14 Cheap but Fun Ideas for a Valentine (or Any Time!) Date Night

Love isn’t free…that is, if you are trying to prove your love with an extravagant Valentine’s Day gift. In fact a survey from the National Retail Foundation found that Americans are expected to spend a record amount on Valentine’s Day this year…an average of $161.96, which is up 13 percent from the average in 2018.

Think quick: Where did that money go last year? We bet you don’t even remember because it was probably either wasted on an overpriced, mediocre meal at a crowded restaurant or spent on a “meh” gift like a stuffed animal or chocolates. This year, instead of spending money on stuff you don’t want or need, why not create some real memories with an activity that is both frugal and fun. Here are 14 choices we love.

  1. Get physical. Come on; we’re talking exercise. There’s not much that’s more romantic than working out with your partner—think about it; you’re in close proximity, you’re dressed down, and you’re doing something that will help you live an even longer life together. A class like yoga or Pilates can be a good choice with its relaxing combination of mindfulness and stretching, but you could also take a romantic stroll or go ice skating or roller skating. Don’t forget to hold hands during couples skate. 
  2. Cook at home. This is a no brainer…cooking together doubles as an activity and a meal. Since Valentine’s Day is the second biggest restaurant day of the year (after Mother’s Day), there’s no reason to go out with the masses when you can cook a perfectly fabulous steak or other luscious delicacy at home. 
  3. Dine out for dessert.  If you really want to eat out, your best choice is a sweet treat…you’ll spend far less than you would forking out big bucks for overpriced pasta. Less money, far more fun. Find a bakery that has your favorite desserts or go to the nicest restaurant in town and eat something decadent a deux, with a price tag that’s pretty sweet. 
  4. Sing karaoke. If there’s ever a night that calls for a power ballad duet, it’s Valentine’s. Find a local hotspot and sing your heart out to your beloved. 
  5. Go window shopping. Honestly just looking and trying on is half the fun. Go to a posh boutique or specialty store and indulge your inner fashionista by trying on clothes and shoes you’d never buy—and maybe would never even wear outside the dressing room. Or go to a thrift store and pick out comical options for your partner.
  6. See a production at a local community theater. Seek out free or low-priced local shows to have a Broadway-style evening at an affordable price.
  7. Get your paint on. Whether painting a keepsake piece of pottery or attending a “wine and paint” night where an instructor helps you create a masterpiece, getting arty together makes for a fun evening—and you’ll get to bring a souvenir home.
  8. Visit a museum. Fun fact: Many libraries have culture passes that offer free or reduced admission to local museums. 
  9. Babysit for a friend or relative. This maybe doesn’t count as the most romantic night ever, but you’ll feel good letting them have an evening out—and you can see whether parenthood appeals.
  10. Plan your dream vacation. Get on your devices and research a place you’ve always wanted to visit—or that you think your partner has always wanted to visit—and create an itinerary. Dare to dream.   
  11. Have a scavenger hunt. Make clues based on special places the two of you have been and hide them around town. Or if the weather is bad, take it indoors to a mall. 
  12. Participate in a trivia night. Many restaurants and pubs host trivia nights; make it a double date or join with some others and make a team for an information-packed night out. 
  13. Find a bar with free music. Check out the local arts paper to find a place or two that offers free music. Don’t forget to tip the musicians, though. 
  14. Huddle in with board games or a movie. Light some candles, open a bottle of wine…what more would you need? 

Ten Ways To Show Your Employees You “Love” Having Them Work For You

Want to keep your employees happy? The answer might be
easier than you think—in fact, a surprising 81
percent of employees say they would work harder for an employer who made them
feel appreciated
. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, it’s the
perfect time to let your employees know how much you appreciate their hard
work. Here are 10 ideas to get you started.

Say it with food.

This one’s a no-brainer; everyone loves unexpected food. Surprise
the team with donuts in the breakroom or a full-on pasta lunch at noon. Another
fun idea that doubles as a team activity is to create a sundae bar and let
employees make their own sweet treat.

Order each person
their own coffee mug.

Spend some time browsing online and buy a coffee mug for
each member of the team that reflects something that reminds you of
them—whether it’s a hobby they enjoy or a motivational saying that reminds you
of them. They’ll appreciate the thought you put into it, as well as the fact
that you have recognized them individually. And as a bonus side benefit, no one
will ever wonder which mug is theirs again. 

Volunteer together.

Show your heart by going out in the community and doing a
good deed together. You might bring sandwiches and mittens to the homeless or
help at a local food bank. Everyone will feel a warm glow when they know
they’ve brightened someone else’s day.

Start a mutual
admiration chain.

Everyone likes to hear they do a great job; this is the
perfect time for everyone on the team to say something nice about each other.
Make a book for everyone and invite team members to write a little note of appreciation
about something they do that makes the work day smoother for everyone.

Ask what they need.          

Sometimes the best way to show appreciation to employees is
to let them voice their concerns or issues. Create a suggestion box that you actually
use to find out what’s on their mind. Kick off the program with a special team
meeting where you explain the goals and ask employees if they’d like to voice any
thoughts right away. Keep the meeting positive with a light tone—and provide
food, of course.

Host dinner on you.

They probably don’t want to eat dinner with you on Valentine’s Day, but you can still spring for dinner. Find out a favorite
restaurant of each employee and give a gift certificate or just tuck a $50 bill
in a card where you have expressed your appreciation.

