U.S. employers are taking a wait-and-see approach to their retirement programs. Of the more than 1,300 employers surveyed by Aon Consulting, more than 90 percent are not changing their retirement plans, either in terms of benefits or management.

Both employers and employees are waiting for an economic recovery before moving forward with retirement.

“The ‘wait-and-see’ attitude is not surprising,” said Amol Mhatre, senior vice president responsible for retirement innovation with Aon Consulting. “We may continue to see dramatic economic swings, as interdependencies grow in the global economy, and retirement programs and savings can’t stop with every downturn.

Retirement security for working Americans will soon become a challenge for policy makers and employers, along the lines of health care reform. With a trend toward individual responsibility, increased mobility, complex investment choices, rising cost of health care and improved life expectancy, employers may have to do more to help workers understand and plan for their retirement needs.”

Eighty-seven percent of respondents said employees are delaying their retirement due to economic conditions. A third of employers have less than 70 percent of their employees enrolled in their defined contribution (DC) plans, with the majority (67 percent) saying they believe workers are not enrolled because they can’t afford it.

Almost 40 percent of employers believe employees don’t know enough about funds needed for retirement, but these employees are increasingly turning to their employers for answers. Sixty-four percent of respondents said there was an increase in investment-related questions from employees in 2008 versus 2007. However, only about a third of these organizations increased their communications around the importance of saving for retirement last year, while 62 percent said their communication remained unchanged from the previous year.

More than 90 percent of organizations are also not changing their pension/defined benefit programs. These respondents cited the high cost of company-required contributions (71 percent), volatility (47 percent) and administrative costs (35 percent) as the main reasons.

The survey also revealed that only 45 percent of employers offer a DB plan to their employees. That said, 41 percent of employers have frozen their pension plans to new entrants, 25 percent have frozen their plans entirely and do not have a strategy regarding plan termination, and 20 percent have frozen their plans and intend to terminate the plan once funding allows.

“We do not subscribe to the ‘wait-and-see’ attitude for employers with frozen pension plans,” said Kemp Ross, senior vice president with Aon Consulting and head of Aon Investment Consulting. “Employers have no real upside for taking on the financial risks and costs of frozen pension plans, so organizations need to establish an exit strategy for such plans, which can be executed with a balanced approach to funding and investments during the next few years, as financial markets recover.”

As for defined contribution plans like 401(k)s, 56 percent of employers offer matching contributions. Of those, approximately half provide a higher than 3 percent match. Additionally, 41 percent of employers have an automatic enrollment plan, with 53 percent implementing a default at 3 percent, and nearly all (99 percent) planning to keep their default percentage the same this year.

“While most of our survey respondents did not cite changes to matching contributions, some financially constrained companies did suspend or modify their 401k match in response to the economic downturn,” said Mhatre. “Companies should take this opportunity to look strategically at their retirement programs in the context of total reward strategies.

“Defined contribution plans are increasingly the primary retirement vehicles for American workers. This will surely change how workers and policy makers view companies’ fiduciary responsibilities. We had a third of survey respondents suggest that their fiduciary risks have increased since only a year ago. It is surprising that most companies have not taken actions to mitigate such risks by taking measures such as fiduciary training and review of their governance processes.”