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Less than two years after the worst crisis ever to hit the U.S. economy, corporate profits have rebounded sharply, leaving plenty of companies in great shape. Unfortunately, workers generally aren't sharing in that success, and many may soon find that when it comes to taking care of financial needs their employers used to handle for them, they're entirely on their own.
A recovery for some
Beginning in 2008, companies throughout the economy were in dire shape. When the credit markets began to seize up, liquidity became extremely scarce, and many companies were forced to take extreme measures to free up liquidity. Dividend investors faced the pain, as companies from Bank of America to Dow Chemical slashed payouts to conserve cash.
But employees also suffered. Wells Fargo and Kimberly Clark were among those companies that froze pension plans for some of their workers. In addition, millions of workers saw employer contributions to their retirement plan accounts cut back or eliminated entirely.
Now that times are better, you might think it's high time that some of the sacrifices made to help companies survive through the downturn were paid back. Many companies, for instance, have started increasing dividends again. But workers haven't been as lucky. In too many cases, employees are continuing to feel the pain even after the stock market recovery has given shareholders in those companies multibagger returns.
Haves vs. have-nots
A disturbing number of workers still haven't seen their benefits restored despite the recovery. Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) has seen its business continue to struggle, and it hasn't reinstated employer matching. Wynn Resorts (Nasdaq: WYNN ) has seen its stock price rise five-fold from its 2009 lows, yet the company continues a hiring freeze, a no-bonus policy, and its suspension of matching contributions.
Not every company has slammed the door on their employees. American Express (NYSE: AXP ) , Vail Resorts (NYSE: MTN ) , and Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN ) are just a few of the many companies that have reinstated all or part of their matching contributions recently after temporarily suspending them. Overall, though, a Towers Watson survey of large employers shows that of those that cut back on 401(k) matching, nearly half still haven't restored those benefits.
What to do
What underlies the current disparity between corporate prospects and workers' benefits is a simple question of supply and demand. With unemployment stubbornly hovering around 10% and recent job growth coming in below expectations, employers in many cases can choose from a big pool of qualified, desperate prospective employees. You'll find exceptions in some industries, but for the most part, workers aren't in any position to demand better benefits.
That doesn't mean, though, that workers don't need the benefits their employers used to provide for them. Unfortunately, the current trend suggests that you're going to have to fill in the gaps that employer cuts have created on your own.
To do that, you need to figure out how much those benefits are worth. With something like employer matching, it's easy to take a standard 3% match and calculate how much in additional savings you need to set aside to make up for a missing employer contribution. With other benefits like disability insurance, you can get prices for private coverage that would replace what an employer might typically provide as part of your benefits package. In some cases, such as with retiree health or traditional pension plans, aren't as easy to figure out and in some cases are nearly impossible to replace independently.
Hang in there
After you run the numbers, you'll more fully understand just how valuable employee benefits can be. Given the current state of the economy, you may not be in a financial position to be able to replace everything your employer used to provide for you. Whatever you can set aside, though, will put in that much better a position to handle a labor market that shows few signs of getting markedly better anytime soon.
What's been your experience with employee benefits and your employer? Tell us your story in the comments below.
Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.