NRA: Individual Marketplace

Major Opportunities in Open Enrollment Rollout

Do you suffer from open-enrollment issues? Check out these effective strategies to get employees excited about your health insurance plan.

Recruiting and retaining a dynamic workforce is the top challenge – and priority – of the restaurant and hospitality industry. With health insurance seen as the most desired benefit among employees, offering coverage is not just overhead. It’s an opportunity!

Employers with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees offer health insurance or face possible penalties from the Internal Revenue Service. And plenty of you with fewer than 50 FTEs are offering health insurance to your staff members for a variety of good reasons.

Yet insurance companies require that a certain percentage of employees enroll in the plan you offer, or they won’t issue the policy. Those minimums — sometimes 50 percent up to 75 percent of eligible employees — can be very tough to meet.

If history is any guide, many restaurant employees are reluctant to accept smaller paychecks in exchange for healthcare coverage. A good number of them are young and healthy; their phone and car payments take precedence over unforeseeable medical expenses. Communicating effectively with employees who work a wide variety of schedules is a logistical challenge, too, especially if they’re working in restaurants located throughout a state or across the country.

While challenging, increasing the number of people participating in your health insurance plan makes you a more attractive client to insurers. High participation rates look good as you shop around for good deals on insurance rates – or if you’re forced into finding a new carrier because an insurer declines to renew your plan.

“Having good participation pays dividends down the road because it’s something that insurance companies will be looking for,” says Lake Mary, Fla.-based Joe Mowery, vice president of employee benefits at Hylant, a national insurance brokerage firm. “In most cases, you need to have at least 25 percent of your full-time employees enrolled before another carrier will even bother to give you a quote.”

Here are ways to make the open-enrollment process go smoothly to ensure you reach the minimum participation requirement:

Change the way you communicate. Tailor how employees enroll to the format they’re most comfortable using. “If you have a lot of Gen Z or millennials, you should set up an enrollment platform that can be filled in using a smart phone because they won’t want to fill out paper forms,” says Mowery. “If your average employee is in their 30s or older, it’s not as necessary.”

Opting in is not only an investment in their health – states such as New Jersey, California, Vermont, D.C., and Massachusetts, will require tax penalties for many individuals who choose to “go without” health insurance coverage.

Plan ahead. “It’s a two- to three-month process to get pricing and underwriting, to explain plan options and let employees choose the one they want, and then install the plans,” says John Pask, founder and managing director, GoBenefits, Dallas. Others suggest padding the “official” enrollment deadline by at least two weeks to hunt down missing information on forms and to answer any last-minute questions from employees.

“We also check our master calendar in advance to make sure that open enrollment doesn’t overlap with other big initiatives such as a menu change,” says Kristen Zagozdon, vice president of human resources, Cooper's Hawk Winery & Restaurants, Chicago.

Send reminders. Mowery emphasizes the importance of constant communication in open enrollment. “Tell them you’re going to tell them. Tell them. And then tell them you told them,” he says.

For example, Cooper’s Hawk hits almost every channel of communication. They talk about open enrollment during pre-shift meetings, mail postcards to home addresses, send messages over their smart-phone-based scheduling platform, and broadcast information on kitchen LCD screens. “It’s less about convincing employees to sign up because they already know whether or not they want to,” says Zagozdon. “It's more about making it easy for them — making sure that the information and tools are available, that they can easily get onto the website, and that there's somebody there to answer their questions.” Constant reminders are critical.

Put someone in charge. In addition to having a dedicated hotline and email address for enrollment issues, Cooper’s Hawk also designates someone at each location to field employee questions. “For multi-unit concepts like ours, the most important thing is having an engaged champion at the restaurant level,” says Zagozdon, “one person who is collecting all the information from the support center and is the go-to for team members’ issues with and questions about enrollment.”

Make the benefit worthwhile. It may seem obvious but offering a robust plan will inspire more participation. “They’re called employee benefits, not fine-avoidance benefits,” reminds Mowery. U.S. Merit, Tyler, Texas, which operates 14 Burger Kings and five Taco Buenos, has 20 percent of its eligible hourly employees on a minimal essential coverage plan. “It's a great plan to get your yearly check-up, flu shots, and prescriptions,” says Georgia Harris, vice president of personnel. “For procedures that cost, say, $1,000, our employees pay only $300 and they can put that on a payment plan. When our employees hear others in their same socioeconomic range benefiting in that way, they want to sign up.”

Offer rewards. Many restaurants find that they can entice participation in the enrollment process by offering the chance to win gift cards, small electronics and other prizes to those who sign up on time or attend informational sessions. And if long-term health or protection against a catastrophic health event is too abstract to motivate an employee to sign up, many plans can include coverages with more immediate benefits. For example, restaurant employees are on their feet, tallying a big number of steps each day. Some insurers offer wellness plans that let employees earn money for these efforts. The money goes into an individual health savings plan they can use to cover copays, prescriptions and other traditional healthcare costs.

Use technology. Technology can help with employee communication. “We’ve also seen increased participation by offering an online shopping experience,” says GoBenefit’s Pask. “People are used to buying goods and services online. They can see plans, compare, click benefit summaries, and drill down on details that interest them.”

Automate where possible. Firehouse Subs instituted an online onboarding system last year that flags new employees who are eligible for one of the three health insurance plans the company offers. If employees decide to enroll, they’re automatically re-enrolled in their plans every year if their work status remains the same.


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