At Open Enrollment, HR Departments of One Step Up

Enrollment season puts extra pressures on one-person HR teams. But these pros rise to the challenge

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Sep 19, 2016
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As an HR department of one, "open enrollment is always an adventure and some years more so than others," said Cathy Clement, SHRM-CP.

Clement is the HR manager at Ewing-Foley Inc. (EFI) in Cupertino, Calif. The firm, with 97 employees, provides regional sales services for manufacturers without their own Western U.S. sales reps. The company's 30-day enrollment season is "basically, the month of November," she said.


Open Enrollment Season

For tips on helping employees make the best choices of benefits during open enrollment, check out the SHRM resources provided below:

· Guide to Open Enrollment
· Health Benefits Glossary of Terms · Explaining High Deductible Plans to Employees

Grace Dobson is HR manager at Montgomery Village Foundation, a nonprofit organization with 55 employees that provides services to the residents of Montgomery Village, Md., a planned community. About open enrollment, "I look forward to it, but I try to keep things under control," she said. Her enrollment season typically lasts two or three weeks, starting toward the end of November and finishing the second week of December. But the process really begins in early September, when she gets quotes from vendors to review.

Lisa Fugelo is HR manager at Orbit/FR Inc., which provides antenna services for the defense and aerospace industries, among others. She handles HR for 35 employees in the firm's Horsham, Pa., headquarters, and for 30 more workers in the firm's manufacturing facility near San Diego. Her organization doesn't use a calendar year for its benefit plans. Instead, "our plan year for both health care and ancillary benefits begins in March, so we do enrollment in February, with planning done prior to that."

Brokers and Rates

A close relationship with a benefits broker is important for all HR departments, but it's especially vital for departments of one. For instance, Clement said of her broker, "They fight for us. We get a letter in August with rate information, and then we talk and the broker goes back to the insurance carrier and says, 'Hey, come on, really? Let's work on this.' For the last couple of years, they've been able to bring it down anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent."

Her company uses a passive enrollment process that rolls over choices from the previous year. While that can ease the administrative burden, a downside is that "If we're changing insurance carriers, then it's like trying to 'round up cats' " to ensure that those who are in the plan that's being removed select a new one, Clement said.

Enrollment Systems

Dobson said she mainly uses paper forms for employee enrollment, "and I then go online and update our database. But for next year we're going to look into using an online system from our payroll vendor."

Clement's enrollment system is "basically paper, but it's doable online. [Employees] just have to print it out to sign it."

"We're old school, we do everything by paper," Fugelo said. "I collect all the forms, then scan and send them to my broker, who keys all the information into each provider portal. That saves me a lot of time."

One reason for staying with paper is that her company's manufacturing facility "has mostly hourly people who don't have access to computers on a regular basis at work."

Fugelo tracks employee benefit selections using an Excel spreadsheet, explaining, "At a small organization, you don't need an HRIS [human resource information system]; you can make do by using Excel."

Getting the Message Out

Dobson's organization offers a health plan with three levels, including a high-deductible plan with a health reimbursement arrangement (HRA) to which the employer contributes $500 for individuals and $1,000 for families. "Because people hear more often about HSAs [health savings accounts] than HRAs, I have to explain the difference between the two," she said. The foundation also offers a health care flexible spending account, along with a range of voluntary benefits through a section 125 cafeteria plan, "so that does get a little complicated."

Dobson holds two to three enrollment meetings "so people have an opportunity to come in, hear the presentation and figure out what might be best for their families. I also meet with them individually if they have any questions."

She uses a monthly online newsletter to keep employees updated and produces a printed brochure that explains different options. For the brochure, she chooses an annual theme (last year it was "Winter Wonderland") and uses the foundation's graphic designer "to make it eye-catching." She also compiles individual rate sheets "so that people can see what their options are and how much each would cost."

Clement said that about 5 to 6 weeks prior to open enrollment, "as soon as I have the renewal information and the company has decided costs, I send out an e-mail containing all of the pertinent information: These are the premium costs, these are your dates. Please put it on your calendar if you're going to make any changes." Then she sends a reminder e-mail every week, and at least three times during the final two weeks. "Each e-mail is a little different so that it hopefully doesn't get lost in the shuffle," she noted.

Last year, Clement also started a postcard campaign a month prior to open enrollment, saying "Nov. 1st is coming, be ready for it." The postcard goes to employees' homes so that a spouse or dependents "also know open enrollment is starting." This promotes conversations about benefits that otherwise might not take place. One result: "Instead of hearing from dependents just before enrollment closes or, unfortunately, just after, it brings them into the conversation earlier," she said.

A postcard campaign says, "Nov. 1st is coming, be ready for it."

Clement's broker provides the firm with an employee Guide to Your Benefits each year. "It is about 8-9 pages long and contains a short synopsis of our benefit options: medical, dental, life insurance, AD&D (accidental death and dismemberment,) and other voluntary benefits. People find this very helpful."

As required by the Affordable Care Act, Clement also makes available the Summary of Benefits provided by her insurance carriers, which can be downloaded from the firm's intranet "unless employees request a printed copy."

Fugelo works with her broker on an open enrollment packet that highlights benefit changes. During her enrollment meetings, "some of the providers will come. We switched dental and life insurance providers this year, so they came out with their own packet of materials to explain their plans and answer questions."

Like Clement, she invites spouses to attend open enrollment meetings "and to call me or the broker if they have any questions." Fugelo also provides remote employees with copies of the benefits packet/presentation, and they can phone into the meetings "so they can listen and ask questions as well."

Fugelo has two enrollment meetings, each for 15 workers at her company's headquarters. For the California facility, "We do one enrollment meeting in English and one for our Spanish-speaking employees."

Advantages and Challenges

On most days, Clement said, "I prefer being a department of one because I know what I've done and haven't done. If there's an error or mistake, it's mine. But if this happens to be a year that we're going to change carriers for our plans then, yes, I'd like to have somebody else to help me out. But normally, I can handle it on my own."

Comparing the experience at small and large organizations, Dobson noted, "I have worked for large organizations where open enrollment took months to prepare for and launch." While big organizations require more staff power to handle enrollments, "it's essentially the same process for a small organization," Dobson said. "The pressure is the same but more personal in a department of one because you are the only person handling everything. There are the same employee questions, but at a large organization the outsourcing to a [third-party administrator] reduces the number of calls" that HR has to handle.

On the other hand, there can be "less stress with a department of one because you're aware of where you are in the process," Dobson said.

Clement concurred, "Being a department of one, I know everybody. I'm the one everybody talks to. If something gets missed, it's my fault. But I don't have to worry about whether someone else on staff took care of a task that needed to get done."

"I love being a department of one," Fugelo said. "I like to stay busy, and every day is different; it's never the same"—especially during open enrollment season.

Related SHRM Articles:

Open Enrollment Tips for the Coming Season, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Open Enrollment: Help Employees Envision Their FutureSHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

Transparency, Decision Support Are Next Wave in Benefits Self-Service, SHRM Online Benefits, August 2016

SHRM Resource Page:

Guide to Benefits Open Enrollment Season, SHRM Online Benefits, September 2016

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