Making the Most of Benefits

Ignoring changes to benefits packages is like throwing away free money

While most employees are interested in finding out how much of a raise they will get each year, a new survey by online employment site CareerBuilder.com suggests that nearly a quarter don’t pay attention to changes to their benefits packages. As a result, they are often unaware of how much compensation they are entitled to and in many cases even miss out on free money.

“The troubled economy has people doing everything they can to cut costs,” says Allison Nawoj, career advisor for CareerBuilder.com. But employees who don’t understand or utilize the benefits they’re offered through their jobs can be missing out on perks designed to not only make their lives easier, but to save them money on such expenses as healthcare, retirement and commuting costs, she adds.

The cost of underutilizing benefits can be high. According to the survey, more than half of employers said employees who didn’t take advantage of the company’s open enrollment season – a time in which employees can make changes to benefits packages – on average lost $250 or more in out-of-pocket expenses. Twenty percent of employers said workers who didn’t sign up for the benefits they were entitled to stand to lose $1,000 or more per year.

“Making a simple change to your benefits package can add value to you and to your overall compensation package,” says Anika Harris-Bervine, vice president and deputy director of human resources for The Centech Group Inc., an information technology solutions provider in Arlington, Va.  For example, one adjustment to an employee’s healthcare benefits package could determine whether he or she pays $15 or $50 to fill a prescription, she adds.

It’s also important for employees to understand that benefits packages are not one-size-fits-all. Typically companies give employees a variety of options to choose from, recognizing that perks that are valuable to one employee may be less useful to another. For example, a high-deductible health plan might benefit someone who is young and very healthy, but create a financial disaster for someone who undergoes frequent medical treatment.

In order to get the most out of their benefits, employees should not just passively take what they’re given but should instead view the benefit selection process as a collaboration between themselves and their human resources departments. Here’s how to make sure you aren’t throwing well-deserved perks and services away.

Prioritize open enrollment. If employees don’t make changes to their benefits packages during open enrollment season, they often are locked into their current plans for the entire year. Even if you’re content with your benefits package, review all of the benefits available each year to make sure new options wouldn’t suit you better.

Ask for clarification. Many employees who are confused about how some benefit programs such as health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts work, simply don’t sign up for them. If you’re not sure about something, “pick up the phone and contact someone from HR,” says Harris-Bervine.

Suggest new benefits. Employers who want to retain valuable employees are often willing to add perks that are

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