Safely Enjoy Summer Fun in the Sun

May 29, 2021

With students out of school and parents ready for a vacation, your summer planning may lead to seasonal activities and events outside during the warmest time of the year. While making a list of your fun in the sun options, keep in mind your family’s health and safety while avoiding the dangers of heat-related illnesses, water-related injuries, grilling hazards and food poisoning, allergy attacks, and the stress of traveling.

The Federal Occupational Health agency offers the following tips for balancing fun activities and sun safety.

Prepare for Heat and Sun

A big part of staying safe in the heat and sun is being prepared. Have an idea of how long you will be out in the sun and the heat, and then plan accordingly by:

  • Limiting your outdoor activity, especially midday when the sun is hottest.
  • Wearing and reapplying sunscreen as indicated on the package.
  • Pacing your activity; starting activities slowly and picking up the pace gradually.
  • Drinking more water than usual and not waiting until you’re thirsty to drink more.
  • Wearing loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing that protects your skin.
  • Wearing sunglasses and a hat.
  • If possible, taking breaks from the heat and sun in a shady or air-conditioned location.

For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Keep Your Cool in Hot Weather! and Sun Safety pages.

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration is a safety concern, especially during the summer months. Be sure to drink enough liquids throughout the day, as your body can lose a lot of water through perspiration when it gets hot outside. Drinking plenty of water can be part of good nutrition, too. Snacking on water-rich foods like raw fruits and vegetables also can help keep you hydrated.

Without enough fluids, you may experience dehydration. Look for these signs:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramping
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Foggy thinking

Learn more on the MedlinePlus Dehydration page.

Heed Water Safety Precautions

Swimming is an enjoyable way to both cool off and get some exercise, but it also takes extra precautions and vigilance. To lower the risk for water-related injuries or accidents:

  • Always have adult supervision for children who are in or around water.
  • Do not swim alone, and swim near lifeguards whenever possible.
  • Learn to swim.
  • If you have difficulty swimming, wear a life jacket when participating in water-related activities.
  • Wear a life jacket when boating.
  • Know local weather conditions and forecasts before swimming or boating.

For more information, visit CDC’s Water-Related Injuries page.

Additional summer safety reminders include the following tips from National Insurance Services

Eliminate Grilling Risks

Grilling is a great way to make a delicious meal, especially during summer get-togethers and events. However, grilling carries a number of risks—from fire to food poisoning—that you must be aware of to keep your outing safe and enjoyable. Experts say that food poisoning peaks in summer months for two main reasons: bacteria grow fastest in warm, humid weather, and people generally do not pay as much attention to cleanliness when eating outside.

General Safety Precautions

  • Do not allow children and pets to play near the grill until it is completely cool, and you’ve had a chance to put it away.
  • Place your grill at least 3 feet away from other objects, including your house, vehicle, trees, and outdoor seating.
  • Before using a gas grill, check the connection between the propane tank and the fuel line to make sure it is not leaking and is working properly.
  • Only use starter fluid for barbecue grills that use charcoal. Do not use starter fluid for gas grills.
  • If you suspect that your gas grill is leaking, turn off the gas and get the unit repaired before lighting it again.
  • Never use a match to check for leaks.
  • Do not bring your grill into an unventilated or enclosed space, such as a garage or inside your home. This is not only a major fire hazard, but it’s also a carbon monoxide hazard.
  • Never grill on wooden decks, porches, or balconies.

Carcinogen Hazard Preventions

  • Cook leaner meats that drip less grease. Opt for a turkey burger or a lean cut of beef, and cut visible fat from poultry. When fat drips into the coals or flames, smoke travels up to the meat and releases carcinogens.
  • Marinate meat to reduce carcinogens by 87 percent. Herbs contain polyphenolic antioxidants, which prevent the formation of carcinogens on the meat’s surface.
  • Scrub your grill with a wire brush after every use. This will prevent bits of leftover food from dropping into the grate and creating carcinogen-filled smoke.
  • Use a nonstick cooking spray on the grill rack to prevent meat buildup.

Follow Food Safety Tips

  • Wash your hands. You should do this before all types of food prep, and grilling is no exception. If you’re outdoors and there is no bathroom, use a water jug, some soap, and paper towels. Consider carrying moist towelettes for cleaning your hands.
  • Separate raw and cooked food. Don’t use a plate or utensil that previously touched raw food to touch cooked food unless the utensil has been washed with hot, soapy water.
  • Marinate your food in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Make sure food is cooked thoroughly to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present. Hamburgers should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, or until they are brown all the way through. Chicken should be cooked to 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of being cooked—the sooner, the better.

Manage Allergies

Warm weather and high humidity can put a strain on seasonal allergy and asthma sufferers. It’s a peak time for certain types of pollen, smog, and mold. Below are some survival tips to help you manage your allergies during the summer months.

  • Protect yourself during prime allergy time—stay indoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., when outdoor pollen counts are usually the highest.
  • Avoid extremes—going between intense outdoor heat and indoor air conditioning can trigger an asthma attack and other allergy symptoms.
  • Wear a mask when mowing the lawn or if you know you are going to be around freshly cut grass. Also, take a shower, wash your hair, and change your clothes to remove any pollen that may have collected on your body. You should also dry clothing inside, rather than on an outside line.
  • Patrol your yard for weeds such as nettle or ragweed and oak, birch, cedar, and cottonwood trees—they all can trigger allergies.
  • If you’re allergic to bees, protect yourself. Wear shoes, long pants, and sleeves. It’s also a good idea not to wear scented deodorants, hair products or perfumes, as all of these can attract bees.

Travel Safely this Summer

The following tips can help you plan for a safe and fun road trip:

  • Buckle up for safety; you’ll avoid a ticket, and more importantly, should you get into an accident, you’ll increase the odds of surviving the crash and reducing injuries for both you and your family.
  • Get a good night’s sleep; drowsy drivers can be as dangerous behind the wheel as drunk drivers. And don’t think coffee or opening windows will be enough to keep you awake— there is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.
  • Take a break from driving if you feel yourself getting drowsy. Get out of the car for some exercise or switch drivers if you have that option.
  • Do not drink alcohol and drive—you put yourself and anyone around you in danger.
  • Conduct a pre-road trip inspection on your vehicle—taking just 10 minutes to ensure your car’s tires are properly inflated, that the fluids are topped off, and that everything under the hood is all right—to identify and mitigate problems that could lead to future breakdowns.

Review CDC’s travel tips on the following topics that are continuously updated as needed:

  • Domestic Travel During COVID-19
  • When NOT to Travel: Avoid Spreading COVID-19
  • Safer Travel Tips for Families with Unvaccinated Children
  • Requirement for Face Masks on Public Transportation Conveyances and at Transportation Hubs
  • Travel Health Notices
  • Cruise Ship Travel
  • International Travel During COVID-19
  • Travel Recommendations by Destination
  • After International Travel
  • Travel Planner
  • Travelers Returning from Cruise Ship and River Cruise Voyages
  • Travel: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
  • Travelers Prohibited from Entry to the United States
  • Communication Resources for Travelers

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When planning your summer vacations, keep track at insureyouknow.org of your health, automobile, boat, and travel insurance policies, as well as passports and COVID-19 vaccination records, for you and your family members. In case you face an emergency or need to prove your coverage, you’ll be able to refer to your secure documents online.

