Supporting the ALICE Population With 211 & Bedrock Benefits

Podcast: Line on Leave In honor of 211 Day, today’s episode of the Line on Leave focuses on the ALICE population and how employers can help support their workforce. We speak with Cora Hall, assistant vice president of marketing in Group Benefits at The Hartford, Paula Gilberto, President and CEO of United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut, and John Puglisi, The Hartford’s Regional sales executive to learn more about the supportive services offered through 211 and how bedrock benefits play an important role.
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Laura Marzi: Hi everyone. I'm Laura Marzi, and thank you for tuning into our latest podcast on The Line on Leave. I love today's topic. It's a very special one. And we're going to take a closer look at a vulnerable segment of the working, insured population, and we would describe them as folks that are living paycheck to paycheck. One of our special guests today that represents the United Way refers to this group is ALICE, and it's an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. And these are individuals who are likely struggling financially before the pandemic, but now that we have the COVID crisis, it's definitely made things much, much worse, especially if these are individuals that are out on leave or disability with reduced wages. So I'm grateful and fortunate that there are some supportive services for them right now in their own communities, and we're going to talk today about The Hartford's role in this outreach.
Part of the discussion will be to learn more about 211 services that anyone can access, and also discuss how we're helping our clients leverage data to help their employers understand and support their workforce. So we'll start off with some quick guest intros. With us today is Cora Hall. She is the assistant vice president of marketing in Group Benefits here at The Hartford. She has been deeply involved in our ALICE outreach efforts on this topic, and it's definitely very close to her heart. And I appreciate the passion that she puts behind us, and I think that's going to come through quite clearly today.
We also have Paula Gilberto with us, and she leads the United Way's work in Central and Northern Connecticut, where The Hartford is headquartered. And Paula has been instrumental in providing insights into both ALICE and 211 operations.
We also have with us John Puglisi, who is one of our regional sales executives. And John works closely with employers and can give us some perspective today on how he's helping them recognize and also address the needs of their most vulnerable employees. I thought we'd start off with some perspective from Cora. So my understanding Cora is that The Hartford insures one out of every six working Americans, and pre -pandemic, the average combined household income of the U.S. workforce was about $68,000. So if we look at the ALICE economic threshold at being about $39,000, widely represented within manufacturing, retail, healthcare, restaurants and education, I'm wondering what thoughts you have about how we can think about this population and help understand who they are? And how you've learned more about them through a lot of your research efforts?
Cora Hall: Sure - in 2019, we conducted our first in-depth analysis in partnership with our actuarial department of our customer's income broken out by state. While we would never know what a spouse or partner contributes to the full financial equation, we wanted to get a sense of how many of our customers were walking the line between poverty and the cost of living. What we learned surprised us and really motivated action. Due to the industries we insure, ALICE was significantly represented among our customer base. People living paycheck to paycheck are not prepared for disability or premature death. And when their income is reduced by 30 - 40%, or if a spouse or partner salary disappears altogether, their family is at risk. Our first step was to learn more about ALICE, and through the work we did with Paula and her team, we ultimately joined the National ALICE Advisory Council where we could help fund ALICE research in 21 participating states. The insights from this research help government and nonprofits make decisions about policies that address the needs of the paycheck to paycheck population.
Laura Marzi: So Cora, thinking about that research that you conducted, and then also some of the work that The Hartford did through their Future of Benefits Study, we found out that some of the top stressors employees had reported during the pandemic were around caregiving and finances. My understanding is that you've actually heard that affirmed through some of the stories that you've been able to get access to firsthand. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that?
Cora Hall: Sure. And those stories are heartbreaking. People living with the consequences of tragic events, whether it's a critical illness, post-traumatic stress or premature death, shouldn't have to think about money. But what we hear over and over again in our call centers is that physical or emotional pain is often accompanied by financial hardship. People have to sell their cars, which means they don't have transportation to get to their doctor's appointments. And people lose their homes when they can't pay their mortgage. And one widow's story in particular still sticks with me. Her husband was sick with cancer for years. They used all of their savings for their medical bills and their house had fallen into disrepair, and she couldn't afford to stay in her home and she didn't think the house would sell, and she had small children.
