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Forest for the Trees

July 17th, 2017 | No Comments

There is a gigantic red maple tree in my backyard, its branches spread outward and upward into the sky as if it is reaching for something, trying to draw that into itself.  Its roots protrude from the earth pushing the trunk up as if it’s straining to stand on its toes to get every inch of height.  I don’t know how old the tree is but it never stops growing.  It’s constantly changing, dropping dead branches replacing them with new ones that spread out further and higher.  In the summer, the maple provides cool shade for our back patio, and in the fall, it puts on a short but brilliant display of red, orange and yellow before slipping into its winter slumber.

I spend a lot of time outdoors not because I’m required to do so but because I’m drawn to it.  My preference is to walk, ride a bike or take a train to connect; to connect with everything.  Whenever I travel for business or leisure, I study the transportation system of the destination city intent on navigating the city on foot, by bus or by train.  I do this because I see things that cannot be seen from a car.  There are sights, sounds and aromas that cannot be experienced whizzing by in the comfort of a car.

I’ve spent my entire working life sitting in an office in front of a computer screen, often in a tiny cubicle walled off from all but a handful of people.  Technology and the conveniences of the 21st century, though offering more opportunities to connect with one another, ironically also offer ways for us to disconnect and wall ourselves off from the outside world.  We can tailor our lives to our wants and desires.  We can order almost anything we need to be delivered to our homes.  And, we have access to unlimited news and entertainment options via cable and the internet.

We’ve never had such autonomy to choose how we interact with the outside world, but our choices have led to less not more connectedness.  We’ve walled ourselves off from our environment.  Fewer of us are venturing out into the world, into nature.  Most of us are content to limit our exposure to the outdoors to walking to and from our cars.  It wasn’t that long ago in our history when we spent most of our time outside.  We were more connected then to everything.

Presented with more opportunities to connect with one another we’ve chosen to do the opposite.  Because we are the masters of our own universes we can choose what we want to see and hear, but in doing so we also eliminate what we do not want to see and hear.  Ironically, we’ve chosen to limit our connectedness to those who think and act like us.  It’s why political discourse is so vitriolic; we’ve lost the ability to see the humanity in someone with whom we don’t connect, someone not like us.

“Stop!” you might say.  “You own an employee benefits and compliance consulting firm.  What does any of this have to do with your business?”  Oh, but it does.  In fact, it’s at the core of what I do.  I’m in the business of helping people.  To help someone, you must see their humanity, their perspective.  This is one of the reasons why I’m compelled to connect with others.

The world is a large and increasingly complex place, and it’s understandable that it can seem daunting to many.  Despite the advances in technology that has brought about this individual autonomy, many people feel powerless.  It’s sometimes hard for us to see that we individually have the power to make an impact on the world, but we do.  I’ll tell you how, but we must first travel to the past.

Joe’s Story

My father-in-law, Joe, will be 96 years-old in October.  In his youth, he spent almost a year working in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) before flying 57 missions as a bomber pilot during World War II.  One of those missions included bombing Utah beach in Normandy on D-Day on the morning of the invasion.  He did all of that and returned home from Europe just shy of his 24th birthday.

A little more than a year ago, Joe suffered a stroke that left him unable to form new memories which can make conversations about the present difficult and confusing for him.  When we get together I make it a point to engage him in conversations about his past, including his time in the CCC camp.

Arguably the most popular of the New Deal programs, the goal of the Civilian Conservation Corps was two-fold: conservation of the country’s natural resources and to provide jobs for young men so they could help support their families during the Great Depression.  CCC enrollees were provided shelter, food and clothing and were paid $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to their families.

CCC enrollees performed all manner of conservation work including erosion and flood control, trail maintenance and construction, and restocking streams and lakes with fish.  They built roads, bridges, fire lookout towers, service buildings and airport landing strips.  They also planted trees; over 3 billion of them, more than 123 million of which were planted in Minnesota.

In the fall of 1938, Joe was so far ahead of his high school class he decided to take a year off so that he wouldn’t graduate at the same time as his older brother.  Too young to get a job in the U.S. Steel mill near his home in Duluth, Minnesota he enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Joe was sent to a camp up on the Sawbill trail along the north shore of Lake Superior in northeastern Minnesota.  The camp was one of more than 175 CCC camps in the State.

The trailhead of the Sawbill is in Tofte, Minnesota, an old fishing and logging town on the western shore of Lake Superior about 90 miles northeast of Duluth.  The Sawbill runs parallel to the Temperance River into the Laurentian Highlands, the remains of a mountain range crushed by advancing and receding glaciers from ice ages past.  In 1938, the Sawbill was an unpaved logging trail once used to harvest the rich forests of white pine in northern Minnesota.  Today it’s a scenic paved two-lane highway used mostly as an entry point into the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area in the Superior National Forest.

Most of Joe’s time was spent planting trees, white and red pine seedlings no more than two feet tall.  Joe has described the process like this, “You had a pickaxe and you swung the broad end into the ground to make a hole.  You pulled the dirt back from the hole, grabbed a seedling from the sack on your back and put it into the hole.  You pulled the pickaxe out and tamped down the loose dirt around the tree with your boot.  Just like that you’ve planted a tree.”

I got the impression from Joe that although it was physically demanding work it was also a lot of fun.  “We would compete with one another to see how many trees we could plant in a day.  I once planted 125 trees in a single day.”  The camp had a pool hall and a PX.  There was a travelling library that went from camp to camp.  On their off days the men would fish, play games or go into town.

