Most businesses fall into one of three categories: an essential service that allows businesses to continue to operate, but with strict mitigation processes in place; closed, but employees are able to work remotely; or operations have ceased altogether because the product or service can’t be provided “remotely” and is not considered essential.
The last group is impacted the hardest by the pandemic. They’re not operating, and therefore have little to no revenue stream, but, of course, continue to have overhead expenses such as rent, salaries, utilities, carrying charges, and debt servicing.
One expense business owners are being forced to reconsider is their employee benefit plans. Employee benefits provide peace of mind and security to individuals and families. These people are already under stress from self-isolation, concern for loved ones, meeting financial obligations, layoffs, terminations, and fear of how/when the COVID-19 crisis will end. Losing benefit coverage, on top of everything else, can be financially and emotionally devastating for employees, particularly if they have a medical issue requiring regular maintenance drugs, or if they suffer from serious medical conditions.
Most insurance carriers are offering solutions to assist businesses with managing their employee benefit programs. Options to employers include:
- Laying employees off with no benefits;
- Laying employees off with benefit continuation;
- Terminating the benefit plan completely and reinstating it at a later date;
- Deferring benefit plan premium payments, or;
- Changing the benefit plan design to maintain critical employee coverage.
Additionally, many insurers have also added flexibility to specific benefits, including the following:
- Waiving the waiting period for Weekly Indemnity (WI) (short-term disability benefits) for COVID‑19 related claims, including coverage for quarantine situations;
- Enabling owners to continue Disability benefits for laid-off employees (normally disability benefits are not continued);
- Adding virtual care (telemedicine) services to enable employees to access doctors online, from the comfort of their home, without having to go to a clinic or emergency room;
- Expanding eligible paramedical benefits to include teleconference treatment for some practitioners such as physiotherapists, psychologists, social workers, speech therapists, dieticians, optometrists, and naturopaths;
- Temporarily removing or changing benefits, and/or
- Adapting employee eligibility rules related to layoffs that occur during waiting periods.
Now, more than ever, benefits that once seemed “accessory” to their plans are helping employees stay mentally and physically healthy during this crisis. For instance, employee counselling and EAP are particularly relevant as they help employees manage challenges to their mental health. Virtual doctor services, offered by some plans, are invaluable for helping families manage episodic issues, while keeping them safe in the comfort of their own home.
Business owners are now required to carefully weigh all their options and make tough decisions regarding the long-term viability and survival of their business. Employee benefit plans are a great way for businesses to continue to support employees and maintain loyalty during this time of crisis. Employers who continue to communicate and support their employees – whether actively working, laid-off or terminated – will likely be able to get up and running much sooner when the pandemic is over.
Employee benefit plans are complex and navigating all the support options available can be very challenging. The good news is help and expertise is just a phone call away. Business owners should reach out to their benefit plan advisor for support and advice. Or, if a business owner is in the process of looking for benefit coverage to support their employees through the current crisis, most insurance carriers will be able to get you set up very quickly.
After the crisis, the country will be looking to businesses to heal the economy. Advisors have excellent knowledge of the flexibility being offered by the various insurance companies and can make specific recommendations for each business based on their unique circumstances. They can help businesses get back on track. We’re all in this together.