Employee Benefits Communication During COVID-19
When the going gets tough—like it has been—you need to focus on communicating the things your employees really need to weather the storm.
Watch our 30-minute webinar to learn how to make employee benefits communication effective and educational during times of crisis and beyond.
If you are responsible for delivering employee benefits—you won't want to miss this webinar. Watch on-demand today!
Highlights and Takeaways
Our on-demand webinar covers:
- How to use various communication channels to stay connected to your remote workforce
- How your benefits administration provider can enhance employee communication during times of crisis
- How we've helped clients adapt to changing times by accommodating special requests regarding furloughs, payroll files and new regulations
Jenny Bedeaux (00:10):
Jenny Bedeaux, VP of HR technology here at Shortlister. Thank you for joining us today. I'd like to go over a few things before I turn it over to our presenters. Our Meet a Vendor webinars take place on Wednesdays at 1pm Central Time. We use a condensed format of 30 minutes, which includes a 25 minute presentation followed by five minutes for questions, and to submit a question, you can use the GoToWebinar widget on the right hand side of your screen, and we'll get to as many of those as we can after the presentation. And finally, for Shortlister subscribers, our Meet a Vendor webinars are recorded and uploaded into the Shortlister platform, so when you're logged in, you can click the Meet a Vendor tab on the top right of your page, or you can visit benefitexpress' profile page to access that recording. We will also send the recording and a followup email to all of you attending today.
Now, I'd like to turn things over to Allison Loehman, director of Demand Generation with benefitexpress, Allison?
Allison Loehman (01:07):
Thank you, Jenny, and hello everyone. It's great to be back with Shortlister. If you joined us last time, welcome back, but if you missed our first Meet a Vendor webinar, a link to the recording is in our profile, so feel free to check that out after our presentation, if you'd like to learn more.
Today, we'll be sharing insights around employee benefits communication in the age of COVID-19, both what we've done internally for our benefitexpress employees, as well as externally to help our clients, and broker partners.
And now, it is my pleasure to introduce our distinguished speakers.
- Melanie Hallenbeck is chief growth officer, and has more than 20 years of relationship and partnership development experience. She leads our sales and marketing teams.
- Jocelyn Purtell is chief operating officer, and is responsible for all aspects of the delivery of services, including implementation, ongoing services and client relationship management.
- Allen Niemynski is our broker and advisor relations executive, and is responsible for all aspects of new business development, and partnership with consulting advisors, and brokers.
For today's presentation:
- Melanie will start by sharing an overview of benefitexpress and how we built a successful remote team in response to COVID-19 challenges. She'll also share creative ideas that we've launched internally to help stay connected during this new normal.
- Jocelyn will then dive into best practices for utilizing your benefits administration partner, to enhance employee communication during times of crisis, and lastly,
- Allen will wrap up by discussing how brokers are working with their clients to find alternative solutions during this time. So with that, Melanie let's get started.
Melanie Hallenbeck (02:46):
Thank you, Allison. For those of you that may not know who benefitexpress is, we are a benefit technology and service company. We pride ourselves on the strength of our resources, and the services we provide to our clients. Many of our competitors focus first on technology. We focus first on service, and use technology as a way to deliver our offerings to our clients and their employees.
Communication is at the forefront of benefit administration, not only in the terms of what we can do for our clients, and our broker partners, but also, how we demonstrate that with our own workforce. We closed the office officially on March 17th, and have been remote for three months now. All of our employees have the equipment to be able to work from home with no issue.
We are very proud of our staff, and how they've adjusted to working from home, and how they continue to service our clients. Our IT team has been wonderfully supportive for any equipment needs or any questions.
For disaster recovery purposes, our call center has always had the ability to allow our employees to work from home, so the transition to remote was seamless, and we had the same great service metrics, including—I might mention—the same average speed to answer the day we moved remote as the day we did before when everyone was in the office.
