Tuesday, September 30, 2008

News You Can't Use:Improved benefits for the clergy ... for the first time in 500 years

No matter how good your benefits are, there's always room for improvement. But if you're a member of the clergy, such improvements were long in the making. For the first time ever, the Church of England has conceded that ministers are employed by the church and not by God.

Ministers for the Church of England will now be permitted legislation covering health & safety, the national minimum wage, paid holidays, 'whistle-blowing', anti-discrimination, paid holidays, family-friendly flexible working policies, the working time directive, and unlawful deduction of wages.

Reason #405723495723 we're glad to live in America ... and to work for a secular organization.

News You Can Use: DOL makes delinquent 5500 filing easier

Have you filed your Form 5500's yet? If not, check out the new online calculators and electronic submission forms that make "Delinquent Filer Voluntary Programs" much easier. Thank you, Department of Labor.

Thank you to SMART for the tip.

Tip of the Day: Supercharge your benefit communications during OE

You're likely in the throes of open enrollment, but that doesn't mean that last-minute improvements can't be made, particularly in the area of benefit communication.

Jennifer Benz, founder of Benz Communications, offers these five simple tips:

  • Keep it simple. If you haven’t already done so, create a one-page Enrollment “Tip Sheet” that lists what’s changing in as simple a form as possible (perhaps just a bulleted list), gives brief enrollment instructions, and tells employees and families where to go for all the details.
  • Make it personal. Resist the temptation to include figures about your total benefits spend or tell employees how many billion dollars per year bad health care decisions are costing the US. If you talk about your overall health care costs, break it down into what the company spends per employee.
  • Promote missed or under-utilized benefits. Put together a list of the five to 10 benefit plans employees aren't using enough -- health savings account, fitness benefits, voluntary insurance, hidden features of the EAP, preventive care benefits, commuter benefits, etc. -- as a one-page flyer.
  • Talk to your employees and let your employees talk. Debating whether or not to schedule enrollment meetings? In-person meetings are always worth the effort. Employees will appreciate being reached out to and given an opportunity to ask questions. Can’t make it to all of your locations? Hold virtual meetings or conference calls. Post the recording online for employees who can’t make it.
    • Or, start a benefits blog and ask employees to give feedback and ask questions via the comments section. You don’t have to be prolific, just a post a week during enrollment season will be of huge value to employees.
  • Get managers in the game.
    Chances are your employees are talking to their managers at least once a week, maybe several times a day. Get “the boss” in the game and give managers the tools and incentive to talk to their employees about benefits. Make sure your managers know benefits are an essential part of motivating their team. Often they just don’t know what to say or how to say it, so give your managers talking points and a quick run-down on why it matters.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tip of the Day

HR nonprofit firm Capital Associated Industries recently picked the brain of Brandon Dempsey, vice-president of Suite Commute, LLC, a company that aids employers in implementing telework programs. Dempsey, who is a speaker at an upcoming CAI training event on telework, laid out five mistakes employers often make with telework programs:
1. Lacking concrete policies.
2. Overinvesting in technology.
3. Failing to train managers.
4. Lacking an implementation strategy.
5. Overlooking a pilot program.

For more on do's and don'ts of telework, read these four recent EBN/Daily Diversion articles. (1,2,3,4)

News You Can Use: One HSA myth debunked, survey finds

Although it’s long been said HSAs only appeal to the healthy and wealthy, a recent survey from UnitedHealthcare finds that HSA enrollment rates are highest (74%) among employees of small businesses (one to 99 employees) and lower-income individuals (64%).

“This latest research affirms our belief that Health Savings Accounts have broad appeal for many health care consumers, regardless of income, age or employer environment,” says Meredith Baratz, vice president of market solutions at UnitedHealthcare.

Although the survey results create doubt about one HSA truism, they appear to have confirmed another: that employer funding is the key to spurring HSA enrollment. About two-thirds of employers provide funding to HSAs, UnitedHealthcare finds. Regardless of funding level, when an employer contributed to the HSA, 86% of consumers opened an account, compared with only 27% when the employer did not.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tip of the Day: Take a lunch break - it's good for you

The average executive/manager lunch hour is a mere 35 minutes long, compared with 42 minutes in 2003, states new research from Office Team. On average, people work through lunch three days per week.

But breaks in general are important. Consider these tips from Office Team on how to effectively manage your time out:

  • Plan your day. Schedule your break to fall between projects, if possible, and set morning deadlines for important tasks so you can relax over lunch.
  • Schedule lunch with colleagues. During a busy period, change a team meeting to a working lunch outside the office. The time away will improve your energy while maintaining productivity.
  • Book an appointment. Block off your online calendar so coworkers don't schedule calls or meetings during that time. Be flexible, though, if there are no other options.
  • Step away from the desk. If you are unable to leave your building for lunch, take a walk around the office. If possible, eat in the lunch room or break area with colleagues.
  • Put work aside. If you have to be near your computer or phone, face your chair away and do a nonwork activity, such as reading a newspaper or magazine.

Wish You Were Here: Harris Teeter gets tough for top-notch benefit communication

When Harris Teeter, a 175 store, 20,000 employee grocery chain in the southeastern United States, was charged with revamping their existing benefit communications, benefit manager Kerri Simmons turned to an innovative telephonic system to put into practice the principal that people learn best when they listen and participate at the same time.

In 2005-2006, Simmons says that they were offering a great benefit package but not engaging employees because many didn’t understand their packages. The paper-based system was a nightmare for HR, who keyed in as many as 6,500 different paper enrollment choices each year.

Simmons knew there was a better way – she wanted real-time tracking of employee issues, a streamlined enrollment process, and sought a way to engage her employee population at the same time. Hopefully, this would control costs, streamline the HR function, and show a rise in voluntary benefit offerings as well.

