Monday, October 31, 2016

Shopping For Health Insurance

Open enrollment season is a crucial time of year for anyone shopping for health coverage. Whether you’re signing up for coverage on the federal or state Marketplace or through Medicare or employee benefits, most open enrollment periods begin in the fall.
Now is your chance to make changes to your coverage for 2017. If you miss this year’s open enrollment period, you will have to wait another year to alter your plan unless you have a major life event (marriage, a child, etc.).

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you review your health coverage this year:

1. Know your deadlines

Medicare: Open enrollment for 2017 coverage is between Oct. 15 and Dec. 7. Find more information here.
Obamacare: Open enrollment begins Nov. 1 and ends Jan. 31. However, you must sign up for benefits by Dec. 15 if you want your coverage to begin Jan. 1, 2017. Sign up for deadline reminders here.
Employee benefits: This will depend on your employer. Many employers schedule open enrollment in the fall. By now, you should have received a notification from your human resources department with information on how to enroll.

2. Don't get complacent

You might love the benefits you have at the moment, but that doesn’t mean you should blindly sign up for the same plan next year. Insurers are constantly tweaking existing coverage areas and creating new plans. Check to see if your existing plan has changed and see if there are new plans.

3. Lower your out-of-pocket expenses with a Flexible Spending Account

Americans are paying the highest out-of-pocket health care expenses in history, due to a shift toward high-deductible plans. You can lower your out-of-pocket expenses by setting aside pretax dollars in a Flexible Spending Account. FSAs are only available to workers whose employer provides them.
FSAs can be used only for certain medical expenses, such as co-pays, prescriptions, and some over-the-counter medications. The maximum contribution is $2,550 for 2016.

4. Take advantage of a Health Savings Account if you have a high-deductible health plan

Like an FSA, you contribute pretax dollars to a Health Savings Account (HSA) to cover your medical expenses. However, HSAs are not tied to any one employer, which means they are portable. Your money will come with you from one job to the next, and you won’t be limited on where you can use it. You can also make changes anytime throughout the year. In order to qualify for an HSA in 2017, your health plan deductible must be higher than $1,300 for an individual and $2,600 for a family.

5. Learn from last year's mistakes

This is your chance to find a plan that fits your budget and your needs. Insurance companies change coverage rates and options frequently, so take the opportunity to do your research and flesh out all of your options this enrollment season. If you went for a low-premium, high-deductible plan this year, you might have realized you don’t really like paying higher out-of-pocket expenses all that much. Similarly, if you’ve paid for a high-premium, low-deductible plan but don’t use your health insurance that much, you may join the ranks of the growing number of Americans who have switched over to high-deductible health care plans over the past few years.

6. Check to see if you qualify for a tax credit

Like 84% of Obamacare consumers, you might be eligible for a tax credit that would lower your monthly premium. The average subsidy in 2016 was $290/month. If your estimated household income is up to four times the federal poverty level, then you’d qualify for the credit. You can check here to see if you qualify for a subsidy.

7. If you decide to forego insurance, know what to expect

Under the Affordable Care Act, every American has to have qualifying health insurance coverage, or pay a tax penalty. For 2016, the penalty is $695 for each uninsured adult in the household. However, there are a few exceptions. You might qualify for an exemption from the penalties under certain circumstances. For example, you won't face a penalty if you suddenly lose a job or you are in between jobs for 1 or 2 months and have a gap in coverage. You should check to see if any exemptions apply to you before skipping out on signing up this enrollment season.

Monday, October 24, 2016

New overtime rules to impact 3,800 Clark County, Washington workers

Salaried workers making less than $47,476 will be eligible for overtime pay as of Dec. 1

