Windfall or Investment? How to Make the Most of that Tax Refund


Are you on track to receive a tax refund? If so, it can feel like a windfall or even like winning the lottery. The natural desire to spend “found money” can easily spiral into ideas of grandeur. While jetting off on vacation, or buying that new gas grille, are worthy causes, take a pause. There are a few financial strategies you might consider first.


In response to a new NerdWallet.com survey, 54% of folks who expect to get a refund said they plan to save or invest the money….And some of them actually will!


Pay Down Credit Card Debt

If you have run up your credit cards over the year, paying off the balance should be your first step. That’s because unpaid charges come with a hefty interest rate that can mean you wind up paying even more for everything you’ve purchased. Whittling down debt should top your financial “to-do” list. Applying a tax refund can take care of a large amount of this in one fell swoop. This gives you a highly motivating head start.

Set Up An Emergency Fund

Are you one of the 60 percent of Americans who can’t cover an unexpected $1,000 expense? Building up your emergency fund can be a smart move to help you with those unexpected realities of life—from faulty car brakes to a leaky roof to a sick pet. Just remember that the money should only be used for true “emergencies” (and no, a sale at your favorite department store doesn’t count).

Time for Home Improvements

While saving for a rainy day might be fiscally responsible, it also might strike you as a little boring. Tackling important home improvements can give you the benefit of improving the value of your home—while giving you something you can enjoy today. According to Remodeling magazine’s 2019 Cost Vs. Value report, the top home improvement that brings the most value is a garage door replacement, while other top projects that will simultaneously boost your satisfaction include minor kitchen remodels and deck additions.

Another smart choice—although, admittedly, less exciting than a sparkling new kitchen—is to make energy upgrades. Believe it or not, when Remodeling Magazine used to include insulation on its list of home improvement projects, attic insulation had an astonishing 117 percent ROI. Adding insulation and other energy-efficient features may also allow you to keep more money in your wallet all year long in the form of reduced energy bills.

Share Some Goodwill – Make a Donation

Spending money on yourself is fun—but spending it on someone else can feel even better. If there’s a cause you’ve been wanting to support, allocating part of your refund to a local school or women’s shelter can put a spring in your step that no new sandals ever could.

Reward Yourself

Of course, we don’t want to be spoilsports. Sometimes getting a tax refund is a fun way to reward yourself for the hard work you’ve done all year. So by all means, earmark it for a whim. Use it for a long weekend at a nearby resort or a wardrobe refresh. Just make sure that any choices you make today won’t impact your financial future. Perhaps consider allocating the majority of the refund to one of the financial goals above. Then, use a small percentage for a planned splurge. Ensure that you identify exactly what you’re spending it for. Letting the money absorb back into your account, or spending it something forgettable won’t have the same emotional impact as putting it toward something specific and enjoyable, even if it means delaying the gratification.

Review and Adjust Your Withholding

Remember, as exciting as it is to get what feels like a windfall as a tax return, that money actually is yours. It could have been in your paycheck all year long. Having that extra bump throughout the year can allow you to keep your emergency fund strong. It also can be the difference in paying off your credit card bills in full. This offers ongoing financial rewards. You could also use it for a weekly date night or support the nearby senior center regularly.

If you’d like to revisit your withholding to potentially make changes, talk to your HR department. They can help review your current status and the paperwork required to change it. Of course, it’s always wise to talk with a tax professional if you have any questions. But letting Uncle Sam keep your money all year—interest free!—is rarely the best use for it.





An Employer’s Guide to Understanding Social Security Disability Insurance



Introduction

Carol Harnett: [00:00:00] Hello, this is Carol Harnett. I’m the president of The Council for Disability Awareness. Welcome to our podcast, which is called The Financial Health and Income Network. Today we are going to talk specifically to employers about how Social Security Disability Insurance works and how it can help protect employees who can no longer work due to an illness or an injury.

What is important for employers to know in a grounding basis, around disability insurance products is that in the group insurance market, there is a product that most employers are probably familiar with called long term disability insurance. About one third of employees — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — in the United States have what’s called an LTD policy — a long term disability insurance policy — that’s either fully paid by the employer, or partially paid by the employer.

In addition to that, about half of Americans have some form of disability coverage, most of which makes up the difference. It is either a group policy that the employee pays all of the premium for instead of getting assistance from their employer, or they may be doing something called an individual disability insurance policy that they secure working directly with an agent or an advisor and an individual disability carrier.

Today we are going to focus on this very specific type of coverage that is provided by the federal government but has a very well-defined process, including a very well-defined approval process, application process, and review process. This is Social Security Disability Insurance.


You can hear the full podcast or if you’d rather read than listen, we captured the transcript from the conversation below.


Introducing Ted Norwood from IBI, Inc.

I’m really pleased to have a subject matter expert with us on the show today. My guest is Ted Norwood. He’s the general counsel and director of representation at Integrated Benefits, Inc. We are very pleased that IBI, which is their acronym, is a member of The Council for Disability Awareness and supports us. So we thank them for that. Welcome Ted. We’re so pleased to have you here with us today.

Ted Norwood: [00:02:21] Thanks Carol. It is a pleasure to be here. I’m really excited to let people know about how all this works because it is a frequently misunderstood system.

Carol Harnett: [00:02:36] If you don’t mind, I’m going to kick you off in the most basic of all things, which is: we assume that everybody understands what SSDI is, and with them we use the acronym all the time, and A, nobody even understands what the acronym means and B, really doesn’t understand what the coverage is. Can you go right to the basics and ground our employer listeners in that?

What is SSDI?

Ted Norwood: [00:03:08] Sure. SSDI– commonly just referred to as Social Security Disability– is a disability program through the federal government’s social security system that you pay into from your paycheck through your taxes.

It covers anyone that pays in. It doesn’t cover lots of federal employees, people that don’t pay those taxes. For instance, lots of teachers aren’t covered– they’re covered by different things. Railroad workers are covered by a separate policy, but they must pay in, and that differentiates it from the other social security disability program that people often combine with it or get confused by, which is SSI, or supplemental security income. This is a disability program for people that don’t have the work history or haven’t paid in. It’s a much smaller benefit.

