Coronavirus Resources for Employers

Updated 10/18/2021 at 1:30 p.m. Updates in bold

We appreciate the ongoing support of all of our members, including our Visionary Members: Bloomsburg University, First Columbia Bank & Trust, First Keystone Community Bank, Geisinger, Kawneer, PPL Electric Utilities, USG, & SEKISUI KYDEX
 

Business Operations

On Thursday, September 9, President Biden issued executive orders regarding new policies to combat COVID-19. The White House has released a document summarizing the orders, which can be found here.

The orders include the following:
• Department of Labor Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) requiring employers with more than 100 people to require vaccination or weekly testing
• Department of Labor rule requiring employers with more than 100 people to provide paid time off for vaccinations
• Require federal employees to get vaccinated within 75 days or risk termination (which would remove the option for weekly testing in lieu of vaccination)
• Extend the federal employee vaccination requirement to federal contractors
• Require Medicare and Medicaid funding recipients to fully vaccinate their staff
• Urge schools to set up regular testing based on community spread
• Expand free COVID testing

These orders will be implemented via an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). On Tuesday, October 12th, OSHA sent the ETS to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The specifics of the ETS, including how employers will have to report information , what employees will be included in the requirement, and who bears the costs of testing, or how long it’s expected to remain at OIRA, have not been released./span>

As more information becomes available on the ETS, this post will be updated.

– Restaurants, bars, stores, salons, gyms, theaters, event venues, nightclubs, and other businesses can operate at 100% capacity, and crowd-size limits are lifted on all indoor and outdoor gatherings.

– While Pennsylvania’s face covering order was lifted on June 28th, the PA Department of Health continues to urge individuals to follow CDC guidance for wearing a mask where required by law, rule, and regulations, including healthcare, local business, and workplace guidance. For the protection of themselves and others, individuals who have not yet been vaccinated or are partially vaccinated are still encouraged to wear a mask when in public. The CDC requires individuals to wear a mask on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States, and in U.S. transportation hubs, such as airports and stations. Masks are also recommended, regardless of vaccination status, while indoors in areas of substantial or high transmission. As of August 30th, Columbia and Montour counties are at a high transmission rate.

The latest CDC guidance regarding masking indoors is not an OSHA regulation. However, an employer could be cited for creating an unsafe working condition if a claim is filed, according to OSHA’s Wilkes Barre office.


Vaccination and Testing

 

Vaccination

The Columbia Montour Chamber of Commerce is partnering with Geisinger in encouraging eligible individuals to get vaccinated. Resources to help employers communicate with their employees about vaccination are available from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, provides recommendations for developing a workplace vaccination strategy.

Vaccine Distribution

Geisinger is offering vaccines to anyone age 12 or older either by appointment or through a walk-in clinic. Click here for information. 

Click here to find vaccination sites statewide. 

Columbia County EMA is assisting Susquehanna Valley Medical Specialties with COVID-19 vaccination appointments.  Those eligible should call 570-389-5735, Monday through Friday only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Provide name, date of birth, address and phone number.  Someone from Susquehanna Valley Medical Specialties will call back to schedule an appointment. The clinic expects to experience a large volume of inquiries and asks callers to allow ample time for a call back. Callers who are not contacted within 72 hours are asked to call again. Another way to schedule an appointment time for their vaccination, patients simply need to log on to our website at svmedspec.com and click on our Covid-19 vaccination link to enter their contact information.

Individuals needing a ride to a vaccination appointment can call 1-800-632-9063 to schedule a free ride with rabbittransit.

Testing

Geisinger offers both symptomatic testing and testing for travel.  Visit here for details.

If you are exhibiting flu-like symptoms, contact your physician for a referral to a testing site.


Financial Assistance

 
Federal programs

– The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) included a tax credit for small employers that offered paid time off for receiving and recovering from the COVID-19 vaccine. This tax credit makes it easier for businesses to incentivize their workforce to get vaccinated, as well as give employees the proper time they need to get vaccinated and recover from it if they experience side effects. In July, the program was expanded to provide tax credits for employees who need time to take care of family members. 

The original employer tax credit for COVID-19 vaccine paid time off was announced in April 2021. It allowed eligible businesses and nonprofits to be reimbursed for up to 80 hours of paid sick leave or family leave (10 days or two work weeks) given to any employee to get vaccinated or recover from vaccination side effects. The reimbursement of $511 per day or $5,110 in total is deducted from the employer-portion of Medicare taxes and applies to paid time off taken between April 1 and September 30, 2021.

The July 2021 update to the ARP’s paid sick leave and family tax credits now allows employers to claim tax credits for paid time off given to employees to get vaccinated themselves or to accompany a family or household member to get vaccinated. It also includes paid time off for employees who need to take care of a family or household member that is recovering from vaccine side effects.

Click here for additional information from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about the Small Business Vaccine Tax Credit.

