The coronavirus has changed the world as we know it, and benefits professionals play a crucial role in shaping a new path forward. Help us come together as a benefits community by sharing your coronavirus story or read about what your industry peers have been experiencing. You and your colleagues across North America can learn from each other—what has worked for you and your organization as well as the challenges you still seek answers to—during this unprecedented crisis.

Scott Price
Partner in Charge at WithumSmith + Brown, P.C. in Bethesda, Maryland 

Our biggest challenge has been staff morale. This is inherently a stressful time of the year given the huge tax deadlines. The additional stresses that come with people working remotely, such as dealing with their younger children, and the mounting number of reported coronavirus cases and deaths have people concerned and struggling to focus on their work.

[Read Scott's story]

[Close story]

Colleen Baker
Vice President Enterprise Benefit Solutions at People Corporation in Toronto, Ontario

We are leveraging virtual collaboration tools such as Zoom. Such approaches are critical to maintain client and plan member connectivity, momentum for our strategic projects and continued growth for our product and service offerings.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

Despite previously having telecommuting and remote work arrangements with some staff, the pandemic has required a nearly full-staff transition to remote work. To manage this transition and to maintain a culture of connectivity and collaboration, our leaders have increased the use of virtual collaboration tools to facilitate daily touch points with all of our employees.

While we could do most things remotely or in a digital format, there are still clients that prefer paper and mail-based approaches. Because our services have been classified as essential services, we are permitted to maintain a reduced workforce in our offices as needed. This helps to address client preferences, although we continue to emphasize digital channels to our clients wherever possible. To further support our clients, we have provided them with a one-source stop for easy access to current and comprehensive information specific to COVID-19. 

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?
We are leveraging virtual collaboration tools such as Zoom. Such approaches are critical to maintain client and plan member connectivity, momentum for our strategic projects and continued growth for our product and service offerings.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?
We have always maintained a robust business continuity plan for events like this. This health event, being unique in many ways, provides the opportunity to expand and refine it. This pandemic not only presents health impacts and risks to our customers and staff but also comes with wide-scale economic impacts for our clients. Understanding and being prepared for that component helps us continually prepare for and respond to the severity of the COVID-19 impact to our clients by providing them with products and services to help them navigate these challenging times.

What have been your biggest challenges?
Our organization has historically been very adept at dealing with change management. We believe this drives much of our resiliency. Even as experts in change management, the pace of knowledge change with this pandemic creates the biggest hurdle for many organizations—because information is changing daily. In response to this and in order to manage communications in real time with all of our partners and clients, we have established a dedicated steering committee, a new senior vice president lead, and external and internal centralized sites of information. This helps ensure that we maintain our responsiveness to all of our stakeholders across the country.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?
People working together have been critical in working through the anticipated and unanticipated aspects of COVID-19. Having talented and engaged staff at all levels and areas of our service delivery model who are able to adapt accordingly has proved to be our top key success factor.

Previous investments in technology and digital health have also proved beneficial during this time period. We will continue to expand online tools and resources for our clients and their members, as well as our communication channels—emails, webinars, tip sheets, calls and various collaboration tools—to ensure we meet the mark for everyone. Our remote work infrastructure continues to be maintained and attended to with heightened focus to ensure that our connectivity and ability to deliver services are stronger than ever.

Ensuring that people can remain connected and deliver the right products and services expediently to our clients and their members helps ensure that we continue to remain their most trusted advisor during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the pandemic ends.

[Read Colleen's story]

[close story]

Chris Camp, CEBS, MTMS
Chair, HPFF Benefits Trust in Halifax, Nova Scotia

The biggest challenges so far have been adjusting to meetings and supporting mental health services. As trustees, we have to review what worked for us—as well as what did not—and create more robust response plans for our plan members.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

We are experiencing reduced costs due to service provider closures (dental offices, physio, massage, etc.). This has placed less demand on claims processing. We are currently setting up psychological video conferencing claims coverage during this time of social distancing.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?
We are condensing agendas to necessary business for continued operation. As a temporary measure, we are using Zoom video conferencing to meet as a board.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?
Claims are submitted online, via mail or through a secure drop box located in the lobby of the building. We are encouraging online submissions.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?
The employer has had a policy in place since the SARS outbreak in Toronto in the early 2000s. It has been adjusted to reflect the different nature of this virus. Social distancing in the workplace is in effect, building entry log sheets are being used, and prescreening temperature readings are required to be completed by staff in a designated entry area. Additional, higher level disinfection also is being conducted. Isolation is in effect for anyone with an exposure, as is the common practice for almost everyone.

What have been your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges so far have been adjusting to meetings and supporting mental health services.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?
This virus is not a surprise: SARS and H1N1 were warnings. The response has been mixed throughout the world, and unfortunately it appears governments did not prioritize and prepare adequately. With people having the ability to easily travel anywhere in the world, this situation will land on our doorstep again if we encounter another virus in the future. As trustees, we need to review what worked for us—as well as what did not—and create more robust response plans for our plan members.

