Sheryl Harris, the winner of this year's Judges' Choice Benny Award, wears many hats that cover the gamut of benefits and employee management issues. But she has attained success in each arena without spreading herself too thin.

When Harris joined JM Eagle in 2008, she faced a mountain of challenges. After the manufacturing company experienced a merger/acquisition in 2007, doubled in size and relocated its headquarters from New Jersey to Los Angeles, key players in the benefits department left the company. So the HR team lacked good direction for about a year until Harris was hired.

When she arrived, the company was years behind in filing Form 5500s for qualified plans and hadn't completed audits for the 401(k) plan. Moreover, decentralized health and welfare benefits had enabled more than a thousand noneligible participants to enroll in the company's primary medical plan, amassing $394,000 in costs.

"When I came aboard, the benefits were really a wreck. We had 1,200 people on our plan that weren't eligible for our plan. ... These were growing, relocation, and merger/acquisition pains, and these all came to a head," Harris says.

She spent 2009 through to March 2012 cleaning up six years of Form 5500s. She and her team centralized all benefits administrative activities, and reviewed each participant and dependent for health coverage eligibility. In one year, the company saved $4.1 million because of changes made to the retirement, workers' comp and health care plans.

"So, it has been extremely painful," Harris says, "but we got it done and we're quite pleased with that."

 

Big savings

During a healthier economy, the company paid 100% of the health insurance premiums for employee and dependent coverage. But as times changed, the company shared increased costs with employees.

Harris took the initiative, explains Nooshin Nathan, JM Eagle's assistant vice president of human resources, who nominated Harris for the Benny award. She worked with the company's vendor to find a better health plan that had no deductible with $20 copays for physician appointments.

Last year, "not only did our costs not go up, but costs went down by 10%, which is unheard of," Nathan says. "We reduced costs by 10%, equaling $750,000. On top of that, we put $500,000 back into our employees' pockets. So they didn't have to shell out those deductibles."

Communicating to the CEO that savings for the company and employees was important for Harris and her team because they were able to continue to reflect the company's mission and values in their benefits package.

"[Harris] was handed a very difficult task. ... she's very dedicated and persistent and holds our vendors accountable," Nathan says.

In total, Harris and her team's work has yielded a savings of nearly $1.5 million for JM Eagle and its 1,300 employees.

In addition to managing a dispersed workforce in 23 locations in 18 states, Harris has a hand in most benefits and employee administration, including managing workers' comp claims. She also conducts non-discrimination testing and summary reports for the 401(k) and pension plans, and manages employee absence programs, including short-term disability and Family and Medical Leave Act absences.

To stay compliant with deadlines and stay timely with all of her responsibilities, Harris explains, "At the end of each year, I plan my next year. I have a to-do list for each quarter that keeps me on track because some [tasks] are time-sensitive."

Harris was also had a game plan for implementing many of the health care reform responsibilities before the provisions became law. She and the benefits team prepared months in advance for any changes in the plan as contracts were changed, vendors notified, approval gained, and costs determined by actuaries.

Harris stresses that it's important to be prepared. "I grew up a Girl Scout, and some of those attributes are still with me," she says. Regarding health care reform, she says, "I planned to put some things in place, whether [it] went into effect or not, simply because it was the right thing to do."

For example, the company already allowed employees' children up to age 26 as dependents in the health plan and allowed eligibility for people with pre-existing conditions without a wait period before President Barack Obama signed the landmark legislation.

"We were ahead of the curve. It wasn't because of health care reform; I just felt that it was the right thing to do, and it wasn't going to impact the bottom line by any significant amount," Harris says.

Harris and her team hope to continue to be forerunners for offering comprehensive benefits for employees. For instance, they plan to add hearing aids to plans.

"You can't wait for it to get here; you really need to be in front of the thing," Harris says. "All the industry conferences and webinars are your best friend, because [they help] you plan. And even if you don't, as I did, execute before the gavel hits, at least you will know that it is coming. And you will have a plan in place to launch when it does happen."

This perspective is just as important when communicating changes to vendors and employees. "Have a plan to put the process in place so that it's seamless and it's not overwhelming anybody," Harris says.

"Sheryl has a marketing background and it shows," says Aneesa E. Haider, account axecutive at MetLife. "She has her finger on the pulse of how [employees] like to be communicated to, what they want from their employer and what new innovations are penetrating the market."

Only two numbers stick in Harris' mind when she makes a benefits decision. First, the number of employees serviced by her commitment and second, the number of people on the plan that are under their employees' care who depend on her commitment. In total, she manages benefits for almost 4,000 people on the health plan, including dependents.

"All of those lives are balanced at my commitment to the job that I do," Harris says. "I want them to know the value of what they have and appreciate and respect what they have, because there are lots of people who don't have it."

Employees see the total cost of their benefits when they first enroll - their election form shows how much the individual or family would pay a month for the benefit, as well as what the company pays a month for them to have that benefit.

"You can implement a lot of changes to the plan, but if you don't communicate it to the participants, they're not going to know about it, and they're not able to take advantage of it," Nathan says. She cites the example of when the team introduced auto-enrollment and auto-escalation features in the 401(k) plan because half of the JM Eagle's employees weren't taking advantage of the retirement plan that includes a company match.

"If you're unable to communicate that in a positive way, it's going to crash and burn, and the employee will think you're messing with their money," Nathan says.

She tells how Harris spearheaded this communication initiative. Harris sent post cards and met with employees to explain told how their benefits would change, how the features would affect them and what steps they would need to take.

"We've been through a lot and succeeded. [Harris] has been the anchor in providing the information to vendors, raising expectations and [sharing her] knowledge," Nathan says.

During business sessions, Harris chimes in with thoughts on many diverse issues so that individuals from separate departments are always learning from her.

"It's really important to partner with other professionals that have specialties in their field. For example, Sheryl knows benefits in and out in every way," Nathan says. "As head of HR at a company, you cannot know everything. You can put together a team that has specialty knowledge in those areas. You need to have [experts] on your team to tap into their knowledge."

Harris focuses on how things are interrelated. By taking this view, "you [can] work smarter and streamline so you don't become overwhelmed or stressed. I do not believe in stress. They don't pay me to stress, so [I have to] streamline processes because it is all connected."

Harris thinks having friends at work is important, especially when mistakes happen. "We immediately fix the problem, we have an 'I Love Lucy' moment, where [we recognize] that we got through [the problem] and that the chocolate factory is still running. [Then we take steps] so we don't do that one again, and we move on."

 

 

Areas to watch

Sheryl Harris and her team identified six key areas

where they could either cut costs or generate revenue for JM Eagle.

1. Medical benefits. Harris centralized all administrative activities, reviewed and approved each participant and their dependent(s) for eligibility and instituted stop-loss insurance.

2. Reimbursements. Harris requested quarterly statements and adjustments from United Healthcare, which revealed past due fees owed to the company.

3. 401(k) and pension plans. Harris directed the company's recordkeeper to set up a letter of direction to allow JM Eagle to authorize payment of qualified plan expenses through the plan, as opposed to through the company.

4. DOL compliance. Harris and her colleagues noted an error in a DOL penalty assessment, leading to a modified, lower penalty.

5. California employer taxes. Harris amended the 2009 and 2010 employer quarterly tax filings, bringing the company a substantial reimbursement.

6. Workers' compensation. Harris and her team took custody of the workers' compensation program, closing 46 claims, resulting in significant savings.

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