This Year’s Open Enrollment Season a Change for Employers and Employees

More classifications of employees, a remote work environment and employees placing a greater value on benefits means employers have more to consider for benefit offerings and communications.

It is likely that most company offices will remain closed as a result of COVID-19 this fall when open enrollment occurs, according to commentary titled “Preparing for an Unprecedented Open Enrollment” by the Chelko Consulting Group’s Center for Benefits Management.

As a result, many companies will need to hold virtual open enrollments. The Chelko Center says virtual enrollments have been on the rise for several years. “A virtual enrollment process typically includes an online enrollment platform for selecting benefits, remote meetings between employees and HR [human resources] and downloadable benefits resources,” the report says.

The center notes that with profits under pressure during the pandemic, employers have been looking for ways to cut benefits costs while looking to help their employees’ well-being, including their mental health.

Stephanie Shields, a spokesperson for Aflac, says employers are interested in offering the right benefits to their employees during the pandemic. Many are offering supplemental products such as financial wellness programs, employee assistance programs and telemedicine.

Shields notes that virtual enrollment in 2020 can also include videos and live chat sessions. But, with four generations in the workforce today, there are many enrollees who may want a personal touch, so including call centers in the mix is important.

With some employees on furlough or working reduced hours, it is important for employers to have conversations with their benefits providers about “who is covered under which plan and for what reason,” she says. It is also important for employers to figure out how to provide health coverage for anyone who contracts COVID-19 “across the spectrum, from the point of diagnosis, to potential treatment or hospitalization and care for other conditions that may exist.”

Employers are asking questions about what coverage should be provided if an employee is absent from work, as well as questions about life insurance, Shields notes.
This year, especially, Aflac is offering employers tailored benefits and customized enrollment approaches, most of which leverage technology, she says.

Because most people are continuing to work from home and virtual enrollment is the norm for 2020, it is important for employers to engage early with benefits providers to figure out an effective communication strategy, Shields says.

Determining What Benefits to Offer

Sushma Tripathi, vice president of strategic advisory services at ADP, says employers with furloughed workers are reviewing what kinds of benefits they should offer those workers. “They are making adjustments to benefits offerings due to a wide range of employee classifications this year—be they furloughed, full-time or part-time workers,” she says. “I have seen employers acting judiciously. They are carefully reviewing their plan documents and insurance contracts to assess all the various options. They are also being very careful to engage their legal and finance departments to assess all their options.”

If they make a change, they must amend their plan and educate employees about the change, Tripathi says.

Figuring out what benefits to offer “can be really complex and requires careful evaluation,” Tripathi stresses. It may require employers to enter into “negotiation with carriers, including for stop-loss coverage.” Stop-loss coverage is insurance for employers that self-fund their benefits to help cover large claims.

“Employers may need to provide coverage for certain leaves of absence,” she continues. “They must ensure that they are treating employees properly. They need to review plan terms for eligibility and enrollment criteria. If they don’t know the answer, they should talk to their carrier and legal department.”

Employers also need to consider the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [ACA] and COBRA [Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act] eligibility, she adds. “They must consider the affordability factor, nondiscrimination testing and COBRA eligibility, among other things. This needs to be evaluated carefully, as there are no quick answers.

“It is important to remember that the ACA does not limit health plan eligibility to full-time employees,” Tripathi continues. “Employers can be more generous and broaden their eligibility criteria, and I’ve seen a lot of employers consider that.”

Employees Will Be Paying More Attention

Certainly, the coronavirus has made workers more appreciative of their benefits, according to recent research. They are also more likely to spend more time evaluating what they need.

Prudential Financial conducted a survey of workers and found that nearly three-quarters, 73%, say benefits—such as income protection, disability insurance, life insurance and financial wellness tools—are a big reason they would stay at a job, up dramatically from 59% who said this a year ago. In addition, 77% said their benefits programs are a key part of their compensation, up from 67% a year ago.

Seventy-five percent agreed with the statement: “Due to the pandemic, I feel that access to benefits through an employer is now more important than ever before.”

Likewise, 75% agreed with the statement: “Given the current environment, it makes me realize that benefits are a much more important part of a job.”

Fifty-two percent said they would take a chance on a new job if it offered better benefits.