5 open enrollment communication strategies for your remote workforce

As the employee benefits workforce continues to stay remote in a majority of places, it's important for them to strategize their communication especially as open enrollment season is coming around the corner. Read this blog post for helpful tips.


Even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many employers to switch from a mostly onsite workforce to a remote or dispersed workforce, employers were faced with effectively and consistently communicating benefits to employees who were located in different locations, whether that meant offices in different cities or countries; work from home employees; employees working in warehouses, factories, and distribution centers; or employees working at different branches of retail or service businesses.

This communication is important because when employees are unaware of what benefits are available or don’t know how to access their benefits, utilization can drop significantly, so neither employees nor employers are getting value from the benefit offerings. In addition, when employees aren’t using or aware of their benefits, satisfaction with employers decline, which can impact both productivity and retention.

The goal is to both effectively and continuously communicate with employees and build awareness and understanding of available benefits, not just during open enrollment, but all year long. Of course, each communication strategy will be shaped by the organization’s culture, but there are several tools that employers should consider including in their benefits communication toolkit.

Diversify your benefits communication tools
Before developing your benefits communications plan, determine how employees prefer to receive this information by surveying them. In most organizations, there will be several different approaches that appeal to employees because of differences in employee ages, locations (office vs. warehouse or delivery truck), and comfort level with technology.

In the past, standard benefits communications were printed materials that were either distributed at work or mailed home. And while this tool is still effective and gives employees something they can use as a reference throughout the year, there are several other tools that employers should consider using to reach their diverse employee audiences.

Dedicated benefits websites and/or mobile apps broaden access to information
Unlike printed materials, with an online benefits site and mobile app employees can access the content wherever they are, whenever they want, and employers can update the information frequently without incurring printing costs. The site can also serve as a convenient way for employees to ask benefits questions, which can be answered by email from an HR team member, a benefits vendor’s support team or for simple, frequently asked questions, by a chatbot.

Email or text?
Employers will most likely need to include both emails and texts in their plans, but these tools may be used in different ways and with different audiences. For example, texts are a good way to reach employees who are younger or more tech savvy as well as those who are on the road a great deal or don’t work at a desk. These messages will be shorter and will focus on prompting employees to take specific actions, such as enrolling in benefits, updating beneficiaries or submitting receipts for reimbursement under an FSA, HSA, or HRA. They can also be used to remind employees about underutilized benefits to drive participation.

Emails can communicate more detailed information and directly link employees to benefits websites and other resources. However, emails should be kept as succinct as possible to ensure that employees are not overwhelmed with information and skip reading the communication.

Open channels for two-way communication
Providing benefits information to employees is only one part of the communication equation. Employees also need frequent opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts on what they want and need from their benefits plan. That can be harder to make happen for a dispersed workforce, but video-based webinars, town hall meetings and “ask me anything” sessions with members of the benefits team can be effective approaches.

To ensure everyone has access to information regardless of location or job type there should be multiple sessions for different time zones and schedules, and the sessions should be recorded, posted on the company employee site and include the opportunity to email or text in questions for employees who cannot attend a live event.

Try out-of-the-box communication tools to engage employees
In addition to more traditional communication tools, consider trying different formats that make information more digestible and engaging, such as quizzes, polls, short videos, infographics and storytelling. The goal is to keep employees interested in what their benefits offer and what’s new to help them get the most out of their plans.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (14 September 2020) "Views 5 open enrollment communication strategies for your remote workforce" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/5-open-enrollment-communication-strategies-for-your-remote-workforce


U.S. employers eye cutting wasteful drugs worth $6 billion

A group of researchers has found that there are medications that could be less expensive alternatives that could be covered by employers based on the benefits provided to employees. Read this blog post to learn more.


A health plan covering thousands of California teachers stopped paying for a diabetes drug that cost $352 per prescription. In its place, the plan now pays less than $13.

The difference? Instead of getting a 1,000-milligram dose of metformin, members got two 500-milligram pills.

It’s just one example of what some employers call “wasteful drugs,” and a coalition of West Coast employers says there are hundreds more. At a time when U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing to trim drug costs for Medicare by tying them to prices in other countries, the coalition is on a crusade to cut company spending on drugs nationwide by simply noting the cheaper choices already available, drawing the ire of drugmakers.

A guidebook produced by the Pacific Business Group on Health and researchers from Johns Hopkins University identifies 49 medications with less expensive alternatives that could be cut from the lists of drugs covered by employers. The group has pushed its approach to large employers for two years. Now it’s focusing on mid-sized companies at conferences, with webinars and through an online Excel sheet designed to help any company identify savings.

Lauren Vela, senior director of member value at the coalition, said it all comes down to who gains in the end. “There are so many folks making so much money on the existing system that the folks who really know how the system works don’t have an interest in changing it,” Vela said by telephone.

Vela presented at three online conferences this summer, and has at least two scheduled for the early fall, she said.

The medications outlined in the guidebook accounted for more than $6 billion in U.S. retail drug spending in 2019, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from Symphony Health. Drugmakers have long been under attack for how they price medications sold in the U.S., and for their efforts to undermine rules on when their products can be sold generically for less.

On Sunday, just weeks before the presidential election, Trump announced he had signed a presidential order on the “most favored nation” plan, which would try to link Medicare Part B and Part D prices to lower prices paid by other countries. In response, groups representing drugmakers said this could hurt their ability to find and test for new medications, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s action took “no real action” to lower prices.

