Don’t Forget to R-EAP the Benefits of Employer-Sponsored Plans

While salary, vacation time, insurance payments and creature comforts are the highly-touted employer benefits offered to employees, there’s an extremely valuable resource that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves: the Employee Assistance Plan (EAP).

Though benefits change from plan to plan, an EAP often covers services such as free counseling or therapy sessions, phone or internet-based counseling options, assistance with elder care/child care, financial assistance, stress management, help with legal concerns, addiction and recovery assistance, concierge or convenience services and more.

While not all companies offer the plans, over three-quarters of employers named to the 2017 Best Places to Work in Indiana list reported offering an EAP to their employees. And as the top-rated workplaces in the state based on their own employee surveys, they must all be on to something.

I sat down with the Indiana Chamber’s director of human resources, Michelle Kavanaugh, SPHR, to discuss why EAPs are sometimes underutilized and what human resources professionals can do to help boost involvement. She points to the EAP often getting lost in the open enrollment or new hire process.

“The benefits process and open enrollment can be overwhelming to people; they’re just trying to figure out the medical side of insurance and a lot of times the extras get missed,” she offers. “The EAP benefits that people hear about, you just sort of put them away and don’t think you’ll ever need to use it.”

Another issue is the stigma that surrounds mental health.

“There is also a misconception about reaching out for help with mental health issues that prevents people from utilizing it too,” she adds.

Her recommendations for getting the word out include utilizing existing communications methods – highlighting various pieces of the EAP in a company newsletter, for example. And using personal testimonials from employees who have benefitted from the resources can make a big impact.

My personal testimonial is this: I was never aware of the benefits of an EAP myself (I have no idea if any of my previous employers even offered such a service) until the time came that I needed additional help outside of the office, particularly after my first daughter was born and I struggled with post-partum anxiety. My first piece of advice to any friend or family member dealing with myriad issues is, “Does your employer offer an EAP? Go talk to your human resources representative and find out.”

Employers benefit from offering the programs as well. While I don’t have return on investment numbers to share, it’s well documented that emotional and mental well-being are critical to employee performance and productivity. If employees are able to manage their stress – financial, emotional, family and otherwise – outside of the workplace, they’re less likely to have those issues impact their performance on the job.

Help your bottom line by ensuring your employees know they have valuable resources available to them. Or, if you don’t have an EAP, talk to your benefits provider about how to get started. And don’t forget to spread the word to your employees – it only works if they use it!

Women, Men Differ in Some Work Priorities

No shocker here: Salary and benefits remain critical elements for individuals choosing where to start or continue their careers. Beyond that, however, the factors that most attract job candidates vary based on gender.

Randstad, a global provider of human resources services, conducted a comprehensive 7,000-person survey. Below are a few of the key findings:

“How a company is perceived as an employer impacts what types of candidates it will attract,” said Lisa Crawford, senior vice president, Randstad U.S. “As our research reveals, companies may need to focus on key elements, such as building culture and adopting more flexible work policies, to appeal to different demographics. Attracting and retaining talent is not a one stop shop—particularly with a diverse workforce and multiple generations sitting side-by-side to one another.”

  • Women Want a Prime Location: Location is key for women workers, with 44% of female respondents choosing that as an important employer attribute compared to 35% of men.
  • Men Want Career Progression Opportunities in Financially Healthy Companies: When choosing to work for an employer, 42% of men look for opportunities to advance versus 36% of women. Additionally, the financial health of a company is very important to male respondents (36% of men versus 28% of women).
  • Work/life Balance Continues to Be a Top Concern for Women Workers: Nearly one-in-four (37%) women respondents chose workplace flexibility as an important employer attribute, compared to just 26% of men.

Exercise: Maybe Even More Valuable Than We Thought

If you’re one of those wellness-oriented people who annoys your coworkers with your mountain of weekly activity (thus making them feel terrible about themselves), then you’ll love this post on the New York Times blog. Seriously though, this is great info and HR and wellness professionals should take note:

Is physical frailty inevitable as we grow older? That question preoccupies scientists and the middle-aged, particularly when they become the same people. Until recently, the evidence was disheartening. A large number of studies in the past few years showed that after age 40, people typically lose 8 percent or more of their muscle mass each decade, a process that accelerates significantly after age 70. Less muscle mass generally means less strength, mobility and among the elderly, independence. It also has been linked with premature mortality.

But a growing body of newer science suggests that such decline may not be inexorable. Exercise, the thinking goes, and you might be able to rewrite the future for your muscles.

Consider the results of a stirring study published last month in the journal The Physician and Sportsmedicine. For it, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recruited 40 competitive runners, cyclists and swimmers. They ranged in age from 40 to 81, with five men and five women representing each of four age groups: 40 to 49, 50 to 59, 60 to 69, and 70-plus. All were enviably fit, training four or five times a week and competing frequently. Several had won their age groups in recent races.