SSDI is a better benefit; it’s a pretty strong benefit with an average payout of $1,600 a month. After being disabled for twenty-nine months, you become Medicare-eligible, and it will last until Social Security finds that you are no longer disabled or until you hit full retirement age. And they do reviews every two to five years of your case to see if you’re still disabled.

Although social security policy can bore some people– the big takeaway is that Social Security Disability is designed to work with long term disability to provide the best policies. A combination is the most important thing.

Carol Harnett: [00:05:08] That’s really well said and it’s a great basic summary. One thing I’d like to ask is– and I think some of our listeners are not familiar with — is I’ve often heard that you have to pay quote-unquote a certain amount of quarters into Social Security before you would become eligible for SSDI. What does that mean when people say that?

What is Elligibility for SSDI?

Ted Norwood: [00:05:35] It means you have to work a certain amount. You know, if you just go out and get a job and then claim disability right away, you haven’t really paid in enough to qualify. The rule is about 40 quarters, which is about 10 years of work. If you’re younger than that, there are formulas for adjusting that. When people are applying for Social Security disability, they usually have a significant amount of work history, and if they don’t have the work history, then they have to apply for the SSI. So most of your applicants are people that have a strong work record, but they’re not able to do the job that they’ve been doing anymore.

Carol Harnett: [00:06:32] Those are good points. When you say a strong work record, is that a nice way of saying that these are people who are older, who have worked for a period of time? If so, do you happen to know what the average age might be for a typical applicant?

Applicant Profile

Ted Norwood: [00:06:51] Uh-oh, I think I’m busted here because I don’t know what the average age of the typical applicant would be, but I would say it would skew older. Young people are covered. If you’re working at a salary job, odds are you’re probably covered if you’re going through, or if you have a steady job, or even steady seasonal work, but the average applicant is older. That’s probably mostly a factor of the wear and tear that goes on to your body after years of working. You know in your 20s and 30s you’re going to be stronger and more flexible, with better recovery and stuff, and less likely to have those over time injuries. So I would say that average applicant is probably around 50 if I had to guess.

Carol Harnett: [00:07:52] Okay, that seems fair. When I think about what I know about long term disability claims, we do know when people are younger that is often when we’ll see more accident related reasons for being out of work, while illness is usually the major reason why people are out on long term disability. Accidents will play a larger role the younger you are and then the older you are obviously illness tends to play the biggest role.

Now you just made a point that I think is really important for employers to understand, which is a big differentiator between long term disability insurance and SSDI, and that is this idea of what type of work are you disabled from? Are you disabled from your ability to do your own occupation, or your own job, or are you disabled from being able to do any kind of work? And can you shed some light for listeners on the requirements around your inability to work when you apply for SSDI?

Clarify the Inability to Work

Ted Norwood: [00:09:05] Absolutely. This is a critical difference between the private disability and this public disability. When people think that they’re disabled, and they can’t work as an engineer anymore, or they can’t work in their factory anymore, or as a teacher, they think: well, “I’m disabled.” If you have a private policy, then that’ll mean you will be disabled, probably for a couple of years at least.

Social Security is different. Social Security I call a “catastrophic” disability policy– that’s an unofficial term– but it only covers you if you’re disabled from any work. The language of the Act says from being able to perform jobs that exist in significant numbers. Once upon a time they liberally interpreted that and they’d cut you some slack, but over the last 15 or more years, they’ve really cracked down, and when they say significant numbers, I mean almost any job.

So, if you are, let’s say you’re 49 and and you had a really good job at a Ford plant, and you have some back problems. Maybe you had some cancer, something going on, something severe, you no longer can do that job. But if Social Security thinks that you can be a ticket taker at the movie theater on a full-time basis– which I don’t even know what movie theaters employ those people– they’re going to deny your case.  They use a lot of outdated information, which isn’t necessarily their fault, but it’s difficult and they’re very tough.

An important thing to understand is that if you’re relying on Social Security, you have to be really, really limited.  If you can’t do hard physical work, but you could do a sit-down job, there’s a really good chance you won’t get your Social Security. The terrible thing about that is that if you’re used to doing hard work, and then you want to transition to a sit-down job, it might be really hard, especially if you’re older, to transition to that. So you end up in this gap where Social Security says, “you’re not disabled, you’re capable of performing some jobs. You’re just unemployed.”  Meanwhile, unemployment says yeah, you’re unemployed; but you know, our insurance only lasts for so long, and it’s really tough for people to find the resources to be able to make those transitions and get those jobs.

Job Function Differentiation

Carol Harnett: [00:12:00] That’s a really fair point. In long term disability insurance– provided, both by an employer and bought individually by the consumer, does somebody quote-unquote meet the definition of disability? We don’t expect someone who’s done a job like a physician, for example, or a senior executive in a company, to do a job that goes outside of their knowledge, skills, and abilities. We don’t expect them to be that ticket taker at a movie theater. It’s a much closer alliance to work, that either is exactly like what they used to do, or similar to what they used to do, using transferable skills.

Sometimes, a surgeon may no longer be able to do surgery because she has a hand tremor, but she could do medical reviews for an insurance company. She could also see patients and screen them for whether they’re a candidate for surgery. That is big difference between a private disability insurance policy and a public one like SSDI, is that correct?

Accommodations for Work: Private vs. SSDI

Ted Norwood: [00:13:28] Yes, and I would add that lots of private policies that I’ve seen factor in income. For instance, you are a successful surgeon who develops a hand tremor. Although you might make several hundred thousand dollars a year, you will go to an insurance review physician position, and you are probably not going to come close to that salary.

The policies on the private side will lots of times accommodate that. They might say: “Hey, this is an offset– because you’re capable of doing this or we expect you to try to find this,” but they make up the difference. Social Security says that if you have a really solid job making $60,000 a year, but they think that you might still be able to do this job, which is minimum wage,  they expect you to go do it.

Carol Harnett: [00:14:34] Yes, I think that’s that is probably not on their radar.

