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‘Voluntary’ benefits

Companies give employees access to services they request

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Print this page by M.J. McAteer

Wellness programs are hands-down the main development in benefit packages among Virginia’s businesses and nonprofits, but they jibe with a trend toward more employee empowerment, too.

Although the economy has improved enough for some employers to begin restoring benefits they cut during the downturn, such as matching contributions for 401(k) plans, expensive new benefits are rare. Instead, employers are giving workers more say in shaping benefits important to them.

Take the Richmond-based international law firm Hunton & Williams. Jacob Kerkhoff, the firm’s human resources director, says it recently switched medical carriers after a detailed survey of employees showed that access to care was a big issue for them. “That was the key decision point” for the change, he says.

The survey also allowed Hunton & Williams to see that demand was high for “voluntary benefits,” so it began offering access to long-term-care insurance and liability coverage.
With voluntary benefits, employers generally pay startup and administrative costs, but employees pay for the coverage itself. Being part of a group, however, usually means a discounted price for the participants, who also have the convenience of paying their premiums through payroll deduction.

Voluntary programs, which can include benefits as diverse as dental care and pet insurance, are popular with employees, says Jackie Jackson, who runs Jack Consulting in Richmond. Offerings that facilitate charitable contributions resonate especially with younger workers.

“Folks in their 20s and 30s really like organizations that support causes,” Jackson says. One reason that Edward Jones Investments was the large-business winner of Virginia Business magazine’s Best Places to Work this year was its employees’ appreciation for the financial firm’s community involvement.

As an improving economy leads to a more fluid employment situation, Jackson predicts that more companies will use moderately priced perks such as voluntary benefits and support for charitable deeds to keep good, productive employees engaged with their particular organization.  “It just makes the relationship a little stickier,” she says.


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