They completed questionnaires detailing their health and weekly physical activities. Then the researchers measured their muscle mass, leg strength and body composition, determining how much of their body and, more specifically, their muscle tissue was composed of fat. Other studies have found that as people age, they not only lose muscle, but the tissue that remains can become infiltrated with fat, degrading its quality and reducing its strength.

There was little evidence of deterioration in the older athletes’ musculature, however. The athletes in their 70s and 80s had almost as much thigh muscle mass as the athletes in their 40s, with minor if any fat infiltration. The athletes also remained strong. There was, as scientists noted, a drop-off in leg muscle strength around age 60 in both men and women. They weren’t as strong as the 50-year-olds, but the differential was not huge, and little additional decline followed. The 70- and 80-year-old athletes were about as strong as those in their 60s.

Fun Perks in Tough Times

For many companies, it’s time to tighten budgets like never before. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn your employees into robots. Mashable posts on what six successful companies are doing to keep employees happy. For just a snapshot, look at the great things Clif Bar is doing:

  • Free coffee
  • A $350 stipend to help cover the entry costs for races, events and competitions
  • A dog-friendly office
  • Clif Base Camp, a “competitively priced” daycare center that has capacity for 64 children up to 5 years of age
  • Concierge services, including on-site car washing and detailing, haircuts, laundry and dry cleaning — to support a healthy work-life balance. While not free, these services are convenient and efficient
  • Subsidized massage and chiropractic services on site
  • Alternative Transportation Rewards: Employees who commute on foot, by bike, on public transportation or in carpools can earn up to $960 a year in rewards. Employees earn points that can be redeemed for commuter checks, extra cash, Clif gear, massages and more
  • Cool Commute Incentives, the nation’s first-ever biodiesel incentive program for employees, rewards employees for biking, walking, carpooling, taking public transit and driving a hybrid or bio-diesel vehicle. Employees can get a $6,500 tax incentive for purchasing biodiesel, and up to $500 for the purchase of a commuter bike so long as they commute by bike at least twice per month.
  • Cool Home Incentives: Employees can receive up to $1,000 per year to make eco-home improvements — like installing Energy Star appliances, insulation installation, solar installations or energy-efficient windows — that will reduce waste and the use of fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energies.
  • Flexible schedule: Clif Bar teammates get eight paid holidays, plus a paid week off between December 25 and January 1. Employees start with 15 days of paid time off, and that increases to 20 days the second year and 25 days the fifth year. Then there’s the 9/80 Schedule, whereby employees can work 80 hours in nine days and then get every other Friday off.
  • Sabbatical: After seven years at Clif Bar, employees can enjoy a six- to eight-week sabbatical.
  • Kali’s Kitchen: Founder Gary Erickson’s grandmother Kali inspired him to bake, and so Kali’s Kitchen works with regional farmers to source organic ingredients for affordable meals (a $6.50 price point is common).
  • Weekly breakfast meeting: Every week the company assembles for a company breakfast — bagels, fresh fruit, eggs, oatmeal, juice, bacon and sausage and more are served — and the team shares news and announcements and a consumer’s “letter of the week.”
  • Employee Stock Ownership Plan, funded entirely by contributions from the company with no required employee contribution. Employees are automatically enrolled and become 100 percent vested after three years with the company or when they reach retirement age, whichever comes first.
  • Retirement: To help employees plan for retirement, the company adds financial literacy classes and a 401(K) savings plan with a dollar-for-dollar matching contribution for the first 5% of pay deferred.

C’mon Congress: UI Fix Won’t Happen by Itself

There is a reason the Indiana Chamber advocated in the 2010 legislative session for a two-year delay in the state’s unemployment insurance tax increase. That’s because two major things needs to happen — and both will take time. One is a comprehensive look at the state system; that means reviewing eligibility and benefit levels in addition to simply raising the tab for employers. Second is that Congress needs to craft a national solution to the billions that are being borrowed by numerous states, ones that do not have the capability to pay back the loans or the interest.

Indiana lawmakers did grant a one-year delay, saving employee jobs as employers could ill afford the $400 million tax increase. Little progress, however, has been made on the two elements to the long-term solution. Thus, another delay will certainly be on the agenda come January.

Stateline.org, in a story yesterday, details the dollars involved nationally and the need for Congress to act.

More than 30 states have borrowed nearly $40 billion. Some of the current totals:

  • California, $7.5 billion
  • Michigan, $3.8 billion
  • New York, $3.2 billion
  • Pennsylvania, $3.0 billion
  • North Carolina, $2.4 billion
  • Ohio, $2.3 billion
  • Illinois, $2.2 billion
  • Others topping $1 billion are Indiana ($1.7), New Jersey, Florida, Texas and Wisconsin

According to the story:

It adds up to more borrowing for the programs than ever before, and it’s likely to balloon by year’s end. If interest rates projected at around 4 to 5 percent were added to that total amount, it would force states to pay an additional $1.6 to $2 billion currently unaccounted for. And that’s not the only additional fee that could be imposed. For every year the loans aren’t paid back, employers will lose at least 0.3 percent from the federal credit. That could mean that an employer’s tax rate of 1.1 percent would inflate to 1.4 percent.

