How the Delta variant impacts 2022 enrollment: Are you ready? 

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When COVID-19 vaccinations ramped up in the new year, it was the sign businesses had been waiting for — the post-pandemic recovery was just around the corner. The closer we get to herd immunity, the better chances for a safe enrollment at the workplace.

But the spread of the Delta variant upended that hope. The pandemic has continued for so long and safety guidelines have changed so frequently, it’s no surprise that some businesses are confused. CDC guidelines are fluid. Is there a mask or no mask mandate? Is it safe for vaccinated employees to work indoors without masks or not? What about the unvaccinated workers? And remote workers?

Businesses in all industries are also facing enormous staffing shortages. Pandemic burnout and the "The Great Resignation" have workers leaving their jobs at a rapid pace. And the realities of living and working through a pandemic have employees seeking more health and financial security. Open enrollment is HR’s time to shine a new light on their benefits offerings, which could in turn maximize employee retention and satisfaction.

The stakes are high this open enrollment season. Here are three practical tactics for a safe and effective enrollment.

Remote benefits education and enrollment: the human touch

If your business is in a community with a high weekly infection rate (exceeds 50 per 100,000) and low vaccinations, the stakes are riskier for in-person enrollment. With the surge of the Delta variant, the safest benefits education and enrollment method is remote, either virtual or telephonic. Both of these methods can still have the personalized touch that employees have come to expect during an in-person session. The key is using an insurance carrier with a strong reputation in virtual and telephonic methods — for a hybrid benefits communication strategy.

“During the height of the COVID pandemic, the vast majority of our clients switched from face-to-face enrollment to virtual and telephonic, and it was very successful with employees,” said Dana Bagwell, Director of Enrollment Communication at Colonial Life.

Another huge advantage is convenience. Virtual and telephonic counseling is much more accessible for employees working remotely, at several locations, or covering multiple shifts. 

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Some 30% of 1-to-1 counseling sessions during enrollment were conducted by virtual or telephonic methods by mid-2021.

Source: Colonial Life, internal data, 2021.

In-person enrollment

While many businesses successfully used remote enrollment last year, they’re gravitating back to in-person enrollment. Because despite the challenges of the Delta variant, some businesses still need a safe option for in-person enrollment for many of their workers. Face-to face enrollment is really effective in adapting to a broad range of learning styles. And as the pandemic fluctuates across the country, more people are eager to make a human connection. 

Here’s how to check your community:

Transmission (by week) rate:

  1. Click here for county view.
  2. Select state and county or metro area from drop-down menu.
  3. Scroll page to: Level of Community Transmission.
  4. Your local transmission rate will be highlighted by a color-coded box: Low, Moderate, Substantial or High.

Vaccination rate:

  1. Click here for vaccinate rates.
  2. Hover mouse over U.S. color-coded map.
  3. Hover mouse over your state, county or metro area.
  4. See dialogue box with vaccination rates.

Top safety protocols for in-person enrollment

  • Enrollment administrator: Designate a manager or administrator to keep safety protocols on track with employees and rooms for group and 1-to-1 meetings.
  • Benefit counselors: Make sure brokers, agents and benefits counselors on-site understand safety protocols.
  • Masks: Have extra masks on hand, display helpful posters covering nose and mouth.
  • Social distancing: Conduct group meetings in rooms at 50% capacity. Position chairs six feet apart.
  • Hand washing: Encourage handwashing for at least 20 seconds.
  • Hand sanitizer: Have plenty of hand sanitizer on hand.
  • Ventilation: Use or adapt rooms with good ventilation.
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Nearly 60% of 1-to-1 counseling sessions by Colonial Life were conducted in-person by mid-2021.

Source: Colonial Life, internal data, 2021

When considering whether in-person for enrollment is the right direction for your business, evaluate the risk of the surrounding community. Regions with low weekly infection rate (less than 10 per 100,000) and high vaccination rates will have a higher likelihood of a safe in-person experience.

If you decide on in-person enrollment meetings, make sure you have the best safety practices in place. For example, ask all of your employees to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status. For 1-to-1 counseling sessions, ensure a high level of ventilation, social distancing and hand sanitizer.

For employees who don’t feel comfortable meeting in-person, consider offering at least one remote option, such as telephonic or virtual.

Pre–enrollment messaging and communication

An essential part of enrollment is mentally preparing your employees for it with pre-enrollment messaging. Employees need to know where enrollment is taking place and what benefits are available, and when the deadline is to enroll. Also, think about spotlighting a high-demand benefit in a message. Messages around benefit offerings help workers see the value in their everyday lives, which in turn strengthens job satisfaction and employee retention.
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Nearly one-third of employees who understand their benefits very well intend to stay with their employer for more than 10 years, in a recent Colonial Life survey.

Source: Online research administered March 23–30, 2020 by Dynata on behalf of Colonial Life among 1,200 U.S. adults.

It’s worth noting that if enrollment is in-person, it’s critical that you clearly communicate your expectations regarding safety protocols. And what the alternative option is if they feel sick, (COVID-19 or not)

We recommend sending messages about two to three weeks ahead of time. Keep messages short and simple so employees can scan them quickly. And be thoughtful about the frequency of emails about a specific topic.

“A good rule of thumb is three touchpoints for a specific message,” said Bagwell.

With the COVID pandemic, employees have become acutely aware of how vulnerable their health and financial wellbeing can be. Making sure your enrollment is safe and accessible will enable your employees to focus on choosing benefits that meet their needs, and at the same time increase their job satisfaction. 

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Over 80% of workers said benefits through their employer contribute to their financial security.

Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute and Greenwald & Associates, Workplace Wellness Surveys, 2020
The Delta variant has been a harsh reminder that we’re still living in pandemic times. But the good news is that as the virus has evolved, many businesses have adapted their operations and honed their safety practices. So, if another COVID variant spreads, those same businesses will be ready to keep their employees safe.