This post is about a service complaint. It is directly relevant to fellow retirees at the University of Toronto, who like me must deal with a a Chicago-based company called Alight Solutions. But it is also relevant to readers who in other contexts have encountered companies with corporate cultures as dysfunctional as Alight Solutions’.
First, the Facts
Last September one of my kids returned to full-time university study, which made them eligible to be added to my supplementary health insurance as a dependent. Were I still an employee, I would have contacted the HR officer in my department to make this change. The insurer told me that as a retiree, I had to go through University of Toronto Pension Services, which is operated by Alight Solutions. The process took over two months and involved enormous hassle.
In mid-September, I called the pension services 1-888 number, which repeatedly told me agents were unavailable to take my call. I then went on to the pension services website to schedule a phone call for late September. The agent was helpful and told me they would snailmail me the form to add my child as a dependent. When the form didn’t arrive after 10 days, I called again. The same agent told me to be patient because snailmail delays are common, citing their own experience with a birthday card mailed from somewhere else in the greater Toronto area that had taken two weeks to arrive.
When the form hadn’t arrived the next week, I called again and asked a different agent if they could courier or email it to me. They said that wasn’t possible, but they would snailmail it again. A few days later (October 18) the second form arrived. (The first one never did.)
I quickly completed the form and snailmailed to the pension services’ post office box, the only option. Alight acknowledged receipt and said they sent an electronic file to the insurance company to activate our child’s insurance. My spouse and I then contacted the insurance company, which had not received the file. We spoke to staff at Alight, who acknowledged that other retirees are having the same problem. In response to our repeated calls, staff at Alight finally asked the insurance company to update their system manually, and our child’s insurance was activated at the end of November, over two months after we first approached Alight.
The Culture of Outsourcing
Benefits administration for U of T employees is an in-house function handled by HR staff in every department. Employees can reach HR staff by phone, by email, or visit them at their offices. In contrast, we are all familiar with outsourced call centres located overseas.
HR issues for retirees have been outsourced to Alight Solutions, which operates like an overseas call centre even though it is located in Toronto. Agents identity themselves by first name only and don’t provide email addresses by which we can reach them. Clients can deal only with agents, so for example I could not speak to the in-house staff who were responsible for conveying the change in insurance coverage to the insurance company. For snailmail documents Alight is accessible only through a post office box. Google tells me that Alight’s Toronto office is at Yonge and Sheppard, a mere 6 kilometres from my home, but I am not allowed to drop by. Finally, Alight has its own jargon, so in reading the online log of my contact on the website I discover that I’m referred to as a “Cx” and that my every attempt to speak to someone other than an agent is an instance of “escalation.” In our case, there was so much escalation happening that I expected Alight to detonate a small nuclear device.
A Dysfunctional Company
Online, Alight describes itself as “a cloud-based provider of integrated digital human capital and business solutions worldwide. The company’s solutions enable employees to enrich their health, wealth, and wellbeing, which helps organizations achieve a high-performance culture.” At least that’s the theory. What I saw in practice is very different: a very bureaucratic rules-based organization in which staff roles are narrowly circumscribed. There are strict limits on how staff can communicate with clients such as myself and staff are expected to follow the rules rather than solve problems for clients. The staff I dealt with were generally courteous but there was little they could do to help me except “escalate the problem.” I find this rigid behaviour surprising because Alight was founded only five years ago.
I was curious what other clients thought of Alight. It has 71 reviews on the website Sitejabber, with an average rating of 1 out of 5. Some titles of reviews include: “if your employer uses this company to administer your pension, OPT OUT,” “nearly impossible to navigate site,” “horrible customer service and follow up,” “impossible to find a worse company for your benefits,” “less than 1,” “torture,” and “HORRIBLE!”
Alight went public in July 2021 at $9.41 US per share. It has traded as high as $11.50, and now sits below $9.00. The website MarketBeat has a bearish short term outlook for Alight, noting that 6.5 percent of its available stock is being shorted. Though I’m not shorting it myself, I hope that my blog post is widely read and will help enrich the shorts.
What Should Be Done?
The University of Toronto Pension Plan is now part of the University Pension Plan of Ontario, which manages pensions for employees at the University of Toronto, Queen’s, and Guelph. I don’t know why the University of Toronto ever chose a manager for services to retirees with so minimal a track record as Alight. Alight must be replaced. It shouldn’t be hard to find a better contractor.