Because the move to work from home has gone so well, we are taking a very cautious approach to reopening our office in Schaumburg. During this time of uncertainty and change, we've been in close contact with our staff since successfully transitioning to a fully remote workforce.
Some of the things we're particularly proud of include our recent work from home social media campaign. We gave our audience an inside look into our remote team, and their surroundings showing our commitment to our clients to support them no matter where we are.
Next, we host bi-weekly virtual happy hours, karaoke events, trivia contests, etc. to give employees something to look forward to during this new normal.
We also gifted all benefitexpress employee company SWAG to keep us connected while we can't be together in a physical location.
Finally, we're committed to our virtual town halls and understand how important it is for employees to hear from our senior executives on the overall state of the business, the status of the office reopening and overall transparency with the decisions we're making with regard to COVID-19.
Through these efforts, employee engagement remains consistent and thus we're able to continue to provide the same level of service that our clients have come to know and expect with benefitexpress.
And with that, I'll turn it over to Jocelyn to talk a little bit about how we've helped clients adapt to these changing times.
Jocelyn Purtell (05:39):
So it's fair to say that for the last three months it has really been a whirlwind for our clients, and while some industries have definitely been hit harder than others—industries like hospitality and retail and restaurant—there really isn't a client out there that hasn't had special needs or requests during this time, based on their business. And our job at benefitexpress is to be there for them with whatever they need—and very quickly—and it's really been wonderful to see how much employers are doing their very best for their employees during this time, and we of course, want to support them in that.
So, examples of activities as I'm sure some, many of you are experiencing; reduced hours, reduced pay, furloughs and layoffs, so this has led to lots of requests. Some examples are:
- Changing ACA eligibility to exclude weeks where folks might have reduced hours, and not including them in eligibility calculations
- Changing employee contributions on a payroll file to zero them out, or add them to the employer contribution if the employer is picking up the cost for furloughed workers for a period of time
- Moving furloughed employees to direct bill, or ultimately, to COBRA
- Extending grace periods for direct bill
- Reducing salaries, but preserving life insurance, and STD coverages
- Allowing employees to reduce their dependent care savings account amounts
- And then, of course, we had the national emergency declaration due to COVID-19 and the DOL and other agencies, which extended timelines for things like COBRA, and life events.
And, the IRS guidelines on cafeteria plans that provided increased flexibility at the employer's discretion, and all of these things just have led to so many more conversations, and changes, and need for communication, and our job is to be right there with our clients every step of the way through these times, and provide them with whatever data they need, changes they need to make, helping them think through options and costs, and again, very quickly.
So, we had clients that would tell us on a Wednesday they needed something done on the next day's payroll file, or we had clients who would decide on a Tuesday they wanted to put their benefits in arrears, on Wednesday, decide instead they want to send them to direct bill, and on Thursday, decide that they're going to terminate and move to COBRA.
And we were there with them every day just to get them whatever they needed, because we understand how hard this is for everyone, and you as benefit leaders, you're taking your lead from the overall business, and companies are making decisions on the fly every single day.
So here is a quote from one of our clients; really their appreciation on a particular Friday afternoon, where they called and they needed data to help their business with their decision making and our team rallied to get them what they needed within just a few hours.
And we're just really proud of our team for being there for our clients. Especially as a business, when, as Melanie said, we were also in a world that was new to us of moving to work from home. So in all of this, all of these changes that I talked about communication has just been so important because things are changing so fast for your employees.
So for communication to be effective and especially during this time where I think there's just so much coming at us from so many different places, it's important that the communication be:
- First of all, customized, where it makes sense, so it doesn't feel like just a generic uncaring message.
- Targeted, so only relevant communication is sent to an employee that's very specific to their situation.
- Timely, getting the information to the employee at the time they need it
- And then by employee preference, which means, where possible, sending it to them in the way they want to be communicated to whether that's email, text, paper, or maybe some combination.
So we want to share with you on the next few pages, some examples of communication that we've done.
