Experts say a little creativity can go a long way in search for comprehensive but affordable benefits
Offering employees traditional benefits — health care, insurance, savings plans, paid time off — has always been a challenge for employers because of the high expense that comes with them.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, traditional employee benefits represent about a third of an organization’s compensation costs. To maximize that return on investment, it’s necessary to plan strategically to provide the best options for their workforce but remain cost effective.
Whether the employer is a private university, manufacturer, insurance company or financial institution, professionals in every industry face similar challenges. The goal is to find the best solutions for the right kind of benefits that will contribute to workforce retention and recruiting efforts.
A healthy environment
Valparaiso University is a private college that employs 935 people. In 2015, the school’s insurance broker suggested they consider an onsite clinic as a benefit that could reduce health care costs for both employer and employee.
“When our employees visit the onsite clinic, instead of visiting an urgent care or even a primary care physician, both sides save money,” said Scott Harrison, the human resources executive director at the college. “Cost savings are realized in a few ways, (and) our most recent analysis of the plan showed a substantial savings for the university, and a very high satisfaction rating from our employees. It’s definitely a win-win.”
About 86 percent of eligible employees and their dependents visit the clinic routinely, the university said. Indianapolis-based OurHealth manages the clinic. It charges the school a flat rate based on the number of eligible employees.
“It’s a fixed cost every year,” Harrison said. “That makes our budget stable, which helps offset other benefit costs that fluctuate annually.”
Services available to employees and dependents include wellness checks, vaccinations, acute care for colds and flu, standard children’s immunizations, prescriptions and management of certain chronic conditions.
Harrison uses the clinic twice a month.
“I pay nothing for quality services, right on campus,” he said.
Another innovative benefit that VU offers eligible employees is a tuition remission/exchange program. Employees can attend courses at the campus tuition free, paying only for books and lab fees.
As their seniority grows, so does the benefit. The exchange portion of the program allows employees and dependents to attend other colleges tuition free. Schools enrolled in the program swap fees and write them off quid pro quo.
Harrison said the tuition reimbursement program is as popular as the clinic.
“Our ability to offer these two benefits helps us attract and retain the type of talent we need in order to remain a premier education establishment,” he said. “Conversely, we have found ways to keep the costs relatively low and stable.”
A question of culture
General Insurance Services in La Porte assists small- to mid-sized companies in constructing employee benefits packages to help attract and retain top talent. The goal is to find balance between effectiveness for employees and efficiency for business.
“Whenever I sit down to discuss employee benefits with an organization, I always ask about their culture,” said Craig Menne, president and CEO. “It’s important for a company to understand that the package they offer employees is a reflection of the culture they want to promote.”
Menne said this doesn’t mean providing exorbitant benefits, which do not fit a realistic budget.
“Smaller companies simply don’t have the budget of a large business,” he said. “But they can still be creative and innovative in how they show employees that they value them.”
Since General Insurance is a small business, Menne uses his firsthand experiences when talking to a company.
“Something very important to younger employees is what the company does outside of making a product,” he said. “Do they get involved in the community? Are they considered a value-added resource that makes the town a better place to live?”
General Insurance offers employees paid time off to volunteer for their favorite nonprofit or other charitable organization. It also matches collections on “blue jean Friday” and donates the proceeds to those organizations.
“It’s not a tremendous amount of money or time,” Menne said. “But it tells our employees that we value what they are passionate about, and that we listen. That can mean as much to them as other more traditional benefits.”
A different demographic of employees may place a higher value on retirement savings and disability benefits. For General Insurance and their clients, Menne refers to the culture and the tone of the business.
Another creative option General Insurance brings up to companies is the potential flexibility of a 401k plan.
“If the plan is constructed correctly, employees can use matching funds to pay off student loans,” he said. “That can be a very attractive benefit yet doesn’t cost more than the original contribution match.”
Banking on what’s real
According to Chrisanne Christ, senior partner of human resource development at Merrillville-based Centier Bank, the core traditional benefits offered to associates are just the beginning of a continuous journey.
“With the low unemployment rates, people have choices,” she said. “Those choices become very important because they identify who the associate is, and who we are (as an organization).”
