For everything there is a season: Allergies. Taxes. Holidays. Back-to-school. And employee benefits.
This month and next, millions of U.S. employees must choose from a smorgasbord of employer benefits, tabulate costs and figure which workplace offerings are best for their health and wallets.
With broader benefit options, rising health care costs and wide deductible choices, it’s hard to know what to do or where to start.
“Most employees are going to have to go through a process to select 20-plus benefits, sign up and maybe have a cost impact,” said Jim Priebe, chief strategy officer at Empyrean Benefit Solutions, a division of St. Paul-based Securian Financial. “But how do you decide? “
To help, we’ve asked human resource and financial pros what’s new on the benefits front and for answers to your most pressing questions.
Five do’s as open enrollment starts
The experts have advice on how to start, but say the most important thing is to know your deadline and avoid procrastinating. Otherwise, you could miss out on a slew of new benefits employers are throwing in the pot to retain you, recruit new workers and remain competitive in a tight job market, said Lisa Tuttle, a financial adviser at Ameriprise.
Phil Hague, who works at 3M, said he expects his open enrollment to start this week. The company generally offers online stories with “People Like Me” scenarios of different benefits based on age, whether they are parents, single or healthy. Employees can then mirror their choices, he said.
“So it’s a pretty helpful way they do it at 3M,” he said. “But it’s a lot of math. I don’t try to analyze the logic of this too much because it makes my head hurt.”
Once you’ve opened that HR enrollment portal, the experts said not to ignore information like 3M offers. They offer the following tips:
—Dig in. Married? Sit down with your spouse. Compare their 2024 workplace benefits and costs with yours. Don’t double pay for the same benefit. Once you’ve evaluated coverages and options, decide which spouse pays for what.
A warning: Double-check if premiums are tabulated monthly or per paycheck.
“Do that math carefully,” Tuttle said. Some clients confused their week vs. month premium schedules and accidentally choose a more expensive option, she said.
—Read carefully. Some employers insert a “spousal surcharge” if you include your spouse on your health insurance plan. That surcharge can be $100 a month or paycheck. So it might make financial sense for each working spouse to separately tap their own employer’s plan.
—Consider flexible spending accounts (FSAs). Consider opting for pre-tax FSA plans to pay for medical insurance costs or day-care costs. That tax trick can save you a bundle.
Many employers also contribute funds into workers’ health savings account (HSA) plans, which helps. “I’m a big advocate of FSAs and HSAs,” said Anne St. Martin, senior knowledge specialist at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “They can be intimidating at first, but I encourage employees to put in the effort to learn about them. The tax savings are significant.”
—See if long-term disability insurance is an option. Long-term disability insurance protects your income should you become disabled and unable to work. There’s a fee. But experts say it’s often worth the cost, especially if you really need that paycheck to support yourself and family.
—Consider legal services benefits. These benefits are offered by an increasing number of employers — some of them for free, some for a nominal cost. You can save $1,000 to $1,500 using this perk for estate planning, which includes creating a will, power of attorney and health care directive. For example, Amazon is rolling out 30 days of free digital legal services for all employees this year.
“It’s one of those blockbuster items,” Tuttle said. “Your employer [may] give you a list of like 20 attorneys in your area that accept this the sort of plan. This is probably the most underutilized benefit that I see.”
—Look for new benefit offerings. Free legal services is just one of several new benefits to watch for this year. Worker shortages and the desire to woo more workers back into the office have pushed many employers to add on the extras.
The 300,000-member SHRM reports workplace perks such as pre-tax transportation accounts, child-care subsidies, extended parental leave, medical travel expenses and even free financial counseling. Not all are connected to open enrollment, but you need to check.
“We’ve seen a rise in voluntary (employer) benefits related to things like pet insurance, legal-assistance programs, student loan repayment and other things like identity-theft protection plans,” said Empyrean’s Priebe.
Some Minnesota employers offer wellness programs with health deductible discounts built in to nudge staffers to get to the gym, address mental health concerns and take preventive steps that ward off certain diseases.
Such perks are in addition to core workplace benefits like medical, dental, vision, life insurance and disability insurance, Priebe said.
John Norris, who co-owns Atscott Manufacturing and Tower Solutions in Pine City, Minn.,, added some wellness options at his 63-worker machine shop. Having broad benefits is critical.
“It does relate to hiring. In order to be competitive, we have to have competitive benefits,” Norris said. “All of those things employees expect regardless of where they are, and especially if they are skilled employees. Because they can go anywhere.”
—Don’t let sticker shock stop you. Employees still must evaluate what benefits are worth the cost-share with employers. Expect group-medical premiums to rise an average 5.4% at large employers and as much as 7.3% at small firms this year, according to the benefits-management firm Mercer.
Those increases are higher than the 3.2% jump most saw last year. But employees’ individual out-of-pockets costs (which reached $15,013 last year) will differ in 2024 depending on how employers share price hike burdens.
“The affordability issue cuts both ways,” said Tracy Watts, Mercer’s U.S. Health Policy leader.
“Employers will be challenged to absorb the higher costs coming down the pike, but they also know some people will forgo important care when they feel they can’t afford it,” she said. “Particularly with inflation putting added stress on household finances, budget concerns need to be balanced with the downstream implications of health care affordability. So the focus now is on strategies to rein in cost growth without shifting the cost to the employee.”
If you are an employee and get sticker shock when you open your benefits packet, start the evaluation process by scrutinizing your current pay stub to understand what you are paying now and compare with 2024 costs, SHRM’s St. Martin said.
Also evaluate how you use health care, she said.
“Employees should look beyond the employee’s premium contribution when comparing plans,” St. Martin said. “A plan with lower premiums may have a much higher deductible than a plan with higher premiums. Employees are wise to consider multiple factors such as premiums, deductibles and coinsurance when comparing plans.”
Many employers host benefit fairs or informational meetings with representatives from insurance providers to help workers navigate choices and ask questions. Or call your HR representatives or the 800 number on the back of the medical card to ask for clarification.
—Evaluate if you need it. Watch your pennies when electing to pay for extras.
“We often see clients electing too many benefits that they don’t need or not electing benefits that they really should consider,” said Tuttle at Ameriprise.
For example, some workplaces offer her clients both life insurance plus the chance to buy supplemental policies like Accidental Death and Dismemberment (AD&D) insurance.
But AD&D policies only pay under “very limited” circumstances and are not medical insurance, she said. “So don’t double pay for something if it’s not really giving you any additional true benefit.”
One thing not to skip over, though, is the 401(K), said Joe Stepanek, a wealth adviser at Thrivent, especially if employers match contributions.
“That’s free money,” he said.