[Read Chris's story]

Susan Bird, CEBS, Fellow ISCEBS, ICD.D
President, The McAteer Group of Companies in Markham, Ontario

COVID-19 has impacted everyone and everything in our organization—and I think in every organization that I know of. Where do you start? Your laptop is now “mission control,” and everything is “mission critical.” Nothing is the same, really, and nothing can be assumed to be the same tomorrow as it was today.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

COVID-19 has impacted everyone and everything in our organization—and I think in every organization that I know of. Where do you start? Your laptop is now “mission control,” and everything is “mission critical.” Nothing is the same, really, and nothing can be assumed to be the same tomorrow as it was today. I think, for now, many are working on adrenaline—Everyone wants to make a change for the positive.

In terms of physical changes, almost 100% of my organization converted to remote work in a matter of days. You start to use terms you never used before, like “supply chain interruptions”—That’s a term for purchasing agents, right? No—It’s a term for benefits organizations when you are waiting for 25 new laptops. The immediacy is astonishing—Actions have to be taken decisively and quickly, and you must know that what you do/how you act will be long-lasting and impactful for many people.

Organizations I help needed to look at everything from liquidity of their pension fund—in the face of huge layoffs and market crises—all the way to changing a voicemail to say “I’m working remotely,” and literally a thousand steps in between.

Above all, we needed to look at people: staff who needed help to be able to work from home, including some with young kids there too; staff who needed to be confident that there was strong leadership that wasn’t panicking and also wasn’t playing outside their lane; and calling in professionals when needed.

We had a strong business continuity plan in place pre-COVID-19. We are even more certain now that this was the right plan and that it helped us be nimble. Most of all this situation has heightened my appreciation for people—staff, medical personnel, grocery store workers, everyone who is out there working to keep us safe.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

For boards, we use an e-portal to load information; we sent along provider messages without filtering them because we didn’t want to make decisions about what individuals would think is important, and many were pulling information from everywhere. We issued FAQ documents as soon as possible and listened to what members were saying. We prepared webinars for leadership and membership. Overall, I think the strongest effort was made to reach out and see who needed what. There are lots of needs—continued coverage for unemployed people and coordinating benefits with what the Canadian government had announced, just to name a few. We definitely have used lots of virtual meetings via Zoom and Google.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

We have stressed e-claims for so long and now insist on it if there is to be any hope of prompt payments. We learned early on that the international postal system was interrupted by COVID-19 issues, and we felt that members had to either get on the e-system or risk payment delays. On other processes such as employer remittances, it is the same thing—e-payment has been around for ages, and it was time to put a line in the sand.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

We had a policy of “If you are sick, don’t come to work,” but it was not labelled “infectious disease.” Our health and safety committee and business team developed protocols around the government testing, which was online, fast and very smart. We asked all employees to test against their provincial site daily and report their results to human resources (HR) so that we knew how each person was doing.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The needs since early March have been like a starburst—many and immediate. Keeping clarity and focus was essential to doing good, necessary work. You need a break, a sleep and a walk with the dogs to keep that clarity and focus. That definitely did not happen every day, but having one of those was something I did not take for granted. On top of that was concern for everyone—our employees, my family, my friends and others—and the hope that they would be OK. I could tell not everyone had the same outlook during this crisis, and that was and is worrying.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

Plan, poke holes in the plan, patch the plan, support each other, don’t judge, plan and listen. Stay on top of the daily things because you don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Retain optimism, and try hard to not be overwhelmed—Feel compassion for those who are.

[Read Susan's story]

Reneé Moody, CEBS, PHR
Benefits Manager, University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas

Unfortunately, we are unable to meet with our employees in person for open enrollment due to our organization’s stay-at-home orders. Instead, we are hosting online open enrollment sessions through webinars, which include vendor presentations and videos that we have created.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

One of the greatest challenges for our benefits department is preparing for open enrollment, which begins April 14. Normally, employees would have access to face-to-face sessions, computer labs for open enrollment assistance, Spanish language interpreters, benefit booklets, etc.

Unfortunately, we are unable to meet with our employees in person for open enrollment due to our organization’s stay-at-home orders. Instead, we are hosting online open enrollment sessions though webinars, which include vendor presentations and videos that we have created. We are scheduling one-on-one Zoom sessions for employees who have questions. Employees who have no access to technology and cannot enroll online will receive their open enrollment information and forms in the mail. Lastly, we will take extra steps to reach out to our employees by phone to remind them about making their open enrollment elections or waiving their options, if applicable.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

Our organization primarily uses email to send updates to our employees and participants. In order to hold meetings and communicate with colleagues, we rely on software such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Ring Central.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

We work closely with our third-party administrator to process claims. Most of our essential processes are still the same; however, we expect some delays in some processes and correspondence due to COVID-19.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Some of our challenges include accounting for our employees and knowing where they are located, conducting benefits open enrollment and adjusting to most of our organization working remotely.

What are key lessons and takeaways moving forward?

Have as many contingency plans in place as possible. Try to prepare for the unexpected, which means staying current on technology, industry trends, processes, etc. Do not get caught up on doing things the old way, because that mind-set may cause some organizations to struggle through challenges such as COVID-19.

