Staff Benefits: Some Low Cost Ideas that Strengthen Workplace Commitment

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As we are all well aware by now, finding and keeping well-qualified, highly knowledgeable and committed staff is a challenge, especially in a job market with record low unemployment and salaries rising over the last several years. In the nonprofit sector, we are also challenged by budget constraints and understaffed programs. Nevertheless, we can offer a variety of benefits beyond the traditional health, dental, life insurance and pension plans that cost very little and have a high value to employees trying to balance the different stages and circumstances of their personal lives and careers.
Following are a few examples.

Dependent Care Assistance Plans (DCAPs): Employees can set up a dependent care assistance plan that will allow them to contribute up to $5,000 pre-tax annually to pay for child care for school-age children or care for elderly parents. Families with an annual income of $24,000 or more will save more money with a DCAP than if they simply claimed the amount spent on their annual federal tax form. The IRS sets regulations for eligibility for these tax-deferred benefits plans, known as Section 125 Plans. An attorney can usually set up the one-time plan document (this is a formal legal document that ensures that the plan is in compliance with existing laws), a summary plan description that is written in plain English, and appropriate forms for a one-time cost of around $1000.

Pre-Tax Medical Contributions: This is another type of Section 125 Plan regulated by the IRS. It allows employee contributions to health plan premiums (including dental) to be deducted from employees’ pay on a pre-tax basis. Like the DCAP plan, it is fairly inexpensive to pay for a one-time plan document and summary plan description to be drafted by an attorney. This plan is very easy to administer and a great benefit to employees paying the high cost of health plans.

Domestic Partner Benefit Coverage: This is a benefit that some folks think will increase the overall cost of health plans. In fact, adding domestic partner coverage usually does not affect the cost at all. Some health and dental providers will allow additions of a “domestic partner” option to family health coverage if the organization has a certain number of eligible employees. Some plans require 50 eligible staff and some will accept fewer. This is a great benefit for staff who are not married, yet live with someone in a “spousal” relationship, especially if the partner cannot obtain coverage elsewhere.

Flexible Work Schedules: Even more valuable than a large annual salary to many people is time! Every benefits survey I have read cites more time and the ability to balance the hectic demands of family, education and other personal commitments as the top two factors leading employees to stay with an organization. Flexible work arrangements lead to better morale, more retention, decreased absences and lateness, and improvements in service. Most workplaces have several options in this arena:

• Flex hours: Letting staff come in earlier or later in the day as long as they work the required hours or complete the necessary workload.
• Compensatory time: Allowing hours or days off in exchange for extended hours or days of work beyond the regular workweek. (Be careful that staff are defined as “Exempt” and therefore allowed to receive compensatory time in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act. For more on this, see “Compensatory Time for All?” in the December 2000 issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly.)
• Telecommuting: Often a blessing for organizations that have more staff than space to work, this is a great option for positions that need a more private area or extended time to concentrate. Staff will often save the one to three hours of commuting time and spend more time on the real work.

Supporting Staff Volunteer Activities: Another way to support your staff and help to balance hectic schedules is to allow time off periodically for them to volunteer at other nonprofits. You can encourage individuals to do this by periodically providing a list of opportunities in the area or organizing staff volunteer days in which the whole staff works together to complete a project for a nonprofit organization in need of many hands. This type of experience often builds a sense of community within your own organization, and educates staff about the work of fellow nonprofits. Another way to support your staff involved in nonprofit activity is to budget money for an employee volunteer fund, in which your organization would contribute small amounts of money to the organizations benefiting from your staff’s efforts, in their names. Any of these options allows staff to feel that their place of work is one that strengthens personal missions and supports collaborations throughout the nonprofit sector.

Purchasing Publications or Books or other Learning Materials: Offering to pay for a subscription to a career related publication is an inexpensive way to support the continued learning of your staff. Also, let staff choose one book per year that relates to their work or the work of the nonprofit sector in general to add to their personal bookshelf.

Networks and Information/ Referral Services: A benefit that many employees would find helpful is access to information, often in the following areas: legal, financial planning, dependent care, personal, relationship, mental health, stress, work, and addiction. Ways of providing access to such information is known under the broad title of Employee Assistance Programs. These can be informal contact lists maintained in-house—generally you would do the usual networking within your local community and check references to develop such a list. You can also outsource the task to firms that specialize in staying abreast of the local resources. Finally, you can contact professional firms to develop a contractual relationship with your organization to provide direct services. The broader the range of services and the higher the level of support (say, people on call seven days a week), the more expensive the program. The manner in which employees access the program affects the cost as well: self-service costs the least.

Offering benefits that will save your employees money and time signals the organization’s commitment to supporting staff. Such a culture of organizational commitment will create a place where people will be proud to work. Whether you act based on the values expressed in your mission or from a business performance stand-point, you will find that spending a little time and very little money up front will come back to you in a dedicated and spirited staff!

Joanne Horgan consults with many nonprofits and is the director of human resources at Third Sector New England.