Host a team-building
activity (that’s actually fun).

A lot of these so-called activities can be quite awkward.
That’s why we put together a list of
six really cool ideas for group activities
that they wouldn’t hate—no trust
falls included.

Buy a group gift.

Is your dishwasher on its last legs or coffee maker a relic?
Consider buying something special for the kitchen or break room that everyone
can enjoy in the days ahead. Or, if your appliances are all up to par, spring
for a gourmet coffee or snack service—a little something extra to show you’re
thinking of your employees and appreciate their hard work.

Remind them of all
the ways you take care of them.

Sometimes HR can struggle with a creative way to remind employees
of their benefits, and Valentine’s Day provides the perfect opportunity to send
an email summarizing your programs—such as healthcare, disability
, gym memberships, etc., and highlight how you take care of your
employees all year long.

Give them the
afternoon off.

It’s hard to beat the offer for more time with their loved
ones. Surprise the team with a “free” afternoon off—that they can take on an impromptu
basis or save for a time that they can plan ahead and make the most of it.   

Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to show everyone in your
life how special they are—even employees. With a little creativity, you can
send them home for the day feeling a little more appreciated. You’ll be glad
you did, as gratitude gives a boost to both the giver and the recipient.

Resolution Reboot: Ditch the February Funk and Recommit to Your Resolutions

When February rolls around, some of us fist pump the air. “Yay! A whole month with my resolution.” Others (a larger amount, by the way) think, “Ugh. I have already failed.” Here’s the thing: February is a great time to reboot your resolution. In fact, ANY TIME is a great time. There is nothing magical about January 1.

As author and behavioral scientist Daniel Pink shares in his book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, “imbuing an otherwise ordinary day with personal meaning generates the power to activate new beginnings.”

That means that while January 1 carries a weighty significance as a change catalyst, we really could choose any day as that ideal day for new beginnings. So, why not today?

Here are three common resolution fails, along with reasons why now is the perfect time to start back up.


  1. Your gym membership is already gathering dust.

If you were one of the hordes who enthusiastically joined a gym at the beginning of the year, you are far from alone. If you are one who quit going by February 1 (or earlier!), again, far from alone. In fact, one survey found that nearly half of Americans had given up their exercise resolution to hit the gym by the end of January. Some felt judged; others found a gym membership too pricey; and still others couldn’t find the time.

But February is actually a fantastic time to give the gym one more shot—precisely because so many people have abandoned it, thus negating at least one of the reasons mentioned above. Of course a gym can feel intimidating when it’s overly crowded; you can feel as though you’re not getting your money’s worth when every station is in use or you’re turned away from class; and it can be extra hard to fit into your schedule when you have to wait to get a parking spot or time on the machines.

And remember, a gym isn’t the only place to get your sweat on. Temps are starting to climb from the polar freeze of January, and February is a great month to try snow shoeing or ice skating or even a walk outdoors to spot those crocuses pushing through. Or, you could commit to using your Netflix for something other than binge watching and find an exercise video to try.


  1. You gave up eating healthfully.

Here’s something that people don’t always realize: Winter fruits and vegetables aren’t always that exciting. In fact, it can be far easier to start a healthy eating plan as you head toward spring and the promise of berries and tomatoes. Alas, we’re not there yet, but you can still make strides in that direction, incorporating frozen fruits into smoothies, or trying a new recipe with a winter veggie, knowing that more choices are around the corner.

And remember that eating well doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Even making small changes—forgoing that afternoon vending machine cookie or after-dinner ice cream—can add up to big results when done consistently, and is often far more palatable than making a drastic change that’s hard to sustain.


  1. The clutter has piled up—again.

Did you join the Marie Kondo bandwagon? The pressure to decide if your items “spark joy” can be intense. But what many would-be organizers don’t realize is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A better strategy if you want to keep your house a little more organized is to adopt some daily habits that keep clutter at bay. For example:

  • Handle the mail and recycle liberally every day so it doesn’t pile up. (Bonus: You’ll never get hit with a late fee if you take care of paying bills as soon as they come in.)
  • Create a system to deal with jackets, shoes, mittens, etc. You might be surprised at what the calming effect of a clutter-free entry. This change alone can make your house feel less disorganized.
  • Run your dishwashers every night and empty it every morning so dishes don’t pile up in the sink.

There! With these three small changes you’ll be back on track…and you can tackle those drawers and closets at your leisure.

(And if you want to feel a little better about not getting rid of everything in your house, consider this story of a mom who inadvertently gave away one of her son’s mugs, which unfortunately was crammed with cash. No joy there!)

5 Tips for Snow Day Survival

As any third grader will tell you, there’s really nothing better than a snow day. You’re up early and dressed, because you weren’t sure if the bus was coming. And though it usually requires 45 minutes of parental nagging to get you to put on your boots and coat, once you confirm classes or cancelled, you can be fully bundled up and ready for action in 3.5 seconds. And you feel certain that just because the roads are too dangerous for buses, that’s no excuse for mom and dad not to drive you to your best friend’s house or the nearest sledding hill.

For working grown-ups, however, a snow day can mean falling behind, sacrificing a vacation day, or in some cases not getting paid. If you’re an exempt worker and your office closes due to inclement weather, your employer is legally required to pay you, unless you had already scheduled the day off. But even if you’re not going to loose out on pay or time off, you may be facing the anxiety that comes with missed work.

