SBN Staff

Employee productivity is important to any business’ success, and if an employee is too overwhelmed by personal or behavior problems to perform at his or her highest level, the company’s productivity will suffer as a result.

To address those issues, many employers are turning to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). An EAP can help identify issues facing troubled employees and direct employees to resources such as short-term counseling, referrals to specialized professionals or organizations, and follow-up service to help them address those issues, says Ron Carmassi, a sales executive with JRG Advisors, the management arm of ChamberChoice.

“EAPs offer a safe environment where an employee can discuss problems with a counselor who can make a confidential and professional assessment and provide referral to a mental health professional if necessary,” says Carmassi.

Smart Business spoke with Carmassi about EAPs and how they can assist your employees, improving both the lives of your workers and the productivity of your business

What are EAPs designed to accomplish?

First created many years ago in response to businesses’ concerns about the impact of employee alcohol and drug abuse on bottom-line productivity, employee assistance programs are now designed to deal with a much wider and more complex range of issues that are confronting today’s work force. Modern EAPs are designed to help workers with issues including family and/or marriage counseling, stress, depression, financial difficulties, crisis planning, illness, pre-retirement planning and other emotional, personal and wellness needs.

The expansion in the scope of EAP counseling is often attributed to the change in our social fabric. Double wage-earning households, an increase in the number of single parent households, economic crises, changing and more demanding career patterns, and technological advances have created new and different types of stresses, which affect the health and productivity of many employees.

Individuals experiencing a personal or family crisis and who are under chronic stress often have nowhere to turn for advice and assistance other than the EAP that is offered by their employer.

What is the benefit to employers that offer EAPs?

Many employers realize a direct link between employee well being and employee productivity.  The difference in value and productivity between happy and unhappy employees can be profound, as personal and work-related problems can manifest themselves in poor job performance, adversely impacting the company’s overall productivity.

Employers often perceive that the biggest advantage of an EAP is the positive impact it can have on employee productivity, but there are other benefits as well. For example, businesses offering EAPs often see a reduction in absenteeism, an increase in morale, fewer work-related accidents, a reduction in incidents resulting from substance abuse and an overall reduction in medical costs, resulting in a significant savings for the company.

In addition, employers that include an EAP as part of their benefits package are often viewed as more ‘employee-supportive’ than competitors that do not offer this type of program. That, in turn, makes the EAP a tool for both employee attraction and retention, potentially resulting in lower turnover.

Another advantage of the EAP is that it frees up the company and its personnel to focus on operations, rather than devoting work time to issues that are not directly related to productivity, deadlines and other business activities that result in growth and added revenue.

What should an employer consider when choosing an EAP?

The characteristics of EAP programs vary, so it is important to compare programs to understand exactly what you are getting before you sign on. In addition to cost structure, other factors to consider before purchasing an EAP include the qualifications of the staff that will provide counseling.

Staff should be professionally licensed with established relationships with local and/or national health groups and they should also be engaged in continuing education initiatives so that they remain current. Be sure to inquire about the extent of training services because EAP training programs vary in scope and subject matter.

Convenience of services and responsiveness of staff are also important factors to consider, and business owners should seek out EAP providers with facilities in the same geographic region as the company so that employees can visit before, during or after work. The EAP should also include a toll-free telephone line that is operational around the clock

What would you say to employers who say they can’t afford to sponsor yet another benefit?

While employers understand the value of an EAP, many are concerned about the cost of implementing and maintaining this type of program, particularly with increasing costs for other insurance and employee benefit programs. And while it is true that the employer generally bears the cost of the EAP, many employers are surprised to learn they can institute an EAP at a relatively small expense to the company, often with monthly fees ranging from just $2 to $6 per employee.

More often than not, once employers become involved in an EAP, they come to believe that the return on that investment is well worth the cost.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by JRG Advisors, the management arm of ChamberChoice.

The TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” is fun because it highlights how much young students know that their parents have long forgotten or never knew.

But, measuring up to fifth-graders is equally difficult in other areas. For instance, how would most adults answer this question: “Are you as fit as a fifth-grader?”

“It’s likely that most adults don’t know how fit they are and they are probably less likely than fifth-graders to be able to find out,” says Dr. Michael Parkinson, senior medical director of Health and Productivity, for UPMC Health Plan. “Many employers do health risk assessments for their employees, but they do not realize that the absence of risk does not equal fitness.”

Smart Business spoke with Parkinson about how employers can better gauge and encourage fitness among their employees.

Why compare an employee’s fitness to that of a fifth-grader?

That is certainly an arbitrary standard, but what got me thinking about it was when my fifth-grade son came home with what was called a ‘Fitness Gram’ that showed how he scored in a number of physical tests designed to measure his fitness. What struck me most was how detailed the test was, most especially when you compare it to anything that could pass as its equivalent in the corporate world.

Employers have been measuring and promoting workplace wellness primarily through use of a health risk assessment that measures personal health behaviors and self-reported height and weight, or body mass index (BMI). Many employers add biometric screenings, which include blood pressure and lipid or blood fat levels, as well. And, of course, all employers are now required to pay for preventive care at no cost to their employees.

Are health risk assessments ineffective in measuring fitness?