So keep in mind, everyone we ensure in The Hartford is the working population, so most are under the age of 65. So in this case, it was just unimaginable to her at this phase of her life, that she now had to tell her children that they had to leave their home, and their school and their friends within weeks of losing their dad. And what you realize when you hear these stories and you spend time in the call centers, is the level of trust that gets established between the beneficiary or the policy holder and the person that's supporting their claim. And we at The Hartford take this trust really seriously, and it motivates us to continually look for ways that we could help.
Laura Marzi: That's some incredible testimony. And definitely combining those stories with what you've learned about the ALICE population, could you tell our listeners a little bit more about what The Hartford did next to bring some solutions to the broader marketplace?
Cora Hall: So The Hartford has a long standing partnership with United Way, and through that relationship, with a lot of help from Paula and her team, we learned about their national hotline 211, which can provide a host of services to support people in their communities. What the United Way needed was the ability to promote 211 to people most in need, and that's where we at The Hartford could help. We were the first insurance carrier to do national training across 3,000 claims representative. And what we knew was that 211 could help pay a heating bill. What we didn't know is the breadth of what they could do with things like helping with transportation, legal and financial counseling, and caregiving, whether that's for a child with special needs or an aging parent. All real time scenarios we hear in our call centers, which impact people's ability to recover and get back to work or support their family when a premature death has occurred.
And I was just so grateful we did this training in time to help our customers this year. We facilitated hundreds of 211 referrals in our call centers. And we're tracking that learning through technology called text mining, which aggregates the referrals and helps us identify trends. And we're promoting 211 in over half a million printed claims packages that go out annually and through our online portal with seasonal messaging. So think about, how do you get school supplies in the fall? Or how do you get help with heat in the winter? And we're sharing this information with employers so we raise the visibility of ALICE and support their financial wellness programs. And you'll hear more about that from John in a minute. And we're not done. We just committed $750,000 to help transform over the next three years. And with this gift, we will support the United Way as they unify and optimize their online customer experience and infuse important functionality, like Spanish translation.
Laura Marzi: That's an amazing amount of work. And The Hartford's strong commitment to our community is something we're very proud of, and I think that really comes through with our claims team. And that could be the only contact with The Hartford for so many of these folks. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on the role of the claims organization helping ALICE employees and their families?
Cora Hall: I've spent a lot of time in our claim center, and they are on the front lines hearing the stories of what's happening with those families. And so, that gives them the ability to make those real time connections so that they can foster that bridge that someone might need just to get through until they can get back to work or they can figure out the next chapter of their life. And so, it's a very special role at that claims organization, and I think they are always looking at how can they do more? And this was a perfect opportunity for them to be able to do that.
Laura Marzi: That's fantastic. And my understanding too, is that the ALICE Organization does a tremendous amount of research on this population. I was wondering if you could just touch on that a little bit for our listeners?
Cora Hall: ALICE workers have always been essential to the economy, but this year in 2020 in the pandemic, we saw that more than ever the population was growing before the pandemic, and it's even bigger now, which will impact illness, employee productivity, and the talent pipeline. And there's power in education and sharing the best practices. It feels like a big macro problem, but together we can find ways to start breaking it down. And I think employers large and small, especially those on the council, are teaching us what's working in their business. And these ideas can inspire new products and services, and the research helps us back up the business cases, which we all need to drive influence and meaningful change.
Laura Marzi: It's incredibly good work. Thank you. Really appreciate the insights, Cora. I think what we'll do now is move over to a couple of questions for Paula Gilberto from United Way. And I thought for our listeners, it would be helpful just to explain what 211 is and how it helps folks. If you could just break that down, that would be very helpful.
Paula Gilberto: Happy to do so, Laura. And I just want to thank you and the team at The Hartford and all of your associates for this fantastic work. 211 is now a national network. It is intended to be the one number that people call, and by calling that one number, you're getting connected to free, confidential service, no more wrong numbers, no more wasted time trying to find the right resources. This one call connects you to a trained specialist that is going to work with you in a confidential way to connect you to the resources in your community that are going to best help you and your family. The services get people connected to health resources and human services that are provided by an array of nonprofit organizations, along with public funded services that are provided by municipalities, state government and federal government.
A critical thing about 211 that I want everyone to know is that it is available to everyone. There's no restriction on the service. If you are a parent, and you have a toddler and you want to find a qualified childcare center in proximity to where you live or work, you would call 211 and you would have access to that information. If you need elder care for a loved one, you can find that information. And most critically, it focuses in on those essential, critical services that people need now and need now more than ever. And I also want our listeners to know how much United Way appreciates the support of The Hartford. When people give to United Way, we in turn are able to support the 211 operation. So you know that by giving that one gift, it's helping many.
