University of Waterloo includes retirees in pension, benefits governance

Despite changing demographics and rising health-care costs, it’s uncommon for employers to include retirees in their pension and benefits governance.

However, the University of Waterloo Retirees Association, which has been around for more than 30 years, not only connects retired employees with each other and the university, but also allows them to weigh in on the pension and benefits programs through a designated liaison.

As a member of the university’s pension and benefits committee, the liaison keeps an eye on proposed changes and helps retirees understand relevant policies and procedures, says Sue Fraser, president at the UWRA, noting former employees can also approach the association with any questions regarding their pension and benefits plans.

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Marilyn Thompson, associate provost of human resources at the University of Waterloo, says committee members shape policies around the pension plan’s administration and investments, review its annual audit and financial statements and recommend any changes.

“Any time there’s a discussion about our plan, any time we’re considering making modifications to the plan, . . . the retirees have a voice on how that would impact them,” says Thompson. “I know you hear that about universities . . . but we do take it quite seriously.”

In recent years, the retiree association has provided feedback on the pension plan’s funding and operations, as well as the benefits plan’s design, through committee meetings, says Fraser. “We have brought to the table questions from retirees, helping to clarify policies and procedures and sometimes arguing for change.”

The retiree association also nominates members to sit on related working groups such as one on responsible investment, she says.

Average retirement age in Canada in 2018

63.8 — Total for all retirees

61.7 — Public sector

64.4 — Private sector

67.7 — Self-employed

Source: Statistics Canada

Upsides for employers

Retirees bring valuable insight to the university’s pension and benefits plans, says Thompson, noting former employees have the institutional knowledge to explain what changes worked in the past and why certain decisions were made.

The association “is a tremendous source of knowledge and the . . . context that a retiree brings to that discussion is really invaluable,” she says.

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As well, retirees can offer insight on what benefits would be valuable to their community, says Karen DeBortoli, director of the Canadian Knowledge Resource Centre at Buck.

For instance, many older employees find travel insurance valuable and would benefit from a pooled rate because they’re usually limited with expensive individual coverage.

“It’s not as large of a cost to the employer but can have a lot of benefit to the retiree population,” says DeBortoli. “So if an employer is considering making tweaks, retirees can give feedback . . . .”

Retirees can also attest to the value of their existing benefits, says Scott Anderson, regional vice-president of employee benefits at Hub International Ltd. “They’re the ones using it. . . . So that group of retirees would be able to give feedback to the current employer and current employees on how much the plans benefit them in retirement.”

Retiree associations are also a way for employers to stay in contact with former employees, says DeBortoli. Since pension plan administrators in most Canadian jurisdictions are required to send annual or biannual statements to retired members about their plan, “there’s now more of a focus, of keeping track of retired members, knowing where they are, making sure their information is up to date because they may have moved their banking information and their physical address may have changed,” she says.

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For the University of Waterloo, its retiree association helps it overcome communications challenges, says Fraser.

“We can be of help in facilitating the communication with retirees on pension matters. We try to make sure retirees are not left out of the loop and draw the attention of the university to situations when certain policies or new decisions may be unclear.”

A sense of community

Besides having input on the university’s pension and benefits plans, the association also offers retired employees a way to stay in touch with each other. It publishes a newsletter three times a year, with information about pension and benefits developments, social events and updates on any relevant news.

Retirees also keep in touch with the university’s administrators by participating in annual pre-retirement events and allowing a representative from the community relations department to regularly attend the association’s board of director meetings.

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This sense of community is great for seniors who often face social isolation upon retiring, says Wanda Morris, chief advocacy and engagement officer at CARP.

“For many companies, retiree associations represent untapped potential. And I’d encourage employers to set up a structure . . . that would enable a retiree association to flourish.”

Jann Lee is a former associate editor at Benefits Canada.