Centier uses third-party anonymous feedback surveys from employees to gather pertinent data on what is important to them and their lives. That information is cross referenced with benchmark studies and Society for Human Resource Management publications to compile a comprehensive list of what matters to its employees.
“We offer an excellent package of health care, insurance, disability and vacation,” Christ said. “Then we go above and beyond to offer benefits that fit our associate’s vision on making an impact in the community.”
Centier employees receive paid time off to volunteer at local nonprofits. They are compensated for involvement in activities, including the Day of Caring, volunteering at the NWI Food Bank, and Phil’s Friends, an organization that supports cancer patients.
“These are benefits that have costs associated with them,” she said. “But it’s one way we let our team know that, if it’s important to them, it’s also important to us.”
Centier also has teamed with OurHealth to provide health care services to associates. The partnership results in significant savings for the bank and its employees. With multiple participating locations, a clinic is always close and convenient.
The bank also provides paid parental leave, which Christ said is an extremely popular benefit, especially for younger associates who are raising a family.
Care Here is an initiative funded by both associates and management. Contributions from both sides are available to associates in need.
“We’ve had team members who needed a new furnace right now and didn’t have the resources,” Christ said. “The Care Here fund is used to help our associates get back on track after such a setback. People donate to help their fellow associates, and that’s about as real as it gets.”
At the crossroads
According to a 2018 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 18 percent of America’s large businesses (more than 250 employees) offer retiree health care. That’s down 50 percent in the past 30 years.
Urschel Laboratories, with their new state-of-art facility in Chesterton, has taken a different approach to employee benefits.
“Our corporate culture is a long-term vision for both the company and the employee,” said James Keilman, the company’s human resources executive director. “When someone comes on board at Urschel, we want it to be a career, not a stop. To encourage that, we offer a rich package of benefits that define our commitment to employees.”
Using an old-school approach that harkens back to a different era, Urschel offers retirement health care benefits to eligible retirees. The health care plan in effect during an employees’ career consists of low co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.
Tracie Lopez, a senior human resources generalist at Urschel, said the company uses benchmark comparisons to help define what makes Urschel stand out from the competition.
“We strive to help our employees maintain health and financial well-being,” she said. “The analytics we use to create our benefits package tell us what employees value the most.”
Urschel is an employee-owned business. Employees receive company stock annually as part of its ESOP allocation formula. The stock is sold back to the company at retirement.
A robust 401k plan is another driver of the long-term vision.
Urschel also buys in to OurHealth services for employees.
“As a self-funded health care plan, we experience a cost reduction when employees and their dependents utilize the clinic, and they get the health care they need with little to no co-pays,” Keilman said. “It’s a win-win.”
Urschel also incorporated a workout facility and wellness center when it recently expanded its Chesterton location to encourage employees to live healthier and get more active.
Urschel is reaping the rewards in terms of extremely low turnover, a critical component of the institutional knowledge necessary to remain competitive, company representatives said.
LHD Benefit Advisors in Indianapolis is a full-service employee benefits firm. It works with businesses, which employ between 20 and 2,000 employees, offering services that range from employee benefits to population health to retirement.
“When we begin working with a company, we discuss a benefit pyramid,” said Ben Fuelberth, senior benefits adviser. “The bottom of the pyramid is the largest band, narrowing as it rises.”
He said the first step is deciding what will be in the largest band, because that’s going to be what impacts employees the most. Typically, the largest band consists of major medical coverage and disability options.
“Regardless of the employee demographics, those two benefits rise to the top of the priority list,” Fuelberth said. “Depending on the company and their budget, the next two are life insurance and retirement, usually in the form of a 401k.”
Fuelberth said between a half to two-thirds of employees do not have emergency funds set aside. A January 2019 report from CNBC said only 40 percent of Americans have $1,000 set aside for emergency issues.
“We talk to our clients about how benefits, such as health care and disability, can be viewed as emergency funds for health-related issues,” he said. “It’s a selling point to employees and candidates that tells them you’re engaged.”
LHD assists partners in benchmarking their package against similar companies.
“We try to get our partners to the 50th percentile,” he said. “A business can always decide to provide more, if possible, (but) knowing you’re in the midrange of your competition is a solid foundation.”