Employers Ready for the Big Reset in Benefits, Scott Milson, HUB International

If 2020 goes down as the Year of the New Normal, then 2021 is destined to be the Year of the Big Reset as employers and employees adjust to what the coronavirus has brought about in terms of needs and expectations.

The disruption that marked 2020 went beyond mass layoffs and furloughs. The coronavirus pandemic’s forced experiment in social distancing has caused major shifts in the American workplace. The repercussions are impacting business cultures, how people are recruited (and from where), what benefits employees most need and value, and how employee benefit plans will be designed going forward.

Events of 2020 led 94% of one survey’s respondents to say their U.S. employers had met or exceeded their expectations in responding and adapting to the pandemic. As we move into 2021, employers will be challenged to continue the momentum as the Big Reset continues. Here are some of the issues and trends they will be dealing with on the human resources and employee benefits fronts.

  1. The reset on health plans – and benefit programs

A variety of factors have come together to make 2021 the year to take a hard look at health plan design. Start here: While rate increases have continued, medical carriers are providing premium return or holiday programs, since they didn’t meet the medical loss ratios set by the Affordable Care Act.  Even so, there are concerns that many of the routine health services that were put off during the pandemic shutdown may have been avoided permanently. Plus, large COVID claims may still be in the cards as some deferred services may become or exacerbate chronic issues in the longer term. Another impetus: employers who reduced headcounts with furloughs and layoffs also saved on health plan costs.

At the same time, the pandemic heightened employee appreciation for health benefits, and especially the value of telemedicine and health savings accounts (HSAs) as a way to build savings for unexpected medical costs. The pandemic caused a quarter of respondents to one survey to boost their HSA contributions, and 44% to (positively) change their view of telemedicine. (Even so, 401(k) contributions slowed and most plan participants did not withdraw for COVID-related expenses when given the chance.) The CARES Act helped, allowing high deductible health plan (HDHP) participants with HSAs to receive telemedicine free of cost-sharing for plan years before January 1, 2022. It’s one way to support employees whose financial stress skyrocketed with the pandemic, especially those with healthcare concerns.

In fact, to differentiate themselves while also better meeting employee needs, employers should look at 2021 as a chance to re-evaluate the basis of their benefits programs overall. Especially in a post-pandemic environment, deductibles and carrier networks are important, but employees increasingly need to know how their benefits will make their lives easier or better.  It takes a strategy that’s based on a combination of employee insights, data analytics and third party data, such as social determinants of health, to develop benefits that are tailored to particular segments of the workforce. Analytics bring more rigor to benefits program design by enabling employers to understand what is driving their costs. It also creates opportunities to transition from one-size-fits-all benefit programs that are costly and less

attractive to employees.


  1. The growing need for mental health and financial wellness support 

The disruptions and anxieties that accompanied the pandemic have taken a toll on employees’ mental health, and the impact may even increase in the new year. To an extent, managers can alleviate some of these stresses by checking in regularly – communicating often – and being flexible and inclusive. But it also makes the case for looking into today’s more robust employee assistance programs (EAPs), especially those that offer virtual consultations. Nearly 60% of employers in one survey were ramping up communications around the long-forgotten EAP because the issue has been so pressing.

Many pressures factor into the rising mental health crisis, one of which is the worsening financial insecurity. Even before the pandemic, nearly every segment of the workforce was financially unwell to some extent, which had led as many as 83 percent of employers with 100 or more employees to institute programs to help address the issue. Employees need a lot more support as they adjust to the new challenges of working from home.

In addition to promoting EAP services (which often include financial counseling), employers should consider programs that are tailored to generational needs, whether saving for retirement or paying off college loans. The financial pressures among employees may also make limited benefit medical plans an option for some employees to offer lower-paid workers who can’t afford the premiums or deductibles of more traditional plans.

3.  Focus sharpens on COVID vaccines and specialty drug cost pressure continues  

Everyone’s eagerly tracking the development of a vaccine that will be effective at ending the coronavirus pandemic. Ideally that will happen sooner rather than later, but even so, employers can be forgiven if they are uneasy over the eventual cost and who will foot the bill.  Nearly all insurers and health plans will be forced to cover the costs without charging co-pays. And, employers need to stay on top of the ongoing financial headache of specialty drugs. Most of the pharmaceuticals in development are specialty drugs, with costly curative gene therapies among them. Plus, those already on the market continue to drive spending, especially as they are approved to treat more conditions. Will federal or state government mandate how these are covered and paid for? Employers can protect themselves by enlisting their broker, pharmacy benefits manager or health insurer in reviewing and fine-tuning their pharmaceutical plan.  In addition to contractual issues like refreshed pricing and rebate transparency there are a myriad of benefit design, clinical program, and alternative funding options to consider.


  1. The shifting landscape for talent recruitment and pay

In many industries, remote workplaces will continue to be the rule, not the exception in 2021, and that’s going to cause a big reset in how talent is recruited and compensated and more. Employers are no longer constrained by geographic boundaries, which will mean a vast talent pool to choose from. That will impact everything from benefits to compensation strategies, forcing employers to adjust accordingly if they hope to effectively recruit and retain talent. The design of a 50-life, fully insured health plan with coverage that spans the country is far different than one whose provider network covers a smaller region. Moreover, there are other benefit issues, like different disability requirements from one state to another, to think about, too. On compensation, a big question is whether the pay strategies reflect how work gets done in this new environment. Employers also must evaluate other aspects of their offer, taking into consideration their entire rewards packages as well as executive benefits – all important differentiators in a competitive job market. Gaining strategic advantage to attract top-flight senior management, for example, requires more than the “standard” benefits.  That makes it worth looking at retirement plan add-ons like non-qualified defined contribution that supplement qualified plans. Individual disability insurance is another benefit that’s critical to offer as group disability benefits typically fall short in protecting executive pay levels.

  1. Doing diversity, equity and inclusion right – the drive continues

Diversity, equity and inclusion will remain a front-and-center concern among employers, today and continuing well into 2021 and beyond. The challenge to employers will be to remain steady with the drive to effect meaningful and lasting cultural change. The business case for diversity – and the financial adjustments that result – have been well documented for over two decades. The events of 2020 have reinforced with employers the need to understand how diversity can play a positive role in organizational success. There is no playbook. The right approach is nuanced, complex and requires addressing important issues and executing changes with education, conversation and understanding. Rushing to a solution is not the answer.

Success in 2021 and beyond

All of the stresses of 2020 came together as a catalyst for change for many U.S. employers. The move to remote work is forcing many to re-evaluate structures and values and refocus attention on such long-standing issues as the precarious mental and financial health of their workers. As the new environment removes constraints on where people work from, it’s also altering how recruitment, compensation and benefits are viewed and managed. And other forces like Black Lives Matter demonstrations also are affecting the fabric of corporate cultures. In 2021, employers have the opportunity to emerge from the disruption in a better position for the challenges ahead, poised for success as the decade proceeds.

About the author:
Scott Millson is the President, Employee Benefits for HUB Florida.  With over 30 years of experience in employee benefits and HR technology, Scott oversees the strategic planning, organizational design, resource investment and alignment for the HUB Florida EB team.  Link here for further information about Hub International’s employee benefits capabilities.