Providers and advisers for K-12 school districts had to come up with creative ways to engage employees with their retirement plans and financial wellness during the pandemic, and as the new school year starts, they are preparing again for changes.
“There was a completely disruptive environment last year, the likes of which no one had to deal with before,” says Bernie Heffernon, divisional vice president in group retirement at Equitable. “There was retooling not only from our industry, but by school systems as well.”
He says both industries have adapted and school systems regionally are taking different approaches this year—in some areas they will still have remote learning, and in some areas, it will be in person. “We want to be able to provide our products and services in the new environment in a way that’s useful for them,” Heffernon says.
As some K-12 schools have already started, many teachers and staff members are excited to get back to their natural environment, Heffernon notes. During the orientation before the start of the school year, he says he’s seeing a good amount of connection not only with school year planning but also with benefits planning.
“We’re still doing some remote education and planning, as we’re finding the majority of clients are gravitating toward a hybrid model,” Heffernon says. “When it comes to plan enrollments, however, there is a desire to have face-to-face enrollment meetings with advisers for education about plan provisions and to help set a course for them to achieve their goals.” He notes that schools are asking advisers to respect the rules for their campuses.
For ongoing services such as asset reallocations and contribution increases, K-12 school system employees are much more comfortable handling those virtually than in the past, he adds. Heffernon says one advantage of using a hybrid model is the ability to have on-site visits with employees while also being able to include partners and spouses in virtual sessions.
“Our success comes from creating a partnership [with employees] rather than being just a ‘vendor,’” Heffernon says. “I think employees are more successful when they feel we are a partner.”
Freda Lee, senior vice president, head of relationship management for AIG Retirement Services, also says she feels a sense of excitement among K-12 staff about returning to school, after the disruption caused by the pandemic. She sees it as a great opportunity to get new hires and other staff members excited about retirement planning as well, and provide them with the tools they need.
“We’ve been focused on how to make education and other resources available to plan participants whether they are returning to school in person or whether they’ll be virtual,” Lee says. “We’re also focused on making resources available to plan sponsors. It’s important to be able to offer them the tools they need to reach employees.”
Lee says that earlier in the summer, as school districts started to plan for the school year, many engaged AIG to schedule in-person meetings with employees. “We are prepared to return to in-person, but we also continue to do virtual meetings, as needs differ by district,” she says, adding that AIG provides workshops as well as individual meetings.
One of things Equitable is finding to be successful is what it calls a “virtual sit.” “We have a location on campus but are able to do virtual meetings with staff. We can meet with the math pod, the biology pod, etc.,” Heffernon explains. “We are trying to minimize disruption while maximizing effectiveness. And staff can interact with us in the way they feel comfortable.”
Lee says AIG has created microsites, websites customized for individual school districts, with all benefits information in one place. “We continue to improve digital experience, with virtual benefit fairs, animated videos and fun, quick things employees can do on their devices or online to help with financial literacy,” she says. “In addition to digital tools, we make sure we have personnel available as a resource.”
AIG has also developed a nonbranded educational toolkit for plan sponsors. “They can go to our website to find content they can use throughout the year to highlight retirement savings and other financial topics and educate employees,” Lee says.
Heffernon says education and planning should go beyond retirement plans. His firm recently did a Facebook Live panel on student loan forgiveness. The firm has also started working with a group in Florida to help make schools safe—an initiative that was sparked by the Parkland shooting. “We’re focused on providing value beyond retirement programs and planning,” he says.
Lee says one thing that is key to stress to school employees is the importance of setting aside additional savings to supplement defined benefit (DB) plan benefits.
Following the impact of the pandemic, Lee says, employees have been thinking more about saving for unexpected situations—they’re interested in hearing more about emergency savings but also about spending less. “Employers want to help with this, and 403(b) plans can offer additional savings for employees,” she says.
“To help plan sponsors in a hybrid world, we’ve been working closely to increase retirement plan participation and increase employee financial literacy,” says Lee.
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