[Read Reneé's story]

Kandy Cantwell, CEBS
Partner, Montridge Advisory Group Ltd.
Vancouver, British Columbia

Many of our staff are parents and, with British Columbia schools moving to a virtual classroom program, they are also becoming teachers. As business owners, we need to ensure they have the mental bandwidth to fill all of the roles now required of them.

[Read Kandy's story]

Mike Neheli
President, Manion, Wilkins & Associates Ltd.,
GroupHEALTH Family of Companies

The organization’s personnel have proven to be resilient and flexible in the face of significant social disruption. Sustained investment in remote-work best practices, internal communications, learning and development resources, and mental health support has kept both morale and productivity high throughout the pandemic. This will be an ongoing investment.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

To date, COVID-19’s most significant operational impact on the GroupHEALTH Family of Companies, which under its corporate structure includes Manion, has been the need to transition from on-premises workspaces to work-from-home workspaces in response to the direction of public health authorities.

This transition has included the deployment of key technology infrastructure; the development and distribution of new or modified human resources policies and practices; the development of new management routines and expectations; the introduction of new remote-work and video conference tools; adjustments to operational processes and procedures; the coordination of information with key suppliers; optimizing and expanding internal and external communications programs and platforms; and the creation of extraordinary monitoring, collaboration and decision-making processes.

Our organization leveraged existing technology infrastructure and business continuity planning to effectively migrate more than 98% of our national workforce from on-premises work practices to work-from-home practices within less than a week, without material negative impact to plan sponsor and plan member operations. The GroupHEALTH Family of Companies continues to support modified procedures for a small number of paper-based processes, while assertively encouraging plan sponsors and plan members to transition to digital processes. Standard benefit and pension support procedures, including claims processing, have leveraged existing technology investments to maintain operations seamlessly.

Sales and revenue operations have felt the impact of the COVID-19-related economic slowdown, with increased inquiries regarding business relief measures and plan design changes to accommodate revenue loss and workforce changes. To date, the financial impact has been muted, though our analysts have begun financial modelling for a variety of scenarios based on the anticipation of a sustained economic slowdown.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

The GroupHEALTH Family of Companies, which includes six independently operating divisions, has successfully leveraged video conferencing tools to maintain business operations.

The organization has standardized communications platforms using Microsoft Teams for live cross-functional communications and Microsoft Office 365 for cross-functional file and document collaboration. Deployment has been universal: All employees have access to this rich set of tools.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

Claims processing has been uninterrupted by COVID-19. Claims intake, inquiry, adjudication, and payment teams continue to function without disruption to the plan sponsor and plan member experience, even while work-from-home transition activities were occurring.

In response to concerns for the health of our employees, we have reminded plan members of existing paper-free and virtual service options, encouraging them to avoid paper-based claims submissions and payments.

Other essential processes—including plan administration, finance and underwriting—have also transitioned quickly to work-from-home arrangements, with seamless access to key systems and data sources from remote locations. The organization has experienced only minor disruption as employees adjust to new systems and network access protocols.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

The GroupHEALTH Family of Companies did not have an infectious disease policy in place prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The organization successfully leveraged existing human resources polices and business continuity plans—modifying where appropriate—to respond to COVID-19 disruption.

What have been your biggest challenges?

As a multi-division organization operating nationally across multiple time zones and jurisdictions, the GroupHEALTH Family of Companies has had to align practices, communications and expectations across multiple internal and external stakeholder groups to ensure a consistent, coordinated and rapid response. This has forced us to implement new management practices focused on the rapid dissemination, processing and decisioning of information.

As well, the “creeping pandemic” nature of the outbreak has driven the organization to react quickly day to day and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A strong, centralized, executive-led “rapid response team,” empowered to make decisions quickly and broadly, has been essential to ensure an effective pandemic response.

Equipping employees for new workspace arrangements has stretched our management teams, particularly those responsible for front-line teams. We continue to monitor these work arrangements, including and especially through expectation-setting for regular, positive contact with employees. We continue to assess the mental health, team connectedness and productivity of employees with regular video, chat and email contact, while encouraging healthy work-from-home habits.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

The GroupHEALTH Family of Companies’ historical investment in technology infrastructure has allowed us to respond with alacrity to the COVID-19 outbreak. Key technologies like Microsoft Teams, cloud telephony and Microsoft Office 365 collaboration tools have proved their value since the escalation of the outbreak.

The organization’s personnel have proven to be resilient and flexible in the face of significant social disruption. Sustained investment in remote-work best practices, internal communications, learning and development resources, and mental health support has kept both morale and productivity high throughout the pandemic. This will be an ongoing investment.

The GroupHEALTH Family of Companies has successfully leveraged concepts built into its existing business continuity plans to maintain operational discipline and effectiveness. Our existing business continuity plan did not anticipate the “creeping pandemic” nature of COVID-19: the quick, controlled, and incremental social and economic slowdown driven by (often uncoordinated) public policy decisions. Nevertheless, components of the plan were activated to ensure ongoing operational integrity. The value of a robust and realistic business continuity strategy has been proven through this outbreak.