After extensive research, Simmons turned to a telephonic based benefits enrollment company that would allow her employees to call in on their own time to walk through benefit enrollments. Extensive mailings notified employees that enrollment for 2006 was mandatory even if they already were receiving company benefits. Every employee was given a paper enrollment booklet, which walked, screen-by-screen, though their enrollment processes. Fill-in-the-blank style, a specially trained telephone coach would walk employees through the benefit selection process, stopping to offer cost comparisons, benefit explanations, and even discuss plan options for each participant.

Over 95% of employees participated through call-ins during the first year, and the additional 5% were targeted though a “if you don’t call us, we call you” backup plan.

In the first year, Harris Teeter saw a 39% enrollment in voluntary benefits and reduced turnover to seven percent.

When asked what the biggest benefits were, Simmons had three simple words- “Cost savings. Huge.” But the biggest benefit of all, she says, was the lack of “noise in January.” Employees finally understood their benefits and fully began to appreciate the package Harris Teeter offered. “It’s amazing how many employees didn’t know we had a company life insurance policy,” she says. “We were heroes after that.”

For more information on Harris Teeter’s policies, look for the Benefits Communication feature in the November 1 issue of Employee Benefit News.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Tip of the Day

Amid the rubble that once was Wall Street, and in the face of possibly still more financial giant collapses, EBN is taking the opportunity to remind employers to educate employees about the importance of diversifying their retirement investments and against putting all of their retirement eggs in one company-stock basket.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

News You Can Use: Rx home delivery shows cost savings; generic uptick

Employees are more likely to take medications as directed and to choose generic products when they use home delivery versus a retail pharmacy, states new research from Express Scripts.

The study shows 78.6% compliance for home delivery, versus 70.8% compliance for retail pharmacies. Patients were 34% more likely to choose a generic with home delivery.

Home pharmacies may encourage better adherence because of less frequent re-ordering and e-mail or phone reminders when a prescription is running low.

"Billions in savings are at stake when you account for a similar impact in other therapy classes," says Emily Cox, Ph.D, study author and Express Scripts research leader.

Scone: Single women’s retirement future slipping away

Although no one is saving well for retirement, a new study from Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies reveals that single women are particularly vulnerable.

It is a group that employers will need to plug into specifically for retirement communications, as research shows the majority of adult women are now single (51% were living without a spouse in 2005), and 10.4 million are single mothers.

Transamerica finds the amount single women say they will need to save for retirement ranges from less than $100,000 to $2 million, with the median being $500,000. However, 60% guessed at that number, while only 6% used a retirement calculator or spoke to a financial advisor. The study also finds that more than one-fifth of single women (21%) didn’t start saving for retirement until age 40 or later, and that the median contribution rate is 6% across all age groups.

These are scary statistics that employers must pay attention to. These women have only themselves to rely on financially, and many are caring for children on their own. Plus, research shows that even if they do ultimately marry/remarry, they likely will outlive their spouse.

With that in mind, I encourage employers to take cues from some school educators that are separating children into boys and girls classrooms. Studies show that both groups fare much better in same-sex environments, for multiple reasons, and I think the same could be true of men and women when it comes to retirement education.

Granted, the tools and techniques for saving and investing adequately are the same, regardless of gender. However, how those techniques are learned may very well be gender-specific, and perhaps all employees might benefit from separate messaging. Clearly, gender-neutral education and communication hasn’t worked very effectively. Let’s give something new a shot.

Tip of the Day: Engage new hires through effective onboarding

A Tuesday afternoon session at Benefits Forum and Expo offered an exclusive glimpse at a case study that showed how onboarding techniques can work to engage new workers. Hannaford Brothers, a 27,000 employee grocery chain in the Northeast, offered this checklist of things to consider when designing your own corporate program:

  • How high-tech or low-tech do you want to go/ are you able to go effectively?
  • What should be high touch, and what should be low-touch?
  • Will you offer pre-start remote access to computers?
  • What systems, forms, and processes will be a part of the new hire process?
  • How will content management be addressed?
  • What steps and processes will you track (to determine ROI)?
  • How does your multi-generational workforce impact plans? What will you do differently for workers of different ages and levels?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

News You Can't Use: Disability and Return to Work

Did you know that small and medium businesses have the same instance of behavioral health disability claims as their bigger counterparts, but significantly lower return-to-work rates?

According to new data from Unum presented in a Tuesday session at Benefits Forum and Expo, 34% of short term disability claims were from companies with under 250 employees. A similar percentage, 39%, were from companies with over 2,000 employees. However, return to work rates among small businesses were among the lowest, due to lower incidences of in-house behavioral management programs and EAPs at small to medium businesses, says Kenneth Mitchell, VP of health and productivity for Unum.

News You Can Use: National Work and Family Month introduced in House

Congress has introduced a resolution (H. Res 1440) to declare October "National Work and Family Month." The bill is sponsored by Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Todd Russell Platts (R., Pa.) and hopes to raise awareness among employers about the importance of establishing a business case for work-life balance.

Overheard At: BFE attendees voice frustrations, solutions regarding employee engagement

The following are comments from Benefits Forum & Expo attendees at a peer networking session for large employers (more than 1,000 employees):

"It doesn't matter how many times you e-mail them [benefits communications], they don't read it."

"I can talk to them about benefits until I'm blue in the face, but if information comes from one of their coworkers, that's when they listen."

"We stopped using smaller incentives -- $50, $100 -- and instead just focused on one big-ticket item, a car. Seeing that clicked with employees, and we ended up spending the same amount that we would have spent on a bunch of smaller cash incentives."

