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Statistics Canada reports that the Canadian population is expected to grow 0.7% in each of the next two years and 82% percent of that growth is expected to come from immigration. By 2025, 100% of the growth in the labour market is expected to be satisfied by new immigrants to Canada. Clearly, the face of the Canadian labour force is changing and your benefits program should be changing with it.

As your organization works to help new immigrants integrate into your workplace, consideration needs to be taken on how your benefits offering is viewed by this new employee group. In addition to a comprehensive communications strategy that addresses language and comprehension challenges, there are several other items that need to be kept in mind when introducing new employees—who are also new to Canada—to your benefits program.

Filling the provincial healthcare gap
Most group benefits plans require plan participant to be eligible to receive benefits under their province’s healthcare program in order to be eligible for coverage under the group plan. Waiting periods for provincial healthcare coverage vary by province, however, there is a strong possibility your newly immigrated employee will be waiting for their provincial healthcare coverage to kick in when they start working for you. As a result, there is a potential that your employee won’t be covered under any healthcare plan.

For employers who want to address this gap, there are products available for your employees and their dependents that mimic the basic healthcare services provided by a provincial healthcare plan. This is an extra program that plan sponsors would need to add on to their plan, but it doesn’t attract cost until someone is enrolled in it.  Most national carriers have a program like this.

Cultural sensitivity
Beyond the efforts of an organization to ensure that a new Canadian feels that their cultural and ethnic beliefs are recognized and respected, there may be additional sensitivities that need to be addressed.

For example, many countries have “acquired rights” environments where an innocent explanation or comment leads to an expectation and an inadvertent promise. Israel, Egypt and Morocco are acquired rights environments, as are many countries in the European Union and in Latin America. In these countries, if a dental benefit is changed from a 100% co-insurance to an 80% co-insurance, for example, or a discretionary bonus is paid for two years, and not paid the third, an employer would be legally held to the original coinsurance level or legally required to continue the bonus.

Additionally, your new employee may from a country where retirement plans are non-contributory by the members and feel suspicious or resentful of the contributions they need to make to their new plan. Or, an employee’s home country may have a statutory requirement of significant severance payouts at termination with or without cause, and they may have the same expectations of their new Canada employer.

Extra care needs to be taken to understand the labour and benefits environment in Canada to sidestep an inadvertent oral contract or a misunderstanding down the road.

Medical care preferences, comfort and confidence
Your new employee may not have confidence in the Canadian medical system, having been immersed in a healthcare system that looks and feels very different in terms of access and urgency. In some countries, access to diagnostics or care happens more quickly than it can in Canada. When you are not use to the wait times often encountered in our medical system, it can seem dangerous.

But accessing care abroad can create challenges with claims eligibility under a benefits plan. Seeking treatment out of country for a non-emergency condition or travelling for medical care can exclude eligibility of coverage.

In the case of one plan sponsor, a plan member needed surgery for a prolapsed bladder. This is not an urgent surgery. The plan member felt the wait in Canada was too long, so took a vacation, went back to her home country and had the surgery done there. She returned to Canada and submitted the bill for coverage under her plan. In Canada, the cost for the same surgery would have been covered by provincial healthcare not borne by her employer’s plan.  In this case, the employer did cover the cost but the situation created a tension.

Valued benefits can be cultural
In some countries, the benefit most valued by a company’s employees is not coverage for prescription drugs or a generous vision care benefit but rather a company car or meal vouchers.

Many South American and some Asian countries have employee perception and satisfaction attached to status related benefits like car allowances. A company car would be typical in India, Mexico and Brazil as well. Meal assistance through meal vouchers or supermarket vouchers are really prevalent in countries like Brazil, Columbia and Chile. In these same cultures, benefits that relate to status rather than health, retirement or even compensation are the determining success factors in attracting talent to an organization.

HR professionals should keep in mind that the benefits that are valued most by the Canadian employees might not be as highly valued by your immigrant employee population.

Many organizations regularly review their benefits plan design with a goal of cost containment or legislative compliance.  It is a good idea to review your program in the context of your recruitment strategies to see how your program competes not with your competition down the road, but globally.

Kim Siddall is a principal with AQ Group Solutions.

© Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. Originally published on benefitscanada.com

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