Employers Want Help with Health Costs

The cost of employer health insurance has skyrocketed, and workers are picking up some of that growing tab. Amid employees’ grumbling, employers are loath to push more of the cost onto their workers.

That’s why the consensus view among major employers, expressed in a recent survey, sounded like a cry for help. Calling rising insurance costs “unsustainable,” the vast majority said they need help from the government either to provide alternative forms of coverage or control health care and prescription costs.

Employers “have reached their limit,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, chief executive of the Purchaser Business Group on Health, an employer advocacy organization that collaborated with the Kaiser Family Foundation on the survey.

Employers, she said, “are tired of pouring tons of money into a broken health care market that delivers uneven quality at bloated costs.”

And these are the major corporations and non-profits with more than 5,000 employees. They have some leverage to negotiate with insurers and more financial wherewithal to pay for the plans. Smaller employers – if they provide health insurance at all – pay roughly the same premiums as large employers, and their workers shoulder a larger share of the cost for family plans.

Last year, employers with more than 50 workers paid $21,342 in premiums to cover employees with family plans – that’s still 50 percent more than a decade ago, despite a recent slowdown in health care inflation, according to Kaiser.

When employers’ insurance costs rise so quickly, that squeezes out money they might use for wages and other benefits. Workers are also paying more, though each employer decides how much of the added costs to pass on to workers.

In 2020, employees paid nearly $5,600 – more than a quarter – of employers’ total costs for family plans. To curb their health insurance expenses, employers increasingly are offering high-deductible plans, and the deductibles workers pay for these plans are also rising.

The major employers said in the survey that they’re open to a range of federal policies that would either cut health care costs or get the government more involved in providing health care. …Learn More

Photo of the board game Life

Here’s Why People Don’t Save Enough

In the United States and Singapore – places that emphasize self-reliance – many older workers and retirees admit that, if given a do-over, they would have saved more money over the past 20 or 30 years.

Regret was more common in the United States – 54 percent of older Americans had it versus 46 percent in Singapore, according to comparable surveys in each place. Perhaps the reason Singapore has less is because the government requires that employees set aside more than a third of their income in three government-run savings accounts for retirement, healthcare, and home purchases and other investments. On the other hand, Singapore doesn’t have Social Security or unemployment insurance, and private pensions are rare.

Whatever the differences, regret is a common sentiment in Singapore and the United States. What researchers wanted to know is: what is the source of that regret?

They tested two hypotheses. One is the human tendency to procrastinate and never get around to tasks that should be a priority. The other reason is largely outside of workers’ control: financial disruptions earlier in life that sabotage efforts to save, such as a layoff or large medical bill.

Employment problems, the researchers found, were a major source of saving regrets for 60- to 74-year-olds in both places but the impact was especially strong in the United States, which historically has had a more volatile labor market than Singapore. Disruptions that interfered with workers’ ability to save included bouts of unemployment and earning less than they were expecting. Early retirements and disabilities also led to saving regrets, as did unanticipated health problems and bad investments.

But procrastination as a reason for regret did not stand up to scrutiny. In this part of the survey, individuals agreed or disagreed with various statements designed to indicate whether they were procrastinators, including whether they work best under pressure or put off things they’re not good at. …Learn More

Silhouette of a detective with glasses

$4 Billion in Pension Payments Returned

It’s the employer’s responsibility to find former employees and keep them apprised of any retirement benefits they left behind.

But that hasn’t always worked out. Some employers don’t have former workers’ current contact information, and others don’t bother to track them down. Worst-case scenarios are often fallout from a merger: the company being acquired has kept shoddy pension plan records and the acquirer doesn’t update them.  Some companies have even deleted a participant’s name from the records.

Tyler Compton, an attorney with the Pension Action Center, which connects workers with lost pensions and 401(k) savings plans, said people frequently contact a former employer because they think they might have a plan. But if the worker is told he’s not in the records, he might drop the matter, she said.

The U.S. Department of Labor decided several years ago that employers’ efforts weren’t good enough. The department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) began investigating the problem and pushing companies to improve their methods for finding workers who had quit or been laid off but were owed pension benefits or had savings sitting in an old 401(k).

EBSA has gotten results. Since 2017, more than $4 billion in past due defined benefit pension payments have been returned to millions of plan participants.

By making clear what is expected of employers, regulators “put a lot of pressure, in a good sense, on plan administrators to really up their games,” Jeffrey Holdvogt, a legal partner with McDermott Will & Emery, said in a recent webinar hosted by the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. …Learn More

automation conveyer belt

Automation of Jobs Fuels Overdose Deaths

The rise in opioid addiction has created an epidemic of drug overdose deaths in the United States. But what increases the risk that people develop the disorder in the first place?

Automation of the U.S. economy turns out to be a contributing factor, as workers lose good jobs to industrial robots and despair about being disengaged from the labor force, conclude researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale in a study funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Manufacturing jobs, often in unionized industries, used to be a major route to the middle class. But millions of factory jobs disappeared as U.S. companies moved operations overseas. Compounding the job losses, corporate employers began installing robots in their remaining domestic operations. Automation was blamed in one study for eliminating more than 700,000 jobs and causing wage stagnation in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Prior research has connected the flight of manufacturing to increasing deaths from drug overdoses. Now, the new study specifically ties technology – measured as an increase in robots per 1,000 workers – to the increase in overdose deaths.