Scone: Private citizenry gives Gingrich 'purple' appeal

Whether they were red- or blue-affiliated when they entered, attendees at Monday's Benefits Forum & Expo keynote session with former House speaker Newt Gingrich left seeing only purple. Although still a political conservative at heart, Gingrich -- who received a standing ovation -- appealed to everyone across the political spectrum with his remarks on improving U.S. health care and finances.

Among his proposals for transforming the nation's health care system, Gingrich advocates a national defense system for health records -- suggesting we apply the ATM model to health IT.

Even in foreign countries, he pointed out, "we trust the ATM system so much that you'll open your bank account across international borders, take money out in local currency when you don't know the exchange rate and not know what's left in your account afterward." He said similar infrastructure should be the backbone of a national electronic health record program.

Although speaking specifically about health care in his prepared remarks, questions from the audience predictably turned toward the current financial crisis and the proposed government bailout of the nation's banking system.

Dubbing the plan "crony capitalism," and predicting disaster if the proposal passes unedited, Gingrich said he is "deeply opposed" to the administration's proposed bailout and said other alternatives to aiding the economy -- including eliminating the mark-to-market rule and the capital gains tax, and repealing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act -- that "don't involve giving [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson $700 billion."

Veering away from the gloom and doom, Gingrich ended on an inspiring note, telling the audience they were "at the early stages of witnessing American creativity that will transform our country, and 25 years from now, we'll say, 'I knew they'd work it out.' The American people are so much more creative than their government."

I admit, I'm pretty blue-blooded (politically, not financially), and I thought he was one of the best conference speakers I've seen in a long time, if not ever. Hopefully, this write-up helped you feel like you were there and captured some of the energy in the standing-room only hall. More coverage of the session and day 2 of BFE is available at BenefitNews.com.

Tip of the Day

While not every one of your employees needs their own Facebook profile, leveraging social networking (whether online or not) can help your organization be healthier and more productive. Addressing attendees Monday at Benefits Forum & Expo, former House speaker Newt Gingrich encouraged benefit manager to emulate the Silver Sneakers program, which connects seniors to form groups to exercise together.

One particular group, he said, "saw a 61% reduction in use of depression medication. The social outlet made people happier, which made them healthier."

News You Can Use: The New CDH is "Compliance-Driven Health"

If you merged the hot topics of yesterday and today with the health care vision of tomorrow, what would you get? According to Aaron C. Davis of NextLogical Benefit Strategies, LLC, that "next big thing" is the "new" CDH, Compliance-Driven Health. In a session of the same name, Davis spoke to a full house about what this modification in health plan design will mean for both employers and employees.

In essence, Davis' plan involved encouraging health through measures like both preventive care and disease management. Plan participants were "given the rope to hang themselves." If they stayed on their medications, adhered to checkup regimes, and practiced behaviors prescribed by their doctors, co-pays and deductibles remained low. The minute compliance slacked, out-of-pocket costs were doubled.

The idea is controversial, but seems to have merit. We're curious to hear your thoughts - a November article is being planned on this topic and we're searching for employers who have tried similar steps or who think this might work for their population.

If you have comments, leave them below the article or e-mail McLean.Robbins@SourceMedia.com to be contacted for an interview.

News You Can Use: Smaller employers share what works

Benefits communication and controlling health benefit costs were top of mind among HR-benefit managers from small and mid-size businesses who attended a peer networking session at Benefits Forum & Expo on Monday.

Benefits pros from organizations ranging from 30 to 2,000 employees voiced their problems and traded solutions and tips in the lively hour-long session. Here are some of the discussion highlights and takeaways were:

• Companies that survey their employees frequently, say once a quarter, reported a higher level of employee satisfaction and engagement. Surveys also help HR to cherry pick the best benefits for their population. “We found out they value health benefits, but they value dental benefits in a whole different way,” said one manager. “We were going to cut dental, but not now.”

• Continuous communication is the key to getting employees to understand and appreciate their benefits. Many participants have a “benefit or benefit tip of the month” that’s promoted in monthly newsletters, payroll stuffers and management meetings with employees. To encourage employees to read newsletters, one pro “burys” the chance to win a free lunch within the text.

• Don’t expect employees to read benefits booklets. Utilize postcards with bullet items covering the key benefit points and “at a glance” benefit wallet cards in addition to or instead of longer communication pieces.

• Simplify the rollout of a new health plan by automatically mapping employees into the various plan choices based on their prior year’s selections. Employees were told to act only if they disagreed. Few did.

• Mail-order prescription plans are huge money savers for employers and employees. Use incentives or penalties to get employees to switch to mail order, but check state laws on the latter.

• Monitor beneficiary eligibility, even if you have to use an outside firm. One company saved $150,000 in one-year by removing non-eligible dependents from its plans—more than the cost of the data “scrub.”

Monday, September 22, 2008

Overheard At:BFE Words of Wisdom

"In other words, giving [your employees] a link to WebMD isn't going to cut it." --Aaron C. Davis, president of NextLogical Benefit Strategies.

News You Can Use: FMLA advice from the pros

Benefit managers listened with rapt attention to the morning session "Maximize the effectiveness of your in-house FMLA management program" by Linda Southard, president of Work & Well.

Most managers in the audience were on hand to learn more about administrative issues like stemming FMLA abuse. Southard presented data suggesting upwards of 40% of benefit managers experience "extreme difficulty" in administering intermittent FMLA leave. When administering this type of leave, 38% of HR professionals felt that notification time was inadequate and 28% reported tracking difficulties.

