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‘Voluntary Benefits’ Put Perks to Work for Employee Happiness

On the third Friday of every month, the five hospital Scripps Health system hosts what it calls a “farm stand” in the parking lot of its Scripps Memorial Hospital campus in La Jolla.

For two hours, employees can shop for healthy produce and other organic foods that they couldn’t normally purchase at local supermarkets.

The outdoor market, suspended in winter months, is one of dozens of so-called “voluntary benefits” offered by the 13,000-employee nonprofit organization based in San Diego.

Such voluntary benefits include “tickets at work,” discounted admission to movies as well as theater shows and other attractions, including theme parks such as the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and Disneyland.

Offering such benefits to attract and retain workers has become a fast-growing trend in HR departments.

The offerings include products and services that employees may buy at lower cost through their employer than they could buy on their own.

Such benefits have become very popular along with traditional core benefits, such as medical and dental coverage as well as life and disability insurance.

Indeed, over the past few years, employers large and small have been introducing a wide range of voluntary benefits to attract and retain employees.

Goal Oriented

“When you look at our benefits programs, we try to make sure we’re offering programs that can support our employees for their personal goals, as well as their career goals,” said Tracey Lavery, benefits manager at Scripps. “And we want to make sure that we’re supporting our employees with these programs throughout their lives, and addressing whatever is going on within their lives, whether it’s starting a family or elder care.”

Scripps’ voluntary benefits also include concierge services, such as discounted dry cleaning pickup and delivery. Scripps also arranges for good deals on cellular phone service.

Lavery said discounted memberships at a number of local athletic clubs are offered through a third-party provider as part of its 5-year-old wellness program, which promotes healthy lifestyles among employees to reduce absences and improve attendance.

Employees can earn points during the year, and if they earn enough points, they can get their health care premiums covered at no charge for a year, Lavery said.

And the list doesn’t stop there.

Among other benefits are 15-minute chair massages to reduce stress and boost productivity, and, most recently, Zumba classes offered at two of its medical campuses twice a week.

Last year, masseuses gave more than 30,000 massages, Lavery said.

The list of voluntary benefits even includes Dream Dinners, offered through the dreamdinners.com website, which prepares pre-cooked meals that can be purchased at a discount and picked up at store locations.

“We feel that we have a full package,” Lavery said.

Voluntary benefits have particular attraction to Generation Y, now moving into the workplace, according to studies undertaken by Columbia, S.C.-based Colonial Life & Accident Insurance Co.

The benefits provider says that only 58 percent of Gen Y workers pay their bills on time, 43 percent have credit card debt, and 70 percent live from paycheck to paycheck, so employers are forced to come up with new types of benefits, such as discounts, that work for the younger generation.

Employee Retention

Alisa Guralnick, senior consultant at NextLevel Human Resources Consulting LLC in Carlsbad, said that an increasing number of her client companies, mainly those with 100 or fewer employees, are adding voluntary benefits to benefit packages as the economy improves.

“Companies are trying very hard to pick and choose what’s most important to their employees, spending whatever discretionary dollars they have wisely to add these benefits,” she said. “Several of my clients are doing surveys now to figure out what kinds of things their employees like the most.”

“When employees become mobile again as the job market opens up, that’s when employers start looking beyond paychecks and medical benefits” she said. “They ask, ‘what things can we do to make sure we’re employers of choice.’”

She said that discretionary time off has become very popular, especially with younger workers.

Employers are “giving them time, rather than things they spend money on,” she said

“This is a benefit particularly valued by the Gen Y or so-called ‘Millennial Workers,’” said Guralnick. “They are much more interested in flexibility and time than in things, and it doesn’t cost the employer any money to offer flexibility in work hours.”

Scripps’ Lavery said the system is continually surveying employees to come up with no-cost benefits that employees want.

“Our package is not static; we’re always adding to our benefits, and we really try to take our employee feedback into account when looking at our offerings,” she said. “This year, we introduced some new offerings as a result of employee feedback, which included its farm stand, (being) offered at several hospital sites. It makes it easier for employees to eat well.”

Sometimes, the benefit offerings can be unusual.

Carlsbad-based Modern Postcard offers a somewhat unusual perk — free car washing and detailing, popular among the company’s 174-employee workforce, especially in the summer months.

Modern Postcard’s HR Manager Kimberly Vargas said employees can leave the keys to their car at the front desk, and the company takes care of the rest.

“When you pick up your car, it’s all washed and detailed,” she said, noting that the service includes minor car repairs, such as windshield repair. “Anything you need that can be done in seven hours.”

Vargas said the company offers the services of a massage therapist who comes on Wednesdays. The service has been part of the overall benefit package for the past six years.

Managers can reward employees with free massages when they have done a particularly good job, said Vargas.

The company also offers discounted memberships to a local health care club to managers and executives, and dry cleaning and laundry services offered with on-site delivery, which saves employees the drive to the dry cleaners.

“In a bad economy, a lot of employers say we’re going to do the bare minimum, and then default to a model of scarcity instead of a model of abundance,” said Vargas. “If we can create a benefit where our employees don’t have to spend a half an hour after work going to the dry cleaners or going to get a car wash, or if their back really hurts and they need a massage, we’re happy to provide it.”

Bill Murphy, principal and director of benefit sales at Barney & Barney LLC located in University Towne Center, said from his experience that voluntary benefits are most popular among companies ranging in size from 1,000 to 2,000 employees.

“There aren’t that many in San Diego; you only have a handful,” he said, noting that most companies here range in size from 50 to 250 employees.

Murphy said most employees view voluntary offerings such as discounted theater tickets as “perks, not must-have benefits.”

“Employees really value their health care coverage and their dental coverage,” he said, “That’s what’s most important to them.”

Tom York is a contributing editor for the San Diego Business Journal.

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