Laura Marzi: Thank you, Paula. And just to push a little bit more on the support system, United Way identified ALICE as a group with specific challenges, and you were really clear about that. Could you offer some more insights on how you go about assisting that group, especially with the work of your advisory council?
Paula Gilberto: Yes. ALICE represents just this critical, critical people. Many of us came from ALICE households. We may be ALICE currently, or we might be one paycheck away from ALICE. And in that, what we recognized is that individuals whose income is below the federal poverty level are oftentimes eligible for public support. And that's good and that's helpful, but there's a significant portion and a growing portion of every community in the United States where their income is not growing proportionate to the basic cost of living. And it's that population above the federal poverty line, but below financial security and independence that represents ALICE.
ALICE people work and oftentimes work two or three jobs. And let's think about this as an example, my dad was a janitor, my mom worked off and on in retail, we were an ALICE household. Individuals that care for our children, care for our elderly, service our cars, work in retail- ALICE. Again, working, but their income is such that they're not making enough to make ends meet, and they're not qualifying for various services because their income is just above that line. So furlough could move a household into ALICE. A loss of a job, a health emergency. Any kind of disruption to normal income. We feel at United Way that it's very important to help ALICE households because these are individuals that we rely on and they drive our economy. And what we want is for all families to be financially independent.
Paula Gilberto: And here's why, we know clearly that households that are financially secure have better health outcomes, and the education outcomes for their children are also better. So it's all intertwined in terms of health, financial stability, and good outcomes for children and youth.
Laura Marzi: And with that as a backdrop too, Paula, I think about the perspective that John Puglisi can offer us in terms of the role of the insurer. And John, you've been with The Hartford for a number of years, the company ensures a variety of industries. I wonder if you can give us some experience and perspective on serving customers where you reside in New York state? And if you found that there's one particular business segment where more people are falling into the ALICE category, and just any other thoughts around the program?
John Puglisi: Yeah, sure. Thank you. And thanks to everybody who's presented thus far, it certainly helps me continue to understand the program and the ways that I, as a communicator with the second to last person in the user process, can develop the way I explain. I've worked in two markets in New York state, in the downstate market and in the central New York market, which is where I am now. And I've seen lots of different, for example, in the downstate market, clearly restaurant, hospitality, retail constitute most of the jobs that have employees who would fall into the ALICE category. And that's not to say that those occupational categories don't exist in central New York, but by and large up here now you'll start to see much more manufacturing and healthcare, in particular. You'll see healthcare downstate too, but as a proportion of the overall population, it's much greater when you get into the Rochester markets, the Buffalo markets, in addition to sort of line manufacturers.
So you're really, particularly when you're getting into restaurant, hospitality, service industries, you're hearing about the populations that Paula was speaking about, ones who are working possibly three jobs, working hard and just aren't able to really support themselves without a lot of income support in the home. I have a personal issue with that because I have a child who has two degrees in culinary arts, and she's working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Manhattan and still would require her living with her partner who is also a chef in order for them to be able to make ends meet. $2,100 a month rent against a $60,000 a year income doesn't quite meet the ALICE threshold, unless you consider the relativity to the cost of living down there, and then it certainly would. So on a personal note, I find these programs to be exciting and helpful.
Laura Marzi: You've talked a lot about the data and being able to take a deeper analysis of it. I was wondering if you could even offer our listeners some quantification of what the impact of the pandemic has had? You're telling some personal stories. What have you seen and heard in terms of COVID making an impact on the 211 calls that Paula talked about?
John Puglisi: The impact I've seen as a result of COVID can be seen in some of the data that 211 provides. When you compare year over year and you're looking at the Connecticut market, for example, you see a many thousand fold increase in the number of calls associated with healthcare. That data is immediately visible to you when you look on the website and you adjust the dates. I took a look at central New York, which is where I am, to see what the trends were, and I see an increase in calls to 211 associated with housing and shelter, and particularly rent assistance. And so year over year, although I did find actually when I looked back to 2015 on the 211 website, that shelter, housing, those concerns have been kind of stable in the Syracuse central New York market, but they have grown during the COVID period.