The men who are most affected by the rise of automation are in their prime working years, and they are concentrated in more industrialized areas. Automation accounted for nearly one in five of their overdose deaths in manufacturing counties. For women, automation was responsible for one in 10 overdose deaths in manufacturing counties. …Learn More

No-Benefit Jobs Better than Retiring Early

Woman in taxiMany workers in their 60s lose some of their stamina. Either their bodies start showing signs of wear, or they don’t tolerate on-the-job stress like they used to.

People who find themselves in this situation but can’t afford to retire will appreciate the findings in a recent study: older workers who transition to a new job – and perhaps a less demanding one – have greatly improved their retirement finances, even if the new job lacks health and retirement benefits.

The starting point for the analysis was to identify 61- and 62-year-olds employed in career jobs and follow the changes in their retirement finances over time, as they break into three groups. Some retired, some remained in longstanding jobs with benefits, and some found no-benefit jobs, whether with an employer or as an independent contractor.

Matt Rutledge and Gal Wettstein at the Center for Retirement Research compared each group’s retirement prospects in their early 60s with where they ended up years later, after the majority of them had retired. The focus was on the people who, at 62, were falling short of what they would need to retire comfortably.

The financial assessments were based on so-called replacement rates – estimated retirement income as a percentage of employment earnings. The average target required for financial security in old age is about 75 percent of past earnings, though the precise number depends on how much the individual earned.

The researchers estimated replacement rates for the 62-year-olds who fell short of the targets and estimated the rates again when they were 67 or 68. Retirement security improved over time for the under-prepared people who continued to work – in contrast to an erosion in security for the people who, despite falling short, had retired at 62 and locked in a small Social Security check.

The most interesting finding concerned the older workers who had extended their employment by switching to no-benefit jobs. Their retirement income in their late 60s replaced 68 percent of their past earnings, on average – still less than what they need but up dramatically from 52 percent if they had retired early. …Learn More

Empty New York Subway

Working from Home: the Next Inequity

An impressive consensus has emerged around the benefits of working from home.

More employers have come to accept the practice after being pleasantly surprised at how productive their employees are. If remote workers were once viewed as insufficiently committed to the company, they no longer feel as marginalized. And people seem to like it – with the notable exception of the mothers juggling Zoom meetings and childcare.

An NBER study out this month estimates that about 20 percent of the workdays in this country, post-pandemic, will be carried out at home. That’s less than half the at-home time that was clocked last year as the pandemic raged but is multiples of the very low levels prior to COVID-19.

There is “little doubt that the stigma associated with [working from home] diminished during the pandemic,” concluded the study, based on a series of surveys last year. This seismic shift in workplace conventions “will stick long after the pandemic ends.”

But a second theme running through this research is just as important: the benefits of telecommuting flow mainly to the more educated, higher-paid labor force.

Work from home perksMore than 50 percent of U.S. workers earning more than $100,000 a year have been allowed to work at home, rather than in the office, giving them more protection from layoffs during the economic shutdowns and from COVID-19. On the other end of the spectrum are lower-paid and minority workers, who have been much more likely to lose their jobs and be exposed to the disease. Just 25 percent of employees earning under $50,000 work at home – and only 10 percent of the lowest-paid workers who didn’t complete high school work.

Yet the desire to work at home is pervasive. Regardless of their income, years of education, or family situation, workers view it as a perk – so much so that most people said they would accept a pay cut if they could work remotely two or three days a week.

Another potential impact on equity in the study is the effect of remote work on commerce in the urban centers. …Learn More

Last will and testament

Retirees Intent on Leaving Homes to Kids

Every year, older homeowners leave billions of dollars worth of the wealth locked up in their houses to their adult children.

This is a paradox if one considers that home equity is one of retirees’ primary assets and could be a crucial source of income for people who are “house rich and income poor.” Retirement experts searching for an explanation have long wondered whether the deceased had intended to leave the house to family or simply died before they were able to cash in on the equity and spend it.

A new study has an answer: retirees have every intention of letting family members inherit their homes. The people in the study who expressed a stronger desire to leave an inheritance of at least $10,000 were much less likely to sell their homes before they died – with the intention that the house would be part, if not all, of that inheritance.

The foundation for this study is a precise estimate of the housing decisions being made in the final two years of life from a survey of older Americans. The researchers counted as many people as possible, including the deceased – their final living status came from interviews with next of kin – as well as people who continued to be homeowners after going into hospice or a nursing home.

The homeownership rate in the older population peaks around age 70 and starts falling precipitously after 80. But when the elderly in the study died, about half of them still owned their homes, while the other half had sold them and moved into rental housing.

At younger ages, the retirees had been asked to estimate the probability, from 0 (no chance) to 100 (definitely), that they would leave a financial inheritance. Based on this information, the researchers found that those who had said they had a high probability of leaving an inheritance remained in their homes.

There is also a financial advantage to the owner of not selling the house to avoid the capital gains tax, especially if the price appreciated dramatically during their lifetimes. The researchers didn’t account for this incentive in their analysis.

But they did find that the desire to leave a bequest is so compelling that parents held on to their homes even after predicting they might need to pay for nursing home care within a few years. …Learn More