They have a purpose, certainly, but they can be misleading. In health risk assessments, those whose scores indicate low risk are considered to be the most healthy. But what employers do not realize is that an absence of risk does not equal health. Absence of risk does not equal fitness. To be blunt, in the corporate world, the bar has been set too low on wellness.

How can the bar on fitness be raised?

One of the tests my fifth-grader had to take measured his aerobic capacity and is known as ‘VO2 Max.’ Aerobic testing is rarely, if ever, a part of any corporate wellness test for an adult, even though the information is vital.

Aerobic capacity shows the maximum capacity of an individual’s body to transport and use oxygen during incremental exercise. It is widely recognized as the test that best reflects the physical fitness of an individual.

It is also been shown to be the best single predictor of ‘all cause mortality,’ or how long we’ll live. Greater aerobic capacity has been associated with the ability to better perform both physical and mental work, clearly required in today’s demanding and competitive workplace.

Why should the fitness of employees matter to an employer?

Fitness tests generally assess muscle strength, endurance and flexibility, all of which are of great importance in the workplace. However, unlike elementary students, adults are rarely tested in these areas. Musculoskeletal injuries such as strains and sprains are due often to obesity, lack of core body strength and fitness.

Musculoskeletal injuries are a leading cause of lost workdays, as well as medical and disability costs. Back injuries, slips and stretching mishaps are common work-related incidents that employees face and that could be avoided with improved core body strength.

Is BMI an important measure of fitness?

Body mass index, or BMI, is a measurement test that is a common feature of most health risk assessments and it is used to determine whether an individual’s body weight differs from what is normal or desirable for a person of that height.

BMI is a measurement based on a formula that takes into account your height and weight in determining whether you have a healthy percentage of body fat. In general, BMI is an inexpensive and easy-to-perform method of screening for weight categories that have the potential to develop into health problems. But, again, it doesn’t indicate anything in terms of fitness levels and it doesn’t really say how healthy you are, just that you might be at risk for obesity.

How can employees raise their fitness levels?

Fifth-graders are often more fit than adults because, generally speaking, they are more active. In order to improve fitness, people need to participate in some kind of moderate aerobic activity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. It does not matter if the 30 minutes is broken into three 10-minute segments.

What’s important is to try to get moving. Some exercise at any level of intensity is better than none as you start to build endurance.

It’s funny to think about comparing employee fitness levels to that of fifth-graders, but the message is serious. Any company that wants to take wellness to the next level should think about measuring fitness the way fifth-graders do, and, in the process, see how their employees measure up.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan.

In a typical commercial real estate transaction, the seller is taxed on any gain realized from the sale of his or her property. However, there are mechanisms available by which the tax liability associated with these gains on sale can be deferred by reinvesting the sale proceeds into another property through a 1031 like-kind exchange. Section 1031 of the Internal Revenue Code provides that no gain or loss shall be recognized on the exchange of property held for use in a business or for investment.

Smart Business spoke with Greg VanKirk, CPA, partner with Plante Moran CRESA, about the benefits and guidelines of exchanging property under 1031 exchange rules and how it compares to a typical real estate sale.

What are the benefits of a 1031 exchange?

The primary reason for a property or business owner to execute a 1031 exchange is to defer taxes on gains incurred on the sale of a property. In essence, you are able to redeploy capital into investments that are greater in scale, more diverse or more aligned with your business or investment strategy. An example that illustrates this could be exchanging a parcel of vacant land for an income-producing property while deferring the tax liability incurred from the original sale.

Regardless of how you reallocate your portfolio within the IRS guidelines, the 1031 exchange strategy allows you more to reinvest at a time when real estate prices are at historic lows. Even if the property or building you are selling is depressed, deferring depreciation recapture is part of the equation.

At this time the long-term capital gains tax rate for individuals is 15 percent for at least the remainder of 2012. If this rate were to rise to 20 percent, as many are currently projecting, more businesses would be expected to take advantage of 1031 exchanges and then wait until a time period when the rate is lower to realize gains.

What are the regulations of a 1031 exchange?

There are some strict rules and guidelines that determine what constitutes a valid exchange. The first stipulates the exchange must be between qualifying properties of like-kind. Most real estate, held for use in the trade of business or for investment, will qualify with the exception that they must both be within the borders of the U.S. Some personal property can also qualify for an exchange, but is not like-kind to real estate. Property that specifically would not be considered qualified includes inventory or stock in trade; stocks, bonds, or notes; other securities or debt; partnership interests; and certificates of trust.

Timing is another significant guideline that cannot be extended for any hardship or circumstance short of a presidentially declared natural disaster. There is a 180-day window during which the seller involved in the transaction must search, identify and close on the purchase of the new property in order for the 1031 exchange to be valid. While more than one property may be identified initially, the property being purchased must be identified as part of the exchange no more than 45 days from the time the seller’s property is relinquished and closing on the new property must be complete within 180 days of the transfer.

The total purchase price of the property to be acquired must be equal to or greater than the total net sales price of the property being relinquished and all of the equity received from the transaction must be used to acquire the property targeted in the 1031 exchange. If the replacement property purchase price is less than the relinquished property, a tax will be applied to the difference. Another fundamental rule requires that the net equity in the replacement property must be equal or greater than the net equity in the property sold, or the purchaser will be required to pay the tax on the amount of decrease.