For the 40% of benefit managers out there who feel as if they've been forced to approve illegitimate claims, Southard offered a handy tip sheet. Here's her checklist of ways to leverage FMLA regulations to work to your advantage:

* Maintain a trail of documentation - this means detailed calendars of every absence and each and every request. Time on the front end can eliminate claims on the back end.
* Require paid leave substitution when applicable. If possible, Southard suggests modifying your own policies to be most strict about definitions than FMLA - in essence at times allowing for Short Term Disability when an employee would otherwise be eligible for FMLA.
* Designate a specific health care provider for FMLA concerns, and talk to those physicians about documentation requirements. In a targeted medical review, ask if the employee can perform specific job functions and be sure to clarify any inconsistencies up front.
* Insist upon FMLA recertification every 30 days, particularly for those employees from whom you suspect abuse. This is covered under provision 825.308 in the FMLA handbook. If necessary, this can be modified to require that an employee reclarify every absence if necessary. "It's a pain in the neck administratively, but it works!" says Southard.
* Get second and third opinion exams from physicians.
* Watch scheduled appointments - doctor's appointments should require no more than a three hour or half-day absence from the job, says Southard.
* Schedule periodic reviews of files for patterns of abuse, like chronic Friday absences.

For more information on FMLA issues, look for Managing Editor Leah Shepherd’s feature in the November issue of Employee Benefit News.
Overheard At:

Nicole Price, benefit manager for the National Wildlife Federation, attended the session. Here are her thoughts:
  • "It's a great overview for those who wanted to learn more about FMLA in general. I would have liked to see more information about how to handle suspected cases of abuse."
  • Nicole, a nine-year veteran of the benefits industry, says she's most looking forward to the Spy Museum event this evening, but also really enjoyed this morning's keynote address with Newt Gingrich. Check the EBN home page for details on that address.

News You Can Use: Grads’ salaries spike 7.6%

I’m not sure I understand. New graduates – who have little experience and are most likely to leave your organization after a year or two – are seeing the highest salary increases? Apparently, according to a new survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which shows starting salaries for newbies is up 7.6%. Explain this to me, please.

Tip of the Day

Giving Monday's keynote address at EBN's Benefit Forum & Expo, Newt Gingrich offered a tip that he urged attendees to take home and teach to their teams a turn of phrase that he believes can change the way they operate. "Train people to say 'Yes, if' rather than 'No, because,'" Gingrich put simply, dubbing it the art of "cheerful persistence."

"If you ask, 'Can we get pizza for lunch?' and I say, 'No, because we don't have any money,' the 'no' automatically distances me, reduces my interest and [encourages an argument]," he said. "But if you say, 'Yes, if we had money,' it instantly makes me brainstorm, rather than argue the fact that you said no."

News You Can't Use: Kondracke predicts Nov. win for Obama

Addressing attendees Sunday at EBN's 21st annual Benefits Forum & Expo, keynote speaker Morton Kondracke handicapped the 2008 presidential election.

Acknowledging that his "crystal ball has cataracts," Kondracke said that "if you put a gun to my head," Sen. Barack Obama will be victorious in November, based largely on a public appetite for new leadership.

However, Kondracke also said that the Democratic nominee still "needs to make the final sale" to the American people, and that even if he does successfully close the deal with the majority of the electorate, "there are still some voters who will not vote for a black man."

Further, he said, it remains to be seen if young, female and African American voters will truly turn out to the polls to put the Illinois senator over the top.

Overheard At: BFE speakers go off the cuff

At the 21st annual Benefits Forum & Expo, EBN's annual conference, attendees were treated to not only knowledgeable but humorous keynote addresses from Roll Call Editor Morton Kondracke and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spoke to benefits stakeholders Sunday and Monday, respectively. Among their comments:

"There's a joke about Sen. McCain being the most prepared to answer the 3 a.m. red phone call because he'll already be up going to the bathroom." "It's interesting, we have a senator from New York who was born in Illinois, and a senator from Illinois who apparently was born in a manger." -- Kondracke, on the '08 presidential race

"If you're young enough, you don't know about using an automatic teller machine, because you've never actually seen a teller." -- Gingrich, on the speed of advancing automated technology

"Prayer." -- Gingrich's answer to how to engage employees who resist corporate wellness programs.

Scone: Employers snatching 'low-hanging fruit' in health care reform effort

Greetings from National Harbor, Md., at the 21st annual Benefits Forum & Expo, where EBN opened its annual conference on a high note with Morton Kondracke, editor of Roll Call, who hasn't lost his knack for blunt honesty that he honed as a television political commentator over several decades.

Plainly calling a spade a gardening tool, Kondracke told BFE attendees on Sunday that "the world changed last week," referring to the current banking crisis and impending government bailout, which means that "$1.3 trillion we now won't get to spend on anything except bailing out the financial system."

Coincidentally, he pointed out, that $1.3 trillion is about the same amount Democratic nominee Barack Obama proposes to spend in outlays to implement his health care plan, as well as the cost to cover the high-risk insurance pool Republican nominee John McCain would create in his plan.

But the bailout of the financial markets "seriously hinders anyone doing anything about health care, no matter who the president is. Even before this crisis, health care was moving down on the American priority list, and now it's gone even further. The new fiscal reality means we're looking at something very different from what either Sen. McCain or Obama want."

Instead of sweeping new plans, Kondracke urges stakeholders to pick "low-hanging fruit," like adopting standards in health IT, advancing disease management and emphasizing preventive care -- all of which employers already are doing, to the extent that such decisions are within their control.

Despite the pretty dismal financial news and outlook for true health care reform, hearing Kondracke speak made me feel encouraged. The more immediate health care changes he advocated are ones that employers have been implementing steadily over the last decade. Currently, the majority of you have disease management programs and wellness programs stressing prevention, and are adding to them annually. You're taking on a truly difficult situation and rather than waiting on Congress to create solutions, you're creating your own.

Employers can't control Washington, but surely are taking the low-hanging lemons Kondracke pointed to and are making great lemonade. I say keep picking.

