graph of increasing sales Fromthe employees' perspective, voluntary benefits can be veryaffordable, costing far less than similar coverage purchased on theindividual market.

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Today's workforce is focused on benefits like never before. Intimes of uncertainty—particularly around health—employees want toknow more about their benefits. What coverage do they have (andwhat don't they), what's covered (and what isn't)? And now,many are realizing they wish they had more, or different,coverage for themselves and their families.

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Related: Employees want more help understanding their healthcare coverage

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Every employee has a different expectation about whatconstitutes a "good" benefits package; and that expectation istypically shaped by their age, lifestyle and specific health needs.So how can an employer offer a package that meets the varying needsof their entire workforce, without straining or breaking theircompensation and benefits budget?

Revisit the basics

In today's workforce, dental, vision and disability coverage are"table stakes"—an employer that doesn't offer them will likely facereal challenges in recruiting and retaining top employees. Don'tignore these essentials—these, plus health insurance, should formthe foundation of your benefits package. Remember, these coveragescan be offered as part of the employer-sponsored package, or on astrictly voluntary (employee pay all) basis.

Expand voluntary offerings

Although 79 percent of companies offer some type ofvoluntary benefits, it's important to make sure those programs aremeeting current needs. Right now, employees are showing particularinterest in critical illness insurance, hospital indemnityinsurance and either basic or buy-up disability and life insuranceofferings. While proof of good health may be required, employeesmay feel better that they have this extra level of protection forthe future, even if they cannot access such benefitsimmediately.

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From the employees' perspective, voluntary benefits can be veryaffordable, costing far less than similar coverage purchased on theindividual market. And, benefits from these coverages are paiddirectly to the insured to be used however is needed—forout-of-pocket or non-medical costs—and aren't reduced by otherinsurance.

Consider off-cycle enrollment

Because most voluntary benefits are paid for on an after-taxbasis, the carriers typically determine eligibility rules andenrollment periods. As such, you may be able to arrange an"off-cycle" or mid-year enrollment period to allow employees topurchase additional levels of protection for their families.

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An off-cycle enrollment may be particularly effective inincreasing participation, as employees aren't distracted byreviewing their "traditional" benefits, and at this point in theyear they may just now be recognizing the perceived or real gaps intheir coverage. It's likely they'll pay more attention to theoptions available, and be more likely to enroll if they are in aposition to do so. And they'll appreciate their employer'sresponding to their needs by making these options available.

Look at alternative programs

In addition to voluntary benefit offerings, many employers aremaking changes to work policies to make life easier for theirstaff. In addition to the pandemic-driven shift to telecommuting for many employees (which hasbeen toward the top of the "wish list" for many employees for sometime now), employers are looking at flexible work hours andschedules, health care advocacy and transparency programs to helpemployees find resources and use their health plans appropriately,and services which leverage data analytics to improve benefitcommunications and services. While some of these programs involvean investment on the employer's part, the long-term employeeengagement and loyalty dividends may well help the programs pay forthemselves.

Focus on communications

Speaking of communications…a startling 40 percent of consumersare self-educated about employee benefits—increasing the odds thatthey do not have the information they need to make an educateddecision. Yet, when asked, employees prefer one-on-one support. Infact, in a recent survey of consumers, DirectPath found thatemployees who have taken advantage of one-on-one sessions say it isthe most helpful way to learn about their benefit options and howthey related to their health care needs. Clearly, talking toexperts matters.

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With group meetings and in-person sessions off the table for theforeseeable future, consider scheduling telephonic enrollmentsessions. Employees will have the opportunity to ask a benefitsexpert specific questions about their options and theircircumstances; because they can choose the date and time of theappointment employees are far more likely to take advantage of theopportunity. Telephonic appointments have the added benefit ofenabling employees to include important family members—such asspouses and domestic partners—who may have questions of their ownand may, in fact, be the "benefits decision makers" for thehousehold.

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Now is the perfect time to work with your broker, consultant orother partners to offer free or low-cost programs and services thatmeet your employees' current needs and interests. Showing yourwillingness to respond to employee concerns, and offer a packagethat enables them to tailor coverage that works for them and theirfamilies, will continue to reap benefits once the economy gets backon track.

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Kim Buckey is senior vice president ofclient services at DirectPath.

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