Finally, the sale must also go through a qualified intermediary— simply selling the building or property and using the proceeds to purchase another disqualifies the exchange. These intermediaries are companies that work full time facilitating such exchanges. A qualified intermediary needs to be an independent organization that will handle the funds from the original sale through the exchange process and then deliver the money to the closing agent. The intermediary will also be responsible for filling out all of the appropriate tax forms  and exchange agreements related to the process.

Does the current real estate market favor an exchange?

Every situation is different and an unbiased real estate professional can lay out all of your options to help you determine if a 1031 like-kind exchange is a feasible option. Owners selling their business may want to consider offsetting any gains on real estate by purchasing an income-producing property.

Depressed real estate values on one hand offer appreciation opportunity, while on the other hand limit the amount of quality real estate available for exchange. If the capital gains tax rate increases, experts would expect the amount of like-kind exchanges would increase.

Greg VanKirk, CPA, is a partner at Plante Moran CRESA. Reach him (248) 223-3395 or greg.vankirk@plantemoran.com or visit www.pmcresa.com.

Insights Real Estate is brought to you by Plante Moran CRESA

The commercial real estate market has been hard hit the last several years. While the residential market has suffered equally, commercial real estate typically falls the hardest and climbs the fastest. It has seen higher highs and lower lows than many other components of the market, but lenders are beginning to loosen their belts as things begin to slowly improve, says Andrea Bucey-Tikkanen, vice president of commercial real estate lending for Lorain National Bank.

“That many commercial lenders feel cautiously encouraged could be an indicator of improvements to the economy as a whole,” says Bucey.

Smart Business spoke with Bucey about the commercial real estate market and how banks’ lending practices have begun to thaw.

How has the overall commercial real estate industry been performing?

This year has brought the beginning of a recovery within the commercial real estate industry. There is more activity than there has been in some time, and more banks, insurance companies and other financing conduits are back at the table and proactively looking to lend. Since mid-2008, the industry has been fraught with frightened lenders and floundering borrowers. This year, there is more confidence and optimism on both sides of the table.

What has been the effect on commercial real estate developers?

Commercial real estate developers are a strong and resilient breed. The recession caused many within the industry to fail —some previously solid, good developers are out of business. However, the survivors are exceptionally creative and nimble and have less competition. That said, the role of government in the banking world is serving as a buffer; banks continue to be closely monitored, which prevents the pendulum from swinging too rapidly. The pace of recovery is measured and slow.

How have current market conditions impacted interest rates?

Many banks have been absent from the lending arena for a protracted period of time, either because they chose to sit on the sidelines or because their own poor performance forced them to do so. Banks with money to lend have had less competition and a borrowing base that needed capital. Simple supply and demand drove cost, and while the overall interest rate indexes have been exceptionally low for years, banks could — and did — pay little heed to the indexes themselves. Base rates may have been low, but spreads were thick. In recent months, that has changed dramatically. Spreads are greatly reduced from where they were as recently as late 2011.

Banks lending on commercial real estate consistently during the recession were doing so in a challenging and cautious market. The spreads applied during the worst of times reflected the level of risk inherent in the transaction. Interest rates are the way in which a bank is compensated for the risks it is taking. A riskier, more challenging market equals a higher price for the end user which, in this case, is the commercial real estate developer.

Has lenders’ behavior helped or hindered the market?

There have been bad cops and good cops in the lending arena. A number of lenders were so panicked by the economic downturn that they looked for ways to decrease any and all real estate assets within their portfolios, whether they were performing or not. To encourage their borrowers to refinance elsewhere, bad cops used any and all efforts, including applying punitive interest rates and failing to extend maturity dates on otherwise performing loans. The good cops were the lenders that provided capital consistently, in many cases helping to resurrect a challenged asset by providing the dollars needed to refinance. A good cop in this recent environment had numerous lending opportunities on good assets that were simply the victim of circumstance.

Have economic times influenced the types of real estate deals being done?

Absolutely. There are developers that have not only succeeded in recent years but thrived.  They responded to challenges by adapting and using the market to their advantage. This can be seen in the number of ‘value add’ projects being financed, which is the purchase — oftentimes for a markedly reduced price — of a floundering project, be it with high vacancy, a failed owner, or a lender desperate to dump an asset. These low prices have provided the developer that has had capital with a unique opportunity to cheaply buy an asset, provide it with a heightened level of attention, affect its turnaround and vastly increase its end value. These types of projects continue to be popular.

Is the recovery sustainable?

There is a ripple effect brought about by the ‘value add’ concept. A landlord who has paid less for his or her asset can charge his or her tenants less rent, which forces neighboring properties to adjust their rental rates downward to maintain tenancy, regardless of the price they paid and the level of debt upon their particular asset. This downward pressure on rents will serve as an ongoing challenge — some would call it a correction — for the foreseeable future.

What actions can a developer take to help improve their odds of success?

There is nothing a banker likes better than an honest borrower. Surviving these past few years has taken talent, perseverance and luck, but it has also forced a level of brutal disclosure. Successful developers have proactively worked with their lenders, disclosing early and regularly fears they have or problems they’re facing. A good lender will listen and help work creatively toward a solution. The end result is mutual success and a healthier market.