Ted Norwood: [00:14:42] No. When I’ve talked to employers and when I talk to claimants and people in general, they really don’t know anything about it, I always tell them that that’s fine. Hopefully you don’t have to really ever know about the details of Social Security Disability. You find if you have to go through it, that’s really unfortunate, but once you become an employer, and you’re making decisions about whether or not to offer policies to your employees, it’s then it becomes important to understand what they’re really facing. If you think that someone will, they can just get on Social Security, you know, if they can’t work here– that’s not as easy as it may sound. Unfortunately. I wish it were.

Carol Harnett: [00:15:36] You mentioned an average benefit, but because we’re talking about the monetary side of Social Security now, can you help listeners understand the range of payments? And can you also clarify, is there a cap or a maximum that somebody might receive on Social Security Disability?

Payments

Ted Norwood: [00:16:02] Well sure. Once you go on Social Security Disability, your payment depends on your work history and your payment history. When I say your work history, that means what you’ve paid in. You don’t pay into Social Security if you make over a certain salary or income per year; you only pay up to a cap. The max benefit, what does it end up being? I think I want to say it’s about three thousand dollars, and it can go up if you have dependents because it gives you extra benefits if you have minor dependents during the same time you’re out. But you know, you can’t replace a large salary just on Social Security disability.

Carol Harnett: [00:17:00] And if there were a minimum payment?

Ted Norwood: [00:17:05] Well, the minimum payment would be about eight hundred dollars. The SSI benefit, which varies– and that’s for people that don’t have any SSDI coverage at all– usually is somewhere between five and eight hundred depending on all the factors that go into that. So SSDI is always going to be better than that.

And I say “always.” You know, whenever as a lawyer I say “always” that really just means “almost always.” Sure enough, some lawyer’s listening saying “no, that’s not true; here is the example where it’s different.” And yes, but speaking generally, for someone to take away,I would say, $800, but that’s very low.

Carol Harnett: [00:17:56] It’s not a lot of money; this is a monthly payment, just to clarify for our listeners.

Ted Norwood: [00:18:03] Yes. It’s a monthly payment.

Attorney Required

One of the things I should mention — talking about lawyers– another difference between private insurance and Social Security is you almost need to have a lawyer to get on Social Security [Disability]. If you have a terminal illness, you probably don’t, but you’re taking a risk doing it yourself. To use the Social Security’s Disability program, it’s strongly encouraged that you use an attorney– even by Social Security.

Private insurance, you don’t need an attorney to get on. Sometimes there are disputes between insurers and claimants, and you might need a specific type of attorney when that comes up. But for the most part, you don’t get an attorney to activate your private disability policy; that’s a big advantage, too.

Carol Harnett: [00:19:04] Yes. You’re leading right into the next question, which is: What is the process? How do you apply and when do you apply for Social Security disability? How does the process work and how quickly might you receive a decision?

The Application Process

Ted Norwood: [00:19:22] Social Security only covers disabilities that arise from a medically identified problem that will last for 12 months or more.

If you break both your legs, but you’re probably going to be better in six to eight months, then you won’t qualify. If there are complications with that and it ends up taking 12 months before you can go back to work, then you could qualify. However, Social Security’s going to look at that very suspiciously.

Once you are out, or once you know you’re probably going to be out for a year and facing a kind of a grim diagnosis — there’s a lot of really grim stuff we deal with in disability, obviously– then you should apply. Once you’re sure you’re not going to be able to do this for a long time, then you want to apply.

You can file online. Everyone should be online creating their My SSA Account, even if they’re not about to apply.  It’s good that Social Security’s trying to expand their online presence and getting that set up helps them out.  You can go online and apply. You can also go up to your district office; the same place where you get your Social Security card, and file an application. Social Security will take it, make sure you have coverage for SSDI. Then, they send it out to the state agency, which is a federally-funded state agency.

Evaluation

They will evaluate you. The first step takes somewhere between two and six months, and this depends on how quickly they get your doctor’s records, how backed up they are, how difficult your case is, and if they have to send you to an exam.

After the initial evaluation, there’s about a 35% chance of being awarded– which means a 65% chance of being denied. The next step is to then file a reconsideration, which is just a review by that same state agency. There are certain regions in the country currently where you don’t have to file for reconsideration, but Social Security just changed that and they’re moving to everyone going back to reconsideration.


Annual Chart for SSDI’s Overall Award/Denials at Each Level


Reconsideration

Reconsideration. It’s the exact same process again, but they have someone else at the agency look at it. Obviously since it’s the same agency, they’re not going to have the same award rate of their own denial, so it’s about a 15% chance they’ll pay that case. So an 85% chance you’re going to be denied.

Now you are 6 to 12 months into your application and you still don’t have benefits. Now you request a hearing with an administrative law judge. Your case gets back to the federal Social Security program. They’ll assign your case to a hearing office, which is different than your district office, and there’s a long wait for that. It’s somewhere between 12 and 20 months. Depending on where you are, there are a few offices that are under 12 months, and there are some offices that are getting close to 30 months of waiting time.

Building a Case

Now you wait and you build your case. Hopefully you keep going to the doctor. You don’t get any benefits, or any insurance, and you wait until you get in front of a judge. You explain your case to the judge, and you’ll give him all of you medical records that you can get a hold of, and he’ll make a decision. Hopefully you have a good attorney.

At that point you have about a 45 percent chance to be awarded. If you’re denied by an ALJ you do have an appeal within Social Security to their Appeals Council. It’s another year usually and they don’t send many cases back because they’re really trying to not add to that backlog they already have and they basically dare you to take your case to Federal Court.

Appeals in Federal Court

If you talk to your attorney and they want to take your case to Federal Court, you can do that. The courts love this because courts are ALWAYS looking to have lots of cases– that’s a lawyer joke!  Social Security floods the courts with these cases. At that point, your case is no longer actually in the agency, it’s in federal court, and you’re actually suing Social Security and saying, “hey, you guys didn’t follow your own rules, and you wrongfully denied my disability.”


Click to get average wait time for a hearing in your area.


The odss are 50/50 in the federal courts, but it’s important to remember that most attorneys will only take very strong cases to federal court. It’s a really long, difficult process and you can’t just take your chances up there. You’ve got to have a really good case now. I will say this: most attorneys only take really good cases to begin with.

