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Single vs. Married Employees' Benefits Aren't Equal

Single employees without children have caregiving responsibilities, too

A man and a woman on a balance scale.

Nearly all U.S. companies—90 percent—offer benefits of greater value to employees who are married, according to a new analysis.

Disparities between single and married employees' benefits result in significant monetary inequalities, according to a survey of 300 HR decision-makers earlier this year by Thomsons Online Benefits, a provider of employee benefits and engagement software. Disparities are most notable in benefit areas such as the following:

Subtle Discrimination

"When single people are caring for their parents and others who need their help, they do so at greater economic risk than married people," wrote social scientist Bella DePualo last year for Quartz.

She shared her experience helping her widowed mother pay her bills and noted that "other single people are providing support in other ways—for example, quietly accumulating college funds for their nieces and nephews, or welcoming them into their homes when times are tough."

Yet employers often offer married employees benefits such as family leave "that have nothing to do with job performance and that unfairly advantage married people or parents over everyone else."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]

Addressing the Benefits Gap

In 1970, only 28 percent of adults in the U.S. 18 and older were unmarried, but by 2016 nearly half (45 percent) were single. "Workplaces need to adapt to a workforce that is increasingly unmarried," DePualo observed. They can do so by offering single and married employees equivalent time off for caregiving and equal access to financial support benefits, for instance.

Matthew Jackson, vice president of client solutions at Thomsons Online Benefits, advised employers to "recognize and respond to the changing nature of modern family structures and lifestyle choices." He cautioned that "offering packages that significantly benefit people who make some life choices over others breeds resentment among employees and could harm retention."

HR decision-makers are recognizing the implications of the single vs. married benefits gap, Jackson said. According to the Thomsons survey, over 60 percent of HR professionals think that the benefits system works best for nuclear families, agreeing with the statement that "It's unfair that colleagues without legal partners don't receive the same flexible benefits as those that are married or have children."

Companies that want every employee to feel supported through their benefits program, regardless of marital status, are offering personalized benefits such as paid time off (PTO) for personal development days (51 percent) and charity days (41 percent), Thomsons found.

"Fair treatment needs to be extended to all employees through a personalized benefits offering that's truly valuable and inclusive for all," Jackson recommended.

Are 'Unequal' Benefits Justifiable?

It's important to look at the whole picture when making benefit comparisons between married and single employees in the workforce, benefits advisors noted.

"On the surface, it is easy to point out that employers contribute more to a married employee's medical plan," said Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness at Benefitfocus, a cloud-based benefits management platform firm. "However, the average premium for a family high-deductible health plan or preferred provider organization plan is almost three times the cost of an individual plan, our research shows, and the deductible is doubled for family plans. With a few exceptions, dependents are not a huge contributor to overall health care spending, so families are paying higher premiums while not always being the culprit in claims expenses."

Dan Maass, principal and senior client executive at OneDigital Pacific, an HR technology and services provider, agreed that "although employers may be providing additional funding to support the family's premium, those with single coverage overall have a lower financial cost with payroll deductions and plan costs."

Nevertheless, the shift to offer more inclusive benefits that are not determined by marital status but driven by different life phases, "to offer all employees support during the moments that matter," is a positive development, Guinn said.

To make sure that both married and single employees find value in their benefits packages, she advised allowing employees to choose from among a variety of offerings. "Strive to provide the best fit, not an equal fit," she said.

With regard to caregiver benefits, for example, "give everyone the opportunity to access support teams and tools to ensure that caring for a loved one, whether it's a child or an elderly parent, is less stressful and less disruptive to everyday life." Voluntary benefits can "better serve a multigenerational workforce in all different stages of life."

Maass said he sees more employers are providing elder care support, home support for employees with a short-term illness or injury, and financial wellness tools and advise.

PTO variety, from paid caregiver leave and "paw-ternity" (paid leave for a new puppy or kitten), to paid volunteer time, "can boost a company's culture to give it a leg up on the competition," Guinn said.

Maass noted that "singles or married-with-no-kids employees are seeking similar time off" as parents receive. "Offering sabbaticals may become more prevalent in smaller companies [along with] more unique leave options for these employees," he predicted. To stay competitive, "the disparity of leave benefits is something employers will need to address."


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