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Spring Has Sprung! And Summer’s Not Far Behind!

May 14, 2021

Are you ready to spend time outside this spring and summer? Research documented in the article “Access to Nature Has Always Been Important; With COVID-19, It Is Essential” shows that outdoor activity year-round is important to overall health and wellness. In additional recent studies, exposure to nature or urban green space has been associated with lower levels of stressreduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression. One of the earliest studies to draw a conclusive link between time spent in nature and well-being was published in 1991. It found a 40-minute walk in nature, compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine, led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and better recovery from mental fatigue. Being exposed to a natural environment is especially important now, after more than a year of enduring a global pandemic, restrictions are being lifted for people who have been fully vaccinated.

Safe Outdoor Activities

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidelines for choosing safer outdoor activities and offers the following tips before you venture outside when you make a break from being confined indoors during the pandemic.

  • If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing many things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.
  • Fully vaccinated people can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
  • These recommendations can help you make decisions about daily activities after you are fully vaccinated. They are not intended for healthcare settings.
  • If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, find a vaccine.

If you are fully vaccinated, you can participate in the following safe outdoor activities that can improve your mental as well as your physical health.

  • Walking, running, wheelchair rolling, biking, and skating
  • Gardening
  • Fishing and hunting
  • Golfing
  • Rock climbing
  • Birding
  • Playing tennis
  • Kayaking, swimming, canoeing, diving, boating, and sailing

Safety Tips for Exercising Outdoors

The National Institute on Aging’s “Safety Tips for Exercising Outdoors for Older Adults” include the following advice that can be helpful to exercisers of all ages:

  • Drink plenty of liquids when exercising outside.
  • Stay alert by not talking on the phone as you walk and keeping the volume low on your headphones so you can still hear bike bells and warnings from other bicyclists, walkers and runners coming up behind you.
  • Choose routes that are well-used, well-lit, and safe with other people present. Choose routes with places to sit in case you want to stop and rest.
  • Be seen to be safe. Wear light or brightly colored clothing during the day. Wear reflective material on your clothing and carry a flashlight at night. Put lights on the front and back of your bike.
  • Wear sturdy, appropriate shoes for your activity that give you proper footing.
  • Always walk facing oncoming traffic.
  • Walk on a sidewalk or a path whenever possible. Watch out for uneven sidewalks, which are tripping hazards.
  • Look for a smooth, stable surface alongside the road.
  • In warm weather, play it safe and prevent hyperthermia—a heat-related illness that includes heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Know the signs of heat-related illnesses and get medical help right away if you think someone has one.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of green spaces and urban parks, especially during periods of lockdown. Even a short walk, an ocean view, or a picnic by a river can leave you feeling invigorated and restored.

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When you get outside and get going, be sure to carry proof of identification with emergency contact information, a list of your prescriptions, your cell phone, a small amount of cash, as well as your insurance credentials. You also can keep track of your insurance records, prescriptions, and emergency contact information at insureyouknow.org that will be helpful just in case you walk out the door without your printed IDs, you’ll be able to access information online in case of an emergency.

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The Long and Short of Disability Insurance

March 1, 2021

You may have never felt you needed to consider a disability insurance policy because you are young(ish), healthy, and don’t work in a business that exposes you to risky situations. Disability insurance is designed to cover a portion of your income if something happens to you like an injury or illness and you can’t work. Beginning in 2020, adverse effects of COVID-19 have been added to physical injuries, heart attacks, and cancer as major reasons to file claims for disability insurance.

COVID-19 symptoms can linger for months while the virus damages the lungs, heart, and brain, which increases the risk of long-term health problems. People who continue to experience symptoms after their initial recovery are described as “long haulers” and the condition has been called “post-COVID-19 syndrome” or “long COVID-19.”

Older people and people with many serious medical conditions are the most likely to experience lingering COVID-19 symptoms, but even young, otherwise healthy people can feel unwell for weeks to months after infection.

COVID-19 can make blood cells more likely to clump and form clots. Large clots can cause heart attacks and strokes, much of the heart damage caused by COVID-19 is believed to stem from very small clots that block tiny blood vessels in the heart muscle. Other parts of the body affected by blood clots include the lungs, legs, liver, and kidneys. COVID-19 also can weaken blood vessels and cause them to leak, which contributes to potentially long-lasting problems with the liver and kidneys.

People who have severe symptoms of COVID-19 often have to be treated in a hospital’s intensive care unit, with mechanical assistance such as ventilators to breathe. Simply surviving this experience can make a person more likely to later develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety.

Much is still unknown about how COVID-19 will affect people over time. Researchers recommend that doctors closely monitor people who have had COVID-19 to see how their organs are functioning after initial recovery.

Many large medical centers are opening specialized clinics to provide care for people who have persistent symptoms or related illnesses after they recover from COVID-19. Most people who have COVID-19 recover quickly. But the potentially long-lasting problems from COVID-19 make it even more important to reduce the spread of the disease by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, avoiding crowds, and frequently washing your hands.

Types of Disability Insurance

If you anticipate a need for disability insurance coverage or want to provide protection just in case an unforeseen injury or illness occurs, consider the two types of disability insurance: short term and long term. Both of them are designed to replace part of your regular income if you are unable to work. Even though they basically provide the same benefits, the following are differences and similarities for you to review.

Short-Term Disability Insurance (STDI)

  • How much does it cover? About 60 to 70 percent of your salary.
  • How long does it last? Usually 3 to 6 months, depending on the policy’s fine print.
  • How much does it cost? About 1 to 3 percent of your annual income.
  • How soon until you would receive your first payout? Around two weeks after your healthcare provider confirms your disability.
  • Why would you get it? If your employer offers it at no cost to you.

Long-Term Disability Insurance (LTDI)

  • How much does it cover? About 40 to 70 percent of your salary.
  • How long does it last? Five years or longer if your disability continues.
  • How much does it cost? About 1 to 3 percent of your annual income.
  • How soon until you would receive your first payout? Usually around 3 to 6 months after your healthcare provider confirms your disability.
  • Why would you get it? If you and dependents rely on your income and you don’t have sufficient savings to replace your regular salary long term.

You may be fortunate to have an employer who offers disability income protection insurance. If not, you can elect it during open enrollment or you may want to choose additional disability insurance to supplement what your employer provides. Ideally, you would have a three-month cash reserve to cover you before your payments go into effect. If not, the short-term disability protection, which typically starts after 14 days, would pay until the long-term disability is in place. It is important to understand how your policy defines disability which may not match your definition or need. Usually, workplace policies have a narrower definition of disability than private policies do. Depending upon your occupation, through a private policy you may be able to elect more favorable terms. Your financial advisor or life insurance agent can help you to find a policy that’s right for you.

