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Win-win: Better benefits benefit employers, employees

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“We're seeing more employers offer high-deductible health insurance that's usually tied to a Health Savings Account.” — Aida Visakay, vice president of benefits at AxisPointe
“We're seeing more employers offer high-deductible health insurance that's usually tied to a Health Savings Account.” — Aida Visakay, vice president of benefits at AxisPointe - ()

Innovations to employee-benefit packages come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes a simple tweak can produce ample returns.

Last year, the Mt. Arlington-based CPA firm Nisivoccia & Co. began offering free snacks and beverages for its 100-plus employees.

“We used to do it only during tax season, but now we offer them all year round,” said Stephen Van Houten, director of human resources at the 100-plus employee firm.

Not a big move? Perhaps, but consider that an estimated 10,000 baby boomers are retiring from the workforce daily, causing businesses across industries to scramble to fill positions.

In that kind of chaotic environment, even modest improvements can help recruitment and retention — especially the latter.

Employers surveyed last year ranked employee retention higher than increasing productivity or controlling health-benefit costs, according to MetLife’s “U.S. Employee Benefit Trends Study.” More than half of employers surveyed said retaining employees through benefits will become even more important in the next three to five years.

As for other key benefits at Nisivoccia, its profit-sharing plan for employees is considered a big success.

"We have low turnover rate, only about three to five people a year, firm-wide. [So] while we have to consider our budget, we're always reviewing our benefits [and] benchmarking them against other accounting firms."

Stephen Van Houten, director of human resources, Nisivoccia & Co.

“We pay overtime to our professional staff members, semi-seniors and seniors when they work beyond 37 1/2 hours, even though they’re exempt employees,” Van Houten said. “Supervisors, managers and principals don’t get overtime, but they qualify for a bonus plan.

“We have low turnover rate, only about three to five people a year, firm-wide,” he added. “[So] while we have to consider our budget, we’re always reviewing our benefits [and] benchmarking them against other accounting firms.”

Another CPA firm, WithumSmith+Brown, is also experimenting with its benefits package.

“In 2017, we went to flex time, where people could work from home or stretch their 40-hour work week across six or seven days,” said Theresa Richardson, a Princeton-based Withum partner and chief talent officer. “They can also work a compressed week, but if it becomes long-term they need to get it approved.”

Federal tax law changes could affect employee benefits

The recent federal tax reforms have eliminated an employer deduction for qualified transportation commuting benefits.
That includes certain parking and transit passes, said Larry Shulman, a director in the Global Mobility Services Compensation and Benefits Support Group at the CPA firm KPMG.
“While an employer cannot deduct the cost of these benefits, the value of the benefit is still not taxable to an employee,” Shulman said.
As a result, companies are evaluating whether they will continue to provide this benefit in the future, which employees view favorably but now takes on greater “after-tax cost.”
He said another benefit change “causing some heartburn” is the loss of the moving expense deduction and exclusion.
“Starting this year, employees cannot deduct moving expenses, and an employer’s reimbursement of moving expenses is treated as taxable wages,” Shulman explained. “Some employers are considering offering a set amount for a move, essentially an additional bonus, to employees who move to a new location.”
The new tax law also disallows employer deductions for entertainment, amusement and recreation activities.
“So the customary night at the theater or sporting event with a client is subject to a zero-percent deduction,” Shulman said. “Similarly, an employer-sponsored golf outing is nondeductible.”
But taking a client out for a business meal appears to still be 50 percent deductible, he added.
“Many of our large clients here in New Jersey are looking at all of these fringe benefits — transportation, entertainment, moving expenses and meals — to determine the right combination of benefits that they will retain and revise,” Shulman noted.

