How to think about open enrollment during COVID-19

In the early days of COVID-19, we got used to elbow bumps instead of handshakes, knuckle-touching elevator buttons and scoring our hand-washing sessions to the tune of “Happy Birthday”—but we were still at the office. Soon later, social distancing measures and stay-at-home requirements upended the bottom line for some 30 million U.S. small businesses. Employers of all sizes have worked hard to adapt to the current business environment, which has included learning how to replicate workplace productivity while leveraging new technologies.

Author Jim McGovern leads the OneAmerica Employee Benefits division.

We all want the return to the workplace to signal a return to normalcy, which for many employers will include offering their employees benefits options during open enrollment. What was once as simple as hosting a series of HR-department led meetings and sometimes, paper enrollment forms, won’t be as easy, especially for smaller companies with fewer resources.

Here are three things you can do to make returning to work easier and three more tips for benefits enrollment in the new business environment.

Be ready for social distancing at work. Social distancing becomes the responsibility of every employer as part of offering a safe work environment. Some examples of what you can do include encouraging employees to use the telephone, online conferencing, e-mail or instant messaging to conduct business as much as possible, even when coworkers are in the cubicle down the hall. If a face-to-face meeting is unavoidable, the meeting time should be for a minimum period of time, in a large meeting room and participants should sit at least six feet from each other, if possible. Masks and hand sanitizer are good options.

You can also rework job hours. Employees may find it easier to be on an ‘A-B’ schedule, rotating or alternating from their home office to the worksite. That would be helpful in an open-workspace situation where colleagues typically sit within a few feet of each other.

Continue to discourage employee-to-employee contact such as shaking hands. Bathroom breaks can be staggered, and limit opportunities for employees to congregate in copier rooms. The consultancy Bain and Co. has a great checklist for employers to review; it assesses’ employees risk based on industry. Some professions, like retail, have more interactions with the public than a manufacturer, as an example.

It’s not business as usual for the foreseeable future, so reset thinking on training. Training is a prime opportunity to expand employees’ knowledge base, according to 20/20 Business Insight, but even before COVID-19, many employers found development opportunities to be expensive or inconvenient because they could delay “lights-on” work. The current environment may provide an opportunity to look at learning in a new light.

Also see: How to take training virtual

Depending on your own business’ timetable for returning (whether it’s two weeks or two months) and whether the employees are working from home or are home on furlough, they will be coming back to the workforce after an extended period away. While you formulate a reopening strategy, it may make sense to go back to the drawing board. Have you thought about modifying your employee handbook to build in new behavior essentials? Or, for processes that aren’t related to health, a refresher course could be advantageous.

If your business requires employees complete continuing education, think about how you can provide certification opportunities or give employees access to virtual CEUs now that conference travel may be limited, postponed or nonexistent. Before the pandemic, many companies were already shifting away from off-site courses to hosting blended learning on-site, in group settings at work—still keeping in mind social distancing.

Holistic education is healthy for workers. No doubt, COVID-19 has had an impact on employees’ personal finances. Their 401(k) may have been zapped by the stock market or sapped by a withdrawal, as Congress (through the CARES Act) authorized penalty-free (or penalty reduced) access to retirement plan accounts. Even before COVID, U.S. businesses were losing $500 billion a year because of employees’ personal financial stress, according to Salary Finance.

Employee wellbeing

In addition to physical wellness programs your company offers, think about offering financial wellness programs, which could include education on topics like budgeting and managing debt. And, think about sourcing mental health services, such as EAP, to offset the stress and worries and support mental wellbeing. Any guidance an employer can offer to ease employees’ worries is helps their workforce get back to the job with full focus.

Acting on enrollment

It’s useful to look at the issue of insurance coverage in both a short-term (2020) and long-term (2021) context.

Two-thirds of Americans recognize they need life insurance yet many do not have adequate coverage to protect their families, according to an April 2019 study by Life Happens. If employers continued providing paid or voluntary insurance coverage on behalf of their employees during the pandemic, they may opt to offer additional lines of coverage this year. Many insurance carriers offer auto-enrollment, a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach that automatically enrolls employees for the voluntary coverage they should have yet might be unaware they need to protect themselves—and their paychecks— from life’s unexpected events.

With auto-enroll, all employees are automatically opted in at a base level benefit. That means the only time there will be a need to complete an Evidence of Insurability will be if an employee is electing coverage outside of the specified annual enrollment period.

By providing disability insurance equally to all employees, employers won’t have to worry about making difficult decisions for loyal employees who may be unable to work if they become disabled.

The 2021 enrollment period, on the other hand, will bring with it a new share of complexities. As most people know, coverage is determined annually; during open enrollment usually held either of two times per year, employees are presented with a menu of coverage choices they can opt-in (or opt-out) after attending enrollment meetings offered by the employer and carrier representatives; once agreed upon, those benefits go into effect and the policy is realized the next January 1.

While it’s still possible for employees to participate in in-person enrollment meetings with social distancing measures in place, it’s more likely that businesses will need to host virtual enrollment meetings via a group video call or some other arrangement.

Additionally, the traditional paper process will need to go digital, which brings with it the need to focus on a business’s information security capabilities. Start making contingency plans now, in collaboration with your insurance carrier, to determine how to ensure a safe enrollment process, both in terms of physical space and data integrity.

Benefit administration as an aid

Of the 30.7 million small businesses in the U.S., those with fewer than 100 employees account for 98.2%, according to the Small Business Administration.

Due to their size, their enrollment is manually recorded without the benefit of a true computerized benefits administration system, which are more efficient for organizations or companies with larger payrolls to manage. Given the need to adapt to our new environment, a ben-admin system, in lieu of face-to-face conversations may be useful. They provide efficiency (payroll deductions, etc.) and accessibility (self-service and easy access for a policyholder to elect changes.) Employers may want to consider a system—but make that choice quickly, as it can take a while for a human resources staff to acclimate. Even if the employer doesn’t opt to use a ben-admin system, they’ll need to provide a secure way to upload an employee’s private information.

Promoting cybersecurity

Information security efforts provide stability to employees, customers, vendors and more. As global business adjusts to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations must be vigilant and responsive to a substantial increase with cyber threats.

Digital or cyberattacks usually have the goal of theft, damage or access to systems; altering hardware, software, or electronic data; or disrupting or misdirecting the services your systems provide. In doing so, these cyber criminals often interrupt normal business processes in order to extort money from users through phishing schemes sent by impersonators.

Survey your own level of preparedness for cyberattacks and put into place countermeasures to secure your data against external threats. Don’t forget: There are as many contexts for insider threats as there are jobs in your organization.

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Jim McGovern has led the OneAmerica Employee Benefits division since January 2014. He has more than 30 years of industry experience.

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