Tip of the Day: Grey's Anatomy is teaching your employees

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, McDreamy and McSteamy are reliable sources of medical information. Their new report, using Grey's Anatomy as a model, finds that viewers have dramatically increased knowledge of some basic health information after seeing it on the show - and retain the information for more than six weeks after viewing a single episode.

For tips on how to get similar levels of engagment from your employees, check out the health channel on our Web site. You'll find new information uploaded daily.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


We're Twittering away the Benefit Forum and Expo. Follow us at Twitter.com/Benefitnews to get all the details. Send us a direct message or note if you've got a specific question for a presenter.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stay tuned for live coverage of the Benefits Forum + Expo

The Daily Diversion doesn't want you to miss a single minute of the excitement at our upcoming Benefits Forum and Expo, held Sunday through Tuesday in DC's National Harbor Complex.

Check the blog regularly for:
  • Live updates from the editors
  • Conference-exclusive blogs and podcasts
  • Up-to-the-minute breaking news.
Have a special question or request? Send a note to McLean.Robbins@SourceMedia.com and we'll make sure to put up coverage of a specific session.

The full schedule is available for download here.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Wish You Were Here: Free & Clear

Today, Free & Clear has announced a new weight management program. Called Mind & Body, the program allows participants to master eight "essential practices" to help combat obesity.

The program includes telephonic and online coaching from cognitive behavioral therapists, a personalized eating program and activity plan developed by a registered dietitian, as well as access to private online modules and an online support community.

We're quite curious to see how this program takes off -- they've got all the right tools in place ... but whether or not this program keep employees engaged where others have failed remains to be seen.

Wish You Were Here:Benefits Forum + Expo

Today's "Wish You Were Here" takes a different twist. Employee Benefit News packing a bag and heading to their 21st annual conference this weekend, and we want you to come too.

If you can't actually make the trip in person, check the blog and Web site for regular coverage, as well as download our own City Guide for a personalized guide to DC from our editors. After all, there's no advice like that of a local.

Tip of the Day

Determined to spur HSA adoption come hell or high water, the government has launched a site to educate small employers about the accounts and their merits. To learn more, visit www.hsa.gov.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

News You Can Use: Easing employees’ market jitters

The market is in turmoil with no end in sight, which no doubt is raising questions and anxiety among employees.

If you don’t send routine communications to your employees (clients) on the health of your (their) retirement plan, now is a good time to consider doing so. An example of a great communications piece is an e-mail sent this week by Reliance Trust Company, a custodian to some 15,000 401(k) plans.

Entitled “A view of the current market – where we are, what we are doing and what we think,” the memo to clients and Reliance employees recaps the market situation in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, details the company’s response and offers advice to investors on what to do now.

“In a turbulent market, it’s good to periodically speak out on what’s going on and why you think it’s going on,” says Tony Greene, Reliance’s senior vice president. “The communication today directly addressed people’s biggest concern – the Lehman failure – and the global concerns people may have about general market movement. We also [underscored] that these types of times are why in good times you do balance portfolio strategies.”

While Greene acknowledges that plan sponsors’ communication philosophies differ, he sums up Reliance’s this way: “We think it’s better to tell people what’s going on, why you think it’s happening, and what the impact may be. It’s always good to communicate where you are and why decision made.”

News You Can Use: Blind leading the blind on 401(k) fees?

Hoo, boy! From the “how-can-that-be?” files, new survey results from the Spectrem Group reveal that one in 10 plan sponsors (thankfully, a minority) believe they pay no fees for their retirement plan. If plans sponsors don’t know about these fees, how can they educate investors who need desperately to discern them to secure their retirement future? I encourage the 90% of plan sponsors who know better to coach up their naïve, uninformed peers.

Tip of the Day

For hiring managers: Who needs costly background check products when there’s MySpace and Facebook? CareerBuilder finds that 22% of hiring managers use social networking sites to check up on potential employees, up from 11%; in 2006. For job hunters: Clean up your online presence; 34% of respondents say they found content or information that caused them to remove the candidate from consideration, and 24% found content that gave one candidate an edge and enforced their desire to hire the person.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

News You Can Use: Working conditions affect mental state

Guess what? Poor working conditions are bound to adversely impact your mental state and health, shows new data in a report from the World Health Organization.

All the more reason to petition for a four-day work week ... more time out of the office = less stress and better overall health. Tune in to this week's Friday Fray to figure out how.

News You Can Use: Best of both worlds key to health reform

The latest issue of Health Affairs features an article that the key to reforming the nation’s health care system is not a red solution or blue solution, but rather a purple solution that blends the best components of Barack Obama’s and John McCain’s proposals. Read the full article here (as well as separate articles featuring detailed breakdowns of the McCain and Obama plans). I don’t generally recommend journal articles, but these three make for a truly interesting read on a topic we could all stand to learn a lot more about.

Tip of the Day

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has released a new guide for employers on applying Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In other ADA news, the Senate recently passed amendments to the law, designed to counter Supreme Court decisions that ruled that people with certain ailments were not ADA protected because their conditions could be aided with medication use of a prosthesis.

Scone: Trust issues limit employees’ HR interactions to transactional

Two surveys out this week show HR/benefits managers have some PR work to do among employees at their companies.

First, the Opinion Research Corporation finds Americans are more likely to go to a friend or colleague than HR about an issue at work. Most (66%) would, understandably, speak to their manager about a problem. But the stats become cringe-worthy when you consider that 39% prefer to turn to friends and less than one-quarter (22%) would go to their HR department for help.

Worse, 26% of workers surveyed doubt HR’s commitment to keep details confidential. Where did employees get the idea that HR/benefits pros are a bunch of blabbermouths? Perhaps somewhere in your efforts to become a strategic business partner and aligning the benefits function with corporate interests, employees began to believe that your job was to help the company, not them. Just my two cents.

