The leaders of our Wage & Hour Practice, Justin Barnes Jeffrey Brecher and Eric Magnus collaborated with us on this article.
According to reports, Kronos, the cloud-based, HR management service provider, suffered a data incident involving ransomware affecting its information systems. Kronos communicated that it discovered the incident late on Saturday, December 11, 2021, when it “became aware of unusual activity impacting UKG solutions using Kronos Private Cloud.” The company confirmed:
[T]his is a ransomware incident affecting the Kronos Private Cloud—the portion of our business where UKG Workforce Central, UKG TeleStaff, Healthcare Extensions, and Banking Scheduling Solutions are deployed. At this time, we are not aware of an impact to UKG Pro, UKG Ready, UKG Dimensions, or any other UKG products or solutions, which are housed in separate environments and not in the Kronos Private Cloud.
This incident has already impacted time management, payroll processing, and other HR-related activities of organizations using the affected services. Ransomware and similar attacks also could compromise confidential and personal information maintained on affected systems, although there is no indication of that at this point. Clearly, organizations that use these services can be affected in several ways. The FAQs below provide information on some of the key issues these organizations should be thinking about.
Isn’t this really Kronos’ problem?
This certainly is a significant issue for Kronos and, based on communications from Kronos, the company is in the process of remediating the incident and alerting its impacted customers. However, because of the nature and extent of the services Kronos provides to its customers (i.e., employers), there are several issues that HR, IT and other groups inside organizations that are customers of the affected services need to be doing. We address some of those items below.
From a communications perspective, this incident likely will receive significant news coverage, prompting questions from employees about the impact of the incident on their personal information, their schedules, their pay, etc. Employers will need to think carefully about how to respond to these inquiries, especially when there is little known at this point about the incident.
From a compliance perspective, employers should be reviewing and implementing their contingency plans depending on the scope of services received from Kronos. For example, clients using Kronos time management systems should be evaluating what measures they should be implementing to ensure their employees’ time is properly captured and paid. A company has a legal obligation to accurately track hours worked, regardless of whether their third-party vendor (like Kronos) responsible for the task can do so or not. Clients might want to institute, in the short-term, paper timekeeping and tracking systems to ensure that employees are taking appropriate breaks and being paid for all time worked. It would be especially helpful in this situation to have employees sign off that the amount of time they report and the breaks they took are accurate.
From a cybersecurity standpoint, the answer to the question of whether this is only Kronos’ problem likely is no. All 50 states, as well as certain cities and other jurisdictions, have breach notification laws. If there is a breach of security under those laws, there may be a notification obligation. The notification obligation to affected individuals largely rests with the owner of that information, which likely would be employers. We anticipate that if notification is required, Kronos may take the lead on that, although employers will want some assurances that notification will be provided in a time and manner consistent with applicable law.
What should we be doing?
There are several steps employers likely will need to take in response to this incident, not all of which are clear at this point because of what little is currently known. Still, there are some action items affected employers should be considering:
Stay informed. Closely follow the developments reported by Kronos, including coordinating with your HR and IT teams.
Consult with counsel. Experienced cybersecurity and employment counsel can help employers properly identify their obligations and coordinate with Kronos, as needed.
Communicate with employees. Maintaining accurate and consistent communications with employees is critical, especially considering a significant part of the discussions around this incident could be taking place in social media. Your employees and their representatives, where applicable, may already be aware of this incident. To be prepared to address and respond to employee concerns, organizations should consider providing an initial short summary of the incident to potentially impacted individuals as soon as possible. That communication could be expanded over time with more information as it come available, perhaps in the form of FAQs like these. Less is more on the initial communication, again, given what little is known. However, it is important to let employees know the organization is aware of the incident and actively taking steps to mitigate its effects on employees.
Review Your Kronos Services and Service Agreement. Begin evaluating the services that the organization receives from Kronos. This will help to implement contingency plans, but also to assess the nature and extent of the information that Kronos maintains on the organization’s behalf. The organization might be able to conclude early on that, while there may be impacted systems and operations, Kronos was not in possession of the kind of personal information pertaining to employees of the organization that could lead to a breach notification obligation. This information could be reassuring for employees. Also, review the services agreement between the organization and Kronos as it may include provisions that have particular relevance here. For example, the agreement may outline a process agreed to between the parties for handling data incidents like this.
Review your cyber insurance policy. It might be premature to make a claim against the organization’s cyber policy, assuming the organization has a cyber policy – an important consideration nowadays. But, key stakeholders should review the situation and discuss potential coverage options with the organization’s insurance broker and/or legal counsel. Becoming more familiar with existing cyber insurance policies and coverage is prudent as it might cover some of the costs an organization incurs in connection with incidents like this.
Evaluate vendors. What some are asking may have led to the Kronos incident is the “Log4j” vulnerability, however, that has not been confirmed at this time. Log4j is described as a Java library for logging error messages in applications. Because other vendors also may have Log4j exposure, organizations may want to use this incident as a reason to examine more closely the data privacy and security practices of other third-party vendors, regardless of whether the Log4j vulnerability was exploited here. This is particularly the case for those vendors that handle the personal information of employees and customers.
Revisit your own data security compliance measures. Organizations also should check their own systems for Log4j and other vulnerabilities and fix them as quickly as possible.
Will the state breach notification laws apply?
We do not know if there has been a “breach” at this point. This will require investigation and analysis of the incident, which we understand is underway at Kronos at this time. However, if the incident affects certain unencrypted personal information of individuals, such as names coupled with social security numbers, drivers’ license numbers, financial account numbers, medical information, biometric information or certain other data elements, state breach notification laws may apply. Organizations that utilize Kronos’ services globally must consider a broader definition of personal data, such as under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Thousands of organizations have suffered similar attacks, all of which illustrate the importance of planning for a response, not only trying to prevent one. Third party service providers play important roles for most organizations, particularly with regard to their HR systems and corresponding operations. It will take some time to work through this incident, but it should be a reminder for all affected organizations to continue to develop, refine, and practice their contingency plans.
Jackson Lewis P.C. © 2021National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 348