[Read Mike's story]

Samuel J. Kenish, CEBS
Administrator, Teamsters Local 830 Employee Benefit Funds
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

We process dental claims and pension/401(k) claims in house, and we are able to perform all processing remotely except for actual check printing and mailing. Certain staff come into the office twice per week to perform these and several other functions.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

All of our staff is now working remotely except that several of us are coming into the office twice per week to retrieve and distribute mail and to process checks.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

All staff have downloaded an application onto their cell phone that allows us to take and distribute calls just as though we are in the office. This is how we are dealing with participant calls. In terms of internal and external meetings, we have subscribed to GoToMeeting, which is working very well thus far.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

We process dental claims and pension/401(k) claims in house, and we are able to perform all processing remotely except for actual check printing and mailing. Certain staff come into the office twice per week to perform these and several other functions.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Working cohesively from separate locations; although, I feel my staff is doing an exceptional job at communicating with one another under the circumstances.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

We can overcome any challenge by working together to achieve our goals—in this case—keeping staff and participants safe while continuing to serve their needs.

[Read Samuel's story]

Thomas M. Bernstein
Administrative Manager, Midwest Operating Engineers Fringe Benefit Funds
Countryside, Illinois

The biggest challenge has been keeping up with all of the local and state executive orders as well as the federal legislative changes impacting our operations.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

The fund office, like the rest of the world, has been forced to react/adjust to the quickly changing landscape brought on by COVID-19. Operations have been adjusted to limit contact from outside vendors and participants. Half of the fund office staff has been assigned to work remotely. This has allowed for necessary social distancing space for those employees still working in the office to keep essential operations going. Increased cleaning protocols have been implemented, and staff have been provided gloves and sanitizers for protection. Staff have been advised to stay home if they are experiencing any symptoms or have come in contact with someone who has.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

We continue to communicate with our members electronically via email and regular mailings. So far, with the understanding of all involved, we have been able to continue to complete all essential fund office business and member transactions. All vendor meetings are being held via teleconferencing. All face-to-face member meetings have been suspended for the time being.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

All essential functions are continuing with minor modifications. When necessary, work is scanned and distributed to those working remotely.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge has been keeping up with all of the local and state executive orders as well as the federal legislative changes impacting our operations. In addition, managing and processing the large volume of information flowing into my email inbox on a steady basis. Also, making sure we are able to meet the technological needs of our staff working remotely.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

First and foremost, stay calm and don’t overreact. Communication is key between all levels. Rely on your key people. Keep sight of those working remotely to alleviate any feelings of isolation. Be flexible and adaptive and understand that sometimes necessity requires you to act differently then you are used to. Finally, take a break when you can in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the moment.

[Read Thomas’ story]

Jeff Anderson
Secretary-Treasurer, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555
Portland, Oregon

UFCW 555 has canceled membership meetings through April and will hold executive board meetings by phone conference. All of our members are working at full capacity. I have been appointed to the Governor of Oregon’s Economic Task Force on COVID-19. I have never been on so many Zoom Conference calls in my life.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

The trust office has closed the front desk to members and has focused on serving our members by phone. The union office has office staff working from home remotely with just a minimum presence in the building, while field staff have reduced all nonessential components of the job and are still in the health and grocery units to represent our members. The union represents 3,000 health care workers and 21,000 grocery workers who are considered essential employees.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

UFCW 555 has canceled membership meetings through April and will hold executive board meetings by phone conference. All of our members are working at full capacity. I have been appointed to the Governor of Oregon’s Economic Task Force on COVID-19. I have never been on so many Zoom Conference calls in my life—I average three or four Zoom-style calls every day.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Ensuring our members who come down with COVID-19 receive assurance of paid care beyond the trust plan. They should be granted a presumptive acceptance of a workers’ compensation claims since they have been exposed without having adequate personal protective gear.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

It is important to have a plan in place and ensure our state can anticipate the needed supplies and equipment for our people to get through this. The state should have a policy and procedures manual that can instruct future leaders on what protocols should be followed.

[Read Jeff's story]

Petula Workman, CEBS
Division Senior Vice President, Compliance Counsel Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.
Houston, Texas

Perhaps no one department is busier at this moment than HR given everything that is going on, and for that reason, many employers are taking advantage of advocate help lines to help communicate with plan participants.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

Client Plan Operations

Many of our self-insured clients have asked us to perform an analysis so that they can better understand both the near-term and long-term impacts. In the short term, we expect that many self-insured plans will see a reduction in health care costs. The reason is that there are many successful efforts by state and local governments to encourage providers to delay discretionary visits and procedures to preserve capacity and supplies for the anticipated volume of COVID-19 patients. This aligns with our historical data that shows that clients who are affected by national disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, see a drop in claims immediately following the disaster and that it usually takes two to three months for claims to return to normal levels once the disaster passes. In most cases, we do not see any kind of catch-up in claims, contrary to the expectation that claims are just delayed rather than avoided.

In the current environment, with many Americans viewing the health care system in general as a potential COVID-19 infection risk, it would not surprise us if claims fell by as much as 5% to 10% until we start to see an abatement of the crisis.

