Though vanishing jobs are making the headlines, some experts believe firms may soon be worrying about vanishing employees. A recent story in The New York Times reported that a study by a recruiting and outsourcing firm based in Fort Lauderdale revealed that 50 percent of employees-up from 25 percent in 1997-wanted to leave their jobs. If the economy keeps improving, many may decide to do that, and some recruiters believe they'll head first for companies with attractive benefit packages.

Benefits don't come cheaply, however. Health and life insurance, paid holidays and vacations, and retirement payments now comprise an average of 42.3 percent of payroll costs, up from 39 percent just two years ago, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been charting employee benefits for more than 50 years.

The average company already pays $14,000 per employee for such benefits. How can they afford to add more enticements to keep their employees satisfied? The answer may be "flexible" benefits-perks that enrich employees' lives and make them feel valued without adding a boatload of costs to a company's bottom line.

Flexible benefits are more common in large firms, but a recent U.S. Department of Labor's compensation survey found that they're becoming more widespread nationally. Five percent of the 1,436 firms polled offer some type of adoption assistance, for example. Eighteen percent offer wellness programs. Nine percent offer a fitness center, and 20 percent (mostly mid-sized firms) offer a flexible work schedule.

Local companies have jumped on the bandwagon, offering everything from on-site aerobics classes to laundry services. Many of these creative flex benefits cost the company nothing or very little, but they pay off in employee good will; sometimes they actually save a company money.

At least 50 of Sarasota's Sun Hydraulics' 500 employees take advantage of flex time schedules. Nearly 60 also enjoy the weekly 20-minute massages the company, a designer and manufacturer of cartridge valves and manifolds, sponsors (employees pay $5, the rest is picked up by Sun Hydraulics). Sun has added an on-site Weight Watchers program, paying the up-front fee, and allowing employees to pay the monthly maintenance through payroll deductions.

"Since we've implemented massage therapy and our wellness program, our work-related and doctor-treated injuries have gone down from 75 cases annually to 24 last year," says Kirsten Regal of Sun Hydraulics. "We've had a 65 percent reduction in workman's compensation cases."

Childcare, especially sick child care, is another popular flex benefit, though one the Department of Labor says few firms provide. A recent study by the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, found that parents missed 126 million work days last year just to care for children with the common cold, costing the economy billions. In Sarasota, however, 21 local companies take advantage of Sarasota Memorial Hospital's Kids Under The Weather program, which was started in 1986 by a now-retired pediatric nurse. For $6.25 to $6.50 an hour, the program cares for a weekly average of 100 children who are too ill to attend school or conventional daycare. Many of the participating companies help subsidize the cost of this service to their employees.

FCCI has been a leader in finding creative ways to make employees' lives easier. When the insurance group moved from a busy location on Cattlemen Road to a brand-new and virtually empty Lakewood Ranch four years ago, it provided an onsite café for employees. FCCI also convinced a dry cleaning company to reduce its prices and pick up parcels once a week. Employees bear the entire cost for the service. "It costs the company nothing," says executive vice president of internal operations Debbie Douglas. Douglas also persuaded a bank to install two ATMs in the lobby, which also "doesn't cost us anything." Once, the company even brought in vendors from Lakewood Ranch's Farmers Market. It's common to see florists in the lobby before Mother's and Valentines Day; throughout the year, employees can pick up last-minute gifts from jewelry, crafts and book vendors.

Douglas approaches various companies, telling them FCCI has 500 employees ready to use their services, and asking what kind of deal they're willing to make. "I've never had anyone turn us down," she says. Last year they sold 600 tickets to their employees for events ranging from hockey games at the St. Pete Times Forum to musicals at the Van Wezel. Ninety percent are discounted to some level (like the half-price tickets to this year's Sarasota Fair), and all are sold on-site.

Day care is one thing they don't offer, because, says Douglas, she has no way to offset the cost, Even the café, which serves 1,500 meals a week, breaks even. To counter objections about higher prices than the cafeteria FCCI operated at its previous location, Douglas challenged anyone to find one hot entrée, a starch and vegetable in town for less than the café's price ($5), and she'd buy them lunch for a month. In four years, she's had no takers.

