Business

The numbers behind the decline in workplace benefits

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American employers are asking more from workers as they try to cut costs and become more productive to compete in a globalized world, as described in a Los Angeles Times Sunday story. But they’re also giving them much less. Everything from the company picnic to professional development opportunities are shrinking; employers are less likely to pay for education, train their employees and help them find an apartment or adopt a child.

“We’ve seen for well over a decade a shift towards where employees are just having to pay more,” said Laura Sejen, a practice leader at Towers Watson, a human resources consulting firm. “The whole theme of the deal [between employers and employees] has changed. We’re looking at a long-term structural shift.”

This can make a real dent in employees' pocketbooks, especially because the cost of many benefits are growing much faster than wages. Between 2000 and 2011, employees' healthcare costs nearly tripled. Wages did not.

The above chart, from Towers Watson, sums it up. Healthcare costs for employees grew 188% over the decade, while earnings grew just 44%.

Employers are also scrambling as healthcare costs rise. Some are shifting to offering healthcare plans through HMOs, to save money, rather than PPOs, which give employees more choice, said Jeannine Coronado, executive vice president at insurance agency SullivanCurtisMonroe. Employers also are putting more emphasis on employees’ habits, hoping that by encouraging employees to be healthier, they can save on healthcare. And they're consulting brokers about how to keep their expenses low.

The tough workplace: stories and photos

Cindy Madsen remembers starting work at a medical group in Northern California in 2008 and receiving good health benefits, with low co-pays and deductibles. “If you got hospitalized, it was affordable,” she recalled.

But during the recession, her employer adopted a new plan. Co-pays went up, deductibles went up, and employees were expected to pay 20% of the costs of hospitalization.

“If you do have to be hospitalized, you have to plan to set aside money to pay for expenses,” she said. That, added to the fact that she no longer had time to take a lunch break and could not take more than two weeks of vacation a year, made Madsen decide to quit her job and work for her husband’s consulting firm instead.

Pensions are also continuing to shrink at a rapid pace. In 1980, 39% of companies participated in a defined benefit plan, which is a traditional pension, in which companies promise a certain benefit depending on the employee's age and salary. In 2011, only 18% offered defined benefit plans.

By contrast, in 2011, 41% of companies participated in a defined contribution plan. Such plans shift the risks to the employees: They put money worth a certain percentage of the employee’s salary into an account that is invested in the market, so the value could fall if the market falls. In 1980, only 19% of companies participated in those programs.

And only 68% of employers provide an employer match for defined contribution retirement plans, down from 75% in 2008.

Even some executives are seeing some of their perks shift. And in the last two years, the Securities and Exchange Commission has begun to file lawsuits to recoup compensation from executives at companies that had to restate their earnings because of misconduct.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, some executive perks have been declining too. Only 23% of U.S. companies offer executive signing bonuses, down from 31% in 2008; 9% of companies offer executive club memberships, down from 23%. Fewer executives get paid dry-cleaning while on business travel: 13%, down from 20%.

The decline in perks for all workers is even more severe. Only 28% of U.S. companies offer long-term care insurance, down from 45% in 2008, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. About 84% of companies offer life insurance, down from 92% in 2008; 33% offer a credit union, down from 42%. Only 9% offer adoption assistance, down from 16%; 38% offer cross-training in skills not directly related to the job, down from 55%.

Companies also have downsized on discount ticket services, companywide performance awards, community volunteer programs and take your child to work day, according to the survey.

Part of this makes sense, said Sejen of Towers Watson. Human resource departments are tasked with managing increases in year-over-year costs, so that employers don’t have to spend more each year on their employees. If employers hadn’t downshifted what healthcare benefits they provide, for instance, their healthcare costs would now be unmanageable, and many companies would have gone under.

But added to the bigger picture -- the longer hours, lower pay, stressful work environments and less job security -- the decline in benefits can be difficult for many to grapple with.

“Employers used the Great Recession as an opportunity to slash payrolls, substitute technology for people and outsource workers,” said Robert Reich, a former secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. “Now, people coming back into the workforce, like many workers who survived the downdraft, are discovering their jobs have been transformed. They have fewer if any benefits, work longer hours, have less job security, more variable earnings and fewer legal protections.”

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