One thing that’s important is there’s a myth of disability fraud, It doesn’t really exist, because you have to work so long to get coverage to even qualify. If you haven’t worked enough, your scam isn’t going to work, because you just can’t get benefits. You get awarded, only after a long, difficult process. That is, if you work long enough to qualify. You go two years without income, and then all you get is $1,800 a month, which is certainly less than you were making before. So it’s a really, really bad scam. But people continue to think there’s a lot of fraud, when most of the rot is actually on the inside.

Carol Harnett: [00:26:00] I would ask a clarifying question: you’ve mentioned having an attorney help you with your case. Is there a charge for people when they have an attorney help?

Associated Attorney Fees

Ted Norwood: [00:26:11] Social Security has really set some strict rules on on fees, and your fee always has to be approved by Social Security. You cannot charge a fee up front. All fees are– if the claimant is paying it– your fee has to be contingent, and the max you can get is 25 percent. If you use Social Security’s fee agreement, the cap is $6,000. An attorney can charge their fees and expenses to a claimant. Most do, but some don’t though, and some attorneys will ask for money up front to hold to cover expenses and stuff, but most don’t. It’s pretty much free for you to get the attorney to do their work, but they’ll only take your case if they think they can win. If they don’t think you have a case then it’s not a sound business decision for them.

Carol Harnett: [00:27:08] Great. Well, I can’t believe how fast this time is going. We have a little less than three minutes.

Ted Norwood: [00:27:14] I saw that.

Carol Harnett: [00:27:16] I had to look at my list of questions and I think the best one to choose at this point is: in your experience what final closing words of advice would you give to employers when you think about disability in general and Social Security disability insurance on top of that?

Final Word to Employers

Ted Norwood: [00:27:35] Group private disability insurance is a pretty affordable benefit, and it is a lifesaver for your employees if they go out of work. Fighting with Social Security is so hard. Everyone we represent that has LTD says, “that $10 a month was the best decision I ever made.” They get their benefits quicker. They still have to go through the Social Security process, because there’s an offset to that LTD, but they have money, they’re getting something. They’re not scrambling.

Social Security– if you have to wait for Social Security, it doesn’t just decimate your spirit and your income; it decimates your insurance coverage; your ability to pay for the doctors, who eventually stop seeing you. It ruins marriages and relationships and strains your family because people lose their houses. And it is long and difficult and tragic. It’s so affordable and such a good benefit to give to your employees. When they go out sick, or they get cancer, they wear down– and they’re better-taken care of. I believe in it,  and it was not even on my radar when I came out of law school; I hope employers at least look into it.

Carol Harnett: [00:29:08] Well said. I’ve known a gentleman by the name of Dick Mucci who currently runs the group insurance operation at Lincoln Financial. He has worked in and around individual disability and group disability, the private industry, his whole career. He has always said he couldn’t imagine why employers wouldn’t provide long-term disability coverage. It’s difficult for an employer to lay someone off after three or six months and leave them without some form of an income to help them get through long term disability.

So with that, Ted, I’m going to say, thank you so much for the information you shared. It’s been a privilege to have you on this show.

Ted Norwood: [00:29:54] Thanks for having me; I appreciate it. Good luck, everyone.

Carol Harnett: [00:29:57] Thank you, everyone. Bye-bye.


Click below for more articles from Ted Norwood about Social Security Disability Insurance.




Survey showed Americans concerned over Texas ACA ruling

A new survey conducted by The Mighty showed a number of Americans with disabilities and pre-existing conditions fear health insurance companies would discriminate them. About 84 percent of those surveyed feel this is possible after a federal judge in Texas ruled the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to be unconstitutional last month.

The survey was conducted early January and was done by The Mighty, a social media platform for patients and families diagnosed with a disease or health disorder. The Mighty founder, Mike Porath, says his organization conducted the instant poll to get insight on how members feel about last month’s court ruling.

“This survey gives us a real-time view of what people facing diseases, disabilities and chronic conditions fear about losing their healthcare,” said Porath. “This is an in-depth look at what the Affordable Care Act means to people who rely on their health insurance to survive, regardless of party affiliation.

The ruling, done by U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor, could potentially threaten healthcare coverage for millions of Americans and is poised to set up a legal showdown over President Obama’s signature policy initiative. When issuing the decision O’Connor declared key portions of the legislation to be inconsistent with the Constitution, ruling that the healthcare law couldn’t stand on its own since Congress repealed the individual mandate last December, which imposed a tax penalty on consumers who went underinsured.

The Mighty leveraged its platform to survey more than 2,700 random users thoughts on the ACA, health insurance and which part they believe cares for their needs. In terms of results, the survey found that 94 percent of respondents didn’t feel they’d be able to afford treatment for their condition of that of their loved ones on their own. Additionally, 87 percent of those surveyed do have a disability or preexisting condition.

Ninety-three percent of respondents said they don’t trust the government when it comes to protecting their health insurance. About 75 percent said they preferred Democrats over Republicans when it came to protecting insurance, and when asked if the recent ruling made people more or less likely to vote for Trump next year, 54 percent said “yes,” 30 percent said “neither,” 10 percent said “no,” and six percent don’t vote.

 




What’s considered a disability? 10 causes every HR leader should know

When most people consider disability, they picture something catastrophic happening—an ill-timed dive off a high rock, or a speeding car hurtling into theirs—and, for the most part assume it can never happen to them.

That’s why human resources experts often find it challenging to convince their employees of the importance of disability insurance even though you know it’s a wise investment and more commonly used than most people assume. In fact, if you were to keep track of the 20-year-olds in today’s workforce, you’d find out that nearly 25 percent of them will be out of work for at least a year due to a health condition before they reach retirement age.

The statistic isn’t meant to alarm anyone, but rather to underscore the importance of making sure that your team members realize that disability insurance is for everyone. It can be the lifeline they need in the case of an unexpected condition—and yet at least 51 million working adults go without disability coverage, except for the basic coverage offered through Social Security.

That can be downright scary considering the precarious financial position of many Americans—and the skyrocketing cost of medical treatment. Any of these conditions can rob workers of the opportunity to earn enough to pay their bills, and just when they need the extra income the most.

