Friday, September 23, 2011

Find employee benefits confusing? Join the crowd; even Gannett's HR reps don't always get them right

Yesterday's post about an employee who totaled their car on company time, and the resulting confusion over auto benefits, prompted a familiar criticism of Gannett Blog readers. Anonymous@1:21 p.m. wrote:

"People at this site just do not understand how benefits work. We saw this with health insurance and COBRA, when people tried to claim COBRA was no different from having no insurance. We saw this with retirement funds, when people had no idea how to transfer their money. And now we see it with mileage. Do any of you ever research anything, or do you just post your beliefs and hope they're right?"

There's good reason for confusion -- just ask the Gannett HR staffers who can't always get it right themselves.

To be sure, they've got a tough job dealing with complex, constantly shifting federal and state regulations. Throw in last year's HR reorganization and staff cuts, plus Corporate's outsourcing of benefits management to ill-equipped outside companies, and no wonder you've got a mess. A few examples:

Indy, post-layoff
In June, an HR representative gave Indianapolis Star employees incorrect information about when their medical coverage would end, and when COBRA would kick in. The result: a lot more stress at an already stressful time.

Indeed, that's not the first time this has happened at the Star. In August 2008 a Gannett Blog reader wrote:

"I took a buyout from the Indy Star and here's the reality: The terms were great, two weeks pay and healthcare for every year worked. However, when we started asking questions, they either didn't know the answers, gave us false information or ignored us. HR did very little to help us out, and now, a colleague whose health insurance ran out last month is STILL trying to get new insurance in place. HR says we can't go to them, we have to go to Corporate. Corporate jacks us around, says they'll get back to you, etc."

A failure to communicate
I had my own bad experience over COBRA. In January 2009, I got a letter from my health insurance provider -- Kaiser Permanente -- telling me my coverage had ended, after the fact, and four months before it was due to run out. After many phone calls, I found out what happened: Corporate had canceled its contract with Kaiser, but failed to notify me. Eventually, I was able to arrange for a new policy, but not before two nerve-wracking weeks without coverage.

Outsourcers can't keep up
Good luck getting timely answers and accurate information: Corporate long ago outsourced benefits management to companies that seem understaffed to deal with the large number of GCI workers getting laid off or retiring. That's why many employees turn to this site for answers. Pensions appear to be a particular problem.

For years now, we've been hearing about delays in pension paperwork; too-slow delivery of pension payouts, and incorrect estimates of account values. This has been more than a simple inconvenience for out-of-work employees who've needed to tap their accounts to make mortgage payments and cover other critical expenses.

Horning's apology
Perhaps the worst episode of benefits misinformation came on the watch of Corporate's HR chief herself, Roxanne Horning. Heading into a mass layoff after it froze the pension plan, Corporate sent retirement account statements to 26,000 employees. An untold number of those contained an error, Horning later admitted in a June letter to employees.

"I am sorry to report," she wrote, "that the personalized retirement statement you received this past week contained an error caused by a data glitch. Your actual benefit is larger than the one previously shown."

Earlier: Sampling the new benefits survey.

Related: GCI benefits at a glance.

What's your HR benefits story? Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write jimhopkins[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the rail, upper right.

[Image: Kwik-E-Mart?]


  1. The difference, of course, is those people are named and have to own up to their mistakes.

    The people who post here have no repercussions, and they do not hesitate to run in and post erroneous information. As we say yesterday, they don't hesitate to post the same erroneous information again and again. Someone out there actually believes that if you rent, then you can't claim the mileage deduction.

    If you don't know what you're talking about, then don't post.

  2. 9:36 Here's another, major difference: They must own up to their mistakes because it is their job, and they're paid to get it right.

    Also, following your logic, if HR reps don't know what they're talking about, shouldn't they, too, remain silent?

  3. HR professionals you rock! You will always be positioned as stupid and inept on this site because that's what people do here. But day in and day out you help thousands of people. Do you make mistakes? Sure. Last time I checked every newspaper in America had correction columns because guess what, people make mistakes. But you all are held to a higher level. You have to be perfect, at least on this blog.

    A fan of HR and proud of it!!!

  4. 10:14 And that is why I wrote:

    "They've got a tough job dealing with complex, constantly shifting federal and state regulations. Throw in last year's HR reorganization and staff cuts, plus Corporate's outsourcing of benefits management to ill-equipped outside companies, and no wonder you've got a mess."