Researchers aligned with the Pacific Business Group, meanwhile, have analyzed six months of drug use and more than 2.5 million scripts for 15 large self-insured companies. They found that 6% of all claims were for what the report termed “wasteful drugs.”

In the case of just one, the leukemia drug Gleevec, use of generic imatinib could cut the average wholesale price 96%, a savings of $108.28 per pill, according to the report. The group says hundreds of other drugs could be replaced similarly.

“Generic drugs are an important part of the full spectrum of health-care solutions,” said Julie Masow, a spokeswoman for Novartis, the Swiss-based maker of Gleevec.

But the drug, which lost patent protection in the U.S. in 2016, “will remain on the U.S. market to maximize choice for health-care professionals and patients,” Masow said, “and Novartis plans to continue financial support for eligible patients.”

The Pacific Business Group also calls out therapies that combine two existing, cheaper pills into a more expensive single dose. And they urge removing pricey drugs that offer only small changes for the consumer, such as certain extended-release formulations or different dosage concentrations.

Drugmaker pushback
While the Pacific Business Group’s guidebook is gaining support among companies, PBMs — which administer drug plans — and pharmaceutical companies are pushing back.

Drugmakers are taking issue with characterizing drugs as “wasteful.”

“Decision-making power on what medicines patients should take should rest with doctors,” Katie Koziara, a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said in an email.

Koziara said her group favors reforming the rebate system “to help correct PBMs and payers’ misaligned incentives,” boost transparency and share rebates directly with patients.

A trade group for PBMs, meanwhile, disputed the Pacific Business Group’s guidebook, saying it was based on limited data.

Greg Lopes, a spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, called the reports “dated” and said, “PBMs are the only entity in the supply chain reducing drug costs for consumers.”

Pharmacy benefit managers negotiate with drug manufacturers on behalf of employers, determining which drugs should be covered. But the employers say that the way PBMs’ services are sold makes it tough to tell whether they’re really saving money.

PBMs and consultants will typically present a spreadsheet that shows administrative fees, discount off-list prices, and rebate payments. The rebates flow from drugmakers to PBMs and ultimately back to plan sponsors, like employers or unions.

But Vela says employers often can’t easily tell if PBMs retain a portion of the rebates or other payments that incentivize them to keep expensive drugs on the formulary. “You’re hiring an entity to negotiate on your behalf, and the party with whom they’re negotiating is giving them money you don’t know about,” Vela said.

As the PBM business model has come under more scrutiny, benefit managers have pledged to be more transparent with rebates and pass them back to employers.

After recent mergers, the three largest PBMs are now part of companies that also own health insurers, pharmacies and other medical providers: UnitedHealth Group’s OptumRx; CVS Health Caremark; and Cigna Express Scripts.

None of the three leading PBMs would comment on the guidebook analysis.

The array of discounts and rebates PBMs tout to their clients often obscures the fact that employers are paying for high-priced drugs when lower-cost alternatives exist, according to Thomas Cordeiro, a co-author of the guidebook and president of consultant Integrity Pharmaceutical Advisors.

“Just because you have a high rebate doesn’t mean your cost is going to be low,” Cordeiro said.

SOURCE: Bloomberg News. (14 September 2020) "U.S. employers eye cutting wasteful drugs worth $6 billion" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/articles/u-s-employers-eye-cutting-wasteful-drugs-worth-6-billion


5 ways to prepare for open enrollment during COVID-19

As open enrollment draws near, it's time to critically prepare for it especially during the crazy time that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to many families. Read this blog post to learn more.


The COVID-19 pandemic has focused consumer attention on health care, germs and the impact a single illness can have on their lives, livelihoods and loved ones. With the fall open enrollment season just months away, you have the opportunity to think more critically about the specific plans you choose for yourself and your family, as well as any voluntary benefits that may be available to you, including childcare, elder care and critical illness. In a world where it feels like health is out of the individual’s control, we all want, at the very least, to feel control over our coverage.

As we know all too well, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to choosing and using health care benefits. The most important piece of becoming an informed health care consumer is ensuring you have access to — and understand — the benefits information you need to make smart health care choices. Here are five tips to keep in mind as you prepare for and participate in open enrollment.

1. Prepare for COVID-19 aftermath

As if dealing with the threat of the virus (or actually contracting it) wasn’t enough, consumers must consider the unexpected consequences. Quarantines, stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns have resulted in missed preventive care visits — including annual immunizations. For instance, many children will have missed their preschool vaccinations, which could result in an uptick in measles, mumps and rubella. If school is conducted virtually, the risk of catching one of these highly contagious diseases is somewhat reduced, though consumers should still proceed with caution as states reopen. In fact, with continued waves of COVID-19 expected well into the school season, you and your children may have to wait even longer to get vaccinations due to pent up demand and possible shortages.

Don’t forget that preventive care is covered by most plans at 100% in-network regardless of where that care is received. Schedule your appointments as soon as possible (and permissible in their area), and research other venues for receiving care, such as pharmacies, retail clinics and urgent care facilities. Most are equipped to provide standard vaccinations and/or routine physicals.

Unfortunately, there are also the long-term implications of COVID-19 to consider. Research suggests that there are serious health impacts that emerge in survivors of COVID-19, such as the onset of diabetes and liver, heart and lung problems. And many who were able to ride out the virus at home are finding it’s taking months, not weeks, to fully recover. As a result, you should prepare for the possibility that you, or a loved one, may be ill and possibly out of work for an extended period of time. Be sure to evaluate all of the plans and programs your employer offers to ensure your family has the financial protections you need. For some, a richer health plan with a lower deductible, voluntary plans such as critical illness or hospital indemnity insurance, and buy-up life and disability insurance may be worth investigating for the first time.

