If an employee is eligible for COBRA, an employer must follow COBRA requirements including sending election notices and allowing grace periods. One concern for employers is whether employees will be able to afford COBRA while not working during a public health emergency. An employer does have options in regards to offering COBRA payment assistance to employees.
COBRA sets the premium limit at 102% of the cost of coverage; however, an employer is not required to charge the full 102%. An employer can set a COBRA rate to reflect the amount an active employee pays for benefits and the employer can continue to pay their portion. Employers should consider applicable nondiscrimination requirements when deciding whether to change the contribution for all COBRA participants or just those who have a reduction in hours due to a public health emergency. One caveat is, of course, that the payments made by the employee during unpaid leave will be paid post-tax. This may also pose an issue for employees that may not be able to afford their portion of a premium while not receiving a paycheck.
As mentioned, an employer may subsidize all or a portion of the COBRA premium while employees are laid off or on furlough. An employer could also set up a repayment plan, where employees repay an employer for a portion of the COBRA premium when they return to work. Employers may wish to have employees agree to repayment terms and a schedule before providing subsidized COBRA. Employers should consult with benefits counsel when drafting a repayment agreement.
(Danielle Capilla, Director of Compliance, Employee Benefits, Alera Group)