Andrea Bucey-Tikkanen is vice president of commercial real estate lending for Lorain National Bank. Reach her at (216) 520-7310 or abucey@4LNB.com.

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by Lorain National Bank

Philanthropy can do more than make you feel good. In fact, recent studies show it can improve financial performance, enhance brand image and reputation, drive sales and customer loyalty, and increase a business’s ability to attract and retain employees. Additionally, research has shown when price and quality are equal, more than 75 percent of consumers would switch brands when a company is associated with a good cause.

“Businesses have many ways to establish a charitable giving program, oftentimes choosing to support causes that touch an organization or that their employees feel strongly about,” says Kathleen Zenisek, marketing director with First State Bank. “This may entail supporting national or global causes, which make the nation and the world a better place, but dollars locally spent can have a profound impact on your world and direct marketplace.”

Smart Business spoke with Zenisek about how to localize your philanthropic efforts and support causes that help those in your community.

How can a business learn more about the needs in its local community?

In metropolitan Detroit, there are three programs — Leadership Detroit, Macomb and Oakland — that help local leaders expand their knowledge about the assets and issues in their respective counties and surrounding region.

The nine-month program, which starts in September, requires participants to meet once a month for a day to learn about a specific topic that affects the county, including government, education, health and human services, arts, religion, business, justice, the environment and more. With unique learning experiences, exclusive field trips and tours, and access to a variety of proven leaders, graduates emerge from their experience eager to make a difference.

With so many overwhelming needs, how can a business decide between national or local charities?

Giving locally makes sense because you know where and how your dollars are being spent. Local charities and nonprofit organizations understand the interests and values of the community. They typically have fewer layers of administration, so more of your money is likely to go directly to the cause.

See if your community has a food bank, soup kitchen or children’s home. Think about what you can do in your community to make a difference and think about your passions. With local donations, you don’t even have to donate money; your time can be just as valuable. For example, First State Bank works with a county food bank that supplies food for 55 neighborhood food pantries and every year organizes a Thanksgiving food drive, which engages customers, as well.

What should a company consider if it wants to align its business with a charity?

Many businesses align their community involvement with their strategic business goals. For instance, an ad agency might support its industry by providing an annual scholarship to an aspiring graphic arts student or donating art supplies to needy schools. Construction companies might consider donating time and materials to organizations that rebuild their own communities. Consider your industry and how your talents and resources can help solve a particular social problem.

As a community bank, First State Bank sees declining property values and resultant foreclosures as one of the biggest issues impacting our community. Despite efforts to keep people in their homes, sometimes houses are reverted to the bank, as with one recent homeowner. We then gave the home to a local school district to begin a hands-on building renovation program, and while the framing and drywall were going up, so was the outlook — and housing value — in the neighborhood.

How can businesses consider developing products that help to better the community?

Sometimes it’s as simple and immediate as offering discounted products or services to veterans or seniors. Other times, the effects are felt later on.

For example, the Detroit regional area has been hit hard with foreclosures. With growing interest in ‘purchase-renovation-sale’ as a means to maximize investment dollars and to improve neighborhood home values, First State Bank developed a short-term loan program for people who personally transform injured or distressed properties, then sell. With this program, vacancies can drop in hard-hit areas, tax revenue can return and real estate agencies are able to aggressively market homes with missing parts. From the buyer to seller to next-door neighbor, it’s a win-win situation for the community. We also recognize that some customers truly need help. Partnering with GreenPath Debt Solutions, a local and respected not-for-profit money management organization, customers are offered debt and credit counseling at no cost.

Not all volunteer and philanthropic opportunities need to have clear-cut business goals. The real goal is to find a local cause or two that you can be passionate about and then support them in a variety of ways. Your sincere, enthusiastic involvement will go a long way toward helping your community and business.

How can being a good corporate citizen benefit businesses?

Perception means a lot to consumers. A recent study showed 80 percent of Americans have a more positive image of businesses that support a cause they care about. Two-thirds said they’re more likely to trust businesses that are aligned with social issues.

Participating in or sponsoring an event may persuade consumers to do business with you. Community events that used to be free to residents are now being re-evaluated, presenting opportunities for businesses to step up. Saving the community’s fireworks, tree lighting ceremony, or movies or concerts in the park from cancellation can make your business a hero.

Giving closer to home can improve quality of life and build a stronger local community.

Kathleen Zenisek is the marketing director with First State Bank. Reach her at (586) 445-6717 or kzenisek@thefsb.com.

Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by First State Bank

The constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act was upheld recently by the U.S. Supreme Court, defining and solidifying many legal obligations employers have when it comes to health care coverage for employees.

“The crux of the Affordable Care Act is to make ‘minimal essential coverage’ more available,” says Christopher J. Carney, chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Brouse McDowell. To achieve this, the Act contains provisions referred to as the ‘employer mandate’ or ‘play or pay.’

However, he says the Act does not require employers to provide minimal essential coverage.

“It is more accurate to state that the Act requires employers that meet a certain minimum employee threshold to make available minimal essential coverage or pay a penalty for failing to do so,” says Carney.