    (And applause to one particular HR professional and long-time Gannett Blog supporter. You know who you are!)

  5. Hey, 9:36, you are wrong.
    I had numerous talks with my CPA about this, and he told me flat out I do not qualify to take the difference in mileage between what the IRS says I should get and what Gannett paid me as a deduction.

    Maybe the law is different in your state, but my CPA is big-time, has written numerous books, and has many franchises, so he knows what he's talking about.

    So call my textbook-writing CPA an idiot, not me.

  6. I have worked with some great HR folks during my time in Gannett. I've also worked with some who are absolutely terrible. There's no way to make an across the board statement on this.

    Some suck and some are great. But, in either case, the company puts them in a bad position by having such employee-unfriendly policies.

  7. Wow, can't believe 9:36 continues to spew the same incorrect information time and time again when it comes to mileage, and even hijacks another comments section because of his/her/its inability to admit defeat.

    Also, it's not about whether you can rent or not to claim mileage at tax time. The point it, there are simply other factors involved when it comes to claiming mileage on you taxes than just "driving x miles, get x dollars."

    Ah, well. I'd wager some of the HR problems also come down to the fact that it appeared to be one of the earliest departments hit by the downsizing, before the downsizing even really hit its nadir - the consolidation (cannibalizing) of HR folk into representatives at larger sites.

  8. This is nothing new. I worked at Indianapolis, and I've been trying to get pension paperwork straightened out for over a year.

    Maybe that's the new plan for keeping Gannett solvent -- give everyone the runaround until they just give up.

  9. When I was laid off a few months ago, the HR person was nice and friendly, but not very helpful. She kept answering my questions with, "You'll have to call the Gannett Benefits Center next week," of course, AFTER I was no longer working there and had no options.

    Calling the benefits center usually resulted in loooong waits, being transferred several times and answering ID questions, only to find out I was missing some small but vital piece of information that sent me back to start the process all over again. Frustrating!

    I went to my broker at Schwab to see about rolling over my 401K and pittance of a pension directly into my existing Schwab account. He was astounded at the amount of paper work involved and how complicated it all was— I received a letter-size envelope with 1/4" stack of papers inside for the pension! (How much money is Gannett spending mailing these huge packets of info?!!) After calling the benefits center together, I was missing a PIN, which had to be sent to my home email. So, an hour and a half later, I had accomplished nothing and had to restart the process again. My broker remarked that the only people benefitting from all this is the lawyers, as usual.

    It is unbelievable how bureaucratic the whole process is. Gannett is so anxious to get rid of us and then mires us in red tape and BS. It is way too complicated for those of us without MBAs and law degrees.

    1. Anyone who thinks Gannett cares about human beings AT ALL is a FOOL!

  10. THANK YOU, 1:20 pm.
    I should have reiterated the part about "other factors involved". For me, renting instead of having a mortgage (that I could use to meet the deductions threshold, counting the loss on mileage) was the key issue.

  11. Gannett HR folks at the two papers where I worked were great. The new Gannett Benefits center is a mess. I retired in 2010. Then Gannett switched to the new center at the start of 2011. They killed direct payments from bank accounts for health insurance, began to double bill me for COBRA. They sent letters threatening health insurance cancelation over payments I had made weeks earlier. One rep finally confided no one would be dropped as they could not manage to track payments. The new center seems to be staffed with decent folks who are in way over their heads, and with a software / computer system that is lacking. Another example of centralizing functions to save money and failing to provide the service.

  12. Just reading through and have to say early on this year I spoke with Gannett Benefits Center and was perplexed with their supposed help. Ultimately all was straightened out. I have to say that in the three times I have called since they have been great, solving my problems on the first try. Mostly it's stuff I just didn't understand and a little help and coaching worked.

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  14. 1:20, the original claim was if you rent, then you can't take the mileage deduction. Wrong.

    But you are so confused and lost that you say the same thing and then claim you are saying something else.

    There are other factors involved, you say. Really? Um, that's the point that's been lost here for two days on this topic and for countless days on countless other topics. It's not just black-and-white that if you rent, then you can't claim the mileage deduction.

