Monday, July 29, 2013

Keep Your Friends and Family Safe from Foodborne Illnesses

Patrick, my husband, and I got into a food safety debate last night. He had made a delicious, egg-based casserole and he took it out of the oven about 11:00 p.m. when we were getting ready for bed. I insisted that it should be put in the refrigerator; he was certain that it was perfectly safe to let it cool on the counter, covered overnight. To resolve our dispute, he decided to ask an expert. He went to and posed the question to Karen, the Dear Abby of safe food handling.

Here's the question he posed:

And, Karen's response:

When Patrick told me I was right, I decided not to gloat. Then, he suggested that I probably should because it happens so rarely. Grrrr, I reconsidered. 

In all our talk about wellness -- what to eat, when we should buy organic, where we should source our food from, etc... we rarely discuss the safe handling of food. One in six (48 million) Americans will get sick from food poisoning this year. It's an important topic and this incident illustrates why you don't want to rely solely on your intuition. Summer is a good time for a refresher because bacteria can multiply especially rapidly in the heat. is a definitive source of information on preparing, cooking and storing food safely. Watch this video to keep your friends and family safe from food borne illnesses. Remember....

Image from
and to listen to your wife.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Engaging Staff with H.Engage (aka Airbo)

A snapshot of the tiles we used for the kick-off. 
Today we launched HEngage. H.Engage is an easy and fun tool to inform our staff about programs, benefits and other news and happenings. We actively use our intranet to share information with staff and compliment this with face-to-face meetings, Facebook, blogs, Twitter, bulletin boards, text messages, etc... (We do our best to meet people where they are.) But, staying on top of ASHA business in addition to professional news leaves many of us feeling like we're drinking from a fire hose. We've launched H.Engage to help us reinforce key messages in a fun and engaging way. 

Staff from all over the building contributed content for today's launch. One of the things that made our Mediterranean Lifestyle Challenge engaging was having so many people share content and their experience. We're hoping to leverage that strength again with H.Engage and have lots of staff contribute content.

For those of you interested in the back story, read on... I met Vlad Gyster at the Human Human Resource Executive Health and Benefits Leadership Conference in April. Vlad is the CEO and Cofounder of H.Engage. In May, I lead a round table discussion on social media at the Alliance for Workplace Excellence annual event. Caroline Wizeman from Near Infinity said they created a tool to gamify social media sharing to encourage employees to share content and build their employer brand. I was intrigued by this idea. I got in touch with Vlad to see if he knew of any tools that would allow us to do something like this. As we chatted, we decided the H.Engage platform might do the trick. And, my timing was great for once, H.Engage was launching a pilot and invited us to participate. 

Vlad did a demo for a group of staff and they recognized the potential and jumped on board to create content for the launch. The content is presented in the form of a "tile."  Each tile consists of: 
  • Image
  • Headline – 45 characters
  • Supporting content – 300 characters
  • Question – The question a staff member will answer about the content to earn points.
  • Link – A web link for more info or to seek the answer to the question. 
The tiles have a nice clean look. Kate Bernier at H.Engage has been exceedingly helpful in reviewing the tiles we've created and giving us feedback. She's been monitoring the activity of our staff since we launched at 11:00 a.m. and making adjustments as she sees how people are interacting. 

Every two weeks, we will hold a prize drawing. Participants earn points as they answer the questions on the tiles and these points are translated into raffle tickets. We'll do our first drawing on August 1 for a Jambox by Jawbone

We're looking for content contributions, prize ideas and general feedback about the tool during the pilot. I'm optimistic that H.Engage will be a helpful tool to have in our communication arsenal. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Supreme Court Ruling Narrows the Benefits Gap for Same-Sex Spouses

Since January 1, same-sex couples have been able to marry in Maryland. However, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) loomed over newlyweds limiting the benefits they could receive from being married. Last week, the Supreme Court leveled the playing field by declaring DOMA unconstitutional. Many employers applaud the ruling because it provides administrative relief to those of us that already offer spousal benefits to same-sex married couples. The impact will be broad and effect employer sponsored benefits in many ways including:

Image from
  • Same-sex married couples will be able to file joint federal tax returns and they will no longer be liable to pay estate taxes on property they receive if their spouse dies. 
  • Employers will be required to extend the same benefits to same-sex spouses that they extend to opposite-sex spouses. However, organizations that self-insure their health insurance do not have to comply with state insurance law mandates. If employers that are self-insured decide not to provide the same health care coverage to same-sex spouses that they do to opposite-sex spouses, they are likely to face challenges of discrimination now. 
  • Employees with same-sex spouses will no longer have to pay federal income taxes on the value of the employer's contribution to their spouses' medical, dental and vision coverage. Same-sex spouses will be able to pay for their coverage on a pretax basis under Section 125 plans. They will also be able to share money in a FSA, HRA and HSA.
  • Employers will now have to offer COBRA coverage to same-sex spouses when their coverage ends. 
  • Pension plans will now have to recognize same-sex spouses when determining surviving spouse annuities. 401(k) plans will also need to treat same and opposite-sex spouses equally. 
  • Family and Medical Leave can now be taken by same-sex spouses to care for one another when necessary. 
I've read that there are more than 1,000 federal benefits that involve marital status. I'm obviously just hitting on some of the key items that have impact in the workplace. 

Questions that remain:
  • Can same-sex spouses claim some of these benefits retroactively e.g., can they amend previous years' tax returns?
  • If a couple was legally married in one state, but currently resides in another that does not recognize same-sex marriages, which state law governs? 
  • How are employers with employees residing in multiple states going to handle eligibility?
  • If an employee with a same-sex spouse is legally married, but resides in a state where their union is not recognized; how do you handle HSA and FSA contributions? 
  • How quickly must employers revise their plans and policies to include same-sex spouses?
Next steps for employers:
  • Identify all your same-sex married couples and what state they reside in. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the laws in each state noting which states where same-sex marriage is legal. There are currently nine states where marriage licenses are issued to same-sex partners -- Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia. Five additional states allow civil unions, providing state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples -- Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, Rhode Island.
  • Review your current benefit plans and policies to determine whether they are in compliance now or need to be amended. Prepare to amend your Section 125 plan documents and extend COBRA benefits to same-sex spouses that lose coverage. Review and amend HSA, HRA and FSA plan documents to allow same-sex spouses to claim reimbursements. 
  • Review your current policies and be sure same-sex spouses are treated the same as opposite-sex spouses. Pay particular attention to Family and Medical Leave. 
  • Contact your payroll administrator. Stop calculating the employer contribution to same-sex spouses' coverage as income and allow your employees to pay for their portion of the coverage with pre-tax dollars if you have a Section 125 plan. 
  • Determine what actions you need to take now and which issues require further guidance from the federal government or courts.
  • Plan a mid-year open enrollment for same-sex spouses that are impacted by the changes. Coordinate with your insurance carriers and benefits enrollment systems administrators. 
  • Communicate your findings and the timeline for making any changes to your employees.
  • For employers that have offered benefits to domestic partners, determine if you will continue to provide benefits to same-sex partners or require that same-sex partners marry to receive spousal benefits in the future. 
It's going to require a little patience to get all the details of this change sorted out. When we contacted our payroll carrier, we were told they are working with the government to resolve the issues. They assigned us a case number and said they'd get back to us. 

Recommended reading: