The Basics of Employee Benefits

What's required? What's not? And what's just good policy? This primer will help you figure it out.
The Basics of Employee Benefits
Image credit: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Once you have great employees on board, how do you keep them from jumping ship? One way is by offering a good benefits package.

Many small-business owners mistakenly believe they cannot afford to offer benefits. But while going without benefits may boost your bottom line in the short run, than penny-wise philosophy could strangle your business's chances for long-term prosperity. "There are certain benefits good employees feel they must have," says Ray Silverstein, founder of PRO, President's Resource Organization, a small-business advisory network.

Heading the list of must-have benefits is medical insurance, but many job applicants also demand a retirement plan, disability insurance and more. Tell these applicants no benefits are offered, and often top-flight candidates will head for the door.

The positive side to this coin: Offer the right benefit, and your business may just jump-start its growth. "Give employees the benefits they value, and they'll be more satisfied, miss fewer workdays, be less likely to quit, and have higher commitment to meeting the company's goals," says Joe Lineberry, a senior vice president at Aon Consulting, a human resources consulting firm. "The research shows that when employees feel their benefits needs are satisfied, they're more productive."

Benefit Basics

The law requires employers to provide employees with certain benefits. You must:

  • Give employees time off to vote, serve on a jury and perform military service.
  • Comply with all workers' compensation requirements.
  • Withhold FICA taxes from employees' paychecks and pay your own portion of FICA taxes, providing employees with retirement and disability benefits.
  • Pay state and federal unemployment taxes, thus providing benefits for unemployed workers.
  • Contribute to state short-term disability programs in states where such programs exist.
  • Comply with the Federal Family and Medical Leave (FMLA).

You are not required to provide:

  • Retirement plans
  • Health plans (except in Hawaii)
  • Dental or vision plans
  • Life insurance plans
  • Paid vacations, holidays or sick leave

In reality, however, most companies offer some or all of these benefits to stay competitive.

Most employers provide paid holidays for New Year's, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Thanksgiving day and Christmas day. Many employers also either allow their employees to take time off without pay or let them use vacation days for religious holidays. (See more on time off in "The Low-Cost Benefits of Offering Time Off" ).

Most full-time employees will expect one to two weeks paid vacation time per year. In explaining your vacation policy to employees, specify how far in advance requests for vacation time should be made, and whether in writing or verbally. There are no laws that require employers to provide funeral leave, but most do allow two to four days' leave for deaths of close family members.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires employers to give workers up to 12 weeks off to attend to the birth or adoption of a baby, or the serious health condition of the employee or an immediate family member. After 12 weeks of unpaid leave, you must reinstate the employee in the same job or an equivalent one. The 12 weeks of leave does not have to be taken all at once; in some cases, employees can take it a day at a time.

In most states, only employers with 50 or more employees are subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, some states have family leave laws that place family leave requirements on businesses with as few as five employees. To find out your state's requirements, contact you state labor department.

Legal Matters

Complications quickly arise as soon as business begins offering benefits, however. That's because key benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans fall under government scrutiny, and "it is very easy to make mistakes in setting up a benefits plan," says Kathleen Meagher, an attorney specializing in benefits at Kirkpatrick Lockhart LLP.

And don't think nobody will notice. The IRS can discover in an audit what you are doing doesn't comply with regulations. So can the U.S. Department of Labor, which has been beefing up its audit activities of late. Either way, a goof can be very expensive. "You can lose any tax benefits you have enjoyed, retroactively, and penalties can also be imposed," Meagher says.

The biggest mistake? Leaving employees out of the plan. Examples range from exclusions of part-timers to failing to extend benefits to clerical and custodial staff. A rule of thumb is that if one employee gets a tax-advantaged benefit--meaning one paid for with pretax dollars--the same benefit must be extended to everyone. There are loopholes that may allow you to exclude some workers, but don't even think about trying this without expert advice.

Such complexities mean its good advice never to go this route alone. You can cut costs by doing preliminary research yourself, but before setting up any benefits plan, consult a lawyer or a benefits consultant. An upfront investment of perhaps $1,000 could save you far more money down the road by helping you sidestep expensive potholes.

Expensive Errors

Providing benefits that meet employee needs and mesh with all the laws isn't cheap--benefits probably add 30 to 40 percent to base pay for most employees--and that makes it crucial to get the most from these dollars. But this is exactly where many small businesses fall short because often their approach to benefits is riddled with costly errors that can get them in financial trouble with their insurers or even with their own employees. The most common mistakes:

  • Absorbing the entire cost of employee benefits. Fewer companies are footing the whole benefits bill these days. According to a survey of California companies by human resources management consulting firm William M. Mercer, 91 percent of employers require employee contributions toward health insurance, while 92 percent require employees to contribute toward the cost of insuring dependants. The size of employee contributions varies from a few dollars per pay period to several hundred dollars monthly, but one plus of any co-payment plan is it eliminates employees who don't need coverage. Many employees are covered under other policies--a parent's or spouses, for instance--and if you offer insurance for free, they'll take it. But even small co-pay requirements will persuade many to skip it, saving you money.
  • Covering nonemployers. Who would do this? Lots of business owners want to buy group-rate coverage for their relatives or friends. The trouble: If there is a large claim, the insurer may want to investigate. And that investigation could result in disallowance of the claims, even cancellation of the whole policy. Whenever you want to cover somebody who might not qualify for the plan, tell the insurer or your benefits consultant the truth.
  • Sloppy paperwork. In small businesses, administering benefits is often assigned to an employee who wears 12 other hats. This employee really isn't familiar with the technicalities and misses a lot of important details. A common goof: Not enrolling new employees in plans during the open enrollment period. Most plans provide a fixed time period for open enrollment. Bringing an employee in later requires proof of insurability. Expensive litigation is sometimes the result. Make sure the employees overseeing this task stays current with the paperwork and knows that doing so is a top priority.
  • Not telling employees what their benefits cost. "Most employees don't appreciate their benefits, but that's because nobody ever tells them what the costs are," says PRO's Silverstein. Many experts suggest you annually provide employees with a benefits statement that spells out what they're getting and at what cost. A simple rundown of the employee's individual benefits and what they cost the business is very powerful.
  • Giving unwanted benefits. A workforce composed largely of young, single people doesn't need life insurance. How to know what benefits employee's value? You can survey employees and have them rank benefits in terms of desirability. Typically, medical and financial benefits, such as retirement plans, appeal to the broadest cross-section of workers.

If workers needs vary widely, consider the increasingly popular " cafeteria plans ," which give workers lengthy lists of possible benefits plus a fixed amount to spend.

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