Smart Business spoke with Carney about some of the law’s caveats and what employers need to know in order to become compliant.

How does the law impact employers of various sizes?

The employer mandate provides that ‘large’ employers, or those with 50 or more full-time employees, are required to offer full-time employees health coverage effective Jan. 1, 2014. Businesses with fewer than 100 employees will also be eligible to shop for plans in health benefit exchanges that each state is required to establish as part of the Act.

What are the consequences of noncompliance?

Starting in 2014, large employers will be assessed an annual fee of $2,000 per full-time employee — in excess of 30 employees — if any full-time employee is not offered coverage and enrolls in and receives an income-based tax credit to participate in an insurance exchange. For example, assuming at least one employee satisfies the tax credit requirement, a business with 51 full-time employees that does not offer coverage must pay a monthly penalty of 21 (51 total employees minus 30) times the per-employee penalty amount, i.e., one-twelfth of the annual $2,000 per full-time employee. For purposes of the Act, a full-time employee is one employed at least 30 hours per week on average.

Furthermore, if an employee opts out of an employer’s health plan — either because the employee’s share of the premium would exceed 9.5 percent of his or her income, or because the employer’s or insurer’s share of the total cost of benefits is less than 60 percent and the employee obtains a tax credit for coverage in a health insurance exchange — the employer is also subject to a penalty.

Under these circumstances, the employer must pay a monthly penalty of one-twelfth of $3,000 multiplied by the total number of full time employees who obtain the income-based tax credit for that month. This penalty is capped at one-twelfth of $2,000, multiplied by the total number of full-time employees.

How do the state exchanges come into play?

The Act provides for government-run health benefit exchanges from which individuals and employers with fewer than 100 employees can purchase insurance. Plans in the exchanges will be required to offer four levels of coverage that vary based upon factors such as premiums and out-of-pocket costs. Premium and cost-sharing subsidies will be available for low-income families.

Each state is required to have its own health benefit exchange. If a state chooses not to create its own health benefit exchange, then one will be set up by the federal government. Ohio Gov. John Kasich says the state will not create its own and will rely upon the federal government’s health benefit exchange.

Considering the efforts to derail the Act, what would you advise an employer to do?

Employers should continue with their efforts to comply with the Act’s requirements and some provisions need immediate attention. For example, employers and insurers must provide a Summary of Benefits and Coverage for the open enrollment period beginning on or after Sept. 23, 2012. The SBC is similar to, but does not supplant, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act’s Summary Plan Description. If an employer’s SBC fails to satisfy the requirements of the Act, then the employer is subject to a penalty of $1,000 per failure, per participant. Another example is that the aggregate cost of employer-sponsored health coverage must be reported on Form W-2 for 2012 and going forward.

I would not expect a repeal of this law any time soon. Therefore, employers should determine the extent to which the new rules apply. Because the Act does not apply uniformly, an employer should review the law to identify which requirements apply and the compliance deadlines corresponding to each requirement.

When must employers come into compliance with the law?

The Act was passed on March 30, 2010, and not all changes set forth were imposed immediately. Generally, the provisions that were not controversial went into effect first. The provision prohibiting health plans from denying coverage or limiting benefits for children under the age of 19 because the child has a pre-existing condition went into effect immediately. But the ‘play or pay’ provisions for employers go into effect after Dec. 31, 2013.

What can legal counsel offer as employers look to come into compliance with the law?

Particularly when an employer is close to the 50-employee threshold limit, legal counsel can be helpful in identifying and analyzing employer options and obligations. The ‘play or pay’ regulations have not even been promulgated yet, but expect them to be complicated. Issues that will likely require the assistance of counsel include how to account for independent contractors to whom employee functions have been outsourced and whether common ownership of business would require the aggregation of employees.

Christopher J. Carney is Chair of the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Brouse McDowell. Reach him at (216) 830-6825 or ccarney@brouse.com.

Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Brouse McDowell

On June 28, 2012, the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the majority of President Barack Obama’s 2010 healthcare law. Known as the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the law includes hundreds of provisions.

The Supreme Court upheld the mandate that all nonexempt individuals maintain a minimum level of health insurance coverage or pay a tax penalty. It also upheld new reporting requirements and mandates for employers that offer coverage to their employees, as well as coverage and benefit requirements for health insurers.

While the Supreme Court’s decision confirmed that Americans will see significant changes to the health care industry in the coming years, it also left many individuals wondering about the personal impact this decision will have on them, their families and their businesses.

“While the Supreme Court’s ruling does not affect current coverage for most health insurance policy holders, it is understandable that many are wondering how the ruling affects them personally in the future,” says Marty Hauser, president of SummaCare, Inc. “And although we don’t have all the answers, we do know some things to help employers and individuals work their way through the mandates and provisions of PPACA that may affect them.”

Smart Business spoke with Hauser about what the Supreme Court’s decision will mean to individuals and employers in the coming years, as well as what employers should be doing now to prepare for the upcoming mandates.

What does the Supreme Court’s ruling mean for the average American?

The ruling of the Supreme Court and the provisions under PPACA affect everyone, from the individual with pre-existing conditions to someone who can’t afford health insurance, to the employer that provides coverage to employees and the health insurance company that administers the plan and benefits. Overall, the goal of PPACA is to make health care coverage available to more individuals than ever before.

