Salary freezes end, benefits return as economy improves

The majority of employers cut costs during the Great Recession by downsizing, laying people off, freezing salaries and other cutbacks, but the trend is starting to reverse.

According to data compiled by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies during the past five years, the past 12 months have been fairly good for businesses as employers responding to this past year’s survey responded that they hadn’t made any of the above cuts in the past year.

“Weathering the Economic Storm: Retirement Plans in the United States, 2007-2012” found that retirement benefits have remained relatively intact during the past five years, except for those offering defined benefit plans or traditional pension plans, which declined from 19 percent in 2007 to 16 percent in 2012.

The vast majority of employers who were surveyed for this report, 82 percent, said they consider retirement plans an important benefit for attracting and retaining employees. The number of employers offering a 401(k) or similar plan increased from 72 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2012. According to Catherine Collinson, author of the report, these statistics were attributable to small companies with 20 to 499 employees and were more likely due to the closing of smaller, unstable businesses that did not offer plans versus healthy businesses adopting new plans.

Employers offering matching contributions to their defined contribution plans dropped from 80 percent in 2007 to 70 percent in 2012, however, of the 17 percent who said they decreased or suspended their match since 2008, half had already reinstated it.

Large companies offering automatic features increased from 31 percent to 45 percent in the past five years and among them, 84 percent have adopted Qualified Default Investment Alternatives. Companies adopting the Roth feature in their 401(k) also increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2012.

Worker participation rates in workplace retirement plans has held steady at 77 percent, and in 2012, annual salary deferral rates returned to their 2007 level of 7 percent after having dipped to 6 percent between 2009 and 2011.

According to the data, some workers have taken loans or hardship withdrawals from their accounts and many people who became unemployed or underemployed took early distributions from their accounts during the five-year time period, but household retirement savings increased during that time, with Echo Boomers showing the highest gains at 77 percent. GenX reported an increase of 30 percent and Baby Boomers saw an increase of 33 percent.

Despite the increases in household savings, the current levels of savings continue to be inadequate for many workers to meet their future retirement income needs.

Transamerica believes employers will continue to play a vital role in helping workers save for retirement by offering retirement plans along with education and planning tools and retirement income options. The organization recommends that employers who don’t already offer a workplace retirement plan do so and extend eligibility for the plan to all employees, including part-timers. It also recommends adding automatic enrollment and escalation features to increase participation rates and salary deferral rates.

It believes that matching contributions are important and recommends companies consider structuring their match to promote higher salary deferrals. It also recommends that companies offer pre-retirees greater assistance in planning their transition into retirement, including the need for a back-up plan if they find themselves retiring sooner than expected due to unforeseen circumstances.

For policymakers, Transamerica recommends they pursue legislative and regulatory initiatives to expand qualified retirement plan coverage for all workers, including part-time workers. This could be accomplished by implementing reforms to multiple employer plans to facilitate the opportunity for small businesses to join existing plans to achieve economies of scale similar to large employers; expanding the tax credit for employers to start plans; and providing incentives to encourage plan sponsors to cover part-time workers.


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