Doug Holmes, the president of UWC Strategies, a business-oriented consulting firm, says 25 of the 31 states borrowing federal dollars will be unable to pay off their loans in time unless Congress acts soon to revise the rules. But this may be an inopportune time for Congress to try to renew the interest-rate moratorium, says Mike Katz, of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA). Nothing is likely to be considered before the election, and if Republicans make substantial gains, as is expected, a new stimulus is very unlikely.

Michigan, a state that has a federal unemployment insurance debt close to $4 billion, provides a striking example. During the last recession in 2002, state lawmakers raised weekly benefits by about 20 percent. Policies like this led the state to unemployment insurance insolvency in 2006, three years before the surge of borrowing among other states began. Because of this, Michigan has already felt the federal penalties that most states are now fearing.

The closest that states have ever come to this level of borrowing happened in 1983, when the recessions of the mid-1970s and early 1980s added up to a collective unemployment insurance debt of $28 billion (the number is adjusted to 2007 dollars). During the first few years of the 1980s, Congress passed a series of reforms that aided the ability of states to pay off the loans. 

By 1990, all the outstanding debt was paid off, but much of that was aided by a prosperous economic rebound throughout the mid- to late ’80s. “If we’re going to recover from this period, we need to get lucky,” says NASWA Executive Director Rich Hobbie. “That is a steep hill to climb.”

Unemployment Comp: How Much is Too Much?

Jobs are — or should be — the number one priority as economic recovery (in that sense) remains elusive. For those currently without jobs, however, how much unemployment compensation is too much? It’s a tricky question, but one that is starting to be asked by more than a few people.

The unemployment comp program, created during the Depression as a temporary aid for laid-off workers, is now termed by some as an "expensive entitlement." While those out of work once received six months of payments, that has now surged to as high as 99 weeks in some states. Half of the more than 11 million unemployed have been jobless for longer than six months.

This is a downturn unlike any other since the program was created and many of those jobs will likely not come back. And while the vast majority are very likely doing all they can to find meaningful employment in the effort to return to their previous lifestyle, nearly two years of unemployment benefits has also undoubtedly led some to adopt the option of "let the government pay the tab" for awhile.

Few seemingly agreed with Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning’s recent filibuster that delayed the latest unemployment benefits extension (he wanted Washington to find a way to pay for it), but his logic was accepted in some circles. Colleague Jon Kyle of Arizona commented that the continued benefits are a "disincentive for people to seek new work" and that no one can argue that the current system is a "job enhancer."

Employers pay the bill through taxes in nearly all states (a few require worker contributions). Benefits have been extended before, but rolled back when the unemployment rate declined. That decline is proving difficult to achieve this time around.

A Washington Post article this week included the following:

"It is appropriate and natural for Congress to extend the time limit of unemployment insurance with the job market as bad as it is," said James Sherk, a labor economist at the Heritage Foundation. "But by quadrupling it, it is no longer an unemployment insurance program but a welfare program."

Phillip L. Swagel, a former Treasury Department official who is now a business professor at Georgetown University, said that some people might take longer to find a new job as a result of unemployment insurance extensions, but that right now it’s a needed benefit.

"The reality is that it’s hard to find a job even for people who really want one," he said.

But as the job market improves, Swagel said, unemployment insurance extensions must be pared back quickly, as they have been in previous downturns. "It’s important to let the extensions lapse as the job market recovers — to avoid having disincentives to work once the job market is better," Swagel said.

Part of the question is timing. For a program that is currently costing $10 billion a month, that’s something that needs answered sooner rather than later.

Best Places to Work Winners Are …

In this time of primarily doom, gloom and unfortunately a little more doom, it sure is nice to be able to tell some positive business stories. Our Chamber communication staff is doing just that in putting together the Best Places to Work in Indiana issue of BizVoice magazine.

Everyone rightfully touts the line that people are what make their company what it is. Only those that back it up, however, with visible actions are the ones that develop the strongest of workplace cultures. These are the organizations that have people knocking on their door wanting to be part of the team, along with earning deep loyalty from existing associates.

The 70 companies being honored at the May 5 awards dinner have been identified. We’ve found businesses that go beyond just generous benefits and flexible work arrangements. Leadership shows it cares, with employees responding with strong productivity and commitment. Leading the way at the top of the small/medium and large company lists are … you didn’t really think I was going to tell, did you?

You’ll need to come to the dinner or catch the BizVoice, debuting at the end of the May 5 event, for the actual rankings. All the companies, however, are winners. Congratulations to them — and thanks for providing us some good news.