“People are being held more accountable for their own financial lives, and our employees are no different,’’ Goldstein said. “We want them to have a secure financial future.”
But in a time of corporate thriftiness, even some big firms see the 401(k) as an area where they can save money. Some cut matching contributions during the recession, although many of them have since restored those payments. IBM Corp. recently caused a stir when it decided to pay 401(k) matches annually, instead of with each paycheck. That lets the company hang on to its money longer, and means employees don’t get the benefit of regular investments that smooth the ups and downs of financial markets.
At some companies, different levels of workers get different benefits. For example, at Bank of New York Mellon Corp., salaried workers can join the 401(k) plan immediately. If they forget, they are automatically enrolled, with 2 percent of their pretax pay going to the program, unless they opt out. They are eligible for matching payments up to 5 percent of their pay.
But hourly employees at the New York banking and investment firm have a different deal: They must work 1,000 hours, the equivalent of six months, before they can sign up.
Joseph F. Ailinger, Jr., a spokesman for BNY Mellon, said the difference in plans was due to “high turnover for hourly employees, and the fact the participation rate is typically low for that group.”
Harvard’s Madrian said she would like to see all employers offer retirement plans — without waiting periods.
She urged senators at a recent hearing in Washington to simplify 401(k) rules, and provide modest tax incentives to get more employers to offer plans or matching contributions.
Workers also need to think ahead, said Madrian. At Boston Human Capital Partners, a Woburn recruiting firm, chief executive Kate Morgan said some workers in small firms and the high-tech world seem willing to trade retirement benefits for nearer-term perks for a time.
“When we say they’ll get a 401(k) plan, we don’t get much reaction,’’ Morgan said, compared with employers paying 100 percent of health care or offering the chance to work from home.
Such trade-offs might seem tempting, said Madrian, but will be expensive in the long run.
“Retirement saving doesn’t have that same immediate urgency,’’ she said, “even though the long-term consequences could be important.”
Beth Healy can be reached at email@example.com.