Whatever the reasons behind the distrust, for now at least, it seems employees would prefer to keep the HR-employee relationship a transactional one. And even in this regard, it looks like benefits pros have some work to do. Although MetLife reports that HR is the number one source consulted for advice during open enrollment, 51% of employees say they didn’t get the resources they needed to make informed benefits elections.

Many employees said they felt either confused (25%) or frustrated (24%) while selecting their benefits, leading three-quarters of employees to make no changes – surprising, given that 44% experienced a major life event, such as a divorce, having a baby, buying a home or getting married.

MetLife offers several tips for employers on improving benefits communication and guidance, and a new tool to simplify the enrollment process. However, in my view, employers can improve employees’ understanding and perceived value of your company’s benefits and the HR/benefits function without spending anything. Just talk to your workers. That’s it. Face-to-face, and answer their questions individually. Why this idea has become a novel one, I’ll never know.

I know that you’re busy, and self-service tools make your job easier. And I know you’ve read surveys that show employees want more benefits information available to them online. But when it comes to confusing financial decisions, people want to talk to another human being. It’s why in a world that’s almost completely automated, people will call a customer service line and press countless buttons just to get to a live voice.

Yet strangely, MetLife finds only 30% of employers conduct enrollment meetings/seminars. If you want employees to be responsible stewards of their health care and other benefits dollars and decisions, you have to show them how. In person.

For employers to be successful, both the trust and education issues must be addressed. As Wheatley says, “The critical role HR plays within an organization should not be underestimated, as the success of any enterprise depends significantly on the extent to which its workforce is engaged with and dedicated to its mission.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tip of the Day

Attention DB plan sponsors: Do your homework on hedge funds. The Government Accountability Office last week called on the Department of Labor to provide more uniform guidance on the quasi-asset class, now increasingly used to juice pension plan returns.

“The lack of uniformity among hedge funds and private equity funds is itself an important issue to convey to fiduciaries, and highlights the need for an extensive due diligence process preceding any investment,” GAO wrote in a letter to Labor. For more on hedge funds, and other alternative DB investments, read these articles in the September issues of EBN.

News You Can Use: Breaking the salary talk taboo

Should salaries be public? The issue won’t be moot, if a new Web site has its way.

While salary ranges have been available for some time on the Internet, Glassdoor.com, launched in June, now makes it possible for employees to post their salaries for the world to see. The site lists some 88,000 salaries at 11,000 companies in 90 countries, according to an article in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor.

It's a level of transparency that hasn't existed before, so it's initially uncomfortable," Robert Hohman, CEO of Glassdoor, told the Monitor. "But it's empowering. Being paid fairly for our work affects us emotionally, and having that income affects our life.”

Some companies already make employee salaries public. Is this the way to ensure fairness in the workplace? Does salary transparency serve as an incentive because people must live up to their level? Or does it only breed discontent? There often are other components to compensation; should they, too, be public?

Tell us what you think!

Monday, September 15, 2008

News You Can Use: On-site health clinics are a hit among employees

Just one in five large and mid-size companies offer an onsite health program, states new research by Hewitt Associates -- but that doesn't mean it isn't a popular benefit. Eighty one percent of companies offering onsite clinics (and 95% with onsite pharmacies) are satisfied with the results.

According to the survey, 25% of employees have used onsite medical care and 50% have used onsite pharmacies.

"While onsite health care programs have been slow to catch on with employers—likely due to the complexities involved in offering them—they are attractive to employees because of their convenience and the level of personal interaction they provide," says Marie Kobos, leader of Hewitt's Health and Productivity Solutions group.

New s You Can Use: Want a bigger salary? Consider IT.

Despite the lagging job market, IT salaries are on the rise. BenefitNews.com Site Director Lynn Gresham explores this topic in today's Web Exclusive.

Overheard At: Even more podcast content with our September 15 issue!

September is jam-packed with great new online content. For our second issue this month, there will be even more of the audio-only content you've grown to know and love. Access us on the web at ebn.podhoster.com.

If you're new to the series, Here's the low-down: each month, EBN editors will interview readers like yourself and other benefit experts for a brief glimpse into benefit challenges, success stories and tips to improve your business.

Many podcasts will correspond with articles in that month's issue, and some will accompany online-only content.

Here are some highlights:

Don't forget to look for our October podcasts, coming in only two weeks!

Want to be interviewed for a potential podcast or give feedback? E-mail Editor in Chief Kelley Butler, kelley.butler@sourcemedia.com , with suggestions.

EBN's "Five Minutes With..." series is brought to you by Universal American, Experts in Retiree Group Healthcare Plans.

Friday, September 12, 2008

News You Can Use: Buck, Mercer disagree on 2009 premium raises

Two studies on the same topic from consulting groups Buck and Mercer have benefit managers scratching their heads.

Mercer says premium raises will be the lowest in a decade, around 5.7%, while Buck predicts double-digit increases yet again, somewhere in the range of 10-11%.

We'll see how this one shakes out, but in the meantime, let's prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Tip of the Day: Don't forget to file your 5500's

We won't print the whole phrase, but the idea that you're only screwing yourself when you procrastinate is certainly true for employers waiting until the last minute to file Form 5500's. The deadline (Wednesday, October 15) is fast approaching and employers will face penalties of up to $1,100 per day if forms aren't ready on time.

Thanks to SMART Business Advisory and Consulting for the heads up. Click the link for more information about whether your business needs to file a form.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Scone: Reflecting on 9/11

Although it's clearly not the breakfast hour, it took me some time to get my thoughts together today.

