It's open enrollment season, meaning it's again time for many Americans to sit down and go over their employer-sponsored workplace benefits for next year.
The coronavirus pandemic has made health benefits top of mind for many — more than 70% of employees plan to spend more time reviewing voluntary benefit options offered by their employer, according to a September survey by Voya Financial.
But employees should make sure that they consider benefits available to them beyond their employer-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans. There are a lot of benefits that employers offer that can help their employees save money or even better protect against accident or illness.
For most employers, open enrollment takes place in November and can differ depending on the company.
"You want to see if there's anything else out there that you could be taking advantage of to improve your your health, or your financial health, or both," said Kim Buckey, vice president of client services at benefits consultant DirectPath. "We don't want to miss out on something better and cheaper."
Where to go for help
If you're not sure what your employer offers, or want to learn more about your particular plan, there are a few places you can turn to for help.
Your employer may have sent you an updated benefits packet in the mail or online, which you should scan to refamiliarize yourself with offerings, Buckey said. Because the pandemic has limited in-person meetings this year, Buckey said, many companies are offering increased support to enroll in benefits one-on-one over the phone with an independent third party.
"You can call up and spend 20 minutes talking to someone who knows the company's benefits but is independent so you can ask your deepest, darkest, most embarrassing and personal questions," Buckey said.
Buckey advised against is taking your benefits questions to your friends, family or co-workers or looking for specific answers online.
"Your friends and your family and the internet don't know your employer's plan and they don't know your specific situation," she said.
Here are some of the top employee benefits to look for this enrollment season:
1. Mental health offerings
The amount of stress Americans are facing this year is unprecedented, and seeing a therapist can cost hundreds of dollars per session. Enter Employee Assistance Programs.
EAPs generally offer a set number of free counselling sessions to employees, Buckey said. The number differs by employer, but usually ranges between three and 10 per year, she added. In addition, some employers offer that set number of free sessions on a per-issue basis, meaning that if you have completed all of your sessions for one problem, you could start over with another one.
Some EAPs may also help you find a therapist or refer you to one in your insurance network, Buckey said.
2. Insurance programs
Aside from health insurance, many employers are offering a full range of options to beef up coverage in the event of a catastrophic event or accident. Employees can often add more life insurance, critical illness insurance, disability insurance and even, in some cases, pet insurance.
Some employers may also offer hospital indemnity insurance, a supplemental plan that's meant to help cover the cost of a hospital stay. In 2016, the average hospital stay cost $11,700, according to the latest data from the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project.
An indemnity plan is "an inexpensive way to help minimize the impact on your wallet of a high-deductible plan," said Buckey.
3. Spending accounts
To stretch your dollars further, take advantage of employer-offered Health Savings Accounts or Flexible Spending Accounts.
"HSAs are triple tax-advantaged, meaning you never pay taxes on the amount you contribute, invest or spend," said Steven Auerbach, CEO of health-care company Alegeus. "The money is yours to keep forever, so the more you put in, the more you'll have available later in life for expected and unexpected needs."
While HSAs are for health-care costs, FSAs can generally be used on a wider range of expense such as childcare or even adult daycare, said Nancy DeRusso, senior vice president and head of coaching at Ayco, a financial counseling company.
The two accounts are similar, but have some key differences. HSAs are tied to high-deductible health insurance plans and can be rolled over at the end of the year. If your employer offers an FSA, you can open one even if you opt out of health insurance, but funds might not roll over.
4. Advocacy and transparency programs
Some employers offer different programs to help their employees understand medical bills and find the best costs for services in network, according to Buckey.
Patient advocacy programs can help if you have a medical bill you'd like to dispute but might be short on time or knowledge — the service can follow up with the provider for you, she said.
Some employers offer transparency services that can help you compare medical costs.
"More employers are encouraging their staff to shop around, understanding there's no one price for health care," Buckey said.
5. Financial wellness benefits and matches
Beyond offering retirement savings accounts, many employers will match what employees deposit up to a certain amount. And, as an increasing amount of young people graduate college with student loan debt, more employers are including loan repayments in their benefits. Some employers offer debt relief programs or will match contributions, DeRusso said.
"Don't leave money on the table especially if you can afford it — at least contribute the company match," she said.
The same goes for any financial wellness benefits your employer may offer, including access to a financial planner or coach.
6. Employee discounts
Everyone loves a discount. Many companies offer employee prices for products, events and even services such as florists, sports tickets, car rentals and more, said DeRusso.
To best take advantage of these discounts, DeRusso suggests making a habit of checking your employer's site before shopping.
"They aren't front of mind until they are relevant to you," she said.
SIGN UP: Money 101 is an 8-week learning course to financial freedom, delivered weekly to your inbox.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.