Monthly Archives: September 2017

Redefining Employee Benefits

When it comes to the benefits brokering business you get people or companies labeling themselves in many different ways. When I started in the business the common title was a Group Insurance Broker. Some added the label “Consultant”. Over time the term changed to Employee Benefits Advisor or Employee Benefits Consultant. I guess in the end you can call yourself whatever you want but the market really doesn’t care. What an employee values as a “Benefit” to working at some employer is something that is personal to that individual. The consumer or customer, or in this case an employee, will determine for themselves what is a benefit and what is not. Even the employer may be offering “benefits” that their employees don’t value much as a benefit to working there.

I think we are in the middle of a redefinition of what Employee Benefits is. A 23-year-old entering the workforce with a ton of college debt more than likely does not view a health insurance plan with a $3000 deductible as much of a benefit. Most don’t see themselves incurring claims over $3000, and if they did, they don’t have the $3000 in the bank to pay the deductible. My son is that 23-year-old and that is what he and his friends told me when I asked them. Granted, this is not a large sample size.

Mark Bertolini, CEO of Aetna, who has implemented some of the most progressive employee benefits programs for their employees says, their goal is to help employees be “happy, healthy, and economically viable”. Not a bad objective, and I would assume this would help their employees be more productive. I think most people strive to be happy, or at least happier, so helping people be a little happier is a worthy goal.

When a 25-year-old single mother with no money in the bank has her refrigerator break down that is a bad day. When a 40-year-old has their spouse ask for a divorce unexpectedly that is a bad day too. And when your 87-year-old father has dementia and needs to be put in a nursing facility that is a bad day for you and your 89-year-old mother who is slowly losing her partner. These bad days suck the happiness out of most people and this almost always leads to lost productivity at work, at home, or almost at any endeavor. It is hard to stay focused when something else consumes you.

This emerging market demand to help people through their workplace has resulted in a significant amount of capital being invested in new companies providing products and services to fill the need. These solutions include wellness, nutrition and smoking cessation programs, financial fitness, college loan payment support, employee loan programs, help with bad credit, and more. At Aetna, they promote yoga and pay employees to sleep more in additional to many other programs. Aetna claims that these programs have saved them millions of dollars through improved employee productivity and a reduction in sick days. This is certainly a different employee benefits world.

For employers, the idea of providing a benefit to employees should be a good thing. Who doesn’t want healthy, happy, financially viable, and productive employees? For many though, the number one employee benefit, health insurance, has become a necessary evil that still leaves employees with a financial burden. And what employer wants to come to work and worry about managing the health claims of their employees to keep down costs and maintain profitability? You would think they already have enough to do running whatever business they are in. In addition, they are essentially delivering “bad news” once per year when they raise employee contributions. This change has made health insurance much less of a benefit. And many people believe that it is rising health care costs that is holding back salary increases. So, indirectly, employees are really paying for the health insurance through lower incomes.

As these “new benefits” enter the market there are challenges. Employers aren’t sitting there with the budgets to provide all these solutions. HR departments, that are already strapped for time, don’t have the capacity to evaluate, purchase, communicate, and administer such programs. And many programs only address a subset of a population. A 48-year-old overweight diabetic has different needs than a 23-year-old triathlete with no money who just crashed his car. Meeting the needs of a broad employee population is not easy. While today these may be new ideas, there may be a day in the near future when this will be an expectation of employers.

Helping employers meet the needs of this changing market is an opportunity that can also be exciting. The idea of helping someone have a “better day” because you provide an outlet for an individual that has some immediate need, can be rewarding. But, as stated above, this is not easy. As the definition of employee benefits is redefined, it may also redefine what people call themselves who serve this market. It may start separating the traditional Group Insurance Broker/Consultant from those providing redefined Employee Benefits Consulting. Those lines are blurry today. They may not be in the near future.

The Zenefits/OneDigital Partnership – It’s Magic

You may have seen the news about the Zenefits/OneDigital deal and the how Zenefits will now start working with brokers. This news reminds me of a magician performing a magic trick. They get you to focus on one hand while the other is where most of the action is happening. With this new partnership, most brokers are probably focusing on this competitor named Zenefits. The real story however is about the competitor named OneDigital.

The details of this relationship and how Zenefits may partner with other brokers has yet to come out. Let me speculate here. First, I would assume the OneDigital deal with Zenefits is similar to what OneDigital has done with other brokers in their small group outsourcing business. OneDigital gets 50% – 60% of the commissions to manage the business and the other broker gets 40% – 50%, or something like that. Without some significant share of the commission being retained by Zenefits this deal would not have happened. If Zenefits was giving away free software then they certainly can’t give away all the revenue and still employ all their people.

I would assume that any broker that wants to have a relationship with Zenefits will have to provide what OneDigital is doing. Handle all the service for 60% of the revenue. Or if they want to sell Zenefits technology, I would imagine the fees would need to be closer to what the market is.

The thing about OneDigital is they built a business based on leveraging technology in the most optimum way to drive down costs and provide better service. Brokers tell me all the time they can’t make money on small group for 100% of the commission yet OneDigital does it with only 60% of the revenue. How can that be?

The idea of combining HR/Benefits/Payroll technology with services is something we have been touting for years now. In fact, a shift in our business was made because of the need to provide the united services around the technology. Even Namely recently announced they are moving from a software as a service model to software with services model. These services include benefits brokering along with benefits administration and of course, HR and payroll.

The one-stop-shop for everything HR is an attractive value proposition for employers. Mike Sullivan, One Digital’s Chief Growth Officer stated in today’s Employee Benefit Advisors article that, “In a very client-centric way, the alignment of these two platforms makes sense for small businesses.” Indeed, it does.

This is not OneDigital’s first play in this space. It was less than two years ago when they announced their investment in GoCo. The title of the press release said, “GoCo Takes Zenefits Head on with Digital Insurance Partnership and Investment”. You can see that press release here. Even today Mike Sullivan is still listed on the GoCo website as a Board Member. I don’t know where this leaves that relationship.

What will come out in the coming days or weeks is how Zenefits plans to partner with other brokers. I wonder if and how the insurance commission is going to be leveraged to deliver this joint offering. Somehow, I don’t think this strategy of benefits commissions subsidizing HR technology game is over. Firms like Gusto and Namely are still combining benefits brokering with HR/Payroll technology and services. And we all know that other brokers are subsidizing systems across the country to get new business. As I have stated in the past, the idea of giving away free technology to get a broker of record started at least a dozen years before Zenefits was even founded.

Personally, I don’t think Zenefits has anything special, but OneDigital does. So, while most brokers are paying attention to what they perceive as the fall of Zenefits, I think the competitor to look out for is OneDigital. They will be knocking on your client’s door.

Note: This article is wildly speculative, but it is my blog. As more information comes out I will write again.