• on May 26th, 2014 in Labor | 8 comments

    Offering workplace benefits such as health and retirement programs and paid vacations is a well established way to attract and retain talented workers. But the structure of these offerings has been changing in the public and private sectors over the past 20 to 30 years for several reasons, including rising pension debts; a more mobile workforce; and a move towards simplified administration of benefits.

    Employers have been looking to shed excessive pension expenses and give workers more control over their own retirement programs. Increasingly, private, local, and state employers are moving away from defined benefits plans that generally pay a guaranteed sum based on wages and years of service. They are increasingly favoring defined contribution plans, such as the 401(k) plan, a pretax fund built on employee and employer contributions. Meanwhile, retirement benefits plans for federal workers, including postal employees, have generally remained unchanged since the Federal Employees Retirement System was enacted in 1987.

    Similarly, the U.S. Postal Service’s leave benefits have stayed primarily the same for decades. Days off are organized into categories – annual, personal, sick, military (if applicable), and federal holiday – and the rate of leave accrual depends on the category. When taking leave, a postal employee has to indicate which category the leave falls into. But many companies are moving toward fewer categories, such as just vacation days and sick days. This simplified approach cuts down on administrative costs.

    As the Postal Service looks for ways to tighten its belt, it is considering changes in benefits, such as a new retirement program for future workers. But it is in a bit of a Catch-22. It is required to offer compensation and benefits that are comparable to those in the private sector, but it cannot change its benefits programs unilaterally, due to legal requirements and union agreements.

    At the request of the Postal Service, we issued two white papers that benchmarked its benefit programs against those of several comparable organizations. Specifically, we looked at retirement benefits and leave policies. We found many similarities in benefit offerings, but key differences, too. For example, retirement expenses make up a larger portion of total benefits for the Postal Service than for the other organizations we studied. Also, postal employees can carry over 55 or more days of annual leave each leave year and an unlimited number of sick days. But the other organizations had far more restrictive leave carryover.

    Share your thoughts or experiences on leave programs that consolidate all days off into one comprehensive plan. Might such a program for postal employees offer flexible benefits while reducing costs? Or does the current system work well? What changes, if any, are needed to the Postal Service’s retirement plans?