If you work in snow country, you know snow days are going to happen. You may not know when, but you know they’re coming. Here are five tips to help you survive them:

  1. Plan for the (un)expected. Snow days are going to happen, so talk with your employer about having the equipment and access you need to work from home. For many employees, just keeping up with email can eliminate stress and make it easier to return to the office when the storm passes.


  1. Watch the forecast. We usually get a few days warning before a snowstorm. If you know it’s coming, you can adjust your schedule. Move meetings, change travel plans, or look for ways to connect with colleagues online of over the phone.


  1. Look for back-up. If you’re home with kids on a snow day, it can be hard to concentrate on work. Coordinate with other parents in the neighborhood. You watch their kids for a couple of hours, and they return the favor later on, giving you both a little quiet time to get things done. If this isn’t an option, toss out your screen-time restrictions and let the kids enjoy a movie while you work.


  1. Find a quiet workspace at home. It may be tempting to hunker down on the couch with a laptop and a bag of chips, while the TV plays in the background. But a quiet, dedicated workspace will allow you to be more productive.


  1. Have some fun. It’s a snow day, after all, and there’s no reason you can’t let your inner third grader enjoy it. Have a snowball fight or go sledding with the kids. It’ll help wear them out, and give you a well deserved break from work.


Just for fun, here are the Top 10 U.S. locations with the most snow days per year.

Employees look to their benefits package for additional income protection: The case for supplemental individual disability income insurance

By Shelly Mushinski, Director, Enrollment & Implementation, Guardian Life Insurance Company of America®

It’s not just about life and health insurance. Employees also look to their employer for benefits that matter, such as the need for additional income protection. Your benefits strategy carries a lot of weight with key employees and prospects, and there’s no question having a strong benefits strategy is fundamental to the way employers compete for top talent — and disability income coverage is an important consideration.

Group Long Term Disability (LTD) coverage can be a great and essential foundation for your employees. But Group LTD coverage offered through an employer may not provide enough income replacement in the event of a disability or prolonged illness that prevents an employee from working. A disabling injury or illness can be devastating, impacting your employees’ ability to pay their mortgage, support their families and maintain their lifestyle.

Potential for underinsurance: The income gap

The threat of underinsurance for employees and key executives is real. Consider the facts:

  • Three out of five people say their savings would last only six months if they became unable to work due to illness or injury.1
  • The duration of an average group long-term disability claims is 34.6 months2
  • 90 percent of long-term disabilities are caused by illnesses not injury3

As compensation increases for your employees, coverage caps can occur, and the result can be underinsurance that impacts an individual’s ability to replace an adequate amount of income. This is known as an income gap. Coverage gaps can occur for several reasons, including the fact that Group coverage typically replaces only 40 percent to 60 percent of before-tax salary; benefit caps may leave higher-earning employees with the lowest income replacement ratio; and taxes on employer-paid coverage can reduce benefits significantly. This leads to possible “reverse discrimination” or “benefit portfolio inequity” for your higher earning employees.

Incentive and bonus compensation are usually not covered by Group insurance. In addition, Group LTD may not include protection for retirement contributions or student loans and is not portable. Meaning, if the employee were to leave his or her job, the existing Group LTD policy would no longer provide disability income protection for the employee. These contributing factors increase the threat of underinsurance for your employees. But, luckily, there are ways to help solve for benefit inequity and inconsistencies in coverage.

The solution: Supplemental income protection

Although your employees can’t predict the future, you can help them better prepare for it. Supplemental income protection (or multi-life individual disability income insurance), provided through an employer, is an additional way to help protect employees by helping to close the income gap. It lets your employee focus on recovery instead of worrying about finances. The benefit is two-fold: the additional coverage benefits the employee from a protection perspective, and it also benefits your company in terms of recruiting and retention.

By offering supplemental income protection, employees obtain coverage through a simplified process known as Guaranteed Standard Issue. This often requires the employee to answer a few basic questions, but medical or financial underwriting is not required. The process is convenient and often easier than an employee purchasing a policy on their own — where an individual applying for a fully-underwritten policy may go through a lengthy process to obtain coverage. And although it’s a benefit received through the employer, the policy will be personally owned by the employee — so he or she can take it with them should they leave the company. In addition, some providers offer the ability to enable coverage to grow with the employee’s income during the annual review process, which is a valuable retention benefit for employers.

When considering insurance providers to offer this supplemental benefit, consider a provider that can design a benefits package with flexibility to offer a breadth of options that can accommodate: specialized executive benefits for your high income, high value employees, and supplemental benefits for other employee segments that speak to the demographics of your organization. In addition, look for multiple funding options to meet your objectives (voluntary, employer-paid, and cost sharing options/executive carve-out). Custom benefit strategies allow you to tailor funding options such as employer-paid for the executive population and employee-paid for other segments. Look also for an array of billing options to fit your administrative needs.

Enrollment Fundamentals

Employees are most satisfied with a new benefit offering when they clearly understand its value and how it applies to their situation. Insurance can be complicated, and employees may not understand the value of the product. To overcome this challenge, work with a provider on a strong educational approach, tailored to the demographics and culture of your company, so employees can feel confident in their decision. Personalized education is critical and educating employees on how their Group LTD plan works for them is essential. Working with a provider that offers a strong educational component is often perceived by employers as a major value-add service.