I'll start with targeted emails. We've done targeted emails for our clients, from everything, from:
- Giving employees information about co-pays that are being waved in particular plans,
- 401(k) changes; reduced matches or changes there
- Personal and business travel policies
- We had one client ask us to send something out to remind people what the policy was for social media, because of course people are on social media more, right now.
- And then also things like reminders around direct bill owed. So somebody who's being direct billed for the first time and they haven't paid their bill and clients want to remind them before their coverage could be terminated.
Postcards; so Melanie and I were laughing about this the other day, that paper has sort of come back in vogue, because as employees are being furloughed, they may not be checking their work email.
So for instance, we had a client who asked us to send out postcards with open enrollment coming up, because they weren't sure that people would be looking at their emails where they would normally get that kind of information.
Inserts have been a great tool—and this gets at really the timely part. So if you put an insert in a direct bill notice letting them know maybe of an extension and a grace period. Or if you put an insert in a COBRA noticing, “Hey, there's these rules now that you can extend when you have to elect or when you have to pay.”
Another thing we've done is create custom microsites. A employee benefits microsite is really a great way to get a lot of information online about benefit changes, or it could be about returning to the office, or even just general COVID-19 information. And it's available not only to employees, but also to spouses and families. So it's kind of a standalone site. And from there, maybe they can get into their benefits site, but it gives a bunch of information and it's accessible to more than just the employees.
We have also developed a lot of compliance communication around some of these new regulations I mentioned earlier. So any changes that employers might be allowing to their plans as a result. So maybe the ability to reduce your FSA contribution, if that's something the employer, decides they want to do.
And then COBRA alternatives. We have a partnership with a company called GoHealth, and GoHealth provides technology agents and expertise to navigate the healthcare marketplace and including eligibility for subsidies where that's appropriate. And so we simply just provide that information about GoHealth with our COBRA notices. Again, that gets to being timely and relevant so that former employees know that they have options.
It's a win for the employee because they can find a healthcare option at a lower cost than the 102%, they would pay through COBRA—maybe they find out that they're eligible for subsidies they didn't know about.
And it's a win for the employer, particularly if they're self insured because the employee then is not staying on COBRA and the employer is not incurring those claims. So we rolled this out and many of our COBRA clients are taking advantage of this particular communication channel.
Again, I think our clients say it best—and this is a quote from one of our retail clients going through a lot right now—and they really appreciated the partnership and solution-ing that we brought to them. And of course we appreciate so much our clients and how much they have worked with us through all of this and also have been so focused on their employees.
So we've talked so far about communications having mostly to do with enrollments and changes in benefits. But there are some other areas where employers should think about communications and should be able to leverage their benefit administration partners.
- For example, in areas like the benefits of telemedicine. So, especially right now, when it might be hard to get to a doctor or people may not feel ready to be in a doctor's office, helping them understand that they can use a telemedicine option. For some of our clients, we've actually put—we call a widget—on their welcome page on the enrollment site. So that one of the first things they see when they get on the site is how to utilize their telemedicine partner.
- Also, things like when to use urgent care versus going to the emergency room. And again, that seems to be very timely right now because people are nervous about going into hospitals, don't want to overload the emergency room if they don't have to, and things like that.
- Certainly reminders about EAP programs. In fact, we've done this for our own employees, and we can help our employers do the same for their employees.
- And then lastly, wanted to talk a little bit about lifestyle marketplaces. So this is really reminding employees of perks or other benefits that they may have available to them.
So here at Benefitexpress, we created a lifestyle marketplace for those employers who either don't already have something similar themselves or don't already have something through their brokers or other partners. And so we aren't looking to display something that is already working well today. But if an employer has a need to provide a place for employees to go for things like discount on cars or appliances, maybe access to loan programs, so for example, your car breaks down and you need a short term loan to help you with the repair, or maybe student loan support or additional insurance options like home and auto or pet care, this is just a really nice way for employers to help out their employees with no cost or administrative burden put on the employer's part.