In the United States, individuals can obtain disability insurance from the government through the Social Security Administration (SSA). To qualify for government-sponsored disability insurance, an applicant must prove that his disability is so severe that it prevents him from engaging in any type of meaningful work at all. SSA also requires applicants to demonstrate that their disability is expected to last for at least 12 months, or that it is expected to result in death.

You may find it helpful to consult an attorney when applying for a claim, regardless of your diagnosis. Qualifying for Social Security disability benefits is determined by your medical eligibility and how severely your condition affects your ability to work—an attorney can help explain the process and represent you if your case goes to court.

By contrast, some private plans only require the applicant to demonstrate that he can no longer continue in the same line of work in which he was previously engaged. If you take out your own policy, it will stay with you whenever you change jobs. But it’s cheaper if you can buy it through your employer that may offer it when you come on board, or you can talk to your HR staff about setting it up later.

STDI replaces a portion of your paycheck for a short period of time—three to six months. Most people get STDI through their employer. You can get an individual policy through some private insurers, but these plans are usually expensive. An alternative to an STDI policy is to save 3 to 6 months of expenses in an emergency fund that you can draw upon if you get sick or injured and have to take time off work for a few months.

Long-term disability insurance (LTDI) provides coverage if you’re out of work for a longer period of time—years or even decades. It, too, is sometimes offered by employers, but even if the benefit is provided, it might not be adequate. Employees often take out individual or a supplemental LTDI policy if the benefit isn’t provided by employers.

When applying for either an STDI or an LTDI policy, make sure you find out answers to the following questions from your insurer:

  • What is covered under my policy?
  • Does my disability qualify me for coverage?
  • When and how do I make a claim?
  • What do I do if a claim is denied?

Limits of Disability Insurance

Disability insurance is only designed to replace a portion of your income—it doesn’t cover extra expenses like your medical bills and long-term care costs.

According to Mason Finance, “Most disability policies come with several built-in exclusions in order to protect the insurer from claims submitted as a result of disabilities sustained from what it considers to be ‘high-risk’ activities, such as skydiving, mountain climbing, flying in experimental aircraft, or other such activities. Your insurer may also exclude any preexisting conditions that you have when you apply for coverage.”

While pregnancy isn’t usually covered by long-term policies, complications that extend beyond pregnancy, for example, if your doctor orders you to refrain from working to recuperate from a C-section, you might qualify for benefits—but only if you had a long-term policy in place before you got pregnant. 

Short-term policies do cover birth as a disability, but you might be waiting a long six-to-eight weeks for your first payout. 

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If you decide to apply for disability insurance, you can track your policy, payments, and any claims you submit at InsureYouKnow.org.

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Driving (or Not) with Auto Insurance

February 15, 2021

Although you may not be driving as much during the COVID-19 pandemic as you did in previous years, you still need to have auto insurance if you own a vehicle. The following tips may help you establish or review your auto insurance policy as you dream about taking road trips while your motionless car is parked in your driveway.

Visit Your Auto Insurer Online

Before the pandemic, you may have felt comfortable visiting your auto insurer’s office to apply for or review your auto insurance policy, or to file a claim for a car accident, vandalism, car theft, hail, fire, floods, falling objects, and collisions with animals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, claims are processed virtually. You can use your insurer’s mobile app or website and go through the entire claims process from the comfort of your own home.

In the event of an accident, you may be able to upload photos of your car’s damage that your insurer can use to estimate a repair and then send you a payment quickly.

Get Insurance Before You Buy a Car

Shop for car insurance before you buy a car so you can drive your new car off the dealer’s lot. There are four basic kinds of car insurance coverage: property damage liability, bodily injury liability, collision, and comprehensive. Review each one of these types of coverages carefully and decide which ones fit your needs. You might also want to consider getting protection in the event of an accident caused by an uninsured or underinsured driver.

You’re going to need proof of insurance when you buy a car before you can take it home with you. Follow these steps to get insurance:

  • Have a make, model, and year in mind. In the process of car shopping, you’ve most likely identified the types of cars you’re interested in buying. An insurance agent can give you quotations for a few models, so you can budget accordingly.
  • Compare quotations from multiple car insurance companies. An independent insurance agent or online car insurance comparison site is an efficient way to price shop. Rates vary considerably among insurers, so you will want more than one or two quotations.
  • Understand what coverage types you’ll need. Most states require you to carry car liability insurance. Also, if you’re taking out a car loan or lease, your lender or leasing agent will most likely require collision and comprehensive insurance.
  • Ask your insurance agent to set up a policy. If you have the car picked out and know the vehicle identification number (VIN), you can have your policy ready to go before you arrive at the dealership. If you don’t have the VIN yet, ask if the agent can set up a policy with the information you have, like the drivers in your household and the address where you’ll keep the vehicle. Once you decide on the car, call the agent with the VIN to complete the purchase of the car insurance policy.
  • Ask about bundling. Some insurance companies offer discounts to protect all your property with one insurer. Multiple-policy discounts can apply to combinations of home, auto, and life, and even motorcycle insurance.

Look into Pay-Per-Mile Insurance

If the pandemic has drastically altered your driving behavior since you aren’t commuting to work or going on road trips, you might want to look into an alternative car insurance model like pay-per-mile insurance.

In this plan, you’ll get charged a base rate per month plus a per-mile rate. Your monthly bill will depend on how much you drive. For example, if you drive 600 miles in a month at a $29 base rate and a $0.05 per-mile rate, your bill for that month would be $59. But, if you do return to commuting to your office you could end up paying more per month than with a traditional car insurance policy.

Reconsider Dropping Optional Coverage

If you have an older car and you’re considering dropping collision and comprehensive insurance to save on your insurance policy, Forbes Advisor recommends that you reconsider. Dropping coverage could leave you with a significant coverage gap. But you don’t have to drop both. It may be better financially to drop collision insurance but keep comprehensive insurance, which pays for repairs, such as ones caused by hail or falling tree branches that don’t involve your own driving.

Check on Auto Policy for Delivery Job

If you’ve taken on a delivery job and use your car for deliveries from a restaurant, grocery store, or other business, check with your car insurer to see if you need a commercial auto policy. If you’re involved in an accident while working, your personal auto policy may not cover your claim and you could be held responsible for repair bills and medical expenses.

Cover Your Teenage Driver

If you have a teen who’s driving, you’re going to pay a premium rate for his car insurance. Adding an inexperienced teen driver to your insurance will add an average of about $1,700 annually to your car insurance bill, based on Forbes Advisor’s research.

But there are ways to reduce anxiety about teen driving. By being a good driver role model, you can spend time driving with your teen and instill safe driving habits, including not using a phone while driving. If your teenager keeps accidents and violations off his driving record, the result will be substantially cheaper rates.