I get chills every time I look at the calendar and remember -- each time, with full force -- the sadness and fear I felt that day. I recall wondering, like we all did: How? Why? What next? And thinking, like we all did, that nothing would ever be the same.

Over the weeks that followed, I remember seeing how our shared tragedy and grief brought out the best we all had to offer. As sad as it is to think of that day, I feel proud of the strength of resolve and unity of purpose it yielded. To share a little of that pride with you, here's a 2002 EBN article about how one company helped heal its employees in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Tip of the Day

The Securities and Exchange Commission offers a brief tip sheet on its Web site to address information employees should know before using a 401(k) debit card. Just another tool in plan sponsors' arsenal on this issue.

News You Can't Use: Who would you ask to fund your health care expenses?

New research from Guardian shows strong generational differences among respondents asked where they would find funds to cover out-of-pocket expenses not covered by medical or disability. Younger employees, true to stereotypes, are most likely to turn to friends and family, while Baby Boomers are most likely to dig in to savings.

What would you do?

18 to 24
25 to 34
35 to 44
45 to 54
55 to 64
2nd Mortgage
Credit Cards
Other Sources
Source: Guardian Life Insurance

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

News You Can Use: Guardian looks for benefits bounce from Mia Hamm

The carrier's got a new marketing video featuring Mia Hamm. It seems to do a pretty good job broadly outlining the value of employee benefits, stressing the fact that workers need to slow down and take a little time when they're considering their options. I heard about this celebrity pairing just before I learned Seinfeld's J. Peterman himself is going to be at our show in Washington D.C. (just across the river in Md. actually) later this month. He's working with HM Insurance Group. I'm all for the employee benefits profession raising its marketing game, but are celebrity ads and other such efforts the way to go? Follow the links, taking a look at the video and O'Hurley's site for HM and then come back here and share your thoughts.

Tip of the Day

A study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity reveals that 67% of companies anticipate an increased need for virtual teams in the near future to adapt to the greater number of employees that telework. See recent EBN coverage for more information about keeping your team connected virtually and managing an effective telework policy.

News You Can't Use: AARP partners with Disney

Despite assurances that Walt Disney World/Land is the "happiest place on earth," we were pretty sure it was designed to be a kid-centric place.

Apparently, we were wrong.

AARP announced yesterday a partnership with the company that would allow special discounts and promotions for members, including unique AARP experiences at the Epcot Food & Wine Festival and special merchandise at DisneyShopping.com.

Now all we need is Mickey to take up the 401(k) mantle and start preaching retirement education to kids ... after all, an early start is recommended!

News You Can Use: Digging up dirt on candidates? You're not the only one.

One in five employers use social networking sites to find information on potential new hires, says a new survey from CareerBuilder.com. Twenty-two percent of employers screened candidates in 2007, up from just 11% in 2006. An additional nine percent plan to start soon.

Perhaps what's more frightening is that 34% of hiring managers found something in a social networking site that caused them to remove a candidate from consideration.

Top reasons included:
  1. Information about drinking or using drugs (41%)
  2. Provocative or inappropriate photographs (40%)
  3. Lied about qualifications (27%)
  4. Candidate used discriminatory remarks about race, gender, ect. (22%)
  5. Candidate's screen name was unprofessional (22%)
  6. Links to criminal behavior (21%)
However, there may be an upside. One in four, or 24%, of hiring managers found something in a social networking site that supported a potential hire's candidacy.

Top factors included:
  1. Background supports qualifications for job (48%)
  2. Candidate's site conveyed professional image (36%)
  3. Candidate had great references posted by others (31%)
  4. Profile showed creativity (24%)

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Tip of the Day

Getting in the know about executive compensation is the best way to hold your CFO’s ear, author Bruce Ellig says. Read his tips for becoming a ‘walking fount of knowledge’ on exec comp in the Sept. 1 EBN.

Monday, September 8, 2008

News You Can Use: Misery index up ... so keep the low-cost benefits coming

I've heard of unemployment numbers, costs being "indexed" for inflation, and even poll's predictions for America's happiness or unhappiness at any given time, but apparently a misery index exists as well.

According to new data from the Campaign for America's Future, new jobless numbers are at a five-year high (6.1%) and the misery index is hovering at 11.7%, the highest since 1991 and the first time in double digits (as of June 2008) since 1993.

"Honest people who work hard for a living are struggling to make ends meet," said Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. "The misery is felt at the gas pump and the grocery store and it's getting worse, not better."

But with this September 1 article, "Being top dog doesn't have to cost a lot," you can at least help by offering your employees low-to-no-cost benefits.

News You Can Use: Ohio backs down from paid sick leave

Following aggressive opposition from employers and a lack of support from the governor, Ohioans for Healthy Families have pulled a November ballot initiative that would have allowed voters to decide whether to make the state the first to mandate paid sick leave.

The Healthy Families Act would have required employers with 25 or more workers to provide full-time workers at least seven paid sick days each year. Part-time workers would have received a prorated benefit as well. However, employer groups launched a major offensive to the bill and Gov. Ted Strickland (D) said he would not support it.

According to reporting in Workforce Management, 43% of U.S. private sector workers and 42% of Ohio workers, do not have paid sick leave.

Tip of the Day

Conquered the CEBS and PHR and looking for a new designation to add to your arsenal? Consider the Certified Recognition Professional, bestowed by Recognition Professionals International to pros who are “in charge of recognition strategy — tying recognition programs to the organization’s mission — as well as program innovation, management training, communications, and events and celebrations.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

Quote of the Week

The one area that the HR people are missing the boat on is they are not sufficiently knowledgeable on executive compensation. Now here’s a real shocker: What area in HR do the top executives have the most interest in? Executive compensation –Bruce Ellig, author of “The Complete Guide to Executive Compensation.”

