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September 02, 2023

Will PG&E Cut Healthcare Benefits?

As a recruiter I’m often asked about benefit packages offered by certain companies.  Over the last year many Fortune 500 companies have made substantive changes to employees’ benefits with most of the changes hurting the workers. We’ve seen many large corporations choose to cut employee benefits whether that be pension, 401(k), or healthcare. Verizon created headlines all the way back in 2005 when they announced they would freeze their pension program. In the years to come many corporations followed suite by moving to defined contribution plans as opposed to defined benefit plans. This trend culminated in General Electric deciding to freeze the largest pension fund in the United States. Other companies like AT&T & Kaiser Permanente have decided to target retiree healthcare benefits in an attempt to cut costs. For Kaiser Permanente, certain employer groups moved from a fully subsidized retiree healthcare plan to a defined subsidy where employees are responsible for the difference if the subsidy is not enough to cover expenses.

Which brings us to PG&E. The company had been struggling over the past couple of years, and PG&E was not immune to the economic impact of COVD-19 either. The company returned from the brink after declaring bankruptcy in late June of 2020, in the aftermath of the Zogg fire in Northern California. PG&E plead guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and set aside $5.4 billion and just over 22% of their stock into a trust for victims of the wildfire. This puts PG&E in a tough spot financially, and they'll need to find ways to cut costs.

All of this begs the question, could PG&E be the next company to cut healthcare benefits? To get a better look at what a healthcare cut at PG&E might look like, let’s take a closer look at AT&T’s recent cuts. 

AT&T stated in a Memo that they will be reducing benefits in 2021 and 2022. Employees retiring after 2022 will be hit the hardest, as they will lose all medical coverage typically given to retirees. AT&T will no longer supplement monthly premiums for medical or dental. 

This announcement comes on the heels of AT&T alerting employees that they will no longer offer a Healthcare reimbursement account for those who retired after January 1st 2021. Currently things like out of pocket costs, supplemental coverage, and incremental coverage are covered by a healthcare reimbursement account from AT&T. According to AT&T’s Summary Plan description the HRA credit is worth $2,700 for an employee and $1,500 for an eligible dependent. If an employee takes full advantage of this benefit this would be worth $4,200 per year. Over a 20 year period this could save an employee and their family about $84,000.  

PG&E & AT&T are not the only companies to cut benefits during the pandemic. History shows time and time again that when a recession hits corporations will decrease or suspend benefits. We witnessed this in the 2001 recession when General Motors, Charles Schwab, Goodyear Tire & Rubber, and Ford all decreased or suspended their company match programs. The same happened in 2008, with Forbes reporting that nearly 20% of companies with over 1,000 employees reduced or suspended 401(k) contributions.  Unfortunately, that trend seems to be continuing in the wake of the current recession brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. According to CNBC, 8% of employers have reduced or suspended 401(k) contributions in this year alone. Major companies like Amtrak, Marriott Vacations Worldwide, and ExxonMobil have all suspended their 401(k) matching programs.

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AT&T Nonbargained Summary Plan Description, 2020

Lacurci, Greg. “Covid Pandemic Led Thousands of Businesses to Slash 401(k) Contributions.” CNBC, 17 Dec. 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/12/17/covid-pandemic-led-thousands-of-businesses-to-slash-401k-contributions.html

Penn, Ivan. “PG&E, Troubled California Utility, Emerges From Bankruptcy - The New York Times.” The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia, 1 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/01/business/energy-environment/pge-bankruptcy-ends.html.

“The Retirement/Transition Guide for PG&E Employees.” The Retirement Group, The Retirement Group, 11 Aug. 2020, https://utility.theretirementgroup.com/pge-guide-download-google

Tretina, Kat. “What To Do If Your Employer Suspends 401(k) Matching Contributions.” Forbes, Forbes, 10 Apr. 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/advisor/2020/04/10/covid-19-employers-suspending-401k-matching-contributions/#7a48068b285f.

Santone, Angela. “AT&T: Updates to Your Retirement Benefits.” AT&T Memo, AT&T Inc., 15 Dec. 2020