– The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has announced significant enhancements to the COVID Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, a federal disaster relief loan designed to support small business communities dealing with the pandemic, especially hard-hit sectors such as restaurants, gyms, and hotels. The SBA is ready to receive new applications immediately from small businesses looking to take advantage of these new policy changes.

Key changes being announced by the SBA include:

  • Increasing the COVID EIDL Cap. The SBA has increased the COVID EIDL cap from $500,000 to $2 million. Loan funds can be used for any normal operating expenses and working capital, including payroll, purchasing equipment, and paying debt.
  • Implementation of a Deferred Payment Period. The SBA will ensure small business owners will not have to begin COVID EIDL repayment until two years after loan origination so that they can get through the pandemic.
  • Establishment of a 30-Day Exclusivity Window. To ensure Main Street businesses have additional time to access these funds, the SBA will implement a 30-day exclusivity window of approving and disbursing funds for loans of $500,000 or less. Approval and disbursement of loans over $500,000 will begin after the 30-day period.
  • Expansion of Eligible Use of Funds. COVID EIDL funds will now be eligible to prepay commercial debt and make payments on federal business debt.
  • Simplification of affiliation requirements. To ease the COVID EIDL application process for small businesses, the SBA has established more simplified affiliation requirements to model those of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund.

Businesses can apply directly with the SBA for EIDL loans.

Businesses needing assistance in applying for an SBA loan can contact the Small Business Development Center network.

Columbia & Luzerne County businesses – wilkes.edu/sbdc
Montour County businesses – bucknell.edu/sbdc

The Employee Retention Credit is extended through December 31, 2021. The new credit, beginning January 1, is 70% on $10,000 in wages per quarter (or a maximum $28,000 per employee through December 31, 2021).

The new law expands eligibility to include employers who experienced a decline of more than 20% in a qualifying quarter.

Employers can also apply to the PPP program and take advantage of the tax credit program, provided the same wages are not used.

The IRS has issued updated guidance on utilizing ERC.

The Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) grant program provides assistance to live venues that were harmed by COVID-19 restrictions. The SVO grant program will distribute $16 billion in funds to live venue operators, including eligible movie theaters, concert spaces, museums and performing arts organizations.

SVO grants are being administered directly by the SBA. Click here for program details and to apply. 

Local programs

– The grant program for small businesses in Columbia County impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic closed on October 14.

A grant program for nonprofits and government agencies in Columbia County negatively impacted by COVID is accepting applications. The Columbia County Commissioners ARP Nonprofit Relief Grantround has $500,000 available. Grant requests up to $25,000 are now being accepted online until the application deadline of October 28. Additional funding may be considered on an individual basis. Upon review by the Community Giving Foundation Grants Committee and County Commissioners, grants will be awarded by November 30.

The grantround is designed as a flexible response to provide relief for a variety of unexpected costs. The Foundation is specifically interested in helping organizations maintain their operations and respond to increased demands.

Only 501(c)(3) nonprofit and government organizations are eligible to apply and the requested funding must be invested within Columbia County. 

Grant applications must be completed and submitted at www.csgiving.org/ccc-nonprofit-relief/. Grant requests must be submitted online by 11:45 pm on Thursday, October 28, 2021.

For grant-related questions, please contact Christine Orlando, Senior Program Officer, at 570-752-3930 ext. 2, or corlando@csgiving.org.

– SEDA-Council of Governments (SEDA-COG) has created a loan program with funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. For-profit businesses can apply for loans of at least $10,000 with an interest rate of 3.25%. Funds can be used for working capital and can be disbursed based on past working capital expenses. No payments are due in the first six months. 

There is a $500 underwriting fee and a $100 filing fee.

For more information, visit https://seda-cog.org/covid-19/ or contact SEDA-COG’s Business Finance Department at cwca@seda-cog.org.

– The Chamber’s low-interest loan program is offering loans of up to $10,000 for members at 3% interest for 30 months, with interest only payments for the first 12 months. If you are interested in the Chamber’s loan program, contact Fred Gaffney at the Chamber of Commerce at 570-784-2522 as funds are limited.


Unemployment, Benefits & HR Issues

 

 

The PA Department of Labor and Industry provides UC guidance for employers with impacted employees.

A More Effective Open Enrollment Season

Just the thought of an approaching open enrollment period can cause stress for employers and their workers.  But with proper planning and a well-developed strategy, open enrollments can be organized, effective and a positive experience for all involved.

Development of a detailed timeline well in advance of the start of open enrollment season is a great first step.  The employer and their benefit consultant can analyze the company’s specific objectives, style and demographics to develop a customized approach.  Included in this stage should be the scheduling of webinars, benefit fairs, seminars and opportunities, as applicable.  Likewise, the framework of an employee communication campaign can be developed, leaving specific details (like plan data, contribution schedules, etc.) to be inserted at a later time.

