Must we continue to offer health coverage to employees who take leave to serve in the U.S. armed forces?

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) provides certain protections for employees who must be absent from work due to uniformed service. These protections include re-employment rights, protection from discrimination and the right to the continuation of group health coverage.

Specifically, when an employee is absent due to uniformed service, the employer must satisfy USERAA obligations for continuation of group health coverage with respect to that employee. Namely, an employee who is absent from work due to uniformed service is entitled to continue his/her group health coverage for a period of 24 months.

If the leave of absence is to be 30 days or less, the employer should pay its normal share of premiums. If the leave of absence is expected to be 31 days or more, the employer isn't required to pay its normal share of premiums (not even for the first 30 days). However, the applicable premium cannot be more than 102 percent of the normal cost of coverage.

If the employer is also subject to COBRA, then a leave of absence to serve in the armed forces would likely also be considered a COBRA triggering event. So, when an employee leaves for deployment, the employer should offer the employee continued coverage under USERRA and COBRA. To that end, the COBRA election notice can be modified to include USERRA language.

Also keep in mind that if the employee returns and is rehired after his or her service, USERRA requires that the employer allow the employee to re-enter the group health plan. This is true whether the employee continued coverage under COBRA or USERRA or not.