Employers Boost Benefits to Add, Retain Talent

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As positions in demand remain unfilled, employers find themselves having to up their employee benefits game to both attract talent and keep their workforces. 

In the market for talent, despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, are employers who are “generating a lot of revenue and doing well,” says Josh White, the president of The Tartan Companies in Canfield, a benefits-management company.

“For those employers, it’s become even more important for them to attract and retain workers,” he says. “One of the ways they’re looking to do that is by enriching their employee-benefit packages in a variety of ways.”  

This can include offering a better benefits plan for less money out of the employee’s pocket or it can mean supplementing benefits packages not offered before.

Nonetheless, managing the rising costs of employee benefits remains a “delicate balancing act” for businesses, regardless of structure or size, says Brian Battaglia, CEO of L. Calvin Jones & Co., an insurance agency based in Canfield.

It’s not uncommon for employee benefits to be the second- or third-highest expense within an organization, he says.  

“We find it incredibly important to communicate the value to employees so that they are seen as a true benefit and not just an insurance product,” Battaglia says. “Benefits are one of the most important factors as employers look to differentiate themselves from competitors when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. It has never been more important to ensure that the pricing, products and the communication of a benefits package are aligned to help clients meet their strategic goals.”

 Manufacturing, restaurants and hospitality are having trouble finding people “who want to come to work,” says Dee McFarland, managing partner at Reliable Consulting Group, Boardman. 

In lower-paying jobs, there appears to be a “disconnect” because people are making more money on unemployment than they think they will if they take these jobs, McFarland says.

Tartan’s White points to the supermarket industry as a segment that is having challenges filing positions. Many of its workers are eligible for expanded unemployment benefits “but the industry itself is busier than ever,” he says.

 “We see this all over the board, regardless of industry, size or specific geography,” although manufacturing and the service sector have had “the biggest challenge,” Battaglia says. 

To attract workers, most employers offer medical insurance, along with dental, vision and life insurance, McFarland says. There also is an uptick in benefits such as critical illness and accident coverage.

“It used to be only very large employers would offer those types of benefits. But lately we’re seeing that reaching down into the smaller employers as well,” she says.  

Perhaps the most important benefit employers are looking to add is virtual care coverage to meet the needs of their employees, says Julie Ginnis, vice president, employee benefits, at Gilbert’s Risk Solutions in Sharon, Pa.

For several weeks last year, medical offices and hospitals were closed to many patients with noncritical conditions. In lieu of in-person visits, “The doctor could virtually see you and could call in a prescription for you,” she says.    

“There is a lot of urgency for dental coverage,” Ginnis says. Interest in dental plans is growing because many people are experiencing dental issues because of the pandemic. People are grinding their teeth from stress and chipping their teeth.  

In addition, she is getting questions about employee assistance programs, which provide employees with private, one-on-one counseling.

“Mental health care is trending right now,” Ginnis says. “Many employees are struggling.” Some are afraid to leave their homes while others are wrestling with whether to get vaccinated.

Other benefit options include accident and cancer coverage, portable term-life policies, adding a college tuition benefit, better dental plans and ancillary benefits such as short- and long-term disability coverage. “The employee pays for them but they want those. They want short-term disability. They want long-term disability,” Ginnis says.      

Positions in manufacturing and labor are among ones employers have difficulty filling, says Sandra Mapus, human resources and client adviser with Bost Benefits, which has offices in New Castle, Pa., and Boardman.

In response, some are making greater contributions to medical coverage or adding dental and vision packages and basic life.

Other options include accident plans and what Mapus describes as “robust” critical illness plans that don’t just cover one illness. Instead they cover a range of conditions such as cancer, strokes and heart attacks “all combined in one plan so it covers more of the unknowns that could potentially happen,” she says.

COVID disability plans also are popular. “More employees are interested in short- and long-term disability plans in case they’re needed to take care of themselves or a family member,” she says.

Companies can lose out on potential new talent when they aren’t doing appropriate benchmarking to find out what the competition is offering in terms of benefits, says Dan Caparso, employee benefits consultant with AssuredPartners, Boardman.

Also, if a company lacks an effective communications strategy to promote its benefits package, even an above-average package isn’t going to have any perception of value.

“A not-so-great benefits package with a proper communications strategy and education will have a higher value perception from employees,” Caparso says.

Adds Battaglia from L. Calvin Jones, “Employers of all scopes and sizes are really doubling down on the value of the benefits provided and the effective communication of those benefits. No one wants ‘insurance’ but everyone wants something that is a benefit to them. It’s very important that employees understand the true value of what is being offered,” he says.

“We also see more choices being offered within a benefits package. Employees like to have the ability to choose what’s right for their unique situation rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. This would apply to true group sponsored benefits as well as the voluntary markets,” Battaglia says.

Employee benefit advisers say employers are in a situation where they need to adapt their benefits to keep the employees they already have, in the face of potentially better offers from other companies looking for workers.

“There is a lot of poaching going on,” Gilbert’s Ginnis says.

“You do see some of that because good people are hard to find – people who want to come to work, show up and do a good job,” Reliable Consulting’s McFarland says. She has “a few employers” who have increased their beginning wages and talked to employees to find out what would work for them in terms of a benefits package “to entice them to stay where they are.”

“A lot of that has to do with culture and making sure the employee stays happy. But part of that plays into benefits,” Bost’s Mapus says.

Bost Benefits has conducted employee surveys on behalf of its clients to learn what is important to them. “It’s a good way to identify what employees want,” she says. “That way we can create a package that fits their employees needs.”    

Much of the focus on talent retention will be at the manager-supervisor level and above, according to Tartan’s White. And there are products specifically designed to be offered on a tiered basis to upper-level employees when anything is offered to a company’s line or floor workers, he says.  

“Competition is as high as it has ever been for executive and management positions as employers look to lure talent away from competitors and keep the talent that they have,” Battaglia says. “There are certainly strategies at play to make executive compensation packages more attractive. Deferred compensation, employer-paid whole-life packages that are employee owned, executive carve-outs for disability, are solutions that we work with as clients look to differentiate themselves.”