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Employee perks popular; benefits need to offer more

Rochester Business Journal
July 4, 2014

Reserved parking, dress-down Fridays, free lunch? The perks employees want most at work today are changing. Stability and security rate higher than personal comfort, local experts say.

The corporate benefits package designed to attract and retain the best workers shows companies know employees most value support in planning for their future.

“Benefits are like a double-edged sword. They can help attain employees or lose them as well,” says George Cook, executive professor of business administration at the University of Rochester’s Simon Business School. “Employers are customizing benefits packages, and they should be.”

Perks such as company-sponsored social outings or a stocked office kitchen are not what workers value, Cook explains. Gen X and Y workers just entering the workforce who may have once been lax in their concern for planning for their retirement are now more financially engaged because they see the impact the economy has had on their parents. They want benefits that will secure a better future for them.

“Education that is company-paid is important,” Cook says. “A survey by the Society for Human Resources Management shows 61 percent of companies asked still pay for employee undergraduate assistance, and 59 percent offer graduate assistance.”

Education is a key benefit offered to employees of Liberty Resources Inc., a company headquartered in Syracuse with an office on South Winton Road in Rochester that employs 56 people providing outpatient mental health services. The company plans to add 33 jobs in Rochester next year in a location on Humboldt Street.

“We have spent upwards of $4 million for employee education since 1994,” CEO Carl Coyle says. “We had 177 credits we were able to give our employees in one semester. We recognize employees pursuing higher education have a higher morale and retention rate, so we accept education programs of a pretty broad and widespread range.”

Many of the degree programs Liberty Resources employees pursue are through classes taken through Syracuse University, Coyle says. Some of those are class extensions taken at off-site locations, making it more convenient for employees who do not live near the university.

“We’re planning on replicating that with universities near Rochester to include SUNY Brockport (and) the U of R,” Coyle explains.

Employees who use the education benefit are not required to stay with the company and some move on once they complete their degrees.

“We had a secretary (who) went to undergraduate and then graduate school to earn her degrees in social work,” Coyle says. “She eventually left us for a new career and we fully supported her in her new path.”

Other benefits Liberty Resources employees value include company-paid adoptions and extended maternity and paternity leave, he says.

“We offer up to 16 weeks of leave, which is four weeks more than the 12 weeks the federal government provides under the Family Medical Leave Act,” Coyle notes. “We are very family-friendly here and some of our employees are also able to telecommute, which is a great benefit, especially for child supervision.”

The opportunity to work remotely is a major draw for employees at EarthLink Business, says Valerie Benjamin, senior vice president of human resources. She estimates roughly 10 percent of the workforce telecommutes and it pays off for the employee as well as the company.

“We focus on results, not on free time,” Benjamin says. “We get longer tenure and better results. It helps to make our employees make the choice to stay here.”

Telecommuting is important for employees who travel frequently, Benjamin says. They can choose to work from their home office when returning from business trips. Employees who do not travel also use the benefit to care for children or aging parents while they are working.

“We don’t lower the bar on our expectations,” she says. “We have lots of technology to support this today in a way we weren’t able to do 10 years ago.”

Work-life balance is more important than ever to employees, Benjamin says, and benefits packages must align with the changing needs of today’s workers. Atlanta-based EarthLink has operations in Rochester and elsewhere, and the benefits employees value most vary depending on the region.

“In Vancouver, people can bring their dogs to work. That matters a lot to them there,” Benjamin notes. “Providing voice and choice is how employees will achieve results.”

In this tight economy, Benjamin finds many employees want stability and security. The most popular benefits after compensation and health care are 401(k) matching contributions and company-paid continuing education.

“The future looks unsure and we provide incentives for contributing to employee savings,” Benjamin says. “We match 50 cents on the dollar up to 6 percent so employees can be saving up to 10 percent of their income. That kind of match program is really vanishing. It’s not as typical as once thought. Approximately two-thirds of our employees take advantage of it.”

The firm’s education benefit is extremely popular as well, Benjamin notes, especially with the high level of competition in the telecommunications industry.

“We provide technical certification so employees can hone their skills in leading-edge technology,” she says. “They want to be valuable in the broader market. It’s less about the traditional college path and the way the marketplace is valuing talent. This helps us to sell to great talent, especially the cloud computing training. It is a great selling point for us.”

EarthLink pays for employee continuing education in many forms including professional certification programs and courses offered by online universities.

An opportunity to learn is key for employees at First American Equipment Finance, a Fairport-based subsidiary of publicly traded City National Bank. Its continuing education options include two formal tuition reimbursement programs and other opportunities, CEO William Verhelle says.

“Out of 125 employees, we have 100 or more millennials, workers who are 35 years old or younger. They value our peer-to-peer learning opportunity here,” he notes. Younger employees are matched in mentoring situations with senior staff.

“We invest in people so they want to stay,” he notes. “We have a high level of retention.”

Perks offered to new employees include an engraved iPad, a gym membership at the Woodcliff Hotel and Spa, and ski days at Hunt Hollow Ski Club in Naples, Verhelle says. Yet the benefits that matter most to employees are the ones that help secure the future such as the 401(k) program.

“Younger people also want to know they are doing something that matters. They want to work for a company that is doing something worthwhile,” he says. “We provide financing to help the community to grow. We help our employees connect to that and draw a meaningful living from it.”

Verhelle adds that it is critical to build employee engagement, and he says the workers attracted to his company are those who want that.

UR’s Cook says employers need to adjust benefit offerings in light of changes in the economy and labor force.

“Employee loyalty is being stretched and strained. We used to get full benefits packages where the company paid for everything, but they are not there anymore,” he says. “Therefore, the employee loyalty factor is not going to be there if employers do not adjust and even customize as needed.”

Lori Gable is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

7/4/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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