2. Re-evaluate postponed elective procedures

Many employees or their family members have postponed or skipped elective procedures — either from fear of exposure to COVID-19 at hospitals and outpatient facilities, or because their hospitals and providers cancelled such procedures to conserve resources to treat COVID-19 patients. As a result, an estimated 28.4 million elective surgeries worldwide could be canceled or postponed in 2020 due to the virus.

As hospitals reopen, it may be difficult to schedule a procedure due to scheduling requirements and pent up demand. A second opinion may be in order if your condition stabilized, improved or worsened during the delay; there may be other treatment options available.

A delay in scheduling also provides an opportunity to “shop around” for a facility that will provide needed care at an appropriate price — especially if you are choosing to go out-of-network or have a plan without a network. Researching cost is the best way to find the most affordable providers and facilities with the best quality, based on your specific needs.

Many medical plans offer second opinion and transparency services, and there are independent organizations who provide “white glove,” personalized support in these areas. Read over your enrollment materials carefully, or check your plan’s summary plan description, to see what your employer offers. If nothing is available, ask your employer to look into it, and don’t hesitate to do some research on your own. Doing so can often result in substantial cost savings, without compromising on quality of care.

3. Confirm your caregivers

Because so few elective procedures were performed during the initial phases of the pandemic, many hospitals sustained huge financial losses. As a result, many small hospitals are closing, and large hospitals are using this opportunity to purchase smaller, independent medical practices that became more financially vulnerable during the pandemic. Further, many physicians have opted to retire or close their practices in light of the drastic reductions to their income during local shutdowns.

Be sure to check up on your preferred health care providers — especially those you might not see regularly — to confirm they are still in business and still in network (if applicable). If you live in a rural area, you may have to travel farther to reach in-network facilities. If you’re currently covered by an HMO or EPO, you may want to evaluate whether that option still makes sense, if your preferred in-network providers are no longer available.

4. Look at ALL the options

Voluntary coverages — such as critical illness, hospital indemnity, buy-up disability, and supplemental life insurance — may help ease your concerns about how you will protect your and your family’s finances if you become ill. Pandemic aside, these benefits can provide a substantial safety net at a relatively low cost. Investigate your employer’s offerings — many employers are offering virtual benefit fairs where vendors can provide more information about these benefits while remaining safe from large social gatherings.

When was the last time you changed your medical plan? If you’ve been keeping the same coverage for years, it might be time to look at what else is available. Your employer may have introduced new plans, or you may find that a different plan makes more sense financially based on how often you need health care. Don’t forget — the cheapest plan isn’t always the one with the lowest premiums.

5. Uncover every resource available

Besides your health coverage (medical, dental and vision), many employers offer other plans and programs to support your health. While you’re already focused on benefits, take the time to learn about what else is available to you. These offerings may range from the previously mentioned advocacy and transparency services and voluntary benefits, to personalized, one-on-one enrollment support, to telemedicine services and an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Also, many employers made temporary or permanent plan changes to address COVID-19 regulations and concerns. Be sure to familiarize yourself with these changes — and when they might expire.

You may also want to consider setting aside funds in a health savings account or health care flexible spending account (if available). If your employer offers a wellness program, this might be an opportunity to start adopting better health habits to ensure you’re better equipped physically and mentally to deal with whatever lies ahead.

While open enrollment may seem daunting, devoting an hour or two to reviewing your plan options, the programs available to support you and your family physically, mentally and financially, and how to get the most from the coverages you do elect, can go a long way towards providing peace of mind as we face the unknowns of 2021.

SOURCE: Buckey, K. (17 August 2020) "5 ways to prepare for open enrollment during COVID-19" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.employeebenefitadviser.com/list/5-ways-to-prepare-for-open-enrollment-during-covid-19


How to Evaluate Hiring Assessments

HR professionals and managers need reliable ways to gather and evaluate various assessments. Read this blog post to learn more about how to evaluate assessments.


When faced with a hiring decision, HR professionals and managers have to consider everything they know about the applicants. But that might not be enough information to make a choice. To get more information and add objectivity to the decision-making process, many organizations use assessments.

"When these tools are used correctly, they're tremendously valuable," said Eric Sydell, Ph.D., an industrial-organizational psychologist and the chief innovation officer at Modern Hire, a hiring platform. "There's a level of objective assessment about a person that can be very predictive."

HR professionals and hiring managers don't have the ability to make accurate predictions in the same way assessments can. "Our brains don't work that way," he said.

But buyer beware, Sydell warned, "There are a lot of tools out there that sound great on the surface" but fail to deliver valid and reliable results.

Multiple Options Present Tough Choices

Ryne Sherman, chief science officer at Hogan Assessment Systems in Tulsa, Okla., said he suspects that most large corporations are probably using reliable and valid assessments, while smaller businesses may not be. Unfortunately, he said, "With this industry, there is no regulating body at all—literally anybody can make an assessment tool and start selling it with no background and no science put into it whatsoever."

Perhaps because of the open nature of the field, there are a lot of tools to choose from and many of them are complex, making the selection of one of them a potentially confusing—and even risky—decision to make.