Wondering what the top causes of long-term disability are? Your employees might be surprised to learn that they are relatively common occurrences.

  1. Muscoskeletal. This is a fancy way of saying “back pain,” something weekend warriors—or even just good Samaritans helping a friend move—can probably see themselves experiencing. It also covers other muscle, back, and joint disorders, such as arthritis. Together, these conditions account for nearly 30 percent of all long-term disabilities.
  2. Cancer. Yes, we can put this in the “catastrophic” category, but it’s actually more prevalent than you might imagine. In fact, more than 70,000 people in their 20s and 30s—the prime of their life—are diagnosed with cancers, including lymphoma, leukemia, testicular, melanoma, and breast cancer. Even if they are eventually cured, cancer treatment can decimate a family’s finances as they miss work to undergo treatment.
  3. Pregnancy. It’s hard to consider pregnancy as a “long-term” disability, but the bottom line is that pregnancy (think bed rest) and childbirth can infringe on work, especially if there are complications. In fact, about 1/10 of all claims involve a pregnancy-related issue, but by tapping long-term disability insurance, your employee and their little bundle of joy can be covered.
  4. Mental health issues. From anxiety to depression, mental health problems can take a toll, and fortunately, people are realizing that mental health is just as vital to treat as physical health. Since over a quarter of the population is diagnosed with one or more mental disorders each year, it’s easy to see how they can be a leading cause of long-term disability.
  5. Injuries. Nine percent of long-term disability claims come from the “injury” category, which covers everything from accident recovery to surgery, broken bones, and even poisoning.
  6. Cardiovascular issues. From heart attack to stroke, cardiovascular events strike unexpectedly and can prevent employees from coming to work for an indefinite period of time as they build their strength back up.
  7. Nervous system. This category encompasses a wide range of potential issues that include multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy, plus a range of additional eye and ear disorders. Even conditions that are often considered an older person’s disease, such as Alzheimer’s, can strike during peak earning years. In fact about 200,000 people contract the early-onset form of Alzheimer’s, which typically develops in their 40s and 50s.
  8. Infectious diseases. While headlines trumpet new types of infectious diseases, from zika to MRSA, this category also encompasses far less-exotic strains, such as bacteria that causes strep throat and viruses that bring on the flu. As more conditions become resistant to today’s hardest-working antibiotics, the threat of losing work due to infectious disease grows more prevalent.
  9. Digestive system. Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are just three of the better-known conditions in the digestive diseases category. Altogether there are 40 digestive conditions that plague more than 34 million Americans, causing them to miss work as they wrestle with treatment and prevention.
  10. Respiratory diseases. Asthma is one of the most common chronic respiratory conditions, which also include a wide variety of other lung-related ailments. It’s not a leap to assume that difficulty in breathing would lead to difficulty in working…illuminating the need for long-term disability insurance.

No one wants to sit down with employees to go over a list of illnesses or conditions they may eventually have, but the good news is that human resources professionals have the opportunity to expose their colleagues to one of the best-kept secrets in the benefit world—how disability insurance can help prevent them from losing a paycheck just when they need it most.




7 Fixes to Make Your Home Easier to Navigate If You Have Arthritis

Kitchen counter with high stools.Arthritis doesn’t just affect the AARP set. In fact, it’s the leading cause of work-related disability, affecting nearly a quarter of adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis is actually a “catch all” term for more than 100 joint-related diseases and conditions, including gout, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis.

If you’re one of those suffering with this disability, you know how challenging even the simplest tasks can be. But while major home renovations might seem daunting, there are some relatively easy hacks that can make a home friendlier for those living with arthritis.

1. Add some kitchen gadgets.

Yes, we all have too many one-use items like garlic crushers and potato ricers. But if you love to cook (or just love to eat) and have arthritis, we can guarantee that some additional tools will never be perceived as clutter in the “gadget” drawer or on the counter. Here are four that are likely to become indispensable:

  • Jar opener: Grip the top better without having to squeeze harder
  • Food chopper: Put down the knife and let this handy helper do the work
  • Appliance knob grips: Make the knobs on your stove, faucet, and other appliances bigger and easier to grasp with these enlarged coverings
  • Grabber: Easily retrieve dropped items without bending or stooping

2. Make two quick fixes for a safer bathroom.

While you might not want to undertake a bathroom overhaul, there are two must-do fixes you can implement:

  • Raised toilet seat: This goes right over the existing one to make it easier to reach without altering your existing fixture.
  • Bars and handrails: Bathing safety should never be taken lightly. Grips will ensure you don’t slip getting out of the shower or tub, and they now come in more decorative-looking choices these days — more like a towel bar — in a variety of finishes to lessen an institutional feel.

3. Purchase items in smaller quantities.

Yes we all love the thrill of saving money with bulk buys, but a huge bottle of soap or laundry detergent can be unwieldy. At the least, make sure you have assistance to put the larger contents into a smaller container for everyday use.

4. Make sure there are no trip hazards.

Check that your flooring is smooth, but not slippery. That might mean replacing worn carpet or covering slick hardwoods with carpet. If you don’t want to cover your lovely floors, you can consider area rugs, but they can be especially dangerous since it’s easy to catch a toe under the corner. Ensure they are stuck to the floor with sticky mats.

5. Climb carefully.

A two-story home can be a challenge if you have to navigate the stairs frequently. The best advice is to make sure that your items for daily living are downstairs, so even if your bedroom is up, you won’t be making multiple trips up and down the stairs. You can even equip a downstairs powder room with a second set of supplies you use frequently, like your toothbrush and toiletries, to eliminate trips.

If you do have to navigate stairs, at least occasionally, make sure that they are covered with a nonstick surface, such as a runner that is anchored down. Then make sure the handrails are easy to grasp – a rail on each side is best, so you might want to install a second one. Another trick is to put colored tape on the edge of each step to make them more visible.

6. Swap out more comfortable seating.

Low chairs and couches can be hard to rise from so make sure that at least your favorite chair is a comfortable height. A dining table that’s counter-height, outfitted with bar stools, can be a smart switch.

