Benefits change – OK or not?

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Q: I have a friend who has been told that her medical benefits may change this year.  She accepted this role because of their generous health care plan.  She feels like this is a “bait and switch” from her original offer and benefits plan.  Is this legal? 

A: In most situations, an employer can make changes to an employee’s benefits plans.  There are some exceptions.  If your friend has entered into an employment contract or your friend is a member of a union, this change may not be permissible.

Typically, companies evaluate employee benefits on an annual basis.  Benefits are expensive for an employer.  Usually, a company reviews benefits annually in preparation for open enrollment.  Open enrollment is the time period, most often annually, where employees are given the opportunity to modify their benefits selections.  The employee can add dental coverage for their entire family, or drop to single coverage from family coverage, for medical care.  During the year, employees can also make changes to their benefits, but the change must be due to a qualifying event.  Qualifying events can include a marriage, the birth or adoption of a baby, or the loss of coverage through another source.

Employers need to remain competitive, particularly in the current market.  Employers who skimp on pay and benefits will lose talent.  Smart, talented employees are difficult to retain thus far in 2022.

Some employers will ask for employees’ input with respect to benefits design.  Every employer has a budget for benefits.  They are unable to offer all benefits, at premium levels, to all employees.  Employers try to make sound decisions on what to offer, from medical coverage to time off to flexible work arrangements.

In 2022, as we try to continue to navigate through this pandemic, many employees are placing a high value on flexible work arrangements.  Most candidates are asking about asking for flexibility in start and end times, a hybrid work arrangement or fully remote work.

Changes in benefits, compensation or other workplace attributes is inevitable.  Some changes may be positive, like a salary increase, while others may not, like a change in benefits carriers.  If your friend has a partner or spouse, she could research that person’s medical plan.  Perhaps that might be a better match for her expectations?

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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