Protect Senior Driver’s Rates

If you are a senior driver with a perfect driving record, with no accidents or claims, you might wonder why your car insurance rates have increased. You might be in excellent health for someone your age and you might feel that your insurer is discriminating based on how old you are. However, insurance companies are legally allowed to charge any premium they want based on your driving record or age. Even if your reflexes are sharper than many other drivers of your age or drivers who are younger, your insurer will place you in the senior driver’s category along with other senior drivers whose reflexes are not as sharp as yours.

The following methods can help senior drivers save money on car insurance:

  • Change your driving status. If you are retired, then changing your driving status to pleasure or leisure can help you save money. This status covers all of your daily routines that are non-work related. Drivers who are placed in this category will be seen as a lower-risk by their insurers and they will pay less on their insurance rates.
  • Ask for a senior discount. Many insurance companies offer a discount to seniors who take a defensive driving course. These courses are not expensive and you can can stream them online at home. They can help you refresh your driving skills and knowledge and teach you how age-related diseases and medication can affect driving.
  • Drop a driver from your policy. There are some states where not all the licensed drivers from a household are required to have car insurance. In order to reduce your policy rates, you can exclude anyone from your policy who no longer drives. Usually, those persons are older spouses or parents. Also, you can change the primary driver from your policy to someone from the household who is younger, but only if that person is the one who is driving the most.
  • Improve your car’s safety. Another method used by drivers of any age to save on car insurance is to install safety devices on the vehicle. You can lower your premiums if you install safety systems like rearview cameras, lane drift, parking assist, and collision warning systems.
  • Shop around. Maybe the best option you can have to lower your insurance rates is to shop around and compare different car insurance quotations. Insurance companies have different premiums for different groups of people. Compare insurance quotations to find an insurance rate and coverage to your advantage.

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At InsureYouKnow.org, file copies of your proof of insurance, policy documents, and any car insurance claims or correspondence you file with your auto insurance carrier.

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CARES Acts in Action

January 14, 2021

In response to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Trump on March 27, 2020. The CARES Act made it easier for millions of U.S. workers to withdraw or borrow money from their retirement plans through December 30, 2020. People under the age of 59.5 affected by the coronavirus were allowed to take a distribution of up to $100,000 from an IRA, 401(k), or similar account without penalty. It also permitted loans of up to $100,000.

Usually, withdrawing funds from a tax-deferred account before age 59.5 would result in a 10 percent penalty on top of any income taxes incurred. But under the temporary rules part of the CARES Act, people with pandemic-related financial troubles could withdraw without penalty up to $100,000 from any combination of their tax-deferred plans, including 401(k), 403(b), 457(b) and traditional individual retirement accounts. The rules applied to plans only if the employee’s employer opted in.

Virus-Related Withdrawals

Some plans already permitted hardship withdrawals under certain conditions, and the rules for those were loosened in 2019. But the CARES Act rules were even more lenient by allowing virus-related hardship withdrawals to be treated as taxable income, but the liability was automatically split over three years unless the account holder chose otherwise. The tax can be avoided if the money is put back into a tax-deferred account within three years.

Almost 60 percent of Americans withdrew or borrowed money from their IRA or 401(k) during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a survey from Kiplinger and digital wealth management company Personal Capital. Most U.S. retirement accounts were already underfunded and the pandemic caused a significant number of Americans to withdraw money, potentially setting them back even further. They will now have to work longer or delay retirement in order to rebuild their savings.

“The past year rocked the confidence of most Americans saving for retirement,” Mark Solheim, editor of Kiplinger Personal Finance, said in a release. “With many people dipping into their retirement savings or planning to work longer, 2020 will have a lasting impact for years to come.”

When it comes to drawing down savings, younger workers have been more willing to withdraw from retirement accounts during the pandemic. A Transamerica survey found that 43 percent of millennials have either taken out a loan or withdrawal from a retirement account or plan to do so in the near future, compared to 27 percent of Generation Xers and 11 percent of baby boomers.

Boomers were much more likely to completely rule out withdrawing from their retirement accounts, with nearly 3 in 4 (73 percent) saying such a move was out of the question. In contrast, 36 percent of millennials and 56 percent of Gen Xers say they won’t take money from their retirement accounts to deal with financial shortfalls attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Retirement Savings Sacrifices

Many workers are sacrificing their retirement savings in order to keep afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the original CARES Act has expired, taking an early withdrawal from a retirement account can have far-reaching implications. You may not only have to pay a 10 percent penalty, but you’ll also lose out on having your money earn interest for a longer period of time.

As a result, you may likely have to work longer in order to have enough money for retirement if you withdraw funds from your account now. Nearly a third of Americans say the pandemic has already led to a change in their expected retirement age. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the economy has risen to the top of survey respondents’ list of obstacles with 49 percent saying it is the top barrier to achieving a financially secure retirement. The economy was followed by 33 percent claiming a lack of savings and 32 percent blaming health care costs as reasons to delay retirement.

Emergency Savings Accounts

Effects of the pandemic on emergency savings accounts have brought to light how few households have set aside money inside a retirement plan or for education expenses and it has prompted more employers to start their own programs. For now, about 10 percent of large employers offer some type of support to encourage emergency savings accounts.

But the scope of the damage caused by the pandemic means that even the traditional emergency savings advice of putting aside roughly three to six months of basic living expenses hasn’t been enough to provide a secure provision for an emergency. During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans have lost incomes and work. An employee who lost a job early in the pandemic could have easily used up all his savings while being unemployed.

But withdrawing funds from a 401(k) has consequences, such as increased tax bills and possibly sacrificing future retirement income. According to survey data of 1,902 U.S. workers by Edelman Financial Engines, one in five Americans is considering taking an early withdrawal. But the survey also found that many Americans who have done so regret it.

For most borrowers, doing so was for an essential reason—35 percent spent their funds on housing, and 7 percent took a loan due to a loss of income. Some did so for less pressing reasons, for example, about 20 percent borrowed to pay off credit card debt and 8 percent funded a car purchase. 

Borrowing Consequences

Borrowers admit they didn’t understand the consequences or alternatives or not doing enough research on other options available. Many people say they regret their decision for this reason—about 41 percent of people who took hardship withdrawals and 42 percent who took a loan regret it because of a lack of understanding. 

Others say they wish they’d understood the other options available. During the pandemic, many lenders have helped to ease the burden on Americans facing financial hardship. As part of the CARES Act, all federally-backed mortgages had the option of forbearance. Banks across the country offered help programs for loans ranging from mortgages to personal loans.

According to Edelman, some wish they’d turned to those programs before making a long-term commitment in reducing their retirement savings. Of people who took hardship withdrawals, 52 percent said they wish they’d explored other options first, while 44 percent of those who took a loan said the same.

Overall, most wish they’d consulted a professional before taking funds from their 401(k). Four out of five borrowers who regret the withdrawal or loan say that consulting a financial advisor would have helped their decision making. 