A new rule revising which salaried employees are paid for clocking extra hours will go into effect soon, impacting about 3,800 Clark County employees and their bosses, according to the Washington Employment Security Department.
The U.S. Department of Labor decided in May to change the so-called “white collar exemption,” an earnings threshold under which employers must pay an employee overtime wages. The ruling makes salaried employees who earn up to $47,476 eligible for overtime pay. Previously, employees who earned more than $23,600 were exempted.
The ruling goes into effect Dec. 1. It will apply to an estimated 4.2 million workers nationwide and 76,000 workers in Washington State.
Scott Bailey, a regional economist with the state agency, said he expects employers will make the change without making waves.
“The new overtime rule by the Department of Labor, in my opinion, will not have a large impact on employment in Clark County,” Bailey wrote in an email Wednesday afternoon. “There may be some wage effects and some creative responses by employers, but I doubt it will result in changes that will be noticeable in our employment statistics.”
In the meantime, the new rule may require some accounting gymnastics of affected employers. They will have to calculate whether a salaried employee making less than $47,476 is worth paying up to that threshold or if it’s worth paying them time-and-a-half when they log more than 40 hours per week. Some businesses might reshuffle responsibilities to other employees in order to shave hours.
“They’re definitely going to want to do the math and look at it both ways: project how much overtime (an employee) would work and what that would cost, versus raising their salary to the new level,” said Rhonda Stephens, a partner at the local offices of Barrett Business Services Inc., a company that consults on human resources and payroll for numerous companies.
According to Stephens, the retail, hospitality and restaurant industries are particularly vulnerable to complications with the new rule. Employers may cut some benefits to offset wage raises, she said; and that increasing pay to relieve overtime pay opens the door for “inequities.”
“They have to look at the bigger picture,” she said.
The department said it made the update to reflect gains in wages since overtime standards were set in 1975 at $23,600. That annual threshold is well below the median income for both men and women in the United States, according to the latest income data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The new $47,476 per year standard is based on the 40th percentile for earnings in the lowest-wage Census region, which is currently the South.
Bailey said he expected to see local workers receive a pay bump with the ruling, though not a big enough impact to affect employment on a large scale. The average annual wage in Clark County, covering all industries, is $46,693 or $898 per week, but that figure accounts for all jobs, not just full-time salaried workers that this ruling affects.
“Many industries employ large, part-time and seasonal workforces, which would not be covered by the ruling,” Bailey wrote. “Indeed, there is a great deal of variation captured in this estimate. Knowing what the average compensation is helps us with one piece. But what about the variation within that estimate?”
Not everyone was happy with the ruling. Two lawsuits filed in September, one on behalf of 21 states and the other from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and 50 business groups, argued the decision was an overreach by the federal government.
“This rule, pushed by distant bureaucrats in D.C., tramples on state and local government budgets, forcing states to shift money from other important programs to balance their budgets, including programs intended to protect the very families that purportedly benefit from such federal overreach,” Nevada Attorney General Adam Lexalt said at the time.
Neither Washington nor Oregon are party to the states-led lawsuit.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Wage hike question means hope for some, harm to others

Strong arguments emerge from both sides of the Question 4 ballot initiative. And others call it 'a wash.'

The language of Question 4 is straightforward, but its probable impact is not.

The ballot question is this: “Do you want to raise the minimum hourly wage of $7.50 to $9 in 2017, and in $1 increments up to $12 in 2020; and to raise it for service workers who receive tips from the current rate of $3.75 to $5 in 2017, in $1 increments up to $12 in 2024?”

To proponents, the measure is a long-needed antidote to stagnant wages, forcing the hand of lawmakers who have not raised Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50 an hour since 2009.

To opponents, it represents heavy-handed regulation that will hobble small businesses and make the battle for new hires even more intense as Maine’s labor pool shrinks.

To Rebecca Coney, who works at the Top of the Old Port parking lot, it’s a mixed bag.

“I see both sides, really,” she said. “Who couldn’t use the extra money? But we’ll be paying more for the things we buy.”

Coney, who has worked at the parking company for four years, earns $11 an hour. She said she expects any business facing a significant hike in what they pay their employees would have no choice but to pass that added cost onto customers.

“To me, it’s a wash,” she said.

According to data compiled by the Maine Department of Labor, about 114,000 of the 359,000 Mainers who were paid hourly wages in 2015 made less than $12 an hour. Of that number, roughly 100,000 earned between $8 and $12 an hour. In 2015, the median hourly wage for non-salaried Maine employees was $14.03.

People between the ages of 20 and 24 comprise the greatest number of minimum wage earners in the state – accounting for roughly 3,800 of the 14,500 Mainers earning the state’s lowest hourly wage. The next-largest group is 16- to 19-year-olds (2,800). The smallest groups are people between 30 and 34, and people age 55 or older, both clocking in at 1,300 apiece.

The organizations behind the ballot initiative have had a lot of practice over the past two years. A series of minimum wage initiatives in the Legislature and some cities has succeeded in getting a new minimum wage of $10.68 established in Portland, but efforts to establish a $15 minimum wage there failed, as did efforts to increase the minimum wage thresholds in Bangor and Lewiston.


What sets this November’s question apart from other efforts is the strength of 76,400 petition signatures to get the measure on the ballot. It has the support of the Maine People’s Alliance, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Maine Small Business Coalition, who argue that raising Maine’s minimum wage would enable more workers to meet their financial obligations and avoid using taxpayer-funded government programs. They also said it would boost consumer spending in the state and help grow the economy.

“Raising the minimum wage means improving the lives of more than 130,000 Mainers who are working hard, spending countless hours away from their families, frequently at more than one job, and still can’t make ends meet,” said Mainers for Fair Wages campaign manager Amy Halsted. “This campaign is about helping single mothers raising children, and helping seniors who can’t afford to retire. It’s about creating a level playing field for local, small businesses and boosting the state economy by making sure Mainers who work hard aren’t earning poverty wages.”