In addition, look for online enrollment strategies that provide educational tools to help employees calculate their lifestyle-related expenses to make an informed decision on the need for additional coverage. Look for a carrier that has flexible enrollment strategies that align with your benefit culture (they should seem like an extension of you). You should also look for a carrier that provides flexible strategies that “move with” enrollment activity – these are designed to engage and drive the employee to action. For insurance providers that offer online enrollment, enrollment and policy issue can take place in a matter of minutes, offering a seamless application process. Make sure to work with a provider that provides first-class implementation and enrollment support that always puts you and your employees first.

Supplemental income protection is a win/win

The bottom line is this: employees look to their employer to offer a benefits package that can provide added protection in the event of a disability or illness. By offering supplemental income protection, you can add value to your benefits portfolio – and also provide a competitive advantage for your company.

Shelly Mushinski leads the Multi-Life Disability Enrollment and Implementation Team at The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America®. She has been with Guardian since 2007 and in the insurance business for over 20 years. Her team helps employers to define enrollment, implementation and communication strategies that aligns with the company’s benefit culture and demographics.

1 Mind, Body, and Wallet” Guardian 4th Annual Workplace Benefit Study, 2016
2 Council for Disability Awareness, Chances of Disability, http://disabilitycanhappen.org/overview/, accessed October 2018
3 Council for Disability Awareness, Long-Term Disability Claims Review, 2014





What happens when a health event causes your income stream to run dry?

By Fred Schott, Director of Operations, Council for Disability Awareness

If you’re one of the millions of working Americans currently making decisions about your employee benefits choices for the coming year, you’ve probably put most of your focus on the health-plan options, including what is or isn’t covered, which providers are or aren’t in-network, and how much will you have to pay out of your own pocket to satisfy the plan’s deductible and co-pay/co-insurance requirements.

And that makes sense. Health insurance is your employer’s highest-cost benefit (other than legally required benefits such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation). It’s also the benefit that probably was most important to you when you were looking for a job and the one that has the biggest impact on your current job satisfaction.

One important thing health insurance doesn’t cover

But health insurance has one important shortcoming – it doesn’t make up for the income you’ll lose if a health event like an illness, injury, accident or pregnancy keeps you from temporarily (or permanently) being able to do your job.

You shouldn’t underestimate the likelihood of something happening to you. A recent study using data from the National Health Interview Survey estimated that just over 10 percent of the working-age population has a health problem that keeps them from working or limits the kind and amount of work they can do (in other words, a work disability). A different research study estimated that more than half of US household heads will self-report some kind of work disability between the ages of 25 and 60 (your prime working years).

Dealing with a six-week disability

So let’s say you broke your ankle after slipping on a patch of ice, or you broke your leg in a car accident, making you one of the 5.2 to 6.6 million people who experience a lower-limb fracture each year. Your job requires you to do a lot of standing, walking around, and carrying—and that means you won’t be able to work while you’re recovering. Your doctor says you can expect to be laid up for six weeks, which isn’t at all unusual.[i]

You’re going to lose six weeks’ worth of income—and your health plan doesn’t cover that. What will you do?

Protections available through Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

First of all, here’s a bit of good news: If you work for a firm that has at least 50 employees, and you’ve been working there for more than 1,250 hours over the past 12 months, you almost certainly are covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. And — as long as you can get proper certification that your fracture qualifies as a “serious health condition”[ii] under the provisions of the Act — that means two things:

  • All your benefits will remain in force while you’re out (although you might still have to make any required premium payments), and
  • When you’re ready to go back to work, you should be able to return to your old job or one nearly identical to it.

See the US Department of Labor’s publication The Employee’s Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act for more information on FMLA. Also, there are 11 states—including California, New Jersey, and Connecticut—that, along with the District of Columbia, have enacted their own FML acts that go beyond federal provisions. Check with your human resources contact to see what’s the case where you work.

But as helpful as FMLA is when it comes to giving you peace of mind about your benefits and job status while you’re recovering from a work disability, it doesn’t require your employer to pay you while you’re out. You’ll have to look elsewhere in your benefits ecosystem for an alternate income source to compensate for the one that’s run dry.

Paid sick leave: helpful, but limited

In recent years, a growing number of states and local jurisdictions enacted laws requiring paid sick leave. One of those laws may apply to your workplace. There’s variation regarding who’s covered, how much sick time employees are entitled to, when and how it can be used, and other legal fine points. (For more details on various paid sick leave laws, check out this comprehensive guide.)

Keep in mind a number of employers provide paid sick leave benefits even in the absence of a legal mandate. That number is expected to grow given the tax credit for employers providing paid family and medical leave that was included in the 2017 tax act. Your employer may be one of them.

But here’s something important to keep in mind about various paid sick leave provisions. Rarely, if ever, do they provide enough time to cover an all-too-common situation like your six weeks of recovery from a lower-limb fracture. In most cases, you’ll be able to count on a week’s worth of pay—or maybe two weeks, if you’ve been savvy about carrying over unused days from the previous year. What will you do for the rest of your time away from work?

Short-term disability: a useful benefit

At this point, you’ll need to press further into your benefits ecosystem to locate an income stream that will last longer than just a week or two. That’s where a short-term disability (or salary-continuation) plan becomes a helpful benefit.

