Forget perks, today's employees need peace of mind

Companies should help employees by offering free tax preparation, immigration support and flexible parental leave.

Your grandfather got a pension. You got a foosball table and "Beer Thursdays." What sort of benefits will they dream up for your kids?

American companies helped invent the employee benefit. And for nearly a century, the perks they offered made a material difference in their employees’ lives. One could even say they helped make America great.

During the Industrial Revolution, employers lured farm workers into factories by offering pensions, making retirement a universally attainable goal. When the government froze wages during World War II, employers offered medical insurance as alternative compensation, establishing the social safety net that helped the Greatest Generation colonize the suburbs.

In the 1980s, we started to lose our way. With cost cutting all the rage, (remember the excitement over American Airlines saving $40,000 a year by eliminating an olive from every salad?) companies began phasing out pensions in favor of 401ks, shifting the burden of investment from employer to employee. The big contribution of the 1990s? Casual Fridays.

Fast forward to the turn of the century. Start-up culture gave us employee laundry service, workplace nap-pods and Razor scooter parking. To the employer, these trivial perks carried the primary benefit of being cheap, fun and media-friendly, sparking so much fawning coverage we hardly noticed they had almost zero impact on employees’ lives.

Meanwhile, companies that match 401k contributions have practically become a relic. How many Millennials do you know with a pension?

Corporate greed is not the only culprit here. Pensions simply turned out to be unsustainable for most companies. And with the current average time spent in retirement at 18 years for men, 21 for women -- up from 10 and 14 years in 1970, respectively -- today’s investors are unlikely to support any startup that wants to guarantee lifetime income for employees.

But these are challenging times. Thanks to our polarized politics, the social safety net is wearing thin, and antiquated benefits packages aren’t meeting the needs of modern working families. To wit: 72 percent of employees now say the ability to customize their benefits would make them more loyal to their job, and 75 percent say they’re more likely to stay with their employer because of good benefits.  

It’s more important than ever that employers offer benefits that are personal and meaningful. Not sure where to start? Here’s some inspiration.

Flexible parental leave
You no longer have to work for Amazon to have the company pay for your parental leave. If your spouse is an Amazon employee, and your employer doesn’t offer you paid leave, Amazon will pay your salary for up to six weeks after the birth of your child. Meanwhile, Etsy recently expanded its program so employees are eligible for 26 weeks of paid leave, regardless of their gender. Given how stingy the U.S. has historically been with parental leave, these types of initiatives could be a game-changer.

Family-planning assistance
Apple pays for its female employees to freeze their eggs; Intel offers fertility assistant and adoption assistance and; Starbucks covers IVF even for part-time baristas. These expensive, stressful procedures are increasingly essential for people to start families, and more employers should be mindful of making them accessible.

Free tax preparation for all
At least five major pieces of tax legislation have been signed since 2010, including the recent $1.5 trillion tax cut. And workers today are more confused than ever about their tax liabilities.

In Firstborn’s case, our founder ensured that we paid for a tax professional to come to our offices every March to meet privately with every employee since the day we opened our doors. They file everyone’s income taxes, and ensure everyone is not only compliant, but getting the maximum refund -- a relatively small expense for a company to consider, and one that makes a huge difference for employees.

Immigration support
Foreign-born employees have always been a big part of the workforce. They’re certainly a crucial part of Firstborn’s workforce. As immigration has become increasingly politicized (and expensive), we’ve been proud to pay 100 percent of immigration-related expenses, including visas and legal fees. This, along with paying for 100 percent of their healthcare costs and 16-weeks parental leave regardless of gender, has no doubt helped us attract and keep foreign-born talent, with 30 percent of our staff hailing from over 16 countries outside the U.S.

While all these benefits may not help a new generation retire, or bring about widespread social transformation, they do help people feel freer and more creative. Employers need to take a fresh look at the issues affecting their workers’ lives, and come up with a benefits package that can truly make a difference.

And if they still want to do their employees’ dirty laundry, that’s okay, too.

Dan LaCivita is the CEO of Firstborn.

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