Opponents include members of the state’s restaurant and lodging organizations, who have the highest percentage of workers that receive as little as $3.75 an hour because their incomes include customer tips. Tipped wages would increase to the new minimum of $12 by 2024, which restaurant owners say is unnecessary and will force them to increase prices.

“That whole tip credit issue has been a hot issue in the restaurant industry, and to a lesser extent the hospitality industry,” said attorney Glenn Israel, a shareholder at Bernstein Shur law firm in Portland.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Maine Heritage Policy Center and the Maine chapter of the National Federation for Independent Business also oppose the measure.

They argue that increased payroll costs would devastate many small businesses, particularly those in northern and rural Maine. They also said many entry-level jobs would be cut as a result of the higher minimum wage. And like Coney, they expect prices on consumer goods would increase.


A poll commissioned by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center in mid-September showed that 60 percent of respondents said they would vote “yes” on Question 4, 28 percent said they would vote “no” and 12 percent said they were undecided. A large majority of Democrats (83 percent) and a majority of independents (57 percent) said they would vote for the measure, and half of Republicans (50 percent) said they would vote “no.”

Some business owners have warned that raising the minimum wage to $12 could force them to cut staff, shut down or leave the state. Even those workers earning slightly above the new minimum will expect to receive a raise, they said.

“An increase in the minimum wage to $12 is going to have a lot of people looking at automation,” Israel said.

Monday, October 10, 2016

4 Ways to Maintain a Healthy Credit Score

Maintaining a healthy credit score is important. It’s essentially a measure of your responsibility — how accountable and trustworthy you are — for creditors who want to know if they should lend you money when you need it. Credit scores are sensitive, and a bit unforgiving. They are quick to lower when negative information such as late payments, accounts in collections, foreclosures, bankruptcy, and tax liens appear on your credit report, but can take years to repair.

The good news is that you can do it on your own. Here are four steps you can take to repair your credit score.

1. Check Your Credit History

First, check your credit report to identify any negative information. You are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus (ExperianEquifax, and TransUnion) every year. You can download all three at

Once you get all three reports, look through each one to find and record any errors. Be sure to check each report, because some errors may only appear on one or two reports. Then you will need to contact each bureau where the error is reflected to correct it. Take note of all accurate negative information, so you can avoid it in the future.

Each report has four sections: Credit Summary, Accounts, Inquiries, and Negative Information. Reviewing each section can help you understand the source of a poor credit score, and it can help you identify errors in your report.

2. Resolve Incorrect Information on Your Report

There are millions of errors on credit reports, research has shown. It’s important to keep your eyes peeled for any incorrect information on your report, such as accounts you don’t recognize, incorrect addresses or even a misspelled name. If all the information — even those negative marks — is correct, then skip ahead to #3.

Incorrect information appears on your report for four primary reasons:

Someone stole your identity and opened new accounts in your name.

Someone stole one of your existing accounts, and started using it.

The bank made an error and reported a delinquency or default that never happened.

A collection agency made an error and reported a collection item on debt that was never yours.

Disputing incorrect information involves three steps:

Dispute the item online with each credit reporting agency.

Write a letter to each credit reporting agency, and keep copies of your correspondence.

Write a letter to each organization (bank, collection agency, credit union, etc.) that submitted incorrect information, and keep copies of those letters.

Once you register your dispute with the credit reporting agencies, they must investigate the item in question within 30 days, and forward all the relevant data you provide about the inaccuracy to the organization that provided the information. If the information provider finds the disputed information is inaccurate, it must notify all three nationwide credit reporting companies so they can correct the information in your file.  

3. Bury the Bad with the Good

The best way to improve your score is to have good behavior reported every month. Picture it as burying negative information under a mountain of positive credit information.

Keep existing accounts current. Continue to pay whatever account has the most positive information. Use less than 10% of your total available credit limit and pay your balance in full and on time each month.

Keep accounts out of collections. You may have missed a few payments on a credit card, but there is still time to stop the damage before it gets worse. Work to pay back late payments before the item goes into collections. Once these accounts are current, they will start to work positively toward your score.

Work on paying down your debt aggressively. If you’re constantly maxing out your credit cards, your score will likely never improve. Use a strategy like the debt snowball or avalanche to whittle away your debt over time.

If you are rebuilding your credit, consider taking out a secured credit card to add positive information into your report.

4. Monitor Your Score
You should monitor your score to stay on top of it. You can do this for free with a service like Credit Karma, which gives you access to two out of three credit reports. Alternatively, you can pay a fee for services that provide daily three-bureau credit monitoring, resolution assistance if your identity is stolen, and insurance if you have to engage in a legal battle.

Going forward, take care to avoid taking on more debt than you can handle, and implement a strategy to pay down your debt quickly. When you make positive changes, your credit score will improve. Within a few years, you’re likely to have good credit again.