And I think right now, especially for employees, some of these things can be very helpful. Especially if they are on furlough or if they've been having reduced hours and they have a financial need. It's just some nice perks to be able to, as an employer, provide them outside of their normal benefits.
So with that, I think I'm going to turn it over to Allen to talk about how we can support brokers during this time.
Allen Niemynski (15:34):
Thank you, Jocelyn. We've been working with our broker partners and our advisor partners to help them in several ways, let's dive a little deeper.
So we've all been saying we're in this together and it's true. Nobody's an expert on COVID-19 and we're all learning as we go. And our broker partners are very interested in how we're helping our clients with the challenges that this pandemic has presented.
We all need to share our experiences, both our successes and our failures, so that we can all help each other do better as we continue to navigate the crisis. And Jocelyn shared a number of these things that we've been sharing all along with our partners, hopefully some of these items have been helpful for you today.
Many of our broker partners were in an active evaluation process with their clients, or planning an evaluation, as the pandemic hit. COVID-19, understandably, has impacts on these processes. Some of their clients were better equipped to work from home and maintain business operations, but many were not, and therefore needed to pause or delay an evaluation.
So, timelines need to be reevaluated, both on the client side as well as the vendor partner. You may need to think about contracts, if somebody has an existing contract with a prior vendor that they were trying to time this out, is that still going to align? Something to think about. It's also important to understand if service volumes have changed, or if other assumptions that were made could impact pricing. Maybe the client would like to consider additional services, such as COBRA, call center, or communications that may not have been in scope prior to the crisis. As Jocelyn stated, these things are more important to our clients every day.
It's also been interesting to host finalist meetings virtually. Some technologies are proving to be better for these than others, and we're all learning some best practices that we'll continue to leverage in the future.
Lastly, we're getting consistent feedback from our broker partners and prospective clients that budgets have been cut, and everyone must do more with less. Now is the time to understand if you have a vendor or a partner that is willing to work with you. Are you receiving high value, high quality service? Are you paying for a premium service but not receiving the value for your money? Or maybe your client is using an ERP-type solution where fees are collected up front for a multi-year agreement, and the client would benefit from a point solution model that offers more services at a monthly fee structure instead of a capital expense. And we do expect 2021 to be a busy evaluation year, so start having these conversations with your clients now.
With that, I'll turn it back over to Jenny.
Jenny Bedeaux (18:34):
Thank you, Allen, Jocelyn, Melanie, and Allison, you guys covered a ton of great content today, and certainly very, very timely with everything that's going on in the world. For our attendees, you will see that Allen's contact info is up on your screen. Please do reach out to him directly if you've got follow up questions or you want to schedule a time to connect with your team.
We did receive several questions from the audience today, and we'll get to those in just a second. But before we do so, I wanted to share why we were so excited to have benefitexpress join us today. Some of you have probably joined us for past benefitexpress webinars, where we learned about their industry leading benefits administration technology solutions coupled with their passion for service, which is proven by a very high 93% customer referenceability rate.
Welcoming them back today, we learned a lot about how they're supporting their clients and broker partners with the countless challenges that have arisen during the COVID- 19 crisis. And it was really fun and exciting to hear about how benefitexpress is supporting their own workforce with these challenges as well.
And, as Allen said, none of us are experts on how to navigate a pandemic. So we can all learn from each other. And I learned a lot today. I hope all of you in our audience did as well.
So let's keep on learning in our last 10 minutes or so here, as we get to the questions from the audience. It looks like all of them really are kind of around this same theme and this new way of work that we're all navigating.
So benefitexpress team, we got a couple questions that came in that are pretty similar, so I'm going to kind of combine these into one.
What do you anticipate being different during this fall's open enrollment in terms of communications? And then similarly, have you seen any specific communication methods rising in popularity?
Jocelyn Purtell (20:20):
This is Jocelyn, and I can take that. Thank you, Jenny.