The men were well fed.  “On Sundays Pete, the cook, would make these giant cinnamon rolls.”  “And, if you caught a Brookie or a Brownie (Trout fish) he’d fry it up for you.”

After the War, Joe went to dental school and built a dental practice in his hometown of Duluth.  He went on to marry and raise 4 children and 3 grandchildren.  He remained in the Air Force Reserves until he retired as a Colonel in the early 80s.  When I talk to Joe about his experiences he brings up the CCC camp more often than any other.  “That program [the Civilian Conservation Corps] had benefits of unlimited magnitude.”  In talking to Joe it’s clear that his time in the CCC camp was one the greatest experiences in his life.  I enjoy taking him back there.

Back to the Future

When I’m out walking, running or biking I cannot help but notice all the garbage – a lot of it is paper – strewn along the streets and roadsides.  We had our first Earth Day when I was in grade school in 1970.  Since then, despite so much environmental education and awareness and all our recycling efforts, the littering continues.  It’s not an unfamiliar site to see work crews and volunteers cleaning stretches of highway and leaving large black bags of trash in their wake.

When I started in the employee benefits and compliance business in the early 2000s we kept copies of every application and correspondence and filed it away for safekeeping.  This is what we had been taught to do; keep copies on file “just in case.”  Our offices were filled with rows of filing cabinets stuffed with old documents.  At home, I had my own filing cabinets for my own personal papers that I kept “just in case.”  This too grew until I had two tall filing cabinets filled with papers.

A handful of things have changed in the past several years that have made printing and saving these copies unnecessary.  First, more businesses offered paperless statements and payments.  Second, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996’s (HIPAA) protection of personal health information (PHI) made it too risky to keep such information even in locked filing cabinets.  Another change occurred when carriers started accepting electronic copies of applications.  Scanning and sending application information via secure email negated the need to send paper applications via snail mail.

One other change that has occurred has been a boon of employee benefits administration and compliance systems.  These systems, many of which offer onboarding, employee benefits enrollment and administration, and compliance reporting, reduce the need for paper forms.  Companies no longer need to hand employees a stack of employment documents on their first day of work or during open enrollment.  An entire employee file can be kept online.  No more bulky filing cabinets taking up space.  No more misplaced or missing documents.

I know what you’re thinking if you’ve followed me this far; I too wouldn’t mind getting rid of all that paper but these systems are probably complicated and expensive, right?  Some systems are quite costly, but I can show you a way that is straight-forward and won’t break the bank.

You Can Have It All

If you’ve researched employee benefit administration systems you no doubt have discovered that most are very expensive to implement and operate, they require extensive and repeated training, they’re often proprietary, and they don’t completely replace all manual processes.  On top of all that, integration with insurance carrier systems is expensive and you most likely would get little to no support from your benefits broker.

Why so little support from your employee benefits broker?  Most brokers see themselves as an extension of the carriers and so they want to limit their responsibilities.  They do not see themselves as your advocate, let alone your fiduciary.  They are, in fact, cautioned by the carriers not to provide anything more than product information for fear that any advice would be attributed to the carriers, so most brokers do little more than the minimum.

That’s a pedantic view and an overreaction to a very small number of incidents.  Most brokers, however, are so wed to this model that according to a recent Life Insurance and Market Research Association (LIMRA) study a clear majority of brokers believe it is the responsibility of the carriers to foot the bill for their clients’ employee benefits administration systems.  Think about that for a moment.  Do you really think carriers are going to be focused on providing you with a solution that addresses needs other than benefits administration, such as onboarding, paid time-off and compliance reporting?  What if you wanted to change carriers?

It’s no secret that brokers get paid indirectly by employers through the carriers, but to do what and to serve who?  When I ask this question, most employers almost never have an answer but have to think about it and, when they do, the answer is vague and general.  “They advocate for us.”  My personal favorite: “They do stuff behind the scenes.”

The reality is that you’re paying them and you don’t really know what you are paying them to do.  It could be everything or nothing at all.  We, however, put what we do for our clients in writing, and for us it all comes down to this:

“We help companies navigate and simplify an ever more complex employee benefits and compliance environment by providing them with the education, advice and tools to do so.  We help our clients eliminate paper by providing them with a paperless onboarding, benefits management and compliance system as part of our services.”

We don’t shy away from offering you the education and advice on strategy, human resources, tax and compliance you require because we believe we are in a unique position to do so.  We are, after all, the ones who sit down with you face-to-face.  Our benefits administration tool is independent of any carrier.  We, in fact, work with pretty much any of them.

We help you implement our benefits administration system.  We teach you how to use it.  We help you troubleshoot issues.  You win.  It puts you in control.  It saves you money.  It saves you time.  It saves you the headaches, and, most importantly, you become part of something bigger, a noble effort to protect and preserve our environment that would make Joe proud.

The Opportunity

Companies are increasingly facing greater regulatory pressures and mandatory benefits such as health insurance and paid time-off.  This has increased the need to keep meticulous and detailed records about employees.  A benefits administration system is no longer a “nice to have” but necessary to maintain complete and accessible employee information for both compliance and reporting.  Herein lies the opportunity; the opportunity to solve your problems and to be part of something bigger.

There’s no CCC camp for you and me but we can do our part by reducing our reliance on paper.  The advantage to you is a simpler way to do business; an uncluttered, and an audit-proof system.  By doing this you’ll also be helping the environment.   You will be part of something bigger.  If you’d like to learn more about how you too simplify your life and save trees call me at (952) 237-6956 or email me at mdmowski@comprehensivebenefitservices.com.


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