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More employers are enhancing their 401(k) plans, which is paying off in higher participation levels, a new survey finds.OK?Participation rates, investment options and loan provisions all have grown in the past several years, according to a Hewitt Associates L.L.C. survey of 460 plan sponsors.About 79% of eligible employees are participating in 401(k) plans this year, the survey found. Previous surveys of plan sponsors that the benefit consulting company conducted in 1995 and 1993 found participation rates of 74% and 75%, respectively.Plan sponsors also are continuing to increase the number of investment options from which participants can choose . Sponsors this year are offering an average of 8.2 investment options, up from 6.3 in 1995 and 4.5 in 1993.Also on the rise is the number of plan sponsors offering a loan provision in their 401(k) plan. Ninety percent of the plan sponsors surveyed this year offer a loan provision, up from 81% two years ago and 74% in 1993.Employee use of the loan option is fairly stable. Approximately 23% of participants had an outstanding loan balance as of the end of the 1996 plan year, employers noted. The 1995 survey found that 20% of participants had an outstanding loan balance at the end of the previous plan year, and Hewitt's 1993 survey found that 21% of participants had outstanding loans.Sur vey respondents said that the most common mistake that participants make in investing their 401(k) accounts is they are too conservative-an observation cited by plans sponsors in 1995 and 1993. Employers said that other common mist akes participants make are insufficient diversification and taking a short-term view instead of a long-term view of investments.The most effective way to communicate investment education to employees is seminars and workshops, the Hewitt survey found.Forty-four percent of plan sponsors responding the survey cited seminars and workshops as very effective. Other particularly effective communications materials include one-on-one counseling or financial planning and written materials, according to plan sponsors.The survey will be available in November for $125 from Hewitt Associates L.L.C., Hewitt Publications Desk, 100 Half Day Road, Lincolnshire, Ill. 60069; 847-295-5000; fax: 847-883-9 019.


Several large employers are offering workers new near-site or on-site child care centers.Merck & Co. Inc. opened its third child care center last month. The new center, which is located at the pharmaceutical maker's West Point, Pa., facility, can accommodate 224 children ages 6 weeks through kindergarten. Currently, 176 children are using the West Point Child Learning Center.The center is open from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Merck in the future plans to offer a summer camp program for young and school-age children, a back-up care room and a care program before and after school hours.The center was designed and built by Bright Horizons, a Cambridge, Mass.-based child care facility managem ent company.cost info not availableA consortium child care center in Princeton, N.J., also opened last month.The facility is located on the grounds of Princeton Forrestal Center, an office park that is home to Merrill Lynch & Co. I nc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., American Re-Insurance Co., Dow Jones & Co. Inc. and several smaller companies. The center was built by Prodigy Child Development, a child care facility management company based in San Rafael, Calif.Th e Princeton center, which can accommodate 148 children ages 6 weeks through 12 years old, cost $1.4 million to build, according to a Prodigy spokeswoman. The center is open from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.Employers in the office park can b uy child care slots for their employees for either full-time day care or back-up care. The center also is open to the public.