Statutory disability

If you work in California, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico, you’ll have what’s known as statutory disability coverage. The purpose is to provide you with some income while you’re unable to work because of a qualifying disability. (Here’s a detailed matrix outlining provisions of these various statutory plans.) What they have in common is this:

  • They kick in only after you’ve been out for a certain period of time (usually a week). That time is usually referred to as the “elimination period.”
  • They’ll pay you for a limited period of time (“maximum payable period” or “maximum benefit period” or some other terminological variation)—typically six months, although in California, it goes up to a year.
  • You’ll get paid a percentage of your pre-disability income (usually ranges 50 percent to 70 percent) with a cap on the amount you get in any week. (California has the highest capped amount at $1,216. New York, on the other hand, caps at $170, and Puerto Rico’s maximum of $113 is even lower.)

In these statutory jurisdictions, employers can provide supplementary or “enriched” plans that provide additional benefits above and beyond what’s mandated by law. You may want to find out if that’s the case where you work.

Employer-provided short-term disability

What about other states, where the statutory requirement doesn’t apply? Employers may provide their own plans. They’ll usually do so in partnership with an insurance company. The insurer will usually take care of approving claims, processing payments, and they will often provide services to facilitate claimants’ safe and timely return to work. The employer can fully fund the plan’s cost or, in return for a premium payment, hand off the financial risk to the insurer.

As with statutory plans, you can expect that:

  • Coverage will kick in after an elimination period. Usually, that’s a week, but in many cases, it can be more (two weeks or, more rarely, 30 days). In some cases, it can be less (zero days, which means coverage starts the first day of your absence from work). I used to work for two different disability insurance carriers, and when I consulted with client companies, I noticed most of them also provided sick banks or general paid-time-off banks that employees were expected to tap to get them through the elimination period with an income stream.
  • You’ll be covered for a relatively short period of time—usually three or six months. I’ve noticed that employers in the education and healthcare industries tend to frequently have shorter periods of coverage. And there are some instances where coverage can go for up to a year. My experience is that most of the time, the maximum payable period for the short-term disability plan is set up to track with the elimination period for the employer’s long-term disability plan (if there is one).
  • You’ll probably be paid a benefit amount that’s less than 100 percent of your pre-disability pay. I’ve seen salary-continuation plans (basically, the same thing as short-term disability, except the money comes out of the payroll budget instead of a separate fund) that pay you 100 percent of your salary, if you have more than a certain number of years of service with the employer.

But those are the exception. The usual payment is 60 percent to 70 percent of salary (and sometimes lower). And, in addition to the “benefit rate,” there’s probably also a maximum weekly payment amount. So, the amount of weekly income you can expect from your employer’s short-term disability plan is actually going to be the lesser of your weekly pay times the benefit rate, or the maximum weekly payment amount.

Key questions to ask about your employer’s short-term disability plan

So, there are three key questions you should ask about your employer’s short-term disability plan:

  1. How long do I have to be out of work before I can collect benefits?
  2. Once I start receiving benefits, how long can I count on them before they’ll stop?
  3. Given the benefit percent and maximum weekly payment amount, how much replacement income can I count on?

And now, let me add one more for you:

  1. Who’s paying for the coverage—my employer or me?

Here’s why that’s important to know. If your employer is picking up the tab for the cost of disability coverage, any benefits you receive under the plan are taxable to you. But if you’re the one who’s paying, then your benefits come to you tax-free. That can make a big difference in the amount of money you actually bring in while you’re unable to work.

This distinction between taxable and non-taxable benefits also comes into play in what are called core/buy-up plans. This is where an employer offers a core benefit (let’s say, a benefit rate of 40 percent) at no cost, and the employee has an opportunity to purchase additional coverage (for example, to bring the benefit rate from 40 percent to 70 percent). In this situation, any benefits stemming from the core coverage are taxable, but the buy-up benefits are tax-free. (Keeping track of what is and isn’t taxable and making proper withholding is another valuable service that insurance companies provide.)

Now that I’ve given you four questions to ask about your employer’s short-term disability plan, I’ll give you a fifth and final one:

  1. How do I sign up for the plan?

A lot of times—especially for plans where the employer pays the entire cost (including core coverage in core/buy-up situations)—you are automatically enrolled once you’ve met the criteria (usually involving hours worked and length of service) to become “benefits-eligible.”

But a growing number of employers are offering disability plans as an optional benefit. That means, you’ll have to make a specific benefits selection at the time of initial eligibility or at annual open enrollment to be covered. You’ll have to pay for the coverage (either with pre- or post-tax dollars), and you may have to answer some questions about your health and medical history (and those answers may affect your eligibility for the plan).

Bottom line: Find out what applies in your workplace.

Another way to get short-term disability coverage

You may also be able to get short-term disability coverage through an insurance company specializing in what’s sometimes referred to as worksite or voluntary coverage. In the past, these companies would send representatives to your workplace where they meet with you and, if you agreed to buy what they had to offer, enroll you for coverage. They still do that, but increasingly, you can interact with the company by using web-based technology. You can pay your premiums directly to the carrier or take advantage of arrangements the carrier made with your employer to allow for payroll deduction of premiums.

If you go this route, keep in mind because you’re paying for coverage with after-tax dollars, any benefits you receive will be tax-free.

What happens if you’re sidelined for a longer period?

Let’s say you’re one of the six million people with a work disability due to a back or neck problem. One out of every four people in your situation is likely to be out of work for more than three months (see Table 2 of this study). What if you’re in the top 25 percent?

