March 13, 2020
How Multi-Employer Funds Should Talk about the Coronavirus
Multi-employer funds have unique circumstances to navigate around this outbreak.
Fortunately, there are already a lot of great resources you can leverage as you think through how this may affect your people and their families. But with so much anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus, what should leadership tell fund participants? And what messages should be prioritized?
Topics You’ll Want to Address
If you haven’t already reached out to participants about all the benefits and resources they can leverage, now’s a great time to highlight:
- Good hygiene at work and at home, including staying home when sick, frequent handwashing, and having alcohol-based hand sanitizers readily available at the worksite
- Telemedicine as an alternative to doctor’s visits or expensive trips to the emergency room and whether your health fund is taking advantage of offers by telemedicine providers to temporarily “turn on” this benefit
- Ways to access prescription drugs (including early mail-order renewals, if available, so no one is worried about running out of needed medications)
- Where participants and their families should go for testing if they think they’re sick and who will be responsible for the cost
- Time off and leave policies, including how sick time is earned or calculated, and how that can impact eligibility for reviewing applicable weekly income, sickness and accident or loss-time pay benefits eligibility criteria or qualifying events
- Programs, including Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)/Member Assistance Programs (MAP), that can help people manage their stress and anxiety
- For fund office staff specifically, how salary continuation will be handled if they are quarantined and can’t come to work and what plans are in place to keep the fund office running in the face of disruptions
- Tips for managing financial well-being, including maintaining benefits eligibility and easing concerns during periods of financial market volatility
- Perhaps most importantly, that the Board of Trustees are actively engaged in reviewing members' needs and will make every effort to address participants needs as they arise.
Remember that people’s physical, mental, and financial health are interrelated and impacted by health crises. Keep in mind that your outreach should acknowledge the potential toll on mind, body, and finances.
People Want — and Need — to Hear From You
One thing to keep in mind during times of uncertainty is that people are looking for guidance on a very personal level. They’re wondering about risk of infection for themselves and their family members. Because the virus is spreading rapidly and because it’s new and unfamiliar, anxiety levels are especially heightened. Part of what is so scary is the unknown: where, when, and how it will hit. Other unknowns are the potential physical and financial costs to themselves and loved ones.
Workers are thinking about how to keep themselves and their family members out of harm’s way. Should they or shouldn’t they commute? What conditions will they find at any specific worksite? What will be the ramifications to their income and benefits if they miss work?
People who are paid hourly feel this concern more deeply than salaried workers and there has been a lot of media coverage about the potential cost to non-exempt workers. Add to that the potential loss of benefits coverage for failing to earn credit for covered employment, and the possibilities for risk escalate quickly.
You Can’t Outsource Trust
Here’s where you come in. Your members want advice about what to do, and they want to know what power they have over their work environments. That carries over into multi-employer funds — especially given the efforts you have likely done to build member engagement. Your fund exists for the sole purpose of servicing its membership. Now is the time to exercise that purpose.
You play an incredibly important role in the lives of your participants and their families. So far, much communication has been focused on the nuts and bolts of business continuity, workplace safety, worksite closures, and precautions to prevent infection. These messages are all critical. What’s most important, however, is showing people (not just telling them) that they matter. What can you do to show all members of the union — whether or not they are currently eligible for your health fund’s benefits — that their health and safety is a primary concern? That may take the shape of broad communication or one-on-one conversations as participants contact the fund office.
Here are just a few things you can do to reassure and support participants:
- Communicate more frequently. Even if you don’t have all the answers, tell people what you know and what you’re still figuring out. It may seem counterintuitive, but you actually need to communicate more often during times of uncertainty. This will help participants understand that you’re looking out for them and responding proactively to a fluid situation.
- Be sure to respond to questions and concerns. Create a systematic way for your Plan to centralize questions and answers, so you can identify patterns in the concerns raised and work through new questions that arise. Plus, greater transparency instills more trust and helps alleviate worries and concerns.
- Leverage both the local union and participating employers. Your benefit fund may not be the first place union members or your fund’s participants turn for information. For matters of workplace safety, the local union itself represents members’ primary line of defense. However, you can also call upon participating employers to reach out to workers and reassure folks that their health and safety matter above all else.
- Make use of all your communications tools. Participants may not expect to hear from their health and welfare fund about this topic. However, participants may visit your fund’s website to check their coverage or eligibility. Have a prepared message waiting on your homepage to reiterate best practices for staying healthy and using their benefits when they need help. Also, email blasts are an effective way to remind participants about their benefits, including reinforcing messages about the availability of resources. Printed materials delivered to worksites — such as posters, handouts, or table tents — remain very effective and can get your messages seen.
Be empathetic to participants’ needs and concerns. Keeping the dialogue open is the best way to earn respect and loyalty during uncertain times.
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