CARES Act II

On December 27, 2020, President Trump signed H.R. 133, another stimulus bill that Congress passed on December 21. This legislation extends unemployment assistance not only for employees but also for independent contractors and other self-employed individuals for 11 weeks. The bill includes the “Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act of 2020,” which provides for an extension from December 31, 2020 until March 14, 2021 of the CARES Act’s unemployment provisions, including a new form of benefits for all self-employed individuals: pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA). 

The original CARES Act provided PUA benefits for up to $600 a week for as many as 39 weeks, retroactive to January 27, 2020. The new stimulus bill, CARES Act II, halves that amount and limits PUA to $300/week. Those eligible for PUA also will receive an additional $300/week through the end of the extension period, whereas CARES Act I had added $600/week in federal stimulus payments. Finally, the new stimulus bill provides independent contractors with paid sick and paid family leave benefits through March 14, 2021.

CARES Act II contains a new provision: unemployed or underemployed independent contractors who have an income mix from self-employment and wages paid by an employer are still eligible for PUA. Under CARES Act I, any such worker was typically eligible only for a state-issued benefit based on their wages. Under CARES Act II, the individual now is eligible for an additional weekly benefit of $100 if he earned at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income. The $100 weekly payment which would be added to the $300 weekly benefit, also will expire on March 14.        

InsureYouKnow.org

If the original CARES Act or CARES Act II applies to your personal financial situation, you may want to consult a financial advisor about decisions you made in 2020 or plan to make in 2021. Then, keep a record of all your financial decisions at InsureYouKnow.org so you’ll be prepared for additional financial challenges or government stimulus opportunities in the new year.

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2021 Benefits for a Happy, Healthy, and Productive Workforce

December 30, 2020

According to a study by the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, 42 percent of the U.S. workforce worked from home in 2020. New challenges for a stay-at-home workforce include balancing work while caring for children or the elderly, dealing with mental health and other medical issues, and having opportunities for options in their work schedules. In response to these issues, some proactive businesses plan to provide child-care enhancements, telehealth benefits, and other flexible opportunities in 2021 to keep employees happy, healthy, and productive.

Child Care Benefits

For working parents, COVID-19 has been a balancing act of work and home responsibilities. At the beginning of the pandemic, 60 percent of parents had no child care support and they currently spend, on average, 52 hours per week on child care, homeschooling, and other household tasks according to a Boston Consulting Group survey.

One of the most innovative trends of 2021 will be to offer expanded support for child care. Some employers will boost child care benefits to include tutoring services, emergency child care support, virtual support groups for parents, onsite day care in the workplace, in-home child care for work-at-home employees, and virtual activities to keep kids occupied. These supportive measures will help alleviate stress at home so parents can be more focused and productive at work.

Mental Health Support

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees struggling with mental health challenges seek support from employers to cope with stress, anxiety, and burnout. Employers can offer telehealth resources and other virtual health tools like meditation apps, access to professional therapy, sleep tools, resilience training, and one-on-one behavioral coaching.

In a recent survey of employers by the Business Group on Health, two-thirds of businesses said they offer online mental health support and that is expected to grow to 88 percent in 2021. The stress of the pandemic combined with increased access to telemedicine will result in expansion of mental health benefits. Patients who are uncomfortable seeking help for stress and anxiety in person may experience less apprehension in a telemedicine environment.

Most employers also are providing increased access to other online mental health support resources such as apps, videos, and additional on-demand information. Still others are implementing manager training to help supervisory staff recognize mental and behavioral health issues and direct employees to appropriate services.

Telehealth Benefits

Since the pandemic began, an unprecedented number of people have scheduled virtual medical appointments, fearing potential exposure to the coronavirus. As telehealth availability increased in 2020, more patients began opting for this type of care. Even those not worried about contact with COVID-19 have appreciated the convenience of not missing a day of work to spend hours going to a doctor’s office in person.

Telehealth options have been expanding for years with both healthcare providers and health insurance carriers offering consumers the option to seek non-emergency care for minor illnesses from the comfort of their own homes or offices.

Additional telehealth alternatives will likely be added to many employee health plans as a way to address concerns over direct contact during the COVID-19 pandemic and because of the overall convenience of virtual visits.

Improved In-office Benefits

During the pandemic, patients who have gone into a doctor’s office have been met with thermometers, sanitizers, fewer fellow patients in waiting rooms, and shorter waiting times. Consumers will continue to demand in 2021 a streamlined in-office experience without a loss of efficiency in the administration of healthcare.

Flexible PTO and Sick Leave

The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined the workplace and employers’ leave policies to expand paid time off (PTO) and to provide more flexibility around work hours.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed in March 2020, ensured all employees receive two weeks of paid sick leave to care for themselves or loved ones.

Taking time off includes not only going on a vacation but also allows for leave for family and caregiver roles to achieve a good work-life balance that helps employees be productive at work and more present in their personal lives. With many employees having no place to go for an extended vacation, employers are also changing PTO policies out of concern employees won’t use allotted paid time off during the pandemic.

Some employers are allowing employees to carry over a portion of unused PTO into 2021, while others are experimenting with PTO sharing programs, so employees can donate their vacation time to a charity, a general company fund, or a specific colleague.

A combination of adjusting time off policies, offering more flexible work schedules, or adopting new policies in general are some of the ways employers will address these concerns in 2021.

Financial Wellness

As the pandemic sent shockwaves through the U.S. labor market with layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs, employers made sure to support employees through financial challenges with benefits like early wage access, automated savings programs, and education resources.

Many employers provide optional benefits like additional life or disability insurance as well as offering employees resources and education to reduce stress and enhance financial well-being. Some programs include educational sessions on common topics like reducing debt, while others include complimentary meetings with financial advisors. A few companies have opted to solve their PTO dilemma and financial stress by allowing employees to directly apply a PTO payout to student loan debt.

Health and Fitness Options

The transition to remote work means employees may be more sedentary than in an office building. To help employees alleviate stress and stay physically active, new virtual fitness offerings have become a must-have employee benefit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Countless employers are taking their wellness programs online, offering virtual yoga, kickboxing, Tae Kwon Do, and other types of fitness classes. Wellness contests such as virtual fun runs, walks, and biking competitions also have been popular.

Some employers have hosted virtual lunch and learning programs, as well as online happy hours, and collaborative movie viewing. Many have introduced online gaming sessions, which have included trivia contests, Zoom bingo, and competitions for best virtual backgrounds. Still others are relying on old-fashioned but Zoom-friendly games such as Scattergories, Pictionary, Charades, and Heads-up.

Expansion of Other Benefits

Many employers will continue to make their benefits plans more attractive by increasing the availability of additional voluntary benefits such as life and disability insurance, home, auto, and pet insurance, financial counseling, and legal services. These options can often differentiate one business from another helping to attract and retain qualified employees.

Employers are also finding creative ways to reward remote staff with food delivery service gift cards and subsidies to pay for home office equipment such dual monitors and comfortable, ergonomic office chairs, as well as Internet or cellular services that they use for work.