Must-Haves for Effective Assessment Tools

Ryan Lahti, Ph.D., is an industrial-organizational psychologist and the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, a management consultancy in Newport Beach, Calif. He uses a variety of assessment tools in his work. There are many factors to be considered when evaluating an assessment tool, he said, but the three key ones are validity, reliability and the population that was used to develop it.

Validity deals with how accurately the tool measures the concepts it claims to measure. Lahti pointed to three forms of validity:

  • Content validity indicates how well the tool measures a representative sample of the subject of interest. At a minimum, he said, you want a tool that has content validity.
  • Criterion validity indicates how well the tool correlates with an established measure or outcome—for example, correlation to strong performance ratings.
  • Construct validity indicates how well the tool measures a concept or trait—for example, conscientiousness.

Reliability is a measure of how consistently the tool measures issues of interest. If you were to give the same assessment to the same candidate more than once, how similar would the results be?

Finally, the population used to develop the tool is an important consideration and should be the same as the population being assessed. "For example, you would not want a tool developed on an adolescent population to be used to assess working adults," Lahti said.

Sherman offered the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test as an example. The popular assessment tool used by organizations to screen candidates was designed for diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions, he said. That can be a risky tool to use for assessing the potential of job applicants.

What to Watch Out For

As HR leaders consider various assessment options, they need to thoroughly evaluate whether the assessments they're considering incorporate the must-haves. Look out for companies that don't publish information on validity, reliability and the population used to develop the assessment.

Some companies, Lahti said, will say that their tools are used by a lot of Fortune 500 companies.

"While this argument shows they have good sales and marketing departments, it does not prove the companies have sound assessment tools," he said.

Sy Islam, Ph.D., an associate professor at the State University of New York at Farmingdale and a vice president at Talent Metrics consulting firm in Melville, N.Y., said employers should ask test companies to show their worth. "Vendors should be able to provide you with a validity coefficient, which is a statistic—a correlation coefficient—that indicates how much predictive validity the assessment has," he said. He warned against accepting "black box" explanations like "the tool is proprietary and cannot be explained." The ability to support your assessment could become an issue if your company becomes involved in a lawsuit, he said.

"What you don't want to do is rely on high-level summary statements, marketing statements or hype that is generated by these companies," Sydell said. "There are a lot of different buzzwords and catchphrases that vendors will throw out there. It's really important to look beyond that and dig below the surface." And, while he says you don't need a Ph.D. to do that, it is a good idea to seek help from someone who is familiar with these types of assessments and can help evaluate their efficacy.

"I would strongly advise finding a local industrial and organizational psychologist who can evaluate different vendors and talk to you about best practices," Sherman said. The proper assessment and selection of candidates is just too important, and potentially risky, to cut corners.

SOURCE: Grensing-Pophal, L. (27 February 2020) "How to Evaluate Hiring Assessments" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/talent-acquisition/pages/how-to-evaluate-hiring-assessments.aspx


Supplemental Benefits With Russ Goldner

August 3, 2020

Dear Valued Client,

I hope this letter finds you well.  It has been a very interesting year to say the least.  Times are ever evolving, but our goal at Saxon remains unchanged to ensure you have the best benefit experience possible.  In working with over 600 groups, we find this comes in many forms and fashions.

The one aspect of benefits that Saxon has provided through direct to carrier relationships is the supplemental benefit arena.  Supplemental benefits are plans many folks use to help offset the cost of a major medical procedure or the recent rise of deductibles.  In response to the more frequent request for these plans, I am excited to announce Saxon has decided to step into this arena to assist our clients directly.

Russ Goldner has joined Saxon as our Director of Supplemental Benefits.  With 15 years of experience in this discipline, Russ can assist in developing a supplemental benefits program that fits the needs of your company and, most importantly, the needs of your employees.

Supplemental benefits are an excellent means of complimenting your major benefit lines because they further enhance a benefit lineup assisting in both recruiting and retention.  These lines are voluntary, allowing your employees to opt for coverage that is best for them and their families, especially in filling potential gaps in their deductible funding or costs of living while recovering from a medical malady.

Russ will be following up with you to further discuss the advantages of providing supplemental benefits to your employees.  If you want to reach out to Russ prior to, he can be reached via email at rgoldner@gosaxon.com or via phone at (513) 317-8412.

Respectfully,

Jamie Charlton


Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment


The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of helping employees maintain physical, mental and financial health, making this year's open enrollment period a critical time for employers to think about the benefits they're providing and to communicate the value of these offerings to employees.

"This is not a typical year," said Hope Manion, senior vice president for Fidelity Investments' workplace consulting division. "We cannot simply default our benefits like we may have done in previous years."

She advises employers to encourage employees to spend more time during this year's enrollment period reviewing their benefits, learning about all of their offerings and asking questions. "Given that so many have experienced financial and health crises this year, now is the time to ensure they don't overlook benefits that could impact their future health and financial well-being," she noted.

Employees Rush Through Enrollment

Nearly three-quarters of employees—73 percent—spend less than an hour, and 41 percent invest less than 30 minutes, reviewing their benefits at enrollment time, according to a March study of 1,200 U.S. consumers on behalf of life and accident insurer Colonial Life. Because the pandemic has changed the way millions of workers live and work, simply rushing through their annual benefits enrollment won't do this year.

"If this year has taught us anything, it's the importance of our health and the value in taking every opportunity to protect it," said Richard Shaffer, senior vice president of field and market development at Colonial Life. "As we head into enrollment season this fall, workers across the country need to take time to ensure they're protecting their families, finances and futures against unexpected events."

