Coronavirus is improving employee benefits—and they may stay that way

April 16, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

As employers have struggled to find and keep top talent, benefits had increasingly become an area of focus for employers in recent years. Not only Big Tech companies became famous for their employee benefits and perks, but even standard offerings, like health insurance, paid leave, and wellness programs, were often improved across other industries.

One example is the incremental adoption of more generous leave policies than required by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. From 2018 to 2019, there was a 6% increase in family leave and a 3% jump in elder care leave, according to the SHRM 2019 Employee Benefits Survey. 56% of organizations with fewer than 500 employees reported providing the minimum required amount of leave specified in the FFCRA, and 26% report that they provide more, according to the same survey.

But on April 1, after March ended with 10 million people who applied for unemployment benefits, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) went into effect. It requires that some employers (including certain public employers and private employers with fewer than 500 workers) provide up to two weeks of fully paid sick leave for employees that are quarantined or have COVID-19 symptoms and two weeks of paid sick leave at two-thirds pay if they need to care for someone in quarantine. It also requires 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave at two-thirds pay for employees whose child’s care provider or school is closed due to COVID-19.

These provisions will apply until December 31, 2020, but they might have a long-lasting effect. Post-COVID research from SHRM has shown that roughly one-third of companies are offering additional paid leave and one-third are offering additional unpaid leave—and more plan to do so (18% paid and 25% unpaid). Just over half of larger organizations report that they are implementing benefits similar to those offered under the FFCRA even if not required to do so.

Health and well-being

Employers were using technology as a way to cut costs in employee well-being before the pandemic began. Telemedicine and telehealth increased 10% year over year, and 72% of employers offered that benefit in 2019. Since the pandemic, 86% of companies are encouraging employees to access telemedicine or telehealth services if they need care, the post-COVID SHRM’s survey found. 

SHRM’s subsequent research found that, since the COVID-19 outbreak, about 19% of organizations reported that they are paying health premiums in order to maintain a sufficient workforce during the pandemic, and nearly another 10% are considering it. Roughly 15% have added new employee assistance program offerings. 

Gusto, a San Francisco payroll and benefits company, already offered online therapy sessions, but has begun promoting them to its 1,300 employees, anticipating an increased interest due to COVID-19. The company has a robust suite of benefits offerings, such as stipends for house cleaning and breast milk shipping services for new parents. In the age of social distancing, those dollars are more likely to be spent on grocery deliveries. .

Remote work and employee engagement

Employers had been placing greater emphasis on helping employees manage work-life balance, including flex time and remote work. There was a 5% increase in part-time telecommuting from 2018 to 2019, for example, and more immediate efforts were focused on ensuring employees have what they need to work remotely.

The pandemic has accelerated those efforts. A Willis Towers Watson survey released on April 10 found a dramatic increase in remote work: 39% of respondents said more than three-quarters of their workers could now work remotely compared to just 14% prior to the pandemic. Almost all employers (97%) are promoting social distancing and increased cleaning and access to disinfectants for in-office workers. 

The post-COVID-19 SHRM survey found that half of companies are covering remote work costs, including boosts to internet speed, data overages, laptops, monitors and the like. When its entire workforce began telecommuting, Gusto paid a one-time stipend to workers to cover additional remote work expenses, according to Maryanne Brown, Gusto’s People Team chief of staff. “A pretty big area of focus was taking care of that foundational [technology] element,” she says. 

iHeartRaves, a festival fashion company based in Anaheim, California, has suffered an 80% revenue loss as music festivals cancellations have mounted after the pandemic. The company has furloughed 20% of its workforce, but the team has combined pay adjustments and job-sharing strategies to try to keep as many of its 75 employees as possible.

The company is paying a 15% weekly bonus to its warehouse workers, but it has not yet made long-term benefits changes. It does, however, expect that more employees will work from home after the COVID-19 outbreak, but says CEO Brian Lim. As organizations like iHeartRaves look toward a future after the virus subsides, they will need to find ways to address their employees’ needs—which will undoubtedly change after this forced shift in workplace culture.

More must-read careers coverage from Fortune:

—How Fortune 500 companies are stepping up during the pandemic
—3 ways to put your best foot forward on a video job interview
Everything you need to know about furloughs—and what they mean for workers
—The coronavirus could change how freelancers work in the long term
—Accenture and Verizon work to help furloughed or laid-off workers find new jobs
—WATCH: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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