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Employee Benefits Get Extreme

From concierges to Zen yoga, employers are offering an array of creative perks to attract and retain today's workers.


​Yahoo transports workers from their homes to the office. PricewaterhouseCoopers employees get help paying back student loans. And at Caruso Affiliated, even the most junior workers are eligible to use a concierge service to pick up their dry cleaning and plan their kids’ birthday parties.

Welcome to the new world of benefits, where ever-more imaginative perks are being built around the evolving needs of modern families, the interests of Millennial employees (those born between 1981 and 2000) and the elusive goal of achieving work/life balance.

Health insurance and 401(k)s have suddenly become old-school—necessary but not always sufficient for attracting and retaining top talent, especially young workers who may need more incentive than their older peers to commit to a company for more than a year or two. That’s why many employers are adjusting their benefits packages to include a wide array of items that ease the stresses of workers’ day-to-day lives. The goal is to create happier, more-stable workforces that are far less likely to be distracted at the office because of unfinished tasks at home.

​“If organizations want to recruit and retain the best talent, they have to know the types of benefits that will attract and engage employees,” says Rae Shanahan, chief strategy officer at Businessolver, a Des Moines, Iowa-based benefits administration company. Shanahan strives to apply that approach at her company, where workers enjoy onsite fitness classes and are given rides to and from the mechanic when their car is in the shop.

Moreover, at many companies, in-office perks such as free snacks and games, once considered the exclusive province of hip tech startups, have gone mainstream.

In short, workers now want more, says Vincent Burneikis, vice president of learning, development and hospitality at Los Angeles-based real estate company Caruso Affiliated.

“We really wanted to be able to make a real impact on the lives of employees and enhance their quality of life,” he says. That’s what led to the company’s recently introduced concierge benefit.

“I hate standing in line,” Burneikis says. “The gift of time, you really can’t buy.”

Within the first month of operation, the concierge saved employees 540 hours, he says. “As soon as one person started using it, the floodgates just opened up.”

The service does more than simply run errands for employees. It helps them plan vacations and even buy tickets for Dodgers games, where they can meet players on the field after the event. Usually, such pampering is reserved for high-level executives, but at Caruso everyone can take advantage of the concierge.

Financial Aid

While the gift of time is valuable to today’s employees, so, too, is the more traditional gift of, well, money. However, today’s workers are hardly the stereotypical greed-consumed yuppies of yesteryear; rather, most are simply trying to make ends meet. Because wage growth has been stagnant for years—while the cost of housing and education have not—many employees are struggling to pay their bills, whether for student loans, mortgages or one-time, big-ticket expenses such as cars or weddings.

Offering perks that provide financial relief can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool, even if employers aren’t willing to increase salaries.

That money crunch makes them more stressed and less focused on work. Offering perks that provide financial relief can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool, even if employers aren’t willing to increase salaries.

Research shows that assistance with student loan repayments is still rare, but that may not be the case for much longer, because many employees—particularly members of the cash-strapped Millennial generation—are coming to expect it. Only 4 percent of employers offer the benefit, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2016 Employee Benefits research report. 

​Yet a whopping 89 percent of job seekers with debt indicated that they believe employers should offer student loan repayment as part of the benefits package. In fact, 10 percent ranked student loan help higher than paid vacation time as the “most important” benefit, according to a survey from Beyond, an online job network. “When Millennials are entering the workplace and thinking ‘What is my move?’ one [priority] is ‘I need a job to pay off my loans,’ ” says Joe Weinlick, Beyond’s senior vice president of marketing.

That’s why New York City-based PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) provides associates and senior associates $1,200 a year toward their loans for up to six years. Payments go directly to the loan provider, and while the benefit maxes out at $7,200, the reduced interest payments from a shorter payback period can save a debtor as much as $10,000, says Michael Fenlon, PwC’s chief people officer. The time it takes to pay back a loan can be shortened by up to three years, the company estimates.

PwC began offering the benefit in January with a pilot program in the Boston office and then nationally July 1. Already, 6,300 of PwC’s 42,000 U.S.-based workers have signed up, and they will remain eligible until they are promoted to manager or reach the six-year cap, Fenlon says.

Of course, not every company can afford to be so generous. But Fenlon believes the investment will pay off in the form of more-productive and more-loyal employees. “It’s something we found was extremely relevant and resonated both with our people who have student loans and those who don’t,” Fenlon says. “They told us they were impressed by the fact that we were doing this, the fact that we were addressing a major societal issue, because they see that their colleagues, their family members and their friends also have debt.”

The benefit has been a huge relief for Elaine Florentino, a 24-year-old experience associate in PwC’s Boston office. A single parent, Florentino finished her graduate degree at Bentley College $57,000 in debt. The loan repayment benefit has meant an added $100 a month against the principal of her loan, reducing the loan repayment period. “It really makes a difference,” Florentino says. “You’re committed to giving them the best of you, and they’re going to help you achieve that.” Florentino says she is likely to stay longer at PwC because of the benefit than she otherwise would have.

Boxed Wholesale, an e-commerce startup based in Edison, N.J., that delivers groceries and other products in bulk, pays full college tuition for employees’ children. And get this: The owner will also contribute up to $20,000 for a worker’s wedding.

Embracing New Definitions of Self and Family

Many of today’s most innovative benefits are designed to support evolving notions of identity and family. Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., provides onsite child care, and its health plans let workers cover ailing parents as dependents.

German software company SAP, whose U.S. operations are based in Newtown Square, Pa., pays for transgender employees’ sex reassignment surgeries and related therapies, such as voice training. According to the Human Rights Campaign, a record 511 companies now offer transgender therapy coverage, up from 49 firms in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights group’s 2009 survey. SAP also provides health and life insurance and other benefits to partners of LGBT employees.