Surprisingly, those who are the least confident in their knowledge of the benefits available to them are most likely to rush through the enrollment process. Nearly 90 percent of employees who reported not understanding their benefits "at all" said they plan to spend less than an hour on enrollment this year.

"Especially in today's environment, offering benefits isn't enough," Shaffer said. "To make the investment pay off, employers must ensure employees take the time to understand, value and participate in the benefits enrollment process."

Showcasing How Benefits Are Vital

A new Fidelity report, Uncovering the Real Value of the Benefits You Offer, shows that employees are often unaware of their benefits options and frequently don't take advantage of them. The findings are from a survey of nearly 9,500 participants in Fidelity-administered benefit plans.

For instance, only 61 percent of employees could report whether telemedicine was offered to them. "In this case, if you are offering a benefit low in awareness, you may need to go back to basics and increase promotional efforts that emphasize availability, what it is, and how to use it," the report points out.

Health saving accounts (HSAs) are a different story. While 92 percent of employees surveyed knew whether an HSA was available, many chose not to opt for a high-deductible health plan (HDHP), which is a requirement to contribute to an HSA. However, 89 percent of account-holders who used an HSA reported that it had a positive effect on their lives. "In this case, awareness about availability isn't the issue, but employees may not understand the value a benefit brings," the report stated.

Approaching Open Enrollment

Fidelity's Manion suggested that open enrollment communications encourage employees to consider the following when selecting benefits for the year ahead:

  • Health insurance. Consider your finances, family health status, and preferred health care providers and hospitals when choosing health care coverage. Review deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums. To take advantage of an HSA, enroll in an HDHP.
  • HSAs and flexible spending accounts (FSAs). Take the time to learn how each of these accounts can be used, reviewing eligibility guidelines and updates to coverage, including services like telemedicine and over-the-counter medications.
  • Retirement savings. Consider increasing your 401(k) retirement savings plan contribution if the company reduced or suspended its match as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other benefits may not require an employee to enroll and so are often overlooked despite their value, Manion noted. Be sure to highlight information regarding:

  • Telemedicine. Among Fidelity clients, 76 percent saw an increase in telemedicine use since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This benefit will continue to be important, and employees should understand how it works.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs). As the pandemic caused many people to experience anxiety, mental health and counseling services, such as those offered through an EAP, saw a 39 percent increase in use. This is a benefit that is impactful to employees' overall well-being when offered.
  • Wellness programs. Wellness programs are much appreciated when used, but 30 percent of employees surveyed did not know whether their employer offered them.

With millions of employees still working at home, effective benefits communication is more challenging than ever, Colonial Life's Schaffer said. He advised business and HR leaders to "ensure they're providing opportunities for employees to learn basic information and ask questions, even in a virtual environment."

5 Questions to Kick-Start Open Enrollment Planning

For employees dealing with physical, emotional and economic setbacks due to the pandemic, "this will be the year to reevaluate insurance and financial safety nets, so keep this in mind as you communicate about medical plans, disability insurance, flexible spending accounts and other financial wellness benefits," blogged Megan Yost, vice president and engagement strategist at communications consultancy Segal Benz in San Francisco.

She advised open enrollment managers to ask themselves five questions:

  • What will make this year's open enrollment a success?
  • How will the COVID-19 pandemic impact my goals and outreach strategy?
  • What barriers could prevent my employees from taking action?
  • What might I need to do differently from last year?
  • Who do I need to include to help make open enrollment a success?

"Even if you don't have all your plan design changes finalized just yet, planning ahead can help make everything go more smoothly and minimize unnecessary stress," Yost observed. "Lay your foundation now—and fill in the details when you have them."

SOURCE: Miller, S. (10 August 2020) "Spotlight Value of Benefits Package During Open Enrollment" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/spotlight-benefits-value-during-open-enrollment.aspx


Benefits Consideration for Onboarding Furloughed and Laid Off Employees

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to create obstacles for the workplace, many professionals are still having to continue with their day-to-day work lives which include having hard discussions with furloughed and laid-off employees. Read this blog post to learn helpful tips on re-enrolling employees into their benefits.


COVID-19 continues to throw us curveballs. While some states that were continuing on their path to recovery are having to backtrack, others have managed to temporarily halt the progression of COVID-19 and are proceeding as planned.

Amidst all this uncertainty, one thing is certain: human resource professionals continue to face overwhelming obstacles. Below, we outline issues that human resource professionals are likely to face as they onboard furloughed and laid-off employees.

Onboarding Furloughed Employees

HEALTH AND WELFARE PLANS

For employees enrolled in one or more employer sponsored health and welfare plans and receiving coverage during the furlough period:

  • Payroll deductions for required employee contributions for the plan generally resume upon return from furlough, subject to any changes in employment status that may affect eligibility.
  • To the extent repayment of employee contributions advanced during the furlough period is required, consider how to collect the employee contributions (e.g., through payroll deduction or otherwise), keeping in mind state law requirements related to payroll deductions.
  • Consider the extent to which election changes may be made upon return from furlough.

For employees not enrolled in an employer-sponsored health and welfare plan during the furlough period (or enrolled in COBRA continuation coverage):

  • Determine when eligibility for the plan resumes in accordance with plan terms (e.g., immediately or after a waiting period), subject to any impact on eligibility due to changes in employment status.
  • Consider the process for enrolling employees and the extent to which election changes may be made upon return from furlough, including any HIPAA special enrollment rights.