    That was the original claim. Go back and find that post.

    But the original claim always has been wrong and always will be wrong.

    Again, people here don't understand how benefits work. But they try to come in and sound as if they do.

  15. How dare someone imply it was our own fault if we had trouble getting our pension money. I did everything required, and they admitted it, and it still took 6 months and a lot of help from my investment company to get my money.

    Just getting someone to talk to me live took 3 months. I had a fairly high-level job and had to start dropping some names around, and then it finally all turned around. But not everyone can do that.

    Maybe you're gone too (speaking to the original poster) and you didn't have problems. But that doesn't give you the right to say those who had problems had them because they "had no idea how to transfer their money." You are dead wrong.

  16. 1:39, you would not need to look very hard on some days here to find people who have talked to no one and just ask vaguely for assistance with transferring the money. I suspect some of these people are the ones crying wolf about the company stock.

  17. 2:05 writes: "You would not need to look very hard on some days here to find people who have talked to no one and just ask vaguely for assistance with transferring the money."

    Given the volume of traffic on this blog, that's no doubt true -- for a small minority of current and former employees.

    But I'm confident the vast majority of people coming here for advice are doing so because all the official channels have failed -- not because they're too lazy to simply pick up the phone.

    After all, talking to no one is what happens when you call an 800 number, leave five messages -- and never get return calls.

  18. Jim, back in the bad, old days of this site, there were a lot of people complaining about the tax hit they took from withdrawing their 401(k)s. That means they didn't know how to transfer the money.

    Your attempts to shift the blame are amusing but tiresome. Either address the issue -- people here don't understand how benefits work, and instead of trying to find out, they post factless cries for help -- or give it a rest.

  19. I was laid off last February. In addition to the TPP program (which was a pain, but better than nothing), I was supposed to get my health benefits subsidized for two months. When the first bill arrived, at full COBRA pricing, I called. I ended up having to contact the 3rd party firm that was handling the benefits for laid-off employees. The representative asked me to send a copy of my termination letter, which specified the benefit. I did, he got the billing amount corrected, and I got a revised bill shortly after that.
    In short, it was not trouble-free, but it was fixed quickly.
    My experience with my pension (I took the lump sum) and the 401K was similar. The same day I sent in the paperwork, I received a call letting me know I had missed a document. I sent that off, and got my money fairly quickly. I was disappointed that the process (and, maybe I missed another step) did not allow me to have the payments sent directly to an existing 401K account. I had to make a personal visit to the broker to get the checks deposited into my 401K account, which was a bit of a hassle, but not the end of the world.
    The paperwork is a little complex, and requires some effort to work through properly, but I received everything in a timely way.
    The only thing left is the small amount of money in my health savings plan. I have allowed expenses and just have to submit them. My problem, not theirs.
    I am sure that some people have had more trouble than I did. Maybe their choices were different, maybe their states have different regulations, maybe they didn't have the options that I had. But by and large, I think it was handled as well as can be expected.
    I'm not happy about being laid off, although I was able to find another position in a reasonable time (which hasn't happened for everyone), but Gannett's obligation to me was not to keep me employed. Its obligation was to sever the relationship as cleanly as possible. I think they succeeded.

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  21. So here is a question. A company lays me off and the company sucks. If i quit and go to work for a competitor I am simply improving my economic situation. Why is one acceptable and one horrible? Good topic for discussion.

  22. 3:16, I assume you refer to different situations. In the future, you should make that more clear.

    I assume you are saying the horrible one is the one where you quit. My response is there are too many people who have been brainwashed into thinking indentured servitude is somehow the American way.

    I knew a guy who fell into that trap. He made the mistake of getting a degree that didn't fit with what he wanted to do. Instead of working for a year or two and then going back to repair the problem, he decided to just take whatever work he could get and then hang with it as long as he could. Eventually he had no choice but to quit a couple of times because he couldn't afford much with what he was being paid. Then he'd move home, where he'd be brainwashed some more. Eventually he'd get back into something, but then he'd convince himself he had to stay 4-5 years, regardless of the pay.

    I lost track of the guy. I think he stopped having to move back home, but I doubt his pay ever matched what it could have been if he had just bitten the bullet and taken some more classes.

    The moral here is people might tell you quitting is horrible, and in some cases they might be right. But not always.


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