Employers Return Attention to Retirement Benefits

After years of enduring a sour economy, many employers with 401(k) plans now are looking ahead and trying to sweeten their plans to increase their recruitment and retention power.

For many, the first ingredient involves restoring the matching contribution — a benefit that many employers dumped when the downturn hit. Most employers have already taken this step, according to a new industry survey reported in Business Insurance. Three-quarters of employers that suspended a 401(k) match have restored it, according to a poll by Towers Watson. Seventy-four percent of those employers bumped the match back to its original total. Nearly a quarter of companies (23 percent) restored the match but at a lower rate this time around.

In addition to bringing back the match, employers can mix up plan types and help provide information and support to get employees’ retirement savings back on track.

For example, Roth 401(k)s, which allow employees to contribute after-tax funds, are getting serious looks from employers these days. A poll by The Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America notes that 46 percent of employers offered this choice in 2010, compared with 18.4 percent in 2006, according to Workforce Management.

The Roth option may be attractive to many workers because those employees’ current tax bracket likely will rise as they get older and make more money, the report said. Under that scenario, Roth participants would see savings through a lower tax bill in retirement.

Companies also can encourage their employees to fatten their retirement prospects by encouraging smart investing and finding resources to help them make the right decisions, experts said. A number of industry surveys have shown that advice from investment professionals leads participants to save more and diversify their portfolios.

Luckily for employers, many plans and benefit advisors now offer personalized, full-service advising in addition to educational materials about general investing, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

A recent survey by the Plan Sponsor Council of America noted that 58 percent of profit-sharing and 401(k) plans offered investment advice in 2010. Also, the Department of Labor recently relaxed a rule allowing providers to offer advising services directly to employees rather than having to go through a third party.

Unfortunately, employees have been slow to take advantage of either the Roth option or investment advice. For instance, only 16 percent of employees select the Roth plan when it is offered, the Profit Sharing/401(k) Council of America reports. As for investment advice, only a quarter of employees take advantage of that feature when it is available, according to the WSJ report.

Despite these challenges, most companies — including small businesses — are renewing their commitment to their retirement benefits and are working to keep the benefit attractive.

“A few years ago we’d have small-business owners who wouldn’t put [retirement] high on the list of things that attract and retain employees,” Rich Linton of Bank of America Merrill Lynch told Employee Benefit News. Now, however, companies of all sizes are crafting their benefits package to help their employees secure their financial future, Linton said.

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