In 2021, out-of-pocket costs are predicted to increase from 5 to 10 percent for healthcare premiums. Insurance claims for preventive and elective care that were put on hold during the pandemic also may increase maximum costs and deductibles.

If your employer institutes any new benefits or offers you upgraded options designed to contribute to your happiness, health, and productivity, keep track of your employment benefit changes at InsureYouKnow.org.

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Home for the Holidays

December 17, 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, memories of past holiday gatherings with family and friends may increase the stressful and isolating feelings you have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Holiday celebrations will be different this year to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Texas Medical Association has compiled a Know Your Risk This Holiday Season chart to provide a list of high-risk activities to avoid and fun alternatives to adapt that pose lower risk of spreading COVID-19. The chart ranks 34 holiday activities from least to most risky so holiday revelers can make informed choices during the busiest travel and social-gathering season of the year. Among the least risky items on the chart are shopping for gifts online, watching holiday movies at home, or viewing holiday lights with your family in your car. The riskiest activities include attending a large indoor celebration with singing, attending a college house party, and celebrating New Year’s Eve at a bar or nightclub.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the best way to stay safe and protect others this holiday season is to stay home and celebrate with people with whom you live. Getting together with family and friends who do not live with you can increase the chances of getting or spreading COVID-19 or the flu. 

Travel Plans up in the Air

Travel is highly discouraged because it may increase your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Consider postponing travel and staying home to protect yourself and others this year.

If you are considering traveling, the CDC recommends asking yourself the following questions before you make your travel plans.

  • Are you, someone in your household, or someone you will be visiting at increased risk for getting very sick from COVID-19?
  • Are cases high or increasing in your community or your destination? Check CDC’s COVID Data Tracker for the latest number of cases.
  • Are hospitals in your community or your destination overwhelmed with patients who have COVID-19? To find out, check state and local public health department websites.
  • Does your home or destination have requirements or restrictions for travelers? Check state and local requirements before you travel.
  • During the 14 days before your travel, have you or those you are visiting had close contact with people they don’t live with?
  • Do your plans include traveling by bus, train, or air which might make staying 6 feet apart difficult?
  • Are you traveling with people who don’t live with you?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you should consider making other plans, such as hosting a virtual gathering or delaying your travel.

The safest thing to do is to stay home, but if you do decide to travel, testing can make travel safer but it does not eliminate all risk.

Safety Measures from Home and Back

If you decide to travel, get a flu vaccine prior to traveling and follow these safety measures during your trip to protect yourself and others from COVID-19:

  • Wear a mask in public settings—on public and mass transportation, at events and gatherings, and anywhere you will be around people outside of your household.
  • Avoid close contact by staying at least 6 feet apart from anyone who is not from your household.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick.
  • Avoid touching your face mask, eyes, nose, and mouth.

According to the CDC, for those who decide to travel, COVID-19 tests should be considered one to three days before the trip and again three to five days afterward. The agency also recommends travelers reduce non-essential activities for a full week after they return or for 10 days if not tested afterward. 

Based on extensive modeling, the CDC has revised quarantine guidance and now recommends that people who have been in contact with someone infected with the virus can resume normal activity after 10 days, or seven days if they receive a negative test result. That’s down from the 14-day period recommended since the pandemic began.

At InsureYouKnow.org, you can keep track of travel insurance, medical records, including any COVID-19 testing and results as well as vaccines for the flu and COVID-19, when it becomes available. Social gatherings next winter are predicted to be more enjoyable and fraught with less fear of contracting and spreading a coronavirus. You’ll also have more opportunities to travel and to reconnect with family and friends after a COVID-19 vaccine has been disseminated worldwide.

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Ensure Your Health Care Coverage

November 15, 2020

Changing your calendar to the month of November signals the need to review your health insurance coverage for the coming year. If you don’t have health insurance coverage through an employer, you’ll need to buy it yourself if you want coverage in 2021.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) (also known as Obamacare), enacted in March 2010, called for the creation of a health insurance exchange in each state, with three primary goals:

  • Make affordable health insurance available to more people. The law provides consumers with subsidies (“premium tax credits”) that lower costs for households with incomes between 100 percent and 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • Expand the Medicaid program to cover all adults with income below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
  • Support innovative medical care delivery methods designed to lower the costs of health care in general.

In the article, “Insurance Coverage after Job Loss—The Importance of the ACA during the Covid-Associated Recession,” published on October 22 in The New England Journal of Medicine, the authors state, “The ACA, having created several new options for health insurance unrelated to employment, will protect many recently unemployed people and their families from losing coverage.” The article also emphasizes, “The very virus that has brought about record unemployment levels is the same agent that makes health insurance—and the new options created under the ACA—more important than ever.

Open Enrollment for 2021

In every state, open enrollment for ACA-compliant 2021 health coverage for individuals and families started on November 1 and, in most states, will end on December 15, 2020. This deadline applies to the 36 states that use HealthCare.gov and it also may apply in some of the states that run their own exchanges.

You can enroll for a health insurance plan online, over the phone, or in-person. When you enroll in a plan through the exchange, you need to have the following information on hand for each enrollee:

  • Name, address, email address, Social Security number, birthdate, and citizenship status.
  • Household size and income if you’re planning to apply for premium subsidies or cost-sharing reductions. A wide range of documentation can be used to prove your income, including pay stubs, W2s, or your most recent tax return.
  • Coverage details and premium for any employer-sponsored plan that’s available to your household (regardless of whether you’re enrolled in that plan or have declined it).
  • Payment information that the insurer will be able to use to charge your premiums.
  • Your doctors’ names and zip codes, so that you can check to make sure they’re in-network with the health plans you’re considering.
  • A list of medications taken by anyone who will be covered under the policy. Each insurance plan has its own formulary so you’ll want to check to see which one will best cover the medications you need.
  • If you want to enroll in a catastrophic plan and you’re 30 years old or older, you’ll need a hardship exemption (note that premium subsidies cannot be used with catastrophic plans, so these are generally only a good idea if you don’t qualify for a premium subsidy, but can meet the requirements for a hardship exemption).

Coverage Effective January 1

In almost all cases, your coverage will take effect on January 1, 2021 if you sign up during the open enrollment window in the fall of 2020. If you’re already enrolled in an individual-market plan and you’re picking a different plan during open enrollment, your current plan will end on December 31 and your new plan will take effect seamlessly on January 1 if you continue to pay your premiums.

December Deadline Limitations

If you don’t enroll in an ACA-compliant health insurance plan by the end of open enrollment on December 15 in most states, your buying options may be limited for the coming year. Open enrollment won’t come around again until November 2021, with coverage effective January 1, 2022. Exceptions include:

  • Medicaid and CHIP enrollment are available year-round for those who qualify. If your income drops to a Medicaid-eligible level later in the year, you’ll be able to enroll at that point. Similarly, if you’re on Medicaid and your income increases to a level that makes you ineligible for Medicaid, you’ll have an opportunity to switch to a private plan at that point, with the loss of your Medicaid plan serving as the qualifying event that triggers a special enrollment period.
  • Native Americans can enroll year-round in in plans through special provisions in the ACA that apply to Native Americans.
  • If you have a qualifying event during the year, you’ll have access to a special enrollment period. Qualifying events include marriage (if at least one spouse already had coverage prior to the marriage), the birth or adoption of a child, loss of other minimum essential coverage, or a permanent move to a new geographical area where the available health plans are different from what was available in your prior location (if you already had coverage prior to your move).     