That’s where long-term disability insurance becomes important. I’m not going to get into that topic here, because it merits in-depth consideration on its own, but you should at least check out what one of our guest bloggers has previously written about long-term disability coverage.

And, here’s something else to think about. When I worked for insurance carriers, the vast majority of employer clients had a policy of terminating people after they had been out of work due to disability for six months. Fortunately, in most cases, those terminated employees had long-term disability coverage. But, unfortunately, they no longer had health coverage through their employer (although they did have the option of COBRA coverage—an expensive option, and one that’s available for only 18 months after termination of employment).

My final words to you

If there’s just one thing you take away from what I’ve written here, I hope it’s this: If you become sick or injured (or leave work related to your pregnancy), your health insurance will help pay the medical bills. But if you’re unable to work because of an illness or injury, medical coverage won’t pay you. That’s why you need to become savvy about available resources—especially your employee benefits—that you can draw upon to provide replacement income. Remember that being out of work doesn’t have to mean out of money.


[i] You don’t just take my word for it. See the disability durations in Table 2 of this study. Also, check out the “Lost calendar days per closed claim, excluding pregnancy” metric on the short-term disability report in the Integrated Benefits Institute’s most recent set of health and productivity benchmarking reports.)

[ii] This is a good time to point out that the Family and Medical Leave Act addresses two different situations that might cause you to miss work: your own health, or a family member’s need for you to provide care for them. And that distinction pretty much applies to the various state and local leave laws (as well as individual employer policies and programs) relating to “family and medical leave” situations that have spring up over the past quarter-century. In this post, I’m addressing only leaves for “your own health.”

But understand that there’s often an interplay between the different leave types.

For example, if you’ve had a baby, the first six weeks after delivery are a period of medical recovery for you, so that time away from work would be considered as medical leave (your own health). But after that, you might need (and in fact be eligible for) additional parental or caregiving leave (for your newest family member). Be aware of your employer’s policies on this kind of leave (as well as any applicable state or local laws). And by the way, there’s a growing trend towards parental leave for the “secondary parent” (in most cases—but not always!—that means the father).

For a deeper dive on what kinds of family/medical leave programs are currently on offer, check out the first section of the Paid Leave Project’s Playbook resource.

The basics of the Social Security Disability Income Program

By Ted Norwood, General Counsel and Director of Representation, Integrated Benefits, Inc.

The United States Social Security Administration offers two programs—confusingly named Social Security Disability Income and Supplemental Security Income—aimed at providing or supplementing the income of people who are unable to work.

SSDI (also called Title II benefits) provides disability coverage for individuals who have paid enough Social Security taxes. The second program, SSI or Title XVI, provides a smaller benefit for people who haven’t worked long enough to qualify for Title II benefits and established a financial need.

SSDI and SSI require the same medical requirements to receive benefits. However, SSI also requires claimants to pass a stringent means, or income, test that establishes the applicant’s need.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the SSDI program. This benefit has greater relevance than SSI to the majority of employers and workers. In addition, this program frequently interacts with employee benefits, especially long-term disability policies.

But before I proceed, it’s important to remind you that I’m presenting basic information. If you have specific legal questions about SSDI, you should reach out to a lawyer. SSDI is a huge program with many regulations and significant administrative entities. My goal in this article is to focus on a few key elements that are important to employers and employees.

I find that most people know something about the SSDI program and many hold opinions on it already, but there is an abundance of misinformation. Before you can understand SSDI’s role in workplace absences, you must understand the program’s basics.

In many ways SSDI is like a private long-term disability policy that you have through the government. Like any insurance policy, the terms are important.

You must have worked to qualify

To receive SSDI benefits, you must have worked and paid the SSA’s taxes. If you are an independent contractor and don’t pay FICA taxes, you may not be covered. There are boring rules that you can access here if you want more information.

If you want to know if you are covered, you can simply contact SSA and they can tell you if you are insured and when your insured status would end if you stopped working.

You must qualify medically and vocationally

If you are covered, you may qualify medically for SSDI if you are:

  1. Not working
  2. Have limitations caused by medical conditions expected to last at least a year, and
  3. You are unable to sustain substantial gainful activity due to your limitations.

The SSA will deny benefits if they believe you can still perform a significant number of jobs that exist in the national economy or if you can perform past work (from the last 15 years).

Many Issues are surprisingly irrelevant to the SSA

Social Security does not consider income in its evaluation of disability. If a person who made a high salary can still perform lower income work, they are not disabled under SSDI. Likewise, a person who worked in labor, such as construction or manufacturing, may not be disabled if they are still capable of performing less demanding jobs.

SSDI also does not consider whether jobs are available or if an individual may or may not be hired for a job. The SSA only evaluates whether an individual could perform the functions of a job that exists.

The SSA considers problems finding employment to be addressed by unemployment insurance. But, to that end, applying for both unemployment and SSDI will usually have detrimental effects on the SSDI application. The SSA sees the receipt of both benefits as generally incompatible (with exceptions).

The SSDI Application Process

Individuals may apply for SSDI on the SSA’s website or at a Social Security office. A state agency will evaluate the application, review medical records and determine if the claimant is disabled under SSA’s rules. This usually takes three to six months with a 34 percent award rate.

If denied, a claimant can request reconsideration by the state agency. This essentially repeats the process, with a 13 percent approval rate.