The ruling not only affects the availability and affordability of health care, but it offers peace of mind for individuals by requiring insurers to provide 100 percent coverage of some benefits, including preventive care and wellness visits, immunizations and some types of counseling and testing.

What are the next mandates and/or provisions that will affect employers and individuals?

Effective Aug. 1, health insurers are required to cover women’s preventive services at 100 percent. This includes well-woman visits; gestational diabetes screening for women 24 to 28 weeks pregnant and those at high risk of developing gestational diabetes; human papillomavirus DNA testing every three years; sexually transmitted infection counseling and HIV screening and counseling; contraception and contraceptive counseling; breastfeeding support, supplies and counseling; and domestic violence screening.

In addition to newly covered preventive services for women, another provision of PPACA that will affect employers and individuals is the Summary of Benefits and Coverage provision. The SBC provision applies to both fully-insured and self-funded group health plans and is meant to help employers and individuals compare benefits between different insurers and/or plans.

The SBC document is designed to describe health plan benefits, including what the plan will cover, limitations and coverage examples. The SBC document must be provided to participants of a health plan enrolling or re-enrolling on or after Sept. 23, 2012. Check with your insurer to determine their process for providing the SBC.

What mandates go into effect in 2013 that will impact employers and/or plan sponsors?

Upcoming mandates slated to go into effect in 2013 for employers and/or plan sponsors include Form W-2 reporting for the 2012 tax year; a $2,500 limit on employee contributions to health Flexible Spending Accounts for plan years beginning in 2013; a requirement for employers to notify employees of the availability of health insurance exchanges; a 0.9 percent tax on earned income of high-income individuals under the Federal Income Contributions Act; and a 3.8 percent Unearned Income Medicare Contribution tax for high income individuals/families.

What mandates go into effect in 2014 that will impact employers and/or plan sponsors?

Mandates effective in 2014 include the ‘pay-or-play’ mandate; employer certification to Health and Human Services regarding whether the group health plan offered to employees provides minimum essential coverage; an increase in permitted wellness incentives from 20 percent to 30 percent; automatic enrollment of new employees in a group health plan for large employers with 200 or more employees; a 90-day waiting period limit for coverage; coverage of certain approved clinical trials for non-grandfathered plans; guaranteed availability and renewability of insured group health plans; prohibition on pre-existing condition exclusions; and complete prohibition on annual dollar limits, which will primarily impact those in the individual market.

What should employers/plans sponsors be doing now to prepare for upcoming mandates?

The most important thing employers or plans sponsors should do now is to start talking to their insurer about insurance options available to them and consider their long-term goals and strategies. It’s also important to figure out when the mandate and provisions will affect the coverage and benefits offered to employees, as some mandates and provisions go into effect upon renewal and are not automatically required, and not every provision applies to each plan type.

Because parts of the mandates and rules aren’t fully written, guidance is still needed. Employers and plan sponsors should pay attention to information regarding upcoming items as information is released.

Marty Hauser is the president of SummaCare, Inc. Reach him at hauserm@summacare.com.

Insights Employee Benefits is brought to you by SummaCare, Inc.

“In the Internet industry, the easy thing to do is give a client exactly what they ask for. The right thing to do is to give them what they need to achieve their goals,” says Kevin Hourigan, president and CEO of Web design, Web development and online marketing agency, Bayshore Solutions. “I find that when I ask the deeper question of ‘what do you expect the (insert web technology or service here) to do for you?’ the answer is usually a form of ‘grow my business.’  I rely on a seven-stage method to deliver the Web technology and marketing expertise to deliver those growth results.”

Smart Business spoke with Hourigan about the sequence of steps that creates a high-performance Web presence and drives business growth.

Is there a reliable recipe for the best Web results?

Based on our more than 16 years experience and evolution of serving clients, our team has developed a Web methodology consisting of seven stages, with each successive stage building upon the previous one and providing feedback for the continual improvement of the entire Web program. Depending on the industry, business model and other dynamics, a specific business may need to incorporate just few or the full range of elements in each phase to accomplish their goals. Generally, however, each stage needs to be addressed to build and maintain a robust Web presence that competes and performs well.

What are the seven steps of Web success?

1. Envision. This is the ‘Business and Marketing 101’ that needs to be complete before any Web design, development or technology issue is addressed. You need clear answers to questions including: What is your Business brand and personality? What are your goals and objectives for your Web presence? Who is your target audience and what makes them click, or what are your customer personas? What actions do you want to elicit with your Web assets? This step is the foundation that all later steps must be aligned to and built upon.

2. Design. In this stage the styling, design and architecture of your Web presence is created that strikes the perfect balance of brand personality, message, visual communication and user interface to resonate with your target audience and entice them to perform the desired action. Much more than layout, color and imagery, it is a purposeful, strategic blend of science and art applied to your business’s online identity.

3. Build. Now the design is applied to the appropriate platforms and devices for your business needs. Web functionality and features are developed to create the best user experience and technology integrations are connected both on the public facing and administrative facets of your Web presence. As this stage is completed, you have a ‘live’ website from which to launch your online growth initiatives.