Douglas says that before instituting their benefits, "We had a turnover rate in excess of 12 percent. Now we have a rate of 10 percent." While she's not ready to attribute the drop only to their benefits package, she believes, "It contributes to a fairly stable workforce."

Nokomis-based PGT, a manufacturer of windows and doors and one of Sarasota County's largest employers, has offered tuition reimbursement, membership at area health clubs and on-site yoga classes. Recently PGT added transportation services to its benefits.

Most of PGT's employees live in North Port, Port Charlotte and Venice, where reliable public transportation is scarce. PGT now operates four vans that ferry them to and from work each day. Forty employees pay $5 a week to use the service, which is coordinated by Sarasota County's Commuter Assistance Program. The vans cost PGT $1,000 a month plus gas; but, says vice president of human resources Linda Gavit, "For that, we get a $450 subsidy from the county."

A third-party vendor provides the vehicles, insurance and maintenance. Drivers are volunteers; for their efforts, they're allowed to use the vans after hours and on weekends. If an emergency requires van users to leave early from work, they are guaranteed a ride home from a local taxi company up to eight times a year.

"They're the most generous and successful [van pooling] company to date," says county program coordinator Dominick Locascio. "They had a tremendous need." Locascio estimates that PGT's van pool averages more than 700, 65-mile round trips every month and has freed up at least 50 parking spaces at the company's south Sarasota County plant.

But asphalt isn't all they're saving. Locascio says Internal Revenue Code 132 (f) allows employers to offer workers pre-tax deductions of up to $100 per month for using alternative transportation. PGT benefits by saving up to $100 per month, per employee in payroll taxes, disability insurance and lower contributions to 401K accounts.

While large companies have some advantages in negotiating for services, even small companies can come up with some flexible benefits, says Douglas, who started FCCI's innovative programs by inviting workers to a sack lunch brainstorming session on what services they'd be most interested in. "One of the biggest issues in employee benefits is to engage your employees. You get as much bang for asking as you do for providing the service."

Barbara Glanz, a Sarasota-based motivational speaker who coaches companies on the finer points of employee relations, agrees. The author of many books who has appeared on every major television network, she boasts a client list that includes Southwest Airlines, Sprint and Mobil. Glanz surveyed 1,200 non-management employees from a cross-section of industries throughout the country to find out what mattered most to them in the workplace. "Money was No. 34," she says. Numbers one and two were trust and respect. Baxter Laboratories, a Glanz client, conducted its own international study, and came up with the same results: The No. 1 thing employees desired was to be respected as whole human beings with a life outside of work.

Glanz has amassed three six-foot-high cabinets bursting with ideas for employers with little or no money to devote to employee benefits. "They think they have to spend money and they don't," says Glanz. "Benefits can be as simple as beginning every meeting with three minutes of good news."

Other ideas that cost the company pennies but reap major rewards of good will: Bring around an ice cream cart, serve doughnuts and coffee, or wash the windshields of your employees' cars.

Glanz also advocates designating one room as the company "Whine Cellar," where anyone having a bad day can go to blow off steam. Stock the room with stress toys, stuffed animals, even chocolate (especially chocolate).

"It's amazing how simple it can be," say Glanz, who believes that employers can always afford benefits if they can think far enough outside the box to see the opportunities. If it benefits your employees, it benefits you. And that's good business for everybody.

COME TOGETHER

The year-old Sarasota/Manatee Commuter Assistance Program, funded by local counties and the Florida Department of Transportation, brings companies together with vendors who provide 12-person vans that pool riders to and from work. There's no limit to how far riders can live from work, although Locascio says the most common radius is 40-80 miles round trip. The vendor provides insurance and maintenance. Employees pay a small fee to cover cost of gas. The employer pays an amount negotiated by the county and the vendor to rent the vans. This amount is based on number of users, total area covered and total miles per month. Van pooling also offers tax breaks and subsidies of up to $450 a month for employers who join the program.

Program coordinator Dominick Locascio predicts that as commuter traffic increases, van pooling will grow. It reduces absenteeism and tardiness, and increases access to labor markets.

For more information, call (941) 861-1018.

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