If denied again, the claimant may request a hearing before an administrative law judge. There is a nine- to 27-month wait from hearing request to hearing with a national average wait of 17.3 months. The ALJ’s decision takes about another 60-90 days and ALJs awarded 47 percent of cases last year.

There is one more level of appeal within SSA – the Appeals Council – but the success rate is only 10 percent. After that, a claimant must file a civil case in federal court.

Obviously, it is a long process. This wait has a huge impact on the claimants. Waiting 30 months to get a payment is not uncommon. The SSA makes retroactive payments in a lump sum, but that is often cold comfort for claimants. The average wait time for all claimants is about 15 months before they receive a payment.

When Awarded SSDI

Disabled claimants receive an average monthly benefit of about $1300. There is a five-to-six month elimination period at the beginning of the period of disability.[The SSA provides annul adjustments for cost of living.

Two years after the end of the claimant’s elimination period, they will begin receiving Medicare.

There are some programs in place to support attempts to return to work, with mixed results. The SSA generally schedules continuing disability reviews (CDRs) every three to five years.

SSDI certainly has some warts, but overall American workers benefit tremendously from this program.


Baby on board? How HR can help pregnant employees adjust

Creating a family-friendly workplace is vital for retaining talent—after all, 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. It’s also becoming increasingly common for women to work while pregnant: The Pew Research Center cites Census Bureau data that shows 66 percent of mothers who gave birth to their first child between 2006 and 2008 worked during their pregnancy, compared to only 44 percent who worked during pregnancy in the early 1960s.

Since not all managers might feel comfortable addressing the issue, HR can come alongside the team to play an important role in helping pregnant employees adjust to their upcoming maternity leave—and eventual return. Here are five solid strategies to consider.

Make sure employees understand their benefits

This is a good time to talk with the employee about whether she has any questions about how to get her maternity and post-partum needs handled. You might walk through:

  • Company leave policies
  • What Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) forms she’ll need to fill out
  • Benefits-related questions such as whether any retirement match continues while on FMLA and details on how to add baby to the insurance policy
  • Information on disability insurance….many people don’t know that pregnancy is the most common cause of short-term disability claims.

Help create a transition plan for the employee with her manager

HR can be a big help in working with the team to help decide how work will be handled in the employee’s absence. Among the factors to consider, depending, of course on the employee’s role are:

  • How and when to tell the internal team
  • How and when to tell clients
  • Who will take over the work, as in will you be hiring a temporary replacement or dividing it among the existing workforce
  • How to best document project statuses to ensure the right people are in the loop
  • A checklist of day-to-day duties that others might not be aware of
  • A plan for who will manage existing direct reports
  • Proposed availability (if at all) during maternity leave, understanding that some of these details may change
  • A plan for the return, including potential part-time work to make the transition smoother
  • A document detailing what happens if she should go into labor in the office, including information about where she plans to deliver; phone numbers of doctor, doula or midwife; emergency contacts, etc.

The goal is to cover all potential issues to coordinate a seamless exit and pave the way for a pleasant return.

Create a mentoring program or support group

Becoming a parent is overwhelming and can place a lot of stress on a young mom (or dad!) trying to juggle a job. Many companies find that the first few months are crucial for eventual retention, and if a parent feels supported and understood, they are liable to make it work out.

That’s why you should consider hosting a support group where parents can meet to discuss and share issues related to childcare and other pressing topics. (Remember that HR should serve in an advisory role, rather than as a facilitator, to keep the conversation open and honest—and helpful.)

Pairing a returning parent with an experienced co-worker can also make the transition easier. They likely have many questions related to everything from work/life balance and how to travel as a new parent to helping get their baby into a sleep routine.

Set up a mother’s room

Many young mothers come back to work planning to pump, and find themselves thwarted by a lack of private facilities. Ease the burden on new moms by setting aside a walled-in space (with a lock!) where moms can retreat when they need to pump. Include a comfy chair, a TV and a fridge to store milk.

Strike a cautious note

You want to be careful not to overstep your bounds and assume something that isn’t true, such as that a pregnant employee is just going to quit or that a new mom won’t want to travel—many women want to keep their workload as robust as ever. Take care not to make assumptions, but rather to keep the lines of communication open for the best chance of retaining employees after their little bundle of joy is born.

And of course, at all times HR must take care to follow all applicable laws and ensure others in the company do the same.

Tackling the summer slide: Promote employee productivity with a twist

The lazy days of late summer are great…unless it’s your employees who are feeling a little bit too much summer fever. Because even though it’s the time of year when we want to hit the pool, the beach or the park, the work still has to get done.

However, employees have become more emphatic about “work/life” balance, and offering appealing policies can help fuel retention, an issue on the minds of almost every HR professional these days. That’s why it’s important to do what you can to promote employee-friendly offerings, while not turning the place into a free-for-all.

Here are six ways that companies can help their employees feel like they’re getting a little taste of summer while still getting the work done.

  1. Take meetings outside.

Remember when you were in school, and your teacher let the class take their reading circle to the playground on a sunny day? Heaven! Outside is the only place employees want to be, enjoying a little breath of fresh air. And it might even help them work better: According to the L.L.Bean 2018 Work and the Outdoors Survey, 86 percent of indoor workers would like to spend more time outside during the workday, with nearly three-quarters saying it would improve their mood and lower their stress levels. So see if you can indulge the team by heading out for a meeting in a nearby park or even in a green corner of the parking lot.