You can access a guide to all of the qualifying events that trigger special enrollment periods in the individual market including details about the specific rules that apply to each of them.

No Federal Penalty but Some States Levy Tax Penalties

There is no federal government penalty for being uninsured in 2021 but four states (Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island) and Washington, DC, impose tax penalties for not having health insurance.

For More Information About ACA-Healthcare Coverage

Follow these steps:

  • Get a quotation at healthinsurance.org. 
  • ‘Window shop’ anonymously on your state exchange (if you’re in Washington, DC, or one of the 14 states that run their own exchanges) or HealthCare.gov’s plan browsing page if you’re in one of the other 36 states.
  • Consult with a trained advisor by setting up an appointment with a navigator or broker in your area who will be able to help you sort through the available options and figure out which one will best meet your needs.
  • Talk with your health care providers if you’re considering a policy change during open enrollment. You’ll want to know which provider networks include your doctors, and whether any network changes are planned for the coming year.

Auto-Renewal for Existing ACA-Compliant Health Plan

If you’re already enrolled in an ACA-compliant health plan through your state’s marketplace, you can probably let your plan automatically renew for 2021. Auto-renewal is an option for nearly all exchange enrollees, although Pennsylvania and New Jersey have transitioned away from HealthCare.gov and are using their own new enrollment platforms instead. Residents in those states need to pay close attention to notifications they receive from the marketplace with instructions on how to renew coverage or select a new plan for 2021.

But, relying on auto-renewal for ACA-compliant insurance coverage may not be in your best interest. No matter how much you like your current plan, it pays to shop around during open enrollment and see if a plan change is worth your while because:

  • In most states, you won’t be able to pick a new plan after your coverage is auto-renewed. 
  • Your subsidy amount will generally change from one year to the next. If your subsidy gets smaller, auto-renewal could result in higher premiums next year. 
  • If you receive a subsidy, auto-renewal could be risky even if the subsidy amount isn’t declining. This FAQ explains details that you may encounter if you let your individual health insurance plan automatically renew.
  • If your plan is being discontinued, auto-renewal will result in the exchange or your insurer picking a new plan for you. 
  • Auto-renewal might result in a missed opportunity for a better value. 

You might still decide that renewing your current plan is the best option for 2021. But, it’s definitely better to actively make that decision rather than letting your plan auto-renew without considering other available options.

After you have squared away your health care coverage for 2021, you can record all the decisions you make, enrollment forms you submit, and confirmations you receive at InsureYouKnow.org. By doing that, you’ll be able to review your health insurance coverage commitments in November 2021 in preparation for 2022.

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Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

October 30, 2020

On Sunday, November 15, acknowledge America Recycles Day 2020 by recognizing the importance and impact of recycling, which has contributed to American prosperity and the protection of our environment since 1997 when it was created by the National Recycling Coalition. In 2009, this holiday became an integral part of the Keep America Beautiful Campaign. Today, there are thousands of events across the United States to raise awareness about recycling and to encourage people to recycle.

The recycling rate has increased from less than 7 percent in 1960 to the current rate of more than 35 percent. A study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that every 10,000 tons of materials recycled supports nearly 16 jobs and $760,000 in wages.

The recycling efforts of communities and business throughout the United States have helped with this success and growth. To build on recycling progress, EPA as well as local recycling providers encourage every American to contribute by recycling right that includes checking with your local collection agency to be certain that items you put in your recycling bin are acceptable. Items like cardboard, metal cans, and paper are commonly accepted by local curbside programs, but items like plastic bags, electronics, and batteries are not. Visit the EPA website at How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables to see how and where to recycle specific categories of items you are ready to reduce in your environment.

According to HolidaysCalendar.com, interesting recycling facts include:

  • 60 percent of trash could be recycled
  • Aluminum cans can be recycled endlessly
  • Aluminum cans can go from recycling back to store shelves in 2 months
  • Recycling one can saves enough energy to run a TV for almost 3 hours
  • 80 billion aluminum cans are used each year around the world
  • Americans throw away more than 25 trillion Styrofoam cups a year
  • 5 million plastic bottles are used in America every hour and most of them are tossed in the trash
  • Plastic bags in the oceans kill a million sea creatures a year
  • Every year, a billion trees worth of paper is thrown away
  • Wood and paper thrown away each year could heat 50 million homes for two decades
  • Recycling one ton of plastic can save almost 2,000 gallons of gasoline

Ways to Observe America Recycles Day

The simplest way to observe this holiday is by looking at what you throw away and making a commitment to recycle more. You also can encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. On social media, you can use the hashtag #AmericaRecyclesDay.

Benefits of Recycling

  • Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators
  • Conserves natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals
  • Increases economic security by tapping a domestic source of materials
  • Prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials
  • Saves energy
  • Supports American manufacturing and conserves valuable resources
  • Helps create new well-paying jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries in the United States

Steps to Reduce Waste

Find out what you can do to help make a difference in your environment every day. Whether you’re at home, on the go, in the office, or at school, you are faced with many opportunities to go green by reducing, reusing, and recycling. Click on the following links to reach EPA’s recommendations by specific categories.

Ways to Recycle More, Recycle Right

Check out EPA’s Frequent Questions on Recycling page for more information on ways you can contribute and where.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, alternative instructions may apply to your recycling efforts and EPA offers the following tips.

  • Focus on waste prevention where possible, and when recycling, keep the materials as clean and dry as possible.
  • Follow the guidelines of your local recycling hauler and only put items in your recycling bin that they accept.
  • If your community is not processing recycling due to the materials recovery facility being closed or another reason, consider dropping materials off at a recycling center, while following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state, and local public health guidelines.
  • Keep plastic bags, masks, wipes, and latex gloves out of the recycling bin.
  • If someone in your home has COVID-19, treat your recyclables as trash. 
  • Don’t put your recyclables in plastic bags.
  • Clean and shake dry recyclables to ensure products get recycled.
  • Break down cardboard boxes and put them in the recycling bin whenever possible. 
  • Put recycling and trash in the appropriate bins, not next to them. Leaving materials next to bins increases risks to sanitation workers and can attract pests.
  • Do not put lithium, lithium-ion or spent lead-acid batteries (e.g., car batteries) in your trash or recycling bins. These batteries can contain hazardous materials and can contaminate groundwater or cause fires at recycling facilities. Batteries from electronics and cars can be recycled at specified retail and other locations. You can also check with your city or county to see if they have a household hazardous waste collection program.
  • If you are cleaning thoroughly, consider setting aside items (e.g., batteries, paints, weed killers, plastic bags, clothing, and other donations) to donate, recycle, or dispose of later when it’s safe to bring them to a drop off location or collection event. Follow local guidelines. Many localities are limiting service and are not picking up yard waste or bulk items at this time.
  • Return grass clippings back onto your lawn instead of bagging them.
  • Thank your recycling collectors, haulers, and sorters—they are providing a vital service during this time!