In addition:

  • Evaluate the impact of the furlough on employees' full-time status under the Affordable Care Act's (ACA's) lookback measurement period and stability period requirements.
  • Evaluate the impact of return from furlough on participation in wellness program activities and eligibility for wellness program incentives.
  • To the extent employees will have staggered work schedules, consider entitlement to benefits based on reduced hours (full time/part time) or new job requirements and whether any plan amendments are needed.

401(K) PLANS

Generally, employee and company contributions resume upon return from furlough; however, changes in job titles or positions may affect eligibility:

  • Determine whether employee and company contributions will resume immediately upon return from furlough based on elections in place immediately before the furlough period or whether new elections will be required.
  • Determine the extent to which legally required notices relating to plan participation must be provided.
  • Address the treatment of loan repayments upon return from furlough.
  • Determine the extent to which the period of furlough must be counted for purposes of plan eligibility, vesting and the right to allocation of contributions.

PENSION PLANS

  • Consider whether changes in job titles or positions may affect eligibility for continued participation upon return from furlough.
  • Review plan terms to determine the extent to which the period of furlough must be counted for purposes of plan eligibility, vesting and benefit accrual.

OTHER BENEFITS

  • Consider the impact of return from furlough on any commuter benefits (parking and transit).
  • Consider the impact of return from furlough on vacation and holiday accrual.

Onboarding Laid-Off Employees

HEALTH AND WELFARE PLANS

  • Treat rehired employees who have been laid off as new hires who must complete new hire paperwork for health and welfare plan eligibility.
  • Consider the impact of the termination of employment and rehire on the employee's status as a full-time employee under the ACA's lookback measurement period and stability period requirements.

QUALIFIED RETIREMENT PLANS

  • Defer to plan terms and break-in-service rules for purposes of determining the impact of the layoff on plan eligibility, vesting and benefit accrual.
  • Review plan terms and procedures for enrolling rehired employees in a 401(k) plan, including application of the plan's auto-enrollment feature, if any.

SOURCE: Pepper, T. (29 July 2020) "Benefits Consideration for Onboarding Furloughed and Laid Off Employees" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/benefits/pages/benefits-consideration-for-onboarding-furloughed-and-laid-off-employees.aspx


Benefits fair cancelled? 6 strategies for remote benefits communication

Even as states begin to reopen from COVID-19-related closures and many employees return to their places of work, employers can’t rely on past approaches to communicate benefits information during open enrollment and to educate employees about their benefits. It’s unlikely that employers will be hosting large events like benefits fairs, a staple of open enrollment in past years, soon. In addition, some employees may continue to work remotely for an extended period, which means in-person benefits communication can’t be the only strategy.

Employers can consider several alternatives to craft an open enrollment and benefits education and engagement strategy that addresses these issues. For many employers, the solution will be to combine several of these approaches to ensure they are effectively communicating important benefits information and providing employees with more than one way to learn about their benefits and get answers to any questions that may arise.

Before developing a strategy, consider surveying employees to find out how they would prefer to receive information about benefits. Some people find email or printed materials effective, others prefer videos or interactive webinars, while others may be more responsive to receiving information via text message. Once you know your employees’ preferences, you can tailor your approach to increase the likelihood that your employees will use the tools you provide and have a positive experience.

  • Recast your benefits fair as a virtual event. If you want to gather employees together and explain benefit options, how the open enrollment process will work this year and provide them with the opportunity to interact with benefit vendors, you could create a virtual event modelled on the in-person benefits fair. Depending on your organization’s size, the number of employees you need to reach, and where they are located (for example office employees, warehouse or field employees, and remote employees), your approach to hosting a virtual benefits fair will vary. A growing number of IT service vendors offer virtual event planning and execution services that include setting up the technology needed to conduct the event, handling invitations and registrations of participants, working with benefits vendors to set up virtual booths and arranging educational webinars as part of the event.
  • Use your employee intranet, portal, or app. Regardless of whether you host a virtual event, you can use your employee website, portal or app and upload all the informational and educational material employees will need to make benefit choices. This approach can also include a secure portal that employees use to complete benefits forms. Another good feature to include is a chat, which can be either live chat or a chatbot, where employees can get answers to frequently asked questions and assistance with completing open enrollment forms.
  • Host webinars. Webinars not only give you the ability to communicate information about benefits, they also give employees the chance to directly ask the HR and Benefits team questions. In addition to the live webinar, you can record the event and post it on your organization’s employee site or send a link via email so that employees who were not able to attend can still hear your message firsthand.
  • Mail printed materials home. Some employees still prefer to receive benefits and enrollment information and forms in a printed format. It can provide a resource that they can easily refer back to when making their benefits sign up decision. Mailing these materials to employees’ home addresses rather than using your business address ensures that all employees, those who have returned onsite and those who are working remotely, have access to the information they need.
  • Use texts and calendar reminders. To help employees stay on top of enrollment deadlines, send text messages and add reminders to their work calendars. Text messages can also be used to send links to more in depth information resources so employees can access information when required.
  • One-on-one support is key. Employees are bound to have more complicated or confidential questions about their benefits choices, e.g. the need for information about coverage for cancer treatment or labor and delivery. Providing one-on-one phone and chat support from the HR and Benefits team gives employees a way to get answers to questions they don’t want to ask in a more public forum such as a webinar.

A benefits plan is only valuable if employees are knowledgeable about what benefits they have and how to access them. Many of these approaches can also be used on an ongoing basis to provide education on and drive engagement with benefits so employees and employers both get the most out of their plans.