  1. Relax the dress code.

There’s something about capris and sandals that make you feel like you’re on vacation even if you’re working. If it’s appropriate for your workplace, consider loosening your dress code, even if it’s only on Fridays.

Make sure to put sensible limitations on the rules, such as no tank tops or athletic wear, or other specifics that are important for your particular office. If needed, remind employees that the relaxed dress code only applies to them when they are not meeting with clients or any other role restrictions you deem necessary – and recommend they keep a back-up outfit in the office in case they need to slip into something more professional for an unexpected meeting.

  1. Offer flexibility when it makes sense.

This can be tricky because not every workplace or department can accommodate flex hours equally. After all, phones still have to be answered, and client needs still must be met. But if there is an opportunity for team members to come in earlier a couple days a week – and thus leave earlier– make that an option.

“Summer Fridays,” where the office closes at noon, have become more common and probably won’t surprise clients. Or, if the phone or floor absolutely must be manned, see if you can at least rotate among the departments so there is still coverage. Of course, you have to emphasize that flexible hours don’t mean the work doesn’t get done – it just means staff has some choice of whenit gets done.

  1. Plan something fun.

Of course everyone has a different definition of “fun,” so take your culture and employees’ personalities into account before you plan an outing or event. Here are some great ideas for activities that are liable to please everyone, no matter their age, interests or abilities.

  1. Surprise them with a treat.

Same as the teacher taking the class outside, nothing says summer and “playing hooky” like the ice cream truck. So some Wednesday afternoon when it’s business as usual, surprise the office with a box of popsicles or ice cream sandwiches – or iced lattes if that’s more your team’s vibe. An unexpected treat can go a surprisingly long way in engendering employee’s goodwill and loyalty.

  1. Ask your team what they want.

And finally, if you’re out of ideas for helping employees enjoy these last few weeks of summer, find out what would make them happy. They might appreciate leaving an hour early to head out on a bike ride with their kids or coming in an hour late so they can enjoy a morning kayak session or an extra-long lunch break to soak up some rays at the park.

The bonus is that by surveying your employees, you’ll have some great intel to use when planning summer 2019.

Seven Ways to Keep Your Vacation Glow Strong

Have you recently returned from vacation, basking in the radiance that comes from relaxing in a tropical destination or enjoying new adventures with family and friends? Of course we know that vacations are fun, but they’re also good for us: In fact, a study from Expedia finds a host of benefits, with an overwhelming 96 percent of respondents saying they returned happier, 94 percent less stressed and 93 percent feeling better rested. Sixty percent even said they had a better attitude at work.


Unfortunately another study from the American Psychological Association found that those benefits might linger about as long as your tan…with 40 percent lamenting that vacation benefits only lasted a few days.

But you cansavor the positive effects of vacation. Here are seven ways to help prolong the vacation glow.


  1. Keep the evidence handy.


Often all it takes is a photo or memory to take us right back to the good times. So change the wallpaper on your computer to a montage of photo memories or re-create your password to be something that reminds you of your destination.


  1. Bring back a special souvenir.


Going someplace new can unlock a creative side of us or get us out of our comfort zone – new mindsets that can offer lasting benefits. The trick is to remember those wonderful feelings when you get back to the “grind,” so try to think of something you can bring home as a reminder. A special souvenir or nature-related memento such as seashells or rocks from a hiking path can be a talisman to refresh you to that carefree feeling of jumping in the waves or pride in conquering a difficult mountain hike.


  1. Transport the culture home.


And sometimes what makes a trip special isn’t an item itself but the overall vibe of the location. If you enjoyed a trip to Mexico, play some salsa music that reminds you of a fiesta you attended. Or if native cuisines held an important role in your trip, do an online search to find a recipe for the amazing Greek moussaka you had or a cocktail that you enjoyed al fresco every evening.


  1. Tie up loose ends before you go.


Coming home to a messy house or a bunch of work fires is a surefire way to completely forget all those wonderful, stress-free moments you just had. While you can’t control everything that happens while you’re gone, you can try to keep disruption to a minimum. That means taking out the kitchen trash so you don’t come back to a stinky house; adding an out-of-office message that hopefully refers callers to someone else so your email and voicemail don’t fill up; and maybe even pre-ordering groceries so your fridge is stocked with healthy fare as soon as you return.


  1. Ease back into it.


If you can, try to come home on a Friday night so you have the weekend to get your laundry done and your email cleaned out. Or at least try to put a “buffer” day on your out-of-office message to buy yourself a little time to get back in work mode. It’s brutal to have to attend an important meeting the minute you’re back in the office.


  1. Pay it forward.


Besides a bunch of hassles related to home or work responsibilities, nothing can kill a vacation afterglow faster than a startlingly high credit card bill. You will enjoy your trip much more if you pay for the majority of it before you leave, especially big expenses like the airfare and lodging, and then bring cash to cover the rest of the expenses. (Or set aside a special budget specifically for vacation expenses so the bill can be easily paid.) After all, the only thing you want lingering from your vacation is special memories, not bills.


  1. Plan your next outing.


Often the best part of vacation is the anticipation, and it can be a letdown to come home and realize you don’t have anything notable on the horizon. Of course, you should fix that with special outings every week or so, even if it’s to a park or outdoor concert, but there’s nothing like thinking of your next vacation destination to get that feeling back. So go ahead, start researching an upcoming adventure. Having something on the calendar will make it easier to jump back into work – after all, you’ve now got a new goal to save for.