COVID Lessons Learned: How evolving customer needs pushed change in 2020 and beyond

When you think of industries that are nimble and able to adapt quickly, insurance and employee benefits may not be the first to come to mind. They’re prepared to manage risk, highly-regulated, and—in the employee benefits world—typically secured with annual contracts.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, turned the concept of stability on its head. And at organizations like Voya Employee Benefits, plenty of pivoting has been taking place. Here are a few of the fast-tracked changes that rose to the top in 2020.

Extended grace periods and coverage continuation
Restrictions to stop the spread of COVID had unanticipated impacts to a number of industries, leading to dramatic increases in layoffs and furloughs across the country. Some of the states impacted most by unemployment—such as California, Nevada and Hawaii—are the ones heavily invested in hard-hit industries like entertainment, hospitality and travel.

This data, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics1, shows how high unemployment spiked last March, and how well unemployment has been recovering since then:

Like many other organizations, Voya actively monitored and implemented state emergency guidelines and state-specific mandates. We responded to this spike in unemployment by extending premium grace periods, coverage continuation and other accommodations, such as an extended claims submission timeline, to help impacted employees. Many of these accommodations, including extended coverage continuation for Life and Supplemental Health insurance, were recently extended into 2021.

Increased flexibility for COVID-related benefits
In order to stay close to additional changes that employers and employees needed, the industry came together throughout 2020 to gather and share insights. Surveys carried out by organizations like LIMRA, Eastbridge, and others helped carriers respond by making adjustments and clarifications within contracts.

Here’s a look at some of the most-requested changes throughout the year, according to the Updated Broker Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic and Voluntary FrontlineTM Report from Eastbridge Consulting Group2:

While Voya already offered Hospital Indemnity Insurance, adjustments were made to other supplemental insurance products as well. COVID-19 screenings and antigen testing were added to the list of eligible health screening tests for Wellness Benefit payments, and telemedicine was also added to the eligible expenses list. In addition, COVID-19 was clarified as an eligible expense under the Critical Illness insurance Infectious Disease benefit, when it resulted in hospitalization for a certain number of days. Looking ahead to the future, work is also underway on additional enhancements to this product.

An eye on evolving leave laws
Employee leave was complex before the coronavirus pandemic. Legislation like Paid Family Leave added to this complexity, as did the variety of new possible scenarios like, “What if an employee is quarantined due to COVID exposure?” or “What if an employee is medically unable to wear a face mask?”

As employers made decisions about these policies, they also needed to navigate legislation intended to support employees as they took time off work, such as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

Organizations like Voya who offer leave management services have helped brokers and employers stay on top of these shifting regulations by posting overviews of legislation like the one mentioned above. Voya has also provided a state-by-state overview specific to COVID-19-related leave, addressing questions like the ones mentioned above.

A focus on digital education and engagement
By summer of 2020, it was becoming clear that the fall enrollment season would look different than the ones before it. Large gatherings like benefit fairs would become impossible, and even smaller face-to-face interactions were strongly discouraged.

This was a big change from what was anticipated early in the pandemic. Surveys by Eastbridge2 in April and July showed how much sentiments changed in just a few short months:

Voya Employee Benefits responded by creating virtual benefit fair options for employers, and continuing its efforts to provide robust digital options for employee education. In addition to planning for enrollment, in mid-summer Voya also launched a digital COVID Relief Planning Assistant. This tool helps those impacted by layoffs and furloughs develop a short-term financial action plan while their income is reduced.

Increased interest in overall financial wellness
Throughout 2020, Voya's Consumer Insights & Research Team kept a close eye on how Americans were feeling about their finances, through its ongoing and real-time research.3 As the research shows, many Americans have adopted a “saver” mentality based on their experiences over the last six months, and more than 6-in-10 are better prepared for future emergencies and are saving more for unexpected expenses:


Employee benefits are a key part of preparation for the unexpected. Yet those benefits need to be used to be effective. That’s one of the reasons that in 2020, Voya kicked off several initiatives to streamline claims and even pay them automatically in some cases. This effort, called Claims 360, included over $125,000 in benefit payments split among 31 employees in the first six months alone—boosting their ability to respond to the unexpected, covered events they experienced.

What’s next?
By collaborating to understand what employees need during these rapidly-changing times, brokers, employers and organizations like Voya Employee Benefits can all continue refining financial wellness offerings to better support employees. 2020 was a year that was dominated by the unexpected. As that trend continues into 2021, we can use these lessons learned to be ready.

Bureau of Labor Statistics - U.S. Department of Labor, "The Employment Situation - December 2020."

2 Updated Broker Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic and Voluntary. Eastbridge Consulting Group, Inc., August 2020. Online survey conducted July, 2020 with 57 broker respondents. Findings presented should be viewed as qualitative and directional in nature.

3 Based on the results of a Voya Financial survey conducted through Ipsos on the Ipsos eNation omnibus online platform among 1,004 adults aged 18+ in the U.S. Research was conducted Nov. 19-20, 2020.