September 22, 2020

In the Height of a Health Pandemic, Few Employees Understand Health Benefits

Employers exploring new tactics for open enrollment communication this year


Brookfield, Wisconsin—As if open enrollment wasn't already challenging, 2020 is throwing employers and employees for a loop. The latest International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans survey report, Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication 2020, asked U.S. employers about pandemic-related changes impacting staff communication and implementation for this year's open enrollment.

In the height of a health pandemic, familiarity with health benefits is essential but only one-third of employees (34%) have a high level of understanding of theirs. Over half (52%) have a medium level of understanding, and 15% have a somewhat or very low level of understanding. Employers are pivoting their efforts this year by using new virtual tactics and topic-driven communication.

Going Virtual

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused organizations to make some major adjustments to how their open enrollment process will operate. About one in five (21%) organizations have made changes to their open enrollment procedures because of the pandemic, and nearly all the changes involve shifting from an in-person experience to a virtual option.

"We've heard from many organizations that in-person meetings and benefit fairs have been canceled or moved to a virtual space," said Julie Stich, CEBS, VP of Content at the International Foundation. "Organizations are reducing printed materials (like posters and signage) and instead sending more emails or mailing information to participants' homes. Many are getting creative by making videos or developing more interactive websites to educate workers about their choices and the open enrollment process."

Developing Solutions for Nonwired/Deskless Workers

Several organizations indicated they were concerned about communicating open enrollment information with deskless/nonwired workers (workers without regular access to a computer or email), especially considering the absence of face-to-face events this year.

"One employer shared with us that some of their employees don't have access to a computer to complete the enrollment process—those computers are normally provided during benefit fairs, which are going virtual this year," said Stich.

Of organizations with deskless/nonwired workers, 43% find it challenging to communicate to that population.

"Whether it's providing a mail-in option this year or modifying face-to-face events to accommodate social distancing recommendations, these organizations are working to find new solutions for their workers," Stich added.

Emphasizing COVID-19-Related Topics

The number one challenge facing employers has held steady for the past five years, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic: Employees do not open and read communication materials or access resources, reported by 76% of employers who took the survey.

To further encourage employees to read their open enrollment materials, employers are focusing on more COVID-19-related topics when communicating benefits this year. Most employers (87%) said their main topic of focus is health care, including telehealth/telemedicine benefits. Noting the importance of mental health resources during this time of uncertainty, 72% are communicating specifically about mental health benefits as well.  Organizations are also emphasizing employee assistance programs and flexible work arrangements.

Examining Health Care Options

Most organizations stated that the average participant will continue to have the same number of health plan choices available to them as they did in 2020. Nearly all organizations will maintain or increase access to virtual health care options in 2021. However, most (70%) organizations anticipate that the cost of health benefits for average plan participants will increase compared to 2020.

For more information on the Trends in Benefit Open Enrollment and Communication 2020 survey report, visit


The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans is the premier educational organization dedicated to providing the diverse employee benefits community with objective, solution-oriented education, research and information to ensure the health and financial security of plan beneficiaries worldwide. The Foundation has more than 31,000 multiemployer, corporate and public sector members representing over 25 million lives. For additional information, visit

Anne Patterson | (262) 373-7614