17 Employee Benefits You Could Be Getting at Work

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When between jobs or considering a change, many people focus on the hourly rate or salary they want. But some things can be more important than cash compensation. A flexible schedule or the ability to work from home several days a week can be worth hundreds or thousands in saved time, gasoline, and wear and tear on a car or transit costs. Health plans and meals can add up to thousands in savings as well. Companies offer benefits to attract and retain employees, but people may not be aware of a benefit or understand it, or may have forgotten about it after starting the job. Here are 17 money- and time-saving perks to look for at a company.

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The Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) "employer mandate" requires businesses with 50 or more employees to provide health insurance to at least 95 percent of those workers and their dependent children. Companies also may offer supplemental life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, pet insurance, and short- or long-term disability insurance.

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Companies can offer employer-sponsored spending accounts, giving employees access to tax-advantaged spending opportunities. A health spending account lets workers put pretax money into an account for health-related expenses; a transportation spending account does the same for commuting or parking expenses; and funds in a dependent-care flexible spending account can be used to pay for childcare, nannies, after-school programs, and related services while parents are at work.

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Many companies understand that encouraging employees to be healthy can pay off with lower insurance rates and increased productivity. To this end, some companies offer a stipend or reimburse the cost of fitness classes or a gym membership.

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Instead of reimbursing employees for wellness-related expenses, some employers host wellness classes at the office. Fitness keeps employees' energy up, and exercise has been shown to increase productivity. Yoga or meditation classes can also help reduce stress at the office.

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Working out is important and mindfulness meditation can lead to mental ease, but some firms also recognize that employees may be stressed out about their finances. Financial wellness programs combine one-on-one coaching and counseling with educational sessions to help workers understand different aspects of their financial life. Estate and retirement planning, budgeting, and reviews of insurance and investments might be part of the process, which may take weeks or months.

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Pension plans are not as prevalent as they once were, but according to the American Benefits Council, 89 percent of companies with 500 or more employees offer an employer-sponsored retirement plan such as a 401(k). These plans provide two money-saving (or making) opportunities. First, they have tax advantages that allow contributions to be tax deferred, or, in the case of a Roth 401(k), earnings to be tax free. Second, some employers match a portion of the employee's contribution, essentially giving them a tax-advantaged bonus.

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The United States is the only prosperous country out of 21 analyzed according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research that does not mandate paid vacation time. Some U.S.-based companies now offer unlimited paid vacation days, but that is a rare perk. Getting salaried workers to take their vacation can be a problem as well, because work needs to get done even when they are away. The Motley Fool, a financial-services media company, addresses this by choosing one employee randomly each month to go on a "Fool's Errand." The Fool gets $1,000 and goes on a two-week paid vacation during which no contact with the office is allowed.

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Although not all companies offer paid leave to mothers, and even fewer offer the benefit to fathers, it is something to look for when planning to start or grow a family. Netflix made headlines when it announced unlimited paid maternity or paternity leave for some employees during the first year of child rearing.

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Adoption benefits come in several forms. The business can help share and explain adoption-related resources, such as providing a list of licensed agencies or specialists. Some companies also provide financial assistance, either as a payment to the worker, reimbursement, or by paying for some fees directly. Parental leave is often provided, often in line with the parental leave benefits provided to new birth parents.

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A break room with games can help coworkers bond and lead to interactions between people who rarely meet. Table tennis is one of the most common games, but foosball, pool, darts, video games, and other team-based or competitive games also work. Some companies take an extra step and offer beer on tap.

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Some people do best in a structured environment surrounded by a team, but the occasional work-from-home day can be a welcome perk. Clearly this is not possible with every job, but those who work primarily on a computer or phone may be able to complete the day's tasks from anywhere.

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Team bonding is important, but sometimes it happens best during non-work outings. This can take the form of movie or theater days, community service days, or an evening at a local karaoke spot.

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Some companies empower employees to recognize one another's accomplishments or good ideas. The distinguished employee will often get a gift card or vacation days. The bonus is more meaningful because it comes from peer appreciation rather than higher-ups.

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Large companies can negotiate better rates with vendors and may be able to share the discounts with employees. This can be particularly useful if the company benefits from discounts on computers or other high-tech gadgets. Businesses that make something their employees might want can also offer the product or service at a discount.

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Once starting a career, most people never get a chance to take an extended break unless they are between jobs. Not many employers offer sabbaticals, but some do. AutoDesk, a software company, gives full-time U.S. employees a six-week paid vacation every four years. Other companies offer unpaid extended vacations, which can still be a wonderful opportunity to travel while having the security of a job to return to.

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Employees should be encouraged to increase their skills, and some companies reimburse education-related expenses. In some cases, this takes the form of tuition reimbursement. Starbucks, for example, covers 100 percent of the tuition for a four-year online degree from Arizona State University for all full- and part-time employees. Other companies offer a monthly stipend that can be used to pay for classes, conferences, books, or webinars that lead to personal or professional growth.

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A cornerstone of the tech world's benefits package is free lunches (and sometimes breakfast and dinner). Most companies cannot afford a big-name chef to cook meals, but a stocked snack room with fresh coffee can save employees a lot of money. It can also increase productivity, as there is no need to leave the office to go on a coffee run -- although that makes this perk a bit of a double-edged sword. The occasional free lunch, pizza day, or doughnuts in the morning are also yummy extras.