SOURCE: Varn, M. (27 July 2020) "Benefits fair cancelled? 6 strategies for remote benefits communication" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.benefitnews.com/opinion/benefits-fair-cancelled-6-strategies-for-remote-benefits-communication


‘It’s a fool’s choice’ when employers ignore investments in mental health benefits

Many employers have realized that the coronavirus pandemic has effected their employee's mental health tremendously. Many are now looking into opportunities to innovate change in the way mental health is viewed. Read this blog post to learn more.


As more states reopen and the return to work process gets underway, employers are grappling with how to address the rising mental health issues that have resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Society for Human Resource Management Foundation, One Mind at Work, and Psych Hub have partnered together to launch Mental Health and Wellness in the Workplace, an initiative to engage HR professionals in education and training opportunities to lead changes in the way mental health and wellness are viewed in the workplace.

“Our focus is on helping HR professionals and managers lead positive social change in the workforce,” says Wendi Safstrom, executive director of the SHRM Foundation. “We think it's critical to help employers and employees manage significant mental health tools related to COVID-19, and even beyond as companies begin to reopen.”

Mental health has been a growing concern among workers as the pandemic has worn on. About 41% of employees feel burnt out, drained, or exhausted from their work, according to data from SHRM. Additionally, nearly one in four employees report frequently feeling down, depressed, or hopeless — yet more than one in three employees reported having done nothing to cope with these feelings.

The SHRM Foundation, One Mind and Psych Hub initiative provides employers and HR professionals with a workplace wellness resource center, as well as training resources to help them address and improve mental health issues among employees.

The training covers topics like promoting workplace wellness, managing mental health during a crisis, and becoming an “agent of change” for workplace mental health.

Providing wide-spread education on mental health ensures that the diverse needs of employees have the opportunity to be met.

“What we're saying to everyone is that you cannot be autocratic here — this is about empathy,” says Garen Staglin, chairman of OneMind and co-founder of OneMind at Work. “You can't mandate that people are going to feel okay just because you tell them it's okay.”

Each member of the alliance brings a particular expertise in their respective practice areas. The SHRM Foundation focuses on workplace social change, One Mind at Work focuses on best practices and tools for brain health in the workplace, and Psych Hub focuses on multimedia learning solutions to mental health and addiction.

The materials are available to all companies and HR professionals via the Psychhub website. Employers, HR, and staff will have access to articles and other content on a variety of mental health subjects.

Investing in this program will not only help employees as they’re struggling now, but ensure investment into their future.

“We did a study that said for every dollar you invest in accelerating workplace best practices for mental health, you'll get a $3 to $5 return in the form of lower absenteeism, improved productivity, better customer service, and lower workers comp claims,” Staglin says. “It's a fool's choice to ignore brain health and workplace mental health, because the costs are extremely high.”

SOURCE: Schiavo, A. (23 July 2020) "‘It’s a fool’s choice’ when employers ignore investments in mental health benefits" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from employeebenefitadviser.com/news/its-a-fools-choice-when-employers-ignore-invest-in-mental-health-benefits


Rethink Work-from-Home Employee Perks

Working from home has become a new normal for many employers and employees. With that being said, it may be time to rethink employee perks that expand flexibility and customize work schedules. Read this blog post to learn more.


As working from home stretches into the summer and beyond at many companies, some firms are adopting interesting, innovative incentives to maintain engagement and productivity among telecommuting employees.

Most common among such perks is the expanded flexibility for personal time off and customized work schedules. But many employers consider those options to be table stakes and are raising the ante. Perks related to food and drink, camaraderie, dress code and new technology are being introduced as HR rethinks and adjusts company culture.

"Pre-COVID, working from home was considered a top employee perk," said Cheryl Fields Tyler, CEO of San Francisco Bay-area firm Blue Beyond Consulting. "Now, it's practically considered an entitlement. And with executives [seeing] how effective their home-working employees have been during this situation, it's likely to stick around even after the recovery."

At her firm, "our teamwork has really stepped up. People are supporting each other more and finding new ways to handle responsibilities to get through this, which will be the lasting benefit of this 'change'."

At IBM, CEO Arvind Krishna created and shared a special eight-point pledge that went viral as a model for other C-suites to follow, putting a "human touch" on his entire workforce.

"With employees and companies making such strides in work-from-home execution, there's going to be a massive rethinking of just how you build culture," Fields Tyler said.

Informality Catches On

Many companies are creating clever ways to connect remote employees during and after the workday ends, usually with fun in mind.

Tampa HR consultant Michelle May Griffin, SHRM-CP, has clients who have created a virtual coffee klatsch once or twice a week, designed with an impromptu gathering-in-the-breakroom feel. "Supervisors aren't invited," she said. "Staff can come and go. It's very informal. People can eat lunch or have a cup of coffee and just talk about anything they wish."

At Centurion, a health care company based in Vienna, Va., HR created a voluntary lunch-time video meeting for employees on Zoom to talk about things other than work, said Jennifer Tyrrell, SHRM-SCP, senior director of HR. ‎

"We did one that was called 'Get Up and Move' based on fitness videos so employees could be active, but that didn't draw a huge crowd," she joked. "Others had better participation, such as 'Just Social: Brown Bag Lunch Buddies' for remote workers to take a break and have virtual lunch to catch up with co-workers, and end-of-day Friday happy hours, including one where we played Pictionary."