And that led me to think about something. I've read something just this morning, as a matter of fact. I saw a quote that said, "during COVID, the first person that eats is the rent." And again, when you have somebody who's in your personal life who, I mean, they could run into some serious problems if they're not able to work and pay their rent, and the landlord runs into problems too, who has a mortgage to pay. And that led me to one other thought about ALICE and the categories that I'm looking at, housing, shelter, mental health and addictions in particular. Because I know that if I missed a mortgage payment, that wouldn't just be a financial crisis for me, that would be a profound moment of panic, anxiety and depression. And therefore, I think 211 offers a range of services beyond helping the local market with issues like rent assistance and food security, because you could see mental health problems, and I think you are, arising out of unemployment and disability associated with COVID that these programs can help with enormously.
Laura Marzi: I agree. We've done a lot of proprietary research in the last year at The Hartford really trying to look at the rise of the compassionate workplace and understanding what employees are bringing to the table, their stressors and what their employers can do to help share and shelter them from some of that burden. I was wondering, since you're working directly with employers in your territory, when you think about the knowledge that you were just talking about in some of the insights, what do you do to put that into practice when you're trying to talk about ALICE populations and the perspectives that you're getting from the 211 data? How is that received and what are you seeing in terms of some good examples of how employers are taking the information?
John Puglisi: Okay, so that's a great question. So employers respond to this quite favorably. We've seen real development on the employer's part of compassionate towards employee's personal problems and work-life balance, as opposed to just work productivity. So employers, I find are extremely receptive to this kind of information. I was speaking with a college client of ours in western New York earlier this week and sharing information about the program, and talking about how it could be a corollary to EAP programs that are offered either through the medical program or through the other carriers. This is another area where I am able to communicate to employers that our organization can link employees to human services directly in their communities.
Laura Marzi: I think about how much the world has changed in less than a year. You talked about the idea of productivity and the amount of effort that was put into services and support for that. Again, going back to the survey that we did at The Hartford before pandemic and we were trying to query employee's wish list for benefits, a lot of it fell into those categories that we might expect in terms of things like gym memberships or support for pet insurance, all those things that might go over what we call kind of the bedrock benefits of life and disability insurance. I'm wondering, do you think that employers at this point are more cognizant of the kind of duty to offer life and disability insurance now to their employees based on what you've been observing over the past 10 months?
John Puglisi: Yeah, very much so. There were brokers and insurance producers in the western New York market who were aware of this before and would not discuss those kinds of products with their clients until they were satisfied that employers, employees had access to life insurance and disability insurance. But certainly in COVID you're seeing a transition. And even to products that we offer on the voluntary workspace are things that are more appealing to employers now, which is not to say that pet insurance and gym memberships, I'm an overweight pet owner, I need both of these. But more importantly, I need to be sure that I'm secure as far as income, food security, health care, safety, all of the categories that the 211 Program offers assistance with. So I think that, yes, I think that there's a shift in focus towards these more considerable benefits than the ones that are a little bit more fringy.
Laura Marzi: Excellent. Well, I think we've had a good discussion today. I want to thank Cora Hall for offering perspective on why ALICE matters to The Hartford and all of the incredible work that the company did to stand up a program that could definitely be leveraged, especially by our claims organization. I want to thank Paula Gilberto for giving us a closer look at what ALICE means in the working population, and as well as the 211 network and how that provides so much support. And I also want to thank John Puglisi for giving us some perspectives on how we need to be more sensitive to this working population and what the insurance industry can do to serve them better. I think this has been a great discussion, and I really appreciate all the insights.
As always, I thank you all for listening. If you like what you hear, I invite you to please subscribe to our podcast and share it with your colleagues. You can also visit us at And if you're interested in Paid Family Medical Leave resources, you can get more information directly there, as well as more information, and details and links that help you understand the myriad ways that The Hartford is trying to support the act of working workplace right now. Until next time, be well and stay safe, everyone. Gracias.
This informational material is subject to change as The Hartford continues to receive guidance from states and municipalities. It shall not be considered legal advice. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for legal compliance with respect to an employer’s business practices, and the views and recommendations contained herein shall not constitute The Hartford’s undertaking on a company’s behalf, or for the benefit of others, to determine or warrant that an employer’s business operations are in compliance with any law, rule, or regulation. Employers seeking resolution of specific legal or business issues, questions, or concerns regarding this topic should consult their own attorney or business advisors; and employees should continue to consult their employers’ Human Resources or other employment benefits department for guidance on the application of any law, rule, or regulation.
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