7. Declutter and reorganize.

The best overall tip is to take sure that your house is easy to navigate. That means getting rid of excess items that are in your way, from unnecessary furniture and lamps, to closets that are so stuffed you can’t locate the item you are looking for.

Then organize the house to your comfort, such as keeping everyday items within arms’ reach. That might mean moving dishes around in your kitchen, reshelving staples in your pantry to be at eye level and making sure that the most frequently worn items are front and center in your closet or drawers.

These few easy fixes can help you live more easily with an arthritis disability.




How Should HR Leaders Approach Mental Health in the Workplace?

Man looking to side.This article originally appeared in Human Resource Executive in the summer of 2017 — we’re reposting it as May is both Disability Insurance Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. 

This column is not the one I planned for you to read today. A computer-system update gone wrong drove me to write a new post on a different topic (since my electronic notes perished as well). But I’d like to believe I would have asked my editors to allow me to switch topics at the last minute even if this didn’t happen.

Why? Because on 20 July 2017, Chester Bennington, the ferociously-talented lead singer for the rock band Linkin Park, committed suicide. The act was made more poignant since it’s thought Bennington mimicked the recent death of his close friend (singer Chris Cornell) on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday.

Bennington wasn’t alone in his desperation. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, approximately 121 people in the United States died by the same method that day – and 3,025 people attempted suicide.

Depression — the usual precursor to suicide — is the leading cause of disability worldwide and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease. In the U.S., depression is a top-five cause of both short- and long-term disability absences. (Musculoskeletal claims are the leading cause of long-term disability.)

In an interesting comparison, Ian Bridgman of The Claim Lab indicates that in Canada (where long-term disability policies do not carry a 24-month-mental-health limitation) mental health diagnoses are the number one cause of employee absences lasting more than three months.

How should HR respond to mental health issues?

Given all this information, I find myself reflecting upon whether I’ve done enough to reach people who struggle with depression or anxiety disorders – or, as importantly – HR leaders who can make a difference every day in employees’ lives.

While I share a great deal of information about mental health via social media channels, I realized the last time I covered the topic here was in 2011. That column was in response to the Screen Actors Guild abandoning mental-health benefits for its members.

I doubt I’ve saved or comforted a single soul by posting the phone number for the suicide-prevention hotline on my Facebook wall or in my Twitter or LinkedIn feed, and something similar can be said about companies that simply offer an employee-assistance program and consider the topic addressed.

So, what’s an HR executive supposed to do about the workplace and mental health?

Normalize the conversation

We can look for guidance from people like Ben Congleton, CEO of Olark Live Chat, whose support of employee, Madalyn Parker (who took two days off from work to focus on her mental health) went viral.

Congleton seemed astonished by the response, and used his momentary fame to articulate the opportunities offered to employers on how to “normalize mental health” as a general health issue.

  • Build a safe space for employees where they can feel vulnerable and are willing to share any issues, whether they are related to mental health or not.
  • Reflect on how your company’s values support this safe space for your employees – one in six of whom is taking a psychiatric drug for a mental health issue.
  • Provide paid leave for mental and physical health issues – whether it’s in the form of traditional sick leave, salary continuation, paid time off, or short-term disability.
  • Take time to express gratitude to your employees.

Parker presents two additional considerations that are helpful from an employee perspective:

  • Offer flexible work arrangements.
  • Educate staff through training programs like Mental Health First Aid at Work to increase understanding and supportive behaviors about mental health in the workplace.

HR offers a first-line of assistance to employees

I’ll end with a few thoughts of my own:

  • Consider providing a more generous bereavement policy for employees who lose a loved one for any reason. Two or three days of paid leave is barely enough time for a worker to bury a loved one, never mind recover from the experience.
  • Keep in mind that your employees are also impacted when their dependent or loved one is suffering from mental health issues. Contemplate ways to assist employees, especially if a dependent dies by suicide.
  • If your company offers an EAP, stay updated on the utilization rate. I led a research project on the impact of employee assistance programs on absence and return-to-work rates. We found the only time EAP made a statistically-significant difference on the length of an employee absence was when the overall company utilization rate was over 10 percent.

Mental-health issues are pervasive throughout the U.S. and global populations. Employers, and HR leaders, are a first-line of assistance to the nearly 150 million working Americans.




5 Innovative Apps for People With Disabilities

Man with an appEver since Steve Jobs appeared on a stage with an iPhone in 2007, software has been radically changing and disrupting our world. Our phones have become virtual publishing houses, TVs, calculators, cameras, GPS devices, and countless other things. For people living with disabilities, accessible tech is making a big difference — and offering new ways to engage with the world.

This is happening on a city-wide level around the globe. One university in Seattle is pioneering a new map-based app that allows pedestrians with limited mobility to find the best routes through the city. In Toronto, a nonprofit is installing battery-powered beacons on streets to help improve accessibility for those with visual impairments. Then there’s also a whole ecosystem of apps that people can access via their phones. 

Here are five digital apps to be inspired by:

Access Now

This app was created by Maayan Ziv, whose advocacy work has won her accolades such as the David C. Onley Leadership in Accessibility Award. Ziv lives with muscular dystrophy and she created Access Now to share information about the levels of accessibility in buildings in areas throughout the world. The app allows you to search for specific types of accessibility and includes crowdsourcing via its global community map, where members of the public can update info and rate venues.

Be My Eyes

Be My Eyes is an inspired app that connects people with blindness or other visual impairments with other members of the wider community. Someone can take a photo of an object — for example a gallon of milk in their fridge — upload the image, then ask a question such as, “what’s the sell-by date?” They’ll get a near-instant reply, spoken out loud via their phone’s audio. This app has been around for several years now, and at the time of writing this blog, has amassed more than 60,000 blind and low vision users and over 876,000 volunteers. 

RogerVoice

RogerVoice is a close captioning app that allows people who are deaf or hard of hearing to converse in real-time. The app draws upon voice-recognition technology to transform someone’s words into text, as well as allowing people to type responses, which are then converted to voice on the other side of the call. 

MyRA

Rheumatoid arthritis is a leading cause of disability. It’s an autoimmune disease that attacks tissues close to joints and other body parts, and can affect areas throughout the body. MyRA is an app that helps people track their RA and make daily updates of how they’re feeling. A clever design makes the process visual, where they can click on areas around the body on their screens. This creates a history of data that help them discuss their condition more accurately with their physician. 

