The pandemic has changed how we all work and which benefits employers must prioritize to support their workforce. Pre-pandemic, employee benefits like health insurance and retirement funds were always top of mind. These cornerstones remain important.
However, the widespread shift to remote and hybrid work, combined with the unique challenges brought on by COVID-19, has caused companies to reevaluate the desirability of various benefits.
“Opting into a discount on a gym membership may not hold the allure it once did, but getting money to offset the cost of virtual training is highly valued,” said Edie Goldberg, president of E. L. Goldberg & Associates in Menlo Park, California. Her practice focuses on HR strategies and designing HR processes and programs to attract, engage, develop, and retain employees.
As an employee contemplating a new job offer or open enrollment, you may want to take an extra-close look at your next benefits package and not default to your usual selections. Here are some of the offerings you may find that can provide the support you need to do your best work.
Home office allowance
Even if you’ve been working remotely since March 2020, you (and your employer) may have assumed the arrangement was temporary. Now that more employers are planning hybrid setups that will have workers in the office half time or less, it’s smart to invest in a home office setup that will be effective for the long term.
Employer-subsidized internet service may help offset your home internet bill or allow you to upgrade to higher-speed service. A wireless hotspot plan can keep you connected and secure during power outages and work away from home. Your employer may reimburse you for a better router or a mesh network to improve internet performance in your home office.
Employees who work remotely should understand that their employer still has the same obligations to them as it does when they are in the office, said Chris Acker, CLU, ChFC. Acker is a veteran independent agent who sells group and individual life insurance and provides long-term care insurance planning from his office in Palo Alto, California. He recommends that employees negotiate for a high-quality desk chair and an ergonomic work setup — and ideally, a professional ergonomic assessment to prevent neck, back, shoulder, and repetitive strain injuries.
While employers are not required to provide their employees with ergonomically correct furniture, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does mandate that employers keep the workplace free from ergonomic hazards. It’s also in their best interest because it can reduce workers’ compensation costs, absenteeism, and turnover. Also, proper ergonomics help workers get more done. State laws can offer additional protection.
Many people rely on their employers for health, life, and disability insurance. As a result, changing jobs and risking the loss of those benefits can be a scary prospect. Yet, the pandemic has caused many workers to reevaluate whether their current job is the best choice to support their other priorities in life, spurring a phenomenon over the last year that the media has dubbed the Great Resignation.
COBRA and the Affordable Care Act offer options to maintain health insurance whether you quit or leave your job. When it comes to life and disability insurance, you should learn if your policies are portable, meaning you can keep the same coverage you had through work as long as you pay the premiums. (Calculators: Life insurance and Disability income insurance)
“You would need to ask for the group certificate of coverage to make this determination,” Acker said. “Your HR department should know this, but I find many do not, and they will refer you to the insurance broker for this information.”
It’s also a good idea to know how much you’d pay to take your policies with you. If the premiums would be unaffordable and if you are healthy and can pass a medical exam, individual policies can be an excellent supplement to or substitute for your group coverage. For example, you may be able to purchase a larger life insurance policy that will better help your survivors receive the financial support they will need in your absence. And with an individual policy, you gain the security of knowing you are covered no matter where you work. (Related: Why group life insurance may not be enough)
“It’s always essential that you become familiar with how your existing group life and disability insurance fill the gaps in your personal financial plan,” Acker said.
While you may be able to access telemedicine on your own through services like Teladoc and Amwell, a visit can cost as little as $0 if your employer provides a telemedicine benefit. Familiarize yourself with the service before you need to use it and learn what conditions its doctors can treat.
The range of options now available may surprise you: They include dermatology, nutrition, talk therapy, psychiatry, and second opinions on existing conditions. Still, an ongoing relationship with a primary care provider who can see you in person and who understands your history and the broader picture of your overall health is important. The convenience and affordability of a telemedicine benefit can help when they’re not available or if you don’t have that relationship right now. (Related: The benefits of a personal health record)
With telemedicine, you may be able to see a provider sooner, save money by avoiding in-person urgent care, and get appointments during hours that don’t cause your kids to miss school or you to miss work. Some services are available 24/7, and you also won’t lose time to traveling to the doctor's office.
