California Employment Law
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Hello and thank you for contacting JA. My name is XXXXX XXXXX I will be answering your employment law question this evening/early morning. I am a practicing employment law attorney in CA, and my goal is to provide you with legal information and insight in to your situation. The answer to your question is simply, and unfortunately, yes. A Christian college is not obligated or obliged to offer COBRA benefits pursuant to federal and CA law. I will expand on my answer to give you some background and understanding of the law in general as it applies to religious organizations. Due to constitutional law issues, religious organizations are exempt from much of state and federal law, especially if the school, church, charity, etc., is private. It is interesting that the college offered your partner 18 months of pay and benefits, because that is the exact amount of time that COBRA benefits would have been available, were it required. Given the discriminatory reason for your partner's termination, the college was rather generous in offering 18 months of severance. Had your partner decided to pursue the college legally, the case would not have gone too far because a religious school is allowed to take adverse employment action for reasons that would be unlawful for any other business or employer. Obviously, sexual orientation is a protected class status in CA, so the religious component immunized the college from liability for its decision to terminate based on that protected class status. It appears that the college administration wanted to compensate for the unfairness of its decision by offering 18 months of salary and benefits after he gave them 25 years of tenure. The following is a synopsis of COBRA in general, and its exclusions:
-An employer with more than 20 employees must offer COBRA coverage. The employer must have over 20 employees for at least 50 business days during the last year. However, federal employees and church or religious workers/organizations do not have to be offered COBRA, or Cal-COBRA (which would extend COBRA for 18 more months, but does NOT apply to self funded or self insured plans such as the one in place at the at-issue Christian college);
-Termination or reduction in employment that result in loss of benefits are qualifying events. For a dependent covered by an employee, qualifying events are divorce, separation, loss of dependent status, Medicare eligibility of the employee, or death of the employee;
-The employer must notify the plan administrator within 30 days of the qualifying event. The plan administrator will have 14 days to send the qualified beneficiaries a COBRA notice and election form. The beneficiary has 60 days to elect COBRA coverage;
-Coverage lasts up to 18 months for termination or reduction of hours, and 36 months for all other qualifying events.
In sum, the Christian college does not have to provide COBRA benefits due to complex constitutional questions of law regarding the separation of church and state. However, the issue is relatively moot, because COBRA benefits only last for 18 months upon termination, and your partner was already given 18 months of benefits. In fact, if the college paid his full medical during this time, there was a clear advantage over COBRA, which is a terminated employee's responsibility to pay, and can become quite expensive for many people who are out of work. With respect to the college's current offer to help your partner find an individual plan, there is nothing to lose with pursuing this option. The college may have access to better plan pricing than what is available on the open market.
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