Client Office Operations

Our clients in the restaurant and hospitality sector have already engaged in widespread employee furloughs. Employers in the energy industry are feeling the double impact of a volatile oil market in addition to concerns over COVID-19. Many of our energy sector employers are not furloughing employees but are focused on keeping them healthy. Some employers have implemented twice-per-day temperature checks for personnel at drilling facilities; others have started to quarantine entire crews on offshore rigs after a single employee tests positive.

Our public sector employers, such as cities and counties, are considered essential and continue to operate but are also implementing precautions such as daily temperature checks for emergency responders. Our clients with office-based workforces are adapting to telework environments and are grappling with new or additional cyberprotection concerns.

Perhaps the greatest change that we have seen in office operations is the rapid shift to teleworking. According to Gallagher’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) HR Pulse Survey Part I, conducted over a three-week period ending on March 31, 2020, in the first week of the Pulse Survey, only 66% of the employers surveyed permitted employees who did not normally telecommute to work from home when possible. That number jumped to 94% in the third week.

How are organizations communicating and/or holding meetings? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

Organizations are turning to teleconferencing or videoconferencing to connect with co-workers. We’ve seen a huge uptick in individuals using Zoom over the past few weeks; however, that has triggered not only a Zoom capacity issue, but also raised privacy and security concerns. Other organizations are using WebEx to hold teleconferences, but depending upon an organization’s bandwidth, they may not necessarily be able to support a high number of videoconferences, so bandwidth can be an issue too.

Perhaps no one department is busier at this moment than HR given everything that is going on, and for that reason, many employers are taking advantage of advocate help lines to help communicate with plan participants. For example, in the past few weeks, the most frequently asked questions of Gallagher’s Benefits Advocate Center relate to three particular issues:

1. Is my benefit plan changing?
2.What can you tell me about the cost and availability of COVID-19 testing? Where do I need to go to obtain COVID-19 testing?
3.What are my options for a leave of absence or short-term disability?

Given the uncertain situation, many employers are working on developing a cohesive communication strategy to distribute COVID-19 information within their organization.

Did your clients have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

Some employers had pandemic or infectious disease policies in place prior to COVID-19, which would, for example, provide up to ten days of paid leave, with possible extensions as the need arises. But many employers are only now developing policies.

What have been the biggest challenges for employers?

The fast-moving crisis has caught many employers flat-footed. And for the first two weeks many employers were frantically trying to keep up with the changing landscape. While no one is happy with what has occurred, it is good to see how fast both the insurance industry and employers have responded and how we have all worked together to help get us to the other side. As time goes by, we believe our clients will have more of an opportunity to make important strategic decisions. Initially, some employers took a position of providing two weeks of pay for everyone impacted by a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order but, as time goes by, employers are facing difficult decisions that may result in layoffs or furloughs. Organizations are being more flexible by allowing people who can to work for home; but this has significantly increased the need for equipment and bandwidth; and has further brought cybersecurity issues to the forefront.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

Employers are learning about how well their organizations can function during a crisis. At this time, however, we may not be ready yet for key lessons and takeaways except to understand that our country has so many people that are willing and able to rise to the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced. Employers will continue to adapt as the situation continues, and even employers who anticipate having to lay off or furlough employees are making plans to rehire employees when the business operating environment improves.

[Read Petula's story]

CAAT Pension Plan
Toronto, Ontario

The global pandemic has brought uncertainty to the lives of our members, and our most important challenge is reassuring them that their pensions are safe and will be paid on time.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

There is no doubt that the pandemic has been disruptive to the way we normally work, but we’ve activated our well-planned and well-tested business continuity plan, and the operation is working well.

Pension plans have been deemed an essential service in the province of Ontario. Our staff of 200 are working from home, and we’re providing service to our members and learning to effectively use the online tools that make it possible to work from home. Our recent pulse survey (conducted about a week after we began working from home) shows that staff believe they have the required tools and support to perform their functions, and they are engaged. In fact, our employee net promoter score has increased.

Departments and project teams are meeting regularly, and senior staff are addressing the immediate and longer term issues that we face as a result of the pandemic and its carry-on effects.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

We’re using our suite of software that includes Microsoft Teams, which allows for audio and video meetings and instant messaging. We also have email and complete access to the files and systems we need to provide services to our 65,000 members and 76 employers. Our call centre remains open, with staff having access to softphones at home.

Although we’re learning to work differently, the tools are giving us easy access to the information and the people we need to operate effectively.

Staff receive regular updates regarding work-related adjustments, and we have conducted larger virtual gatherings, including monthly birthday virtual gatherings. We also are planning our next town hall meeting in a virtual setting.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

The organization is open for business (virtually) during regular office hours. Pension payments and other transactions continue remotely. We continue to meet our service levels. We have two to three people coming to the office to process incoming mail, take care of printing needs and perform IT maintenance.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

We do, under the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act and regulations, which protects workers from infectious diseases. We also have a business continuity program, and our preparedness is tested regularly. It allowed the organization, all 200 of us, to quickly and effectively shift the operation to working from home.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The global pandemic has brought uncertainty to the lives of our members, and our most important challenge is reassuring them that their pensions are safe and will be paid on time.

