As companies battle strained budgets during the recession, more and more are offering innovative perks to keep employees engaged, particularly as traditional employee benefit costs continue to rise. Take this example: A number of employers in Kansas City are giving their workers debit cards that can be used to cover educational expenses upfront — not only for tuition, but also for supplies for trade school courses and even certification exams and professional conferences.
Nurses at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas City have used the debit cards to pay for certification classes for specialty practices such as critical care, says Dawn Murphy, senior vice president of human resources. Other hospital professionals have used the cards to pay for occupational therapy conferences.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2009 Employee Benefits Survey Report, 60 percent of organizations say their benefits offerings have been affected either to a large extent or some extent by the challenges to the U.S. and global economy. As a result, more are turning to innovative perks to sweeten the pot for employees, so they’ll not only stay at the organization longer, but they’ll also work more productively.
In the 7th Annual MetLife Study of Employee Benefits Trends, 40 percent of employees surveyed said they wanted a wider array of voluntary benefits. “Sometimes employees lose sight of the benefits of 401(k)s, medical and dental, so non-traditional benefits have a stronger emotional appeal,” says Patrick Carragher, vice president and director of benefits at CheckPoint HR, a human resources administrative service and consultant firm in Edison, N.J.
When enough is saved to pay for educational expenses, employees request their debit card to be loaded using The Learning Group’s online administrative site. Makalous says the program is a win-win for everyone. “It empowers employees to take charge of their career, it builds loyalty for an organization, it increases productivity for those people who are involved in it, it forwards the idea of competitive advantage and innovation, and it frees up time for HR,” she says.
The pilot was part of an initiative by the U.S. Department of Labor, which also matched employee contributions in The Learning Group’s initial demonstration project from June 2008 to June 2010. Twenty companies with 159 participating employees took part of the initial project, in which 56 new college degrees and 31 new certifications were earned.
Some companies give their employees-of-the-month gift certificates for household appliances up to $1,500, and Carragher knows of at least one firm that rewarded one of its employees-of-the year with a helicopter skiing trip in Colorado. Art Brooks of BeneTrac in San Diego, which offers tools for online enrollment and benefits management, said that some companies are now offering employees group home and auto insurance, 529 college savings plans and deferred compensation programs.
Other perks include legal benefits, including identity theft protection, flexible spending accounts for transportation costs — even for the purchase of a bicycle — and no-interest loans for major appliances in which monthly payments are deducted from employees’ paychecks, says Annmarie Fini, senior vice president of the employer business unit at Benefitfocus, a Charleston, S.C. firm that offers employers an online platform to shop, enroll, manage and exchange benefits.
Some companies are introducing onsite or pre-arranged lunch programs that serve healthy meals, in which the cost is deducted from employees’ paychecks, he says. Even more innovative wellness programs include offering yoga classes onsite, or installing Wii consoles in the breakrooms in which employees can play virtual tennis or box, Carragher says.
One of the principle reasons why an increasing number of companies are offering non-traditional benefits is to minimize employee turnover, which on average can cost up to 30 percent in additional costs to recruit, hire, onboard and train a new employee, than it would to pay an existing employee’s salary, he says. “Today, the focus isn’t just on decreasing absenteeism, it’s about increasing presenteeism— making sure people are not just on the job physically, but emotionally as well,” Carragher says.