Employers should consider benefits, downsides of employee perks

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pet perks workplaceIn the current climate of low unemployment and a changing workforce, employers are offering new types of perks and benefits, human resources experts say. Younger workers have different desires and expectations than those who are further along in their careers, but even later-stage employees want different things than they did 10 years ago.

“We’re starting to see more and more employers realize that the way they’ve always done things, they’re having to re-evaluate that,” said Saralyn Crock, area vice president for business development at the Denver office of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. The company helps employers strategize, plan and communicate ways to attract and retain employees.

At the same time, some perks can carry liability risks that employers should consider carefully.

Everyone talks about attracting Millennials, but “we really like to look at the life stage people are in,” Crock said. “Someone who is in the early career stage has very different needs than someone in the mid- or late-career stage.”

Early-stage career employees are very interested in financial well-being, career development and the culture of an organization.

More and more employers are starting to consider payroll deductions for student loan repayment for younger workers, perhaps in lieu of 401K deductions, Crock said.

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In response to a Business Journal inquiry, Brenda McKinney, president of the Colorado Springs Human Resources Association, took a brief survey on benefits at the organization’s Nov. 14 meeting. Fifteen companies responded.

“All of them are offering better compensation to the Millennial group, and flex time is becoming more common. It seems to help with retention,” McKinney said in an email.

“Most employers like the idea” of work-at-home and flex time, said Marnel Nola, director of the Colorado Springs office of Employers Council, an organization that provides employment law, HR and other professional services to members. “They don’t have to have larger offices. … Some are offering subsidies for phones used for business purposes.”

There are some concerns about employer liability, however.

“An employer has the obligation to track time of nonexempt employees,” said George Russo, an attorney with Employers Council. “It’s easier to track hours in the workplace and more difficult at home. Our employers have employees sign off on their time cards, stating that everything on the time card is true and accurate. That is helpful in dealing with the Department of Labor.”

No matter how tracking is done, it’s important for employers to communicate expectations clearly.

“Does it mean you’re going to start working at 6 a.m.? What does flex time look like? Some employers have core hours so you’re in the office part-time,” Nola said.

Employers also may have liability if an employee is injured while working remotely.

“If somebody fell down the stairs at home, it would be a Worker’s Compensation issue,” Nola said.

“We get a fair amount of questions on tuition reimbursement,” she said, adding student loan forgiveness and payroll deductions are also common.

It’s important for employers who offer reimbursement benefits to have a specific agreement with the employee that makes terms and expectations clear and have it reviewed by an attorney.

Colorado’s noncompete law allows employers to ask for repayment of tuition reimbursement if an employee leaves within the first two years of employment, Russo said.

“After that, you can’t ask for the money back,” he said, adding training and development courses similarly should be covered by an agreement.

“Normally, employers will say, ‘If you don’t work for us for another year, we will ask you to pay half of that back.’”

But the sense one’s making an impact is just as important as compensation to early-stage workers.

“Early-career people are really big on wanting to know what their role is in the greater mission of the company,” Crock said. “They want to know how they fit into the big picture and know how they are supported as a whole person who comes to work every day, rather than just an employee.”

Younger workers also want to know what kind of social impact their employer is making; many companies offer paid days off for volunteering.

“Our feeling is, yes, you need to be competitive from a compensation standpoint, but if your culture is bad — for example, if people don’t have the opportunity for career development and advancement — it doesn’t matter how much people make. You need to be really clear about how career advancement happens and what needs to be done,” Crock said.

Another recent trend is helping employees deal with stress.

“One of our clients has an analog room where no technology is allowed,” she said. “It lets people unplug, and it doesn’t cost the employer anything to do that.”

A parallel trend is offering employee assistance programs that emphasize mental health — a simple resource employees can access through a video visit or phone call to talk through the stresses in their lives, whether they have a health plan or not.

Pets can help create a positive workplace culture and relieve employee stress, but they can be distracting or create a nuisance.

Service animals are covered by certain safeguards in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Colorado is a little more lenient,” Russo said, “but both have a built-in safeguard that the dog can’t be attacking someone or going to the bathroom in the workplace. It’s pretty difficult to say that you can’t bring in a service dog. If an animal is aggressive, that’s where the employer can say no.”

Most of the companies in the Human Resources Association survey allow only service dogs in the office, but some companies are offering pet insurance as an add-on to their benefits packages, McKinney said.

None of the companies, however, offer paid maternity leave.

“The only company that we are aware of that offers paid maternity/paternity leave for both the father and mother is USAA,” McKinney said. “We have a long way to go compared to the [two-year paid] leave that many European companies offer.”