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A Master Act of Coordination

December 11, 2007
Related Topics: Workers' Compensation, Benefit Design and Communication, Compensation
Coordinating benefits for Cirque du Soleil can be as complicated as the somersaults performed by acrobats in the troupe’s giant spinning German Wheel act.

    How can an employer provide health insurance for workers who travel 100 percent of the time? How should it calculate risk for employees whose daily routines include fireworks, martial arts and hanging from ropes 50 feet off the ground?

    It’s all in a day’s work for Hélène Thibault, a senior benefits manager for the avant-garde circus. Her background as an accredited actuary makes her especially well suited to the job. It’s not the usual career path for actuaries, the highly trained professionals who use math, statistics and finance theory to calculate the business impacts of risk. But it’s one Thibault, 30, enjoys. It brings imagination to a profession that’s typically black and white.

    "Cirque du Soleil is a creative company, so working in benefits can’t be that straightforward," she says. "We need to be creative and adapt to everything the company is doing. We always work in the gray areas."

    If the logistics of mounting Cirque du Soleil’s signature big tent productions seem daunting, so is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering to keep entertainers and other employees properly insured and protected. That task continues to grow as the privately held Montreal entertainment enterprise adds to its eight touring troupes, five resident shows and related projects.

On the road
   In her role as senior benefits manager, Thibault is responsible for planning health care coverage for a majority of Cirque du Soleil’s approximately 4,000 employees. She is one of 70 employees on Cirque du Soleil’s HR team in Montreal, and her charges include 1,600 employees in Montreal and 1,000 permanent expatriates—the performing artists and support personnel who travel continuously around the world. Thibault and her team of four assistants were also responsible for developing and financing a health insurance plan for Cirque du Soleil employees in Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida, where the company stages permanent shows at hotels. A stateside HR staff administers it, however.

    With such a diverse global workforce, one-size-fits-all benefits are out of the question. Expats pose particular problems because they change addresses—and often countries—every six to eight weeks. One of the first things Thibault did after joining Cirque du Soleil in October 2006 was reorganize the company’s health insurance coverage. Until then, the company had used one carrier for its U.S. employees and a second for everyone else. But the setup caused problems.

    When a tour moved from Europe to the United States, health coverage couldn’t move with it, she explains.

    Now, all expats are insured through an expat health plan from Cigna International in Philadelphia that covers things like trips to walk-in clinics and prescriptions. When the troupe sets up in a new location, Thibault’s staff sends contact information for covered health care providers in the area to a tour services supervisor, who gives the information to employees as needed.

    Expat insurance doesn’t cover local workers for construction and other manual labor crews that Cirque du Soleil expects to hire as it opens new permanent shows in Tokyo, Macau and Dubai over the next three years. Instead, the company will negotiate with local insurers for coverage and benefits that are typical of the region, rather than match what expats or headquarters employees receive, Thibault says.

Not a risky business
   For a venture as risky as a circus, Cirque du Soleil’s accident rate isn’t out of the norm, Thibault says. "For sure we have some accidents. Things happen, but probably not as much as people think," she says.

    In one such case in mid-November 2007, two performers in the circus’ Zumanity show at the New York New York hotel in Las Vegas were hurt during an aerial performance and taken to a local hospital. One performer was released the next day and the other was still being treated for undisclosed injuries two weeks later. At the time, a spokeswoman said all company emergency procedures had been followed.

    To mitigate risk, Cirque du Soleil sends a health and safety team to inspect event sites and watch performers. If they deem something too dangerous, they’ll suggest changes, Thibault says. The circus also follows government-mandated workplace safety regulations in countries that have them, such as the United States. But it’s not always easy.

    "In some countries there’s no legislation that says you need to provide workers’ comp, or sometimes there’s legislation but we’re not there long enough to benefit from it. But we still want to offer coverage. So if there’s a hole, we have Cigna cover it," she says.

    Cirque du Soleil’s workers’ comp program is partially self-insured. Each year, Thibault uses historical claims data and other factors to calculate how much the company will pay per workers’ comp claim, a number the company doesn’t disclose. Anything over that amount is covered by outside workers’ comp insurance, also from Cigna.

    Cirque du Soleil hasn’t encountered a major disaster, but there have been scares. When Hurricane Katrina devastated Biloxi, Mississippi, in fall 2005, Cirque du Soleil was in the final stages of prepping for a six-month show that was to open there the following February. In a short time, the company came up with a Plan B and sent the show to South America instead, Thibault says.

    In the event that a show can’t go on, the circus carries cancellation insurance. Since joining the company, Thibault has also begun planning for other catastrophes. For example, she has used computer models to calculate how many days of work the company’s employees would miss in the event of a worldwide outbreak of the flu or another pandemic. "I don’t think anyone else in the HR department could have built that," she says.

    Even acrobats hang up their trapezes eventually, and to prepare for that time, Cirque du Soleil offers artists and other personnel retirement plans: a defined-contribution plan for Canadians and a 401(k) for U.S. workers and any touring employees who work in the U.S. longer than six months, with Cirque du Soleil matching contributions of those who participate.

    As Thibault starts the second year in her post, she’s made it a goal to continue studying the company’s workers’ comp and retirement plans. And though she hasn’t traveled to see any of the circus’ roving ensembles yet, she hopes to soon. When she does, there’s a good chance she’ll watch those spinning wheels and trapeze artists while calculating how to best analyze the risks.

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