A golden era for benefits

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When I first started covering the benefits industry in 2011, there was plenty to write about, but much of the focus involved the newly enacted Affordable Care Act. Fears ran amok: Skyrocketing costs! Compliance nightmares! Employers dropping coverage!

On top of that, the unemployment rate was hovering around 9%, so employers weren’t creative or generous with their benefit offerings. Heck, even health insurance wasn’t a given. In 2011, employer-sponsored health insurance dropped to about 58%, marking the 11th straight year of decline.

How times have changed.

After declining steadily since 2008, the percentage of businesses offering health insurance saw its first increase between 2016 and 2017. And the latest Labor Department statistics show that the unemployment rate has dropped to 3.7%, a 48-year-low. It’s officially an employees’ job market — and it’s showing in terms of what employers are offering to recruit and retain workers.

The historically low unemployment rate, aided by the GOP tax overhaul, which led some employers to reinvest tax savings, have led to a plethora of new (and enviable) offerings in recent months from big-name employers, including Walmart, Disney, Discover, and Noodles and Company. The perks keep on coming. They’ve gone far beyond health and retirement coverage into generous paid leave policies, student debt repayment benefits and education benefits. I researched one of the latest benefit trends — free college tuition — in a new feature story.

It’s clear that employers are sweetening benefits packages to woo workers, but by addressing employee pain points, they also get to hold on to more talent.

“I think some of these employers — from the educational assistance programs they’re offering, or additional leave or so on — they really have the best interest of their employees at heart. And they are trying to help them and make their lives better,” Julie Stich of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans recently told me.

It’s a nice change of pace from the themes that dominated the industry eight years ago.

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