Griffin shared another story of a small client. On one Friday afternoon, HR reached out to all employees and took drink orders. It then set up a virtual happy hour on Zoom where employees used their drinks—that the company personally delivered to their homes—to toast another great week.

"The company did a good job, packing them in baskets with other goodies," Griffin said.

As for food, some larger companies are offering stipends for daily lunch pickups or delivery, which has become an unanticipated expense for remote employees "now that they aren't able to take advantage of full cafeterias at work every day," said Chris Hoyt, president of CareerXroads, a membership-based talent community of more than 150 companies.

Zoom Fatigue

Virtual meetings have become so common at most companies that "there is more and more talk of blocking out meetings on multiple days each week to reduce stress and prevent 'Zoom fatigue,'" Hoyt said. "For some, there are entire days where either no meetings are called, or at least none that involve a video log-in. That's a well-being perk."

As for home offices, tech equipment stipends can make work and life easier. Hoyt said one organization gave its remote employees full access to a virtual ergonomic assessment that could help determine what equipment they would need to work most productively and funded those purchases.

At Iona, a social services group in Washington, D.C., employees were provided with office furniture and computer technology delivered to their homes, with set up-help provided, said Stacey Berk, a managing consultant with Expand HR Consulting in Maryland. "They bent over backwards to help their employees," she said.

At some companies, encouragement to take a summer vacation is a well-received perk. "Having spent so much time over the past few months working from home, [employees] are pivoting to summer rentals in remote places instead of theme parks or family reunions," Berk said. "Some employers are allowing staff to extend that time away if they split their work time, and may offer to pay for Wi-Fi connections, additional temporary office resources and supermarket gift cards for these types of vacations so that they can productively work in this capacity."

Wellness Well-Done

Berk sees a trend where clients are providing wellness "relief" to their workers by having group stress-relieving exercises, guest virtual speakers or even comic relief, such as themed summer dress-up days. Hoyt agrees that wellness has become an emerging front for many HR leaders.

"Some have been pushing for the ability to incorporate ideas and strategies for years and now are realizing that the pandemic [is the final catalyst] to get initiatives off the ground and running," he said.

"Some company fitness centers are offering virtual workouts much like commercial gyms do," Hoyt added. "A few employers' in-house trainers are getting creative with programs for people who may not have equipment at home but can do workouts with whatever equipment they might have around."

Personalized mental-health care program offerings also are gaining popularity, Hoyt said, such as LyraHealth and Headspace. Both focus on mindfulness and meditation for stress, anxiety, sleep, attention and fitness and enable participants to track their progress. Other popular programs include MeQuilibrium, a well-being and performance platform that helps employees identify and manage stress; and Sleepio, a digital sleep-improvement program featuring cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

Gifted and Talented

At BHI Insurance in Newark, Del., which boasts 28 employees, HR Director Maria Clyde, SHRM-SCP, offered everyone a list of electronics to choose from as a thank-you gift for adapting well to working from home. She budgeted $40 to $60 per gift.

"We thought that was fitting since everyone who is working remotely is looking to make their lives (and their kids' lives) easier," Clyde said. "I've also seen companies providing headphones and streaming services like Netflix or Disney+ for the kids. People are getting really creative!"

Charitably conscious, Hoyt said some companies are matching or double-matching employee donations to local organizations or for anything related to front-line workers and PPE creation and distribution.

Other benefits that companies can define as perks, Berk said, are a relaxed summer dress standard and the ability to work outdoors, which shows up as an employee's background in virtual meetings. "By not having to wear a blouse or dress shirt, think of the money employees are saving in dry cleaning because they can dress casually," she said. "It's not a lot of savings, but it helps."

Giving employees a greater voice can be considered a perk for some employees. Organizations that previously conducted one employee survey a year—or even every couple of years—are now conducting them more frequently, Berk said. "This gives employees more of a chance to be heard and to have a voice in some policy decision-making, which is one perk you cannot put a price tag on."

Tyrrell said Centurion has conducted more employee surveys recently and found that 90 percent of employees expressed confidence in how the C-suite has been dealing with the crisis, while at-home distractions ranked second lowest among employee challenges.

Many companies are creating incentives for work-from-home employees to voluntarily return to the office. Campus Advantage, an owner and manager of off-campus university student housing, has 70 employees assigned to its Austin, Texas, headquarters.

"Many workers are still afraid to come back," said Angela L. Shaw, SHRM-SCP, vice president of HR. "Our office has a mojo committee that creates fun office events, and we've offered those in the office breakfasts, Taco Tuesdays and yoga classes. On average, we'll have about five employees come in. The others are happy to continue working from home."

Perks on the Chopping Block

Many companies are planning for the next wave of the coronavirus, one that is expected to hit them hard financially during the second half of 2020 and beyond, Berk said. Traditional employee perks likely will be impacted, at least for the short term.

"Expect perks like traditional staff-wide wellness benefits, such as gym memberships, discount programs and celebratory gatherings, will be cut or eliminated and replaced with more modest offerings," Berk said. "Companies are quickly adjusting forecasting and budgeting for the coming year based on the realities of the pandemic. The reimagined office layout and sanitation will be at the forefront for HR and executives, and you could see companies reducing employee benefits, eliminating increases, bonuses, education stipends and executive perks. With the post-pandemic workforce, they have to account for a big in-office sanitation budget and potential reduced profits."

SOURCE: Bergeron, P. (01 July 2020) "Rethink Work-from-Home Employee Perks" (Web Blog Post). Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/employee-relations/pages/rethink-work-from-home-employee-perks.aspx