- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

One of my first employers offered a lucrative employee benefits package that kept a lot of people from abandoning their posts even though the work was deadly dull.

Because I viewed employee perks as unimportant at that point in my life, I happily ditched the velvet handcuffs for a more mentally challenging job.

Years later, as the mother of two small children, I longed for the benefits I had shunned so quickly. The six-month paid maternity leave, for example, would have been really nice. I also happily could have made use of the employee stock and employer-paid health insurance.

This is a great time to be an employee in search of jobs that both are satisfying and provide good benefits.

As employers search for ways to attract and retain employees in today's tight labor market, employee benefits packages actually are rising in value faster than wages, according to the Department of Labor.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures show that private industry wages rose 3.5 percent in 1999 and 3.9 percent in 1998, while benefits packages increased 3.4 percent in 1999 and 2.4 percent in 1998. The typical employee benefits package is equal to about a third of an employee's salary, according to BLS' June 1999 employee compensation survey.

Here is how the survey breaks down: A typical employer's compensation costs are $20.29 per hour. Of that, $14.72 (72.5 percent) is devoted to wages, while $5.57 (27.5 percent) goes to benefits. The benefits employers are legally required to pay cost $1.65 (8.1 percent).

"Today, benefits are an integral part of an employee's total compensation," says Nancy Opiela, associate editor of the Journal of Financial Planning, the trade magazine published by the Atlanta-based Financial Planning Association.

"Young people often are preoccupied with the salary and ignore potentially valuable benefits," she says. Sometimes more experienced workers forget to include the value of both salary and benefits when evaluating job offers.

Financial planners recommend that job seekers thoroughly research the going rates for salaries and benefits in their field. This information should be obtained independently, not from the firm where the job candidate is trying to get hired.

For starters, employees can check the annual surveys published by the federal government that list jobs and salary levels for a wide variety of industries. (See the Department of Labor's Web site at www.dol.gov). Then contact professional associations and check trade magazines, which often publish articles on the job market for specific industries.

Before leaving a job, planners recommend, find out how much the current benefits are worth and compare that with what is being offered in the new job. This comparison is especially important the more time an employee has spent working for a company because benefits tend to increase in value over time.

The hot benefit many employees seek today is the stock option, especially if the company has not yet gone public. In some high-profile cases, stock options have turned employees with low-level salaries into overnight millionaires.

Not every stock option will lead to unsurpassed riches, however, as the high-tech industry has demonstrated in recent months.

A stock option simply grants the holder the right to buy shares in a company at today's prices. Ideally, the employee buys the stock at some point in the future when theoretically the company's stock will have increased in value. If the stock sinks in value to lower than the price of the option, that benefit is useless.

Clearly, employees who accept salaries made up mainly of stock options need to be mindful that they could be out of luck if the company fails. Another pitfall of stock options is holding them too long, as in the case of the auto industry, where stock prices have fallen in recent months.

Given this uncertainty, stock options should be part of an overall package that includes traditional benefits, such as paid time off, health insurance and retirement benefits.

A popular benefit many employers are offering to attract top talent is the flexible work schedule, which appeals to workers raising children and employees who want to work nontraditional hours to pursue other interests.

Three-fourths of U.S. employers offer flexible schedules, according to a survey of 1,020 companies released in May by Hewitt Associates, an employee consulting firm based in Lincolnshire, Ill.

Among the flexible scheduling options are part-time work, job sharing, telecommuting, compressed workweeks and reduced summer hours.

Have a question on work or family finances? Get in touch with Anne Veigle at 202/636-3014 or e-mail (evie1@infi.net).

More information

Books

• The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries, 2000-2001 Edition, by John W. Wright, Avon Books, 2000. This in-depth look at compensation trends is a good resource for job hunters or current employees seeking a pay increase.

• "Dynamite Salary Negotiations: Know What You're Worth and Get It," by Ronald L. Krannich and Caryl Rae Krannich, Impact Publications, 1997. This book outlines the major issues involved in determining salaries: secrecy, salary history, salary requirements, salary ranges and negotiating tactics.

On line

• The Internet offers a wide range of job-search resources that can help employees get job leads, post resumes, scan listings and get a sense of the market in individual fields. Here are some of the biggest on-line recruiting sites: www.monster.com, www.hotjobs.com, www.careerpath.com, www.careerbuilder.com and www.techies.com (specializing in the high-tech industry).

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