4. Attract. In this step, the basic Web marketing tactics appropriate to your business model and markets are developed and deployed. This includes search engine optimization; paid search advertising including pay-per-click, display and retargeting campaigns; email marketing campaigns; and online initiatives to attract targeted attention and traffic to your business.

5. Examine. This essential stage ensures that the right tracking and analytics are implemented so that your key performance metrics can reliably guide ongoing marketing and business decisions. Regular research and testing rooted in this step will confirm current validity of the elements in all the stages, signal needed adjustments and guide incremental as well as dramatic gains in ongoing results.

6. Connect. More advanced outreach and web interconnectivity is deployed in this stage. Content marketing and syndication utilizing both written forms of communication, such as articles, press releases and eBooks as well as visual multi-media such as videos, webcasts, podcasts and interactive apps are the tactical tools used in this step. Establishing a corporate blog is a natural part of this stage and creating presence and active engagement in social media puts you in touch with your audience wherever they connect to your topic or brand.

7. Engage. This is the most often missed step that can powerfully differentiate a business’s growth results. Here your workflows, communication, measurement and management are linked together with marketing automation, lead qualification and customer relationship management technology. Streamlining the processes in this stage will help you efficiently move your leads into sales and further into satisfied repeat customers and referrals to new customers.

Web technologies, best practices, the latest networks, trends, tools and ‘shiny objects’ do change, often rapidly, in this digital age. These seven steps and their strategic considerations provide a consistent, grounded framework in such a dynamic environment. It is important to have a solid core established in each stage before moving on to the next one when developing your business Web presence and to evaluate your best next steps.

Consulting this end-to-end methodology will cause you to ask the right questions and take a holistic, strategic approach to each aspect of your business’s Web presence, better understand how one interconnects with the rest and help you create the Web presence that brings your business the best growth results.

Kevin Hourigan is the president and CEO of Bayshore Solutions. Reach him at (877) 535-4578 or http://www.BayshoreSolutions.com.

For more info on Bayshore Solutions Web marketing methodology and case studies that illustrate results visit: http://www.bayshoresolutions.com/about-bayshore-solutions/methodology.aspx

Insights Web Design, Development & Internet Marketing is brought to you by Bayshore Solutions

Accurate and up-to-date financial information is a powerful tool for a growing business. With reliable information, business owners can make better strategic decisions, secure resources and increase profitability. But, how can business owners ensure they have this competitive advantage?

“If you want to get powerful financial information in your hands without slowing down your business to put it together, you might have to make a choice,” says Brenda Stelle, a manager of the business services department at Sensiba San Filippo, LLP. “Financial information can be empowering, but managing it can also be a burden on a growing business. Partnering with a CPA firm that specializes in providing business services can provide a spark for many organizations.”

Smart Business spoke with Stelle about tools and tips for business owners as they evaluate their current financial processes and how to determine if they could benefit from working with a business services department.

What are business services and how do they bring value to a growing business?

From pre-revenue startups to thriving companies, more and more businesses are turning to CPAs to provide the additional accounting services needed to transform their business. Having their financials and accounting processes evolve from a tedious and often-overlooked burden to a streamlined solution empowers owners to focus on the growth of their company.

Recognizing the need for accounting solutions for small and mid-sized businesses, some leading accounting firms have assembled business service teams that provide bookkeeping, financial reporting and tax planning services. These business service teams work with companies of all sizes. However, they are particularly useful for growing and startup businesses that need help but may not yet require an internal accounting department.

Business owners often must act as the bookkeeper, the account coordinator, the receptionist and more. But as the business expands, it needs greater expertise in all those areas. Working with a business service provider allows a company to acquire expert services without the risk and investment of a new hire.

Many business service teams also offer services such as project costing and accounting system design and implementation. Sometimes, startup companies just don’t know where to begin or how to properly prepare expense reports or get a loan to finance growth. Business service teams have answers, so owners don’t have to waste time searching for them.

How can business owners know when they should consider outside help?

If a business owner feels like they are making too many decisions without the information they need, or if they feel as if they have to chase down financial information when an opportunity or decision arises, it might be time to look for outside help. Similarly, if business owners are distracted from their core business practices, they run the risk of missing opportunities. In this way, partnering with a CPA that specializes in business services can provide much needed resources and help restore focus. They can help you as your business evolves in the short term, or serve as an outside party to help you see what’s really happening.

What should be expected from an accounting firm’s business service team?

Business service teams can help clients see that their future success depends on acting proactively. They also can work with owners to analyze the critical decisions that may help to avoid a crisis, manage an unforeseen financial problem or take advantage of an opportunity for growth.

Financial information should help business owners make better strategic decisions, recognize opportunities and avoid critical mistakes. With accurate, meaningful and timely information, a business owner can analyze key performance indicators with confidence.

Maybe the biggest thing a business service provider can offer is peace of mind. Business owners can feel overwhelmed on a daily basis just because they don’t have an accounting system in place that tells them, ‘Yes, we can pay our bills.’

How does a business choose the right business services partner?

Work with a business services partner that has experience in your industry and has the resources of a strong CPA firm. Also, be sure to get referrals and check references. Not all business service providers are the same. It’s a good idea to find out if an accounting firm has made these services a priority. Firms that have dedicated business service teams are often more focused on providing services that maximize the value they deliver. These dedicated teams allow for greater responsiveness and timely turnaround.

