Canadian employers are making ongoing changes to their pension and benefits offerings as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, according to a new survey by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

The survey found almost one in five (18 per cent) employers offering prescription drug coverage have extended the time allowed under prior authorization periods, while 17 per cent said they’re temporarily waiving premiums for some, or all, plan members.

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Among surveyed organizations offering mental-health benefits, seven per cent said they’ve relaxed, or eliminated, eligibility requirements and another seven per cent have reduced, or eliminated, cost-sharing. While 47 per cent of employers offered a virtual option for mental-health issues before the pandemic, 10 per cent more added this benefit by June 2020 and an additional 23 per cent added the option by February 2021. More than two in five (41 per cent) of employers said they’re adding services to their mental-health offering.

And nearly two-thirds (61 per cent) of employers with an employee assistance program reported increased use. The survey noted the average use rate of these plans is currently 15 per cent, up from nine per cent pre-pandemic.

Among employers offering withdrawals from their defined contribution pension plan, 21 per cent reported an increase in withdrawals. As well, while 65 per cent of employers said there’s been no change in contribution levels among plan members, five per cent reported an increase in changes and another five per cent said there have been fewer changes than before the coronavirus crisis.

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More than a quarter (27 per cent) of employers with a defined benefit or target-benefit plan have reviewed actuarial assumptions and pension plan designs and an additional 28 per cent are considering doing so. A quarter (25 per cent) of employers with a DB plan have updated their investment policies during the pandemic and an additional 23 per cent are considering it.

The survey also found half (49 per cent) of employers said their staff currently works remotely, compared to just 14 per cent before the pandemic. Slightly less (46 per cent)  said they currently reimburse their workers for specific remote work expenses, while six per cent offer a general stipend. The most commonly reimbursed expenses were office supplies (49 per cent), office furniture (32 per cent), electronic devices (24 per cent) and internet service (22 per cent).

Read: How are employers supporting the big shift to remote work?

The results of the survey weren’t surprising, says Julie Stich, vice-president of content at the foundation. “We expected an uptick in virtual health care for mental health and we also hoped to see an uptick in EAP, since traditionally usage isn’t very high. We thought if there was ever a year [employees] would use these programs, this would be it. We also expected an increase in pension plan withdrawals. In some instances, it’s very necessary, but it’s also a little troubling as those plans are there for retirement.”

And with EAP usage and the demand for virtual health-care offerings increasing amid the pandemic, she says employers should take note. “This year, we all need to reinforce our resiliency and our mental well-being, so having mental-health care is critically important right now. Employers that offer an EAP should be reminding [employees]’ it’s there and encouraging them to take advantage of it.”

Read: Plan members using EAP, virtual care to support mental health during pandemic