Communication is key

Good employer-employee communications can be key.
“Business owners often focus on the cost of benefits, but you need to start with your employees,” said Vladimir St. Phard, president of Hightstown-based Customized Benefit Solutions. “Think strategically, and make health care benefits, for example, part of your conversation with employees so they’ll use the benefits creatively instead of just seeing it as money flowing out of their pocket.”
Said Ellie Panhuise, director of HR solutions at Mount Holly-based Primepoint HRMS & Payroll: “It’s definitely good to have an open line of communication with employees, so you have an understanding of their benefit wants and needs for their families. Each year, we carefully take a look at our employee demographics and examine what their needs could be for the next cycle.  We research all possible affordable plans with our broker.”
Primepoint’s human resources department has an “open door” policy, she added.
“We need to know and see if the plans are working or not for our employees and their families,” Panhuise said.
That kind of ongoing dialog led to a recent change to let employees keep their in-network doctors in their health plans. “We didn’t want our employees to have to make those changes, so we sacrificed on price to keep the same insurance plans,” she said.

She said that the flexible arrangements are working out well overall but notes that after a year of piloting the program, the company decided that certain employees — generally ones with up to three years of experience — could use it only on a more selective basis. “At that point in their careers, they usually need a bit more guidance,” Richardson said.Withum has also been piloting an unlimited paid time off program it labels Open Time Off.

“Right now, PTO is for partners and senior managers,” she said. “[But] we’re still evaluating OTO and may expend it to the staff, too.”

She credits the benefits upgrades with helping to boost employee retention. “The average turnover in a CPA firm is 20 percent, but in 2017 ours was only 6 percent,” she said.

Harry Willis, a partner with the Voorhees-based CPA firm Bowman & Co., said he’s seeing more companies offering flexible work hours in a bid to attract and retain good employees.

“One client, an insurance broker in southern New Jersey with about 50 employees, offers unlimited paid time off,” he said.

A South Jersey manufacturer with about 27 employees also offers a modified flex-work schedule. But because of the company’s production run schedules, “everyone has to be in the factory from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m,” Willis said.

To encourage employees to stay healthy, Bowman & Co. offers a $50 Visa gift card to employees who get an annual physical, and the company’s health insurer offers a rebate on gym membership for employees who work out a certain number of hours each month at the facility.

Elsewhere among the current crop of benefits issues, rising health care costs remain a big concern.

It’s a particularly challenging area for companies with 50 or fewer employers, said Aida Visakay, vice president of benefits at AxisPointe, a Cranford-based employee benefits advisory firm.

“We’re seeing more employers offer high-deductible health insurance that’s usually tied to a Health Savings Account, where employees can contribute money on a pretax basis to pay deductibles,” Visakay said.

Bowman’s Willis has also seen the HSA trend start to spread.

“HSAs help the employees because even if they leave the company, the funds go with them,” he said. “The high-deductible plans are also less costly for an employer, and they help to get people to think more about their medical costs.”

Another trend involves companies moving into self-insuring.

Aida Visakay, vice president of benefits, AxisPointe.
Aida Visakay, vice president of benefits, AxisPointe.

“In New Jersey, there are only five health insurance companies offering coverage,” Visakay said. “So there’s not much choice when it comes to selecting a carrier.”

Perhaps because of that, she sees a growing number of businesses trying to control healthcare costs by adopting a kind of self-insurance model.

“Some smaller businesses — even with as few as 20 employees — are trying to reduce costs by using a level-premium plan, which is a kind of hybrid of self-insured and fully insured.”

Michael Coletti, the New Jersey office managing partner at Mazars USA LLP, an Edison-based accounting firm, said that a self-insured plan can offer more flexibility for a company.

“I’m aware of a real estate developer and a distribution company — both in northern New Jersey — that have gone to self-funded plans,” Coletti said. “They each have more than 350 employees. But you have to consider your company’s demographics and claim history to be sure it’s a good fit.”

The trend to self-insuring isn’t limited to the Garden State. A U.S. Department of Labor report issued in 2017 found that, out of about 51,600 health plans studied, 21,200 were self-insured, and some 3,800 were “mixed insured.”

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