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Employees looking carefully at benefits and retirement

For the most part, employees in Mississippi are continuing their level of benefits and retirement fund contributions despite the sliding economy, according to some of the state’s human resources professionals.

There has been no move among employees at Delta State University to drop benefits or retirement contributions.

“Surprisingly, with the state of the economy today, our employees are staying strong in their commitments to saving for the future and continue to keep the benefit elections they have made,” said Lisa Giger, assistant director of human resources at the Cleveland educational institution.

As a sign of the times, Resa Frey, vice president and human resources services director for Hancock Bank, has seen a slight increase in the addition of spouses to the financial institution’s health and welfare benefits.

“That increase is due to spouses of our employees losing their jobs,” Frey said. “We have also received an increase in associates inquiring about ways to lower or stop their 401(k) and stock purchase deductions.”

Long-time HR professional Billy Sims says this economy as the worst he’s seen in 30 years.

“It’s now hitting home,” said the vice president of human resources for Southern Farm Bureau Insurance Company. “We’re seeing a lot of law firms, construction companies and pharmaceutical companies affected by the economy. Those are businesses that usually are not affected by a downturn.”

His company is weathering the storm well, but employees are nervous about the future of their 401(k) accounts.

“It’s a lack of confidence in these markets that are taking such a beating. We’re seeing young people delaying getting into it,” he said. “Other employees are changing their contributions because they need extra money to help family members who’ve lost jobs.”

Sims noted that some employees are choosing to enter the company’s more conservative, low-risk Stable Value account while others are re-evaluating and reducing their contributions to 401(k) accounts.

“Fortunately, our employees have guaranteed retirement,” he added, “but some are backing off voluntary benefits such as visions care and cancer policy. They’re not jumping on it like they used to.”

He sees nervousness all around as people with advanced college degrees, who have never been out of work, look for jobs.

“We’ve done the right things in our company for the long term to control expenses,” Sims said. “We continue to look at everything carefully.”

For the most part, the healthcare sector remains strong, and the Singing River Health System is no exception. The Pascagoula-based organization was able to provide pay raises to its 2,500 employees in January.

“We’re running on all cylinders and our employees seem to be happy,” said chief human resources officer Nebo Carter. “The pay increases drive elective employee benefits as they have to pay a little bit more on premiums. We try to negotiate the best rates we can get and they’re better than employees can find if they buy coverage on their own.”

The company even had a few more employees signing up for benefits during the open enrollment period. Singing River’s retirement plan has mandatory participation. Carter says it is similar to the state retirement plan used for teachers.

“There’s no risk to employees as to whether that benefit is available at their time of retirement,” he said. “The employees put money into the plan with each paycheck, and the employer does, too. You can bet nobody wants to jump out of that plan; they want to get in it.”

Additionally, Singing River employees can join a voluntary supplemental plan, which chooses between seven or eight investment accounts.

“Some of those accounts are high risk and people have lost value in those, including me,” Carter said. “There are about 400 employees in it, but they’re not depending on it for their retirement.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at lynn@lynnsdesk.com.


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