We remain focused on the fundamentally important things, such as the health and safety of staff, reassuring members of the security of their benefits, and the sustainability of the plan.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

The pandemic reminds us why we prepare for the unexpected. We will continue to explore a diverse set of scenarios to test our plans. With a funded status of 118% and a funding reserve of $2.9 billion, the CAAT Plan is well positioned to weather the current economic storm and remains one of the most sustainable pension plans in Canada.

[read CAAT Pension Plan's story]

Mike Pramik
Ohio Public Employees Retirement System
Columbus, Ohio

Because we have suspended education fairs, in-person seminars and employer site visits, we’re increasing the use of our webinar capabilities to keep members informed.

What steps have you taken to respond to the COVID-19 crisis?

As time has progressed and the spread of the virus has worsened, our precautions and procedures for conducting daily operations have changed in appropriate response.

In late February and early March, understanding that one of the best preventions for transmission of the virus is avoiding close proximity to others, we first temporarily relocated some staff in larger departments where cubicles are densely spaced. Smaller departments used their best judgment and separated as space permitted.

Staff who already had work-from-home capability could discuss with their department head the feasibility of enacting a temporary work-from-home schedule (alternating teams, etc.). Department managers assessed the impact to the overall department.

During March, an increased number of staff began using or testing work-from-home capability, and we began working on the ability to conduct meetings and carry on business as close to normally as possible. There is a period each workday where some systems are unavailable to allow our batch processes to run. Access to email, Microsoft applications and network files is always available. We looked into increasing the capability for online meetings. We encouraged not only the use of email, Skype and phone calls to replace large group meetings, but also considered the use of videoconferencing instead of face-to-face meetings.

The information technology team worked diligently throughout March to equip as many staff as possible with the capability to work from home.

While we are unable to answer calls or provide in-person counseling, we have added an option on our toll-free customer service line for our members to leave messages for a return call for what we have called critical situations. We’re asking members to use this option only if truly necessary, for example, to report a member death or to file for retirement. Staff is listening to these messages throughout the day and prioritizing return calls, and they handled more than 700 calls in the first four days of this process.

Because we have suspended education fairs, in-person seminars and employer site visits, we’re increasing the use of our webinar capabilities to keep members informed. We continue to offer webinars that mimic our in-person seminars, including the opportunity for participants to ask questions. Also, we’re offering update webinars each weekday at 8:30 a.m. that anyone can log into. This addresses our response plan and reviews the methods members can use to interact with us. Members can type in general questions during these webinars, and educators are on hand to respond. We are averaging roughly 25 to 30 participants in our daily webinars.

We have a series of online recorded presentations on a variety of topics that members can view any time they choose.

We’ve also taken steps to temporarily reduce certain requirements for our disability benefit recipients, and we are continuing to process refund and survivor benefit applications.

Are you still holding meetings? How are you meeting? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are you using?

We relocated our March board of trustees meeting from the interior board room to a first-floor auditorium to limit exposure to personnel in the building. We limited the number of staff attendees and provided a carryout lunch to prevent travel to the cafe. Social distancing measures were applied to the room setup. The meeting was videotaped for later viewing and posted to our website.

The governor’s action took effect after that meeting, and the trustees canceled the April meeting. If the “stay at home” order continues through May, we expect to hold a virtual meeting.

Staff has access to several tools as they work remotely for conducting virtual meetings such as Skype and Zoom.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

Yes. We created the OPERS Pandemic Response Plan in September 2009. We updated the entire document in February 2020 to target the coronavirus pandemic. We removed outdated World Health Organization data, removed business process lists and replaced them with references to departmental business continuity plans, updated information links and work approach options and made other general editing changes.

The policy is now “threat agnostic,” intended to be a guide for responding to all health-related issues. It’s being used to prioritize business processes, work groups and other considerations.

What lessons have you learned so far that may be helpful in the future?

It may be a little early to answer this question definitively, but on the list to look into when the crisis has passed is our comfort with the level of cross-training in place and our documented procedures for IT equipment setup and usage. Ensuring that the documents are user-friendly is critical when there are large numbers of staff initiating work in an unfamiliar manner.

We may also want to revisit our current work-from-home policies depending upon the level of overall success we have over the extended period.

More details about the OPERS response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be available in the May issue of Benefits Magazine.

[read Mike's story]

Steven Grieb, CEBS
Directory of Regulatory Services
Empower Retirement
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

When the market started falling, we had a lot of clients calling in with questions about stopping their contributions, partial plan terminations, whether sick pay is compensation for retirement plan purposes, etc.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

The workload has been heavy. When the market started falling, we had a lot of clients calling in with questions about stopping their contributions, partial plan terminations, whether sick pay is compensation for retirement plan purposes, etc. Then when the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed, there were a lot of decisions to be made on our part. We had to analyze the law, communicate internally so our client-facing people knew what was going on, and communicate externally so clients and participants knew what was going on. In terms of office operations, everyone has been working from home for about five weeks.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

