Defined-contribution-plan participants can be forgiven for feeling abandoned during the recent economic crisis, when many corporations suspended 401(k) matching contributions. Employers that took this step at some point between 2007 and 2009 included American Express Co., Honeywell International, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Motorola and Starbucks Corp.

Although sponsors don’t have to report when they stop or resume matches, the Washington-based Pension Rights Center tracked suspensions as recently as 2011. “The 401(k) match is very important in that it provides employees with the incentive to contribute at least to the match level,” says legal director Rebecca Davis, who works closely with plan participants on contribution matters.

Combined with low returns from increasingly lower-risk portfolios, gaps in matching contributions have made it even harder for workers to meet their retirement goals. Sponsors need strong defined contribution plans to attract and keep talented employees, and some of them are trying to recover lost ground by offering better inducements to save. “While the vast majority of DC plans already offer some form of matching contribution, not all have structured those policies as strategically as possible to encourage savings,” says Donn Hess, Kansas City, Missouri–based head of product development for J.P. Morgan Retirement Plan Services.

Prospects look brighter now that matches have resumed. In its 2012 survey of U.S. defined-contribution-plan sponsors, consulting firm Towers Watson found that 79 percent of respondents that reduced or suspended their contributions had partly or fully reinstated them. The survey also noted that employer contributions are steadily increasing, a finding echoed by Schwab Retirement Plan Services, the benefits recordkeeping arm of financial services firm Charles Schwab Corp. Schwab recently reported that 73 percent of employers polled made 401(k) matching contributions last year, up from 68 percent in 2010.

As they revisit their plan designs, more sponsors are making so-called nonelective matches that funnel contributions to participants regardless of whether those workers are deferring salary, says Robyn Credico, Arlington, Virginia–based defined-contribution-practice leader for Towers Watson. About a quarter of employers from the firm’s 2012 survey are making nonelective matches.

Driving these trends are spare cash after the shutdown of defined benefit plans and sponsors’ desire to make their defined contribution offerings more attractive to new participants, Credico explains. Defined contribution enrollments are on the rise too. Last year 56 percent of companies had a defined contribution participation rate of 80 percent or higher, up from 50 percent in 2010, Towers Watson reports.