Want to Retain Talent? Broaden Your Benefits

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Ask employers what concerns them and they’ll tell you that attracting and retaining good employees is their No. 1 problem.

So says Ron Blasko, president of The Tartan Companies in Youngstown. The solution, he says, is for companies to spend more time and devote more resources that implement new benefits to retain those employees.

“A common theme we’re seeing is choice,” Blasko says. “The one-size-fits-all approach to employee benefits doesn’t work because we have such a diverse workforce.”

Choice can be anything from additional health benefits, such as short-term or long-term disability and life insurance packages, to flexible work hours.

While such benefits are increasing in popularity locally, agents are also seeing more nationally accepted benefits introduced into the marketplace, such as help repaying student loan debt.

Gilbert’s Risk Solutions in Sharon, Pa. just added a student loan repayment program to its offerings. And while businesses in western Pennsylvania and northeastern Ohio haven’t yet signed on, some larger companies are showing interest, says its benefits manager, Julie Ginnis.

“The program allows the employer to determine how much they want to pay toward their employee’s student debt,” Ginnis says. “So, if they set it up for $100, that money goes right to the loan and bypasses the employee. The [premise] is if you’re working there and getting $100 paid to your student loan debt every month, you’re more likely to stay than go to a company down the street for a little more money.”

Another national program, College Tuition Benefit, allows workers to accrue college tuition money for their kids, nieces and nephews, grandchildren or other family members in 10th grade or below.

For each birthday, the child is credited with 1,000 points, which equals $1,000 in tuition to a private college. In 2016, high school seniors submitted more than $72 million in rewards to 322 participating colleges across the United States.

“Money accrued can be put toward tuition costs for one semester each year,” Ginnis says. “That’s a big incentive for employees to stay.”

Thirty private colleges and universities in Ohio participate in the program, as do 54 in Pennsylvania. The complete list can be found at CollegeTuitionBenefit.com.

Student loan repayment is particularly attractive to younger employees entering the workforce, which is important for employers to consider, says Todd Mayle, employee benefits agent with Cailor Fleming & Associates in Boardman. Whether it’s taking care of outstanding debt or helping to pay for continuing education, some employers view such benefits as a cost rather than an investment, he says.

“These types of benefits get the younger workers thinking about your company,” Mayle says. “When you attract the right person and you hire them, you don’t want them to be gone in 18 months to two years. Younger people are always looking for the next step, and between local chamber events, employments mixers and LinkedIn, there’s always somebody talking to them.”

More employers are starting to look at flexible hours and telecommuting, “because distance is dead in today’s day and age,” Mayle continues.

That concept of flexibility is working itself into health programs too with more employers offering life insurance policies and short-term and long-term disability. While many employers already offer sick days and paid time off, nonwork-related injuries can be devastating to a family, he says.

“I have a friend who was playing soccer in the backyard with his kids when he blew out his ACL,” Mayle says. “Now you have the cost of the high-deductible health plan. He had to go to the emergency room and get an MRI, and then was referred to an orthopedic practice for surgery. On top of all of those costs, he couldn’t go back to work right away because he’s in construction.”

For injuries that require longer treatments, such as surgery and rehabilitation, a worker can be out 90 to 180 days. That’s when the long-term disability coverage kicks in, he says. Other attractive policies include coverage in the event of critical illnesses, chronic illnesses and even cancer.

“For people who have a family history of those illnesses, when the coverage is offered, even as a payroll deduction, it’s a great benefit to them,” he says.

Virtual health-care visits are also popular among both younger and older generations, Mayle says. Interacting with a physician or nurse practitioner, online or via telephone, can cost less than going to their office depending on group size.

Ginnis has also seen increased participation for virtual visits among Gilbert’s clients.

“If it’s something small like a sinus infection or a cold, you can opt for a virtual visit,” she says. “Then moms aren’t missing work because they don’t have to take their kids to the doctor and they can call in a prescription to a local pharmacy.”

Gilbert’s arranges it so its customers get virtual visits at no additional cost 24 hours a day, provided the customers added voluntary coverage options for accident, short-term disability, cancer and added life insurance. The agency has about 90% participation in those services, she says.

Adding such incentives helps balance the increasing cost of health coverage. In 2015, workers in the United States spent about 10.1% of their income on job-based health insurance premiums and deductibles, up from 6.5% in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wages, however, have not kept pace.

Insurers find companies that offer employees incentives for maintaining healthful lifestyles enjoy lower health insurance premiums and higher productivity. Wellness plans, like the type offered through Tartan, have given national organizations a return on investment of 400% to 1,000%.

While these plans are more accepted and widespread nationwide, they are relatively new in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, says Tartan’s Blasko. If they’re to work, he says, upper management must buy in.

“Studies show that 20% of the people in a company’s population drive up its health-care costs,” Blasko says. This prevents companies from granting raises and issuing bonuses, also important for employee retention.

“If an employer has limited resources, they can reward 80% of employees who maintain healthful lifestyles and the other 20% now have incentive to get to the 80%,” Blasko says. “A healthy employee is more productive, misses less work and equates to lower health insurance costs. So why wouldn’t an employer want an employee wellness plan with that kind of ROI and all the other benefits?”

While interest is increasing, implementation remains low. As the Mahoning Valley’s workforce and general population ages, wellness programs have less appeal to employers here than elsewhere in the country. Additionally, a company’s ROI from a wellness program is long-term, which can make it a difficult sell, Blasko says.

“If you put it in place today, you might not see ROI until five, seven or 10 years down the road,” he says. “You won’t see it in year one or two. It’s going to take time for employees to get their lifestyle healthy.”

Depending on the approach a company takes, it can implement an informal wellness plan, which includes posting personal health information where employees gather, such as a lunchroom. More formal comprehensive plans can include blood tests for glucose, blood pressure tests and BMI (body mass index) readings. Employees earn rewards for meeting certain goals, which can include credit toward their health insurance premiums.

“Everybody is interested in what’s best for them,” Blasko says. “So, you start getting the mentality out there that employees should be held accountable for their lifestyle. Because that affects the workforce as a whole.”

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.