- The Washington Times - Monday, February 24, 2003

American companies are making a growing list of "voluntary" benefits available to their employees, but most workers aren't taking advantage of the offerings.
Traditional benefits including pensions and life, disability and health insurance are programs for which companies generally pick up the tab.
Voluntary benefits go beyond the standard offerings and range from corporate college savings programs to auto and home insurance, long-term care insurance and tax-advantaged dependent care accounts.
Employees must cover the costs, but often can get better deals through company plans than they would if they sought such services on their own.
"We've definitely seen a trend toward more voluntary benefits in the past year or two," said Dean Hatfield, a health and welfare specialist with Buck Consultants Inc., a human resources consulting firm based in New York.
He said companies facing severe financial problems had reduced their contributions to some benefit programs and asked workers to pay more.
"More often, voluntary programs are a way for companies to offer [their workers] more choices without adding costs," Mr. Hatfield said. "That's an important consideration in the current economy."
One voluntary benefit that is being rolled out widely these days is financial planning, he said, "because of the stock market diving and companies' concern about their employees' finances."
Still, voluntary benefit programs often attract 10 percent or less of a company's work force.
Dallas Salisbury, chief executive of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, D.C., believes it has to do with workers' perceptions of their own risks.
"Surveys of employees had shown that if you offer suggestions involving trade-offs, workers want health insurance, health insurance, health insurance," Mr. Salisbury said. "Then they want retirement savings. And don't forget paid vacations. And some disability coverage is OK. Everything else falls right off the cliff statistically."
Mr. Salisbury pointed out that when it comes to the most popular of the voluntary benefit plans, the 401(k) retirement account, 25 percent of workers don't participate and only 7 percent to 8 percent contribute the maximum allowed.
That said, voluntary benefits are attractive options for some workers, especially those in higher income brackets as well as, surprisingly, the young, said Jim Gemus, a MetLife vice president.
A MetLife survey found that workers ages 21 to 30 purchased more products through their workplaces than other age groups. This, the study said, "suggests that over the long term, the workplace will be a growing channel for the purchase of financial products."

ASSOCIATED PRESS


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