Everything is virtual. Everything. Internal meetings, client meetings, everything. We use WebEx. That has visual capabilities, but many people turn that off, or put a Post-It note over their camera. Everyone is attending meetings in their pajamas, so I don’t think that the lack of visuals is really a problem for people. For nonmeeting purposes, email is the primary method of communication. I don’t know about you, but my inbox has been pandemonium—using both the Merriam-Webster definition and Dante’s definition. My email has increased 300% on many days. The volume has gotten the better of me a couple of times. I made one co-worker do push-ups.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

Yes. And it’s worked very well. Since I started at Empower, everyone has been asked quarterly to confirm in writing that we have the current capability to work from home. So this is something that we’ve been preparing for as long as I’ve been working here. That made the switch to making everyone work from home much easier. For me, it’s been easy, because I have a work-provided laptop. Others have to use their desktop or personal laptop to sign into work. But I have not once been told that something could not get done because so-and-so isn’t able to access their email and other work tools.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The hours. And the volume of work. I’m lucky that my kids are all fairly self-sufficient (14, 18 and 20— The oldest is unexpectedly home from college). I know people who have young children, and it’s hard for them to get work done. They’ve been pulling double duty for work and home.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

As hard as these weeks have been, the biggest takeaway for me is how seamlessly Empower (and America) has adjusted to working from home and staying productive to get things done. People are sick and dying. And a lot of people are out of work. But we’ll get through this. We’ll get done what we need to get done. And when it’s all over, we’ll bounce back like nothing ever happened. I really believe that.

[read Steven's story]

Aaron Walker-Duncan
ICD.D, Vice President
Board and Communication Services
at BC Pension Corporation in Victoria
British Columbia

Plans are seldom perfect, but they are important in a crisis. We have relied on our pandemic plan, broader incident response and business continuity plans and risk management plans.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

We now have approximately 90% of staff working from home. There have been some growing pains, but overall operations continue to run effectively. We have taken some extra measures to provide staff at home with information technology (IT) peripherals and ergonomic requirements to assist in keeping up productivity.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

We primarily use Skype for Business for voice and video calls and meetings. We have also used Telus Conferencing Services when our participant levels exceed capacity—for example, to hold all-staff conference calls. Finally, we use our intranet to share messages. We are producing regular short video messages and, in response to a gap in our channels to enable peer-to-peer community discussions, we launched an employee forum on the intranet.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

We have directed members to submit all forms electronically and are able to process these remotely. The small number of staff in the office are there to deal with those areas where we still have paper requirements. They focus on digitizing so that we can process remotely.

Did you have an infectious disease policy in place prior to coronavirus, have you used it and how has it worked?

Yes, we had a policy in place. We had to review it and update it in January because it was drafted some time ago. It has served as an effective guide to our response.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Operationally, our biggest challenge has been the quality of network connectivity. This is frustrating for staff and has reduced productivity. Another challenge has been maintaining connections, both in terms of maintaining our strong sense of corporate community and of ensuring collaboration.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

We have busted a number of myths around working from home and digitization that we will explore as more permanent business practices.

Plans are seldom perfect, but they are important in a crisis. We have relied on our pandemic plan, broader incident response and business continuity plans and risk management plans.

Also, communications to staff and other stakeholders are key in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment in order to provide frequent updates and to reduce anxiety.

[read Aaron's story]

Heather L. Britton, CEBS
Director of Benefits and Wellness
Office of Human Resources
City and County of Denver

HR challenges included determining pay practices for employees whose location was closed and could not work remotely (customer service-focused), determining where our employees were (were they in the field, home and working, or home and not working?) and encouraging staff who could to redeploy to jobs that are less than ideal.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

Employees who can are working remotely. Employees who are considered essential or those in the “field” who are able to social distance are still coming to work. Some employees are not working entirely since their offices are closed, for example Department of Motor Vehicle employees. Those who are not working are being encouraged to redeploy to other locations. Since we’re a government, we’re running homeless shelters, feeding jail inmates (we released the less serious offenders who usually do this), delivering meals and enforcing stay-at-home orders. All of those positions are temporary for the pandemic and need to be filled internally by those not working. The problem is that many employees would rather use their paid leave or not even be paid rather than take these positions. So even though we have people not working, we had to contract with a temp agency to cover some of these positions.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

Employees who are office-based were all trained to use Microsoft Teams. Teams offers a virtual meeting option and is used in all levels of the organization. The mayor held an employee town hall meeting through Teams, and in my department (HR), we use Teams to hold meetings every other week. I use Teams for my daily benefits/wellness staff check-ins. Teams also offers a chat function you can use to chat with a team or individuals.

What have been your biggest challenges?

For me, personally, it was figuring out how to check in with staff remotely. HR challenges included determining pay practices for employees whose location was closed and could not work remotely (customer service-focused), determining where our employees were (were they in the field, home and working, or home and not working?) and encouraging staff who could to redeploy to jobs that are less than ideal (see the first question). Also, tax revenue is down so we all had to cut budgets. We have not laid off anyone yet but expect to have furloughs.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

For Denver, we need to be prepared to determine locations for and establish homeless shelters, and identify and train city staff that can be redeployed quickly.