Other telemedicine advantages include not spreading or catching germs at a physical doctor’s office, access to providers with expertise otherwise not available in your area, and a more pleasant experience for anyone who dreads in-person doctor visits. A virtual visit can also provide guidance on when an in-person visit is necessary.
Mental health benefits
If mental health benefits are important to you — and amid the ongoing pandemic, they are for many people — look not only at your employer’s health insurance policy but also at supplemental coverage they may provide through separate services. Whether you already have a clinical diagnosis or need support with depression, anxiety, burnout, relationships, or grief, employers have gotten better about recognizing that people can’t do their best professionally when they’re struggling personally.
“Employers are being encouraged to pay closer, better, more intentional, more informed attention to mental health, and they appear to be taking heed,” said Ruhal Dooley, HR knowledge advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “This is improving EAPs [employee assistance programs] and their clinical and therapy services.”
“This is causing HR departments to scrutinize their benefits packages and shop for more robust services inclusive of mental health considerations,” Dooley said. “In other words, employers want to make sure their benefits include taking care of employees’ mental health.” (Related: Staying fit with a physical or mental disability)
Add-on mental health services that some employers now offer through their employee assistance programs can make it easier to find the right provider than starting your search from scratch or even from your health insurer’s directory of in-network providers. Based on your answers to a short questionnaire, services such as Lyra and BetterHelp will match your needs and preferences with practitioners who are available. Furthermore, employers can choose to cover 100 percent of the cost of a certain number of sessions each year with no need for you to meet your health insurance deductible first, and coverage may extend to any spouse, partner, or child on your plan.
“The pandemic and rise of remote and hybrid work have resulted in unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and workplace burnout,” Goldberg said. “Companies examining the big picture are the ones who will come out ahead during these trying times.”
Dependent care benefits
Without adequate child care, both workers and employers lose out on billions of dollars annually, according to the Harvard Business Review. And children aren’t the only group that needs care.
About 48 million Americans provide care to an adult relative or friend, according to a spring 2021 study by AARP. Not only is this work unpaid, but it's also costly: 8 in 10 of those caregivers spend more than $7,000 a year out of pocket. The most common expenses are rent or mortgage payments, home modifications, and health care.
Providing adult care can also reduce a caregiver’s income. AARP’s survey found that about one-third of respondents lost income because they had to take leave or change their schedule, at an average annual cost of more than $10,000.
“Employers that can afford it do seem to be offering more in adult dependent care,” Dooley said. (Related: Millennials come to their parents’ aid)
In fact, employers were catching on to this need even before the pandemic. In 2020, 31 percent of human resource professionals surveyed by SHRM said their company offered paid family leave, up from 24 percent in 2019 and 18 percent in 2016. This benefit is important because although the federal Family and Medical Leave Act protects an employee’s job by providing up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave over 12 months, it does not protect an employee’s income.
In addition to paid family leave, caretakers should keep an eye out for workplace benefits like:
- Decision support tools that connect caregivers with credentialed experts (e.g., Torchlight, Care@Work)
- Dependent care flexible spending accounts
- Backup child care (including in-home child care)
Whether it’s open enrollment at your current job or you’re evaluating a new opportunity, it’s extra important to study your benefits package in light of hybrid work. Look for offerings that provide the support you need to do your best work whether you’re in office or remote, starting with reliable technology and an ergonomic workstation, and extending to child and dependent care benefits, telemedicine, and mental health support.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us all how important life and disability insurance can be. Revisit your insurance coverage, learn whether your benefits are portable, and consider purchasing individual policies to avoid being underinsured or losing coverage.
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