Reachout

If you’re living with either a short-term or long-term disability, there will be psychological effects. Whether it’s getting used to a completely new way of life or dealing with chronic pain, it is beneficial to have a community around you. Reachout is an app that offers an online support network for those who need one. There are groups for chronic pain, mental health, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease — as well as groups for caregivers.




Tolerating Gluten Intolerance

Jan-celiac-imageAt 18 months old, my son suddenly changed from the happiest little dude in town to a miserable and often inconsolable kid. Without warning, he became thoroughly unhappy, bouncing between periods of lethargy and periods of frustration. His sleep, which had been challenging anyway, as it is with most little ones, became a constant battle; he struggled to get comfortable and would wake several times each night. His enthusiasm for eating and trying new foods disappeared, causing us to coax most meals into him. And, perhaps most troubling, he began to loose weight.

His pediatrician was stumped. She couldn’t identify an illness. There were no injuries to explain the situation. No significant changes in his daily life.

Eventually a blood test was ordered, mostly to rule out celiac disease. When the results showed extremely high tTG levels, the doctors thought there must have been an error. To confirm, an endoscopy was performed. Sure enough, numerous ulcers in his small intestines were discovered.

I was positive this was karma’s way of punishing me. Over the preceding couple of years, several friends had joined the anti-gluten trend and decided to remove the protein from their diet for no reason, as far as I could tell, other than following a fad. So I began telling people that I had become intolerant of gluten intolerance. My son’s diagnosis felt like payback.

We immediately removed gluten from the little monster’s diet, and almost immediately his mood improved. Within a couple of weeks, he began to put the lost weight back on, and was once again the happy, exhausting kid he had previously been.

An Invisible Autoimmune Nightmare

My son’s sensitivity is high. After diagnosis, we began regular check ins with a gastroenterologist. At our first visit, we learned it could take as long as a year for his body to fully heal. We also learned that a single gluten-containing crumb small enough to fit under my fingernail would be enough to make him feel sick for a day or two.

For reasons unknown, the gluten protein causes the villi in the small intestines to flatten out, which then prevents them from absorbing the nutrition passing through the body. This not only results in discomfort, but in some cases the body is so deprived of nutrition and vitamins, that the disease can prevent growth and may lead to additional problems such as anemia, osteoporosis, and weakened bones.

It’s Everywhere!

We became gluten fanatics almost overnight. It was fairly easy to cut out the obvious problems – wheat, rye, and barley – but we soon discovered it’s more complicated than just avoiding bread and crackers. The stuff shows up in soaps, shampoos, soy sauce, candies, some hot dogs, dry-roasted nuts, vitamin supplements, toothpaste, and laundry detergents! We had to make special play dough to send with him to daycare, because the store-bought stuff isn’t safe. If they blow bubbles on the playground and he pops one, they have to wash his hands before he sticks a finger in his mouth. When I repaired a small crack in a wall at home, he had to be out of the house until dust from the drywall and joint compound was thoroughly cleaned up, because even those have gluten in them!

Awareness is on the Rise

The good news is having celiac disease in 2018 is a lot better than it would have been even 10 years ago. Our local grocery store has an entire gluten-free section. Most products list all ingredients on their labels, often highlighting known allergens. And overall awareness of gluten intolerance is high. We’ve learned to avoid most cereals, breaded foods, and even some non-wheat grains, as they can have trace amounts of gluten if processed in a facility that also processes wheat. We learned that even if a pizza joint offers a gluten-free option, wheat flour in the air could impact our pie. And we’ve learned that “gluten-free” is definitely not the same as “Certified gluten-free.”

Luckily, in addition to special sections in the grocery store, many restaurants are also proving options for a growing population of celiacs. Even in our relatively small city, there are several gluten-free restaurants. And the local gluten-free bakery is worth a visit, whether you have an intolerance or not.

The Numbers Seem to be Growing

While celiac disease is estimated to impact only 1% of the population, general gluten intolerance is on the rise–four times more common today than it was in the 1950s! It’s not clear why more people are becoming sensitive to the protein, but theories range from changes in wheat, to too much gluten in processed foods, to poor diet and excessive use of antibiotics, contributing to an overgrowth of candida in the gut.

Only One Treatment…For Now

There is currently no cure for celiac disease, and the only real treatment is a gluten-free diet. However, thanks to more people suffering from an intolerance, there is more research underway today than ever before. Several new drugs are being tested, and trials of vaccine-like treatments have already begun in Europe and Australia. It’s possible that an effective solution will be developed before my son grows up and has to opt for gluten-free beer (yep, most beers have gluten, too).

Until then, we’ll keep the house gluten-free, make our own play dough, read every label, and visit that celiac-safe bakery as often as possible. And lots of chocolates are gluten-free, so we have that going for us!




The Cost of Cancer – Planning for Survival

Jan-cancer-costs-imageNo one plans to have cancer. Aside from the shock and anxiety for the future a diagnosis brings, cancer also presents a financial situation that few people fully consider. Huge medical bills, on top of the typical expenses like college loans, mortgages, and car payments, can leave survivors concerned about their finances. Despite this, there are a variety of precautions and preparations that can be taken to limit the impact of a diagnosis from a financial perspective. The effects of cancer can certainly rear its head in many ways. However, with some additional budgeting, cancer patients can put their minds moreso at ease while heading on the road to recovery.

Types of Costs

Costs associated with cancer can present themselves in a variety of ways. A 2017 study from JAMA Oncology shows that cancer patients tend to spend upwards of a third of their income on medical expenses, in addition to their usual health insurance fees. One of the primary causes of debt is of course the presence of medical bills. From seeing primary physicians, specialists, consultants, and other healthcare professionals, each of these visits and additional tests can add up.

For relatively rare cancers like mesothelioma, finding a doctor that specializes in your specific diagnosis can mean traveling across the country regularly. While the main concern when undergoing treatment is of course seeing the specialist that is most likely to save your life, the costs associated with travel are rarely thought of. These travel expenses, from gas money to airfare, can quickly add up.