“We are open-minded and want to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves in attracting or keeping talent because we aren’t broad enough” in the benefits the company offers, says Brigette McInnis-Day, SAP’s senior vice president of HR. “We want diversity in all areas,” she says.

​London-based EY offers a slew of benefits in the U.S. to parents and would-be parents, including $5,000 for adoption assistance and coverage for infertility treatments. Both new mothers and fathers get 16 weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. (The Family and Medical Leave Act requires 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave.) 

But the pièce de résistance is the support EY provides for nursing mothers: The company pays to have breast milk express-shipped to the homes of breast-feeding women who are on the road for work. Working with lactation consultant Limerick Inc., based in Burbank, Calif., EY provides mothers with a travel kit that includes an insulated cooler with ice packs, baby bottles to store the milk and a shipping box for the cooler. 

More and more, policies are being implemented to support those without spouses or children as well.

“As part of EY’s flexible and inclusive culture, we are committed to providing our men and women with the tools and resources they need to be highly effective in their careers, while at the same time helping them meet their family needs,” says Karyn Twaronite, the company’s global diversity and inclusiveness officer.

More and more, policies are being implemented to support those without spouses or children as well. At 2U, a Landover, Md.-based online degree program management company, when an employee must take time away from work to attend to a new baby or ailing family member, those who pick up the slack are given extra paid time off (PTO) or a cash bonus.

When someone is preparing to take leave, the team calculates how many employees will be required to cover for that person. If one employee has to pick up someone else’s duties for eight weeks or more, the employee must take five consecutive days of extra PTO within three days of being relieved of the extra duties. If multiple people cover for the absent worker, they divide up the additional time and must take it within 12 months. Some employees at the 1,000-worker firm have unlimited PTO, so they are eligible to receive a bonus instead of time off.

The benefit program is called Lending Hands, and it has really helped to keep colleagues from getting exhausted or resentful when they need to step in for someone, says Erin Anderson, senior vice president of HR.

“We were coming up with a parental-leave policy, and I couldn’t help but start to get really focused on employees who are here covering for individuals who are out spending time with family members,” Anderson says. “I was really afraid of people burning out.”

Everyday Perks

What if a company is too small or cash-poor to pay for chauffeurs or concierge services? There are still many meaningful benefits they can provide at little or no cost and one size doesn’t necessarily fit all.

Different generations have varying desires and interests when it comes to benefits, says Tim Easterwood, a president and practice leader within the Voluntary Benefits Consulting Group at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. in Itasca, Ill. For example, Millennials and early-career employees worry most about student debt, job flexibility and professional advancement, while older workers may be wrangling with mortgages, looming college costs for their children or caring for ailing parents.

That said, the best benefits are often those that appeal to all workers. “What really hits pay dirt is something that crosses all different segments”—not just generational divides, but gender and regional categories as well, Easterwood says.

​A good example is auto insurance, which employers can offer to a group, payable by payroll deduction. “You may not want it, but you have to have it,” Easterwood says. And it’s so much easier for workers to have a small amount of cash taken from their paychecks than it is for them to write two big checks a year to an insurance company, he says. 

Another popular offering is a so-called gap-filler—a benefit that might, for instance, cover the deductible of a family health insurance plan. Group discounts on gym memberships, show tickets and travel are also high on workers’ wish lists, Easterwood says. What’s great about those is that there is no cost to the employer, which partners with retailers and service providers hoping to expand their customer base.

“I have a responsibility to my clients and their employees to make sure I present them with benefits that are, yes, interesting, but also what people want,” Easterwood says. The most useful benefits are “things that make their lives easier,” he says.

Workers burdened by unexpected bills (such as medical costs) could benefit from company-provided loans, but that’s become less common than it used to be. Only 13 percent of organizations in the SHRM benefits survey offer loans, down from 27 percent 20 years ago. The decline may be because the practice can be fraught with problems, including people who over-borrow or are denied the benefit.

That’s the conundrum that faced Robert Niedermeier, general manager of Bridgeport, Conn.-based Valley Container, a corrugated sheet plant. “From time to time, when someone was really down on their luck, I would personally help them. But it became very difficult to manage since I would have to be the person saying yes or no to these larger loans,” he says.

So he connected with a company called Kashable, which provides loans to employed people. Repayments are then deducted from their paychecks. Individuals can take out only one loan at a time, preventing them from becoming overextended.

Niedermeier mentioned one employee who was able to pay down mounting medical bills, making her “visibly relieved” at work.

As a nonprofit, the San Diego Zoo had to get creative to find inexpensive benefits with rich rewards. Employees’ spouses and kids get into the zoo free and receive guest passes to the zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (Tickets normally cost $50.) And there are inexpensive day care options for both kids and pets; the zoo has negotiated a 25 percent discount for employees at local providers. Through reciprocal agreements with other local organizations, zoo workers also get free admission to museums and discounts at Disneyland, Legoland and nearby restaurants.

A popular benefit is the zoo’s technology program, which twice a year helps employees buy big-ticket electronics, with the payments spread out through the year and deducted from their paychecks. “They love this perk,” says Tim Mulligan, the zoo’s chief human resources officer, adding that workers made $1 million in technology purchases in the last year.

Offering unusual benefits, especially those that ease the stresses of personal finance and involve running errands, ends up being a win for both management and workers. “We believe delighted employees lead to delighted clients. A happy employee is a better employee,” Businessolver’s Shanahan says. And that may be the best benefit of all. 

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz for HR Magazine.