Resources for Educators

EPA encourages educators to use online and printed resources to show students how to reduce, reuse, and recycle for America Recycles Day.

Recycling not only saves space in landfills, reuses important resources, and saves energy but it also prevents the needless destruction of many aquatic animal species and helps in the fight against global warming. Spend time on November 15 to figure out how you can recycle more. When you review your home, school, and work spaces and recycle unneeded printed and computer files, consider transferring financial and personal information from cumbersome arrangements to InsureYouKnow.org. If you do, you’ll be able to easily access timely information without having to cull through loads of documents hidden in filing cabinets, boxes, or on your computer.

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On the Road Again . . . Returning to Your Workplace

October 14, 2020

If you’ve been working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may look forward to rejoining your colleagues in the offices deserted by your company earlier this year when you started working from home. According to a survey conducted by The Conference Board, about 35 percent of U.S. companies don’t know when they will allow employees back into the office. The survey also concluded that about 39 percent of companies plan to reopen offices by early 2021, while 13 percent of offices have remained open throughout the pandemic.

While decisions to reopen are being made by individual companies that see benefits of staff working collaboratively and creatively in person that many workers miss, and worry that continued lockdowns could damage the economy and society, the return to the office isn’t without risk when the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb.

Returning to the office will be a big change for millions of employees who have gotten used to working from home without long commutes and a daily separation from family during strictly structured work hours. Companies need to prepare for reopening offices even if they don’t plan to call workers back until 2021. Every organization is going to be different in the response needed to get offices back open, depending upon who owns the building, office size, and whether employees are likely to use public transportation.

Office building employers, owners and managers, and operations specialists may find useful guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to prepare for the time when employees return to work by creating a safe and healthy workplace for workers and clients. The following list is an abbreviated version of the CDC’s recommendations to protect your staff and others while slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Check the building to see if it’s ready for occupancy.

  • Evaluate the building and its mechanical and life safety systems to determine if the building is ready for occupancy.
  • Ensure that ventilation systems in your facility operate properly.
  • Increase circulation of outdoor air by opening windows and doors if possible, and using fans.
  • To minimize the risk of waterborne diseases, take steps to ensure that all water systems and features and water-using devices are safe to use after a prolonged facility shutdown.

Identify how workers might be exposed to COVID-19 at work.

  • Conduct a thorough hazard assessment of the workplace to identify potential workplace hazards that could increase risks for COVID-19 transmission.
  • Identify work and common areas where employees could have close contact (within 6 feet) with others—for example, meeting rooms, break rooms, the cafeteria, locker rooms, check-in areas, waiting areas, and routes of entry and exit.
  • Include all employees in communication plans—for example, management staff, utility employees, relief employees, and janitorial and maintenance staff.
  • If contractors are employed in the workplace, develop plans to communicate with contracting companies about changes to work processes and requirements for the contractors to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in your facility.

Develop hazard controls to reduce transmission among workers.

  • Modify or adjust seats, furniture, and workstations to maintain social distancing of 6 feet between employees.
  • Install transparent shields or other physical barriers to separate employees and visitors where social distancing is not an option.
  • Arrange chairs in reception or other communal seating areas by turning, draping, spacing, or removing chairs to maintain social distancing.
  • Use methods to physically separate employees in all areas of the building, including work areas and other areas such as meeting rooms, break rooms, parking lots, entrance and exit areas, and locker rooms.
  • Replace high-touch communal items, such as coffee pots and bulk snacks, with alternatives such as pre-packaged, single-serving items. Encourage staff to bring their own water to minimize use and touching of water fountains or consider installing no-touch activation water fountains.
  • Consider taking steps to improve ventilation in the building, in consultation with an HVAC professional, based on local environmental conditions and ongoing community transmission in the area.
  • Ensure exhaust fans in restroom facilities are functional and operating at full capacity when the building is occupied.

Change the way people work.

Employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 or who have a sick family member at home with COVID-19, should be encouraged to notify their supervisor, stay home, and follow CDC-recommended steps. Employees should not return to work until they meet the criteria to discontinue home isolation, in consultation with their healthcare provider. At the office, the employer needs to:

  • Perform enhanced cleaning and disinfection after anyone suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 has been in the workplace.
  • Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks of employees before they enter the work site.
  • Stagger shifts, start times, and break times to reduce the number of employees in common areas such as screening areas, break rooms, and locker rooms.
  • Follow the CDC’s guidance for cleaning and disinfecting to develop, follow, and maintain a plan to perform regular cleanings of surfaces.
  • Give employees enough time to wash their hands and access to soap, clean water, and paper towels.
  • Discourage handshaking, hugs, and fist bumps.
  • Encourage the use of outdoor seating areas and social distancing for any small-group activities such as lunches, breaks, and meetings.
  • Use no-touch trash cans.
  • Remind employees and clients to wear cloth face coverings in public settings and avoid touching their eyes, noses, and mouths.

The magazine Financial Management encourages employers to find a balance when planning to reopen the office and offers some key considerations, including the following ones, to keep in mind when considering reopening the office.

Allow choices and review policies. 

Employers must be aware that some employees or someone they live with will have health conditions which make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, meaning a return to the office remains unlikely for many months.

Organizations also may find that some employees have discovered that they enjoy working from home and don’t want to come back into the office. The optimal situation is likely to be to give employees the choice of coming into the office or continuing to work from home. Coaxing any staff working from home to return to the office may prove a challenge, but for high-risk employees, those with vulnerable family members, or ones with children doing remote learning, going back to the workplace simply is not an option at present.

Support employees who work at home.

Companies need to ensure that staff have the right technology and resources to continue working from home. More firms are now more likely to consider flexible working requests than before the pandemic struck.

Policies covering sick leave, health benefits, and paid time off also will need to be reviewed so that they adequately protect staff who contract COVID-19 or are required to self-isolate.

Plan for possible outbreaks.

Companies already have plans in place to evacuate offices in case of fires, earthquakes, or other disasters but now they need to add health emergencies to the list. If an employee develops COVID-19 symptoms in the workplace, know how to get them safely out of the building. Companies may need to close a floor or an entire building, before deep-cleaning it, track and trace all staff in contact with the employee, and cover the costs for COVID-19 tests and resulting treatment if an employee tests positive.

With so many changes envisioned for your return to work, at InsureYouKnow.org, you can keep track of modifications in company policies for your health care coverage and paid time off, technology purchases for which you may be reimbursed by your company, and records of COVID-19 testing that may be requested by your employer or when you travel.

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