Viewpoint: Tips for Conducting Open Enrollment During a Pandemic

There's an argument for passive-selection enrollment this year

By Jay P. Turner July 30, 2020
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Viewpoint: Tips for Conducting Open Enrollment During a Pandemic

Employee benefits are complicated. Not only is the subject matter complex, but most employees think about their benefits only once a year, during open enrollment. With a pandemic raging, employers are facing even bigger challenges related to communicating benefits information.

Here are some strategies to improve communications during open enrollment.

Electronic vs. Paper

Posting open enrollment guides and benefit notices on a company portal may be easier than distributing paper copies of these materials, but is it effective? More important, is it even legal?

The rules regarding when an employer can use electronic means to deliver benefits communications are complicated and may not allow many employers to simply e-mail open enrollment materials or post them online. The Department of Labor has provided safe harbor guidance that allows electronic delivery of retirement plan communications only for employees who regularly use a computer as part of their integral duties or for those employees who affirmatively consent to electronic delivery (and even then, employers have to provide a paper copy of the communications at the employee's request).

For many employers, distributing a paper copy of the open enrollment guide is still necessary.

In the past, most employers have relied on employees being in the workplace to distribute the guides. However, mailing open enrollment guides to employees' homes may be preferable. This is especially true considering that sometimes it's the employee's spouse who makes the benefit decisions.

Mailing open enrollment material is more expensive, but employers that have relied on handing out open enrollment guides in the workplace may have no better alternative during the pandemic than to mail guides to employees' homes.

Employers should review their communications to ensure the most concise delivery of information while still writing in a manner calculated to be understood by the average employee. Employers should be mindful that required notices will also need to be included with the materials, which will also increase mailing costs.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Minimize the Decisions Required

Employers get to choose whether they conduct a passive or active open enrollment. Active enrollments come with the message, "You must make new elections or you will lose your benefits."

Active enrollment has its advocates, but at a time when employees are already worried about keeping their jobs, employers should consider whether to further burden them with negative messaging about losing their benefits.

Consider whether to further burden employees with negative messaging about losing their benefits.

Make open enrollment easy for employees by allowing evergreen elections in your cafeteria plan and conducting a passive open enrollment. The only benefit elections that would then require your employees' attention are flexible spending account elections, which must be renewed before the beginning of every new plan year. 

Although health savings account (HSA) contribution limits are rising for 2021 and 401(k) limits are likely to go up as well—the IRS announces annual retirement plan adjustments in November—plan participants can change their 401(k) and HSA elections at any time. Employers need only make employees aware of any changes in the annual election limits.

Minimizing the decisions your employees have to make will give them peace of mind and ensure a seamless transition from one plan year to the next.

Go Virtual

Many employers rely on in-person enrollment seminars, lunch-and-learns or benefit fairs to deliver information. While it is very beneficial to meet in-person with employees to deliver this complicated content and give them the opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback, many employees are teleworking, and many states have instituted restrictions on the number of people who can gather in one location. How do we give employees the personal touch they may expect from human resources?

Consider conducting virtual benefits seminars on Webex or Zoom. Employees can meet virtually to watch slideshow presentations explaining benefits changes, hear benefits professionals explain the open enrollment process and learn what they will need to do to effect benefit changes.

An employer might consider a "benefits cafe," where employees are invited to pour themselves a cup of coffee at home and listen in on a benefits seminar discussing the changes to benefits and steps required to take advantage of the changes.

Employers should also consider setting up a channel on the messaging platform Slack, or a virtual hangout to give employees the opportunity to ask questions of the benefits team. As questions are answered, the responses would be viewable by other employees who may benefit from the insights given by the team.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Leveraging the Value of Employee Self-Service Portals]

Small Doses Are the Best Medicine

Do not wait until open enrollment to discuss benefits with employees. Employers spend large sums to purchase benefits, but if the employees are not efficiently using these benefits—and appreciating the benefits' value—the employer's investment is wasted.

Adopt a strategy of regularly discussing benefits with employees, whether through a benefits newsletter or regularly scheduled benefits meetings. A steady drip of benefits information keeps these offerings front of mind for employees and helps them understand and use their benefits.

One effective way of delivering small, concentrated doses of benefits information is on a YouTube or Vimeo channel. By regularly posting short videos explaining benefits or changes to benefits, employers can keep employees aware of ongoing changes or enhancements to them. A short, engaging video can deliver information much more quickly and effectively than a brochure that may never make its way into the hands of the benefits decision-maker in the family.

Outsource to Enrollment Experts

Employers may consider outsourcing open enrollment communications and administration to a benefits enrollment firm, where open enrollment call centers are equipped to help employers during a pandemic.

Often, benefits enrollment firms will act as an insurance broker for the employer to offset the fees associated with providing enrollment services. With sufficient volume, the benefits enrollment firm will use commissions from the insured products sold to entirely offset the fees associated with managing open enrollment.

Plan Now for Open Enrollment

Start planning now for open enrollment. Even if the pandemic were to subside by the time open enrollment arrives, employers can still improve their employees' open enrollment experience by using some of the tactics discussed here.

Being proactive and forward-thinking will improve the employee experience and help employers realize the true value of the investment they are making in employee benefits.

Jay P. Turner, JD, is assistant city attorney for the city of Birmingham, Ala. He has 20 years of experience practicing employee benefits and executive compensation law, is nationally recognized as an expert in employee benefits, executive compensation, wellness, and HIPAA matters, and has written and spoken extensively on these topics.

[Visit SHRM's resource page on Open Enrollment.]


Related SHRM Articles:

Planning 2021 Benefits Changes for the COVID-19 Era, SHRM Online, July 2020

Prepare for Open Enrollment Challenges During a Difficult Year, SHRM Online, July 2020

Virtual Benefit Fairs Draw Interest for Fall Open Enrollment, SHRM Online, July 2020


Related SHRM Resources:

Open Enrollment Guide & Resources

[How have you adapted to the pandemic? Share your story with SHRM's Government Affairs team as they educate decision-makers on crafting policies on work, workers and the workplace.]

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