When choosing a business services partner, it is wise to take the time to communicate expectations to ensure that your new partner can handle your needs. Be clear about what you expect from the relationship, otherwise, you may find yourself with a provider but not a solution.

How can business owners ensure they are receiving value from the services provided?

A properly staffed business services team can work with clients of varying sizes, from startups to those with $20 million in revenue. Some will bundle services together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Business owners should seek out a CPA firm that focuses on long-term relationships with its clients, and has high retention rates and client references you can speak with. Sit down with them and let them get to know you, your business and where you want to go. They will identify the critical functions that will provide the information needed to run a strategic business. From there, they will set up a plan of action and move forward.

Brenda Stelle is a manager of business services at Sensiba San Filippo, LLP, a regional CPA firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach her at (925) 271-8700 or bstelle@ssfllp.com.

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A company is only as good as its employees, a statement that applies to the top executives through to the people in the mailroom.

“Because employees are vital to business, employers need the right staffing services to make sure the right people are on board. It is not a decision to be made quickly,” says Jennifer Coon-Leeper, CSP, a major accounts manager for Ashton Staffing, Inc.

A good rule of thumb, she says, is not to wait until your staffing needs are urgent to check out available agencies.

Smart Business spoke with Coon-Leeper about how to select the best staffing agency for your needs.

What steps should employers take to choose the right staffing firm?

There is a staffing firm capable of filling any position. It can provide flexible staffing for temporary, temp-to-hire or direct hire positions. Some services provide high-level executives, some specialize in a certain skill sets such as graphic designers and computer programmers, and some concentrate on specific industries.

Whatever your staffing needs, there are a few things to consider when shopping around for the right agency. For example, the firm’s ability to fill the job, how it qualifies candidates and what it charges for its services.

After you determine the title, pay rate, hours and assignment duration of the position you need to fill, the search for a staffing firm can begin to be narrowed.

Instead of picking at random, try choosing a firm dedicated to the same industry. If an employer is looking for a forklift driver, choosing a staffing firm that specializes in industrial placements is an excellent way to quickly tap into a pool of qualified candidates.

The search will require making a few phone calls as all firms are different and one size definitely does not fit all. Employers need to feel comfortable with the person staffing their order. A qualified staffing representative should be able to answer every question quickly and efficiently while delivering top-notch customer service. First impressions are everything so don’t be afraid to keep shopping around.

What should an employer know about a staffing agency’s process for placing candidates?

When searching for a staffing firm it’s important to know how the agency qualifies candidates. Each staffing agency is different so it’s key to know what has been done with a candidate before you are presented with one.

Depending on the position and length of assignment, most candidates should come with a background and reference check and drug screen. Once they’ve been placed, the agency should run an E-Verify check. Employers should make sure they’re aware of the type of background checks being run and what type of drug screen is used as some staffing agencies won’t run some checks unless requested, especially for short-term assignments.

Candidates also can have pre-employment testing conducted to determine software skills, personality, dexterity and basic math skills. Many staffing agencies can even certify someone on a forklift if the employer asks. Just remember, like buying a car, any upgrades to the base package are more expensive. It’s important that employers discuss costs up front with their staffing representative.

How can employers be sure to get the best candidates from a staffing firm?

Get to know your staffing agency and ask lots of questions. Each staffing firm is different as is each staffing representative. Some will spend time narrowing down candidates to find the perfect fit. Others will throw every qualified resume at the employer hoping one will stick. Most businesses prefer quality over quantity, depending on the position to be filled, although some prefer lots of options. Talk to the staffing firm and make sure the selection process works for your company.

What should an employer expect as far as service from its staffing firm?

At the very least an employer should expect excellent customer service and follow up from a staffing firm, no matter what position is being filled.

For example, an employer may call in looking for an administrative assistant with 10 years of experience and excellent computer skills, but cap the pay rate at $12 per hour. Part of the job of a staffing firm is to inform the employer that the average $12 an hour administrative assistant today has no more than two years experience and limited capabilities.

It is up to the staffing firm to approach the employer with this information when the order is placed, see how the employer would like to proceed, and then keep the employer informed of possible candidates and how the overall recruitment of the position is going.

What would be the case for using a staffing firm rather than handling the hiring internally?

There are many great reasons for seeking a staffing firm, such as expertise, improved productivity, increased flexibility, decreased costs and that the employer gets to try the employee out before offering a permanent position.

Staffing firm representatives generally have a high level of expertise related to job knowledge, employment trends and recruitment practices by virtue of continuous placement of employees.

When there is work overload, hiring temporary workers is the best solution. Employers can maintain their full-time staff while having temporary workers handle the overload. But the main advantage of using a staffing firm is that it can provide the employer with immediate help.

Further, employers can save money and time because they have no commitment to these workers and don’t need to provide benefits, conduct pre-employment testing and background checks, cover unemployment costs, workers compensation costs or payroll taxes.

Jennifer Coon-Leeper, CSP, is a major accounts manager for Ashton Staffing, Inc. Reach her at jleeper@ashtonstaffing.com or (770) 419-1776.

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