News You Can Use: Palin's health policy

We've already told you all about John McCain's health care policies and his views on small businesses, but what about those of his running mate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin? Check out this interesting story in today's Washington Post on Palin's health care policies.

News You Can't Use: Former EEOC Vice Chair heads to Proskauer Rose

Congratulations to Leslie Silverman, former EEOC vice chair, as she joins one of the nation's leading employment law firms as a partner. Silverman led EEOC's Systemic Task Force, which helped combat discrimination and specifically helped discrimination against workers with caregiving responsiblities.

She has a J.D. from American University and a Masters degree in labor and employment law from Georgetown University Law Center.

Tip of the Day

Is adding meditation to your company’s wellness program the way to increase employee well being and productivity? Absolutely, says author Diana Lang, who recently spoke with EBN. Read her take on how to improve your work, life and company through meditation in the Sept. 1 issue.

Scone: I left my car in San Francisco

The latest news from benefits trailblazing city San Francisco -- land of mandatory paid sick leave and allowing same-sex marriages -- is that mayor Gavin Newsom has signed into law an ordinance that requires employers to offer workers at least one of three transportation benefit options.

The law, the first of its kind nationwide and effective Sept. 22, applies to employers with more than 20 workers and who work at least 10 hours per week. Employers must:
* Allow workers to make pretax contributions for transit or carpool passes, up to $115 a month (the federal maximum allowed).
* Offer reimbursement for transit or vanpool charges.
* Provide door-to-door shuttle service at no cost to employees.

The law gives employers a break on payroll taxes and -- in the face of high gas and transit prices -- employees likely will leap for joy. It seems like a (to use the cringeworthy cliche) win-win. I especially like the door-to-door service option. Pretty sweet.

For all of the political debate about what to do about rising fuel costs -- drilling versus not, tax breaks and incentives to be green versus tax penalties for carbon emissions -- maybe we needed this crisis to spur a little ingenuity and can-do spirit. The higher costs have gone, the more employers have embraced nontraditional solutions to give workers a hand -- telework options, shorter work weeks with extended hours, gas cards, transit subsidies or discounts and incentives to purchase hybrid cars.

And while I certainly don't cheer for prices to climb any higher, I'm glad the situation has heightened employers' awareness and willingness to make employees' lives a bit easier -- something that in the current economic environment is easy for them to forget.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Wish You Were Here: Intel offers homework help for employees, kids

A wonderful resource for frustrated kids and stressed parents, a new benefit at Intel provides employees and their children access to Tutor.com, an online portal offering homework help in every subject from adjectives to algebra. Mark Dominguez, an 18-year Intel veteran and an Arizona father of four (with two still in school), says that – given the tough economic realities employers are facing – the benefit has “boosted my spirits. I think it’s very important.”

Dominguez watched his 13-year-old son, an eighth-grader, interact with the tutors online. “They weren’t solving the problems for him. They were forcing him to work through the problems. I know that when he comes out of that session, he’s not just getting the answer, he’s really understanding how to solve the problems, and that was big for me.”

Tip of the Day

Small employers take note: If you need help navigating GASB 45 requirements, a new article from Milliman offers assistance.

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News You Can Use: Answers to your burning 403(b) questions

The SPARK Institute has created a Q&A Web site for employers sponsoring 403(b)s to post technical questions about the plans, including compliance with the most recent regulations governing them.

A sample grab: What indicator should be used in the “Type of Account” field (Part II, Section A, see page 11) for a 403(b)(9) retirement income account?

I have no idea. But the folks at SPARK do. Ask away. Submit questions at data-elements.questions@sparkinstitute.org.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

News You Can Use: Benna offers past-is-prologue look at the 401(k)

In the Sept. 1 EBN, living benefits legend Ted Benna looks back at the evolution of his “baby,” the 401(k), and the outlook for the plans over the next 25 years.

People are talkin' about paid sick leave

Our recent article on paid sick leave is eliciting a firestorm of controversy and comments. What do you have to add to the mix?

Tip of the Day

In an effort to make saving for retirement seem a little less daunting, Symetra Financial has launched a new Web site, www.DontFear65.com. By focusing on empowerment rather than fear, the campaign seeks to help employers in their retirement education efforts by dispelling widely held anxieties and misperceptions about retirement.

The campaign is backed by a variety of tools and resources designed to help retirees take charge of their financial future, and also features online videos of retirees rallying fellow Americans to stand up and face retirement without fear. In one, a woman boldly declares, “We've discovered the difference between just being retired and experiencing the retirement we’ve always dreamed of!”

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Tip of the Day

Research from The Conference Board explores the concept of evidence-based human resources, the idea that talent drives performance. The New York-based organization issued a report, "Evidence-Based HR in Action" -- which studies how Hewlett-Packard, Capital One and Harvard University are using evidence-based approaches to HR to show how properly aligned HR practices help companies achieve their business performance goals.

Overheard At: September's Stupendous Podcasts

September is jam-packed with great new online content. For our first issue this month, there will be even more of the audio-only content you've grown to know and love. Access us on the web at ebn.podhoster.com.

If you're new to the series, Here's the low-down: each month, EBN editors will interview readers like yourself and other benefit experts for a brief glimpse into benefit challenges, success stories and tips to improve your business.

Many podcasts will correspond with articles in that month's issue, and some will accompany online-only content.

Here are some highlights:

Don't forget to look for our second set of podcasts this month, out September 15. If you're not already attending our annual conference, you'll find highlights of conference sessions, exclusive interviews with our BENNY winners, plus additional resources from the articles in the issue.

EBN's "Five Minutes With..." series is brought to you by MemberHealth, Experts in Retiree Group Healthcare Plans. A Universal American Company.