their fingertips can be critical because, during a crisis, travelers need things to be simple and easy to follow.

By setting up a portal, your employees will come to rely on one location for important travel information, resulting in gains in improvements to policy compliance and cost savings.

You can also make the portal interactive, allowing employees to offer input on where they see gaps in your corporate travel program, creating the opportunity for you to improve it.

By providing employees with accurate information and a place to turn, you are also providing them with a sense of being safe and protected, knowing that someone is there to help them. And reaching out to travelers, either by an agency or by the employer, puts a personal touch on employees’ travels and lets them know you’re looking out for them and doing everything you can to keep them safe while they’re away from home.

Kathleen France is director of international reservations and services at Professional Travel Inc. Reach her at (440) 734-8800 x4015 or kathleenf@protrav.com.

As today’s consumers bear more of the cost and the responsibility for their health care, employers are looking for ways to provide employees with better access to information about their health insurance benefits and services.

“Today’s technology is giving consumers easier access to their health information in the form of personal health records and self-service options, as well as other tools that make it easier for employees to understand their benefits and how to best use them,” says Marty Hauser, president of SummaCare, Inc.

With a better understanding of their benefits, employees can make more informed decisions based on relevant health information and better manage their health care by improving how they communicate with both their health care providers and their insurance providers.

Smart Business spoke with Hauser about how insurance carriers are using information technology to help employees improve their health and maximize their plan benefits.

How can employees use technology to assist them in choosing a plan option?

Many employers offer several benefit options to their employees, but employees may not understand the differences between the plans and insurers being offered. By providing employees access to online information about each health insurance company, employees become better educated about the company and its offerings and can make more informed decisions about which plan best meets their needs.

Employees should also review each plan’s online tools such as self-service options, symptom checkers and health risk appraisals. Plans use the information that members give them and are able to reach out directly to consumers, providing them with both information specifically regarding their health needs and with more general information, such as tips for staying healthy and lowering the costs of health care. This is another way for health insurance companies to engage consumers and make them more responsible for their health.

In addition, employees should review each plan’s on-line provider search capabilities. Typically, coverage is higher when using network providers so an easy-to-navigate provider search option is integral in determining the most appropriate place for care.

Once they select a plan, employees may have a general sense of what is covered by their plan but may be confused about what specific benefits are covered or how to access that care. Information technology can remove some of that confusion and point employees in the right direction to best take advantage of everything that the plan has to offer.

How else can online tools help improve the health of employees?

Access to customized online tools specific to each member can guide consumers through the health care system by providing lists of recommended preventive services they should be receiving, with customized, targeted reminders based on such things as age, gender and medical history.

By providing information that encourages employees to take advantage of preventive care services on a regular basis, employers can help lower the long-term costs that could arise if a minor issue isn’t treated and later becomes a major, much more costly issue.

How can employers take advantage of these technologies?

Employees may have general ideas of the things they need to do to get and stay healthy, such as eat healthier foods, exercise, lose weight and quit smoking, but they may not understand the specific steps they can take, or they may need help getting started. To turn general knowledge into an actionable plan, employees need very specific tools, tactics, motivation and direction.

Participation in many employer-provided health improvement programs is lower than many employers would like, so instead of offering general ideas that may not resonate with employees, they can use technology to offer more specific, targeted information and to help employees track things such as minutes spent exercising or kinds of food eaten.

There is a lot of information out there — much of it conflicting — and employees will appreciate a trusted source that can cut through the clutter to provide personalized communication relevant to their situation.

How can technology influence administrative costs?

Using technology can reduce the amount of physical paperwork that both insurers and providers must deal with. Electronic records are easier to read than handwriting, and data is transmitted more accurately. In addition, everyone is able to see the same document in real time, helping to reduce the number of medical errors. This can result in a better quality of care and lower costs by eliminating the need for repeated tests by doctors who might not have access to previous results or know that the tests have already been performed.

Technology can also reduce costs to providers by eliminating the physical storage space needed to accommodate paper records and free up staff to focus on duties other than maintaining and tracking paper records.

With upcoming changes due to health care reform, now is an ideal time for employers to assess what they are doing to help their employees to not only stay healthy, but to also select the plan that best suits their needs and stay informed about their health insurance benefits and coverage. Information technology allows for an easy, real-time way to stay informed.

MARTY HAUSER is the president of SummaCare, Inc., a provider-owned health plan located in Akron, Ohio. SummaCare offers a full line of health plans and ancillary products. Through its extensive network of more than 7,000 providers and more than 50 hospitals, SummaCare offers coverage to more than 115,000 members throughout northern Ohio. Reach him at hauserm@summacare.com.