So a couple things, I think as it relates to the fall open enrollment. Most employers are still working through what those anticipated changes might be. I think where we'll definitely see a difference is in communication. I mentioned earlier the use of postcards—we expect a lot more. Maybe they always used email before, but now if they've got people who aren't in the office or aren't regularly on their email anymore, something like a postcard could make sense.
We expect a lot more targeted communications, especially in areas like FSA, since maybe they will be providing different rules than what employers are used to before, they'll have longer to submit their claims, for instance, for 2019 and for 2020, and deadlines might be different.
I really think in terms of the specific communication channels, it kind of depends on the population and where clients are in term of bringing folks back from furlough or re-hiring as things open up. Everyone has a cell phone, so I think text messages or push notifications through mobile app are always great ways to communicate. And I think it's really just about trying to hit people in multiple venues who are no longer in the office and thinking through those scenarios with our clients is what's going to be most important.
Jenny Bedeaux (21:40):
Perfect. That makes sense, and I liked your earlier comment about how paper is in vogue again.
Jocelyn Purtell (21:46):
Jenny Bedeaux (21:46):
So it's finding that balance of- of old school and new- new school, and (laughs) having that- that variety of- of communication to connect with everyone.
So, next question is around your service center. Have you seen an uptick in calls to your service center? And if you have, are there specific topics that you're seeing a trend around?
Jocelyn Purtell (22:07):
Yeah, we definitely have. In fact, this is usually what we like to say is the quiet time in the call center of the year, because, obviously open enrollment in October and November is busy, January's busy, and usually, as you get into the summer, it's a little quieter, except for those clients who have mid-year enrollments. And we haven't seen it be quieter, and that, I think, has everything to do with some of these changes that, we talked about earlier.
So where we're seeing a lot of the calls is direct bills. We've got a lot of clients who have their employees on furlough, and they're moving them to a direct bill situation, so obviously their deductions aren't coming out payroll anymore, direct bill is new for a lot of these employees. As I said earlier, that's where we've been trying to do extra communication, such as, "Hey, this is what direct bill is all about, for those of you who've never direct billed, here's how it works," sending out reminders, and all of those, of course, can lead to questions that come to the call center.
And then certainly as people get closer to when the direct bill is due, you get a lot of questions into the call center about methods of payment and things like that.
Same thing with COBRA. So as we've seen an uptick in people that have been, unfortunately, laid off, and are offered COBRA, then we're seeing questions around that. Plus, with the new rules that extend the election period and the payment periods, as we've helped clients communicate around that, that's led to an increase in questions. "What does that really mean? When do I really have to say that I'm enrolled? What does it mean about retroactive claims?" And things like that.
And then, I'd say the other area where we see a lot of questions is the FSA changes. So as employers are allowing employees to change their FSA election during the year, which normally they can't do, or even some of the new rules about how they can make 2019 claims, or extension of 2020 claims
You know, they're, they're confusing especially because employees are used to rules around one way, and now the rules are different. And while the rules are better for them, it gives them more flexibility, it's different. So that clearly leads to some questions.
Jenny Bedeaux (24:18):
That's really fascinating. I love your perspective on that and just interesting to hear those topics that are bubbling up that probably aren't the, the most popular topics during normal times. But thank you for those insights. I love this question. This is actually a question in my mind, too, and, and something I kind of kick around and think about a lot.
So what, what do you guys anticipate as long-term changes and impact to both benefits and also benefits administration due to COVID-19?
Jocelyn Purtell (24:49):
I think it's a little too soon to say definitely, because, in my view, the pendulum has swung so far to one side, and it's going to take time before it settles to what is our normal around work from home and what does that employee workforce look like? But, there is no question that work from home is going to be greater than before. We're seeing, obviously we're seeing in the news, all sorts of employers who've decided, "Hey, we can just stay work from home."
And so because of that I think communications methods, as we've been talking about during this time, really have to change to reflect that. So some of the things that we had talked about, or the way you might communicate differently when people are at home versus when they're in the office, and it's easier to connect in person with them.
