Flexing Our Options

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Employees today — many of whom are caught between competing demands from both their young children and aging parents — require more than just a steady paycheck from their jobs. They need flexibility. According to an annual survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), which has tracked employer-provided benefits since 1997, they're finally starting to get it.

The survey — which polls over 700 human resources professionals across the country about the kinds of perks companies offer — reveals that businesses have shifted from providing designated benefits, such as sick leave and vacation leave, to more flexible offerings in areas such as spending accounts and scheduling.

Almost twice as many companies today offer employees the option to telecommute — or work someplace other than the office — than just five years ago (37 percent compared with 20 percent). A quarter provide job-sharing opportunities, and 31 percent offer a compressed workweek, compared with 21 percent and 22 percent, respectively, that did so in 1997.

“Family-friendly� benefits are especially in demand. One of the most prevalent incarnations is the dependent flexible spending account, which provides dependents with their own flex spending options, offered by 69 percent of firms, up 7 points from just a year ago. Flextime — which gives employees options beyond the standard 9-to-5 office drill — is another popular benefit, provided by 58 percent of firms, up from 51 percent in 2000. In addition, slightly more than one-quarter of companies (26 percent) are now providing paid family leave beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) minimum requirement.

More firms are offering specific child-oriented benefits. Twenty percent provide child-care referral services; 24 percent allow parents to bring children to work in emergency situations; and 13 percent offer emergency/sick child-care. Companies today are also more likely to support family growth than they were in the past: 16 percent provide adoption assistance, up from 11 percent last year. In addition, firms are pitching in to help with education: 8 percent assist with college/school selection and referral services, and 20 percent offer scholarships for family members of employees.

Businesses are also recognizing that more workers, especially among the Boomer cohort, have to assume the care-taking responsibilities for their aging parents. The number of companies providing an eldercare referral service benefit increased from 15 percent to 19 percent over the past year. Some companies have also begun to provide other services, including emergency eldercare (5 percent) and company-supported eldercare centers (2 percent). Larger businesses are more likely to participate in such programs: 19 percent of companies with between 2,501 and 5,000 employees offer emergency eldercare, compared with only 3 percent of companies with less than 100 employees.

Benefit trends have also begun to reflect America's changing family structures. More employers are offering benefits to domestic partners: 25 percent of those surveyed currently provide benefits to opposite sex live-ins, and 16 percent offer benefits to same-sex partners. An additional 2 percent and 3 percent, respectively, plan to offer such benefits to opposite and same-sex domestic partners in the near future. This is the first year the survey broke out domestic partners by relationship type, reflecting a growing recognition of changing family situations: In 1997, only 6 percent of businesses offered domestic partner benefits of any kind.

The most accommodating industries are publishing and education, with utilities a distant second. A full 100 percent of publishing companies surveyed provide dependent care flexible spending accounts, 56 percent provide adoption assistance, and 44 percent allow for unpaid sabbaticals. Eighty-two percent of education employers offer flextime, and 53 percent allow job sharing.

A few firms, despite the tight job market, are still bending over backward to keep their work force happy. Four percent of companies allow pets at work and one company even offers pet-care referrals. Wonder if they'll cover Fifi's health care bills?

For more information, contact the SHRM Foundation at (800) 444-5006.

All in a Day's Work

Almost 40 percent of companies polled allow workers to telecommute, compared with just 20 percent that did so five years ago. The results are based on the responses of 700 human resources managers.

BENEFITS OFFERED 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Dependent care flex spending account 58% 59% 64% 62% 69%
Flextime 46% 55% 53% 51% 58%
Telecommuting 20% 24% 28% 26% 37%
Compressed workweeks 22% 23% 25% 27% 31%
Job sharing 21% 23% 22% 22% 25%
Bring child to work in emergency n/a 19% 23% 21% 24%
Child-care referral service 15% 18% 15% 17% 20%
Eldercare referral service 13% 15% 14% 15% 19%
Adoption assistance n/a 12% 14% 11% 16%
Lactation program 3% 5% 6% 15% 16%
Emergency/sick child care 10% 11% 11% 12% 13%
Source: Society for Human Resource Management
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