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Benefit packages, insurance trends — What’s on the minds of those in the know?

Prairie Business spoke with an insurance specialist to see what's on top of mind currently in the industry

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GRAND FORKS — As winter deepens in the region, people’s thoughts often turn to warmer climes. But for those in business, wintertime prompts another topic of thought: insurance.

Prairie Business spoke with an insurance specialist to see what's on top of mind currently in the industry, as well as a few individuals at companies who shared some new things their businesses are doing with regard to employee benefits.

“A lot of times insurance is just a component of daily activity for a business,” said Casey Holland, senior insurance and risk advisor with Vaaler Insurance. It is a critical component to one’s peace of mind, especially during a catastrophic loss “or even a simple loss,” he said.

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Casey Holland

Wintertime (and springtime) woes

As trends evolve, some things remain the same.

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“One of the key factors for businesses is workers compensation insurance,” Holland said. “Where we live, the slip and falls are big issues that take place for employers; wet floors, the icy conditions. For those driving in vehicles, that’s a concern too. It is one of those areas where you just have to be cognizant of talking to your maintenance staff and ensuring that the proper de-icer, salt or gravel is put in the proper places to prevent injuries to these very important employees.”

In short, make sure insurance covers mishaps — and Mother Nature’s other onslaughts. Even before the snow melts, there’s another item to consider.

“We recommend flood insurance, and the most important thing to remember when you're buying flood insurance is when it comes springtime — and here in the Red River Valley as we want to say it — we have to start thinking about flood insurance in January.”

The reason, he said, is because the National Flood program has a 30-day waiting period.

“If you want to buy insurance and know it's a big concern, make sure you're planning ahead 30 days before the event actually takes place, because you can't call in and say I want coverage now. … If you're calling in on March 15 and the flood actually occurs on March 31, then you would not have coverage because there's that 30-day waiting period.”

What companies are offering

Jessica Jackson, senior business advisor and retirement specialist with Alerus, has a question.

“As I'm meeting with clients, I'm asking a lot of questions,” she said, noting one of the main ones is, “What can I do to help you?”

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Jessica Jackson

It’s a good question that sparks a lot of answers.

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She said as she reviews with individuals their employee benefits, items often discussed are financial wellness, which entail a number of items such as employee education plans, health savings accounts, flexible savings accounts, among other items.

“We talk about what's working, maybe what's not working with their existing providers, those types of things,” she said.

Among the discussions, they’ll review “different contribution plans, defining features, different vesting schedules. Long story short,” she said, “we will sit down and review compliance data — and what I mean by that is, we will review average deferral percentages and participation rates in the plan. We'll talk about employee education and what that looks like, and what they'd like it to look like in the upcoming year. We'll review their investment report and talk through those parameters.

She said since the pandemic, “employers are asking more of what they can do or offer their team in the way of financial wellness options.”

A big topic is retirement options.

Retirement benefits

“We are seeing new team members come on board, and they are more financially savvy, if you will,” Jackson said, noting more people are asking about retirement options these days. “Different industries may experience that more prevalent than others, but overall, I would agree that I have been hearing that feedback from employers that their people are asking about it.”

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Brenna Grossbauer
Sharon Teeples

Brenna Grossbauer, chief human resources officer with Starion Bank, said Starion was in the middle of open enrollment when she spoke with Prairie Business on Nov. 10, and noted some changes.

“This year, for example, we added another holiday to our roster of holidays,” Grossbauer said. “A lot of the changes with our 401k program is to make it more competitive in the market and a better benefit overall for our employees, and so we did change the matching contribution.”

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The company also changed the vesting schedule and is implementing auto enrollment — a nice feature, she said, but which doesn’t take options away from the employee.

“When we have a new hire start with us, they are automatically enrolled into a 401k program,” she explained. “They still have the option, they're in complete control if they don't want to contribute for whatever reason, or they can opt out; but we automatically enroll them and that's just to encourage people to participate.”

She said the company goes “about middle of the road,” enrolling employees at 3% so they get that match on their money. They can increase or decrease the amount they contribute, if they’d like.

Starion Bank also offers a profit sharing program.

“Contribution there is up to a maximum of their 6% discretionary contributions into people's 401K plans and it's based on the bank's performance,” she said. “At the beginning of each year, we set what our goals are; we build out and depending on the different milestones or hurdles or financial goals that we set, wherever that lays out, determines what the profit share is as well.”

Emergency savings accounts

Something else employers may consider offering employees is an emergency savings account.

“That is something actually that's relatively new for Alerus and that we're pretty proud of,” Jackson said, “essentially an option for employers to offer their employees to save.

And why is that important?

“Well,” Jackson explained, “it's important because if an employee is not confident that they have a decent emergency fund set aside, they're going to be less likely to contribute to their retirement plan. I know because I've met with literally thousands of employees as I've provided employee education, and I repeatedly hear that feedback. They'll say, ‘I know I need to contribute to my plan, but I don't have a decent enough (amount) put away. I don't have an emergency account set up or things like debt management. I have this loaded debt I need to address and then I can contribute to my plan.”

Basically, an emergency savings account allows the employee to simply complete the payroll deduction. “They can set up that automatic deduction from their payroll into an emergency savings account,” she said. “It’s super simple, easy, and they can change the amount at any time.”

Health savings plans

Nancy Bjorndahl is going on a quarter century with DCN, and has seen a lot of change in that time. The limited-liability company, doing business as Dakota Carrier Network, started with just a handful of employees but today has about 40 in two offices, Bismarck and Fargo.

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Nancy Bjorndahl

It’s a good company, said Bjorndahl, who serves as business manager. She said it offers a number of perks for its employees, including a competitive insurance benefits package.

“People are surprised when they learn we have five options,” she said.

Some new developments within the past couple of years, and continuing this year, is a Health Savings Account (HSA) option — an account set aside to pay for health care costs – which Bjorndahl said is trending in the industry these days. Last year was the first time DCN started offering the option.

“It has to be offered with a high deductible health plan, though,” she said. “And so we offer a total of five plans. Three of them are kind of your traditional plans with various premiums, and then we offer two high-deductible HSA compatible plans.”

Insurance benefits as retention and retaining tools

Holland sums it up like this:

“I think there are really three things that are big topics right now for employers when it comes to insurance. What we're hearing is staffing is the number one concern.

“Almost every single business we talk with is actively searching for new team members or trying to retain those team members. The employers are really wanting to see their options when it comes to employee health and benefits solutions. The employers and the employees are looking to see what brings the maximum value to them.

“Their hope is that their benefit packages are going to be a differentiator to retain talent and to get new talent. Probably the number one area is the staffing, no matter what industry you're in right now. … There's a wage competition going on out there — who is providing the highest dollar — but you can't always only look at that; you have to look at what the benefits packages are too, because those dollars are also coming out of your paycheck.”

Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers and magazines. He currently is the editor of Prairie Business, the premier business magazine of the northern plains. The magazine covers various industries and business topics in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.
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