Benefits & Compensation News

Spousal surcharges: Minimizing workers’ resentment

It’s not uncommon for employers to tack on a spousal surcharge when employees’ spouses are enrolled in the company’s health plan if the spouses’ own employers offer health benefits. And in most cases firms just assume the ill will surcharges generate is something that’s out of their hands. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

1 in 5 charge a $100 surcharge

For one thing, the spousal surcharge isn’t nearly as drastic a move as it was just five years ago.

In fact, 20% of businesses said they impose a monthly surcharge of around $100 on spouses that don’t take advantage of their own employers’ health insurance when it’s offered.

Another 13% say they’ll take such a step in 2014.

This data comes from the 18th Annual Towers Watson/National Business Group on Health Employer Survey on Purchasing Value in Health Care.

And experts believe healthcare reform compliance is only likely to increase the use and amount of the spousal surcharge among employees.

As Matthew Kersting, a consultant for Sibson Consulting put it, “Employers are continually seeking ways to lower costs, and the ACA (Affordable Care Act) has increased their challenge. Since many of the penalties and fees under the ACA are based on the cost of employee-only coverage, this can be an effective way to lower costs while remaining compliant.”

Walk workers through the decision

When it comes to the spousal surcharge, communication is key. Employers that simply spring the added cost on workers with very little notice tend to face the most pushback from employees.

That’s why HR and benefits should be as upfront as possible with workers. Let employees know why the company decided to institute the spousal surcharge, as well as some of the potential benefits.

Example: The spousal surcharge will allow the company to continue offering a healthcare option for spouses without minimizing the coverage of the group health plan. You can even add that some firms have actually done away with coverage for spouses altogether.

Also, there are certain types of organizations that should be extra careful when it comes to imposing a spousal surcharge.

That’s because, according to National Business Group on Health President and CEO Helen Darling, “research shows that women are statistically more likely to take a job for health benefits for the family, and men care more about cash wages.” And businesses with a disproportionate number of women workers, “might find that a spousal surcharge hurts their ability to recruit and retain the talent they need,” says Darling.


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