As soon as renewals are made available by the carrier(s), plans and contribution schedules can be selected by the employer and a communication piece should be distributed to all employees outlining the planned process, any critical information and any important dates and deadlines.

Benefit plan and contribution information should be presented to employees in a manner that encourages employees to become engaged in the process.  The communication material should present the range of benefit details in a simple, understandable and even exciting, if possible, manner…customized as much as possible to the profile of employees in each organization.

Technology should be used whenever possible.  Utilization of emails, webinars and online open enrollment tools all enhance the experience for today’s technology-oriented workforce and help to streamline the entire process. 

Once open enrollment ends and everything settles down, the process can be reviewed and employee feedback solicited in order to better understand the components that worked well and those that didn’t.  In this way, the experience can be further perfected for the following year’s open enrollment season.

The Columbia-Montour Chamber of Commerce offers its members access to My Benefit Advisor as a solution for employee benefits, including voluntary offerings.  For more information about My Benefit Advisor, visit our website at cmcc.mybenefitadvisor.com or contact Glynis Roberts at (800) 377-3539.

Wage and Workforce Information Aids in Employee Recruiting & Retention

With the challenges of hiring and retaining quality employees, employers have been increasingly benchmarking their wage rates to ensure they are competitive. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry provides labor market information by county and wage rate information by Metropolitan Statistical Area. Links to those resources are available on the Facts & Figures page of the Chamber’s website

The wage rate information provided by L&I is from 2020. Advance Central PA, the regional workforce board, accesses a database that pulls from a variety of sources, including current job postings. The contact for that most up-to-date information is William Berry, Research Analyst, at 570-568-6868 or wberry@advancecentralpa.org.

L&I Secretary Provides UC Update to House Committee

Adapted from the PA Chamber of Business & Industry

Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier provided updates regarding the agency’s challenges in paying out unemployment compensation benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic; their efforts to fight fraudulent UC claims that have skyrocketed since the pandemic began; new technology infrastructure and more at a hearing last week with the House Labor and Industry Committee.

The massive number of pandemic-related jobless claims last year overwhelmed the UC system and led to a backlog of thousands of Pennsylvanians waiting months for payments and unable to reach anyone from the department for assistance. The department reported that long-awaited updates to the system were completed this year which brought the backlog from around 320,000 to 91,826 pending determinations; and more than 525,000 people receiving more than $3 billion in benefits since June.

As the department tackled pandemic-related backlogs, a related challenge began to emerge and wreak havoc on the UC system – a significant uptick in UC fraud. L&I has struggled to root out fraudulent claims, and although the UC system upgrades have been generally lauded, it is suspected the transition likely opened a window of opportunity for fraudsters. In September, L&I representatives told a group of chambers that the ID.me verification system had reduced fraudulent claims dramatically. However, members of The Columbia Montour Chamber are still reporting fraudulent claims, including from employees that have never received benefits. The Chamber has provided that feedback to L&I but has not received a response.

L&I representatives were questioned if they believe a former employee should be eligible for UC if they quit because of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. “It’s very much on a case-by-case basis,” Deputy Secretary for Unemployment Compensation Susan Dickinson said. “If we determine that the person quit, then the burden of proof is on that person to show that they had a good reason to quit. If the case is discharge, then the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the discharge was necessary,” Dickinson added.

President Biden’s Vaccine Mandate for Large Employers

From the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

In September, President Biden issued executive orders (EOs)—a summary of which can be found here regarding new policies to combat the COVID virus. 

On Tuesday, October 12th, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent the Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which will require employers with at least 100 employees to ensure their employees are vaccinated or that they submit a negative COVID test on a weekly basis.

The specifics of the ETS or how long it’s expected to remain at OIRA have not been released, but it could take effect within a week.

The ETS will take effect once published in the Federal Register—at which point it will also be open for comments. Under the OSH Act, the ETS will remain in place for six months. After the six months, OSHA can either replace it with a permanent standard that reflects the comments or discontinue the standard altogether. At this time, we expect that the ETS will require employers to provide some paid time off for employees to get vaccinated or to recover from getting vaccinated—though the specificities are unknown.

As more information becomes available on the ETS, this post will be updated.

 

Bloomsburg Council Candidates Share Their Views

Candidates for Bloomsburg Town Council discussed a variety of issues including the downtown, infrastructure, and taxes during a candidate forum held Tuesday, October 12th. Incumbents Bonnie Crawford and James Garman along with challengers Eric Bower, Nicholas McGaw, and Janine Penman participated in the forum. The event was co-hosted by Downtown Bloomsburg Inc. and Bloomsburg University’s American Democracy Project at Bloomsburg University’s McCormick Center.

Among the questions asked of the candidates was if they support a pledge developed by The Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Bloomsburg Inc. To date, candidates Bonnie Crawford and James Garman have signed the pledge. Mayor Bill Kreisher also signed the pledge earlier this year. 

A recording of the forum is available on the Chamber’s YouTube channel, which can be viewed HERE