Not to mention, hefty prescription drug costs that often come out-of-pocket. As one of the fastest growing sectors of healthcare expenses, cancer patients can spend thousands of dollars for their required prescriptions. These medications come in addition to various treatment methods like chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, and surgery. With often lengthy periods of treatment, these medication costs can put a definite financial strain on the patient and their family.

Debt from cancer treatment can also accumulate from a lack of income. If the treatment is aggressive, many patients are forced to leave their jobs to focus on their health and recovery. In a household that is used to having two incomes, the loss of that influx of money can certainly make an impact. If the diagnosis requires extended periods of time away from your profession, the patient may also come back from recovery to find that the work is no longer relevant or is done differently. This retraining period can be another obstacle altogether. In the case of older demographics, this can also deal a significant blow to retirement savings. As a result, cancer patients are around 25 times more likely to declare bankruptcy than those without cancer.

Even after the cancer patient has been through the final stages of treatment and is considered in remission, there are routine check ups to ensure that person stays healthy for years to come. All of the regular medications, treatments, and evaluations to keep cancer at bay will also come with a price tag. While beating cancer is clearly a blessing, this is an additional cost that many do not anticipate maintaining for the rest of their lives.

Solutions?

While it may be difficult to plan for cancer, there are some steps that can make the diagnosis less of a burden on the patient’s finances. Taking precautions with various forms of insurance and an emergency savings can go far to ensure the survivor and their family are protected. Health, life, and disability insurance are all small yet highly effective steps to take when planning for the future. It’s a great idea to establish a Health Savings Account (HSA,) which allows for contribution to a savings store for healthcare expenses directly from the person’s paycheck, before taxes. Even as a young person new to the workforce, taking out insurance and creating an account for health related expenses can be very beneficial and will keep your mind at ease for years to come.

If found in a stressful financial situation due to medical expenses, be sure to consider all of your options via financial assistance programs and debt service providers. There are a variety of professionals that specialize in debt management and refinancing that can help a patient through a difficult time as they start on the path to financial recovery. In the meantime, strict budgeting and monitoring income closely can allow for cutting down on what’s not necessary and saving where possible. Additionally, in certain cases like mesothelioma, the cancer victim may be eligible for compensation in a legal setting with the help of a specialized mesothelioma lawyer. Because this type of cancer develops due to exposure to asbestos, this may be an advisable route to explore if wrongfully exposed in the workplace.

Although talking about and planning for the future can seem daunting, taking adequate measures to prepare for the unknown can make all the difference when faced with a cancer diagnosis. Taking out insurance, saving for emergencies, and maintaining a tight financial ship will put a patient in the best position to focus on treatment and recovery. Battling cancer is difficult enough without having to worry about each added expense to save your life, but taking these precautions in advance will leave you and your loved ones prepared in case the unthinkable happens.




What Every Business Needs to Know About Anti-Discriminatory Laws

Oct-Antidiscrimination-imageEvery business should have a basic knowledge about anti-discriminatory handicap and disability laws. At a very general level, the following definition can be proposed: discrimination is any violation of the principle of equality in relation to prohibited criteria. Older discrimination laws used to provide sanctioned regulations which did not sufficiently take into account the differences of the situations to which they applied and were unjust. The related discrimination laws are also classified by the impact of the disability on the amount of the applicant’s resources.

 

In case-law, the U.S. courts in the 1960s considered that the application of a uniform rule to different situations might violate the principle of equality and be discriminatory. The first category of disability concerns disabled persons able to engage in gainful employment. A classification in a category may not be final. Also, handicap and disability laws entitle a disabled person to obtain a disability card allowing him or her to benefit from certain advantages in the course of everyday life.

 

A disabled person must attach all the documents requested within a disability discrimination claim letter. A disability discrimination claim letter must also indicate the date from which the person concerned may no longer claim the daily disability benefits due to the stabilization of his state of health. The problems they designate may of course be much older, but they were usually either denied or addressed in some other way. This conception, moreover, is not unique to the US alone.

 

However, access to the disability discrimination court is only reserved for applicants who have a disability at the time of their application for a disability discrimination claim. The second category of disability includes disabled persons who are absolutely incapable of practicing any profession. The disabled person must also complete a form for the disability discrimination court in which he provides information about his tax situation.

 

Disabled persons are divided into categories to determine the amount of their payments. In the absence of a reply, the disability discrimination application must be considered as having been refused. Harassment is considered to be a form of discrimination when undesirable behavior related to a disability has the purpose or effect of infringing on a person’s dignity and creating a humiliating, intimidating, degrading, hostile or offensive environment.

 

In practice, a number of disabled workers who are potentially eligible for a disability discrimination claim are unable to obtain the necessary supporting documents for the administrative recognition of their claim in the course of their careers. If this is the case, the disabled worker is usually informed of this decision by registered mail. It is also possible to switch from one disability category to another according to the evolution of a disabled worker’s health. The disability discrimination court must also reply to a disability discrimination application request.

 

Indirect disability discrimination occurs when an apparently neutral provision, practice or criterion is likely to result in a particular disadvantage to persons with a particular disability. Depending on a disabled worker’s situation, they should consult a lawyer in order to estimate the amounts they can claim. In U.S. law, this adaptation of the law does not require different situations to be treated in different ways.

 

However, the plurality and complexity of the contemporary world has led the US courts to take notice of the multiplicity of concrete situations and to adapt, if necessary, the application of the law to realities. Indeed, US law accepts, when there are differences of appreciable or even objective situations, that the general rule should take them into account and is therefore applied differently depending on the situations in question. Therefore, there are different concepts of discrimination, and between law and the social sciences, a multiplicity of concepts of discrimination have been defined.

 

More concretely, in any situation of choice, decisions and practices will be fair when they are based only on objective criteria and which will appear to be legitimate in the situation in question: qualifications used to choose an employee, resources used to choose a tenant, etc. Therefore, decisions should not depend on the health of the applicant on the one hand and on certain administrative data on the other.

 

The law also provides various conditions for receiving a disability discrimination claim. In the absence of an initiative by the court, it is the responsibility of the disabled person to carry out the necessary formalities directly.