Top 7 Benefits Articles for 2018

Stephen Miller, CEBS By Stephen Miller, CEBS December 14, 2018
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As the year winds down, here's a look back at some of SHRM Online's most-read articles about employee benefits this year, describing developments and trends that will have continuing impact in 2019.

1. IRS Allows 401(k) Match for Student Loan Repayments

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In August, the IRS published a private letter ruling that approved Abbott Laboratories' innovative plan to make special 401(k) contributions into the accounts of employees who are repaying student loans. At Abbott, a research company based in Lake Bluff, Ill., full- and part-time employees who qualify for the company's 401(k) and who contribute 2 percent of their eligible pay toward their student loans through payroll deductions receive an employer match deposited into their 401(k) equal to 5 percent of their pay—the same percentage match Abbott gives to employees who contribute 2 percent to their 401(k)s. Program participants receive the match without being required to make any 401(k) contributions of their own, allowing them to use more of their earnings to pay off student debt.

Some employers are waiting for the IRS to issue follow-up and generally applicable guidance before adopting an approach like Abbott's.

2. 'Pawternity' Leave Acknowledges Pet Owners' Needs

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Millennials are now the primary pet-owning generation, slightly edging out Baby Boomers, according to the American Pet Products Association, and they're looking for acknowledgment from employers of the important role of pets in their lives. That acknowledgment can take different forms, such as allowing pets in the workplace, offering pet health insurance, and, increasingly, providing time off to take a pet to the vet and for pet bereavement leave.

At AE Home Group, a Baltimore-based real estate agency, "Whenever an agent gets a dog, it's like we're gaining a new team member. We'll lower that agent's client load for the month and encourage them to get involved with local dog-training groups and organizations," said Jeff Miller, a realtor for the company.

3. Welcome, Generation Z: Here's Your Benefits Package

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Employers have spent the past several years trying to understand and design employee benefits programs that will entice and motivate the Millennial generation, born from about 1980 through 1994. But now, as members of Generation Z graduate from college, employers will need to provide the support, freedom and flexibility these younger workers seek.

Job rotation programs within the organization, for instance, are likely to appeal to younger workers who want help envisioning a career-advancement pathway and who value new experiences.

New graduates also are attracted to employers that place a high value on corporate citizenship. Detroit-based Ally Financial is among a growing number of employers that encourage employees to get involved in volunteer activities and provide paid time off for that purpose. "We have also designated the entire month of November as 'Giving Back Month' and provide numerous opportunities for employees to make a difference," said Kathleen Patterson, the company's chief human resources officer.

4. Phased Maternity Leave Enhances Parental Benefits

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Noodles & Co., known for serving up fast, casual pasta dishes, lets expectant mothers reduce their work hours before giving birth and then ease back in to a regular work schedule after taking maternity leave, with no reduction in pay. In addition to receiving six weeks of paid maternity leave, eligible employees can work an 80 percent schedule during the four weeks before and the four weeks after maternity leave while receiving full pay. Eligible fathers, partners and adoptive parents receive two weeks of paternity/bonding leave.

Given the trend of U.S. companies expanding parental leave benefits, more employers could copy this approach to attract and retain talent, benefits advisors said.

Most U.S. workers (58 percent) want paid family leave from their employers, including 64 percent of Millennials, according to a 2018 poll of 1,227 working U.S. adults. "It's not surprising that paid family leave is the most coveted work perk," said Michelle Jackson, assistant vice president of regional market development at benefits provider Unum, which conducted the poll in July. "A generous leave policy can lead to higher levels of employee engagement and a competitive edge to recruit and retain top talent."

[Visit SHRM's resource center for paid time off.]

5. Older Workers Find Lack of Employer Support

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Older employees, to extend their working lives and financially prepare for longer retirements, depend on their employers for help—such as by offering flexible work schedules, allowing employees to phase into retirement by reducing their work hours or letting them shift to part-time status, and providing financial counseling about retirement.

However, only 20 percent of employers offer a formal program with specific provisions for employees who want to transition into retirement, according to the nonprofit Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies' poll of more than 1,800 employers and 6,372 workers. In contrast, 47 percent of workers envision a phased transition by either reducing work hours or working in a different capacity that is less demanding or that brings greater personal satisfaction—and they're often willing to accept lower pay to do so.

"Increasingly now and in the future, the lines between employment and retirement are going to become almost imperceptible," and HR will be challenged with finding ways to respond, said Jack Towarnicky, executive director at the nonprofit Plan Sponsor Council of America.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Design an Employee Benefits Program]

6. How to Create and Manage an Effective Flexwork Policy

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As flexwork and telecommuting grow in popularity and become more customized, organizations often get creative to develop policies that will work best for them.

An organization's flexwork arrangement will depend on the nature of the business, but in all cases HR needs to develop a clear and comprehensive policy that details eligibility guidelines, expectations for how work will get done outside the office, and how flex workers should use company devices and networks so that HR protects the organization's proprietary data and intellectual property.

At Los Angeles-based Aecom, a design and construction firm, the HR and legal departments worked together to develop a flexwork policy that "decreases stressful commutes, makes people feel better about taking care of their families and doesn't cost us anything," said Sonja Glatzhofer, the firm's vice president of human resources. "As long as we are getting the productivity we want, we consider flexwork a key differentiator that leads to better engagement and retention."

7. High-Deductible Plans More Common, but So Are Choices

Ben7.jpgMore employers are offering a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) alongside traditional health plans such as preferred provider organizations, part of a trend of giving employees more choices.

For 2018, 70 percent of large employers offered at least one HDHP—either in addition to a traditional health plan (65 percent) or exclusively as a full replacement for traditional health coverage (5 percent), according to data from 540 large employers analyzed by Benefitfocus, a benefits technology and services firm.

Growth in the availability of HDHPs comes primarily among employers offering both HDHPs and traditional health plans, as full-replacement offerings have essentially remained flat since 2016, said Jeff Oldham, senior vice president for global and institutional markets at Benefitfocus, based in Charleston, S.C. "This suggests that employers recognize the need to maintain a certain degree of choice in health plans," in that different types of health plans appeal to different employees based on their individual circumstances, such as age and income, he noted.

Pairing HDHPs with health savings accounts (HSAs)—especially when the HSAs are seeded with employer contributions—prompts employees to skip unnecessary services since they can keep unspent funds. The costs savings then make necessary health services more affordable to employees, note health benefit advisors.


Related SHRM Articles:

6 Big Benefits Trends for 2019SHRM Online, January 2019

The 10 New Benefits Workers WantSHRM Online, December 2018

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