[read Heather's story]

Crystal Slaughter
Apprenticeship Coordinator/Director
Southern Nevada Teamsters 631 Convention & Construction Training
North Las Vegas, Nevada

Emergency policies and plans must be in place to help give guidelines on how to handle emergency situations and to alleviate the panic, guessing and questions that come with them. Unlike other geographic areas that might deal with natural disasters more frequently, Las Vegas has not had to deal with that. We need to be prepared for the unthinkable and be more proactive and up to date on dedicating supplies for emergency preparedness.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

I am working remotely because our office has been temporarily closed since mid-March, and the majority of our staff members have been laid off since then as well.

The Convention Apprenticeship program has 186 apprentices unemployed and on the out-of-work list.

Day-to-day operations of our training center were funded by employer and employee contributions, which have all come to a halt. Classes and training are currently unable to be provided because no contributions from our convention employers are coming in and won’t until work begins.

Our International Brotherhood of Teamsters safety and health department offices were closed and their staff began working remotely, which shut down current classes. However, grant funding recently come in from our international for a couple of our instructors to develop online classes/training.

I’ve been researching multiple platforms for online teaching, videos, handbooks and other materials to provide our instructors the capabilities to access all the information and curriculum needed in a central location as well as what platforms are the best fit for our instructional needs in order to teach classes to an online live audience. The goal is to meet the requirements of the curriculum(s) and provide our members and students the opportunity to obtain their certifications, skills, and health and safety and equipment training.

We are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and keeping in touch with both office staff and apprentices and keeping them updated with resources.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

Our system generates mass emails to all apprentices. Meetings with colleagues and some staff have been conducted using the GotoMeeting and/or Zoom.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

I check the office once or twice a week in order to keep up with incoming mail and unemployment requests for information on our unemployed apprentices from the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

Claims for our unemployed staff and billing for utilities and/or vendors are done electronically and sent to our administrators’ office via email.

Health and welfare claims and questions are handled through our third-party administrator.

What have been your biggest challenges?

Not having a plan of action and suddenly having to lay off six of the seven long- time employees. Also having so many members, apprentices and communities available to do training but being unable to do so due to COVID-19 and being considered a nonessential business.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

Emergency policies and plans must be in place to help give guidelines on how to handle emergency situations at all times and to alleviate the panic, guessing and questions that come with them.

Unlike other geographic areas that might deal with natural disasters more frequently, Las Vegas has not had to deal with that. We need to be prepared for the unthinkable and be more proactive and up to date on dedicating supplies for emergency preparedness.

We need to put together resources to help people during times like this and be able to provide them with information online or in a handout.

I wish we would have had a much larger reserve in order to accommodate training needs without straining the funds. That will be a future topic of discussion for preplanning.

[read Crystal's story]

John Eshleman, CEBS
Director, Benefits
Memorial Hermann Health System
Houston, Texas

As a hospital system, we are affected in many different ways. We have some areas that are extremely busy (such as our emergency departments) and many that are shut down completely (such as all elective surgery units). As a benefits department, we are all working remotely on our upcoming annual enrollment as well as COVID-19 related compensation and benefit programs.

How is coronavirus affecting your plan operations, office operations, etc., and what steps have you taken to respond?

As a hospital system, we are affected in many different ways. We have some areas that are extremely busy (such as our emergency departments) and many that are shut down completely (such as all elective surgery units). Some of our workforce is working remotely. As a benefits department, we are all working remotely on our upcoming annual enrollment as well as COVID-19 related compensation and benefit programs.

How are you communicating and/or holding meetings with colleagues and/or participants? If meeting virtually, what kind of software/utility are they using?

For colleagues, we are holding meetings virtually via Zoom. For participants, our human resources (HR) shared services staff have been answering participant calls remotely from their homes.

How are claims being processed? What about other essential processes?

Claims are continuing to be processed normally through our third-party administrators. We are handling all of our essential processes remotely with no issues.

What have been your biggest challenges?

The rapid pace of change and uncertainty have been my biggest challenges. We are constantly evaluating the situation with our patient census, staffing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, federal legislation and other data items to meet the needs for our staff through compensation and benefit programs.

What are key lessons and takeaways for moving forward?

The key lesson for me is to have a good disaster plan in place and have guiding principles for that plan so when you have to adapt quickly, you have a road map on where to go.

[read John's story]

​Partner of accounting firm in Bethesda, Maryland

How is coronavirus affecting your office operations, and what steps have you taken to respond?
We feel fortunate that the coronavirus has had minimal effect on our overall operations. Our staff was equipped to work remotely since our standard issue equipment includes a laptop and other portable accessories. All of the software we use to accomplish our jobs, including our phone systems, is web-based, allowing each employee access from any internet connection.
As for office operations, the only duties that could not be handled remotely involved handling the incoming and outgoing mail. Because this is tax season, there is a lot of mail to deal with that could not sit for long periods of time. We worked up a schedule to send one administrative support team member into the office every other day to sort and scan the mail so that our remote tax preparers could keep working. Our tax assembly team member also goes into the office a few days a week to physically assemble and mail returns to our clients, especially those that were due refunds. A greater number of clients are agreeing to electronic delivery of their returns.
Our biggest limitation is our clients’ inability to send us records to complete their audits or tax returns.