From an overall benefits perspective, actually I would think that our broker friends on this call could probably do a better job of answering that question. And actually, Jenny, I would suggest that might be a good, future Shortlister conversation to have because I do think that people will use their benefits differently.
For example, maybe more telemedicine, as people are reluctant to go into the doctor's office, or maybe they just got more comfortable using it during this time. And they're like, "Hey, this is great. I don't need to go to my doctor as much."
Definitely EAPs, I think are going to be more important than ever, with everything that's going on today, COVID-19 just being one part of the challenges that we're having. And then I think even wellness initiatives will need to be addressed. For example in our own company, we use a provider where each of our employees can go and have a full blood work-up done. People may not be as willing to do those sorts of things, and so we may have to think about different ways to get at that to help our employees with some of their wellness initiatives.
Jenny Bedeaux (27:00):
I think you touched on a lot of, of timely things. I think the EAPs, the wellness stuff, in addition to communication. And to your first comment to the question is we don't really know. Nobody has a crystal ball, right. So-
Jocelyn Purtell (27:13):
Jenny Bedeaux (27:13):
... all of us can continue to share information and share our knowledge and, and move forward together. So thank you for those perspectives. I think we've got time for just a couple more questions. This one is interesting to me.
So what is the most unique challenge that you have faced when as you've helped your clients navigate the COVID-19 crisis?
Jocelyn Purtell (27:37):
Yeah, for me I think the biggest challenge and, I kept using the work quickly when I was talking very quickly before, by the way. (laughs) Trying to get a lot in in a short period of time. But, the biggest challenge for me is how quickly we have had to do things. One of our advantages is we have a very configurable system. We can make changes to our system very quickly.
I gave an example earlier about a client who, on a, on a Tuesday said, "Hey, we're going to just put benefits in arrears. So change the payroll file, so that no employee contributions come out. And we'll just put it in arrears." To the next day saying, "You know what? I think let's direct bill them." To the next day saying, "I think we're gonna lay them off and put them through COBRA."
And as a team, we don't get to say, "No, we need more time to do that." And we don't really need to because we're very good at, at making those changes in a timely fashion. But it's a challenge, right, and we get it. We know why our clients are changing their mind every day because this is all uncharted territory (laughs) for all of us.
Benefits is one part of what we know these businesses are trying to figure out. And so I'm sure they're reaching out to their benefits partners within the company saying, "Hey, if we did this, what would that mean? How might that look?" And then maybe, "Well, what if we did this?" So lots of modeling, lots of reporting, lots of data needed, and lots of decisions being made hour by hour. And so for me, the challenge was just making sure that we stayed on top of that, and that we could move as quickly as our clients needed us to.
In terms of things they were asking us to do, again because our system is pretty easy to configure, none of it was not doable. In fact, I think I can say with confidence, there isn't anything our clients have asked us to do that we said, "No, we can't do that. It was just really about how, how fast we needed to do it, and make sure that we still did it well.
And then getting back to the communication theme, being able to then very quickly get out that communication. So if you're going to send direct bills, we needed to immediately get emails to people saying, "Hey, you're being direct billed for the first time. This is what it means, this is what you need to do. Here's where you call." And sometimes we had a day to do that.
Jenny Bedeaux (29:54):
Very interesting. Thank you so much. So everyone, Allen's information is still up on your screen, so if you want to talk to him about this year's annual enrollment or anything else you heard today, please do reach out to him directly. And with that, we're at our time, so thank you again to the benefitexpress team for such a thoughtful and interesting presentation. And thanks to all of you in the audience for joining us. We look forward to you joining us on our next Meet a Vendor webinar. Have a great day.
Jocelyn Purtell (30:41):
Thanks for having us.
Melanie Hallenbeck (30:42):
During this time of national crisis, benefitexpress remains committed to providing informational webinars to help HR professionals respond to its employees' most pressing concerns. To stay up-to-date on the latest changes and health and welfare compliance issues, subscribe to our blog.