Skip to main content

You are here


COVID-19 a Year in: The Impact on Plans and Participants


Panelists at an April 19 session of the Plan Sponsor Council of America’s 2021 National Conference took a look at the pandemic’s impact on retirement plans and participants.  

The panel included Bradley Bonno, Director of Financial and Retirement Education Services for PNC Institutional Asset Management; Larry Cruz, Team Leader of the HR Profit Sharing Department at Edward Jones; and Anna Rappaport, Founder of Anna Rappaport Consulting. Jessie Miller, Communications Lead at PNC Institutional Asset Management, served as facilitator.  

Where Things Stand 

Not all the news has been bad, Bonno suggested. “Most retirement plans held firm despite the pandemic,” he remarked, noting that many organizations held firm. Nearly  all of them in one study—94.9%— made no changes in their plan design due to the pandemic, and a mere 5.2% suspended or reduced matching contributions. 

Participants showed constancy too, Bonno indicated, observing that “Relatively few participants panicked” and reporting that just 25% changed their asset allocations in 2020. In fact, he suggested that despite the pandemic, there were participants who continued to look ahead beyond the current situation. “Some even saw opportunity,” Bonno said, reporting that nearly one-third increased the amounts they contributed in 2020. And “many employers doubled down on helping their employees” for good measure, he added.  

Nonetheless, the pandemic did have far-reaching effects, as Rappaport pointed out. “COVID turned business upside down,” she said, and posed many risks as well, including:

  • increased challenges for individuals;
  • major problems for those who are financially fragile;
  • a shifting of risks to individuals;
  • Social Security imbalance;
  • gaps in planning for payout periods;
  • Increased interest in postretirement employment; and 
  • changes in housing and support needs, with interest in avoiding facilities and an increase in multigenerational households. 

Unexpected and unpredictable events also resulted from COVID-19, Rappaport said, citing these four categories:



Public policy

Federal relief, change in the position of Social Security and Medicare, impact on state and local governments, role in health care

Significant health care needs

Focus on inequality and gaps in health care system; growth of telehealth; heightened importance of community response

Unforeseen family needs

More challenges for caregivers, need for financial help, care and services for children

Bad advice, fraud or theft

New forms of fraud

Some businesses did well, but others did badly, Rappaport said. And for those that were shaky before the pandemic, she said, “This could be the end.” 

But while there was a “huge variation” in how businesses have fared, Rappaport said, they do all have one thing in common: All have had to change how they do business.  

Case Study 

Cruz provided a look at how Edward Jones responded to the challenges the pandemic posed. 

The financial services firm has more than 15,000 branches throughout the United States and Canada. Cruz said that business was heavy in 2020, and that “in the end, demand outweighed concern over conducting business.” 

Edward Jones’ U.S. branches have a retirement plan that is a combination of profit-sharing and a 401(k); it has total assets of $9 billion and 50,000 and its clients have diverse levels of income and very diverse levels of investment knowledge. 

Cruz said that deferral rates in 2020 showed “very little change” and that there was an increase in shifting from pre-tax deferrals to Roth accounts, but that “may not have been related to COVID.” He reported that there were COVID-related distributions from the plan that amounted to $76 million; however, he also said that hardship withdrawals fell from $13 million in 2019 to $8 million in 2020.

There were distributions at all income levels, and no particular segment of the workforce was more prone to take distributions than the others, according to Cruz. Among the reasons for taking a distribution: some participants wanted to invest in options that are not available through the Edward Jones plan. 

The Long Run

The experiences of the last year raised questions and spell long-term change, Rappaport indicated. She noted that changes some expected to take place in the workplace before the pandemic happened suddenly. “They’re reinventing the way they work,” she said. “I’m anticipating that there will be some benefit redesigns.”